Humanistic Judaism is a movement within Judaism that emphasizes Jewish culture and history—rather than belief in God—as the sources of Jewish identity. Its rituals and ceremonies do not include prayer or any invocation of a deity. Its philosophical outlook is derived from Humanism or Secular Humanism, and its beliefs may be summarized as follows:
- A Jew is someone who identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jewish people;
- Judaism is the historic culture of the Jewish people, and religion is only one part of that culture;
- People possess the power and responsibility to shape their own lives independent of supernatural authority;
- Ethics and morality should serve human needs, and choices should be based upon consideration of the consequences of actions rather than pre-ordained rules or commandments; and,
- Jewish history, like all history, is a purely human and natural phenomenon. Biblical and other traditional texts are the products of human activity and are best understood through archaeology and other scientific analysis.
Secularism and Atheism became widespread among Jews only in the 19th century during the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, many of whose leaders rejected all traditional religious practice and belief in favor of reason and the scientific method. Among the activist and intellectual leaders at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries who contributed most to the development of Humanistic Judaism were Ahad Ha’am, Simon Dubnow, and Chaim Zhitlovsky. In its current form, Humanistic Judaism was founded in 1963 by Rabbi Sherwin Wine. As a rabbi trained in Reform Judaism, with a small secular, non-theistic congregation in Michigan, Wine developed a Jewish liturgy that reflected his, and his congregation’s, philosophical viewpoint by emphasizing Jewish culture, history, and identity along with Humanistic ethics while excluding all prayers and references to God. This congregation developed into the Birmingham Temple, now in Farmington Hills, Michigan. It was soon joined by a previously Reform congregation in Illinois led by Rabbi Daniel Friedman, as well as a group in Westport, Connecticut.
In 1969 these congregations and others were united organizationally under the umbrella of the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ). The International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, comprised of organizations in thirteen countries, was founded in 1986. There are an estimated 20,000 members worldwide.
Principles of belief and practice
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In some ways, the principles of belief of Humanistic Judaism are similar to those of many within Reconstructionist Judaism, with its emphasis on retaining Jewish identity while accepting a scientific worldview and a humanistic ethical outlook. However, Humanistic Judaism presents a far more radical departure from traditional Jewish religion than Mordecai Kaplan ever envisioned. Kaplan redefined God and other traditional religious terms so as to make them consistent with the materialist outlook, and continued to use traditional prayer language. Wine rejected this approach as confusing, since participants could ascribe to these words whatever definitions they favored. Wine strove to achieve philosophical consistency and stability by creating rituals and ceremonies that were purely non-theistic. Services were created for Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and other Jewish holidays and festivals, often with reinterpretation of the meaning of the holiday to bring it into conformity with Secular Humanistic philosophy.
Humanistic Judaism was developed as a possible solution to the problem of retaining Jewish identity and continuity among non-religious, secular North American Jews at a time when other organizational forms of secular Jewish identity were fading, including Jewish cultural nationalism, Yiddishism, and various forms of Zionism. Recognizing that congregational religious life was thriving, Wine believed that secular Jews who had rejected theism would be attracted to an organization that provided all the same forms and activities as, for example, Reform temples, but which expressed a purely Secular Humanistic viewpoint. The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, which is sponsored by the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, trains rabbis and other leaders in the United States and in Israel.
Jewish identity and intermarriage
Within Humanistic Judaism, Jewish identity is largely a matter of self-identification. Rabbis and other trained leaders officiate at intermarriages between Jews and non-Jews, and the Humanistic Judaism movement, unlike the other Jewish denominations, does not take any position or action in opposition to intermarriage. These views concerning Jewish identity and intermarriage are criticized by those who believe that they will hasten the assimilation of Jews into the general society and thus adversely affect Jewish continuity. Wine and others within Humanistic Judaism respond by saying that such outreach to non-Jews is necessary to prevent their Jewish partners from rejecting Jewish identity. They say that Jewish continuity cannot be preserved by institutions that reject the increasing number of Jews who intermarry and are secular in their outlook.
Humanistic Judaism is egalitarian with respect to gender and gender identification, Jewish status, and sexual orientation. Baby-naming ceremonies, similar for boys and girls, are used rather than the brit milah which is thought to give favored status to male babies. Those who identify as Jews and those who do not, as well as openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender members, may participate in all ways in rituals and leadership roles.
- Judaism Beyond God: A Radical New Way to Be Jewish, Sherwin T. Wine, KTAV Publishing House and Society for Humanistic Judaism, 1996.
- God-Optional Judaism: Alternatives for Cultural Jews Who Love Their History, Heritage, and Community, Judith Seid, Citadel Press, 2001.
- Judaism In A Secular Age - An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought, Edited by: Renee Kogel and Zev Katz, KTAV Publishing House and International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, 1995.
- Jews Without Judaism: Conversations with an Unconventional Rabbi, Daniel Friedman, Prometheus Books, 2002.
- Society for Humanistic Judaism
- International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism
- Center for Cultural Judaism
- International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews
- Tmura, the Institute for Training Secular Humanistic Rabbis and Jewish Leadership in Israel
- Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews
- Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations
- Bible stories and Humanistic Judaism
- Discussion Group for Secular and Humanistic Jews