This is designed to be used communally or individually; for shabbat, holidays, or every day use.
Humanistic Judaism is typically described as a dramatic break with Jewish tradition. In this essay, I will explore the roots of humanism in the very sources of Judaism and among some of its most influential thinkers. While Jewish religious traditions are emphatically theistic and founded on the idea of the revelation of the Torah, the authoritative texts, philosophers, and theologians contain a subversive humanist strain which has served as the source for the widespread humanism among modern Jews. Humanistic Judaism as a movement is the natural outgrowth of these strains of thought in Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism, which gained its ascendancy around 2,000 years ago, has many implicit humanist tendencies. This essay will discuss those tendencies in relation to the topics of God, Torah, humanity, ethics, prayer, and Jewish identity.
Humanistic Judaism is often thought of as atheistic Judaism, but this assumption is inaccurate. Humanistic Judaism does not deny or affirm the existence of God outright, rather it claims that God is unimportant and unintelligible as a concept and that if there is a God, it does not interfere in human affairs or the natural order. It is therefore unnecessary to pray to such a God or make it the center of one’s practice of Judaism. Humanistic Judaism is atheistic only in the sense that it denies the God of classical theism, but it does not preclude someone from holding a deistic or pantheistic opinion of God. This is why Humanistic Judaism uses the label “humanistic;” the emphasis is on human power, authority, responsibility, and autonomy, not God’s existence or nonexistence. This point is important to keep in mind as we begin our exploration of the humanist tendencies in the sources of Judaism.
The theology of the rabbis utilized different images to describe God’s role in the life of the Jewish people. The most prominent images are those of a father, lawgiver, and king. Each of these images are used to stress God’s transcendence and separation from his children. The most famous midrash illustrating human independence from God is “the Oven of Akhnai.” Although God himself sides with Rabbi Eliezer’s judgement, Rabbi Joshua reminds God that the Torah is not in heaven, and he has no legal standing in the debate. To which God famously responds, “My children have defeated me!” Similarly, the rabbis portrayed God’s role in Jewish history as analogous to that of a father with his children. As the child matures, the father intervenes less often. The father guides the child to maturity and then leaves him to achieve his own dignity (Ariel, 27). Like a father, God no longer intervenes in the affairs of the Jews and allows them to determine their own destiny. This voluntary withdrawal of God emphasizes human autonomy and responsibility (Ariel, 28). So although the rabbis believed in a personal God, even a God that performed miracles, they affirmed the basic humanist tenets of human freedom, authority, and responsibility.
Maimonides took God’s transcendence to a radical extreme by claiming that God was so removed from human experience that we can know nothing about God’s nature other than that he exists. His claims were so novel, and so dependent on Aristotelian conceptions of God, that many of his contemporaries accused him of distorting “authentic Jewish traditions” (Ariel, 35). The apophatic theology of Maimonides forced him to claim that the biblical portrayal of God was allegory and that the qualities attributed to God were projections of the Israelite imagination (Ariel, 36). The God of Maimonides was impersonal, absolutely transcendent, and unknowable. This theology has humanistic implications such as ignosticism, deism, rationalism, and human autonomy when taken to its logical end. If God cannot be known, beyond the “fact” of his bare existence, and the Bible is only allegorical literature reflecting the imaginations of the ancient Israelites, God’s will cannot be known with any certainty. (Maimonides accepted as a matter of faith that the Torah was revealed in its entirety to Moses, but this is a failure on his part to follow through with the implications of his theology by favoring religious dogma over reason.) This forces human beings to rely on reason and experience (both personal and social/historical), and implies that human beings are free to determine their own destiny and are responsible for their own welfare (Malkin). The Aristotelian God of Maimonides precludes the entire structure of rabbinic Judaism.
