Cultural Jewish Conversion: A New Old Idea

Steven Cohen and Kerry Olitzky are two great advocates of Jewish inclusion. Now they have come up with an incredibly innovative idea that they’ve written about in the Forward. After noting that many, many people are already affiliating with Jewish communities and even calling themselves Jews without undergoing any kind of religious conversion, they offer this:

For those who would prefer not (yet?) to acquire a Jewish religious identity but still want a Jewish social/cultural identity, they could undergo what we tentatively called, “Jewish Cultural Affirmation.”

We believe that some prospective converts to Judaism feel that religious conversion demands what, for them, would be an insincere affirmation of religious faith. Perhaps they are agnostic or atheist or secular, or even committed to another faith tradition.

Wow! I couldn’t have said it any better myself! Of course, I have said it many, many times. And all of my fellow Humanistic rabbis have said it, too. And studied it. And written about it. And talked about it at symposiums.

Since Cohen and Olitzky have surely heard about Humanistic Judaism, it would have been nice to receive a little bit of credit for their innovation, given that we innovated it right here at my temple about fifty some-odd years ago.

No matter. It’s not about credit. It’s about a fantastic idea and I could not be more pleased that two incredibly well-respected Jewish communal activists and scholars are recognizing the wisdom in in.

As you might expect, not everyone agrees. Rabbi Andy Bachman would like to remind us that conversion is hardly a religious or theistic process at all. Why on earth would we ever need anything else? He writes in the Forward:

The idea is fundamentally based on the flawed notion that one can actually strip Judaism, Jews and Jewishness of religion. I mean, I guess you can if you want to. There may even be an app for it — who knows? But seriously, for the tiny sliver of non-Jews interested in binding their lives to a Jewish community, whether alone or with partners, there’s no need to imagine that faith would be a stumbling block to plain old conversion. I can’t imagine that any rabbi I know would turn someone away from the community because they were ambivalent about religion or God.

While I applaud Bachman for his openness to non-believers, I’m incredibly weary of hearing him and others rabbisplaining to me why my way of being Jewish is based upon a “flawed notion.”

And is he really telling the whole story? If I were a betting man, I would gamble that Bachman’s openness ends where his ceremonial work begins.

Would he ever conduct a bar mitzvah ceremony for a non-believing family that didn’t praise, worship or otherwise center around God? Would he perform a wedding ceremony sans theistic blessings? Would he alter the Kaddish to meet the needs of nontheistic mourners?

I know one thing for sure, he won’t conduct a conversion without a circumcision, the ultimate sign of the covenant with God. He tells us that in the comment section. His openness has some pretty obvious limits.

But really, the inadequacy of Bachman’s supposed openness is encapsulated by something else that he writes even as he protests his tolerance for disbelief:

You don’t want to believe? So don’t believe. Something inspired Abraham to start a new nation; Something inspired Moses to start a revolution and free an enslaved nation….

I guess it wouldn’t do much good trying to explain to him that this idea is fundamentally based on the flawed notion that Abraham and Moses existed.

Yoffie Redux: Godlessness Is Not The Answer!

I am thoroughly frustrated with Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former head of Reform Judaism. You may recall his January piece in HuffPost – and my response – in which he called secular Jews deluded and argued that Judaism is useless without God.

Now comes the Pew Report and the waves of discussion about how growing numbers of Jews report that they are atheists or agnostics and definitely not Jewish by religion. This has led some people to consider the possibility that the Jewish world may be better served by encouraging a little more consideration of cultural and Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Yoffie, writing in Haaretz, is disturbed by all the attention directed at groups that promote “cultural and secular humanistic Judaism.” (His refusal to capitalize the name of our movement signals his contempt.) After decrying the “preposterous” idea that secular forms of Judaism can contribute to the survival of the Jewish community, he makes this case:

…in the wake of the Pew results, the issue for the Jewish community is what our priorities should be and how we can best channel our resources. And the fact is that it makes no sense whatever to encourage the development of aggressively secular Jewish institutions and programs. The Jewish people has several centuries of experience with secular Jewish movements of various sorts. … And what they all share is an inability to sustain themselves over time; absent a religious anchor, they wither and die.

Jewish socialism is no more. Yiddishism has disappeared. Jewish humanism exists on the margins. And secular Zionism has failed as well…in the task of offering a meaningful Jewish existence to its Jewish citizens.

Yoffie is not completely wrong when he points out that some forms of Jewish secularism have vanished. So have some forms of Jewish religion. In fact, taking a look at the numbers, I’d wager that Reform and Conservative Judaism may join them some day.

Yiddishism or Jewish socialism hardly serve as helpful paradigms for the current discussion. Yiddishism died off because the largest group of Yiddish speaking Jews in the world was slaughtered and the other large group, immigrant American Jews, reared English-speaking children. Jewish socialism died because socialism failed. As for secular Zionism, I believe that there are several million secular Israelis who might take issue with Yoffie’s fitness to serve as judge of what is “meaningful” about their “Jewish existence.”

Yoffie’s tirade arises from fear. He wrongly sees the rejection of religion that is emerging organically within the Jewish people as a threat to the survival of the Jews. Though later in his article he downplays these trends by pointing out that “[f]ully 78 percent see themselves as Jewish by religion,” he conveniently fails to mention that this number drops precipitously for younger Jews. Like so many of their fellow Millennials, they have abandoned religious faith.

Movements like Humanistic Judaism, that have done outstanding work with minuscule budgets, are now seeking a little more financial investment in order to reach out to these people on their terms.  Yet while Yoffie and the Jewish religious establishments have enjoyed tens of billions of dollars in support, he arrogantly urges the Jewish community to resist the urge to invest in us:

The Jewish community must be wise enough to know that those who vociferously exclude the religious dimension of Judaism are offering a recipe for disaster. If our current institutions, including the synagogue, are not doing a good job of conveying Judaism’s religious message — and apparently they are not — then they must do better. But a one-dimensional, godless Judaism has never been the answer, and it will not be the answer now.

Let me make one thing very clear. Even I, an atheist Jew with no belief whatsoever in a supernatural realm or any such nonsense, do not “vociferously exclude the religious dimension of Judaism.” Humanists are realists. We absolutely acknowledge the various religious dimensions of Judaism.

What we vociferously exclude is the necessity of a theistic religious dimension. We simply do not believe in that. Our reason does not accept such a belief system. And what we have noticed – as anyone with eyes has noticed – is that an increasingly large number of people, including loads of Jews, agrees with us.

Moreover, while we have eliminated the supernatural religious dimensions of our Judaism, we have adapted a certain kind of religious dimension on our terms. Part of the reason that other cultural forms of Judaism struggled or disappeared is that they did not address the needs of Jews to celebrate or mourn in community. By offering all of the life cycle and holiday celebrations or observances, Humanistic Judaism does not replicate that mistake.

In his ignorance Yoffie characterizes our approach as “one-dimensional, godless” Judaism. He clearly understands nothing about what we do or believe. Maybe next time he could read an article about Humanistic Judaism or pick up the phone to ask one of us about it before he pontificates.

Yoffie also thinks that the rise of non-religious Jews (who maintain their Jewish identity) is a result of the failure of established institutions. This is actually hilarious when you consider that he spent sixteen years as head of the largest American Jewish denomination.

Personally, I would like to ask Rabbi Yoffie why he thinks that conventional synagogues “are not doing a good job of conveying Judaism’s religious message.” I would argue that they do a very good job of communicating their message to those who agree with them. Can’t this be enough for him? Is his religious worldview so impenetrable that it resists the possibility that some people just don’t share it? Or that in spite of their different beliefs, many of those people still consider themselves proudly Jewish?

Those of us who reject traditional or liberal forms of Jewish theistic religion do so for one simple reason. We disagree with them. We’re not confused by their inability to articulate their religious faith. We’re just not into it.

If Yoffie thinks that changing the message delivery system is going to change our minds, then he is the one who is deluded. Humanism is growing because, for millions of people, it makes more sense than any kind of theism, even the most moderate types.

And, for what it’s worth, theism is not the only thing that turns us off. We also reject tradition’s essentially dishonest approach to Jewish history:

Judaism’s foundational religious event is the revelation at Sinai, and while there are a variety of ways in which that event might be understood, the message of Sinai is that Judaism is more than individual religious belief; it is also the faith of a people with its own distinctive culture and history. …[W]e know from our experience in the modern era that the religious and peoplehood strands of Judaism are inextricably intertwined; neither one, in isolation, is sufficient to maintain some reasonable level of Jewish existence. When a Jewish community selects one while rejecting the other, it inflicts grievous wounds on itself.

Once again, let me remind Yoffie of a simple fact that he knows as well as I do: NOTHING HAPPENED AT SINAI. This “foundational” event can be understood in exactly one way that is consistent with reality: IT IS A LEGEND AND IT DID NOT OCCUR.

If he wants to believe that it occurred – and to accept one of the convoluted accounts of how it “might be understood” in spite of the fact that it didn’t really happen – that is his prerogative. A growing number of Jews are not buying it. Does he want them to disappear from the Jewish community? Are they not deserving of a form of Judaism that acknowledges the plain reality that SINAI IS A MYTH?!

He concludes with this:

…an ideology of Jewish secularism in its various manifestations is not what [American Jews] want or need, no matter what their personal theologies or levels of religious observance. They know now, as they have always known, that absent Torah, mitzvot, ritual and sacred texts, there is no Judaism — and no Jewish future.

It seems to me that I’ve heard all this before. Actually, I’ve heard it thousands of times before. Usually the rabbis who urge this line of thinking are a bit more bewhiskered.

Quite often they’re talking about Yoffie.

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.

Silly Rabbis, Why Do You Want To Marry Wrong?

Joel Alperson, a former national campaign chair for Federations, has a post on the Forward Forum responding to recent discussions about intermarried rabbis and the Reform movement.

With ridiculously un-funny sarcasm, he poses the following “challenge”:

…[T]here are many Christians who are deeply committed to the Torah and have taken it upon themselves to lead Judaicly meaningful lives, including Jewish holiday observance and Jewish studies. Theirs is a life of great passion, knowledge and deep caring for the Jewish people. There are many Christians who support Jewish causes and only wish they could involve themselves more with temples and synagogues, adding to the wonderful environments we try to create in them.

…What better way to allow them to be among those whom God blesses than to give them the opportunity to lead us, as rabbis, to greater levels of Judaic commitment?

What he misses in this failed attempt at humor is that there are already hundreds of rabbis who, according to more traditional interpretations, are not considered Jews.

The reality of the Jewish world is that we are sharply divided already. A Haredi rabbi has no use for a Reform rabbi. He has even less interest in a Reform convert who’s a Reform rabbi. We needn’t even take it to the Haredi extreme. I know Conservative rabbis who do not accept the Jewishness of some ordained Reform converts or patrilineal Reform Jews.

There are also Christians of the type he describes who are Jews by traditional halakhic standards. Some of them are even Hebrew-speaking Israelis who have served in the army and everything! If they want to have rabbis, what difference does it make to him or me?

So while Alperson thinks that he’s being extremely witty with his sardonic appeal to believing Christians to become Reform rabbis, he’s actually missed a key point: Jewish identity is imprecise. Jewish movements need only ensure that their rabbis and leaders share their approach and are considered Jews by their standards.

At a minimum a rabbi can really only represent the core values of her or his movement; nothing more. We already lack any remotely universal approach to Jewish identity or values. According to my understanding, Reform Judaism welcomes intermarried couples, so an intermarried Reform rabbi is absolutely consistent with its approach. If you don’t like it, then don’t be a Reform Jew.