Why Call it Judaism? The Case for Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism is new and almost entirely unknown by people outside the movement. Its novelty and its radical break with tradition creates a lot of confusion for people who are only familiar with traditional Judaism and its liberal offshoots. One question inevitably arises during a conversation about Humanistic Judaism, “why call it Judaism when the real belief system and driving force is Humanism?” They understand that Humanistic Jews are Jews who are attached to Jewish culture, but to call what they do Judaism appears to be a contradiction. The confusion arises because of a difference in the use of the word Judaism. For traditional Jews, and even the liberal branches of Judaism, Judaism is equivalent to the teachings of the Torah and Talmud. The Torah and Talmud may be interpreted differently, or in some cases even ignored, by the various Movements, but they all agree that those teachings are the core of Judaism. If one rejects those teachings in their entirety, one ceases to practice or believe in Judaism. Contrary to this view is the definition of Mordecai Kaplan, the Reconstructionist Movement, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism and its affiliates. Rabbi Sherwin Wine summarized this definition of Judaism as “the culture of the Jewish people, which includes many religious and secular traditions.” A culture is more than a religion or specific doctrines. It is the total of all the history, social rituals, attitudes, mores, values, artwork, literature, philosophies, and religions which shape a group’s character and way of life. While religion is part of Jewish culture, and for the past 2,000 years the most important part, it is not the only part, nor was it monolithic. Judaism has always had secular members and traditions, and as the culture of the Jewish people, it has always been inherently pluralistic, whether that pluralism was recognized or not. Judaism has always been as much an ethnic, tribal identity as it was a religious one. Furthermore, the predominant ideologies of Judaism have evolved over time, and in some cases, new ideologies have radically broken with previous ideologies to create new forms of Judaism. Not only is Humanistic Judaism a valid expression and natural outgrowth of Judaism, it has the potential to become the new Orthodoxy.

Bernardo Sorj argues in his book Judaism for Everyone that Judaism has always been pluralistic. He points to the various authors of the biblical texts which present contradictory understandings of God, religion, and the historical events they are attempting to record to demonstrate the variety of Jewish opinions both in ancient Israel and among the Bible’s editors. The ambiguity of the Bible’s texts has led to many different Jewish interpretations over the millennia, while still providing the basic cultural archetypes and myths of the Jewish people (Sorj 23). Sorj furthers his argument for a pluralistic Judaism by examining the various evolutionary stages of Judaism from biblical times to the present by examining changes in doctrines, ideology, theology, culture, scripture, and scriptural interpretation. By thoroughly examining the religious history of Judaism, Sorj demonstrates that Judaism not only evolved over time, but also that it has always had multiple, competing ideologies. This adaptability and diversity has been Judaism’s unique strength (22).

The greatest break with the Judaism of the past (up until that point) in Sorj’s analysis was Talmudic Judaism created by the Pharisees. The Pharisees were one of three or four main sects in Judaism around the first century CE. Their primary opponents were the Sadducees who rejected the “Oral” Torah invented by the Pharisees and focused on the Temple cult and written Torah as the central aspects of Judaism. The Sadducees were the elite members of society and out of touch with the lives of common Jews, while Pharisaic Judaism commanded lay members to live a life of mitzvot and rituals. Rather than rely on priests and the Temple to connect with God, lay Jews were encouraged to connect with God by living as a “nation of priests.” Torah study, prayer, and mitzvot became primary rather than the sacrificial cult of the Temple (although the Pharisees never rejected the Temple cult). With the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees’ main competition was destroyed, and they rose to dominance. Sorj argues that the subsequent segregation of the Jews implemented by the Christians, and later the Muslims, cemented the hegemony of Talmudic Judaism until the arrival of the Karaites in the Middle Ages and the European Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation (67). In short, Talmudic Judaism became orthodox because it was the best suited sect at the time to survive against outside factors, and it gave common Jews a sense of purpose and meaning.

The ideology of Talmudic Judaism has been the dominant ideology of Judaism, in one form or another, since the destruction of the Temple. But since the Jewish emancipation from the ghettos, Jews have increasingly abandoned the Talmudic/Orthodox ideology. The majority of  Jews today do not believe in Talmudic Judaism. Even many of the members in liberal congregations do not believe in the basic presuppositions of Talmudic Judaism, i.e. that God established an eternal, unchanging covenant with the Jews which was recorded and interpreted in the Bible and Talmud. If they say they believe it at all, it is almost always in a symbolic, metaphorical, allegorical way, never literally. Rabbi Sherwin Wine, in Judaism Beyond God, identified this ambivalence as the root cause of the failure of Reform and Conservative Judaism to inspire an ideological commitment of its members similar to Orthodox Jews. It was Wine’s contention that philosophical integrity was the most important part of any worthwhile movement in Judaism. He points to the Zionists, Jewish socialists, and Yiddishists as examples of committed secular, humanistic Jews joining together for a common cause or belief. What was lacking in these movements was an explicit connection to Judaism, an integration of their ideologies with their Jewish identities that didn’t rely solely on nationalism.