The humanist implications of these widely accepted theologies have led to many modern theological positions which more deeply reflect these tendencies. The theologies of Mordecai Kaplan, Martin Buber, and Harold Schulweis conceive of God in essentially humanistic terms. Kaplan’s theology affirms that the word “God” is a symbol meant to signify all the forces which make human life both possible and meaningful. Martin Buber argued that God could only be experienced as a presence within the I-Thou relationship, and that while God gives a sense of “commandedness,” he utters no concrete commands (Ariel, 47). Harold Schulweis, following Maimonides lead, severed God from his attributes. In contrast, however, he emphasized the attributes and argued that God’s existence is not as important as whether or not we find certain qualities and values to be “godly” (Schulweis, 129). Similar to Buber, Schulweis believes that God can only be known through human relationships and experience, although for slightly different reasons. These theologies, and the more traditional theologies of the ancient rabbis and Maimonides, demonstrate the humanistic nature of much of modern Jewish theology and practice.
The Jewish tradition of Torah interpretation has long had humanistic implications. As mentioned above, the rabbis believed themselves to be the only true interpreters of the Torah, even to the exclusion of God who they believed to be the author of the Torah. They grounded this authority in the Torah itself, Deut. 17:8-11, which they understood as granting the authority of interpretation to every generation (Zetterholm, 28). The power of interpretation was wide ranging and could even be used to overturn direct commandments from the biblical text or make them unenforceable (e.g. the abolition of the Jubilee Year and the death penalty for rebellious sons, respectively). Each judge was expected to rely on his own intellect and the power of reason rather than appeal to divine intervention or miracles (Zetterholm, 29). The rabbis’ approach to Torah interpretation was also democratic, among the rabbis, with the principle that legal decisions followed the will of the majority. However, minority opinions were preserved because of the assumption that even conflicting opinions were valid interpretations (BT Hag. 3b). Tolerance of plural understanding was thus a rabbinic value, even if for practical purposes the law must be decided one way rather than another. The rabbis’ interpretive paradigm affirmed the humanist values of human authority, the principle of the democratic process, rational deliberation with supporting evidence, eschewing miracles and the supernatural in the decision making process, and the value of pluralism.
As before, we now turn our attention to Maimonides and his understanding of the Torah as allegory. While Maimonides believed the Torah to be a divinely revealed document, his understanding of revelation is significantly different from the portrayal within the Torah itself. In the Torah, God speaks directly to the Israelites and then, at their request, directly to Moses who receives the remainder of the Torah. Due to his apophatic theology, Maimonides believed that God did not actually speak any words to Moses. Rather, Moses, being a particularly gifted prophet, absorbed God’s thoughts and then transmitted them to the Israelites (Ariel, 144). However, because God is so utterly beyond human comprehension, the message had to be diluted by Moses from its original version and relayed to the Israelites in simpler terms using narrative and allegory (Ariel, 145). While he believed the Torah to be God’s word, it was God’s word simplified and filtered through the mind of Moses. To read the Torah as allegory requires one to interpret the symbology and search for the “hidden truths” in the text. Maimonides reoriented Torah study in such a way that philosophical, rather than revealed religious, truth became primary, with the Torah being used to supplement and bolster that truth through creative interpretation. In short, Maimonides turned the Torah into man-made literature through which universal philosophical truth was filtered rather than the source of religious truth explicitly revealed by God.
The idea of the Torah as literature is fundamental to Humanistic Judaism, which understands the Bible (and Talmud) to be a human creation that reflects the historical religious thought and experiences of the Jews. Reading the sacred texts of Judaism as literature, rather than divine revelation, allows us to continue to find new meanings in the texts without the need to claim that it is literally, historically true in every aspect. We recognize that these texts are the source of religious Judaism and most Jewish customs, but reject the idea that they are the sole sources of authority in Jewish life. Like Maimonides, we believe philosophical truth to be primary, and we read the Torah as literature which can help us to better understand ourselves, our history, and the human condition. The centrality of human beings in the Bible, both as its concern and in its narratives, lends the text to humanist study and interpretation.
