Back to the Sources

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.

God

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.

Torah

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.

Humanity

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.

Prayer

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. 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.

Works Cited

What Do Jews Believe? David Ariel

The Guide to Humanistic Judaism, The Society for Humanistic Judaism

Evil and the Morality of God, Harold Schulweis

Jewish Interpretation of the Bible, Karin Hedner Zetterholm

Tanakh, The Jewish Publication Society

Putting God Second, Donniel Hartman; e-book

Judaism Without God? Yaakov Malkin; e-book

BT=Babylonian Talmud

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Kabbalat Shabbat Service

This Shabbat Service was primarily prepared by Rabbi Miriam Jerris of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, however, I have made some modifications which is why I am uploading it here. The blessings for wine and bread have been moved to the end of the service, and I removed the explanations for them. I changed the Shema to the one found in The Guide to Humanistic Judaism because I thought it worked better with the congregational response that followed. I added a reading from Sherwin Wine about justice, and I also changed some of the songs. My modified version of this Shabbat service can be found through the following link.

Kabbalat Shabbat Humanistic Judaism

Spirituality for Jewish Humanists

Humanistic Judaism prides itself on the use of rationality and the scientific method in the pursuit of truth. However, even naturalist and non-theistic religious traditions need spirituality in order to meet the emotional needs of its adherents. Spirituality is a nebulous term that can refer to many things, and it frequently has supernatural connotations. The word is used here for lack of a better alternative. For the purposes of this essay, spirituality refers to the practices and experiences that lead to the feeling of communion with something greater than the self, the experience of peace with the self and gratitude towards the universe, or finding meaning and purpose in life. This definition is clearly not exhaustive, but it will do for now. To discuss a Humanist spirituality, we must identify the goal of spiritual practice and suggest practices which are in keeping with the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism.

Spirituality has many psychological and physical benefits. It can reduce stress, helping people to cope with the problems of life. It can help people to find meaning and purpose in life and provide grounding in a chaotic world. There is also evidence that people who perform spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation live longer and recover more quickly from illness. Obviously spirituality isn’t a cure all, but it can positively impact the lives of its practitioners.

But how can Humanists who reject supernaturalism practice spirituality? Humanists must first find something to be the object of their spirituality. For traditional religions, the something is typically God. A Humanist spirituality can instead focus on something like goodness, truth, love, or beauty in imitation of Platonic spirituality. However, these concepts are too abstract for most people to be a meaningful spiritual object of meditation. Another option is to recognize the unity and interdependent nature of existence similar to that taught by Thich Nhat Hanh. Through contemplating this unity, Humanists can then have a feeling of communion with the rest of existence. Whichever choice a Humanist makes is less important than the practice they employ.

The most obvious method for a Humanist spirituality is meditation. Meditation does not require any religious commitment, nor does it rely on supernatural entities. There are many forms of meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the easiest and one of the most rewarding in terms of psychological benefits. Chanting is another common form of meditation. What is chanted isn’t so important, but words like ‘peace’ and ‘love’ or simple phrases are the best options. Another effective form of meditation is prayer. This is the most problematic for Humanists because prayer relies on a belief that there is something to hear the prayer. However, Marcia Falk in the Book of Blessings has attempted to create non-theistic forms of prayer where the use of words can help in the process of meditation. Rather than use the traditional Jewish formulation “Blessed are you, Adonai,” she uses the phrase “Let us bless the source of life which…” While this approach won’t appeal to all Humanistic Jews, it is an option for those who prefer the method of prayer over that of mindfulness meditation.

