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.


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.


Works Cited

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.

BT=Babylonian Talmud

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.



On Circumcision

Circumcision is one of the oldest traditions of the Jewish people. It is so old that it was attributed to God’s covenant with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Since its beginning as an organized denomination, Humanistic Judaism has been critical of the practice of circumcision, and many Humanistic Jewish congregations will not allow a bris to be performed in their buildings. Instead, they have opted for baby naming ceremonies for both boys and girls, and the boys are circumcised in the hospital by a doctor, if at all. The practice of circumcision is one that should not be put away so lightly. The arguments against circumcision are certainly strong, but the sheer weight of this tradition and its importance to the Jewish people through history should give us pause before throwing it out completely.

The argument against circumcision can be made from two directions. The strongest argument is that circumcision is an irreversible violation of a child’s body, and it is an unnecessary infliction of suffering on a baby through genital mutilation. As such, it is a violation of the child’s rights to bodily autonomy and a breach of ethics for the parents who have the surgery performed. The second argument, which is more of a supplement to the main argument than an argument in its own right, is that the bris by its nature excludes female children. There is no equivalent to the bris for girls, and their welcome into the community is therefore usually seen as being of less importance. Furthermore, female genital mutilation is highly unethical, and its counterpart for males should be seen in the same light. For the sake of gender equality, something Humanistic Jews affirm, the bris should be abandoned. Both of these arguments together make an excellent case against circumcision if it were only a matter of ethics. But as Humanistic Jews committed to the celebration and continuation of Jewish identity, Jewish history must be considered and given a voice.

A secular argument for circumcision relies on the history and suffering of the Jewish people. As I discussed in my post about the “additional covenant,” Jews are bound to the Jewish past and have a responsibility to carry it on into the future to vindicate the suffering of their people. Circumcision has traditionally been the first practice that the oppressors of the Jews have targeted, outlawing the practice and punishing the people who performed it. The Greeks, Russians, Germans, and others have all tried to outlaw circumcision in order to undermine Jewish identity. Despite this immense pressure, there were always Jews who were willing to suffer punishment and death in order to circumcise their sons.

Furthermore, there is an ethical argument, independent of Jewish tradition, to circumcise babies. There are frequently sanitary complications with uncircumcised penises later in life. Although these problems can be largely prevented through regular and proper cleaning of the foreskin, the possibility of infection still exists. Usually, doctors will recommend circumcision for patients who suffer from frequent infections, and the suffering this causes is arguably greater due to the level of cognition that adults have rather than children. When someone is circumcised as a child they have no memory of the surgery and do not suffer from a “decrease” in sexual pleasure as an adult. Ultimately, someone suffers less if they are circumcised as a child than as an adult, and most men who were circumcised as a child have no strong opinions about their own circumcision, whereas adult patients may look at it with regret and painful memories. Arguably then, circumcising children may be the most ethical thing to do.

When these reasons are combined, solidarity with historical Jewish suffering and the prevention of a greater suffering for the child, circumcision should be maintained as a Humanistic Jewish practice. However for the sake of gender equality, it may be necessary to downplay the bris, limiting it to a family affair, while having the same naming/welcoming ceremony and celebration for both boys and girls at a later date. On a related note, converts should not be required to undergo circumcision or a ritual reenactment of it. The suffering caused by an adult circumcision would be unnecessary and unethical, and if they are already circumcised, there is no rational reason to reenact it by drawing a drop of blood from the penis. While freedom of conscience should be respected in this matter, a bris should be encouraged for Jewish children as a continuation of Jewish tradition and for the prevention of greater future suffering.

Outreach and Innovation Are Necessary for Growth and Survival

The Society for Humanistic Judaism is very small. Its affiliated congregations are also small, and many only have one or two shabbat services a month. In order for Humanistic Judaism to survive as a Jewish movement into the future, it must innovate and grow. The means to doing this will be long and complicated, but will necessarily include outreach to the unaffiliated and the intermarried, the creation of new congregations, and dynamic and engaging services and programs.

Humanistic Judaism could become the most popular denomination of Judaism. Its values and approach to Judaism largely align with the values of secular and unaffiliated Jews, but the target demographic of Humanistic Judaism is largely unaware of its existence. In order to reach those Jews, the SHJ must clarify and simplify its message to only a few sentences. It must then begin a large scale advertising campaign, particularly in areas heavily populated by Jews, using this message. This message should be sure to include information about the SHJ’s acceptance for intermarried, single, LGBTQ, and patrilineal or “part Jewish” people. Furthermore, the SHJ should make it clear that gentiles are absolutely welcome to join Humanistic congregations. In order to ensure the efficacy of the outreach campaign, outreach to gentiles will be necessary, particularly gentiles who already identify with Humanism or who are alienated from other religions, like LGBTQ people.

