Judaism With No God

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

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"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.