What About Reverence?

Since its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, religious liberalism has been in decline. Religious liberalism is the approach to a religious tradition which emphasizes rationalism, critical assessment of traditional doctrine, humanism, and an openness to modernity. While religious liberalism has declined, secularism and fundamentalism have grown, which has created a perceived binary for many people between being secular and being “religious.” The liberal approach to religion gained its short lived popularity from its ability to formulate a way to express reverence toward God or Nature without giving in to restrictive and abusive dogmatism. It balanced secular knowledge of the world with the human need to feel and express awe and reverence toward the forces that create and sustain life. The inability to find that balance in a rapidly changing society is a large part of the reason for the decline of liberal denominations and religions today.

The need to feel and express awe and reverence toward something greater than oneself is a natural instinct for human beings. The usual culprits are God(s), the universe/nature, or the nation/tribe; and frequently these things will be interrelated or conflated with one another. For example, in Judaism God is the creator of the universe, which demonstrates his absolute power, and he chose the tribe of Israel to be his special people. Or take American political conservatives who frequently conflate being a “true” American with being a white Protestant. In these instances the symbols of the tribe/nation become sacred expressions of the people’s relationship with God and represent their favored status. This type of reverence rightly makes many liberals and humanists uncomfortable. The worship of God and nation has led to many atrocities in the past. To combat this, many liberals will critique this form of reverence without offering anything to replace it other than perhaps an affirmation of human dignity. This is not enough.

Humans want to be connected to something larger, whether it be a group or a god. The problem is that a group in itself is usually not enough. It must have a transcendent purpose in order to make membership and identification worthwhile. This is typically achieved through attachment to a deity, i.e. people come together because it is what their god commands, or through a utopian vision, e.g. socialists who wish to make a perfect society. Most liberal religious groups have lost this transcendent quality. The typical complaint about liberal religion is that it feels like little more than a social club and it’s therefore pointless to make attendance and participation a priority. The lack or reverence toward a transcendent entity or purpose is the root cause of the decline of religious liberalism.

Reverence is more than just the words that are spoken or sung at a prayer service. After all, liberal Jews and Christians still pray to God and read from the Bible. Reverence is as much a deeply felt emotion as it is a metaphysical belief. Reverence is defined as deep respect. Finding ways to cultivate reverence that maintains its intellectual integrity and humanist focus is the challenge that faces religious liberalism.

What should be the object or goal for reverence in Humanistic Judaism then? There are no easy answers, in part, because the people who typically find Humanistic Judaism are averse to anything that appears too “religious.” But I will offer a suggestion. Spinoza is often seen as the first secular Jew of the modern world, yet his philosophy was not strictly speaking atheistic. He spoke of God as a singular, self-existent substance which comprised the totality of all existence, i.e. there was nothing but God, and all thought and matter were merely attributes of God. Spinoza also made the comment, “Deus sive Natura,” which means “God, or Nature,” implying that God and Nature were interchangeable. But Spinoza did not stop at pantheism, he also theorized that the intellectual love of God was the supreme spiritual experience, and this love was expressed through contemplation and knowledge of Nature and our place in it.

We don’t need to accept Spinoza’s philosophy wholesale to see the benefits of the basic outlines. The object of reverence in Humanistic Judaism could similarly be nature or the universe, and the contemplation of our place in it as the supreme spiritual exercise. The UUA’s seventh principle is a good summation of this approach to humanistic spirituality, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” I like this iteration for a few reasons. First, it firmly states the connection of humanity to all existence as one part of many. Second, it emphasizes interdependence, i.e. our connection to and dependence on everything. And finally, it uses the image of a web rather than God to demonstrate our connections.

If we accept this to be a viable object of reverence in Humanistic Judaism, as I believe we should, this necessitates certain values and practices. Environmental sustainability comes to mind as the foremost obligation, which will involve a lot of consideration for congregations, institutions, and individuals. Obviously respect for human dignity and work towards social justice will be included in this. Perhaps less obviously for some, animal rights and welfare will have to be considered as a necessary aspect of reverence for the web of life, including but not limited to vegetarianism. And finally, reverence for the universe will include the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms, since reverence will be impossible without knowledge.

Through contemplating our connection to and dependence on all of existence, we can derive a consistent ethical system which includes all of reality in varying degrees of importance. Our dependence on the earth motivates us to support environmental causes. Our dependence on other people drives us to live morally and work for the rights of the oppressed and disenfranchised. Through recognizing the underlying unity of all existence we come to revere that unity, which in turn leads to concrete values and actions. To use the formulation of the Shema: “Hear O Israel: Everything is connected; the Universe is One. You shall revere the web of life with all your mind, heart, and strength. And be mindful of all the obligations interdependence places upon you.”

