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?

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.