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.

 

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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”

What Does Humanistic Judaism Have to Offer?

A question necessarily arises about Humanistic Judaism: What does Humanistic Judaism have to offer to the Jewish people and the rest of the world? Humanistic Judaism is uniquely positioned to be a movement for rationalist, naturalist, secular, and Humanistic Jews who value Jewish culture; to advocate the values of Humanism in the Jewish community, Israel, and elsewhere; and to offer communities for people seeking untraditional, nontheistic, or progressive religious alternatives. As a Humanist religious movement, we can stand with other Humanist religious movements to struggle against the rising fascist, anti-intellectual political and religious forces embodied by ultra-Orthodox Jews, Evangelical Christians, extremist Muslims, and political figures and movements like Trump and the “alt-right” (i.e. the American Neo-Nazis). Humanistic Judaism, in conjunction with other progressive and Humanist organizations, can be the voice of reason, critical thinking, and progressive values in society.

While secular Jews are the majority of the Jewish population worldwide, they are largely unorganized. As individuals, secular Jews cannot achieve very much in the way of implementing or advocating their values on the national level. While there are surely a vast array of political and ideological differences among secular Jews, both in America and Israel, those who hold Humanist values would benefit immensely from joining and working with the Humanistic Movement. Respect for science, critical thinking, and reason; a commitment to ethical living, environmentalism, social justice, diversity, egalitarianism, non-violence, and secular democracy; and a focus on human welfare rather than divine decrees or religious dogma characterize Humanism. Many, if not all, of these values are directly opposed by the religious and political right which seeks to impose authoritarian, anti-intellectual, theocratic, dogmatic, and unjust policies on others. Together Humanists of all affiliations can oppose these attempts, but as separate, disconnected individuals resistance and advocacy will be less effective.

This is why Humanist communities and organizations are important. These communities can be non-religious, such as the chapters of the American Humanist Association or Ethical Culture Movement, or they can be religious, like congregations of Humanistic Jews and Unitarian Universalists. Offering tangible support (such as volunteering, donating, joining, and attending meetings) strengthens these communities and national organizations, which in turn strengthens the values of Humanism in our culture. The lack of progressive, Humanistic communities is undoubtedly one of the many reasons that progressives so frequently lose elections. Conservatives have learned the importance of communities, networking (beyond internet/Facebook slacktivism), and speaking up. In many US towns, there is a church on every block, and the vast majority of them lean conservative and actively preach their theocratic values which the voters then put into action in the political arena. If progressives truly wish to see their values implemented at the governmental level, it is necessary for us to learn the lessons of community, conviction, and group action.

It is necessary to emphasize advocacy and outreach. People have to be personally invited to join. Ads have to go out, positions must be argued on cable news networks, and members have to learn to call their representatives when important legislation is being decided. Humanist values must be argued for in both the political arena and in other public forums. It is the task of Humanistic Jews to do this in the larger Jewish community and in Israel. Growing Humanistic Judaism in Israel and fighting for Humanist values there is incredibly important, both for the future of Humanistic Judaism and for the way in which Israel is governed in the future.

Humanistic Judaism is in the best position to reach out to secular Jews who share these values and wish to make a difference. It is also capable of reaching out to unaffiliated gentiles who share these values and an appreciation of Jewish culture. It is necessary for the SHJ and other Humanist organizations to mobilize and grow through outreach to like-minded individuals. Humanistic Judaism has the beauty of Jewish culture and community, a commitment to improving society, and the philosophy and values of Humanism to offer to the world, secular Jews, and all people seeking progressive communities.

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 Liturgy of Humanistic Judaism

Liturgy and Humanism are not words that people instinctively relate to one another. Yet if shabbat and holiday celebrations are to be meaningful in Humanistic Judaism, a dynamic and engaging liturgy must be utilized. I believe that a denominational Humanist siddur should be developed which offers a structure for shabbat and holidays while allowing innovation and choice for each congregation. A layout similar to the Reform siddur may be useful in allowing multiple options for each two page spread as the congregation goes through the service. It is my belief that the Humanist siddur should be more or less structured around the themes of the traditional prayer service while providing Humanist meditations in place of the prayers. A limited example will be placed at the end of this post, which is open for public use and reproduction.

