Spirituality for Jewish Humanists

Humanistic Judaism prides itself on the use of rationality and the scientific method in the pursuit of truth. However, even naturalist and non-theistic religious traditions need spirituality in order to meet the emotional needs of its adherents. Spirituality is a nebulous term that can refer to many things, and it frequently has supernatural connotations. The word is used here for lack of a better alternative. For the purposes of this essay, spirituality refers to the practices and experiences that lead to the feeling of communion with something greater than the self, the experience of peace with the self and gratitude towards the universe, or finding meaning and purpose in life. This definition is clearly not exhaustive, but it will do for now. To discuss a Humanist spirituality, we must identify the goal of spiritual practice and suggest practices which are in keeping with the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism.

Spirituality has many psychological and physical benefits. It can reduce stress, helping people to cope with the problems of life. It can help people to find meaning and purpose in life and provide grounding in a chaotic world. There is also evidence that people who perform spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation live longer and recover more quickly from illness. Obviously spirituality isn’t a cure all, but it can positively impact the lives of its practitioners.

But how can Humanists who reject supernaturalism practice spirituality? Humanists must first find something to be the object of their spirituality. For traditional religions, the something is typically God. A Humanist spirituality can instead focus on something like goodness, truth, love, or beauty in imitation of Platonic spirituality. However, these concepts are too abstract for most people to be a meaningful spiritual object of meditation. Another option is to recognize the unity and interdependent nature of existence similar to that taught by Thich Nhat Hanh. Through contemplating this unity, Humanists can then have a feeling of communion with the rest of existence. Whichever choice a Humanist makes is less important than the practice they employ.

The most obvious method for a Humanist spirituality is meditation. Meditation does not require any religious commitment, nor does it rely on supernatural entities. There are many forms of meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the easiest and one of the most rewarding in terms of psychological benefits. Chanting is another common form of meditation. What is chanted isn’t so important, but words like ‘peace’ and ‘love’ or simple phrases are the best options. Another effective form of meditation is prayer. This is the most problematic for Humanists because prayer relies on a belief that there is something to hear the prayer. However, Marcia Falk in the Book of Blessings has attempted to create non-theistic forms of prayer where the use of words can help in the process of meditation. Rather than use the traditional Jewish formulation “Blessed are you, Adonai,” she uses the phrase “Let us bless the source of life which…” While this approach won’t appeal to all Humanistic Jews, it is an option for those who prefer the method of prayer over that of mindfulness meditation.

While general spiritual practices can be used, Humanistic Jews should also feel comfortable using Jewish spiritual practices. Prayer was mentioned above, but another approach is the sanctification of life through the practice of good deeds and blessings. Traditional Jews sanctify life through fulfilling the mitzvot and the recitation of blessings. Humanistic Jews can do the same by changing the words of the blessings to reflect Humanist philosophy and focusing on doing good deeds. Rather than the Hamotzi, it might be possible to make simple statement about being grateful for the food one is about to consume. Rather than the Modeh Ani, a Humanistic Jew can say, “I am thankful for another day of life and health.” Before bed and in the morning, one could say a Humanist version of the Shema that focuses on the interdependence of life and expresses a commitment to a life in service to humane ideals. Most Humanistic Jews won’t be inclined to do a Humanist “prayer” service (shema, amidah, aleinu, kaddish) three times a day, but it is an option. This approach to Humanistic Jewish spirituality requires creativity, but it has the benefit of using a traditional form of Jewish spirituality as its model.

Another form of Humanistic Jewish spirituality can be found in the new Mussar movement. Alan Morinis’s book Everyday Holiness, outlines a program of meditation and moral reflection that does not rely on God or the supernatural. Every day, one meditates on the nature of a particular virtue after reading a brief text about that virtue. There is one virtue per week that is meditated on in a cycle of thirteen for a year. Each night, the practitioner reflects on the day and records their successes and failures in regard to that virtue. The goal of the program is to integrate those virtues into the life of the practitioner through a heightened consciousness of their behavior. This practice can be done on its own or in conjunction with other spiritual practices.

No discussion of Jewish spirituality would be complete without mentioning study. Traditional Jews study the Torah and Talmud as a spiritual practice. Study should also be an integral part of Humanistic Jewish spirituality. While Humanistic Jews don’t need to limit themselves to the Torah and Talmud, they should form small groups in which to study, discuss, and argue about texts which have meaning to the practice of Humanistic Judaism. These texts could cover philosophy, history, traditional Judaism, current events, or any number of topics. This will have the benefit of encouraging scholarship and introspection among Humanistic Jews and forming close friendships in congregations.

Just as there is no single Jewish spiritual practice, there is no single practice for Humanistic Jews. Different methods will appeal to different people. The important thing is for Humanist spirituality to become a greater part of Humanistic Jewish life.

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”

Why Call it Judaism? The Case for Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism is new and almost entirely unknown by people outside the movement. Its novelty and its radical break with tradition creates a lot of confusion for people who are only familiar with traditional Judaism and its liberal offshoots. One question inevitably arises during a conversation about Humanistic Judaism, “why call it Judaism when the real belief system and driving force is Humanism?” They understand that Humanistic Jews are Jews who are attached to Jewish culture, but to call what they do Judaism appears to be a contradiction. The confusion arises because of a difference in the use of the word Judaism. For traditional Jews, and even the liberal branches of Judaism, Judaism is equivalent to the teachings of the Torah and Talmud. The Torah and Talmud may be interpreted differently, or in some cases even ignored, by the various Movements, but they all agree that those teachings are the core of Judaism. If one rejects those teachings in their entirety, one ceases to practice or believe in Judaism. Contrary to this view is the definition of Mordecai Kaplan, the Reconstructionist Movement, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism and its affiliates. Rabbi Sherwin Wine summarized this definition of Judaism as “the culture of the Jewish people, which includes many religious and secular traditions.” A culture is more than a religion or specific doctrines. It is the total of all the history, social rituals, attitudes, mores, values, artwork, literature, philosophies, and religions which shape a group’s character and way of life. While religion is part of Jewish culture, and for the past 2,000 years the most important part, it is not the only part, nor was it monolithic. Judaism has always had secular members and traditions, and as the culture of the Jewish people, it has always been inherently pluralistic, whether that pluralism was recognized or not. Judaism has always been as much an ethnic, tribal identity as it was a religious one. Furthermore, the predominant ideologies of Judaism have evolved over time, and in some cases, new ideologies have radically broken with previous ideologies to create new forms of Judaism. Not only is Humanistic Judaism a valid expression and natural outgrowth of Judaism, it has the potential to become the new Orthodoxy.

Bernardo Sorj argues in his book Judaism for Everyone that Judaism has always been pluralistic. He points to the various authors of the biblical texts which present contradictory understandings of God, religion, and the historical events they are attempting to record to demonstrate the variety of Jewish opinions both in ancient Israel and among the Bible’s editors. The ambiguity of the Bible’s texts has led to many different Jewish interpretations over the millennia, while still providing the basic cultural archetypes and myths of the Jewish people (Sorj 23). Sorj furthers his argument for a pluralistic Judaism by examining the various evolutionary stages of Judaism from biblical times to the present by examining changes in doctrines, ideology, theology, culture, scripture, and scriptural interpretation. By thoroughly examining the religious history of Judaism, Sorj demonstrates that Judaism not only evolved over time, but also that it has always had multiple, competing ideologies. This adaptability and diversity has been Judaism’s unique strength (22).

