Weddings!

If you have found this page while looking for a wedding officiant, congratulations on your engagement! I would be honored and happy to be a part of your wedding celebration.

There are many ways you might have found me for your ceremony: as a Humanistic Rabbi with Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, as a Humanist Officiant through The Humanist Society, a listing of intermarriage officiants from InterfaithFamily.com, or because of positive word of mouth from one of my previous couples (even a positive online review like this one from 2006!). No matter how you found me, I’m sure we can create a meaningful celebration of your love together.

When it comes to weddings, I’m happy to:

Lopez-Aronson wedding ceremony

Lopez-Aronson wedding ceremony

  • Create personalized ceremonies for wedding couples, including what they want and avoiding what they don’t – I never force a pre-written ceremony template on you;
  • Conduct wedding ceremonies all day Saturday, regardless of when sundown may be;
  • Officiate at intermarriages, including using, explaining and directing elements of the non-Jewish partner’s religious or cultural tradition in the ceremony (such as a unity candle);
  • Co-officiate with other clergy, provided that we create a balanced ceremony with inclusive language (all Hebrew translated, non-Jewish clergy use generic “God” rather than “Jesus Christ”).
TJ and Michael in their huppah

TJ and Michael in their huppah

I am also very capable in French, Spanish, and Hebrew (and passable in Yiddish), if you are looking for an officiant to include elements of any of these languages in the ceremony. And, to be very clear, I am very happy to celebrate same-sex weddings with just as much joy and enthusiasm as every wedding.

If you are a wedding couples in need of my services, please feel free to be in touch with me by phone (847-602-4500) or email (rabbi@kolhadash.com). You can find more information about me and my congregation on our website, including a link to my audio podcast and blog, both of which include useful material on marriage and intermarriage.

Once again, mazel tov and congratulations on finding love – let’s celebrate together!

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The Simplest Things

These talks will be delivered at High Holiday services this September for Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, and later available through The Kol Hadash Podcast. If you’re interested in celebrating the Jewish New Year with us in Deerfield, Illinois, please email our office or call 847-383-5184.

The Simplest Things

Repairing the world does not always need massive funding or life-altering choices. It can be as simple as a few words spoken to other people. These small bridges can be paths to peace and happiness for ourselves, and even for the world.

“I Hear You”       Rosh Hashana Evening              September 13, 2015   8:00 PM
As awful as human suffering can be, it can be even harder to suffer alone without understanding or empathy. The most basic step in overcoming conflict and isolation is an ability we evolved countless generations ago: to speak, and to truly listen.

“I’ll Help”         Rosh Hashana Morning                September 14, 2015   10:00 AM
No one is an island. We grow up in families and societies, and we learn the balance between mutual responsibility and self-actualization. In the space between obligation and freedom lies “help” – a hand we all need from time to time that gives us the strength to do for ourselves what we no longer need others to do unto us.

“It’s My Responsibility”         Yom Kippur Evening           September 22, 2015   8:00 PM
Taking responsibility is not easy, particularly when others prefer seeking excuses or spreading blame. Dignity and self-respect are children of responsibility, but so too are risk and failure. The confidence we find from taking charge of our lives flows through our actions to the world around us, transforming desire into will, and will into reality.

“I Forgive”             Yom Kippur Morning                    September 23, 2015   10:00 AM
Forgiveness can repair relationships, and it can also be healing for both parties in the conflict. But can we learn to forgive ourselves? Guilt is a powerful emotion, and forgiving others can sometimes be easier than facing our guilt. If Yom Kippur is an opportunity for new beginnings, we need to start fresh with ourselves as well.

“Let Go”        Yom Kippur Memorial & Concluding           September 23, 2015   3:30 PM
We want so much to control our lives, and our deaths. Yet experience teaches again and again that we may steer the boat, but we cannot control the current. Learning when and how to say goodbye—and when and how to accept death with dignity—is key to the art of living.

