Looking for Jewish Community

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.

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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.

Judaism Unbound

judaism unbound logoI have been religiously listening to Judaism Unbounda 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.

SecularSynagogue.com

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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.

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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.

Entering the stream . . . it is not in heaven . . .

Buddhism and Judaism are living traditions. I was reminded of this last month, when I had the the privilege of interviewing Stephen Batchelor about his new book, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age for The Middle Way Society. bookBatchelor tries to rescue the original teachings of Gotama, Buddha. Because Batchelor has been immersed in the world of Buddhism since he was a young man, and because he has been inspired by Buddhist practice as he understands it, he feels rooted in that tradition. To quote the Buddha helps embed and locate him within the unfolding of this tradition. At the same time, he doesn’t look at tradition as a fixed thing to be followed blindly. He sees tradition as a place to root oneself in order to be able to flourish more fully. Batchelor talks about seeing a graffiti on the Berlin wall when it fell that said: “Culture without history is like a tree without roots.” He said that to be self-conscious of your embeddedness in your tradition is nourishing, is emotionally and spiritually grounding and affirming, and gives you confidence and courage.

I was surprised by my own strong feelings as I listened to Stephen Batchelor’s expression of gratitude to Buddhism in spite of the attacks that he has endured from those who are strongly tied to more dogmatic forms of the tradition. I kept thinking about Judaism, about how we at the Society for Humanistic Judaism are trying to continue within the tradition of Judaism even though we reject forms of the religion that are not compatible with our humanistic beliefs. It takes courage to stand up and honestly proclaim your own point of view based upon your own knowledge and experience.

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Buddhism and Judaism are living traditions that have evolved within various historical and cultural conditions. Although there are forms of these traditions that resist change and that proclaim absolute truths about the world, there are practices that keep these traditions alive and relevant to us, especially to those of us with particularly imaginative, curious, and skeptical approaches to the world. I hope you’ll listen to this podcast and hear what Stephen Batchelor eloquently says about what he believes may be the original dharma and practice taught by Gotama, a non-metaphysical dharma from which we can benefit today.

The above podcast is sponsored by The Middle Way Society. I highly recommend that you go to The Middle Way Society website to learn more about the middle-way approach to living an ethical life free of dogma.

What does faith mean to you?

What does faith mean to you? Is faith only possible if one has an absolute belief in a particular religion? If you are a Jew, do you state, as Maimonides did,

“I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though he tarry, I will wait daily for his coming.”

Or do you declare every day, or at least weekly . . . maybe yearly? . . . this?

“Hear O Israel, The Lord Our God, The Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up. . . .”

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If you are Christian, do you believe the following?

“We believe that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity and is the only begotten eternal Son of God Who became flesh to reveal God to man, to fulfill prophecy, and to become the Savior of the lost world. In becoming man Jesus did not cease in any way to be God so that He is fully God and fully man inseparably united in one person forever.”

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Or, perhaps, this is quite familiar to you:

“I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.”

Perhaps you are Muslim and declare:

“There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

Pakistan

Symbolizing the faith of Islam, the crescent moon is seen at sunset on top of the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

If any of the above texts rings absolutely true for you, and you would prefer to have any of these statements further strengthened with my blog post, you will be disappointed. Please feel free to stop reading this and to go about your day.

To my fellow doubters and skeptics, I have one question: What does faith mean to you? Is it a word that you would feel more comfortable living without? Were you, perhaps, “burned” by it as a child, sending you running toward a more rational, enlightenment point of view? Perhaps you are comfortable with the word “faith” in a form that makes sense to you.

Several members of The Middle Way Society recently had a round-table discussion about what faith meant to us. I recommend that you listen to the podcast of this discussion.

The four participants in this discussion were Barry Daniel, active member and podcast interviewer for The Middle Way Society; Robert M. Ellis, philosopher and founder of The Middle Way Society; Willie Grieve, a Zen Buddhist who lives in Scotland; and me, a humanist rabbi. What we all had in common was a comfort in living with uncertainty. For me the faith of patience described by Maimonides takes the form of working toward a more messianic age – meaning toward a time when people are less violent and more loving; i.e., my point of view was political, but, at the same time rests on a belief that people are capable of change and that personal transformation has a positive effect on the world even if one is not politically active. Willie Grieve has an apophatic approach to faith, and, through a Buddhist practice, sits in the midst of uncertainty and mystery. Robert Ellis talked about two kinds of faith. First, one can have faith that the chair one is about to sit upon will not collapse under you. And second, and the one that we are mainly talking about here, is a faith in our values based upon our experiences. We need to think about what are the best things to have faith in. He pointed out that faith is often a shortcut to absolute beliefs, similar to those that begin this blog post. Willie Grieve shared an Alan Watts quote that distinguishes belief from faith:

“We must here make a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.”

The particular religious point of view of which Alan Watts speaks is likely Buddhism, at least in its less institutional and more agnostic forms.

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One of the most interesting questions that Barry Daniels posed to all of us was,

“Do you think it’s unhelpful that the world’s religions are described as faiths or is that okay?”

What do you think? Please listen to the podcast and join the discussion.