Spirituality for Jewish Humanists

Humanistic Judaism prides itself on the use of rationality and the scientific method in the pursuit of truth. However, even naturalist and non-theistic religious traditions need spirituality in order to meet the emotional needs of its adherents. Spirituality is a nebulous term that can refer to many things, and it frequently has supernatural connotations. The word is used here for lack of a better alternative. For the purposes of this essay, spirituality refers to the practices and experiences that lead to the feeling of communion with something greater than the self, the experience of peace with the self and gratitude towards the universe, or finding meaning and purpose in life. This definition is clearly not exhaustive, but it will do for now. To discuss a Humanist spirituality, we must identify the goal of spiritual practice and suggest practices which are in keeping with the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism.

Spirituality has many psychological and physical benefits. It can reduce stress, helping people to cope with the problems of life. It can help people to find meaning and purpose in life and provide grounding in a chaotic world. There is also evidence that people who perform spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation live longer and recover more quickly from illness. Obviously spirituality isn’t a cure all, but it can positively impact the lives of its practitioners.

But how can Humanists who reject supernaturalism practice spirituality? Humanists must first find something to be the object of their spirituality. For traditional religions, the something is typically God. A Humanist spirituality can instead focus on something like goodness, truth, love, or beauty in imitation of Platonic spirituality. However, these concepts are too abstract for most people to be a meaningful spiritual object of meditation. Another option is to recognize the unity and interdependent nature of existence similar to that taught by Thich Nhat Hanh. Through contemplating this unity, Humanists can then have a feeling of communion with the rest of existence. Whichever choice a Humanist makes is less important than the practice they employ.

The most obvious method for a Humanist spirituality is meditation. Meditation does not require any religious commitment, nor does it rely on supernatural entities. There are many forms of meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the easiest and one of the most rewarding in terms of psychological benefits. Chanting is another common form of meditation. What is chanted isn’t so important, but words like ‘peace’ and ‘love’ or simple phrases are the best options. Another effective form of meditation is prayer. This is the most problematic for Humanists because prayer relies on a belief that there is something to hear the prayer. However, Marcia Falk in the Book of Blessings has attempted to create non-theistic forms of prayer where the use of words can help in the process of meditation. Rather than use the traditional Jewish formulation “Blessed are you, Adonai,” she uses the phrase “Let us bless the source of life which…” While this approach won’t appeal to all Humanistic Jews, it is an option for those who prefer the method of prayer over that of mindfulness meditation.

While general spiritual practices can be used, Humanistic Jews should also feel comfortable using Jewish spiritual practices. Prayer was mentioned above, but another approach is the sanctification of life through the practice of good deeds and blessings. Traditional Jews sanctify life through fulfilling the mitzvot and the recitation of blessings. Humanistic Jews can do the same by changing the words of the blessings to reflect Humanist philosophy and focusing on doing good deeds. Rather than the Hamotzi, it might be possible to make simple statement about being grateful for the food one is about to consume. Rather than the Modeh Ani, a Humanistic Jew can say, “I am thankful for another day of life and health.” Before bed and in the morning, one could say a Humanist version of the Shema that focuses on the interdependence of life and expresses a commitment to a life in service to humane ideals. Most Humanistic Jews won’t be inclined to do a Humanist “prayer” service (shema, amidah, aleinu, kaddish) three times a day, but it is an option. This approach to Humanistic Jewish spirituality requires creativity, but it has the benefit of using a traditional form of Jewish spirituality as its model.

Another form of Humanistic Jewish spirituality can be found in the new Mussar movement. Alan Morinis’s book Everyday Holiness, outlines a program of meditation and moral reflection that does not rely on God or the supernatural. Every day, one meditates on the nature of a particular virtue after reading a brief text about that virtue. There is one virtue per week that is meditated on in a cycle of thirteen for a year. Each night, the practitioner reflects on the day and records their successes and failures in regard to that virtue. The goal of the program is to integrate those virtues into the life of the practitioner through a heightened consciousness of their behavior. This practice can be done on its own or in conjunction with other spiritual practices.

No discussion of Jewish spirituality would be complete without mentioning study. Traditional Jews study the Torah and Talmud as a spiritual practice. Study should also be an integral part of Humanistic Jewish spirituality. While Humanistic Jews don’t need to limit themselves to the Torah and Talmud, they should form small groups in which to study, discuss, and argue about texts which have meaning to the practice of Humanistic Judaism. These texts could cover philosophy, history, traditional Judaism, current events, or any number of topics. This will have the benefit of encouraging scholarship and introspection among Humanistic Jews and forming close friendships in congregations.

