Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

Our mission is to enrich societies with secular ethics and reflective practices, informed by the latest research, and expressed in liturgical events that include creative writing, literature, ritual and other art forms.


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An Interview with Rabbi Adam Chalom

chalom

Photograph courtesy of the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

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.

Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation 1

Photograph courtesy of the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

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.

Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation 4

Photograph courtesy of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

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.

Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation 6

Photograph courtesy of the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

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.

http://www.shj.org/

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.

Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation 8

Photograph courtesy of the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

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.

Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation 7

Photograph courtesy of the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

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.

Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation 2

Photograph courtesy of the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Do check out the following articles on Adam’s blog for a closer look at his approach to Jewish liturgy, theology and traditions:

A Culture of Blessing

Our Quarterback, Our King – Two Problems with Liberal Theology

We Say What We Believe


**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.

Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation 5

Photograph courtesy of the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

 

 

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“A Common Story with Uncommon Results” by Rev. Dr. Roger Ray

Dr Ray 2

Dr. Roger L. Ray

Dr. Roger L. Ray (RevDrRay@aol.com) is the founding pastor of The Emerging Church (spfccc.org), and the author of Progressive Faith and Practice and Progressive Conversations. His sermons reach an audience of several thousand through podcast (Progressive Faith Sermons on iTunes) and videos (CCCSPRINGFIELD on YouTube). He earned M.Div. and D.Min. degrees at Vanderbilt Divinity School and was a 2004 fellow at Harvard Divinity School.

“A Common Story with Uncommon Results”

Like many members of the clergy who are now progressive/post-theist/humanists, I grew up in a traditional Protestant Church and found myself drawn to an uncommonly passionate faith. After earning a degree in philosophy, I took my ardent beliefs to seminary, entering Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1979. Most of my peers in the student body were similar to me though our faculty was not much like us. Our professors who were “training us for ministry” had largely given up church attendance years before we arrived. This was something that we students were aware of and about which we were fairly anxious. However, through the years of training in theology, biblical critical studies, and history, our professor’s cynicism made more sense than our plans to become religious practitioners.

After being disabused of any lingering belief in such things as incarnation, salvation, or the inspiration of scripture, I found meaning as a parish pastor through pastoral care for those in my parish who needed counseling or comfort, and in writing sermons about ethics and social justice. Still, for more than 30 years, I followed the lectionary, performed baptisms, led in Advent and Lenten services, and sang the hymns that confidently proclaimed beliefs in ancient views of a supernatural theistic God, resurrection, and hope of eternity in bliss. I was one of the hundreds of thousands of pastors who had a personal foot in the world of academic theology and the other foot practically planted in the institutional church that paid my salary, being careful to guard both my employment and my self-respect . . . which is much harder than it sounds.

I believe that what started to upset that apple cart for me was when I was invited to teach at a local church related university. When I began to teach the “Life and Teachings of Jesus,” I found that my innate desire to be honest with my students and to give them the kind of education they came to a university to receive, meant that I had to try to pull the disguise of magical thinking and superstition off of the Jesus story. In a backhanded way, it began to influence my preaching. Over a decade in a fairly large mainstream church, I kept becoming a little more honest, a little less guarded every week. We have a saying in ministry: Friends come and go but enemies just accumulate. Being a liberal preacher in a conservative part of the USA in the 1990’s my advocacy for gay rights, my opposition to poverty creating industries and labor practices, and then my fierce opposition to the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, grew my body of critics to the tipping point of a 51% majority and I was escorted to the curb by both my former church and my former denomination.

I managed an international relief agency for a year. I did some contract writing and teaching and was not finding myself within the sort of career that would allow me to be who I wanted to be. Some close friends prevailed upon me to try starting a church that would be just for progressives. I, frankly, didn’t think it would work, but I was willing to give it a try. In 2008, when we started, we thought of ourselves as progressive Christians. We were dismissive of the creeds and most of the beliefs of our former denominational lives, but we were uncertain of how to become a church that trumpeted social justice messages while trying to free ourselves of the mental cage of old religious beliefs.

