Sunday, February 26, 2012

Soldiers Without Heaven

I just read this article on the blog Unreasonable Faith, which I'll be adding to the link list at right. It speaks to something very similar to my post from yesterday: the dedication to story, which has nothing to do with God.

The reasons that people enlist in the military are many. Religious faith has certainly always been one of them, since many wars have been fought for religious reasons. But the thing that drives a soldier to put himself (or herself, of course) specifically in danger is elusive and rare, and I suspect it has more to do with earthly considerations than the promise of eternal bliss. Really, this Rev. Griem is suggesting that American soldiers are the same as terrorists, motivated only by the selfishness of future gains in heaven.

I like to give our soldiers more credit than that. One can rationally examine a situation and determine that the loss of one life is better than the loss of many, and some people who come to that conclusion will follow it through to make the decision that self-sacrifice is the most ethical thing to do. I'm not saying it's easy, but wouldn't we all like to think that we'd put our own lives on the line to save, say, a trainload of children? This calculation has nothing to do with God or even legacy, though we all hope to be remembered for our selfless deeds. It's a logical, rational calculation that has at its root a deep valuation of human life. If human potential is good then it makes sense to sacrifice the life of one middle-aged woman to save the life of many children.

Likewise, it is the fight for human dignity that we hope drives our soldiers today, especially in a time where our wars have fundamentalism on one side and Democracy on the other. When our soldiers are engaged in nation-building, it is essential that they treat each person in an occupied country with dignity. And when we are trying to convince people from another religious and cultural background to change their ways, the only viable argument to make is one based on rational thinking.

So shouldn't we be evaluating military volunteers on their Humanism, rather than their spiritual health? Ask them about their understanding of the value of human life, their definition of the word "dignity" and what is the difference between the words "loyalty," "faith," and "fanaticism?"

Friday, February 24, 2012

Simchat Torah

When I started listening to Humanist podcasts, I thought it would only be fair to throw in a Jewish one, so I listen weekly to the JTS Weekly Torah Commentary. It was sort of a random decision: there it was on iTunes, so I subscribed. On the one hand, I like keeping up with the weekly parsha, and it's a convenient way to do so. On the other hand, Exodus is bogging things down a bit, which seems odd since Exodus is such a great story.

I was listening to the podcast yesterday on my way to work when I drifted off (we are in Exodus, have I mentioned?) and started thinking about why Torah is even important to me. I think it started because I had been reading about the riots in Afghanistan because of some Korans that were accidentally burned by American soldiers. People have died, and I thought, "These are books. You can print more." I wondered, then, how I would feel about people burning Torahs. And I'd be angry. I'd be viscerally angry, because the Torah means so much to me. So I can understand that much, but I hope I'd stop short of violence, because in the end, a Torah is an object. And if the people who burned them apologized and weren't trying to stop us from making more, then I'd have to get over it.

But that brought me to the question of my relationship to Torah. If I don't believe in God, then what's the big deal? And I remembered that when I spoke to the Humanist Rabbi, I was disturbed to find out that Humanistic Jews don't revere the Torah. But if I don't believe in God, why does that bother me?

And then, maybe because I was getting close to work, I started thinking about my conversation with David, which I blogged about before. David is a 63-year-old black undergraduate student at the University where we work, and he was telling me about his theory (he's a philosophy major) that the stories a community tells itself have a lot to do with the success of the community. He even pointed out that the stories don't have to be true.

When I put those two things together, it all started to make sense. To me, without Torah I'm not sure we're Jews. And I think David's theory is the reason. The Torah is our story, or at least the beginning of our story. So whether you believe that we are Jews because we obey certain laws or because God made a covenant with us or because we have a certain history and culture in common, the Torah is the root. At the very least, the Torah--the physical object--is a symbol of our cultural story. And I don't think we will benefit from dismissing our story.

The story has always been that we revere the Torah because it is the word of God. Because of that, we are to literally risk our lives to save a Torah. People have run into burning buildings to save Torahs. People buried them when the Nazis were coming and went back years later to resurrect the Torahs. We have one in our congregation that was purchased from a community that no longer exists--everyone was killed, but we have the Torah. Does owning that Torah bring us closer to God? Or does it help us remember the people who saved the Torah in the first place?

