Judaism without God

Rabbi Arthur Bleicher of Beth Chai Congregation: “We don’t tell people to believe in God but we do not come together for the purpose of prayer to God.”  Photo by David Stuck

Rabbi Arthur Bleicher of Beth Chai Congregation: “We don’t tell people to believe in God but we do not come together for the purpose of prayer to God.”
Photo by Alan Kotok

Lighting candles, partaking in a Shabbat meal, saying Kaddish in memory of loved ones and celebrating b’nai mitzvah are all traditional Jewish customs, but do they depend on God’s existence?

Rabbi Arthur Blecher, rabbi of Beth Chai Congregation, and Larry Lawrence, Society of Humanistic Judaism president and a Machar congregant, don’t think so. These two leaders in the Greater Washington area opened up about what they consider the fifth Jewish movement: Humanistic Judaism, simply, Judaism without God.

After leaving a pulpit position in a Reform temple in Ontario, Rabbi Sherwin Wine founded the Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit, pioneering the secular movement in the early 1960s. In 1965, Wine was featured in Time magazine famously declaring “I am an atheist.” Without “adequate reason to accept the existence of a supreme person,” Wine contrasted belief in God with “humanism.” Wine died in 2007 at age 79 in a car crash, yet his legacy lives on in synagogues, clubs, and schools across the country. The movement celebrated its 50th anniversary this past year; the Society for Humanistic Judaism has more than 30 communities and chavurot (small prayer and learning groups) across the U.S. and Canada.

With the movement gaining momentum in the D.C. region, SHJ president Larry Lawrence explained how they synthesize Judaism and atheism. “It’s about offering an alternative for those of us who are humanist but look for a connection with history and culture,” he said. “We provide familiar context reminiscent of how our parents were raised, and an interest in history and philosophy, such as Spinoza.”

Lawrence said that he grew up doing the “standard Jewish things,” including going to services with his father and attending Sunday school, but after his bar mitzvah, when his parents gave him the choice to stop attending, he soon became “very assimilated.” It was not until after Lawrence toured Israel in 1966 – and loved it so much that he made a second trip the day before the Six Day War – that he was reminded of his national roots in what he called a “tremendous bonding experience.”

When Lawrence became a father, he thought about how he wanted his daughter to “form her own conclusion” about Judaism. After trying various services, he “felt at home” after attending Machar. Lawrence was attracted to the reconfigured liturgy and attention to the service-based rituals. “I didn’t have to cross my fingers in prayers that invoked God,” he said.

While Rabbi Blecher’s independently run Beth Chai community does not incorporate God into their rituals, they do not enforce a rejection of deism. “We accept the possibilities,” he said. “We don’t tell people to believe in God but we do not come together for the purpose of prayer to God.” Blecher wants his congregation to be a place where “everyone comes out being empowered.”

This creed of unbiased inclusivity stems from Blecher’s experience of leaving the rabbinate and becoming openly gay. “If you’re not going to conform, then there is going to be a price to pay, and I wasn’t willing to conform,” he said. This theme translates into the congregation’s acceptance of both its Jewish and non-Jewish members.

In Humanistic Judaism, partaking in Jewish customs is not contingent on belief in God, but rather it is a way to connect to the community and Jewish heritage. “We observe Shabbat because it’s in a Jewish institution, not because you were commanded to, but because it’s parts of being Jewish and makes for a better life,” commented Blecher. The congregation discusses the Torah portion despite its affirmation in the Documentary Hypothesis, the belief that the Torah was written by multiple authors over a period of time. “I don’t think God is pleased,” said Rabbi Blecher, “God is not involved in it.”

Lawrence echoed these opinions. “We don’t believe in miracles and don’t believe the Bible was dictated to Moses – yet it is a fascinating book,” he said. Lawrence has been reading the Torah in translation for more than two years in a Machar seminar led by Michael Preval. The class brings in materials such as maps, comments from the rabbis in the Talmud and excerpts from the Quran.

Annual holidays are another highlight in the Humanistic community. At Machar, Yom Kippur is celebrated not through prayer, but by saying Kaddish, remembering the dead and singing traditional, gospel, Israeli and secular songs. Besides the traditional shofar on Rosh Hashanah and the seder on Passover, Machar celebrates “Darwin Day” on the scientist’s birthday in February.

Darwin launched the idea of evolution that is fundamental to humanism, but at odds with the literal biblical story of creation. “Jews in general are conflicted. How can you be a Jew without God?” Blecher said. “We tend to attract intellectually curious people who don’t want to park their brains and education at the door.”

“Machar” means “tomorrow” in Hebrew, appropriately named in light of the 50-year headway made in Humanistic Judaism. Each school year, up to 85 children attend Machar’s Sunday school. Beth Chai is home to nearly 120 D.C. households.

“We are small and it has taken some persistence to be recognized,” said Lawrence, “but we are more and more accepted as a fifth movement in Judaism.” Despite the movement’s progress, Blecher noted that Humanistic Jewish rabbis are still met with “contempt and disrespect.” He hopes that Jews would become more open-minded and stop treating Humanist Jews “like some kind of weirdos.”

When Machar’s rabbi was interviewed for the position, she was asked what her educators at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania might say. “People who think that Reconstructionist rabbis would have a problem with me working in a humanist community haven’t met very many Reconstructionist rabbis,” Rabbi Nehama Benmosche responded.

For Machar member Akiva Liberman, “the problem” was learning in a Jewish day school, keeping kashrut and Shabbat in his Modern Orthodox home, while avoiding God. “I grew up in a context where you were supposed to question, but then the answers were all supposed to come out a certain way,” Liberman said.

The Rockville resident discovered he was an atheist at the age of 20. “It’s more of a discovery than a decision,” Liberman said, “but for me and many other people I know, it was gradual.” Years after Liberman severed his Jewish roots, he discovered the “nontheistic language” cherished among Humanist Jews and took on leadership roles at Machar with his wife and children.

He believes the term “Jewish” connotes an ethnic identity analogous to Irish Catholics or Russian Orthodox, despite the word traditionally implying religion.

At Machar’s New Year kickoff, a large sign read “Talk to Someone You Don’t Know.” Adults were asked to introduce their partner before the group. The crowd was diverse in terms of both profession – an NPR science reporter, an NIH director, a member of the Peace Corps and a D.C. deputy mayor were among them – as well as in religious upbringing. Blended families, “Christmas tree Jews,” as well as a member with a Southern Baptist background represented the mix of newbies and Machar veterans.

“There is a whole lot more to Jewish life than what your relationship to God is,” Rabbi Benmosche said, “and they are not mutually exclusive.”

Other articles in this series:

Renewal: The Aging of Aquarius

Conservative: A Year After Pew

Reconstructionist: Head and Heart

Orthodox:  A Matter of Balance

Reform Reaches Out

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