Sherwin T. Wine  | First Ordinationof Secular Humanistic Rabbis in Israel


A secular humanistic and cultural Judaism is not new. It hasbeen developing over the last two hundred years. What is new is the emergence ofan organized self-aware movement of secular Jews, which is not merely anattachment to Jewish nationalism or to Jewish socialism.

Most of the founders of modern Jewish nationalism, whether Zionistor Yiddishist, were secular. Almost all of the leaders of Jewish socialism weresecular, even militantly secular. But secularism played a secondary role. It didnot command the primary passions of the pioneers. While the revival of Hebrew, the acquisition of territory and development of egalitarian communities tookcenter stage, the creation of a positive secular Jewish identity was a secondaryproject. Whenever secularism became passionate, it became negative, ananticlerical resistance against traditional religion and the religiousestablishment. Fear and contempt for religion and rabbinic authority weremanifestations of this negative energy. The Orthodox revival provided the majorprovocation for secular action. With the maturing of Jewish nationalism and thedecline of Jewish socialism, secular Judaism faced a crisis in both Israel andthe Diaspora.

In the last four decades a new movement has emerged in Jewish life. It is passionately secular. It is ideologically humanistic. It is committed tothe preservation of the best of Jewish culture. While it is determined to resistreligious imperialism and its attempt to control the lives of the secular Jews, it does not view this resistance to be its major project. Its major project isto provide secular Jews with a significant humanistic philosophy of life. Thisphilosophy of life blends humanistic convictions with the humanistic elements ofJewish experience and Jewish culture. Its power lies in the fact that it notonly reinforces loyalty to the Jewish nation. It also speaks to the personal andexistential anxieties of the secular Jew as an individual. Finding the strengthto deal effectively with the frustrations and disappointments of daily living isas important as connection positively to the Jewish people. Cultural Jews need aclearly articulated philosophy of life as much as religious Jews.
In NorthAmerica this movement took the name of Secular Humanistic Judaism. It organizedcommunities which would serve the philosophic, ethical and Jewish needs of itmembers. Each community became a place for humanistic Jewish education, humanistic Jewish celebration, ethical social action and mutual support. SecularHumanistic Judaism took its place as a clear organized alternative to thereligious options of Orthodoxy, Conservatism and Reform. From the beginning itrealized that effectiveness demanded trained Jewish leaders and scholars. Therole of the ‘secular rabbi’ was born. No other title seemed to work as well. Noother title seemed to convey the necessary combination of newness andcontinuity.  Out of this momentum came fifty communities, an InternationalFederation and a school for the training of secular madrikhim and secularrabbis.

What is happening in Israel this December is a sign that thismovement has found a sister movement in the work of Temurah. Seven secularrabbis will be ordained, an historic development in the maturing of IsraeliJudaism. Seven extraordinary men and women, together with their leadersProfessor Yaakov Malkin and Rabbi Sivan Maas, will become the voice of apositive Jewish philosophy of life, a philosophy of life intrinsic to the legacyof a normative Zionism. Out of these beginnings and the inspiration of thispioneer movement will come a powerful and meaningful alternative for secularJews seeking their ‘home’ in Judaism. This ordination is a sign that SecularJudaism in Israel is finding a new empowerment.

Sherwin T. Wine, December2006