What a Humanistic Jew Does on Rosh Hashanah

Humanistic Rosh Hashanah Celebration Poster for Indianapolis in 2015

Sept. 15, 2015 in Indianapolis – Rosh Hashanah Celebration!

It’s less than two weeks before Rosh Hashanah begins this year. What do Humanistic Jews do?

Last year, I posted a bit on that subject. (As a disclaimer, I haven’t gone back to check the validity of all the links.) I’ve also blogged in one way or another about related topics:

But I realized that the post linked to a lot of sources, without explaining what it is Humanistic Jews actually do. Let’s correct that oversight, shall we?

There is something that is key to all of this for Humanistic Jews. We say what we mean.

In many ways, Humanistic Jews mark Rosh Hashanah just as many Jews do. We blow the shofar; we eat apples, challah, and honey; we gather with family; we spend additional time thinking about the prior year, seeking reconciliation with others, and looking for ways to improve ourselves.

Like other Jews, often Humanistic Jews celebrate in community. (If you’re in the Indianapolis area and want to see such a celebration, see here for details on a September 15 event. If you’ll be in Tucson–where I’ll be the weekend between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, see here. Or you can search for a nearby Humanistic Jewish community at the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s website.)

But it’s important to remember that, in community, Humanistic Jews say what we mean.

We don’t view Rosh Hashanah as part of a period during which prayers are more likely to be heard or answered. This is the traditional view: “From the beginning of Elul through Yom Kippur are days of [divine] favor.” Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 128:1.

Why the difference? Because Humanistic Jews do not view prayer as something likely to be efficacious. Instead, Humanistic Jews focus their energies on the High Holidays inward and outward, though not (speaking colloquially) upward: toward themselves as individuals, toward their families and friends, toward their communities, toward their world. This is not especially unusual: religious Jews also focus inward and outward, seeking forgiveness from their fellow persons as part of the process of atonement, which involves forgiveness from others, forgiveness from “above,” and taking action to avoid future transgressions.

Humanistic Jews don’t speak of their errors in the prior year as sins in the sense of sin as a transgression against divine commandments, and the “atonement” process does not include activities associated with “getting good with god.” This is not because Humanistic Jews uniformly do not believe in a god; some do, and some do not. Rather, it is because Humanistic Jews “create a meaningful Jewish lifestyle free from supernatural authority and imposed tradition.” This is because Humanistic Judaism holds that “[t]he secular roots of Jewish life are as important as the religious ones.”

Thus, Humanistic Jews do not pray in the context of community. What individuals do in their own homes is not our business, but in a cultural community with secular grounding, we celebrate the culture and focus on our human ability to make change. We do not use the traditional language of prayer. Some traditional texts may be modified to be acceptable to a cultural and secular worldview, others may be taught and explained, and other texts may be omitted entirely.

If this seems odd, take a step back and remember that the 2013 Pew study found that 68% of American Jews hold that not believing in a god is compatible with being Jewish, and that 62% of American Jews hold that being Jewish is a function of ancestry and culture.

And so, texts are changed. Or we use different texts: poetry, stories, songs, and prose, read together or separately, sung or listened to. Sometimes these texts were produced by Jews; sometimes not. But they do what the traditional prayer service has always done: expressed and helped create meaning in keeping with the nature of the holiday and its place in Jewish life.

So, what do Humanistic Jews do on Rosh Hashanah? Hopefully what all Jews do on Rosh Hashanah: celebrate. And say what you mean.