Topics of interest to Humanists, especially those in New Jersey

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Humanistic Judaism in the news 

Humanistic Jews embrace new plan
By Rich Barlow April 22, 2006
The Boston Globe - www.boston.com

Sunny Schwartz's Seder last week resembled those of most Passovers past. Eighteen people, including non-Jews, crammed into her Jamaica Plain condo for the traditional Seder plate of symbolic foods, to hear the meaning of the holiday, and to enjoy companionship.

As usual for her gathering, there was no praying.

Instead, secular blessings (''Radiant is the light in each of us") and texts about social justice replaced the usual religious commentary. Schwartz, a community organizer in Boston, is a Humanistic Jew, living a culturally Jewish life while viewing the universe through the lens of an atheist.

Forty-three years after its founding, Humanistic Judaism will hold its annual conference April 28-30 in Cambridge on a theme central to its future: How to grow its 40,000 base of adherents worldwide. To do that, the movement is embracing a strategy of educating and ordaining its own rabbis, rather than relying on ''renegade" clergy who leave other branches of Judaism, says Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine of Detroit, the movement's founder.

''What we've discovered is, if we have professional leadership working together with communities, we can grow fairly rapidly," he says. Information about the conference is at www.shj.org.

Most Humanistic Jews live in the United States and Israel. Most are agnostic or atheist. A small number believe in God, Schwartz says, but not an active God intervening in human affairs.

Her congregation, Kahal B'raira, is the movement's fourth oldest. A metaphor for Humanistic Judaism's effort to cement a lasting foundation, the congregation does not own a building but uses rented and borrowed spaces. Its 100 families run a school in Newton, join for communal Sabbath in Brookline, and observe holidays in Arlington, says Schwartz, a madrikha, or leader, of the congregation.

Wine says 11 humanist rabbis are in North America, one is in Germany, and one is in Israel. Another nine are slated for ordination in December. Rabbis are trained by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, which Wine heads.

When John F. Kennedy was president, Wine was a conventional Reform rabbi, educated at Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College. But ministering in Detroit, he felt his theism slipping away.

Some Jewish leaders scoffed at godless Judaism as a wisp that would blow away in the winds of time. Yet the movement would seem to have a fertile recruiting grounds; Wine says one survey found almost half of North American Jews describing themselves as secular. A PBS program, ''Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly," reported three years ago that in the United States, only a third of secular Jews are atheists. The rest believe in God but don't practice religion.

An Orthodox rabbi told the show that ''from a Jewish perspective, a life that is not lived in embrace of our religion is a life that is wasted to that degree." But he noted that the humanist challenge to religious Judaism sprang from the faith's ancient tradition of questioning study. Another rabbi downplayed the need for religion: ''One can be fully, absolutely, deeply, richly -- you pick the word -- Jewish, and it has nothing to do with belief."

That said, Wine admits humanism miscalculated in believing it could attract rabbis from religious branches of Judaism, as it did him. ''There were many rabbis who said they agreed with us, but they weren't prepared to cross the bridge," he says. ''Clergy on the whole tend to be fairly conservative people. They go to established congregations."

Others question whether Humanistic Judaism is swimming upstream. Even some among the similarly creedless Unitarian Universalists have tried tugging their denomination toward a theology with God. Wine says things are different in Judaism. ''In the Jewish world, for every Jew who has suddenly returned to the tradition, there must be two others who have simply severed their connection with any organized religion."

Americans are an entrepreneurial people; we are always redefining ourselves and our religions. If there can be Jews for Jesus, why not Jews without God? Religious borders can be porous in this country of many converts. Sunny Schwartz recalls how her ethnically Jewish mother was raised as a Christian Scientist, a religion Schwartz says appealed to many Jews of that era.

She's heard Jewish worries that humanism pilfers Jews from the tradition, but her own experience was the opposite. Her secular father and Christian Science mother would have shunned Judaism but for its humanist branch. ''If it wasn't for Humanistic Judaism," she says, ''I probably wouldn't have been raised Jewish at all."

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