Humanistic Judaism: Modernizing an Ancient Religion

Humanistic Judaism: Modernizing an Ancient Religion September 8, 2014

Editor’s Note: In the last of our Rabbi series, we hear again from Jeff Falick. This time he tells us in some detail how the Humanistic Judaism movement got started and how he got involved with it.

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25551e_bb4d802a667e40e3ae3e434821390b08.jpg_srz_244_367_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzBy Jeff Falick

What’s an atheist rabbi to do?

That was the dilemma that confronted me when I finally admitted to myself that I did not believe in a deity – or anything supernatural – and that my decades of effort to transvalue the idea of God into some kind of compelling metaphor had produced little but headaches and frustration.

Fortunately, I was not required to put my rabbinical work aside. In fact, my newly embraced secular humanism catalyzed the revival of my moribund career. This is entirely due to the genius of one man, a rabbi named Sherwin Wine.

In 1963, Wine and a small number of lay people set out to incorporate a new Reform Jewish temple in suburban Detroit. They had nothing radical in mind. The lay people really just wanted a convenient normative non-Orthodox synagogue closer to where they lived. Wine, however, wanted to take them on a unique journey, challenging everything they thought they knew about Judaism and its religious legacy. By the time they were done exploring their beliefs, they had founded the very first nontheistic Jewish congregation in the world.

Jewish atheists were nothing new. But no one had ever previously attempted to appropriate rituals and ceremonies associated with the religious aspects of Jewish life and adapt them to the needs of non-believers. This was no simple task. In truth, most Jewish rituals and practices were simply abandoned. The majority were ill-suited to adaptation. Yet even without the many practices that they jettisoned, they still had plenty left to work with. They proceeded to re-cast Judaism’s holidays, life cycle ceremonies and other similar customs in a new non-theistic mold.

Ram_in_a_Thicket_head_on

It did not take very long for word to get out about the radical new suburban Detroit Jewish congregation. Wine was summoned before the local board of rabbis to provide an account of himself and his congregation. Jewish leaders denounced them. Congregants were ostracized by friends and family. The congregation was thrown out of its rented home.

Then things really got bad.

In 1965, Wine was profiled by Time Magazine which dubbed him, “The Atheist Rabbi.” The stigma of the word, “atheism,” was even stronger in those days than it is now. Its use by the magazine had a chilling effect on the congregation. Wine was indeed an atheist, though he preferred to describe himself as ignostic. But this was a very fine philosophical point and one that did not solve the growing public relations problem.

Wine also had another, more ideologically driven concern. He did not want his innovation to be named for what it rejected. It would be a community of Humanistic believers even if their beliefs were radically different from conventional religious forms of Judaism.

As Jews, they believed that Jewish identity was rooted in the Jewish historical experience, not in any of its (numerous and often contradictory) belief systems.

As Jews, they believed that Jewish culture is a product of human imagination and that expressions of Judaism must meet human needs.

As human beings, they believed that reason, observation, experimentation, creativity and artistic expression are the most appropriate avenues to address questions about the world and to understand the human experience.

As human beings, they believed that people alone have the responsibility for solving human problems independent of supernatural concepts of authority.

As human beings, they believed that it is up to people alone to take responsibility for the future of our world.

As Wine created this movement, he also created what became a kind of “Clergy Project” for rabbis. Though their number was few, he was joined by others who had also abandoned (or never possessed) any traditional faith in God. They were in good company, joining Humanist Unitarian Universalist ministers and American Ethical Union leaders in providing clergy-style services for Humanists. Wine even founded the Humanist Institute which today operates under the auspices of the American Humanist Association.

When I first “came out” as an atheist, I was working as the assistant director of a Jewish community center. It was not particularly challenging or fulfilling work, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As an administrator and programmer with no liturgical duties, I was free to explore my tentative Humanism without interference. I established a blog called The Atheist Rabbi (http://www.TheAtheistRabbi.com). I joined the Society for Humanistic Judaism (http://www.shj.org) and the Association of Humanistic Rabbis (http://www.humanisticrabbis.org). I even joined the Clergy Project, more as a way of helping others in my situation than out of a personal need for support. I had already found my support by joining a community of like-minded people committed to both Jewish heritage and secular Humanism.

