Thursday, 7 March 2013

Atheist Shul Hopping
I have a very vague memory of my first childhood visit to shul. It was a high holiday, and we went to what I remember as a big Johannesburg shul. My parents decided to take us in response to my near early conversion to Christianity. They had made a kind of a short lived attempt to observe Jewish holidays. This entailed lighting the candles a few Friday nights in the dining room of our old Portuguese house. My mother reading the bracha off the side of the periwinkle candle box, and one or two trips to shul for high holidays. They took us to a big Johannesburg shul. I accompanied my mom upstairs to the women's section, while my brother went to the main floor level with my dad. My mother - also having rarely, if ever, stepped into a shul, must have felt very out of place, particularly as an immigrant in a community we never felt much a part of. Anyway, as the room hushed for the services to begin, the rabbi, donned in white - entered. The sanctuary fell silent, and my high-pitched seven year old voice echoed through it the question:  "Mommy, what is the chef doing there?" My mother was mortified, and that ended our family visits to shul in South Africa. Fast forward a few decades, and a few shuls later, I've found a place that works for me (albeit just for Yom Kippur) - in the local Secular Humanistic Jewish congregation.

Jonathan Zimmerman recently wrote an article:  An Atheist’s Synagogue Search in which he describes the introspective path that lead him to find (and ultimately reject) SHJ. He, like me, identifies as a Jewish Atheist, and seems to have settled into a comfortable acceptance of both. Though my upbringing was very different than Zimmerman's - my involvement in the Jewish community was more disjointed - I was able to appreciate many of the sentiments he describes. He writes about struggling to find a congregation that fulfills both aspects of that identity (the Jewish and the Atheist), flirts for a while with a Secular Humanistic Congregation, and then ultimately gravitates back to a more traditional service, because, he concludes:

"There is inherent value in saying words I do not mean, praying to a God I do not believe in, and kissing a Torah I do not believe was written by him. There is a poetic richness as a non-believer participating in this tradition, in being an “Israelite” named for a mythological story about wrestling with a fictional deity that birthed a very real people."

For me, traditional services don't hold much (read: any) appeal. Possibly in part because I didn't grow up with them, possibly because of some of the major disagreements I have with the theology. Definitely because I see life as too short and precious to waste doing avoidable stuff that I find painfully, and mind-numbingly boring. But, to each his own. I'm glad that Zimmerman has found a happy place. It's a good feeling.

I can see why SHJ is not for everyone. I'm not sure if SHJ services would have appealed to me at any other time in my life, either. I actually envisioned a more religion-free life. Then, at 19,  I fell in love with my husband, and that plan was derailed . . .along with the plan to escape winter - sigh. In any case, I don't think it is an accident that I became drawn to SHJ around the time that my son was born . . . knowing that otherwise he would be exposed to Jewish identity essentially only through Orthodoxy (via my in-laws), while my lack of observance would be blamed on my Russian roots, and characterized as not-very-Jewish. It was not uncommon for me to hear from my husband that I'm an atheist because I wasn't educated enough in/was deprived of  exposure to a proper Jewish education. I did genuinely want to become frum in my early teens- there was something about the lifestyle that seemed so romantic, but  the numerous discussions with kiruv rabbis didn't render any compelling reasons to believe. Then Hitchens, then Harris, then Dawkins and the internet nailed the empty God coffin shut, and dispelled much of the romance I'd attached to a frum life.  Somewhere along the way an effort to believe in Judaism was replaced with an actual belief in humanism, and so the timing was just right for SHJ to resonate with me.

