Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick. Photo courtesy Jeffrey L. Falick.

Can you be a Jewish atheist? It depends on who you ask.

Nontheistic Judaism has been a big topic of discussion recently. First, Pew released a major study on the American Jewish community a few months ago, finding that 68% of American Jews believe that there is no conflict between being a nontheist and being Jewish. Then, in a Tablet profile published last month, American Atheists president David Silverman argued the opposite: that Judaism is incompatible with atheism, and that you can’t be a nontheist and Jewish.

At the same time, communities for nontheists have been a hot topic as of late, garnering headlines throughout 2013. (It was one of my top atheism stories of the year.) But Humanistic Judaism has offered a community for nontheist Jews for decades.

To learn more about these overlapping issues I spoke with Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick, who currently serves as the rabbi of The Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Originally a member of the Reform movement, Rabbi Falick—who strongly disagreed with Silverman in a post on his blog—got involved in Humanistic Judaism in 2009. Today he serves as president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis and as a member of the Executive Committee of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

Rabbi Falick and I discussed the history of Humanistic Judaism, Pew’s findings on nontheists in Judaism, and what Humanistic Jews have to offer the broader atheist and Jewish communities. Our interview is below.

Chris Stedman: For those who are not familiar, can you briefly define Humanistic Judaism?

Jeffrey L. Falick: Humanistic Judaism embraces Jewish culture while adhering to the principles of Secular Humanism. As such it serves as a home for those who value their Jewish identity and attachments to the Jewish community while retaining a commitment to Humanistic ideals. These include a commitment to nontheism, secularism, and the dignity of every human being.

CS: Some readers may not be aware of the history of Humanistic Judaism and of the Birmingham Temple, where you currently serve. Can you explain?

JF: The Birmingham Temple is the first Humanistic Jewish congregation in the world. It was formed in 1963 as a Reform temple in suburban Detroit by Rabbi Sherwin Wine and a small group of families. Together they began to explore the expression of Jewish life and customs that emphasized the centrality of human reason without recourse to the supernatural language and concepts that so dominated most of Jewish history. Together they created what we now call Secular Humanistic Judaism. They soon shared their ideas with others and the movement grew.

Today the Birmingham Temple is a congregation of 280 family units who remain dedicated to the powerful idea behind this movement. As in other congregations, members observe holidays and life cycle events; they learn together and mourn together. Every practice is informed by Judaism while remaining firmly committed to Secular Humanistic ideas and values. One of the informal mottos of the movement is that in all of our congregational ceremonies and celebrations “we say what we mean and we mean what we say.”

CS: You were once a Reform Rabbi. What brought you into Humanistic Judaism?

JF: Although I explored many ways of being Jewish—from traditional to liberal religious observance—each of them left me flat. I was simply unable to believe that a deity existed and was concerned with our lives. There were, of course, other solutions to my problem to be found in Jewish thought. I became quite taken with the philosophy of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. He taught that the idea of God was no more than a metaphor for the sum of all natural processes that allow humans to become self-fulfilled. For those who find meaning in this idea, it permits them to continue to use traditional God language in Jewish rituals and prayers.

After several years of forwarding this idea I found that I had acquired a pretty serious case of cognitive dissonance. It simply made no sense to me to speak to and about a “God” who doesn’t exist. In 2009 I arranged to attend a colloquium at The Birmingham Temple sponsored by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. I soon became involved in the movement.

CS: Pew’s finding that 68% of American Jews believe that there is no conflict between being a nontheist and being Jewish resonates with my experience—I know many Jewish people who do not believe in any gods but are active in Jewish communities, even taking on leadership roles. Why do you think some atheist and agnostic Jewish people participate in Jewish communities that are not explicitly Humanistic Jewish communities? Do you think they should switch to a Humanistic Jewish community? Why or why not?

JF: I think that there is enormous value in belonging to a community of identity. Jews understand themselves in a variety of ways, but as the findings indicate, the majority does not insist upon confining Jewish identity to an expression of faith or belief. And, of course, anyone who chooses to be honest about Jewish history knows that Jews have harbored a very large variety of ideologies and theologies over the millennia. From Pew and other surveys, we know that twenty percent of Jews worldwide are nontheists. It is true that many of them choose to continue participating in theistic congregations and ceremonies. To me this indicates that they value their sense of belonging to the Jewish community but that they do not necessarily expect the community to promote the value of nontheism.

Those who choose this path justify it with the claim that they are simply “doing what Jews do.” This is unfortunate. It is also wrong. Judaism has always evolved and changed to meet new needs and realities. Whenever consensus about practices or world views broke down, Jews formed break-off groups that were committed to bringing Jewish observance into accord with their beliefs. This is what Humanistic Judaism did.