While general spiritual practices can be used, Humanistic Jews should also feel comfortable using Jewish spiritual practices. Prayer was mentioned above, but another approach is the sanctification of life through the practice of good deeds and blessings. Traditional Jews sanctify life through fulfilling the mitzvot and the recitation of blessings. Humanistic Jews can do the same by changing the words of the blessings to reflect Humanist philosophy and focusing on doing good deeds. Rather than the Hamotzi, it might be possible to make simple statement about being grateful for the food one is about to consume. Rather than the Modeh Ani, a Humanistic Jew can say, “I am thankful for another day of life and health.” Before bed and in the morning, one could say a Humanist version of the Shema that focuses on the interdependence of life and expresses a commitment to a life in service to humane ideals. Most Humanistic Jews won’t be inclined to do a Humanist “prayer” service (shema, amidah, aleinu, kaddish) three times a day, but it is an option. This approach to Humanistic Jewish spirituality requires creativity, but it has the benefit of using a traditional form of Jewish spirituality as its model.

Another form of Humanistic Jewish spirituality can be found in the new Mussar movement. Alan Morinis’s book Everyday Holiness, outlines a program of meditation and moral reflection that does not rely on God or the supernatural. Every day, one meditates on the nature of a particular virtue after reading a brief text about that virtue. There is one virtue per week that is meditated on in a cycle of thirteen for a year. Each night, the practitioner reflects on the day and records their successes and failures in regard to that virtue. The goal of the program is to integrate those virtues into the life of the practitioner through a heightened consciousness of their behavior. This practice can be done on its own or in conjunction with other spiritual practices.

No discussion of Jewish spirituality would be complete without mentioning study. Traditional Jews study the Torah and Talmud as a spiritual practice. Study should also be an integral part of Humanistic Jewish spirituality. While Humanistic Jews don’t need to limit themselves to the Torah and Talmud, they should form small groups in which to study, discuss, and argue about texts which have meaning to the practice of Humanistic Judaism. These texts could cover philosophy, history, traditional Judaism, current events, or any number of topics. This will have the benefit of encouraging scholarship and introspection among Humanistic Jews and forming close friendships in congregations.

Just as there is no single Jewish spiritual practice, there is no single practice for Humanistic Jews. Different methods will appeal to different people. The important thing is for Humanist spirituality to become a greater part of Humanistic Jewish life.

Celebrating Shabbat

Humanistic Judaism focuses on the cultural aspects of Judaism rather than the doctrinal. In accord with this presupposition we reject the idea that Jewish law is a binding covenant between the people of Israel and God. While we accept the holidays, customs, and some of the rituals of Judaism, we do them as free people after careful consideration. The way in which we mark the holidays of Judaism is a matter of doing certain traditional rituals in a way that is intellectually honest to what we believe. While it is possible for a Jewish Humanist to continue saying traditional prayers for aesthetic reasons, such as kiddush, most people who are drawn to Humanistic Judaism desire “say what they mean, and mean what they say.” Shabbat is the most important and frequent holiday in the Jewish calendar, and perhaps the most underappreciated by progressive Jews. A Humanistic shabbat celebration will use old rituals with new words and concepts. The challenge will be creating forms of celebration that are as compelling and emotionally satisfying as the traditional ones.

The overriding themes of shabbat in traditional Judaism are creation, covenant, and rest. In order for Humanistic Jews to honor the tradition of shabbat, we must find ways to incorporate these themes into our celebration in a non-theistic way. Rest is the easiest. While all Humanistic Jews will reject the halakhic determination of what constitutes work, most will agree that resting on shabbat is a generally good idea. Individual understandings of what constitutes work will vary from person to person; one person’s relaxing day in the garden is another person’s hell. Encouraging people to rest on shabbat need not mean dictating the minutiae of what that rest should look like.

The other two themes are less obvious, but not impossible to incorporate. The theme of creation can simply mean incorporating an appreciation for the gifts of nature and life. This can be achieved through blessing candles, bread, and wine at the shabbat dinner, or through taking a walk in a park or in the woods on shabbat. Acknowledging the gifts of nature can be achieved through conscious gratitude for life which can easily be captured in the shabbat liturgy, either at home around the table or at the synagogue.

