Monday, January 23, 2012

You don't own me

After my earlier rant, Eliezer Pennywhistler commented:

Unless you have also ejected Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze-ba-Zeh from your Judaism, you are fully associated with them.

Don't keep running away. Deal with it.

I've been thinking about this all day for two reasons.

1) I think I do want to eject kol Yisrael arevim ze-ba-zeh ("all of Israel are responsible for each other's actions") from my Judaism. I think that was my point about Reform Judaism: I thought we already did. Why do I have to own the actions of people who wouldn't deign to touch me? Why can't I stand up, as moderate Muslims have done with their extremists, and say, "This is not Judaism as I know it?" And more than that, why do I have to put up with the world seeing them as the "Real Jews" and me as something less? 

What this does is allow THEM to own US. It is the language that implies that I could be a better Jew, that there are degrees of Judaism, that offends me constantly. And it's what bothers me about the way we, as Reform Jews, teach our children. We lead a secular life that sometimes doesn't even include attendance at services or any kind of prayer, then send our children to a school where they are told that Jews do this and that--things of which they may never have heard before--and we wonder why they grow up to marry non-Jews. We teach them that it is wrong to discriminate, that women are equal to men, that lobster is delicious and Shabbat is meaningless, and then let the world believe that the Orthodox are the "real Jews." Well, then--what does that make us? If we are not real Jews, what are we doing? And if we are real Jews--if we can be real Jews without sexism and kashrut and Shabbat--then what is Judaism? Or Jewishness?

2) Which brings me to Eliezer's second point. He accuses me of running away. Oddly, he is the first person to do this. And it makes me wonder.

Clearly, I am running away. I have described this (but maybe not here) as my mid-life crisis. That, I will own. And I know this atheism was born of a repulsion I feel toward the Religious Right. So in that regard, I am running away. I'm running away from being perceived as a Religious Jew--a title that I previously fought to have applied to me as a believing Reform Jew, but which now makes me think of hatred, violence and oppression. And in general I prefer the "deal with it" approach to the "running away" approach.

I would also argue that this blog is my attempt to deal with it. I am searching for the other Jews who believe as I do: 
  • That equal rights, freedom and dignity for all is essential
  • That careful choices about eating can be made on a scientific, rather than textual, basis
  • That God probably doesn't exist, but Torah and Talmud do, and there is wisdom in those texts--wisdom that comes from people who have lived before us.
  • That questioning is the primary responsibility of the Religious
  • That people should be judged based on their actions above all else
because I want to be part of a community, and I want to enjoy the joy and comfort I have taken from rituals all my life. And also because I want to have a voice in the larger Jewish discussion, and I think many voices are louder than one. I want the world to know that the Orthodox are not the only Jews, that Progressive Jews are just as authentic as anyone, and that we, as Progressive Jews, reject the behavior of those who use Judaism as a vehicle for hatred. We reject them based on their actions and we reject their assertion that their desire to control other people has anything to do with God or Judaism. 

So, faced with extremists, my response is, "You don't own me, and I will not own your behavior. I am NOT responsible for what you do and you may not blame my religion for your actions. Neither may you tell me what to do or how to understand the texts we share. I am a smart, well educated, thoughtful Jewess, and I can make my own decisions about where to pray and how to dress and what to eat. If you can't, that's your problem."

Why do we let the Orthodox control us?

I just read this excellent article on It's about the effect of the Ultra-Orthodox on Jewish life in Israel. I related to this article way too deeply, because in some ways it expresses my frustrations with the Reform Movement.

Why do we allow the Orthodox to be the keepers of "real" Judaism? Reform Judaism should be like Protestantism. A definite choice was made to separate from Orthodoxy and to make decisions based on common sense, scientific knowledge and reason rather than ancient tradition and superstition. So why the return? Why does a female Rabbi who wears trousers and a kippah when leading services also bow during the Barechu and insist on celebrating a second day of Rosh Hashana? Why must we show respect to our fellow Jews, even when they are wrong, even when they spit on us and abuse children walking to school? Is it because of the Holocaust? Because Hitler saw no difference between us, we must band together even with people who would grant me no rights as a human being? We're talking about people who would not consider my marriage valid or my daughter a Jew. I don't wish violence upon them, but neither do I wish to be associated with them in any way.