For the first couple of years we still followed the common lectionary, said prayers of intercession, and celebrated Ash Wednesday and seasonal holidays. I can still remember the last time I was imposing ashes on the foreheads of worshippers and we all seemed to realize that such rituals no longer held any meaning for us. We ordered palm leaves to decorate our sanctuary a couple of times and then realized that since none of that story was historical nor was it specifically relevant to our spiritual lives, we walked away from such things sort of the way a cat does when it has finally broken free of the irresistible draw of a catnip mouse, looking around hoping that no one had noticed how silly they looked when they were formerly held in its addictive but irrational grasp.

Again, to a certain extent, our evolution was fuelled by my switching from teaching about Jesus to teaching courses in world religions. My church was slowly becoming less specifically Christian and more inter-faith in nature and eventually, more like a Unitarian Church. We have never affiliated with any larger church body, but I have personally placed my membership in a Unitarian Church and most of my speaking invitations in the USA come from Unitarian congregations. We struggled in those early years with discerning whether we wanted to try to become a full-service church with youth programs, Sunday School classes, choirs, etc. or whether we were a boutique church, serving only a small group of intellectual, liberal adults. We took a stab at growing into being a full-service church but while we were stretching ourselves thin financially to provide that broader offering, we began to be discovered on-line.

While we could not draw enough progressive people to support an expansion into being a full-service church, we were drawing a large international audience through the posting our sermons on the iTunes podcast service (Progressive Faith Sermons) and videos on YouTube (CCCSPRINGFIELD). When we found that our small congregation in Missouri could not raise the donations needed to maintain our staff and property, we turned to our internet audience for their help. While fewer than one hundred of our estimated audience of 15,000 listeners actually contribute, we have found that with their help we can keep our doors open and the lights on indefinitely.

I know of no other truly hybrid congregations that exist through nearly equal donations from their “seated” local church members and their broader global web-based supporters. As bricks and mortar churches continue to decline and most are being crushed by their overhead, I suspect that this surprising hybrid model will become more common, which, to my mind, is good news, because, otherwise, I fear that the progressive movement might die out entirely.

Dr. Roger Ray
Pastor of the Emerging Church
Please like us on FaceBook: The Emerging Church
Dr Ray


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An Interview with the Founder of the Secular Liturgies Network

The following interview is based on the questions most often put to me in relation to the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum:

Would you call yourself a humanist, a progressive Christian or something else?

I see myself as a secularist, a liberal and an egalitarian. I’m also a humanist with a Christian flavour. I say ‘Christian flavour’ because I acknowledge that I have inherited Christian ideas and perspectives from the broader culture I have grown up in, and from that Christian heritage, I have extracted and re-purposed some helpful insights and practices, while leaving behind the dogmatic and superstitious elements. I am certainly not a Christian in the traditional sense, and when presented with a form, I tick the ‘no religion’ box. I also have a Buddhist flavour as I have had a close association with Secular Buddhism since early childhood, and still  attend meditations at our local Buddhist centre.

We can have many layers of identity, which are meaningful to us to the same or varying degrees. When asked about my identity in recent Brexit debates, for example, I could honestly say that I have always seen myself as equally English, Scottish, Irish, European, of mixed heritage, thoroughly international, and a member of the global human race!

Do you believe in God?

I do not believe in the God of any traditional religion. However, I do believe that we have profound emotional and psychological experiences of things like awe and wonder, love, self-transcendence and transformation, which we (being the social animals that we are), naturally personify, using words like God, YHWH or Allah, or which we experience as ‘divine’ in the sense of their ‘otherness’. Such experiences seem a world away from our normal experience of reality but they are not supernatural, they are imaginative, and as such, they may still be true and meaningful to us at the subjective level.

Therefore, while I reject supernatural theism, I must nonetheless embrace the fact that, at least for the time being, we humans, in spite of our rational capabilities, are largely driven by irrational impulses. I must acknowledge, with respect, the temptation for human beings (including myself) to invent beings and worlds of the imagination in order to ease our pain or enhance our joy. Even those of us who promote a rational approach to knowledge do this, for example, when we immerse ourselves in fiction and fantasy, when we talk to someone we love who has died, when we cry out to a God we don’t normally believe in because we are in crisis, or when we express gratitude to the universe for something that has worked out wonderfully in our favour. In those brief moments, alternative realities, Gods, ghosts, a conscious universe – all these things are real to us, and sometimes more meaningful to us than anything else, even though they are not real in the literal sense.

