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.