New Form of Judaism Appeals to New Wave of Jews

Many are familiar with Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism, but a younger brand of the faith is taking a more people-focused approach. Humanistic Judaism is putting a new spin on an ancient faith. Rabbi Adam Chalom talks about his congregation and how he became a Humanistic Jew.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

And today on Faith Matters, we are talking about a form of Judaism that was born in the 1960s and is attracting more and more people who want to connect to Jewish tradition and ritual but not necessarily the theology.

Humanistic Judaism claims around 10,000 members, and there are nearly 30 congregations in the U.S. Rabbi Adam Chalom is the head of the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Chicago and dean of the North American Chapter of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Michel Martin caught up with him recently to talk about this movement.

MICHEL MARTIN: So, Rabbi, I imagine that people hearing about Humanistic Judaism for the first time might say, how can it be Judaism if the God of Moses and Abraham and Isaac is not acknowledged?

Rabbi ADAM CHALOM (Associate Dean, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, North American Chapter; Head, Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, Chicago): Well, one of the challenges we found is that Judaism had acquired a reputation as exclusively a religion. For us, being Jewish is our culture. It's our people's heritage. Some people use the word civilization. And that really defines, honestly, how most American Jews connect to being Jewish. They may not agree with all of the theology and the traditional texts from the Bible and other places. They may not follow the ritual practices. In fact, a large majority of American Jews don't keep kosher or light Friday-night candles on Shabbat. But for many of them, Jewishness is food; it's language; it's family history; it's art and creativity; it's culture. And so, we decided, why not make that the center of our Judaism.

MARTIN: But, Rabbi, isn't - there's a phrase to that. Isn't that - people will say, well, I'm culturally Jewish but not religious?

Rabbi CHALOM: Many people will use that phraseology, and what we've tried to do is to take that approach, which often is an individual response because they're defining themselves against something else, and give it a positive meaning. So, we not only started with a cultural Jewish identity, but we wanted to find a personal philosophy that really spoke to the way people lived.

Sometimes it feels nice to say I'm part of the Jewish people and be with other Jewish people while you're saying it, that is, to be in a community. And that's why we came up with the phrase and the idea of a Humanistic Judaism, that is, a human-focused, a human-centered Jewish identity.

MARTIN: I still don't think I understand your relationship to God. Is God present for you? Is there a God?

Rabbi CHALOM: This is the classic Jewish answer of answering a question with a question, and that is, what do you mean by God?

You know, God could refer to the Hebrew Bible's version of someone who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked and writes a book that you're supposed to follow. Most people who are university educated, who have a lot of background in comparative religion, they may not agree with that kind of a God.

So, what we've decided to do is to change the focus. Let's focus on what we can know. When you get back to the big bang, you go back to what science can tell us about how the world came to be. You get to a point, I think, five seconds before the big bang, or whatever the latest news is, and you have to say, you know what, before this point, I don't know. We don't have evidence of what happened before the big bang.

Now, you can say God if you want. But that's a guess.

MARTIN: So you're leaving room…

Rabbi CHALOM: I could say…

MARTIN: You're leaving some room in there.

Rabbi CHALOM: Well, I can say I don't know. It's not that I can never know, but we just don't know yet. But the more important question is, what do I do now? After all, if there's a God before the big bang, who, sort of, flicked the first domino and isn't involved anymore, how do I get the power to solve problems that I face? How do I find out the truth about my history? I have to rely on myself. I have to rely on the knowledge that humans can produce. I have to rely on other people to help me.

When we face problems in our past, there were those who prayed and there were those who did. And really, it was the ones who did who made the difference for us, the people who chose to move for a better life from Eastern Europe to America, for example. The women in traditional Jewish life who would go out to work and earn a living while their husbands were studying the traditional law.

We have to rely on ourselves. You don't have to have a Holocaust to question the providence of the universe, but it contributes, certainly, to our perspective as well. And when you had the state of Israel being founded in the 20th century, it wasn't founded by people who were waiting and praying. It was founded by people who went and did. And they succeeded in creating a state and in resurrecting a language. It's very inspirational for us.

MARTIN: What do you say to those who argue that this is essentially cherry- picking? That all religious communities to be viable have to have some core values, some lines of authority. And that when you cherry-pick in this way, it's really - it doesn't have any deeper meaning. It cannot last. It can't sustain itself. What do you say?

