The Birmingham Temple’s First Quarter-Century

Humanistic Judaism in the Next Generation – Autumn 1988

We are twenty-five years old.

This year — 1988 — is an important year for us. It is our silver anniversary celebra­tion time.

Our temple is no ordinary temple. From the very beginning, we chose to publicly embrace an ideology different from that of the Jewish establishment. From the very beginning, we were embroiled in a controversy that most budding congrega­tions do not have to confront.

The reason for our existence and growth was never that we were a convenient subur­ban temple, nor that we were socially chic, nor that we provided physical amenities second to none. People came to us because they believed, despite all the difficulties of public exposure, in what we taught.

In other congregations, the initial trau­mas have to do with finding a place for ser­vices, recruiting people to teach children, developing a sense of belonging and com­mitment. We had those problems too. But they were always less important than trans­lating our stated convictions into a viable congregational format. Was it possible to abolish prayer and worship and still create an institution with a clear Jewish identity?

Out of the challenge to find an answer to this question came the Birmingham Tem­ple. And the answer that emerged still defines the reason for our existence.

We succeeded because we said certain things that had never clearly been said before in the North American Jewish community.

We said that there was no need for Jews to pretend to believe what indeed they did not believe. There was no need to recite prayers that were meaningless simply be­cause they were Jewish. There was no need to subscribe to convictions that were incred­ible simply because they were traditional. Our Jewish identity was not a function of any belief system. It was independent of any creeds. It arose out of family roots and family connection.

We said that there was no need to be kosherized by the past. Old Jewish state­ments were no more valuable than new ones simply because they were old. Ances­tors were no more authoritative than con­temporaries simply because they were an­cestors. The test of truth was not antiquity; it was reasonableness. The test of morality was not prophetic utterances; it was the promotion of human dignity. The test of Jewishness was not the Bible and the Tal­mud; it was a sense of identification with the culture and the fate of the Jewish people.

We said that there was no need to sepa­rate the secular and the religious. Congrega­tions, Shabbat meetings, and holiday cele­brations were not the sole possession of theistic people. Bar mitsvas and confirma­tions were not, of necessity, attached to prayers and Torah readings. Religion was more than the worship of God. It was, in the broadest sense, a philosophy of life turned into the morality and celebrations of an organized community. “Secular” was non- theistic, not nonreligious.

We said that there was no need to assume that nostalgia was the only warm emotion. Loyalty to the past may be just as cold as any set of prayers that are mumbled without emotion. And creativity for the future may be just as “hot” as the dancing of Hasidic devotees. The warmth of belonging and soli­darity is more likely to exist in a community where shared ideas and values bind people together than in a congregation that is a neighborhood convenience or a family inheritance.

We said that there was no need to lie to children. There was no need to assume that children required beliefs that we as adults no longer required. There was no need to teach children to believe what we knew they would ultimately reject when they grew up. The greatest gift that we can give our chil­dren is our honesty and integrity. When mouth and action come together, healthy religion begins.

We said that there was no need to be timid about necessary change. Cautious, piecemeal reform does not serve consis­tency well. Life is too short to be the prisoner of foolish contradictions. We do not exist to fit the forms of the past. The forms of the past exist to serve our needs and the needs of future generations. Sometimes only bold action will enable us to make things right.

All these things we said we are still saying. They define the reason for our existence.