There’s a new conversation happening on the cutting edges of the Jewish community. Should we stop talking about “being Jewish,” and instead focus on “doing Jewish?”
A generation ago, Jewish identity aka “being Jewish” was the core focus. It was a feeling, a sense of self, a group identification that, it was assumed, would inevitably lead to joining a Jewish community, supporting the Jewish state of Israel, remembering the Holocaust and raising Jewish children. Assimilation and intermarriage were the greatest dangers because they would undermine “being Jewish” now and in the future, and thus they were resisted with great effort and expense. And we heard endless discussions of “who is a Jew,” “are you a Jewish American or an American Jew,” and other varieties of identity policing.
These conversations have become tired and irrelevant for many reasons. When over half of marriages involving Jews are to people of other religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and an increasing population of children of intermarriage who may choose to be “both” rather than “either/or,” a Jewish community primarily focused on “being Jewish” can be alienating. Identity labels themselves have become less attractive, be they political parties, religious denominations, or other tribalist markers. Anyone can DO yoga whether or not they believe or identify with the traditional theology behind it.
So what is meant by “doing Jewish”? It could be reading Jewish literature, from Torah to today, for insight and discussion. It could be preparing Jewish food for a holiday or special occasion. Singing Jewish music, studying Jewish history, traveling to Jewish sites – all the activities that Humanistic Judaism has emphasized count in addition to more conventional examples like attending Jewish services and studying Jewish texts. Anyone, no matter their personal heritage or self-identification, can “do Jewish” in these ways; what’s changed is extending that openness to Jewish services and celebrations, and also how we do them.
I still see a place for “being Jewish” as having a positive place in Jewish community life. For some, identifying with their people and heritage is meaningful. For those who have become Jewish, the “being Jewish” is clearly important to them. Yet I also see the shift from “being” to “doing” as very consistent with our Humanistic approach to life in general – what you think and feel are important, but what you DO is just as important to express your values and reinforce your beliefs.
Pedigree is less important than performance, and hope without action does little. It’s why we sing, “Na’ase shalom – let us make peace.”
As the 19 th century Humanist Robert Ingersoll put it, “Labor is the only prayer that nature answers; it is the only prayer that deserves an answer – good, honest, noble work.”
So let’s get doing!
Jerusalem on My Mind
With Israel’s 70th anniversary this month, my thoughts turn to its capital, Jerusalem,having visited multiple times and with dear friends and colleagues living there today. The functional capital of Israel is in Jerusalem. Its legislature, its Supreme Court, its national cemetery are all there. However, that functional capital is in West Jerusalem, and an explicit declaration to move the U.S. Embassy to WEST Jerusalem might well have been a positive step, or at least less negatively received, since it would have implicitly accepted two Jerusalems.
My concern about plans to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is how the move will be received. In announcing the move, President Trump did say, “We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders.” So, in theory, a future agreement could allow a Palestinian presence in some part of today’s Jerusalem. But how likely is that to happen? And, more important, is that how the conflicted parties are going to hear this move?
In my experience, East Jerusalem (the Arab Palestinian neighborhoods on the east side of the Old City) is very different from West Jerusalem. It’s clear the moment you exit the Lions’ Gate — in the architecture, the population, the feel of the street, the language on signs on shops and restaurants. I believe that any two-state solution acceptable to Palestinians would need to include some urban area they can call Jerusalem/Al Quds as their capital.
That does NOT mean a return to the 1967 borders in Jerusalem. Israel will NEVER give up the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, or the historic Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, or some of the Jewish neighborhoods developed over the Green Line (many of them are not even new anymore). I was struck, however, that many Israeli maps aimed at Western tourists do not even list street names in Arab East Jerusalem, as if there is nothing there to see!
Perhaps the Old City could be like the international terminal at an airport: passport control to go in, and passport control to go out. Whoever winds up with legal or practical authority over different parts of the Old City, there would be Israeli customs officers on their side, and Palestinian customs control on theirs — status quo at the religious sites, and details to be worked out regarding taxes, utilities, and everything else. But it feels like the time for clever solutions is quickly passing.
After Trump’s speech, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “President Trump has delivered a message to the Palestinian people: the two -state solution is over. Now is the time to transform the struggle for one-state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.” In other words, he claims the consequence of one united Jerusalem could well be one political entity in both Israel proper and the West Bank (and probably Gaza) — two ethnic nations, one political state.
Is a one-state solution possible? It can be challenging even without a violent history, as French-Canadians in Québec or the Walloons and Flemish in Belgium could explain. Would Israel give Palestinians in one state full citizenship, the vote, rights to their language and culture under Israeli political authority? If not, then Israel’s status as “democracy” would become very problematic.
It does not matter how right you are on facts or on ultimate conclusions if what you do creates the problems you are trying to avoid. The art of being diplomatic, on the world stage or between individuals, is knowing when to say what. Would the U.S. eventually have its embassy in Jerusalem post-agreement? Absolutely. Does the U.S. need an embassy in Jerusalem now? I doubt it. Will moving it now make peace that much harder to achieve? Unfortunately, that I do believe.
