The Unavoidable Centrality of the Torah

The Torah has been the center of Jewish life for at least 2,000 years. All of modern Judaism, its holidays, rituals, and customs, can be traced back to a passage of the Torah or an interpretation of a passage. Any movement or group which wishes to claim the label Judaism must acknowledge the Torah as the foundation of Jewish culture and acknowledge it as the central and most important text of the Jewish people. This poses a special challenge for Humanistic Judaism which rejects the claim that the Torah is the revealed word of God and a record of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. How can a movement which rejects the divine revelation at Sinai still acknowledge the Torah as the basis of Jewish living? In order for Humanistic Judaism to claim legitimacy as a denomination of Judaism it must address the problem of the Torah and the role it should fill in the practice of Humanistic Judaism.

The Humanist approach to the Torah will necessarily make naturalist assumptions. Academic biblical criticism and scholarship will form the basis of a Humanistic approach to the texts. Rather than the divine word of God, the Torah will be seen as a product of the Jewish people. As a social product of the ancient Jews and due to its central role in the life of Jewish communities over the millennia, Humanistic Judaism should treat the Torah with great respect, if not reverence. However, this does not mean that Humanistic Jews should blindly accept the dictates of the Torah. Indeed this would be contradictory to the basic assumptions of the Movement. Rather, the Torah should be studied by Humanistic Jews within a secular framework as a cultural product. Traditional commentaries, including but not limited to the Talmud, should be consulted and studied as well as contemporary interpretations. The full depth and breadth of Jewish culture, values, and philosophy cannot be appreciated without a study of the Torah and its many interpretations. Humanistic Jews need not believe that the Torah is divinely revealed in order to study and appreciate it as the foundation of Jewish culture and practice as we know it. The Roman playwright Terence once quipped, “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” Humanistic Jews should take a similar attitude to Jewish history, texts, and practices.

This may mean that the Torah should play a greater role in the communal life of Humanistic Judaism. During Shabbat and holiday services, it may become good practice to read from the Torah. This need not be done from the traditional scroll in Hebrew; a good translation will work fine for our purposes. Nor does it mean that a full Torah service needs to be done with a complete reading of the week’s parsha. A relevant passage, informed by traditional commentary and academic scholarship, can be read and discussed by the rabbi or a lector within the regular course of the Shabbat or holiday service. Through engaging with the Torah on Humanistic terms, Humanistic Jews can maintain a connection to Jewish tradition while still adhering to their values as Humanists and naturalists. Education and study are central values among Jews everywhere, in large part because of the traditional emphasis placed on the study of Torah over the millennia. These values are central to Humanistic Judaism as well, and the Torah is the perfect Jewish symbol to represent these commitments within the community, despite its traditional theistic baggage.

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God and Atheism in Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism is often described as the atheist denomination. In large part this is true, and most of its members are atheists. However, there are no numbers (that I’m aware of) that reveal how many Jewish Humanists are atheists. I would venture a guess that Jewish Humanists generally believe in some concept of God, although most would eschew belief in miracles and the otherwise supernatural. Humanistic Judaism need not be limited to atheists. If we accept the idea that the concepts about God are diverse and nebulous, we can move from a strict atheism which is limiting the Humanistic Movement towards a more open and pluralistic Humanism which embraces a sense of the sacred without sacrificing anyone’s deeply held beliefs about whether or not there is an entity which goes by the title ‘God.’

It is best to approach this from the perspective of Harold Schulweis who argues for a “predicate theology.” It is not so important to argue whether there is a supernatural God or not, but rather to acknowledge those aspects of reality and human life which we recognize as godly or sacred. Goodness, truth, justice, compassion, love, liberty, and peace are seen by atheists and theists alike as worthwhile ideals for human behavior and society and easily acknowledge them to be sacred and meaningful. In this approach we leave the question of God’s existence alone and focus on the quality of life we wish to have as human beings and as Jews.

We can further borrow from the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich and ask, “what is our ultimate concern?” What aspects of life can human beings acknowledge as the most important, those which no other concerns can take precedence over? This is a deeply personal question, but there are only a few answers which are sufficiently enduring, personal, and worthwhile enough to truly give life meaning; e.g. goodness, truth, justice, and love. If we acknowledge these ideals as the highest ideals of our lives, we are already revering them as sacred ideals for ourselves, our communities, and our societies.