The greatest break with the Judaism of the past (up until that point) in Sorj’s analysis was Talmudic Judaism created by the Pharisees. The Pharisees were one of three or four main sects in Judaism around the first century CE. Their primary opponents were the Sadducees who rejected the “Oral” Torah invented by the Pharisees and focused on the Temple cult and written Torah as the central aspects of Judaism. The Sadducees were the elite members of society and out of touch with the lives of common Jews, while Pharisaic Judaism commanded lay members to live a life of mitzvot and rituals. Rather than rely on priests and the Temple to connect with God, lay Jews were encouraged to connect with God by living as a “nation of priests.” Torah study, prayer, and mitzvot became primary rather than the sacrificial cult of the Temple (although the Pharisees never rejected the Temple cult). With the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees’ main competition was destroyed, and they rose to dominance. Sorj argues that the subsequent segregation of the Jews implemented by the Christians, and later the Muslims, cemented the hegemony of Talmudic Judaism until the arrival of the Karaites in the Middle Ages and the European Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation (67). In short, Talmudic Judaism became orthodox because it was the best suited sect at the time to survive against outside factors, and it gave common Jews a sense of purpose and meaning.

The ideology of Talmudic Judaism has been the dominant ideology of Judaism, in one form or another, since the destruction of the Temple. But since the Jewish emancipation from the ghettos, Jews have increasingly abandoned the Talmudic/Orthodox ideology. The majority of  Jews today do not believe in Talmudic Judaism. Even many of the members in liberal congregations do not believe in the basic presuppositions of Talmudic Judaism, i.e. that God established an eternal, unchanging covenant with the Jews which was recorded and interpreted in the Bible and Talmud. If they say they believe it at all, it is almost always in a symbolic, metaphorical, allegorical way, never literally. Rabbi Sherwin Wine, in Judaism Beyond God, identified this ambivalence as the root cause of the failure of Reform and Conservative Judaism to inspire an ideological commitment of its members similar to Orthodox Jews. It was Wine’s contention that philosophical integrity was the most important part of any worthwhile movement in Judaism. He points to the Zionists, Jewish socialists, and Yiddishists as examples of committed secular, humanistic Jews joining together for a common cause or belief. What was lacking in these movements was an explicit connection to Judaism, an integration of their ideologies with their Jewish identities that didn’t rely solely on nationalism.

Just as the Pharisees created a new ideology which reinforced their commitment to Judaism, Wine and other Humanistic Jews have begun the process of explicitly integrating the philosophy of Humanism with Judaism. The parallel to the Pharisaic innovations is not made lightly. While the Pharisees created a new ideological underpinning for Judaism, they did not create their understanding out of nothing. Talmudic Judaism was a natural outgrowth of what had come before, and the Pharisees used cultural artifacts to ground their claims to legitimacy, particularly the Bible and folk customs. Their appeal to the common people (am haaretz) exploited already existing beliefs and biases in order to further their agenda. Just as Talmudic Judaism was a natural outgrowth of previous Jewish practices, so is Humanistic Judaism a natural outgrowth of Judaism today.

Most Jews today are humanistic in a general way. They believe that human beings are responsible for their own well-being and shouldn’t rely on divine intervention. They accept the findings of science, and believe that reason and evidence are the best ways to gain knowledge about the world. They are focused on this life rather than an afterlife or an impending apocalypse, and they generally are not worried overmuch about angering God by sinning. They are generally good people, and their morality isn’t typically grounded in any kind of theology, rather the theology is usually molded to fit the person’s morality. And many of them are committed to human dignity rather than discriminatory religious laws and traditions; e.g. gender egalitarianism, LGBT rights, acceptance of patrilineal Jews, etc. Some of these qualities come from traditional Judaism, which emphasizes human agency and mutual dependency, e.g. tzedakah, critical thinking, social justice, family and communal responsibility, and a life of good deeds (mitzvot). The history of Jewish education coupled with the secular revolution has led to the Jews being the most educated ethnic minority in America, which has in turn given rise to many of these qualities in the Jewish community. Humanism is already an integral part of liberal Judaism as a natural product of Jewish values mixed with secular experience and education.

