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.

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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