Home » Liraz Jedwab, Recent Posts, Religion and Jewish Thought

A Secular Congregation

March 15, 2010 – 1:15 pm14 Comments

by Liraz Jedwab

Secular Judaism is by far the most confused and misunderstood concept in the wider Jewish Community. The reality is that for a number of reasons, the words “Secular Judaism” have lost any real meaning or power, especially any meaning that we can feel proud of or which we can claim to be the expression of our Judaism. Having grown up in a “Secular” movement and being told by our parents that we are “Secular,” as most of us have, has not helped when it comes to our own personal Jewish identity. This is regardless of how much our parents forked out to send us to Jewish camps and schools. When the over eager child questions, the parent too often draws on a long list of negatives – we are not religious, we do not go to synagogue, we do not pray or keep kosher… Ultimately it creates a negative identity – we are Secular because we are NOT religious and in the Melbourne Jewish community it translates to “lazy Judaism”.

This denigration of the word “Secular” and its growing negative connotation in the community became the centre of conversation amongst a few concerned friends who have grown up under this “Secular” banner and who were tired of being homeless when it came to Jewish expression.

Ayeka was created in late 2008 and has already completed its third cycle. Its mission statement is to create an active, engaged secular community that would be able to fill a hole we see in Melbourne. Ayeka has attempted to capture this moment and take action to re-take the word “Secular”. Ultimately we are looking to create our own congregation. The first three courses have involved a study group of between 15-20, meeting weekly with highly respected educators and lecturers (mostly from the Monash University’s Jewish Civilizations department) and covering a range of concepts from “Why do bad things happen to good people: The Book of Job” to “American Jewry”. The sessions usually run on a structure of learning then discussion – but at its core is the idea that everything is on the table and it’s not unusual to see heavy discussions break out well before anything has even been presented.

Ittay Flescher, one of the founders of Ayeka, brought a text to the group in the early planning stages, adopted from a lecture of Martin Buber given in 1926. As soon as we read it we understood the path our new group should take;

“…read the Bible as though it were something entirely unfamiliar, as though it had not been set before you ready made…Face the book with a new attitude as something new…Let whatever may happen occur between yourself and it. You do not know which of its sayings and images will overwhelm and mold you…But hold yourself open. Do not believe anything a priori; do not disbelieve anything a priori. Read aloud the words written in the book in front of you; hear the word you utter and let it reach you.”

Buber is calling on the readers of the Tanach to leave behind all complicated preconditioned, religious, political, and moral understandings of the stories being told and see the words for what they are. We are thus collectively re-reading the Tanach for the first time. This experience is liberating and refreshing, and yet feels so genuinely and naturally Jewish. The conversation and arguments arising from the reinvention and reinterpretation of traditional texts allows you to not only understand the great Rabbis, but effectively act as one. Rambam and Akiva stop being cemented texts of study and become a part of a conversation, just another opinion alongside our own.

In this way we are engaging with our Judaism and finding meaning in the open, modern and free thinking expression of our culture, traditions and texts without being held back by some form of agenda or religious baseline. Ayeka (“Where are you?”) was the first question asked in the Torah by God to Adam and is representative of our understandings and how we express our Judaism. God, knowing where Adam was, was not being literal, but instead was asking for what reason Adam was hiding and why his actions had lead him to where he now was. As Secular Jews, asking questions of our actions, our Jewish identity and our beliefs is essential.

We invite you to discuss and debate our mission statement here on Galus, and to join us for our next course. The newest course, starting on Thursday March 18th at our usual home (Monash Caulfield) will be centered on Jewish Philosophy and will run for twelve weeks facilitated by a different lecturer each time.

Liraz Jedwab belongs to Ayeka. This article was published as part of Galus’ community forum offer.

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  • ariel says:

    Great to see more Jews delving into the texts!

    Only one question which I have to ask because it’s in my nature to be controversial: What makes one think he/she is of the calibre of R Akiva or the Rambam?

  • philip mendes says:

    Liraz: interesting article as we are currently trying to work out what to do when my son (now 11 and a half) turns 13 given that Tamar and I are both completely non-religious, but would still like him to have some sort of Jewish celebration. Any contructive ideas welcome. Are you the late Lou Jedwab’s grandchild out of interest?

