Thursday, 19 January 2012

More on the Circle: Is Secular Humanistic Judaism Judaism?

This is a continuation of the ideas I started hashing out here.
If you are not familiar with Secular Humanistic Judaism, you may want to read this post first.

Blogger Fence Sitter wrote a brilliant post in August called Repurposing. In it, she uses an analogy from the home decor world of repurposing furniture to describe evolutions of Jewish practice:

She asks:
If Judaism is repurposed, is it still Judaism?

The answer  . . .  seems to be found in our interior-design example. One can repurpose an object in such a way that it maintains its essential characteristics, or one can repurpose it in a way that it becomes an entirely different object. If one paints a table, it is still a table. However, if one cuts off the legs to the table and sticks it on the wall behind a bed, it is no longer a table but a headboard. Both the painted table and the headboard may be much more beautiful than the old table, but one has been changed to the point that it is no longer a table.

Fence's question is an interesting one. Implicit in it, is the characterization of Judaism as a quantifiable singular entity:  a core "authentic" Judaism. Another way to frame Fence's question is to ask: "What is 'authentic' Judaism? If we move too far from the 'authentic' is it no longer Judaism?" A Commenter on Fence's blog, JRKMommy, astutely pointed to Judaism's long history of  repurposing itself. Following the destruction of the first and second Temples and exile to Babylonia, Judaism reinvented itself from a "place-based" religion to a "mobile one" and catapulted the rabbinic/Talmudic tradition.  The rabbinic tradition has also since built layers and layers upon itself. Every halakha is covered in (almost exclusively? male) human fingerprints, and bears the imprint of the time in which it was coded in writing.  From the Ultra Orthodox to Reform Movements, Judaism has evolved and changed drastically. Who is to say who's Judaism is the most authentic? The Jews of the Torah did not have black hats an peyos. If there is one truly 'authentic' Judaism, how do we know we got it right? Maybe the Karaites have it right, and the rabbis have led us astray?

I used to hold the view of the singular 'authentic' Judaism. Who was I to question what thousands years worth of Yiddishe kops defined as Jewish? And, for the little time I flirted with Aish ha Torah, I reasoned that: if you're going to be Jewish, then be Jewish right. Go Jew, or go home. (Not that Aish Ha Torah represents all Orthodoxy, but Aish ha Torah, was the real introduction to Orthodoxy for me). Aish certainly subscribes to this idea of a core defining element of abstract concepts. I remember the representatives often telling me that I have "a Jewish neshama", as if being Jewish is something innate, and not something that is taught, or in most cases, hammered in. It's a similar reasoning that conceptualizes Judaism - an abstract - as its own authentic entity.

This type of thinking is an understandable side-effect of theistic belief. Theistic religions characterize a God that - as far as I'm concerned - they have never actually met. In the early stories of the Torah, God is anthropomorphized and hangs out in the garden, and as thinking evolved, the character God becomes more abstract. I am going out on a limb here, and posibly grossly simplifying, but to me it seems Ultra Orthodox culture - in its embrace of the rabbis as God's interpretor,  also anthropomorphizes God, They assume: God wants us to do mitvot. The rabbis say keeping milk and meat separate is a mitzva. Therefore keeping separate milk and meat dishes is a mitva. Therefore God wants us to separate our milk and meat dishes. In the Reform/Reconstructionist God becomes less anthropomorphised - less of an entity with a mind that can be read, but present nonetheless.

Despite their majorly divergent paths, all strands of Judaism still hold an allegiance to the God of the Torah in some form or other. Except Secular Humanistic Judaism - the God-optional denomination. When I asked a close observant family member what he thought of SHJ, he answered, "Call it what you want: a coffee club, a social circle, but don't call it Judaism". And, although I found it ironic that he expressed my first attendance at a Yom Kippur service in over a decade, as the official exit from Judaism, his attitude did not surprise me. It is not one that is unexpected since Judaism's major claim to fame is its role as one of the major monotheistic religions in the world. (I'll leave the discussion of polytheistic elements Judaism's origins for another day).

By taking God out of the equation, does SHJ transform the table into a headboard? Is SHJ Judaism? Is it even a religion? Well, to blogger Shilton Hasechel's chagrin if he reads this, I'll give you the reliable Jewish answer: it depends. If  your definition of religion and by extension Judaism inherently involves the worship of a deity, then no, SHJ is not a religion. In that case, does your Judaism exclude secular Jewish atheists born of Jewish mothers? ( If not, then it sounds like you want to have your halachic loophole and eat it too). But, if you think of Judaism as a "community-based system in which people share beliefs and traditions, and join together for ceremonial observances of the events of their lives", then yes, IMO, SHJ is a valid form of Judaism.