About two years ago I received a call informing me that the Rabbi Sherwin Wine’s own congregation was seeking a new rabbi. I applied.

I’m happy to report that I got the job and proudly serve as rabbi of The Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism (http://www.birminghamtemple.org).

Today I have the privilege of functioning as a rabbi in all of the ways that matter. I visit the sick. I preside over life cycle ceremonies. I teach. I speak about a wide range of Jewish and Humanistic topics. I do it all in the context of a community of committed Humanistic believers.

I do not carry out my duties in the name of any kind of authority. My sole authority as a member of the clergy is educational. I represent no ancient wisdom and certainly no god. Rather, I represent my congregants to each other. I serve them as a community organizer and convener. I do for them what they don’t always have time to do for each other.

Lately Humanistic chaplaincy has been making headlines as a result of the efforts of Jason Torpy and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, the American Humanist Association and others who are lobbying Congress to permit a Humanistic chaplaincy in the U.S. military. As the idea of Humanistic chaplains begins to catch on, I hope that Rabbi Wine’s idea for Humanistic rabbis will help to pave the way. Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard, was trained as a Humanistic rabbi. So was Binyamin Biber, who just opened a Humanistic chaplaincy at American University.

The motivation to belong to a community of purpose will not automatically evaporate with the spread of nontheism and Humanism. Religion evolved to serve many human needs. Some of them were nefarious – more about power and control than serving humanity. But religion also created communities that brought people together for their mutual benefit. As Humanists, we recognize that the entire religious enterprise was wholly the creation of humanity. Many Humanists feel no need for the kinds of connections that religious institutions engender among people. Yet many others still feel a longing to be part of a collective effort that is bigger than themselves. A Humanistic community, committed to reason and naturalism and open to the power of coming together to learn, celebrate or mourn has much to offer them. For those who feel a connection to Jewish heritage, Humanistic Judaism can help answer that need.

That’s what an atheist rabbi is here to do.

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PastedGraphic-125551e_9ad1b36d762444a0be678812295f4b05.jpg_srz_261_372_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzBio: Jeffrey L. Falick is the rabbi of The Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Ordained by the (theistic) Reform Jewish movement, he later became associated with Secular Humanistic Judaism, an approach that combines adherence to nontheism with a celebration of Jewish culture and life. He serves as president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis and on the Executive Committee of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit http://www.birminghamtemple.org/#!our-beliefs/c1o2y

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ram_in_a_Thicket#mediaviewer/File:Ram_in_a_Thicket_head_on.jpg at British Museum

 

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  • AndyT

    A very interesting post.
    Probably, Jewish Humanism can exist with less trouble than Christian Humanism, because being “Jewish” is not just about following and identifying with a religion, but also about belonging to a very ancient people, often facing quite hard times among hostile nations.
    On the other hand, Christianity does not have this dimension: despite rants about the Christian roots of the West, we should recognize our culture has been shaped with equal strength by the pagan Hellenistic and Roman cultures, and by XVIII century Enlightenment as well.

    • Jon Drake

      So Judaism is racial?

      • AndyT

        Well, Judaism strongly identifies itself as the outcome of a given people, while Christianity and Islam does not.

  • Kent Truesdale

    Rabbi Fallick, thanks for this fascinating post! You wrote, “I represent no ancient wisdom” in your role as rabbi — does that mean you think there’s nothing worth preserving from your tradition? or just that you don’t see it as your job to interpret it? because as a liberal Christian minister I see myself in some sense as the conservator and transmitter of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, even though I’ve personally (and privately) rejected its supernatural underpinnings.

    • Jon Drake

      If Christ be not raised your faith is in vain.

      Wolves in sheeps clothing have always been in the church, and are a key reason the church has had so many problems.

      You have denied Christ, Kent.

      • Kent Truesdale

        Jon, I’m hoping the church has much bigger problems than small-time ‘wolves’ like me LOL! — like the relevance of her supernatural (vs ethical) teachings to a world now convinced only by science?

        (ps, can we at least agree that Jesus now lives in the hearts of his followers?)

  • jfalick

    Kent: I feel no need to preserve ancient values or customs for their own sake. Such traditions that I do preserve are updated and adapted to serve modern needs.

