Poetic Reflection Service

Poetry service

This service is primarily for personal reflection. It utilizes poetry that reflects on the themes of the traditional prayer service which I find inspiring. For example, the poem “The Web of Life” takes the place of the Shema, and “Let Us Make This Earth a Heaven” takes the place of the Aleinu. The knowledgeable laymen will notice the parallels between the traditional service and the poems contained in this service.

The prevailing themes of this service are unity and interdependence. While some poems toe the line of non-theism, utilizing poetic license in addressing abstract concepts as “you,” I believe those poems to be doing nothing more than using metaphor and allegory for stronger emotional effect.

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Why Am I a Humanistic Jew?

I am a Humanistic Jew because I find in Judaism a spiritual discipline that helps me to find and express meaning in my life. I am a Humanistic Jew because I am a Humanist, and I find the beliefs, values, and principles of Humanism to be the most accurate description of reality as I understand it. Humanistic Judaism brings these things together and offers me a place to bring both of these aspects of my life together in a harmonious whole. There are three main reasons why I became a Humanistic Jew: the spiritual discipline of Judaism, the connection Judaism offers to the rhythms of the natural world, and the connection to Jewish culture and history; all within the context of a naturalist,nontheistic worldview.

Ever since I was a teenager, I have been fascinated by philosophical and theological concerns. I realized rather early on that traditional beliefs in God and the supernatural were irrational and did not hold up under scrutiny. I attempted to hold on to these beliefs for as long as I could, attempting to find some clever theological system which made belief in God somewhat rationally acceptable. But any system which I could accept was abstract and removed from the beliefs of most religious doctrines which taught a personal God who was interested in the lives of his followers and even intervened in the universe. The more I studied, the more I realized that I could not believe in anything worthy of the title God, i.e. a supernatural Creator, all-powerful and all-knowing who may occasionally intervene in human affairs or give commandments that we must follow. Although I cannot accept the idea of God, I do have a feeling, an intuition or experiences, about the sacred qualities of life. It is this sense of diffuse sacredness which I encounter in various aspects of life which has become the source of my own “spirituality” (for lack of a better word).

Oddly enough, I found a way to express my spirituality through Judaism, the religion that introduced God to the world. The Society for Humanistic Judaism has been leading the way in nontheistic Judaism for 50 years, and it is through them that I was able to combine my nontheistic spirituality with Jewish practice. It was through Harold Kushner’s book To Life! that I discovered the idea of Judaism as a way to sanctify life and imbue it with meaning. The spiritual discipline of Judaism does this in many ways: blessings for nearly everything, prayer three times a day, kashrut, study, tzedakah, ethical duties, and the Sabbath and holidays.

Utilizing the resources of the SHJ, and following the lead of Edgar Bronfman’s memoir Why Be Jewish? and Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings, I began to create my own practice of Judaism which engaged with tradition but was not bound by it. I say blessings over many things, like food, but I re-word them to be expressions of my own gratitude or awe without theistic language. I don’t pray three times a day, but I do set aside time for reflection every day using humanistic services based on the themes of the traditional prayer service. While I am not strictly kosher, I am a vegetarian, and consciousness about what I eat and restrictions on my food are intimately tied to my beliefs as a Humanistic Jew. I observe shabbat every week as a day of rest, according to my own understanding of what that means, and the holidays are rich in providing meaning and connection in the yearly cycle. Study, ethics, and tzedakah all have a place in my spiritual practice as a Humanistic Jew, appropriately adapted to reflect my Humanist outlook. Humanistic Judaism is a spiritual practice for me, which enables me to connect to other people, to nature, and to Jewish culture and tradition. 

Judaism helps me to remember my connection to everyone and everything in a number of ways. Jewish law makes provisions for the protection and use of trees, and commands ethical treatment for animals, such as not causing them unnecessary suffering and allowing them to rest on shabbat. The holidays mark the passage of time and the rhythms of nature while providing tangible reminders of our place in nature with objects like the sukkah or the seder plate. Holidays like Passover, Sukkot, Tu Bishvat, Shavuot, and even Hanukkah are connected to the cycles of the year, celebrating the arrival of spring or the harvest, or creating light during the darkest part of the year. While all of these holidays have other associations as well, the reminder of our connection to nature is central to my Jewish spirituality.

Like the holidays, shabbat is another reminder of our interdependence. Through disrupting the daily routine with a day of intentional rest, we are forced to pause and recognize the blessings of life symbolized by the wine, bread, and candles as we gather with our loved ones for shabbat dinner. Indeed, blessing food can be a powerful reminder of our dependence on the planet and other people, which is reflected in Falk’s (extremely shortened) version of Birkat Hamazon. (“Let us acknowledge the source of life, source of all nourishment. May we protect the bountiful earth that it may continue to sustain us, and let us seek sustenance for all who dwell in the world.”) Reflecting on our dependence on the entire web of life, on the entire universe, is a humbling yet uplifting spiritual experience.

Humanistic Judaism provides a connection with Jewish history and culture. The most important aspect of Jewish culture, to me, is the concern with justice and providing for the poor and outcast. This aspect of Judaism has ancient roots and can be found throughout the Bible. The prophets are the most obvious examples, but the Torah contains many provisions for immigrants/strangers, the poor, widows, and the disabled. Tzedakah is a fundamental practice of Judaism and shares etymological roots with the word for justice. This serves to underscore that giving to the poor and less fortunate is an obligation in the service of justice, not merely an option.

The lessons of Jewish history can and should lead to empathy with all people who suffer injustice. This concept is found in the Torah itself which often follows a command to be kind to the stranger with a reminder that we were strangers in Egypt. Many of the Jewish holidays offer us a chance to remember Jewish history, whether real or mythical, and these become excellent opportunities to reflect on our own obligations. They also connect us to the Jewish people throughout history and ground us in our culture in multiple ways, including, but not limited to, food. The holidays with historical components offer the means for us to “relive” history and connect with the Jews of the past through symbolic actions and study. Hanukkah reminds us of the victory of the Maccabees, Purim reminds us of the bravery of Esther (even if the story never really happened), and Passover offers a chance to review all of our exoduses from the mythical to the historic. Our culture is transmitted as much through the holidays as our moral values or texts. It is our responsibility to preserve as well as frame that cultural heritage for the next generation to ensure its relevance and continuation.

I am a Humanistic Jew because Humanistic Judaism provides a way for me to express and live my values and spirituality in a way consistent with my beliefs and cultural attachments. Humanistic Judaism is my spiritual discipline and way of life.

Spirituality for Jewish Humanists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.