On Friday, February 4, 2001, the Jerusalem Post carried an article in the “In Jerusalem” section entitled “No-frills Judaism.” In it, Peggy Cidor (the Post’s maven on all things yerushalmi) described how a small movement of Israelis who call themselves “secular humanistic Jews” are building communities of like-minded secular Israelis, rewriting Jewish life cycle events to eliminate reference to God, and ordaining rabbis. (I apologize in advance for not providing a link to the article; the Post requires a paid subscription to access this article online. I’ll quote from it to provide necessary highlights.)
Now, I used to be a secular person. I was never an atheist, but ignorance of Judaism for me also meant ignorance of the nature of God’s relationship with humankind. The frummer the observance, the more based in tradition, the more connected to God, and the less comfortable I was with it. And I understand that there are people in the world who cannot bring themselves to believe in a thing if they haven’t seen it with their own two eyes. (I’m related to many such people.)
So I can’t say I am surprised to see such a movement afoot in Israel. Inspired by one Israeli woman’s experience of a Yom Kippur service in Chicago in 1980 which made no mention of God throughout the entire service, and in which there was “no ark, but instead a kind of pedestal with the inscription ‘Adam’ [man] engraved on it,” it’s been slowly built up and marketed to Jews in Israel who don’t affiliate with their religion other than living on the Jewish calendar and living among other Jews. According to Cidor’s research, the people ordained as rabbis for this new movement “learn and experience various aspects of typical Jewish life from a cultural perspective: Jewish history, education, ethics and philosophy, and culture. They also receive special training in spiritual counseling.” Rabbinical training also “includes community work and public leadership in education, and also training in promoting change in public opinion about the need for a Jewish secular alternative.”
This is not the first effort by secular Jews to reclaim their cultural and intellectual heritage. Other groups of secular Israeli Jews have gathered together to study the Talmud and other Jewish texts, while others have chosen to pair themselves with a religious chevruta (study partner) in order to share their opposing perspectives with one another and enrich the other’s learning.
I find a number of factors interesting about this particular group of humanistic Jews. One is their core belief that man is the center of spiritual life. From my perspective, this is exactly what avodah zara is defined as, i.e. removing God from the center of theology and worshipping something else: money, ambition, or in the case of humanistic Jews, man. To remove the foundation of Judaism, which is mankind’s relationship with the Divine, is to leave the trappings of Judaism (law, commandments, peoplehood, connection to the Land of Israel, the whole basis of the Torah) loose and ungrounded. As a letter-writer to the Post observed, it’s like boiling water and never adding the eggs. They may study what they call Jewish wisdom, but they must be highly selective, since I’m sure that Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles (which includes belief in God) is not among the things they study.
Another interesting thing is the labeling of their leaders as rabbis. I’m not quibbling so much with the title, which has stricter definitions, such as wordiQ’s definition, “a religious Jewish scholar who is an expert in Jewish law”, and looser ones, like “a Jew trained and ordained for professional religious leadership” (Merriam-Webster online). The former obviously does not describe a secular humanist rabbi, while the latter very well could. But in a larger sense, from my experience, people who facilitate communities, do community work, and counseling, are social workers, not rabbis.
Everyone is not cut out for Orthodoxy. It demands broad knowledge of ritual and practice that most people do not care to master or implement. It is also pointless without a belief in God, so I have never maintained that Orthodoxy is for everyone. But what I would miss, if someday Orthodoxy were to disappear and I was left with secular humanistic Judaism (or nothing), is a feeling of foundation for my practices. Those who choose to see Judaism as a culture and not a religion make a conscious choice to embrace that culture. But without God as its foundation, it becomes no different from any other culture. And if Jewish culture is comprised of Jewish food, Jewish dancing, Hebrew, Jewish history, and Jewish ethics, then those things can be preserved or not by people with no loss to their identity. Personally, I prefer Italian food, ballroom dancing, Spanish, and English history (it’s less depressing), and civil law works fine most of the time. So why be Jewish? These are all just options anyway, to be rewritten and observed (or not) as people wish.
Liberal Judaism has tried for hundreds of years to make Judaism more palatable to people who want to play an active role in the secular world. In that sense, Judaism has been full of experimentation, from the Reform movement’s abrogation of kashrut and Sabbath observance, to the Conservative movement’s attempts to re-install some of the rituals dispensed with by the Reform movement (which, for the most part, were only embraced by their rabbis and a handful of congregants), to Modern Orthodoxy which attempts to straddle the gap between traditional Jewish living and full participation in the world of science and modernity. (Haredi Judaism, too, is an experiment to see if Jews can live in the modern world while pretending that there is no such thing.) And now secular humanistic Judaism seeks to find a way to live as Jews in the modern world, disavowing the Torah, ritual, God, and all but a select group of superficial elements. Time will tell if this will really provide the alternative to the Orthodox hegemony in Israel that has alienated so many non-religious Jews. My guess is that for many secular Jews here, who may eat cheeseburgers and drive on Shabbat, but still believe that a child born of a non-Jewish mother is not Jewish (even if the father is), it will appear too superficial, and not take root. It’s like pulling a handful of petals off a living rose bush and gluing them onto paper, saying that that’s a rose. Those petals may live and give off their fragrance for a few hours, but in the course of time will brown, wither, and die.