The question will obviously arise as to why Humanistic Jews require a siddur at all. The answer is simple: for the same reason theistic Jews require a siddur. Siddur means order. By setting an order for communal gatherings and individual meditation, we can be sure that we are reminding ourselves of our most important values and reflecting on those aspects of life which are the most meaningful. By using the themes and structure of the traditional siddur we are maintaining our commitment to Judaism, Jewish values, and Jewish culture while changing the words themselves to reflect our own beliefs. A siddur for Humanistic Judaism should include opening blessings and songs followed by an interpretation of the Shema and its blessings for creation, revelation, and salvation. Then a Humanist version of the Amidah should be included, being sure to follow the general flow of the traditional eighteen or seven blessings. After the Amidah, comes an optional Torah service (although other books may be used if desired) complete with songs, processional, a sharing of the community’s joys and sorrows (in place of the mi shebeirach), and a brief sermon or discussion. The Torah service should be followed by Humanist versions of the Aleinu and Mourners’ Kaddish. After the Mourners’ Kaddish can come announcements and a final song, followed by an oneg or kiddush (with blessings for wine and bread if desired).

There is also the issue of whether or not to use Hebrew. While Hebrew has been considered a holy language, and now the language of Israeli Jews, most diaspora Jews do not understand it. It therefore makes no sense to conduct the service in Hebrew, especially if a lack of Hebrew knowledge discourages people from coming to community celebrations of shabbat and holidays. Furthermore, by conducting the service in the vernacular the congregants can reflect on what they are reading and meditate on the words of the service throughout the day or week. With that being said, Hebrew is still important as a Jewish language and there should be some use of it in the service. This should probably be limited to the Shema meditations and the songs, although its use can be implemented as the community sees fit throughout the service. It should also be studied by laity and rabbis alike in order to more fully engage with traditional Jewish texts and modern Israeli culture.

Kippot, tallitot, and tefillin are the traditional garments worn by Jews during prayer. While each item is used for specific theological reasons in traditional Judaism, this need not be the case in Humanistic Judaism. They are products of Jewish culture, and if people find meaning in wearing them to shabbat and holiday services or during private meditation, they should be encouraged to do so. Kippot and tallitot especially function as symbols of Judaism, and it is my private opinion that they should be encouraged in the synagogue during ceremonies for shabbat and holidays. (As a vegan, I am personally opposed to the use of traditional tefillin and think that they go against the central message of Humanistic Judaism, but I also recognize that others might disagree with my opinion.)

By using traditional ritual prayer items like a tallit, kippah, and shabbat candles, and following the general structure of the Jewish prayer service, Humanistic Judaism can affirm its connection to the Jewish tradition. By providing multiple options and Humanist alternatives to traditional prayers, the Humanist siddur can offer dynamic and engaging community celebrations. Below you will find my version of a Humanist siddur for weekdays and shabbat. Italicized text indicates a congregational response or instructions for the flow of the service.

Weekday Morning and Evening Liturgy

Opening Blessings:

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! We enter into this house reverently to pay honor to our highest values, making this place a temple for what is sacred.

We give thanks for the intricate network of veins, arteries, and vital organs which make our bodies function. May we always be grateful for our health and strength and call to mind the holiness of the body.

These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure;

To honor father and mother;

To perform acts of love and kindness;

To attend the house of study;

To welcome the stranger;

To visit the sick;

To rejoice with newlyweds;

To console the bereaved;

To make peace when there is strife.

For all that is our life, we give our thanks and praise; for all life is a gift to build the common good and make our own days glad.

The Shema and Its Blessings

The vast universe in all its splendor becomes self-reflective in us. We gaze upon the stars and learn the secrets of their birth and their role in the creation of the universe as we know it. Light and dark, gravity and heat, matter and energy create all that we see: the trees and the animals, mountains and seas. We stand in awe before the grandeur of creation.

The forces of nature have equipped us to know what is good and helpful. The process of natural selection has made us a cooperative species capable of living with one another to build our lives together. Through the guidance of conscience and knowledge from our memories of the past, we know what it is to live together in unity.

Shema Yisrael, kol ha-chayim hu echad

Hear O Israel, all life is One

We will honor life in all its forms with all our minds, all our strength, and all our being. We acknowledge our dependence on the web of life which supports our well-being. We will set these words upon our hearts; teach them faithfully to our children; speak of them at home and in our travels, when we lie down and rise up. We will bind them as a sign upon our hand and make them a symbol between our eyes. We will inscribe them on the doorposts of our houses and on our gates. We will be mindful of our place in the web of life and thus shall we consecrate ourselves to the task of living in harmony with all life.

May our devotion to the sanctity of life lead to our redemption from all that plagues our world. May our work for tikkun olam bear lasting fruit for us and our descendants.

