Interview with Charles D. Miller – President, Kahal Chaverim, NJ Congregation for Humanistic Judaism

by | January 30, 2020

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Charles D. Miller is the President of Kahal Chaverim. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What were some moments impactful on worldview development?

Charles D. Miller: I am the youngest of 4 kids. We went to a conservative temple when I was younger, to a Jewish temple. Then, as I grew older, my folks moved to a Reform temple, where I was Bar Mitzvah’d. I had a traditional, Northeastern American Jewish experience with being Bat Mitzvah’d, did all the holidays, we were NOT kosher, it was cultural.

My parents never had ham growing up, which meant that we never had ham in the house. So, I grew up never having ham. Not because it is not kosher, but because we just never had it. Even though, I like a good cheeseburger with bacon. It is that kind of cultural Jew without the orthodoxy side of it.

From an early age, I questioned pivotal concepts. I’ll leave it at that. When I got older, my trade: I have graduate degrees in both history and in religious studies – the secular study of religion. As I dove deeper into history, I realized human beings defined themselves with or without religion as part of their identity.

I thought, “Wow, if I want to understand history better, then I better study how people view religion.” I studied religion from a secular viewpoint. As I dove deeper and deeper, the ideas of capital “T” truth got further and further away from things that made sense to me on a more personal level.

So, I had moved away from traditional Judaism, not feeling comfortable in Reform or Orthodox, certainly not Orthodox temples, with what people said and how they lived their lives – what they did and said in the temple during the holidays. So, you were having particularly intelligent scientists who understood the world through science, logic, and reason.

Yet, they would be saying prayers that went away from that. What they said and what they believed, it seemed to not really connect. I always find that people will find great workarounds when their personal beliefs do not necessarily mesh with their metaphysical beliefs.

They do a bunch of mental gymnastics, which I was not able to do. When I dated, it was not of interest of me to marry someone in the faith, but I was not opposed to it. I married someone who was not Jewish. Although, our kids are being raised Jewish, but in a secular humanistic congregation.

So, I don’t know if that answers the questions, or if that overkills the question.

Jacobsen: That is a great lead-in, actually. When it comes to parenting in a secular or humanistic Judaism, how do you bring this about while rejecting the supernaturalisms?

Miller: It is interesting. In the American context, now, you will get the academic side of my head. In the American context, in the absence of – and I am saying, “The United States,” not North American as Mexicans are in North American, which is a snobbery of Americans – anything in your home, in the absence of any belief system, children will end up adopting a worldview that is Christian-based, not Jesus-based.

But they will understand the world through Christian concepts. What are those concepts? There is a dichotomy: good and evil. They are just the concepts. They will wrap their heads around holidays. Winter is not a “Winter holiday.” It is a “Christian holiday” for school. It is “Easter break.”

If you do not have anything in the house, I will not do anything. It will not be in the house. The worldview is based on Christian morality because the United States is based on Christian moralities. We are founded on Enlightenment philosophy, but based on Christian morals. All the Founding Fathers were Christian of some sort.

How do we do that in the house? One of the things my wife and I decided early on. My wife said, “Look, I don’t care how we raise the kids. But I want them to have something. Then they can decide on their own later on, when they do.”

So, when they talk about things, and they go to school, my wife ends up being co-chair of our congregation’s education program, as she is a teacher, too, which made things easy. We talk about Jewish culture, Jewish history. Our congregation has been celebrating our 20th anniversary at Kahal Chaverim.

When we talk about things in our Sunday school, and when we talk about things in the holidays, we have people in the congregation who are somewhat theistic or spiritual, but they are humanistic. We have others on the other extreme who are secular and do not see an existence of a metaphysical power in the universe or who sees human beings do everything.

We talk about it. We speak about this from a young age. We have always spoken about, “What does it mean if you say, ‘There is an afterlife or not an afterlife. Do Jews believe in an afterlife? Is it the same as other afterlives?’” It is an amazing conversation to have with children.

I understand kids take on their parents’ biases. All kids do this. In a Buddhist town, the kids will have a Buddhist perspective. Until, they decide to reject it or continue in it. So, my kids, unlike their cousins who are more traditional Jews, are generally of the age and say, “I do not believe in a God. When we say our prayers, why would I thank God for everything in the universe when it is not how I view things?”

My kids, over time, say, “Okay, I get that. What about ghosts?” They say, “Yes, of course, it makes sense.” I am having this conversation with a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old. It interesting to where they got to. They got to the concepts of ghosts and spirits, and an afterlife. It is not metaphysical. It is because the cartoons have ghosts.

I used to collect comic books. Comic books have an afterlife. You come back from it. Someone’s dead. My kids are familiar with mythology from school. For them, there is no incongruity between the theology of the afterlife, which may simply be spirits that are unhappy or not able to pass on to the right place and to come back as ghosts.

They do not worry about the theological side of the question. They say, “Sure! You see this in cartoons all the time. Ghost form and not ghost form.” I have to laugh. Because here, I am thinking my kids are missing the intellectual side of it. However, my kids nailed it on the head.