Humanism has arisen naturally in the Jewish community, and the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements embrace it in all but name. Humanistic Judaism, as an organized Movement, rejects the route of the other liberal Movements. It refuses to speak in metaphor and symbol, trying to legitimize itself through the theology and texts of Talmudic Judaism. Humanistic Judaism reflects the reality of contemporary Jewish life in being nontheistic. It does not argue whether God exists or not, it simply finds the God idea irrelevant and unnecessary for living a good and meaningful life. Because the God idea is irrelevant to the daily lives of most Jews, Humanistic Judaism sees no reason to spend time praising God at Jewish celebrations. Instead, Humanistic Judaism focuses on creating new and meaningful celebrations of Jewish holidays and life-cycle events, including Shabbat, that reflect the beliefs, values, and concerns of Humanistic Jews. Wine argues in Judaism Beyond God that “a strong ideology insists that when we celebrate who we are, we speak with conviction. New words that express our convictions are preferable to old words that do not. Nostalgia is valuable, but it is not primary” (131).

The question naturally arises, “why bother?” Why bother with a nontheistic religion in the first place, and more specifically why bother with a Jewish nontheistic religion? Alain de Botton argues in Religion for Atheists that religions are useful sociological phenomena that can contribute to social, physical, and psychological well-being for their adherents. Many of the techniques, practices, and institutions of religions can be and should be stripped of their dogmatic accoutrements and used by nontheists for “atheist religions” aimed at promoting the well-being of their practitioners. The main benefits which de Botton identifies with religion are community, moral  and philosophical development and instruction, the cultivation of “spirituality,” and rituals which help people to cope with the changes, stresses, and tragedies of human life. A nontheistic religion has the capacity to provide communities for humanists and secularists which can then orient people in how to achieve more meaningful and fulfilling lives. Furthermore, organizing Humanists and other nontheists into communities will help in both spreading Humanist values in society and in advocating for those values in the government against the fundamentalists of traditional religions.

Once the benefits of a nontheistic humanistic religion become apparent, the need for Humanistic Judaism is clear. First and foremost, Jewish identity goes beyond religion, as has already been stated, and most humanistic Jews view their Jewish culture and heritage as important. Rather than abandon Judaism, these Jews would rather update and modify Jewish rituals, holidays, institutions, and liturgy to reflect their current beliefs. Humanism is then used to maintain Judaism and Jewish identity just as the Talmudic ideology was used to ensure the future of the Jews without a land, Sanhedrin, or central Temple cult. Secondly, a humanistic religion does not need to start from nothing and probably shouldn’t. The most successful humanistic religion in America began as two Protestant denominations and evolved naturally into its current humanistic, pluralistic form. Unitarian Universalism maintained many of the rituals, institutions, and forms of Protestantism while naturally evolving into a humanistic religion. The Humanistic Jewish Movement is being much more explicit in this process, but the process is essentially the same. Maintain the Jewish holidays, structures, and rituals while providing new humanistic meaning to them. By doing this, we couple the Humanism of the many unaffiliated and liberal Jews with the practice of Judaism, which allows people to practice their religion with both integrity and conviction.

In summary, Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people which has evolved and will continue to evolve over time. Judaism has always been pluralistic in nature, providing space for multiple ideologies which underpin people’s Jewish commitments. Talmudic Judaism became orthodox Judaism mainly because of its appeal to lay people, the diaspora, the destruction of the Temple, and the enforced segregation of the Jews from Christian and Muslim societies. Humanism is a natural outgrowth of the Jewish community, and many Jews are either implicitly or explicitly Humanists. Humanistic communities are important for people who cannot subscribe to traditional theistic religions. They provide communities, moral and philosophical instruction, a place to cultivate Humanist spirituality, and a way to disseminate Humanist values. Combining Humanism with Judaism is important for the future of secular and nontheistic Jews and their children. By creating Jewish communities with Humanist conviction and integrity, Humanistic Judaism helps to ensure the future of Judaism.

