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Ignite the Pulpit

No secular Jew exists



The Torah, one of many documents defining a Jew, the nature of God, and the elements of faith. It could be the blueprint for a Godly Israel. And a key source of the rule of law in Israel--or it should be. Is the ingathering of the Jews in the offing? But these Jews must turn to God, Whom their leaders, and the public in Israel, seem to have forsaken. (What parallels exist between Judaism and George Lucas' Jedi ideal?) It names many heroes, including Abraham and Sarah.

According to the renowned Talmudist and Torah philosopher, Dr. Chaim Zimmerman (z”l), there is no such thing as a secular Jew!1 The commonplace distinction between “religious” and “non-religious” Jews, he argues, is fallacious and foreign to the Halakha, Jewish Law. In arriving at this rather startling conclusion, Dr. Zimmerman also touches on one the profoundest and unsolved problems of Western political thought and practice, namely, the conflict between the individual and society.

Who or what is a Jew?

Dr. Zimmerman begins his inquiry with the Talmudic dictum that ten men are necessary to form a minyan, the group or collective entity required for the sanctification of God’s Name. In discussing this subject, the Babylonian Talmud (BT Berachot 21b) refers to the ten men (omitting Joshua and Caleb) who were sent by Moses to spy out the land of Canaan. The reference to these ten men is puzzling because they proved to be wicked. (Upon returning from their mission, they tried to discourage the Israelites from conquering the land, thereby disregarding the teachings of Moses.) The Halakhic problem is this: How is that the Talmud counts the wicked in the collective sanctification of God’s name?2 Dr. Zimmerman’s explanation follows.

Although the individuals contained in the group may be wicked as individuals, they nonetheless possess Kedusha or what the Halakha calls Kedushat Yisrael. Kedusha, misleadingly translated as “holiness” (a non-Jewish and overly moralistic concept), is a unique quality which God bestowed upon the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai, ultimately for the purpose of revealing His ways as contained in the various layers of the Torah.3 Inherited by their descendants, and most clearly manifested in the extraordinary intellectual achievements of the Jewish people, this Kedusha can also be acquired by any human being who enters the Torah covenant through Halakhic education and authentic Halakhic conversion. In short, even though an individual Jew may be wicked as an individual, he retains the Kedusha of the collective entity – he society or tzibur called “Israel.” But what is this tzibur called “Israel.”

What exactly is Israel?

“Israel,” writes Dr. Zimmerman, “is defined by the Halakhic concept of unity and totality. The collective group is viewed as an individual person, not as a mere aggregate of single individuals.” In other words, as concerns Israel and Israel alone, the tzibur is not the mere sum of its individuals, as in liberalism (and unavoidable in the cosmopolitanism of Christianity). Nor is the tzibur more than the sum of its individual members, as in socialism (and unavoidable in the regimentation of Islam). In the non-Torah world, societies consist of either random or of regimented individuals caught up in meaningless diversity, or in meaningless uniformity. The laws of these collectivities apply indiscriminately to the individuals composing them, which gives rise to the tension between the individual and society.

The individual’s path

In contrast, under the infinitely comprehensive and coherent laws of the Torah, the individual can walk on his own path to perfection, reinforced by, while contributing to the perfection of, the tzibur, whose purpose is to reveal the ways of God in every aspect of creation.4 Under no circumstances may the individual be sacrificed for the sake of society (as in Islam, which denies the concept of man’s creation in the image of God, the source of human creativity). Halakhically, a single individual is equal to all Israel.5

Accordingly, says Dr. Zimmerman, the individual, in the concept of tzibur, is not a quantitative part of the total number of its members, but a qualitative part whose rights and privileges are distinct from, yet correlated with, the qualitative existence and purpose of the tzibur. Dr. Zimmerman’s elaboration points the way to transcending not only the division between “religious” and “secular” Jews, but classical and modern political philosophy with its inherent dichotomy of individual and society.

Judgment of the individual

Under the Torah, the individual is judged according to his merits and faults: his existence and destruction depend on his own deeds and misdeeds. But the individual also has a status as a part of the tzibur of Israel, a status that depends solely on Israel’s unique merit as a tzibur. Thus, should an individual lose the right of existence as a result of his transgressions, he may nonetheless exist as part of the tzibur and share in its privileges by virtue of Kedushat Yisrael. This Kedusha of a Jew cannot be diminished; it is his “natural” (really metaphysical) endowment. As Dr. Zimmerman puts it: “Just as there is a law of conservation of energy, so there is an Halachic conservation of Kedusha, that is, of Kedushat Yisrael.

