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 (Berenbaum, 127). 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.
Far from being a dramatic break with the rabbinic and biblical sources, Humanistic Judaism is a natural outgrowth of the texts, beliefs, and practices of Jewish tradition. The theology of rabbinic Judaism evolved from the anthropomorphic, interventionist deity of the Bible and Talmud into the abstract, philosophical God of Maimonides. This abstraction was fundamental in leading the way to Kabbalistic, Hasidic, Spinozan, and modern conceptions of divinity. These abstractions were, and are, attempts to explain God’s conspicuous absence in the life of contemporary Jews when compared to the miraculous events of the mythical Jewish past. With each new theological theory, God’s role diminishes and the responsibility of the Jews, and humanity, increases.
Torah interpretation has always been a way for human beings to assert their own authority in the realm of Jewish practice. When the age of prophecy was declared to be over by the rabbis, religious authority shifted to scripture and its interpretation. This allowed a great amount of creativity and leniency in Jewish law while valuing rational arguments and human agency in solving problems. The rule of law allowed individuals to argue their positions without being overridden by charismatic men claiming to have direct access to the divine will. While halakha is far from our own standards in regards to individual rights, liberty, and equality, the principles of interpretation and the rule of law were important developments in Jewish tradition.
With the shift to scriptural interpretation came the increased valuation of human life and dignity. Jewish interpretations of the Bible placed a great amount of importance on human dignity and its implications for how human beings should live together. Being made in the image of God implied that all people in the community should be cared for, which is why giving to the poor is an act of justice and righteousness, i.e. tzedakah, and not love, i.e. charity. Similarly, one had the responsibility to treat others in a way that they would be treated and to work towards establishing a just social order to ensure that.
This leads into questions of what it means to be a “good” Jew. Rabbinic Judaism placed its emphasis on Torah study, mitzvot, and prayer. Humanistic Judaism’s emphasis is similar. Studying Jewish texts, traditions, and history leads us to affirm our responsibility to care for ourselves and others. There is no one else to do it for us, no divine intervention. While the idea of mitzvot in the religious, halakhic sense of fulfilling commandments is not central to Humanistic Judaism, doing good deeds is fundamental to our philosophy. And the colloquial understanding of a mitzvah as a good deed should not be diminished or forgotten. Prayer is not a part of our practice of Humanistic Judaism, but reflection and meditation are. This is usually reserved for Shabbat and holidays, but setting aside time each day for reflection or meditation can be an invaluable practice in our development as human beings and our connection to Judaism. Even though we have different emphases, they are not really so different after all. Study of our tradition, good deeds, and reflection are the central practices of Humanistic Judaism, and we welcome all who wish to join us.
Ariel, David. What Do Jews Believe? New York. Schocken Books, 1995. Print.
Berenbaum, Michael. The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel. Middletown, CT. Wesleyan University Press, 1979. Print.
Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second. E-book.
The Tanakh. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985. Print
Malkin, Yaakov. Judaism Without God? E-book.
Schulweis, Harold. Evil and the Morality of God. New Jersey. Ktav Publishing House, 2010. Print.
“Judaism.” The Guide to Humanistic Judaism. The Society for Humanistic Judaism, 2017. Print.
Zetterholm, Karin Hedner. Jewish Interpretation of the Bible. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2012. Print.