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

Advertisements

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.

What Does It Mean to Live as a Humanist?

Many people presume that philosophy is not meant to shape one’s life in the same way as religion. “Philosophy” in the modern lexicon has become another way of referring to a set of opinions and little else. A philosophy does not typically refer to an entire way of life in the same way as, say, Orthodox Judaism or Catholicism. This would have shocked the ancient Greeks and Romans, and even someone as late in history as Baruch Spinoza, who believed that philosophy was supposed to be a way of life which informed all aspects of life. Philosophy was the passionate search for wisdom and truth, and the search entailed certain activities which would strike many modern Humanists as bordering on the religious. Repetitions of core beliefs, reading and rereading foundational texts and teachers, prescribed periods of reflection and meditation, ritualized discussions (such as symposia), dietary restrictions and other forms of self-discipline, and a devotion to cultivating virtue above all else all characterized ancient philosophy. Humanist Manifesto III describes Humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life,” but what does it mean to be a philosophy of life? How can we live our daily lives as Humanists? What benefits could there be to adopting some of these ancient methods of incorporating philosophy into daily life?

A philosophy of life must incorporate more than just opinions on the nature of the universe, the existence of God(s), or humanity’s place in the universe. These things are important in describing what a philosophical group believes to be true, but they are not the totality of a philosophical life. The ancients understood that beliefs and virtues had to be reinforced daily in order for them to be effective in shaping how someone lived. This is why, for example, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which was originally his private journal, is filled with reminders of his core beliefs and reflections on how to better handle situations according to virtue. The goal of Humanism is for its adherents “to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” The best way to achieve this goal is for Humanists to cultivate mindfulness of their core beliefs and values through specific activities such as daily reflection, study, and meditation. 

There are of course many ways to practice these daily exercises. They can be done free form by reading Humanist books and articles, listening to podcasts, or journaling whenever the individual has time. One could also take a more disciplined approach by reading specific texts at specific times, reflecting on predetermined topics for each day of the week, or establishing a set time for meditation. There are books which can aid in this endeavor: The Good Book by A.C. Grayling was written to be a “Humanist Bible” and contains a lot of good reflective material; Celebration by Rabbi Sherwin Wine was written as a book of meditations for Humanists and Humanistic Jews; and Morning Meditations by Barbara Kopitz was intended specifically for daily reflection. There is even the ritualistic approach, which I prefer, during which a person reads, studies, or reflects on the same material that covers a wide range of beliefs and values. In my case, I utilize the Siddur for Humanistic Judaism, which reflects on the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it, the blessings of life, the values I wish to live by, and my hopes for humanity. There is also the possibility of dietary discipline, whether it be veganism, eco-kashrut, a health diet, or a general commitment to “ethical eating.” Every meal and snack becomes a reminder of one’s values and an exercise in self-discipline.

And finally, the issue of community gathering arises. The ancient philosophers would gather frequently for education and discussion with one another. Many Humanists are beginning to see the benefits of regular community gathering, and Humanist chapters are developing across the country. I believe Humanistic Judaism in particular has much to offer in the way of developing Humanist communities through Jewish holidays that celebrate the cycles of nature, Humanist values, and human self-reliance; and weekly Shabbat celebrations which foster community and operate as weekly gatherings to affirm our Humanist beliefs. Humanistic Judaism affirms the humanistic value of Judaism and Jewish history, and we should reach out to all Humanists (both gentile and Jewish) who may be interested in our approach to Humanism and Judaism.

In short, how do we live our lives in a humanistic way? We put our values and beliefs into action, and through daily mental exercises we can better put those values and beliefs into action throughout the day. In this way, we can begin to truly practice Humanism as a philosophy of life. Through gathering with other Humanists we can affirm our commitment to Humanism, celebrate the cycles of nature, explore the lessons of human history and philosophy, and support one another through life cycle ceremonies. I choose to practice my Humanism through the lens of Humanistic Judaism, but the possibilities for Humanist practice and communities are numerous. How will you live as a Humanist?

What About Reverence?

Since its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, religious liberalism has been in decline. Religious liberalism is the approach to a religious tradition which emphasizes rationalism, critical assessment of traditional doctrine, humanism, and an openness to modernity. While religious liberalism has declined, secularism and fundamentalism have grown, which has created a perceived binary for many people between being secular and being “religious.” The liberal approach to religion gained its short lived popularity from its ability to formulate a way to express reverence toward God or Nature without giving in to restrictive and abusive dogmatism. It balanced secular knowledge of the world with the human need to feel and express awe and reverence toward the forces that create and sustain life. The inability to find that balance in a rapidly changing society is a large part of the reason for the decline of liberal denominations and religions today.

