Saturday, September 13, 2008

Secular Humanistic Judaism & "One Chorus, One Family"

In my post last week about my cousin's wedding, I asked the question "why do Secular Humanists need Rabbi's?" In rereading the post, I realized that the question sounded a bit snide or condescending. I'll admit it that it was probably meant that way at the time. It's easy to be snide about things you don't understand and, I'll be frank, I wasn't that impressed with the Secular Humanist Rabbi I had just met. But this blog is supposed to be about exploring the edges (as well as the center) of Judaism and Jewish music, so I apologize to Secular Humanist Jewish community.

My self-assigned penance was to learn more about SHJ community and, of course, check out their music. I was quite surprised to learn that SHJ originated quite recently here on the North Coast (aka Michigan). Rabbi Sherwin Wine developed SHJ based on the following principles (quoted from Wikipedia):
  • A Jew is someone who identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jewish people;
  • Judaism is the historic culture of the Jewish people, and religion is only one part of that culture;
  • People possess the power and responsibility to shape their own lives independent of supernatural authority;
  • Ethics and morality should serve human needs, and choices should be based upon consideration of the consequences of actions rather than pre-ordained rules or commandments; and,
  • Jewish history, like all history, is a purely human and natural phenomenon. Biblical and other traditional texts are the products of human activity and are best understood through archaeology and other scientific analysis.
Lots more info on SHJ is available through their key organizations websites. These include the International Federation of Secular Humanist Jews and the Society for Humanistic Jews.

I'm still not exactly clear why someone who held these views would want a Rabbi or what the role of that Rabbi would be, but at least I've got a better idea what the basis for the belief system is. I find it an interesting system. As I've mentioned before, I've always struggled with belief in God. There are times I lean toward believing and times I don't. I've reconciled it for myself to consider myself a believer and not let my days of doubt trouble me. I summed it up to some folks at a synagogue retreat a couple years ago by saying "My lack of faith isn't God's problem, it's mine." The SHJ stance, if I understand it properly, is more like "because I lack faith I will redefine my religion as one that not only doesn't require it but doesn't allow for it." To me such a statement is as much an act of will or belief as internalizing a genuine belief in God, an act of will I'm not capable of making (in either direction).

One Chorus, One Family album coverAs for music, there doesn't seem to be a lot of activity. The websites for the Society and the International Federation both point to a single CD, Abe and Mickie Mandel's "One Chorus, One Family." The Mandels "performed, wrote, recorded and taught music together as a team since they were "flower Children" in the late 60's" and "probably best-known for the popular 'Music-Mates" preschool program they created and taught for 15 years at The Lucy Moses School of the Kaufman Cultural Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan."

I haven't been able to find any online samples of One Chorus, but the Society for Humanistic Judaism does provide a track list. It has a heavy emphasis on Israeli & Yiddish folksongs, such as Rozjenkes Mit Mandlen & Tsena Tsena, and American Jewish musical theater pieces, such as Sunrise, Sunset and Bistu Shayn. The recording only has a few pieces that would seem liturgical. These include Ayfo Oree? by SHJ Rabbi Sherman Wine and a Wedding Medley comprised mostly of Leonard Bernstein pieces. This assemblage seems very much in line with Judaism as culture bent of SHJ in that leaves out any real piyyut (hymns) that refer to God, which means most everything out of the traditional Siddur and Machsor.

My big question is how is this music used? I have no idea what rituals or practices comprise SHJ so it's not clear if this disc intended for casual listening, clergy training, or simcha performance. I'll have to do some more home work as I'm able. If any SHJ folks read this and want to set me straight, please drop me a line.

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