The Death of God

The scientific revolution and secularism have fundamentally changed modern society. The lives of modern people are drastically different from those of their ancestors. Technology, knowledge, human rights, the secular state, and democracy have not only made living easier but also typically longer. While many great things have come from these developments, they have also forced us to confront our own evil impulses and examine the basis of our morality. The death of God is a term used by Nietzsche, and subsequent philosophers, to refer to the idea that God is no longer a credible source for morals. This concept could be expanded even further to state that the God of our ancestors no longer functions in our lives as he did in theirs. In short, the God-idea is irrelevant to modern life. Our knowledge of the universe comes from scientific inquiry, healing is the result of medical knowledge and technology, democratic egalitarianism has made the idea of a supernatural King anachronistic at best, and the divine command theory of morality has been thoroughly discredited as intellectually untenable. The destruction of the idolatrous God-idea of the immediate past is comparable to the destruction of the tribal God-idea during the Babylonian exile. Just as the exiled Jews asked, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” modern Jews ask, “How can we pray to a God we don’t really believe in?” What does it mean to practice Judaism in a world where God is not our King, Helper, Savior, or Shield? Just as the Jews of the past created forms of Judaism which expressed their religious beliefs while maintaining continuity with the traditions and institutions of the past, so must modern Jews create new expressions of Judaism while building on the past.

Martin Buber argued that Judaism was a spiritual process of “striving for an ever more perfect realization of three interconnected ideas: the idea of unity, the idea of the deed, and the idea of the future” (On Judaism, p. 40). The idea of unity is the tendency to notice the context of phenomena and acknowledge their underlying unity and interdependence. The idea of the deed is the idea that human action should come from the freedom and responsibility to do what is right unconditionally without expectation of reward. And the idea of the future refers to the messianic utopianism which expresses itself in Jewish striving to create a more perfect world even if it remains an unattainable ideal (Ariel, What Do Jews Believe, p. 123). Buber’s spiritual process mirrors the traditional “trinity” of Judaism: God, Torah, and Israel. While Buber’s theory focuses on the messianic ideal of Israel, it also implicitly reveals something about the nature of the people of Israel, i.e. that they are a people with a self-imposed mission to be a light to the nations.

But what gives the Jewish people the chutzpah to claim to be a light to the nations? Jews do not have a monopoly on morality or justice. There are upright and just people of all nationalities and religions, and conversely there are corrupt and immoral Jews. The “additional covenant” of Elie Wiesel reveals why Jews must take this role upon themselves. The Jews are the perpetual Other, and have been more persecuted and oppressed than any other people throughout history. It is the responsibility of the Jews to bear witness not only to their own suffering, but to the suffering of all humanity, and to speak out and fight against it like the prophets of the past. The responsibility to bear witness arises from the necessity to stand in solidarity with the Jews of the past and the need to sanctify life in the face of cosmic absurdity.

The spiritual process of Buber and the “additional covenant” of Wiesel provide the basis through which a meaningful practice of modern Judaism can arise in a world in which God is dead. To be a Jew is to stand in solidarity with the Jews of the past and present and the suffering of humanity; to affirm life’s meaning despite cosmic absurdity; to perceive the unity of the world; to choose goodness freely without expectation of reward; and to strive to create a more perfect world even if the goal is never attained.

In responding to the death of God, modern theologians have taken one of two approaches. The first is to double down on the traditional understanding and proclaim, like the popular Christian movie, that “God’s not dead.” While this may be true for a minority of people, particularly fundamentalists, for most people God is not a large part of their life and not even a very large intellectual concern. The other approach is to “reevaluate” or reinterpret what the word ‘God’ refers to. Mordecai Kaplan is the most famous modern Jewish theologian to take this approach, alternatively defining God as the “life of the universe” and the “power that makes for human salvation.” Paul Tillich’s theology is another popular alternative, which defines God as “the Ground of all Being,” or “Being-itself.” These redefinitions can be useful for people who wish to remain part of explicitly theistic religious communities or who wish to make their beliefs to appear more intellectually respectable, but this approach is disingenuous. Redefinitions are frequently vague, bland, or functionally useless. Why refer to the natural forces which make human life worthwhile as God? What does it actually mean when someone says that God is the Ground of Being, and how is that any different from a supernatural God or pantheism? And finally, how can anyone emotionally connect to or depend on an impersonal force in their spiritual or personal life? The person praying to be healed of cancer isn’t talking to the “Ground of Being,” but rather to a personal, supernatural, anthropomorphized God who created and sustains everything through infinite power.

We thus arrive at the crux of the matter. If God is dead, then God no longer has meaning in our lives. Liberal theology that redefines God as an impersonal force will not save the God-idea for modernity because those theological formulations cannot function in the life of the believer like the traditional God can. While these liberal theologies are beautiful in their own way, we should say what we mean and not try to couch our beliefs in theological terminology that does not fit. Poetic language has its place, but we shouldn’t equivocate. If what we mean by God is, “the Universe,” or “Life,” or “Unity,” then that is what we should be discussing, not God. Whether or not there is a God is irrelevant if the idea has no function in our understanding of reality or daily lives.

A prime example of this is the function of halakha in modern Jewish life. Law by its nature regulates behavior through social or governmental force. Jewish law no longer has the capacity to regulate behavior through (threat of) force in the same way American or Israeli law can. In fact, there is a principle in the Talmud, I believe, which states that the law of the land is the law, meaning that Jewish law is subordinate to national law except for a few cases (such as idolatry, adultery, murder, etc). Jewish law is no longer a national law with governmental institutions to enforce it. Not even Israel, the only Jewish country in the world, follows traditional religious Jewish law. The only instances in which Jewish law is strictly followed are Orthodox communities (and even here there are limitations due to outside restrictions, e.g. temple sacrifice). But even if you admit this example, it’s imperfect because Orthodox communities have no power to enforce Jewish law. If someone wishes to leave an Orthodox community or publicly break Jewish law, they can and do and there are no repercussions (except perhaps for ostracism). I think this demonstrates that even in Orthodox communities, adherence to Jewish law is fundamentally voluntary, not compulsory in the same way as national laws. (Of course Orthodox Jews would argue that God enforces the law, if not now, then in the afterlife, but such a claim cannot be substantiated without first accepting Orthodox doctrine, making it a circular argument.)

The undermining of Jewish law occurred with the diaspora. Without a state to enforce Jewish law, it ceased to be a functional law and was subordinated, in all but a few instances, to the laws of the land where Jews lived. There were areas where Jews would be more or less left to themselves, if not forcibly separated, and could create communities where Jewish law was enforced. This was the case with the ghettos wherein rabbis held legal authority granted by the state. However the moment the ghettos were opened and restrictions were eased on Jews, rabbis lost their authority, and assimilation and secularization began. Recognizing this change in legal authority, the reformers focused on Judaism as a religion, rather than as a legal system, and (mostly) adopted the philosophy of Deism which was popular at the time in Western Europe. Jewish law to them was clearly antiquated and useless when the nation’s laws were the only ones that really mattered. They made the mistake of de-emphasizing or denying the ethnic/national character of the Jewish people, however.

With the liberation of the Jews from the ghettos, secularization became a popular alternative to religious life, and with it came secular movements based on Jewish nationality, culture, and peoplehood. Zionism was the major success story of these secular movements, culminating in the creation of the State of Israel. The creation of a Jewish state offered the possibility of Jewish law to become a reality again. But rather than adopt halakha, the founders of the state created a secular state with secular laws. Jewish law was once again relegated to the sidelines. So now we’ve come full circle. From a nation which was forcibly exiled to a nation restored. Only now, instead of restoring the laws of the nation which was defeated millennia ago, we have a nation founded on secular principles of democracy and equality.

Going through this brief overview, I think it has become obvious that Jewish law is a relic of the Jewish past. Very few Jews take it seriously enough to actually follow it, and I suspect most would resent having it imposed on them in the way the laws of the state are (not least because Jewish law is authoritarian, not democratic). So then what function should Jewish law play in the religion of Judaism since it is not law in the full sense of the word (i.e. it cannot regulate behavior)? There are essentially two options, and they are the two options that have been playing out for the last two centuries. Full rejection of the law and assimilation into the gentile population, or selectively using the law to supplement Jewish identity. All of the liberal movements of Judaism choose which aspects of Jewish law they wish to maintain in order to create Jewish communities, while recognizing that it has no real authority (with the possible exception of the more traditionalist Conservatives). To use a cliche from Kaplan, it has a vote, not a veto. This means that Jewish law is not truly law, but rather tradition or custom, and traditions and customs can be altered, ignored, or utilized to fulfill the needs of the people who practice them. And Judaism, as the repository and religious system which contains these traditions, is an evolving religious civilization.

