The Additional Covenant

The idea of covenant underlies the entire structure of traditional Judaism. Jewish tradition teaches that God established a covenant between himself and the Jewish people. But most non-Orthodox Jews do not believe this literally. They may believe that Judaism is special as a religion, that the Jews are special as a people, and that God is the God the Jews have worshiped for millennia, but many balk at the idea that they are chosen by God for a special covenant or treatment. Both the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements began by explicitly rejecting the idea of chosenness and the binding nature of Torah. Obviously secular and Humanistic Jews also reject the idea of an eternal covenant between God and Israel. Even though so many Jews have abandoned the the traditional covenant, there remains some sense of covenant binding the Jewish people together, a sense of responsibility for one another. This is a covenant forged out of historical experience, solidarity, and an affirmation of life.

Michael Berenbaum argues in The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel that Wiesel’s “theology of the void” reveals an additional covenant created at Auschwitz. Since God failed to protect his people at their time of greatest need, the original covenant died in Auschwitz. The additional covenant is between the Jews and their past, “with its pain, its overwhelming experience of death, and its memories of God and of a world infused with meaning. The elements of the additional covenant are threefold: solidarity, witness, and the sanctification of life.” This covenant, grounded in history and our responsibilities to other Jews, allows secular and Humanistic Jews to affirm their commitment to Judaism and Jewishness. Furthermore, Berenbaum argues that the additional covenant allows Wiesel to accept a new mission for Israel.

The new mission of Israel lies in the three elements of the additional covenant. Solidarity  is a virtue born of necessity for a persecuted and oppressed minority, and solidarity with the Jewish people in the face of antisemitism is a central pillar of the additional covenant. Wiesel’s grounding for Jewish solidarity is the common historical experience of the Jews, antisemitism, and alienation from Christian/Western civilization. The Jews also have a responsibility to be witnesses to all human suffering and fight inhumanity, to ask difficult questions, and to live without certitude in an absurd universe. Berenbaum argues that “the bond that can now unite Israel is not the bond of affirmative commitment but rather the bond of shared questions produced by a common root experience […] The Jew who once felt trust and fidelity toward the universe must now face [bear witness to] a universe of unanswerable questions.” By bearing witness to the absurdity of life we risk losing all sense of meaning. It is for this reason that the sanctification of life is the final element of the additional covenant. The term “sanctification of life” refers to two things: an affirmation of the possibility of human meaning in the face of cosmic absurdity and the endeavor to make life holy. And so the new mission for the Jews is solidarity with all Jews past and present, to act as witnesses to suffering and fight against injustice, and to find new ways to give life meaning in the face of absurdity.

The unique history, suffering, and values of the Jews makes this mission incumbent upon us, whether we are secular, liberal, or traditional which is why Berenbaum refers to this as an additional rather than a new covenant. Wiesel wrote, “We have not survived centuries of atrocities for nothing. This is what I think we are trying to prove to ourselves, desperately, because it is desperately needed.” Solidarity with the suffering of the Jews of the past necessitates the continuation of the Jewish people into the future, because it is only through surviving that the Jews can affirm that their ancestors’ suffering had meaning. Historically there are two social phenomena which can be accredited with the survival of the Jews: their sense of covenant with each other and with God, and paradoxically, the antisemitism of the people they lived among. In the face of the Holocaust, many Jews find it impossible to affirm the covenant of Sinai. Wiesel’s additional covenant can serve as the basis for the creation of new forms of Jewishness in the absence of a covenant with a transcendent, omnipotent God. It is therefore vital to the success of Humanistic branches of Judaism and the future of the Jews.

The additional covenant identified by Berenbaum through Wiesel meshes with the central message of Humanistic Judaism that I argued for in a previous post as well as the affirmations found on the SHJ website. Jewish history, particularly the Holocaust, demonstrates that the Jews must rely on one another for their own well-being. It is through acknowledging the suffering of the world, ethical living, and a commitment to repairing the world that we live our values and sanctify our lives. The additional covenant already underlies Humanistic Judaism; it is only a matter of making it explicit going forward.

“Hear O Israel, let us take up our portion in the repair of the world.”

