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.

To come out of your "closet," then, is a matter of personal integrity: to assert to yourself and to others that whatever you do, you believe in, and what you do not believe in, you do not do. At the same time, though, if you are like most secularists, you are the first to demand that those who do believe in the religious customs you do not observe should have every right to follow them. You are a pluralist, a supporter of a democratic and humanistic way of life. You believe in the right of all individuals to live their lives in accordance with their convictions, as long as their actions do not impinge on the rights and well‑being of others.

Can One Be Both Secular and Religious?

There are secular Jews who call themselves religious because they define religion differently from the popular notion. They may say, for instance, that a religious attitude is a spiritual one: not just going beyond crass materialism, but relating to nature and to society in a way appreciative of beauty, external and internal; for example, experiencing, enjoying, and internalizing art, music, philosophy, and literature. They may view spirituality as a way to grapple with the many unsolved problems of human existence without reference to a supreme being onto whose shoulders such problems can be unloaded.

Secular Jewish religionists say that a belief system that does not acknowledge a godhead but fulfills the spiritual needs of individuals and communities by providing meaningful seasonal and life‑cycle ceremonies that relate to the Jewish past is, by definition, religious. You may belong to a group of people who hold such beliefs and enact them in appropriate ceremonies. If so, and if you do not believe in a world‑creating authority that supervises you throughout your life, you are a secularist, a religious secularist. You simply define the term "religion" in a different way from the usual one.

What, and In What, Do Secular Jews Believe?

However, there are issues underlying this play with semantics that are of considerable importance. Do secularists "possess" spirituality? Do secularists "believe"? Are there things that are "holy" for them? Indeed, secularists believe. They believe in individual and social morality and do the best they can to build a slightly better society than we have now. Secularism's spirituality is of a different nature than the religion‑induced kind, which depends on an external authority that has to coerce ethical behavior with threats of punishment in this world and/or the next. Secular ethics are autonomous, the result of personal decisions and personal responsibility, and therefore might tend to be more seriously considered.

Secular Jews believe in the holy--that is, inviolable--nature of certain things: the value of human life, the integrity of the human personality, the primacy of human dignity, the equality of men and women everywhere, the right of children to unfettered development. These and similar things are "holy" to us, as they are to many religious people whom we would call religious humanists.

On the other hand, some of the things that are holy to an Orthodox (or sometimes a Conservative) Jew are trivial in our eyes: separation of meat and milk, dressing in medieval clothing, obeying the prohibition of the use of money or engaging in sports on Shabbat, and so on.

Secular Jews and Jewish Civilization

We secular Jews know that the Jews are a people whose civilization is the result of a very long and very impressive history. We have no problem in principle (though there are many practical problems of great complexity) in peeling off the religious component from the Jewish heritage. We have no need to impute to our ancestors' attitudes that belong to our own times. We can read the ancient texts with new eyes and recognize that while we do not believe what their authors believed, we still can identify with them.

Many of us will differentiate between a direct quotation (which must not be tampered with) and the changing of texts to fit our needs, in which case there is a new text that may use or adapt portions of the traditional wording. In the latter case, there is a context of a festival or a life‑cycle ceremony, which itself is the development of an older tradition, and within which the new text reflects our individual and/or communal needs in an innovative, creatively changing way.

What do we mean by humanism? You will find a number of definitions and descriptions. Perhaps the simplest is that which says that a humanist believes in the centrality, inviolability, and, yes, sacredness of human life and human integrity. There are excellent grounds for saying that there can be a religious humanism, because people who believe in a godhead may still see human life as inviolable and may view human integrity as a supreme value. Secular humanism emerged out of religious humanism.

Jewish Secular Humanism

In Jewish religious tradition, the emphasis was on humans. Our old texts--not only the Bible, but the Mishnah and the rest of the Talmud as well--contain the wisdom of generations: the philosophical and moral insights; the caring responsibility for individual, family, and community; and the concern for all human beings. This is part of what we understand as humanism.

Of course, these texts also contain superstitious beliefs and calls for action that we do not consider moral: xenophobia and even genocide. But then, part of being a humanist is that you are free, free to make your own choices and your own decisions. You are responsible to yourself and to your fellow humans, and you undoubtedly will reject parts of your heritage even as you acknowledge that it is yours. Responsibility is both personal and social: it implies the absolute equality of all humans and an obligation toward a community of choice; an obligation that each individual decides upon and enters into by adhering to a community and defining her or his part in its development. Both individual choice and individual assumption of responsibility are intrinsic to what we mean by freedom.

For secularists, then, humanism means that we believe there is no God out there to take the responsibility for our lives off our shoulders. The moral values propounded by the Jewish or any other religion are not the result of divine intervention in human affairs, but were conceived and pronounced by humans just like ourselves. Our attitude toward ourselves and the world around us is one in which the human being is the center of our endeavors.

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Yehuda Bauer

Yehuda Bauer is Professor of Holocaust Studies at Hebrew University.