Maybe the reason that Jews have survived for so long despite the odds is that we have something bigger to believe in. And that something is not God: it's us.

My brother is not "of the faithful." He has nothing Jewish in his house, he married outside the faith, and although his wife was raised without religion, they have a Christmas tree and celebration every year. Still, he wants his children to celebrate Chanukah and attend a seder and eat chicken soup and fahnkuchen. Why?

I think the reason is that he wants his children to know their story. His story. No matter how involved he's become in the American story, the hipster story, and even the story from his wife's culture, he's still connected to the Jewish story and although he doesn't feel the need to connect his children to a Jewish community, he wants them to know the Jewish story.

So why would we throw out something so powerful?

For centuries, Jews have celebrated the Torah and used it as a symbol. We have literally danced with it, literally passed it from generation to generation, literally tasted sweetness from its parchment. Because the Torah is a symbol. By literally passing the scroll to a child at her bat mitzvah, a parent symbolically hands down all of our learning, the wisdom of generations: our story. Ours, not God's. If we don't believe in God, then we don't believe that God wrote the Torah. People wrote the Torah. Our ancestors wrote the Torah in order to set down a dramatized version of history along with all of our laws so that future generations would have that story to pass to our children. It's a story powerful enough to have sustained us for thousands of years and to spawn two other religions that have done a pretty good job of taking over the world. The greatest story ever told.

If we give that up, what are we?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Obviously I've never been a Christian. There's a lot in Christianity, like the concept of the Trinity, that I just can't fathom or get behind. But there are two things about Christianity that I've always envied.

One is the "Spirit of Christmas." I've always longed to be part of the whole season of joy and I love the idea that everyone is more generous and kind to those less fortunate at that time of year. Of course it would be nice if people were that generous all year round, but as a Humanist, I've got to understand the limits of Humanity, too, and once a year is better than nothing.

The other is Lent. I guess it's an odd thing to envy, but as a child I enjoyed books about old-fashioned girls, like Anne of Green Gables and Betsy-Tacy. The girls were always Christian and church was always an important part of their lives. I enjoyed reading about the challenges and feelings around Lent. I particularly remember Betsy from the Betsy-Tacy series giving up fudge for Lent. Fudge-making was a common activity for teenage girls at the beginning of the 20th century, and at every gathering Betsy would take one piece of fudge, bring it home, and keep it in a box. At the end of Lent she had a wonderful sense of accomplishment and a big box of stale fudge.

Well, today is Ash Wednesday and there's been a lot of talk among my Christian friends on Facebook around the start of Lent. One is giving away candy she won't be able to eat until Lent is over, another is debating what to give up, and a Minister friend of mine posted a pancake recipe yesterday for Shrove Tuesday and is asking her congregants what they're doing to observe Lent. I, of course, jumped right in to these discussions with suggestions and questions, and I learned something new.

Some people do something positive for Lent instead of giving something up.

What a wonderful Humanist idea! Now, I believe that giving things up is good for you. It's why I give up bread on Passover and why I fast on Yom Kippur. Perhaps that's the origin of my Lent envy, or maybe it's the other way around. But giving up sweets or alcohol or meat doesn't really help anyone else (well, the meat does, I guess.) On the other hand, deciding to be nicer to those around you or more generous or to start a new volunteer project does help others. When I heard that Catholics in the town where I grew up have been adding positive acts for Lent since the 1980's, I thought, "Wow! Humanist Catholics! Who knew?"

Which is when I realized that I'm in trouble.

Because I don't see Humanism as having much to do with disbelief in God. I define Humanism differently. To me, it's about putting the dignity of others first and making decisions based on rational, rather than textual, reasons. It's the embrace of science and skepticism. To me, none of that precludes religion. If you do it, you're a Humanist.

So what does that make me?

