By David Steiner
Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
It’s not uncommon to critique this schoolyard chant and remind people that verbal scars often last much longer than physical ones. This was how I felt when I read about the beautiful work of Clal’s New Paradigm Spiritual Communities Initiative (NPSCI). Words do matter, a lot, and the insertion of the word “spiritual,” brings with it an insensitivity that helps me better understand how LGBTQ people felt/feel before the transformation that has recently welcomed them into the civil and Jewish worlds.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “spiritual” has to do with incorporality, relating to sacred matters, religious values “or relating to supernatural beings or phenomena.” It may connote something different for others. Here’s how Rabbi Sid Schwarz explained it in eJewish Philanthropy (March 31, 2016):
“Our working definition for new paradigm spiritual communities are groups that use the wisdom and practice of Judaism (chochma), to help people live lives of sacred purpose (kedusha) and inspire people to contribute to a more just and peaceful world (tzedek). The context for this work are covenantal communities (kehillot) in which a group of people intentionally enter into a mutual obligatory relationship, commit to a common mission and give of their time and psychic energy to support the viability of the group and the material and spiritual needs of the members of the group.”
I cannot emphasize enough how exclusive this feels to me, a secular humanistic Jew, a Labor Zionist, a secular Tel Avivi (living in exile in Chicago). To return to the LGBTQ community for a second, one of the most powerful arguments made on their behalf is that their exclusion is based on something they have no control over. You don’t wake up and decide your sexuality or gender. You are born with it. Human beings are products of nature and nurture and we have to respect human beings as they are, not as we want them to be. The same can be said for atheists, agnostics and people who just don’t care about whether there is a deity. For some of us, it just doesn’t compute, and we were born this way.
One very ugly response to homosexuality was conversion therapy. The American Psychiatric Association opposes this psychiatric treatment because it is “based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that a patient should change his/her sexual homosexual orientation.”
As an agnostic Jew, I often feel like the Jewish community is saying to me, “You don’t have a place among us because you haven’t affirmed our faith.” We are treated like the Rasha (the wicked child) at the Passover seder who asks, “What are these services to you?”
But when his brother asks, “What are these evidences, laws and sentences that our God commanded you?” he is rewarded and called smart.
Interestingly, while the rabbinic courts of Israel use traditional, orthodox religious standards to determine a person’s insider standing within the community, my teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman often teaches that the State of Israel borrows from the Nuremberg Laws to define a Jew, racially, by having one Jewish grandparent. Of course, we don’t want to allow outsiders to determine the borders and boundaries of Jewish inclusion, but we also don’t want to leave this to one segment of the Jewish people.
In the former definition, I, an agnostic Jew, am fully privileged as an included member of the people, even if I were to chose to deny completely the existence of a deity or pray to a different God altogether. In the latter example, I am a Jew because I have Jewish blood flowing through my veins. However, neither of these definitions work comprehensively since we accept from those who chose to be Jewish but aren’t born that way.
The big problem of conversion is not that the convert didn’t follow mitzvot before conversion or that they don’t have the right DNA for the designation of being Jewish. The big problem with conversion is defining what it is that they have converted to, what yoke of Judaism have they accepted. An orthodox Jew, as is the case in Israel, might argue that there is only one form of “proper” conversion (until recently in Israel a legal truth), but in America and the rest of the Jewish world, there is no absolute measurement of Jewishness.
So why does Clal insist on making their New Paradigm Spiritual Communities Initiative exclude us “non-spiritual” Jews? What is wrong with the Jew who enters peoplehood through the door of Jewish athletes, scientists, or labor leaders? Is a secular Tel Avivi high tech entreprenuer who spends Yom Kippur at the beach less Jewish than his spiritual counterpart? What about the atheist soldier who defends the Jewish State? How should we see the Labor Zionist who goes to Washington to lobby for the state of Israel but celebrates Shavuot with cheesecake and family instead of synagogue and discussions of covenantal relations with God? Is there something not Jewish about building a museum to recall the horrors of the Shoah even if you don’t question whether God had a role in allowing these atrocities?
Rabbi Adam Chalom, my teacher, and Dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism’s rabbinic school has jokingly said that we are the new LGBTQ challenge for the community, but most of the community hears us with their fingers in their ears.
I don’t blame the Jewish community for this. I blame us, the culinary Jews, the ones who go through the motions on the Days of Awe by inertia but without belief, the secular humanists, the Labor Zionists, the secular Tel Avivi’s. Maybe we don’t feel like we have as much at stake, but we are the rapidly growing majority.
So my advice to Rabbi Sid, the People at Clal, the wonderful new effort organized under the title New Paradigm Spiritual Communities Initiative, is that you start reconsidering your ways and the words you throw out there. They are hurtful and discriminatory, and they don’t serve many of the important missions you hope to achieve. Jewish diversity doesn’t stop at the threshold of faith, and membership is not determined by belief. We are not all bound to one another though spirituality. Even our texts don’t affirm that. We are bound together, indebted to one another, by virtue of being heirs of Israel, however we decide to define that. Excluding a large segment because of a poor choice of words is Lashon Ha’rah, evil tongue. This word, spiritual, is out there, and it excludes some of us, and makes us believe that you don’t think we have anything to contribute or that our contributions aren’t Jewish enough. So please reconsider. There is nothing wrong with just being the New Paradigm Communities Initiative.
David Steiner, Ed.D, is a filmmaker, mediator and rabbinical student at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.