The Amidah        All Rise

Let my mouth declare the beauty and worth of life.

HONORING OUR ANCESTORS

Our ancestors survived the harshness of life with dignity and perseverance. From Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah to our parents and grandparents; we owe all that we are to their hard work and will to live. Let us acknowledge their faithfulness to the ways of life and all that they have done to bring us into life.

SALVATION, LIFE, AND DEATH

The forces of the universe have created all that we need for salvation. With love we can sustain the living. With compassion we can sustain life for all. We can help the falling and heal the sick; bring freedom to the captive, and keep faith with those who came before us. Let us bless the universe, source of life and death.

SANCTITY OF LIFE

We sanctify life when we acknowledge the interdependent unity of all life.

Holy, holy, holy is the totality of life! The whole earth is covered with its sanctity!

And we respond to the holiness of life with respect and honor for the earth’s ecosystem of which we are a part.

FOR WISDOM AND UNDERSTANDING

Let us always strive to grow in knowledge, understanding, and insight.

Blessed is the mind which grows in wisdom.

FOR REPENTANCE

May we always return to our ideals and draw near to the highest values of our lives. Let us come back to goodness in perfect repentance of our mistakes.

Blessed is the conscience which calls for repentance.

FOR FORGIVENESS

May we seek forgiveness from all those who we hurt and pardon those who hurt us. May we forgive others in the same spirit in which we seek forgiveness.

Blessed is the one whose forgiveness is abundant.

FOR MUTUAL AID

Let us be aware of the problems of others and help them in their need.

Blessed is the one who helps those who are in need.

FOR HEALTH

Let us remember all those who are injured and in poor health and do all that we can to alleviate their suffering.

Blessed is the one who alleviates the suffering of others.

FOR ABUNDANCE

May the products of our labors bring us well-being and well-being to all people. Let us give to those in need from the abundance of our own possessions and satisfy the demands of human goodness.

Blessed are those who give from their abundance.

FOR FREEDOM

Sound the great horn to proclaim freedom, let us be inspired to strive for the liberation of the oppressed, and let the song of liberty be heard throughout the earth.

Blessed is the one who redeems the oppressed and fights for the downtrodden.

FOR JUSTICE

May we elect just and upright leaders who govern fairly and with compassion.

Blessed are those who govern with justice and goodness.

FOR GOODNESS

Let us strive for the highest ethical standards that we may embody goodness in our lives for our own sake and the sake of our communities.

Blessed are those who dedicate themselves to goodness.

FOR ISRAEL

We hope for peace in the land of Israel and compassion and justice in the hearts of her inhabitants.

Blessed are those who make peace in Israel.

FOR WORSHIP

That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.

Blessed is the one who worships goodness, compassion, and justice.

THANKSGIVING

We gratefully acknowledge the blessings of our lives. The breath in our lungs, the food we consume, and the ones we love and who love us in return. For all that is our life, we give our thanks and praise.

PEACE

Peace, happiness, and blessing; grace and love and mercy: may these descend on us, on all Israel, and all the world. Let us love kindness and justice and mercy, and seek blessing, life, and peace.

Blessed is the one creates peace.

 

SILENT MEDITATION

I will keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit. I will be silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all. I will open my heart to the truth and hurry to perform an act of goodness and mercy.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart lead to actions which further the repair of the world.

 Optional Torah Service on page X

Continue with the Aleinu and Kaddish on page X

 

Shabbat Liturgy (For Erev Shabbat or Shacharit)

Candle Lighting for Shabbat Eve

As these Shabbat candles give light to all who behold them, so may we, by our lives, give light to all who behold us.

As their brightness reminds us of the generations of Israel who have kindled light, so may we, in our own day, be among those who kindle light.

Let there be joy!

Let there be peace!

Let there be light!

Let there be Shabbat!

Opening Blessings:

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! We enter into this house reverently to pay honor to our highest values, making this place a temple for what is sacred.

We give thanks for the intricate network of veins, arteries, and vital organs which make our bodies function. May we always be grateful for our health and strength and call to mind the holiness of the body.

These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure;

To honor father and mother;

To perform acts of love and kindness;

To attend the house of study;

To welcome the stranger;

To visit the sick;

To rejoice with newlyweds;

To console the bereaved;

To make peace when there is strife.

For all that is our life, we give our thanks and praise; for all life is a gift to build the common good and make our own days glad.

