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.

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A Brief Argument for Intermarriage

Intermarriage, the marriage between a Jew and a gentile, is one of the most contentious issues in the Jewish world today. Although roughly 50% of Jews intermarry, and 70% of non-Orthodox Jews, Jewish leaders, rabbis, and thinkers view it as a major problem for the survival of the American Jewish community. They portray the problem as one in which Judaism always takes a back seat to American secularism or the gentile partner’s religion, and after 1 or 2 generations the descendants of the mixed union no longer identify as Jewish, nor are they halakhically Jewish. While these projections frequently come true, the problem is largely one of Judaism’s own creation. The solution to the problem isn’t to double down on condemnations of the intermarried, but rather to reexamine the basic beliefs that led to the religious ban and cultural taboo and find ways to work around the problem. Far from being the death knell of the American Jew, intermarriage can be an opportunity to grow the American Jewish community and make it a more welcoming group for non-traditional Jews and their families.

The ban on intermarriage is ancient and can be found in the Torah. In Deuteronomy 7, God forbids the Israelites to marry the people of Canaan because “they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and the Lord’s anger will blaze forth against you and He will promptly wipe you out.” Ezra echoes a similar belief in chapter 9 of his book. However, Ezra’s concern is as much for ethnic purity as it is religious purity. These issues then are the root cause for the ban on intermarriage: maintaining religious and ethnic purity.

There is a problem here for liberal Jews. Most certainly do not subscribe to the idea of ethnic purity, and many are similarly unconcerned with whether their children follow the Torah in its minutiae, which Deuteronomy 7 goes on to command as a means to maintain the separation between the Israelites and Canaanites. The idea of ritual purity is anathema to the majority of liberal Jews, and most believe in the American vision of a free and pluralistic society, not in segregating different ethnic and religious groups from one another. If there are liberal Jewish rabbis or leaders who oppose intermarriage it is always for the sake of maintaining Jewish identity/Judaism into the future, not because they are concerned with ritual/ethnic purity. If we accept that maintaining Jewish identity is important, but we also accept that pluralistic societies are a good thing, a ban on intermarriage coupled with narrow definitions of Jewish identity are counterproductive.

The question is not how to end or reduce intermarriage, but rather how to maintain Judaism and Jewish identity in a society where intermarriage is inevitable. The most important change that must take place is the definition of who is a Jew. Some Jewish denominations have already begun this process, particularly the Reform Movement and the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Patrilineal descent must be accepted without qualifications. By doing this, the Jewish community can ensure that the children of intermarriage will be Jewish regardless of who the Jewish parent is. Through accepting any Jewish descent as the basic qualifier for Jewish identity, the Jewish community can actually expand its numbers over time through intermarriage rather than shrinking due to the alienation of patrilineal Jews, intermarried families, and their descendants.

Relatedly, synagogues and other Jewish institutions should be explicitly welcoming and accepting of intermarried families, particularly the gentile spouse. This will necessarily include performing their weddings, but it is not limited to that. While many synagogues will welcome the non-Jewish spouse to participate in many aspects of community life, there are frequently limitations on their membership and participation. These restrictions on gentile spouses in the Jewish community frequently send the message that they aren’t really welcome in or a part of the community. When one spouse feels alienated, the other spouse will be less inclined to remain a part of the community. Best case scenario in these instances is that they drop religious involvement altogether. Worst case scenario: they join a church where the Jewish spouse will be overtly welcomed and included in all aspects of community life, and the children are raised as Christians.

Of course, there will be objections to this radical departure from tradition. What about competing loyalties in families that observe Christian and Jewish holidays?  Won’t it be confusing for the child to be raised with two mutually incompatible religions? How can we be sure this won’t just lead to assimilation? And this definition of Jewish identity won’t be recognized by the Orthodox and might cause problems with being recognized in the State of Israel.

To begin addressing these problems, we’ll start with the problem of recognition by the Orthodox. Quite simply, Orthodox opinion is irrelevant for liberal Jews. If the Orthodox were willing to compromise with liberal Jews on certain things, there might be a discussion to be had. But the Orthodox believe they are right without qualification and dismiss liberal opinions out of hand. For this reason, liberal Jews shouldn’t concern themselves with Orthodox opinion regarding Jewish identity and intermarriage any more than they would on gender egalitarianism and LGBT inclusion in the synagogue.

The one instance where Orthodox opinion matters is recognition of Jewish identity by the State of Israel. Currently, the Orthodox Rabbinate controls matters of Jewish identity in Israel. So long as this remains the case, alternate understandings of Jewish identity will suffer. It’s therefore imperative for liberal Jews of all liberal denominations to work together to end Orthodox hegemony on matters of Jewish identity and practice in Israel.