Monday, February 20, 2012

What I want to do

A few things have got me thinking about what I want. First, it was listening to the Greg Epstein interview I linked to in my last post. Then I had a really interesting conversation with a co-worker who is studying Hebrew but knows very little about Judaism. And this morning I read Ethan's comments on my response to him. 

If you don't know anything about Greg Epstein, you can listen to the interview I linked to, check out the Humanist Community Project (link in the list at right), or read his book, Good Without God. I love the work that he is doing. Now, although Epstein is ordained as a Humanist Rabbi, he seems to be identifying mostly as a Humanist, and less so as a Jew. I think this is partly his own inclination and partly because his role at Harvard is as the Humanist Chaplain, so he needs to address all of his constituents, not only those of Jewish origin or inclination. Although he does talk about making a Humanist Seder for Passover in his book, I think most of his public work at Harvard is more generally Humanist.

In the interview, he talks about his role at Harvard and in the larger Cambridge community. He is helping people to form communities in different ways, and through his website, studying Humanist communities around the world to find out what works so that others may emulate best practices.

I don't think I can get away from my Jewish origins. As I have said previously, I love many things about Judaism, and what has stopped me in the past from exploring Unitarianism or even Ethical Culture is that I don't think I can quite cope, psychologically, with a Sunday service. Services on Sundays feels Christian to me in a way that I don't seem to be able to get past, even for Ethical Culture.

But I love the idea of helping people to satisfy their needs for ritual and community in ways that feel right to them. I would love to spend my life helping people to write life cycle ceremonies that meet their individual needs (I loved writing my own wedding ceremony, which is something I should blog about at another time.) And I would also love to help people form communities that meet their spiritual needs. So I'm hoping that Epstein's project spreads far and wide so that someday, when the Little Jewess isn't financially dependent on us anymore, I can spend my time doing those things.

Then there's my co-worker, David. David is currently studying Philosophy at the University where we work, and decided to take Hebrew to satisfy his language requirement because he felt that as a Christian, he should be able to read the Bible in its original languages. (Then he started studying Hebrew and gave up on ever learning Greek and Aramaic, but I still admire the original goal.) We started talking about Philosophy and his goal, which is to find ways through Philosophy to help African Americans change the way they think about themselves so that they can break the cycle of poverty. And he felt that as a Jew, I'd be able to understand something about cultural trauma. David thinks, though that one advantage Jews have is our long history. We always have that story and tradition to keep us going, whereas African Americans lost their history because of slavery.

So I told him about the Jewish idea that we must teach our children four things: to cook, to read, to swim and to earn a living (by giving them an education or a trade.) In my opinion, it is this that has saved the Jews time and again, because although we have suffered many traumas that have forced us to emigrate, those traumas oppress only one generation. That generation may lose their financial footing, but they will make sure that their children are educated and have financial opportunities.

And David asked me a very interesting question. Because of our long history, are there tensions between Jews who want to keep the old ways and those who want to move with the times?

Oh, David.

But thanks to those who have commented here, I may have given a different answer than I otherwise would have.

I said, "Yes and no."

And I explained to him that while we have very strong disagreements sometimes, there is a concept that keeps us all together and makes us accountable to one another.

Which brings me to Ethan. I think, Ethan, that I may have overstated my case. I do not think we can force anyone out of Judaism. And I think there are many who observe the basic tenets of the faith but who think reasonably about what they do. It's one of the things I love about Judaism--that we can study and discuss and draw our own conclusions. And that's one thing that bothers me about the fundamentalists. Why freeze Judaism at one point in time? They dress like it's the 19th century and act like it's the 19th century and say "This is Judaism and it must never change again!" It's foolish.

I'm looking for a community that does take learning seriously, but doesn't impose obligations on its members. At least, not unreasonable obligations. There is a point, I suppose, where one can do so little as to not really be a member. A club I just joined requires attendance at 4 meetings per year and a certain amount of participation in order to maintain benefits. That makes sense, because if one does less than that, one isn't really participating in the club, and so it's fair to say that person isn't really a member. A congregation could require something similar.