May we stay far from immorality and master temptation. May our darker passions not rule us, nor evil acquaintances lead us away from goodness. May we strengthen the voice of conscience and always strive to perform deeds of goodness that we may know the good will of all who know us.

At all times let us revere goodness inwardly and outwardly, acknowledge the truth, and speak it.

We are tiny on the scale of the universe. Let us learn to rely on one another.

 

Insert appropriate Songs, Poems, and Music for Meditation

 

The Shema and Its Blessings

The vast universe in all its splendor becomes self-reflective in us. We gaze upon the stars and learn the secrets of their birth and their role in the creation of the universe as we know it. Light and dark, gravity and heat, matter and energy create all that we see: the trees and the animals, mountains and seas. We stand in awe before the grandeur of creation.

The forces of nature have equipped us to know what is good and helpful. The process of natural selection has made us a cooperative species capable of living with one another to build our lives together. Through the guidance of conscience and knowledge from our memories of the past, we know what it is to live together in unity.

Shema Yisrael, kol ha-chayim hu echad

Hear O Israel, all life is One

We will honor life in all its forms with all our minds, all our strength, and all our being. We acknowledge our dependence on the web of life which supports our well-being. We will set these words upon our hearts; teach them faithfully to our children; speak of them at home and in our travels, when we lie down and rise up. We will bind them as a sign upon our hand and make them a symbol between our eyes. We will inscribe them on the doorposts of our houses and on our gates. We will be mindful of our place in the web of life and thus shall we consecrate ourselves to the task of living in harmony with all life.

May our devotion to the sanctity of life lead to our redemption from all that plagues our world. May our work for tikkun olam bear lasting fruit for us and our descendants.

 

The Amidah        All Rise

Let my mouth declare the beauty and worth of life.

HONORING OUR ANCESTORS

Our ancestors survived the harshness of life with dignity and perseverance. From Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah to our parents and grandparents; we owe all that we are to their hard work and will to live. Let us acknowledge their faithfulness to the ways of life and all that they have done to bring us into life.

SALVATION, LIFE, AND DEATH

The forces of the universe have created all that we need for salvation. With love we can sustain the living. With compassion we can sustain life for all. We can help the falling and heal the sick; bring freedom to the captive, and keep faith with those who came before us. Let us bless the universe, source of life and death.

SANCTITY OF LIFE

We sanctify life when we acknowledge the interdependent unity of all life.

Holy, holy, holy is the totality of life! The whole earth is covered with its sanctity!

And we respond to the holiness of life with respect and honor for the earth’s ecosystem of which we are a part.

FOR SHABBAT

On the seventh day our people rest from their labors and reflect on the values and ideals most precious to them. To love mercy, to act justly, and to walk the path of life humbly with others. Let our rest on this day remind us of what is holy and precious in life.

Blessed is life, and blessed are those who revere life.

FOR WORSHIP

That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.

Blessed is the one who worships goodness, compassion, and justice.

THANKSGIVING

We gratefully acknowledge the blessings of our lives. The breath in our lungs, the food we consume, and the ones we love and who love us in return. For all that is our life, we give our thanks and praise.

PEACE

Peace, happiness, and blessing; grace and love and mercy: may these descend on us, on all Israel, and all the world. Let us love kindness and justice and mercy, and seek blessing, life, and peace.

Blessed is the one creates peace.

 

SILENT MEDITATION

I will keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit. I will be silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all. I will open my heart to the truth and hurry to perform acts of goodness and mercy.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart lead to actions which further the repair of the world.

 

Insert a brief reading from the weekly Torah or Haftarah portion, or some other Jewish literature (Optional “Torah Service” begins on next page).

Continue with a Shabbat message or discussion based on the reading.

 

Continue with the Aleinu and Kaddish on page X.

 

Optional Torah Service

THE ARK IS OPENED AND TORAH OR BOOK TAKEN OUT

Let us bless those who came before us and passed on to us the records of their wisdom.

THE SHEMA

Hear, O Israel: Let us take up our portion in the repair of the world.

At one with our forebears, we affirm that righteousness, justice, and compassion shall be our lamp.

 

Insert appropriate song as the procession with the Torah or other book is done through the congregation.

 

BLESSING BEFORE READING

Let us bless the source of life!

Blessed is the source of life from which all goodness flows!

We give thanks for our ancestors who have blessed us with teachings of wisdom. Blessed are our ancestors, the creators of Torah.

BLESSING AFTER READING

Blessed are the seekers of wisdom and the teachers of the next generation.

