Originally published in The Shofar, Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, August 2009/Tammuz-Elul 5769
I am asked often what differentiates Humanistic Judaism from other liberal branches of Judaism. After all, now that Conservative Judaism ordains gay rabbis, Reform Judaism welcomes intercultural/interfaith couples, and Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism
are both politically/socially liberal and theologically exploratory, what space is left for us?
A very important space. While we share many values with those other movements, our priorities are different. One of the easiest ways to summarize our approach to our personal beliefs and our Jewish practice is we say what we believe, and we believe what we say. We recognize that what we believe is different from what our ancestors believed, so we have decided that speaking our truth and celebrating our Jewish identity honestly and consistently is more important than saying the same words or performing the same rituals as our ancestors.
Others in the liberal Jewish world take a different approach. They argue (explicitly or implicitly) that continuity with the past and a deep connection to the language and liturgy of our ancestors is more important and therefore we must find a way to harmonize our personal philosophy with our religious liturgical inheritance. They are certainly free to pursue their attempts to redefine traditional prayers, or to try to re-frame traditional theology in modern terms, even if we find these attempts unsatisfying for us.
Words have meaning. And the God of the Bible—a God who cares what you eat and what you wear and rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked—is far removed from the loving, fuzzy force of certain contemporary theologies. Is it reasonable to use the same word for both concepts/characters? Redefining “God” is itself a Jewish tradition, from the early rabbis who changed the primary worship ritual from animal sacrifice to verbal prayer after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, to the medieval Maimonides whose Aristotelian rationalism tried to harmonize philosophy and revelation, and to our own day. So who are we in Humanistic Judaism to break tradition?
The truth is that we are following a different Jewish tradition: the tradition of not speaking “one thing in the mouth and another in the heart” (ekhad ba-peh v’ekhad ba-lev) [Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 113b]. The rabbis who wrote those traditional prayers, who created those traditional rituals, were not doing so because they were trying to create something old; they did so because they believed in those prayers and rituals. Our Jewish ancestors refused to say words they did not believe, and they insisted on affirming what they did believe, despite adverse consequences. They changed and adapted Judaism over the centuries to respond to new circumstances and, yes, new beliefs; and as we change what they created we, in fact, honor them.
The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai put it very well in his last book Open Closed Open, drawing on the rabbinic legend of Abraham smashing his father Terakh’s idols in his monotheistic zeal (my translation):
We are all sons of Abraham,
But we are also grandchildren of Terakh, father of Abraham.
Perhaps now time has come for the grandchildren to do
To their father what he did to his father,
When he smashed his images and idols, his faith and belief.
But that, too, will be the beginning of a new religion.
Ours is the continuity of change.
P.S. A few thoughts on Humanistic Jewish integrity from our founder, Rabbi Sherwin Wine: