Judaism without God

los angeles | As in congregations throughout the world, members of Adat Chaverim will gather this year to observe the High Holidays — but outside visitors may be startled to hear co-founder Joe Steinberg explain the meaning of the observance.

“A humanistic Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur emancipate us from the beliefs and ideas of those who prostrate themselves before an all-powerful deity,” he says.

“They offer self-forgiveness and the occasion to restate our belief in personal and human responsibility for our lives, our behavior and our destiny. For us, the High Holidays are not a punishment or a threat, but an opportunity to gain ongoing insights into our being.”

Members of Adat Chaverim in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles will join some 40,000 secular Jews throughout the world — close to half in North America — in humanistic services, without prayers and references to a supernatural god.

The movement embraces a human-centered philosophy combining the celebration of Jewish culture and identity with an adherence to humanistic values and ideas.

Followers celebrate Jewish holidays and lifecycle events with ceremonies that go beyond traditional literature.

The group’s numbers are small, in light of the millions of Jews in the world who identify themselves as nonreligious, but Rabbi Sherwin Wine of Detroit, who founded the Society for Humanistic Judaism in 1969, remains optimistic.

For one, he notes, Rabbi Sivan Malkin Maas, the first Israeli to complete the five-year rabbinical course at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, last fall opened an Israeli branch of the institute in Jerusalem, which now has 10 rabbinical students.

In the United States and Canada, some 40 humanistic communities will observe the High Holidays, mostly guided by madrichim, or trained lay leaders. Only in nine cities — San Francisco, New York, Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Boston, Toronto and the Miami area — will ordained humanistic rabbis be available to conduct the services.

Although it is difficult to ascertain the precise number and percentage of secular Jews in the United States, Wine puts the figure at 47 percent.

He bases his statistic on the 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey by the Center for Jewish Studies at the City University of New York, which cited 1.7 million self-identified Jews who described their households as atheist, agnostic, secular, humanist or having no religion.

The more extensive National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, released in 2003, did not address that question, but it noted a decade earlier that the vast majority of American Jews cited cultural and ethnic affinities as the main markers of their Jewishness.

At Long Island’s Havurah for Humanistic Judaism, its president, Leonard Charlin, has created original services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, drawing extensively on the philosophical beliefs of such seminal thinkers as Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein.

He has adapted the biblical versions of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and the Book of Jonah to reflect the humanistic disbelief in miracles, angels and divine commandments.

Founded in 1977, the chavurah has a membership of 25 families, which triples during the High Holidays. Charlin, who was brought up in an Orthodox home and studied at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, said his group also holds services to commemorate the Holocaust.

At Congregation Beth Or in Deerfield, Ill., which serves the Chicago area, Rabbi David Oler, like a number of other humanistic rabbis, comes from a more traditional background. He studied at an Orthodox seminary and served as a Conservative rabbi for 25 years.

Beth Or itself started in 1960 as a Reform congregation before turning humanistic. With 100 families, many of them relatively young, Beth Or has 80 pupils in its religious school, which emphasizes “character development and teaching the kids to think for themselves,” said Oler.

The rabbi describes his philosophy as “religious humanism,” in which he uses the teachings of the Torah, but without a supernatural aspect, to foster “spiritual growth and encourage people to become the best they can be.”

With a few exceptions, humanistic communities worry about aging memberships, as do other Jewish organizations. At Adat Chaverim in the San Fernando Valley, Steinberg, a vigorous 83 himself, seeks to attract younger families by doubling as director of the group’s Children’s Jewish Cultural School.

Its goals, notes a brochure, are to teach children “the real history of a real people in all its diversity” and to allow them “to develop their own convictions honestly on the basis of knowledge.”

Attorney Shirley Monson serves as treasurer of the humanistic society’s West Los Angeles chapter, with some 60 members. A former professional singer, Monson looks forward particularly to the traditional tunes and innovative music of the High Holidays “celebrations,” with a choir performing songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.

Her grandfather was Orthodox, her parents Conservative, and Monson attended a Reform temple, “until I grew out of it and became a humanistic Jew,” she says. Monson adds that her decision was influenced by the fact that she did not want her children to receive a religious education “they didn’t believe in.”

Monson rarely encounters antagonism when meeting members of more conventional Jewish denominations. But occasionally, when the conversation turns to religion and she mentions that she doesn’t pray to God, “they treat me like I had leprosy,” she says.

A third center of secular Judaism in the Los Angeles area is the Sholem Community, whose credo is encapsulated in the words, “To the best of our abilities, we are the authors and publishers of our Book of Life.”

Hershl Hartman is Sholem’s vegvayser, Yiddish for guide. As the High Holidays approach, he said, “some traditions change, so we don’t sacrifice a young bull, a ram and seven lambs. Some traditions don’t change, so we blow the shofar.”

Given the large pool of like-minded Jews, why is membership in the Society of Humanistic Jews, and similar groups in 11 other countries, so low?

According to Wine, some 15,000 to 20,000 North American Jews are “fully connected” to the society — up from 10,000 a decade ago — while an additional 20,000 attend lectures and other activities, or get married under humanistic auspices.

Monson said that she had many secular friends “who don’t want to join anything. They don’t feel a need to be connected.”

A similar reason was given by Marcia Grossman, president of Kol Hadash in El Cerrito, with a membership of 100 families.

“Most Jews in this area are unaffiliated and are not joiners,” she said. “Many will tell me that they agree with our outlook, but they don’t make the quantum leap of becoming members.”

Rabbi Miriam Jerris, the community development director for the national society, noted that, for social and professional reasons, most young couples look for a “full-service congregation” with a school for their children.

Wine described his movement as the “second wave” of secular humanistic Judaism, following the earlier wave powered by Yiddish culture and Zionist nationalism.

He believes that future growth is linked directly to the number of trained rabbis the movement can produce, saying that humanistic congregations led by rabbis, rather than lay leaders, are expanding and attracting young families.

Currently there are seven candidates studying in the rabbinical program in the United States, but “if I had 50 rabbis to send out, the movement would grow rapidly,” Wine says. He pointed with a mixture of envy and admiration to the Chabad Lubavitcher movement, with its vast outreach program and host of missionaries.

Yet he is convinced that secular Jews must get together and organize, especially in the face of the growing fervor of religious fundamentalists.

“Unless we are organized, we have no voice,” Wine says. “And ours is a voice that needs to be heard.’


Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent