No-frills Judaism

Secular rabbis hope to provide an answer for Israelis who identify with Jewish rituals and culture but that do not necessarily believe in God; placing man in the center instead.

secular marriage (dont use) (photo credit: Courtesy)
secular marriage (dont use)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Sivan Maas says she will never forget the Yom Kippur service she attended at the Birmingham Congregation Temple in Chicago in 1980.
“It was a large congregation – about 500 people at least, but, oddly, God was not mentioned during the whole service,” recalls Maas. “And then I noticed that there was no ark, but instead a kind of pedestal with the inscription ‘Adam’ [man] engraved on it. I thought to myself that this is exactly what I would like to have here in Jerusalem.”
Maas is one of 24 secular rabbis who have been ordained since the Tmura Institute for Training Secular Humanistic Rabbis and Jewish Leadership graduated its first class in 2007.
Catering to secular Israelis who seek a Jewish identity and lifestyle that does not involve God, Maas says her focus as a secular rabbi is on community involvement and organizing community rituals – whether they are part of the Jewish calendar or the cycles of life.
Maas and all the secular rabbis trained at Tmura function as spiritual and community leaders. For example, they shape the face of a Jewish secular Shabbat and they plan the rituals and ceremonies in the case of a death. At funerals they read secular poems or prose and deliver a secular eulogy not necessarily based on traditional Jewish texts.
“Secular Humanistic Judaism is a human-centered philosophy of life combining rational thinking and Jewish culture with the best ethical insights of Jewish and human tradition. It is a non-theistic expression of our Jewish identity, which enables individuals to shape their own lives in the framework of Judaism as a culture,” explains Maas. “We freely adapt our celebrations, whether holidays or life-cycle events, to the needs of those celebrating, focusing on putting the human being in the center of attention.”
In Jerusalem, the Tmura Institute has built a complete program that trains and ordains highly educated people (they must hold at least a master’s degree) who want to become secular rabbis.
Maas, the director and dean of the rabbinical program of the Secular Humanistic Judaism movement in Israel, says that this might turn out to become the key to preserving the presence of Jewishness in Israeli society. The Israeli program is a branch of the Society for Humanistic Judaism created in the early ’80s by Sherwin T. Wine in Detroit.
Last December the annual ordination of new secular rabbis took place at the Bible Lands Museum, graduating 12 new secular rabbis, who completed four years of training, enabling them to lead ceremonies like bar and bat mitzva, brit mila (circumcision), and weddings, all related to the Jewish life cycle, with one significant difference: the focus is on the humanistic aspect and the individual participating, without any relation to a divine presence.
Tmura is the center of this relatively new option in Jewish life, and has managed to enlist some of the most prestigious Israeli academics and intellectuals to teach at the institute, such as the playwright Yehoshua Sobol, the artist photographer Adi Ness and Prof. Yaakov Malkin, author of Judaism Without God?, which serves, in some ways, as a basis for the Jewish secular movement in Israel.
During the four years of training before ordination, the secular rabbinical students learn and experience various aspects of typical Jewish life from a cultural perspective: Jewish history, education, ethics and philosophy, and culture. They also receive special training in spiritual counseling. A large part of the studying is dedicated to the essence of Jewish ceremonies and the proper way to conduct them in accordance with a secular humanistic approach.
The studies aim for deep and detailed knowledge of traditional Jewish culture.
Once this is acquired, the students study in the central beit midrash, which is currently located in the Malkin home in the German Colony. Rabbis’ training includes community work and public leadership in education, and also training in promoting change in public opinion about the need for a Jewish secular alternative.
RABBI OREN Yehi-Shalom, 39, a graduate of the first class of the secular humanistic rabbis program, says that, in the eyes of a growing number of Israelis, this approach is the perfect answer to the need for a full Jewish life without a connection to God.
“We observe and respect all the Jewish ceremonies in the life cycle,” he explains. “So we study a lot about the ceremonies and we adapt them to our concept. If a couple does not wish to perform a brit mila on their newborn son, for example, we don’t interfere, but we propose a ceremony for the newborn – because we believe that birth deserves a special ceremony; and since we are Jews, it is a Jewish ceremony, but with a different emphasis than in the religious ritual ceremony.”
Yehi-Shalom, who has initiated a new educational stream called the Jewish Israeli – which has already been implemented in the elementary school in Beit Hakerem – says he has studied Judaism all his life.
“It is a very profound and intimate part of me, but I see it as a culture, not as part of a religious belief, and as such, there was no answer for my needs in any of the current streams of Judaism, and I know I am not the only one who feels [this] way. In Hebrew, the word tarbut [culture] comes from the notion of multiplicity, meaning there are multiple ways to understand and experience your Jewishness, including one that includes no divine presence.”
Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion campus in Jerusalem, is well aware of the emergence of the Secular Humanistic Judaism stream. In fact, she says, “Wine and the members of his community wanted to become part of the World Reform movement, many years ago. But it didn’t work – God is very present in Reform ideology.”
