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Can you be a Jewish atheist? Ask this Humanist Rabbi

Can you be a Jewish atheist? It depends on who you ask.

Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick. Photo courtesy Jeffrey L. Falick.

Can you be a Jewish atheist? It depends on who you ask.

Nontheistic Judaism has been a big topic of discussion recently. First, Pew released a major study on the American Jewish community a few months ago, finding that 68% of American Jews believe that there is no conflict between being a nontheist and being Jewish. Then, in a Tablet profile published last month, American Atheists president David Silverman argued the opposite: that Judaism is incompatible with atheism, and that you can’t be a nontheist and Jewish.

At the same time, communities for nontheists have been a hot topic as of late, garnering headlines throughout 2013. (It was one of my top atheism stories of the year.) But Humanistic Judaism has offered a community for nontheist Jews for decades.

To learn more about these overlapping issues I spoke with Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick, who currently serves as the rabbi of The Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Originally a member of the Reform movement, Rabbi Falick—who strongly disagreed with Silverman in a post on his blog—got involved in Humanistic Judaism in 2009. Today he serves as president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis and as a member of the Executive Committee of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

Rabbi Falick and I discussed the history of Humanistic Judaism, Pew’s findings on nontheists in Judaism, and what Humanistic Jews have to offer the broader atheist and Jewish communities. Our interview is below.

Chris Stedman: For those who are not familiar, can you briefly define Humanistic Judaism?

Jeffrey L. Falick: Humanistic Judaism embraces Jewish culture while adhering to the principles of Secular Humanism. As such it serves as a home for those who value their Jewish identity and attachments to the Jewish community while retaining a commitment to Humanistic ideals. These include a commitment to nontheism, secularism, and the dignity of every human being.

CS: Some readers may not be aware of the history of Humanistic Judaism and of the Birmingham Temple, where you currently serve. Can you explain?

JF: The Birmingham Temple is the first Humanistic Jewish congregation in the world. It was formed in 1963 as a Reform temple in suburban Detroit by Rabbi Sherwin Wine and a small group of families. Together they began to explore the expression of Jewish life and customs that emphasized the centrality of human reason without recourse to the supernatural language and concepts that so dominated most of Jewish history. Together they created what we now call Secular Humanistic Judaism. They soon shared their ideas with others and the movement grew.

Today the Birmingham Temple is a congregation of 280 family units who remain dedicated to the powerful idea behind this movement. As in other congregations, members observe holidays and life cycle events; they learn together and mourn together. Every practice is informed by Judaism while remaining firmly committed to Secular Humanistic ideas and values. One of the informal mottos of the movement is that in all of our congregational ceremonies and celebrations “we say what we mean and we mean what we say.”

CS: You were once a Reform Rabbi. What brought you into Humanistic Judaism?

JF: Although I explored many ways of being Jewish—from traditional to liberal religious observance—each of them left me flat. I was simply unable to believe that a deity existed and was concerned with our lives. There were, of course, other solutions to my problem to be found in Jewish thought. I became quite taken with the philosophy of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. He taught that the idea of God was no more than a metaphor for the sum of all natural processes that allow humans to become self-fulfilled. For those who find meaning in this idea, it permits them to continue to use traditional God language in Jewish rituals and prayers.

After several years of forwarding this idea I found that I had acquired a pretty serious case of cognitive dissonance. It simply made no sense to me to speak to and about a “God” who doesn’t exist. In 2009 I arranged to attend a colloquium at The Birmingham Temple sponsored by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. I soon became involved in the movement.

CS: Pew’s finding that 68% of American Jews believe that there is no conflict between being a nontheist and being Jewish resonates with my experience—I know many Jewish people who do not believe in any gods but are active in Jewish communities, even taking on leadership roles. Why do you think some atheist and agnostic Jewish people participate in Jewish communities that are not explicitly Humanistic Jewish communities? Do you think they should switch to a Humanistic Jewish community? Why or why not?

JF: I think that there is enormous value in belonging to a community of identity. Jews understand themselves in a variety of ways, but as the findings indicate, the majority does not insist upon confining Jewish identity to an expression of faith or belief. And, of course, anyone who chooses to be honest about Jewish history knows that Jews have harbored a very large variety of ideologies and theologies over the millennia. From Pew and other surveys, we know that twenty percent of Jews worldwide are nontheists. It is true that many of them choose to continue participating in theistic congregations and ceremonies. To me this indicates that they value their sense of belonging to the Jewish community but that they do not necessarily expect the community to promote the value of nontheism.