-Rabbi Jeffrey Falick

The Liturgy of Humanistic Judaism

Liturgy and Humanism are not words that people instinctively relate to one another. Yet if shabbat and holiday celebrations are to be meaningful in Humanistic Judaism, a dynamic and engaging liturgy must be utilized. I believe that a denominational Humanist siddur should be developed which offers a structure for shabbat and holidays while allowing innovation and choice for each congregation. A layout similar to the Reform siddur may be useful in allowing multiple options for each two page spread as the congregation goes through the service. It is my belief that the Humanist siddur should be more or less structured around the themes of the traditional prayer service while providing Humanist meditations in place of the prayers. A limited example will be placed at the end of this post, which is open for public use and reproduction.

The question will obviously arise as to why Humanistic Jews require a siddur at all. The answer is simple: for the same reason theistic Jews require a siddur. Siddur means order. By setting an order for communal gatherings and individual meditation, we can be sure that we are reminding ourselves of our most important values and reflecting on those aspects of life which are the most meaningful. By using the themes and structure of the traditional siddur we are maintaining our commitment to Judaism, Jewish values, and Jewish culture while changing the words themselves to reflect our own beliefs. A siddur for Humanistic Judaism should include opening blessings and songs followed by an interpretation of the Shema and its blessings for creation, revelation, and salvation. Then a Humanist version of the Amidah should be included, being sure to follow the general flow of the traditional eighteen or seven blessings. After the Amidah, comes an optional Torah service (although other books may be used if desired) complete with songs, processional, a sharing of the community’s joys and sorrows (in place of the mi shebeirach), and a brief sermon or discussion. The Torah service should be followed by Humanist versions of the Aleinu and Mourners’ Kaddish. After the Mourners’ Kaddish can come announcements and a final song, followed by an oneg or kiddush (with blessings for wine and bread if desired).

There is also the issue of whether or not to use Hebrew. While Hebrew has been considered a holy language, and now the language of Israeli Jews, most diaspora Jews do not understand it. It therefore makes no sense to conduct the service in Hebrew, especially if a lack of Hebrew knowledge discourages people from coming to community celebrations of shabbat and holidays. Furthermore, by conducting the service in the vernacular the congregants can reflect on what they are reading and meditate on the words of the service throughout the day or week. With that being said, Hebrew is still important as a Jewish language and there should be some use of it in the service. This should probably be limited to the Shema meditations and the songs, although its use can be implemented as the community sees fit throughout the service. It should also be studied by laity and rabbis alike in order to more fully engage with traditional Jewish texts and modern Israeli culture.

Kippot, tallitot, and tefillin are the traditional garments worn by Jews during prayer. While each item is used for specific theological reasons in traditional Judaism, this need not be the case in Humanistic Judaism. They are products of Jewish culture, and if people find meaning in wearing them to shabbat and holiday services or during private meditation, they should be encouraged to do so. Kippot and tallitot especially function as symbols of Judaism, and it is my private opinion that they should be encouraged in the synagogue during ceremonies for shabbat and holidays. (As a vegan, I am personally opposed to the use of traditional tefillin and think that they go against the central message of Humanistic Judaism, but I also recognize that others might disagree with my opinion.)

By using traditional ritual prayer items like a tallit, kippah, and shabbat candles, and following the general structure of the Jewish prayer service, Humanistic Judaism can affirm its connection to the Jewish tradition. By providing multiple options and Humanist alternatives to traditional prayers, the Humanist siddur can offer dynamic and engaging community celebrations. Below you will find my version of a Humanist siddur for weekdays and shabbat. Italicized text indicates a congregational response or instructions for the flow of the service.

Weekday Morning and Evening Liturgy

Opening Blessings:

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! We enter into this house reverently to pay honor to our highest values, making this place a temple for what is sacred.

We give thanks for the intricate network of veins, arteries, and vital organs which make our bodies function. May we always be grateful for our health and strength and call to mind the holiness of the body.

These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure;

To honor father and mother;

To perform acts of love and kindness;

To attend the house of study;

To welcome the stranger;

To visit the sick;

To rejoice with newlyweds;

To console the bereaved;

To make peace when there is strife.

For all that is our life, we give our thanks and praise; for all life is a gift to build the common good and make our own days glad.

The Shema and Its Blessings

The vast universe in all its splendor becomes self-reflective in us. We gaze upon the stars and learn the secrets of their birth and their role in the creation of the universe as we know it. Light and dark, gravity and heat, matter and energy create all that we see: the trees and the animals, mountains and seas. We stand in awe before the grandeur of creation.