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.

 

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.

The Importance of Tefillah (Prayer)

Most liberal Jews do not pray on a regular basis, if ever. But prayer has historically been one of the most important aspects of Jewish practice. The liberal aversion to prayer is due to two things: the words themselves and a basic misunderstanding of the role of prayer. We will begin with the purpose of prayer, then move to the actual words and structures of prayer.

As David Ariel notes in his book What Do Jews Believe? the Hebrew term for prayer is tefillah, which comes from a root word meaning “to judge,” “to intercede [on behalf of someone],” or “to hope.” Ariel goes on to say, “Tefillah therefore implies an act of self-judgment or intercession on one’s own behalf before God, or the expression of hopeful sentiments.” Obviously, the mention of God will be troubling for those Humanistic Jews who are atheists or agnostics, but there is a lot of value that can still be drawn from this definition of prayer. Of particular interest are the parts regarding self-judgment and the expression of hope. Humanistic Jewish tefillah would need to focus and expand on these two functions of prayer and tweak them for use so that Humanistic Jews can engage in regular self-reflection and the expression of hope and thanksgiving. Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism, published a Humanist siddur of sorts (Celebration), and Humanist congregations provide their own liturgies for their shabbat and holiday observances. I have also published my own version of a Humanist siddur on this blog. The process has begun, but a theory of tefillah is needed in order to make Humanist prayer a reality rather than an oxymoron.

Ariel goes on to state, “For the rabbis of the talmudic era, the primary purpose of prayer was to educate us in the sacred beliefs of Judaism through regular repetition and reinforcement […] Prayers of thanksgiving and praise express the view that there is a divine dimension in all aspects of reality.” Through the repetition of regular prayers and the recital of blessings over every aspect of life, from eating to waking up and going to sleep, the pious Jew comes to appreciate life and feel awe for its many blessings, at least in theory. Intention (kavanah) is important, especially when the prayers are recited in a foreign language. Concentrating on the meaning of the words that are being prayed is vital for the very purpose of prayer, which is why I support having the majority of prayers in the vernacular.

As Humanistic Jews who do not find the God-idea terribly important for our worldview, this understanding of tefillah can be a valuable tool. Rather than an exercise in sycophantic praise and adulation to God, prayer is a meditative tool that Humanistic Jews can use to reflect on their own behavior, hopes, and beliefs as well as to express their awe and gratitude for the many blessings of life. It is highly unlikely that Humanistic Jews will begin to pray three times a day, even with this understanding of prayer, but they may find it valuable to begin and/or end their day with this type of prayer or to say blessings over meals with their families.

This leaves the words and structures of the prayers. There is a lot of debate among Humanistic Jews and Jews who have problems with traditional God language. Marcia Falk gives an overview of different positions in her siddur The Book of Blessings, which is a wonderful example of a feminist Humanist siddur (although I don’t think she is affiliated with the SHJ). She utilizes the formula, “Let us bless the source of life which…” This formula is broad enough to include theists and atheists while also avoiding anthropomorphism. It has the added benefit of being poetic and inspiring in juxtaposition to the deadening literal prose of much of Sherwin Wine’s siddur. It is important to note that Falk’s shabbat service carefully follows the structure of the traditional shacharit service. By doing this and providing feminist and Humanist alternatives to the traditional prayers, she was able to fulfill the purpose of tefillah (laid out above) without compromising the intellectual integrity of the person praying the service. It is my opinion that this method of following the themes and structure of the siddur while creating new Humanist prayers is the best, as I discussed in my previous post on liturgy.

While this understanding of tefillah will seem disingenuous to some, it is not terribly out of line with Jewish tradition. The Rabbis established the prayer service to act as a substitute for the Temple sacrifices, thus fundamentally changing the mode of Jewish worship for the next 2,000 years. This tweaking of the function of tefillah is no where near so radical as the changes they introduced. Furthermore, Maimonides understood the prayer service to be a compromise between God and Israel which allowed the Jewish people to worship God although the depiction of God in the prayer service was inaccurate and the prayers themselves inferior to true worship (Ariel, 198). Maimonides’ understanding of God was one in which God was essentially unknowable, and the prayer service was a creation entirely for the benefit of the Jewish people’s moral and spiritual well being. We can therefore look at Humanistic tefillah as simply the next step in the evolution of Jewish prayer, one in which we do away with the God language which was inaccurate anyway and focus more explicitly on the moral and spiritual development of the people praying. Although there is no metaphysical urgency, no mitzvah, for Humanistic prayer, it is nonetheless important as a tool for self-improvement, reminding ourselves of our values, expressing our hopes, and acknowledging the many blessings of life.

