My mentor from the time I entered rabbinical school in 1957 until his death in 1976 was Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum. He was born in Vienna, trained in Germany and served congregations there. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II he and his family managed to get to Britain where he first ministered to the community of refugees from Germany and later became the founding rabbi of what is today the largest Reform congregation in the United Kingdom.
I had the privilege of working as a student in that congregation. On more than one occasion, the rabbi would say that had he asked people as they were coming to the Kol Nidre service if they believed in God, they’d probably tell him to mind his own business. They had tickets, and as card-carrying members of the congregation, they had the right to be there without being interrogated about their beliefs.
Rabbi Maybaum approved. He wanted us to remember that Judaism isn’t a confessional religion. We’re Jews by birth or by choice. Our Judaism is to be reflected in our actions, with less regard for theology. Though he himself taught Jewish thought and wrote books on the subject, he knew that Judaism is about belonging and behaving more than about believing.
As a corollary, he’d urge regular worshippers to receive the “three-times-a year-Jews” with grace and warmth, curbing every arrogance of piety. Affirming God, for example, in the words of the seminal Jewish prayer, the Shema, is central to Judaism, but for many Jews, it’s more of a guiding principle than a dogma. But they’re all Jews and have equal status in the community.
Would Rabbi Maybaum have approved of the new initiative by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem that prides itself on its commitment to Jewish pluralism and the Oranim Academic College of the kibbutz movement in Israel? Last month, in a joint ceremony, the two institutions introduced 16 women and men as rabbinic leaders who, in the words of the Times of Israel, would “catalyze a process of spiritual rejuvenation for the Israeli public sphere and its emerging Jewish communities.”
It’s an attempt to replace religious hierarchy with secular equality. Some of the 16 individuals had already been ordained by rabbinical schools across the religious spectrum. Now they all ordained each other to make the point that democracy is replacing top-down authority in Judaism. It’s no longer the religion of the stern fathers of Halachah, Jewish law, but the culture of warm grandparents of rabbinic midrash and chassidic tales.
What for Rabbi Maybaum was a way of making members of his congregation feel at home in the synagogue seems to have become for these new rabbis a way of institutionalizing secular Judaism in an effort to turn it from the faith of our ancestors into the civil religion of our contemporaries.
Though belief in God isn’t ruled out, it’s not the focus of the project. Its aim is to engage the growing number of secular communities and institutions in Israel by promoting Jewish learning without a definite religious orientation. The ambiance is secular spirituality of the kind known in the Diaspora, including Canada, as humanistic Judaism.
It seems that the driving force behind the initiative is the kibbutz movement. Though the kibbutz itself has ceased to be the economic paradigm of fairness and equality or a model for the ideal society in a socialist utopia by succumbing to bourgeois living, it still has aspirations to be the bastion of secular Jewish culture in Israel, with special emphasis on the study of traditional texts and the initiation of contemporary rituals.
Rabbi Maybaum tried to integrate the modern Diaspora Jew into the traditional framework. The Hartman-Oranim project seeks to adapt Judaism to the aspirations of the modern Israeli Jew. Time will tell if this is a new kind of Judaism in the making or a vain attempt to sanctify secularism.