This is what is driving my retreat from Judaism and my alienation from God. I don't want to be associated with the religious if being religious means fearing women, disavowing science and trampling human rights. Why does it feel like my only two choices are religion which moves ever rightward and reason, which turns its back just as forcefully on ritual, celebration and community?

I want to be--no, I am--a Progressive Jew. I believe in science, individual choice and equal rights for all. I love ritual, beauty and community. Why can't I have both?

Note: There is a follow up to this post here.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Blog for Choice

NARAL Pro-Choice America asked me to blog for choice today, so I am. Choice is an important part of Humanism, among other things. I think it's essential that women have control over their bodies. So I only vote for pro-choice candidates.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The other problem

Maybe it's the real problem, actually. Mr. Jewess doesn't have friends at our Temple. I have a friend who's rapidly becoming a good friend, but her husband is always at work so we've never met him. And I also hang out with the Rabbi, Cantor and Educator who are all women. Mr. Jewess isn't afraid to be friends with women but like most men, he prefers to hang out with other men, and he doesn't have any male friends at the Temple.

This means that we don't have any families that we are friends with. And that means that the Temple can never really be a social center for us.

It's a problem.

Snowed Out

Today I had planned to visit the Reconstructionist Temple again, having been invited by the Rabbi to visit on a day she was leading services. When the event at The Little Jewess's school got cancelled for safety reasons, I decided it wasn't worth it to go out in the snow.

Next week I'm attending a Reform Shabbaton. I paid for this one, so chances are good that I'll actually go. Maybe they'll teach me something that brings this all into focus. In the meantime, I joined that Humanist group. There's no reason I can't be a Reform Jew AND a Humanist, right? So I'll try that for a little while and see what happens.

In the meantime, I can enjoy a snowy day with my family. Mr. Jewess has pancake plans and The Little Jewess has sledding plans. That's a day to be thankful for.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Acting like God

SO...just when I think I've decided that Reform Judaism is for me (or at least something I can live with) and that I should stay where I am, I get an e-mail from The Little Jewess's Hebrew School teacher saying that she's teaching the children that we do good deeds to emulate God.

I think that is a stupid thing to teach. First of all, I don't want The Little Jewess to act like the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. He's got really bad manners, he's jealous, he throws tantrums and he's a bully. Second, if you tell kids that the reason they should be good is to emulate God, what happens if they stop believing? And where is the room for thought and questioning?

So I checked in with the Rabbi and she said this is definitely the new direction of Reform Judaism. She said one of her goals is "to help Jews find the language for their spirituality." I'm OK with spirituality, but I'm not at all comfortable with this kind of God talk. I don't think I'd have been comfortable with it when I believed in God (or thought I did) but that doesn't really matter because I know I don't believe in God now and that's my Little Jewess in that classroom.

And Mr. Jewess isn't happy about it either.

The search goes on...

Monday, January 16, 2012

Souring on Dawkins

I'm not sure I can finish The God Delusion. Or rather, I'm not sure I feel like finishing it. Dawkins begins with the premise that the only sensible position on the existence of God is agnosticism, because although science cannot yet prove whether or not there is a God, we should be able to prove it someday. Then he proceeds to write an entire book attempting to prove, scientifically, that there is no God.

Why spend an entire book proving something that can't be proven? Why spend that much effort trying to deny comfort to the faithful? I think he spends far too much effort in the wrong direction, which is why I prefer the efforts of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Dan Savage, Greg Epstein and Penn Jillette. The point is not that everyone needs to disbelieve in God. Faith is faith--it defies logic and it defies science. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

I could vote for someone who believes in fairies, for example. However, if that person insists that the fairies talk to him, and he does what the fairies tell him, that's a different story. It's one thing to believe in God if God, to you, is a benevolent force in the universe that may answer prayers, or if you believe that God is love. It's another thing to believe that the Bible (whichever bible you follow) is the word of God and must be taken literally, or if you believe (as George W. Bush asserts) that God acts through you and that gives you the right to start wars.

