Jewish Journal


January 17, 2008

Those godless Jews


You’ve heard the slander before, no doubt. But what if it wasn’t a denigration? What if that was the point?

In a recent column on the religion Web site On Faith, Jonathan Sarna talks about how younger Jews have returned to a 100-year-old movement, that which marries Judaism with secularism. But these are often amorphous philosophies, as much social and political as spiritual, not non-theistic religious communities.

That is, however, the case with Jewish Humanists, whom Manya Brachear checks in on.

When Rabbi Adam Chalom stands before the Sabbath flames and sings the Hebrew blessing to welcome Shabbat, there is no mention of God.

Chalom believes there are no prophets. He preaches that only hard work yields miracles. And until science unlocks life’s mysteries, his most honest answer to why people are here and where they go when they die is, “I don’t know.”

God has nothing to do with it.

At 32, the north suburban rabbi is the new face of the world’s youngest and most provocative Jewish movement, Humanistic Judaism. These Jews celebrate the faith’s historic culture, but revere compassion and generosity instead of God.

Chalom steps up to carry the movement at a turbulent time, when American society is increasingly polarized about God, and Humanistic Jews are still mourning Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the larger-than-life personality who founded the iconoclastic movement in 1963. Wine died last year in a car crash.

Chalom argues, and surveys support him, that a majority of American Jews embrace the humanists’ emphasis on culture and ethics, independent of God. Many Jews buy tickets for High Holiday services and utter prayers to a supreme power they don’t believe exists, he contends. Others simply abandon Jewish traditions.

For these Jews, Chalom says, the humanistic movement offers an authentic alternative, allowing them to celebrate rites of passage without compromising their beliefs.

“Honestly, we’re keeping people Jewish,” Chalom said.

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