Judaism without God: The Humanistic movement is doing just fine
Dressed in a crisp, navy blue suit, Rabbi Adam Chalom rises from his chair and stands before two dancing Sabbath flames. The glowing light from the ivory candles illuminates his warm blue eyes and wide, cockeyed smile. He glances quickly over at the barren, cream-white walls of the Unitarian Church of Evanston’s meeting room before locking eyes and offering gentle nods to the familiar faces of his small congregation. Following a moment of silence, the harmonious sounds of piano chords mixed with the high-pitched vibrato of the cantor’s voice fill the air, and Rabbi Chalom and his congregation join in to recite the candle-lighting blessing.
But the first three words of this blessing don’t begin with the usual “Baruch atah adonai – Blessed are you, Lord.” It begins instead with “Baruch haor baolam – Blessed is the light in the world.” And this unconventional style of prayer isn’t the only abnormality during this Friday night Shabbat service in Evanston, Ill. A quick survey around the room reveals that there are no prayer books, no Torahs, no yarmulkes, no tallit. This is certainly not the Shabbat ceremony most Jews are accustomed to, but then again, Rabbi Chalom and Kol Hadash congregation aren’t like most Jews while in synagogue. They don’t pray to a divine being.
A rabbi who doesn’t pray to God may sound bizarre, but at 32-years-old, Chalom is the leading face of the world’s youngest and most contentious Jewish movement to date: Humanistic Judaism. With an emphasis on human wisdom and values as well as Jewish culture and history, this movement welcomes those who may not have a strong connection to God but wish to retain a sense of their Jewish identity. And while this non-theistic movement is relatively small with only 30 congregations and 10,000 members nationwide, Humanistic Jews are striving to become recognized as the fifth American Jewish denomination, following Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.
Chalom and other leaders of the Humanistic movement now find themselves at a critical juncture as they work toward pushing the young movement past its current growing pains and into the future. They are faced with the challenge of expanding in the face of opposition from the more traditional sects who claim that Judaism simply cannot exist once God is taken out of the equation. But Humanistic Jews are also facing a reality in which the interfaith marriage rate has never been higher and 16 percent of Americans are unaffiliated.
Chalom acknowledges these realities and hopes that his blend of secular ideology and a traditional congregational structure offers the solution a growing number of people are searching to find. He must prove that in this age of religious curiosity it is possible to sustain traditions and culture even in the absence of theology.
Following the candle-lighting ceremony and blessing over the wine, Rabbi Chalom delivers lines from Rodger Kamenetz’s poem, “You Don’t Have to be Jewish.” He emphasizes the ideal of inclusion, the need to open the Jewish family to all those interested—be it Jews or non-Jews, deists or atheists, agnostics or ignostics. The quiet confidence as he speaks suggests that Chalom has preached this message of inclusion many times before. And it comes as no surprise that his familiarity with the Humanistic belief system existed long before his four years as rabbi of Kol Hadash.
Chalom was actually born into the Humanistic movement and raised in a secular Jewish home. He grew up as a member of the Birmingham Temple, the first Humanistic congregation to form in the U.S. in 1963. Chalom recalls that his inspiration to later become a Humanistic rabbi came largely from the guidance of Sherwin T. Wine, the founder of the Humanistic movement and head rabbi at the Birmingham Temple. “I had always found Jewish studies intellectually stimulating,” says Chalom. “But Sherwin Wine was the first person to really make me think about [becoming a Humanistic rabbi] as a possible career.”
Wine’s influence extended far beyond Chalom. Throughout his lifetime he helped organize a new, radical, non-theistic movement. Wine was originally ordained as a Reform rabbi and served as a chaplain in the U.S. army before working at Detroit’s Beth El, a Reform congregation. From there he organized another Reform temple in Windsor, Ontario. “After a while he realized that he simply didn’t believe in God as a supreme being,” Chalom says. “And he decided that while he loved being Jewish and being part of the Jewish community, he could no longer continue to say things he didn’t believe.”
In 1963 Wine broke away from Temple Beth El and formed a new congregation with eight families at the Birmingham Temple, located in the northwestern suburbs of Detroit, Mich. Wine collaborated with his congregation to develop a language that would be more congruent with their secular beliefs. They continued to use the traditional service format of a congregation and rabbi, but they made drastic alterations to the religious content. To reflect his Humanistic ideologies, Wine eliminated all mention of God from services. He then constructed a new non-theistic liturgy that revolved around Jewish history and culture as well as Humanistic ethics and values.
What began as eight families congregating at a small temple in the Detroit suburbs evolved into a worldwide Jewish Humanistic movement with more than 10,000 members. Last July, the pioneer Wine died at the age of 79 in a tragic car accident. But his vision of a Jewish community where people can believe what they say and say what they believe lives on in Humanistic congregations like Kol Hadash.
The melodic sounds emanating from the old, upright piano once again fill every corner of the meeting room in the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Kol Hadash’s meeting place for the night. While this 7-year-old congregation doesn’t have a permanent synagogue to call home, their services are usually held in the Heller Nature Center in Highland Park, Ill., and Hebrew school classes are held at Deerfield High School. But as part of an Evanston Outreach Shabbat, this particular service is held in a church. And with his salt-and-pepper hair neatly combed to one side, Rabbi Chalom stands comfortably before his congregation, leading them in an original song written by Sherwin Wine entitled “Ayfo Oree – Where is My Light.” “Where is my light? My light is in me,” Chalom and the congregants sing in unison. Wine, along with other leaders in the Humanistic movement have restructured the traditional elements of a Shabbat service to account for their non-theistic ideologies. They also shifted the focus of major Jewish holidays to emphasize moral messages rather than theological components. Rosh Hashanah becomes a time of reflection. Yom Kippur becomes a celebration of inner-strength and a time of self-forgiveness. “Instead of talking to a God who just feels your pain but doesn’t intervene and can’t perform miracles, I’m going to talk to the person who can,” explains Chalom. “I’m going to talk to the doctor who can heal, the community that can support me, the friends that will help me, things that are tangible.”
Not that Humanistic Jews spend time in their services or community events debating or denying the existence of God. God is simply irrelevant in the Humanistic mindset. “We’re more interested in focusing on a positive thing; not on what we don’t believe but on what we do believe,” Chalom says. This Humanistic phraseology enables them to attract congregants holding a wide array of beliefs. Some members of Kol Hadash are atheists and believe that God doesn’t exist. Others are agnostic and are not really sure what’s out there. And still others are actually deists but simply prefer the Humanists’ emphasis on Jewish culture and history. No matter what beliefs they hold, they all still identify as Jews and want to be part of a Jewish community.
So do you have to accept Judaism as a faith system in order to be considered Jewish, or is it possible to maintain a strong Jewish connection outside of the religious realm? Most sects of Judaism believe that Judaism is based on a covenant between God and the Chosen People and argue that once you eliminate God it can no longer be considered Judaism. During his Shabbat sermon, Rabbi Chalom offers a much different perspective.
“Who is a Jew?” Chalom asks after playing Adam Sandler’s comedic Chanukah Song to the 43 congregants in attendance at Kol Hadash’s Evanston Outreach Shabbat. “Is Ann Landers Jewish? Is Kirk Douglas Jewish? Adam Sandler doesn’t mention their religious beliefs, but we accept them as Jews.” Chalom points out that if you look at the most important Jews of the last hundred years – Einstein, Freud, Golda Meir, Henry Kissinger – most of them were openly secular. But there is no debate on whether or Einstein should be considered one of our own.
Rabbi Chalom discusses how some people who want to be Jewish, like William Cohen, the Secretary of Defense under former-President Bill Clinton, are rejected by the narrow legalism of traditional religious authorities. “William Cohen’s father is Jewish but his mother is not,” Chalom explained during his sermon. “He actually studied to have a bar mitzvah and at the last minute was rejected because his mother wasn’t Jewish, and now he no longer identifies as being a Jew.”
“On the other side of the spectrum, you have someone like Elvis Presley, whose mother’s grandmother is Jewish,” said Chalom. “So even though Elvis was raised Christian and had no Jewish identity, by Orthodox standards he, unlike William Cohen, could have actually been bar mitzvahed.”
Humanistic Jews believe that these inconsistencies only create a destructive definition of a Jew. “We aren’t the chosen people, we are the choosy people,” jokes David Hirsch, President of the Kol Hadash Congregation and Chair of the Steering Committee. “I am Jewish because I choose to be Jewish. I choose to express my Judaism in a certain way.” Rather than choosing to accept or deny people as Jewish based on the strict laws of matrilineal descent, Hirsch believes it’s a personal choice.
Hirsch’s sentiment reflects Rabbi Chalom and the Humanistic movement’s much broader approach to defining Jewish identity. They welcome all people who declare themselves to be Jewish and identify with the history and culture of the Jewish people, regardless of descent. In this philosophy, there are no conversions, just “adoptions” into the Jewish people. This more open definition may be considered heretical by many traditional religious authorities, but with all of the intermixing, international adoptions and interfaith marriages occurring in today’s world, Rabbi Chalom believes that his movement’s unorthodox approach may be just what Judaism needs to survive in this increasingly secular age.
Chalom and the Humanistic willingness to open the doors to Jews and non-Jews, atheists and agnostics, and anyone else who wants to be part of the Jewish family is certainly the most radical departure from traditional Orthodox views to date. Even the Reform movement, a branch of Judaism that at one time stirred up similar controversy for its liberal ideology and deviation from traditional religious practices, doesn’t take things quite as far.
Peter S. Knobel, current president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and head rabbi at Beth Emet, a Reform synagogue in Evanston, elaborates on where the Reform movement draws the line. “Whether our notion is naturalistic or theistic, limited or absolutist, we are certainly pluralistic in respect to that,” Knobel explains. “But one thing we are not willing to do as a movement is to write God out completely.”
Not that Knobel denounces the Humanistic Jewish identity. “I know that people believe in a variety of ways,” Knobel says. “But my problem with Humanistic Judaism personally is that it doesn’t allow for the search for God. It basically decided that there is no God and now that there is no God, how will we deal with being Jewish.”
