Secular Rabbis to the Rescue?

by Brian on February 10, 2011

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

Rabbi Sivan Maas

The Jerusalem Post reported this weekend about a rabbinic ordination ceremony of a very different kind. I was there at the event too, which took place in December. What made it all so unique was that the new rabbis were all entirely secular. And they don’t believe in God, at least not in the traditional sense of a personal deity that intervenes in one’s daily activities.

Secular rabbis? Isn’t that an oxymoron? No, says Tmura, the Israeli arm of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, the rabbinic and leadership school of a small Jewish movement of about 30,000 members worldwide that’s mostly flown under the radar.

Tmura’s 12 freshly minted rabbis have set for themselves a formidable task: to bring Jewish content and ritual based on (but not obligated by) tradition to the 67% of Israelis who define themselves as either secular or “not very religious.”

Formidable because non mainstream Jewish denominations haven’t exactly been welcomed with outstretched arms in Israel, where Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and even Jewish Renewal congregations are vastly outnumbered by their Orthodox brethren, and where the average secular Israeli holds by the old saw that the shul he or she doesn’t go to has to be frum by the standards of the increasingly strict Orthodox Rabbinate.

To wit: in an interview on Israel Channel 10’s Miktzoanim (“Professionals”) morning program, host Shira Flicks launched immediately into a friendly (but certainly serious) banter on what to call Tmura dean Rabbi Sivan Maas – Rabah, or maybe Rabanit (both feminine versions of the Hebrew “Rav”). Maas playfully responded to the latter, “That would be my husband.”

Imagine, then, Flicks’ response to the concept of a “secular rabbi,” who believes in “God as a literary character.”

Tmura is trying hard to play catch up. The organization has graduated some 23 rabbis in the last three years and has a sister organization called Tkasim (“ceremonies”) that helps non-religious Israelis created humanistic life cycle events – weddings, funerals and bar and bat mitzvah’s – along with Shabbat and holiday celebrations.

In conjunction with its ordination ceremony in December, Tmura sponsored a full day conference featuring biblical-themed lectures on topics such as “human rights issues during the biblical era,” “the bible as inspiration for contemporary art,” and “comparing lifecycle events, ceremonies and celebrations during biblical times with contemporary Judaism.”

The organization is also trying to arrange a monthly humanistic Kabbalat Shabbat service at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. Such gatherings already exist on a number of secular kibbutzim where Tmura-trained rabbis live, Rabbi Maas told me.

“The kibbutzim are going through a fascinating process of ‘re-comunitizing’ themselves in the post-privatization stage, realizing they want a community but they also need capable professional leaders to do the job,” Maas said.

The time for Tmura may be ripe. With recent polls showing that a majority of Jewish Israelis favor the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, and with the creation of some 30 new mixed secular-religious congregations in the last few years, Tmura’s alternative agenda could gain traction,

It may not be the “revolution” that many of the organization’s new secular rabbis called for at the ordination, but it certainly won’t be for lack of trying.

This article on Tmura appeared yesterday on Israelity.

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