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.

Taken from “Jewish Humanism”


Categories: Judaism

28 replies

  1. I would have to say that I don’t think the emergence of Talmudic Judaism is a fair comparison to what you are proposing.

    You mentioned the differences the 3 or 4 sects had among themselves 2000 years ago. As significant as those differences were, they are minor in comparison to the idea of “non-theistic religion”.

    The practice of rituals devoid of the connection to the Creator strips it of all meaning and purpose. The Sabbath and all the commands are contingent on God just as the human being is contingent on God.

    You mentioned the destruction of the Temple 2000 years ago. It is true the Romans destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem but they did NOT destroy God. So the Jews continued to worship God just as their ancestors had done after the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.


    • I am not an expert on Talmudic Judaism but I would think that it is an oversimplification to imply that its only purpose was to ensure the future of the Jews without a land. I am sure that there are teachings and guidance to help one connect with God, and that this is beneficial to Jews in a timeless way. There are True Torah Jews (Neturai Karta), who reject the Talmud (and the state of Israel) and concentrate their focus connecting with God through the Torah. So even if there is no need for Talmudic Judaism, as the article implies, then there still remains a need for True Torah Judaism.


  2. “Humanistic Judaism helps to ensure the future of Judaism”

    Quite the opposite. This new progressive movement has no business calling itself appropriating the term “Judaism”.

    It seems to me to be a device to subvert Orthodox Judaism.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yahha,
      I would agree with you. If Atheistic Humanistic Judaism truly has the potential to become the new Orthodoxy, then we will see the Holy Land of God, ruled by a Godless people. However, I don’t think that mainstream Judaism will ever accept this.

      I would like to hear from Mozer and Avi in response to this article.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I agree. One cannot talk of “a Jewish non-theistic religion”. These words are literally meaningless.

      It is akin to speaking of “a non-theistic Islam”; a married bachelor; or a four-sided triangle. Simply saying it does not make it so.

      Best leave Judaism to god-fearing Jews. Apostate Jews need to be honest. A good dose of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche will put them right.


    • I am concerned in regard to the statement that humanistic Jews are “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.” – A general lack of worry about committing sinful acts leads to all types of questionable behavior, troublesome issues, and worse. What is assurance is there that a Humanistic Jew will adopt a good morality rather than immorality wrapped up in a “non-theistic” religious belief? If one is Atheist, then what need is there to co-opt the rituals, institution, forms, and label of Judaism? Beyond the fact that Jewish ritual would be hollow and meaningless without God being at the center, it just seems like a dishonest attempt at gaining legitimacy and acceptance for Atheistic beliefs that allow for, and often lead to immoral behavior.


    • This article lends credence to the accusation that Atheism is actually a dogmatic religion in disguise, as evidenced by its effort to subsume the institution, rituals and forms of traditional religion while at the same time claiming some form of legitimacy as a “nontheistic” religion (whatever THAT is). If the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements embrace Humanism in all but name, then what need is there for a separate “Humanistic Judaism” movement other than to affirm Atheism?

      The whole New Age progressive Humanist movement reminds me of the story of the Clueless Helmsman and the Rudderless Ship. If one trades traditional knowledge and guidance, for new innovations, and hollowed out “feel-good” rituals, then one will always fall into misguidance.


  3. Are not most Jewish people today secular humanists/ skeptics / agnostic / atheists who interpret most things through the lens of the historical trials on the Jews in the pogroms of Russia Czars/centuries of European persecution, and climaxing in the Holocaust of Nazi Germany and think, “If the God of Moses really existed, He would not have allowed the Holocaust and Hitler and 6 million Jews to be killed in such a horrific way, etc.; therefore God does not exist, or I don’t know if He exists.” ?


    • And how would you answer them Ken?


    • those that I have interacted with are not willing to discuss issues and usually resort to cutting off the discussion and telling me to leave them alone. Not internet, but one on one calm discussions – I have asked several over the years about why God allowed the Romans to destroy the temple in 70 and they did not like that question.

      And when I pointed out God’s sovereignty in the Psalms, prophets, and why God allowed and decreed the Egyptian enslavement for 400 some years, the Babylonian Captivity, the Greek Antiochus IV Epiphanies events of 167 BC, etc. they usually just get upset or mad or shut down or say “I don’t want to discuss this issue anymore”, etc.


    • I see. But how does a Christian talk to their Jewish friends about the Holocaust?


    • quote:
      I have asked several over the years about why God allowed the Romans to destroy the temple in 70 and they did not like that question.

      what is the reason the jewish bible said that it would be destroyed?

      jewish reason :

      because of idolatry

      christian reason:

      because they impaled yhwh to a cross

      which reason is supported by the jewish bible?


    • But they were not idolaters in the First century – the Pharisees and leaders and scribes were faithful to their understanding of the law and in fact, had been cured of the idolatry after the return from exile.


    • If, as the author of the article says, it is true that, “the God idea is irrelevant to the daily lives of most Jews” does this indicate either a major flaw in Judaism and its teachings which may lead to atheism, or does it simply indicate a flaw in the interpretation, practice, and/or commitment of those who call themselves Jews? Either way one must ask how is it possible that so many of “God’s Chosen People” can find the idea of God irrelevant to their own daily lives? The author of the article implies that this is due to the abandonment of Talmudic/Orthodox ideology and its basic presuppositions, which in turn results in the failure of Reform and Conservative Judaism to inspire an ideological commitment in their members as well. If these things are true then it means that Judaism is in crisis, and that there is a massive shift from theistic Judaism to non-theistic humanist/skeptic/agnostic/atheist Judaism which is currently underway. While it often does seem (from the outside looking in) that this is true, I am sure that outside of the authors own opinion/perception there other Jews who would argue that this is not the case. I would be interested to know more accurately what is the real situation within Judaism right now.