Judaism places a great amount of value in human life. The Torah claims that humans are created in the image of God, which was interpreted by the rabbis to proclaim the inherent worth of human life and to point to humanity as the pinnacle of creation. Because every person is made in the image of God, all people must be treated with dignity. Anything which degrades a person is also degrading the image of God (Ariel, 50). This is the source of the ethical imperative and need for justice in religious Jewish thought.
The Jewish focus on human dignity and worth is the historical source of the modern humanist value of human dignity and all it entails: liberty, equality, and individual rights. The value of liberty is found in the Exodus narrative which operates throughout the Torah as a reminder to be just and compassionate to others (Malkin). The rabbis argued that God created one man as the father of all humanity as a sign that all humanity is equal and so none can claim, “my father was greater than yours” (Ariel, 52). And the idea of individual rights can arguably be traced back to the idea of freedom under the law, i.e. the covenant. The responsibilities of the individual are delineated in the Torah as well as prohibitions against certain actions, which carve out the rights and privileges of individuals in society. The ideas of dignity, liberty, equality, and rights under the rule of law can all be traced back to the Torah and prophets of Jewish tradition. Tracing that history is a project for another essay.
Judaism has long acknowledged humanity’s ability to be both morally upright and evil. The yetzer ha-ra and the yetzer ha-tov are the inclinations to evil and goodness respectively. Choosing the bad or the good is central to the understanding of Jewish ethics, which rejects the ideas of determinism and predestination. Without the ability to choose, ethics cannot exist. In contrast to Christianity which preaches the doctrine of original sin, Judaism acknowledges that each person begins life with a clean slate. A person’s choices determine whether they become a righteous individual or a sinner. Furthermore, teshuva is always possible in Judaism. Returning to the good and turning away from evil is central to living a Jewish life of integrity and dignity. This understanding of human nature and the possibility of return is fully in line with the humanist lifestance.
Ethics and Justice
Ethics and justice are the essence of Judaism. Rabbi Hillel famously summarized the entire Torah as, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary; go and study it.” Rabbi Donniel Hartman argues in his book Putting God Second that Hillel’s maxim reveals the primacy of morality in the Jewish tradition while not reducing it to ethics alone. The final statement, “go and study,” declares that Judaism is much more complex than a one liner, yet one’s study is only valuable to the extent to which it enables one to live a moral, upstanding life (Hartman, 71). Morality is Judaism’s primary objective, the rest is commentary on that basic obligation. Hartman also discusses the commandment to sanctify, and not desecrate, the name of God as it is understood in traditional Judaism. He states that, “God’s name and reputation are intimately connected to the level of moral decency of those who are perceived to be God’s representatives or followers” (85). God’s name is sanctified not through ritual observance or pious bleating, but rather through living justly and treating others with kindness. And conversely, God’s name is desecrated through immorality and cruelty (BT Yoma 86b). As Hartman states, “Thus, the most theocentric of commandments is reshaped […] into the most anthropocentric” (85).
The primacy of ethics in Judaism can be traced to the biblical emphasis on life in this world rather than an afterlife where all injustices will be rectified. Yaakov Malkin, in Judaism Without God? Judaism as Culture and the Bible as Literature, argues that the biblical prophets themselves did not believe in an afterlife, which is why they felt such an urgent need for justice in society. Indeed, the prophets continue to serve as the primary religious source for the heterodox movements in Judaism which emphasize morality and social justice over ritual and strict adherence to halakha. This sentiment seems to be reflected in the prophets themselves who repeatedly dismiss ritual observance as useless, or at best secondary, and exhort their audience to live with morality and justice as the primary duty commanded by God (see: Isaiah 1:11-17; 58:2-7; Amos 5:21-25; Zechariah 7:8-14; Micah 6:6-8; etc.). The Reform Movement has historically been the movement to stress ethics and justice as the central focus of Judaism (Zetterholm, 148). However, an “almost fanatical love of justice,” to quote Einstein, is common to Judaism as a whole and can be witnessed throughout Jewish culture, from the Orthodox to the secular.