Those who choose this path justify it with the claim that they are simply “doing what Jews do.” This is unfortunate. It is also wrong. Judaism has always evolved and changed to meet new needs and realities. Whenever consensus about practices or world views broke down, Jews formed break-off groups that were committed to bringing Jewish observance into accord with their beliefs. This is what Humanistic Judaism did.

I would love to see those who agree with us come aboard. There is no reason that the cost of participation in Jewish life should be the betrayal of one’s deeply held values or commitment, particularly not in an age of rapid secularism. In fact, when a committed nontheistic Jew participates in the life of a congregation built of theism, it is they who are breaking with the Jewish experience. In the past, Jews understood their Jewish identities and commitments as a reflection of their beliefs. They did not practice their Judaism in spite of their values.

CS: Around the time Pew released their findings, Susan Katz Miller—a Jewish and interfaith activist—published a book on interfaith families. Writing for the New York Times, she argued that intermarriage is good for Judaism. Are there interfaith families in your congregation, and what role do they play in the community?

JF: Intermarriage is a fact of modern secular life. At one time, Jews were prohibited from joining the larger cultural milieu. This led them to make a virtue out of the necessity of the separateness imposed by the outside world. When the world opened up to them, Jews inevitably began to fall in love with people from other cultures.

This was a boon to Jews in many ways, though at the time it was seen as a disaster. Intermarriage, a highly accurate barometer of acceptance, provides some wonderful possibilities for the Jewish people. Those who come to the Jewish community from elsewhere bring significant talents, strengths and perspectives. Whether they choose conversion, cultural affiliation or simply to support their Jewish loved ones, they make an important contribution to our community. The blending of identities and cultures within families and communities can only lead to more and more tolerance and mutual respect.

Long before any other rabbis would participate in intermarriage ceremonies, Secular Humanistic rabbis were officiating and co-officiating. Even as a growing minority of other rabbis joined their ranks, most of them continue to place unreasonable restrictions on the couples. Recently, Reform Jews began to discuss the possibility of admitting intermarried rabbis into their ranks. Both within and without the Reform movement this has been a source of enormous controversy. It was never an issue for Humanistic Judaism, which has always welcomed Humanistic rabbis who are intermarried.

CS: How does your community relate to the broader Jewish community, and do you think that Humanistic Jews have something particular to offer the Jewish community?

JF: We see ourselves, and are generally understood, as full members of the Jewish community. There are, of course, small-minded traditionalists who would seek to exclude us, but at the level of Jewish federations, community centers, rabbinical organizations and so forth, Humanistic Judaism has a place at the table. As Secular Humanists we judge no one on their beliefs, only on their behavior.

This value of radical tolerance is something that we try to model for others in the Jewish world and we consider it an important contribution. We are also opposed to artificial boundaries or “gatekeeping” in the community. We believe that any person who identifies with the history, culture, or future of the Jewish people has a home in our community. Recently there have been many in the larger Jewish community who have come to similar conclusions as those that our movement adopted decades ago. We hope to continue to inspire them to open their eyes to the possibilities of being Jewish in a modern, multicultural world.

CS: What can Humanistic Judaism offer to non-Jewish atheists, agnostics, and Humanists?

JF: In many ways Humanistic Jews have a foot in two worlds. On one hand we feel a loyalty to our Jewish backgrounds and practices. On the other hand, we share a philosophical kinship with other nontheistic Humanists. We also share many practical concerns, particularly our commitment to the absolute separation of religion and government, a concern we extend to the State of Israel. For this reason we work very closely with organizations such as the Secular Coalition for America and most of our members are active with groups such as the AHA and CFI. Finally, with the rise of the so-called “atheist churches”—a terribly inapt description of Humanistic communities—there is a new interest in the celebration of life by Humanists who share a kind of religious, though nontheistic, view of life. We have been adapting the forms of religion to the function of nontheistic Humanism for over fifty years now. We believe that we have something to teach in that regard.