Sure, the stuff exists, we talk about this stuff in books and movies all the time. Charles Dickens and all that stuff. But as they have gotten older, I don’t press the conversation as much. We do have conversations. I hear them talking with their friends who may be Jewish, “How can you be Jewish if you cannot believe in God?” My sons said, “I am Jewish because I am Jewish. There is a whole history of Judaism. I do not believe God split the Red Sea. I do not think these things make sense.”

So, as he has gotten older, he has gotten more sophisticated thought processes. But it circles back to the concept that in the United States, in absence of anything, then the kid sees the world through those Christian mores. I am thinking, even in the T.V. shows.

It always cracks me up. There is the T.V. show BewitchedSupernatural WitchesCharmed, and so on. What’s interesting, I always thought about this. The conservative or religious conservative groups are appalled by these things, by Harry Potter, because it talks about witches.

I have had these conversations with very devout faith-based or theistic-based people. They say, “I would prefer my kids to not talk about witches and not see Harry Potter.” They go through this whole thing. I do not argue with them. But we have some generally good conversations.

I always tell them, “I think you’re missing the point. By having the conversation that there are demons and witches, there is already an assumption of a Christian-based worldview because Buddhism and Hinduism, even most Americans, do not have that kind of worldview. Jesus doesn’t even have that kind of worldview, unlike Christianity.”

Just by their existence and the way they present the heroes and the villains, they are very much already assuming that Christian perspective. Again, it circles back to having to present something. So, in our household, we present Jewish culture, Jewish history.

I am going to go out tonight and get some bread with some wine. I will light the Shabbat candles. But our prayer is not, “Thank you, God, for bread.” We went through the prayers. They were humanistic prayers that SHJ has had. That Rabbi Sherwin Wine who started humanistic Judaism had done them.

I tweaked his a little bit because they didn’t resonate with me as well as I would have liked. We took out any mention of God. We talk about how we are glad for wine because it represents something – and bread represents something. The light of candles represents something.

It is a connection between us and our Jewish heritage, and our ancestors who lit candles for various reasons. Not having food meant something to them. So, bread, being able to share bread on a Friday night, was very important to them. All of these things.

We count these things in those terms.

Jacobsen: What are some other Kahal Chaverim in terms of Sukkot, Yom Kippur, and so on, when you’re not taking part in the large culture of Christian mass media?

Miller: In Kahal Chaverim, we share in all of the Jewish holidays. We just went through with the high holidays. We did Rosh Hashanah. We had the two nights of it. The night and then the day, there is a ceremony of a leader who is not a rabbi, but just a ceremonial leader and a founding member of the congregation. There is a point at which people stand up. It is the remembrance of all those who one has lost. They say, “I remember…”

They go through a list of everyone special to them: their father, their mother, a child, a dear friend, who has passed way.  We are a small congregation. [Laughing] we are a very small congregation. I should be fair about that.

Everyone got a chance to say something (everyone who wanted to). My comment, to circle back, about in absence of anything in the home; children will see the world through more Christian eyes, not Jesus, but in those kinds of things.

Judaism is what people present. So, if you have a Jewish home, whether it’s Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, by having that in your home, you are already presenting something very different than what the mass culture is.

There’s not much you can do with Christmas or Easter, when everything around you is celebrating Christmas and Easter. With the lights, the commercials, Santa Clauses on the corner of every street…

Jacobsen: …[Laughing]…

Miller: …all of those things. You cannot really do anything about it. I don’t think that we need to do anything about it. My kids know that they are Jewish and don’t celebrate Christmas. Although, if they want to go to their friend’s house, then they go to their friend’s house and can celebrate their holidays.

I have no problem if they go to their friend’s house as long as they are invited.

Jacobsen: We are in a time of strongman-ism across cultures, including North American and American. This comes, sometimes, tied with openly prejudiced and bigoted attitudes and remarks, and treatment, of sub-groups or sub-ethnic groups in the United States.

How do larger cultural phenomena impact sub-cultural phenomena found in humanistic Judaism and its communities?

Miller: Explain to me, define if you would, “strongman-ism,” so that we’re on the same page.

Jacobsen: Male-based, patriarchal demagoguery, something like that.

Miller: It is funny. Is there a rise of it, or is it a re-assertion of those who feel that they lost something? That is an interesting question in and of itself. It sounds like you’re asking that, “In modern culture, right now, especially in the United States but this is a worldwide phenomenon, is there a re-assertion of this patriarchal, male-dominated worldview with a resurgence and re-assertion of male perspective that also is denigrating others that are not like that person?” Is that close to it?

Jacobsen: That’s true. Yes.

Miller: Am I pretty much hitting the question correctly?

Jacobsen: Yes.

Miller: I think one of the things in humanistic Judaism. It is a very accepting worldview. People are people. I am trying this apart from the broader secular humanistic movement and its perspective.

Let’s say less as President of Kahal Chaverim, and the spokesperson of the congregation, and more as Charlie Miller, they are very close. However, the way see it in the world is people are whoever they are.

