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.

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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.

God and Atheism in Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism is often described as the atheist denomination. In large part this is true, and most of its members are atheists. However, there are no numbers (that I’m aware of) that reveal how many Jewish Humanists are atheists. I would venture a guess that Jewish Humanists generally believe in some concept of God, although most would eschew belief in miracles and the otherwise supernatural. Humanistic Judaism need not be limited to atheists. If we accept the idea that the concepts about God are diverse and nebulous, we can move from a strict atheism which is limiting the Humanistic Movement towards a more open and pluralistic Humanism which embraces a sense of the sacred without sacrificing anyone’s deeply held beliefs about whether or not there is an entity which goes by the title ‘God.’

It is best to approach this from the perspective of Harold Schulweis who argues for a “predicate theology.” It is not so important to argue whether there is a supernatural God or not, but rather to acknowledge those aspects of reality and human life which we recognize as godly or sacred. Goodness, truth, justice, compassion, love, liberty, and peace are seen by atheists and theists alike as worthwhile ideals for human behavior and society and easily acknowledge them to be sacred and meaningful. In this approach we leave the question of God’s existence alone and focus on the quality of life we wish to have as human beings and as Jews.

We can further borrow from the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich and ask, “what is our ultimate concern?” What aspects of life can human beings acknowledge as the most important, those which no other concerns can take precedence over? This is a deeply personal question, but there are only a few answers which are sufficiently enduring, personal, and worthwhile enough to truly give life meaning; e.g. goodness, truth, justice, and love. If we acknowledge these ideals as the highest ideals of our lives, we are already revering them as sacred ideals for ourselves, our communities, and our societies.

When we approach the God question by asking what is sacred, rather than is there an entity called God, we are able to find a way to give our individual and communal lives meaning and purpose. If some of us choose to use the term God as a symbol of the sacred aspects of life, that is perfectly in line with Humanist philosophy. The important thing is to acknowledge that, as the Humanist Manifesto III states, “Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.”

What is Humanistic Judaism?

Humanistic Judaism can refer to two different but related phenomena in contemporary Jewish life: the organized movement called the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ) and the more general humanistic approach to Judaism. In either case Humanistic Judaism stresses human responsibility and autonomy, a (generally) naturalistic worldview, and an engagement with and reconstruction of Jewish culture and traditions. The philosophy of Jewish Humanism expands beyond the organized body of the SHJ. Most Reform and Reconstructionist Jews as well as many unaffiliated, secular Jews adhere to a form of Jewish Humanism, even if they do not explicitly identify themselves as Jewish Humanists. The objective of this blog is to discuss the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism and my personal practice of Judaism as a Jewish Humanist. For the sake of clarity and future reference, basic terms and concepts are defined below, and basic presuppositions are stated.

Humanism: a philosophy of life which affirms the ability and responsibility of individuals to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity without supernatural intervention. A general outline of Humanism can be found in the Humanist Manifesto III. It is necessary to point out that Humanism is not a synonym for atheism. It is possible to believe in a non-interventionist or non-personal God and be a Humanist (e.g. deists and pantheists).

Humanistic Judaism (Jewish Humanism): a philosophy which underlies a progressive, naturalistic approach to Judaism, Jewish history, and culture. More specifically, a contemporary Jewish denomination. More information about the denomination can be found at shj.org.

Judaism is the Evolving Religious Civilization of the Jewish People: Jews are both an ethnic and a religious group. However, the ethnicity has been primarily defined and shaped by the religion since at least the beginning of the diaspora. While religion is the most important aspect of Judaism historically, it is not the only aspect of Judaism, and secular aspects of Jewish culture should be respected and fostered. History has shown that Judaism, as both a religion and an ethnic group, has adapted to changing situations over the millennia. The modern world is fundamentally different from the pre-modern world, and Judaism must be consciously reconstructed if it is to remain meaningful to non-orthodox Jews.

Jewish Identity: The halakhic determination of Jewish identity states that a person is Jewish if their mother is Jewish or if they convert according to halakhic standards. This definition leads to many problems, particularly in relation to intermarriage, non-orthodox conversions, and “patrilineal” Jews. The position of the Society for Humanistic Judaism radically breaks with traditional, and even the more liberal Reform, standards and declares: “a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.” This is the standard of Jewish identity which this blog will operate under, with one caveat: members of “Jewish Christian” groups are not Jews, but rather Christians. I take this position because of the history of antisemitism of the Christian church(es) and the many forced conversions, persecutions, and attempted genocides perpetrated by them against the Jewish people. While I recognize that there are some “Jewish Christians” who were born Jewish and converted to Christianity through these groups, the majority of them are not Jewish in any sense, and should not be treated as such.

Intermarriage: Intermarriage refers to the marriage between a Jewish person and a gentile. Most Jewish denominations see intermarriage as a problem to be solved, however, it is a manufactured problem. The Jewish people will continue if people find Jewish identity or Judaism to be meaningful in their lives. If the children of intermarriage are more likely to identify as non-Jewish, it is because of the exclusionary definition of Jewishness held by these groups. Jewish communities must work to include as many Jews as possible regardless of traditional standards and make Jewish life and community meaningful and worthwhile. Intermarriage is not the problem, but rather apathy and alienation in non-orthodox Jewish communities.

Israel: Israel is the home of the Jewish people and the only majority Jewish country on earth. Its survival as a Jewish country is necessary for the safety of the Jewish people around the globe. Although it is necessary for Israel to be a Jewish nation, minority rights must be respected; the Palestinians of the West Bank must have their freedom from the occupation; and Israel should be a democratic and secular country with religious, political, and civil freedom for all its citizens.