A Culture of Blessing

This post originally appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October 2017.

When we use a Humanistic blessing, what exactly do we mean?

In a traditional setting, be it the East European shtetl or contemporary Brooklyn, Rabbinic texts are constantly repeated: prayers three times a day, the same Shabbat service every week.  The most commonly-repeated texts, however, are short and to the point: blessings. There are blessings for everything under the sun: eating and drinking, extraordinary events, good fortune, even tragedy. Most begin with the same formula: Barukh Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha-Olam, Blessed are you, our God, King of the Universe. . .

A “culture of blessing,” however, is not simply a matter of reciting specific texts. It is an approach to life that believes that everything relies on a supernatural source, which deserves (and desires) to be thanked at every turn.  For example, in the Torah, the Jews are warned against too much self-congratulation:

You may say in your heart, “my power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” And you shall remember YHWH your God; for he is who gives you power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant, which he swore to your fathers. And if you do forget YHWH your God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I warn you this day that you shall surely perish. {Deut. 8:17-19}

In other words, humans taking credit for their own achievement is chutzpah, while humans giving credit to God for human achievements is piety! If all the blessings and prayers were in English, it might sound like this:

Even if we have Humanistic objections, a culture of blessing does more than create an attitude of gratitude; it is also a constant reminder of Jewish identity. If every time you see a rainbow, or every time you eat anything, or every time you leave the lavatory, you recite a Hebrew phrase, you implicitly say to yourself, ‘I’m Jewish’ that many times a day.

A “culture of blessing” is largely foreign to the experience of most modern American Jews, especially secular and Humanistic Jews. We have no problem saying, “My power and the might of my hand HAVE gotten me this wealth.” We show gratitude to those who deserve it, and we have no thanks for the indifference of the universe when it afflicts us. We know that we are Jewish without reminding ourselves every hour of every day.

Yet is there nothing we can glean from a culture of blessing, a culture deeply ingrained in Jewish history and Jewish life?  Here are a few:

Gratitude: the feeling of being fortunate to see a natural wonder, or to be present at a special human event, or to have experienced the highs (and lows) of human emotion.  These feelings require no author to thank, nor a special phrase to recite; they need acknowledgement and recognition.

Mindfulness: pausing before drinking or eating can provide a moment of self-reflection, a break from the rush-hour pace of life, and a chance to remember one’s health and happiness. Today, even some religious Jews, who are uncomfortable with the traditional language of a personal God and King, have taken the moment of blessing as an opportunity for mindfulness.

Community: Pausing to recognize the value of community, of family, of friendship before eating and celebrating together can be a powerful moment of shared experience. Stopping afterwards to reflect on human connections can add meaning to the simplest action.

Humanistic Jews are unlikely to adopt a pervasive culture of blessing.  We rarely recite fixed texts; we do not stop our lives multiple times a day to remember a Hebrew phrase.  Yet just as we strive to take the best from historical Jewish culture for Humanistic Judaism, we may also adopt elements from a culture of blessing.

Barukh ha-or ba-olam, barukh ha-or ba-ah-dam. Blessed is the light in the world, blessed is the light within people.

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