If God is dead and halakha is a relic that can be easily ignored, what then becomes of Judaism and the Jewish people? We must find new ways to be Jewish, to affirm our connection to one another and the tradition in ways that are meaningful and truthful to our beliefs. Each liberal movement of Judaism answers this question in a different way; some emphasizing monotheism or spirituality, some emphasizing culture, others focusing on ritual practice coupled with liberal theology and modernity. All emphasize morality, social justice, and connection (or solidarity) with the Jewish people and Jewish culture. In short, humanism and an attachment to Jewish culture and history is the common ground between all the liberal movements.



Celebrating Shabbat

Humanistic Judaism focuses on the cultural aspects of Judaism rather than the doctrinal. In accord with this presupposition we reject the idea that Jewish law is a binding covenant between the people of Israel and God. While we accept the holidays, customs, and some of the rituals of Judaism, we do them as free people after careful consideration. The way in which we mark the holidays of Judaism is a matter of doing certain traditional rituals in a way that is intellectually honest to what we believe. While it is possible for a Jewish Humanist to continue saying traditional prayers for aesthetic reasons, such as kiddush, most people who are drawn to Humanistic Judaism desire “say what they mean, and mean what they say.” Shabbat is the most important and frequent holiday in the Jewish calendar, and perhaps the most underappreciated by progressive Jews. A Humanistic shabbat celebration will use old rituals with new words and concepts. The challenge will be creating forms of celebration that are as compelling and emotionally satisfying as the traditional ones.

The overriding themes of shabbat in traditional Judaism are creation, covenant, and rest. In order for Humanistic Jews to honor the tradition of shabbat, we must find ways to incorporate these themes into our celebration in a non-theistic way. Rest is the easiest. While all Humanistic Jews will reject the halakhic determination of what constitutes work, most will agree that resting on shabbat is a generally good idea. Individual understandings of what constitutes work will vary from person to person; one person’s relaxing day in the garden is another person’s hell. Encouraging people to rest on shabbat need not mean dictating the minutiae of what that rest should look like.

The other two themes are less obvious, but not impossible to incorporate. The theme of creation can simply mean incorporating an appreciation for the gifts of nature and life. This can be achieved through blessing candles, bread, and wine at the shabbat dinner, or through taking a walk in a park or in the woods on shabbat. Acknowledging the gifts of nature can be achieved through conscious gratitude for life which can easily be captured in the shabbat liturgy, either at home around the table or at the synagogue.

Incorporating the concept of the covenant will be more troublesome. Since Humanistic Jews reject the covenant with God, they must redefine the essence of the Jewish covenant. In my previous post, The Additional Covenant, I discussed Elie Wiesel’s understanding of the covenant of the Jews with past and future Jewish generations. The idea of keeping faith with past generations who kept shabbat can replace the Sinai covenant. We observe shabbat to honor the Jews of the past who kept these traditions alive and for the future generations of Jews who will come after us. This, too, can be incorporated in our observance of shabbat through blessing the children at shabbat dinner to saying Kaddish (or some Humanist alternative) to honor our ancestors and martyrs at the synagogue.

The shabbat dinner should be the focal point of family weekly life, and it is my opinion that many of the traditions should be maintained. Candles should be lit to remind us to rest. Blessings over wine and bread should be said to remind us to be grateful for the gifts of nature. Spouses should recite some kind of love poem or blessing for each other, and the children should be blessed to make the love of the family explicit and increase family harmony and bonding. These rituals will not only improve family life, but will also increase the identification with Judaism and the Jewish people.