The need to feel and express awe and reverence toward something greater than oneself is a natural instinct for human beings. The usual culprits are God(s), the universe/nature, or the nation/tribe; and frequently these things will be interrelated or conflated with one another. For example, in Judaism God is the creator of the universe, which demonstrates his absolute power, and he chose the tribe of Israel to be his special people. Or take American political conservatives who frequently conflate being a “true” American with being a white Protestant. In these instances the symbols of the tribe/nation become sacred expressions of the people’s relationship with God and represent their favored status. This type of reverence rightly makes many liberals and humanists uncomfortable. The worship of God and nation has led to many atrocities in the past. To combat this, many liberals will critique this form of reverence without offering anything to replace it other than perhaps an affirmation of human dignity. This is not enough.

Humans want to be connected to something larger, whether it be a group or a god. The problem is that a group in itself is usually not enough. It must have a transcendent purpose in order to make membership and identification worthwhile. This is typically achieved through attachment to a deity, i.e. people come together because it is what their god commands, or through a utopian vision, e.g. socialists who wish to make a perfect society. Most liberal religious groups have lost this transcendent quality. The typical complaint about liberal religion is that it feels like little more than a social club and it’s therefore pointless to make attendance and participation a priority. The lack or reverence toward a transcendent entity or purpose is the root cause of the decline of religious liberalism.

Reverence is more than just the words that are spoken or sung at a prayer service. After all, liberal Jews and Christians still pray to God and read from the Bible. Reverence is as much a deeply felt emotion as it is a metaphysical belief. Reverence is defined as deep respect. Finding ways to cultivate reverence that maintains its intellectual integrity and humanist focus is the challenge that faces religious liberalism.

What should be the object or goal for reverence in Humanistic Judaism then? There are no easy answers, in part, because the people who typically find Humanistic Judaism are averse to anything that appears too “religious.” But I will offer a suggestion. Spinoza is often seen as the first secular Jew of the modern world, yet his philosophy was not strictly speaking atheistic. He spoke of God as a singular, self-existent substance which comprised the totality of all existence, i.e. there was nothing but God, and all thought and matter were merely attributes of God. Spinoza also made the comment, “Deus sive Natura,” which means “God, or Nature,” implying that God and Nature were interchangeable. But Spinoza did not stop at pantheism, he also theorized that the intellectual love of God was the supreme spiritual experience, and this love was expressed through contemplation and knowledge of Nature and our place in it.

We don’t need to accept Spinoza’s philosophy wholesale to see the benefits of the basic outlines. The object of reverence in Humanistic Judaism could similarly be nature or the universe, and the contemplation of our place in it as the supreme spiritual exercise. The UUA’s seventh principle is a good summation of this approach to humanistic spirituality, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” I like this iteration for a few reasons. First, it firmly states the connection of humanity to all existence as one part of many. Second, it emphasizes interdependence, i.e. our connection to and dependence on everything. And finally, it uses the image of a web rather than God to demonstrate our connections.

If we accept this to be a viable object of reverence in Humanistic Judaism, as I believe we should, this necessitates certain values and practices. Environmental sustainability comes to mind as the foremost obligation, which will involve a lot of consideration for congregations, institutions, and individuals. Obviously respect for human dignity and work towards social justice will be included in this. Perhaps less obviously for some, animal rights and welfare will have to be considered as a necessary aspect of reverence for the web of life, including but not limited to vegetarianism. And finally, reverence for the universe will include the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms, since reverence will be impossible without knowledge.

Through contemplating our connection to and dependence on all of existence, we can derive a consistent ethical system which includes all of reality in varying degrees of importance. Our dependence on the earth motivates us to support environmental causes. Our dependence on other people drives us to live morally and work for the rights of the oppressed and disenfranchised. Through recognizing the underlying unity of all existence we come to revere that unity, which in turn leads to concrete values and actions. To use the formulation of the Shema: “Hear O Israel: Everything is connected; the Universe is One. You shall revere the web of life with all your mind, heart, and strength. And be mindful of all the obligations interdependence places upon you.”

