Jewish secularism comprises the non-religious ethnic Jewish people and the body of work produced by them. Among secular Jews, traditional Jewish holidays may be celebrated as historical and nature festivals, while life-cycle events, such as births, marriages, and deaths, may be marked in a secular manner.
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According to historian Shmuel Feiner, the onset of modernism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witness the appearance in Europe of Jewish communities who rejected the religious norms and discipline demanded by the rabbinical elite and whose identities as Jews were increasingly separate from beliefs and practices from the Torah or the commandments.
"The religious laxity, modern acculturation and philosophical criticism of religions that marked the onset of the Jewish retreat from religion began as far back as the seventeenth century among conversos in Western Sephardic communities (especially Amsterdam) and among the wealthy families of Ashkenazic "court Jews" in Central Europe. In retrospect, the contribution of the eighteenth century to the historical course of Jewish secularization seems particularly significant."
According to historian David Biale, secular Jews were in no danger of losing their Jewish identity, as the tradition of secularism was not external to the Jewish tradition, but yet another side of it: "in transcending Judaism, the heretic finds himself or herself in a different Jewish tradition no less Jewish for being antitraditional. Secular universalism for these heretics paradoxically became a kind of Jewish identity".
Jewish secularism further made strides in Europe during the late 18th century and early 19th century as a central point of contention within Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. According to researcher Daniel B. Schwartz, "In the 1840s and 1850s, the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment - which had migrated from Prussia to Austrian Galicia and the Russian Empire earlier in the nineteenth century - grew increasingly polarized. On the one side stood moderates and conservatives committed to keep the Jewish Enlightenment moored in rabbinic law and culture; opposing them were Maskilic insurgents, intent on a no-holds-barred critique of tradition".
Secular Jewish art and culture flourished between 1870 and the Second World War, with 18,000 titles in Yiddish, and thousands more in Hebrew and European languages, along with hundreds of plays and theater productions, movies, and other art forms. Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust rank among the creators of these works.
Prominent secular Jews have included David Ben-Gurion, Emma Goldman, Sigmund Freud, Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Gustav Mahler, Billy Joel, Marc Chagall, Henri Bergson, Alan Dershowitz, Heinrich Heine, Albert Einstein, Theodor Herzl, Louis Brandeis, Micha Josef Berdyczewski, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Boris Pasternak, Stan Lee, Stephen Fry, Marilyn Monroe, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Baruch Spinoza, Igor Guberman, Mikhail Turovsky, Ayn Rand, and Arthur Miller.
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Joel’s parents are Jewish but he was not brought up religious. He has been described as a secular Jew and an atheist.
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The movie star described herself as a “Jewish atheist,” according to Meyers. And after her divorce from Miller in 1961, she maintained only a few trappings of the Jewish faith, including a mezuzah — a tiny box containing Hebrew texts — on her door frame.
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Biographer Anne C. Heller says Rand was raised a secular Jew in Russia at a time when Jews were persecuted by the Russian Orthodox Church. Early on, Rand decided that the existence of God and the Christian ideal of self-sacrifice were untenable ideas, Heller said.