Jewish History as Jewish Practice

This essay appears as the Foreword to the new e-book edition of Reclaiming Jewish History, available for Amazon Kindle, iBookstore, Nook and more. You may also enjoy more e-books from Humanistic Judaism.

Meaningful Jewish practice can be more than prayer and religious law. For Orthodox Jews, studying halakha [religious law] is a primary way to connect with Judaism, a central religious practice – for them, it is a direct route to divine revelation and ultimate truth. For Secular Humanistic Jews, the study of Jewish history IS Jewish practice–it is their connection with the broad sweep, the diversity and complexity of the Jewish experience, and it is the story of their people.

Unfortunately, all too often we settle for the story tradition tells, or the story we want to hear, rather than taking the risk of discovering the real story of what actually happened, how our ancestors actually lived. While the narratives of Genesis may have a kind of poetic truth in that they resonate with the human condition (e.g., Genesis 2:18 – “it is not good that humanity should be alone”), this is not the same as historic truth.

Secular Humanistic Jews want the dignity of knowing what really happened, what our ancestors actually believed (even if differs from our beliefs), and how we truly came to be who we are today. Indeed, if Jewish history is the real story of real people struggling for survival, then our inspiration is justified – the Jewish experience and Jewish survival become testimony to the power of people.

The one voice missing from Reclaiming Jewish History is the hardest one to forget: that of its organizer Rabbi Sherwin Wine. Anyone who attended Colloquium ’97 (or views the available DVDs) will recall Wine’s leadership throughout the weekend, his comments and questions from the panel, his summary session at the end, even his joke that he was inspired to discover from Carol Meyers that the earliest Hebrew ancestors were hillbillies! Wine conceived and organized this Colloquium as a message: that Secular Humanistic Judaism takes seriously what academic, scientific study of the Jewish past has to tell us. All too often Reform and Conservative rabbis learn this history in seminary and do not teach it to the general public. This Colloquium, and the first Humanistic Rabbi, Sherwin Wine, wanted the lay audience, the Sunday School and the congregational celebration to be influenced and inspired by the real history of the Jews. Wine’s last work, published posthumously in 2012, was A Provocative People: A Secular History of the Jews, whose approach and conclusions were clearly molded by this Colloquium.

There were some fears expressed at Colloquium ’97 of demanding a “usable past” – a past shaped by present needs rather than by the best insights of dispassionate scholarship. The mythmakers of the Bible presented the past not as it was, but rather as they wished it had been; today we are still working to separate story from history. Rabbinic Judaism similarly projected its new ideas back into the Biblical period, making it that much more difficult to understand our true ethnic and cultural origins. The conclusions of modern scholarship are often less defined, less absolute, and less settled than our concepts of good and bad, Jewish and non-Jewish, past and present would prefer. And the temptation remains to tell history as we wish it to be.

Nevertheless, if we can accept our history, our real history, with all of its difficulties, ambiguities and challenges, then we will have a firm basis upon which to create a lasting and meaningful connection with the Jewish experience. And that honest connection is the basis of a vibrant Secular Humanistic Judaism. The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism exists to provide continuing education, conferences and publications to support the world-wide movement of Secular Humanistic Judaism, and Colloquium ’97 clearly accomplished all three objectives.

In Orthodox Judaism, there is a bottomless curriculum: the Talmud and its commentaries. And while these works are relevant to Secular Humanistic Jews as creations of our people and as artifacts testifying to Jewish life and practice in previous centuries (and today), our central text is the Jewish experience. The Mishnah refers to the Torah when it says “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it” (Mishnah Avot 5:22). For us, Jewish history contains the truths we seek, and the more we turn it and turn it, consider it and reconsider it, the more we will discover.

As an introductory survey to Jewish history, considering the most important ideas and issues, episodes and epochs, Reclaiming Jewish History has few peers. This is a beginning, Jewish history as best we can know it, or at least as best we knew it in 1997. As Hillel supposedly said to a potential convert regarding the core teachings of Judaism, all the rest is commentary.


About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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2 Responses to Jewish History as Jewish Practice

  1. Pingback: What is religion? | A secular Jew in Indianapolis

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