Jewish secularism

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Jewish secularism comprises the largest section of the Jewish people who are secular and the body of work produced by secular Jews over the past 250 years. Almost half of all Jews define themselves as secular.[1]

These people build up communities where Jewish holidays are celebrated as historical and nature festivals, and where life-cycle events are marked in a secular manner.

Throughout modern history, Jewish thinkers have challenged traditional Judaism. As early as the nineteenth century, members of the Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews (Verein fur Kultur und Wissenschaft der Juden) viewed Judaism as a culture, not a religion. These secularists, building on foundations of the Enlightenment, Haskalah, were keen to integrate humanistic culture and education with a Jewish culture not linked to rabbinical dictates, or the existence of a personal God.


Secular Judaism has roots even before the Haskalah. From the time of Baruch Spinoza (1632–77) and his “agnostic morality”, came the belief of the human sense of morality through education and family life, not religious morality.

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. Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust rank among the creators of these works for their contribution to western culture.

Many prominent Jews have been secular, such as Sigmund Freud, Marc Chagall, Henri Bergson, Heinrich Heine, Albert Einstein, Theodor Herzl, M. Y. Berdichevsky and Hayim Nahman Bialik. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ahad Ha'am contributed to the secular movement with his ideas on Jewish national identity, religion and religious practice. He saw Jewish religious cultural tradition as integral for the education of secular Jews.

State of Israel[edit]

The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 is often seen as secular Judaism’s greatest achievement, with Hebrew as a spoken language rather than a language of prayer, and the majority of the population living secular Jewish lives. Some 2000 secular Israeli schools exist, where children study Jewish history and literature and celebrate the holidays without prayer or religion.

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  1. ^ The American Jewish Identification Survey (AJIS 2001) placed the figure at 49% in America.

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