Celebrating Shabbat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Legitimacy: the Struggle of Progressive Judaism

Despite the fact that non-Orthodox Jews are the majority of the world Jewish population, and progressive branches of Judaism are the largest, progressive Judaism as a whole suffers from a perceived illegitimacy. There are many contributing factors to this feeling of inadequacy including the political power of Orthodox Judaism in Israel, the past 2,000 years of Jewish history, the historical novelty of progressive Judaism, and a lack of a cohesive ideology. Traditional Judaism is grounded in halakha and divine authority. The Reform Movement and its derivative movements (Conservative, Reconstructionist, etc) have typically been driven more by the concern for modernization than religious truth. This has led to high levels of assimilation (meaning an abandonment of Jewish identity in favor of a more general/national identity) and apathy among the laity of the progressive movements. Compared to the Christian Reformation or the Karaites, which were driven by a belief in religious truth against an established orthodoxy, the Jewish reformation has been largely a failure in establishing its own legitimacy, even among its own laity. There is a general sense that Orthodox Jews do things “right” and the other movements are simply on a descending scale of observance of “true” Judaism. I cannot count the number of times I have been in a Reform synagogue and someone has said something along the lines of, “well, the Orthodox do it this way, but we’re going to cheat a little.” It is no wonder that progressive Judaism cannot inspire devotion in its adherents the same way as Orthodox Judaism or Protestant Christianity. Without a sense of metaphysical truth, religious groups wither and die.

The question then arises regarding what the truth of progressive Judaism is. For example, despite their many difference in dogma, Protestants largely agree that the Christian Bible is the sole authority on issues of faith and doctrine, and that people are “saved” through faith, not works or the church. Similarly, the Karaites believe that the Oral Torah is illegitimate, the Written Torah is the only source of religious authority, and every Jew is responsible for interpreting it himself. A message of this kind is largely lacking in progressive Judaism. The closest that progressive Jews came to such a vision were Kaplan’s theory of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization and the Reform Movement’s early vision of Judaism as ethical monotheism. The vision of Judaism as a universal ethical monotheism has largely been abandoned by the Reform Movement, which has largely re-embraced the distinctiveness of Jewish culture and practice. Kaplan’s theory is the dominant theory now, but even this lacks a motivational power among the laity because it reads like a sociological thesis rather than a profound religious and moral truth.

I have argued for my understanding of the message of Humanistic (and progressive) Judaism in a previous post. My understanding of the underlying message of progressive Judaism rests on a few assumptions. First in agreement with Kaplan, Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Relatedly, the Jewish people are the source of authority in religious matters, not the Torah, Talmud, or rabbis. Second, God (if s/he exists) does not intervene in human history, and we should generally assume a naturalist worldview. For this reason, Jews should not rely on divine intervention, but rather on themselves. Third, the primary focus of Humanistic (and progressive) Judaism should therefore be ethics and social justice. Jewish culture, literature, and history should be studied both for its own sake and for the lessons they can teach, and Jewish rituals and holidays should be practiced insofar as they aid in ethical living, community building, and the fight for justice. Rather than fight a losing battle trying to legitimize our beliefs and practices through the lens of halakha and scripture, we should make this vision central to progressive Judaism. And fourth, this is a vision of truth that most progressive Jews either explicitly or implicitly agree with already.

If this is to be the central message of Humanistic (and progressive) Judaism, then how can it be called Judaism at all? It rejects or downplays two of the three fundamental aspects of traditional Judaism: Torah and God. This is where the assumptions come in, particularly the first. The Jewish people existed before the Torah. They are a distinct sociological group, and the religion of this group has changed through the millennia. Even the understanding of God has drastically changed among various Jewish groups over time. Linguistically, ‘Judaism’ refers to the teaching or religion of the people of Judah (the Jews). This usually means traditional Judaism or one of the progressive denominations. However, it can and should be used to refer to any religious expression of the Jewish people, including Jewish Gnosticism, the Essenes, Karaite Judaism, and Humanistic Judaism. Even early Christianity would be included in this understanding of Judaism. (Although for historical reasons, I would not include Christianity as a form of Judaism after the 1st century CE since it quickly became dominated by gentiles and began oppressing and persecuting Jews.) In this sense there are many Judaisms, not just a single “orthodox” Judaism.

In order for progressive Judaism to be seen as legitimate in its own right, rather than a watered down version of Orthodoxy, it must become committed to the vision of its own truth. This will include a radical rejection of Orthodox authority and theology and a frank acceptance of common progressive attitudes toward Judaism and Jewish culture. This expression of Jewish religious truth is deeply humanistic, democratic, and egalitarian. It is committed to ethics and social justice, and it focuses on community rather than dogma. The legitimacy of progressive and Humanistic Judaism lies in embracing this vision, not in a return to tradition.

On Circumcision

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

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

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

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

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

The 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 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.