Activism matters is a new interview series where we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Paul Golin, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ).
How did you become the executive director of the SHJ?
I’d spent almost two decades working in the organised Jewish community on the phenomenon of intermarriage.
Turns out, intermarriage is incredibly popular among Jews—there are now many more intermarried households in the U.S. than so-called “in-married” (two Jewish spouses) households—but intermarriage was incredibly unpopular with the subset of Jews who run the organised Jewish community, such as most rabbis and philanthropists.
Attitudes toward intermarriage have shifted away from condemnation over the years, somewhat, and I’d like to believe I had a small role in helping that along, but my work was very much as an “insider-outsider.” I’m intermarried myself, yet one study found that only 6% of my fellow married Jewish communal professionals are also intermarried, compared to 60% of married American Jews. I knew I was advocating on behalf of a giant “silent majority” who felt as I did, but I was speaking to the subset in power who disagreed, didn’t care, and/or felt threatened by it
Has that insider/outsider dynamic influenced your advocacy?
In many ways since I came on at SHJ late in 2016. Around a fifth to a quarter of U.S. Jews are atheist, and a recent Pew Survey found that only 24% of all American Jews believe in “the God of the Bible.” At only 10%, Orthodox Jews are less than half the number of atheist Jews! Yet you’d never know it by who runs the Jewish community and how they present on issues of religiosity. We don’t have proportional voice in the organised Jewish community, in large part because many of us have been pushed out or have walked away after feeling marginalised.
The connection with my current advocacy is natural and overlapping. I knew I was an atheist (at age 11) long before I intermarried (at age 36). It was my humanistic values—to find the inherent equality in all people—that led me to reject the steady drumbeat I heard since childhood of: “YOU MUST MARRY JEWISH.”
I didn’t know that there was even a name for my set of values until I learned of humanism very late in life. I was invited to speak to the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, our movement’s educational and rabbinic-ordaining arm, and the connection was clear and immediate. I joined their board, and when SHJ came looking for an executive director, it was the perfect fit.
The truth is, though, I didn’t come to my humanistic values in a vacuum. Much of it came from the same liberal Jewish family and community that were struggling with their own ethnocentricity and xenophobic fears, particularly after emerging from the Holocaust. Deep down, most Jews recognize the truth in humanism! Even if they don’t yet know that word. That’s why I’m still so excited about the potential for Humanistic Judaism, as the best definition for what so many Jews already believe.
How can mainstream religious and inter-faith communities better represent the voices of their more humanistic and secular minded members?
I’d love for there to be bigger and more diverse conversations around belief. That’s certainly what I’ve been working on. It’s not about judging those who believe in the supernatural or trying to “convert” them to humanism, it’s simply about providing representation for the many folks who already believe as I do, which might then open the doors for those who are closeted about it.
In countless ways, I see how secular Jews have been marginalised from the organised Jewish conversation. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, as there was a strong tradition of secularism in early and mid-20th Century Judaism, including the Jewish socialist movements, Yiddishists, and Zionists. Yet last summer when the national Jewish newspaper—founded over 100 years ago by ardent secularists—ran a series that interviewed 17 thinkers about their understanding of God, no room was made to include even one Humanistic rabbis or atheist Jew.
Why do you think that is?
I understand the challenge that liberal religion faces in “rebranding” God to mean something more metaphorical. On so many social justice issues—reproductive justice, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s equality, the environment—there is no daylight between humanistic values and liberal Jewish religious denominations. To be in partnership, we don’t need to first nail down whether they really believe in the supernatural or not.
I would like liberal religious people to be more aware of non-theists as allies and find more ways to include us. For example, we have encouraged our interfaith partners to say, “as people of faith and conscience” rather than just “as people of faith.” They’re usually happy to accommodate.
And we’ve promoted wording that allows us to sign on to statements that otherwise would’ve excluded us. For example, liberal Jewish social-justice statements arguing for LGBTQ+ inclusion often include lines like, “Because God created man in His image.” Well, I won’t sign that, because I believe man created God in our image.
However, I can’t disagree with the sentence, “Jewish tradition teaches that God created man in His image.” That’s a factual statement, something both religious and secular Jews can agree upon. Even if I see it only as myth and metaphor, I can sign on to an accurate portrayal of my religious tradition. The quote becomes about the relationship that people have to that ancient teaching, without claiming supernatural origin of humanity as fact.
Is there something unique about the Jewish experience in this regard? Would the support for humanistic or nonreligious Muslims, Sikhs, Christians etc. be different?
I will let others speak on behalf of their own traditions, but Judaism has always been more than just a religion. The ethnic/familial ties are inextricable. For the first thousand years, it was a collection of tribes based on a physical geography. Aspects of that continued down to today through the various Jewish ethnicities (Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrahi, etc.).
It means that even if I completely disavow Judaism as a religion, I’m still a Jew by ethnicity because it would be absurd to claim I’m “half Polish, half Ukrainian.” Neither side of my family were ever granted Polish or Ukrainian citizenship, they were isolated into Jewish shtetls from the dominant population for centuries, and while intermarriage of course happened, integration never did. “Jewish” is listed as a result on genetic tests like 23andMe!