I was not looking for a replacement of  the the South African shul of my childhood. Rituals and  reciting things in unison are not my thing. I can also see why Zimmerman was put off by the revision of key traditional blessings. Those old texts are an integral part of our literary history/heritage, and I also don't necessarily want them completely edited out of Jewish memory. (Though I'm happy to file most in the library instead of the sanctuary).  My personal preference would be for services to contextualize the originals. (i.e. " Our ancestors recited [insert traditional Shema here], and today we say [insert SHJ adaptation here].") For me this would be more meaningful, because it would tie the new to the old, without lying, and also help fit SHJ among the other denominations. In any case, since the original text is not particularly personally meaningful to begin with, this is not a dealbreaker for me, as it was for Zimmerman. My aims are more cultural/social.  I enjoy that when the Jewish community gets together, I also have a place to go. I love that there are familiar tunes and landmarks - kippot, tallisis, people with names like Zimmerman and Hersh, and that those landmarks are not incongruent with our daily life. I don't have to pretend God is great, or even there. I don't have to park down the street so it looks like we didn't drive. I can buy the tickets at the door. I can wear what I normally would to a formal event without worrying that people will consider my neckline untznious.  I can look the intermarried  and gay couples  in the eye knowing that here they are wholly and genuinely accepted as equals in our community, just as they are in my everyday places in my everyday life. In other words, it's the right place for me, and it's a good feeling.


  1. I see those old texts as part of our literary history/heritage, and don't want them edited out of Jewish memory.

    Even when said texts are offensive to modern sensibilities? (e.g., sheloh asani ishah)

  2. Good point!

    I'm not sure how many of the SHJ blessings reference traditional Jewish ones the way the Shema does in the Zimmerman article, but I suspect very few. In any case, if other SHJ blessings have evolved out of similar offensive-to-modern-sensibility ones, I do think it's important to acknowledge the source.

    In the same way I wouldn't want Huck Finn to be edited simply because it has extremely offensive-to-modern sensibilities language. For me the key is that the original offensive text, is contextualized, and remains as a nod to history . . . a landmark to say "We've come a long way, baby", rather than any obligation to say something we don't mean. Maybe a good compromise would be to site the originals in the commentary/footnotes?

  3. Our ancestors recited [insert traditional Shema here], and today we say [insert SHJ adaptation here]

    A brilliant idea actually! You stay connected to the traditional text (and maybe also the tune), and like you say put in the context of a more rational, non-supernatural, intellectually compatible worldview. Of course it would potentially make the service twice as long, so you'd definitely have to cut down on the liturgy - which I don't think people would mind much either!

    What I thought was the most interesting line of Zimmerman's article:

    Who really wants to pray from a book that has nothing disagreeable in it?

    This goes along with the whole "struggling with God" idea - so if you take God out of the picture, in essence "sanitize" everything, what's left to struggle with? Well... I'll say where I agree and disagree with this. For me personally, making up new prayer formulations would not be particularly meaningful, even if I "agreed" with them. I'd rather just do something else entirely. (In any case I'd like to do something else entirely - like you, I'm not into lengthy, repeated formal recitation of any text, either in a group or on my own.)

    But any meaning I get from the traditional formulation isn't because of the "challenge" it presents. It's the familiarity of the text, and the fact that this formulation ties me into something vastly larger/older than myself. And yes, the content itself can also be meaningful - expressing the desire for healing, peace, getting in touch with gratitude, etc.

    Of course, a huge part of what makes shul meaningful is connection with friends/community. And based on his article it seems to me that the lack of friends (or anyone he could relate to) had as much to do with the fact that J. Zimmerman didn't care for the SHJ service as the content of the prayers.

    As far as confronting things which are disagreeable, I agree there's a value in that, but there's plenty of material in Torah study to last a lifetime! Frankly, I find that much more engaging, stimulating and productive than prayer.

    Thanks for the post - worth more than the 2 cents!

    1. AJ - you are too kind - thank you!

      >Who really wants to pray from a book that has nothing disagreeable in it?

      That line also struck me . . . Though IMO it's more a reflection of us being a people who like to disagree, rather than a reflection of a better quality prayer book.

  4. I came up with the term "Menu Jew" to describe the idea of presenting the full range of authentic items, while acknowledging that it is ultimately up to each individual to ultimately choose what they take.

    So, I'm not thrilled with the idea of simply sanitizing traditional texts. For better or worse, there is a whole history there. We can change how we relate to a text and what we think of it, but I see the text itself as a "read only" document. Commentaries, questions, debates, additional points to ponder are all good - but not as a replacement.

