Humanistic Judaism: history & philosophy
Secular or humanistic Judaism has existed as an alternative in Jewish life for over 100 years. For most of its history, it was an informal option -- secular Jews weren't organized as such, but participated in a variety of movements such as Zionism, Yiddish nationalism or Bundism, Jewish schools, cultural associations, and Jewish communal organizations. Only recently has the movement specifically for Humanistic Judaism taken form.
The Beliefs of Humanistic Judaism
While respecting all of the other denominations of Judaism and their beliefs, Humanistic Judaism offers an alternative for those who are not comfortable with traditional God-centered worship services, but who seek a community or congregation in which they can celebrate their Jewish identity, in which non-Jewish partners or spouses are fully welcome as full participants, in which children receive a Jewish education which respects our ancient legends and has relevance for living today, and in which single individuals and both traditional and non-traditional families have a place.
Humanistic Judaism is not about what we don't believe, but what we do believe, and is therefore a positive value in our lives. Here are some of the things we believe:
- We have the power and responsibility to shape our lives independent of a supernatural power or authority.
- We have the responsibility to try to make things better for ourselves, our families, our community, and our world.
- There may or may not be "something" that underlies creation (we acknowledge that there is no proof of whether there is or isn't, and respect each individual's right to an opinion or belief on this question) but, if there is, it is a part of nature, and not anything that can be influenced by prayer, or certain behaviors, or a supernatural power that interacts with people.
- Our Jewish heritage is precious to us, and we feel a connection to the Jewish people, traditions, history, values and culture. The essence of Judaism is the experience of the Jewish people.
- We believe in intellectual freedom in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, for our children and ourselves. There are no questions that may not be asked, no answers that are forbidden.
- We interpret Jewish history, holidays and ceremonies without reference to a supernatural being, focusing instead on the values we see underlying them.
- A Jew is someone who identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jewish people. Being a Jew, in other words, does not depend on matrilineal or patrilineal descent, or on conversion by circumcision or a trip to the mikvah, which are the traditional criteria. Nor does it depend on holding a certain set of beliefs. Jewish beliefs have varied widely among Jews for all of history. If some standard of belief were the criterion, how many Jews would pass the test? Some standards would rule out Einstein, Freud, and probably over half of American and Israeli Jews!
- We believe that the guidelines for ethical behavior lie in circumstances, conscience and consequences. This is where responsibility is of paramount importance: we must examine the circumstances and probable consequences of our actions, and examine our consciences as well and strive to act accordingly.
- We believe that human happiness is a primary goal in living: the happiness that can be attained by independence, security, courage, self-actualization, achievement, responsible ethical behavior, and good relationships. We think that no one should put stumbling blocks--such as race, religion, or gender identity--in the way of a person's choice of a life partner.
- Pluralism is what lends vitality, creativity and the chance of survival to Judaism. Humanistic Judaism is not for everyone, but it should be one of the available options for Jews for whom the other Judaisms are not a comfortable fit. We also welcome members coming from a non-Jewish culture and we want them to feel comfortable among us. If they choose to become Jews "officially," we will help them in that journey.
So What Do Humanistic Jews Do?
Our Portland congregation or community was organized in the fall of 1993. We are volunteer-run (except for our children's education director and teachers), although we do get periodic rabbinic visits and occasionally have a weekend with one of the madrikhim visiting from out of town, and in early 2005 we transitioned to a part-time professional administrator instead of a volunteer. "the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism is the educational and ordaining branch of Humanistic Judaism. One of our members has completed the requirements for being a Madrikha (lay leader) through the IISHJ, and is continuing on with rabbinic training.
In the Beginning
Early in 1963, a group of Jews who were members of Temple Beth El in Detroit wanted to start a new, small-but-hip, suburban--and very Reform--congregation. They approached 35-year-old Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who had been Beth El's assistant rabbi and who had moved from there to leading a Reform congregation in Windsor, Ontario. Rabbi Wine had come to be known as a brilliant and dynamic speaker.
August 1963: Sixteen couples met at the home of one of them in Birmingham, Michigan. They wanted to start a Reform temple that was open to "creative development." Eight of the couples ended up joining what was dubbed, that night, the Birmingham Temple.
In 1969, the Society for Humanistic Judaism was established in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, MI, to help spread the movement by starting affiliated communities in other cities. The quarterly Journal of Humanistic Judaism began to be published.
Acceptance in the Jewish Community
Today, the Birmingham Temple and the Society have come a long way from the "scandalous" beginnings. The Temple has an attractive building, housing all the functions normal to a congregation, and the Society has offices adjoining the Temple. In odd-numbered years, the Institute sponsors colloquia, held at the Temple and attracting large audiences, with panels of respected scholars in Jewish Studies and related fields. For the first five of these events, the Jewish Federation of Detroit provided a very generous grant to help underwrite the event. Rabbi Wine (who died in an auto accident in July 2007) was a popular speaker in other congregations and gave talks at national conferences of the Humanists, Unitarian-Universalists, and other liberal and free-thought organizations. When the United Jewish Appeal and the United Jewish Federations combined as United Jewish Communities in 2000, the Society for Humanistic Judaism was invited in as one of the branches of Judaism, and participates in the UJC's Annual Gatherings. In affiliates throughout the country, most are recognized players in the Jewish community.
Kol Shalom has been affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism since 1993. It's early history was written in 2002 and updated in 2008 by Jane Goldhamer.
A human-centered connection to Jewish culture, values and heritage.