Any objective assessment of the Jewish future must sooner or later run into the brick wall of demographics. There are just not enough Jews for a really optimistic projection of future prospects. Today, more than 60 years after the Holocaust, the number of Jews in the world is still some three million short of what it was prior to the Nazi onslaught. To be sure, there are now more than six million Jews in Israel, but many experts believe that in 10 or 20 years Arabs will outnumber Jews in the area between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea. Approximately six million Jews live in the United States, and of these a large percentage either have no children or are married to non-Jews. An additional four million Jews live elsewhere in the world, primarily in dwindling communities in England, France and the former Soviet Union, making a total of approximately fifteen million Jews worldwide. Considering how much attention, both welcome and unwelcome, is lavished on the Jewish people, the disproportion in numbers between ourselves and our critics is staggering.
Given the fact that most Jews do not have large numbers of children, there is only one way to significantly increase the number of Jews in the world, and that is through conversion. However, as presently understood, conversion means above all conversion to the Jewish religion. The different branches of the Jewish religion – Orthodox, Conservative and Reform – have somewhat different procedures for conversion, but however much they may differ among themselves, they are united in viewing conversion to the Jewish religion as the only valid form of conversion. Someone who wants to become Jewish is therefore required to believe in the Jewish “God” (also known as YHVH, Elohim, Adonai or Ha Shem) and this means that secular minded individuals must find it difficult or impossible to become Jews. This is a really ironic situation because everyone knows that a large minority or perhaps even a majority of Jews in the world do not believe in “God”. Even the Orthodox do not require belief in “God” as a requirement for being considered Jewish and define a Jew to include anyone who is born of a Jewish mother regardless of whether or not they accept the Jewish religion. However, if someone wants to become a Jew, then they must profess a belief in the Jewish “God”, a belief which is not shared by a considerable proportion of the members of the group they are trying to join. There is something strange and unreal about this situation, one which cries out for a remedy in the form of a concept of secular conversion.
But conversion to what? If belief in the Jewish “God” is not the essence of Jewishness, then what is? It would be easy to fill a library with the literature that exists on this subject. When all is said and done, it seems to me that a meaningful definition of secular Jewishness boils down to two components: observance of the Jewish holy days, and Zionism.
Observance of the Jewish holy days is, after all, the main thing that distinguishes the Jewish religion from religions such as Christianity and Islam which claim to believe in a “God” more or less identical with the Jewish “God”. As for Zionism, it is true that some Jews maintain that it is possible to be a Jew without being a Zionist, but it is hard to take such claims seriously. If Zionism is defined as support for the state of Israel, then Zionism is a creed which is shared not only by most Jews but also by large numbers of non-Jews. It is, in my view, the essence of traditional Judaism. What was belief in the coming of the Messiah – a Messiah who was expected to bring about the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel – except Zionism? When Jews said, “Next year in Jerusalem”, at the Passover seder every year, what was this except Zionism? In truth, modern Zionism is nothing other than the fulfillment of an ancient dream that the Jewish people should once again, in the words of the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah”, “be a free people in our land, the land of Zion, Jerusalem”. All conceptions of Judaism and Jewishness which reject or ignore Zionism are not worthy of the name of Jewish and constitute a mockery of the hope that sustained the Jewish people over the long centuries of persecution and torment.
The word “Jewish” is, after all, derived from the Hebrew word “Yehudah”, or “Judah” in English, which was the name of an ancient kingdom in the land of Israel. The modern state of Israel is the result of 2000 years of struggle to restore the kingdom of Judah, which was destroyed by the Romans. All Jews took part in this struggle simply by remaining Jews and thereby testifying to their refusal to accept the rule of Rome. But now that the state of Israel exists, the way to continue the struggle of our ancestors is by supporting and defending Israel against all those who seek its destruction. And there is no reason why non-Jews cannot also take part in this struggle. To the contrary, there are many non-Jews who look with favor on the state of Israel, who see it as the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, or as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, or simply as a nice place to live and work. Many of these non-Jews would like to draw closer to the Jewish people but feel no need to convert to a belief in the Jewish “God”. The goal of secular conversion ought to be to provide these non-Jews with a way of becoming Jewish that will ultimately be recognized as authentic because it is based on the Zionist ideology which is at the core of traditional Judaism.
Authentic Jewishness also requires observance of the Jewish holy days, including Shabbat. Most Jewish holy days relate to important events in Jewish history and do not require religious belief in order to be meaningful. Those holy days whose traditional content is more or less exclusively religious, such as Yom Kippur, can be utilized as occasions for soul-searching and introspection. As for Shabbat, it can be observed in many different ways, the most fundamental being abstention from work. Observance of the Jewish holy days should provide the foundation for a comprehensive program of secular Jewish education and celebration, one which Jews as well as non-Jews can benefit from.
Concealed behind the religious myth of “the chosen people” is the key role which the Jewish people has in fact played in world history. It is no coincidence that Christianity, Islam and Marxism, the three dominant ideologies of modern times, are all derived from Jewish teachings in one way or another. Membership in the Jewish people is an honor as well as a challenge. Jews and non-Jews alike need to learn the history of the Jewish people, understand our culture and traditions, identify with our struggle and achievements. Observance of the Jewish holy days provides a natural framework in which this can be done. Jews as well as non-Jews need a framework of this kind in which to develop a strong sense of membership in the Jewish people, the “am olam” or “eternal people”.
A program of secular conversion should therefore be directed at Jews and non-Jews alike. Many or most secular Jews do not have a strong sense of identity with the Jewish people, do not observe most of the Jewish holidays, do not know much about Jewish history and are not active in support of Israel. They may not need a program of secular conversion in order to be recognized as Jews, but they do need it in order to become real Jews. A program of secular conversion should therefore seek to enlist Jews and non-Jews alike, without any distinction or separation between them, and involve them in the same activities. Jewish is as Jewish does, and the best measure of Jewishness is neither a lengthy pedigree nor faith in a non-existent invisible entity but involvement in the life of the Jewish people.
Who could institute such a program? There exist a number of Jewish secular organizations, but they are mainly either anti-Zionist or lukewarm in their support of Israel. There also exist a number of Zionist organizations, but they are mainly either pro-religious or lukewarm in their commitment to secular Jewish education. What is needed is an organization that is both pro-Zionist and pro-secular. Formation of such an organization ought to be a top priority for all secular minded individuals concerned with the survival of Israel and the Jewish people..