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Jewish Courage

This post originally appeared in The Shofar newsletter of
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, April 2015

  • Item – Western Europe: militant Islamists attack both free speech (journalists and cartoonists) and Jewish institutions (a kosher grocery and a synagogue) in murderous rampages in France and Denmark.
  • Item – Los Angeles: a Jewish student applying for a position in student government has her impartiality questioned because of her membership in a Jewish campus organization, and the fact that she is Jewish.
  • Item – Missouri: a candidate for governor commits suicide amid a whisper campaign that he is secretly Jewish, which his grandfather was but he was not.
  • Item – Evanston: student government passes a non-binding resolution recommending that Northwestern University divest from companies “implicated” in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

I am generally a positive thinker. I try to think the best of people, to give second chances, to understand context and circumstance. I am not an alarmist or agitator who riles people up for fundraising or identity politics. When I look at previous periods of Jewish history, levels of anti-Jewish sentiment and activity are at historic lows – certainly compared to pogroms in the 1880s or mass expulsions in Europe in the Middle Ages or from the Middle East in the mid-Twentieth Century, and especially the horrors of the 1930s and 40s.

I am also a realist who wants to face reality. And one cannot be a realist while simultaneously holding a naïve faith in inevitable progress. When one of our Sunday School students tells his father that he’s scared to go to a synagogue because people are shooting at them, when a steady stream of Facebook posts wonder about the future of Jews in Europe, when an online Trinity College survey shows that 54% of Jewish college students report experiencing or witnessing anti-Semitism on campus, we can’t help but become more nervous.

ADL survey results, 1964-2013

Yes, we can certainly get some perspective. The proportion of Americans with anti-Semitic attitudes, as shown by regular Anti-Defamation League surveys, is less than half of what it was 50 years ago, and even lower among native-born Americans. And some on campus might report any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, while others would differentiate between appropriate critique and crossing the line. The violent incidents in Europe are perpetrated by lone gunmen rather than entire communities, and are fought against by government and police – the opposite of Germany in the 1930s. Indeed, European politicians and governments are explicitly defending Jewish rights and institutions, posting armed police to protect synagogues. And I am never afraid to visit Ukrainian village in Chicago, even on Easter. I see no Kristallnacht event truly worthy of the name on the horizon, either there or here.

Nevertheless, there are still reasons to be concerned. While still a minority (30% or less in most communities), too many in the Muslim world are willing to excuse extreme, even violent behavior. And the conflation of Israel and all Jews may be natural given our own slogans (“We are One,” “Israel Solidarity Day”), even though those outside of Israel do not have a vote on its choices.

There are times that saying “I am Jewish” requires courage. If we draw inspiration from our heritage in good times, then we should also find strength from our roots when life is difficult. Our centuries old chain does not end here. And this time, we do not stand for ourselves alone.

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The Many Voices of Secular Judaism

This post originally appeared in the online journal “Secular Culture and Ideas.” Judaism in a Secular Age is currently available from the IISHJ or on Amazon.com. 

Secular Jewish thought is a multiplicity of voices, though not always in agreement. Zionists rejected Yiddishists; Yiddish socialists excommunicated Yiddish communists, and vice versa; integrationists and universalists derided both Zionists and Yiddish cultural nationalists. Since the Enlightenment there have been myriad Judaisms, including secular Judaisms; what there has not been is a consensus.

In the 21st century, however, the old divisions seem less relevant than a fundamental question: can the various streams of secular Jewish thought be labeled a “tradition?” That is, do they have enough in common? Assuming they do, could one compile a “canon” of secular Judaism? What would be included, what excluded? And what would be the effect of collecting such a wide variety of perspectives into a single volume?

 In 1995, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (for which I am currently the Dean for North America)  published Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought. It includes writers, poets, scientists and activists who represent various branches in the evolution of secular Jewish thought. There is a wonderful introduction by Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, followed by biographical sketches and reading selections from each secular Jewish thinker organized into four categories. Leaving aside for a moment the inclusion/exclusion dilemma, let us consider what message the completed volume presents.

“The Precursor” is Baruch Spinoza, who some claim was the first secular Jew. Whatever one’s opinion on that question, Spinoza’s personal example and philosophy were clearly “precursors” to modern secular Judaism, so excluding Spinoza from this anthology would have been problematic.

The second group, “Kindred Spirits,” includes Zionists Theodor Herzl and David Ben Gurion; literary figures Sholem Aleichem and H.N. Bialik; and well-known Jews Albert Einstein and Louis Brandeis. Not everyone in this broad category—which even includes “religious” thinkers Martin Buber and Mordecai Kaplan—was a secularist, but their work “forms an essential background to a developing secularist outlook,” as Yehuda Bauer writes in his introduction. Besides, if more conventional religious Judaisms can claim radical thinkers like Buber or Bialik, so too can secular Judaism.

The third group, “Pathbreakers,” includes thinkers who are more clearly in the orbit of a secular Judaism, as their work is focused on either cultural Jewish identity or secular/humanist philosophy. Yiddishists like Shimon Dubnow, Zionists like Max Nordau and Ahad Ha’am, poets Saul Tchernikhowsky and Rahel, philosophers Sidney Hook and Hannah Arendt, and activist Emma Goldman probably could not have shared a stage in real life. Here, though, they are presented as direct antecedents to contemporary secular Judaism.

The last group—“Framers of Secular Judaism”—includes figures actively involved in the movement of Secular Humanistic Judaism. They include Rabbi Sherwin Wine, originator of Humanistic Judaism; Morris Schappes, long-time editor of the secular Jewish magazine Jewish Currents; European intellectuals Albert Memmi and Isaiah Berlin; Israeli figures like Supreme Court justice Haim Cohn, activist Shulamit Aloni, and writers Yehuda Amichai and A.B. Yehoshua.

Clearly, the challenge was to select a list that could fit between hard covers. Claiming everyone Jewish as a “root” of secular Judaism would have been possible but absurd, and not helpful to defining a secular Judaism; everyone claims Hillel, so he is not as clearly connected to secular Judaism as are the figures included. Or consider the medieval philosopher and rabbi Maimonides. Maimonides may have included rational elements in his religious philosophy, but given that he also authored the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” recited daily in Orthodox practice, perhaps he is too distant evolutionarily to be a “kindred spirit” to modern secular Jews. Most important, both Hillel and Maimonides were not Jews responding to a secular age; the title Judaism in a Secular Age thus defines not only a subject but also a time frame.

Even among those who could have been included, many were necessarily left out. Jewish labor movement activists; pioneering feminists (who were also Humanists) like Betty Friedan; even early Reform Jews whose criticisms of traditional Judaism and willingness to change Jewish practice to fit modern ideas could claim a rightful place here. So, too, could more women or non-Ashkenazi Jews—together they comprise only 15% of the contributors.

Laments aside, what does this volume demonstrate about the diversity and evolution of secular Jewish thought? Some of the arguments are no longer relevant (like Yiddish language-based Diaspora cultural autonomy). But even those advocates have something to say to modern secular Jews:

I am talking about conscious poetic expression, where religious images, myths and ceremonies become precious to us not because we believe in their divine origin, but because our spirit is moved by their human beauty. They evoke in us poetic feelings and thoughts; we consider them humanistic sanctities. Only this kind of rebirth can remain free of any metaphysical or theological traces. (JSA, p. 93)

Is Chaim Zhitlowsky’s term “sanctities” entirely appropriate? After all, “Secular Jews do not accept the authority of a supernatural God,” as Sherwin Wine writes in his foreword. “Nor do they seek to ‘rescue’ religious and theistic language for naturalistic purposes. . . .” Wine added three further principles with which almost all of the contributors to Judaism in a Secular Age, in either their lives or their ideas, would agree – the common ground that enables them to be linked together:

Secular Jews do not view Judaism as primarily a religion. They see it as the evolving culture and civilization of a world people….
Secular Jews do not feel any need to be validated by traditional religious texts….
Secular Jews deny that there is only one Jewish tradition. They do not accept the establishment rabbinic tradition as the only example of “Jewish roots.”

For those who also agree, and are seeking a guide to their own intellectual heritage, Judaism in a Secular Age is a good start. As diverse as modern secular Jews are—and always have been—they are likely to find many kindred voices here.

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Jewish Futures

Originally appeared in the December 2014 “Shofar”
newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

What does the future fold for the Jewish people? The best answer is: who knows?

According to Jewish tradition, the last prophet was Malachi, who lived and prophesied in the 400s BCE. And since that time, though one could study the revelations already given for hints and signs of what was to come, it was nothing like a prophet with a direct line to the Hebrew god. Even Biblical books that were written after 400 BCE, like the Hellenistic philosophy-infused Ecclesiastes or the Book of Daniel which responds to pre-Maccabean persecution in the 2nd century BCE, had to be ascribed to figures living before Malachi. Thus Ecclesiastes was attributed to Solomon, Daniel set during the Babylonian Exile (mid-500s BCE), and countless other works in this period not included in the Hebrew Bible appear as “pseudepigrapha,” or “by fake authors.” The point is, we do not know the future; to recycle one of my regular jokes, for centuries Judaism has been a “non-prophet” organization.

That has not stopped us from trying to make predictions, of course; just as rabbinic prohibitions on gossip (lashon ha-ra) are in place because everyone loves to do it so much. We certainly have our modern prophets of doom, predicting that if we don’t straighten up or change everything, disaster will strike and Judaism will vanish in the United States, or even the world.  Simon Rawidowicz commented dryly in 1948 that we are the “ever-dying people,” always predicting disaster and imagining that this generation will be the last. But every time the next 50 or 100 years roll around, we are still here. Different, but still here.

I am always heartened looking at the Jewish future by considering the Jewish past. 100 years ago, who could have guessed where we would be today? Jewish settlement in Israel was tiny, and an independent state of Israel was a pipe dream. The large majority of Jews in America were poor, Yiddish-speaking immigrants, slaving away in garment factories or peddling – and they were predominantly traditional-Orthodox or else labor union-Socialist. The Jewish intermarriage rate in New York City was less than 2%. The largest Jewish city in the world was Warsaw, and there were millions of Jews living in Arab lands, where they had been for countess generations.

No one could have guessed that a century of mass migration and Holocaust and Israel and affluence and acculturation and evolution would produce the Jewish world we live in today. So I don’t put too much stock in predictions for the Jewish future, given how hard it is to simply understand the Jewish present and how we got here.

The truth is that there is no one Jewish future; there are Jewish futures that will be simultaneous. 50 or 100 years from now, there will be traditional Jews, and secular Jews, and liberal religious Jews, and intermarried Jews, and in-married Jews, and unmarried Jews, and children from all varieties of parentage and heritage who will be part of the Jewish family.  What will be, will be different, and that is as it always has been.

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Separating Synagogue From State

The following address was delivered at a conference in Jerusalem hosted by Tmura-IISHJ (the Israeli center for training Secular Humanistic rabbis) on March 20, 2015

My rabbi, Sherwin Wine, had a way of put things well in just a few words. He once wrote that Israel is an unusual homeland because people here ask each other “where are you from?” This happens because through our history we Jews became a world people, and we still are today, even here. If someone asks me where I am from, a long time ago it was eretz yisrael [the land of Israel], but in my history with names I come from two places before the modern world – my mother’s family are Litvaks [Jews from Lithuania] who left the shtetl [small town], and my father’s family are Halabi Jews from Aleppo, Syria who were raised in the Ottoman Empire.

In both of those worlds they left, relics of the Medieval ages, there was no separation between religion and government – Jews had very little self-government anyways, and what little they did enjoy was always connected with religious authority. The heads of the communities married their daughters to the rabbis, and vice versa. My ancestors left the world of the shtetl and the Ottomans to move to the modern world. So I am a child of many worlds: ancient Israel, medieval Diaspora, and modern freedom.

And that is why it is intolerable, unimaginable that so many of my people who want to live a modern life with modern values and modern freedoms are trapped in a medieval life. People in my congregation are still amazed to learn that a divorced woman cannot marry a Cohen and Jewish state cemeteries will not bury a Tzahal [Israeli army] soldier whose Jewish parent was the wrong one. Perhaps they are imagining the heavenly Jerusalem instead of the real one. The contradiction between their modern values and their Judaism begins as a crack, and over time grows wider.