The forces of nature have equipped us to know what is good and helpful. The process of natural selection has made us a cooperative species capable of living with one another to build our lives together. Through the guidance of conscience and knowledge from our memories of the past, we know what it is to live together in unity.

Shema Yisrael, kol ha-chayim hu echad

Hear O Israel, all life is One

We will honor life in all its forms with all our minds, all our strength, and all our being. We acknowledge our dependence on the web of life which supports our well-being. We will set these words upon our hearts; teach them faithfully to our children; speak of them at home and in our travels, when we lie down and rise up. We will bind them as a sign upon our hand and make them a symbol between our eyes. We will inscribe them on the doorposts of our houses and on our gates. We will be mindful of our place in the web of life and thus shall we consecrate ourselves to the task of living in harmony with all life.

May our devotion to the sanctity of life lead to our redemption from all that plagues our world. May our work for tikkun olam bear lasting fruit for us and our descendants.

The Amidah        All Rise

Let my mouth declare the beauty and worth of life.

HONORING OUR ANCESTORS

Our ancestors survived the harshness of life with dignity and perseverance. From Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah to our parents and grandparents; we owe all that we are to their hard work and will to live. Let us acknowledge their faithfulness to the ways of life and all that they have done to bring us into life.

SALVATION, LIFE, AND DEATH

The forces of the universe have created all that we need for salvation. With love we can sustain the living. With compassion we can sustain life for all. We can help the falling and heal the sick; bring freedom to the captive, and keep faith with those who came before us. Let us bless the universe, source of life and death.

SANCTITY OF LIFE

We sanctify life when we acknowledge the interdependent unity of all life.

Holy, holy, holy is the totality of life! The whole earth is covered with its sanctity!

And we respond to the holiness of life with respect and honor for the earth’s ecosystem of which we are a part.

FOR WISDOM AND UNDERSTANDING

Let us always strive to grow in knowledge, understanding, and insight.

Blessed is the mind which grows in wisdom.

FOR REPENTANCE

May we always return to our ideals and draw near to the highest values of our lives. Let us come back to goodness in perfect repentance of our mistakes.

Blessed is the conscience which calls for repentance.

FOR FORGIVENESS

May we seek forgiveness from all those who we hurt and pardon those who hurt us. May we forgive others in the same spirit in which we seek forgiveness.

Blessed is the one whose forgiveness is abundant.

FOR MUTUAL AID

Let us be aware of the problems of others and help them in their need.

Blessed is the one who helps those who are in need.

FOR HEALTH

Let us remember all those who are injured and in poor health and do all that we can to alleviate their suffering.

Blessed is the one who alleviates the suffering of others.

FOR ABUNDANCE

May the products of our labors bring us well-being and well-being to all people. Let us give to those in need from the abundance of our own possessions and satisfy the demands of human goodness.

Blessed are those who give from their abundance.

FOR FREEDOM

Sound the great horn to proclaim freedom, let us be inspired to strive for the liberation of the oppressed, and let the song of liberty be heard throughout the earth.

Blessed is the one who redeems the oppressed and fights for the downtrodden.

FOR JUSTICE

May we elect just and upright leaders who govern fairly and with compassion.

Blessed are those who govern with justice and goodness.

FOR GOODNESS

Let us strive for the highest ethical standards that we may embody goodness in our lives for our own sake and the sake of our communities.

Blessed are those who dedicate themselves to goodness.

FOR ISRAEL

We hope for peace in the land of Israel and compassion and justice in the hearts of her inhabitants.

Blessed are those who make peace in Israel.

FOR WORSHIP

That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.

Blessed is the one who worships goodness, compassion, and justice.

THANKSGIVING

We gratefully acknowledge the blessings of our lives. The breath in our lungs, the food we consume, and the ones we love and who love us in return. For all that is our life, we give our thanks and praise.

PEACE

Peace, happiness, and blessing; grace and love and mercy: may these descend on us, on all Israel, and all the world. Let us love kindness and justice and mercy, and seek blessing, life, and peace.

Blessed is the one creates peace.

 

SILENT MEDITATION

I will keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit. I will be silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all. I will open my heart to the truth and hurry to perform an act of goodness and mercy.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart lead to actions which further the repair of the world.

