Question for the Contemporary Age: ‘How Can You Be a Secular Rabbi!?


At the Jewish Children's Folkshul in Germantown – a stalwart of secular Jewish culture – the hands kept being raised and the questions kept being asked of Rabbi Binyamin Biber.

No matter the religious depth of the query, this is one rabbi who won't invoke the divine; the 44-year-old was ordained in 2001 by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, based in suburban Detroit.

The topic at the Folkshul was humanistic parenting, and the talk drew a group of mothers and fathers whose beliefs ranged from agnostic – there could be a God, but human beings can't know; to deist – God created the world, but lets it run uncontrolled; to atheist – God doesn't exist. But despite where they stood on this spectrum, they all wondered how best to impart Jewish values and a meaningful Jewish identity to their children.

Biber, leader of Machar, the Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism – which he said counts some 125 families in its membership, with a significant percentage of couples who have either intermarried or adopted children from another religion – spent almost two hours fielding questions that ranged from "What do I do if my child looks down on those who believe in God?" to "How on Earth can you be a secular rabbi?"

In response to the former, he said any parent has difficulties teaching their child to respect and relate to those with different viewpoints and backgrounds.

To the latter, he said that first off, he prefers the term "humanistic" – a term he traces back to the emphasis of several ancient Greek philosophers on improving conditions in this world, rather than worrying about what happens in the next – as opposed to "secular."

"We don't know what lies beyond," said Biber. "We had best figure out how to lead the best lives we can [here]."

The rabbi went on to identify Humanistic Judaism as a religion or life approach, albeit one that lacks the theological language familiar to Jews raised in more traditional denominations. He uses the title rabbi because it denotes someone with a deep knowledge of Jewish texts, tradition and history who acts as a guide or councilor to a Jewish community.

"How do we relate to our children and foster in them the values that will guide them in their lives?" posed Biber, who is not a parent himself, but has a background in social work and in counseling families. "The goal is not to inculcate, but to provide children with grounding to have a healthy discussion."

Biber said the key, especially with smaller children who cannot grasp highly abstract concepts, is experiential learning.

"Having positive experiences in their family life and school – and having them feel very secure – is the best resource you can give them," insisted the rabbi.

The event was sponsored by the Folkshul and the Philadelphia-area Shir Shalom (A Community for Humanistic Judaism), a lay-led congregation that holds monthly Shabbat services, often in member homes.

Rivals Turned Compatriots

There was a time when the secular Jewish movement – to which the Folkshul belongs – and the Humanistic movement – to which Shir Shalom belongs – were rivals. But roughly 20 years ago, leaders of the two movements got together and decided they had much in common.

One of the first things they did was form the Michigan institute where Biber received his training, according to Miriam Jerris, community-development coordinator for the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

In his talk, delivered in an academic tone, Biber reviewed everything from the history of humanism to certain social-science models of parenting, and how ideas of parenting changed in the wake of World War II, as the dangers posed by an authoritarian society became fully known. As part of their questions, however, the parents wanted to know not about theory, but whether they were confusing their children by giving them a secular Jewish education and reciting prayers with God-language at home?

Paul Shane, a longtime member of the Folkshul, stood up and pointed out that the organization's curriculum espouses neither theism nor atheism, and simply teaches students about Jewish culture, history and literature.

"I left thinking about how important it is for parents to discuss how they are going to introduce the family culture to the kids," said Lisa Hastings, whose 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son attend the Folkshul. "I felt reassured that I'm providing an environment to create an identity of who they are as Jews and in society."

A number of audience members were part of interfaith and intercultural marriages, multiracial families and even families where some members believe in God and some don't. Biber's message seemed doable to them.

"In our family, we have a healthy mix of atheism and belief," said Alice Lesnick. "In our house, we have a lot of dialogue – my kids would probably say to a fault. I talk using religious imagery, but I don't require anyone else in the family to do so."

Laura Cohn, a member of the Cheltenham-based Shir Shalom who considers herself agnostic and said her husband is an atheist, was actually raised in a Humanistic congregation outside of Chicago. In fact, her parents were married by a Humanistic rabbi.

"I think because I grew up in a Humanistic congregation I felt that my Judaism was as valid as anyone else's," said Cohn, whose 8-year-old son attends the Folkshul.

Still, she said that imparting that sense of security and identity to her son may not always be easy: "I think it's a struggle to start talking about formative moral values."



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