Israel is not a shtetl, or if it is, it is the first shtetl with wi-fi and an air force. But when authorities who believe Jewish life was best hundreds of years ago control who you can marry, where you are buried, how your money is spent and who can join the Jewish family, we are back in the world of the shtetl, the Ottomans, and we cannot be am khofshi b’artzeinu [a free people in our land, from the Israeli anthem “Hatikvah”], as we hope and work for.

We already have many separations between Israeli Jews and American Jews: different language, different experiences: a child turning 18 means college for most of us and giyyus [army induction] for most of you. The weddings I perform are fully recognized; last year I was happy to write a reference letter for Rabbi Sivan Maas so she could officiate in the United States, but she cannot do the same for me here. I saw an article on Huffington Post just before I came to Jerusalem by a self-declared secular Jew: “Why I No Longer Support Israel.” Israel has lost his support not only differences over the possibility of a Jewish future in the Diaspora or political machinations around the Israeli election, but also over Orthodox control of marriage, dress codes, public and private life.

Put simply, to keep the Jewish people together we need a separation between religion and government in Israel. We are stuck in an arranged marriage between religion and the state, between Shulkhan Arukh [authoritative Jewish law code] and Megillat ha-Atzmaut [Israeli Declaration of Independence], between the shtetl and modernity. By now it is very clear that the marriage is not working, it’s not good for either one, and it’s time for divorce. Never mind a constitution – first I want a gett! [bill of divorce]

If it will be a healthy divorce between Jewish religion and the Jewish state, it will be good for everyone: the state, Judaism, and the rest of the Jewish world. You don’t need me to tell you how it will improve the state of Israel. And if Judaism must convince people instead of force them, then change will come there too – creative Judaism needs freedom like oxygen to live and grow, freedom and competition – that was the new Judaism of the Yishuv [pre-independence Jewish settlement] and the kibbutz [collective farm], and that has been the new Judaism of the modern world.

What would this look like from my perspective?

  • Any child of the Jewish people, from either parent, is welcomed as part of the Jewish family to join a Jewish and democratic state, or even to visit. I can’t tell you how many children of intermarriage visit Israel, on Taglit-Birthright or any other way, and are told they do not belong. THEY ARE THE ONES THAT CAME, and they are being pushed away. Any individual who sincerely and clearly identifies with the Jewish people, with or without mikvah [ritual immersion] and milah [circumcision], should be encouraged and welcome. I’ve heard this saying credited to both David Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan, but it’s true either way: “Whoever is crazy enough to want to be Jewish, deserves it.” The more these people on the margins of Jewish life can be encouraged to deepen their connection, the better for everyone.
  • Every Jew who finds themselves in Israel, man and woman, can find a Jewish connection, leader, congregation, social connections that are equally accepted by Israeli Government – you will never make the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] like you, but you can make sure that both their shuls [synagogues] and your communities treated equally by the state you share. In that world Reform and Conservative and Secular Humanistic Jews will not feel like second class Jews in a Jewish state. How exactly to do this is a debate for you: equal support for various options, or no support for any of them so they will supported by the private citizens who value them. Either way would be better than the alienation we experience now.
  • Jews who visit the land of Israel to connect with their roots do not feel like they have to betray their values; the special places that are important to the entire Jewish people not run as if they were haredi synagogues. I would love to have the option of bare head at the Kotel [Western Wall] together with my wife to celebrate my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Find a picture of the Kotel from the 1920s, before a Jewish state married Jewish religion, and you’ll see men and women together without incident.

    Women and men together at Western Wall before 1948.

  • As a tourist who likes to ride the bus, I am not trapped in hotel or the neighborhood or the city I am in by Jewish holidays. Our Jewish holidays here should be celebrations, opportunities for new connections and experiences, visiting museums and experiencing Jewish culture – more like “Khag Ha-Bekhirot!” [Israeli Election Day is a national holiday]
  • Every citizen of the state has the right to marry the person they love, the way they want to be married. Next week, I will be marrying a couple in Chicago who live together here in Jerusalem. The bride is not Jewish, but she came for a visit to Israel and never left because she fell in love with the state, and then with a man here. Her groom is a Cohen, they are both secular, and they have to leave where they want to live to start their life together despite her voluntary identification with the Jewish state and Jewish culture. My officiating this ceremony is my gain, but it is our loss!

