“Secular Jewish Culture,” edited by Yaakov Malkin, is an important, indeed valuable book, a book that will prompt people to think. While focusing on Judaism, the book will open the minds of people of all religions. The first Chief Rabbi in Israel, Rabbi Kook, wrote: religious people can learn much from atheists. Religious people may be living an immature and distorted image of religion and God. In contrast, the denial by atheists of God is really a deeper quest for a higher, more sophisticated understanding of life and human responsibility. Atheism, Rabbi Kook wrote, comes to purify the dirt, the embarrassments, that have stuck to a religion that fails to understand the absurdity of some of its teachings and practices. Religious people should understand this, and pay attention to what is bothering the atheists, learn from them, and improve.
The philosopher Blasé Pascal (1623-1662) argued the opposite, that people should not act like atheists, but should bet their lives on whether God exists. This idea is called Pascal’s wager. He argued that practicing religion does no harm, but the failure to be religious could result in eternal punishment by God. Taking both possibilities into consideration, since being religious causes no harm, but being an atheist could cause an eternity in Hell. It is a good bet to be religious and foolish to act otherwise.
There are obvious problems with Pascal’s wager. First and foremost, feigning belief will not fool God. Second, since there are so many different concepts of god, there is a high probability that the wager will choose the wrong god and thereby eliminate the advantage of Pascal’s bet. Third, similarly, what one religion considers proper behavior another rules blasphemy. Additionally, Pascal’s wager ignores the benefits of atheism pointed out by Rabbi Kook. Many religious people live a passive life, ignoring the good things that God made available, and ignore what Maimonides, atheists, and most other thinkers recognize as a human obligation, to work to improve themselves and society.
The editor of this excellent collection of articles, Yaakov Malkin, is a world-recognized scholar, professor, award-winner, and expert on secular Judaism. What he and the assembled thinkers in this book say is eye-opening. Malkin introduces his book informing readers of the many contributions that secular Jews made to Judaism. He also lists five common elements shared by religious and secular Jews. The book follows with close to three-dozen essays from well-informed thinkers.
Among the many are famous Jewish novelists such as Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, S. Yizhar, Haim Be’er; politician like Shulamit Aloni; Professors such as Amos Funkenstein, Yeshayahu Leibovitz, Arye S. Assar, Rachel Elior; Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court Haim Cohn; and many others.
We discover in reading this book that Secular Jewish Culture is the culture of the majority, not the minority, of Jews around the world. We are told what secular Jews think and believe and what they consider important. Many questions are addressed. Why do so many Jews reject many religious ideas and practices? What are the origins of Jewish theology? What is the significance to Jewish Culture of Hebrew, the Jewish state, the definition of what is a Jew, and prophetical traditions? What part did Spinoza and Maimonides and others play in regard to secular Judaism? Should secular Jewish culture or some parts of it be taught in Israeli schools? What change has secular Judaism made to Bible study? What impact has been made on Judaism because of new ideas about the role of women in Judaism and the current more sophisticated understanding of God? Does it make sense to want to be Jewish but not want to obey rabbinical laws? Shouldn’t we strive for human happiness and well-being, dignity, justice, and the dignity of man? Was Einstein correct when he said the belief in a personal god is an “expression of human weakness”? What is Zionism? What makes the state of Israel a Jewish state?
The book, in short, is very enlightening. Readers will finish the book with a new understanding of life and the purpose of religion.
 Pensees, Dover Philosophical Classics, 2013.