Incorporating the concept of the covenant will be more troublesome. Since Humanistic Jews reject the covenant with God, they must redefine the essence of the Jewish covenant. In my previous post, The Additional Covenant, I discussed Elie Wiesel’s understanding of the covenant of the Jews with past and future Jewish generations. The idea of keeping faith with past generations who kept shabbat can replace the Sinai covenant. We observe shabbat to honor the Jews of the past who kept these traditions alive and for the future generations of Jews who will come after us. This, too, can be incorporated in our observance of shabbat through blessing the children at shabbat dinner to saying Kaddish (or some Humanist alternative) to honor our ancestors and martyrs at the synagogue.

The shabbat dinner should be the focal point of family weekly life, and it is my opinion that many of the traditions should be maintained. Candles should be lit to remind us to rest. Blessings over wine and bread should be said to remind us to be grateful for the gifts of nature. Spouses should recite some kind of love poem or blessing for each other, and the children should be blessed to make the love of the family explicit and increase family harmony and bonding. These rituals will not only improve family life, but will also increase the identification with Judaism and the Jewish people.

And finally, shabbat should be celebrated by the community every week. Some congregations only do once or twice a month, but such limited gatherings do not foster the sense of community that is necessary to create dynamic congregations. I mentioned in another post that if weekly services do not work for the congregation, then other forms of communal shabbat celebration should be created that are then rotated monthly. Having different types of celebration for each shabbat of the month will create enough diversity in programming to keep people interested and attract different types of people while still offering the stability of well-known rituals.

Shabbat is the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar precisely because of its frequency. As Ahad Ha’am said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” The celebration of shabbat fosters family and community connection and gratitude for the gift of life. It offers rest and a break from the obligations of every day life. And its regular observance helps to create and maintain a sense of Jewish identity and connection to Jewish culture. The benefits of shabbat celebration outweigh most inconveniences. Humanistic Judaism should emphasize its observance and stress its many benefits and its importance in our practice of Judaism, even as we find new ways to celebrate this most important holiday every week.

The Importance of Tefillah (Prayer)

Most liberal Jews do not pray on a regular basis, if ever. But prayer has historically been one of the most important aspects of Jewish practice. The liberal aversion to prayer is due to two things: the words themselves and a basic misunderstanding of the role of prayer. We will begin with the purpose of prayer, then move to the actual words and structures of prayer.

As David Ariel notes in his book What Do Jews Believe? the Hebrew term for prayer is tefillah, which comes from a root word meaning “to judge,” “to intercede [on behalf of someone],” or “to hope.” Ariel goes on to say, “Tefillah therefore implies an act of self-judgment or intercession on one’s own behalf before God, or the expression of hopeful sentiments.” Obviously, the mention of God will be troubling for those Humanistic Jews who are atheists or agnostics, but there is a lot of value that can still be drawn from this definition of prayer. Of particular interest are the parts regarding self-judgment and the expression of hope. Humanistic Jewish tefillah would need to focus and expand on these two functions of prayer and tweak them for use so that Humanistic Jews can engage in regular self-reflection and the expression of hope and thanksgiving. Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism, published a Humanist siddur of sorts (Celebration), and Humanist congregations provide their own liturgies for their shabbat and holiday observances. I have also published my own version of a Humanist siddur on this blog. The process has begun, but a theory of tefillah is needed in order to make Humanist prayer a reality rather than an oxymoron.

Ariel goes on to state, “For the rabbis of the talmudic era, the primary purpose of prayer was to educate us in the sacred beliefs of Judaism through regular repetition and reinforcement […] Prayers of thanksgiving and praise express the view that there is a divine dimension in all aspects of reality.” Through the repetition of regular prayers and the recital of blessings over every aspect of life, from eating to waking up and going to sleep, the pious Jew comes to appreciate life and feel awe for its many blessings, at least in theory. Intention (kavanah) is important, especially when the prayers are recited in a foreign language. Concentrating on the meaning of the words that are being prayed is vital for the very purpose of prayer, which is why I support having the majority of prayers in the vernacular.