One of reasons Israel became beloved by Jews outside of Israel was the belief that it fulfilled both Jewish and human values: an egalitarian society, tohar ha-neshek [a moral army], a vibrant new Jewish culture that lived in ha-olam ha-zeh [this world]. I have no vote here, all I have is a voice. My vision after the divorce between medieval and modern, a divorce between Jewish religion and a Jewish state? My Jewish and my human values will be confirmed and celebrated through my connections with this place and this people. But don’t do this just for me – do it for yourselves, and do it for all of us!

We must separate the state from religion to keep the Jewish people together. One people, many voices, and free at last.

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Judaism for Humanistic Jews

This post was originally a 2004 High Holiday sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation. It also appeared as an article in the journal Humanistic Judaism and is reprinted with permission.

 In the traditional Jewish narrative, Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. He found the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf and broke the tablets in his rage. After a bloody purge of the idolators, Moses returned to the mountain and received a new set of two tablets of the Ten Commandments,.  A different version, according to Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I, is that Moses came down the mountain with fifteen commandments, dropped and broke one tablet with five of them, and settled on Ten Commandments.

What does this story mean to us? After all, we Humanistic Jews, true to the tradition of our ancestors, are definitely a “stiff-necked people” – we don’t want anyone  to tell us what we have to do. We’ve gone from being the Chosen People to being the “choosy people.” We don’t like commandments, and we’re doubtful that there’s a commander behind them. The Ten Commandments are ours, but we don’t agree with all of them.  No Murder, no stealing – no problem. Not worshipping idols and keeping the Sabbath require some interpretation to be useful. “I am YHWH your God” and “Thou shalt not covet” (as if we could control momentary emotions) – these are more problematic than inspirational. We face a central question in contemporary Jewish life – not “What is Judaism,” but “What does Judaism, what does being Jewish mean to me?” Let us examine five ways to think about Judaism for Humanistic Jews. Each of them is a piece of the puzzle that defines who we are and what we believe.

We begin with an image from the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai called “Poem without An End.”

Inside the brand-new museum
There’s an old synagogue
Inside the synagogue
Is me.
Inside me
Is my heart.
Inside my heart
A museum.
Inside the museum
A synagogue,
Inside it
Me,
Inside me
My heart,
Inside my heart,
A museum

Jewish identity is all of these: Judaism is the new museum, Judaism is the old synagogue, Judaism is the living individual, Judaism is the wordless emotion of the heart, Judaism is the memory of a people, Judaism is the heart in the person in the synagogue in the museum. Let us begin, then, on the human level – the person standing in the synagogue, the individual human being.

We humans are thinking beings. The first piece of our picture of Judaism for Humanistic Jews, then, is Judaism as Jewish thought – the process and products of thinking about what it means to be Jewish. Why are you in the old synagogue in the new museum? Why does your heart contain the past  (the old synagogue), the future ( the new museum), and the intersection of the two? Why did you choose to explore the museum with the synagogue in it?

If your only authoritative source were the Bible, what would being Jewish mean?  There would be strict rules to follow: Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, make no graven images, thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not have other gods before me; thou shalt and thou shalt not and thou shalt never. There would be commitments to honor  – a covenant entered by your ancestors and binding “from generation to generation” without the right to question or renegotiate. There would be boundaries to maintain – ethical rules (“love your neighbor as yourself”) and also social and ritual boundaries – clean and unclean, male and female, Jew and outsider.

For Humanistic Jews, the closest we could get to ten commandments would be “Ten Strongly Worded Suggestions For You to Consider in Your Free Time.” Our commitment to Jewish identity is strong because we have chosen it out of all other possibilities, including the possibility of vanishing into general American culture. Our boundaries are defined by our values – not by what happens to us, but by how we act and react; not by our birth but by whom we have become; not by who our mother was, but by where our hearts lie. We know the Ten Commandments, we understand what they mean, and we respect what in them still has value today. But we are not subjected, subservient, or submissive to any directives that would undermine our dignity and autonomy as thinking human beings who have come to new conclusions.

