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
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This entry was posted in General HJ, Humanistic Judaism journal. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Judaism for Humanistic Jews

  1. jubusu says:

    Should it from the rooftops! This is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read about Humanistic Judaism.

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