Jewish secularism refers to secularism in a particularly Jewish context, denoting most often the definition of Jewishness without recourse to religion. Jewish Secularist ideologies first arose in the latter third of the 19th century, and reached the apogee of their influence in the interwar period.
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According to historian Shmuel Feiner, the onset of modernism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed the appearance in Europe of Jewish communities who rejected the religious norms and discipline demanded by the rabbinical elite and whose identities as Jews were increasingly separate from beliefs and practices from the Torah or the commandments.
"The religious laxity, modern acculturation and philosophical criticism of religions that marked the onset of the Jewish retreat from religion began as far back as the seventeenth century among conversos in Western Sephardic communities (especially Amsterdam) and among the wealthy families of Ashkenazic "court Jews" in Central Europe. In retrospect, the contribution of the eighteenth century to the historical course of Jewish secularization seems particularly significant."
According to historian David Biale, secular Jews were in no danger of losing their Jewish identity, as the tradition of secularism was not external to the Jewish tradition, but yet another side of it: "in transcending Judaism, the heretic finds himself or herself in a different Jewish tradition no less Jewish for being antitraditional. Secular universalism for these heretics paradoxically became a kind of Jewish identity".
Secularization further made strides in Europe during the late 18th century and early 19th century as a central point of contention within Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. According to researcher Daniel B. Schwartz, "In the 1840s and 1850s, the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment - which had migrated from Prussia to Austrian Galicia and the Russian Empire earlier in the nineteenth century - grew increasingly polarized. On the one side stood moderates and conservatives committed to keep the Jewish Enlightenment moored in rabbinic law and culture; opposing them were Maskilic insurgents, intent on a no-holds-barred critique of tradition". Secular Jewish art and culture flourished between 1870 and the Second World War, with 18,000 titles in Yiddish, and thousands more in Hebrew and European languages, along with hundreds of plays and theater productions, movies, and other art forms.
Jewish secularism must not be equated with the common English-language epithet "secular Jew", which is highly imprecise and has various meanings in different contexts. A "secular Jew" may be someone who identifies with a Jewish-secularist worldview, and conversely a religious Jew who espouses secularism in a general context (in the 20th century, American rabbis who endorsed strict separation of church and state were the most prominent example of "secular Jews"). Broadly, it may denote a Jew who partakes in secular life and is not extremely religious. In the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-1, 44% of self-identified "Jews by religion" in the United States also considered themselves "secular" or "somewhat secular".
- Center for Cultural Judaism
- Jewish culture
- Humanistic Judaism
- Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture
- Jewish atheism
- Feiner, Shmuel (2011). The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Philadelphia, PA and Oxford: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. xi–xiii. ISBN 9780812201895.
- Biale, David (2015). Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press. p. 1. ISBN 9780691168043.
- Schwartz, Daniel B. (2015). ""Our Rabbi Baruch": Spinoza and Radical Jewish Enlightenment". In Joskowicz, Ari; Katz, Ethan B. (eds.). Secularism in Question: Jews and Judaism in Modern Times. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 26–27. ISBN 9780812247275.
- Bullivant, Stephen; Ruse, Michael (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Oxford University Press, 2017. pp. 320-321.