Just as there is no single Jewish spiritual practice, there is no single practice for Humanistic Jews. Different methods will appeal to different people. The important thing is for Humanist spirituality to become a greater part of Humanistic Jewish life.

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A Brief Argument for Intermarriage

Intermarriage, the marriage between a Jew and a gentile, is one of the most contentious issues in the Jewish world today. Although roughly 50% of Jews intermarry, and 70% of non-Orthodox Jews, Jewish leaders, rabbis, and thinkers view it as a major problem for the survival of the American Jewish community. They portray the problem as one in which Judaism always takes a back seat to American secularism or the gentile partner’s religion, and after 1 or 2 generations the descendants of the mixed union no longer identify as Jewish, nor are they halakhically Jewish. While these projections frequently come true, the problem is largely one of Judaism’s own creation. The solution to the problem isn’t to double down on condemnations of the intermarried, but rather to reexamine the basic beliefs that led to the religious ban and cultural taboo and find ways to work around the problem. Far from being the death knell of the American Jew, intermarriage can be an opportunity to grow the American Jewish community and make it a more welcoming group for non-traditional Jews and their families.

The ban on intermarriage is ancient and can be found in the Torah. In Deuteronomy 7, God forbids the Israelites to marry the people of Canaan because “they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and the Lord’s anger will blaze forth against you and He will promptly wipe you out.” Ezra echoes a similar belief in chapter 9 of his book. However, Ezra’s concern is as much for ethnic purity as it is religious purity. These issues then are the root cause for the ban on intermarriage: maintaining religious and ethnic purity.

There is a problem here for liberal Jews. Most certainly do not subscribe to the idea of ethnic purity, and many are similarly unconcerned with whether their children follow the Torah in its minutiae, which Deuteronomy 7 goes on to command as a means to maintain the separation between the Israelites and Canaanites. The idea of ritual purity is anathema to the majority of liberal Jews, and most believe in the American vision of a free and pluralistic society, not in segregating different ethnic and religious groups from one another. If there are liberal Jewish rabbis or leaders who oppose intermarriage it is always for the sake of maintaining Jewish identity/Judaism into the future, not because they are concerned with ritual/ethnic purity. If we accept that maintaining Jewish identity is important, but we also accept that pluralistic societies are a good thing, a ban on intermarriage coupled with narrow definitions of Jewish identity are counterproductive.

The question is not how to end or reduce intermarriage, but rather how to maintain Judaism and Jewish identity in a society where intermarriage is inevitable. The most important change that must take place is the definition of who is a Jew. Some Jewish denominations have already begun this process, particularly the Reform Movement and the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Patrilineal descent must be accepted without qualifications. By doing this, the Jewish community can ensure that the children of intermarriage will be Jewish regardless of who the Jewish parent is. Through accepting any Jewish descent as the basic qualifier for Jewish identity, the Jewish community can actually expand its numbers over time through intermarriage rather than shrinking due to the alienation of patrilineal Jews, intermarried families, and their descendants.

Relatedly, synagogues and other Jewish institutions should be explicitly welcoming and accepting of intermarried families, particularly the gentile spouse. This will necessarily include performing their weddings, but it is not limited to that. While many synagogues will welcome the non-Jewish spouse to participate in many aspects of community life, there are frequently limitations on their membership and participation. These restrictions on gentile spouses in the Jewish community frequently send the message that they aren’t really welcome in or a part of the community. When one spouse feels alienated, the other spouse will be less inclined to remain a part of the community. Best case scenario in these instances is that they drop religious involvement altogether. Worst case scenario: they join a church where the Jewish spouse will be overtly welcomed and included in all aspects of community life, and the children are raised as Christians.

Of course, there will be objections to this radical departure from tradition. What about competing loyalties in families that observe Christian and Jewish holidays?  Won’t it be confusing for the child to be raised with two mutually incompatible religions? How can we be sure this won’t just lead to assimilation? And this definition of Jewish identity won’t be recognized by the Orthodox and might cause problems with being recognized in the State of Israel.

