Do We Show Enough Respect to Secular Jews?

Like most really good questions, the typical answer would be, “It depends.” It depends on the basis for the respect towards a Jew and how we personally define a “secular” Jew. The following few lines are my personal thoughts on the above question.

When I think about ways or reasons to respect another Jew, my first thought (and this really applies to non-Jews as well, based on what I’ve been taught) is the concept of Kavod HaBriyos (respect towards one of Hashem’s creations). There is an intrinsic respect that we should be giving to anyone created by Hashem, simply because their own existence is a manifestation of Hashem’s ratzon (will or desire).

The second thought regarding respect is the concept of “pintele Yid”, a Yiddish term that refers to that innate Jewish “spark” that is in each of us. The neshama of Jew contains part of Hashem and it’s that “spark” that might be another basis for respect towards other Jews, regardless of if they are “secular” or not. An understanding of both of these levels of respect is, ideally, something that should be emphasized both in the home and in our school stystems.

A third level of respect, and this is sort of “out there” depending on your religious outlook, is a feeling of respect for a Jew’s secular accomplishments. This might be on an educational, professional, or a personal level. When I use the term accomplishments, I’m not referring to financial success, but more of the effort involved in pursuing a goal. For example, in a previous profession of mine, I was the Kashrus supervisor (mashgiach) for a local Kashrus organization in a Midwestern City. At times my job required me to be at the Jewish Community Center as early as 5:30 AM. I was always impressed with the number of people I saw who were also at the JCC that early in the morning using the exercise equipment. Their dedication, on a personal level, to their health, gave me food for thought in regard to my own struggles with getting up in the morning for minyan.

The term “secular Jew” is, in my opinion, can have a few definitions. A “secular Jew” could be someone who has no connection to Judaism on any level. Without getting in any halachic obligations of Kiruv (or mitzvah of “Loving Hashem”), it’s probably safe to write that we all agree it’s important to have some connection to Judaism.

A fellow Jew who is “secular” might also be a non-affiliated Jew who has craving for gefilta fish and matzo ball soup. On an dietary level, this Jew is connecting with Judaism on their level. This secular Jew might be a co-worker, old friend from the neighborhood, or a relative. They might fell connected to Judaism not by any outward religious observance, but by purchasing Israel Bonds, donating to their local Jewish Federation, or eating a bagel with a shmeer of cream cheese on a Sunday morning.

Another view of a “secular Jew”, and I don’t personally feel this way, might be that anyone who isn’t Torah observant is “secular”. I wasn’t taught to view Jews in this way, but some people within our camp do. I have met many Jews affiliated and involved with reconstructionist, reform, and conservative congregations that are far from “secular”. They are very committed to their Judaism and very serious about it. To label them as secular is really problematic. It’s possible to respect them for their own level of observance, even if it isn’t the same as our lifestyle. This doesn’t mean that Torah-observant individuals, organizations, or educational institutions shouldn’t approach them, but try to understand where they are coming from. For a Jew to choose to attend a Shabbos evening or morning service instead of a sporting event, one-day sale with door busters, or watch TV can be as much as a challenge as it is for me not to speak loshon hora.

I’ll be honest, I think some Torah-observant Jews show tremendous respect towards secular Jews. I also think that some of us could show a bit more respect. Remembering that we are “a nation of Priests” who were given the opportunity to teach by example can only help in showing respect towards secular Jews.

10 comments on “Do We Show Enough Respect to Secular Jews?

  1. I real enjoy this article very much. I see both sides to this issue. I agree that non-observant Jews are not respectful towards frum Jews. They feel their way is right but they also feel they are being judged very harshly by them. Many non-observant Jews like myself have had negative experiences with frum Jews and cannot seem to get paat that. The frum community does not want to associate with us on any level. And there Jews like myself who want to connect and we are turned away and we do not pursue our rightful spiritual quest due to these negative experiencs. I do not remember the last time I experienced a Shabbos or Yom Tov experience. It has been too long and it is very sad. Torah does not belong to the frum Jews. It belongs to ALL Jews. And the frum community treats it as such. My main point here is to tell the frum community to reach out to us – invite us into your hearts and homes for positive Jewish experiences and hopefully this animosity will go away. Include us. We are one big family. Please take my words to heart. Good Shabbos.

    I am sorry about your negative experiencs with non-observant Jews while you were growing up. We are not all bad people. I am nothing like the Jews that you describe. I just want to connect to Torah just like you.

  2. The problem when talking to non-Orthodox Jews is that fishing for signs of “tolerance” is often a Politically Correct rhetorical ploy. It’s then used as a lever in the subsequent conversation.

    Another PC debating trick is to define “tolerant” or “fair” or “reasonable” as “agreeing with MY position”. This rigs the discussion from the start.

    I have learned to be very wary of R and C Jews. Most of them attempt to appoint themselves as gatekeepers of acceptable opinion for the duration of the conversation.