Chalom argues that while God is not present in their services, Humanistic Judaism is still very much an environment for religious exploration. Their Hebrew school classes discuss the various denominations of Judaism, and congregants are free to choose what they believe and how they will practice.
Chalom asserts that there is often a certain consistency lost in Reform Judaism specifically when it comes to interfaith marriages. The official stance of the Central Conference of American Rabbis is to discourage officiating interfaith marriages but yet allow for the autonomy of each rabbi. And Knobel believes that while they still welcome the interfaith couple as members of the congregation, around 60 percent of Reform rabbis will refuse to officiate an interfaith wedding ceremony.
In Humanistic Judaism, all of the ordained rabbis officiate interfaith marriages, and they welcome all interfaith couples and their children. “In the end, people are going to choose who they marry,” Chalom says. “And our response is to say mazel tov, and for those who do want a positive Jewish connection, we are there to help support that.”
When Victoria Ratnaswamy has a particularly stressful week, she sometimes attends Kol Hadash’s Friday night Shabbat service to relax and see a few friendly faces. At this particular Evanston Outreach Shabbat, she is smiling throughout the songs and sermon and schmoozing with other congregants after the service. While she was raised by Jewish parents in a non-practicing household and is married to a Catholic man of Indian descent, she seems to have found her comfort zone within the Kol Hadash family. She even sends her children to Kol Hadash’s Sunday school to learn about their Jewish heritage. “In Kol Hadash my children aren’t taught anything that would contradict or put their non-Jewish father in some kind of secondarystatus,” Ratnaswamy says. “And that is something that is really important to me.”
Ratnaswamy simply wants her children to learn about the cultural and ancestral aspects of their Jewish identity, something she deems equally as important for them as learning about their father’s Indian heritage. “My kids may be a mixture of things, but they are a mixture of all positive things,” Ratnaswamy says.
Some may call it “watered-down” or “fake” Judaism. Others may not consider the Humanistic movement Judaism at all. But Chalom and the leaders of the Humanistic Jewish movement believe they are simply responding to the changing Jewish landscape in the United States. Chalom contends that a large number of American Jews buy tickets for the High Holidays and then recite Hebrew passages from a siddur, praying to a God they aren’t even sure exists. In fact, according to the American Jewish Identity Survey of 2001 by the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, about half of the 5.3 million Jews in the United States identify their outlook as “secular” or “somewhat secular.” In addition more than a quarter of adult Americans have left the faith of their childhood to join another religion or no religion at all. Another 16 percent of American adults say they are not part of any organized faith.
Chalom examines these trends and offers an alternative pathway for these secular or unaffiliated Jews now flooding the religious landscape in the United States. “In many ways we are keeping people Jewish that otherwise wouldn’t be anywhere,” Chalom says. “The people that don’t really think they can sit in that synagogue audience and say ‘this is who I am and this is what I believe,’ we are the ones who can serve them because they wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
And while the Humanistic Jewish movement is a radical change from Judaism in the traditional sense of the word, Chalom contends that Judaism has always been about change. “Do you think Moses had a bar mitzvah?” Chalom asks. “Do people still sacrifice animals in temples? For someone to say that Judaism must be the beliefs that they hold now would be shortsighted when it comes to history.” In Chalom’s mind, Humanistic Judaism isn’t meant to be some rebellious statement against the traditional religious authorities. He believes it is just another transition.
As the notes become less frequent and the sound of the piano grows fainter, Rabbi Chalom and his Kol Hadash congregation utter the last three words of their final Shabbat song: Shalom aleychem shalom. In a traditional synagogue this song is sung to ask God to bring peace and to welcome in the angels who accompany a person home on the eve of Shabbat. On this night the words mean something different. Those who are singing aren’t asking God or any higher power for peace, love and joy. They are asking themselves, they are asking friends, they are asking loved ones.
By interpreting a traditional Sabbath prayer in this way, members of the Kol Hadash congregation still believe they are strengthening their ties to their ancestry, to their heritage and to each other. They see themselves bridging the gap between the Jewish traditions of old and their modern secular ideologies. They understand that most people may disagree with their belief system, but they are expressing Judaism in a way that makes them feel comfortable.
Following the final song, congregants rise from their folding chairs and shuffle to the back of the meeting room for the last, and what some consider the most important portion of their Friday night Shabbat ceremony: eating and talking. On a long, wooden table in the back are plates of cookies, brownies, fresh fruit, pies and an assortment of refreshments. As congregants pick at their favorite foods, some continue to discuss the rabbi’s sermon, while others share stories about their children and grandchildren.
While everyone begins to form circles and chat, Rabbi Chalom jumps from group to group, mingling and laughing. He seems perfectly in his element, perfectly content. Not that his happiness stems from knowing all the answers. Chalom doesn’t think he needs to unravel life’s greatest mysteries in order to feel satisfied. He is more interested in using what he does know to learn about his history, to help others and to make a difference. “Miracles can happen,” Chalom says with a twinkle in his eye and a wry grin on his face. “They just take a lot of hard work.”
Text by Dave Orlansky
Photos by Jake Laub and Rachel Schneider