Secular Humanistic Judaism: Rejecting God

Humans, not God, are at the center of this Jewish denomination.

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The following article about Secular Humanistic Judaism is written by a scholar affiliated with that movement. The author's characterizations of Jews in other religious streams, e.g., his suggestion that religious spirituality and ethics are contingent upon the threat of divine punishment, and his claim that those who believe in a God who does not control their lives are actually secularists, are not necessarily identical to the ways in which these Jews characterize their own religious positions. Reprinted with permission from Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought, edited by Renee Kogel and Zev Katz.

Secular Jews come in different shapes and forms: nonreligious Zionists, nonreligious Yiddishists, and those who do not choose to identify as either Zionists or Yiddishists but are acculturated to the host society, such as many North American Jews who are quite happy where they are, speak and think English, are at home in the American culture, but also feel their Jewishness quite strongly and wish to identify with Jewish matters and causes. Regardless of which of these categories they fall into, secular Jews seek an interpretation of Jewish civilization that accords with their own preferences, attitudes, and beliefs.

Who Should Define Themselves as "Secular"?

Secular can be defined most simply as "nonreligious." If you believe that the idea of a God is irrelevant to your life, either because you do not believe in a God, or because you think that even if a God exists, he (or she) is not the kind of being that controls the universe and your own life, then you are a secularist. Many Jews who belong to religious congregations are "closet" secularists. They may pay lip service to organized religion in its various forms because they know of no other way to express their membership in the Jewish community. They may believe that by keeping "something" they remain attached to the Jewish people, although what they do in the synagogue, if and when they go there (and most Reform and Conservative Jews do not attend regularly), has no intrinsic meaning for them.

It is one thing to read prayers when you believe there is somebody there who hears and cares; it is quite another thing to mumble words--especially when you do not really understand what you are reading--when you are convinced that there cannot possibly be anyone who listens and cares. It is one thing to follow ancient practices and obey ancient taboos (about food, for instance) because you really believe that they were ordained by a God who is intent on ensuring that you do not eat shrimp; it is quite another thing to follow the same habits and customs when you are quite certain that these are meaningless remnants of ancient taboos and superstitions.

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Yehuda Bauer

Yehuda Bauer is Professor of Holocaust Studies at Hebrew University.