I respond by clarifying that in some cases there IS no one tradition; for example, Ashkenazi/East European Jews often name babies after deceased relatives while Mizrahi/Middle Eastern Jews name after living ones. And in the 21 st Century, traditions are not carved in stone. If BOTH the groom and the bride want to break a glass at the end of the wedding, they can!
Of course, I understand what they really mean when they are asking for a “traditional” ceremony. They don’t want women separated from men or long passages in Hebrew they don’t understand or believe. What they want is the endorsement of Judaism. They want their ceremony to feel authentic, to be accepted by their Jewish family and friends. Whether or not it fits their lifestyle or agrees with their personal beliefs is not the question; whether it “feels Jewish” is the point.
The genius, and the challenge, of Humanistic Judaism is to strive for both – to feel authentically Jewish and to live with the courage of our convictions. There are times it is easy to do both, like experiencing a klezmer music concert or learning something new about Jewish history. And there are times it is more challenging, particularly when more religious family members have very definite opinions or when our Humanistic beliefs push for changes in our Jewish inheritance.
It can feel easier to fall back on “this is what Jews do and say,” and accept what is conventional. But I’ve found in my life, and part of my job is encouraging others to discover, that living out Jewish integrity can make experiences meaningful in new ways. Sharing a Lea Goldberg poem about memory at a funeral is not the same as reciting the traditional kaddish; it is moving, differently.
And that’s the real goal of these ceremonies and celebrations – to be moving, to open ourselves to emotional experience and connection. Sometimes tradition does it, and sometimes creativity is more effective. Our privilege is to be able to use both.
Values in Action
One of the major attractions of Humanistic Judaism is our relevance. We focus on what people can know and do to understand and improve their lives. Our attention is on this life, this world, and real human experience. Our celebrations emphasize action and responsibility, the need to make a positive difference in our own lives and in the lives of others. When we are asked, “If you don’t pray for divine intervention, what do you do?” we can answer, “we DO.”
As simple as “we do” is, the devil is often in the details. “We” are a community of individuals, and we would not want to be part of an organization that demands we agree on every important issue. If we encourage people to think for themselves, we should avoid telling them exactly what to think!
There are also legal limits on what congregations can do in the public square: advocacy on specific issues related to its organizing philosophy is kosher [acceptable], but endorsing or opposing specific candidates or political parties is trayf [forbidden]. And this extends to using congregational resources; an endorsement or opposition in this column, even if only in my name and not officially by the congregation, could jeopardize our tax-exempt status, aside from also being divisive and exactly the kind of religious meddling in politics we object to when others do so.
So how can we balance being involved in the wider world with our legal and philosophical commitments? We can create a clear set of guidelines for the kinds of issues that emerge directly from our Humanist and Jewish perspectives: protecting religious freedom and civil rights, opposing antisemitism and discrimination, promoting peaceful debate and the like. We can create a process to create consensus rather than division before acting on behalf of the congregation. And we can encourage members to connect with each other while making sure we remain a community of Humanistic Judaism rather than a vehicle for political organizing.
To be sure, this approach is more complicated than either abstaining from public affairs entirely or diving in to take stands on every current event. It requires contemplation, conversation, and willingness to live with disagreement. Yet these are all key elements of both Humanistic philosophy and a pluralistic Jewish culture. To put our values into action, we need to live our values as well.
Travel, Learning and Growth
In his fascinating thought experiment, Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton tries to find relevant secular versions of psychologically healthy religious traditions. In one example, he explores “pilgrimage” – a voyage believers take to heal something wrong with their bodies or souls. Sometimes the journey itself provides meaning, and often the destination as well. By contrast, Botton explains, we go to travel agents and tell them where and when we want to go. Would it work to share our problems and concerns with a therapist/travel agent who could then tell us, “This is where you need to go to work this through”?
We know from our own experience that travel can be meaningful – family vacations create shared experience and (hopefully) bring us closer together, and special places take us outside of our ordinary lives to see the extraordinary. The Jewish tradition of a special journey to the land of Israel is well known. And many have taken journeys back to “the old country” to see where their ancestors lived before they left for a new life. But Jewishly meaningful journeys do not require a trans-Atlantic flight.
The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (for which I am the Dean for North America) has recently restarted its “Travel and Learn” program. The goal is to bring together Secular Humanistic Jews from across North America to experience interesting places with interesting people – shared experience and special places. This spring, we will be visiting Savannah and Charleston on our “Shalom Y’all” journey into colonial and Civil War era Jewish and American life. Our previous trip to Philadelphia was a fascinating window into our past, and this one promises the same.
Did you know that two of the oldest synagogues in America are in Savannah (1733) and Charleston (1749)? Savannah also boasts beautiful pre-Civil War architecture (it was not destroyed by Union General William Sherman on his “march from Atlanta to the sea”), picturesque city squares, and a haunting (seriously!) history. We will also be visiting a plantation outside of Charleston to get a flavor of antebellum Southern society at its prettiest (the Big House) and its ugliest (slavery). With stops at Fort Sumter and Charleston’s Old Slave Mart, words and pictures from history books will spring into living experience and memory. And participants are welcome to extend their trips by coming early to Savannah or staying longer in Charleston.
You can find out more from the IISHJ promo elsewhere in this Shofar, or by visiting www.iishj.org/shalom-yall. I hope that you will join us for a meaningful experience in a special place.