A new friend had shared with me her enthusiasm about her Jewish humanist community. I decided to attend their High Holiday services as part of my exploration of Jewish identity. As someone who has not attended a temple or synagogue regularly for many years, it was an interesting experience. To my surprise, I found that I liked the sense of community and the thoughtful commentary by members. I especially liked the involvement of young children. Much of my adult life was lived without family around me and I used to think of religious bodies as focused on families rather than people like me. Now I find I rather like the involvement of children as it speaks to legacy, passing traditions on to a new generation. I also loved the music, singing familiar songs, but frequently with a twist in the words to accommodate a humanist orientation. The cello and violin performances were a joy that alone would have made attending worthwhile.
Now humanist services are not quite what I’m accustomed to from my Reform Jewish upbringing. God isn’t really a part of them. Instead they focus on the human spirit and the recognition of the joys and challenges we face in being human. At the same time, humanism isn’t so different from my early religious exposure. I remember my rabbi leading a discussion in my confirmation class about whether God existed and if so in what form. I rather liked that. I like when everything is up for debate. One of the reasons I identify with Judaism, at least the Reform variety, is it has no dogma. The mere fact that we could have that debate sold me on the religion which is in large part a religion of debaters. Jews challenge, they test, they question. That may have begun as part of the religious culture, but it is also very much a part of Jewish identity, even without the religious underpinnings.
I believe religion is how we explain the unknown and I'm willing to live with the fact that I don't know. And even as I say that, I also figure I can anthropomorphize God with the best of them and my version has a sense of humor, is often bemused by me, accepting of my foibles and gives me the benefit of the doubt, something we all could benefit from doing with those around us. Perhaps the humanist version would say that represents me being kind to myself.
I noted that many couples in inter-faith marriages attended the services. Not surprisingly couples who come together around shared values, despite different religious traditions, are likely to seek a community that accommodates those values.
I find it a bit amusing that Jews have a humanistic group that isn’t God-centered. I suppose it’s the Unitarian version with heritage. Long ago in my prior marriage we were exploring different religious options and my then-husband was very interested in the Unitarians. We went to a gathering and I came away thinking, nice community, not at odds with my beliefs and values, and yet I hesitated. In trying to explain that hesitation I recall saying it seemed a bit bland to me. I had a rich heritage that I didn’t want to give up.
I haven’t yet come to a conclusion on whether a humanist gathering is the right one for me. I liked many things about it, but part of me really missed the traditional Kaddish. I’ve recited it at many grave sites in Eastern Europe where a humanist version just wouldn’t have felt right. Part of honoring the ancestors is to do it in a way that would have felt familiar to them.
And yet… Jewish humanism has its place for those of us who value our culture, but are not religiously bound. Even as a non-religious Jew, Jewish identity is intertwined with the person I am. It relates to my social and political values, to my need to question and find my own path, and to the value I place on intellect, education and achievement. Those are qualities that I value in myself and in others and any gathering that fosters those qualities is one to be celebrated.