Minutes of Monthly Meeting
July 13, 1997
Location: Alumni Hall, University of Dayton
Meeting Topic: Humanistic Judaism--Report on Bar Mitzvah at Ann Arbor humanistic congregation
Speaker: Harold Rubenstein
Hosts: Phyllis Duckwall and John Magee
PRESENT: Connie Breen and Ruth Precker, Co-chairs; Charlotte Braverman, Bert Buby, Phyllis Duckwall, Tom Federle, Mimi Fischer, Paul Flacks, Shirley Flacks, Erika Garfunkel, Felix Garfunkel, Agnes Hannahs, Edith Holsinger, Bette Jasko, Robert Jasko, Sophie Kahn, Steve Kahn, John (Jack) Kelley, John Magee, Arch McMillan, Betty Mills, Eileen Moorman, Ken Reilly, Ken Rosenzweig, Harold Rubenstein, Sophie Rubenstein, Lou Ryterband, Sonia Sniderman, Marianne Weisman, Murray Weisman, Bill Youngkin.
Connie called the meeting to order at 7:50 PM. She thanked Phyllis Duckwall and John Magee for cohosting the meeting and providing the refreshments. John Magee delivered an inspiring prayer that involved the beauty of the earth and the environment.
The attendees welcomed back to the meeting Paul Flacks, charter member of the Dialogue, who has been unable to attend recently due to an illness. Then, new persons were introduced. This included Ken Riley, a student at Wright State University; Betty Mills; Mimmi Fischer, sister of Charlotte Braverman; and Sonia Sniderman. Also, Betty and Bob Jasko who attended the last meeting were back.
Connie then opened the discussion of next month's picnic. A list was passed around to sign up to bring food contributions for the picnic. Ken then informed the Dialogue about an article he read about Regina Schwartz.1 Regina Schwartz is an English professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. She has written a book entitled The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism whose thesis Ken feels should be of interest to the Dialogue members because it involves a possible deficiency that has plagued both Christianity and Judaism. In her book, she claims that the Bible sets up a way of thinking about identity as us versus them. This has justified all sorts of cruelties against people outside of the respective group by both Jews (particularly in Biblical times) and Christians (in more recent times). Ken suggested that Dialogue members consider whether it would be possible to have a Dialogue program on this subject.
Father Kelley's Presentation
At the beginning of his presentation, Father Kelley asked the for the charter members of the Dialogue in attendance to be recognized. These included Paul Flacks, Shirley Flacks, Eileen Moorman, Harold Rubenstein, Sophie Rubenstein, Lou Ryterband, and Father Kelley himself. There was a vigorous round of applause for them.
Father Kelley attended a conference in Baltimore entitled Faith for the Future: Teaching and Preaching in the Light of Jewish-Christian Encounter, sponsored by several agencies including the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies. Bishop P. Francis Murphy thanked Jack for his participation in the conference. Jack passed around two handouts about the conference. One described an artwork featured at the conference by the Jewish artist, Marc Chagall, White Crucifiction, which presents Christ as the symbol of the suffering of the Jewish people. About 40 Roman Catholics and 20 Jews attended the 4-day conference. There were about 15 rabbis (five of whom were women). There was no common prayer at the beginning of the conference. Also, there was no Eucharist available for those who wanted it. There was a session on prayer which started with silence before the participants offered their voluntary contributions. In this session, Jack talked about prayer going to the transcendent. Eugene Fisher was there, along with other "top-drawer" people. Jack was only person form state of Ohio. Most of the attendees were from Maryland. There was only one Black person in attendance. After seeing so many rabbis involved with the Baltimore conference, Jack noted with sorrow that rabbis or other clergy almost never attend our Dialogue meetings. After Jack's formal presentation, there were a number of questions for him. Connie then thanked Jack for his presentation.