Having discussed the Kedusha which the individual Jew is irrevocably endowed by the mere fact of his being a member of the tzibur, mention should also be made of a second type of Kedusha, the acquisition of which, unlike the first, depends on the character or conduct of the individual himself. The individual can appropriate and accumulate this second type of Kedusha by doing good deeds or mitzvot, such as giving charity, learning the many levels of wisdom in the Torah, and contributing to the well-being of the tzibur, i.e., Israel.

Kedusha on different levels

In an age in which theoretical physicists are speculating about “mind-fields” influencing sub-atomic events without the exertion of force6 – suggesting physics is becoming metaphysics – the following should not strike the reader as a relapse into the obfuscation of mysticism, but rather as an hypothesis intended for empirical research. Thus, let us regard the mitzvot system of the Torah as a “technology” which, in proportion to its comprehension and application, activates different levels of Kedusha. which in turn brings into mutual coordination and enrichment the diverse and otherwise mutually obstructing interests of men.7

Different Jews activate different levels of Kedusha in the process of doing different mitzvot or good deeds. The Kedusha of the tzibur (Kt) may be conceived as the base or threshold level form the Kedusha activated by mitzvot (Km). The Kedusha of the Jew may therefore be expressed symbolically as KJ = Kt + Km , where Kt is a constant and Km is a variable.

Different laws for individual and society

Here a brief digression. Because the Jew has the status as an individual and a member of the tzibur, the laws governing the one differ from, without contradicting, the laws governing then other. This complementarity stands in striking contrast to statistical laws of nature where, as Dr. Zimmerman notes, there seems to be a contradiction between the random behavior of individual particles and the lawful behavior of mass clusters or groups of the same particles. (This contradiction is analogous to the unsolved conflict between the individual and society intrinsic to all non-Torah nations.)

Dr. Zimmerman maintains that the supposed contradiction between the seemingly lawless behavior of a single particle and the lawful behavior of clusters of the same particle, requires for its understanding the development of a new logic, a “dynamic” or “qualitative” logic, which he finds hidden in the Torah – a subject obviously beyond the scope of our inquiry.8 In any event, the contradiction in question remains a mystery in physics.

Different virtues for individual and group

Returning to the non-contradictory status of the Jew as an individual and as a member of the tzibur, “At times that which is a shortcoming in the individual is a positive factor in the community.” Dr. Zimmerman offers many examples of this phenomenon from the Halakha, as the following may serve as an illustration. Thus, whereas pride is a defect in the individual, it is a virtue in the tzibur.9 Conversely, whereas humility would be a defect in the tzibur, it is a virtue in the individual.10 But Dr. Zimmerman goes further.

In the Song of Songs (4:7) we read: “Altogether you are beautiful, and you have no blemish.” “Altogether,” i.e., the entire nation of Israel is beautiful and flawless when viewed as a unity and totality. Here Dr. Zimmerman contrasts what Balak says when urging Bilaam to curse Israel: “Part of them you will see, but all of them you will not see” (Numbers 23:13). Only on a part of the nation can one find shortcomings, whereas on the entire nation nothing can be found that will enable Bilaam’s curse to take effect. Holistically, Israel is a perfect being. Like its Kedusha, it is indestructible.

Religious and nonreligious Jew? No difference

It is from this chain of reasoning that Dr. Zimmerman draws the conclusion that, from a purely halakhic point of view, the distinction between “religious” and “non-religious” Jews is fallacious. Even if a particular Jew never goes to synagogue, nay, even if he is an avowed atheist, the Kedusha he inherits from Kedushat Yisrael prevents him from being, objectively speaking, a true atheist.11 In reality, deep within his soul and discernible in certain of his actions, he remains a Jew. Thsu, for a Jew to call himself, or be called by others, a “secularist” involves a fundamental error, a layman’s mistake. Dr. Zimmerman comes to this conclusion not only by way of the logic of the Halakha, but also empirically by his extensive and penetrating knowledge of Jews of all backgrounds.