Just as the Pharisees created a new ideology which reinforced their commitment to Judaism, Wine and other Humanistic Jews have begun the process of explicitly integrating the philosophy of Humanism with Judaism. The parallel to the Pharisaic innovations is not made lightly. While the Pharisees created a new ideological underpinning for Judaism, they did not create their understanding out of nothing. Talmudic Judaism was a natural outgrowth of what had come before, and the Pharisees used cultural artifacts to ground their claims to legitimacy, particularly the Bible and folk customs. Their appeal to the common people (am haaretz) exploited already existing beliefs and biases in order to further their agenda. Just as Talmudic Judaism was a natural outgrowth of previous Jewish practices, so is Humanistic Judaism a natural outgrowth of Judaism today.

Most Jews today are humanistic in a general way. They believe that human beings are responsible for their own well-being and shouldn’t rely on divine intervention. They accept the findings of science, and believe that reason and evidence are the best ways to gain knowledge about the world. They are focused on this life rather than an afterlife or an impending apocalypse, and they generally are not worried overmuch about angering God by sinning. They are generally good people, and their morality isn’t typically grounded in any kind of theology, rather the theology is usually molded to fit the person’s morality. And many of them are committed to human dignity rather than discriminatory religious laws and traditions; e.g. gender egalitarianism, LGBT rights, acceptance of patrilineal Jews, etc. Some of these qualities come from traditional Judaism, which emphasizes human agency and mutual dependency, e.g. tzedakah, critical thinking, social justice, family and communal responsibility, and a life of good deeds (mitzvot). The history of Jewish education coupled with the secular revolution has led to the Jews being the most educated ethnic minority in America, which has in turn given rise to many of these qualities in the Jewish community. Humanism is already an integral part of liberal Judaism as a natural product of Jewish values mixed with secular experience and education.

Humanism has arisen naturally in the Jewish community, and the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements embrace it in all but name. Humanistic Judaism, as an organized Movement, rejects the route of the other liberal Movements. It refuses to speak in metaphor and symbol, trying to legitimize itself through the theology and texts of Talmudic Judaism. Humanistic Judaism reflects the reality of contemporary Jewish life in being nontheistic. It does not argue whether God exists or not, it simply finds the God idea irrelevant and unnecessary for living a good and meaningful life. Because the God idea is irrelevant to the daily lives of most Jews, Humanistic Judaism sees no reason to spend time praising God at Jewish celebrations. Instead, Humanistic Judaism focuses on creating new and meaningful celebrations of Jewish holidays and life-cycle events, including Shabbat, that reflect the beliefs, values, and concerns of Humanistic Jews. Wine argues in Judaism Beyond God that “a strong ideology insists that when we celebrate who we are, we speak with conviction. New words that express our convictions are preferable to old words that do not. Nostalgia is valuable, but it is not primary” (131).

The question naturally arises, “why bother?” Why bother with a nontheistic religion in the first place, and more specifically why bother with a Jewish nontheistic religion? Alain de Botton argues in Religion for Atheists that religions are useful sociological phenomena that can contribute to social, physical, and psychological well-being for their adherents. Many of the techniques, practices, and institutions of religions can be and should be stripped of their dogmatic accoutrements and used by nontheists for “atheist religions” aimed at promoting the well-being of their practitioners. The main benefits which de Botton identifies with religion are community, moral  and philosophical development and instruction, the cultivation of “spirituality,” and rituals which help people to cope with the changes, stresses, and tragedies of human life. A nontheistic religion has the capacity to provide communities for humanists and secularists which can then orient people in how to achieve more meaningful and fulfilling lives. Furthermore, organizing Humanists and other nontheists into communities will help in both spreading Humanist values in society and in advocating for those values in the government against the fundamentalists of traditional religions.

Once the benefits of a nontheistic humanistic religion become apparent, the need for Humanistic Judaism is clear. First and foremost, Jewish identity goes beyond religion, as has already been stated, and most humanistic Jews view their Jewish culture and heritage as important. Rather than abandon Judaism, these Jews would rather update and modify Jewish rituals, holidays, institutions, and liturgy to reflect their current beliefs. Humanism is then used to maintain Judaism and Jewish identity just as the Talmudic ideology was used to ensure the future of the Jews without a land, Sanhedrin, or central Temple cult. Secondly, a humanistic religion does not need to start from nothing and probably shouldn’t. The most successful humanistic religion in America began as two Protestant denominations and evolved naturally into its current humanistic, pluralistic form. Unitarian Universalism maintained many of the rituals, institutions, and forms of Protestantism while naturally evolving into a humanistic religion. The Humanistic Jewish Movement is being much more explicit in this process, but the process is essentially the same. Maintain the Jewish holidays, structures, and rituals while providing new humanistic meaning to them. By doing this, we couple the Humanism of the many unaffiliated and liberal Jews with the practice of Judaism, which allows people to practice their religion with both integrity and conviction.

In summary, Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people which has evolved and will continue to evolve over time. Judaism has always been pluralistic in nature, providing space for multiple ideologies which underpin people’s Jewish commitments. Talmudic Judaism became orthodox Judaism mainly because of its appeal to lay people, the diaspora, the destruction of the Temple, and the enforced segregation of the Jews from Christian and Muslim societies. Humanism is a natural outgrowth of the Jewish community, and many Jews are either implicitly or explicitly Humanists. Humanistic communities are important for people who cannot subscribe to traditional theistic religions. They provide communities, moral and philosophical instruction, a place to cultivate Humanist spirituality, and a way to disseminate Humanist values. Combining Humanism with Judaism is important for the future of secular and nontheistic Jews and their children. By creating Jewish communities with Humanist conviction and integrity, Humanistic Judaism helps to ensure the future of Judaism.

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