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Jan 14 2011

Why I Chose Humanistic Judaism

[This is cross-posted from the Interfaith at Northwestern blog, which I was asked to contribute a post for. :)]

When I was a kid, I was absolutely convinced that God exists. I prayed all the time, in fact. Sometimes it was for the silly sorts of stuff that kids worry about; sometimes it was for things like having my parents come home safe and sound from a trip.

My parents come from the former Soviet Union, where religious expression of any kind was strongly discouraged. As a result, they were never religious or observant at all, so they were pretty surprised that I was. I encouraged them to light Shabbat candles and take me to the synagogue on Friday nights, and they bought me a children’s Bible and an encyclopedia about Judaism.

As a teenager, I began questioning things much more. I loved science and therefore had a lot of trouble taking the Bible at its word, but I was still open to the idea of being Jewish in a traditional way. The summer after my junior year of high school, however, everything changed.


My parents had encouraged me to go on a six-week program to Israel that involved scientific research, travel, Israel advocacy training, and religious education. The program billed itself as “pluralist” and accepted students of various denominations of Judaism, so I wasn’t worried that the religious aspect of it would be too much for me.

I turned out to be completely wrong. We were required to pray every morning and attend Shabbat services on both Friday nights and Saturday mornings. Although there were usually separate reform, conservative, and orthodox services, there definitely weren’t services for people like me who would’ve preferred to just sit and meditate. I found it a waste of time to spend 45 minutes each morning mumbling words that I didn’t believe in a language that I didn’t understand.

And, as much as I love Israel, it showed me a darker side of the Jewish faith that I would rather not have seen. I went to services were the men sat in front, singing and cheering, while the women sat behind a barrier in the back of the room, silently mouthing the prayers with mournful expressions on their faces. I listened as my friend told me about visiting the Western Wall, a very special place for all Jews, and being berated and shamed by the local women for wearing clothing that was deemed too revealing. I visited the home of an ultra-Orthodox man and sat at his dinner table as he led a discussion with my group and his wife and daughters stood silently behind him, bringing more food to the table when necessary. I heard on the news that Jerusalem’s religious community was fervently protesting the gay pride parade scheduled there. Ultimately, I realized that I cannot believe in a God who would find any of this acceptable.

I still identify strongly as a Jew, but the branch of Judaism that I consider myself part of is called humanism. This type of Judaism emphasizes the dignity and right to self-determination of all people and focuses on celebrating Jewish culture and history without necessarily believing in a higher power. Services and leadership roles at humanistic congregations are open to anyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, and even religious background.

There are many reasons to be proud of being Jewish. For instance, throughout history, Jews have faced incredible adversity but have always overcome it. The very structure of the Jewish faith emphasizes attaining an education and learning through discussions with others. Many Jewish teachings, especially the ones dealing with ethics and charity, still ring true for me. These things are all worth remembering and celebrating.

But ultimately, I want to have the freedom to determine the course of my own life. I want to eat whichever foods I like and spend my Saturdays doing whatever I want. Rather than blindly reciting words I can’t understand, I’d rather engage my spiritual side by meditating or listening to beautiful music. I want to believe that my worth as a person is determined by how I treat others and contribute to the world, not by how well I follow ancient rules. Most importantly, though, I want a belief system that doesn’t keep others from doing those things, too. That’s why I practice humanistic Judaism.

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