    I'm not part of the Humanist movement, but one of my issues with denominations in general is the idea of saying, "today, we say X". Who are "we"? I like the idea of readings and questions, but I have problems with saying "we don't want the old establishment to tell us what to say and do - so we'll form a new establishment, to tell us what to say and do".

  5. Thanks for the comment JRK - I really enjoyed your post, and left some questions for you there! (As a fellow self-proclaimed foodie, I especially appreciate the culinary metaphors :) )

    Point 3 - not Gerberizing documents - seems to be the issue that most puts your view at odds with my suggestion of the "they said/we say" adaptation. I may be wrong, but I think that our views diverge fundamentally because of how you and I see "the text".

    For me religious texts are man-made documents that serve to unite a community with a common (usually fictional) narrative. I don't belong or feel comfortable in a traditional shul because there everyone believes or at least pretends to believe that the narrative is The Truth, rather than a historical document. If you personally believe in Theistic Judaism, then that conflict doesn't exist for you, and uttering praises to God doesn't compromise your integrity in any way - you are saying what you mean, and you connect to the text. (Of course I've never met you in person before and am basing my comments solely on comments of yours that I've read. Please excuse if I've totally misinterpreted your perspective.)

    >I have problems with saying "we don't want the old establishment to tell us what to say and do - so we'll form a new establishment, to tell us what to say and do".

    I don't. When the new establishment is more reflective of the reality/perspective of its members, I feel there's a greater integrity in that. It's not that the old loses value - it's still worth studying/understanding. It's that I don't see the need to keep pretending it's "the Truth" for those of us who don't believe it is.

    How would you prefer that the sentence be completed:

    "we don't want the old establishment to tell us what to say and do - so we'll . . .."

    If your answer is "leave", I don't think that's fair either. By culture/upbringing/halachic loophole people like me (those who identify culturally as Jews, but don't believe in the supernatural) are Jewish, and I don't see why there shouldn't be a new establishment for us to gather.

    p.s. I personally have nothing against Christmasukkah!

  6. Even if you relate to the texts as historical documents, I see some value in retaining the authentic texts. Once upon a time, I could a course in Ancient Israelite History at university, from a secular perspective, and it was quite amazing to see what could be deduced from small words or phrases.

    As for completing the sentense....

    My vision involves a post-denominational world: A place where no question is off limits, no topic declared too hot to handle, and nothing is summarily dismissed as "...but that goes against what we believe", since the very fact that an issue is raised would suggest that maybe "we" don't all necessarily believe it. A place where we learn, and take learning seriously. A place where we don't dumb down or censor that learning, but take the original sources as we find them, warts and all. A place where history and science and any other realm of knowledge or area of the world that affects us can be discussed. A place where we can recognize that there is something called halacha and a system of Jewish law exists, but also that every Jew today is to some extent a "Jew by choice" and therefore chooses to observe. A place where we seek out those with wisdom to share. A place where people may choose to be politically and socially active, as they feel they are required to be, and don't feel the need to insist that religious and political positions always coordinate in a sort of group-think. Above all - a place where there is an overall understanding of the importance of "klal yisrael" - the Jewish community - and an understanding that we are a family, and you don't suddenly get kicked out of the family because you believe weird things or do weird things. I'm guided by the vision that exists in the Jewish Catalog series, and which is embraced by events like Limmud today.

  7. BTW - here's a link to more information about Limmud.

    I went to their conferences in LA in 2008 and 2009, and was blown away.

  8. BTW, for the clearest example of an Orthodox "Gerber-ized" text, look at the Artscroll version of Song of Songs. The literal meaning of the text is apparently too hot to handle, since it is frankly erotic, so they simply do an "allegorical" translation based on Rashi's commentary. That's right - a book from the BIBLE is censored.

  9. >I see some value in retaining the authentic texts

    My proposal was a way to do that within the context of a SHJ service.

    Limmud sounds like a great organization. My impression is it's more of a continuing ed/learning environment, rather than a gathering of the community to practice a form of Judaism per se . . I think any liberal denomination can exist beautifully alongside/compliment the activities of Limmud.

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