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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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 (Berenbaum, 127). 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.


Far from being a dramatic break with the rabbinic and biblical sources, Humanistic Judaism is a natural outgrowth of the texts, beliefs, and practices of Jewish tradition. The theology of rabbinic Judaism evolved from the anthropomorphic, interventionist deity of the Bible and Talmud into the abstract, philosophical God of Maimonides. This abstraction was fundamental in leading the way to Kabbalistic, Hasidic, Spinozan, and modern conceptions of divinity. These abstractions were, and are, attempts to explain God’s conspicuous absence in the life of contemporary Jews when compared to the miraculous events of the mythical Jewish past. With each new theological theory, God’s role diminishes and the responsibility of the Jews, and humanity, increases.

Torah interpretation has always been a way for human beings to assert their own authority in the realm of Jewish practice. When the age of prophecy was declared to be over by the rabbis, religious authority shifted to scripture and its interpretation. This allowed a great amount of creativity and leniency in Jewish law while valuing rational arguments and human agency in solving problems. The rule of law allowed individuals to argue their positions without being overridden by charismatic men claiming to have direct access to the divine will. While halakha is far from our own standards in regards to individual rights, liberty, and equality, the principles of interpretation and the rule of law were important developments in Jewish tradition.

With the shift to scriptural interpretation came the increased valuation of human life and dignity. Jewish interpretations of the Bible placed a great amount of importance on human dignity and its implications for how human beings should live together. Being made in the image of God implied that all people in the community should be cared for, which is why giving to the poor is an act of justice and righteousness, i.e. tzedakah, and not love, i.e. charity. Similarly, one had the responsibility to treat others in a way that they would be treated and to work towards establishing a just social order to ensure that.

This leads into questions of what it means to be a “good” Jew. Rabbinic Judaism placed its emphasis on Torah study, mitzvot, and prayer. Humanistic Judaism’s emphasis is similar. Studying Jewish texts, traditions, and history leads us to affirm our responsibility to care for ourselves and others. There is no one else to do it for us, no divine intervention. While the idea of mitzvot in the religious, halakhic sense of fulfilling commandments is not central to Humanistic Judaism, doing good deeds is fundamental to our philosophy. And the colloquial understanding of a mitzvah as a good deed should not be diminished or forgotten. Prayer is not a part of our practice of Humanistic Judaism, but reflection and meditation are. This is usually reserved for Shabbat and holidays, but setting aside time each day for reflection or meditation can be an invaluable practice in our development as human beings and our connection to Judaism. Even though we have different emphases, they are not really so different after all. Study of our tradition, good deeds, and reflection are the central practices of Humanistic Judaism, and we welcome all who wish to join us.


Works Cited

Ariel, David. What Do Jews Believe? New York. Schocken Books, 1995. Print.

Berenbaum, Michael. The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel. Middletown, CT. Wesleyan University Press, 1979. Print.

BT=Babylonian Talmud

Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second. E-book.

The Tanakh. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985. Print

Malkin, Yaakov. Judaism Without God? E-book.

Schulweis, Harold. Evil and the Morality of God. New Jersey. Ktav Publishing House, 2010. Print.

“Judaism.” The Guide to Humanistic Judaism. The Society for Humanistic Judaism, 2017. Print.

Zetterholm, Karin Hedner. Jewish Interpretation of the Bible. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2012. Print.


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.