Like most really good questions, the typical answer would be, â€œIt depends.â€ It depends on the basis for the respect towards a Jew and how we personally define a â€œsecularâ€ 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.