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Exploring Judaism through the lens of Spiritual Naturalism brings forth many possibilities. On the one side it challenges Jewish traditions by denying a supernatural agency. But in as much as Judaism has been less “otherworldly” than some of the other major religions, Naturalism and Judaism do have a common ground.
Treating Jewish theism as mythology, rather than taking it literally, challenges the heart of what it means to be Jewish to those who hold to a more static interpretation of the tradition. This same sort of attitude reflects the reaction that the Jewish community in Holland took towards Baruch Spinoza in an earlier time. His idea of God challenged the traditional view as it also challenged the idea of God held by the Christian churches of his day.
Spinoza began his life much like any other Jew of that period. His parents had moved to Holland from Portugal to escape religious persecution. But more radically than other Jews of the time, Baruch questioned tradition and consider other options. Whether or not he saw himself as a radical, it’s difficult to know, but it led to his being excommunicated. In a sense he became the first secular Jew. In an article in the Jewish Virtual Library, it states:
At first Spinoza was reviled as an atheist – and certainly, his God is not the conventional Judo-Christian God. The philosophers of the enlightenment ridiculed his methods – not without some grounds. The romantics, attracted by his identification of God with Nature, rescued him from oblivion.
It is a bit ironic that while Spinoza’s family had immigrated from Portugal to gain religious freedom, Baruch sought in his new country a different kind of religious freedom. He remains today one of the hero’s for those of us who think that the words “God” and “Nature” essentially refer to the same thing.
Today, we possess a freedom that many in the past did not have. This allows us to explore our Jewish identity, even those of us who can no longer accept its model of theism. We can acknowledge the well-known literature (or canon) of Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, Siddur; we can appreciate how they established norms as well as humanistic ideas and values in the past, but we do not have to give them undue authority or take them literally. We can still connect to the memory of our ancestors and their stories, but in a different, perhaps more authentic form to us and our communities; one that can be integrated with the world view revealed by modern science. We can accept the possibility of new stories and new interpretations arising in the present and furthering the tradition.
We do not think religious expressions necessarily fit secular interpretations of Jewish history and human experience. Yet we wish to speak for ourselves. We wish to experiment with many of the concepts presented on our own outside of religious guidelines. We do not necessarily need to be validated by traditional religious texts.
We approach a plurality of Jewish roots so we have the power to choose. We deny a single Jewish tradition but accept many “Judaisms”. Many counter-establishment traditions have existed in the past and continue to exist. These have included both mystical and secular varieties. The presence of these traditions is written of in the Talmud and elsewhere, even if some were officially ignored once issues were “decided”. Underground and folk traditions are as rooted in Jewish tradition as much as official ideology.
A Spiritual Naturalist’s approach to Judaism can be seen as a new counter-establishment tradition. Who has the authority, now? It is us. Spinoza’s ideas precede those of modern science, yet to some degree, he inspired them. Currently, he also serves as an inspiration for those of us who embrace the world view advanced by science, yet continue to value their Jewish identity and the rich, ages-old tradition in which that identity has developed. We can embrace the incredible picture of “the creation” that modern science is presenting to us, while maintaining our roots in the Jewish tradition.
Written by Aron Gamman
- Wikipedia article on Humanistic Judaism
- Society for Humanistic Judaism
- International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism
- Association of Humanistic Rabbis
- BBC – Religions – Judaism: Humanistic Judaism
- International Federation for Secular & Humanistic Judaism
- Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews
- Israel program of International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism
- Portal of Jewish Secular Rites in Israel
- The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism – New York City