If or when the outreach campaign is showing signs of success, it would then be time to begin a policy of beginning new congregations in other areas. The SHJ could follow the example of the American Unitarian Association (now joined with the Universalist Church in the Unitarian Universalist Association) and begin a fellowship movement. This was an AUA policy of “church planting” where a representative would gather interested individuals in an area to come together to start a lay-led Unitarian congregation. While the results of this policy were mixed, it is undeniable that Unitarian Universalism ceased to be a strictly New England denomination because of this growth strategy. If the SHJ is going to grow, forming new congregations in new areas in conjunction with the outreach campaign will be a necessary component.

And lastly, the shabbat and holiday services, as well as the synagogue programs that are offered will have to be examined for their successes as well as their failures. Innovation will be necessary if the outreach campaign is going to have continuing results into the future. Adult education and other activities groups will be a key component in the success of Humanistic synagogues. Many Humanistic congregations only meet once or twice a month for shabbat services. Clearly, weekly services do not fulfill the needs of Humanistic Jews. Rather than force a weekly service that few people will attend, it may be better to get creative in order to engage the members and keep them interested. Perhaps each shabbat in the month is marked in a different way: one shabbat is a regular service, another is an erev shabbat potluck dinner, another is havdalah followed by snacks and games, and the fourth is a shabbat morning group meditation possibly with singing or chanting. By differentiating the activities as well as the times, the community will be better able to fulfill the needs of people with chaotic schedules and different interests.

Humanistic Judaism has a lot of potential. But in order for that potential to be actualized, the SHJ must be bold and innovative, and it must actively reach out to its target demographic. If it cannot do this, it will be doomed to remain small and uninfluential in the Jewish community.

The Children of Israel: Humanistic Judaism’s Devotion to Inclusivity and Diversity

A traditional name for the Jewish people is the Children of Israel. This has traditionally been taken literally to signify that the Jews are the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel). Most Jewish Humanists acknowledge these figures to be mythical characters of ancient Israelite folklore; stories the Israelites told to account for the creation of their nation and their bonds to one another. But the symbol of the Jews as a large family is useful for the purposes of determining who is a Jew and what it means to belong to the Jewish people in Humanistic Judaism.

It must first be recognized that holding a familial understanding of the Jewish people should necessarily open up Jewish identity beyond the strictures of halakhic definitions. Family is more than bloodlines and legal definitions, and it includes the children of fathers as well as mothers. Anyone born of a Jewish parent should be considered fully Jewish, regardless of which parent it is. Adopted children should be considered as much a part of the Jewish family as children born to Jewish parents, without the need for pointless conversion ceremonies. The same is true for gentiles who marry Jewish spouses, assuming that they have no objections to becoming a member of the tribe. Any process which joins a gentile to a Jewish family should be enough to confer Jewish identity on that person if they wish to assume it. Similarly, any gentile who wishes to join the Jewish community with no previous ties to Judaism or Jewish people should be welcomed with as few barriers as possible. Jewish identity is not conferred through rituals and ceremonies, although they can be useful for public recognition, but rather through participation in the life of the community. Jewish identity is a communal, familial identity, and as such it is conferred through membership in the Jewish family, whether that be a literal family or the Jewish community.

By using such a broad definition of Jewish identity, Humanistic Jews affirm their commitment to the principle of inclusivity. Including as many people as possible who would otherwise be marginalized in the Jewish community is the best possible way to help the Jewish people thrive as a vibrant religious and ethnic group. It also allows for greater diversity in the Jewish community, both ethnically/racially and ideologically. It is important to remember that the biblical patriarch Jacob had twelve sons, all of them different in character and belief. As the Children of Israel, it is important for Jews to adhere to the principles of diversity and inclusion, which implies open boundaries for all who wish to join and inclusion of those who have been marginalized in the past and have different understandings of theology and Jewish religious practice.

The Society for Humanistic Judaism has already affirmed their commitment to this vision of Jewish identity based on inclusion and diversity. For the good of the Jewish community around the world, it is necessary for other Humanistic denominations of Judaism to do the same.