As Humanistic Jews who do not find the God-idea terribly important for our worldview, this understanding of tefillah can be a valuable tool. Rather than an exercise in sycophantic praise and adulation to God, prayer is a meditative tool that Humanistic Jews can use to reflect on their own behavior, hopes, and beliefs as well as to express their awe and gratitude for the many blessings of life. It is highly unlikely that Humanistic Jews will begin to pray three times a day, even with this understanding of prayer, but they may find it valuable to begin and/or end their day with this type of prayer or to say blessings over meals with their families.

This leaves the words and structures of the prayers. There is a lot of debate among Humanistic Jews and Jews who have problems with traditional God language. Marcia Falk gives an overview of different positions in her siddur The Book of Blessings, which is a wonderful example of a feminist Humanist siddur (although I don’t think she is affiliated with the SHJ). She utilizes the formula, “Let us bless the source of life which…” This formula is broad enough to include theists and atheists while also avoiding anthropomorphism. It has the added benefit of being poetic and inspiring in juxtaposition to the deadening literal prose of much of Sherwin Wine’s siddur. It is important to note that Falk’s shabbat service carefully follows the structure of the traditional shacharit service. By doing this and providing feminist and Humanist alternatives to the traditional prayers, she was able to fulfill the purpose of tefillah (laid out above) without compromising the intellectual integrity of the person praying the service. It is my opinion that this method of following the themes and structure of the siddur while creating new Humanist prayers is the best, as I discussed in my previous post on liturgy.

While this understanding of tefillah will seem disingenuous to some, it is not terribly out of line with Jewish tradition. The Rabbis established the prayer service to act as a substitute for the Temple sacrifices, thus fundamentally changing the mode of Jewish worship for the next 2,000 years. This tweaking of the function of tefillah is no where near so radical as the changes they introduced. Furthermore, Maimonides understood the prayer service to be a compromise between God and Israel which allowed the Jewish people to worship God although the depiction of God in the prayer service was inaccurate and the prayers themselves inferior to true worship (Ariel, 198). Maimonides’ understanding of God was one in which God was essentially unknowable, and the prayer service was a creation entirely for the benefit of the Jewish people’s moral and spiritual well being. We can therefore look at Humanistic tefillah as simply the next step in the evolution of Jewish prayer, one in which we do away with the God language which was inaccurate anyway and focus more explicitly on the moral and spiritual development of the people praying. Although there is no metaphysical urgency, no mitzvah, for Humanistic prayer, it is nonetheless important as a tool for self-improvement, reminding ourselves of our values, expressing our hopes, and acknowledging the many blessings of life.

Let us bless the source of life which has brought us to this moment.

The Liturgy of Humanistic Judaism

Liturgy and Humanism are not words that people instinctively relate to one another. Yet if shabbat and holiday celebrations are to be meaningful in Humanistic Judaism, a dynamic and engaging liturgy must be utilized. I believe that a denominational Humanist siddur should be developed which offers a structure for shabbat and holidays while allowing innovation and choice for each congregation. A layout similar to the Reform siddur may be useful in allowing multiple options for each two page spread as the congregation goes through the service. It is my belief that the Humanist siddur should be more or less structured around the themes of the traditional prayer service while providing Humanist meditations in place of the prayers. A limited example will be placed at the end of this post, which is open for public use and reproduction.

The question will obviously arise as to why Humanistic Jews require a siddur at all. The answer is simple: for the same reason theistic Jews require a siddur. Siddur means order. By setting an order for communal gatherings and individual meditation, we can be sure that we are reminding ourselves of our most important values and reflecting on those aspects of life which are the most meaningful. By using the themes and structure of the traditional siddur we are maintaining our commitment to Judaism, Jewish values, and Jewish culture while changing the words themselves to reflect our own beliefs. A siddur for Humanistic Judaism should include opening blessings and songs followed by an interpretation of the Shema and its blessings for creation, revelation, and salvation. Then a Humanist version of the Amidah should be included, being sure to follow the general flow of the traditional eighteen or seven blessings. After the Amidah, comes an optional Torah service (although other books may be used if desired) complete with songs, processional, a sharing of the community’s joys and sorrows (in place of the mi shebeirach), and a brief sermon or discussion. The Torah service should be followed by Humanist versions of the Aleinu and Mourners’ Kaddish. After the Mourners’ Kaddish can come announcements and a final song, followed by an oneg or kiddush (with blessings for wine and bread if desired).

