Interviewee: Rabbi Adam Chalom
Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago, and the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism: www.iishj.org
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation: http://www.kolhadash.com (Cell: 847-602-4500)
“Shalom from Rabbi Chalom”: http://hjrabbi.wordpress.com
Interviewer: Dr. Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong
Founder of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum
Researcher at the University of Plymouth, UK
1. What does it mean to you to be a Secular Humanist Jew?
Being Jewish for me means being part of the Jewish family, an heir to Jewish history and culture. Being a Secular Humanistic Jew means that I celebrate my Jewishness in the key of a secular and humanistic approach to life – celebrating this life and this world and emphasizing what people can know and do to understand and improve their lives as individuals and together.
2. What liturgical events are important to your community?
We mark major Jewish holidays with formal services such as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for the Jewish New Year, a congregational Passover seder, as well as regular Shabbat celebrations on Friday night. Some families also perform home celebrations: certainly for Hanukkah and Passover, and some once in a while for Shabbat (follow this link for a home Shabbat celebration liturgy).
3. What kinds of liturgies** are important to your community and what are your sources/resources for these?
We use both poetry and prose, as well as music. The readings can come from traditional Jewish sources, but more often they are from modern writers and poets – sometimes other liturgical writings by liberal Jews that we adapt to our purposes, more often contemporary “secular” writers (both Jewish and not Jewish). We also write our own in each Secular Humanistic Jewish community. Our readings are almost all in English (occasionally both Hebrew and English or Yiddish and English) so that the congregation can understand and (hopefully) be inspired. Songs are often Hebrew (or Yiddish or another Jewish language like Ladino) written in Hebrew letters with English transliterations (for pronunciaion) and translations, though sometimes they have a Jewish language verse and an English verse, and we do use modern folk or stage musical songs from time to time.
4. What are the major elements of your liturgical events apart from written and spoken liturgy (e.g. rituals, talks, music, meditations, other arts etc.)?
For our Shabbats, we generally have a memorial reflection, an opportunity to share “joys and concerns” while lighting candles on a menorah (a section we call “simchas and tsuris”), and congregational announcements. Because the audience is much larger for the High Holidays, the announcements and sharing are abbreviated or skipped. We have a presentation or discussion, sometimes informational, sometimes inspirational, generally a mix of both. We also do symbolic rituals like lighting candles as a sign of enlightenment and the warmth of community, or sharing of wine for fellowship. Specific holidays have more specific rituals or traditional foods, like Hanukkah or Passover.
5. Do your community members contribute to the writing of new liturgies? If so, how and where do they do this?
In many Humanistic Jewish communities, there are liturgy committees that work throughout the year or on specific events (like the High Holidays) to create community liturgy. In congregations with professional leadership like mine, the professional leader generally develops the liturgy – sometimes with input from a committee, and usually responsive to positive or negative feedback from the membership. There are online resources like services by other communities available from the Society for Humanistic Judaism that we generally review when creating new services for ideas or even direct citations.
6. Do your community members choreograph new kinds of liturgical events? If so, how and where do they do this?
Generally not, we have a relatively set calendar of holidays and events. We sometimes revise how we do them, which is a process combining input from lay leadership and professionals/rabbis.
7. Do your liturgies and liturgical events appeal to those outside the Jewish community?
We sometimes find people who are not Jewish but are Humanists who find our style of community appealing – they like our music, our clear philosophy, the kinds of issues we discuss and how we approach them. Often we have spouses of Humanistic Jews who themselves are secular but find meaning in the community from its Humanism, while supporting their partner’s expression of their Jewishness.
8. How might your liturgies and liturgical events become a means to enrich secular society beyond the Jewish community?
We sometimes use our celebrations as opportunities to do good – a collection of goods to donate over the High Holidays for example (give out wish lists on Rosh Hashana, collect donations on Yom Kippur). Some of the guest speakers we host or subjects we cover (eg Darwin Day/Evolution, Death with Dignity) are of interest for the broader community.
9. How do you preserve the important and relevant aspects of your Jewish heritage and identity – its useful insights, values, practices and communal events, and your community history – without perpetuating the dogma, superstitions and prejudices that are prevalent in traditional religion?
This is a very important question. We always clarify when we discuss Jewish stories whether they are narratives or real history. We are willing to publicly disagree with those sources when their values are objectionable. We highlight parallels to Jewish values and culture from other human cultures so we don’t assume that we invented them or that they are unique to us. And we emphasize the power of individuals to decide their own choices in life including their life partners and to participate in more than one culture – by highlighting everyone’s multiple identities, it prevents any one from claiming pre-eminence.
10. Can you give an example of a liturgy or liturgical event (or a component of these) that has been significantly modified, updated, reinterpreted or re-imagined in order to do the above?
The High Holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) are primarily focused in traditional liturgy on atoning for sins and seeking divine forgiveness, even though one is also supposed to seek out those one has wronged or been wronged by to seek and offer human forgiveness. We change the focus in our liturgy to the interperson, and also internally working on forgiving ourselves. So the traditional “Avinu Malkeinu [our father, our king]” has been adapted to “Asinu Khelkeinu [we create our fate]” in a more Humanistic vein but still singable to the traditional melody. Rather than a cosmic “book of life” in which one one judged to live or die in the coming year, we speak in terms of turning a new page in the book of our own lives that we author.
11. What are the greatest challenges your community faces?
Like all liberal Jewish communities, convincing more secularized Jews and their families that they will benefit from connecting with us, that we are worth their time and expense to participate, is a challenging sell in this era of internet and instant media. Our services compete with doing nothing, staying home after a busy work week, or consuming media on any platform. In addition, more secularized people sometimes question why be any distinct identity, or why be Jewish (this series of talks explores this question in more detail). https://hjrabbi.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/why-bother/
12. I recently wrote an article on one of the greatest insights of Judaism (the tradition of prophecy – speaking truth to power). What, in your opinion, is the greatest insight your community has to offer the world?
The balance of particular identity and broader connections – living at the intersection of multiple cultural and ethnic identities. We have been part of our surrounding societies while also having a sense of individual roots and difference. Sometimes we have done better at being an “open ethnicity” and at other times we have been more chauvinist. But if the future is globalization and being “Jewish and”, then Jewish culture broadly and Humanistic Judaism specifically has useful experience here.
Do check out the following articles on Adam’s blog for a closer look at his approach to Jewish liturgy, theology and traditions:
**Liturgies may include any written or spoken words that help define a community’s common identity and shared values, especially those used for private or public gatherings such as yearly-cycle/seasonal, lifecycle and other liturgical events. For example, liturgy can include prose, poetry, storytelling, vows, call and response, readings from literature and philosophy, daily/weekly/seasonal readings or lectionaries and so forth.