My relative's wife was very supportive of my decision to attend the service, and I am tremendously appreciative of that. One of her statements struck me, however, as another distinguishing factor of SHJ from the other streams of Judaism. She said: "Amazing! So you will do something this day that will make you different from the goys". Again, not a surprising reaction given traditional Judaism's  fixation on  Separation, but no, really the opposite of my motivation for going. I was going not to be separated from non-Jews, in fact the congregation accepts and welcomes many individuals that all the other denominations would discount as not being Jewish. I was going to be with Jews. My model of Judaism is inclusive, not exclusive. (I will write a post another day about the Yom Kippur service (the only SHJ service I have attended thusfar) another day).

My personal identification with SHJ  is heavily influenced by my identity as an atheist - though it need not be. Agnosticism or belief in God are not necessarily inconsistent with the movement. But for me as an atheist, I see Judaism as the production of the Jewish people. People often forget that there were Jews before there was Judaism. I have come to believe that it is Jews who make Judaism, and not vice versa. And as human   enterprises can evolve over time to reflect changing human needs, so can Judaism. Orthodox spokespeople often pretend that Orthodoxy is unchanging. They criticize liberal Jews as adapting religious protocol to suit selfish individualistic whims. Not only is this attitude offensive, dismissive and patronizing - it is untrue. Changes in streams of religion come to reflect changing needs of the members of the religion. And just because the members need change, it does not mean that those changes are not well thought out and reasoned. Orthodox Judaism  - particularly Modern Orthodox -  is also an evolving entity that adapts to a changing world. (As evidenced by the controversial recent ordination of Rabba Sara Hurwitz). It is simply slower to do so than its secular- influenced liberal counterparts. In my view, SHJ is just another new model of Judaism . . .To borrow de Botton's analogy, it is Judaism 2.0. I say 2.0 not to imply that SHJ is an upgrade in authenticity. It is not a "more authentic" Judaism than the original models - some people prefer to work with 1.0 because that reflects their worldview better, others are unsure about whether the new version has bugs or can cause a system crash etc.. It is just a new model designed to meet a new set of evolving human needs.


  1. OK, I'm not Jewish, but an atheist who reads quite a bit (I score high on those interfaith knowledge quizes). Wouldn't you accept that SHJ (Judaism 2.0) is quite an upgrade than, let's say, the Ultra-Orthodox Haredi?

  2. Good point Andy! It depends as an upgrade of what. In ethics - yes. Is it a "more authentic Judaism"? IMO, no. (Nor is it a less authentic Judaism AFAIC). I'm going to change the wording of the last paragraph to reflect that. Thank you for pointing it out . . .

  3. I haven't heard much about SHJ, though I have read a little about Universalist Unitarianism, which sounds appealing.

  4. >But, if you think of religion as "community-based system in which people share beliefs and traditions, and join together for ceremonial observances of the events of their lives", then yes, IMO, SHJ is a valid form of Judaism.

    You're asking if: "you think RELIGION as".......
    That would mean your answer would be that SHJ is a valid form of religion, not necessarily a valid form of Judaism.

    If you want to know if it is a valid form of Judaism, I think, that it should read:

    "But, if you think Judaism is a religion only of...."

    to which, in my opinion, the answer is no.

  5. Thanks HH, I changed the wording to reflect that as well.

    tesyaa: It occurred to me as I was writing that people aren't very familiar with movement. I've probably avoided explicitly posting on SHJ/defining it as of yet, in part because it is very new to me too. But I'll start working on a post giving the basics as I see them.

  6. Hi C.L.,

    I was going to ask you about this stuff so what a pleasant surprise to see this post. :) I really enjoy and admire your logic.

    One particular thing, however, caught my attention. You wrote that a lot of people forget that there were Jews before Judaism.

    I don't think it's a forgetting thing, but rather a ideology thing. Orthodox Jews, all denominations, believe that the Torah was the blueprint of and preceded creation.

    I went to a women's class at the Chabad here recently and the Rabbi said that Abraham, Issac, and Jacob kept Torah law (They lived, as you know, before the Torah). Fine. Standard Orthodox belief. What made my head spin was that he said that they also kept all the rabbinic laws that would come later too!

    I should have asked him if they kept Sephardi or Ashkenaz, lol.

  7. >What made my head spin was that he said that they also kept all the rabbinic laws that would come later too!

    The level of creative energy it must take for a sane person to actually believe that is unreal.

    1. Oh, unreal doesn't even begin to describe it. Watch the delusion unfold:

  8. The level of creative energy it must take for a sane person to actually believe that is unreal.

    Denial, actually. For me it was more avoidance. Since I was on the MO spectrum it was easy to say I didn't have to believe the world was 6000 years old. But eventually I realized that even the MO (even many liberal MO) believe in a global flood 3500 years ago. That was the beginning of the end.

  9. > the Rabbi said that Abraham, Issac, and Jacob kept Torah law (They lived, as you know, before the Torah). Fine. Standard Orthodox belief. What made my head spin was that he said that they also kept all the rabbinic laws that would come later too!

    But that’s also standard Orthodox belief, at least for the right-leaning half of the community.


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