To begin addressing these problems, we’ll start with the problem of recognition by the Orthodox. Quite simply, Orthodox opinion is irrelevant for liberal Jews. If the Orthodox were willing to compromise with liberal Jews on certain things, there might be a discussion to be had. But the Orthodox believe they are right without qualification and dismiss liberal opinions out of hand. For this reason, liberal Jews shouldn’t concern themselves with Orthodox opinion regarding Jewish identity and intermarriage any more than they would on gender egalitarianism and LGBT inclusion in the synagogue.

The one instance where Orthodox opinion matters is recognition of Jewish identity by the State of Israel. Currently, the Orthodox Rabbinate controls matters of Jewish identity in Israel. So long as this remains the case, alternate understandings of Jewish identity will suffer. It’s therefore imperative for liberal Jews of all liberal denominations to work together to end Orthodox hegemony on matters of Jewish identity and practice in Israel.

As far as the problems of raising children with two religions, it’s probably not as big of a problem as people think. People who wish to marry people of other religious backgrounds are not overly concerned with religious dogma most of the time. Many of them are largely secular with only a cultural attachment to their childhood religions. There’s nothing inherently dangerous in celebrating Christmas with the children’s grandparents so long as Jewish holidays are also being celebrated in a way that is engaging for kids. What’s important is for the children to grow up with a strong Jewish identity, which relies on involvement in the Jewish community, celebration of Jewish holidays (including shabbat), and a Jewish education. This underscores the importance of welcoming communities for intermarried families and the need to end condemnations of intermarriage by liberal Jewish leaders.

Can anyone be sure this tactic won’t just lead to assimilation? No, of course not. But clearly the old method of condemnation, hand-wringing, and ideological confusion is not working. Rather than insist on policies and definitions based in a belief system few liberal Jews accept, we should be defining Jewish identity and communities in ways that reflect our beliefs. Acceptance, diversity, and pluralism are defining characteristics of many liberal Jews’ worldviews, and by using those values to expand the Jewish community and welcome more people into it, we can ensure the future of the American Jewish community.

“We affirm that Jewish culture and civilization can be enriched by their contact with other cultures. History shows that Jewish life has been most vital when openness prevailed.”

-Excerpt from IFSHJ Statement “Jews Among the Nations”

Why Call it Judaism? The Case for Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism is new and almost entirely unknown by people outside the movement. Its novelty and its radical break with tradition creates a lot of confusion for people who are only familiar with traditional Judaism and its liberal offshoots. One question inevitably arises during a conversation about Humanistic Judaism, “why call it Judaism when the real belief system and driving force is Humanism?” They understand that Humanistic Jews are Jews who are attached to Jewish culture, but to call what they do Judaism appears to be a contradiction. The confusion arises because of a difference in the use of the word Judaism. For traditional Jews, and even the liberal branches of Judaism, Judaism is equivalent to the teachings of the Torah and Talmud. The Torah and Talmud may be interpreted differently, or in some cases even ignored, by the various Movements, but they all agree that those teachings are the core of Judaism. If one rejects those teachings in their entirety, one ceases to practice or believe in Judaism. Contrary to this view is the definition of Mordecai Kaplan, the Reconstructionist Movement, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism and its affiliates. Rabbi Sherwin Wine summarized this definition of Judaism as “the culture of the Jewish people, which includes many religious and secular traditions.” A culture is more than a religion or specific doctrines. It is the total of all the history, social rituals, attitudes, mores, values, artwork, literature, philosophies, and religions which shape a group’s character and way of life. While religion is part of Jewish culture, and for the past 2,000 years the most important part, it is not the only part, nor was it monolithic. Judaism has always had secular members and traditions, and as the culture of the Jewish people, it has always been inherently pluralistic, whether that pluralism was recognized or not. Judaism has always been as much an ethnic, tribal identity as it was a religious one. Furthermore, the predominant ideologies of Judaism have evolved over time, and in some cases, new ideologies have radically broken with previous ideologies to create new forms of Judaism. Not only is Humanistic Judaism a valid expression and natural outgrowth of Judaism, it has the potential to become the new Orthodoxy.