    Best wishes,

    Philip Mendes

  • Ittay says:

    Rambam and Rabbi Akiva were active serious and engaged jews in their time. Rabbi Akiva radically reinterpreted what it means to be jewish in light of the destruction of the temple, whilst Rambam did the same in response to the popularity of aristotelian philosophy that was having much sway amongst the Jews of Egypt.
    whilst ayeka has yet to produce any thinkers of their calibre, our aim is give young secular jews a basic literacy of their ideas and those of other great philosophers in order to pique their curiosity about what Judaism once was, and what it could be.
    To anyone who has ever had a dream that one day a biography will be written about them with the subtitle “the jew who became the rabbi akiva of the 21st century”  please join us on Thursday night.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    I am pleased and flabbergasted to hear about this.
    In the late 80s and early 90s there were attempts by myself and a number of other people to geta more formal humanist secularist ‘congregation’   going.  We even got ‘airplay’ in the AJN–remember, that this was pre-internet.   It was very difficult to develop a consensus–there were some  major intergenerational issues at play, and a range of philosophies from old-style bundism and secularism to humanistic Reconstructionism. For a while, there was even a Saturday school.
    But in any case, there is an established body of knowledge and practice through the society for Humanistic Judaism in the US http://www.sjh.org.  I suggest this should be a reference point for at least one discussion.  I donated, I think, some materials, to the Makor library.
    I will try to tag along to some of this.

  • Shulzi says:

    I’m somewhat skeptical about this initiative; while I applaud efforts to delve into Jewish education whatever its form, this holistic approach does not seem to lead towards a ‘secular jewish’ identity. Why do I suggest this? The reason is that merely approaching texts, with the main texts being religious in nature, indicates to me that there is still a subconsciously religious intention at the basis of this learning, whether or not explicitly intentional. To be honest, I feel the idea of ‘secular judaism’ being something that should gain greater credibility simply due to people not feeling comfortable with their position in society (while understandable) appears to be somewhat futile – nearly every aspect of Judaism stems back to something religious, whether desired or not; whether it’s zionism, learning hebrew, or (quite obviously) the pesach seder. If one is to truly attempt to legitimise secular judaism as a lifestyle, one needs to differentiate such a lifestyle dramatically from even traditional judaism yet at the same time remain fundamentally jewish (whatever that is).

  • Ittay says:

    you write that “nearly every aspect of Judaism stems back to something religious, whether desired or not” However, two of the three examples you give are direct products of creative secular reinterpretations of jewish texts and ideas. The first being zionism, which was in its inception a purely secular nationalist movement premised on the idea of creating a socialist state for the jews in direct opposition to the view of the talmud in masechet ketubot 110b (see “three oaths”). The second innovation was the creation of modern Hebrew, which according to Dr Gilad Zuckerman is a hybrid language with little resemblance to its biblical cousin.
    Who knows what the next innovation of secular Judaism may be?

  • Shulzi says:

    My point is not about what the products are now; it’s what they stem from. If you deny such roots (the fact Hebrew is the language of the Tanach, and that zionism is extracted from the religious commandment to settle in Israel) then you’re created a limited history and thus limited identity upon which will not have the same strength and/or sustainability than an identity. Especially since today’s world is a globalised one, this means that such identifiers like language and nationality are easily transferable.

  • larry Stillman says:

    Identity can transform, religions of all sorts can transform, so what is the problem of referring to traditional texts if people are secular?  They are  part of our heritage.   Kaplan at least recognised the transformation that was occuring in modernity, though to a  large degree, he remained with tradition.

  • Liraz says:

    Shultzi im glad you brought up the point of roots and in general the “authority” to have a Jewish Identity not based on God or any kind of religious doctrine. The opinion that a person, let alone a Secular Jew, cannot study or discuss a traditional text without first accepting a baseline of religiosity seems absurd. I think that if a lot of Melbourne Jews took a hard look at why they have Shabbat dinner every Friday or hold a Pesach Seder or two every year they would come to realise it has a whole lot less to do with a belief system and a lot more to do with Traditions and Jewish Culture. Secular Judaism is not trying to destroy tradition and culture, it embraces it and exists because of it. A practising Secular Jew asks of themselves the questions “Why am I Jewish” – “What influence does my Judaism have on my life” and “What does my Jewish traditions and culture teach me and what are their implications on my outlook of the world”. And what have I found personally? That there are many Jewish lessons to be learnt which are both valuable and worthy of a Jewish identity and which are not in any way based on God.
    And of course I stand with Ittay in his sentiments of the Secular contributions to the modern state of Israel and Zionism as an ideology. Herzl never wore a kippah and for that matter neither did Ben Gurion or any of the original leadership – their claims for a state were based on self-determination, security the concept of a “20th Century Jew” and what do you know Secularism.
    But of course we recognise that the roots of Jews throughout history longing for Israel and Jerusalem are the biblical promises from God. We also recognise (its pretty obvious) that God appears in the large majority of Jewish learning and history. We don’t shy away from this fact and neither do we ignore it. We purposefully confront it and treat it with the utmost respect. What defines a Secular Jew though is the fact that we don’t have God as the base of our identity but rather the lessons of Judaism.
    Also Philip: I am Lou’s grandson and hopefully if Ayeka can gain momentum we will have a barmitzvah class for your son in the coming years similar to the one Larry talks of.  