After the reading, invite the congregation to share personal joys and sorrows.

 

The Aleinu

Let us praise the majesty of the universe, old beyond imagining, source of all things, which has created diversity and interdependent unity.

We stand in awe before the majestic, terrifying power of the creative and destructive forces of the universe, and recognize our smallness in relation to eternity and our dependence on one another.

Recognizing our limits in this world which sustains and destroys life, we affirm our hope for a society built on justice, equity, and compassion. May the idols of greed and selfishness fall to the overwhelming power of cooperation and righteousness.

May all who live acknowledge the rule of justice and swear loyalty to a life of goodness.

And may the establishment of the just and compassionate society come soon and in our day. On that day, goodness shall reign over all the earth; and humanity shall be one.

 

Humanist Kaddish

We remember our loved ones whom death has recently taken from us and those who died at this time in previous years. The martyrs of our people are always in our thoughts. May their memories be a blessing to all.

NITGADAL V’NITKADASH B’RUAKH HAADAM

Let us enhance and exalt ourselves in the spirit of humanity.

Let us acclaim the preciousness of life.

Let us show gratitude for life by approaching it with reverence.

Let us embrace the whole world, even as we wrestle with its parts.

Let us fulfill, each of us in our own way, our share in serving the world and seeking truth.

May our commitment to life help us strengthen healing of spirit and peace of mind.

May healing and peace permeate and comfort all of Israel and all those who dwell on earth.

NITGADAL V’NITKADASH B’RUAKH HAADAM

Let us enhance and exalt ourselves in the spirit of humanity.

And let us say: Ken y’hee. May it be so.

–Jon Dickman and Congregation Kol Shalom inspired by Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Community Announcements and Final Song

Kiddush and Ha-Motzi

With wine, our symbol of joy, we celebrate this Shabbat, a day of rest for the Jewish people.

Let us bless the earth, the source of life, which brings forth the fruit of the vine for our enjoyment.

 

With challah, the symbol of sustenance and the interconnectedness of all life, we give thanks for this Shabbat meal.

Let us bless the earth, the source of life, which brings forth the food that sustains us.

 

Havdalah

Kindle the candle

With wine, candles, and spices we mark the end of shabbat and the beginning of the new week. The wine reminds us of the joy of shabbat; the candle reminds us that life depends on the work of the coming week; and the spices remind us to look forward to next shabbat.

The cup of wine is raised.

Blessed are the earth, the sun, and the rain which create the fruit of the vine.

The wine is circulated.

We are thankful for the earth which produces all spices.

The spice box is circulated.

We are grateful for the light and warmth of fire which has blessed humanity.

As we mark the separation of shabbat from the rest of the week, we commit to separating ourselves from immorality, hatred, and injustice. May we be inspired to live lives of righteousness and compassion in the coming week. We give thanks for our minds and consciences which can separate what is right from what is wrong.

The candle is extinguished.

The Children of Israel: Humanistic Judaism’s Devotion to Inclusivity and Diversity

A traditional name for the Jewish people is the Children of Israel. This has traditionally been taken literally to signify that the Jews are the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel). Most Jewish Humanists acknowledge these figures to be mythical characters of ancient Israelite folklore; stories the Israelites told to account for the creation of their nation and their bonds to one another. But the symbol of the Jews as a large family is useful for the purposes of determining who is a Jew and what it means to belong to the Jewish people in Humanistic Judaism.

It must first be recognized that holding a familial understanding of the Jewish people should necessarily open up Jewish identity beyond the strictures of halakhic definitions. Family is more than bloodlines and legal definitions, and it includes the children of fathers as well as mothers. Anyone born of a Jewish parent should be considered fully Jewish, regardless of which parent it is. Adopted children should be considered as much a part of the Jewish family as children born to Jewish parents, without the need for pointless conversion ceremonies. The same is true for gentiles who marry Jewish spouses, assuming that they have no objections to becoming a member of the tribe. Any process which joins a gentile to a Jewish family should be enough to confer Jewish identity on that person if they wish to assume it. Similarly, any gentile who wishes to join the Jewish community with no previous ties to Judaism or Jewish people should be welcomed with as few barriers as possible. Jewish identity is not conferred through rituals and ceremonies, although they can be useful for public recognition, but rather through participation in the life of the community. Jewish identity is a communal, familial identity, and as such it is conferred through membership in the Jewish family, whether that be a literal family or the Jewish community.