But I understand the Reform Movement's hesitation to place such requirements on its members. Because if you only need the community when your mother dies, can we turn you away? If you want to enroll your children in Religious School, can we turn you away? If we say that those who only show up on High Holy Days shouldn't come at all, what are we then?

I seem to have turned a corner to another train of thought (to mix my metaphors.) I think that will require another post.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

All Fired Up!

I just listened to The Humanist Hour podcast featuring Greg Epstein of the Harvard Humanist Community Project. Nobody gets me fired up like he does. I highly recommend a listen.

Link is here.

How to pray without God

I'm still attending services at the Reform congregation where I work. This is partly because The Little Jewess loves it, partly because it's good for my students to see me there, and partly because even without belief, I still enjoy the sense of community, and I think that it is good for me to sing in a group. Physically and emotionally, I enjoy the sensation of hearing the other voices, raising my own voice to join in, and feeling the vibration of the music in my body.

Then it was time for silent prayer. In the past, I have taken this part of the service very seriously. Although I always questioned the existence of God, I felt that it was an opportunity to focus on those things I wanted to improve in myself, and those things I wanted most for others. I tried to use the time to be really humble and thoughtful about what would make things better in my life, so I prayed for grace, for generosity of spirit, for the health of my friends and relatives, and for The Little Jewess to live a long and happy life and to always find peace inside herself. (This is not my normal personality, but I took silent prayer very seriously, especially after I became a parent. It was like I was modeling for The Little Jewess even inside my own head.)

For all those years, I prayed silently and seriously while never being convinced there was a God. I always said that it didn't matter. I loved the quote:

              Pray as if everything depended on God,
              Act as if everything depended on you.
              Who rise from prayer better people,
              Their prayer is answered.

(No, it's not an exact quote. I've gender-neutraled it. It's what I do.) I took that quote to mean that prayer is an opportunity to self-examine and then we must act to make the world a better place. And I felt that praying with sincerity, seriously, is a way to focus one's intentions, which is why I always took care to focus my attention on the person I wanted to be. I think there is value in stopping weekly and saying, "I wish I was more generous and forgiving." It's not that I ever expected God to make me more generous and forgiving, but that by reminding myself frequently that I have this desire, I would work harder at opening my heart to others.

But this time, when the Rabbi said it was time for a moment of silence (interestingly, she did not say it was time for silent prayer, although she sometimes does) I didn't do anything. I was, to be fair to myself, responsible at that moment for The Little Jewess and two of her friends, who had been suffering terribly from giggling fits throughout the service, and I was a bit concerned that they would have another giggling fit and disturb the people in front of us, whom I happened to know were in mourning. So it wouldn't have been my best prayer anyway. But I also felt ridiculous praying to a God who isn't there.

This is one of the weaknesses that Humanism needs to overcome. The kind of meditation that silent prayer has always provided me is an important task. I do think it is good for people to think about how they would like to become better and what they want for others and the world. I believe that there is power in positive thinking, in taking stock of oneself, and in choosing a direction for self-improvement. Also, moments of silence abound in our society. It seems there's always a moment of silence for dead soldiers, for those who have died from a disease, for 9/11 and so on. Humanists need something to do during that time--something that is as productive for us as prayer is for the believers.

But how to do it? What do we call it? How do we pray without God?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Keep those comments coming!

Ethan, your time has finally come!

Everyone else can read Ethan's comments here and here but for anyone who wants a quick overview, Ethan's basic argument is that rather than avoiding the Religious Right, I should engage with them, and try to convince them that what they are doing is not right. He also suggests that my disengagement from God and some aspects of Judaism might be misguided. That's a very short summary and I do encourage anyone who reads this to click through and read his actual comments, which are detailed and respectful while clearly disagreeing with me in some fundamental (but not fundamentalist) ways.