There is also the issue of whether or not to use Hebrew. While Hebrew has been considered a holy language, and now the language of Israeli Jews, most diaspora Jews do not understand it. It therefore makes no sense to conduct the service in Hebrew, especially if a lack of Hebrew knowledge discourages people from coming to community celebrations of shabbat and holidays. Furthermore, by conducting the service in the vernacular the congregants can reflect on what they are reading and meditate on the words of the service throughout the day or week. With that being said, Hebrew is still important as a Jewish language and there should be some use of it in the service. This should probably be limited to the Shema meditations and the songs, although its use can be implemented as the community sees fit throughout the service. It should also be studied by laity and rabbis alike in order to more fully engage with traditional Jewish texts and modern Israeli culture.

Kippot, tallitot, and tefillin are the traditional garments worn by Jews during prayer. While each item is used for specific theological reasons in traditional Judaism, this need not be the case in Humanistic Judaism. They are products of Jewish culture, and if people find meaning in wearing them to shabbat and holiday services or during private meditation, they should be encouraged to do so. Kippot and tallitot especially function as symbols of Judaism, and it is my private opinion that they should be encouraged in the synagogue during ceremonies for shabbat and holidays. (As a vegan, I am personally opposed to the use of traditional tefillin and think that they go against the central message of Humanistic Judaism, but I also recognize that others might disagree with my opinion.)

By using traditional ritual prayer items like a tallit, kippah, and shabbat candles, and following the general structure of the Jewish prayer service, Humanistic Judaism can affirm its connection to the Jewish tradition. By providing multiple options and Humanist alternatives to traditional prayers, the Humanist siddur can offer dynamic and engaging community celebrations. Below you will find my version of a Humanist siddur for weekdays and shabbat. Italicized text indicates a congregational response or instructions for the flow of the service.

Weekday Morning and Evening Liturgy

Opening Blessings:

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! We enter into this house reverently to pay honor to our highest values, making this place a temple for what is sacred.

We give thanks for the intricate network of veins, arteries, and vital organs which make our bodies function. May we always be grateful for our health and strength and call to mind the holiness of the body.

These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure;

To honor father and mother;

To perform acts of love and kindness;

To attend the house of study;

To welcome the stranger;

To visit the sick;

To rejoice with newlyweds;

To console the bereaved;

To make peace when there is strife.

For all that is our life, we give our thanks and praise; for all life is a gift to build the common good and make our own days glad.

The Shema and Its Blessings

The vast universe in all its splendor becomes self-reflective in us. We gaze upon the stars and learn the secrets of their birth and their role in the creation of the universe as we know it. Light and dark, gravity and heat, matter and energy create all that we see: the trees and the animals, mountains and seas. We stand in awe before the grandeur of creation.

The forces of nature have equipped us to know what is good and helpful. The process of natural selection has made us a cooperative species capable of living with one another to build our lives together. Through the guidance of conscience and knowledge from our memories of the past, we know what it is to live together in unity.

Shema Yisrael, kol ha-chayim hu echad

Hear O Israel, all life is One

We will honor life in all its forms with all our minds, all our strength, and all our being. We acknowledge our dependence on the web of life which supports our well-being. We will set these words upon our hearts; teach them faithfully to our children; speak of them at home and in our travels, when we lie down and rise up. We will bind them as a sign upon our hand and make them a symbol between our eyes. We will inscribe them on the doorposts of our houses and on our gates. We will be mindful of our place in the web of life and thus shall we consecrate ourselves to the task of living in harmony with all life.