The topic of ethics raises the issue of how one determines what is good. Typical religious thought understands God and God’s commands to be the objective source and determinant of goodness. However, the Euthyphro dilemma must be taken into account, i.e. is it good because God demands it, or does God command it because it is good? Donniel Hartman favors the latter (God commands it because it is good) and cites Maimonides as his source, going so far as to argue that for Maimonides the ethical is the standard by which the law should be judged and corrected when necessary (79). Goodness is something independent of God and God’s commands. Divine commands are not enough to determine what is good, and in fact God’s commandments must be judged by their conformity to morality (see: Genesis 18; Exodus 32:9-14). This may seem initially counter-intuitive to many religious people, but Hartman argues that it is inevitable. As we have discussed, the Bible is subject to interpretation and human authority in the Jewish tradition. Hartman takes this one step further, and argues that, “whether divinely ordained or human-based, moral knowledge ultimately ends up in the same location, the human being–who is either the original source or the sole interpreter of the content of the moral principles and their application” (94). Humanity, not God, determines what is good.
Humanistic Jews do not pray, rather they engage in reflection and meditation on the values and beliefs they find important and compelling. This process is in keeping with the purpose of prayer as it was understood by the rabbis and the philosophy of Maimonides. According to David Ariel’s book What Do Jews Believe? the rabbis of the talmudic era believed that the primary purpose of prayer was to educate Jews in the beliefs and values of Judaism through regular repetition and reinforcement (195). It was also through the discipline of daily prayers and blessings that Jews could sanctify life and bring meaning to everyday activities. This understanding of prayer can easily be adapted for humanist purposes. By focusing on the themes of the prayers and rewriting them for humanist use when applicable, Humanistic Judaism can retain a connection to the tradition of Jewish prayer/reflection and cultivate a humanist spirituality. In this way, Humanistic Jewish beliefs can be reinforced through the repetition of shabbat and holiday services, or privately at home.
Rabbinic prayer was not simply the repetition of predetermined words. Intention, concentration, and understanding are of the utmost importance for traditional prayer (Ariel, 196). Humanistic Jews agree with this principle and hold their services primarily in the vernacular while reserving Jewish languages, like Hebrew and Yiddish, for songs and easily understood blessings. Understanding the words that are being said is more important than empty recitation of Hebrew, especially if the Hebrew words do not reflect the individual’s or the group’s beliefs and values.
Maimonides affirmed traditional prayer only as a matter of pragmatism. He acknowledged that prayer was probably meaningless, and argued that the purest form of prayer was meditation on the nature of God. This was in keeping with his understanding of the evolution of worship over time. Maimonides believed that when God led the Israelites from Egypt and established the covenant at Sinai, he only retained animal sacrifice as a concession to the natural human resistance to change. After the destruction of the Temple and the abolition of animal sacrifice, the prayer service was similarly only a compromise between popular piety and true worship, i.e. meditation (Ariel, 197). The God of Maimonides, being perfect and absolutely transcendent, cannot be affected by prayer whatsoever. Its function is solely for the benefit of human beings, and therefore can be changed to continue benefiting us as we gain new understandings of truth.
Jewish Identity and Mission
In our modern, open and pluralistic societies, the question must be asked, “why by Jewish at all?” It would be much simpler to assimilate. While we recognize the children of Jews to be Jewish, we are fundamentally all Jews by choice. The simplest, and least satisfactory, answer to the question is simple tribal loyalty to the cultural heritage of one’s ancestors. But part of that heritage is being a people in exile, diaspora, which necessitates the need for an ideology to justify our continuing existence as a distinct cultural/national entity.