Bernardo Sorj argues in his book Judaism for Everyone that Judaism has always been pluralistic. He points to the various authors of the biblical texts which present contradictory understandings of God, religion, and the historical events they are attempting to record to demonstrate the variety of Jewish opinions both in ancient Israel and among the Bible’s editors. The ambiguity of the Bible’s texts has led to many different Jewish interpretations over the millennia, while still providing the basic cultural archetypes and myths of the Jewish people (Sorj 23). Sorj furthers his argument for a pluralistic Judaism by examining the various evolutionary stages of Judaism from biblical times to the present by examining changes in doctrines, ideology, theology, culture, scripture, and scriptural interpretation. By thoroughly examining the religious history of Judaism, Sorj demonstrates that Judaism not only evolved over time, but also that it has always had multiple, competing ideologies. This adaptability and diversity has been Judaism’s unique strength (22).

The greatest break with the Judaism of the past (up until that point) in Sorj’s analysis was Talmudic Judaism created by the Pharisees. The Pharisees were one of three or four main sects in Judaism around the first century CE. Their primary opponents were the Sadducees who rejected the “Oral” Torah invented by the Pharisees and focused on the Temple cult and written Torah as the central aspects of Judaism. The Sadducees were the elite members of society and out of touch with the lives of common Jews, while Pharisaic Judaism commanded lay members to live a life of mitzvot and rituals. Rather than rely on priests and the Temple to connect with God, lay Jews were encouraged to connect with God by living as a “nation of priests.” Torah study, prayer, and mitzvot became primary rather than the sacrificial cult of the Temple (although the Pharisees never rejected the Temple cult). With the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees’ main competition was destroyed, and they rose to dominance. Sorj argues that the subsequent segregation of the Jews implemented by the Christians, and later the Muslims, cemented the hegemony of Talmudic Judaism until the arrival of the Karaites in the Middle Ages and the European Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation (67). In short, Talmudic Judaism became orthodox because it was the best suited sect at the time to survive against outside factors, and it gave common Jews a sense of purpose and meaning.

The ideology of Talmudic Judaism has been the dominant ideology of Judaism, in one form or another, since the destruction of the Temple. But since the Jewish emancipation from the ghettos, Jews have increasingly abandoned the Talmudic/Orthodox ideology. The majority of  Jews today do not believe in Talmudic Judaism. Even many of the members in liberal congregations do not believe in the basic presuppositions of Talmudic Judaism, i.e. that God established an eternal, unchanging covenant with the Jews which was recorded and interpreted in the Bible and Talmud. If they say they believe it at all, it is almost always in a symbolic, metaphorical, allegorical way, never literally. Rabbi Sherwin Wine, in Judaism Beyond God, identified this ambivalence as the root cause of the failure of Reform and Conservative Judaism to inspire an ideological commitment of its members similar to Orthodox Jews. It was Wine’s contention that philosophical integrity was the most important part of any worthwhile movement in Judaism. He points to the Zionists, Jewish socialists, and Yiddishists as examples of committed secular, humanistic Jews joining together for a common cause or belief. What was lacking in these movements was an explicit connection to Judaism, an integration of their ideologies with their Jewish identities that didn’t rely solely on nationalism.

Just as the Pharisees created a new ideology which reinforced their commitment to Judaism, Wine and other Humanistic Jews have begun the process of explicitly integrating the philosophy of Humanism with Judaism. The parallel to the Pharisaic innovations is not made lightly. While the Pharisees created a new ideological underpinning for Judaism, they did not create their understanding out of nothing. Talmudic Judaism was a natural outgrowth of what had come before, and the Pharisees used cultural artifacts to ground their claims to legitimacy, particularly the Bible and folk customs. Their appeal to the common people (am haaretz) exploited already existing beliefs and biases in order to further their agenda. Just as Talmudic Judaism was a natural outgrowth of previous Jewish practices, so is Humanistic Judaism a natural outgrowth of Judaism today.

Most Jews today are humanistic in a general way. They believe that human beings are responsible for their own well-being and shouldn’t rely on divine intervention. They accept the findings of science, and believe that reason and evidence are the best ways to gain knowledge about the world. They are focused on this life rather than an afterlife or an impending apocalypse, and they generally are not worried overmuch about angering God by sinning. They are generally good people, and their morality isn’t typically grounded in any kind of theology, rather the theology is usually molded to fit the person’s morality. And many of them are committed to human dignity rather than discriminatory religious laws and traditions; e.g. gender egalitarianism, LGBT rights, acceptance of patrilineal Jews, etc. Some of these qualities come from traditional Judaism, which emphasizes human agency and mutual dependency, e.g. tzedakah, critical thinking, social justice, family and communal responsibility, and a life of good deeds (mitzvot). The history of Jewish education coupled with the secular revolution has led to the Jews being the most educated ethnic minority in America, which has in turn given rise to many of these qualities in the Jewish community. Humanism is already an integral part of liberal Judaism as a natural product of Jewish values mixed with secular experience and education.