Let us bless the source of life which has brought us to this moment.

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

The Unavoidable Centrality of the Torah

The Torah has been the center of Jewish life for at least 2,000 years. All of modern Judaism, its holidays, rituals, and customs, can be traced back to a passage of the Torah or an interpretation of a passage. Any movement or group which wishes to claim the label Judaism must acknowledge the Torah as the foundation of Jewish culture and acknowledge it as the central and most important text of the Jewish people. This poses a special challenge for Humanistic Judaism which rejects the claim that the Torah is the revealed word of God and a record of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. How can a movement which rejects the divine revelation at Sinai still acknowledge the Torah as the basis of Jewish living? In order for Humanistic Judaism to claim legitimacy as a denomination of Judaism it must address the problem of the Torah and the role it should fill in the practice of Humanistic Judaism.

The Humanist approach to the Torah will necessarily make naturalist assumptions. Academic biblical criticism and scholarship will form the basis of a Humanistic approach to the texts. Rather than the divine word of God, the Torah will be seen as a product of the Jewish people. As a social product of the ancient Jews and due to its central role in the life of Jewish communities over the millennia, Humanistic Judaism should treat the Torah with great respect, if not reverence. However, this does not mean that Humanistic Jews should blindly accept the dictates of the Torah. Indeed this would be contradictory to the basic assumptions of the Movement. Rather, the Torah should be studied by Humanistic Jews within a secular framework as a cultural product. Traditional commentaries, including but not limited to the Talmud, should be consulted and studied as well as contemporary interpretations. The full depth and breadth of Jewish culture, values, and philosophy cannot be appreciated without a study of the Torah and its many interpretations. Humanistic Jews need not believe that the Torah is divinely revealed in order to study and appreciate it as the foundation of Jewish culture and practice as we know it. The Roman playwright Terence once quipped, “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” Humanistic Jews should take a similar attitude to Jewish history, texts, and practices.

This may mean that the Torah should play a greater role in the communal life of Humanistic Judaism. During Shabbat and holiday services, it may become good practice to read from the Torah. This need not be done from the traditional scroll in Hebrew; a good translation will work fine for our purposes. Nor does it mean that a full Torah service needs to be done with a complete reading of the week’s parsha. A relevant passage, informed by traditional commentary and academic scholarship, can be read and discussed by the rabbi or a lector within the regular course of the Shabbat or holiday service. Through engaging with the Torah on Humanistic terms, Humanistic Jews can maintain a connection to Jewish tradition while still adhering to their values as Humanists and naturalists. Education and study are central values among Jews everywhere, in large part because of the traditional emphasis placed on the study of Torah over the millennia. These values are central to Humanistic Judaism as well, and the Torah is the perfect Jewish symbol to represent these commitments within the community, despite its traditional theistic baggage.

God and Atheism in Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism is often described as the atheist denomination. In large part this is true, and most of its members are atheists. However, there are no numbers (that I’m aware of) that reveal how many Jewish Humanists are atheists. I would venture a guess that Jewish Humanists generally believe in some concept of God, although most would eschew belief in miracles and the otherwise supernatural. Humanistic Judaism need not be limited to atheists. If we accept the idea that the concepts about God are diverse and nebulous, we can move from a strict atheism which is limiting the Humanistic Movement towards a more open and pluralistic Humanism which embraces a sense of the sacred without sacrificing anyone’s deeply held beliefs about whether or not there is an entity which goes by the title ‘God.’

It is best to approach this from the perspective of Harold Schulweis who argues for a “predicate theology.” It is not so important to argue whether there is a supernatural God or not, but rather to acknowledge those aspects of reality and human life which we recognize as godly or sacred. Goodness, truth, justice, compassion, love, liberty, and peace are seen by atheists and theists alike as worthwhile ideals for human behavior and society and easily acknowledge them to be sacred and meaningful. In this approach we leave the question of God’s existence alone and focus on the quality of life we wish to have as human beings and as Jews.

We can further borrow from the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich and ask, “what is our ultimate concern?” What aspects of life can human beings acknowledge as the most important, those which no other concerns can take precedence over? This is a deeply personal question, but there are only a few answers which are sufficiently enduring, personal, and worthwhile enough to truly give life meaning; e.g. goodness, truth, justice, and love. If we acknowledge these ideals as the highest ideals of our lives, we are already revering them as sacred ideals for ourselves, our communities, and our societies.

When we approach the God question by asking what is sacred, rather than is there an entity called God, we are able to find a way to give our individual and communal lives meaning and purpose. If some of us choose to use the term God as a symbol of the sacred aspects of life, that is perfectly in line with Humanist philosophy. The important thing is to acknowledge that, as the Humanist Manifesto III states, “Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.”