Some Thoughts on Who We Are
Richard D. Logan, Past President, Or Emet Congregation
My home SHJ congregation, Or Emet, calls itself a “caring and stimulating community of people who embrace a human-centered philosophy that combines reason and evidence-based thinking with a celebration of Jewish culture and identity”. That is a wonderful statement, and it captures a great deal about what Or Emet, and SHJ, is all about. But at a time of re-visioning, I want to push the envelope of how we think about ourselves just a little.
- First and foremost, we are a mainstream community, not marginal in any sense — neither to the broader culture nor to the Jewish community. Let me explain: We are perhaps more directly heirs to the Enlightenment that spawned the U.S. Constitution and Western secular democracy than most other congregational movements. Our secular world view and support for secular institutions of governance make us as mainstream as Thomas Jefferson and the other authors of the U.S. Constitution. And Jefferson owes a lot in turn to his close reading of our putative “patron saint”, Baruch Spinoza. After all, that same Baruch Spinoza, after being excommunicated from his synagogue, did nothing less than go on to write the blueprint for the modern secular world that we humanists thoroughly embrace. So, though we do have a particular affinity with the 20% of the country who now avow secularism as their belief system, we perhaps have an even more significant affinity with the secular governance institutions within which we all live.
- We are also mainstream in a more directly Jewish sense: Given the longstanding verbal and “argumentative” nature of Jewish culture, Jews of all stripes are entirely at home with the informed and civil point- counterpoint argument that post-Enlightenment democracy is supposed to be. After all, debate among points of view is one of the most characteristic features of Jewish culture going back at least to the times of the Talmud. (Jewish argumentativeness has also become a legendary staple of Jewish humor.) And consider: What other religious traditions actually vigorously debated the meaning of their foundational sacred texts, as Jews have done for centuries? Given this Jewish tradition, plus Humanistic Judaism’s robust commitment to discourse based on sound reason and intelligent citing of evidence and our motivation to hold government and society to standards of rights and ethics, we humanistic Jews are especially at home with the actual workings of democracy.
- Another cornerstone of our humanism, and one implied above, is that the one fact that evidence makes clear is that the world is the way it is because of what humans do — for good or ill — not because of any supernatural intervention or guidance. In fact, the Rule of (secular) Law in Western societies is built precisely on this fact. It is entirely about regulating human conduct and protecting human rights. It follows clearly to us that the democratic secular governance institutions that are one legacy of the Enlightenment are the best assurance that humans reasoning freely and intelligently together will do more good than evil. So, our mission as Humanistic Jews is not just to advocate for humane values and social justice in the world, but to work hard on behalf of the institutions of secular democracy that reflect and protect those values. This is critical in an age when fundamentalists of all religions seek to do away with the cosmopolitan pluralism that is one of the hallmarks of modern societies. The goal of fundamentalists everywhere is the reactionary one of abolishing those protective secular governance institutions across the world and returning to theistic pre-modern government. Only strong secular governance institutions can protect pluralism, and especially diversity of beliefs — including those fundamentalist ones. It is only under secular governance that peoples of many differing beliefs can live together. While theists might be blind to the fact that it is a secular constitution that protects their freedom of religion, we are not blind to that fact because it protects us humanists too.
- Yes, we have a special connection to all humanists, but also to all Jewish people. That is why we celebrate the same holidays as other Jews, and why we make common cause with other Jewish organizations as well as with humanist ones. But we also acknowledge that we can have significant things in common with liberal people of religious faith, Jewish or not, when it comes to many issues in society, such as civil and human rights, equal treatment under the law, social justice, and separation of church and state. In the pursuit of social justice, we can work together with many groups who, like us, see the central importance of secular governance in modern cosmopolitan society, as many liberal Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews indeed do.
- As a cultural Jewish movement, it follows that a core part of our mission is keeping Jewish culture and identity alive and vital and a meaningful part of Jewish people’s lives. Everything we do supports this. It may also follow that cultural Jews such as us can be more sharply and singularly focused on that vital culture/identity mission than our theistic brethren, whose leaders have to spend so much time and money on religious undertakings. In fact, I would put it that many today — including a great many who belong to Reform and even Conservative congregations — feel less certain about the theistic part of the Jewish tradition than they do the cultural parts. We all know that a great many people of all faiths in our country actually belong to congregations more for reasons of social life and cultural and family tradition than for reasons of strict religious observance. Further, even for “observant” Jews, the traditional ceremonies and holiday foods may really speak more to historical memory, community, and identity than to faith.
- Tikkun olam, social justice, and ethics are also core for us. The fact that the SHJ Ethics Committee is front and center in representing us to the broader world is but one reflection of the centrality of ethics for us. The fact that every member congregation has an active Social Justice committee is another. And our ethics — like our nation’s laws — flow from deliberation based on reason and evidence, not from sacred texts (despite what some others may say). There need not be a Law Giver with a letter from God for there to be laws and ethics. That being true, I urge that we talk more about Kant’s secular categorical imperative as foundational to our ethics: “…[A]ct only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it be a universal law [ i.e., everyone do it].”
- And also Hillel’s parallel statement: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” Kant makes clear how this highest principle of ethics can be derived from reason — and Hillel at this point did not say that this principle is true because a god said it was true.
- Another of our great mainstream strengths is that we are a Learning Community, as are our member congregations. In keeping with the widely adopted valuing of secular education to prepare children for a new post-Enlightenment world, we study, and we teach. Two of the most important tools for succeeding in a new world that left behind religious certainties, are Evidence-based Judgment (Science), and Reason. Rather than passing on a purported Truth based on faith, we endeavor to teach these two most robust tools for seeking the truth. Other important coping tools are a strong confident identity, and a sense of place in a wider community and its history. Teaching children about Jewish culture and history is, to us, the best way to both nurture that identity and to help build that sense of place in the world. Further, teaching from the best actual evidence available and from the most reasoned sources helps build the necessary intellectual skills of reason and evidence-based thinking.
Along with teaching children, we also offer informative educational programs both for ourselves and for others through our speaker and discussion programs and adult education. SHJ’s abundant library of resources supports this mission. Or Emet, for example, has a current Adult Ed series on the influential Jews — overwhelmingly secular by the way — who played an outsized role in building our modern world. For a great many Jews in the major denominations, I suggest that it is in fact just these kinds of educational programs, discussion groups, and book study groups that often have the highest appeal. This shows again how mainstream what SHJ is all about is to Jews more generally.
- Finally, although we may not have chosen this role, in our age of non-joiners we find ourselves on the front lines in the critical mission — perhaps struggle — to keep young Jews (and others such as non-Jewish partners) from being lost to Judaism altogether. (There are unaffiliated secular adults as well.) Most of the studies show that the values of unaffiliated young Jews track more closely with ours than with those of almost all other Jewish congregational groups: being culturally Jewish, working for social justice, living secular lives, actively supporting secular democratic institutions. If and when the unaffiliated find they desire one, we offer a community that speaks to their values. Studies indeed show that most people at some point in their adult years do come to realize that they want and need a community, especially as they become concerned with a future generation to whom they want to pass on a strong identity. Granted, the much-cited Pew Study’s findings show that it is more complex than simply making ourselves known to the “Nones” out there, as they are not all necessarily Humanistic- Jews-in-waiting. But I urge that we energetically take on the challenge. And since we are on the front line, maybe we should get just a little more love — appreciation, support — from the rest of the Jewish community.
Keep up the good work SHJ!