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God-Optional Judaism: Alternatives for Cultural Jews Who Love Their History, Heritage, and Community Hardcover – January 1, 2001
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Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought (Library of Secular Humanistic Judaism) HardcoverInternational Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism19 offers from $7.49
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She writes in the Introduction to this 2002 book, "What are the options for cultural Jews who are just as fiercely attached to their Jewish heritage as religious Jews are? How can they express their Jewish roots and commitment to the Jewish community? How can they find ways to celebrate Jewish holidays, educate themselves, and be part of the Jewish community and still maintain their integrity? How can these Jews find an authentic, inclusive Jewish life? This how-to book helps answer those questions."
Here are some quotations from the book:
"The Conservative prayer book includes Psalm 136 ... When you take a look at what this psalm is saying, it really is quite shocking. We are praising God for killing the innocent little firstborn sons of the Egyptians, and we continue extolling that God's loving-kindness." (Pg. 4)
"In fact, Hasidism is a modern Jewish movement no more connected to the religion of Abraham or Moses of King David or even Rabbi Hillel than is any other Judaism of modern times." (Pg. 28)
Much of this book is way too secular for my own tastes, but the author does raise some challenging questions about Jewish history, liturgy, and traditions that made me stop and think. She has also clearly demonstrated what I have been saying for years, namely, that Jewishness is more than just a "religion." This book clearly explains that POV.
Although Judaism is commonly defined as a religion, the Hebrew language does not have a separate word for "religion." Neither does Yiddish -- the closest you can come is "Yiddishkeit," which simply means "Jewishness" and encompasses everything from liturgy to foods and music.
I myself define Jews as a tribal culture in the anthropological sense: common language (Hebrew), common land of origin (Israel), common ancestor story (Abraham and Sarah), common foods and holidays, and common religion. (Seid does not use this exact breakdown in her book, but her ideas are compatible with the tribal model.) A secular Jew may reject "the religion," but still deeply connect with the other aspects of Jewish culture, in the same way that a Native tribal person might remain connected with their language, foods, dances and ceremonies, even if they do not believe in the tribe's mythology.
Much of this book focuses on how to re-define Jewish holidays and life-cycle events in non-theistic ways. There is a strong emphasis on connecting with the tradition through land and nature. The holidays themselves are labeled according to the seasons in the Contents, and the observances she suggests are centered around such activities as growing your own horseradish for the Passover Seder, feeding the homeless during Sukkot, seeking introspective solitude with nature on Yom Kippur, tasting fruits on Tu B'Shevat, etc. There are lots practical suggestions and resources, too, including recipes and websites that I found useful even though I'm not a secularist. (One site, for example, told me where to get pre-fab hardware for erecting a sukkah with 2 x 4s.)
This book is more than mere "lox and bagels Judaism." Seid has given a lot of serious thought to her presentation and, whether or not you can accept her point(s) of view, it is clear that she is fully committed to her Jewish identity. I recommend this book to anyone -- Jewish or not -- who would like to understand why being Jewish is so much more that a "faith" or "religion."
Judith Seid has the enormous gift of writing simply and clearly about complicated issues. In one slender volume she manages to summarize the history of Jewish belief systems down to present times, and discuss the various approaches of each system to traditional holiday celebrations and life cycle observances. Despite having had a lifetime of Jewish education hardly a page went by in which I did not discover a new insight. But for me, two other features of this book make it invaluable. First, it is fair minded and inclusive. Seid is not out to convert so much as to inform. Without getting bogged down with the myriad details of Jewish observance she succinctly clarifies the choices available to someone interested in modern Judaism. Equally important she elucidates the historical validity of these choices, demythologizing the claims of "authenticity" or superiority posed by some. You decide what fits you, within established, centuries-old alternatives. What brings all this home is her frequent use of anecdotes culled from her pastoral experience, poignant examples of the questions so many of us confront in examining our beliefs. My one criticism may seem like a quibble. She appears to be saying that secular spirituality is confined to social interaction, even though in other sections it is clear that she does not define spirituality in such narrow terms. This book is essential reading for those people who wonder about Judaism and/or its relevance for their own lives.
Seid explores the notion of secular Judaism: a way of life, or a cultural and ethical path, that is liberated from traditional notions of deity. You can be an agnostic or an atheist and still practice a meaningful form of Judaism, according to Seid. She offers suggestions for those interested in starting a secular Jewish congregation, and includes an informative "question-and-answer" section in the book.
Seid's book is well-written and thought provoking. Although she is writing from a Jewish perspective, I believe that many of her ideas could be equally useful to people of other faith traditions (Christian, Muslim, etc.).