A Secular Jewish Alternative

I have often wondered if, had I not been raised Jewish, I would convert to Judaism. I know many Jews who are intermarried and who don’t believe in God, who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or “just Jewish” Jews. I know many Jewish people who don’t believe in, or question the existence of, God. If a person was not raised Jewish, but enjoys cultural aspects of Judaism, would they convert? Would I convert had I not been born into this religion? Do I love the Jewish religion? Or do I love the Jewish customs and culture? For me, I think these answers are fluid as I grow with my Judaism. I think everyone is different and has their own spiritual and cultural journey. For many individuals and couples, community is really what they are seeking.

Jewish Children's Folkshul of PhiladelphiaIn Philadelphia, I experienced an interesting option: the Jewish Children’s Folkshul. It is a secular humanistic community for children and adults. There is no rabbi or cantor, but they sing songs in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. They say a secular kaddish with a translation of “We remember them,” without invoking God. The kids learn all the Bible stories as stories, not as miracles or acts of God. They tell the Purim story and identify themes that are relevant today. They learn about the Holocaust. They learn about tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (righteous giving), kindness, and ethics. They experience social action/social justice projects and what it is like to be part of a soup kitchen and stand in line for their soup for the day.

The bar/bat mitzvah program includes a project where the student can learn about any topic that helps them connect with their Jewish identity; they prepare a research project to present to family, friends, and the Folkshul community. I was able to watch a young girl give her bat mitzvah presentation. She conducted an entire research project about wedding traditions. She, like her peers at the Folkshul, was encouraged to pick songs and music for the ceremony that are meaningful to her and her family. It was different than a traditional ceremony, yet still a rite of passage and just as lovely. The kids who complete their bar/bat mitzvah stay a part of the Folkshul community because they want to. They work in their community on Sundays. They assist the teachers for the younger grades. The director mused that when the teens assist with the curriculum they themselves learned in younger grades, their learning is enhanced because now they see the teachings from a new perspective.

I met with the teachers to provide them with some sensitivity training. They learned about the resources at InterfaithFamily and we discussed how they teach kids from interfaith families. I was truly impressed that any discussion about other religions is met with absolute respect. It was a wonderful exercise for the teachers and I truly enjoyed their enthusiasm and wisdom.

For those who are interested in a Jewish option that emphasizes ethics and culture, check out a Secular Humanistic community like the Folkshul. It is an intriguing option for those who enjoy Jewish culture and community in a non-religious environment.

Humanistic Judaism: Basics & Intercultural/Interfaith Family Appeal

This is a guest post by Rabbi Adam Chalom, written after a recent presentation on Humanistic Judaism to a program of InterfaithFamily/Chicago for soon-to-be or recently married couples. He thought it could be useful both as a basic explanation of Humanistic Judaism and to explain why his denomination is a good fit for many intercultural couples and families. This is cross-posted from his blog.

If you wanted to explain Humanistic Judaism in one sentence, it would be “Humanistic Judaism celebrates Jewish culture through our human-focused philosophy of life.” Since I have room for more than one sentence, I’ll expand a bit.

Humanistic Judaism

a logo for Humanistic Judaism

For Humanistic Jews, Jewish identity is an ethnic, family, cultural identity. This can include elements understood as “religious” like life cycle ceremonies or holidays, but also art, history, literature, food, language, jokes and more. And this is not unique to our movement; many Jews connect to Jewish culture more strongly than to Jewish religious beliefs or practices. There is no “Methodist-land,” while there is a sense of a Jewish homeland and a feeling of connection to other Jewish people, however diverse that peoplehood may be. Even the most traditional definition of “who is a Jew” is an ethnic definition: who your parents are rather than theological beliefs or rituals. Our cultural Jewish identity is who we are and where we come from, as well as what we do.

