Secular Humanistic Judaism: Rejecting God

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

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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.

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Yehuda Bauer

Yehuda Bauer is Professor of Holocaust Studies at Hebrew University.