By using such a broad definition of Jewish identity, Humanistic Jews affirm their commitment to the principle of inclusivity. Including as many people as possible who would otherwise be marginalized in the Jewish community is the best possible way to help the Jewish people thrive as a vibrant religious and ethnic group. It also allows for greater diversity in the Jewish community, both ethnically/racially and ideologically. It is important to remember that the biblical patriarch Jacob had twelve sons, all of them different in character and belief. As the Children of Israel, it is important for Jews to adhere to the principles of diversity and inclusion, which implies open boundaries for all who wish to join and inclusion of those who have been marginalized in the past and have different understandings of theology and Jewish religious practice.

The Society for Humanistic Judaism has already affirmed their commitment to this vision of Jewish identity based on inclusion and diversity. For the good of the Jewish community around the world, it is necessary for other Humanistic denominations of Judaism to do the same.

What is Humanistic Judaism?

Humanistic Judaism can refer to two different but related phenomena in contemporary Jewish life: the organized movement called the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ) and the more general humanistic approach to Judaism. In either case Humanistic Judaism stresses human responsibility and autonomy, a (generally) naturalistic worldview, and an engagement with and reconstruction of Jewish culture and traditions. The philosophy of Jewish Humanism expands beyond the organized body of the SHJ. Most Reform and Reconstructionist Jews as well as many unaffiliated, secular Jews adhere to a form of Jewish Humanism, even if they do not explicitly identify themselves as Jewish Humanists. The objective of this blog is to discuss the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism and my personal practice of Judaism as a Jewish Humanist. For the sake of clarity and future reference, basic terms and concepts are defined below, and basic presuppositions are stated.

Humanism: a philosophy of life which affirms the ability and responsibility of individuals to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity without supernatural intervention. A general outline of Humanism can be found in the Humanist Manifesto III. It is necessary to point out that Humanism is not a synonym for atheism. It is possible to believe in a non-interventionist or non-personal God and be a Humanist (e.g. deists and pantheists).

Humanistic Judaism (Jewish Humanism): a philosophy which underlies a progressive, naturalistic approach to Judaism, Jewish history, and culture. More specifically, a contemporary Jewish denomination. More information about the denomination can be found at shj.org.

Judaism is the Evolving Religious Civilization of the Jewish People: Jews are both an ethnic and a religious group. However, the ethnicity has been primarily defined and shaped by the religion since at least the beginning of the diaspora. While religion is the most important aspect of Judaism historically, it is not the only aspect of Judaism, and secular aspects of Jewish culture should be respected and fostered. History has shown that Judaism, as both a religion and an ethnic group, has adapted to changing situations over the millennia. The modern world is fundamentally different from the pre-modern world, and Judaism must be consciously reconstructed if it is to remain meaningful to non-orthodox Jews.

Jewish Identity: The halakhic determination of Jewish identity states that a person is Jewish if their mother is Jewish or if they convert according to halakhic standards. This definition leads to many problems, particularly in relation to intermarriage, non-orthodox conversions, and “patrilineal” Jews. The position of the Society for Humanistic Judaism radically breaks with traditional, and even the more liberal Reform, standards and declares: “a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.” This is the standard of Jewish identity which this blog will operate under, with one caveat: members of “Jewish Christian” groups are not Jews, but rather Christians. I take this position because of the history of antisemitism of the Christian church(es) and the many forced conversions, persecutions, and attempted genocides perpetrated by them against the Jewish people. While I recognize that there are some “Jewish Christians” who were born Jewish and converted to Christianity through these groups, the majority of them are not Jewish in any sense, and should not be treated as such.

Intermarriage: Intermarriage refers to the marriage between a Jewish person and a gentile. Most Jewish denominations see intermarriage as a problem to be solved, however, it is a manufactured problem. The Jewish people will continue if people find Jewish identity or Judaism to be meaningful in their lives. If the children of intermarriage are more likely to identify as non-Jewish, it is because of the exclusionary definition of Jewishness held by these groups. Jewish communities must work to include as many Jews as possible regardless of traditional standards and make Jewish life and community meaningful and worthwhile. Intermarriage is not the problem, but rather apathy and alienation in non-orthodox Jewish communities.

Israel: Israel is the home of the Jewish people and the only majority Jewish country on earth. Its survival as a Jewish country is necessary for the safety of the Jewish people around the globe. Although it is necessary for Israel to be a Jewish nation, minority rights must be respected; the Palestinians of the West Bank must have their freedom from the occupation; and Israel should be a democratic and secular country with religious, political, and civil freedom for all its citizens.