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Will secular humanism appeal to Israelis?

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Sivan Maas, Israel´s first secular humanistic rabbi, sits in her office in Jerusalem, March 22. (Brian Hendler)

Sivan Maas, Israel´s first secular humanistic rabbi, sits in her office in Jerusalem, March 22. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, April 1 (JTA) — She may not look like a rabbi, she may not act like a rabbi and she’s not even sure she wants to be called a rabbi. But Sivan Maas is the first secular rabbi in Israel — and she promises there are more to come. As director of the Jerusalem branch of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, Maas is trying to reintroduce the Jewish state to its Jewish heritage — but without the involvement of religion. Maas, 45, is running a course with a group of 10 Israelis from all walks of life who are studying to become secular humanistic rabbis. Two of her students are women. A secular humanistic rabbi aims to guide the community along the paths of Judaism, but without the presence of God as an actor in history — a concept central to mainstream Judaism. “It’s not that there is no presence of God, but God is presented as something that influences our lives as a mythological literary character,” she said. The notion of God as nothing more than a literary character may sound heretical to many Jews. “If you read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, it doesn’t matter if she really exists,” Maas explained. “The world of associations links to her as if she really exists. When Woody Allen takes Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to New York , she begins to live in New York, because as far as Allen is concerned she really exists. Thus we do not erase God. For me, God exists even if He does not exist, but I am not willing to wipe him out.” Maas was born in Haifa, and did graduate work at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, a Conservative seminary in Jerusalem. She first came into contact with secular humanistic Judaism in Detroit, where she was sent some 14 years ago as a community emissary for the Jewish Agency for Israel. It was in Detroit, home of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, that Maas first was introduced to a secular humanist synagogue. When she returned to Israel three years later, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who founded the society in 1969, encouraged her to proceed with graduate work in Jewish studies. She began implementing those values when she was appointed as educational director of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel near Jerusalem. Under Wine’s guidance, Maas studied for five years and was ordained last October as a secular rabbi at a ceremony in Detroit. According to the society, humanistic Judaism embraces a human-centered philosophy combining the celebration of Jewish culture and identity with an adherence to humanistic values and ideas. Followers celebrate Jewish holidays and life-cycle events with ceremonies that go beyond traditional literature. Kobi Wiener, of Kibbutz Mizra in the Jezreel Valley, is one of Maas’ students. Once a month he spends a weekend of intensive studies in Jerusalem. “One can already identify a real change” in Israel, said Wiener, 49, “a grass-roots change meeting an ideological process that has ripened — the ideology of non-religious Judaism.” Contributing to the change, Wiener told JTA, is a perceived tilt to the right among Orthodox Israelis, the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not recognized as Jews by the country’s religious establishment and the growing number of secular Israelis who feel Jewish on a certain level but are uncomfortable with religious ceremonies. “More and more young couples do not want to be married in a religious ceremony,” Wiener said. “Many fly to Cyprus where they wed in a civil marriage, and they come to me.” No one in Israel is allowed to perform marriages except for the authorized religious authorities, be it a rabbi, Muslim cleric or priest. Many Israeli couples prefer to have a civil marriage overseas. Cyprus is popular because of its proximity. When they return, many still seek some form of Jewish ceremony so their loved ones can share in the occasion. “Frankly they need neither the civil marriage process nor the ceremony,” said Irith Rosenblum, a lawyer who is the chairwoman of New Family, a nonreligious organization that promotes family rights, “but people need ceremonies. It is simply part of human nature.” Wiener, of Kibbutz Mizra — which operates a chain of non-kosher butcheries throughout Israel — has become a popular performer of these secondary weddings. “I wear a yarmulke in all ceremonies, but the wedding ceremony is adjusted to the particular needs of the couple,” he said. Most couples insist that the ceremony be based on mutual commitments from both man and woman. Each places a ring on the other’s finger, and both make a marital vow over the rings. Wiener often adds his own comments to the wedding contract, and renders it in modern Hebrew. Wiener wanted to study at the Reform movement’s seminary in Jerusalem, not for ordination but for the sake of learning. He wasn’t accepted. Yehoyada Amir, head of the program for rabbinical studies at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, said the Reform seminary wouldn’t train a rabbi who doesn’t believe in God. Despite the lack of acceptance by Judaism’s streams, “I now feel that there is more demand for secular Judaism than we can offer. There is a real hunger,” Maas says. In the past few years, some 40 organizations teaching Judaism in a secular way have popped up throughout the country, many of them in the kibbutzim. For example, the Secular Ceremonies Institute in Tel Aviv deals with secular weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, while the Menucha Nechona organization promotes secular burials. Maas is convinced that the recent growth of secular humanism is only the beginning. Recently she began holding Friday night services at Aroma, a popular Jerusalem coffee house, and draws close to 100 people, she says. She is planning an entire seder for Passover, in which, as she puts it, “people will not only read the Haggadah but will also discuss it, to understand it.”

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