We Humanistic Jews are a part of Jewish thought, for we think about what it means to be part of the Jewish people. If we celebrate our past, we have thoughtfully chosen from our heritage. If we create anew, we are adding our voices to the Jewish chorus of the centuries.  In other words, we are part of Jewish culture.

For Humanistic Jews, Judaism is also Jewish culture, the second piece of our puzzle. The old synagogue is Jewish culture, but so is everything else in that brand new museum, including the words of the poet standing in an old synagogue in a new museum. Not only the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments that we find in the Book of Exodus, but also how later generations of rabbis understood it, and how medieval Jewish artists created beautiful Passover haggadot with vivid scenes of Moses crossing the Red Sea dressed in medieval clothing, and how Mel Brooks imagined Moses being clumsy and dropping a tablet.

Jewish culture has always been more than what the Talmud’s rabbis said it was. If you go back to the beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism, there were two insults for those who disagreed with the early rabbis:  apikoros (heretic, freethinker, askeptic), and  am ha-aretz ( ignoramus).  The am ha-aretz didn’t follow the rules because he didn’t know them, but the apikoros knew the rules and didn’t agree with them, or chose what he followed and what he didn’t, and for the rabbis he was worse. The word apikoros comes from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who told people not to fear the gods because there weren’t any, and not to worry about punishment in the afterlife because there was none. And there were evidently enough Jews who had read Epicurus to be given this dirty name of apikoros. (By the way, I’ve always longed to have a singing group full of Humanistic Jews that could be called “The Api-Chorus.” And that would be Jewish culture too.)

This, then, is our model – the apikorossomeone who knows the tradition and has chosen what is meaningful based on his or her personal beliefs. To be Jewish, one can go to an old synagogue, or to a brand-new museum, or have a personal experience with Jewish culture, or simply feel in one’s heart the pull of a melody that speaks to us with a Jewish accent.

When we combine our first two puzzle pieces, Jewish thought with Jewish culture, we begin to see the contours of our identity. The individual standing in the synagogue thinks of his Judaism in his heart, and there he finds both the museum and the synagogue, Jewish religion and Jewish memory, Jewish music and food and literature and texture and color, traditional and modern Jewish thoughts on what it means to be a part of the Jewish people.

In Amichai’s poem, the poet is not just standing in a synagogue; he stands in a synagogue in a museum, placing his Jewish connection in historical and social context. This is the third piece of our puzzle, because for Humanistic Jews, Judaism is also Jewish history – how we developed into who and what we are.  Moses himself may never have actually existed – our study of history and archaeology finds basically no evidence in Egyptian sources, no evidence in the Sinai desert, and even contradictory elements in the Bible itself. What is affirmative about this historical exploration is the process of trying to discover the real history of our people, and not just what we read in our first story book. Imagine the young George Washington and the cherry tree he confessed to having chopped down  ( “I cannot tell a lie”). Will we ever find the stump of that cherry tree? No – the story has clear ethical and mythological value, but it is not history. And the same is true of Moses writing the entire Torah, or of the rabbis carrying on an oral tradition that was supposedly given on Mount Sinai, or of the idea that the Jews created their own culture in ghettos entirely disconnected from the hostile world around them that hated and persecuted them at every turn. All of these are interesting stories with their own purrposes, but they are not history. The Torah was written over centuries by many authors, the rabbis evolved intellectually and debated their laws centuries later, and Jews have had a mixed experience among the nations, learning and sharing with some while fleeing others. We have to have the courage to look honestly at ourselves, and to seek our real past.

With respect to Jewish history there are “creationist” Jews and “evolutionist” Jews. “Creationist” Jews believe that Judaism was created at a certain point in time and has never appreciably changed. At their extreme, they believe that Abraham ate matsa at his Passover seder, even though the Exodus happens in a later book of the Bible, or that David studied the Torah with his rabbi, even though historically the Torah was written centuries after David may or may not have lived. For creationist Jews, Judaism was, is, and will be essentially as it began.  They may not agree on what that was — some claim it is based on ritual observance while others highlight ethical monotheism or certain prayers — but they are sure that what they do is the core of what Judaism has always been.

