The melody was exactly the same. And the scene couldn’t have been much more familiar: Families sat at tables set with napkins, cups and menorahs. Some adults fiddled with matches as the rest of those gathered enthusiastically recited the first blessing. But it was not a blessing they were singing — well, not if a blessing means thanking or praising God. Instead of “ Baruch atah Adonai/ elohenu melech ha-olam” (“Blessed art thou Lord/ King of the Universe”), those assembled began, “Baruch ha-or ba-olam/ Baruch ha-or ba-adam ” (“Blessed is the light in the world/ Blessed is the light in humanity”).
It was the first night of Chanukah, and the members of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York City had gathered to celebrate. Instead of a synagogue social hall, the setting was a school cafeteria in Greenwich Village. And in a twist on tradition, they praised the light, and not the God who commanded them to light the light.
“The message of Chanukah,” congregant Nikki Greenberg told the Forward during a telephone interview, “is freedom and liberty and family and joy and pride.” Greenberg, a retired teacher from Teaneck, N.J., elaborated, “This is my way of expressing my Judaism. Since I am nontheistic, it feels like home to me. In this kind of Judaism, I take responsibility for my own actions. There is no outside authority, no supernatural being.”
Another congregant, Isabel Kaplan, said she finds the congregation’s approach to Chanukah to be more historically accurate. Unlike Greenberg, who grew up in a “staunchly secular” Yiddishist home, Kaplan was raised as a Conservative Jew; and had been sending her own children to a Reform Hebrew school. Once the time came to enroll her son in bar mitzvah classes, she was reminded of her own unpleasant experiences with a Judaism “that was all about following rules” and lacked spirituality. Her children now attend the City Congregation’s KidSchool.
Greenberg and Kaplan are among a growing number of North American Jews who are joining organized secular Jewish groups. These groups seek to address the needs of Jews who identify strongly with the Jewish people and Jewish culture but consider themselves secular. The theistic language of traditional Jewish ritual and prayer — whether Orthodox, Reform or somewhere in between — goes against the grain of their beliefs. Yet the coming together as a community of Jews — cultural Jews — is an intrinsic part of the expression of their identity.
Cultural observances of Chanukah tend to highlight human agency and responsibility in the struggle against oppression, stressing the Maccabees’ communal unity as the key to their success in the revolt against the Seleucid Greeks. In their readings, cultural Jews often describe the miracle of the oil as a narrative added on by the rabbis several centuries after the revolt.
“Part of what we stress is that a small group of people were able to overcome great hardships and achieve the almost impossible task of defeating a mighty power,” said Betty Pelletz, a founding member of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Sarasota, Fla. “The whole humanist philosophy is that the responsibility for our lives rests with us and with our community, and there is no outside force.”
Rabbi Judith Seid, a founding member of the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah, stressed a similar message: “Chanukah was a big holiday for secular Jews when it was not a big holiday for religious Jews because it is a holiday about how the power of community can overcome oppression.”
Of course, the history of Chanukah includes a tricky fact for secular Jews: The Maccabean revolt against the Greeks began as a civil war against Hellenized Jews, and the victory of the Maccabees was a victory of the more fundamentalist Jews over the secularists. Cultural Jews say they do not ignore these facts, but discuss them. As Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who in 1969 founded the Society for Humanistic Judaism, put it, they accept this aspect of the holiday “ambivalently”; they rejoice in the victory of national independence but caution against silencing those who opt for other ways of being Jewish. Festivities at the City Congregation included several readings on “the true origins of Chanukah.”
At its celebration, the Baltimore Chavurah lights a menorah and recites three blessings — in Hebrew, English and Yiddish — partly composed by Seid; she prefers to call them ashreis , or rejoicings. Seid said they can be summed up as saying, “We are lucky to have this tradition. We are lucky that we made it this far. And we want to honor the people who brought us this far.” Each year, the Baltimore Chavurah highlights a specific individual or group fighting for a social or political cause: from the women’s movement to World War II resistance fighter Yitzhak Wittenberg.
Sarasota’s humanistic congregation finds blessings too theistic, but its members do light a menorah, dedicating each candle to a specific concept: heritage, love, “the bright light of reason,” beauty, truth, peace, justice and “the future and its possibilities,” Pelletz said.
There are no standardized texts or rituals used by cultural Jewish groups. Secular Jewish movements in North America for the most part fall into two camps: those that emerged from the working-class Yiddishist and labor organizations formed at the turn of the 20th century and those that have grown out of the far newer Society for Humanistic Judaism.
This second wave of secularism, Wine said, arose in response to the skepticism many American Jews felt toward traditional American-Jewish religious life.
There are 60 affiliated secular Jewish groups in North America today, according to Myrna Baron, executive director of the Center for Cultural Judaism, a New York-based institution dedicated to international education and outreach. This number does not include those affiliated with the Workmen’s Circle, which emerged during the first wave of Jewish secularism.
Peter Schweitzer, leader of New York’s City Congregation and an ordained Reform rabbi, fits squarely into the second wave. Unlike many cultural Jews, he is comfortable using the language of religious worship, such as “blessing” or “Kaddish.” Schweitzer often retains traditional liturgical melodies but rewrites the lyrics, so the words will be ones that “we can embrace without compromise.” The City Congregation’s Chanukah candle blessings, with their familiar tunes and rewritten lyrics, reflect this.
“But why do they have to take God out of it?” said Neil Gillman, a theologian and professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, echoing the sentiments of many of his fellow clergymen, who find Judaism without God to be antithetical to the integrity of Judaism.
God, he said, represents “the ultimate value in our lives.”
For his part, Rabbi Aaron Panken, dean of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said that “one of the core principles of Judaism is belief in God.”
The older groups that grew out of the first wave of Jewish secularism even tend to shy away from anything resembling liturgy. The 60-year-old Sholem Community of Los Angeles, for instance, tries to avoid the term “Judaism” because of its religious connotations, said Jeffrey Kaye, a leader of the group.
Wine explained that the newer wave of humanist Jews has replaced the “life of faith” with the “life of courage” and said that “the renewal of light represents a renewal of courage.”
Talia Bloch is an associate editor at Aufbau.