  • Shulzi says:

    Larry: I’m not criticising a secular perspective towards texts in itself, and in fact believe its healthy discourse for such things to occur. However, one can study any philosiphical text holistically and attribute it to their identity and state of mind. My concern is to what rituals arise from this and other initiatives to bolster secular judaism.
    Liraz: The first line that you have stated in response to what I have said indicates a complete misinterpretation of what I am trying to say. To clarify, reading religious texts whether it is the Tanach, Talmud, New Testament or Koran, in my eyes can be done by anyone if they so choose. However, if you choose to do so in order to enhance your own identity (and in this case being a secular jew, not a traditional or religious jew), I personally cannot see where this leads to besides simply being a study of a ‘historical text’ that allows you to understand your roots and nothing more. Secularism is the denial of the authority of religion, and if at the same time you choose to participate in say participating in Seder, how you would remove the religious element and still maintain its essence of that is beyond my comprehension.  Even with Shabbat dinner, simply having dinner on friday night without kiddush and challah has significantly less substance. Furthermore, to only take the lessons of Judaism without the religion, inherently inserting a humanist slant on it all (correct me if I’m wrong), also blurs the lines as to why such values are Jewish in themselves. Family, hospitality, charity and so on are common values shared by any well meaning person today, whether they are Jewish or not.

  • Chaim says:

    I really am not sure what is new here and that is does not exist  already. it seems you are just giving it a new title and trying to build another structure  within Judaism as if we need more barriers, divisiveness  and definitions.
    Why can we all just be Jews exploring our identity? There is one concept of not having the need to make excuses like our parents but rather acknowledging and accepting the consequences of those decisions in a positive and constructive way and another to pretend we are not making conscious decisions to reject our heritage by just  creating a personal “Oprah” book club.
    You should have the self awareness and confidence to walk into any existing synagogue  – progressive or orthodox or any other  existing Jewish non religious institution and learn from them while bonding to them as Jews despite vast differences in beliefs or practice. Believe me the study groups are a great idea as is  the self exploration and personal reinterpretation of texts but making a specific new “congregation” in order to fill some void within your identity as a Jew seems to me no different to what your parents did albeit in a structural and reinforcing way.
    Barriers and division whether positive or negative are still walls between people and do nothing to promote unity within the Jewish community. Integration, tolerance and acceptance of diversity on the other hand builds bridges and buttresses personal identity.
    p.s. that interpretation of  Ayeka has a source. Don’t think it is new.  See Shneur Zalman of Liadi and others.

  • ittay says:

    Shalom Chaim,
    Whilst I agree with you that “Barriers and division are still walls between people and do nothing to promote unity within the Jewish community” I don’t see the aim of ayeka as being to promote division.
    Many young Jews find the mainstream shules in Melbourne uninspiring, unengaging or not relevant to what they understand Judaism should be in the 21st century. The barriers to their full participation in Jewish life have been present for a long time.
    Ayeka does not to aspire to replace any existing congregations or demean the good work their rabbis do with their congregants. What it does aim to do is provide a forum to read the texts and explore the ideas of our tradition in a critical manner that will hopefully allow folks to engage more seriously as Jews in the modern world. For some, this may be through prayer or tzedakah, whilst for others it may involve social or political activism. 
    For an excellent article on the relevancy of secular Judaism read:

  • Chaim says:

    I think that is all admirable. I guess  I got stuck on the phrase “Ultimately we are looking to create our own congregation”.. With the hundreds of small congregations being formed to cater to only specific ideologies, it removes the concept of dialogue, consolidation and moderation within other groups and the community at large leaving further division and isolation.

  • Ittay says:

    Ayeka now has it’s own website:

    Our next session will be facilitated by Rebecca Forgasz on the topic of “Jewish Expression” at her home ground – The Melbourne Jewish Museum – were she is the director.

    The session will ask the question – what makes something “Jewish” expression, and what do people mean when they say they are influenced by their Judaism. We will discuss this through the works of Jewish and non-Jewish artists, musicians, writers and actors.

    Rebecca Forgasz – “Jewish Expression?”
    7:00 (be on time) – 28/10/10
    Jewish Museum of Melbourne
    26 Alma Rd, St Kilda VIC 3182
    $10 – nibbles/tea provided

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