As Humanistic Jews, we believe in evolution; not only the evolution of species, but the evolution of Judaism. Like every living thing, Judaism has changed in response to its environment and internal needs. Like every living thing, Judaism contains old elements from its past, contemporary innovations for new settings, and active pieces adopted from the outside world that support its survival. Moses never had a Bar Mitzvah with a DJ, and King David never read the Torah. The early rabbis may have felt that women could not read from the Torah, but we believe in the equality and dignity and freedom of every human being.

We often hear of “the Jewish tradition” as an authoritative force, but as the following story indicates, even that can be problematic: There was great conflict in the main synagogue in Hotzeplotz. At a certain point in the service, half of the congregation would stand, the other half would remain seated, and both sides would start arguing with each other. After several weeks, they decided to visit the oldest man in town to find out what the real tradition was. The first group explained that they stood at that point in the service, and the old man said, “No, that’s not the tradition.” The second group exclaimed triumphantly, “So we should stay seated at that moment!” But the old man replied, “No, that’s not the tradition.” “Well, right now half of us stand and half of us sit and everyone argues!” “Ah, that’s the tradition!”

There is no one tradition, no single understanding of Jewish history and Jewish identity, unless we define it as an active debate about Jewish identity.  That’s the tradition, to argue about the tradition. Because of that tradition, we have every right to stand up for our values, to celebrate our connections through our beliefs, and to learn from our heritage as we choose.

For choice is at the heart of the connection between Judaism and Humanistic Jews, and that is the fourth piece of our puzzle. For Humanistic Jews, being Jewish is the freedom to create Judaism. Some will tell you that the Sabbath created the Jews; the truth is that the Jews created the Sabbath, and since we as the Jewish people created it, we can modify it to respond to our needs as did earlier generations. I never believe it when someone tells me that an object or an idea or a text is untouchable, unquestionable, absolutely authoritative.

I think back to “The Wizard of Oz.” Why do absolutely no work on the Sabbath? “I am YHWH your God.” Why kill the Wicked Witch of the West? “I am the great and powerful Oz.” When faced with unreasonable commands from a distant, authoritative source, I refuse to listen to the command: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! If I do see a man behind the curtain, if I do see the evolution of Jewish tradition, the variety of Jewish culture from which to choose, the diversity of opinions of what it means to be Jewish, I know that I am free to make my own decisions, to live my own Jewish life as it has meaning to me.

Freedom is not always easy – Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote that “we are condemned to be free.” In other words, if there is no external authority to take responsibility, it is all ours. When we make our free choices, we are not always popular for doing so, for we are humanists in a non-humanist world, as well as Jews in a non-Jewish world.  Humanistic Jews are “The Jews of the Jews” – the people who never quite fit in. Our convictions demand songs and celebrations and texts that articulate our beliefs, and although some of our literary heritage fits the bill, much does not. This freedom is a serious responsibility – the culture we create will be the culture our children inherit, the new museum housing the old synagogue..

But where is the heart, the final piece of the puzzle? In the individual human heart, for the individual Humanistic Jew, Judaism is a family identity – Judaism is being an active, contributing member of the Jewish people. You do not stop being part of your birth family or your Jewish family because you have new ideas, or because you have a different understanding of what happened in the past, or because you continue some family traditions and also create your own, or because you fall in love with and marry someone from another ethnic family, or because you speak a non-Jewish language, or because you participate in the world of American culture, or because of any of the incidents of modern life. We are all a part of the Jewish family.

Our family connections to our heritage are stronger than the distance that separates us from the past. The Ten Commandments are part of my Jewish family, and Mel Brooks is part of my Jewish family, and Yehuda Amichai is part of my family.

Turn back to the image created by our puzzle pieces – What do you get when you combine Jewish thought with Jewish culture with Jewish history and Jewish freedom with Jewish family connections? In a phrase, you get Humanistic Judaism. In an image,

Inside the brand-new museum
There’s an old synagogue
Inside the synagogue
Is me.
Inside me
Is my heart.
Inside my heart
A museum.
Inside the museum
A synagogue,
Inside it
Me,
Inside me
My heart,
Inside my heart,
A museum
Posted in General HJ, Humanistic Judaism journal | 1 Comment