Making the case for Humanistic Judaism

Paul Golin, executive director of Society for Humanistic Judaism, wants Jewish movements to embrace Jews as they are. (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

Jewish movements should embrace Jews as they are, not as their institutions want them to be, the head of the Humanistic Judaism movement told a Rockville audience Sunday.

Paul Golin said his movement, also called Secular Humanistic Judaism, is nontheistic — meaning it does not recognize God as a divine entity — but retains certain Jewish traditions, values and identity.

To Golin, that represents a real selling point for the 55-year-old movement, which has about 25 communities and congregations, including Machar in Washington and Beth Chai Congregation in Bethesda. The rise of the “nones,” people who do not identify with any one religious denomination, is a concern for many Jewish institutions and congregations, but not for Humanistic Judaism, whose members lean agnostic or atheist, he said.

Humanistic Judaism needs to reach out to those who want a connection to Jewish identity, but aren’t being served by the denominational model, he said.

There are no right ways to be Jewish, Golin said.

Take intermarriage. “In my own life and growing up in the Jewish community, the word I most heard associated with [the rise of interfaith marriages] was ‘crisis,’” Golin said.

But the issue is settled. A majority of Jews — Golin included — are marrying non-Jews. And most families with one Jewish spouse are raising their kids with some form of Jewish identity — a fact borne out by the recent Greater Washington Jewish Demographic Study, which found that 61 percent of children of one Jewish parent were being raised either Jewish by religion or culture.

For many of those children, Jewish may not be their only identity, Golin said. His wife is Japanese and they are raising their children as Jewish and Japanese.

Golin said for Humanistic Judaism to expand its reach, it should celebrate diversity — of people, thought and belief.

“What if we just say, intermarriage is good. Period,” he said. “And then just shut up about it. No ‘but.’”

Second, Golin wants his movement to emphasize meaning rather than identity. Identity is not baked into your genes, he said. Instead, communities should offer added value and meaning over an assumption that identity means obligation.

Instead of telling people what they need to be truly Jewish, he said, it would be better to ask, “What does Judaism do for you?” and “How does it help make the world a better place?”

And, he said, wisdom should be detached from religion. There is much to be learned from Jewish texts and Jewish history, Golin said. But those lessons don’t need to come with what he sees as outdated traditions or references to God.

The audience of 20 at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington was enthusiastic about Golin’s ideas. These are the kinds of discussions Humanistic Judaism can have and excel at, Golin said. Whether someone sees God as love or nature or a vague concept of goodness or just not existing, those are explorations worth undertaking.

But he also said that those who already belong to a congregation aren’t necessarily his target audience. Only 25 percent of Jews are affiliated, he said, and that leaves a large population for Humanistic Judaism to reach.

“That kind of outreach is difficult,” Donna Bassin, a Machar member said later. “But we’re trying to look at [this issue] in different ways.”

Even just the member-nonmember divide can be a problem, said Rabbi Jeremy Krindel of Machar. It’s important to create a place where everyone feels comfortable, and maybe that means going to a model where everyone knows what it costs to provide services and programs, and pays for what they find valuable.

“It’s a puzzle,” said Barry Dancis, also a longtime Machar member. “We seem to stay the same level. People seem interested, but not wanting to join.”

The movement is getting there, Golin said. Humanistic Judaism is in a good position, he added, to be the Jewish answer for those who don’t feel seen by the Jewish community.

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