The Permanent Preciousness of the Secular Jew
By Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo
We are living in an age of flaunting irreverence. Debunking has become the norm and wherever we turn we experience a need to reveal the clay feet of even the greatest. Human dignity, while often referred to, has become a farce in real life. Instead of deliberately looking for opportunities to love our fellow men as required by our holy Torah, many have rewritten this golden rule to read: Distrust your fellow men as you distrust thyself. Disbelief in themselves has overflown into their relationships with their fellowmen. Fear for their own deeds and mediocrity has led them to believe that the spiritual mighty have left us and that we are a generation of spiritual orphans.
This condition has slowly entered into the subconscious of segments of the religious community as well, although in a more subtle form. Influenced by materialistic philosophies, many a religious personality, once known for his reverence for his fellow men, has, without being aware of it, become part of the problem. Instead of sending a message of unaltered love and respect for a fellow Jew, whatever his background or beliefs, many within the religious Jewish community have fallen victim to a kind of faint debunking which has led to a most worrisome situation in and outside the land of Israel.
When observing even those who are fully committed to help their fellow Jews find their way back to Judaism we see an attitude which is foreign to religious life and thought. Without denying their love for their fellow Jews, we cannot escape the impression that there exists a kind of talking down to secular Jews, which has become the norm.
Constant emphasis is placed on the need to cure the secular’s mistaken lifestyle. No doubt such an attitude is born out of love for ones fellow Jew but it lays the foundation for infinite trouble. While the religious Jew is seen as the ideal, it turns the secular Jew into a second class member of the Jewish people. It is he who needs to repent for his mistaken ways. Such an attitude is built on the notion of contrast and lack of affinity. The secular Jew will always feel inferior. As such the point of departure through which one would like to bring fellow Jews closer to Judaism is at the same time its undoing. The suggestion that One should throw oneself into a burning furnace rather then insult another person publicly (Berachoth 43b) may very well apply, since it is the community of secular Jews which is being treated with the notion of inferiority.
For Jews to bring their fellowmen back to Judaism there is a need to celebrate the mitzvoth which the secular Jew has been observing all or part of his/her life. Not his failure to observe some others. Only through the notion of sharing in mitzvoth will an authentic way to be found to bring Jews back home.
The foundation should be humility not arrogance. There is little doubt that secular Jews, consciously or unconsciously, keep a great amount of commandments. Many of them may not be in the field of rituals, but there is massive evidence that inter-human mitzvoth enjoy a major commitment among secular Jews. Beneath the divisiveness of traditional commitment lie underpinnings of religion such as compassion, humility, awe and even faith. Different are the pledges, but equal are the devotions. It may quite well be that the minds of the religious and not religious Jew do not fully meet, but their spirits touch. Who will deny that secular Jews have no sense of mystery, of forgiveness, beauty and gentleness? How many of them do not have inner faith that God cares or show great contempt for fraud or double standards? Each of them are the deepest of religious values.
This does not only call for a celebration but may well become an inspiration for religious Jews. This is not just done by honoring secular Jews for keeping these mitzvoth but in restoring ourselves in their mitzvoth and good deeds. There is a need to make the so called irreligious Jew aware of the fact that he is much more religious than he may realize. It is the realization that Gods light often shines on his/her face just as much, if not more, than on the face of the religious Jew.
Just as the irreligious personality needs to prove that he is worthy to be the friend of a religious Jew, the religious Jew needs to be worthy of the friendship of his secular fellow Jew. It would be a most welcome undertaking if religious Jews would call on their irreligious fellow Jews for guidance in mitzvoth which demand their greater commitment.
There is a great need for calling Jews back to their roots by showing them that they never left. Once religious Jews start to learn that irreligious Jews are their equals, and not their inferiors, a comeback to Judaism on the right termswill come about.
One of the tragic failures of ancient Jews was their indifference to the Ten Tribes of Israel which were carried away by Assyria after the Northern Kingdom was destroyed. Overlooked and not taking seriously by their fellow Jews, they were consigned to oblivion and ultimately vanished.
This is a nightmare that at this moment in Jewish history should terrify each and every religious Jew: The unawareness of our being involved in a new failure, in a tragic dereliction of duty.
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo PhD is a lecturer and author renowned for his original insights into Judaism, and founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy. He will be presenting at Yom Limmud, Melbourne.