Humanism has arisen naturally in the Jewish community, and the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements embrace it in all but name. Humanistic Judaism, as an organized Movement, rejects the route of the other liberal Movements. It refuses to speak in metaphor and symbol, trying to legitimize itself through the theology and texts of Talmudic Judaism. Humanistic Judaism reflects the reality of contemporary Jewish life in being nontheistic. It does not argue whether God exists or not, it simply finds the God idea irrelevant and unnecessary for living a good and meaningful life. Because the God idea is irrelevant to the daily lives of most Jews, Humanistic Judaism sees no reason to spend time praising God at Jewish celebrations. Instead, Humanistic Judaism focuses on creating new and meaningful celebrations of Jewish holidays and life-cycle events, including Shabbat, that reflect the beliefs, values, and concerns of Humanistic Jews. Wine argues in Judaism Beyond God that “a strong ideology insists that when we celebrate who we are, we speak with conviction. New words that express our convictions are preferable to old words that do not. Nostalgia is valuable, but it is not primary” (131).

The question naturally arises, “why bother?” Why bother with a nontheistic religion in the first place, and more specifically why bother with a Jewish nontheistic religion? Alain de Botton argues in Religion for Atheists that religions are useful sociological phenomena that can contribute to social, physical, and psychological well-being for their adherents. Many of the techniques, practices, and institutions of religions can be and should be stripped of their dogmatic accoutrements and used by nontheists for “atheist religions” aimed at promoting the well-being of their practitioners. The main benefits which de Botton identifies with religion are community, moral  and philosophical development and instruction, the cultivation of “spirituality,” and rituals which help people to cope with the changes, stresses, and tragedies of human life. A nontheistic religion has the capacity to provide communities for humanists and secularists which can then orient people in how to achieve more meaningful and fulfilling lives. Furthermore, organizing Humanists and other nontheists into communities will help in both spreading Humanist values in society and in advocating for those values in the government against the fundamentalists of traditional religions.

Once the benefits of a nontheistic humanistic religion become apparent, the need for Humanistic Judaism is clear. First and foremost, Jewish identity goes beyond religion, as has already been stated, and most humanistic Jews view their Jewish culture and heritage as important. Rather than abandon Judaism, these Jews would rather update and modify Jewish rituals, holidays, institutions, and liturgy to reflect their current beliefs. Humanism is then used to maintain Judaism and Jewish identity just as the Talmudic ideology was used to ensure the future of the Jews without a land, Sanhedrin, or central Temple cult. Secondly, a humanistic religion does not need to start from nothing and probably shouldn’t. The most successful humanistic religion in America began as two Protestant denominations and evolved naturally into its current humanistic, pluralistic form. Unitarian Universalism maintained many of the rituals, institutions, and forms of Protestantism while naturally evolving into a humanistic religion. The Humanistic Jewish Movement is being much more explicit in this process, but the process is essentially the same. Maintain the Jewish holidays, structures, and rituals while providing new humanistic meaning to them. By doing this, we couple the Humanism of the many unaffiliated and liberal Jews with the practice of Judaism, which allows people to practice their religion with both integrity and conviction.

In summary, Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people which has evolved and will continue to evolve over time. Judaism has always been pluralistic in nature, providing space for multiple ideologies which underpin people’s Jewish commitments. Talmudic Judaism became orthodox Judaism mainly because of its appeal to lay people, the diaspora, the destruction of the Temple, and the enforced segregation of the Jews from Christian and Muslim societies. Humanism is a natural outgrowth of the Jewish community, and many Jews are either implicitly or explicitly Humanists. Humanistic communities are important for people who cannot subscribe to traditional theistic religions. They provide communities, moral and philosophical instruction, a place to cultivate Humanist spirituality, and a way to disseminate Humanist values. Combining Humanism with Judaism is important for the future of secular and nontheistic Jews and their children. By creating Jewish communities with Humanist conviction and integrity, Humanistic Judaism helps to ensure the future of Judaism.