It is the laws of God, not the existence of God, that we should argue against. Belief in God is fine insofar as it brings comfort to people in distress or a useful metaphor for teaching children right from wrong. God becomes dangerous when people use God for dangerous things. When one's world view is limited by a belief in God, that is bad. The same can be said for money, however, and I don't see Dawkins arguing against the existence of money. Money exists; perhaps God does to. Neither is the problem. People are the problem, and people can be the solution.

Likewise I see nothing wrong with studying sacred texts. In fact I find them incredibly useful much of the time. I find it unlikely that any problem I might face has never been faced before by any human, or in fact by many people. So I often find it helpful to consult the writings of the past to see how those problems have been solved before. Sometimes I find wisdom in literature, or in talking to an older person, or in reading history (or more likely, watching a documentary on TV.) But the Torah, the Talmud, and the other Jewish sacred texts were written for precisely this reason, and so I often find wisdom there. I don't take any of this literally. I don't believe any of these texts were written or dictated by a deity. But where I find wisdom and useful advice, I use it.

Of course it's essential to take all of this in context. The dating world changed drastically between the time my mother was dating and my own teen years, so it would have been foolish for me to do exactly what my mother did when she was young. But this doesn't mean I couldn't learn from her: of course I could. I just had to consider her stories in their own context and discuss with her how the things she learned from her experience applied to my own situation. I suppose it's a bit harder to do with the Torah since I can't sit down with its writers, but I can take the stories in the Torah in their context and find useful lessons in them.

The stories only become dangerous when one suggests that women can't run their own lives or gay people can't get married because of them.

I guess what I'm saying is that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. God is okay, for those who find comfort in the concept. And texts are harmless, in and of themselves, just as matches are harmless as long as they remain on the shelf. Careless reading is as dangerous as playing with matches, and that is where our arguments with the faithful lie. Believe in God if you wish. It's believing in the Bible that I would fight against.

So why did Dawkins waste his time?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Look what I found!

Here are some people on a similar journey to mine:

It's been an interesting weekend...

Last night I went to services at my Temple and had a great time. It was a pot luck dinner, which is always my favorite event, and then a musical service with added elements to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. We sang "We Shall Overcome" and the Junior Choir performed. Although the service didn't get the attendance we usually see at services with a pot luck, it was clearly a vibrant, multi-generational community with inspiring music and good discussion, people who know me and my family and remember to bring hard-boiled eggs to pot luck because my daughter loves them. And people bowing as they prayed to God.

This morning I found the local Humanist group. I was by far the youngest person there and one of only two people with children living at home (there were no children present and I don't expect there ever have been at these meetings.) A woman spoke about Robert Moses and there was a discussion about the implications of his work: the benefits of some of his projects balanced against the neighborhoods he destroyed and the utter devastation to communities wrought by some of the roads he planned. It was interesting and stimulating, and a pleasure to be with people who think about the ethics and consequences of things. I later went on their Facebook page and found links there to news about school prayer regulation, the death of Christopher Hitchens (more info about him at right) and the upcoming Lobby Day for Reason which is part of the Reason Rally that will take place in Washington at the end of March. And no songs, no children, no rituals.

So it's hard to know what to do. I firmly believe that people need rituals and music and ways to honor life-cycle events. Religion has existed for so long because it serves many purposes in our lives. The local Humanists are definitely a community and they welcomed me and encouraged me to return, and even to present if I like. I am sure that they are there for each other in difficult and joyous times and I think I may join them because I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of being with them. Next time I may even join them for lunch. But this group cannot take the place that religion has held in my life all these years. I need more.