Rabbi CHALOM: Well, two things. One is that Jewish identity has always evolved over the centuries. I mean, if you go back to the Judaism described in the Bible, you had a polytheistic Judaism. At one time, they kept getting cleaned out in the temple, and then it would come back and they clean it out, and it'd come back. And you begin to wonder which is the real Judaism, the cleaning out to monotheism or the polytheism that was around for many more years than the monotheism was. So, Judaism has always changed over time, and it's chosen from what was available on the past.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Humanistic Judaism with Rabbi Adam Chalom of the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation. It's this week's Faith Matters conversation.

So, Rabbi, how does this movement differ from Reform Judaism, where folks are also culturally Jewish-committed to living a culturally Jewish lifestyle but, perhaps, don't adhere to some of the practices of their more conservative or orthodox brethren, you know, they don't separate the sexes.

Rabbi CHALOM: Sure.

MARTIN: They don't, you know, have some of these practices. What's the difference?

Rabbi CHALOM: One of the most important things for us is that we have a harmony between what we believe and what we say. So if we live a more secular, a more humanistic lifestyle, and that's who we are philosophically, that - is reflected in our choices, in our actions every day, we live human-focused lives. If we are sick, we go to a human doctor. If we have a problem, we call our human friends and neighbors and family. Then we should celebrate our Jewishness in the same vein. It should have - it should harmonize; it should work together.

Now, in some other movements of Judaism, they try to harmonize the old language with new meaning. So they reinterpret God or they reinterpret prayer or they reinterpret commandment, and our approaches that words have meaning. And if we don't believe in the concept, even if it's in Hebrew, we want to say clearly what we believe.

MARTIN: Can you give me an example?

Rabbi CHALOM: Sure. A very common traditional song or prayer is called "Ya'ase Shalom," which means, "He Will Make Peace." The traditional words, he will make peace for us and for all Israel, and we will say amen at the end. Now, for us, that was - first of all, passive. We wanted to say instead, na'ase shalom, we will make peace. And we also didn't want to limit it to Israel, so we wanted to say v'al kol ha-o-lam, for the entire world. And at the end, rather than, again, having a passive amen, I agree whatever happens, we say, instead, shalom. We say peace because we've made it. Now, you can sing that to the traditional melody, and it has real resonance because you know what you're saying and it means what you're saying, and more importantly, this is how people live their life.

So it's that combination of new creativity and drawing on tradition in meaningful ways. And, by the way, there are plenty of elements of Jewish tradition that are humanistic and human-focused. There's a song many Jewish listeners will be familiar with, "Hineih Mah Tov," "Behold How Good and Pleasant It Is For Brothers - or siblings, as we would say now - To Dwell Together In Harmony." That's a beautiful sentiment no matter when it was written. It happens to be in the book of Psalms. Psalm 133, I think.

And that's great to draw on, too. It's wonderful when your past articulates a message you agree with. The challenge is to assume that everything the past said is going to agree with what you believe today. And for us, we need to give the past the dignity of believing what its authors intended, and we will have the dignity of saying clearly what we believe.

MARTIN: What's been the reaction to Humanistic Judaism by other branches of Judaism? I know you grew up in the movement. I'm just wondering if the relationship between the Humanistic movement and the others has changed over the course of your lifetime.

Rabbi CHALOM: Absolutely. When Rabbi Wine started the movement in the 1960s, the Detroit Jewish paper wouldn't even print his wedding announcements, of weddings that he was doing. It was so controversial what he was doing. What's fascinating now is that all of our congregations in North America, organized under the umbrella of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, are listed as congregations in Jewish papers, and they participate in Jewish community events. They sit on synagogue councils with their local Jewish welfare federations. Our rabbis have been admitted to boards of rabbis. So really, we have achieved quite a bit in terms of acceptance by the organized Jewish community.

That isn't to say that there aren't individual congregations or even rabbis or lay Jews who are very rejecting at what we do. But to anybody who says you're not Jewish because you don't believe in God, my answer is you don't even know your own Jewish history. In recent past, of course, it didn't matter what you believe during the Holocaust or, for that matter, after this vanishing position, it was who you were.

Also, if you look at an orthodox definition of who's Jewish, it's - if your mother is Jewish. It has nothing to do with belief; it has to do with who you are and your family background. So that, for us, is the root of a Jewish connection. And if people reject what we do and they think it isn't for them, that's fine. But if the only option you present is what one group is presenting, then you're going to set yourself up for a very, very small Jewish community in the future.

MARTIN: Rabbi Adam Chalom is from the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation. He joined us from member station WUSF in Tampa, Florida.

Thank you so much for speaking with us, Rabbi.

Rabbi CHALOM: My pleasure.

NEARY: And thanks to my colleague Michel Martin for that interview.

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