Harold Rubenstein's Presentation on Humanistic Judaism
Connie turned the program over to Harold at about 8:15 PM. Harold stated he is looking forward to his presentation because he does not know exactly how it is going to proceed. The background is that prior to their visit to the Ann Arbor humanistic congregation, Harold and Sophie had attended a Bar Mitzvah in Columbus that was thoroughly Orthodox. It was an extravagant event. Men were separated from women in the service. There was enthusiastic dancing which included the holding of the Bar Mitzvah boy in the air on a chair. The Bar Mitzvah celebration in Ann Arbor at the secular Jewish congregation was nothing like the Orthodox Bar Mitzvah. The most notable difference was that there was no religious service. Harold briefly explained the nature of the traditional Bar Mitzvah service on Saturday morning. Typically the Bar Mitzvah boy or the Bat Mitzvah girl read from the Torah and lead other parts of the Saturday morning religious service. All of this was absent in Ann Arbor. The event was called a Bar or Bat Mitzvah Celebration and about five kids were being honored. Each youngster had engaged in several projects to benefit the community and they reported at the Celebration on these projects. There was no prayer in the entire ceremony. However, there was a lighting of candles by the grandmothers and the Kiddush (prayer over wine) was recited by the grandfathers. Part of the doctrine of secular Jews is that Jewish history is human history, and the Torah records an important part of our human history. The Motzi (prayer over bread) was also recited in Hebrew.
The congregation in Ann Arbor is part of a considerable movement let by Rabbi Sherwin T.Wine from the Detroit area. He was trained as a Reform rabbi, and founded the first humanistic Jewish congregation in Birmingham, Michigan where he still serves. He is the author of several books. including Judaism beyond God, published in 1995. In 1987, he wrote a paper entitled "Jewish Identity in the World Today." In this paper, he discussed various types of people whom traditional Judaism would not classify as Jewish but which secular humanistic Judaism would like to see included in the category of authentic Jews. Included were the son of a Holocaust survivor who does not celebrate any Jewish holidays but considers his Jewish identity very important to him. Another is an atheist who chooses to be identified with Jewish people. Also there is a person who went to Israel and became involved with Jewish people. Another is a graduate student who is very involved with Zen Buddhism but loves his Jewish identity. Another is an attractive woman of Jewish background who is in love with and wants to marry a secular non-Jew. These are just a few examples of people who claim to be Jewish in ways that are different than traditional ones.
Wine states that traditionally, there have been three options for defining Jewish identity: Reform, Yiddishism, and Zionism. Although the movement is still healthy, the traditional Reform ideology of Judaism being solely a religion has collapsed. Yiddish nationalism was tested by the Holocaust. Zionism has also been tested since its original central proposition that Jews would move to the Jewish state and the Diaspora would fade away have not come true .
Harold then read the "Proposed Statement: Who is a Jew" published by the International Federation of Secular Humanist Jews.2 It defines as Jewish anyone who chooses to associate themselves with the Jewish people and civilization which includes the ethical values and historical memories of the Jewish people. The Statement affirms that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or a person who chooses to identify with the Jewish People. At this point, Lou noted that Rabbi Sherwin Wine spoke at Temple Israel about 25 years ago. He also noted that Rabbi Robert Barr, Rabbi of Beth Adam3, the humanistic Jewish congregation in Cincinnati, is an annual speaker at the Temple Israel Brotherhood Brunch Program. Lou stated that Rabbi Barr is a very interesting person and is a valued speaker for the Brunch Program. In response to Lou's comments, Harold noted that Rabbi Barr's congregation is very different from the one in Ann Arbor in that Beth Adam does have religious services. A few years ago Beth Adam applied to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the organization of the Reform Jewish movement in the United States) for membership and in a controversial action the congregation was not allowed to join. This is because Beth Adam has eliminated the word God from the liturgy of its religious services. Edith observed that after Rabbi Wine visited Dayton, a group of secular humanist Jews in Dayton tried to form a congregation, but it later fell apart.
Harold then stated that although they study the Torah for insights on the history and culture of the Jewish people, secular humanist Jews often question the factual accuracy of the Torah because of the spins on the history put on it by its writers. Steve noted that Jews have been discriminated against throughout much of their history because of their unique way of believing in God. He asked therefore how can they identify themselves as Jews without consideration of this historical legacy. Harold then read a passage from the liturgy of Beth Adam which sought to elevate a spiritual view of life without mentioning God. Eileen observed that this liturgy, though it does not mention God, does focus on the transcendent. Harold noted that Beth Adam does emphasize the observance of the Sabbath, and Bar Mitzvah boys and Bat Mitzvah girls do read from the Torah in the religious service. However, these boys and girls select their own portions of the Torah to read. Harold explained that traditionally the Torah is read in a yearlong cycle in which specific portions are assigned to specific dates on the calendar. Harold noted that in the Ann Arbor humanistic congregation, the Bar Mitzvah boys and Bat Mitzvah girls also read from the Scriptures. Sonia said that part of this secular humanist movement is included in Reform Judaism. Sonia was on the selection committee for the new Rabbi of Temple Israel. Each of the five final candidates was asked about their concepts of God, and there was a wide range of belief. Bert noted that Catholicism and other Christian denominations are going through this same process of questioning. He noted that people are just thinking with their head and not with their heart. It is necessary to think with both. Bert said that many of the leading Catholic thinkers now identify themselves as humanists. Erica was bothered by what she felt was the implication of secular humanist Jewish philosophy that Judaism is a race rather than a religion. Harold affirmed the view that Judaism is more than a religion. Erica noted that Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement of Judaism, defined Judaism as a peoplehood. Someone said that the philosophy of Congregation Beth Adam does not deny the existence of God. Rather, the philosophy does not impose any concept of God on its members, and embraces a diversity of religious beliefs.
