Non-Belief Begets Humanistic Approach

Editor’s Note: The second Rabbi in the “Jewish guilt” series, Shlomo Levin, served for 15 years as an Orthodox Rabbi, before leaving 3 years ago to make a new career for himself, which he wrote about here. Although there are many differences between him and “Sherm,” the first Orthodox Rabbi, who has no intention of leaving, they have an important characteristic in common: the language they used with the people in their congregations became more humanistic as they grew away from belief. Shlomo gives some excellent examples of that below.

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By Shlomo Levin

  1. What are some of the things you regret, if any, about staying a member of the clergy after you no longer believed?

“Not believing” isn’t something that happened at a specific moment, but was a much more gradual process that took years. Of course, I still served as a Rabbi throughout that process and I guess for some time past that, but I think that was necessary and appropriate to be respectful of everyone’s needs, including the congregation’s. So I don’t think I have a lot of regret about that.

  1. What are some of the things you learned about yourself, your family, your congregation (or religious community) or society from your new perspective as a non-believing rabbi?

My local Jewish community has been extremely welcoming and inclusive towards me after I left the Rabbinate, and I’m very grateful for that.

  1. What advantages, to yourself or to society, have you seen in getting out of the clergy.

To me personally it was a tremendous weight off my shoulders.

  1. What was it like the first time you preached a sermon after you’d realized you were no longer a believer? There’s no particular “first time,” but there’s also no question my sermons changed quite a bit over my career. Here are some of the main differences:

In the beginning, I think I felt a very strong responsibility to convey a strident religious message in each sermon. I had been made to understand that public speaking required some hook to get the audience’s interest, but I thought of this as mostly a nuisance I had to deal with in order to be able to preach my important message.

By the end of my career, I fully embraced sermons as educational entertainment and they became much lighter. My sermons included much more humor, entertainment and story telling with a very light, universal sort of moral at the end.

Instead of having a clear message, I often slipped into using the phrase “our timeless values” without ever defining what they were. This took the place of where the religious browbeating would go. For instance, by the end of my career I’d say something like this in a sermon:

“In such and such biblical story Moses or Jacob or Joseph or whoever strayed from his timeless values, and this incident taught him the important lesson that he must return his focus to that what he knows to be truly important and what he truly believes. This is a reminder that applies to us as well.”

But in the beginning of my career I would have probably been much more specific:

“We see in this Bible story that Joseph wavered on his commitment to observe the commandments. ‘Why should I observe the Sabbath now that I am second in command to Pharaoh?’ Joseph asked himself. ‘It’s too much bother. I don’t need to observe these laws anymore.’ Then such and such incident taught him that no matter what, he always must observe the Sabbath, which is an important lesson to us today. No matter where we are or what happens in our lives, we learn from this story about Joseph that observing the Sabbath is always the most important thing!”

Joseph and Pharaoh

The topics of my sermons became much more general. I’d still discuss Bible stories (especially ones with universal themes), but rarely would I make sermons about Jewish laws or the particulars of Jewish observance. Instead I’d talk about things like “teachable moments” from current events. For example, if there would be some sort of scandal in the news I might say something like,

“We see here the classic dilemma of whether to prioritize the pursuit of peace or the pursuit of justice.”

Then I’d add some comments about how that applies to all of us. But I seldom if ever would talk about Jewish laws or how great or important they are, which is often a mainstay of rabbinic sermons.

  1. Were there times while speaking to someone it was hard not to just blurt out what you wanted to say? Yes for sure. The best example of this is when I felt required as a Rabbi to tell people rules that I thought were very hurtful and not in their best interests to follow. I wish I could’ve told them that even though I’m duty bound to give them this information, I really don’t advise them to follow it.
  2. Who was the first person you told you no longer believed and how did conversation go? I really don’t recall there being a first person or particular dramatic conversation. It’s just something that comes up over time.
  3. If you are “out” now, how have you been treated by people in your former congregation or community? I’ve been treated with tremendous warmth and respect which I’m very grateful for.

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Shlomo-9841Bio: Shlomo Levin served for 15 years as an orthodox Rabbi, during which time he realized that adherence to Torah and Jewish law often does more harm than good. While he completes his first two novels he is ready to help develop and officiate at humanist life cycle celebrations. He also offers tours of Milwaukee on round, seven seat bikes.

>>Photo Credits: By James Tissot – http://www.jesuswalk.com/jacob/images/tissot-joseph-and-his-brethren-welcomed-by-pharaoh-415×600.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8741079

 

About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.

  • carolyntclark

    Shlomo, I love that pic. I’d hop on your 7 seat bike with you in your white tails anytime. It looks like a lot more fun than abiding by the the oppressive Bronze Age myths.