The Death of God

The scientific revolution and secularism have fundamentally changed modern society. The lives of modern people are drastically different from those of their ancestors. Technology, knowledge, human rights, the secular state, and democracy have not only made living easier but also typically longer. While many great things have come from these developments, they have also forced us to confront our own evil impulses and examine the basis of our morality. The death of God is a term used by Nietzsche, and subsequent philosophers, to refer to the idea that God is no longer a credible source for morals. This concept could be expanded even further to state that the God of our ancestors no longer functions in our lives as he did in theirs. In short, the God-idea is irrelevant to modern life. Our knowledge of the universe comes from scientific inquiry, healing is the result of medical knowledge and technology, democratic egalitarianism has made the idea of a supernatural King anachronistic at best, and the divine command theory of morality has been thoroughly discredited as intellectually untenable. The destruction of the idolatrous God-idea of the immediate past is comparable to the destruction of the tribal God-idea during the Babylonian exile. Just as the exiled Jews asked, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” modern Jews ask, “How can we pray to a God we don’t really believe in?” What does it mean to practice Judaism in a world where God is not our King, Helper, Savior, or Shield? Just as the Jews of the past created forms of Judaism which expressed their religious beliefs while maintaining continuity with the traditions and institutions of the past, so must modern Jews create new expressions of Judaism while building on the past.

Martin Buber argued that Judaism was a spiritual process of “striving for an ever more perfect realization of three interconnected ideas: the idea of unity, the idea of the deed, and the idea of the future” (On Judaism, p. 40). The idea of unity is the tendency to notice the context of phenomena and acknowledge their underlying unity and interdependence. The idea of the deed is the idea that human action should come from the freedom and responsibility to do what is right unconditionally without expectation of reward. And the idea of the future refers to the messianic utopianism which expresses itself in Jewish striving to create a more perfect world even if it remains an unattainable ideal (Ariel, What Do Jews Believe, p. 123). Buber’s spiritual process mirrors the traditional “trinity” of Judaism: God, Torah, and Israel. While Buber’s theory focuses on the messianic ideal of Israel, it also implicitly reveals something about the nature of the people of Israel, i.e. that they are a people with a self-imposed mission to be a light to the nations.

But what gives the Jewish people the chutzpah to claim to be a light to the nations? Jews do not have a monopoly on morality or justice. There are upright and just people of all nationalities and religions, and conversely there are corrupt and immoral Jews. The “additional covenant” of Elie Wiesel reveals why Jews must take this role upon themselves. The Jews are the perpetual Other, and have been more persecuted and oppressed than any other people throughout history. It is the responsibility of the Jews to bear witness not only to their own suffering, but to the suffering of all humanity, and to speak out and fight against it like the prophets of the past. The responsibility to bear witness arises from the necessity to stand in solidarity with the Jews of the past and the need to sanctify life in the face of cosmic absurdity.

The spiritual process of Buber and the “additional covenant” of Wiesel provide the basis through which a meaningful practice of modern Judaism can arise in a world in which God is dead. To be a Jew is to stand in solidarity with the Jews of the past and present and the suffering of humanity; to affirm life’s meaning despite cosmic absurdity; to perceive the unity of the world; to choose goodness freely without expectation of reward; and to strive to create a more perfect world even if the goal is never attained.

In responding to the death of God, modern theologians have taken one of two approaches. The first is to double down on the traditional understanding and proclaim, like the popular Christian movie, that “God’s not dead.” While this may be true for a minority of people, particularly fundamentalists, for most people God is not a large part of their life and not even a very large intellectual concern. The other approach is to “reevaluate” or reinterpret what the word ‘God’ refers to. Mordecai Kaplan is the most famous modern Jewish theologian to take this approach, alternatively defining God as the “life of the universe” and the “power that makes for human salvation.” Paul Tillich’s theology is another popular alternative, which defines God as “the Ground of all Being,” or “Being-itself.” These redefinitions can be useful for people who wish to remain part of explicitly theistic religious communities or who wish to make their beliefs to appear more intellectually respectable, but this approach is disingenuous. Redefinitions are frequently vague, bland, or functionally useless. Why refer to the natural forces which make human life worthwhile as God? What does it actually mean when someone says that God is the Ground of Being, and how is that any different from a supernatural God or pantheism? And finally, how can anyone emotionally connect to or depend on an impersonal force in their spiritual or personal life? The person praying to be healed of cancer isn’t talking to the “Ground of Being,” but rather to a personal, supernatural, anthropomorphized God who created and sustains everything through infinite power.

We thus arrive at the crux of the matter. If God is dead, then God no longer has meaning in our lives. Liberal theology that redefines God as an impersonal force will not save the God-idea for modernity because those theological formulations cannot function in the life of the believer like the traditional God can. While these liberal theologies are beautiful in their own way, we should say what we mean and not try to couch our beliefs in theological terminology that does not fit. Poetic language has its place, but we shouldn’t equivocate. If what we mean by God is, “the Universe,” or “Life,” or “Unity,” then that is what we should be discussing, not God. Whether or not there is a God is irrelevant if the idea has no function in our understanding of reality or daily lives.

