What Is the Message of Humanistic Judaism?

All religions have a central doctrine or underlying motive. The core of traditional Judaism is the belief that God established a covenant with the Jewish people first through Abraham, then through the revelation to Moses at Mt. Sinai, and it is the covenantal responsibility of the Jews to follow the teachings of the Torah. This core belief offers problems for progressive branches of Judaism which do not believe these covenants or events to be literal, historical, or binding. Most liberal denominations of Judaism have tried to side-step the issue by reinterpreting (or outright ignoring) the problematic parts of the Torah and the stories of its creation. The process of reinterpreting and approaching the Torah as metaphor puts the progressive branches of Judaism at a distinct disadvantage when competing with Orthodox Judaism (and other religious traditions like Christianity and Buddhism) for adherents. Reinterpreting requires extensive thought, dedication, and education in both academic and traditional analyses of the texts, while traditional belief is capable of being adhered to by anyone and has the weight of ancient authority. Progressive and Humanistic Judaism needs a simple, believable message to replace the traditional doctrine. This new message will operate as the heart of progressive, Humanistic Judaism in the same way the traditional doctrine does for traditional Jews. It must address the reason for practicing Humanistic Judaism and the core beliefs and requirements of Humanistic Judaism.

In determining why someone should practice Humanistic Judaism rather than traditional Judaism, another religion, or no religion at all, one must first establish the core teaching of Humanistic Judaism. The Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ) has a list of affirmations and beliefs on their website, however, these statements lack simplicity and the power to inspire. Sherwin Wine, the founder of the SHJ, argued that the central message of Jewish history “is the demand for human self-reliance. In an indifferent universe there is no help from destiny […] We stand alone, and yet together, to create the world we want” (Celebration: A Ceremonial and Philosophic Guide for Humanists and Humanistic Jews, p. 188). This sentiment is echoed, though less forcefully, in Edgar Bronfman’s book Why Be Jewish?  Drawing on his understanding of Jewish tradition, Bronfman argues that Judaism does not demand belief in the supernatural, but rather the drive to repair the world and ourselves. In Bronfman’s understanding, the central doctrine of progressive Judaism and the purpose of Judaism is to bring the divine to earth, to make the world a better place. Jewish practice and teaching attempts to accomplish this goal by emphasizing “ethics, morality, and human relationships” (p. 20).

Bronfman also established twelve principles for approaching Judaism in a way that did not demand onerous beliefs in a supernatural God, prophetic revelations, or excessive ritualism. He phrased these principles in order to emphasize action over belief. All of these principles are distilled from his own experience and study of Judaism and are rooted in Jewish texts and values. They are the best summary of the principles of Humanistic and progressive Judaism so far articulated that I am aware of, and they should be adopted by Humanistic and progressive Jews everywhere:

  1. Revere godliness: the true, the good, and the beautiful.
  2. Ask questions.
  3. Commit to repairing the outer and inner world.
  4. Perform acts of loving-kindness.
  5. Assist society’s weakest members.
  6. Champion social justice and environmental causes.
  7. Welcome the stranger.
  8. Engage with Jewish traditions, texts, philosophy, history, and art.
  9. Study and strive for excellence in the humanities and other secular fields.
  10. Promote family and community.
  11. Embrace key Jewish holidays and life-cycle events.
  12. Conduct business ethically. (p. 18)

While these are the best articulated principles of Humanistic Judaism that I know of, there is room for improvement. For instance, there should be a principle regarding respect for the dignity and worth of every person, and perhaps a statement on dedication to democratic processes in society and Jewish communities. But overall, this functions as an excellent distillation of the principles of progressive Judaism beyond belief.

Now that the potential central doctrine of Humanistic Judaism has been established, it is possible to address the issue of why someone should practice Humanistic Judaism. The most obvious reason is that Humanistic Judaism is aligned with the beliefs and attitudes of many secular and liberal Jews, and it therefore offers a way for Jews to remain connected to their heritage and their people without sacrificing their intellectual dignity. A less obvious reason is that this understanding of Humanistic Judaism, which emphasizes ethics and the imperative to make the world better, has the potential to actually make the world better if more people were involved in practicing its teaching and living by its principles. Furthermore, engaging more liberal Jews in Jewish living and learning can help to preserve and grow non-Orthodox Jewish communities around a shared set of values which can make a positive impact in the diaspora and in Israel. In short, Humanistic Judaism has the capacity to make the world better and to make Jewish identity meaningful and purpose driven in a non-dogmatic, liberal context.

In summary, the core teaching of Humanistic Judaism is (or should be) that Jewish history and suffering demonstrates that the world is an unjust place full of suffering and brutality, and relying solely on God or supernatural intervention to fix human problems is unwise and counterproductive. Humanistic Judaism therefore stresses human and Jewish self-reliance, ethical living, and the need to repair the world through concrete actions. Humanistic Jews therefore join together in community to celebrate Jewish culture, life-cycle events, and holidays; to study Jewish texts and philosophies; and to encourage one another and practice the principles of Humanistic Judaism together.

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4 thoughts on “What Is the Message of Humanistic Judaism?”

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