May our devotion to the sanctity of life lead to our redemption from all that plagues our world. May our work for tikkun olam bear lasting fruit for us and our descendants.

The Amidah        All Rise

Let my mouth declare the beauty and worth of life.

HONORING OUR ANCESTORS

Our ancestors survived the harshness of life with dignity and perseverance. From Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah to our parents and grandparents; we owe all that we are to their hard work and will to live. Let us acknowledge their faithfulness to the ways of life and all that they have done to bring us into life.

SALVATION, LIFE, AND DEATH

The forces of the universe have created all that we need for salvation. With love we can sustain the living. With compassion we can sustain life for all. We can help the falling and heal the sick; bring freedom to the captive, and keep faith with those who came before us. Let us bless the universe, source of life and death.

SANCTITY OF LIFE

We sanctify life when we acknowledge the interdependent unity of all life.

Holy, holy, holy is the totality of life! The whole earth is covered with its sanctity!

And we respond to the holiness of life with respect and honor for the earth’s ecosystem of which we are a part.

FOR WISDOM AND UNDERSTANDING

Let us always strive to grow in knowledge, understanding, and insight.

Blessed is the mind which grows in wisdom.

FOR REPENTANCE

May we always return to our ideals and draw near to the highest values of our lives. Let us come back to goodness in perfect repentance of our mistakes.

Blessed is the conscience which calls for repentance.

FOR FORGIVENESS

May we seek forgiveness from all those who we hurt and pardon those who hurt us. May we forgive others in the same spirit in which we seek forgiveness.

Blessed is the one whose forgiveness is abundant.

FOR MUTUAL AID

Let us be aware of the problems of others and help them in their need.

Blessed is the one who helps those who are in need.

FOR HEALTH

Let us remember all those who are injured and in poor health and do all that we can to alleviate their suffering.

Blessed is the one who alleviates the suffering of others.

FOR ABUNDANCE

May the products of our labors bring us well-being and well-being to all people. Let us give to those in need from the abundance of our own possessions and satisfy the demands of human goodness.

Blessed are those who give from their abundance.

FOR FREEDOM

Sound the great horn to proclaim freedom, let us be inspired to strive for the liberation of the oppressed, and let the song of liberty be heard throughout the earth.

Blessed is the one who redeems the oppressed and fights for the downtrodden.

FOR JUSTICE

May we elect just and upright leaders who govern fairly and with compassion.

Blessed are those who govern with justice and goodness.

FOR GOODNESS

Let us strive for the highest ethical standards that we may embody goodness in our lives for our own sake and the sake of our communities.

Blessed are those who dedicate themselves to goodness.

FOR ISRAEL

We hope for peace in the land of Israel and compassion and justice in the hearts of her inhabitants.

Blessed are those who make peace in Israel.

FOR WORSHIP

That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.

Blessed is the one who worships goodness, compassion, and justice.

THANKSGIVING

We gratefully acknowledge the blessings of our lives. The breath in our lungs, the food we consume, and the ones we love and who love us in return. For all that is our life, we give our thanks and praise.

PEACE

Peace, happiness, and blessing; grace and love and mercy: may these descend on us, on all Israel, and all the world. Let us love kindness and justice and mercy, and seek blessing, life, and peace.

Blessed is the one creates peace.

 

SILENT MEDITATION

I will keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit. I will be silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all. I will open my heart to the truth and hurry to perform an act of goodness and mercy.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart lead to actions which further the repair of the world.

 Optional Torah Service on page X

Continue with the Aleinu and Kaddish on page X

 

Shabbat Liturgy (For Erev Shabbat or Shacharit)

Candle Lighting for Shabbat Eve

As these Shabbat candles give light to all who behold them, so may we, by our lives, give light to all who behold us.

As their brightness reminds us of the generations of Israel who have kindled light, so may we, in our own day, be among those who kindle light.

Let there be joy!

Let there be peace!

Let there be light!

Let there be Shabbat!

Opening Blessings:

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! We enter into this house reverently to pay honor to our highest values, making this place a temple for what is sacred.

