The Battle Against Atheism – Schism Between Religious and Secular

  • Jews living in the diaspora have found difficulty maintaining their Jewish identities pressured by their gentile neighbors economically, politically, and socially.
  • The schism in the Israeli society between religious and secular is growing and the conflicts between the two sides is becoming more difficult.
  • While Baha”i faith was a liberal solution for Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire, PJS is a solution for the Jewish dilemma today. 

The battle against atheism in Israel, America and throughout the world continues.  Lubavitch Chassidism centrally located in 770 Eastern Parkway Brooklyn New York represents the Jewish people in this battle. They have built a network of Chabad centers throughout the world.

Understanding the problems occurring today in the State of Israel, the schism between religious and secular, first one has to examine the history of the State of Israel from Biblical times until today. A large majority of the Jewish population in Israel and in America are secular Jews and only a portion of the Jewish people are religious observant.  In the history of times Jewish agnostics and atheists have also been activists and leaders in the secular world Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Albert Einstein. In America today amongst the liberal politicians is Bernie Sanders.  The State of Israel was founded by Jewish atheists. Wikipedia claims that half of all American Jews have doubts about the existence of God compared to 10 -15% off other American religious groups.

Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe who came to off the ship from Russia to America March 19, 1940 to continue his battle against Atheism.

Even before the holocaust Jewish communities in Europe were faced by secular reformists.  Immediately after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem when the Jewish Nation was exiled to Babylon, is recorded problems of Jewish assimilation.  During the second temple which was built seventy years after the destruction of the first temple was a split in the Jewish nation between Ultra-Orthodox called Pharisees and reformed Orthodox called Sadducees.  In the nation which was established according to the Law of Moses there was only one party of strict observers of the law.  In the second temple there were two parties at war over control of the nation. After the kingship of Solomon, the nation of Israel became split in two parts Judah and Israel of Samaria.  The nation of Israel of Samaria was conquered and almost completely assimilated in the story of the ten lost tribes.

Liberal Jewish theology is compatible with Atheism on an ontological level. Jewish law is considered sacred given to them from God by Moses.  It is forbidden to change it and is received with blind faith. Opponents to authentic Judaism began to change Judaism according to their logic. Reconstruction Judaism was founded by Mordecai Kaplan in the late 1800s which later became Conservative Judaism.  Conservative Judaism spread out in America to become a competitor to Orthodox Judaism.  Jews who had been separated from the Orthodox Jewish community naturally felt more comfortable in a Jewish Conservative environment.  Conservative Judaism did not change the whole structure of Jewish law.  The prayer services are almost like prayer service in Orthodox synagogues. A big difference between them and Orthodox is that Conservative Synagogues allow men and woman to sit together at the time of prayer. Very few conservative Jewish congregants are Sabbath observers.  The majority ride to synagogue on the Sabbath in cars which they are even allowed to park in the parking lot of the synagogue.  Conservative Judaism in America has organized Jewish Day Schools for their followers the most well known is Solomon Schechter Day Schools.

The reformed Jewish movement is more liberal than conservative. Secular Israeli in the news called the Israeli left are primarily reformed Jews or atheists. Reformed Judaism became popular in the 19th century in Europe starting from Germany. The Haskala Jewish Enlightenment movement began in the 1770s primarily in Europe.  The movement adopted various changes in traditional Judaism adding to Judaism secular values. The movement was opposed by Orthodox religious leaders.  It eventually developed into national Judaism or modern Zionism. While Conservative Judaism clings to most Jewish religious rituals, reformed Judaism has almost completely released Jews from obligation to follow these rituals which were the foundation of Judaism in Biblical times.

Through reformed Judaism Jews who have almost completely assimilated maintain their Jewish identity as reformed Jews.  Throughout America there are large structures synagogues built by the reformed Jewish movement.  In reformed Judaism Jews who had become agnostics or even atheists could maintain their Jewish identities living a completely secular life. Assimilation of these Jews comes rapidly.  They are less concerned than conservative Jews about intermarriage and quick to convert gentiles who want to marry Jews to become part of their congregation.  Amongst conservative and reformed Jews in America is a great problem of marriages done by their Rabbis of interfaith couples.  They are also not particular at all about Jewish lineage and may marry Jews whose parents were not divorced in the Jewish courts or born from interfaith marriages.  Marriage and divorce are obligated to be done according to Jewish law. Divorce made in civil courts are not acceptable. Orthodox Jewish courts do not accept divorce and sometimes even marriage made in reformed or conservative customs.

This makes a big problem for Jews when they come to Israel where marriage and divorce are governed by the Orthodox Rabbinical court. Throughout the history of the Jewish people families have been faced with problems of assimilation including intermarriages.  Orthodox Judaism attempts to maintain family purity based upon strict Jewish law. These families are confronted with the choice of breaking up their family to preserve their Judaism or accepting members of their family that have intermarried or become reformed.

