Secular Humanistic Judaism: Rejecting God

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

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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.

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Yehuda Bauer

Yehuda Bauer is Professor of Holocaust Studies at Hebrew University.