A Historic Event

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 34, No 4, Autumn 2006_ Vol 35 No 1 Winter 2007

The date is Friday, December 22. The time is 2:00 in the afternoon. The setting is the western hills of Jerusalem. The place is the famous Israel Museum, perched on top of Israel’s cultural and Parliamentary “mountain,” a secular “temple” to the message of Zionism. The event is the first ordination of Secular Humanistic Rabbis in Jerusalem. It is an historic moment. 

The path to this moment has been long and circuitous. First came the movement of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, organized by secular Jews in response to antisemitism and in rebellion against the religious passivity of traditional Judaism. Second came the dramatic attempts by secular Jews to organize secular Jewish communities in Palestine that would celebrate Judaism as a culture, and not as a religion. The kibbutz was the most viable result of this effort. Third came the establishment of the Jewish state and the emergence of a new national Jewish culture expressed in the renaissance of the Hebrew language. Fourth came the cultural and political crisis, embodied in the growing power of militant Orthodoxy, the decline of socialism and the kibbutz movement, and the increasing search by young secular Israelis for philosophic and spiritual answers that secular nationalism could not provide. And last, the arrival in Israel of the ideology of Humanistic Judaism, with its marriage between Jewish culture and a humanistic philosophy of life – and with its special creation, the profession of a “secular rabbi.” 

Secular Judaism in Israel suffered from two problems during its impressive history. The first was that secularism and humanism played second fiddle to two more powerful movements to which they were attached. Nationalism and socialism were both secular. But they had other more compelling agendas that were competitive with humanism and that inhibited the development of a positive personal philosophy of life capable of transcending political boundaries. The second was the profound hostility of most of the Zionist pioneers to organized religion and its manifestation in a militant political Orthodoxy. Much of secularism in Israel was negative, a continuing battle against the hated religious establishment. There was no energy left for fashioning the institution of a positive secularism, which could embrace a clear alternative to the life of faith. Secular Israelis lived the life of courage. But they did not know how to translate this experience into an inspiring message for young people struggling to find hope and meaning in a dangerous world. 

When North American Humanistic Judaism first arrived in Israel, old-time secularists were comfortable with its message. But they were not comfortable with the idea of a secular rabbi. Although they had not trained any philosophic and ceremonial leaders to serve the philosophic and ceremonial needs of their families and communities, they were hostile to the word rabbi, with all its connotations of traditional religion. In many cases – whether a wedding, a funeral, or a bar mitzvah ceremony – they often used the services of traditional rabbis. But they were reluctant to create a secular version of a rabbi to serve their needs with integrity and dignity. It was ironic that the people who were bold enough to create a Jewish state against overwhelming odds and to invent a new Hebrew culture were paralyzed by this provocation. 

But their grandchildren do not suffer the same ambivalence. They are the generation of Israelis who are openly searching for personal answers beyond nationalism and socialism. Some of them make the now familiar pilgrimage to India after their army experience, exploring the mysticism of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. Some of them are captured by the aggressive missionaries of the Lubavitchers. But most of them are open to a powerful humanistic message from empowering humanistic teachers. They have no difficulty with the concept of a secular rabbi. They have no difficulty with the idea of a secular clergy. While they oppose the ambitions of the militant Orthodox, they are open to positive teachers with positive messages. Jewish culture can be meaningful for them only if it touches their desire for happiness, personal fulfillment, and moral idealism.  

The audience of 300 at the ordination in the Israel Museum were mainly young. Interspersed among them were political leaders, writers, journalists, academicians, and representatives from liberal religious movements. The audience was a sign of hope for our movement in Israel. Their enthusiasm, excitement, and joy were a mirror to the thousands of Israelis outside the museum who would welcome secular rabbis and the positive message of Secular Humanistic Judaism. 

North America was represented by me, by Rabbi Adam Chalom, by Rabbi Greg Epstein, and by movement leaders including Michael Egren, Ron Milan, Phillip Gould, and Marvin Rosenblum. 

The program featured the participation of some very important leaders. A.B. Yehoshua, Israel’s most famous writer and an impassioned secularist, opened the event with a profound analysis of the permanent connection of Israel and the Diaspora. Yehuda Bauer, Israel’s most distinguished Holocaust scholar and the first president of the International Federation, celebrated the importance of this historic event. Above all the team of father and daughter, Yaakov Martin and Rabbi Sivan Maas, who together created the International Institute program for the training of Secular Humanistic rabbis and leaders in Israel, articulated their vision. Sivan Maas  was ordained as a rabbi in Detroit during the Colloquium of 2003. Her charisma, wisdom, and determination are largely responsible for the dramatic new success of our movement in Israel. 

Seven rabbis were ordained. They had visited the United States in 2005 when they were graduated as madrikhim. They are quite extraordinary. Each of them is the recipient of many graduate degrees. Each of them possesses a unique charisma. Each of them is an articulate exponent of the philosophy of Secular Humanistic Judaism. Each of them is creating an important niche in Israeli life as community leaders, teachers, ceremonialists, and counselors. Each of them spoke so eloquently that the audience rose to cheer them. 

The ordination received strong coverage in the press and on the radio and television. Almost all interviewers were friendly and excited. We extend special thanks to Yona Metzger, the Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Israel, who denounced the ordination and petitioned the Attorney-General to close the event down. Nothing happened – except that he managed to raise our visibility.  

Everybody who was present felt that they were present at a historic moment in the evolution of Secular Humanistic Judaism, a turning point for our movement. 

The best news is that more Israeli secular rabbis are waiting in the wings to be ordained.