We give thanks for the intricate network of veins, arteries, and vital organs which make our bodies function. May we always be grateful for our health and strength and call to mind the holiness of the body.

These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure;

To honor father and mother;

To perform acts of love and kindness;

To attend the house of study;

To welcome the stranger;

To visit the sick;

To rejoice with newlyweds;

To console the bereaved;

To make peace when there is strife.

For all that is our life, we give our thanks and praise; for all life is a gift to build the common good and make our own days glad.

May we stay far from immorality and master temptation. May our darker passions not rule us, nor evil acquaintances lead us away from goodness. May we strengthen the voice of conscience and always strive to perform deeds of goodness that we may know the good will of all who know us.

At all times let us revere goodness inwardly and outwardly, acknowledge the truth, and speak it.

We are tiny on the scale of the universe. Let us learn to rely on one another.

 

Insert appropriate Songs, Poems, and Music for Meditation

 

The Shema and Its Blessings

The vast universe in all its splendor becomes self-reflective in us. We gaze upon the stars and learn the secrets of their birth and their role in the creation of the universe as we know it. Light and dark, gravity and heat, matter and energy create all that we see: the trees and the animals, mountains and seas. We stand in awe before the grandeur of creation.

The forces of nature have equipped us to know what is good and helpful. The process of natural selection has made us a cooperative species capable of living with one another to build our lives together. Through the guidance of conscience and knowledge from our memories of the past, we know what it is to live together in unity.

Shema Yisrael, kol ha-chayim hu echad

Hear O Israel, all life is One

We will honor life in all its forms with all our minds, all our strength, and all our being. We acknowledge our dependence on the web of life which supports our well-being. We will set these words upon our hearts; teach them faithfully to our children; speak of them at home and in our travels, when we lie down and rise up. We will bind them as a sign upon our hand and make them a symbol between our eyes. We will inscribe them on the doorposts of our houses and on our gates. We will be mindful of our place in the web of life and thus shall we consecrate ourselves to the task of living in harmony with all life.

May our devotion to the sanctity of life lead to our redemption from all that plagues our world. May our work for tikkun olam bear lasting fruit for us and our descendants.

 

The Amidah        All Rise

Let my mouth declare the beauty and worth of life.

HONORING OUR ANCESTORS

Our ancestors survived the harshness of life with dignity and perseverance. From Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah to our parents and grandparents; we owe all that we are to their hard work and will to live. Let us acknowledge their faithfulness to the ways of life and all that they have done to bring us into life.

SALVATION, LIFE, AND DEATH

The forces of the universe have created all that we need for salvation. With love we can sustain the living. With compassion we can sustain life for all. We can help the falling and heal the sick; bring freedom to the captive, and keep faith with those who came before us. Let us bless the universe, source of life and death.

SANCTITY OF LIFE

We sanctify life when we acknowledge the interdependent unity of all life.

Holy, holy, holy is the totality of life! The whole earth is covered with its sanctity!

And we respond to the holiness of life with respect and honor for the earth’s ecosystem of which we are a part.

FOR SHABBAT

On the seventh day our people rest from their labors and reflect on the values and ideals most precious to them. To love mercy, to act justly, and to walk the path of life humbly with others. Let our rest on this day remind us of what is holy and precious in life.

Blessed is life, and blessed are those who revere life.

FOR WORSHIP

That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.

Blessed is the one who worships goodness, compassion, and justice.

THANKSGIVING

We gratefully acknowledge the blessings of our lives. The breath in our lungs, the food we consume, and the ones we love and who love us in return. For all that is our life, we give our thanks and praise.

PEACE

Peace, happiness, and blessing; grace and love and mercy: may these descend on us, on all Israel, and all the world. Let us love kindness and justice and mercy, and seek blessing, life, and peace.

Blessed is the one creates peace.

 

SILENT MEDITATION

I will keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit. I will be silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all. I will open my heart to the truth and hurry to perform acts of goodness and mercy.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart lead to actions which further the repair of the world.

