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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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