The MWS Podcast 64: Susan Averbach on the Jewish Middle Way

This week’s guest is Susan Averbach. Susan has a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies from Gratz College and was ordained as a rabbi by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism last year. One of her goals as a rabbi is to work towards integrating Buddhist practice with humanistic Judaism and to promote a more Middle Way perspective.

MWS Podcast 64:Susan Averbach as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

4 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 64: Susan Averbach on the Jewish Middle Way

  1. A thoroughly inspiring discussion. I’ve been arguing for some years that the Middle Way is not the property of Buddhist tradition and that there is a Christian Middle Way, a Jewish Middle Way and so on. However, this is the first occasion I’ve found someone from one of those traditions talking explicitly in terms of the Middle Way, and also clearly putting it into practice. Barry had a podcast interview with Don Cupitt about the Christian tradition, but Cupitt does not tend to talk in explicitly Middle Way terms. I really resonated with what Susan said about the development of inclusive and meaningful ritual, and that she is already working with ways of doing this is most encouraging.

    As regards the issue of humanism and its relationship to the Middle Way – I tend to avoid the term because, as Barry said, it can mean all sorts of things. That doesn’t mean that humanism on some interpretations can’t be the Middle Way, but to many people it seems to mean a standard naturalistic atheist secularism rather than the Middle Way. So, the two can be closely related, but I think the concept of the Middle Way is potentially much more precise and useful than that of humanism. If we called ourselves a humanist society and appropriated the idea of humanism, that might provide a way in for some people, but it would also court a lot of misunderstandings from those who defined the Middle Way in terms of a prior idea of humanism rather than the other way round.

  2. Having converted to Orthodox Judaism in my 20’s and then returned to a basically secular outlook & lifestyle by my 30’s, this episode particularly resonated with me. It’s good to know that there are non-dogmatic alternatives to the path that I took, which are nonetheless continuous with Jewish tradition. However, I feel obliged to add that, while doctrine may not be as central to Judaism as it is in Christianity – e.g. given the relative weight of halakhic observance & custom in the former (cf. Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith) – doctrine was still very important to the Judaism that I learned…to the point that my interest in Jewish identity waned more or less in lockstep with my waning interest in Orthodox doctrine. Had I been raised with a Jewish identity, perhaps those interests would not have been so strongly bound to one another, although I admit to having retained a sentimental bond with Jewish culture, along with a few holiday rituals, these many years later.

    1. I understand what you are saying. Fortunately, there are humanistic Judaism communities all over the world where folks who identify as secular are welcome. There are ways to celebrate holidays and life-cycle events outside that halakhic world of which you spoke. If you look up you’ll find out if there are communities near you.

  3. Thanks, Susan. Perhaps I should clarify that I am actually well aware of Humanistic Judaism (HJ). In fact, not long after leaving Orthodoxy, I read a book by Rabbi Wine and visited a local HJ chapter, back when I still lived in proximity to one. Also, when I left the city for the country over ten years ago, I discovered a lovely non-denominational synagogue in this area, which I attended regularly for some months before losing interest.

    So the story goes: not that I no longer identify as a Jew because I am ignorant of its unorthodox options, so much as that my loyalty to Jewish tradition and communal life seems too weak to sustain affiliation for very long. Bearing in mind that I am a convert, I suppose the same holds true for my Roman Catholic, Secular Humanist, and Buddhist influences. Perhaps it’s not the Jewish people, so much as particular Jews, with whom I identify strongly – as in Groucho Marx, when he said, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” 🙂

    But, seriously, that’s just a matter of personality and I’m nonetheless happy to hear that those with stronger loyalties to Judaism than mine have a non-dogmatic place to go.

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