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.

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