I would love to see those who agree with us come aboard. There is no reason that the cost of participation in Jewish life should be the betrayal of one’s deeply held values or commitment, particularly not in an age of rapid secularism. In fact, when a committed nontheistic Jew participates in the life of a congregation built of theism, it is they who are breaking with the Jewish experience. In the past, Jews understood their Jewish identities and commitments as a reflection of their beliefs. They did not practice their Judaism in spite of their values.

CS: Around the time Pew released their findings, Susan Katz Miller—a Jewish and interfaith activist—published a book on interfaith families. Writing for the New York Times, she argued that intermarriage is good for Judaism. Are there interfaith families in your congregation, and what role do they play in the community?

JF: Intermarriage is a fact of modern secular life. At one time, Jews were prohibited from joining the larger cultural milieu. This led them to make a virtue out of the necessity of the separateness imposed by the outside world. When the world opened up to them, Jews inevitably began to fall in love with people from other cultures.

This was a boon to Jews in many ways, though at the time it was seen as a disaster. Intermarriage, a highly accurate barometer of acceptance, provides some wonderful possibilities for the Jewish people. Those who come to the Jewish community from elsewhere bring significant talents, strengths and perspectives. Whether they choose conversion, cultural affiliation or simply to support their Jewish loved ones, they make an important contribution to our community. The blending of identities and cultures within families and communities can only lead to more and more tolerance and mutual respect.

Long before any other rabbis would participate in intermarriage ceremonies, Secular Humanistic rabbis were officiating and co-officiating. Even as a growing minority of other rabbis joined their ranks, most of them continue to place unreasonable restrictions on the couples. Recently, Reform Jews began to discuss the possibility of admitting intermarried rabbis into their ranks. Both within and without the Reform movement this has been a source of enormous controversy. It was never an issue for Humanistic Judaism, which has always welcomed Humanistic rabbis who are intermarried.

CS: How does your community relate to the broader Jewish community, and do you think that Humanistic Jews have something particular to offer the Jewish community?

JF: We see ourselves, and are generally understood, as full members of the Jewish community. There are, of course, small-minded traditionalists who would seek to exclude us, but at the level of Jewish federations, community centers, rabbinical organizations and so forth, Humanistic Judaism has a place at the table. As Secular Humanists we judge no one on their beliefs, only on their behavior.

This value of radical tolerance is something that we try to model for others in the Jewish world and we consider it an important contribution. We are also opposed to artificial boundaries or “gatekeeping” in the community. We believe that any person who identifies with the history, culture, or future of the Jewish people has a home in our community. Recently there have been many in the larger Jewish community who have come to similar conclusions as those that our movement adopted decades ago. We hope to continue to inspire them to open their eyes to the possibilities of being Jewish in a modern, multicultural world.

CS: What can Humanistic Judaism offer to non-Jewish atheists, agnostics, and Humanists?

JF: In many ways Humanistic Jews have a foot in two worlds. On one hand we feel a loyalty to our Jewish backgrounds and practices. On the other hand, we share a philosophical kinship with other nontheistic Humanists. We also share many practical concerns, particularly our commitment to the absolute separation of religion and government, a concern we extend to the State of Israel. For this reason we work very closely with organizations such as the Secular Coalition for America and most of our members are active with groups such as the AHA and CFI. Finally, with the rise of the so-called “atheist churches”—a terribly inapt description of Humanistic communities—there is a new interest in the celebration of life by Humanists who share a kind of religious, though nontheistic, view of life. We have been adapting the forms of religion to the function of nontheistic Humanism for over fifty years now. We believe that we have something to teach in that regard.

16 Comments

  1. Of course you could be an atheist and Jewish. Even a rabbi and an atheist. You would be shocked to know how many Christian ministers, including Catholic priests, are really atheists. They don’t announce it publicly. Their boss bishops, including the atheist bishops, don’t know it. And it’s none of their business.

    Belief is such a personal matter that the biggest mistake is to presume that all members of any formal religion really believe everything what is pronounced and presumed to be required by any particular religious group or church.

  2. Consider the practice of contraception by the vast majority of Catholics in spite of the formal declaration by their church that it is wrong and forbidden. Consider the “good” Catholic politician Paul Ryan. Ryan has been married for thirteen years and only has three kids. He vehemently opposes the contraceptive portion of the Affordable Care Act, but only three kids in thirteen years?

    You see, not all “believers” believe everything their churches claim is required of members. Some people can easily afford contraceptives with their lucrative public incomes while others are ripped off and their lives are made extremely difficult by the insurance and pharmaceutical companies–to say nothing of hypocrite politicians. You know, rape pregnancies naturally abort!

