Rabbi Miriam Jerris does not believe in God.
So when she kindles the candles on Shabbat, she does not say the traditional blessing. Instead, she recites words evoking the symbolism of light, words “consistent to what we know to be true in the world,” she said.
Why light Shabbat candles at all?
“We light candles because we are attached to our Jewish identity,” said Jerris, the rabbi for the Society of Humanistic Judaism. “If you believe it is part of the tradition of the Jewish experience, you light candles to share in the experience.”
Jerris is coming to Pittsburgh this week to see if there is enough interest in the Humanistic Judaism movement to establish — not a congregation (the movement does not speak in such terms) — but a community. She will address a group at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh at 4 p.m., Sunday, March 25, on the topic “Jewish and Secular: Not an Oxymoron.”
There are currently 27 Humanistic Judaism communities throughout North America, mostly small “startups,” according to Jerris.
“We are hoping to start a community of people to meet once a month in Pittsburgh,” she said.
Humanistic Judaism embraces a human-centered philosophy that combines the celebration of Jewish culture and identity with an adherence to humanistic values and ideas. It offers a “nontheistic alternative in contemporary Jewish life,” according to the movement’s website.
“Humanistic Judaism is a way to be Jewish without God,” Jerris said.
Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine estabished the movement in 1963 in Detroit, to offer a way for those who identify culturally as Jews, but who do not believe in a divine presence, to connect with their heritage.
Robert Resnick, 89, a resident of Weinberg Terrace, has identified as a Humanistic Jew for years. It is Resnick who helped orchestrate Jerris’ visit to Pittsburgh.
“I’m a scientist, and my hero is Albert Einstein, who was a humanist, ” said Resnick, who received his doctorate in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1949. The Fulbright Scholar, and author of several definitive physics textbooks, says Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, a rationalist who challenged the authenticity of the Torah, and the nature of the divine, also influenced him.
Resnick, who, along with his wife, was a member of a Humanistic chavura for many years in Boca Raton, Fla., is interested in establishing such a group here, hoping to attract secular young Jews who might identify culturally.
In addition to her engagement at the JCC, Resnick has arranged for Jerris to speak to a group at Weinberg Terrace as part of a lecture series he is running at the assisted living facility. (See below.)
“I hope she gets an audience of curious people,” he said, noting that secular young people, who do not feel comfortable in the theological branches of the religion, might find a home with Humanistic Judaism.
“I would like to keep these people in, and bring them back to Judaism,” he said. “There is a big component [of Jews] being ignored. We saved a lot of Jews by this organization. I think her (Jerris’) talk might get people interested who never really heard of [Humanistic Judaism].”
Although, contrary to traditional Jewish thought, Humanistic Judaism is not anchored by the concept of God, Jerris maintains that “atheists” is not the correct term to describe its adherents.
“People who belong to Humanistic Judaism put human concerns at the center; whether or not a god exists is not relevant to how we relate in the world,” she said. “We relate through observation and scientific inquiry. There is no way to prove the existence of God. Absent proof, we live our lives with what we know.”
“It’s our responsibility to make this world a better place and correct injustice,” she continued.
Although Humanistic Jews gather on the Jewish holidays, they do not pray, but instead commemorate the days through their “themes,” Jerris said.
“Rosh Hashana is a time for personal introspection, examining our lives, asking forgiveness from other people. It’s a human endeavor,” she said. “Passover is about freedom. Whether or not the Exodus existed does not disrupt the celebration of a spring festival of freedom. These are universal themes we can relate to.”
Jerris was ordained through the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and has a doctorate in Jewish studies with a specialization in pastoral counseling from The Union Institute in Cincinnati. Her lecture at the JCC is free and open to the public.
A homegrown lecture series
For the last six months, Weinberg Terrace residents have enjoyed a bi-weekly lecture series, organized by resident Robert Resnick, a retired physicist.
The series, which began in September 2011, has included such diverse topics as economic issues facing the United States, Jesus and Judaism, the life of Albert Einstein and the history of Jazz in Pittsburgh. Speakers mostly are drawn from local universities and businesses. Resnick himself has lectured as well.
While Resnick makes an effort to attend intellectual and artistic events outside Weinberg Terrace, he recognizes that many residents find it challenging to leave the assisted living facility to find stimulation.
“There was nothing intellectual here,” he said of the facility, so he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Resnick formed a committee of residents to develop the lecture series, which has attracted more than half of the facility’s 60 residents.
“It’s a lot of work,” he said, “but I enjoy it.”
— by Toby Tabachnick
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)