Is Humanistic Judaism a Religion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Poetic Reflection Service

Poetry service

This service is primarily for personal reflection. It utilizes poetry that reflects on the themes of the traditional prayer service which I find inspiring. For example, the poem “The Web of Life” takes the place of the Shema, and “Let Us Make This Earth a Heaven” takes the place of the Aleinu. The knowledgeable laymen will notice the parallels between the traditional service and the poems contained in this service.

The prevailing themes of this service are unity and interdependence. While some poems toe the line of non-theism, utilizing poetic license in addressing abstract concepts as “you,” I believe those poems to be doing nothing more than using metaphor and allegory for stronger emotional effect.

Why Am I a Humanistic Jew?

I am a Humanistic Jew because I find in Judaism a spiritual discipline that helps me to find and express meaning in my life. I am a Humanistic Jew because I am a Humanist, and I find the beliefs, values, and principles of Humanism to be the most accurate description of reality as I understand it. Humanistic Judaism brings these things together and offers me a place to bring both of these aspects of my life together in a harmonious whole. There are three main reasons why I became a Humanistic Jew: the spiritual discipline of Judaism, the connection Judaism offers to the rhythms of the natural world, and the connection to Jewish culture and history; all within the context of a naturalist,nontheistic worldview.

Ever since I was a teenager, I have been fascinated by philosophical and theological concerns. I realized rather early on that traditional beliefs in God and the supernatural were irrational and did not hold up under scrutiny. I attempted to hold on to these beliefs for as long as I could, attempting to find some clever theological system which made belief in God somewhat rationally acceptable. But any system which I could accept was abstract and removed from the beliefs of most religious doctrines which taught a personal God who was interested in the lives of his followers and even intervened in the universe. The more I studied, the more I realized that I could not believe in anything worthy of the title God, i.e. a supernatural Creator, all-powerful and all-knowing who may occasionally intervene in human affairs or give commandments that we must follow. Although I cannot accept the idea of God, I do have a feeling, an intuition or experiences, about the sacred qualities of life. It is this sense of diffuse sacredness which I encounter in various aspects of life which has become the source of my own “spirituality” (for lack of a better word).

Oddly enough, I found a way to express my spirituality through Judaism, the religion that introduced God to the world. The Society for Humanistic Judaism has been leading the way in nontheistic Judaism for 50 years, and it is through them that I was able to combine my nontheistic spirituality with Jewish practice. It was through Harold Kushner’s book To Life! that I discovered the idea of Judaism as a way to sanctify life and imbue it with meaning. The spiritual discipline of Judaism does this in many ways: blessings for nearly everything, prayer three times a day, kashrut, study, tzedakah, ethical duties, and the Sabbath and holidays.

Utilizing the resources of the SHJ, and following the lead of Edgar Bronfman’s memoir Why Be Jewish? and Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings, I began to create my own practice of Judaism which engaged with tradition but was not bound by it. I say blessings over many things, like food, but I re-word them to be expressions of my own gratitude or awe without theistic language. I don’t pray three times a day, but I do set aside time for reflection every day using humanistic services based on the themes of the traditional prayer service. While I am not strictly kosher, I am a vegetarian, and consciousness about what I eat and restrictions on my food are intimately tied to my beliefs as a Humanistic Jew. I observe shabbat every week as a day of rest, according to my own understanding of what that means, and the holidays are rich in providing meaning and connection in the yearly cycle. Study, ethics, and tzedakah all have a place in my spiritual practice as a Humanistic Jew, appropriately adapted to reflect my Humanist outlook. Humanistic Judaism is a spiritual practice for me, which enables me to connect to other people, to nature, and to Jewish culture and tradition. 

Judaism helps me to remember my connection to everyone and everything in a number of ways. Jewish law makes provisions for the protection and use of trees, and commands ethical treatment for animals, such as not causing them unnecessary suffering and allowing them to rest on shabbat. The holidays mark the passage of time and the rhythms of nature while providing tangible reminders of our place in nature with objects like the sukkah or the seder plate. Holidays like Passover, Sukkot, Tu Bishvat, Shavuot, and even Hanukkah are connected to the cycles of the year, celebrating the arrival of spring or the harvest, or creating light during the darkest part of the year. While all of these holidays have other associations as well, the reminder of our connection to nature is central to my Jewish spirituality.

Like the holidays, shabbat is another reminder of our interdependence. Through disrupting the daily routine with a day of intentional rest, we are forced to pause and recognize the blessings of life symbolized by the wine, bread, and candles as we gather with our loved ones for shabbat dinner. Indeed, blessing food can be a powerful reminder of our dependence on the planet and other people, which is reflected in Falk’s (extremely shortened) version of Birkat Hamazon. (“Let us acknowledge the source of life, source of all nourishment. May we protect the bountiful earth that it may continue to sustain us, and let us seek sustenance for all who dwell in the world.”) Reflecting on our dependence on the entire web of life, on the entire universe, is a humbling yet uplifting spiritual experience.

Humanistic Judaism provides a connection with Jewish history and culture. The most important aspect of Jewish culture, to me, is the concern with justice and providing for the poor and outcast. This aspect of Judaism has ancient roots and can be found throughout the Bible. The prophets are the most obvious examples, but the Torah contains many provisions for immigrants/strangers, the poor, widows, and the disabled. Tzedakah is a fundamental practice of Judaism and shares etymological roots with the word for justice. This serves to underscore that giving to the poor and less fortunate is an obligation in the service of justice, not merely an option.

