Community Blog PTJL, the Shema, and Jewish Humanism

By Rachel Schoenfeld

Rabbi Rachel SchoefeldHow could I modify the Parenting Through a Jewish Lens (PTJL) curriculum to teach it without God?  This was my central question when I started to prepare to teach this course.

As a Reconstructionist rabbi, I am someone who personally believes in God.  But as the education director of Kahal Braira, I also believe that Jews have the right to experience Judaism without references to God.  Many Jews struggle with what to believe — or not — about God. Jewish humanism makes this explicit, leaving this as a question up to the individual. Kahal Braira (KB for short) is Boston’s Humanistic Jewish congregation; the words “Kahal Braira” mean “Community of Choice.”

My challenge was how remove references to God, and add a contemporary, humanist flavor – emphasizing that human actions are what is ultimately important.

The second session, “Infusing Our Lives with Meaning” introduces ways to create a “sacred space” in the home. The PTJL sourcebook has many lovely readings and reflections on this concept, and proposes using a mezuzah – which traditionally includes the text of the Shema — as one way to do that. For this community, I considered: What do we want to put on our doorposts, what statement is so central to us that we want to be reminded of it, when we enter a space, when we leave it?

KB reinterprets the Shema as “Shema Yisrael – Ehad K’halaynu; Enoshut Echat – Hear O Israel – Humanity is one; Our community is one.”  I reached out to Rabbi Miriam Jerris, at the Society of Humanistic Judaism, for other humanistic versions of the Shema.  She sent me “A Declaration of Interdependence: On Listening and Oneness.”  It reads “The Earth, our world, is One.  All peoples, all beings, are One.”  Either of these versions are statements that I would be proud to put on my doorpost, and be reminded of in my comings and goings. I had a sense that the participants would feel similarly.

The day that our class met to discuss Mezuzot and the Shema was a day — as many days have been recently — of political news, and strong feelings.  In the room, alongside a desire to learn, was sprinkled fear, anger, a bit of hopelessness, and a desire to protect our families.  We discussed the meaning of the mezuzah, and alongside that, the traditional Shema and Humanist alternatives.  We brainstormed how we would write our own: what could we write, together with our children, as a ‘creed’ that our family wants to remember when we pass each doorway? Could we put what we write on our doorposts? What a powerful reminder to ourselves!  And, in our do-it-yourself ethos, for good measure (and for fun), we brainstormed different ways to make and decorate mezuzah cases, too.

A participant brought it all together for us.  He said: “When we enter the house, and pass the mezuzah, we enter space that we create for our family.  We can leave the world, and we can leave politics, outside the doorpost.” The room’s tension dissipated; this was the teaching that we needed to hear.  Just like we can write inside the mezuzah, we can write (or, at least co-write with our family members) the story of what happens inside our houses.  For me, this is the power of Jewish humanism, this is the power of engaging with our tradition.

Rabbi Rachel Dvash Schoenfeld is Education Director of Kahal B’raira and Rabbi at Shir Hadash Havurah

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