The Guide to Humanistic Judaism in the entry on Judaism states that “One way to view Judaism is as an ideology about the significance of the experiences of the Jewish people” (45). In Orthodox Judaism, that significance is due to being chosen by God to represent him on earth as a light to the nations by living according to the Torah and halakhic tradition. The heterodox movements all have their own alternatives to this vision of chosenness and the importance of Jewish experience, history, and faith. Humanistic Judaism finds meaning in the historical experiences of the Jewish people: that the universe is indifferent to human suffering and concerns, and “the only potentially caring power available to human beings is human” (Guide, 45). The overwhelming historical suffering of the Jews, and the acknowledgement that there is no divine providence providing moral order to the universe, are the primary sources of Humanistic Judaism. This means that we, as Jews and as human beings, have the responsibility to live ethically and “repair the world.” The ideological significance of historical Jewish experience is the acknowledgement of our responsibility for ourselves and others; solidarity with the Jews of the past and present; the obligation to bear witness to the suffering of others; and the need to sanctify life in the face of existential absurdity. Judaism offers a way for us to address the injustice of the world and to elevate the mundane aspects of daily life into the meaningful and holy.
Who then is a Jew? In keeping with the biblical and the talmudic sources, which conflict in this point, Humanistic Judaism affirms that anyone with a single Jewish parent is a Jew. Also in keeping with the Bible and Talmud, Humanistic Judaism accepts anyone who wishes to join the Jewish people who was not born Jewish. Like the biblical character Ruth, all that is required is a declaration of self-identification and solidarity with the Jewish people (see: Ruth 1:16-17). Interestingly, our approach is not fundamentally different from the processes of some Reform and Reconstructionist communities and Karaite Judaism, all of which may only require joining the community, taking a course of study, and stating that one wishes to be a Jew before witnesses.
What Do Jews Believe? David Ariel
The Guide to Humanistic Judaism, The Society for Humanistic Judaism
Evil and the Morality of God, Harold Schulweis
Jewish Interpretation of the Bible, Karin Hedner Zetterholm
Tanakh, The Jewish Publication Society
Putting God Second, Donniel Hartman; e-book
Judaism Without God? Yaakov Malkin; e-book
This Shabbat Service was primarily prepared by Rabbi Miriam Jerris of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, however, I have made some modifications which is why I am uploading it here. The blessings for wine and bread have been moved to the end of the service, and I removed the explanations for them. I changed the Shema to the one found in The Guide to Humanistic Judaism because I thought it worked better with the congregational response that followed. I added a reading from Sherwin Wine about justice, and I also changed some of the songs. My modified version of this Shabbat service can be found through the following link.
Humanistic Judaism combines cultural Jewish identity with the philosophy of Humanism. This movement offers a means for secular cultural Jews to affirm both their Jewish identity and their secular beliefs. The rise of secularism with the emancipation of the Jews from the ghettos and the rabbis’ authority has presented a challenge to continued Jewish identity. Secular education and knowledge has been widely embraced by the Jewish people to the detriment of the traditional theology of Judaism. Most Jews simply do not believe the religion of the Bible, Talmud, and rabbis. And without imposed segregation, many Jews have opted to assimilate into the surrounding cultures. Every liberal denomination of Judaism has attempted to mitigate this assimilation by accommodating the new beliefs and lifestyles of the Jewish people while maintaining a connection to Jewish culture and tradition. However, as more Jews fully embrace secularism and abandon the synagogue and traditional beliefs, the challenge to maintain Jewish connection has been renewed. Humanistic Judaism provides the means by which secular Jews can maintain their connection to Judaism without sacrificing their non-religious belief systems.
Just as the early Reform Movement incorporated the beliefs of rationalism and deism into a Jewish framework, Humanistic Judaism incorporates the philosophy of Humanism into the practice of Judaism. Humanism is a philosophy which many Jews adhere to although many may not know the formal term for their belief system. While Humanism can have a wide variety of definitions and permutations, the most widely accepted definition comes from the American Humanist Association: “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” This statement is more fully explained in Humanism and Its Aspirations: Humanist Manifesto III. The major commitments of Humanism are naturalism, rationalism, ethics, democracy, human dignity, and the welfare of humanity. To offer a plain word summary of Humanism: This world is all there is or at least all that concerns us, and it is best understood through science and reason. We have a responsibility to care for others and to live ethically, and our ethics should be based on reason and human experience. Our ethical responsibility is grounded in the inherent dignity of every person. We value democracy and equal rights for all, and we strive for a society with an equitable distribution of resources with justice and well-being for all people. This basic worldview is the worldview of most liberal and secular Jews in the world today.
