Can there be an atheistic Judaism? Is there any way for secular Jews to affirm their Jewish identity and commitments in an intellectually consistent way? This is the central issue of Sherwin Wine’s book Judaism Beyond God. Wine has a monumental task cut out for him in arguing the case for Humanistic Judaism, cutting against the grain of 3,000 years of tradition. He traces the effects the secular revolution has had on the Jewish community and presents a bold vision for modern Jewish identity attached to a strongly humanist ideology. In his opening chapter “The Jew,” Wine addresses his target audience as “those Jews who are not traditional, [and] who want to integrate their Jewish identity with their personal convictions” (5). Judaism Beyond God succeeds in offering them an enticing and persuasive option.
Wine’s argument is rather simple. Judaism is an ideology about the importance of being Jewish. The central questions of any form of Judaism are “why be Jewish” and “who is a Jew?” Traditional Judaism’s answer to these questions have centered on God and halakha. However, the “Secular Revolution” has undermined the traditional dogmas of Judaism. God and halakha are no longer intellectually satisfactory answers. The belief system that has replaced the traditional religion is humanism, which is a philosophy of life focused on reason as the means of understanding the world and human dignity as the central philosophical and political concern. The fundamental question becomes what is the humanistic value of Jewish identity? Wine finds the answer in the historic experience of the Jewish people. The historic suffering of the Jews, particularly in the Holocaust, exposes the disconnection between Jewish experience and the traditional ideology. Jewish history proves that if God exists, God does not care about or intervene in human history. Therefore, Wine argues,
“Jewish experience testifies to the need for reason and dignity. To be Jewish is to feel the indifference of the universe and the terror of self-reliance. But […] there is no alternative to self-reliance. Jewish identity is attached to Jewish memory. And Jewish memory is an encyclopedia of reasons for agnosticism, skepticism, and human striving” (99).
The study of Jewish history is therefore central to Wine’s conception of Humanistic Judaism. Just as the study of the Torah defines the essence of rabbinic Judaism, “the study of Jewish history defines the first Jewish commitment of humanistic Jews” (114). This history must be thoroughly secular, human centered, and focused on more than religious practices and the rise and role of monotheism. In particular, antisemitism must be taken into account as the source of much of historic Jewish suffering. Wine goes so far as to claim that antisemitism was the primary force in shaping the modern Ashkenazi “Jewish personality,” which he defines through three broad characteristics: skepticism, humor, and self-reliance (117). Coincidentally, these traits tend to be foundational for Jewish humanism, which Wine claims is part of an “underground” counter-tradition that was unable to openly express itself in previous eras.
After arguing for the humanistic significance of Jewish identity, Wine turns his attention to “reconnecting Jewish identity with a strong personal philosophy of life,” the philosophy of humanism. Wine outlines the necessary commitments of his ideological secular humanistic Judaism. Truth and reason are the overriding commitments; and they must take precedence over tradition only for tradition’s sake. The question “is it true” is more important than the question “is it Jewish?” Humanistic Judaism must address the existential concerns of real people and offer guidance on how to live in the real world, including humanistic “spirituality.” It must provide role models, symbols, literature, poetry, music, and holiday celebrations that consistently express humanistic beliefs and values along with intellectual principles, essays, and books. It must be pluralistic and allow room for civil debate within the broad parameters of humanism. These commitments must shape the way that Humanistic Judaism is given expression in its literature, holidays, and life-cycle celebrations.
The remainder of the book deals with Jewish humanist approaches to standard Jewish issues. Which holidays and life cycle events should be celebrated and in what way? What should the relationship and attitude of Diaspora Jewry be toward Israel and vice versa? How should Humanistic Jews handle intermarriage and conversion, and what should the relationship be like between Humanistic Jews and the broader Jewish and humanist communities? What kind of spirituality is consistent with Humanistic Judaism? The final chapter is a call for secular Jews to do away with timidity and ambivalence and to embrace an unapologetic Humanistic Judaism. A non-theistic Judaism that is not defined by its disbelief in tradition, but by its own strong beliefs in humanism and the humanistic value of Jewish identity.