 

Insert a brief reading from the weekly Torah or Haftarah portion, or some other Jewish literature (Optional “Torah Service” begins on next page).

Continue with a Shabbat message or discussion based on the reading.

 

Continue with the Aleinu and Kaddish on page X.

 

Optional Torah Service

THE ARK IS OPENED AND TORAH OR BOOK TAKEN OUT

Let us bless those who came before us and passed on to us the records of their wisdom.

THE SHEMA

Hear, O Israel: Let us take up our portion in the repair of the world.

At one with our forebears, we affirm that righteousness, justice, and compassion shall be our lamp.

 

Insert appropriate song as the procession with the Torah or other book is done through the congregation.

 

BLESSING BEFORE READING

Let us bless the source of life!

Blessed is the source of life from which all goodness flows!

We give thanks for our ancestors who have blessed us with teachings of wisdom. Blessed are our ancestors, the creators of Torah.

BLESSING AFTER READING

Blessed are the seekers of wisdom and the teachers of the next generation.

After the reading, invite the congregation to share personal joys and sorrows.

 

The Aleinu

Let us praise the majesty of the universe, old beyond imagining, source of all things, which has created diversity and interdependent unity.

We stand in awe before the majestic, terrifying power of the creative and destructive forces of the universe, and recognize our smallness in relation to eternity and our dependence on one another.

Recognizing our limits in this world which sustains and destroys life, we affirm our hope for a society built on justice, equity, and compassion. May the idols of greed and selfishness fall to the overwhelming power of cooperation and righteousness.

May all who live acknowledge the rule of justice and swear loyalty to a life of goodness.

And may the establishment of the just and compassionate society come soon and in our day. On that day, goodness shall reign over all the earth; and humanity shall be one.

 

Humanist Kaddish

We remember our loved ones whom death has recently taken from us and those who died at this time in previous years. The martyrs of our people are always in our thoughts. May their memories be a blessing to all.

NITGADAL V’NITKADASH B’RUAKH HAADAM

Let us enhance and exalt ourselves in the spirit of humanity.

Let us acclaim the preciousness of life.

Let us show gratitude for life by approaching it with reverence.

Let us embrace the whole world, even as we wrestle with its parts.

Let us fulfill, each of us in our own way, our share in serving the world and seeking truth.

May our commitment to life help us strengthen healing of spirit and peace of mind.

May healing and peace permeate and comfort all of Israel and all those who dwell on earth.

NITGADAL V’NITKADASH B’RUAKH HAADAM

Let us enhance and exalt ourselves in the spirit of humanity.

And let us say: Ken y’hee. May it be so.

–Jon Dickman and Congregation Kol Shalom inspired by Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Community Announcements and Final Song

Kiddush and Ha-Motzi

With wine, our symbol of joy, we celebrate this Shabbat, a day of rest for the Jewish people.

Let us bless the earth, the source of life, which brings forth the fruit of the vine for our enjoyment.

 

With challah, the symbol of sustenance and the interconnectedness of all life, we give thanks for this Shabbat meal.

Let us bless the earth, the source of life, which brings forth the food that sustains us.

 

Havdalah

Kindle the candle

With wine, candles, and spices we mark the end of shabbat and the beginning of the new week. The wine reminds us of the joy of shabbat; the candle reminds us that life depends on the work of the coming week; and the spices remind us to look forward to next shabbat.

The cup of wine is raised.

Blessed are the earth, the sun, and the rain which create the fruit of the vine.

The wine is circulated.

We are thankful for the earth which produces all spices.

The spice box is circulated.

We are grateful for the light and warmth of fire which has blessed humanity.

As we mark the separation of shabbat from the rest of the week, we commit to separating ourselves from immorality, hatred, and injustice. May we be inspired to live lives of righteousness and compassion in the coming week. We give thanks for our minds and consciences which can separate what is right from what is wrong.

The candle is extinguished.