Constructing a Pitch for Humanistic Judaism – Part I – Rationalism and Mysticism

(This is the first in a series of posts on my thoughts about pitching–both as a public proposition and in a more musical sense–Humanistic Judaism. This post will discuss what I think the challenge is Humanistic Judaism faces in gaining traction among American Jews. In the coming posts in the series, I’ll think a bit about how we might do that, and how we might pitch Humanistic Judaism outside our own circles–particularly since Americans don’t do doctrine much in their selection of a religious community.)

(Note that while I am a rabbinical student at IISHJ, I’m speaking here for myself–not the school, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, or the Association of Humanistic Rabbis.)

Last November (it seems like ages ago, so much has happened!) I went to a retreat for rabbinical students that was sponsored by Clal‘s Rabbis Without Borders. (Many thanks to Rabbi Chalom at IISHJ for encouraging me to go.) Students from various denominations and seminaries attended–Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (an “Open Orthodox” yeshiva), Jewish Theological Seminary and Ziegler (Conservative-affiliated schools), the Academy of Jewish Religion (nondenominational), HUC-JIR (Reform), RRC (Reconstructionist), ALEPH (Renewal) and IISHJ.

As a Humanistic Jew, one of the great difficulties is how to handle public observance. If you exist in the world of the other movements that were present at the retreat, the baseline is pretty commonly shared. But we don’t use God language because we don’t pray, and that makes it very fraught to deal with the traditional liturgy.

Some of the most challenging–in a very good way–conversations I had at the retreat were not so much about the retreat’s subject matter (which is important in itself) but were about what exactly Humanistic Judaism is. This engendered a relatively normal response–wait, don’t you mean you’re Reconstructionist?/how are you different from Reconstructionists? In fact, the RRC students came right out and said, “well, you can be a humanist and go to RRC.”

And that’s when the conversation inevitably pivoted to prayer.

When you’re in a small-enough space with the right number of people, it’s noticeable when one or two members of the group aren’t in step with the rest. So that I and the other IISHJ student didn’t really “do” services was noticeable. We were required to attend; that was simply an expectation, and in any case, I think it really would have undermined the overall experience of the retreat had I not attended–and I would have been the poorer for it. But when there are two people not doing…well, much of anything (or even being bowed at during L’kha Dodi because we didn’t do the stand-turn-bow with the group)…it’s noticeable.

So I got to explain to others: we put our mouths where our money is. If we don’t believe it, we’re not going to say it. This position was respected; but it makes us a curious bunch from the perspective of other Jews, who sometimes (often? always?) chafe at changes to prayers in which they don’t believe.


And that got me thinking. What is it exactly that’s happened in the Jewish community over the last fifty years?

I think a very significant issue is that Judaism, with many other groups, has moved significantly away from rationalism. I don’t mean to say that Judaism has become irrational, so much as that mysticism has clearly held sway in much of liberal Jewish thought since the 1970s. Much is made in courses on 20th century Jewish thought about Rosenzweig and Buber, Kaplan and Heschel, etc. But it seems to me that in much of the liberal Jewish world, Buber and Heschel have largely “won.” Reform Judaism has largely moved away from its roots in Wissenschaft des Judentums and the very Kantian tack of Hermann Cohen; the recent embrace of the Reform movement by Neshama Carlebach is a case in point. The battle for the soul of Conservative Judaism was won by Heschel, not Kaplan; hence Reconstructionist Judaism, which has itself gotten kind of “woo-woo” as compared to Kaplan’s relatively Lithuanian roots. Renewal, too, is a sign of this, as is the influence of Chabad in the broader Jewish world.

So what happened? I think, in part, rationalists simply didn’t have a way of really engaging the sense of wonder individuals have, the interest in and desire for engagement and union. Mystics are all about this. That desire has been such that where Jewish life doesn’t provide that engagement and wonder, Jews have gone elsewhere to find it (hence Kamenetz’s Jew in the Lotus).

A rationally-focused Judaism simply didn’t have a response. It’s not that rationalism can’t respond–it’s just that it didn’t within the Jewish context because many Jewish leaders didn’t think individual Jews wanted to be engaged, or thought that the answers already out there were enough. There are all manner of institutional and social explanations for this–the Rabbis Without Borders student retreat addressed a lot of these, and I strongly recommend that those interested in some of these problems pay close attention to the work of Rabbi Sid Schwarz and others. (Note that a debate like this exists in other groups–it’s been a significant issue in the Unitarian-Universalist world, which like much of liberal Judaism came under the sway of folks like Paul Tillich, who advocated for just saying one thing and meaning something else.)

But it seems clear to me that rationalism is, at least presently, on the losing end of trends in modern Jewish life. And that’s a problem, I think, for Secular Humanistic Judaism, because we expressly embrace reason in constructing our Jewish identities. Rationalism sounds like it would be non-spiritual, and there’s a lot of data out there showing that Jews want to be “spiritually” challenged.

(To be clear, I don’t mean spiritual as in believing in the existence of spirits, but rather as seeking connections within and without one’s self that seem deeper than rational thought often feels.)


So then, here’s the challenge I think we face: how do we do rationally-oriented Jewish life–not theism, but Jewish life–while being spiritually challenging?

Those services at the Rabbis Without Borders student retreat really helped me frame this problem. Because we (the other IISHJ student and I) just sat. Occasionally we hummed–I much more than the other student, since so much of the services were familiar to me and because I just really love the traditional melodies. Niggunim, which don’t really have words, were doable. But we didn’t say the words of prayers because of how loaded with God-talk the texts of the Siddur really are, even when modified or abridged by the non-Orthodox movements.

That decision was, I think, largely correct. Not entirely correct: done another time, I would stand when others did, turn, etc. (though not bow); some of that is just “good manners.” And I was more comfortable with some texts–particularly completely biblical texts–than with others. But sound is so central to many people’s spiritual lives that I think music will be crucial–and some of the established liturgical melodies can be immensely powerful so that jettisoning them is almost certainly a mistake. (The havdalah service, which was led by a rabbinical student from ALEPH, was incredibly powerful–as was some singing we rabbinical students did before a group of Christian women who had come for a retreat to the same center we were at.)

But people like to think “big thoughts.” Big thoughts are what pose spiritual challenge. Rationalism is not without these thoughts. And so, as Humanistic Jews, we need to present them in ways that allow spiritual–that is, somewhat non-rational–connection with self and other.

Humanists–who are largely rationalists–can meditate. We can ponder with mysteries of the universe–whether or not we think they are all capable of being rationally understood. It’s just that when we do that, we’re not looking to connect to a godhead.

So I think the challenge is to create a Humanistic Judaism that can appeal to the rationalists and to the non-rationalists. I worry that we put perhaps too much emphasis on ourselves as home to cultural Jews. Why? Because this can send a message that, except for a need to remain Jewishly connected culturally, we would really not be much different from New (or old) Atheists.

I don’t imagine that the changes would actually be to the statements of principles of Humanistic Judaism; rather, it will be a change, in many cases, in form and in speech.

Simply put, we need to begin to move the argument back from the mystical pole of modern liberal Judaism by showing a bit of…well…soul.

(Series to be continued.)

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2 thoughts on “Constructing a Pitch for Humanistic Judaism – Part I – Rationalism and Mysticism

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