Jews living in the diaspora have found difficulty maintaining their Jewish identities pressured by their gentile neighbors economically, politically, and socially. Orthodox Judaism has tried to maintain their religion by congregating in orthodox Jewish communities throughout the world. They try to live together, and govern their Jewish communities according to Jewish law whenever possible. Also in Israel Orthodox Jewish communities have been established in their own settlements and even cities like Gush Hatzion and Beitar in Southern Jerusalem which are almost exclusively Orthodox to different degrees. The former Orthodox Rabbi of the Lincoln Square synagogue Rabbi Shlomo Riskin established the Orthodox Jewish settlement of Efrat in Gush Etzion.

Orthodox Jews usually prefer to live separately from reformed secular Jews or gentiles.  It is not always possible especially in America even in Israel.  The city of Bnei Brak located in central Israel is almost completely Orthodox.  Jerusalem has communities that are exclusively Orthodox. The government of Israel recognizes the needs of the Orthodox community especially their needs for special orthodox education. Israel a democracy tries to integrate secular and religious Jews under one government under one law.  Jewish Orthodox law compels Jews to distance themselves from the secular Jewish society.  The voice of the Orthodox in Israel politics has grown as their families multiply rapidly and Orthodox Jews from abroad especially from America immigrate to Israel.

Rabbi Yitzchok Yosef Chief Rabbi of Israel.

The schism in the Israeli society is growing and the conflicts between the two sides is becoming more difficult.  In the recent elections, the conflict between Orthodox and Secular prevented Netanyahu from making a new government and elections are scheduled for September. Rafi Peretz the new appointment as Minister of Education from the religious parties by Netanyahu made statements which have antagonized the secular Jewish community comparing assimilation in modern times to the holocaust. Also he wants to use his political power to fight against the Gay movement.  Modern society today has accepted the Gay movemet throughout the world.  Atheism is a growing problem for all the religions of the world Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  Gays have even entered into politics. Jared Polis of Colorado became the first openly gay person to be elected governor.

Democracy is here to stay.  The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 secured democracy in the world for the next few generations. An old book on esoteric Judaism Torat HaKana written about 1000 years ago pinpointed the date 1991 as significant in the progression of faith toward God Enlightenment and Self Realization. Democracy has its pros and cons.  Judaism is a religion which follows laws and commandments as a theocracy.  In Judaism blind faith is demanded from Jews beginning on the eighth day when the child is circumcised.  The reason for the schism between secular and religious Jews throughout the world is that there is no law for a middle path in Judaism. When a Jew strays outward already it is difficult for him to return to his roots. Not only is it difficult for the Jew who has adapted Haskala Jewish Modern values; it is also difficult for the Ultra-Orthodox community to accept him.  Many of these groups don’t want him back at all and leave him to stray away and assimilate altogether. Judaism has strict laws about incest which protect desecration of their seed and Jewish lineage.  There is no other religion concerned as much about lineage like Judaism.

In the past when a Jew would begin to assimilate, he would eventually marry a gentile and his children would no longer be Jewish.  This process would only take several generations.  The State of Israel a Jewish State accepts Jews throughout the world as citizens.  In Israel they can be secular for many generations and still be Jewish.  In each generation their secular values become strengthened and the schism between religious and secular becomes greater. Orthodox Jews pray for the messiah to come to solve this problem.  The Messiah will enforce Judaism as the law of the land and everyone living in Israel will be obligated in Jewish law. Avigdor Leiberman and other secular Jewish leaders are aware of religious Jewish messianic values and consider them a threat to democracy.

The same book on esoteric Judaism which pointed to the date 1991 as significant for the coming of the Messiah and redemption delivers a different solution for Judaism which combines World Faith and Jewish religious values. Progressive Jewish Spirituality connected to the Chassidism of the Baal Shem Tov also connects World Faith with traditional Jewish values. Chassidism began in Europe in the early 1700s an attempt to solve the problem of the schism between religious and secular Jewry.  Baal Shem Tov gave more respect to the simple Jew than was given by traditional Orthodox Jewish leaders.  Progressive Jewish spirituality is similar to Baha”i faith whose center is in Haifa.

While Baha”i faith was a liberal solution for Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire, PJS is a solution for the Jewish dilemma today.  PJS emphasizes more the connection to God through faith than through religion with  less of an emphasis on lineage.  It is progressive spiritual, more spiritual than traditional Judaism and progressive to allow leniencies which Orthodox Judaism does not allow.  Jews that stray away from Judaism can remain Jewish with even stronger faith with less doubts about God the creator; less Jews will become atheists.  The Jewish people are supposed to be a light to the nations supporting faith in God and not the opposite. In PJS there is a place also for agnostic humanitarians but the foundation of faith of Israel and the world stands on the Torah Bible values and faith. Why be an atheist when you are free to be agnostic? Why be agnostic when the way is open for you to believe in God with perfect faith?

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David Wexelman

Rabbi David Wexelman is the  author of five books on the topics of World Unity and Peace, and Progressive Jewish Spirituality. Rabbi Wexelman is a member of the American Friends of Maccabee, a charitable organization helping the poor in the United States and in Israel.  Donations are tax deductible in the USA.

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