What obscures this Halakhic fact is that Israel is now only in the first and primarily physical stage of its redemption, begun in 1948. Still very much influenced by decaying Western modes of thought and lifestyles, Israel has yet to achieve its spiritual redemption. These controversial conclusions of Dr. Zimmerman are based on a profound understanding of history, elements of which are developed in his books Torah and Reason and Torah and Existence.

In sum: a Jew is a Jew

Summing up, to those who have not mastered the Halakha, there appears to be two basic types of Jews, one “religious,” the other “secular,” whereas, according to the Torah, all Jews are the same in that all are endowed with Kedushat Yisrael (Kt). One Jew may function with more Kedusha activated by mitzvot (Km), but every Jew inherits the same Kedusha his forefathers received at Mount Sinai.

Dr. Zimmerman’s exposition may cause some discomfort among the so-called religious and the so-called non-religious. But once his views – or as he would say, once the laws of the Halakha – are better and more widely understood, the divisions between the two camps should diminish. In the process, we should experience greater mutual respect and greater national solidarity, something Israel sorely needs.


1 Adapted from Dr. Chaim Zimmerman, Torah and Reason (Jerusalem: HED Press Ltd., 1979), ch. 9, and applied to various philosophical problems of Western civilization.

2 This problem is directly related to the question of whether the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 is halachically indicative of Israel’s redemption. Dr. Zimmerman definitively answers this question in the affirmative in Torah and Existence (Jerusalem/New York: privately published, 1986), ch. 1. For an abbreviated version see, Paul Eidelberg, Israel’s Return and Restoration (Jerusalem: privately published, 1987).

3 Because it is a non-physical existence, Kedusha, like mentality, cannot be measured in space-time parameters. This is not a dodge into mysticism, as an analogy with quantum physics may illustrate. Thus, just as the existence of microphysical processes—which also defy space-time description—can only be known indirectly by the macrophysical effects, so the existence of Kedusha can be know indirectly by the distinctive character and unique history of the Jewish people.

4 Only an Infinite Intelligence could create such laws. This suggests why human legislation, however wise and well-intended, inevitably places some individuals as a disadvantage. This means that, aside from thee Torah, there cannot be a perfect identity between law and justice (or morality). For an elaboration of this point, see Paul Eidelberg, Jewish Statesmanship: Lest Israel Fall (Jerusalem: Foundation for Constitutional Democracy, 2000), pp. 140-147.

5 The Jerusalem Talmud puts it this way: “If gentiles [surrounding Israel] demand, ‘Surrender one of yourselves to us and we will kill him; otherwise we shall kill all of you,’ they must all suffer death rather than surrender a single Israelite to them” (Trumot 8, 9).

6 See Aryeh Carmell & Cyril Domb (eds.), Challenge: Torah Views on Science and it Problems (London/Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1976), p. 314. See also Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner, Symmetries and Reflections (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1067), who contends that “the laws of quantum mechanics cannot be formulated, with all their implications, without reference to the concept of consciousness. This suggests that physicists have reached the limits of the physical.

7 See Henri Baruk, Tsedek (Binghamton, NY: Swan Publishing Co., 1972). Prof. Baruk, a biologist, psychopharmacologist, sociologist, and a member of the Medicine Academy of Paris, used basic Torah principles—mitzvot—for both individual and group therapy with remarkable success. Applied with expertise, these principles, he discovered overcame toxicities, psychopathologies, and intergroup conflict (pp. 133-140). He writes: “One may say without hesitation that the Torah is the most complete science of man and above all the most coherent and unified we possess (p. 80).

8 The notion of a qualitative logic has been discussed by the philosopher-mathematician Gian Carlo Duranti in private correspondence with the present author. See his Third Euclid’s Binomial Number and Third Amnon-Zeus Civilization (Venice: Franco Cesati Editore, 1988) (Italian), pp. I-XC2 (English summary). Duranti contends that Euclid and Plato developed a qualitative logic.

9 Israel’s pride differs essentially from that of the nations; for as a Torah nation Israel strives not for its own glory but for the glory of God. The one thing lacking in Israel today, however, is national pride. Yet arrogance (chutzpah) is rampant among Israelis!

10 For the Jewish understanding of humility, which differs profoundly from that fm Christianity, see Paul Eidelberg, Judaic Man (Middletown, NJ: Caslon Co., 1996), ch. 2.

11 By strict logic, there is no reason why an atheist should be a decent human being. That many outwardly are decent may be attributed either to calculated self-interest or to the internalization of ethical standards derived from ages of faith.

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