Can Judaism exist without espousing a belief in a higher power? Paul Golin believes it can.
Golin, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, will speak May 19 at 2:30 p.m. at the Pikesville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, 1301 Reisterstown Road. His free talk titled “No God and Still Jewish — How Does That Work?” will be hosted by the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah.
This year, the Farmington Hills, Mich.-based SHJ celebrates its 50th anniversary. The nontheistic Jewish movement – which has 28 chapters in North America — combines a focus on Jewish identity and culture with a human-centered approach to life.
Jmore recently spoke with Golin, co-author of “How to Raise Jewish Children … Even when You’re Not Jewish Yourself” (Alef Design Group) and other books.
How can a Jewish movement not profess a belief in God?
The Pew Research Survey of U.S. Jews in 2013 found that only 34 percent of respondents who consider themselves Jewish believe in God with certainty, compared with 69 percent of U.S. adults. Judaism is much more than a religion. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan [co-founder of Reconstructionist Judaism] said Judaism is a civilization. Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who founded the Society for Humanistic Judaism in 1969, considered Judaism a culture where religion is just one piece.
What are your movement’s beliefs?
Humanistic Judaism is a nontheistic religion, similar to ethical culture. We are organized along religious lines with congregations and rabbis, and many of our communities have religious schools for children on Sundays. We celebrate Jewish holidays, including the High Holidays, Passover and Chanukah for free in most of our communities. We also celebrate life cycle events. For example, we derive meaning from bar and bat mitzvahs as a cultural coming of age, not a religious coming of age.
We have ordained more than 50 rabbis in the U.S. and Israel who have come from the Reform movement and, since 1985, have been ordained by the International Institute for Secular Jewish Humanism. We’re very active in Israel, where our rabbis conduct secular ceremonies that are not recognized by the Israeli government.
Nothing in our liturgy is anti-religious. If you believe in God, you can join us. But our belief is not in the God of the Bible, who is supernatural.
Does Humanistic Judaism embrace the Torah?
We think the Torah is a very important book in Jewish history, and we’ve overlaid it with a humanistic philosophy as contrasted with a supernatural power. We believe that humans decide what is right and what is wrong. We can recognize where our ancestors got those human decisions right and where they got them wrong. I like having a connection in the long chain with my ancestors. There’s lots in the Jewish ethic to be really proud of, but there’s also some disturbing stuff.
Religious fundamentalism is using our source text to discriminate against the gay community. We don’t do that. Jews supposedly came out of slavery, but the writers of the Torah did not abolish slavery in response. We also ask important questions. For instance, if you believe in God, how could the Holocaust have happened?
Who is a Jew, from SHJ viewpoint?
We have the broadest definition of who is a Jew. If you identify with the history and culture of Judaism and call yourself a Jew, you are a Jew. We don’t ask people to provide their bonafides. It’s about meaning. We have no boundaries to participation by anybody, no requirements such as minyans.
Is your movement growing?
We and many other Jewish and Christian movements are seeing a decline in membership. But we are benefiting from coming together as a community. We are a cause that makes lives better because we help people find meaning and connection, knowing where they fit into the human story, feeling connected during life cycle events.
What can Humanistic Judaism
pass down to future generations?
In some families, we are in our third and fourth generations of Humanistic Judaism. I’m a third-generation atheist, but I consider myself Jewish. Humanistic Judaism is a philosophy. We ask, “What is our purpose, what is the meaning of our lives?” There is no hereafter. This is it. We must right what is wrong. Rather than leave Judaism behind completely, we enable people to be Jewish in a community.
For information, call 410-493-2473 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.