  • ElizabetB.

    sermons as “educational entertainment” — “humor & story telling with a very light, universal sort of moral at the end”

    Sounds very fun to hear — a rabbinic Ted Talk! Maybe your leadership in these directions has figured in to your community’s understanding of your transition? You helped develop a welcoming community?
    Great to know you’re available for life cycle celebrations! &, writing *2* novels?!! Look forward to them! Thanks very much for your insights, here and in the Kippah piece

    • Linda_LaScola

      When he completes those novels, I hope he lists them on The Clergy Project website with the many other books members have written. Also hope he sends a copy my way to review it for The Rational Doubt Blog

  • See Noevo

    “Non-Belief Begets Humanistic Approach”

    Well, it definitely can beget the approach of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc.

    • ElizabetB.

      I’m not sure these guys would be very happy humanists : )

      “….Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all…..

      “Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner…..”
      https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto3/

    • carolyntclark

      and then, through the ages, there’s the direct decree of religious belief that begets things like The slaughter of Midian, The Crusades, Sept 11th.

    • http://www.amazon.com/dp/1518617530/ PartialMitch

      A.) None of these folks were humanist; they all had their own dogmatic, unquestionable ideology that was incompatible with humanism and functioned largely as a religion replacement. They all had more faith in their systems than they did in reason, ethics or reality, and they enforced these systems with a ruthlessness matched in history only by religious zealots. Calling them humanist is not simply ignorant; it is a lie. And you, sir, are a liar.

      B.) You’re completely ignoring the brutal methods used to spread Christianity, from Theodosius II (who first outlawed apostasy), to Charlemagne (who “converted” the people of his empire by the word), to all of “Christendom” for one thousand years (ask the Jews, Waldenses, Cathari, Anabaptists, Eastern European pagans, accused witches, indigenous people of all over the freaking world etc., ad nauseum). Christians would still be murdering apostates and heretics (chiefly each other) if not for the rise of humanism at the dawn of the Age of Reason and the outlawing of such behavior in most nations.

      • See Noevo

        Yeah. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard ad hominems painting the enemy as a Theodosius II or a Charlemagne.

        • http://www.amazon.com/dp/1518617530/ PartialMitch

          Nor I, for Hitler/Stalin/Mao, but that didn’t stop you. So what’s your point, exactly?

          The difference between your ad hominem and mine is that those monstrous dictators never claimed to be in the service of God, never claimed to feel the touch of the Holy Spirit. Unlike, say, dozens of Popes across the centuries, Calvin and his followers in Geneva, the good people of Salem or the Baptists whose faith led them to found the KKK.

          • See Noevo

            “Nor I, for Hitler/Stalin/Mao, but that didn’t stop you.”

            Not sure what this means.
            Certainly it couldn’t mean you’ve never heard someone painting his political enemy as, say, “Hitler”. Such instances would be “uncountable” because they happen so often. The exact opposite of the essentially nonexistent Theodosius II and Charlamagne ad hominems.
            …..
            “So what’s your point, exactly?”

            Primarily, that in the 20th century about 100 million
            people, give or take, were murdered by non-belief dictators (i.e. atheistic dictators.)

          • http://www.amazon.com/dp/1518617530/ PartialMitch

            When you wrote, “I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard ad hominems…” I took it to mean that you had heard those comparisons often. Since, generally, when people say, “I can’t count” it means they’ve heard something a lot. I’ve actually heard people mention Theodosius and Charlemagne (and other heinous followers of Christ) many times, so it stood to reason that you (who spends so much time hanging out in atheist blogs) would have heard it before. If they aren’t mentioned as often as Hitler, it’s simply because most people are ignorant of history.

            So what I meant was, I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard ad hominem attacks against atheists using Hitler/Stalin/Mao. Thousands of times, easily. But I do know that the count went up by one this very day, since you did it.

            And worse (but also hilarious) is the way that you tried to blame humanism for their actions. Sorry, my friend (and I do really hope that we can be friends), but that opinion is simply ridiculous. Their actions were the result of their dogmatic political systems and tyrannical natures. Tyrants are going to be tyrants, regardless of whether they are Christian, atheist, Muslim or whatever.

          • See Noevo

            “I took it to mean that you had heard those comparisons often. Since,
            generally, when people say, “I can’t count” it means they’ve heard
            something a lot.”

            I understand, PartialMitch.
            And I understand you have little imagination or sense of humor.

            “And worse (but also hilarious) is the way that you tried to blame humanism for their actions.”

            Hilarious, indeed. Go re-read my post. It did NOT blame humanism.
            It essentially blamed NON-BELIEF.

            I’ll ask again: Has anyone ever called you PartialMind?

          • http://www.amazon.com/dp/1518617530/ PartialMitch

            Actually, I have quite a bit of both. You just don’t get my humor. It’s cool.

            Well, I say to you that non-belief was not the problem behind those 20th Century monsters. Their hunger for power, political extremism and vile natures were behind it.