Therefore, the idea of a right type of human being and a wrong type of human being; a better type of human being and a worse type of human being. That my group is better than your group, just doesn’t work for me.

I just don’t see human beings that way. Historically, we are very much like that. Historically, human beings love to make groups and think, “My team is better than your team.” We see this all the time in tribes in how they interacted with one another.

They would define “human” as their group. It is interesting. In Indonesia, in the headhunting societies, you could kill someone else outside of your tribe and under certain conditions because it wasn’t murder. Because the others weren’t real humans. That is how people can treat others.

Why could whites treat blacks so badly? Because blacks were not considered human by many whites. The slaves were not considered human by their white owners. They were considered sub-human by many whites. Therefore, it made it easier on the dominant culture to say, “Oh, I am not treating a human being poorly. I am treating this sub-human poorly, which is okay.”

I am not saying that it is okay. I am saying that it is abhorrent. But people justified their actions in their psyche by re-making blacks sub-human. Christianity supported this idea. People would trace back human roots to Cain and Abel, and Seth, or something like that, to scripture and justify their actions in biblical terms.

People will do mental gymnastics to say, “You’re not co-equal with me. Therefore, I can treat you this way.” Literally, I was teaching, yesterday, a history class to students, colonial laws and women, and how women were not allowed, in colonial America, to own land, have a job, to inherit property.

Basically, it was legal to beat your wife. Interesting, the laws that we had in the 13 colonies. It is not the same across the board. So, there is human history where we do this. I think it’s incumbent upon people today to say, “Yes, we used to do this. Time to move on. Now, we treat people for who they are and their actions, and my interaction with them. They do not get a pass because of the color of their white skin or their male gender.”

For me, personally, how you behave is more important than any other attribute that you may have, it took a long time to get to that statement. I think I would try to impart that on my kids. I know my kids were far better boys than I was.

Not that I was bad. I see them interacting with people. They are just good people and good kids. I think that is partly based on the congregation, in how we are accepting of people. They are, for example, accepting of same-gender parents. To them, it is not different than any other parent relationship.

Jacobsen: Does this make the perspective on humanistic Judaism and secular Judaism as more oriented around a life as an ethic lived out? So, in other words, getting ridding of the supernaturalism and focusing on how one deals with people day-to-day in an ordinary way.

Miller: I, definitely, think that’s part of it. That’s it, somewhere, in its very essence. “We say what we mean, and we mean what we say.” It’s an expression that I’ve heard when I went looking for this type of congregation and met this type of congregation.

We don’t say, “Thank you, God, for creating the universe,” because I don’t believe in God. Human beings created the problems in the world. We are the ones who are going to fix it. We are the ones who created it. I think secular humanistic Jews look to science, logic, and reason to understand the universe.

A response to that comment is science eliminates beauty by making everything rational or not. I disagree, it doesn’t mean there is no beauty. I think a sunrise or sunset is stunning. But I don’t need a powerful God or other to make it even more beautiful. So, it is beautiful. It is stunning, especially if I am on the beach. I am a beach person.

But when we look at global patterns right now, when we look at issues of weather and how things have changed from records of 100 years ago, I think humanistic Jews tend to say, “Alright, there is science behind the fact that human beings are at cause here. Guess what? Science says that or demonstrates that if our understanding is off, then we will adjust the understanding with newer science, newer data, and newer information.”

“We will not be held bound by, ‘This was passed down from generation to generation and, therefore, we cannot change this scientific theory.’ No! If a better one comes along, and if it makes better sense, and if it explains the universe in a more realistic way, then fantastic!”

By “realistic,” I mean what is truthful. If our understanding is enhanced by the new theory, great, we will use that. Also, in our congregation, we have very social and political views. We have some who are slightly conservative, while many others are more centrist or liberal.

I know there are more humanistic congregations that have everything from a political perspective to Republicans, to Democrats, to fiscally conservative Republicans to fiscally conservative liberal Democrats. At the core, wherever you go in humanistic Judaism, based on personal interaction with other humanistic Jews, the burden is on the human being to better him or her self and the world around them.

It is our job to make a better world. We can’t just put our hands together and then hope for something better to happen. We have to, actually, do the work to make it happen. That will end up in our relationships with human beings. Our relationships between men and women.

Our relationships with LGBTQ. Our relationships with people of different colour. Our relationships with people of different political views, different social views. How we interact with them, it is all on us, the human being.

It is not on a metaphysical being. But it is interesting. It does not mean that we don’t have people who have a spiritual connection. I even know some logical, intelligent, articulate humanistic Jews who have a relationship with God.

They believe in God, in a way that I do not. But they are comfortable within the humanistic environment because humanistic Jews do not preach, “This is the way that you have to be.” I think we are far more open to people working on their own, dealing in their own relationships, believing in their own evolution that way.

Jacobsen: Thank you very much for the opportunity and your time, Charlie.

Miller: Sure, I hope I was helpful with that.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

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