The Rabbi Writes – Birmingham Temple Anniversary

Volume 30, No. 4, November 1993

November is anniversary month for the Birmingham Temple. It was in November 1963 at 35 families decided to incorporate as a Jewish congregation.

Thirty years of the Birmingham Temple also means thirty years of Humanistic Judaism. What makes our congregation unique is that we became the first community to embrace an important new way to practice Judaism.

What is Humanistic Judaism? Explaining Humanistic Judaism clearly and simply both to oneself and to others still remains a challenge for many. But no Temple task is more important.

The easiest way to approach Humanistic Judaism is to view it as an answer to three very important questions that many Jews ask.

Where is my power?

Where is my Judaism?

Where is my religion?

Where is my power? The power question is the basic question of any practical philosophy of life. Where do I find the strength that I need to cope with the problems and challenges of life? The traditional answer was God. Divine power, made available through prayer and worship, was the major source of needed strength.

But God is only interesting if he has power. A God who creates the world but is unable to respond to human needs is irrelevant to the human agenda. The existence of God is not the issue. The power of God is very much the issue. If God has no power to give me in my hour of crisis then his existence makes no practical difference. Humanistic Judaism does not deny the existence of God. It simply denies that the power that is available to me in my moment of need is a divine supernatural power.

For Humanistic Jews the source of power and strength is human. Human power comes into forms. There is the personal power of me as a person and as an individual. There is also the collective power of friends and community who offer me their support. In the end – God or no God – that is the locus of my power. Training the power and celebrating that power is more important than prayer and worship. It is the foundation of my dignity and self-esteem. The theme song we have been singing for almost thirty years sums it up.

Where is my light?

My light is in me.

Where is my hope?

My hope is in me.

Where is my strength?

My strength is in me.

And in you.

Where is my Judaism? traditional Jews and many liberal Jews find Judaism in a book, in the famous book of the Torah. Even for most Jews who do not believe in the theology of the Torah and do not except most of the rules of the Torah, Judaism is the teaching of the Torah. There is a problem in this situation. First, there is the problem of integrity – of praising what one neither believes nor practices. Second, there is the problem of substance. If Judaism is a perfunctory allegiance to a book, then it is not very important.

For Humanistic Jews Judaism is not the celebration of a book. It is the celebration of a people. The Jewish people, and not the Torah, are at the heart of Judaism. The Jews are an extraordinary people, who, in the face of overwhelming odds and cruel fates, arranged to survive and be creative. Jewish history and Jewish culture are testimonies to that creativity. If the Jewish experience, through the centuries, is seen as the consequence of divine intervention, then the experience is less than ordinary. But if it is seen as the result of human effort and human ingenuity, then it is more than special. The meaning of Jewish history is not the wonderful justice and love of God. It is the power that human beings possess in a cruel and in different universe, to defy the “fates” and to survive. The answer to the question of power and the answer to the question of Judaism come together in an affirmation of humanism.

Just as Jesus is the central symbol of Christianity, which points to the reality of the world which Christians affirm, so is the Jewish people the central symbol of Judaism, which points to the reality which Jews affirm. Jews may disagree on the meaning of Jewish history. But they agree that Jewish history is the key to understanding the human condition.

Where is my religion? religion is usually associated with the experience of transcendence, with the experience of feeling oneself part of something greater than oneself. Traditional religion maintains that true transcendence is spiritual transcendence, a sense of feeling oneself part of God, God‘s power in God’s world.

For Humanistic Jews the experience of transcendence is very important. It is at the heart of religion. But Humanistic Jews deny that spiritual transcendence is the only kind of religious experience. They maintain that the first and primary kind of transcendence is ethical transcendence. Ethical transcendence is the experience of feeling myself part of something greater than myself – namely, my community. Without that experience of transcendence it would be difficult for me to go beyond my private agenda of personal happiness and survival to a moral agenda. My willingness to serve my community and the needs of others comes from my sense of identification with that community. It is not always the case that what is good for me is good for my community. And it is not always the case that what is morally right maximizes my own pleasure and my own dignity.

Ethical transcendence begins with infancy and childhood, when I am still very dependent on others. It continues with the experience of living in a society, cooperating with others, working together to realize a shared goal. All of the experiences of transcendence, derive from this first and basic connection. And all other “transcendent highs“ arise from the “high” of human solidarity. Very simply put, ethics is our religion.

A Humanistic Jew is a Jew who believes that the fundamental source of problem solving power is human power, that ethics is the religion that counts, that, at the heart of Judaism, lies the extraordinary history and experience of the Jewish people.