 Optional Torah Service on page X

Continue with the Aleinu and Kaddish on page X

 

Shabbat Liturgy (For Erev Shabbat or Shacharit)

Candle Lighting for Shabbat Eve

As these Shabbat candles give light to all who behold them, so may we, by our lives, give light to all who behold us.

As their brightness reminds us of the generations of Israel who have kindled light, so may we, in our own day, be among those who kindle light.

Let there be joy!

Let there be peace!

Let there be light!

Let there be Shabbat!

Opening Blessings:

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! We enter into this house reverently to pay honor to our highest values, making this place a temple for what is sacred.

We give thanks for the intricate network of veins, arteries, and vital organs which make our bodies function. May we always be grateful for our health and strength and call to mind the holiness of the body.

These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure;

To honor father and mother;

To perform acts of love and kindness;

To attend the house of study;

To welcome the stranger;

To visit the sick;

To rejoice with newlyweds;

To console the bereaved;

To make peace when there is strife.

For all that is our life, we give our thanks and praise; for all life is a gift to build the common good and make our own days glad.

May we stay far from immorality and master temptation. May our darker passions not rule us, nor evil acquaintances lead us away from goodness. May we strengthen the voice of conscience and always strive to perform deeds of goodness that we may know the good will of all who know us.

At all times let us revere goodness inwardly and outwardly, acknowledge the truth, and speak it.

We are tiny on the scale of the universe. Let us learn to rely on one another.

 

Insert appropriate Songs, Poems, and Music for Meditation

 

The Shema and Its Blessings

The vast universe in all its splendor becomes self-reflective in us. We gaze upon the stars and learn the secrets of their birth and their role in the creation of the universe as we know it. Light and dark, gravity and heat, matter and energy create all that we see: the trees and the animals, mountains and seas. We stand in awe before the grandeur of creation.

The forces of nature have equipped us to know what is good and helpful. The process of natural selection has made us a cooperative species capable of living with one another to build our lives together. Through the guidance of conscience and knowledge from our memories of the past, we know what it is to live together in unity.

Shema Yisrael, kol ha-chayim hu echad

Hear O Israel, all life is One

We will honor life in all its forms with all our minds, all our strength, and all our being. We acknowledge our dependence on the web of life which supports our well-being. We will set these words upon our hearts; teach them faithfully to our children; speak of them at home and in our travels, when we lie down and rise up. We will bind them as a sign upon our hand and make them a symbol between our eyes. We will inscribe them on the doorposts of our houses and on our gates. We will be mindful of our place in the web of life and thus shall we consecrate ourselves to the task of living in harmony with all life.

May our devotion to the sanctity of life lead to our redemption from all that plagues our world. May our work for tikkun olam bear lasting fruit for us and our descendants.

 

The Amidah        All Rise

Let my mouth declare the beauty and worth of life.

HONORING OUR ANCESTORS

Our ancestors survived the harshness of life with dignity and perseverance. From Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah to our parents and grandparents; we owe all that we are to their hard work and will to live. Let us acknowledge their faithfulness to the ways of life and all that they have done to bring us into life.

SALVATION, LIFE, AND DEATH

The forces of the universe have created all that we need for salvation. With love we can sustain the living. With compassion we can sustain life for all. We can help the falling and heal the sick; bring freedom to the captive, and keep faith with those who came before us. Let us bless the universe, source of life and death.

SANCTITY OF LIFE

We sanctify life when we acknowledge the interdependent unity of all life.

Holy, holy, holy is the totality of life! The whole earth is covered with its sanctity!

And we respond to the holiness of life with respect and honor for the earth’s ecosystem of which we are a part.

FOR SHABBAT

On the seventh day our people rest from their labors and reflect on the values and ideals most precious to them. To love mercy, to act justly, and to walk the path of life humbly with others. Let our rest on this day remind us of what is holy and precious in life.

Blessed is life, and blessed are those who revere life.

FOR WORSHIP

That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.

Blessed is the one who worships goodness, compassion, and justice.

THANKSGIVING

We gratefully acknowledge the blessings of our lives. The breath in our lungs, the food we consume, and the ones we love and who love us in return. For all that is our life, we give our thanks and praise.

PEACE

Peace, happiness, and blessing; grace and love and mercy: may these descend on us, on all Israel, and all the world. Let us love kindness and justice and mercy, and seek blessing, life, and peace.

Blessed is the one creates peace.

 

SILENT MEDITATION

I will keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit. I will be silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all. I will open my heart to the truth and hurry to perform acts of goodness and mercy.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart lead to actions which further the repair of the world.

 

Insert a brief reading from the weekly Torah or Haftarah portion, or some other Jewish literature (Optional “Torah Service” begins on next page).

Continue with a Shabbat message or discussion based on the reading.

 

Continue with the Aleinu and Kaddish on page X.

 

Optional Torah Service

THE ARK IS OPENED AND TORAH OR BOOK TAKEN OUT

Let us bless those who came before us and passed on to us the records of their wisdom.

THE SHEMA

Hear, O Israel: Let us take up our portion in the repair of the world.

At one with our forebears, we affirm that righteousness, justice, and compassion shall be our lamp.

 

Insert appropriate song as the procession with the Torah or other book is done through the congregation.

 

BLESSING BEFORE READING

Let us bless the source of life!

Blessed is the source of life from which all goodness flows!

We give thanks for our ancestors who have blessed us with teachings of wisdom. Blessed are our ancestors, the creators of Torah.

BLESSING AFTER READING

Blessed are the seekers of wisdom and the teachers of the next generation.

After the reading, invite the congregation to share personal joys and sorrows.

 

The Aleinu

Let us praise the majesty of the universe, old beyond imagining, source of all things, which has created diversity and interdependent unity.

We stand in awe before the majestic, terrifying power of the creative and destructive forces of the universe, and recognize our smallness in relation to eternity and our dependence on one another.

Recognizing our limits in this world which sustains and destroys life, we affirm our hope for a society built on justice, equity, and compassion. May the idols of greed and selfishness fall to the overwhelming power of cooperation and righteousness.

May all who live acknowledge the rule of justice and swear loyalty to a life of goodness.

And may the establishment of the just and compassionate society come soon and in our day. On that day, goodness shall reign over all the earth; and humanity shall be one.

 

Humanist Kaddish

We remember our loved ones whom death has recently taken from us and those who died at this time in previous years. The martyrs of our people are always in our thoughts. May their memories be a blessing to all.

NITGADAL V’NITKADASH B’RUAKH HAADAM

Let us enhance and exalt ourselves in the spirit of humanity.

Let us acclaim the preciousness of life.

Let us show gratitude for life by approaching it with reverence.

Let us embrace the whole world, even as we wrestle with its parts.

Let us fulfill, each of us in our own way, our share in serving the world and seeking truth.

May our commitment to life help us strengthen healing of spirit and peace of mind.

May healing and peace permeate and comfort all of Israel and all those who dwell on earth.

NITGADAL V’NITKADASH B’RUAKH HAADAM

Let us enhance and exalt ourselves in the spirit of humanity.

And let us say: Ken y’hee. May it be so.

–Jon Dickman and Congregation Kol Shalom inspired by Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Community Announcements and Final Song

Kiddush and Ha-Motzi

With wine, our symbol of joy, we celebrate this Shabbat, a day of rest for the Jewish people.

Let us bless the earth, the source of life, which brings forth the fruit of the vine for our enjoyment.

 

With challah, the symbol of sustenance and the interconnectedness of all life, we give thanks for this Shabbat meal.

Let us bless the earth, the source of life, which brings forth the food that sustains us.

 

Havdalah

Kindle the candle

With wine, candles, and spices we mark the end of shabbat and the beginning of the new week. The wine reminds us of the joy of shabbat; the candle reminds us that life depends on the work of the coming week; and the spices remind us to look forward to next shabbat.

The cup of wine is raised.

Blessed are the earth, the sun, and the rain which create the fruit of the vine.

The wine is circulated.

We are thankful for the earth which produces all spices.

The spice box is circulated.

We are grateful for the light and warmth of fire which has blessed humanity.

As we mark the separation of shabbat from the rest of the week, we commit to separating ourselves from immorality, hatred, and injustice. May we be inspired to live lives of righteousness and compassion in the coming week. We give thanks for our minds and consciences which can separate what is right from what is wrong.

The candle is extinguished.

Outreach and Innovation Are Necessary for Growth and Survival

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

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

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

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

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

Approaching Kashrut from a Liberal Perspective

In my last post, I laid out my understanding of the central message of Humanistic and progressive Judaism. The central purpose of living a Jewish life is to live ethically and to help make the world a better place while maintaining a connection to Jewish culture and values. Since the beginning of the Reform Movement, Jews who have rejected the authority of halakha have typically abandoned kashrut as irrelevant and burdensome. Under my understanding of liberal Judaism, there can be no argument for the acceptance of traditional kashrut on an institutional or movement-wide scale because it is grounded solely in the authority of the Torah and Talmud. However, it is important to examine the relationship between food consumption, ethics, and tikkun olam. If my understanding of Humanistic Judaism’s central purpose is accepted, it will be necessary for a new form of kashrut to evolve which addresses ways in which to consume food and other products in ethical and environmentally friendly ways.

We consume food and other products every day. Our food choices, particularly, have profound ethical and ecological significance since most of us eat at least three times a day. While it is true that a few people cannot make a large impact on production in an industrialized, capitalist society, the food economy is still theoretically based on the underlying concept of supply and demand. It is therefore an ethical imperative to demand and consume products which are produced ethically and do minimal harm to the environment. While there is debate regarding what is most important when determining what choices are the most ethical or environmentally friendly, there are certain practices and products which most people agree are damaging and unethical. Plastics and other non-biodegradable packaging should be avoided as much as possible, which includes individually wrapped products within larger packages, plastic shopping bags, and plastic and Styrofoam utensils. When these products are used, they should be recycled after use. Certain pesticides are ecologically devastating, and produce from these fields should be avoided if possible. Immigrant workers are often mistreated and abused, and companies that benefit from these practices should be boycotted. The meat, dairy, and egg industry is the single largest destructive industry for the environment, and the animals which are used are abused, tortured, and killed daily. Animal products should be avoided to the extent a person’s health and ability allows. Under the current system of food production it may even be necessary for progressive forms of Judaism to embrace vegetarianism at the institutional level, even if they do not otherwise demand it of their members.

An engaged Humanistic Judaism must address the problems surrounding consumption and promote a new form of kashrut grounded in ethics and environmentalism rather than ritual and tradition. (This does not have to compete with traditional kosher observance, which could simply be expanded to include these considerations.) Consumption is unavoidable in our society, and the way we consume shapes our lives and reflects our values as progressive Jews. In my understanding of a Humanistic kashrut, this includes avoiding animal products as much as possible (in my case veganism), reducing my use of plastics, recycling and using recycled products as much as possible, purchasing organic foods and products when economically feasible, and avoiding companies that are known to be complicit in the abuse of workers. It may not be possible for all progressive Jews or all people to abide by every aspect of this understanding of kashrut, but this is not an all or nothing approach. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Even if individuals cannot do everything, they still have an ethical responsibility to do what they can. If we are truly committed to a Jewish practice that promotes an ethical lifestyle and the repair of the world, a new progressive interpretation of kashrut must be embraced.

What Is the Message of Humanistic Judaism?

All religions have a central doctrine or underlying motive. The core of traditional Judaism is the belief that God established a covenant with the Jewish people first through Abraham, then through the revelation to Moses at Mt. Sinai, and it is the covenantal responsibility of the Jews to follow the teachings of the Torah. This core belief offers problems for progressive branches of Judaism which do not believe these covenants or events to be literal, historical, or binding. Most liberal denominations of Judaism have tried to side-step the issue by reinterpreting (or outright ignoring) the problematic parts of the Torah and the stories of its creation. The process of reinterpreting and approaching the Torah as metaphor puts the progressive branches of Judaism at a distinct disadvantage when competing with Orthodox Judaism (and other religious traditions like Christianity and Buddhism) for adherents. Reinterpreting requires extensive thought, dedication, and education in both academic and traditional analyses of the texts, while traditional belief is capable of being adhered to by anyone and has the weight of ancient authority. Progressive and Humanistic Judaism needs a simple, believable message to replace the traditional doctrine. This new message will operate as the heart of progressive, Humanistic Judaism in the same way the traditional doctrine does for traditional Jews. It must address the reason for practicing Humanistic Judaism and the core beliefs and requirements of Humanistic Judaism.

In determining why someone should practice Humanistic Judaism rather than traditional Judaism, another religion, or no religion at all, one must first establish the core teaching of Humanistic Judaism. The Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ) has a list of affirmations and beliefs on their website, however, these statements lack simplicity and the power to inspire. Sherwin Wine, the founder of the SHJ, argued that the central message of Jewish history “is the demand for human self-reliance. In an indifferent universe there is no help from destiny […] We stand alone, and yet together, to create the world we want” (Celebration: A Ceremonial and Philosophic Guide for Humanists and Humanistic Jews, p. 188). This sentiment is echoed, though less forcefully, in Edgar Bronfman’s book Why Be Jewish?  Drawing on his understanding of Jewish tradition, Bronfman argues that Judaism does not demand belief in the supernatural, but rather the drive to repair the world and ourselves. In Bronfman’s understanding, the central doctrine of progressive Judaism and the purpose of Judaism is to bring the divine to earth, to make the world a better place. Jewish practice and teaching attempts to accomplish this goal by emphasizing “ethics, morality, and human relationships” (p. 20).

Bronfman also established twelve principles for approaching Judaism in a way that did not demand onerous beliefs in a supernatural God, prophetic revelations, or excessive ritualism. He phrased these principles in order to emphasize action over belief. All of these principles are distilled from his own experience and study of Judaism and are rooted in Jewish texts and values. They are the best summary of the principles of Humanistic and progressive Judaism so far articulated that I am aware of, and they should be adopted by Humanistic and progressive Jews everywhere:

  1. Revere godliness: the true, the good, and the beautiful.
  2. Ask questions.
  3. Commit to repairing the outer and inner world.
  4. Perform acts of loving-kindness.
  5. Assist society’s weakest members.
  6. Champion social justice and environmental causes.
  7. Welcome the stranger.
  8. Engage with Jewish traditions, texts, philosophy, history, and art.
  9. Study and strive for excellence in the humanities and other secular fields.
  10. Promote family and community.
  11. Embrace key Jewish holidays and life-cycle events.
  12. Conduct business ethically. (p. 18)

While these are the best articulated principles of Humanistic Judaism that I know of, there is room for improvement. For instance, there should be a principle regarding respect for the dignity and worth of every person, and perhaps a statement on dedication to democratic processes in society and Jewish communities. But overall, this functions as an excellent distillation of the principles of progressive Judaism beyond belief.

Now that the potential central doctrine of Humanistic Judaism has been established, it is possible to address the issue of why someone should practice Humanistic Judaism. The most obvious reason is that Humanistic Judaism is aligned with the beliefs and attitudes of many secular and liberal Jews, and it therefore offers a way for Jews to remain connected to their heritage and their people without sacrificing their intellectual dignity. A less obvious reason is that this understanding of Humanistic Judaism, which emphasizes ethics and the imperative to make the world better, has the potential to actually make the world better if more people were involved in practicing its teaching and living by its principles. Furthermore, engaging more liberal Jews in Jewish living and learning can help to preserve and grow non-Orthodox Jewish communities around a shared set of values which can make a positive impact in the diaspora and in Israel. In short, Humanistic Judaism has the capacity to make the world better and to make Jewish identity meaningful and purpose driven in a non-dogmatic, liberal context.

In summary, the core teaching of Humanistic Judaism is (or should be) that Jewish history and suffering demonstrates that the world is an unjust place full of suffering and brutality, and relying solely on God or supernatural intervention to fix human problems is unwise and counterproductive. Humanistic Judaism therefore stresses human and Jewish self-reliance, ethical living, and the need to repair the world through concrete actions. Humanistic Jews therefore join together in community to celebrate Jewish culture, life-cycle events, and holidays; to study Jewish texts and philosophies; and to encourage one another and practice the principles of Humanistic Judaism together.

The Children of Israel: Humanistic Judaism’s Devotion to Inclusivity and Diversity

A traditional name for the Jewish people is the Children of Israel. This has traditionally been taken literally to signify that the Jews are the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel). Most Jewish Humanists acknowledge these figures to be mythical characters of ancient Israelite folklore; stories the Israelites told to account for the creation of their nation and their bonds to one another. But the symbol of the Jews as a large family is useful for the purposes of determining who is a Jew and what it means to belong to the Jewish people in Humanistic Judaism.