When we approach the God question by asking what is sacred, rather than is there an entity called God, we are able to find a way to give our individual and communal lives meaning and purpose. If some of us choose to use the term God as a symbol of the sacred aspects of life, that is perfectly in line with Humanist philosophy. The important thing is to acknowledge that, as the Humanist Manifesto III states, “Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.”

What is Humanistic Judaism?

Humanistic Judaism can refer to two different but related phenomena in contemporary Jewish life: the organized movement called the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ) and the more general humanistic approach to Judaism. In either case Humanistic Judaism stresses human responsibility and autonomy, a (generally) naturalistic worldview, and an engagement with and reconstruction of Jewish culture and traditions. The philosophy of Jewish Humanism expands beyond the organized body of the SHJ. Most Reform and Reconstructionist Jews as well as many unaffiliated, secular Jews adhere to a form of Jewish Humanism, even if they do not explicitly identify themselves as Jewish Humanists. The objective of this blog is to discuss the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism and my personal practice of Judaism as a Jewish Humanist. For the sake of clarity and future reference, basic terms and concepts are defined below, and basic presuppositions are stated.

Humanism: a philosophy of life which affirms the ability and responsibility of individuals to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity without supernatural intervention. A general outline of Humanism can be found in the Humanist Manifesto III. It is necessary to point out that Humanism is not a synonym for atheism. It is possible to believe in a non-interventionist or non-personal God and be a Humanist (e.g. deists and pantheists).

Humanistic Judaism (Jewish Humanism): a philosophy which underlies a progressive, naturalistic approach to Judaism, Jewish history, and culture. More specifically, a contemporary Jewish denomination. More information about the denomination can be found at shj.org.

Judaism is the Evolving Religious Civilization of the Jewish People: Jews are both an ethnic and a religious group. However, the ethnicity has been primarily defined and shaped by the religion since at least the beginning of the diaspora. While religion is the most important aspect of Judaism historically, it is not the only aspect of Judaism, and secular aspects of Jewish culture should be respected and fostered. History has shown that Judaism, as both a religion and an ethnic group, has adapted to changing situations over the millennia. The modern world is fundamentally different from the pre-modern world, and Judaism must be consciously reconstructed if it is to remain meaningful to non-orthodox Jews.

Jewish Identity: The halakhic determination of Jewish identity states that a person is Jewish if their mother is Jewish or if they convert according to halakhic standards. This definition leads to many problems, particularly in relation to intermarriage, non-orthodox conversions, and “patrilineal” Jews. The position of the Society for Humanistic Judaism radically breaks with traditional, and even the more liberal Reform, standards and declares: “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 is the standard of Jewish identity which this blog will operate under, with one caveat: members of “Jewish Christian” groups are not Jews, but rather Christians. I take this position because of the history of antisemitism of the Christian church(es) and the many forced conversions, persecutions, and attempted genocides perpetrated by them against the Jewish people. While I recognize that there are some “Jewish Christians” who were born Jewish and converted to Christianity through these groups, the majority of them are not Jewish in any sense, and should not be treated as such.

Intermarriage: Intermarriage refers to the marriage between a Jewish person and a gentile. Most Jewish denominations see intermarriage as a problem to be solved, however, it is a manufactured problem. The Jewish people will continue if people find Jewish identity or Judaism to be meaningful in their lives. If the children of intermarriage are more likely to identify as non-Jewish, it is because of the exclusionary definition of Jewishness held by these groups. Jewish communities must work to include as many Jews as possible regardless of traditional standards and make Jewish life and community meaningful and worthwhile. Intermarriage is not the problem, but rather apathy and alienation in non-orthodox Jewish communities.

Israel: Israel is the home of the Jewish people and the only majority Jewish country on earth. Its survival as a Jewish country is necessary for the safety of the Jewish people around the globe. Although it is necessary for Israel to be a Jewish nation, minority rights must be respected; the Palestinians of the West Bank must have their freedom from the occupation; and Israel should be a democratic and secular country with religious, political, and civil freedom for all its citizens.