Dr. Meir Buzaglo, a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the Hebrew University, admits he feels ambivalent about this new stream. “I like the fact that they feel part of the Jewish tradition and don’t just abandon it to the religious... But couldn’t they just be secular, close to the rich Jewish tradition? Why [do they have to call themselves] rabbis?” According to Yair Sheleg, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, the Secular Humanistic Judaism movement can be considered part of what he calls the “Jewish Renaissance” in Israel – namely, the growing interest in Jewish texts and culture among both religious and secular Israelis.
Sheleg theorizes that the movement comes from a growing aversion to popular Western civilization together with a kind of nostalgia for something people have renounced but now see as a culture that still has something to offer.
“People who connect now to the cultural roots of Judaism realize that when they disconnected themselves from it, they in fact threw the baby out with the bathwater and lost something valuable.”
For Maas, things are even more precise. “We preserve Jewish unity,” she says. “We are focusing on creating a Jewish-Zionist-Israeli identity, not only for our personal, spiritual or community needs, but because we believe that without that option, the Jewish experience might become totally hollow for a large part of Jewish Israeli society, and we don’t want that to happen. Too many Israelis feel that all streams of Judaism that have a divine presence at their center have become totally alienating to them, and we offer them a new option. We say, stay who you are, stay Jewish, even if you are secular and a nonbeliever.”
Maas points out that there are very few ways secular Israelis can engage with their Judaism.
“All existing streams of Judaism besides Orthodoxy – Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist – do not give any acceptable answer to a person who is Israeli and secular. We want to empower these people’s Jewishness in a way that suits their way of life, culture and values.”
IT WAS while serving as a Jewish Agency emissary in Detroit in the ’80s that Maas, a Haifa native who was born and raised secular, discovered a pluralistic approach to Judaism.
After three years, she came back to Jerusalem and was appointed director of the Rehavia Community Council. Sherwin Wine, the founder of Secular Humanistic Judaism, contacted her on a visit here and, pointing out that her job on the community council was similar to the work of a secular rabbi, suggested she make it official.
“I had never been affiliated with any Jewish stream, so I didn’t know how to react at first. I eventually decided to do it, but on the condition that I would study as a representative of this stream in Israel, and that the studies would be here, in Jerusalem [although she was ordained in the US]. I wanted the whole thing to stay Israeli, not some kind of imported novelty.”
Maas notes that in most of the secular Jewish communities, not all members define themselves as atheists. “Some are atheist, and some are agnostic, and some are just living according to secular humanistic ideals – but they are all deeply Jewish and committed to remaining Jewish. I would say that we have admitted that in our eyes there is no God, but we do not think we should become orphans as a result.”
Yehi-Shalom has a different explanation for why there is a need for religion-based ritual among secular Jews. “If I feel Jewish, think and create in Hebrew, and all my references are towards the Jewish calendar – then even if my practice is not religious, not according to Halacha, I need something else, I need answers in which there is something that suits me. We are not against God, we are for the human being at the center,” he says.
And rituals are an important part of the secular Jewish stream, though these practices have been adapted significantly. Yehi-Shalom describes a recent wedding at which he officiated.
“It was all about Jewish culture and tradition, but I was not wearing a kippa, and the blessings didn’t include any divine references. Before we started, I was aware that some of the family members were a bit nervous, but by the time we ended the ceremony, all those attending were quite enthusiastic – because they, for once, understood the deep link between their Jewish identity and the their Jewish culture,” he says.
PROF. YAAKOV MALKIN is the spiritual personality behind the emergence of a secular ritual form of Judaism as a culture in Israel. In some of his books, but mostly in Judaism Without God?, he developed his concept of Judaism as a culture.
“I tried to show the different faces of the Jewish Israeli culture during the 20th century, to reveal the many different Jewish cultures that have existed throughout the history of our people, and have all been shattered for the benefit of the rabbinical stream.
“Judaism is a very rich culture, and it has acquired, due to our special history, many national aspects and characters – from the early biblical period to our times. We had Hellenistic Jewish culture, and Karaite Jewish culture, and Christian Jewish culture – they all are parts of our remarkable heritage. So the fact that today we have Jews who are not religiously observant is not something new. We always had among ourselves different ways to be Jewish.”
Asked whether he is not worried that most of the adherents to the cultural Judaism stream might be attracted because they don’t feel comfortable with the traditional rabbinical establishment, and not because they accept his ideology, Malkin says he is aware but not concerned.
“They come at first by default, but they will stay when they realize what we have to offer,” he insists.
Maas adds that their graduates come from all segments of the population, but what they are offering is most resonant among academics, intellectuals and the well-to-do.
“That’s how it works everywhere,” she adds. “Changes and new ideas are always conveyed by the wealthier and the more educated, but our goal is to reach all the Jewish Israelis who feel that their secularism is already a tradition in itself, and we want to pour into this Jewishness, linked to Zionism and Israeliness.”