There are two persistent commandments in the Torah: have no strange gods and welcome strangers. Why welcome strangers? The paradigmatic passage is in Leviticus 19: “You shall not oppress the alien. The ger (stranger) who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the ger as yourself for you were aliens (strangers) in the land of Egypt.”
Most of us will agree that being Jewish is more than a religion. The whole of being Jewish includes a 5,000-year-old culture with a secular history and secular roots (Jewishness), which many would argue are just as important as the theistic supernatural aspects of being Jewish (Judaism). All too often, we get confused by the “ism” and the “ness,” and with a knee-jerk reaction cast aside anything/anyone representing whichever term doesn’t mesh comfortably with our own Jewish ethical belief system. Those who espouse the “other” aspect of being Jewish tend to become the Jewish stranger to us. Einstein, Moses, Freud, Akiba, Spinoza, Judah, Elie Wiesel, Yehuda Amichai, Mitch Silver, Marge Piercy, Emma Goldman, Yitzhak Peretz, Sherwin Wine, Sigmund Freud, Hershl Hartman, to name only a few, all are a part of and contributors to the Jewish experience.
To my mind, the secular humanistic Jewish experience is our Jewish handiwork — that most essential thing that, as Jews, we must carry with us wherever we go. It is the textured, multi-layered material that sustains us through the great transformations and transitions of our lives. Secular humanistic Jewish experience is an exercise in boundaries: it compels us to shift them while remaining flexible. It helps us move from restriction to freedom and openness.
The secular humanistic Jewish experience is our unwillingness to part from our unique past while inspiring us to actively shape our future. It is the secular humanistic Jewish community gathering together to remember and renew a shared philosophy that is part of the flavor of all our creative work — that very essence of our survival.
The Secular Humanistic Jewish experience — represented for the past 10-plus years in the Seattle area by the Secular Jewish Circle of Puget Sound — is guided by a spectrum of ideas and choices available to Jews who unite on the premise that human beings, not a supernatural authority, have the right and responsibility to control the purpose and direction of their own ethical Jewish lives. We understand Jewish heritage to be the totality of the Jewish experience. Pluralism is a Jewish strength. The Jewish world has included polytheists as well as monotheists, rabbis as well as priests, apikorsim as well as daveners.
It has been said that to be a Jew is to be in exile. Well, if that is true, and exile is the essence of Jewishness, then secular and humanistic Jews — all too often treated as outsiders by our fellow Jews — must be the most Jewish of all!
Welcome, as I understand it, means “to make the other feel at home.” A closely related word in the Torah is hospitality, which meant opening one’s home to strangers, giving a meal to anyone who showed up. Legend tells us that Abraham had openings on all four sides of his tent so that strangers wouldn’t have to walk to the other side to find a way inside.
Hospitality, in today’s social context, has come to mean entertaining friends. Far from being a key dimension of an ethical life, hospitality is now thought of as an urbane equality on the order of table manners. We tend to leave dealing with strangers to the hospitality industry. Still, I imagine that all of us have been genuinely welcomed as strangers at some time or other.
Locally, SJC strives to genuinely welcome all who wish to know more about the secular humanistic Jewish experience. Our members come from all walks of life, and we offer full life cycle services — birth through end-of-life — including a two-year B’nai Mitzvah program and youth and adult education.
The Secular Jewish Circle thanks the JTNews for inviting us to participate in the “Rabbi’s Turn” — we feel most welcome and look forward to continued participation in this open and educational column!