As far as the problems of raising children with two religions, it’s probably not as big of a problem as people think. People who wish to marry people of other religious backgrounds are not overly concerned with religious dogma most of the time. Many of them are largely secular with only a cultural attachment to their childhood religions. There’s nothing inherently dangerous in celebrating Christmas with the children’s grandparents so long as Jewish holidays are also being celebrated in a way that is engaging for kids. What’s important is for the children to grow up with a strong Jewish identity, which relies on involvement in the Jewish community, celebration of Jewish holidays (including shabbat), and a Jewish education. This underscores the importance of welcoming communities for intermarried families and the need to end condemnations of intermarriage by liberal Jewish leaders.

Can anyone be sure this tactic won’t just lead to assimilation? No, of course not. But clearly the old method of condemnation, hand-wringing, and ideological confusion is not working. Rather than insist on policies and definitions based in a belief system few liberal Jews accept, we should be defining Jewish identity and communities in ways that reflect our beliefs. Acceptance, diversity, and pluralism are defining characteristics of many liberal Jews’ worldviews, and by using those values to expand the Jewish community and welcome more people into it, we can ensure the future of the American Jewish community.

“We affirm that Jewish culture and civilization can be enriched by their contact with other cultures. History shows that Jewish life has been most vital when openness prevailed.”

-Excerpt from IFSHJ Statement “Jews Among the Nations”

What Does Humanistic Judaism Have to Offer?

A question necessarily arises about Humanistic Judaism: What does Humanistic Judaism have to offer to the Jewish people and the rest of the world? Humanistic Judaism is uniquely positioned to be a movement for rationalist, naturalist, secular, and Humanistic Jews who value Jewish culture; to advocate the values of Humanism in the Jewish community, Israel, and elsewhere; and to offer communities for people seeking untraditional, nontheistic, or progressive religious alternatives. As a Humanist religious movement, we can stand with other Humanist religious movements to struggle against the rising fascist, anti-intellectual political and religious forces embodied by ultra-Orthodox Jews, Evangelical Christians, extremist Muslims, and political figures and movements like Trump and the “alt-right” (i.e. the American Neo-Nazis). Humanistic Judaism, in conjunction with other progressive and Humanist organizations, can be the voice of reason, critical thinking, and progressive values in society.

While secular Jews are the majority of the Jewish population worldwide, they are largely unorganized. As individuals, secular Jews cannot achieve very much in the way of implementing or advocating their values on the national level. While there are surely a vast array of political and ideological differences among secular Jews, both in America and Israel, those who hold Humanist values would benefit immensely from joining and working with the Humanistic Movement. Respect for science, critical thinking, and reason; a commitment to ethical living, environmentalism, social justice, diversity, egalitarianism, non-violence, and secular democracy; and a focus on human welfare rather than divine decrees or religious dogma characterize Humanism. Many, if not all, of these values are directly opposed by the religious and political right which seeks to impose authoritarian, anti-intellectual, theocratic, dogmatic, and unjust policies on others. Together Humanists of all affiliations can oppose these attempts, but as separate, disconnected individuals resistance and advocacy will be less effective.

This is why Humanist communities and organizations are important. These communities can be non-religious, such as the chapters of the American Humanist Association or Ethical Culture Movement, or they can be religious, like congregations of Humanistic Jews and Unitarian Universalists. Offering tangible support (such as volunteering, donating, joining, and attending meetings) strengthens these communities and national organizations, which in turn strengthens the values of Humanism in our culture. The lack of progressive, Humanistic communities is undoubtedly one of the many reasons that progressives so frequently lose elections. Conservatives have learned the importance of communities, networking (beyond internet/Facebook slacktivism), and speaking up. In many US towns, there is a church on every block, and the vast majority of them lean conservative and actively preach their theocratic values which the voters then put into action in the political arena. If progressives truly wish to see their values implemented at the governmental level, it is necessary for us to learn the lessons of community, conviction, and group action.

It is necessary to emphasize advocacy and outreach. People have to be personally invited to join. Ads have to go out, positions must be argued on cable news networks, and members have to learn to call their representatives when important legislation is being decided. Humanist values must be argued for in both the political arena and in other public forums. It is the task of Humanistic Jews to do this in the larger Jewish community and in Israel. Growing Humanistic Judaism in Israel and fighting for Humanist values there is incredibly important, both for the future of Humanistic Judaism and for the way in which Israel is governed in the future.

Humanistic Judaism is in the best position to reach out to secular Jews who share these values and wish to make a difference. It is also capable of reaching out to unaffiliated gentiles who share these values and an appreciation of Jewish culture. It is necessary for the SHJ and other Humanist organizations to mobilize and grow through outreach to like-minded individuals. Humanistic Judaism has the beauty of Jewish culture and community, a commitment to improving society, and the philosophy and values of Humanism to offer to the world, secular Jews, and all people seeking progressive communities.

Outreach and Innovation Are Necessary for Growth and Survival

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

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

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

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

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