And finally, shabbat should be celebrated by the community every week. Some congregations only do once or twice a month, but such limited gatherings do not foster the sense of community that is necessary to create dynamic congregations. I mentioned in another post that if weekly services do not work for the congregation, then other forms of communal shabbat celebration should be created that are then rotated monthly. Having different types of celebration for each shabbat of the month will create enough diversity in programming to keep people interested and attract different types of people while still offering the stability of well-known rituals.

Shabbat is the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar precisely because of its frequency. As Ahad Ha’am said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” The celebration of shabbat fosters family and community connection and gratitude for the gift of life. It offers rest and a break from the obligations of every day life. And its regular observance helps to create and maintain a sense of Jewish identity and connection to Jewish culture. The benefits of shabbat celebration outweigh most inconveniences. Humanistic Judaism should emphasize its observance and stress its many benefits and its importance in our practice of Judaism, even as we find new ways to celebrate this most important holiday every week.

On Circumcision

Circumcision is one of the oldest traditions of the Jewish people. It is so old that it was attributed to God’s covenant with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Since its beginning as an organized denomination, Humanistic Judaism has been critical of the practice of circumcision, and many Humanistic Jewish congregations will not allow a bris to be performed in their buildings. Instead, they have opted for baby naming ceremonies for both boys and girls, and the boys are circumcised in the hospital by a doctor, if at all. The practice of circumcision is one that should not be put away so lightly. The arguments against circumcision are certainly strong, but the sheer weight of this tradition and its importance to the Jewish people through history should give us pause before throwing it out completely.

The argument against circumcision can be made from two directions. The strongest argument is that circumcision is an irreversible violation of a child’s body, and it is an unnecessary infliction of suffering on a baby through genital mutilation. As such, it is a violation of the child’s rights to bodily autonomy and a breach of ethics for the parents who have the surgery performed. The second argument, which is more of a supplement to the main argument than an argument in its own right, is that the bris by its nature excludes female children. There is no equivalent to the bris for girls, and their welcome into the community is therefore usually seen as being of less importance. Furthermore, female genital mutilation is highly unethical, and its counterpart for males should be seen in the same light. For the sake of gender equality, something Humanistic Jews affirm, the bris should be abandoned. Both of these arguments together make an excellent case against circumcision if it were only a matter of ethics. But as Humanistic Jews committed to the celebration and continuation of Jewish identity, Jewish history must be considered and given a voice.

A secular argument for circumcision relies on the history and suffering of the Jewish people. As I discussed in my post about the “additional covenant,” Jews are bound to the Jewish past and have a responsibility to carry it on into the future to vindicate the suffering of their people. Circumcision has traditionally been the first practice that the oppressors of the Jews have targeted, outlawing the practice and punishing the people who performed it. The Greeks, Russians, Germans, and others have all tried to outlaw circumcision in order to undermine Jewish identity. Despite this immense pressure, there were always Jews who were willing to suffer punishment and death in order to circumcise their sons.

Furthermore, there is an ethical argument, independent of Jewish tradition, to circumcise babies. There are frequently sanitary complications with uncircumcised penises later in life. Although these problems can be largely prevented through regular and proper cleaning of the foreskin, the possibility of infection still exists. Usually, doctors will recommend circumcision for patients who suffer from frequent infections, and the suffering this causes is arguably greater due to the level of cognition that adults have rather than children. When someone is circumcised as a child they have no memory of the surgery and do not suffer from a “decrease” in sexual pleasure as an adult. Ultimately, someone suffers less if they are circumcised as a child than as an adult, and most men who were circumcised as a child have no strong opinions about their own circumcision, whereas adult patients may look at it with regret and painful memories. Arguably then, circumcising children may be the most ethical thing to do.

When these reasons are combined, solidarity with historical Jewish suffering and the prevention of a greater suffering for the child, circumcision should be maintained as a Humanistic Jewish practice. However for the sake of gender equality, it may be necessary to downplay the bris, limiting it to a family affair, while having the same naming/welcoming ceremony and celebration for both boys and girls at a later date. On a related note, converts should not be required to undergo circumcision or a ritual reenactment of it. The suffering caused by an adult circumcision would be unnecessary and unethical, and if they are already circumcised, there is no rational reason to reenact it by drawing a drop of blood from the penis. While freedom of conscience should be respected in this matter, a bris should be encouraged for Jewish children as a continuation of Jewish tradition and for the prevention of greater future suffering.