The Society for Humanistic Judaism defines Judaism as the cultural and historical experience of the Jewish people. This definition is functionally the same as that of Mordecai Kaplan which phrases the definition of Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Although Humanistic Judaism values Jewish culture and history, one of the central values of the movement is intellectual integrity. In balancing commitments between Humanism and continuity with Jewish tradition, Humanistic Jews choose to re-create those aspects of Jewish tradition which can be made to conform to our beliefs, but also reject those aspects which we feel cannot be salvaged from the authoritarian theistic sources. While we adopt and adapt those aspects of religious Judaism which can fit into our philosophy, we also accept and celebrate the history of secular Jews as equal parts of Jewish culture and history. Just as the Roman playwright Terence said, “Nothing human is foreign to me;” we affirm that nothing Jewish is alien to us. We may adapt things to make them consistent with our beliefs, but we do not view these changes as abandoning tradition but rather as the natural evolution of Jewish culture as we move into the future.
The primary means by which we combine Humanist beliefs with Jewish culture is through holiday celebrations and the study of Jewish history, literature, philosophy, and languages, and appreciation of Jewish art and music. The Jewish holidays are the main vehicles through which we celebrate our connection to Jewish culture and the Jewish people, particularly Shabbat. Shabbat is a weekly holiday which we observe as a day of peace, restoration, study, family, and community gathering to affirm and celebrate our Jewish identity. Life cycle celebrations, such as baby namings and bar/t mitzvahs, are also times for the celebration and affirmation of our commitment to Judaism and Humanism. For our celebration of Judaism, we create ceremonies which reflect our Humanist beliefs and values which utilize music, poetry, and prose as well as readings from Jewish literature and philosophy and some kind of speech or presentation from the person leading the ceremony.
Humanistic Judaism is fully egalitarian and inclusive. Since 1988, the Society for Humanistic Judaism has maintained that “a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.” This includes “patrilineal” Jews, Jews by choice, “half Jews,” and anyone else who identifies as part of the Jewish people in any capacity. The SHJ has also passed many resolutions over the years affirming its commitment to the rights of women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, refugees, workers, and others.
The combination of Humanism and Judaism practiced by the Society for Humanistic Judaism offers a way for secular and cultural Jews to celebrate their Jewish heritage while maintaining their intellectual integrity and affirming their values. They are not required to recite prayers to a God they find irrelevant or do not believe in, nor must they affirm values which they find offensive or outdated. Humanistic Judaism reflects the cultural and intellectual commitments of many Jews today, and is another step in the evolution of Judaism through history. The SHJ offers an organized movement and unified voice for those Jews who are already committed to both Humanism and cultural Judaism.
Many people presume that philosophy is not meant to shape one’s life in the same way as religion. “Philosophy” in the modern lexicon has become another way of referring to a set of opinions and little else. A philosophy does not typically refer to an entire way of life in the same way as, say, Orthodox Judaism or Catholicism. This would have shocked the ancient Greeks and Romans, and even someone as late in history as Baruch Spinoza, who believed that philosophy was supposed to be a way of life which informed all aspects of life. Philosophy was the passionate search for wisdom and truth, and the search entailed certain activities which would strike many modern Humanists as bordering on the religious. Repetitions of core beliefs, reading and rereading foundational texts and teachers, prescribed periods of reflection and meditation, ritualized discussions (such as symposia), dietary restrictions and other forms of self-discipline, and a devotion to cultivating virtue above all else all characterized ancient philosophy. Humanist Manifesto III describes Humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life,” but what does it mean to be a philosophy of life? How can we live our daily lives as Humanists? What benefits could there be to adopting some of these ancient methods of incorporating philosophy into daily life?
