Why can’t I be secular?

I find secularism personally compelling

I am a member of several Jewish online discussion forums for believers to engage in respectful conversations with those who have lost their faiths. The funny thing is that I fit neither of those two categories. You see, I’m not a believer, but I never gave upon Jewish religious practice either. If anything, I’ve only adopted more religious practices than I was ever raised with.

Despite having been raised in a secular, traditionally leaning Jewish household, I adopted a religious Jewish lifestyle for myself, which I more or less maintain to this day. I observe the Sabbath, and my family keeps a kosher kitchen. While I haven’t been to a prayer service in nearly one year, my preferred style of worship services is Orthodox. Even putting aside the many technicalities of living a traditional Orthodox lifestyle, I very much look the part because that is how I see myself in my mind’s eye – as a bearded Jew with his head covered.

Still, despite feeling somewhat out of place, I find these forums fascinating because the level of discourse is so informed and thoughtful. Those participants who no longer believe were raised in various Orthodox communities around the world, ranging from Modern Orthodox to Yeshivish to Hassidic; and most spent their childhoods and years of their adulthoods studying in houses of Torah learning. Some were rabbis themselves, educators who dedicated years of their lives to spreading love of Torah and traditional Judaism among the Jewish people.

While I personally continue to observe the Sabbath with my wife and daughter, etc., the voices of these scholarly formerly religious Jews resonate with more clarity to me than any I have heard before. Many of them, coming from Orthodox backgrounds, as they did, fought against their religious doubts ferociously for years, seeking out sufficiently convincing answers to their questions; and ultimately – found themselves unable to continue living the lies that they were born into. But to this day, they continue truth-seeking.

Secularism repels me as a parent

On the Sabbath, my daughter and I often go to one of several local playground in our neighborhood and surrounding environs. Religious and secular families frequent these spots together, and while some people are dressed in clearly religious garb, while others are not, it’s often hard to distinguish between them all.

However, when a parent pulls out their phone at the playground, that’s when it becomes very obvious. You see, traditionally observant Jews do not use electronic devices on the Sabbath. I sit and watch them, speaking on their mobiles as if the Sabbath is any other day of the week, and they look back at me, noting my head covering and beard, phoneless. And I think, “You think that I believe using cellphones on Shabbat is verboten… but, really, I could care less, friends. I too would use my phone if push came to shove.”

Nevertheless, I continue observing the Sabbath, and I particularly avoid breaking religious norms in public. But why? Why do I even bother?

At this point in my life, I do it in large part because I am not merely a Jewish individual – I am the parent of a Jewish child, and I deliberately want to root her Jewish identity in our people’s traditions… the same traditions that have united us as a group across vast expanses of space and time.

I recognize and value the significance of the Jewish State of Israel for the well-being of the Jewish people, and I have chosen to live here for precisely that reason, among others. However, from my perspective, the continued existence of the modern State is less assured than the continued commitment of [a significant chunk of] the Jewish people to its ancient traditions… and if I had to bet against only one of the two (not that I see any need to, per se), it would be the State, rather than the tradition. So what is a Jewish parent to do? He must, of necessity, preserve and pass down his people’s tradition.

Were I not a father… well…

Meaning in my perpetual struggle? (Unlikely)

Here I am at the ripe age of 41, still writing angsty blog posts about my faith (or lack thereof) journey… and I have to ask myself – what the heck is wrong with me? In my experience, people are generally more comfortable in their shoes than I am – most secular Jews seem content being secular, and religious Jews seem to be content with their religiosity.

In fact, if I’m being completely honest, having already written about how excited I am about the school that my daughter was accepted to, I must confess that as excited as I am for her, I am no less excited for myself. Why? Because her school is not dogmatic – there’s no expectation that families hew to the theological party line, as there would have been at any other religious school. This means that I, as a parent, can feel entirely comfortable expressing my religious doubts and frustrations as a member of the school community. How deeply relieving for me!

I’ve heard it said by religious people directly to me that they consider my struggle with faith to be a form of faith itself. That constant spiritual discomfort is a reflection of my relationship with God. And… part of me likes this idea, but part of me hates it.

On the one hand, it’s very tempting to attempt to believe that my perpetual unease is somehow not pointless… that it’s somehow an echo of something that truly manifests in the universe beyond the boundaries of my mind… somehow… somehow…

But on the other hand, it is presumptuous to tell another person that you are certain of something regarding him, which you cannot prove and which he has not experienced himself. And – frankly – God may not exist. Even if some supernatural power created the universe (a distinct possibility), that doesn’t necessarily mean that a personal God exists who is concerned about my well-being. Voices lacking any shreds of doubt simply grate on me.

Fundamentally, I’m not interested in convincing myself of something unprovable merely because it makes me feel better about myself. Thanks but no thanks.

So I continue to struggle primarily because it makes me feel good about myself, I suppose. Look how independently-minded I am; how clever; how introspective; how deep… look how much fodder I have for endless theological blog posts…

67 thoughts on “Why can’t I be secular?”

  1. I believe struggle is another caption for life, we all are facing it. In India, secularism is broadly defined in the constitution but I am saddened to say that it just a vote bank for diplomats.
    I appreciate your sharing. Thank you

    1. Thanks, Deepak 🙂

      In Israel, secularism is not defined in the constitution – but it is just a cultural phenomenon… there are many Israeli Jews who identify as secular, which means that they do not adhere to the religious laws, but they do still identify culturally and nationally as Jews because of their roots…


  2. I fall into the agnostic category myself. But the struggle to find your place in a world where others–particularly family members–have strongly religious views can be quite taxing. I’d prefer to live a life devoid of conflict, so I rarely talk about my views. I neither want to offend, nor argue, nor become unwelcome at family gatherings. But this does leave me lonely in my isolation. There is great comfort in belonging to a large group of people sharing a view of the world. Tradition and the warmth of memory of how we are raised believing in something bigger than ourselves can be enough of a reason to continue the pattern for some people. But, life has lead me here, where it is easier to stay in the stillness of my lack of belief than to try and fit myself awkwardly into a realm that seems unsuited to me. So, what you wrote spoke to that unsettled being in me. I see you. Now, maybe, you see me.

    1. Kiri,

      I relate to this:

      But this does leave me lonely in my isolation.

      Although for me, that’s how I feel at the synagogue, which I wish I could feel fully a part of… my own family is almost entirely secular so with family members I feel weird in the opposite way – I’m the weird one who observes the Sabbath and goes to synagogue (even occasionally).

      enough of a reason to continue the pattern for some people.

      Yes, that’s pretty much where I am at…

      Thank you for sharing and resonating. It’s very much appreciated.

      Shabbat shalom,

      P.S. I’m going offline for 25 hours or so very soon because the sun is setting here in Israel.

      1. For when you return:

        Going off line sounds like the best, healthiest option you can make–regardless of the reasons for doing so. Somedays, I feel a bit tethered to the WiFi to a degree that is alarming. Enjoy your sunsets and the peace they bring you!

  3. (My youngest son turned 41 yesterday.)

    “God may not exist.”

    I don’t actually KNOW God is–I BELIEVE he is. I believe he’s everything he says he is, did, and does.

    I believe he’s personal, and in everything wants intimate fellowship with me. And I live accordingly.

  4. I enjoyed this post very much. I understand the angst. I struggle with religion and spirituality daily. Raising children means a commitment to providing them with the structure you believe is best for their ability to grow and flourish. I am comfortable with my beliefs as no one else needs to rely on how I process my spirituality.

    I am in awe of the wonderful conversations that take place in your comments section. If I could I would “like” so many of them. They speak to me also.

    Thank you for the clarity you express as you move through your own feelings.

    1. I am in awe of the wonderful conversations that take place in your comments section.

      Me too, honestly, Lauren… it’s humbling and incredibly fulfilling to me.

      Much love,

  5. Open thinking is important.

    Have faith and trust, in whatever you love the most my friend. 🙂

  6. Secular is as loaded a word as religious, and neither is as clear as they pretend to be. I think all religions are worldly–if they were not, they would not be so concerned with frankly material things–how to dress and what to eat, for instance. What does that have to do with the spiritual, which is not definable in a material way?

    On the other hand, I do think cultural, social, and especially family grounding gives us roots. I just wish it were not framed as being better or purer or more special than other cultural frameworks or choices. Or exclusive to one people, so that no one else is allowed to share something that may resonate with them, even though they were not born into it, or don’t feel comfortable the entire system of beliefs. Humans are way too all-or-nothing. (K)

    1. Secular is as loaded a word as religious, and neither is as clear as they pretend to be.

      Yes, they are; as, I think, most labels for humans are. But in Israel they reflect official demographics, policies, and laws. There are “secular” schools, and there are “religious” schools. So despite the limitations of these labels, they persist, and people continue categorizing themselves accordingly.

      What does that have to do with the spiritual, which is not definable in a material way?

      Well, the mystical Jewish response to that is that every material thing has spiritual properties which are activated when used in an appropriate, spiritual way as dictated by God and the rabbis. I’m not saying that I believe this – I’m only saying that Judaism has at least one answer to this question, and I am sure that other religions offer their own too.

      I just wish it were not framed as being better or purer or more special than other cultural frameworks or choices.

      100% agreement from me.

      no one else is allowed to share something that may resonate with them, even though they were not born into it

      I’m not as bothered by the human nature to form in-groups as you are Kerfe, but that’s not surprising to me, based upon our previous interactions. I think it’s only natural for us, as it is for all animals.

      Much love,

      1. It’s true that ritual is important. Not just for religion, but all of life. And labels become what they are used for. And I too think everything has spirit, I just don’t think the spirit comes with a set of rules. Although I’m not opposed to rules. We all need some kind of structure.

  7. What do you mean by secular, David? We in India mean respect for all religions.

    1. In Israel, broadly speaking, a secular Jew is one who identifies as being Jewish (in terms of culture and heritage) but is not religious. Often the relationships between Israel’s various demographics representing different levels of religiosity (i.e. secular, traditional, Zionist Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, etc.) are fraught because they all represent different populations with different needs and priorities, and their respective political representatives in the Knesset have very different platforms and worldviews.

  8. Excellent essay. I really liked this because I relate to it. I call myself a “Recovering Catholic”. I left the church many years ago but I still question.

  9. I’m late to the party but wanted to say that questioning religious practices, faith, and even tradition seems a very normal thing that has never had an age limit. My grandfather explored and questioned, studied and rejected all of the world’s religions starting as a young man and continuing through his 90s when he died at 94. It is normal as far as I’m concerned to question religion and to question my place in it… In the meantime I’m “faking it until I make it”

    1. In the meantime I’m “faking it until I make it”

      I totally respect that, but it doesn’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t work well for me 😦

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