Judaism With No God

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

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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."

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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