Authenticity—real authenticity, authenticity that comes from within—means that if we’re doing it right, we have to admit that Judaism beyond God is sometimes just hard. There’s an old saying that one tuchus can’t dance at two weddings. And yet, as Rabbi Jeffrey Falick of the Birmingham Temple, Humanistic Judaism’s first congregation, has pointed out, that’s exactly what Humanistic Judaism is about—dancing at the secular and the Jewish weddings!
Even fifty-plus years into the life of Secular Humanistic Judaism as a movement, we continually innovate. We have to do new things because the old things simply don’t work. “We have deep roots in the Jewish experience,” Sherwin Wine wrote. “But we represent a radical break with the rabbinic tradition.” If the old supports humanistic sentiments, then we use it.
Otherwise? Otherwise we have to make something else or accept that part of the past is no longer part of our present.
Making something new is hard work. So is setting aside things that feel comfortable or comforting.
It can be comforting to hold a loved one’s tallis or even to wear it. It can be a symbol of freedom to wear a tallis when prior generations were denied permission to do so.
But we have to ask: what kind of freedom is this? When the Women of the Wall, who put on tallis and kippah and read Torah and pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, do what they do, what is it that they are saying? It’s not only that there is a demand for equality. The point of the tallis is to remind the wearer of the commandments. It’s a difficult message for the humanistic side of Humanistic Judaism to fully accept, because how do we read the symbolism of the prayer shawl in that context? We may think of it as though the message is, “we are equal and therefore are equally bound to comply with the laws of the Torah and of the rabbis. You cannot stop us from being just as obliged as you are.” That’s a problematic message for Humanistic Jews to send, because we don’t think the Torah is actually binding at all!
There are so many sides to this issue. Do we, as humanists, support gender equality? Yes. Do we think that all people should have equal access to the important sites of their religious traditions, even if we don’t believe in those traditions? Of course.
Do we think that either the Haredim blocking access or the Women of the Wall, however brave they are, are really directing their efforts toward the type of god they affirm in their prayers?
Well…probably not, because we are Humanistic Jews. We don’t think that particular god—and for most of us, any god at all—exists.
If we don’t think that that god exists, and if the point of wearing a tallis is a reminder of that god and that god’s direct, vocalized commandments to humanity…should we wear a tallis at all?
Does it make sense to go and say prayers at a wall? After all, even if it’s a particularly famous and important wall, it is still only a wall as far as a humanist is concerned. We don’t think there is a god that really exists whose house was on that spot. We may think that ancient Jews worshipped a god they believed existed in a particular form, but we don’t share that belief.
These are hard issues. Humanistic Judaism as an ideology—as a positive set of ideas that we bring into the world and engage our lives with—might require us to do what is uncomfortable because we value truth and integrity over tradition and comfort.