A philosophy of life must incorporate more than just opinions on the nature of the universe, the existence of God(s), or humanity’s place in the universe. These things are important in describing what a philosophical group believes to be true, but they are not the totality of a philosophical life. The ancients understood that beliefs and virtues had to be reinforced daily in order for them to be effective in shaping how someone lived. This is why, for example, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which was originally his private journal, is filled with reminders of his core beliefs and reflections on how to better handle situations according to virtue. The goal of Humanism is for its adherents “to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” The best way to achieve this goal is for Humanists to cultivate mindfulness of their core beliefs and values through specific activities such as daily reflection, study, and meditation.
There are of course many ways to practice these daily exercises. They can be done free form by reading Humanist books and articles, listening to podcasts, or journaling whenever the individual has time. One could also take a more disciplined approach by reading specific texts at specific times, reflecting on predetermined topics for each day of the week, or establishing a set time for meditation. There are books which can aid in this endeavor: The Good Book by A.C. Grayling was written to be a “Humanist Bible” and contains a lot of good reflective material; Celebration by Rabbi Sherwin Wine was written as a book of meditations for Humanists and Humanistic Jews; and Morning Meditations by Barbara Kopitz was intended specifically for daily reflection. There is even the ritualistic approach, which I prefer, during which a person reads, studies, or reflects on the same material that covers a wide range of beliefs and values. In my case, I utilize the Siddur for Humanistic Judaism, which reflects on the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it, the blessings of life, the values I wish to live by, and my hopes for humanity. There is also the possibility of dietary discipline, whether it be veganism, eco-kashrut, a health diet, or a general commitment to “ethical eating.” Every meal and snack becomes a reminder of one’s values and an exercise in self-discipline.
And finally, the issue of community gathering arises. The ancient philosophers would gather frequently for education and discussion with one another. Many Humanists are beginning to see the benefits of regular community gathering, and Humanist chapters are developing across the country. I believe Humanistic Judaism in particular has much to offer in the way of developing Humanist communities through Jewish holidays that celebrate the cycles of nature, Humanist values, and human self-reliance; and weekly Shabbat celebrations which foster community and operate as weekly gatherings to affirm our Humanist beliefs. Humanistic Judaism affirms the humanistic value of Judaism and Jewish history, and we should reach out to all Humanists (both gentile and Jewish) who may be interested in our approach to Humanism and Judaism.
In short, how do we live our lives in a humanistic way? We put our values and beliefs into action, and through daily mental exercises we can better put those values and beliefs into action throughout the day. In this way, we can begin to truly practice Humanism as a philosophy of life. Through gathering with other Humanists we can affirm our commitment to Humanism, celebrate the cycles of nature, explore the lessons of human history and philosophy, and support one another through life cycle ceremonies. I choose to practice my Humanism through the lens of Humanistic Judaism, but the possibilities for Humanist practice and communities are numerous. How will you live as a Humanist?
This is a PDF of a siddur that I have compiled and/or written. It can be used for congregational gatherings or private reflection.
Since its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, religious liberalism has been in decline. Religious liberalism is the approach to a religious tradition which emphasizes rationalism, critical assessment of traditional doctrine, humanism, and an openness to modernity. While religious liberalism has declined, secularism and fundamentalism have grown, which has created a perceived binary for many people between being secular and being “religious.” The liberal approach to religion gained its short lived popularity from its ability to formulate a way to express reverence toward God or Nature without giving in to restrictive and abusive dogmatism. It balanced secular knowledge of the world with the human need to feel and express awe and reverence toward the forces that create and sustain life. The inability to find that balance in a rapidly changing society is a large part of the reason for the decline of liberal denominations and religions today.
