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I am a secular Jew - and there's no contradiction in that

Dr Daniel Susskind will be going to shul this Rosh Hashanah, but, he argues, as Jews, we are bound together by far more than faith alone.

    Bevis Marks Synagogue
    Bevis Marks Synagogue (Anders Hanson, Flickr)

    It is that time of year when ‘secular Jews’ like me descend on synagogues, filling the backbenches and over-flowing into neighbouring rented buildings. We stand out with our pristine prayer-books and our bright-white uncreased tallit, struggling to tell the difference between our Musaf and Maariv, stumbling to our feet to mumble incorrectly at the wrong moments. But we will be there, as Jewish as everyone else. 

    This idea, that you can feel very Jewish and not root that identity in a God, puzzles non-Jews and divides Jews. To those on the outside, the idea of a ‘secular Jew’ sounds like an oxymoron; to those inside, it is often dismissed, less generously, as confused nonsense. But for me, and I suspect a great many others, it exactly describes who we are. 

    There is a line in an interview with Primo Levi where he says, “There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be God". Levi had survived that camp, and his testimony would make him one of the great modern writers. That remark captured the sense in which, for so many Jews, the Holocaust had murdered their faith, along with their family and friends. 

    I consider myself part of that group, deeply agnostic, and unable to reconcile any serious sense of faith with what happened in the first half of the 20th century (though my scepticism has roots elsewhere, too.) And yet, at the same time, I try to live a secular Jewish life – partly because of what happened in the past. To me, there is Auschwitz, and so we must make sure that there are always Jews. 

    There is no contradiction here, between being a devout Jew and not having faith. The Holocaust was not only an attempt to kill a Jewish God, but also to destroy a Jewish civilisation – our histories and memories, songs and stories, ways of thinking and living.

    The Nazis never asked our ancestors how observant they were before they murdered them; only whether their parents or grandparents were Jews, whether they could claim to be part of our four-thousand-year-old story that they wanted to bring to an end. They knew that much more mattered than faith alone. 

    I know that when I take my first High Holiday steps into the synagogue in the coming weeks, I should expect the same familiar glare from the observant old-guard, the front-benched regulars, who no doubt think of me and my fellow-travellers as irreligious riff-raff, distracting them from one of the most important days of their year. 

    But to secular Jews, I say – do not be deterred. Think of this article as a secular call to prayer. Take some Jewish stories along with your siddur, carry a biography of a Jewish hero and put it proudly on the bench in front of you, take a piece of Hebrew and try to make sense of it, take a secular Jewish philosopher and try to interpret it. Go to synagogue, not necessarily in search of religious revelation but for secular contemplation, and know that is okay. 

    My wife, who converted to Judaism and has her feet in two faiths, once said to me that when Christians go to Church, they go to be with God, but when Jews go to synagogue, they go to be with other Jews. At first I smiled, but now I realise that she is exactly right. As Jews, we are bound together by far more than faith alone. 

    And as you walk home, in the coming weeks, perhaps after a prayerless day in synagogue, be happy because you have contributed, in your own way, to that ongoing Jewish story, of which we are all part. 

    Daniel Susskind is a Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford.