You know you’re a Jew when you hear about anti-Semitism and you want to join with other Jews in community. Although a small percentage of Jews in my part of the U.S. are already affiliated, most of us are not. Recently I heard about a person who is about to convert to Judaism questioning whether to go through with it in these troubling times. My reaction goes in the opposite direction. I feel an affiliation pull in my gut in spite of all of my tendencies to want to be an independent, unaffiliated individual. Perhaps you are feeling the same way.
I have at least temporarily resolved my conflict about Jewish affiliation after several years of learning with a group called The Middle Way Society. There I found a roadmap for integrating opposing desires; the desire to be independent and the desire to be affiliated.
These mules represent opposing desires. In the top three pictures you see the mules straining – one pulls toward one side and the other pulls toward the other side. Each side represents an absolute belief. For myself, one mule represents being a strong independent individual separate from Jewish community. The other mule represents being affiliated with other Jews and friends in community. I try to explore my underlying belief for each of these desires.
If I sit with my thoughts and try to understand the underlying beliefs that fuel the absolute idea that I should be independent of affiliation I find that I have a prejudice about Jewish tribalism. Even though the Jewish group I have affiliated with in the past is open and welcoming, I have an old association from past experience of Jewish exclusiveness.
When I sit with my thoughts about wanting to be affiliated I uncover beliefs that I thought were long buried. The world is dangerous and people, even well-meaning people, can quickly become anti-Semitic. I need to cleave to my people and keep us alive, as others have done in the past. We have a long history of persecution and yet we still survive. I need to be involved in ensuring our survival. Also, there is much wisdom to be found in Jewish texts, and the creative interpretation of these texts can be rewarding in many ways.
I needed to reframe the beliefs that accompany my desire both to be independent/assimilated and Jewish/affiliated.
With some thought, I could integrate both desires. I can be an independent thinker and be in Jewish community. Being in Jewish community does not require that I be tribal. Being an independent thinker is perfectly acceptable within the secular humanistic Jewish community where I was ordained as a rabbi.
You may want to try this exercise with the mule metaphor also. My description of integrating desires is a “nutshell” explanation. Please explore the Middle Way Society website if you want to go into more depth.
There is great satisfaction in integrating our desires. We each have our own story, with competing desires and beliefs that need to be explored. If you find that you also are feeling the pull towards affiliation, and if you, like me, are uncomfortable in traditional synagogue settings where you have to say words you don’t believe, here are some ideas.
Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ)
From their website:
If you believe that cultural Judaism is important to a contemporary Jewish identity and that cultural Jewish communities and an organized Humanistic voice enhance the Jewish experience for secular and Humanistic Jews, then SHJ is for you.
Humanistic Judaism embraces a human-centered philosophy that celebrates Jewish culture without supernatural underpinnings. Humanistic Jews value their Jewish identity and the aspects of Jewish culture that offer a genuine expression of their contemporary way of life. We believe in the human capacity to create a better world.
If you like to learn about groups through videos, there are quite a few on YouTube – just type in Society for Humanistic Judaism.
I have been religiously listening to Judaism Unbound, a podcast that supports American Jews to “re-imagine and re-design Jewish life in America for the 21st Century.” From their website:
Judaism Unbound values the ways that you choose to connect to Judaism, whether through rituals steeped in millennia-old traditions or through entirely new paradigms that ancient Jewish texts never dreamed of; whether your Judaism includes participation in Jewish communal organizations or not; whether you live and breathe Jewishly 24/7 or you just want to connect once or twice a year; whether you think of yourself as Jewish, half-Jewish, Jewish-and-X, partly-Jewish, not-Jewish, or Jew-ish.
During a recent gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, a panel of humanist rabbis were interviewed by Daniel Libenson for Judaism Unbound. Be on the lookout for this episode!
Past episodes have included an interview with Rabbi Adam Chalom, leader of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Lincolnshire, Illinois, and an interview with Rabbi Judith Seid, Rabbi of TriValley Cultural Jews in Pleasanton, California.
I’ve recently joined Rabbi Denise Handlarski’s online community. The purpose of SecularSynagogue.com is concisely described on the website:
Together we are co-creating a community online for Jews and those who wish to hang out with Jews, with inspiration, resources, challenges and discussion. The purpose of this group is to enhance our spiritual lives and foster personal growth and communal connection. The ultimate goal is two-directional: we will become our best selves and, bringing our best selves, we will make a better world.
And, one can enjoy being part of this community from your couch! Rabbi Handlarski explains her purpose in forming this group on Judaism Unbound, Episode 165.
Humanistic Judaism and SecularSynagogue.com share a Middle Way approach, especially in regard to avoiding fixed beliefs and being open to experience. My Jewish path will be paved with stones from The Middle Way Society, The Society for Humanistic Judaism, Judaism Unbound, and SecularSynagogue.com.
In spite of the rise in anti-Semitism I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be Jewish; the choices are many.