Celebrating Shabbat

Humanistic Judaism focuses on the cultural aspects of Judaism rather than the doctrinal. In accord with this presupposition we reject the idea that Jewish law is a binding covenant between the people of Israel and God. While we accept the holidays, customs, and some of the rituals of Judaism, we do them as free people after careful consideration. The way in which we mark the holidays of Judaism is a matter of doing certain traditional rituals in a way that is intellectually honest to what we believe. While it is possible for a Jewish Humanist to continue saying traditional prayers for aesthetic reasons, such as kiddush, most people who are drawn to Humanistic Judaism desire “say what they mean, and mean what they say.” Shabbat is the most important and frequent holiday in the Jewish calendar, and perhaps the most underappreciated by progressive Jews. A Humanistic shabbat celebration will use old rituals with new words and concepts. The challenge will be creating forms of celebration that are as compelling and emotionally satisfying as the traditional ones.

The overriding themes of shabbat in traditional Judaism are creation, covenant, and rest. In order for Humanistic Jews to honor the tradition of shabbat, we must find ways to incorporate these themes into our celebration in a non-theistic way. Rest is the easiest. While all Humanistic Jews will reject the halakhic determination of what constitutes work, most will agree that resting on shabbat is a generally good idea. Individual understandings of what constitutes work will vary from person to person; one person’s relaxing day in the garden is another person’s hell. Encouraging people to rest on shabbat need not mean dictating the minutiae of what that rest should look like.

The other two themes are less obvious, but not impossible to incorporate. The theme of creation can simply mean incorporating an appreciation for the gifts of nature and life. This can be achieved through blessing candles, bread, and wine at the shabbat dinner, or through taking a walk in a park or in the woods on shabbat. Acknowledging the gifts of nature can be achieved through conscious gratitude for life which can easily be captured in the shabbat liturgy, either at home around the table or at the synagogue.

Incorporating the concept of the covenant will be more troublesome. Since Humanistic Jews reject the covenant with God, they must redefine the essence of the Jewish covenant. In my previous post, The Additional Covenant, I discussed Elie Wiesel’s understanding of the covenant of the Jews with past and future Jewish generations. The idea of keeping faith with past generations who kept shabbat can replace the Sinai covenant. We observe shabbat to honor the Jews of the past who kept these traditions alive and for the future generations of Jews who will come after us. This, too, can be incorporated in our observance of shabbat through blessing the children at shabbat dinner to saying Kaddish (or some Humanist alternative) to honor our ancestors and martyrs at the synagogue.

The shabbat dinner should be the focal point of family weekly life, and it is my opinion that many of the traditions should be maintained. Candles should be lit to remind us to rest. Blessings over wine and bread should be said to remind us to be grateful for the gifts of nature. Spouses should recite some kind of love poem or blessing for each other, and the children should be blessed to make the love of the family explicit and increase family harmony and bonding. These rituals will not only improve family life, but will also increase the identification with Judaism and the Jewish people.

And finally, shabbat should be celebrated by the community every week. Some congregations only do once or twice a month, but such limited gatherings do not foster the sense of community that is necessary to create dynamic congregations. I mentioned in another post that if weekly services do not work for the congregation, then other forms of communal shabbat celebration should be created that are then rotated monthly. Having different types of celebration for each shabbat of the month will create enough diversity in programming to keep people interested and attract different types of people while still offering the stability of well-known rituals.

Shabbat is the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar precisely because of its frequency. As Ahad Ha’am said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” The celebration of shabbat fosters family and community connection and gratitude for the gift of life. It offers rest and a break from the obligations of every day life. And its regular observance helps to create and maintain a sense of Jewish identity and connection to Jewish culture. The benefits of shabbat celebration outweigh most inconveniences. Humanistic Judaism should emphasize its observance and stress its many benefits and its importance in our practice of Judaism, even as we find new ways to celebrate this most important holiday every week.

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.

