Shabbat Funerals And Other Transgressions

On Monday morning I attended a meeting of the Michigan Board of Rabbis. Like most big city rabbinical groups, the Michigan Board of Rabbis is really just a board of some rabbis. There are no Orthodox rabbis involved.

When I arrived, the chairperson took me aside and told me that he was sorry for the late notice, but there would be an agenda item relevant to me. Someone had requested a discussion about “Funerals on Shabbat.” I may be new here, but I didn’t just fall off the matzah truck. There is only one congregation that holds funerals or memorials on Shabbat and that’s the one that I serve.

Toward the end of the meeting, the chair invited those who requested the item to state their issue. One colleague spoke up, offering the completely unstartling news that The Birmingham Temple sometimes holds a funeral or memorial on Shabbat.

Naïf that I am, I asked her what it was that concerned her. It turns out that she harbored some anxiety that my congregation’s practice would serve as a signal that this is something that other rabbis do.

Well, I thought to myself, that’s just ludicrous. I told her that I found it surprising that anyone would think that The Birmingham Temple somehow establishes precedents for other rabbis or synagogues. I explained that we operate out of a different value system than they and that we make decisions that express our integrity just as we hope that they do the same. I drew blank stares.

One of the senior colleagues acknowledged that he had heard Rabbi Wine speak about our different values, too. And I thought to myself, “Well good then. Let’s just drop the matter.” But he did not drop the matter. He decided to bring in yet another concern that by scheduling a funeral on a Saturday morning I put some people in the unfortunate situation of having to decide whether to honor the dead or celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah.

I was flabbergasted. Because I don’t think that quickly on my feet – especially when I’m hit by something so out of left field – I was left murmuring something about how I hardly think that the 92-year-old atheist I memorialized was really going to create such a dilemma.

What I should have said is that life is full of choices and it is not my professional responsibility to minimize those choices. My sole responsibility lies with the family of the deceased and what they desire. I do Saturday morning funerals because people want Saturday morning funerals. As a Humanist, that is reason enough for me. My value system does not prioritize an ancient ban on Saturday funerals. In fact, that ban is not included anywhere on any list of anything that I give two hoots about.

Later in a private discussion, another colleague reiterated the crisis of b’nei mitzvah conflicts that I am abetting. Talk about a disingenuous protest. If avoiding b’nei mitzvah conflicts is really such a priority for them, why are they not holding big b’nei mitzvah scheduling conferences? Every Jewish seventh grader in town is celebrating during the same year. Now that’s a conflict crisis!

They don’t hold such conferences because they really could not care less about b’nei mitzvah conflicts. What they care about is my flouting of their Jewish values. In a stunning demonstration of their complete lack of self-awareness, not one of them seemed to realize that they were doing to me what the Orthodox do to them. Do they not understand why Orthodox rabbis boycott the Michigan Board of Rabbis?

The item did not appear on the agenda out of some deep-seated concern over scheduling conflicts. Whoever put it there did so solely to point out my deviance while demonstrating their own Jewish authenticity. What they fail to understand is that I don’t value Jewish authenticity; it’s a meaningless concept to me.

The values of Humanistic Jews are in no way derived from Jewish tradition. Our Jewishness is a cultural attachment. What Jewish customs we retain are in the service of our Humanistic values, not the other way around. My ethical decision making is not based on asking, “Is it Jewish?”

The ban on Shabbat funerals is a Jewish value and I have no interest in Jewish values. My loyalty is to Humanistic values. They place the needs of individuals above any so-called obligations to tradition. Secular Humanists believe that we owe no allegiance to any religious tradition.

One of my mottos goes like this: “All culture is human culture and must serve human needs.”

I don’t ask these other rabbis to agree. But it would sure be nice if they tried to understand.

Time To Panic! A New Survey On Jews Is Out

The Pew Research Center has released its report on patterns of Jewish identity and the leaders of the establishment Jewish community are pushing the panic button.

Here are some highlights from the New York Times:

The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews — a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.

The most important statistic from my standpoint is the fact that “32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.” Only 15% say that being Jewish is “mainly a matter of religion.” Two-thirds say that “it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.”

The good news? Over 80% say they “are proud to be Jewish.”

Rabbi Andy Bachman of Brooklyn’s Beth Elohim performed an “al chet” (mea culpa) on his blog, “Water Over Rocks.” He makes some interesting, if now clichéd, observations. But most of his analysis completely misses the mark.

First the good parts:

For decades, a person who intermarried was seen as having “given up” on Jewish life. In our community in Brooklyn and certainly in countless Jewish communities everywhere, that is simply not true. Marrying someone *not* Jewish often leads to the couple making Jewish decisions together–for their benefit and enrichment as a couple, and certainly when it comes to raising children….

This approach to intermarriage is the result of reality landing on Jewish religious leaders like a million sacks of bricks. But good for him and them. At least they’ve stopped demonizing intermarried people.

Further on he writes:

When a child moves into adolescence, one of the worst and challenging phases of life, we have a ritual that is as meaningful as it is incomprehensible. Rote memorization is our own worst enemy, since few have a fond memory of it for reading from Torah. But the relationships that can form with a family, when done correctly are indelible.

(Quick plug for Humanistic Judaism: We have no requirement to read from the Torah. We ask the kids to select role models, do comprehensive research about them and share the values they learned from the role model’s life.)

Now the bad parts. And there are many.

A big problem for pretty much all of my non-Humanistic colleagues is that even when they correctly identify a problem of belief, they have no clue how to address it. They don’t even speak the same language as non-religious people.

Here is his response to the irrefutable reality that American Jews are among the world’s greatest disbelievers in God and the supernatural. He advises rabbis to:

Embrace skepticism and doubt. We do such a poor job of not letting people know that the religious exemplars of faith–the Rabbis–had moments of enormous doubt; had questions about divinity and providence that tormented them; and struggled mightily to convey Judaism’s deepest truths through the lens of questioning God, law and authority. American Christian traditions, especially the Evangelical movements which traditionally place faith front and center, have influenced American Judaism to place too great an emphasis on pure faith and I find that, to use a colloquialism, this “turns people off.”

Just a few years ago Reform and Conservative rabbis were pushing for more God talk in their congregations. I never heard that this was because they wanted to be more like the evangelicals! What is he even talking about?! Reform leaders and their prayer books push more and more traditional theism with each passing year. Yesterday Bachman posted a picture of himself wearing tefillin on Facebook. Why’s he wearing tefillin if it’s not about God? It’s certainly not a fashion statement.

But flipping and flopping on God is not the real problem with what he writes here. Like most of his colleagues, Bachman operates from a place of such reverence for the past that he doesn’t even understand that his proposal for addressing the problem is irrelevant.

Why on earth is it useful to me or any other non-believer to know “that the religious exemplars of faith–the Rabbis–had moments of enormous doubt; had questions about divinity and providence that tormented them….”

Guess what? I already know that damn well. I also know that the sources of their doubts could not have been more different (in most ways) from those that brought me to disbelief in God or gods. And the things that returned them to faith are even more irrelevant.

To compound the cluelessness, he goes on to tell us that they used their doubts “to convey Judaism’s deepest truths through the lens of questioning God, law and authority.”

If I understand this correctly, Bachman is saying that doubt is a great part of Jewish heritage. This is because ancient people who lived on a planet that could not be more different than our own had doubts and channeled them into discovering deep “truths.”

This is ludicrous. Those of us who live in the 21st century world of doubt and disbelief are not interested in how some ancient personages who knew exactly NOTHING about how the universe really works used their doubts to get them to more nonsense. And don’t even get me started on the completely ahistorical notion that there are “deeper truths” that they uncovered.

He goes on to say this:

Don’t get me wrong–I am often deeply moved by people’s stories of faith and find them inspiring. But a larger number of American Jews don’t buy it and in an unrelenting string of ages of science and inquiry that stretches back in time nearly 500 years, if not more, we’d do well to honor those who lack faith but want very much to remain part of the Jewish civilizational conversation about truth and justice, love and freedom, right and wrong, kindness and compassion, war and peace. Physics, biology, chemistry, philosophy, psychology, politics and history. These are equally valid constructs of Jewish civilization as faith.

I think that I’m involved in the “Jewish civilizational conversation” about values. Since the conversation that I’d like to have is informed by radical honesty, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that such lovely values are addressable by Jewish conversations alone. In fact, Jewish notions about truth, justice, etc., are characterized by widely varying attitudes that reflect grossly competing agendas. He knows this as well as I do. When Dr. Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Palestinians in 1994 he was lauded by a number of Jews who were intricately involved in a “Jewish civilizational conversation.” They believed his actions to be exemplary of Jewish values. Radical honesty requires us to admit that Jews can find any values they want in our tradition and a lot of them really stink.

Non-Orthodox Jews don’t get their values from a “Jewish civilizational conversation.” At best, a Jewish conversation is a means to speak about UNIVERSAL values while employing a Jewish vocabulary. That’s a cultural asset, but not a religious one. Religion is a dead-end to a useful modern value system.

Bachman attempts to further elevate the practices of Jewish faith (at least his definition of it) by attempting to co-opt sciences like physics, biology, and chemistry as “constructs of Jewish faith,” which they most certainly are not. They have nothing to do with any kind of faith. The scientific method is not a faith-based process.

As for the rest of his list, just off the top of my head I can think of about two dozen Jewish religious perversions of philosophy, psychology, politics and history.

Take history for example. Bachman himself twists the truth about Jewish history right there in the post when he writes:

That Jews are still here on Earth after 3500 years is in large measure because of ritual–the ritual of both sanctifying life *and* the ritual of defending ourselves against people who hate us. Both have been enormously effective tools of self-preservation. You can try to argue and I’ll win.

No, rabbi, you’ll lose, and here’s why. Your premise is absurd. The Jews of 3500 years ago are an utterly and completely different entity than the Jews of today. To the extent that they sanctified life at all (a questionable claim; see Numbers 31 for starters), it was in ways that modern people consider completely primitive.

I might half concede his point about self-defense. Antisemitism certainly contributed to our survival. It contributed a lot. But that was an external factor in Jewish survival. I don’t even begin to understand what he means by “the ritual of defending ourselves.” When we defended ourselves, it had little to do with ritual and a great deal to do with self-empowerment (a real lesson of Jewish history).

Towards the conclusion of his post, he writes about how Judaism can fill a “hunger for deeper connections”:

We promise that we are there for you at birth to welcome a child into the community. That means a name, a bris, a covenantal relationship; it means meals, friendships, a sense of going on a journey through life with others who join a chain of tradition stretching back 3500 years.

If he’s trying to “honor those who lack faith,” this is a funny way to go about it. First of all, it’s based upon a fiction. There is no “chain of tradition stretching back 3500 years.”

Secondly, and more to the point, speaking about “a covenantal relationship” is not a path to the hearts of non-believers any more than suggesting that their non-belief can provide a path to “Judaism’s deepest truths.”

Worse yet, by what “chain of tradition” preserving ritual are we to enter into this imaginary covenant with Yahweh? It is the barbaric practice of infant circumcision.

If he’s looking to honor non-believers, I would suggest that extolling covenants with fictional gods, based on legends masquerading as history and carried out through the vehicle of non-consensual, unnecessary and irreversible ritual genital mutilation may not be the best way to go.

I don’t expect anything that I or any other Jewish humanist could write will make a difference. Mainstream liberal Jews are determined to continue mythologizing Jewish values and history and making claims that do not match the facts. They’ll simply continue to re-package their stale ideas and banal claims in fresh and shiny wrappers, believing that the marketing is the problem and not the substance of their teaching.

According to the Pew report it looks like it’s going very well for them.

Magical Thinking In Reform Judaism

As a (still) dues-paying member of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, I receive the magazine “Reform Judaism.” Some of the articles are useful and interesting like a recent one about “Reinventing the Synagogue.” Some are even spot-on historically accurate like the article about the Exodus that I commented upon in a previous post.

Others are more problematic.

Almost two years ago I took the magazine to task for running a piece by a lay leader who sees angels in the “twists and turns” of life.

It seems that Reform Judaism is not done with angels.

In the Spring 2013 issue, Rabbi Cary Kozberg write about the patients he works with who suffer from dementia. In the interests of full disclosure, I know the rabbi; he performed my wedding to my ex-wife. He is a good man who I’m sure is loving and supportive of the people in his care at the senior housing facility where he works.

His ideas about some of them – the worst cases suffering from dementia – are decidedly wacky:

…Alzheimer’s can actually be a boon to someone’s “personhood”… because it is a boon to his or her spirituality. I have witnessed heightened feelings of joy, spontaneity, enthusiasm, and gratitude in people with dementia, because these feelings no longer pass through the cognitive filter of the rational mind. Sometimes I marvel that folks like [these] seem more fortunate spiritually than those of us who have that filter [emphasis in original].

…In a curious way, I have come to view persons with advanced dementia as assuming the role of “angels.” …[T]heir task (whether they are aware of it or not) is now to sing praises to God.

It should not surprise anyone that many readers were deeply offended by this inanity. Their concerns were noted in the next issue.  One reader characterized the piece as “completely devoid of even the most basic scientific/medical facts…and replete with magical thinking and appalling personal opinion….”

The same issue with that complaint also features a debate about the controversial practice of physician-assisted suicide. Like the vast majority of Humanists, I favor it under certain circumstances.  We see it as an issue of ultimate personal autonomy and freedom of choice.

Rabbi Phil Cohen, adopting a position that recalls the importance of personal autonomy in historical Reform Judaism, agrees with me:

…[F]or some, even treatment at the most supportive hospice or palliative care unit does not alleviate their physical and psychological pain. In these dire circumstances, it is not right to force a human being to suffer against his/her will. We should instead honor one of the hallmarks of Reform Jewish thinking—individual autonomy—and grant a patient the right to end his or her own life.

Rabbi Barry Block takes the opposite side.  Like Kozberg, Block favors magical thinking as the organizing principle of an ethical system that opposes physician-assisted suicide:

If we do not hasten death, we also have more time to explore each patient’s individual emotional and spiritual needs. We can ask, “Do you feel right with the people in your life, and with God?” We can discuss Judaism’s rich teachings about everlasting life, which can be as comforting as any palliative care. And when we pray together with the person who is dying and his/her loved ones, we can help our fellow human beings face eternity with faith and hope.

I give you modern Reform Judaism:  Alzheimer’s patients are spiritually enlightened angels. People with horrific and painful terminal diseases should prolong their suffering so that they can wrestle with feeling right about God and face an imaginary eternity with their faith intact.

Reform Judaism honors human dignity by claiming that it stems from humanity’s creation “in the image of God.” When this leads to every day acts of kindness and progressive stands on human freedom, then I say, “Kol hakavod – good for them!”

The problem with their philosophy, though, is that even in this most liberal of Jewish traditional approaches, the ultimate standard remains God, understood as the measure of all things. This works fine when you imagine a God who wants us to treat people well. It’s a little more awkward when that God, and the legends that surround him, are elevated and given preference over the dignity and needs of actual human beings.

As for me, I’ll place people over legends any day. It’s just one more reason that I am a Humanist.

The Outcast Of Beauregard Parish

When a rabbi decides that she or he is a nontheist there is a warm, accepting professional home.  When the same thing happens to a preacher – and most especially a Pentecostal preacher – well, the option to stay in the career track are considerably reduced (eliminated).

Jerry DeWitt is a brave ex-preacher who came out as an atheist in Louisiana.  His story is the subject of a documentary that is in the works and you can be a part of making it happen.  The filmmakers have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project about this fascinating man:

Jerry DeWitt had been preaching in and around Beauregard Parish, Louisiana since he was 17 years old. Full of warmth and gifted with electric Pentecostal oratory, he was a popular figure around town. He even planned to run for mayor. But when his 85-year old aunt discovered he was an atheist, the news spread quickly. Within a year he had lost his job, the bank had foreclosed on his house and his wife had left him.

But Jerry’s story only begins there. Thrust into the limelight by a New York Times profile, he unexpectedly finds himself at the center of a growing but dis-unified secular movement. He quickly learns to navigate the intricate politics of organized atheism and sets an audacious goal: to create a sustainable human-centered ministry in the heart of the Bible Belt. It may be an idea whose time has come. But can it happen in time to save his home and his family?

Anyone involved in Secular Humanistic Judaism should be excited by the idea of a “human-centered ministry.”  And after hearing him speak – with his Pentecostal cadences intact – I think he can pull this off.

The Kickstarter campaign has only 26 days to go and many thousands of dollars left to raise.  The film and Mr. DeWitt’s efforts could be an incredible shot in the arm for secular humanism.  Please consider participating!  You can find all the details at this link.

National Day Of Prayer? #ChoosetoACT Instead!

This year’s presidential proclamation of a National Day of Prayer was notable in its mention of the desire of a growing number of Americans not to pray:

On this National Day of Prayer, we give thanks for our democracy that respects the beliefs and protects the religious freedom of all people to pray, worship, or abstain according to the dictates of their conscience.

Of course it then goes on to list all of the wonderful things we should do in our prayers and turns into a mish-mash naming “those who are sick, mourning, or without hope” and saluting our service people (who certainly deserve a heckuva lot more than our prayers). Continue reading