I get questions from time to time on how someone can be a practicing Jew and a Humanist at the same time. I think this comes from a very deep misunderstanding of Judaism, so I thought I would write a short post about my personal experience and reasons. You see, I wasn’t born Jewish. I chose Judaism. I also chose not to have a traditional religious conversion, instead choosing what our congregation calls an ‘adoption’ to Judaism. This term is full of meaning for me because , just as a child is adopted into a new family, so have I been adopted into this big Jewish family. Please don’t let this fool you as to my sincerity- I have studied and lived a Jewish life for the past four years. I have put as much time and work into understanding my faith as anyone who has undergone a religious conversion. And I don’t consider myself an ‘atheist’ by its usual definition. I have a concept of God, however this concept is more closely attuned to what Einstein once called ‘Spinoza’s God’. I believe that there are forces in nature that work together, that are sometimes mysterious and have no current explanation. And I think it is wonderful. I am not one of those people who needs to have an answer for everything. I am content with having some mystery in the world. And this mystery to me is God. That being said, Humanistic Judaism encompasses a broad range of beliefs. We have plenty of atheists in our ranks and they are some of the best people I know. The Judaism I know is big enough for everyone and each of us enhances and strengthens the whole. But enough about how I got here and back to answering the question at hand. Why Humanistic Judaism? Why did I choose a mode of expressing this identity that honestly has very little to do with God but has everything to do with living a life that can respect the value of tradition and ritual?
1. Jewish values and ethics: I’ll go ahead and clear up one issue. I do not believe that the Torah was written by anyone other than man. I think it is recollection of the history, stories, myths and traditions of a people- ancestors who didn’t have science and technology to explain to them the natural processes and who used stories to pass down a faith and culture that would survive millennia. That being said, do I need to attach a supernatural definition to the things that happen around me for them to still be considered miraculous? To me, the sheer truth of evolution- the fact that everything that is complex and wonderful in the world exists because of small changes in chemicals adjusting to their situations and environments is in fact, miraculous. I don’t judge those who believe that an all knowing God created everything from nothing but this explanation for me personally doesn’t hold near the wonder and awe as the former. Who is to say that there can’t be a God- some force in the universe- that spurs all these things to happen? Or not. And does it really matter if we don’t know the answer? Humanistic Judaism, with its rich liturgy and traditions, embraces the things that science is finding out everyday and doesn’t say that we have to discard them in order to be Jewish. Many prominent Jews- Einstein and Freud among them- have held non traditional views of God and yet we revere them in our culture as important figures who have contributed greatly to society as well as the Jewish people. Jewish values and ethics have everything to do with how we treat each other and interact with the world around us. When we gather around the Seder table, we talk of how freedom belongs to everyone and that we should constantly work to that end. On Yom Kippur, we reflect on those things we may have done over the past year that were less than desirable and did not live up to our ethical code and resolve to do better, literally washing away the things we are not proud of in the Tashlikh ceremony on Rosh Hashanah. On Hanukkah, we learn that it is okay to stand up for what is right and for the freedom to be who were are and be proud of it. Judaism has always been a faith that merits actions over belief. We understand that belief without actions doesn’t accomplish much. Many Jews today even view the concept of the Messiah as a call for action- that a Messianic age will come from human endeavors, from physically being involved enough to make it happen. I can’t think of more lofty ideas to live and pass down to my children.
2. The Torah: I’ll say it now: I love Torah study. I love the study of Jewish law. In fact, it is one of the most meaningful things about being Jewish for me. I could study Torah and Talmud and never get enough of it. And no, my belief that they are human in nature doesn’t do a thing to diminish this love for them. In fact, it has enhanced my understanding of many texts that used to be ambiguous to me and given them great meaning.
Happy Hanukkah from The Cooks!
3. Ritual and tradition: I think we fool ourselves if we downplay the role that ritual and tradition have in adding meaning to our lives. We do them all the time when we light candles on a birthday cake or sing ‘Happy Birthday’. Rituals help us celebrate important events in our lives- births, marriage, even death. They serve the purpose of uniting and connecting us around something common and help us to pass memories along to future generations. The first year we celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas in our home was when I discovered that the meanings behind Jewish tradition and ritual held much more meaning to me than any of the holidays I ever celebrated before. My husband and I have diverse families and we all celebrate each other’s holidays now and it has been wonderful for our children. We have been able to be dedicated to raising a Jewish family but doing so in a Humanistic fashion means we don’t have to worry about boycotting those things that are important to the rest of our families. We don’t have to avoid eating at their homes and separating ourselves from the people we love the most. It has worked out well for us and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
4. My rabbis: I couldn’t write a post such as this and discount the role our two rabbis have had in this journey. Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr have been instrumental in giving us a glimpse of a very big Judaism- a Judaism that allows all of us to have individual levels of belief and yet have traditions that we can all celebrate. The hard fact is that the growth rate of Jews is in decline right now. What many other rabbis would have dismissed and turned away, rabbis Barr and Baum saw as an opportunity- an opportunity to add people devoted to establishing a Jewish home and raising children with Jewish traditions, morals and ethics. A household that is dedicated to telling the stories that have been instrumental in keeping Judaism alive for thousands of years. We deny true Jewish history if we say that Judaism has remained stagnant throughout these years. In fact, it is the ability to embrace change that has keep the Jewish people throughout the upheavals and tragedies that have befallen our long history.
So I hope this at least answers a few questions. Feel free to pass it along if there is something you find meaningful in it. And remember it is our differences that make us strong.