Ethan, I can understand how a disenchantment with the Reform Movement could push someone towards the Orthodox, especially the Modern Orthodox, who do embrace thought and questioning in ways that previous generations never did. In some ways, we're opposite sides of the same coin, or whatever metaphor you want to choose for people who perceived the same thing but reacted to it differently. Here's my response to what you have said:

1) I realize that many Reform Jews are poorly educated about Judaism and wouldn't even know where to look something up if they had a question, which they generally don't because many don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about religion. I am not one of these. I had a good basic education at home and at Hebrew School and a very intellectual Rabbi growing up. I also have a BA in Religion, and I've taught Hebrew School (and attended the requisite conferences) for a total of 9 years at three different schools. I have a shelf full of Religion books at home and near-constant access to the Rabbi, Cantor and Educator at work for any more-detailed questions I might have. Plus Google, of course, and the ability to tell right-wing garbage from real scholarship. When I'm not sure why Jews do something, I make sure I find out. And while I haven't spent lots of time studying Talmud, I am fairly conversant with Leviticus.

2) There is a huge difference between choosing food for scientific reasons (yes, my health, but also the health of the world--I try to eat local produce as much as I can and part of the reason I gave up meat is that meat production uses a lot more energy, and causes more pollution, than the production of plant-based foods. I also try to eat products that are ethically produced, free trade, and where possible, are processed by unionized workers.) and kashrut. Have you read Leviticus 11? It's nonsense. Never in the chapter does it say why we should only eat animals that chew the cud, only that we should. And it makes statements that are blatantly contrary to science. If I were a really good blogger I'd take out my TANACH and footnote my arguments, but I'm a tired blogger so you're just going to have to look at the whole chapter if you want to check up on me. It says in there that a bat is a bird. A bat! Do you know how hard it is to explain to children why it says that a bat is a bird, and why it says that a hare chews its cud?

I can't read that and take it seriously. You can't tell me that one of the birds I shouldn't eat is a bat, and then expect me to listen when you say I shouldn't eat lobster because it doesn't have fins and scales. Who cares? If it had fins and scales, it probably wouldn't be so delicious. And honestly, I can eat locusts but not lobster? This is not logical.

Again, I understand why kashrut can be comforting to some, and that it brings ritual to your life. But to me it means basing one's life on something that was written a long time ago and no longer makes sense. I have examined it (even tried it once), and I reject it. And don't even get me started on the milk and meat thing.

3) Spiritual differences between women and men may exist. This does not explain to me why women cannot wear trousers or kippot or read from the Torah. It tells me nothing of why my husband (or father) should own me. Or why I should cover my hair. Or why men thank God every morning for not having been made a woman. Women are oppressed in many observant Jewish communities. Think of the women who cannot get remarried because their legal ex-husbands will not give them a get. This is not okay.

4) But then we come to strategy. You make an interesting point that arguing with extremists on their own terms might be more convincing. That's true. But as they wouldn't respect my Jewishness, my education, or my right to discuss the matter, it's a difficult proposition. It seems much more sensible to me for Israel to cut off their special privileges.

On the other hand, you're right that Progressive Jews should be trying to make a more attractive option. Some are, such as Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn, NY. One option I have considered is to try to grow a community like theirs, which is vibrant and thoughtful and full of scholarship and activism.

Part of what this blog is doing is helping me to engage with these questions in a more thoughtful way. I want to hear the arguments so that I can consider them and refine my position. I also want my view of Judaism to be out there. The more people who read this, the more people will learn that there are well-educated, thoughtful, moral, involved people who are atheists and who are progressives and who are trying to work all of this out.

So I thank you, readers, for giving me a forum in which to do this, and for keeping me on my toes with the thoughtful comments. Keep 'em coming!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Israel and Fundamentalism

I promise, Ethan, I will respond to your comments. They are sitting in my e-mail box where I see them every time I check my mail, so I won't forget. But it's been a busy week, and a friend posted this article on Facebook and it seems more timely to respond to the article.

The struggle between fundamentalists and secular Jews is obvious in Israel, and it is becoming clear how urgent it is that Jews around the world step up and stand strong for Israeli democracy. Israel is right now in danger of becoming a fundamentalist state no better (in terms of human rights) than some of its Muslim neighbors. If a little girl cannot walk to school in a short sleeved shirt without being called a whore, I don't care what religion is behind the hatred: it is wrong.

So I am pleased to hear that American Jews are threatening to direct their money only towards projects that enhance Israeli democracy.