The folks at the Humanist meeting suggested I check out the local Ethical Culture Society. I've been resistant to that because they meet on Sundays. Somehow, going to a "religious" meeting on Sunday feels Christian to me, even if they are adamantly non-Christian, and that feels too alien to me. But it is worth a look. I will add it to my list of places to investigate. After all, Ethical Culture is one of the oldest forms of Humanism out there.

I have found something I like, even if it isn't everything I need, so that's a step. Next week I'm planning to return to the Reconstructionist Synagogue. The Rabbi there invited me to attend a Saturday morning service because she thought it might be more to my liking, so I feel I should give it another chance.

I'm starting to feel like researching the local religious (and non-religious) scene is my new hobby. It's certainly interesting, and I'm learning a lot.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Humanism vs. Atheism

I'm reading Dawkins, and it's making me think, and it's making me laugh as he ridicules the faithful. But while I recognize that it's easy for someone as brilliant as Dawkins to make a hash out of the "proofs" that people of faith have provided for the existence of God, I don't fully agree with him. At least not so far (I'm  in chapter 3 at present.)

I think it's because he spends too much time on proving the non-existence of God. He's proselytizing for the unfaithful. And the fact is, I don't care. I don't care that much about the existence of God, and I certainly don't care whether you believe. I care what you DO.

The Society for Humanistic Judaism has just come out against the Defense of Marriage Act. They've also recently come out in favor of a lot of good stuff. That's the kind of thing I like, that makes me want to join the movement. That's what Humanism is about. It isn't about whether or not you believe in God. It's about  whether you think humans can make a difference in the world.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Is Reform the answer?

The author of Midlife Bat Mitzvah (if you haven't read her excellent blog, I have added a link to the list at the right) suggests that Reform is a big enough tent for me and my atheism. She might be right. Certainly my Rabbi has no problem with it, and she, like MBM, sees God as an abstract presence and not literally God. My Rabbi does not, however, identify as an atheist.

I have not spoken to the Cantor at length about this, but from her public words, she seems to firmly believe in the existence of God. I could be wrong, of course. These things are deeply personal and not easily talked about. I am not in a leadership position and yet I am protecting my anonymity here so as not to raise issues in my Temple. At this point that has more to do with the fact that I'm considering other congregations than my atheism itself, but as I have said, I do worry about what will happen if and when I come out.

I think the issue has more to do with consistency. Why should I stand in Temple and say what I do not mean? And what message does that send to The Little Jewess? As her title implies, MBM came to this exploration a bit later in life than I did, and her daughter was older at the time. Religious School was not so much an issue when MBM began blogging.

I have not ruled out the Reform Movement or even our current congregation. Perhaps I can get involved with a group that studies the liturgy and writes its own service. That kind of thing might be what I'm looking for--a chance to think more deeply and a way to experience my own more liberal form of Judaism. At present, I don't know of any plans to do such a service, but I remember my mother participating, years ago, in writing a feminist service at our Reform congregation. I might suggest it to the Rabbi to see what she thinks.

So thank you, Midlife Bat Mitzvah, for reading and commenting. As long as I maintain my connection to the Reform Movement I might as well take what opportunities I can for exploring the options within it.

And now it's late, and Richard Dawkins awaits...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


I don't have time for a real post today, but I've added some links under "Other References." These are not all things that I like or agree with, but they are famous texts (and a movie) about Atheism, and they've influenced me.

I've begun reading The God Delusion and when I get a bit further in I'll write about it. So far, I'm pleased that Dawkins does not, as Maher does in Religulous, work under the assumption that the only possible definition of God is "the character in the Bible." Maher asserts that if one purports to believe in God, then one must take responsibility for everything written in the Scripture. I think that's ridiculous, and I'm glad to read that Dawkins is arguing against all deities, everywhere.

However, I prefer Epstein's assertion that Progressive believers are our allies provided that they are working for the betterment of Humanity. I can't spend my time being at war with the religious. It's hard enough fighting the Religious Right.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Reform Again?

I had a really good day at the Temple yesterday. It felt great to be there, my family was there, The Little Jewess was happy, everything was good. I'm not sure I can give all that up, which means two things:

1) I need to find a way to develop a community that is either within the Temple or in addition to it, and

2) I need to find a way to live with integrity within the Temple.

You may have noticed that this blog is anonymous and (thus far) has no followers. That's partly because I don't need to be broadcasting my identity all over the internet, and The Little Jewess deserves some privacy. (Mr. Jewess is a grown-up and can deal with the consequences of marrying me, one of which is existential blogging.) But it's partly because I worry what might happen if it got out in my current congregation, where individual relationship with God is the understood norm, that I'm a Humanist. Would people still trust me?  Would I be able to pray in public (do I want to?) Would my every action be judged?

There's already some stuff that's making me uncomfortable. For example, I've decided I'm not going to bow to a God I don't believe in. But I don't think most people notice or care. But if I came out, they might. And I feel uncomfortable about the God language in services and in Religious School. Even little things--yesterday, a teacher was teaching about Jews around the world, and she said, "Wherever they are, they say the same blessings to start Shabbat," and she began the traditional blessings. I felt like saying, "Wait! Stop! What about the Reconstructionists? And the Humanists? And the Jews who don't know the blessings and the Jews who write their own blessings and the Jews who don't say any blessings?"

Can I say that? What would happen if I did?

I guess I'm uncomfortable with that statement anyway, said to a class of children who mostly don't say blessings on Friday night. How can you tell a class of Jewish kids, "This is what Jews do," when you know THEY don't do it? It's like telling them they're not Jews. Other times, I feel like that is their parents' problem. Inevitably, these kids are going to ask why they're there, and the parents are going to have to answer. When The Little Jewess comes home saying "Jews do this," or "Jews do that, and why don't we?" I tell her that we're Reform Jews and we make our own choices. I've also told her that we're Jewish Humanists, so I guess I can rely on that in the future as needed. But I need a way to explain the differences to her so that she can live with it as she grows and also understand the choices she will have to make later.

Maybe what I need is more a support group than a Congregation. I have a Congregation, and there are a lot of things I do like about it. But a basic disconnect on the issue of God is kind of a big deal.


Saturday, January 7, 2012


Today was the day I was going to check out Torah Study. Instead I'm at home, in my pajamas. So far I ate pancakes (thanks, Mr. Jewess!) and helped The Little Jewess with her homework. Now she wants to watch Cake Boss together. How can I even feel guilty about missing Torah Study? I'd feel more guilty about missing this.

I know I'd feel good if I went to Torah Study or a service on Shabbat mornings. But on the other hand, Saturday is our day to laze around and just hang out as a family. Sometimes I think the Christians have the right idea, having Sunday School at the same time as services. The Jewish model takes up the whole weekend.

I guess this is why so few people strike out and make change. The status quo is so much easier. Which brings me back to: sigh.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What am I looking for, anyway?

People keep asking me what my ideal congregation would look like. I guess I should take a stab at it.

1. A vibrant community I'd like to find a multi-generational community where people care about each other and the congregation. It would be nice if most of the people were middle-class and not ostentatious. I want The Little Jewess to learn that who you're with is more important than what you spend. And I'd like a core group of people who attend regularly that I could get to know and depend upon.

2. Liberal Values I want to celebrate with the 99%. One thing that draws me to Humanism is their stance on human dignity. I'd like a congregation where people are committed to social justice, and active in pursuing dignity for all people.

3. Science Rational thought is essential. I've always taken a rational approach to religion. It's part of being a Progressive. But now that I don't believe in God, a strong belief in science and the ability to apply reason to religious text and tradition is that much more important to me.

4. School I have a background in Education as well as Religion, so I judge schools very critically. The Little Jewess needs to be in a school (and we're talking Sunday School here--she's all set with secular school) where she is encouraged to think and to question. I want her to grow up feeling secure in her community, but also free to think, argue, discuss and question religious texts. I believe this is the best way to combat fundamentalism, and it's also the best way to be happy. Because we can only make good choices if we've thought through all of the possibilities. If we're slaves to doctrine, we can't do that.

5. Judaism I've been thinking about this one a lot. I have a few friends who are also seeking the right community, but who aren't Jewish, or are in mixed marriages. They might join me in forming something if it's not Jewish or not solely Jewish. It's a possibility I'm willing to consider, but I've always been Jewish, it's what I know best, and it's what brings me comfort. Also, I don't want to stop identifying as a Jew. There are so many aspects to Judaism, and God is such a small part of that. I think the ideal congregation would be fundamentally Jewish, but I wouldn't mind a community that is open to people of other faiths and I definitely wouldn't mind if the Kid School teaches about other religions.

Is that so hard to find? Does anyone know where I can find it? Or is it time to start making it myself?

On that note, a friend mentioned to me the possibility of creating a chavurah (literally: fellowship, but usually a chavurah functions as a prayer group that travels from home to home, like a book club for celebrating Shabbat.) while maintaining membership in a brick-and-mortar Temple for things that we need there, like Religious School. It's an interesting idea, and it's something that could even be done within a congregation. Or it's something I could do with my non-Jewish friends (see above) while maintaining the link to my current (or another) congregation for the Jewish stuff.

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.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Meetings 2 and 3: Reform and Reconstructionist

I'm actually not going to go into my meeting with the Reform Rabbi for several reasons the main one being that we mostly talked about our own congregation and my feelings about it. That's private.

However, I had a very interesting meeting with the local Reconstructionist Rabbi that I'm happy to blog about. Plus, I've got to get busy because I just scheduled a meeting with the Humanist Rabbi for THIS AFTERNOON so I've got to get done with the background info before my journey takes another turn.

I learned a lot about Reconstructionism, namely that:

1) Reconstructionists reject the notion of "Chosenness." I like that. If I'm a Humanist, how can I say that some people are chosen by God as special? Reconstructionists, if I understand correctly, believe that we, as Jews, have chosen special responsibilities (mitzvoth, or commandments) toward God.

2) They believe that the scriptures were written by people. This is essential to me for two reasons. First, since I no longer believe in God, it's hard to embrace the whole given-by-God thing. And second, the most important thing to me about religion is being able to question the text. It's what I love to do and it's also where I think the wisdom in our heritage lies. (More on that later.) My favorite quote from the founder of Reconstructionism, Mordechai Kaplan is, "Tradition gets a vote, not a veto." That sounds sensible to me.

3) On the vote, not a veto score, Reconstructionists study and discuss when they want to make change. The basic idea (again, as I understand it--I'm hardly an expert) is that decisions about religious practice can't be made in a vacuum. If you're part of a religious community, then those decisions should be made with the community. So Reconstructionists go through a process where they discuss things like "What does prayer mean?" They hear all the voices in the congregation, and they study the voices of the past through scripture and commentary. Then they hopefully come to a consensus about what to do in their community.

This all appeals to me. I like the deep questioning, and the basic tenets seem to align with my beliefs (as all the Rabbis kept telling me they would.) However, the Reconstructionist congregation near me is tiny. Really tiny. I went to a service and there were about 15 people there. Three of them were with me. This has pluses and minuses for my purposes. It's not the vibrant community I'm looking for, but could it be?

One thing that's very appealing about this congregation is that because they can only afford to have the Rabbi lead services once a month, they have lay leaders who lead the rest of the time. I could be trained as a lay leader and do pretty much whatever I want (within reason, of course, but since the whole studying/questioning thing is right up my alley, whatever I want should fit in just fine.) And if I could attract a significant number of Humanistic Jews to the congregation, we could be our own community-within-a-community.

I promised more about the wisdom of Jewish tradition. What I think is great about Judaism is that there has never really been one text. Sure, there's the Torah, but even that contradicts itself. And in addition to the Torah, we've always had priests, rabbis, Writings, Prophets, and the Talmud. Jews are supposed to study in chevrutah--with a partner. So while we hold certain texts as sacred, and some believe they come directly from God, there has never been a notion that one human can understand these texts perfectly. We've always argued about them. And there are reams and reams of paper, parchment, and memory recording these arguments. We even record the arguments of the people who lose. And we still revere these people as wise, even when the tradition turns away from their arguments. Jews have always had a living relationship with the text.

What's even better about Progressive Jews is that we can choose what do do with this information. When we study, we can decide whether the passage we're studying still has relevance or is out of date. Or if it's MORE relevant than it used to be, like when a student said that this quote:

“You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.”  
Leviticus: 19:14

shows us that we shouldn't bully people on the internet. Even if the person doesn't know it's you, it still hurts their feelings. See? Religion is good when it leads to that! But religion is bad when it causes people to oppress gay people and throw stones at little girls on their way to school. Progressive Jews get to decide what we stand for, and we can apply common sense and modern values to what we read. We can even learn from science that while homosexual behavior might be unnatural for me, because I'm straight, it's very natural if you're gay. And if you love someone and want to make a family with that person, you should have the legal protection of marriage. Sure, the people who wrote the Torah thought differently, but they were people recording the wisdom of their time. Some of it is still wise. Some of it seems really foolish now. 

It's wise to study history, to feel connected to a people with a long story, and to learn from the past. It's foolish to live in the past and to ignore the present. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Meeting #1: Unaffiliated Rabbi

The first Rabbi I talked to runs an unaffiliated, progressive congregation that she founded herself. I thought she'd be a great person to talk to for a few reasons:

1) She's very smart. I've known her for years, and she's always made me think deeply about things. So I knew she'd help me clarify my thinking.

2) She's progressive and thoughtful about Judaism, but she definitely believes in God. See, I know that part of what's going on here is that the Religious Right (and not just the Christians) have taken over what it means to be religious. Of course that's not literally true, but in the media it's become that way. The Religious people always seem to be fighting for "Intelligent Design" or against abortion or gay marriage, and the Progressives, the people on the side of Science and Reason (i.e. the ones I agree with) always seem to be atheists. So I thought that talking to this Rabbi whom I know to be both Progressive and deeply religious would help me determine whether this Humanist bent of mine is permanent or just a reaction to certain religious people who are doing things I don't like.

3) She has founded a congregation. A great one. One where everyone has a voice and the children grow up thinking seriously about Judaism.

So here's what I took from the meeting:

This Rabbi thinks I should definitely go for it, reach out to people and try to found a congregation. She told me about how her own congregation began and how to do basic outreach, and we talked about some different funding and participation models. She thinks I would make a great Humanistic Rabbi.

But we also talked about some other models. She encouraged me to talk to my own Rabbi (more about that meeting in another post) and to check out Reconstructionism. Many of my ideas about using a secular analysis of scripture and other Jewish texts to create ritual and community events that have deep Jewish meaning are consistent with the philosophies of Reconstructionism. And she also encouraged me to reach out to other secularists in the area, be it Ethical Culture, Workman's Circle or the Jewish Humanists in the city.

And best of all, I'm still in touch with her via e-mail so I get feedback from her as I continue my journey.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Why Humanism?

One of the first things I did after discovering Humanistic Judaism was to read the book Good Without God by Rabbi Greg M. Epstein. He's a Humanistic Rabbi and the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. What I took from it is the idea that Humanists apply reason to all things, including religion, and that Humanists believe in dignity for all people. I like those ideas.

I want to be part of a religion that encourages thought and reason, and I believe it's part of being good to fight for what is right. "Dignity for all people" is a bit of a vague concept, but it is a standard against which to consider ethical dilemmas. One can clearly see that gay marriage needs to be legal in order to allow gay people the same dignity as straight people. Or that discrimination on the basis of gender or race is wrong. It makes a good lesson for the Little Jewess--a way for her to examine her own actions when she encounters difficult decisions as she grows up.

And I like that as a Humanist I can keep being Jewish and use the texts of my heritage as a starting point. As Jews, we have centuries of ethical and theological discussions that have been written down. We can read and study them and then come to our own conclusions. I'd like to find a community to help me do that.