    Any tolerance is also often one-way due to the narcissism of many “progressives” – many of whom really don’t believe they owe anyone else’s opinions much respect. Calls for tolerance are a tactical/rhetorical devices deployed to silence the critics of their own opinions. There is no real fundamental commitment to respect for others.

  3. This is a surprisingly mild article.

    I would say that, for the most part, Orthodox Jewry looks down on anything that is not Orthodox. Of course there are differences between various Orthodox / Chassidic styles, but “secular” is beyond the pale.

    The tensions in Israel are palpable between the groups, but I think it is fine to come right out and say that the “charedization” of American orthodoxy has pushed Jews even further away from each other.

    Whether or not the secularization of Jewry, especially in America is truly a serious problem is a separate conversation. Whether some of the “secular” practices merit respect is yet another conversation.

    Fundamental issues are irreconcilable: homosexuality, the role of women, the relevance of the mitzvos, the divinity of the torah, conversion, kashrus, tznius, etc. etc. etc.

    I am sure that many observant Jews have had the experience of feeling more in common with “religious” non-Jews than with secular Jews.

    It would be more useful to analyze the source of these feelings and regard, rather than to pretend that they don’t exist in the community at large.

  4. Probably a bit of both, Bob. Then again, I’m no expert.
    I think that the information age is only good for those who are looking. Sadly, it’s easy enough to find media outlets that report less than stellar actions of some “observant” Jews.

    I don’t think that “upbringing immunizes them”, but there’s still that stigma of being a “relgious” Jew. In Feb O heard a Conservative Rabbi say to a congregation that “now the ultra-religious Jews in Monsey are telling us that lox isn’t kosher.”
    I approached him privately and asked him if he was aware of the OU statement regarding salmon and if he thought that his comment would keep people from eating certified kosher products.
    He wasn’t aware of the OU statement.

    The issue of being “captive children” stems from the leadership outside of orthodox Judaism. It’s been that way for years. If another Jew makes fun of someone who doesn’t tear toilet paper on Shabbos, it’s only b/c they have never properly been taught/explained by we do what we do.

  5. To Bob Miller #5: It means that the earliest impressions from one’s youngest childhood days are hard to get past. This makes it all the more important to open up Jewish nursery schools and Jewish day care centers where tots are taught Brochos and play games about Shabbos and learn about the Yomim Tovim. They bring the idea that being Jewish is fun home with them and wind up teaching the parents. “Mommy, why don’t you light Shabbos candles like Morah showed us?”

  6. If they are still considered like captive children in this age of information, does that mean we have been unable to convey our message, or is it that their upbringing immunizes them, or that the renunciation of some of their favorite pleasures is too grim for them to contemplate?

  7. Sorry about your bad experiences, Hugh.
    It’s true, when oen becomes observant, it’s usually other Jews that “give us the business”.

    Most Reform and secular Jews fall into the halachic category of “tinok shenishbo” and we are still obligated with the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisrael.

  8. Secular Jews and Reform Jews are indeed the core problem. They might engage in hostility towards religion in general. They may exhibit unloving and mean behaviour towards other Jewish kids at school (that was my problem with my Jewish classmates who were belligerent and mean towards me!). And, in many shuls, there’s the “class” issue. If you are not wealthy, you don’t belong. And you are always a second class citizen if you are not a strong contributor to the building fund.

    So, I’m sorry, but no regrets about my feelings of anger to secular Jews.

  9. Important variations on this question include:

    Do we show enough respect to Rabbis and Torah scholars without smichah?

    Do we show enough respect to parents and grandparents?

    Do we show enough respect to the elderly and anyone older than us?

    Do we show enough respect to kohanim?

    Do we show enough respect to people who work to help the community? [oskim betzarchei tzibbur]

    Do we show enough respect to our synagogues, by not talking, and by not littering and by not bringing young children who require supervision?

    Do we show enough respect to police, store employees and government officials?

    I have long believed that we who observe Shabbat and Kashrut need to increase the amount of respect we show to others.

    Giving respect correctly is one of the most important principles of Judaism, but I fear that we have lost it, because it is not part of the American culture that surrounds us.

    On the contrary, it sometimes seems to me that American culture encourage people to mock, humiliate and denigrate everyone and everything, especially people who used to be considered respectable; nothing is sacred, nothing is revered, nothing is respected.
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  10. We should respect all of G-d’s creations: secular Jews, non-Jews, all living creatures. “Respect” means treating that other being with dignity. The great majority of secular Jews fall into the category of tinokos shenishba, like those taken into captivity as infants, not at fault for being raised without knowledge of their Jewish heritage. However, for those who are defined by our Gedolim as enemies of Torah and enemies of HaShem, we have to rely on the guidance of our Gedolim to tell us the correct manner in which to deal with them.

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