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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

WHY HUMANISTIC JUDAISM CHANGED ALL THOSE PRAYERS!

RABBI WINE'S FOURTH ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS FOR MODERN JEWS


Welcome to the fourth installment of Sherwin Wine’s essential questions for every modern Jew and Jewish movement. His first three questions covered issues of modern Jewish identity, how we deal with the Torah, and the wide gap between the Jews of old and of modernity.


Today’s question, as framed by Rabbi Wine in the 1970s, is: “How do we deal with the fact that the vocabulary and world-view of contemporary science in no way corresponds to the vocabulary and world-view of historic Judaism?”


For Humanistic Jews this seemingly modest question represents the largest can of worms that we opened in the Jewish community. Rabbi Wine’s answer appeared – both then and now – to be a complete break with Jewish continuity:


The ‘God’ vocabulary of historic Judaism cannot fit the naturalistic view of contemporary science. Saving theology is a waste of time. The language of prayer and worship is so inappropriate that it cannot be rescued. A successful Judaism seeks to use the language that the modern Jew uses in his daily life.


Movement lore (evidenced by the contents of some folders in our congregation) tells the story of how Rabbi Wine very slowly introduced the idea of humanistic language to early Birmingham Temple members. At first, he entertained attempts to cut and paste from the Reform movement’s “Union Prayer Book.” Far from traditional itself, the “UPB” as it was known, was already an extensive departure from its predecessors. Still, despite its radical deviations it still put theology front and center. And it still featured the beloved prayers and readings of ancient days. The Shema Yisrael (“Hear O Israel the Lord is our God ….”), the Kaddish (“Magnified and sanctified is God’s great name ….”), and the Mi Chamocha (“Who is like you O Lord?”) were all on prominent display. While its authors’ own theologies frequently emphasized human agency, even their most radical prayer books continued to frame it as a gift from God.


Rabbi Wine was trained and ordained by the Reform Movement. Moreover, he was not alone among its “non-believers.” Others – notably Prof. Alvin Reines from the Reform seminary – promoted non-theism as a path within Reform Judaism. In the 1970s, when the UPB was replaced by the “Gates of Prayer,” one Friday night service entirely eliminated all mention of God. But solely in the English translation. The Hebrew remained God-centered. The Reform movement would go only so far and no further. When in 1994 Cincinnati’s nontheistic Humanistic congregation Beth Adam sought membership in the Reform movement, it was roundly rejected. Movement president Rabbi Alexander Schindler said, “I believe that the concept of God is the very foundation of Judaism. The quest for God defines us as a people.”


Subsequent Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist prayer books occasionally nodded to a “kinda-sorta” humanism by providing alternative readings and poems acknowledging worshippers’ doubts about the nature – even the existence – of God. None of these, however, provided a satisfying answer to Rabbi Wine’s convictions about the inappropriateness of ancient prayer and worship for modern Jews.


This issue of changing the language of traditional prayers still resonates in our movement. Many of us who grew up hearing the conventional blessings and prayers have a hard time adjusting to Jewish rituals without them. Some want to hear the Shema Yisrael. Back when I was advising our Boca Raton congregation, members insisted that I re-write it! I did and I disliked the result (which they still use to this day). You may have noticed that it’s not part of our CHJ liturgy. Others – even our own members – have asked me about saying the traditional Kaddish at funerals. I understand their longing for its comforting rhythms and meter. Yet I also understand what it’s saying and what it’s saying does not match our beliefs.


What I and other refugees from traditional to Humanistic Judaism have discovered is that it does not take long to get used to new traditions. Rabbi Wine’s “Where Is My Light?” may not be as well known as the Shema Yisrael but because it reflects my real beliefs, it is that much dearer to me. Carl Sagan’s observations about how we are living on a “pale blue dot” and what that teaches us about our mutual responsibility thrills me much more than singing about how God drowned the Egyptians and split the sea in the Mi Chamocha prayer.


Rabbi Wine’s insistence on matching the words of our rituals to our beliefs and convictions was and remains the single most fundamental change offered by our movement. For those of us who seek a Judaism that reflects our concerns and not those of our grandparents, this is one of the greatest gifts of Humanistic Judaism. In my case, my grandfather was an atheist. If he’d had access to Humanistic Judaism I think he would have very much liked how Rabbi Wine blazed a new Jewish path that corresponds to the “naturalistic view of contemporary science” embraced by so many Jews today.

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