HUMANISTIC CONGREGATION 

Question: A Humanistic congregation is interested in joining the UAHC, whose constitution provides in Article III (1) that “any Jewish congregation” may become a member; and in Article II (d) that it is among the objects of the Union “to foster the devel- opment of Liberal Judaism.” Does this Humanistic congregation comply with these objectives? Its rabbi is a graduate of HUC- JIR and a member of the CCAR.

Answer: The question before us is twofold:

1. Can the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism (hereafter referred to as CHJ) be considered a “Jewish congregation”?

2. Can it be said to “foster the development of Liberal Judaism”?

ad.l. The CHJ sees itself as a legitimate member of the Jewish community; it is not syncretistic like the Hebrew-Christians; it is, quite simply, a Jewish group that has banded together for the cel- ebration of festivals, life-cycle events, etc., but without the tradi- tional theistic framework.

In its statement of belief (adopted December 1989) CHJ avows: “Judaism is a way of life from which a rich tradition has evolved. Interpreting and preserving the history and tradition for posterity is the responsibility of Jews in every generation.”

The publications of CHJ make it clear that it is a congregation of Jews.

ad. 2. The CHJ proclaims itself as a Reform congregation. See- ing that it acclaims the human being and not a supernatural power as the ultimate reference point, may it indeed be said to “foster Liberal Judaism”?*

Reform Judaism has been an open-ended and variegated move- ment. It is historically flexible, but how far does its flexibility go? Can it accommodate the philosophy and liturgy of CHJ?

* This responsum deals exclusively with CHJ and not with the theology known as Religious Humanism, which is quite different.

 

CHJ’s liturgy deletes any and all mention of God, either in Hebrew (of which there is almost none) or in English. One of its publications, entitled A Concept of God, and a Statement on Liturgy, explains the congregation’s position in this regard as follows: “The concept of God has undergone constant modifica- tion in Judaism. ... There has always been and continues to be great diversity in the Jewish understanding of God.”

There can certainly be no disagreement with the statement that Reform Jews (like other Jews) have different conceptions of God. Our Gates of Prayer, in the sixth Shabbat eve service, while leaving the traditional Hebrew God-language undisturbed, does not use the word “God” in the English text. Instead it speaks of “The Power that makes for freedom” and says: “We worship the power that unites all the universe into one great harmony” (p. 210). It is clear that the sixth service remains a prayer service which leaves it to the worshipers to fill the word “Power” with their inteipretation of the supernatural. The language is purpose- fully ambiguous only within these limits.

That kind of ambiguity does not, however, exist in the CHJ liturgy. To be sure, the above-mentioned statement says: “Many falsely assume that humanism is atheistic. ... The definition of Humanistic Judaism does not preclude one’s having a concept of God.”

This affirmation of people’s right to interpret the God-concept in their own way is, however, not borne out by the liturgy which precludes the exercise of this right by omitting any and all refer- ences to a supernatural power in whatever language. In fact, the statement goes on to say unequivocally: “The use of prayer in services would be incompatible with such a theological system.”

The CHJ’s liturgy therefore, and quite logically in its view, does not include either Kiddush or The  rabbi of the CHJ

states expressly (in his publication Resources and Reflections) that on principle he will not say Kaddish, though he would allow someone else to say it if so desired by a congregant.

Needless to add that such key liturgical portions as Barechu, Shema, Ve’ahavta, Amida, or Aleinu are also absent, as are selec- tions from Psalms, or the familiar songs Yigdal, Adon Olam, and Ein k-Eloheinu. The congregation’s Haggadah is equally instruc- five. In the song “Who knows one?” (“Echad mi yodeaV') the traditional response, “One is our God who is present everywhere,” is replaced by “One is all the universe.” And in the second verse (where the number two stands traditionally for the two tablets of the Covenant) the two we are to remember are the “two people in the Garden of Eden.” 

The latter change is especially noteworthy: because of its elision of God, CHJ’s philosophy does not admit of Covenant or com- mandments. Hence, the Shenei luchot haberit have been replaced by two human beings.

While CHJ’s liturgy contains a number of sensitive and poetic meditations, may we consider the congregation’s service agenda as a recognizable form or development of Reform Judaism? Can Reform Judaism accommodate this kind of philosophy? It is well, therefore, to turn to the three basic Reform statements: the Pitts- burgh and Columbus platforms and the CCAR’s Centenary Per- spective which attempt to define the nature of Reform Judaism.

Pittsburgh (1885): We recognize in every religion an attempt to grasp the Infinite One, and in every mode source or book of revelation held sacred in any religious sys- tem the consciousness of the indwelling of God in man. We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God-idea as taught in our holy Scriptures. ... We maintain that Judaism preserved and defended... this God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race.

Columbus (1935): The heart of Judaism and its chief contribution to religion is the doctrine of the One, living God, who rules die world through law and love. In him all existence has its creative source, and mankind its ideal of conduct....Judaism affirms that man is created in the Divine image. ... He is an active co-worker with God....The Torah, both written and oral, enshrines Israel’s ever-growing con- sciousness of God and the moral law.

Centenary Perspective (1976): The affirmation of God has always been essential to our people’s will to survive. In our struggle to preserve our faith we have experienced and conceived of God in many ways. The trials of our own time and the dial- lenges of modem culture have made steady belief and clear understanding difficult for some. Nevertheless, we ground our lives, personally and communally, on God’s reality and remain open to new experiences and conceptions of the Divine. Amid the mystery we call life, we affirm that human beings, created in God’s image, share in God’s etemality despite the mystery we call death....

Torah results from the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

CHJ declares itself to be a group that makes the human being the measure of all things. This concept, with its roots in Greek philosophy, has been opposed by Judaism, which has always staunchly affirmed its belief in a supernatural God and Creator who sustains the world. Reform has never wavered in its adher- ence to this faith and has never abandoned the central role of prayer from its belief structure. Persons of various shadings of belief or unbelief, practice, or non-practice, may belong to UAHC congregations as individuals, and we respect their rights. But it is different when they come as a congregation whose declared prin- ciples are at fundamental variance with the historic God-orienta- tion of Reform Judaism.

In view of these statements we find CHJ’s system of beliefs to be outside the realm of historical Reform Judaism.

But should we not open the gates wide enough to admit even such concepts into our fold? Are not diversity and inclusiveness a hallmark of Reform? To this we would reply: yesh gevul, there are limits. Reform Judaism cannot be everything, or it will be nothing. The argument that we ourselves are excluded by the Orthodox and therefore should not keep others out who wish to join us, has an attractive sound to it. Taken to its inevitable con- elusion, however, we would end up with a Reform Judaism in which “Reform” determines what “Judaism” is and not the other way around.

The argument has been made that our doors should always be open to ba’alei teshuva. Our reading of the texts the congregation has published does not bear out such an intent. Rather we find in them a declared purpose to redefine the essence of Reform Judaism. The CHJ is of course free to pursue this goal and may wish to attract other groups to its philosophy. It must do this, however, outside and not inside the UAHC.

In sum, we hold that the CHJ, as presently constituted, breaks the mold of Reform Judaism and does not have a place among the Union’s congregations.

CCAR Committee on Responsa W. Gunther Plaut, Chair Mark Washofsky, Vice Chair Walter Jacob Peter S. Knobel Dow Marmur Richard Rosenthal Louis J. Sigel Moshe Zemer Samuel E. Karff Joseph B. Glaser Elliot L. Stevens