Suspending Belief


There are no atheists in foxholes but there are more than a million in the American Jewish community, according to surveys, and the proudly godless are now angling to be seen as a Jewish ìreligiousî movementóHumanistic Judaismóalongside the traditional denominations.

For the first time, that movement has a rabbi in New York, Peter Schweitzer of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, in the West Village.Writer Cynthia Ozick, author of ìThe Pagan Rabbi,î told us, ìEver since I wrote that, and itís been decades now, I have never been introduced to a rabbi who didnít tell me, with a twinkle and a half-whisper, ëIím the Pagan Rabbi.í It brings out the imp.îNow the impish have become impudent; disbelievers donít speak in whispers. ìGod emeritus,î said Rabbi Schweitzer, as if God was a has-been put out to pasture. ìGod is of no importance to me. Judaism for us is a secular, cultural heritage, the cumulative experience of the Jewish people, and from it we can derive values, find community. Rather than turn to a deity we look for courage within.îHumanistic Judaism, founded in 1963, claims 31 congregations and 20 rabbis in the United States and Israel.

The congregation, founded in 1991, meets at the Village Community School on West 10th Street. The group has a membership of 100 families, many of whom are not Jewish, said Rabbi Schweitzer.Rabbi Schweitzer said he sees Judaism as a ìfamily,î but ìour family consists of non-Jewish members. Many of our members are in inter-cultural relationships,î the Humanistic word for intermarried.Rabbi Schweitzer, 52, was not given a Jewish education as a child, not even a bar mitzvah, but rather, as he explained at his installation, his Jewish identity derived from relatives who were active in charitable Judaism, and from his own trip to Israel as a young man. Deciding to become a rabbi, he was ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1979, held a pulpit in Indianapolis, and quit three years later when his skepticism could no longer be contained.

He explained years later that, among other complaints, he found the Reform funeral service ìnaive and dishonest. It offered little comfort with its stiff-upper-lip denial of suffering. In the face of death and tragedy, and certainly after the Holocaust and nuclear devastation, I could not accept God as a shepherd whose rod and staff were supposed to comfort meÖ God [as depicted in liturgy] is often bossy, arrogant and vindictive.î

Before remaking himself as a Humanist spiritual leader, Rabbi Schweitzer worked as a social worker and over the last 25 years amassed a breathtaking 10,000 pieces of Jewish Americanaófrom religious paraphernalia to Yiddishist and Catskills souvenirsóthat were recently donated to Philadelphiaís National Museum of American Jewish History.In a sense, it is all ìreligiousî paraphernalia, he said, defending the idea of bagels, lox and matzah ball Judaism: ìThatís our culture. Iím using Jewish symbols when theyíre meaningful for me.î

Rabbi Schweitzer added, ìGod and Yahweh and Zeus and Thor and Baal all have mythological value. Whether it can provide comfort in your life is another matter.î

Rich Barlow, who pens the ìSpiritual Lifeî column for The Boston Globe, recently wrote that the Humanists had a shot at success because religious boundaries are increasingly porous in ìthis country of many converts.î After all, asks Barlow, ìIf there can be Jews for Jesus, why not Jews without God?î

Liturgy in all the major denominations has been tinkered with to reflect an unease with concepts once thought to be as basic as God. The 1895 Reform prayerbook eliminated the ideas of choseness, life after death, the sanctity of the Land of Israel and the personal Messiah, with some of that reinstated in subsequent Reform prayerbooks.Even in Orthodoxy, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale eliminated a fixture of the Shabbat service, Anim Zemirot, the 12th century mystical poem depicting God in sensual detail, as well as Adon Olam, the traditional coda describing an omnipotent personal God. Instead, Hebrew Institute ends with a singing of ìHatikvah,î the Israeli anthem that makes no mention of God at all.Some years ago, the Conservative movementís Rabbinical Assembly Law Committee dealt with the propriety of allowing an avowed atheist who loved Jewish tradition to lead services, something the atheist loved to do, and was good at. The committee declined to issue a blanket ruling for the movement, deciding that this was the sort of thing best decided by the local rabbi.

So it is not without context that Rabbi Schweitzer has taken the next step by writing new words to the old melodies of Shabbat hymns such as ìShalom Aleichem,î ìLecha Dodiî and ìEliyahu HaNaviî because those hymns speak of the supernaturalóGod, angels, prophets, and the idea of Shabbat as a bride to Godís groom.

The problem, according to some critics, is that the classic Shabbat hymns were culled from the best of a millenniumís worth of Hebrew poetry and Rabbi Schweitzerís rewritten lyrics are somewhat mundane. The ethereal verses of ìLecha Dodiî have been replaced by, ìWe welcome Shabbat, a very special dayÖ a day for family,î and Eliyahu HaNavi was replaced by ìPeace and freedom, let there be, peace and freedom and liberty.î Shema Yisroel was eliminated altogether.

One of the critics, Cynthia Ozick, said, ìIím a kind of ferocious misnagid [non-chasid], there are things in chasidism and Kabbalah that turn me off, but text should be untouchable. It has served generation upon generation. It truly is an act of chutzpah to fiddle with these texts.îReligious pluralism until now has presupposed a God-centered Judaism; could a human-centered denomination be acceptable to pluralists?Steve Bayme, the American Jewish Committeeís director of Jewish affairs, said that thereís a difference between communal pluralism and religious pluralism: ìWeíve prospered as a people precisely by not defining in strict terms what belief is,î said Bayme. ìWanting to connect with Judaic heritage without wanting to connect with the belief system of Judaism is understandable within the overall rubric of Jewish peoplehood, certainly it applies to secular Israelis. But religious pluralism does not mean anything goes, that there are no boundaries whatsoever.îRabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told The Jewish Week, ìIs Humanist Judaism spiritually viable? Clearly not. There is nothing in our experience or history to suggest that ësecular Judaismí has any staying power. Individual Jews may think in secular terms, but Jews have always searched for and argued with God, and their yearning for the holy and the transcendent is evident today to any observer of the Jewish scene.îì

Thereís a story,î said Ozick, ìabout some men, including a rough atheist, standing around before the minyan, arguing about the existence of God. Then somebody comes by, slaps the table, says itís time to daven, and they all go docilely in, including the angry atheist. Jews donít do the faith thing so much as the deed thing. You participate in the community but you donít separate yourself on the question of God.îBut the newest movement in Judaism suggests that you do.