Is Humanistic Judaism a Religion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tu Bishvat Seder

Tu Bishvat Seder adapted

This Seder for Tu Bishvat has been adapted slightly from the original which can be found here. Songs have been changed, and some very small changes to the wording have been done. The order is slightly changed, and the format is for easier printing and handout.

While it is by no means a requirement, it is my suggestion that the meal served during this Seder be vegetarian or vegan and as environmentally friendly as possible.

Poetic Reflection Service

Poetry service

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

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

Why Am I a Humanistic Jew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?