I recently gave a short presentation on Humanistic Judaism to a program of InterfaithFamily/Chicago for soon-to-be or recently married couples that I thought could be useful both as a basic explanation of Humanistic Judaism and to explain why we are a good fit for many intercultural couples and families.
If you wanted to explain Humanistic Judaism in one sentence, it would be “Humanistic Judaism celebrates Jewish culture through our human-focused philosophy of life.” Since I have room for more than one sentence, I’ll expand a bit.
For Humanistic Jews, Jewish identity is an ethnic, family, cultural identity. This can include elements understood as “religious” like life cycle ceremonies or holidays, but also art, history, literature, food, language, jokes and more. And this is not unique to our movement; many Jews connect to Jewish culture more strongly than to Jewish religious beliefs or practices. There is no “Methodist-land,” while there is a sense of a Jewish homeland and a feeling of connection to other Jewish people, however diverse that peoplehood may be. Even the most traditional definition of “who is a Jew” is an ethnic definition: who your parents are rather than theological beliefs or rituals. Our cultural Jewish identity is who we are and where we come from, as well as what we do.
There are several implications from a cultural Jewish identity. First, culture evolves and changes, was created by people to respond to their time and place, responds to new circumstances and is open to new creativity. So what Jews 2000 ago believed or prescribed may or may not still inspire us. Second, cultures are available to choose from, just as we may connect with certain aspects of American culture and not others. In weddings I perform, couples choose which elements they want to include, and how to include them; for example, sometimes each one breaks a glass, rather than only one (male) partner. Most important [for this audience], we live in multiple cultures, multiple families at once. I am part of my own family, and also my wife’s family; even though both families are Humanistic Jewish, we learn from each other’s traditions and celebrate each other’s milestones. So, too, with intercultural families who are connected to both partners’ traditions (and both sets of grandparents!).
Humanistic Jews celebrate our identity, or our identities, through our human-focused philosophy. All too often religion is not about people – read a siddur/prayer book, particularly the Hebrew text or a clear translation. The focus is on what people CAN’T know, what people CAN’T do, how much help we need from above and beyond. Our Humanistic approach is to change the focus: instead of looking above and beyond for help, let’s celebrate what we CAN do, how much we HAVE achieved (individually and together). Let’s learn what really happened in our past, through critical study and archaeology, so we can discover how we really came to be who we are. And let’s celebrate the reality of the world we know, the life we share, the power we have, the inspiration we seek.
What are the implications of this philosophy? We can learn from our tradition, since it was created by people, and we also learn from modern human knowledge in the sciences, psychology, genetics and all the rest. We believe that all cultures, including Jewish culture, are responses to the human experience, and so we can find parallels and points of common ground between ours and others, and even learn from them. It’s not an accident that other cultures also have light-lighting holidays in the depths of winter! Most important, you are in charge of your own life – whom you choose to marry, how you create your family, what values you want to live. That means more responsibility, but also potentially great satisfaction for a life well lived.
This is why Humanistic Judaism has officiated at interfaith marriages and welcomed intercultural families from the very beginning, including our first policy statements in support of these families, both intermarriage and co-officiation, in 1974 and 1982, when other movements were busy rejecting both marriage and co-officiation (even if that opposition has softened a bit more recently). And the common demand to raise children “exclusively Jewish” can be problematic for couples who respect and honor both family traditions as equal partners. Some may choose to join congregations that would not have married them, but others prefer a community that will celebrate their family from the beginning.
Humanistic Judaism can be a comfortable Jewish home for intercultural families who share core human-focused values; we are very meaningful as the Jewish piece of an intercultural mosaic.
You can hear more about our/my approach to intermarriage in this audio podcast.
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