It must first be recognized that holding a familial understanding of the Jewish people should necessarily open up Jewish identity beyond the strictures of halakhic definitions. Family is more than bloodlines and legal definitions, and it includes the children of fathers as well as mothers. Anyone born of a Jewish parent should be considered fully Jewish, regardless of which parent it is. Adopted children should be considered as much a part of the Jewish family as children born to Jewish parents, without the need for pointless conversion ceremonies. The same is true for gentiles who marry Jewish spouses, assuming that they have no objections to becoming a member of the tribe. Any process which joins a gentile to a Jewish family should be enough to confer Jewish identity on that person if they wish to assume it. Similarly, any gentile who wishes to join the Jewish community with no previous ties to Judaism or Jewish people should be welcomed with as few barriers as possible. Jewish identity is not conferred through rituals and ceremonies, although they can be useful for public recognition, but rather through participation in the life of the community. Jewish identity is a communal, familial identity, and as such it is conferred through membership in the Jewish family, whether that be a literal family or the Jewish community.

By using such a broad definition of Jewish identity, Humanistic Jews affirm their commitment to the principle of inclusivity. Including as many people as possible who would otherwise be marginalized in the Jewish community is the best possible way to help the Jewish people thrive as a vibrant religious and ethnic group. It also allows for greater diversity in the Jewish community, both ethnically/racially and ideologically. It is important to remember that the biblical patriarch Jacob had twelve sons, all of them different in character and belief. As the Children of Israel, it is important for Jews to adhere to the principles of diversity and inclusion, which implies open boundaries for all who wish to join and inclusion of those who have been marginalized in the past and have different understandings of theology and Jewish religious practice.

The Society for Humanistic Judaism has already affirmed their commitment to this vision of Jewish identity based on inclusion and diversity. For the good of the Jewish community around the world, it is necessary for other Humanistic denominations of Judaism to do the same.

The Unavoidable Centrality of the Torah

The Torah has been the center of Jewish life for at least 2,000 years. All of modern Judaism, its holidays, rituals, and customs, can be traced back to a passage of the Torah or an interpretation of a passage. Any movement or group which wishes to claim the label Judaism must acknowledge the Torah as the foundation of Jewish culture and acknowledge it as the central and most important text of the Jewish people. This poses a special challenge for Humanistic Judaism which rejects the claim that the Torah is the revealed word of God and a record of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. How can a movement which rejects the divine revelation at Sinai still acknowledge the Torah as the basis of Jewish living? In order for Humanistic Judaism to claim legitimacy as a denomination of Judaism it must address the problem of the Torah and the role it should fill in the practice of Humanistic Judaism.

The Humanist approach to the Torah will necessarily make naturalist assumptions. Academic biblical criticism and scholarship will form the basis of a Humanistic approach to the texts. Rather than the divine word of God, the Torah will be seen as a product of the Jewish people. As a social product of the ancient Jews and due to its central role in the life of Jewish communities over the millennia, Humanistic Judaism should treat the Torah with great respect, if not reverence. However, this does not mean that Humanistic Jews should blindly accept the dictates of the Torah. Indeed this would be contradictory to the basic assumptions of the Movement. Rather, the Torah should be studied by Humanistic Jews within a secular framework as a cultural product. Traditional commentaries, including but not limited to the Talmud, should be consulted and studied as well as contemporary interpretations. The full depth and breadth of Jewish culture, values, and philosophy cannot be appreciated without a study of the Torah and its many interpretations. Humanistic Jews need not believe that the Torah is divinely revealed in order to study and appreciate it as the foundation of Jewish culture and practice as we know it. The Roman playwright Terence once quipped, “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” Humanistic Jews should take a similar attitude to Jewish history, texts, and practices.

This may mean that the Torah should play a greater role in the communal life of Humanistic Judaism. During Shabbat and holiday services, it may become good practice to read from the Torah. This need not be done from the traditional scroll in Hebrew; a good translation will work fine for our purposes. Nor does it mean that a full Torah service needs to be done with a complete reading of the week’s parsha. A relevant passage, informed by traditional commentary and academic scholarship, can be read and discussed by the rabbi or a lector within the regular course of the Shabbat or holiday service. Through engaging with the Torah on Humanistic terms, Humanistic Jews can maintain a connection to Jewish tradition while still adhering to their values as Humanists and naturalists. Education and study are central values among Jews everywhere, in large part because of the traditional emphasis placed on the study of Torah over the millennia. These values are central to Humanistic Judaism as well, and the Torah is the perfect Jewish symbol to represent these commitments within the community, despite its traditional theistic baggage.