The lessons of Jewish history can and should lead to empathy with all people who suffer injustice. This concept is found in the Torah itself which often follows a command to be kind to the stranger with a reminder that we were strangers in Egypt. Many of the Jewish holidays offer us a chance to remember Jewish history, whether real or mythical, and these become excellent opportunities to reflect on our own obligations. They also connect us to the Jewish people throughout history and ground us in our culture in multiple ways, including, but not limited to, food. The holidays with historical components offer the means for us to “relive” history and connect with the Jews of the past through symbolic actions and study. Hanukkah reminds us of the victory of the Maccabees, Purim reminds us of the bravery of Esther (even if the story never really happened), and Passover offers a chance to review all of our exoduses from the mythical to the historic. Our culture is transmitted as much through the holidays as our moral values or texts. It is our responsibility to preserve as well as frame that cultural heritage for the next generation to ensure its relevance and continuation.

I am a Humanistic Jew because Humanistic Judaism provides a way for me to express and live my values and spirituality in a way consistent with my beliefs and cultural attachments. Humanistic Judaism is my spiritual discipline and way of life.

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.


Why Be a Humanistic Jew?

Humanistic Judaism combines cultural Jewish identity with the philosophy of Humanism. This movement offers a means for secular cultural Jews to affirm both their Jewish identity and their secular beliefs. The rise of secularism with the emancipation of the Jews from the ghettos and the rabbis’ authority has presented a challenge to continued Jewish identity. Secular education and knowledge has been widely embraced by the Jewish people to the detriment of the traditional theology of Judaism. Most Jews simply do not believe the religion of the Bible, Talmud, and rabbis. And without imposed segregation, many Jews have opted to assimilate into the surrounding cultures. Every liberal denomination of Judaism has attempted to mitigate this assimilation by accommodating the new beliefs and lifestyles of the Jewish people while maintaining a connection to Jewish culture and tradition. However, as more Jews fully embrace secularism and abandon the synagogue and traditional beliefs, the challenge to maintain Jewish connection has been renewed. Humanistic Judaism provides the means by which secular Jews can maintain their connection to Judaism without sacrificing their non-religious belief systems.

Just as the early Reform Movement incorporated the beliefs of rationalism and deism into a Jewish framework, Humanistic Judaism incorporates the philosophy of Humanism into the practice of Judaism. Humanism is a philosophy which many Jews adhere to although many may not know the formal term for their belief system. While Humanism can have a wide variety of definitions and permutations, the most widely accepted definition comes from the American Humanist Association: “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” This statement is more fully explained in Humanism and Its Aspirations: Humanist Manifesto III. The major commitments of Humanism are naturalism, rationalism, ethics, democracy, human dignity, and the welfare of humanity. To offer a plain word summary of Humanism: This world is all there is or at least all that concerns us, and it is best understood through science and reason. We have a responsibility to care for others and to live ethically, and our ethics should be based on reason and human experience. Our ethical responsibility is grounded in the inherent dignity of every person. We value democracy and equal rights for all, and we strive for a society with an equitable distribution of resources with justice and well-being for all people. This basic worldview is the worldview of most liberal and secular Jews in the world today.

The Society for Humanistic Judaism defines Judaism as the cultural and historical experience of the Jewish people. This definition is functionally the same as that of Mordecai Kaplan which phrases the definition of Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Although Humanistic Judaism values Jewish culture and history, one of the central values of the movement is intellectual integrity. In balancing commitments between Humanism and continuity with Jewish tradition, Humanistic Jews choose to re-create those aspects of Jewish tradition which can be made to conform to our beliefs, but also reject those aspects which we feel cannot be salvaged from the authoritarian theistic sources. While we adopt and adapt those aspects of religious Judaism which can fit into our philosophy, we also accept and celebrate the history of secular Jews as equal parts of Jewish culture and history. Just as the Roman playwright Terence said, “Nothing human is foreign to me;” we affirm that nothing Jewish is alien to us. We may adapt things to make them consistent with our beliefs, but we do not view these changes as abandoning tradition but rather as the natural evolution of Jewish culture as we move into the future.

The primary means by which we combine Humanist beliefs with Jewish culture is through holiday celebrations and the study of Jewish history, literature, philosophy, and languages, and appreciation of Jewish art and music. The Jewish holidays are the main vehicles through which we celebrate our connection to Jewish culture and the Jewish people, particularly Shabbat. Shabbat is a weekly holiday which we observe as a day of peace, restoration, study, family, and community gathering to affirm and celebrate our Jewish identity. Life cycle celebrations, such as baby namings and bar/t mitzvahs, are also times for the celebration and affirmation of our commitment to Judaism and Humanism. For our celebration of Judaism, we create ceremonies which reflect our Humanist beliefs and values which utilize music, poetry, and prose as well as readings from Jewish literature and philosophy and some kind of speech or presentation from the person leading the ceremony.

Humanistic Judaism is fully egalitarian and inclusive. Since 1988, the Society for Humanistic Judaism has maintained that “a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.” This includes “patrilineal” Jews, Jews by choice, “half Jews,” and anyone else who identifies as part of the Jewish people in any capacity. The SHJ has also passed many resolutions over the years affirming its commitment to the rights of women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, refugees, workers, and others.

The combination of Humanism and Judaism practiced by the Society for Humanistic Judaism offers a way for secular and cultural Jews to celebrate their Jewish heritage while maintaining their intellectual integrity and affirming their values. They are not required to recite prayers to a God they find irrelevant or do not believe in, nor must they affirm values which they find offensive or outdated. Humanistic Judaism reflects the cultural and intellectual commitments of many Jews today, and is another step in the evolution of Judaism through history. The SHJ offers an organized movement and unified voice for those Jews who are already committed to both Humanism and cultural Judaism.