What is your inspiration for this project? Did you grow up in a secular home?

Yes, I did. Our home was always lively with discussions of literature, philosophy, religion and politics – no holds barred! We were always encouraged to develop our own views. I ended up having quite a journey. As a child I was an agnostic but I became an atheist in my later childhood when I realised the evidence for a God just wasn’t there, and that being an agnostic about such a thing was like being agnostic about the fairies we used to pretend were living at the bottom of the garden. In my late teens, however, I developed what everyone now calls generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) after a period of prolonged stress. It could have been effectively treated (or even prevented) with CBT, but back in the late 90s and early naughties,  no-one seemed able to help. The whole experience was incredibly frightening, which of course added to my symptoms and created a vicious circle! I really struggled to cope with it but when I reached my lowest point, I was brought back from the brink by a powerful experience of what I thought was a supernatural presence, one filled with love, which gave me hope.

Soon afterwards, I came across the New Testament in my student halls, which led me to believe Jesus was this divine presence I had encountered. I became a devout Christian. I attended evangelical churches but only because that was where all the young spiritual people went. I was always deeply uncomfortable with creationism, young earth theory, female submission, and other elements that were common to those churches. For that reason, I hung out almost exclusively with deeper thinking Christians on the periphery of the movement, and in a nondenominational group at the Catholic Students Union. After studying religious history, biblical criticism, philosophy, theology, comparative religion and so forth (and just from acquiring more life experience), I had to acknowledge that traditional Christianity, like all traditional religion, just didn’t add up. It was just another religious power structure with some attractive aspects like community and comforting beliefs (e.g. in heaven and in a loving God) to draw people in. I also by then had enough distance from the painful experiences of my youth to see that what I had thought was a supernatural experience was purely a psychological one, albeit a very powerful and important one for me.

The appeal of the evangelical movement came from the fact that it contrasted with a wider culture of superficial relationships and anti-intellectualism. It provided an alternative path of moral seriousness, intellectual debate, and access to friendships that didn’t revolve around alcohol. Sadly, secular university activities did not provide these things. By my mid-twenties, I had become a Progressive Christian. However, the progressive movement, though vibrant, was mostly a haven for those recovering from the deceptions and abuses of conservative religion. It didn’t quite have the confidence to truly do its own thing or work with those without a similar background. When compared with liberal thinkers and pioneers in wider society, progressive Christians and liberal Christians still seemed in some ways behind the curve, reflected in the very small numbers of young and middle aged people involved. This led me to settle on my own multi-layered identity as a secularist and humanist with a Christian heritage that I still valued for some of its insights and practices. Eventually, I got around to addressing the deficiencies that drive vulnerable young people away from secular cultures towards religious ones with this Secular Liturgies project!

Why do you think secular liturgies are so important?

Just like religious communities, secular communities need to explore, express and reinforce their common values and goals. Formal words and choreographed gatherings are some of the most effective ways in which we humans do this. We have to realise that more than half of the British population no longer identify with a religion (figures are also similar elsewhere), and many of those who do, are liberal or progressive in their views, and are committed to the separation of church and state and many of the other principles captured by the liturgies and events of this project.

Most of the liturgies and liturgical events we have inherited are centuries out of date and no longer relevant or morally acceptable. We are children of the enlightenment and of the information age, and are therefore privileged to have access to far more knowledge than our predecessors. We must learn how to use this information wisely and creatively to help ourselves, and our children, to live good, healthy lives, and to build better, more ethical, and more sustainable societies for the future. Secular liturgies and liturgical events will also help to bring people in modern, atomised societies together to build community, in ways that will help address all sorts of social, psychological and other issues, but equally, in ways that will guard against the tribalism and prejudices that have plagued our species in the past.

How would you summarise your ultimate objectives with the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum?

I hope to bring together people from different backgrounds and organisations who have the potential to work together, to build a resource of secular liturgies, and to pioneer new or updated secular liturgical events. I hope to empower people to use words, cultural heritage and other art forms, in ways that will enrich our secular cultures and societies and make them more resilient in difficult times. I hope that our liturgies and liturgical events will address the nine themes of the SLN, and help us to meet today’s global challenges.

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Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong