For rabbi, God isn’t in the details
When Rabbi Adam Chalom stands before the Sabbath flames and sings the Hebrew blessing to welcome Shabbat, there is no mention of God.
Chalom believes there are no prophets. He preaches that only hard work yields miracles. And until science unlocks life’s mysteries, his most honest answer to why people are here and where they go when they die is, “I don’t know.”
God has nothing to do with it.
At 32, the north suburban rabbi is the new face of the world’s youngest and most provocative Jewish movement, Humanistic Judaism. These Jews celebrate the faith’s historic culture, but revere compassion and generosity instead of God.
Chalom steps up to carry the movement at a turbulent time, when American society is increasingly polarized about God, and Humanistic Jews are still mourning Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the larger-than-life personality who founded the iconoclastic movement in 1963. Wine died last year in a car crash.
Chalom argues, and surveys support him, that a majority of American Jews embrace the humanists’ emphasis on culture and ethics, independent of God. Many Jews buy tickets for High Holiday services and utter prayers to a supreme power they don’t believe exists, he contends. Others simply abandon Jewish traditions.
For these Jews, Chalom says, the humanistic movement offers an authentic alternative, allowing them to celebrate rites of passage without compromising their beliefs.
“Honestly, we’re keeping people Jewish,” Chalom said.
Once a splinter movement, and still comparatively small, Humanistic Judaism is now recognized by many as the fifth American Jewish denomination, after Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. The Society for Humanistic Judaism claims 10,000 members in 30 congregations.
But some Jews believe removing God from the equation leaves an inadequate portrayal of what Judaism is all about — a covenant between God and the Jewish people. The Union for Reform Judaism is notably more liberal than the Conservative and Orthodox branches, but in 1994 it barred those who do not declare a belief in God.
Other Jewish scholars concede God is often not critical to a sense of Jewish identity, yet question the demand for a separate secular movement.
Born into the movement, Chalom’s parents raised him at Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit, the first Humanistic congregation.
Wine, ordained a Reform rabbi, rewrote English and Hebrew liturgies to replace all references to God with odes to the ideals of humanity. Yom Kippur encouraged introspection; Passover celebrated freedom.
“Growing up … the idea of prayer and miracles realizing your wishes in any other way than you doing it just wasn’t covered,” Chalom said. “It really is an identity that speaks to everyday life experience and responds to our life in the natural world.”
Chalom grappled with tolerance more than he wrestled with the existence of God. His undergraduate years at Yale University fueled a passion to reach Jews on the margins.
He earned a master’s and PhD and trained at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, which Wine established in 1985 as a seminary for humanistic rabbis. As the new dean of the Michigan-based institute, Chalom said he hopes to earn accreditation for the school.
Humanistic Judaism has faced its own growing pains in Illinois. When Congregation Beth Or, the state’s first synagogue to embrace the movement, returned to its Reform roots, a handful of members formed a new congregation, Kol Hadash, in July 2001. Beth Or Rabbi Emeritus Daniel Friedman served there until the congregation hired Chalom.
Today 132 families, many from Deerfield, form the congregation.
Friedman says Chalom is likely the only person who could step into Wine’s shoes.
“He was born into the Humanistic movement,” Friedman said. “He’s not fighting against anything. There’s no undertone of rejection.”
The Chicago Board of Rabbis has not admitted Chalom as a member because he did not graduate from an accredited seminary. But he is invited to observe at most meetings.
Chalom contends that the integrity and emotional resonance of Jewish traditions are what appeal most to American Jews. According to the American Jewish Identity Survey of 2001 by the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, about half of the 5.3 million Jews in the United States identify themselves as “secular” or “somewhat secular.”
Critics say those numbers don’t necessarily support a demand for Humanistic Judaism.
“If you look at Jewish newspapers or magazines or listen in on conversations in synagogues God is not a hot topic,” said Steven Cohen, a sociologist of American Jewry at Hebrew Union College. “People have been able to maintain strong Jewish passions without a strong engagement with God.”
But for Victoria Ratnaswamy, entering a synagogue did not feel right if she did not believe in God. Jewish but not raised in a practicing household, Ratnaswamy was intrigued by Kol Hadash, where she heard the rabbi welcomed interfaith couples and their children.
“It’s a community where I feel comfortable being myself,” she said. David Hirsch said he is grateful to have a rabbi who could help him explain death to his 9-year-old son when the boy lost a classmate. . The boy took comfort in knowing where his friend had gone — instead of pointing to heaven, he pointed to his heart.
“The idea of natural immortality is as compelling as any other,” Hirsch said. “It’s about people. It’s about legacy and memory.”
Bonnie Cousens, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, has faith Chalom will take the movement forward.
“For many of our members Humanistic Judaism was something they discovered, often after leaving another branch of Judaism,” she said. “For them, it’s very much a discovery. But for Adam it’s home.”
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*Founded in 1963 by the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, an ordained Reform rabbi.
*Number of congregations: 30.
*Number of members: 10,000.
*Rabbis ordained by the movement: 8.
* Differences in blessings:
Humanistic Sabbath blessing: Blessed is the light in the world. Blessed is the light in people. Blessed is the light of Shabbat.
Traditional Jewish Sabbath blessing: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the lights of Shabbat.
Humanistic Hanukkah blessing: Precious is the light in the world and in all people, which has kept us in life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this happy season.
Traditional Jewish Hanukkah blessing: Praised are You, Our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has given us life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.