Tel Aviv street during ShabatVisit Tel Aviv during the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur – the solemn day of fasting, atonement and prayer – and you’re left in no doubt that you’re in a Jewish state. The streets are empty, with the exception of a few children on bicycles, the shops and cafés are closed and the beaches are sparsely populated.

But all is not what it seems. The majority of Tel Aviv’s residents that are avoiding work, leisure and travel on this holy day are self-defined secular Jews (Hilonim in modern Hebrew). Why, then, are they marking a Jewish festival in which Jews are supposed to repent their sins to God?

Whether in Tel Aviv or outside Israel, what ostensibly appears to be “secular Judaism” is frequently shot through with such apparently “religious” elements – and vice versa. In fact, the very nature of Jewish identity blurs the distinction between the religious and the secular.
The concept of the secular is modern, predicated on an idea of religion as a discrete sphere of life. In the post-enlightenment era, collective concepts emerged that separated elements of identity that had hitherto been wrapped up in each other – nation, race and of course religion.

Jews were among the first to “test drive” these new ways of being. The gradual emancipation of Jews that took place from the late 18th century allowed them, belatedly, to become citizens within the nation state. The problem was that in order to become citizens, Jews were at best obliged to compartmentalise their separate religious, national and ethnic identities and at worst to reject them completely. The challenge to Jewish identity was summed up in a famous speech to the French National Assembly in 1789, by the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre: “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals. They must be citizens … there cannot be one nation within another nation.”There was an implicit threat here – should Jews fail to embrace a secular public identity, what could be given by the state could easily be taken away.

Some Jews responded to the emancipation dilemma by reducing Judaism to a religion confined to the private sphere. The 19th-century Anglo-Jewish gentry, such as the Rothschild family, embraced an entirely English and secular public identity, with Jewish religion confined to church-like synagogues. Conversely, for the emerging strands of ultra-orthodox Jewry, Judaism encompassed everything they were – they accepted no distinction between private religion and public identity. The ancestors of today’s black-hatted Haredi Jews sought to recreate the ghetto. Instead of privatising their religion, they privatised their entire community.

It was also inevitable that some Jews would abandon any kind of religious belief. But could this be done without rejecting Jewish identity completely? Was a “secular Judaism” possible? Certainly many Jews threw themselves into modernity, eschewing Jewish religious practice, intermarrying and forming the vanguard of modern political, social and cultural developments. But what was left of Jewishness after that? And was it even desirable to retain any trace of Jewishness? In the pre-multicultural era it was difficult to find a Jewish identity, secular or religious, that did not undermine the pre-eminent national identities.

Yet even amongst the most radical Jewish assimilationists, something lingered.

As much as anything else, the development of secular Jewish identity was spurred by the difficulty that Jews had in forgetting their origins, together with the fact that anti-Semites wouldn’t let them forget it. Freud, Marx and the manifold Jewish intellectuals and artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries were usually acutely conscious of their Jewishness, even if they avoided Jewish religious practice. Jewishness gave their work an edge, a sensitivity to otherness and identity that constitutes the Jewish contribution to modernity and to modernism.

But a positive and unabashed secular Judaism? Zionism as it developed from the late 19th century was a primarily secular movement until long after 1948. The early Zionist settlers worked hard to develop a new kind of Hebrew-speaking Jewish culture that would be defiantly modern and non-religious. One of Zionism’s rivals, the Bundist movement, sought to nurture a proudly Yiddish-speaking secular socialist Jewish culture in Eastern Europe.
Yet as the 20th century wore on, secular and religious Judaisms have never quite separated. Even militantly secular Zionism reworked traditional Jewish festivals and was rooted in the Bible and other sacred Jewish texts.

In the Diaspora, some religious rituals remain remarkably popular amongst even the most assimilated Jews – such as the Passover seder meal, fasting on Yom Kippur and the shiva mourning ritual. Conversely, research has shown that even many Jews who attend synagogue regularly may have little belief in God; their “religious” practice is as much about demonstrating ethnic identity.

Although there have been some attempts to develop a self-consciously secular Judaism, such as in some humanist Jewish synagogues in the US, they have not really caught on. Judaism works best when it is a confusing jumble of the sacred and profane.

Keith Kahn-Harris‘s book Judaism: All That Matters is published by Hodder