Legitimacy: the Struggle of Progressive Judaism

Despite the fact that non-Orthodox Jews are the majority of the world Jewish population, and progressive branches of Judaism are the largest, progressive Judaism as a whole suffers from a perceived illegitimacy. There are many contributing factors to this feeling of inadequacy including the political power of Orthodox Judaism in Israel, the past 2,000 years of Jewish history, the historical novelty of progressive Judaism, and a lack of a cohesive ideology. Traditional Judaism is grounded in halakha and divine authority. The Reform Movement and its derivative movements (Conservative, Reconstructionist, etc) have typically been driven more by the concern for modernization than religious truth. This has led to high levels of assimilation (meaning an abandonment of Jewish identity in favor of a more general/national identity) and apathy among the laity of the progressive movements. Compared to the Christian Reformation or the Karaites, which were driven by a belief in religious truth against an established orthodoxy, the Jewish reformation has been largely a failure in establishing its own legitimacy, even among its own laity. There is a general sense that Orthodox Jews do things “right” and the other movements are simply on a descending scale of observance of “true” Judaism. I cannot count the number of times I have been in a Reform synagogue and someone has said something along the lines of, “well, the Orthodox do it this way, but we’re going to cheat a little.” It is no wonder that progressive Judaism cannot inspire devotion in its adherents the same way as Orthodox Judaism or Protestant Christianity. Without a sense of metaphysical truth, religious groups wither and die.

The question then arises regarding what the truth of progressive Judaism is. For example, despite their many difference in dogma, Protestants largely agree that the Christian Bible is the sole authority on issues of faith and doctrine, and that people are “saved” through faith, not works or the church. Similarly, the Karaites believe that the Oral Torah is illegitimate, the Written Torah is the only source of religious authority, and every Jew is responsible for interpreting it himself. A message of this kind is largely lacking in progressive Judaism. The closest that progressive Jews came to such a vision were Kaplan’s theory of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization and the Reform Movement’s early vision of Judaism as ethical monotheism. The vision of Judaism as a universal ethical monotheism has largely been abandoned by the Reform Movement, which has largely re-embraced the distinctiveness of Jewish culture and practice. Kaplan’s theory is the dominant theory now, but even this lacks a motivational power among the laity because it reads like a sociological thesis rather than a profound religious and moral truth.

I have argued for my understanding of the message of Humanistic (and progressive) Judaism in a previous post. My understanding of the underlying message of progressive Judaism rests on a few assumptions. First in agreement with Kaplan, Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Relatedly, the Jewish people are the source of authority in religious matters, not the Torah, Talmud, or rabbis. Second, God (if s/he exists) does not intervene in human history, and we should generally assume a naturalist worldview. For this reason, Jews should not rely on divine intervention, but rather on themselves. Third, the primary focus of Humanistic (and progressive) Judaism should therefore be ethics and social justice. Jewish culture, literature, and history should be studied both for its own sake and for the lessons they can teach, and Jewish rituals and holidays should be practiced insofar as they aid in ethical living, community building, and the fight for justice. Rather than fight a losing battle trying to legitimize our beliefs and practices through the lens of halakha and scripture, we should make this vision central to progressive Judaism. And fourth, this is a vision of truth that most progressive Jews either explicitly or implicitly agree with already.

If this is to be the central message of Humanistic (and progressive) Judaism, then how can it be called Judaism at all? It rejects or downplays two of the three fundamental aspects of traditional Judaism: Torah and God. This is where the assumptions come in, particularly the first. The Jewish people existed before the Torah. They are a distinct sociological group, and the religion of this group has changed through the millennia. Even the understanding of God has drastically changed among various Jewish groups over time. Linguistically, ‘Judaism’ refers to the teaching or religion of the people of Judah (the Jews). This usually means traditional Judaism or one of the progressive denominations. However, it can and should be used to refer to any religious expression of the Jewish people, including Jewish Gnosticism, the Essenes, Karaite Judaism, and Humanistic Judaism. Even early Christianity would be included in this understanding of Judaism. (Although for historical reasons, I would not include Christianity as a form of Judaism after the 1st century CE since it quickly became dominated by gentiles and began oppressing and persecuting Jews.) In this sense there are many Judaisms, not just a single “orthodox” Judaism.

