Judaism With No God

A look at the challenges and opportunities facing Secular Humanist Judaism.

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Although this news article is clearly of a certain time and place--describing a conference that took place in Sept. 2000, which coincided with Joseph Lieberman's historic bid to become the first Jewish vice president--this article also vividly describes the state of Secular Humanist Judaism. This group ordains rabbis and maintains synagogues while believing in a cultural, not religious Judaism, without belief in a personal God. Secular Humanist Jews can claim that despite their relatively small denominational membership ranks, their brand of cultural Judaism better represents the majority of American Jews--who are religiously inactive--than do the other denominations. At the same time, however, established Jewish community institutions are becoming more "religious"--prioritizing Jewish education, for instance--posing an implicit challenge to the very basis of Secular Humanist Judaism. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.

Suddenly, God is seemingly everywhere these days--on the presidential hustings, in the stands at high school football games in the South, overflowing the shelves of the neighborhood bookstore. But He/She wasn't at Cooper Union last weekend when the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews gathered for its biennial conference.

Didn't even get an invite.

At a time when Sen. Joseph Lieberman has thrown his yarmulke and his God into the public square, and when even those Jewish communal institutions long based on a secular, ethnic notion of Jewish identification--the Jewish community center and the Jewish federation--have begun hiring rabbis to bring religious knowledge to their staff and laypeople, where do secular humanistic Jews find their place? Are they in line with the zeitgeist or hopelessly out of step?

Is Secularism the Zeitgeist?

"There's a great deal of talk about religiosity, but I'm not sure it's profound," Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and co-chair of the International Federation, told The Jewish Week at the conference. "The zeitgeist is increasingly toward secularization," he said.

What's more, masses of Jews are not turning toward tradition, the rabbi continued. "Today people are very secular in their lives but they want a weekend of religion, or a wedding of it, or one hour of High Holy Day services," he said. "It's thin. It's nostalgia for the past."

The conference, whose theme was "Choosing to Live as a Secular Humanistic Jew: A Bold Option for Modern Jewish Identity," brought together about 250 people from places as far away as South America and Israel, and as near as New York City. Major speakers included U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, who spoke of how the casual anti-Semitism he faced growing up in a small Southern town shaped his Jewish identity.

in good we trust secular humanismConnection to the Past

For the secular humanist faithful, the affiliation offers the opportunity to be with others who don't believe in God, but who want to stay connected to Jews and the Jewish past, said convention attendees.

"I have very little use for a non-benevolent God," said Tracy Wilson, 38, who had come to the convention with her mother, from their suburban Chicago hometown of Northbrook, Ill.

"What I do need is a connection with other things about being Jewish. Humanism combines atheism and not having to let those things go," said Wilson, who was raised in the secular humanist Congregation Beth Or, where she is still a member. Her 9-year-old daughter attends its Sunday school, as Tracy did.

From her Sunday school education she learned to challenge tradition and gained a familiarity with Jewish holidays, Tracy said, but not much by way of Hebrew language skills or familiarity with Jewish texts. "We question, sometimes, whether the children do get enough grounding" in those things, said her mother, Freddie Wilson, 64.

Freddie Wilson said she joined Beth Or more than 30 years ago, "because I could belong there and not be hypocritical because I don't believe in a supernatural being, and I do believe in an individual's right to determine their own reality."

Fran Prince, a 50-ish Manhattan insurance agent, is attracted to Jewish secular humanism, she said, because she wants to be part of a Jewish community that doesn't expect her to be observant. "Do I have to keep kosher, go to a mikveh, to be a good person? Why can't I just be a Jew without the trappings?" she said.

Distance From "the Trappings"

Indeed, the secular humanists have gained a certain distance from "the trappings." For example, the Yom Kippur service of Manhattan's Jewish secular humanist group, the City Congregation, will end at 2 p.m. with an early break-the-fast communal meal hours before sundown, when Yom Kippur comes to an end.

Traditional blessings aren't adapted to egalitarian or contemporary sensibilities, but rather emptied of any reference to God, a higher power or anything even vaguely mystical.

The central prayer of secular humanistic Jews, for instance, isn't the "Shema," but rather a prayer whose three lines say: "Where is my light? My light is within me. Where is my hope? My hope is within me. Where is my strength? My strength is within me, and in you."

And the Friday-night meal at coolly chic East Village eatery Indochine included the blessings over wine and bread--and the shrimp-and-crab-stuffed Vietnamese spring rolls.

The majority of American Jews believe as they do, say leaders of the movement. Yet gaining a foothold over the years has been difficult. In his convention speech, Rabbi Wine lambasted the Jewish communal establishment for deliberately keeping secular humanistic Jews "invisible."

"There is enormous reluctance of the establishment to recognize us. They don't want to admit that there's a huge sector of the population that doesn't believe, because it suggests danger," he said. "We may constitute more than half of the Jewish people, but we're invisible and that's intolerable." He also attributed his movement's invisibility to its internal disorganization and a lack of funding.

History of the Denomination

The movement Wine strove to create in 1963, when the Reform-ordained rabbi began articulating an atheistic philosophy that embroiled his Birmingham Temple in controversy, claims it has 10,000 adherents, but has only 32 member congregations in North America. The congregations range in size from the Birmingham Temple's 400 families down to congregations where a couple of dozen souls meet twice a month, once for a Sabbath celebration on a Friday night and once more for a cultural event.

But despite these small numbers, movement leaders say that the majority of American Jews live in quiet agreement with their philosophy.

They point to the fact that in the last completed nationwide survey of American Jewry, the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, 55 percent of respondents were not affiliated with any Jewish organization at all, and of them, 83 percent described themselves as having a secular or "just Jewish" background.

So then why has Jewish secular humanism failed to create a thriving movement?

The movement's start 37 years ago makes it nearly as old as the Reconstructionist movement, which was founded in 1955 and today includes 100 congregations, 65,000 members, a full-fledged rabbinical college and growing influence in mainstream American Judaism.

The Jewish secular humanist movement, on the other hand, has a tiny fledgling rabbinical training program which graduated its first rabbi last October and has three more in the pipeline. The movement exerts little influence on American Jewish life. Few American Jews have even heard of it.

Wine and others attribute their movement's small size to a lack of funding and publicity rather than anything inherently unattractive about its approach. The International Federation hopes to remedy those issues with the opening of its new headquarters in Manhattan, and the appointment of an executive director.

The 71-year-old Wine said that he feels successful when he considers the state of his movement today. "I see that we've developed a philosophy of life meaningful to the people here, and that we've been able to connect what most secular Jews believe about life with their Jewish identities," he said in an interview.

"My expectations were never grandiose. We had to create something from nothing and confront a lot of hostility. The most gratifying thing is when I see these young rabbis. Then I know there's continuity."

In his convention speech, he promised that in two decades Jewish secular humanism will become a major player on the national and international Jewish scene. "Then the magic number [of Jewish denominations that people talk about] will be five," he said, "not three or four."

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.