Civil-Ritual Judaism in the 21st Century
A common misconception some have about secular Judaism is the belief that secular or humanistic Jews have rejected G-d entirely or avoid the subject of G-d. This is quite far from the truth, but is most likely what you’ll hear from those who are proponents of religious Judaism. Although, we do reject theistic ideology about G-d and anthropomorphic wording in blessing liturgy (commonly called prayer liturgy), those impressions of or about G-d that do not match our non-theistic awareness of this universe, this does not mean we reject the human awareness or conceptual notion of an originating Source emanating this reality. In fact, we’re inclined to discuss upon it a lot, especially when embracing and sharing the legends of our ancient ancestors. As non-theistic Jews, what we do is simply choose to follow Torah’s command of no idols before this formless only indirectly-knowable Creative Source of all. We also choose to be honest in our ritual blessing expressions of this awareness. By doing so, we are free to fulfill mitsvot in genuine honesty, conviction, and integrity. You cannot say the words of traditional religious Judaism as a non-theistic Jew and not feel inauthentic in doing so. For your expression to be based in emunah, innate conviction, your words of ritual expression must match your inner awareness and outer experiencing of this reality – the deeply complex and diverse universe we find ourselves a part of.
Torah clearly teaches that G-d has no shape or form – ever (Sh’mot 33.20, D’varim 4.12, D’varim 4.15-20). Nor, does G-d ever take form (Sh’mot 3.14, D’varim 6.4). Yet, we are shown expressions of G-d in humanly represented ways in our legends, and told not to reverance (aka, worship) them (Sh’mot 20.3-5, D’varim 5.7-9, D’varim 4.15-20). It’s alright for other nations, but not for the Jewish one. Torah teaches that we are a chosen people-nation, because of this (D’varim 7.6). Not chosen in being somehow special, but rather as a people-nation who pay a heavy burdened price of responsibility for maintaining and continuing this constitutional (aka, covenental) people-nation awareness of G-d and Israel. Torah teaches that the blessing, the pay off, the reward for doing this will be a people-nation that survives for as long as sky is above the land (D’varim 11.13, 21). This is the religion and eschatology of Torah. It is not about the individual Jew doing, for the sake of preserving his or her own soul. Torah teaches that what we perceive as our soul is really the breath of G-d living within us (B’reishit 2.7, B’reishit 6.3). When this breath is removed, we are silenced and become dust once more. But, our children will pass on the ethnic Jewish legacy we worked so hard to preserve (B’reishit 15.5). Now, since Greco-Roman thought and the rise of religious Judaism – separated from national land boundaries – this teaching has been added on to and quite a bit. Incorporated into it is the notion that somehow all this Torah mitzvot following directly benefits you individually, especially in a world to come beyond your death. This view and reason for following mitzvot has been achieved through great hermeneutics upon the text of Torah, for Torah itself speaks much more observationally self-evidently.
Torah never said that we are to believe in G-d – in any God, for that matter. Rather, Torah assumes, based on the time period of its writing, that you will have some representational form of G-d that you believe is real. What Torah teaches is that you are to love G-d, the formless directly unknowable Creator G-d of all existence, whether you believe in G-d or not. So, how do you love a G-d that you can’t even prove actually exists – but, rather, have to take it on faith or chosen belief alone that this G-d exists? The same way you would love a family member, a stranger, a different animal species than our own, and so forth. By doing, for the generational sake of a people-nation, the mitzvot that is our ethnic heritage to continue on and teach to the next generation. Torah has no say as to whether you choose to pass this legacy on in a religious theistic context or choose to pass it on in a secularly humanistic way – just so long as it is remembered and gets passed on to the generations to come. The advantages of the secular humanistic approach to Judaism is that you get to do it, not because threat of punishment will be wielded from a formed image of G-d represented in Torah if you do not, but because you are proactive and have infused within your body-mind what this tradition is really all about – a people-nation-hood – and desire to protectively attend to its continued existence. Albeit, non-theistically in the wording of the blessings you make during ritual acts, but fulfilling Torah mitzvot, none the less. In other words, your words now match the reason for why you are fulfilling Torah law, and match, equally well, your experiential scientifically aware self-evident knowing of this universe – and the nagging wonder inside as to what the ultimate Source of this existence really is. Maybe, indirectly, this Source, what we refer to as G-d, is involved in all of life through all of life’s creations. Just as well, maybe it is completely impersonal and is completely oblivious, and it is we who are giving the voice of expression through culturally human ways. And, then again, maybe the concept of a G-d is strictly and uniquely a human aspired invention, a representative extension of ourself, and doesn’t really exist beyond our individual and culture-taught thinking.
What’s important to understand here is that it doesn’t really matter, at all. Torah is the revered, made sacred, writings of the Jewish people-nation. It contains legends of the ancestors and a highly progressive for its day constitutional law code for societal kingdom-nation living. It is our historically-biased teacher on our historical ethnic past (the past we want to believe happened, even though the archaeological history is very different and more amazingly complex), and it is a living document that each generation is required by Torah to wrestle with and evolve, according to our present awareness of this life and universe. If a personified God is your thing and gets you to remember, attend to, and teach the mitzvot of our ethnic Jewish way of life – then, by all means, be religious about this. If approaching Jewishness with the same end in mind, but clearly non-theistically is your thing – then, by all means, be religious about this. Both are fine in accordance to Torah’s demands! Unless, you hermeneutically alter it to prevent seeing this self-evident truth. So, secular Jews choose not to believe in some idealized concept of G-d, but this doesn’t mean that we are not spiritual or aware of something much greater than the conceptions humankind has ever had. It is the theistic persona and expression of G-d that non-theistic Jews are uncomfortable with, and is the reason for our non-theistic approach to Jewish rituals and blessings. So, since we both adhere to the primacy of Torah’s teaching and mitzvot and our Jewish way of life – for those who are actually following it, both religious and secular, how different are we really?