Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Oh, dear.

So yesterday I got to meet with an actual Humanistic Jew. A Rabbi, even. He was really nice--he invited me into his home to talk and gave me more than an hour of his time. It was a truly interesting conversation.

His congregation has been around for almost 20 years, and they're fairly large and well-established for a Humanistic congregation. Being in a big city definitely helps. Their motto is "Say what you believe and believe what you say." The upshot of that is that their services are completely nontheistic. They've rewritten many prayers and taken most of them out, but kept the traditional format of things. For example, rather than the traditional candle blessing:

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has given us the mitzvoth and commanded us to kindle lights for Shabbat.

They say:

Radiant is the light within the world.
Radiant is the light within each person.
Radiant is the light of the Shabbat.

I was right there with him for most of the conversation. They've written some new songs that fit their beliefs, re-written some others, and they also use popular songs and melodies. There is a great deal of choice in the congregation--for example, although there is a standard book used for B'nai Mitzvot, each family chooses the readings and songs that feel right for them. Also, each child researches his or her family history and does a mitzvah project and a research project, all of which are presented at the B'nai Mitzvah ceremony.

But he lost me on Torah. At this congregation, they do not read or discuss Torah at Shabbat services. They don't teach Hebrew to the children at Kid School (which meets only two afternoons a month, as opposed to 8 classes a month at a typical Reform congregation and as many as 12 at some Conservative Temples.) And although they do teach both Torah and Talmud at Kid School, this is done as literature only. They do not revere the Torah as an object or as a book at all.

This makes some sense for Humanists. After all, they don't believe in God and they believe in the primacy of Humanity and scientific thought. Why would they put jewels on a book, or kiss it, or dance with it? After all, it's just a book, right?

But for Jews, it's not just a book. Well, for me it's not. That book contains our heritage. It contains the wisdom of ancient generations. It contains the laws we've been following for thousands of years. Now, I don't think it was written by God, either. I'm sure it was written by humans. But I think it deserves at least as much respect as the Constitution. And to me, dancing with the Torah is part of being a Jew. I don't think I can give it up. More importantly, wrestling with that text is the right and responsibility of Jews. Just like The United States has to deal with a Constitution that includes slavery and disenfranchises women and doesn't anticipate the Internet and the Gay Rights Movement, Jews have to wrestle with a legal text that is over a thousand years old and can't be amended.

The Torah is also what kept Jews alive through the Middle Ages. It's the reason Jews were literate. It's the reason we survived the Bubonic Plague (Jews were the only people who washed hands before eating.) It's the reason Jews could be moneylenders when the Church outlawed interest. So even though I'm a Humanist, I want to keep studying Torah, and not just as literature. Parts of it are literature. Other parts are history--we've got archeological evidence to prove that. And lots and lots of it is legal text. So studying it as literature would seem to me to leave a lot of it out, and the parts left out are the parts that make us different from other cultures.

If anyone out there has advice at this point, I'd love to hear it. My next two agenda items are:

1) Check out the Torah Study at my current congregation. The Rabbi seems to think it might have what I need. It's certainly worth a try.

2) Spend some more time at the Reconstructionist congregation. I've been invited to see a Bat Mitzvah that's coming up in a few weeks, which should be interesting.

3) Look for the local Humanist (not Jewish) group that meets here in town.

No comments:

Post a Comment