  3. Well in all fairness the anti-Semites don’t really care if someone is a devout Jew or an atheist of Jewish descent. Anyone of Jewish “blood” or ancestry is a target to them.

    The Nazis didn’t ask people if were “true believers” before they were murdered en masse. Conversion or disavowal didn’t save anyone from a bullet or the gas chamber during the Holocaust.

  4. Charles Miller

    This exchange in the 1947 film “A Gentleman’s Agreement” might explain why some hang on to the label.

    Professor Fred Lieberman: Millions of people nowadays are religious only in the vaguest sense. I’ve often wondered why the Jews among them still go on calling themselves Jews. Do you know, Mr. Green?
    Phil Green: No, but I’d like to.
    Professor Fred Lieberman: Because the world still makes it an advantage not to be one. Thus it becomes a matter of pride to go on calling ourselves Jews.

    But today it is a far greater disadvantage to be an atheist so, perhaps, atheists that continue to call themselves Jews are short changing those of us who are bold enough to call ourselves atheists and deal with the consequences.

  5. My book, just out, is a comprehensive study of the philosophy of Mordecai Kaplan. It is entitled ” The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan ” and is published by Indiana University Press.

    Mel Scult

  6. Konrad Yona Riggenmann

    Can you be a Jewish theist? Even conservative Rabbi Irving Greenberg, facing the “weight of six million dead” and stating that “the holocaust has destroyed the meaning of the categories ‘secular’ and ‘religious’”, admits that “in a time when one is ashamed of speaking about G’d in view of burning children, the G’d image which beyond itself points to transcendency is the only one predicate that can be made about G’d”. (T.D.Wabbel, ed.: Das Heilige Nichts. Düsseldorf 2007, pp.45-62).
    On the other hand (and even if Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Jacques Derrida assigned to this label) – how can you be a Jewish atheist? Isn’t an atheist someone who tells the believer: “Boy, you believe in something you call G’d but you cannot define what he or she or it is. No one can define it. Even I cannot define it, but I’m telling you it doesn’t exist!”?
    Already in antiquity, Jews have been called “atheoi” because they did not worship divine images and even bewared of giving the unnamable a name. Atheism in my view is mainly a problem of idolatrous cultures, especially where people are forced to believe in what Jeremiah (10:3-5) ridicularizes this way: “The customs of the peoples are delusion; because it is wood cut from the forest, the work of the hands of a craftsman with a cutting tool. They decorate it with silver and with gold; They fasten it with nails and with hammers so that it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field are they, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot walk. Do not fear them, for they can do no harm, nor can they do any good.”
    Anyhow, being Jewish is not a question of what heavenly beings you believe in but what you do to make the world a better place and be a mentsh.

  7. Dr. H. J. Shapiro

    One most certainly can be a Jew culturally and at the same time be a secular humanist. The only conflict between the two is in the minds of those who can not accept reality.

  8. 1) “Humanistic Judaism embraces Jewish culture”

    Jewish culture is learning Torah and emulating G-d’s ways.
    What you are referring to is “Israeli”-culture, which is a completely separate discussion altogether.

    2)”You were once a Reform Rabbi…..
    JF: Although I explored many ways of being Jewish—from traditional to liberal religious observance—each of them left me flat.”

    Of course it did! when you take the heart out of a body, you won’t have any blood pumping, only a dead figure of a body.
    So it is when you take the Torah written and oral, out of religion.

  9. Sydney Ross Singer

    It’s not clear what will keep secular humanistic Jews from complete assimilation. Over time Jewish identity will become an irrelevant appendage to this philosophy. It seems the distinction will be between theists and humanists.

  10. As a Messianic believer it just makes me sad to see such discussions. Having received Yeshua as my Savior and Messiah I have peace that I never had before. The restlessness and emptiness are gone, replace by joy and peace. I wish this peace for others especially my Jewish friends and family. As far as being Jewish and atheist, man can call himself whatever he wants, and who’s to say he cannot? “Jew” of course comes to us from the tribe of Judah, who was in fact a son of Jacob that is ISRAEL! All of this comes to us from God and His making a nation from Abraham and Sarah, which of course has been recorded in Torah. God brought it all about, man can say what he wants, but it will not change history, that is His Story. Shalom

  11. Jeffery G Dishong

    I think Jews stating, regardless of whether or not a person believes in God or not, we as Jewish community are interested. That idea is beautiful. People have value whether people come in a perfect physical or mental package, people have value. That is the true antithesis of Nazi teaching.

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