Felix said he attended a recent talk by Leonard Sweet, former President of United Theological Seminary. In his talk, Sweet emphasized that at the heart of the nucleus of the atom is only space and energy. Thus our bodies are composed of only space and energy. Shirley noted that there can be many variations of belief within a given individual, and this is a natural outgrowth of modern thinking. Someone said that an unsuccessful attempt was made to revoke Rabbi Wine's rabbinic ordination. Murray observed that Christians have an easier time maintaining identity because of Jesus. Jews only have an amorphous concept of God to link them together. Harold stated that many of the members of International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews (now the Society of Humanistic Judaism) are atheists, but they do not want to admit it. Sonia knows a little about Rabbi Wine because she is from the Detroit area. Her brother knows him and says he is the most brilliant person he has ever met. Eileen looked in the dictionary for a definition of humanism. Eileen noted that relationship is an important part of religion. Harold said that the Ann Arbor Bar Mitzvah celebration was held in the Student Union building at the University of Michigan. The reason he and Sophie attended was that one of the Bar Mitzvah boys was a distant relative. After the very decorous program, the group broke up into separate family groups. Connie asked how large the movment is? Harold noted that a similar group from the 40's called the Ethical Culture Society has disappeared. Harold expressed the view that a way of defining a Jew other than self-definition is necessary. Therefore, the definition included in the Proposed Statement is deficient. Steve stated that one must have a loyalty to some idea in order to have a religion. He questioned what is the common idea of the secular humanist Jews. Harold replied that humanism is the central idea. Harold identified the group with intellectualism. Edith noted that we live in a generation in which situational ethics is dominant. This has lead to people defining their religious beliefs for themselves, and she feel this is not altogether bad. Harold stated that we are a group of Christians and Jews that have come together, not just people interested in a religious discussion. Harold said that Elliott Abrams has just written a book on religion which concludes that the Jewish people must become Orthodox in order to survive. Abrams writes that despite the hopes of other commentators, there is no secular Jewish culture that can hold the Jewish people together. Ken Riley was asked what are his thoughts about humanism and humanistic Judaism. Ken stated that young people have been exposed to many different beliefs. Ken feels close to humanism which he feels is associated with the thoughts of Carl Jung. Carl Jung wrote that there is a religious function in the human mind, and that religion fulfills a basic human need. In this connection, Murray stated that Jung also wrote that religion does not necessarily have anything to do with God. Felix noted that society is changing very rapidly with technology. Eileen observed that grace builds on humanity. Eileen also said that you cannot talk about religion without talking about love. Ken reemphasized the idea of love in religion. Sonia said she does not see a dichotomy between humanism and the belief in God. There was a discussion about the value of belief in God. Ruth had a practical suggestion--secular humanistic Judaism is a good thing because it catches people that would otherwise not be involved with religion.
The meeting was adjourned at about 9:35 PM.
Ken Rosenzweig, Secretary
SISTER OLIVIA WESTENDORF, S.N.D.
The Dialogue recognizes with regret the recent death of Sister Olivia Westendorf. who served for many years as Secretary of the Dialogue. She was a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame and was the first woman to receive a Masters Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Dayton. The Dialogue has made a donation to the Marian Library at the University of Dayton in her name.
1 Christopher Shea, "An English Professor Explores the 'Dark Side' of Monotheism, The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 3, 1997, pp. A15-A16.
2 Currently named Society for Humanistic Judaism, 28611 W. 12 Mile Rd., Farmington Hills, MI 48334; telephone (248)478-3159; http://www.shj.org.