The Additional Covenant

The idea of covenant underlies the entire structure of traditional Judaism. Jewish tradition teaches that God established a covenant between himself and the Jewish people. But most non-Orthodox Jews do not believe this literally. They may believe that Judaism is special as a religion, that the Jews are special as a people, and that God is the God the Jews have worshiped for millennia, but many balk at the idea that they are chosen by God for a special covenant or treatment. Both the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements began by explicitly rejecting the idea of chosenness and the binding nature of Torah. Obviously secular and Humanistic Jews also reject the idea of an eternal covenant between God and Israel. Even though so many Jews have abandoned the the traditional covenant, there remains some sense of covenant binding the Jewish people together, a sense of responsibility for one another. This is a covenant forged out of historical experience, solidarity, and an affirmation of life.

Michael Berenbaum argues in The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel that Wiesel’s “theology of the void” reveals an additional covenant created at Auschwitz. Since God failed to protect his people at their time of greatest need, the original covenant died in Auschwitz. The additional covenant is between the Jews and their past, “with its pain, its overwhelming experience of death, and its memories of God and of a world infused with meaning. The elements of the additional covenant are threefold: solidarity, witness, and the sanctification of life.” This covenant, grounded in history and our responsibilities to other Jews, allows secular and Humanistic Jews to affirm their commitment to Judaism and Jewishness. Furthermore, Berenbaum argues that the additional covenant allows Wiesel to accept a new mission for Israel.

The new mission of Israel lies in the three elements of the additional covenant. Solidarity  is a virtue born of necessity for a persecuted and oppressed minority, and solidarity with the Jewish people in the face of antisemitism is a central pillar of the additional covenant. Wiesel’s grounding for Jewish solidarity is the common historical experience of the Jews, antisemitism, and alienation from Christian/Western civilization. The Jews also have a responsibility to be witnesses to all human suffering and fight inhumanity, to ask difficult questions, and to live without certitude in an absurd universe. Berenbaum argues that “the bond that can now unite Israel is not the bond of affirmative commitment but rather the bond of shared questions produced by a common root experience […] The Jew who once felt trust and fidelity toward the universe must now face [bear witness to] a universe of unanswerable questions.” By bearing witness to the absurdity of life we risk losing all sense of meaning. It is for this reason that the sanctification of life is the final element of the additional covenant. The term “sanctification of life” refers to two things: an affirmation of the possibility of human meaning in the face of cosmic absurdity and the endeavor to make life holy. And so the new mission for the Jews is solidarity with all Jews past and present, to act as witnesses to suffering and fight against injustice, and to find new ways to give life meaning in the face of absurdity.

The unique history, suffering, and values of the Jews makes this mission incumbent upon us, whether we are secular, liberal, or traditional which is why Berenbaum refers to this as an additional rather than a new covenant. Wiesel wrote, “We have not survived centuries of atrocities for nothing. This is what I think we are trying to prove to ourselves, desperately, because it is desperately needed.” Solidarity with the suffering of the Jews of the past necessitates the continuation of the Jewish people into the future, because it is only through surviving that the Jews can affirm that their ancestors’ suffering had meaning. Historically there are two social phenomena which can be accredited with the survival of the Jews: their sense of covenant with each other and with God, and paradoxically, the antisemitism of the people they lived among. In the face of the Holocaust, many Jews find it impossible to affirm the covenant of Sinai. Wiesel’s additional covenant can serve as the basis for the creation of new forms of Jewishness in the absence of a covenant with a transcendent, omnipotent God. It is therefore vital to the success of Humanistic branches of Judaism and the future of the Jews.

The additional covenant identified by Berenbaum through Wiesel meshes with the central message of Humanistic Judaism that I argued for in a previous post as well as the affirmations found on the SHJ website. Jewish history, particularly the Holocaust, demonstrates that the Jews must rely on one another for their own well-being. It is through acknowledging the suffering of the world, ethical living, and a commitment to repairing the world that we live our values and sanctify our lives. The additional covenant already underlies Humanistic Judaism; it is only a matter of making it explicit going forward.

“Hear O Israel, let us take up our portion in the repair of the world.”

-Rabbi Jeffrey Falick