A prime example of this is the function of halakha in modern Jewish life. Law by its nature regulates behavior through social or governmental force. Jewish law no longer has the capacity to regulate behavior through (threat of) force in the same way American or Israeli law can. In fact, there is a principle in the Talmud, I believe, which states that the law of the land is the law, meaning that Jewish law is subordinate to national law except for a few cases (such as idolatry, adultery, murder, etc). Jewish law is no longer a national law with governmental institutions to enforce it. Not even Israel, the only Jewish country in the world, follows traditional religious Jewish law. The only instances in which Jewish law is strictly followed are Orthodox communities (and even here there are limitations due to outside restrictions, e.g. temple sacrifice). But even if you admit this example, it’s imperfect because Orthodox communities have no power to enforce Jewish law. If someone wishes to leave an Orthodox community or publicly break Jewish law, they can and do and there are no repercussions (except perhaps for ostracism). I think this demonstrates that even in Orthodox communities, adherence to Jewish law is fundamentally voluntary, not compulsory in the same way as national laws. (Of course Orthodox Jews would argue that God enforces the law, if not now, then in the afterlife, but such a claim cannot be substantiated without first accepting Orthodox doctrine, making it a circular argument.)

The undermining of Jewish law occurred with the diaspora. Without a state to enforce Jewish law, it ceased to be a functional law and was subordinated, in all but a few instances, to the laws of the land where Jews lived. There were areas where Jews would be more or less left to themselves, if not forcibly separated, and could create communities where Jewish law was enforced. This was the case with the ghettos wherein rabbis held legal authority granted by the state. However the moment the ghettos were opened and restrictions were eased on Jews, rabbis lost their authority, and assimilation and secularization began. Recognizing this change in legal authority, the reformers focused on Judaism as a religion, rather than as a legal system, and (mostly) adopted the philosophy of Deism which was popular at the time in Western Europe. Jewish law to them was clearly antiquated and useless when the nation’s laws were the only ones that really mattered. They made the mistake of de-emphasizing or denying the ethnic/national character of the Jewish people, however.

With the liberation of the Jews from the ghettos, secularization became a popular alternative to religious life, and with it came secular movements based on Jewish nationality, culture, and peoplehood. Zionism was the major success story of these secular movements, culminating in the creation of the State of Israel. The creation of a Jewish state offered the possibility of Jewish law to become a reality again. But rather than adopt halakha, the founders of the state created a secular state with secular laws. Jewish law was once again relegated to the sidelines. So now we’ve come full circle. From a nation which was forcibly exiled to a nation restored. Only now, instead of restoring the laws of the nation which was defeated millennia ago, we have a nation founded on secular principles of democracy and equality.

Going through this brief overview, I think it has become obvious that Jewish law is a relic of the Jewish past. Very few Jews take it seriously enough to actually follow it, and I suspect most would resent having it imposed on them in the way the laws of the state are (not least because Jewish law is authoritarian, not democratic). So then what function should Jewish law play in the religion of Judaism since it is not law in the full sense of the word (i.e. it cannot regulate behavior)? There are essentially two options, and they are the two options that have been playing out for the last two centuries. Full rejection of the law and assimilation into the gentile population, or selectively using the law to supplement Jewish identity. All of the liberal movements of Judaism choose which aspects of Jewish law they wish to maintain in order to create Jewish communities, while recognizing that it has no real authority (with the possible exception of the more traditionalist Conservatives). To use a cliche from Kaplan, it has a vote, not a veto. This means that Jewish law is not truly law, but rather tradition or custom, and traditions and customs can be altered, ignored, or utilized to fulfill the needs of the people who practice them. And Judaism, as the repository and religious system which contains these traditions, is an evolving religious civilization.

If God is dead and halakha is a relic that can be easily ignored, what then becomes of Judaism and the Jewish people? We must find new ways to be Jewish, to affirm our connection to one another and the tradition in ways that are meaningful and truthful to our beliefs. Each liberal movement of Judaism answers this question in a different way; some emphasizing monotheism or spirituality, some emphasizing culture, others focusing on ritual practice coupled with liberal theology and modernity. All emphasize morality, social justice, and connection (or solidarity) with the Jewish people and Jewish culture. In short, humanism and an attachment to Jewish culture and history is the common ground between all the liberal movements.

 

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.