There are several implications from a cultural Jewish identity. First, culture evolves and changes, was created by people to respond to their time and place, responds to new circumstances and is open to new creativity. So what Jews 2000 ago believed or prescribed may or may not still inspire us. Second, cultures are available to choose from, just as we may connect with certain aspects of American culture and not others. In weddings I perform, couples choose which elements they want to include, and how to include them; for example, sometimes each one breaks a glass, rather than only one (male) partner. Most important [for this audience], we live in multiple cultures, multiple families at once. I am part of my own family, and also my wife’s family; even though both families are Humanistic Jewish, we learn from each other’s traditions and celebrate each other’s milestones. So, too, with intercultural families who are connected to both partners’ traditions (and both sets of grandparents!).

Humanistic Jews celebrate our identity, or our identities, through our human-focused philosophy. All too often religion is not about people — read a siddur/prayer book, particularly the Hebrew text or a clear translation. The focus is on what people CAN’T know, what people CAN’T do, how much help we need from above and beyond. Our Humanistic approach is to change the focus: instead of looking above and beyond for help, let’s celebrate what we CAN do, how much we HAVE achieved (individually and together). Let’s learn what really happened in our past, through critical study and archaeology, so we can discover how we really came to be who we are. And let’s celebrate the reality of the world we know, the life we share, the power we have, the inspiration we seek.

What are the implications of this philosophy? We can learn from our tradition, since it was created by people, and we also learn from modern human knowledge in the sciences, psychology, genetics and all the rest. We believe that all cultures, including Jewish culture, are responses to the human experience, and so we can find parallels and points of common ground between ours and others, and even learn from them. It’s not an accident that other cultures also have light-lighting holidays in the depths of winter! Most important, you are in charge of your own life — whom you choose to marry, how you create your family, what values you want to live. That means more responsibility, but also potentially great satisfaction for a life well lived.

This is why Humanistic Judaism has officiated at interfaith marriages and welcomed intercultural families from the very beginning, including our first policy statements in support of these families, both intermarriage and co-officiation, in 1974 and 1982.

Humanistic Judaism can be a comfortable Jewish home for intercultural families who share core human-focused values; we are very meaningful as the Jewish piece of an intercultural mosaic.

You can hear more about our/my approach to intermarriage in this audio podcast.

Adaptation and Flexibility for Death and Mourning Customs

My Aunt just died. She had been sick, lived to be 88, and had a wonderful marriage of 62 years. One of the sweetest people I ever knew. Her dear husband is 96 and devastated. He is in excellent health and still drives. He keeps remarking, “who lives to be 96?” He bought a car last year and the salesman offered an extended service plan. He looked at his daughter and laughed. He was lucky she was letting him get a car. My uncle is stunned to be alive and well but now without his beloved wife.

Our family is understandably sad and is in mourning. Typically in Judaism there is a funeral and a mourning process called shiva. What is unique about this case is that her husband (my uncle) doesn’t want a funeral or to observe shiva. To provide you with his perspective, he escaped the Holocaust, leaving Vienna for the US. His parents however were killed in a concentration camp. He feels that his parents had no funeral or religion associated with their death and he and my aunt decided long ago that there was no need for any ceremonies for them either.

My side of the family is quite religious and would like to observe shiva, but we completely respect his wishes. I would have gone to a funeral or to see my uncle and cousins but that is not what my uncle wants. My father has decided to sit shiva at his home (in another state). Many of my father’s cousins who knew my aunt will come to the house and tell sweet stories about her. This process will likely help my father and his brother grieve the loss of their sister. My father will say kaddish for a month (a prayer at daily services) and this too will help him grieve.

What I find so beautiful is that Jewish culture supports both wishes and both needs. Everyone grieves in their own way, and I love that Jewish culture provides us with what we need, when we need it. Grief is personal but can be lonely. Judaism provides the constructs for people to move forward at their own pace.

Does It Fit?

The rabbi and congregation where I grew up never presented the messages that “you have to do XYZ” or “you aren’t Jewish if you do ABC.” I appreciate that. Instead, the rabbi encouraged us to learn what Judaism teaches, to explore the traditions, and to try on Judaism. If it fit, great! If it didn’t, try on different aspects of Judaism until we find what feels right for us.

