Is Humanistic Judaism a Religion?

To begin a deliberation of the nature of Humanistic Judaism, it is important to set out the definitions of certain terms. What do we mean by religion, humanism, and Judaism? Each of these words is ambiguous and used in contradictory ways. For example, Judaism is a religious and legal system based on the authority of the Torah as the revealed word of God according to Orthodox Judaism. For Humanistic and Reconstructionist Jews, Judaism is a culture or civilization which involves the religion of Orthodox Judaism but is not limited to it. Similar ambiguities exist with the definitions for religion and humanism. In this essay, I will use Yuval Harari’s definition of religion: “a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.” I will use the term humanism to signify the philosophy outlined by Humanism and Its Aspirations: Humanist Manifesto III, which can be summed up as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” The term Judaism shall be used in accordance with the definition established by the Humanistic and Reconstructionist Movements as the evolving civilization of the Jewish people.

I do not foresee any controversy in my choice of definitions for humanism or Judaism, but my choice of definition for religion will likely be controversial. After all, the common understanding of religion is belief in gods, spirits, scriptures, and the supernatural. This understanding is unnecessarily limited and ignores the social function of religion throughout history. Religion is a method for social groups to organize their society based on their understanding of the natural order (or conversely, religions exist to justify the existing social order). In societies that believed in the sovereignty of God(s) and a hierarchy of supernatural beings, hierarchical social structures were justified. It was believed that not only was this social structure natural but that it was also good. The norms and values of the society were founded (or justified) by the superhuman order that they believed in.

It is important to notice the use in terminology here. Superhuman does not necessarily mean supernatural, although historically these have overlapped quite a bit. Buddhism is a religion based on a superhuman order, but that order is not supernatural. (The gods, ghosts, and demons of Buddhism are not above the natural order, but rather a part of it like humans, cats, or elephants.) A superhuman order need only be beyond the power of human beings to alter, create, or control. What is the superhuman order according to humanism? It is the natural world, the universe operating according to the unchangeable natural laws revealed by science. (“Humanists recognize nature as self-existing.” “Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.” HM3)

We can all recognize that the universe is a superhuman order, but do we base our values and actions on our understanding of that order? The answer is yes. According to Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism and a signer of the Humanist Manifesto, the indifference of the universe to the suffering of humanity leads us to conclude that we are responsible for our own well-being. (Judaism Beyond God) This is also reflected in the third Humanist Manifesto which states:

“Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond […] Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.”

Ethics are judged by the standards of human need, not scripture; and it is the responsibility of human beings to work to improve society and human well-being rather than to wait for God or resign oneself to fate. This focus on human ability and responsibility and belief in the value of each individual are uniquely humanist positions derived from our understanding of the superhuman order, i.e. the universe.

Humanistic Judaism then falls under the category of a naturalistic religion, particularly a nontheistic religion. Our focus is not on God, scriptures, or even adhering to particular ritual practices, but rather on leading “ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” However, beyond this basic orientation, the ritual and communal components of Humanistic Judaism further cement its position as a religion. As a Jewish movement, we draw on the traditions and customs of Jewish culture(s) to put our humanism into action. We celebrate Jewish holidays, light candles for Shabbat, say brachas, get together for celebrations and life cycle events, and even read and sing in unison to celebrate our beliefs, values, and identity. Thus even if we were to limit our definition of religion to a system of belief practiced or expressed communally, we must accept that Humanistic Judaism is a religion.

What relevance does this abstract discussion have? If we accept that Humanistic Judaism is a religion, this may change our conception of ourselves. After all, a common adjective used for the movement is secular, which literally means, “things that have no religious or spiritual basis.” Can Humanistic Judaism simultaneously be religious and secular? I do not think so. It is my belief that we should drop the adjective secular and instead use nontheistic, since this is what is generally meant when someone uses secular to describe the movement. Much to the chagrin of traditional religious and ideologically secular people, we occupy a middle ground that neither side fully understands. We are nontheists who wish to do religious things like Shabbat services and Passover Seders, but we are not content to follow the traditional formats and say words we do not believe. It is time that we owned our identity as a naturalistic, nontheistic religion.

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