But I would argue that this is the same fundamentalist pressure that started me on my current religious journey. We are experiencing the same pressures here in the United States from religious fundamentalists. When Rick Santorum wins caucuses while arguing that gay people do not have a right to privacy in their own bedrooms and the Catholic Church claims that Obama is anti-First Amendment because he is stopping them from withholding reproductive health care from its employees, we are in danger of a crisis. Chris Christie is trying to divert funds from public schools to parochial schools. Newt Gingrich wants to dismantle the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and says that its judges are "un-American" because they do not think it is Constitutional to have God in the Pledge of Allegiance. We are in danger of the same things happening here.

It is much easier for these things to happen in Israel. For one thing, Israel is so much smaller than the US. For another, Israel's basis as a Jewish State can confuse certain issues. Israel is susceptible to the notion that the Orthodox are the "real Jews" and therefore vulnerable to giving the Orthodox more than their fair share of power.

But when we allow people to refer to "God-fearing Americans" or to call Christians (or the religious in general) "real America," we are giving away power. When we don't stand up to the Religious and we allow them to claim that their rights are being violated, when in fact what they want to do is to violate the rights of others (by denying them the right to marry, or get healthcare, or have consensual sex with adults) we are giving away power. When we don't stand up for our public schools, or for the rights of Atheists, we are giving away power. And how far is it, really, from where we are now to where Israel is headed?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Readers Respond

I have to say that one of my goals in starting this blog was to find out things I didn't already know. On the one hand, it helps because knowing I have to blog keeps me on my journey, at least somewhat. When I start feeling shy about checking out a new congregation or interviewing someone, I think of the need to keep going with this project, and that gets me out of the house.

But more than that, I was hoping to find some people out there who know what I don't. And yesterday, two readers posted really thoughtful comments that are contributing to my education.

If you didn't see it in the comments, you should read this article from Ha'aretz that Suzanne told me about. I'd discuss it, but there's nothing much to say: it states my frustrations very clearly and makes me wish I could find more people who agree with it. Unfortunately, Suzanne lives in New Zealand and the article is written by an Israeli. Neither is around the corner. But I love that I'm hearing inspiring news from readers around the world. I'd love to hear more!

On the flip side, a reader named Ethan argues that I should consider becoming more observant. I want to give his comments the thoughtful response it deserves, and I don't have time now, so I'll make that another post tomorrow.

Keep on educating me, world!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Atheism in America

I just read this article on It made me think about coming out. Why don't I? I'm keeping this blog anonymous and not promoting it in any of the ways I normally would (like mentioning it to my friends on Facebook) so that I can keep my atheism in the closet. Why?

A few reasons, really. For one thing, I doubt my commitment. Part of me thinks this is all a mid-life crisis, and eventually I'll go back to belief, as hard as that is to imagine. After all, I gave up eating meat at around the same time I stopped believing in God, and I had shrimp salad for lunch today. To some extent, I am going back. I love my Jewish community and when it came time to pray for the sick this Friday night at services, I found myself saying my brother's name. Why? I don't believe that God will intervene to cure my brother's ear infection.

But I do believe it's a good thing to share one's concerns with a community. Were I to start a Humanistic Jewish community, I would have to find a way to share news: illnesses and deaths require support, and sharing joys brings a community together.

So there I was, asking the community to pray for my brother's health.

And then there's my job. I teach religion. To children. What would happen if I came out at work? As I have previously shared, I already discussed this with my Rabbi, but even then I asked her to keep the conversation private. Now, Judaism does not have a creed, so there is no requirement that a Jew believe in God. But if you say that to someone who does believe, they get very uncomfortable. And when I ask the parents of my students what they want for their children, I usually get responses like "to form a personal relationship with God." Would they trust me to teach their children if I came out? Is it even okay for me to be teaching these children anymore? And if not, where do I go?

I'm not living in a part of the country where being an atheist is scandalous. I have plenty of friends who don't believe, or don't believe much. And plenty more who don't believe in God, exactly, but in some kind of "power in the Universe." And yet...I'm in the closet.