A meditation on secular humanist Judaism

Sorry for the long gap in writing. The computer at home is in the shop, so my usual time for writing (evening) hasn’t been available. Funny how you get into a routine and don’t even know it.

A meditation on secular humanist Judaism. Rabbi Judith Seid came to the Stuyvesant Book House a few years ago, and the discussion was very enlightening to me. I’d call her an agnostic rather than an atheist (she might disagree; in any case, the word she uses is “secularist”). Like me, she’s very respectful and clear about what she doesn’t know. Like, what God is — or isn’t (though see below for one boundary that I believe Judaism draws about that). We’re both very passionate about our Jewish history, our traditions, our culture, our values. We both understand that one of our values is embodied in the very concept of mitzvah (she might not put it this way, these are my words): That DOING is the heart of Judaism and of living. Belief is secondary. Not irrelevant, but as Rabbi Shim’on the son of Rabban Gamliel I said nearly 2,000 years ago, “Not learning but doing is the chief thing.” (Pirkey Avot 1:17) Lo hamidrash ikar ela ha-ma’aseh.

But Rabbi Seid comes down on one side of an important divide and I come down on the other. For her, the words she says must be intellectually and objectively true. For me, the words of prayer are poetry, susceptible to multiple meanings, crying out for interpretation, and functioning on other levels in addition to the strictly rational. (Think of mantras, saying “Gezundheit!” after someone sneezes, saying “I love you,” saying the Pledge of Allegiance or the words that create a marriage; singing a lullabye, a nursery rhyme, a national anthem, a love song serenade … these are all examples of words that function on more than one level.)

So she founded and leads the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah. I’m employed by a Reform synagogue. But we do the same things, she and I. We provide doorways into Judaism for folks who otherwise thought that their kind of Jewish identity might not have a place in a Jewish community. For both of us (this is my interpretation, I don’t know if she sees it or not), our Judaism is related to Reconstructionism. From the BJCC home page:

We believe that Judaism is the creation of the Jewish people and that all generations are responsible for carrying it forward and adding to it.

On my shelf are multiple copies of Gil Mann‘s book, How To Get More Out Of Being Jewish Even If… A. You are not sure you believe in God, B. You think going to synagogue is a waste of time, C. You think keeping kosher is stupid, D. You hated Hebrew school, or E. All of the above! They are there so I can give them away, because there are people who walk into my office who need them. Gil recognizes that there are multiple ways to be Jewish, to connect to Judaism/the Jewish people and culture/Jewish values and ethics, and they’re all valid. One of my jobs is to help people get the chip off their shoulder when they think that their Jewish connection or identity or belief, or lack of belief, somehow makes them less of a Jew than everybody else.

And one of my favorite questions, when someone comes into my office and says, “I don’t think I believe in God” (there are a very few who are certain enough that they come in and say, “I don’t believe”), is to ask, “What, exactly, don’t you believe in?”

The old guy with the white beard and the magic wand (or computer monitor, or however you update God’s omnicience and omnipotence)? Me neither. The miracle-doing who upsets the natural order of the universe for the benefit of individuals or groups? Me neither. And so on.

What I love about people coming to talk to me about this is that they TAKE THE QUESTIONS SERIOUSLY. They’ve been thinking about them. Many people do not. That’s not a criticism; questions of meaning, of ultimate truth, of eternal values, do not occupy most people’s minds most of the time. If they did, the laundry would never get done, the chickens wouldn’t get fed, the schoolchildren wouldn’t learn math, etc.

But there are those of us who have been thinking about and struggling with these questions for all of our lives. Some of us have gotten lucky enough that we’ve found ourselves jobs where we get paid to consider, talk and write and listen about these questions! Like me. I’m a rabbi because I take these questions seriously … but NOT because I have definite answers for them, because I DON’T.

But I have poetic answers. Ideas. And a firm believe that DOING is important. So even in the absence of surety, I do what I can to create Jewish identity, and Jewish doing, and Jewish belief, and a Jewish community where it’s ok to have more questions than answers, and it’s ok for my answers to be different from your answers.

I don’t end up at “anything goes.” I do draw lines; I believe that boundaries are healthy for both individuals and communities, and Judaism reinforces this belief. And that’s different than what the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah does, at least on some questions. An example. Quoting from a resolution of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, they say (on the BJCC website):

[I]n the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people, we affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.

I love this definition, mostly. Identity is crucial: identity with the past, with the present, with the future, and with enduring (and evolving) Jewish values.

For myself and my community, I have to add, “… who has gone through a recognized process of joining the Jewish people.” I will not separate myself so far from halachah (Jewish law) that my community will be forced to part company with the halachic communities (Conservative and Orthodox) over the issue of “Who is a Jew?” Nor will I handicap those who convert with me by failing to require the full ritual of “adoption” into the Jewish people. Nevertheless, I love this definition.
A Unitarian friend of mine used to joke that Unitarians are people who believe in one God — at most. I’ll buy that for Jews, too. Two gods is right out! But as long as you reject the notion of duality in God (whatever God is), and identify and cast your lot in with the Jewish people, and take on the behaviors of the Jewish people, then your certainty about God’s presence, absence, or the very meaning of the word “God,” does not have to be my business. It can be — but I can leave it alone, too.

And thank goodness (or God) that I have Rabbi Seid’s book on my shelf, because sometimes a Jew comes into my office and I recognize that same search for intellectual precision that seems to motivate Rabbi Seid. And I can say to them, “You are no less of a Jew for being absolutely certain that you do not believe in God”; or, “for being unable to say words that you are not absolutely certain are true. You, too, are a Jew.”

There’s a story about the founder of Chasidut, the Ba’al Shem Tov, that goes something like this: The Besht (that’s the acronym for Ba’al Shem Tov) used to say that every attribute could be put to the service of God. (Or for non-believers, I might translate that into: every aspect of life has the potential for some good in it.) So someone challenged him: How can disbelief in God be put to the service of God?

Well, said the Besht, imagine that someone comes to you in need, and you put them off with pious words about how “God will provide.” If you do not believe in God, then you won’t do that; you’ll know that it’s up to you to help this person. Thus disbelief in God can be put to service of God … because in Judaism, “serving God” means “following the mitzvot,” and feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and providing a livelihood for the unemployed are all mitzvot.

Or as the Talmudic rabbis famously had God saying in one of their writings, “If only they (the Jews) would forget Me and follow my Torah!”

Not learning but doing is the chief thing.