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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

HUMANISTIC JUDAISM: THE CONTEMPORARY RELIGIOUS ALTERNATIVE FOR TODAY'S JEWS

RABBI WINE'S FIFTH ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS FOR MODERN JEWS


It’s time for Question #5 on the list of Rabbi Wine’s essential questions for all Jews and Jewish movements. 


For those of you joining me in progress, over the last few weeks I have explored our founder’s questions and Humanistic answers about Jewish identity, practice, history, and world views. Today’s question is: “In an age when a God who intervenes directly in the lives of people is no longer believable, is there any part of the religious enterprise which is still valid?”


First of all, let’s define the Jews we are talking about. The most recent Pew survey of American Jews asked respondents whether they believed at all in the God of the Bible. Just 26% of American Jews affirmed that belief. I was never that great at math, but I know that when we subtract the 93% of Orthodox Jews who do believe in such a deity, the number of non-Orthodox Jews who join them drops even lower.


When Pew tweeted the results of its survey, Conservative Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg replied:


Howzabout the God of Rambam? Buber? Heschel? The Ein Sof? Ask a Christian-phrased question, get a Christian-phrased answer. (And yes, Jewish atheists: real and valid.)


While I appreciated her validation of Jewish atheists (hurrah! I’m real!) her assertion that Pew asked a “Christian-phrased question” was just wrong. There is nothing Christian about citing the God of the Bible, to be exact, the God of our Hebrew Bible. (It was also a little ignorant to imply as she did that Christians have no other understandings of God. There are plenty of Christian and Muslim monotheists who have very philosophical or mystical God concepts, no less sophisticated than those of Rambam, Buber, or Heschel.)


But this is the theological game that conventional Jewish thinkers like to play with the idea of God. In a 2018 issue of Reform Judaism, Rabbi John L. Rosove wrote about the many Jews who have come to him with their own doubts about a personal interventionist God. This is clearly what Pew meant by “the God of the Bible” even if “God of tradition” might have been more exact.


Like hundreds (thousands?) of open-minded, “kinda, sorta humanistic” rabbis before him, Rabbi Rosove informs us that when he digs deeper with these people he finds that the deity they are rejecting often turns out to be “the commanding, rewarding, and punishing God of the High Holidays prayer book.”


His article – which is actually very affirming for non-believers like us – goes on to talk about various kinds of Jewish spiritual experiences, including the moments of awe and wonder that we Humanistic Jews seek. What he does not do – what very, very few conventional rabbis do when confronted with the doubts of Jewish skeptics – is to offer a God-free alternative to spirituality. If “the commanding, rewarding, and punishing God of the High Holidays prayer book” is the problem, then why do they continue to use those prayer books? Even the most modern up-to-date prayer books for Shabbat, holidays, and High Holidays are replete with praises and supplications to that God.


All of this takes us back to Rabbi Wine’s question about whether any part of the religious enterprise is still valid. His answer for Humanistic Jews was rather sharp: “Much of the old religious enterprise is useless to Humanistic Jews.” The scissors he took to the conventional prayer book and the rest of Jewish ceremony and ritual were just as sharp. Even as he completely eliminated every single supernatural element, he filled those gaps with what was still a quite religious call to view our Humanistic Jewish communities as extended families with shared values. His vision for our new religious approach was that “[r]ationality, trust, cooperation and generosity become skills for learning.”


At our last Shabbat service we learned about the Mussar (Ethics) movement in Judaism. Its extensive history grew out of a need to put ritual in its proper place and to elevate the exploration of ethical. While the traditional authors of this movement viewed ethics as a path toward godliness, our teacher (and CHJ board member) Dr. Bruce Hillenberg walked us through his Humanistic interpretation of the various traits and virtues (middot) addressed by the Mussar tradition. With his presentation he opened the door to a new Mussar/Ethics-oriented initiative at our congregation. You can view his presentation at this link and I invite you to watch this newsletter for announcements of future related programming.


As I enthusiastically listened to his talk about the Mussar tradition and his Humanistic Jewish take on it, I was reminded of Rabbi Wine’s religious vision. This is what he meant by exploring our shared values as an extended family.


The Jewish religious enterprise is far from dead. But I don’t believe that the future lies in trying to mix traditional practices and prayers with twenty-first century skeptical rationalism. Saying one thing while searching for something completely different does not make us spiritual. 


It makes us confused.

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