One of the great challenges of being a Humanistic Jew is, I think, figuring out how our identities—as Americans, as secular persons, as persons with humanist values, as Jews or those who care about Jews—can mesh together.
They can’t always, of course. In some ways, our modern, secular lives move very quickly. Yesterday’s typewriter is today’s computer, and today’s computer will become who knows what. We don’t always have time to put all the pieces together; that’s just what the world is like now.
Jewish culture, though, is the product of a long, slow boil. It’s been perhaps thirty-five hundred years in the making.
In fact, the tension between our Jewish identities and our modern, humanistic selves is perhaps nowhere stronger than on the High Holidays. After all, what are these holidays about?
For more than 2,000 years, they’ve been about stopping, about squaring things up with others—and quote-unquote “getting good with god.” We’re told during the existence of the First and Second Temples that animals were sacrificed in even greater number than was usual. A goat was sent into the desert bearing the sins of the people, perhaps to be consumed by some devil or wicked spirit named Azazel.
It’s pretty weird stuff. And it would happen on days when society was on a kind of mandatory standstill, a Shabbat Shabbaton—a complete Sabbath.
It’s not at all like our present lives. It’s not even all that much like a typical High Holidays experience for most American Jews!
But still, we’re here. Because we know that being Jewish is something beyond the weirdness of a religion that asks us to believe in unbelievable things.
One of the very unbelievable things we’ve traditionally been asked to believe is that Abraham existed, that he tried to sacrifice Isaac, and that an angel told Abraham to hold back his knife just in the nick of time. In fact, this story—and its purported elimination of child sacrifice from all of Jewish history—is part of the traditional Torah reading every single year on Rosh Hashanah.
Part of the myth of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is wrapped up in the story of Abraham and Isaac. We often hear that the story is where Judaism distinguished itself from its neighbors by disapproving of human sacrifice. We hear that it paved the way for a new relationship with the divine.
You should know that there’s at least one story in the Bible—in the book of Judges—where child sacrifice was apparently acceptable. So the Abraham story as being the Jewish rejection of child sacrifice is just that: a story.
But if the story we’ve been told is untrue—and if we don’t think it really happened anyway—what do we do with it?
We can read the near-sacrifice of Isaac for the literary piece it is. It is, for we Humanistic Jews, not an example, I think, but a counterexample.