    • “But they were not idolaters in the First century – the Pharisees and leaders and scribes were faithful to their understanding of the law and in fact, had been cured of the idolatry after the return from exile.”

      what is the hebrew bibles reason for the DESTRUCTION?

      many jews did not even LIVE in israel in jesus’ time.

      can you tell me what the torahs REASON is for the destruction?


  4. Oh, several have said that their Rabbi says that the Bible (Tanakh) and Moses, etc. are symbols of their own trials of the Jewish people here on earth, and they didn’t really believe that those things in the OT are true history.


  5. Dr. Michael Brown has good Biblical material on the Holocaust.

    First, I think one has to acknowledge the evils done by Hitler and the centuries of evil against the Jews in Europe and Russian, etc. and acknowledge the evil of Luther’s statements at the end of his life that we later used by others to persecute them.

    One has to be patient and understanding and stay on that with empathy until one can go to the more harder issues of God’s sovereignty over history and sin, etc. To jump too fast to the theological issues and God’s sovereignty will come across as cold to many people.

    But after that, the only answer that makes sense, given the character of God, and that He is sovereign over all events in history, even allowing sin and suffering, is that God is sovereign and allowed it.

    But none of those things (persecution, Crusades, Inquisitions, Luther’s statement at the end of his life, John Chrysostom’s statement, Holocaust, Russain pogroms, etc.) were right, and it was wrong for anyone to twist a NT verse to persecute the Jews.

    The NT never gave justification for any of those things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • But it’s hard to understand the Christian perspective – the constant refrain that Jesus loves you, God is love, God loves you so much he died for you etc. Yet he stands by and let’s millions of innocent Jews be slaughtered!

      Enough to make someone atheist.

      Liked by 1 person

    • the christian belief is that god punished himself for hitlers crimes and then actualised hitlers deeds in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It is clear that the Christian perspective does not resonate with most Jews. However, in regard to the question of theodicy, is there some weakness within Jewish teachings that causes at least some percentage of Jews to doubt God? Or is it more likely that secularist, atheistic, New Age “progressive” thought is affecting and misguiding many Jews, in the same way that it has misguided people of so many people of other faith traditions as well? I think that overall, this is a challenge that all traditional religions face today.


  6. Yet he stands by and let’s millions of innocent Jews be slaughtered!

    Enough to make someone atheist.

    Islam has to have the same answer – Allah’s sovereignty over history and events.

    Liked by 1 person

    • but the problem is that christians believe god already punished himself for all the crimes hitler did. then god made hitler .

      so god punished himself for past, present and future sins and god is sovereign?


    • You have not responded to the distinctly Christian problem: it’s hard to understand the Christian perspective – the constant refrain that Jesus loves you, God is love, God loves you so much he died for you etc.

      Islam has a very different answer..

      Liked by 1 person

    • yeah williams is right, you avoided answering williams.
      god loved hitler so much that he died for all of hitlers crimes and then ACTUALISED hitlers EXISTENCE.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I do not believe that the sovereignty of Allah over history and events, necessarily leads to atheism.

      The irrational Christian belief that God, lifted the curse of original sin through atonement on the cross, and then actualized sinful deeds of mankind throughout history is hard for any rational person to accept. Whereas, Islam offers an alternative understanding that everything (including the worst fitna) occurs accordance with God’s will and good providence. We are assured that if we remain steadfast in the belief in Tawhid, and resign our will to the will of God, when tried with the tests of extreme trials, tribulation and even persecution we will be rewarded by Gods merciful and protective care. Rather than distance oneself from God, the Islamic belief provides aid and comfort to the soul, and causes one to come closer to God especially in a time of crisis.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Romans 11:25 speaks of a “partial hardening of Israel” – not fully, because some Jews in every century did become believers in Jesus the Messiah and the Messianic movement today is alive and well, but not the majority.

    so the “partial hardening” makes sense.

    25 For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;
    26 and so (καὶ οὕτως – “and in this way” – see same word used in Romans 11:5 – “in the same way” there is at the present time a remnant) all Israel will be saved; just as it is written,

    “The Deliverer will come from Zion,
    He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”

    verse 26 means that the culmination of all the Jews through out history who come to faith in the Messiah Jesus will result in “all Israel” being saved. “until the full number of the nations comes in” – points to Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 and 2 Peter 3:9-15 on why Christ has not returned yet. There are still people out there in all nations who are going to be saved, but have not come to faith yet. Therefore, we are to love people and witness to them, and live godly and be peaceful. (see especially verses 14-15)


    • quote:
      verse 26 means that the culmination of all the Jews through out history who come to faith in the Messiah Jesus will result in “all Israel” being saved.

      according to the jewish bible, what are the jews suppose to do when they are in exile?
      where does deut 30 say anything about jesus?


    • can you show even one place in the jewish bible where it is written that god destroyed the temple because the jews handed god over to the pagans and impaled him


      Liked by 1 person

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