    When I explore biblical or rabbinical teachings it is for the purpose of learning about the struggles and concerns of these ancient people. Their answers, however, are usually of nothing but historical value. True, on occasion they taught something wise that has stood the test of time. More frequently their teachings are morally repugnant by today’s standards; the unfortunate products of their age. In these cases, perhaps the most generous response is to rejoice that we have evolved beyond them. And to hope that we will continue our moral evolution.

    Judaism is my culture, not the source of my morals or my ethical system. Those are derived entirely from my philosophical naturalism and secular humanism. When I use a Jewish value-word or concept, such as “tzedakah” (charity), it is as a cultural legacy, not a moral one. I do not believe that charity is unique to Judaism or that it was invented by Jews or that its significance lies in its antiquity. I believe it is a moral imperative to be charitable because it is consistent with secular humanistic philosophy. I call it “tzedakah” because my Jewish family called it that. If I’d never hear the word “tzedakah” it would not lessen one bit my commitment to the value of charity.

    I realize that for many people, ancient traditions are their claimed source of morality. As a secular humanist, this is not true for me.

    • Kent Truesdale

      Thanks so much for taking the time to give such a full (and wise) reply! I agree with your fundamental point about secular philosophy and humanism being the proper source of morality. And yet even as a Godless minister I see some distinct advantages in religious moral traditions like ours as conduits and catalysts of that morality. For example, the parables of the Gospels still have a unique power to bring our attention to bear on a given moral dimension — the parable of the Prodigal Son expresses its moral truth as a compelling narrative that embeds and engages itself in our conscience in a deeply personal way that a mere dry lecture on ethics never could? Here’s a quote that sums up better what I’m trying to say here:

      “To demythologise the myth of Adam and Eve, for instance, is not to
      abandon it as a uselessly primitive way of speaking about abstract matters. It is to understand as myth, a narrative way of speaking about abstractions, which is valued for that very reason. The myth is seen as a powerful metaphor and is kept because it provides us with a powerful shorthand for complex human experiences of alienation and regret. The question we ask of a myth, therefore, is not whether it is true or false, but whether it is living or dead.” [From “Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity” by Richard Holloway]

      • jfalick

        Thank you!

        There is no doubt that story can be a powerful way to transmit ideas. That is why I brought up the idea of “tzedakah.” The Jewish story about that word is located in the root of the Hebrew: tzedek (justice). That makes a nice framing mechanism for a discussion of charity and its place in Jewish culture throughout history.

        Biblical and rabbinical legends can also be valuable, but I use them judiciously. Because of my critical approach to the material, I can also discuss the history of its interpretation and point out where nice use was made of this story or that. But most of the time, there is little in any of it that does not require one more layer of narrative transformation. That, for me, is often a bridge too far.

        I am not willing to look at the Adam and Eve tale with the idea of locating its relevance for our world. I’ve turned that story over a thousand times and it reveals nothing of contemporary value, except as a window into the world of the J writer and the later redactors.

        Even when I examine the midrashic interpretations of ancient rabbis, I don’t find much of use in this story. I acknowledge and appreciate the circumstances of *their* reality that led them to their interpretive choices. But I don’t try to do it myself. I have better explanations for a contemporary audience.

        I certainly have started out a lesson by saying, “Our ancestors were intrigued by the power of knowledge and its effect on choosing good and evil and here’s a story that they wrote…” However, I would not proceed by trying to replicate my ancestors’ midrashic methodology of drawing new truths from the story.

        That said, I do appreciate the power of demonstrating the timelessness of their struggles. In many cases they are also ours. The stories can help us to remind ourselves that we are not the first to ask such questions.

  • Kent Truesdale

    Yes, as Holloway suggests, I agree the midrashic/hermeneutical issue is whether a myth like Genesis 1 is “living or dead.” I’m just not sure I’m getting paid enough to make that discrimination every Sunday! By the way, you said you have “better explanations for a contemporary audience” — do you use myths/fables/legends/parables from other traditions? if no, what would be a good example?

    • jfalick

      I was really just referring to teaching them the historical context, how the books and stories came together, and issues like that. It certainly does involve parallel texts of which we have quite a few, from the Gilgamesh Epic to the Sumerian tales to Sargon and on and on. Fortunately, as a Humanistic rabbi, that is what they’re paying me to teach!