DEAR SECULAR JEW, RABBI CHAIM BRUK, BOZEMAN
Tonight, Jewry will usher in the eight-day Passover experience. It’s a holiday that commemorates the founding of our Jewish nation, so I feel compelled to write a letter to address the nature and soul of our people:
April, 14, 2022
13th of Nissan, 5782
Dear “secular” Jew,
I write this letter to you today, on the eve of Passover 5782, with the deep hope of conveying certain unspoken truths about our Jewish faith, discuss the nature of our people, and to demystify a few myths about your soul. I know that I am opening myself up to a longer conversation with many of you, but I cherish that, because it’s who we are, a people that argues and debates and comes out stronger on the other side, more informed, as we traverse this harsh exile and journey from challenge-to-challenge, en-route to redemption.
Let me start with a clarification: I used the term “secular” in reference to you, a fellow Jew, only in quotations, employing the term that is commonly used “out there” and too often used by Jews about themselves. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “secular” Jew. I looked up “secular” in the dictionary and found that it denotes “attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis: Contrasted with sacred.”. With this in mind, I find it to be impossible for a Jew to be secular, simply impossible. I don’t accept that a Jew, a descendent of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, can have no “spiritual basis”, or is the opposite of “sacred”. It is my firm belief that every one of us was gifted a Divine Soul, a natural, conscious or subconscious, bond with our Creator, connecting us with a Higher Power and a yearning for spiritual meaning.
Sure, you can be a Jew that is passionately opposed to the rituals and faith of your people, but let’s be honest, why are you passionate about it? Why do you care so much that you need to state your “atheism” or “secularism” so often? Why do you need to identify as being “not religious”? The passion is a result of an inner calling to stand with Judaism or to oppose Judaism, but we can’t ever ignore Judaism or the Jewish people, because it’s embedded in our essence. Your passion, though expressed negatively, Is a beautiful sign of your Jewishness, carrying the inner torch gifted to you by the Jews who came before you and fought for their Judaism through thick and thin.
I’ve spent fifteen years traversing Montana and experiencing life with my beloved fellow Jews. Everywhere I go, every family or individual I meet, I find that gem-like sacredness, the holy touch and familial warmth, alive and well in our brothers and sisters. They may not wear a Yarmulke, but have you seen their zest while singing Dayenu on Passover or lighting their Menorah? They may not fast on Yom Kippur yet, but have you seen their joy in baking Challah for Shabbos?. They may not use the Mikvah currently, but have you seen the excitement with which they kiss the Mezuzah on their home. How can we use the un-G-dly term of “secular” when these souls are so connected to their people and so in touch with their faith? If they didn’t care about Am Yisroel why are they up in arms when Jews are under attack?
Of course, they care.
I get it. When one grows up in a home where the 613 Mitzvos of the Torah and the illumination of Chassidic thought isn’t ingrained in your education and day-to-day living, where Kosher and Shabbos are something “Bubby does” or where “religious” is something “great grandpa Benjamin used to be”, how can we expect that you will jump for joy when discovering more observances? It’s hard to imagine feeling connected to a 3,300-year-old religion when some of the ideas seem archaic and some of your fellow Jews seem “fanatical” to the untrained eye. Yet, let me assure you that while we have superficial differences, at our core, we are one in our bedrock relationship with G-d and His Torah. We are one organism; one wholesome Jewish body and each limb is connected to the other in times of pain and happiness. Your Mezuzah brings us all protection as does my Tefillin-flanked prayers each morning. Your Tzedakah in the charity box brings positive energetics into the universe as does each woman who Chavie takes for a private Mikvah experience. The Jewish people aren’t whole without you, as it isn’t without me.
We are one.
We don’t need to agree on every Issue, we can differ in our political views, our religious affiliation or lack thereof, we can support Israel more or less, you can claim with religious certainty that there is “no G-d” and I can claim that there is nothing “outside of G-d”, but like at a healthy family dinner table, we are blood, we share DNA, we are all students of Moses, disciples of King David and grandchildren of those who endured so much in order to carry on the traditions of Judaism. We don’t need to die for our Jewishness like those who came before us, we can live for our Jewishness, to learn, explore and enjoy the holiness of Torah. Just because we don’t understand everything or don’t feel compelled to observe it all, doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bath water and ignore our heritage. No one could claim to disagree with Einstein if they don’t study his works, so how can one deny their Judaism if they haven’t delved deeply into its reservoirs of wisdom?
My mentor the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory taught me, and everyone who would listen, that we need to stop parading around with labels that divide us, “I am super reformed” or “I am ultra-orthodox”, “I am a progressive” or “I am conservative”, let’s rather spend our time focusing on that which brings us together. The title “secular” and “religious” are terms used to separate people, to break us apart, and who wants to be divided? We are all Jewish, thus we seek to make our world more peaceful, our planet more pristine, our conversations more productive, our lives more meaningful and our souls more nourished. I grow my beard as G-d commanded in Leviticus and you may not, I have a Mezuzah on each door in my home and you may choose to have it only on your front door, but are we really that different? When I’ve shown up at your door you’ve been appreciative, when I mailed you Jewish books you’ve expressed gratefulness and when antisemites attack us, as they do every so often, we all feel the same pain and fear, recognizing that we are one people on the same boat.
So dear “not-so-secular” Jew, let’s not disassociate; my traditional garb shouldn’t scare you and your Mohawk shouldn’t make me run the other way. Superficiality can’t define us, rather our inner core, our fiery love for goodness, should guide us to unite, to seek inner freedom as identifiable Jews in our 2022 reality. It’s easy to create a tribalistic environment, “we are not them”, but why take the easy road out, if we can choose the harder road that keeps us in and together.
Tomorrow night, as you sit at your Seder or even if you don’t, please remember that G-d took us all out of Egypt, split the sea, and handed us a Torah at Sinai. He did this for me, He did this for you, He did this for all of us, for His beloved Jews that are on a lifelong journey. When you recite the “Ma Nishtana” four questions, drink your four cups of wine and eat the Matzah, or even if you’re sitting at home wondering why you aren’t at Seder this year, remember we are all free on this night, free to be Jews, free to be different, free to choose oneness over divisiveness.
Next time you see me in town or watch me on YouTube, don’t get uncomfortable, I don’t bite, I love Sushi, hiking the M and spending time with my kids, me and you are more alike than you could ever imagine. We are all part of the awesome Jewish family and I love you with every fiber of my being, because family is family and you can run all you want but you can’t hide.
May this Pesach, this festival of freedom, bring about inner freedom for all of us, free to be ourselves, and may we merit the redemption of all our people with the coming of Mashiach when the obstacles that divide us will be obliterated, will be torn down, and we will stand as one in the holy city of Jerusalem, Amen!
Happy and Kosher Passover,
Your “religious” rabbi.