In defence of cultural Judaism

Rabbi Denise Handlarski

Many people were surprised that last fall’s Pew Report found that a growing number of Jews are without any particular religious attachments and that most perceive Jewish identity as a matter of culture or ancestry. I’m surprised by their surprise. These are trends we’ve been seeing for decades. 

Change makes people nervous, and it is with true empathy and respect that I acknowledge the fears of those who make claims that cultural Judaism is “not enough.” It is difficult for people for whom religious devotion, prayer, and synagogue life have been crucial to their Judaism to understand how rich and meaningful cultural Judaism can be, especially in the context of congregation and community. 

Their fears come from a longing for Jewish continuity, which is a longing I share. But the worrying tones, and the admonitions and accusations that cultural Jews hear all the time – that their beliefs and practices are shallow and meaningless – do not encourage them to participate more actively in Jewish life. 

There are two dominant yet competing narratives in contemporary Jewish discourse: on the one hand are the deep concerns for Jewish continuity, and on the other are the politics of exclusion that suggest to cultural Jews, intermarried Jews and Jews who do not fit a particular set of expectations and practices that they aren’t welcome, aren’t doing it right or, worst of all, aren’t Jewish at all. 

I am a rabbi at Toronto’s Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. We provide a congregational context for what many call cultural Judaism. The movement of Humanistic Judaism, which is 50 years old, offers rich and meaningful holiday celebrations, educational programs, and congregations wherein cultural Jews can connect with Jewish tradition and community. Humanistic Judaism offers the best of secular humanism and the best, in our view, of Judaism. We offer a school which has a deep focus on Jewish history, culture and tikkun olam. We have dynamic adult education programs where art, Jewish thinkers, and text are studied and debated. Our holiday programs offer music, poetry, reflections and adaptations of traditional Jewish texts. Our life-cycle celebrations and commemorations from birth to death feature Jewish tradition and human-centred language that truly celebrates the person or people at the heart of the ceremony. We are, in short, very proud of how deep, meaningful, and rich our expression of Judaism is. Those who claim that cultural Judaism is shallow have never seen us in action. In fact, the experience of attending synagogue and saying prayers that one does not believe feels far more shallow – I know, because I was one of those Jews, wandering and wondering, until I found Humanistic Judaism. 

There is no question it is not for everyone. Neither is Orthodoxy. We exist on a spectrum of beliefs and practices. My concern is not that people disagree with my ideas about theology, or who the Jews have been, are or should be. My concern is that we have so much in common along the Jewish spectrum, but the politics of exclusion mean that we often cannot dialogue, share experiences and learn from one another.

Humanistic Judaism is not a movement defined by what we do not believe, but rather by what we do believe. We believe that Judaism should be welcoming of all who wish to be part of our family, from those who are born into it, choose to be part of it or marry into it. We need not all be the same to recognize our shared heritage and/or connection. We believe that equality and egalitarianism should be an inherent and important part of our Judaism. We believe that Jewish history grounds us and gives us roots. We believe that Jewish creativity and human ingenuity give us branches. We believe that tradition gets a vote but not a veto. Most importantly, we believe in the power of ourselves and one another to effect meaningful and positive change in the world.