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.

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Approaching Kashrut from a Liberal Perspective

In my last post, I laid out my understanding of the central message of Humanistic and progressive Judaism. The central purpose of living a Jewish life is to live ethically and to help make the world a better place while maintaining a connection to Jewish culture and values. Since the beginning of the Reform Movement, Jews who have rejected the authority of halakha have typically abandoned kashrut as irrelevant and burdensome. Under my understanding of liberal Judaism, there can be no argument for the acceptance of traditional kashrut on an institutional or movement-wide scale because it is grounded solely in the authority of the Torah and Talmud. However, it is important to examine the relationship between food consumption, ethics, and tikkun olam. If my understanding of Humanistic Judaism’s central purpose is accepted, it will be necessary for a new form of kashrut to evolve which addresses ways in which to consume food and other products in ethical and environmentally friendly ways.

We consume food and other products every day. Our food choices, particularly, have profound ethical and ecological significance since most of us eat at least three times a day. While it is true that a few people cannot make a large impact on production in an industrialized, capitalist society, the food economy is still theoretically based on the underlying concept of supply and demand. It is therefore an ethical imperative to demand and consume products which are produced ethically and do minimal harm to the environment. While there is debate regarding what is most important when determining what choices are the most ethical or environmentally friendly, there are certain practices and products which most people agree are damaging and unethical. Plastics and other non-biodegradable packaging should be avoided as much as possible, which includes individually wrapped products within larger packages, plastic shopping bags, and plastic and Styrofoam utensils. When these products are used, they should be recycled after use. Certain pesticides are ecologically devastating, and produce from these fields should be avoided if possible. Immigrant workers are often mistreated and abused, and companies that benefit from these practices should be boycotted. The meat, dairy, and egg industry is the single largest destructive industry for the environment, and the animals which are used are abused, tortured, and killed daily. Animal products should be avoided to the extent a person’s health and ability allows. Under the current system of food production it may even be necessary for progressive forms of Judaism to embrace vegetarianism at the institutional level, even if they do not otherwise demand it of their members.

An engaged Humanistic Judaism must address the problems surrounding consumption and promote a new form of kashrut grounded in ethics and environmentalism rather than ritual and tradition. (This does not have to compete with traditional kosher observance, which could simply be expanded to include these considerations.) Consumption is unavoidable in our society, and the way we consume shapes our lives and reflects our values as progressive Jews. In my understanding of a Humanistic kashrut, this includes avoiding animal products as much as possible (in my case veganism), reducing my use of plastics, recycling and using recycled products as much as possible, purchasing organic foods and products when economically feasible, and avoiding companies that are known to be complicit in the abuse of workers. It may not be possible for all progressive Jews or all people to abide by every aspect of this understanding of kashrut, but this is not an all or nothing approach. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Even if individuals cannot do everything, they still have an ethical responsibility to do what they can. If we are truly committed to a Jewish practice that promotes an ethical lifestyle and the repair of the world, a new progressive interpretation of kashrut must be embraced.