The need to feel and express awe and reverence toward something greater than oneself is a natural instinct for human beings. The usual culprits are God(s), the universe/nature, or the nation/tribe; and frequently these things will be interrelated or conflated with one another. For example, in Judaism God is the creator of the universe, which demonstrates his absolute power, and he chose the tribe of Israel to be his special people. Or take American political conservatives who frequently conflate being a “true” American with being a white Protestant. In these instances the symbols of the tribe/nation become sacred expressions of the people’s relationship with God and represent their favored status. This type of reverence rightly makes many liberals and humanists uncomfortable. The worship of God and nation has led to many atrocities in the past. To combat this, many liberals will critique this form of reverence without offering anything to replace it other than perhaps an affirmation of human dignity. This is not enough.
Humans want to be connected to something larger, whether it be a group or a god. The problem is that a group in itself is usually not enough. It must have a transcendent purpose in order to make membership and identification worthwhile. This is typically achieved through attachment to a deity, i.e. people come together because it is what their god commands, or through a utopian vision, e.g. socialists who wish to make a perfect society. Most liberal religious groups have lost this transcendent quality. The typical complaint about liberal religion is that it feels like little more than a social club and it’s therefore pointless to make attendance and participation a priority. The lack or reverence toward a transcendent entity or purpose is the root cause of the decline of religious liberalism.
Reverence is more than just the words that are spoken or sung at a prayer service. After all, liberal Jews and Christians still pray to God and read from the Bible. Reverence is as much a deeply felt emotion as it is a metaphysical belief. Reverence is defined as deep respect. Finding ways to cultivate reverence that maintains its intellectual integrity and humanist focus is the challenge that faces religious liberalism.
What should be the object or goal for reverence in Humanistic Judaism then? There are no easy answers, in part, because the people who typically find Humanistic Judaism are averse to anything that appears too “religious.” But I will offer a suggestion. Spinoza is often seen as the first secular Jew of the modern world, yet his philosophy was not strictly speaking atheistic. He spoke of God as a singular, self-existent substance which comprised the totality of all existence, i.e. there was nothing but God, and all thought and matter were merely attributes of God. Spinoza also made the comment, “Deus sive Natura,” which means “God, or Nature,” implying that God and Nature were interchangeable. But Spinoza did not stop at pantheism, he also theorized that the intellectual love of God was the supreme spiritual experience, and this love was expressed through contemplation and knowledge of Nature and our place in it.
We don’t need to accept Spinoza’s philosophy wholesale to see the benefits of the basic outlines. The object of reverence in Humanistic Judaism could similarly be nature or the universe, and the contemplation of our place in it as the supreme spiritual exercise. The UUA’s seventh principle is a good summation of this approach to humanistic spirituality, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” I like this iteration for a few reasons. First, it firmly states the connection of humanity to all existence as one part of many. Second, it emphasizes interdependence, i.e. our connection to and dependence on everything. And finally, it uses the image of a web rather than God to demonstrate our connections.
If we accept this to be a viable object of reverence in Humanistic Judaism, as I believe we should, this necessitates certain values and practices. Environmental sustainability comes to mind as the foremost obligation, which will involve a lot of consideration for congregations, institutions, and individuals. Obviously respect for human dignity and work towards social justice will be included in this. Perhaps less obviously for some, animal rights and welfare will have to be considered as a necessary aspect of reverence for the web of life, including but not limited to vegetarianism. And finally, reverence for the universe will include the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms, since reverence will be impossible without knowledge.
Through contemplating our connection to and dependence on all of existence, we can derive a consistent ethical system which includes all of reality in varying degrees of importance. Our dependence on the earth motivates us to support environmental causes. Our dependence on other people drives us to live morally and work for the rights of the oppressed and disenfranchised. Through recognizing the underlying unity of all existence we come to revere that unity, which in turn leads to concrete values and actions. To use the formulation of the Shema: “Hear O Israel: Everything is connected; the Universe is One. You shall revere the web of life with all your mind, heart, and strength. And be mindful of all the obligations interdependence places upon you.”