Humanistic Judaism is a comprehensive response to the needs of contemporary Jews to create personal and communal experiences that celebrate identity, values, and connection. In my experience as the lay ceremonial leader of a congregation of Humanistic Jews, the pursuit of these experiences can lead to great rewards in unexpected places, places never visited by the other branches of the modern Jewish tree.
Our congregation includes the Levy family: mother, father and seven year-old (adopted) daughter, Ruth. Last year, the parents asked me to help them prepare a celebration of Ruth’s conversion to Judaism (her birth parents were not Jewish). We discussed Humanistic Judaism’s philosophy that adoption is a better term than conversion, and that it requires no ritual to accomplish, merely an affirmative identification and association with Jews, their historical and cultural experiences, and the values of Humanistic Judaism. The parents still wanted to do something special to welcome Ruth -an active member of our Sunday School – into the Jewish family, and, consistent with our philosophy, to allow Ruth to declare her adoption of Humanistic Judaism.
We considered a Naming Ceremony, but Ruth already had a significant Jewish name, and the existing liturgy for such a celebration dealt with infants, not a curious, thoughtful, social second-grader. We considered the Bat Mitzvah, but Ruth is far from entering young adulthood and will celebrate her Bat Mitzvah at an appropriate time in several years. We were stuck. None of the branches of Judaism seemed to offer an example. There was no analog in tradition to adapt.
As Humanistic Jews do so often, we created something new; something that met the needs of our community and reflected our cherished traditions.
We started with the name. Ruth, you see, was not born in the United States. She was born in China. And when she came to this country to become part of the Levy family, she brought a name with her, a name given to her by her birth parents in their language. The Levys have taught Ruth that Qing Miao Huai is the name she was born with and that it will always be hers. I wondered what Qing Miao Huai meant and was given the answer: Ruth’s Chinese name means Celebrate Seedlings.
Now, we were getting somewhere. Celebrate Seedlings! What a noble concept. Jews even have an annual holiday dedicated to celebrating seedlings, and Jews love planting trees in Israel to commemorate special people and events.
I suggested to the Levys that we could achieve our purpose by giving Ruth a new Hebrew name to compliment her Chinese name; one that also means celebrate seedlings. The suggestion was approved and on we went.
Not being a scholar – not even literate in Hebrew – I sought the advice of a rabbi friend to provide a translation for Celebrate Seedlings. Simple! Simcha was celebrate and zera was seedlings. Simcha Zera would be the name. The Levys and I were pleased; Simcha Zera even seemed to have a touch of poetry. Creating the ceremony was easy from here on.
Everything was set for Ruth’s Naming/Adoption Ceremony to be held in the presence of her Sunday School friends, their parents, most of the rest of our congregation, and guests during Circle Time before Sunday School one day last fall. The ceremony would be immediately followed by our annual Introduction to Humanistic Judaism symposium for new and continuing members. What better way to demonstrate how Humanistic Judaism meets our needs than to share this unique celebration?
Two weeks before the big day, I attended a congregation Bat Mitzvah. At the reception, I was seated with a local Israeli family who, I’d been told, were curious about Humanistic Judaism and our congregation. I didn’t need any encouragement, of course, and gave them my spiel, including the story of Simcha Zera.
No sooner had the name passed my lips than the woman with whom I was talking burst into laughter. Loud, uninterrupted, tear-inducing laughter. What? What had I said? What was so funny? When she had composed herself (minimally), she repeated the story and name to her husband and they both started laughing. I was really worried that I’d done something terribly wrong, something that might embarrass the Levys and Ruth, especially. What was it?
When the couple finally caught their breath they told me. My friend’s translation, they said, was technically 100% accurate. The problem was that our word for seedlings – zera – is a common slang term among Israeli youth for sperm. Oy! Ouch! The woman said she had pictured an eager young woman of 18 or so, visiting Israel for the first time and introducing herself to an Israeli young man as Simcha Zera, Celebrate Sperm. I thought we were sunk. We couldn’t go forward with this.
But, the day was saved. My new Israeli friends informed me that the word neta had the same meaning as zera – seedlings – without any of the sexual connotation. Simcha Neta. Not quite as poetic, I thought, but a good name nonetheless.
Two weeks later, the Levys’ Naming/Adoption Ceremony for Ruth, Qing Miao Huai, Simcha Neta went off without a hitch, and brought tears of joy and wonder to many eyes. Humanistic Judaism adapting (while adopting), once again. Planting trees. Celebrating seedlings.
Rob Agree is the ceremonial leader of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Morris County.