What fits me may not fit you. What I’ve chosen in my life works for me and I don’t presume that it is what will work for everyone. Let me give you an example. I keep kosher. Sort of and sometimes. Yet some people may say because I added “sort of and sometimes” that I don’t keep kosher. OK, that’s their perspective.

I’m a vegetarian who will eat chicken broth in my soup. It works for me. I’ve had religious Jews tell me I should keep “more kosher.” And, I’ve had vegetarians tell me I shouldn’t eat eggs or drink milk. I don’t keep kosher for them and I’m not a vegetarian for others. I’m doing it for me in a way that feels good for me and that works for me.

InterfaithFamily supports interfaith families exploring Jewish life. Try something on. If it fits, wear it for a while. If it doesn’t, try something else.

The Simplicity of Welcoming

There are people that we meet that we enjoy and treasure, and then there are people who change our lives forever. When my friend Erin suggested I apply for the job at InterFaithways, I wasn’t sure if I was interested in working for a non-profit. But I figured, one never knows where a chance meeting or interview will lead. So I walked into my interview without any strong feelings about whether or not I would be offered the job. Throughout the meeting, I realized that the mission of the organization — to welcome interfaith families to the Jewish community — was something I could embrace. As it turned out, I was offered the job and met privately with Rabbi Mayer Selekman a few weeks later. We had a conversation that has changed my life.

Rabbi Selekman is not what I was used to in a rabbi. Most of the rabbis I knew were very stoic in nature. Rabbi Selekman is funny, sarcastic, and enjoys good conversation with lots of witty banter. I asked him why he had decided, back in the 1960s, to perform interfaith marriages. He said that he decided it was important that no one ever feel rejected. This answer really touched my soul: it was so simple yet so many people didn’t see it that way. In the 1960s, he was threatened by many people for his decision and even risked his career for his willingness to perform interfaith wedding ceremonies. As a result, he felt like an outsider in the Jewish community. But his congregation supported him and thrived because his kindness was so genuine. Soon other congregations took note and other rabbis decided, like Rabbi Selekman, that performing interfaith ceremonies could only lead to good things — people feeling comfortable in the Jewish faith and deciding to raise their children with Judaism. I realized that while many people were trying to preserve Judaism by rejecting those who intermarry, the reality was in fact the opposite: rejection leads to negative feelings and ultimately disassociation.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Years before, I had realized that if people were negative toward someone, they might think they are exerting control but they are actually relinquishing it. Now I knew that this concept came from a critical piece of my Jewish upbringing — kindness. We were always taught to be kind and that it is fundamental to being a Jew. It was ironic to me that for so many observant Jews, the one area where they were not welcoming was to their own people. And by trying to exert control over someone, you actually are relinquishing any influence you might have had. Through our conversation, I found it very liberating. The concept of kindness based in Judaism also included Judaism.

I now apply Rabbi Selekman’s philosophy to all aspects of my life — I try to remind myself to be kind even if the other person is being difficult. I attempt to avoid negativity (even though I am cynical by nature). I look at situations and try to be as inclusive as possible. While I am still cautious or cynical, I am doing my best to be welcoming and encouraging. Most importantly, I also teach my children the same.

As InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia takes its first steps as a new entity, I am proud to let you know that much of it started 50 years ago by a man who didn’t want people to feel rejected and wasn’t willing to let the kindness of Judaism have limitations. By knowing Rabbi Selekman, I learned that through kindness and welcoming, good things will happen. He has touched many lives in meaningful ways through his acts of kindness. I am pleased to say that I am one of the lucky ones he has influenced and I am better for it!

A Novel of Muslim Jewish Love

There is a new novel out that strikes me as significant. It is A New Song by Sarah Isaias. It is about an interfaith relationship between a Jewish doctor and a Muslim poet and it is a relationship not only of warmth and respect between those two individuals but of their two families.

Growing up in a Jewish enclave in Detroit and spending my adult life fully involved in the Jewish world, I knew next to nothing about the Koran and very little about the practice of Islam before reading this fast paced novel.

Sarah Isaias has written a story that held me through 400 pages taking me to the libraries of Cambridge, to Jews in Spain before the expulsion, Egypt, Israel, Palestine and through the steps of the Haj. As the characters explore the origins of a legend in both their Abrahamic traditions that tells of a poem that could redeem the world, they share passages in the Koran and contrast them to passages in the Hebrew bible.

Their quest isn’t only academic. As they travel the world together there are shadowy conspirators and extremists who intend to stop them at any cost.

This story is such a wonderful model of an interfaith relationship between two religions and cultures that are most often portrayed in the media as enemies. In a delicately portrayed love story with authentic Jewish and Moslem characters we can see how their openness to each other and to each other’s cultures helps them discover a truth that is powerfully simple and never more urgent.

Joyous Yom Kippur

I wasn’t expecting to find many (read: any) Yom Kippur parody music videos.

For better or worse, Yom Kippur is seen by many as a solemn, somber, serious holiday. Upbeat spoofs of top 40 songs don’t tend to match that theme.

But, and here’s the kicker, the Talmud (a canonical text of Judaism) actually describes Yom Kippur as the most joyous day of the year! Here’s what it says:

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says, “There were never happier days for the Jews like the fifteen of [the Hebrew month of] Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such. These dresses required immersion in a mikvah. The daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards and say, ‘young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not look for beauty, look for family as it is stated in Proverbs (31) ‘grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, a woman that is God fearing is to be praised’”…

Today, in some communities, people still honor this joyous tradition by wearing all white to synagogue on Yom Kippur. But for many of us, the haunting Kol Nidre service (Max Bruch’s arrangement for cello is played here), chanting the words of “who by fire, who by water” (as sung, in English, by Leonard Cohen), fasting for 25 hours and sitting in synagogue all those hours is far from joyous. So how might we see Yom Kippur as joyous this year? I polled some friends and colleagues and received these answers:

[list]
[*] – After fasting and asking for forgiveness, we are spiritually released from the strains of strife and pettiness – a cause for joy! [/*]
[*] – Our sins have been forgiven – of course it’s joyous![/*]
[*] – Having been sealed in the Book of Life for another year, we are optimistic and joyous![/*]
[*] – A favorite moment is when we dance during services on Yom Kippur, a custom I first found odd then came to love and look forward to each year. It comes at the point when I’m low energy from the fast, needing something to push me over the hump, and then we dance during the afternoon service and I’m back in there, reminded that the words in the prayers, my community, my religion can be – and is – joyous![/*][/list]

You might be a little puzzled at this point. Did he just mention dancing, during services, on Yom Kippur?!? Yes! Going back to that excerpt from the Talmud, the women would don their white dresses and dance on Yom Kippur. Some (admittedly, few and far between in North America) communities honor this tradition by dancing. The services I’ve attended that have included dancing put it during the afternoon Musaf service, during the Avodah section, to the Mareh Cohen (this tune, minus the accordion).

All of which is to say that Yom Kippur can indeed be a joyous day. In other words, this Lady Gaga parody is totally acceptable: 

[sub]Glossary: Hashem – literally “the name,” a name for God; Spock – his hand sign was actually taken from that of the ancient Israelite priests; Asseret Y'mei – Ten Days (of Repentance); T'shuvah – literally “return,” it means repentance; Tashlich – a service on Rosh Hashanah afternoon in which bread crumbs (symbolically representing our sins) are cast off into a body of moving water; Haba aleinu l'tova – it's up to us to do good; v'esarei, vacharamei, v'konamei, v'chinuyei, v'kinusei – first line of the opening chant on Kol Nidre. [/sub]

And, yes, I might just have pulled some Talmud out in order to post some Gaga…