That’s a complicated and at times uncomfortable legacy, suggesting it’s something in our “blood” that makes us Jewish. Personally, I reject that, and stand with SHJ’s definition of “who’s a Jew” as anyone who declares themselves as such and “identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.” Still, the vast majority of Jews are born into it. Many would rather identify as atheist Jews than nothing or no religion, because the ethnic and cultural connection still provides deep resonance.
The founder of our movement, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, considered Judaism a culture in which religion is just one small aspect. Before him, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism called Judaism a civilization. For any ethnicity, it’s not just about the genetics but the literature, music, art, history, food, and community that come with being part of the group. For atheist/agnostic Jews, we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can keep what we like; only a tiny minority of Jews claim it’s all-or-nothing.
If a religious identity is organised around cultural practices, rather than theological beliefs, can challenging or reforming parts of those practices be more difficult?
Many atheists from other religious backgrounds still celebrate cultural aspects of their religious heritage without the theology, and without too much difficulty. I presume not every household exchanging gifts under a Christmas tree believes Jesus was messiah. Where does the cultural expression end and the religion expression begin?
During Hanukkah, most Jewish households light a menorah and say blessings. Even if they use the traditional theistic wording (which Humanistic Jews don’t), are they really praying?! I don’t think so. For all but the most observant Jews, it’s a cultural more than religious expression.
I think the fundamental question behind Humanistic Judaism can be applicable for secular people of all religious backgrounds and none: What’s meaningful? Particularly around holidays and lifecycle events like weddings, births, and funerals, having rituals and liturgy can add meaning. Even at the end of the week—Friday night family meal, statement of thankfulness for what we’ve got, staring at a flickering flame for a few minutes—can be beneficial. Singing together with other people can improve your mood. Our ancestors knew this inherently, but now there’s science to back it up (for those of us who need proof!). Rituals need not be directed at some invisible audience in the sky, it’s for our own benefit, and for our friends, family, and community.
What do you think atheist, humanist and secularist groups can do to better support the development of future leaders and activists, particularly those coming from religious, or culturally religious perspectives?
Lately, it seems there has been a coalescing among the major organisations in the secular non-profit ecosystem around shared social-justice concerns, which I think is great. We’re all on the same team. We want to see separation of church and state, full representation of secular Americans, and support for progressive causes like reproductive rights. And we’re partnering more with allies from beyond the non-theistic communities. Focusing on commonalities rather than differences makes a lot of sense.
That said, we can still acknowledge and discuss the tensions in our work. So many folks have been injured by religion, mentally and even physically, that secular spaces may be a natural outlet for religion-bashing. And there’s a lot to bash about religion! Such safe spaces are needed for folks who have been marginalised and hurt. And yet, a more nuanced understanding between cultural aspects versus the theology or practice or power of religious community might be helpful.
A segment of the secular community will always feel that because religious theology is wrong, and has been used to justify terrible actions, all remnants of religious tradition should be abolished. I understand that perspective and often feel the same! But more often, I encourage conversation about what we’re gaining and what we’re losing, what we can keep—for our own benefit—and what to discard.
The most famous thing Judaism gave the world is monotheism, but I’d argue the best thing Judaism gave the world is the weekend. Shabbat, a day of rest, it’s just a great idea! Nobody who wants to abolish religion is giving their weekend back just because it had a religious origin. It doesn’t mean you have to spend it in church. Doesn’t mean you need to do any rituals at all on the weekend (though you probably already have some if you think about it). But what if there are rituals and practices that work for secular people, shouldn’t we celebrate it and help our people benefit from it?
How could the wider atheist, humanist and secularist movement better support this?
Considering the major secular organisations already offer ordination programs for lifecycle events, I think we may be missing an opportunity by not better promoting the diverse offerings available across the secular ecosystem of secular ritual, song, and liturgy/poetry for folks to benefit from in community. I know it’s not an easy sell. Sunday Assembly seems to have come and gone. I don’t think HumanLight ever quite got off the ground, though Darwin Day seems to be gaining traction. Instead of reinventing the wheel, repurposing existing culture that folks already connect to can help us reach even more people with humanism as a philosophy.
I’d also love to be in collaboration with fellow secularists on more clearly articulated, optimistic visions of a humanistic future. With the religious right in power, so much of our time is understandably spent playing defence! But one of the great advantages that religion has over us is their vision for the future, either in an afterlife or in a messianic age, and we need to offer better counternarratives beyond simply pointing out that theirs is make-believe.
Obviously, there are some wonderful narratives about a future without religion in popular culture. So many of us who grew up watching Star Trek are now humanists (and scientists!). What’s the narrative from within our own secular movement, about where we want the world to be in 10 or 20 years? We are very clear about what we don’t want. What’s the positive vision for a post-religious world? How do most people’s lives improve? That kind of future visioning would be exciting to me. Too much of our time is consumed by the latest weekly atrocity from the Supreme Court. I’d love to see a weekend conference called “Secularism 2040” about visioning a positive humanistic future.
Thanks for reading
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Photo information: Cookies for Hanukkah, by cottonbro