In order for progressive Judaism to be seen as legitimate in its own right, rather than a watered down version of Orthodoxy, it must become committed to the vision of its own truth. This will include a radical rejection of Orthodox authority and theology and a frank acceptance of common progressive attitudes toward Judaism and Jewish culture. This expression of Jewish religious truth is deeply humanistic, democratic, and egalitarian. It is committed to ethics and social justice, and it focuses on community rather than dogma. The legitimacy of progressive and Humanistic Judaism lies in embracing this vision, not in a return to tradition.

On Circumcision

Circumcision is one of the oldest traditions of the Jewish people. It is so old that it was attributed to God’s covenant with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Since its beginning as an organized denomination, Humanistic Judaism has been critical of the practice of circumcision, and many Humanistic Jewish congregations will not allow a bris to be performed in their buildings. Instead, they have opted for baby naming ceremonies for both boys and girls, and the boys are circumcised in the hospital by a doctor, if at all. The practice of circumcision is one that should not be put away so lightly. The arguments against circumcision are certainly strong, but the sheer weight of this tradition and its importance to the Jewish people through history should give us pause before throwing it out completely.

The argument against circumcision can be made from two directions. The strongest argument is that circumcision is an irreversible violation of a child’s body, and it is an unnecessary infliction of suffering on a baby through genital mutilation. As such, it is a violation of the child’s rights to bodily autonomy and a breach of ethics for the parents who have the surgery performed. The second argument, which is more of a supplement to the main argument than an argument in its own right, is that the bris by its nature excludes female children. There is no equivalent to the bris for girls, and their welcome into the community is therefore usually seen as being of less importance. Furthermore, female genital mutilation is highly unethical, and its counterpart for males should be seen in the same light. For the sake of gender equality, something Humanistic Jews affirm, the bris should be abandoned. Both of these arguments together make an excellent case against circumcision if it were only a matter of ethics. But as Humanistic Jews committed to the celebration and continuation of Jewish identity, Jewish history must be considered and given a voice.

A secular argument for circumcision relies on the history and suffering of the Jewish people. As I discussed in my post about the “additional covenant,” Jews are bound to the Jewish past and have a responsibility to carry it on into the future to vindicate the suffering of their people. Circumcision has traditionally been the first practice that the oppressors of the Jews have targeted, outlawing the practice and punishing the people who performed it. The Greeks, Russians, Germans, and others have all tried to outlaw circumcision in order to undermine Jewish identity. Despite this immense pressure, there were always Jews who were willing to suffer punishment and death in order to circumcise their sons.

Furthermore, there is an ethical argument, independent of Jewish tradition, to circumcise babies. There are frequently sanitary complications with uncircumcised penises later in life. Although these problems can be largely prevented through regular and proper cleaning of the foreskin, the possibility of infection still exists. Usually, doctors will recommend circumcision for patients who suffer from frequent infections, and the suffering this causes is arguably greater due to the level of cognition that adults have rather than children. When someone is circumcised as a child they have no memory of the surgery and do not suffer from a “decrease” in sexual pleasure as an adult. Ultimately, someone suffers less if they are circumcised as a child than as an adult, and most men who were circumcised as a child have no strong opinions about their own circumcision, whereas adult patients may look at it with regret and painful memories. Arguably then, circumcising children may be the most ethical thing to do.

When these reasons are combined, solidarity with historical Jewish suffering and the prevention of a greater suffering for the child, circumcision should be maintained as a Humanistic Jewish practice. However for the sake of gender equality, it may be necessary to downplay the bris, limiting it to a family affair, while having the same naming/welcoming ceremony and celebration for both boys and girls at a later date. On a related note, converts should not be required to undergo circumcision or a ritual reenactment of it. The suffering caused by an adult circumcision would be unnecessary and unethical, and if they are already circumcised, there is no rational reason to reenact it by drawing a drop of blood from the penis. While freedom of conscience should be respected in this matter, a bris should be encouraged for Jewish children as a continuation of Jewish tradition and for the prevention of greater future suffering.