Or Emet, the Minnesota Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, will host Rabbi Miriam Jerris April 12 and 13 in St. Paul
By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
Or Emet, the Minnesota Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, has always identified itself as a “home for wondering Jews.” And according to Miriam Jerris, chief rabbi of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, that statement reflects a significant part of Judaism.
“I love that Or Emet has picked up on this ‘wondering,’” Jerris told the AJW in a recent phone interview. “We’ve always wondered, and asking the questions and having the dialogue and having the conversation is a very Jewish experience. It’s modern Talmud, really, these discussions. So I think they’re important to have.”
Humanistic Jews take conversations about God off the table, focusing instead on personal responsibility and approaching Judaism from a cultural and historical perspective.
“It doesn’t talk about what we believe, only that we don’t believe that there is some entity that’s interfering in our lives, that’s hearing us,” Jerris said. “Our conversation is about our attachment to Jewish culture and how we live in this world and how we can make this world a better place and how we can improve our relationships. Those are the things that we value, and it’s within that Jewish context that we do it.”
And a recent Pew study conducted in October, titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” reported that most U.S. Jews seem to recognize that secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America: 62 percent of respondents say being Jewish is “mainly a matter of ancestry and culture”; just 15 percent say it is mainly a “matter of religion.”
Jerris will speak in the Twin Cities about the results of the Pew study, as well as the state of Humanistic Judaism, which recently marked its 50th anniversary. Or Emet will host a public address on Saturday, April 12 at the St. Paul JCC, and Jerris will lead a discussion with Or Emet members and visitors on Sunday, April 13 in the building of the Friends School of Minnesota in St. Paul.
“I’m basically talking about what the Pew study has suggested in terms of the culturalization and secularlization of the Jewish community, and how that affects Humanistic Judaism and how Humanistic Judaism can help people connect to their Jewish identity, even as they feel that the connection is primarily cultural,” Jerris said. “We think we have something to offer.”
And though Jerris sees benefits from research such as the Pew study, she does take issue with the way some questions were asked.
“I am going to delve into the complexities of some of that because if we’re going to get real value out of these studies, we have to see what it is that they’re really telling us,” she said.
Rabbi Sherwin Wine founded Humanistic Judaism in 1963, arguing that Judaism began as a nation before it came to be defined primarily as a religion, according to Or Emet.
Humanistic Jews highlight the cultural attachment to holidays, lifecycle events, and Jewish history and literature. Services often incorporate modern Israeli music or music that doesn’t invoke God — such as “Hinei Ma Tov” and “Hava Nagila” — and most liturgy is rewritten.
The movement requires no formal conversion, and is open to the growing diversity within the Jewish community, including multicultural, same-sex, unaffiliated and interfaith couples and families.
And where some Jews see intermarriage as a threat to the Jewish community, Jerris sees the issue from another perspective.
“We all have to be careful about the assumptions that we make,” she said. “[The Pew study] shows that intermarriage has continued to increase… and the assumptions that I think a lot in the Jewish community are making are assumptions that it’s the intermarriage that’s causing the disinterest. I’m going to suggest that it’s the fact that maybe Judaism isn’t speaking to these people in the way that it needs to, because it’s not helping them identify their personal philosophy of life.”
Jerris says that Humanistic Judaism does speak to people in that way, allowing a “consistency between how we view the world and how we view our Jewish connections. There’s no break in being Jewish and being a secular person in the world today.”
There are approximately 10,000 paying members throughout North America, according to Jerris. She said Humanistic Judaism attracts 10 to 12 percent new members each year, but also loses the same amount.
“We appeal to people at different times in their lives,” Jerris said.
Jerris sees Humanistic Judaism as another way of expressing Jewish identity, adding that Judaism has survived for thousands of years because it has adapted. She said Humanistic Judaism strives to provide different ways to create meaningful Jewish experiences, in a supportive and loving community, for the more than 50 percent of Jews who are not affiliated with a traditional synagogue.
“Humanistic Judaism enhances the Jewish community, it does not detract from it or threaten it,” Jerris said. “It’s important for the Jewish community to understand that there is a very broad range approach to being Jewish, and that the broader we are and the more inclusive we can be, the more powerful we are as a Jewish community.”
Congregation Or Emet will host a public address by Rabbi Miriam Jerris on Saturday, April 12 at the St. Paul JCC, 1375 St. Paul Ave. The evening will begin with a Humanistic Havdala service for the public at 6 p.m., followed by a social gathering with snacks at 6:30 p.m.; Rabbi Jerris will speak at 7:30 p.m.
Rabbi Jerris will also lead a discussion with Or Emet members and visitors on how they can get the most out of Humanistic Judaism while also helping build the movement 10 a.m. Sunday, April 13 in the building of the Friends School of Minnesota, 1365 Englewood Ave., St. Paul. The program is free and open to the public.
For information on Or Emet, visit: www.oremet.org.
(American Jewish World, 3.28.14)