13 Tough Questions about Humanistic Judaism

In this section you will find the answers to many of the most frequent questions asked about Secular Humanistic Judaism, including its philosophy and the role of its rabbis.
(Courtesy of The Association of Humanistic Rabbis)

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What is Secular Humanistic Judaism?

Secular Humanistic Judaism is the fifth denomination within Judaism. It combines attachment to Jewish identity and culture with a human centered approach to life. It defines Judaism as the historical and cultural experience of the Jewish people. Humanistic Judaism affirms that people are independent of supernatural authority and responsible for themselves and their behavior.

How can you be Jewish if you don't believe in God?

The Jews historically have not been a religious denomination. At one time the Jews were a nation, but the Jews have become a world people. Being Jewish is a consequence of ancestry or choice. Membership in the Jewish people is not a function of belief it is a function of identification, connection, and loyalty.

Why call what you do Judaism?

Judaism is the evolving culture of the Jewish people. There is no single way to be Jewish. What Jews do is called Judaism. What Humanistic Jews do as Jews is Judaism. Pluralism in Jewish life enriches Judaism and enables a more inclusive and enriched Jewish community.

Why are you a separate movement in Judaism?

What distinguishes Humanistic Judaism from other movements that identify humanistic themes in Judaism is our resolve to create a consistency between our philosophy and our liturgy (what we believe and what we say and do). Humanistic Jewish celebrations, ceremonies, and commemorations use human-centered non-theistic language. The words we say and the songs we sing follow this guideline. We call this principle integrity and it is fundamental to our identity as Humanistic Jews.

If you are not religious in a traditional sense, why have rabbis?

A rabbi is a leader of the Jewish people, someone who is knowledgeable about Jewish history and ceremony. We choose to be part of the Jewish community and calling our leaders rabbis helps us to participate fully in Jewish communal life.

Isnt the Jewish religion (orthodoxy)/Torah responsible for the survival of the Jewish people?

The survival of the Jewish people is a consequence of the adaptability of the Jewish people. What has kept us alive is the willingness of the Jewish people to adapt to the dominant culture, while still adhering to the ever changing, yet enduring customs and ceremonies of the Jews. The common history, literature, and fate are all responsible for Jewish continuity.

Without God how can there be ethics?

The foundation of ethics is human dignity, human survival, and human happiness. The foundation of ethics is not God. Ethical behavior consists of relationships between people. Some people behave well without believing in God and some people who believe in God do not behave ethically.

If you don't pray, what do you do?

We celebrate our Jewish identity. We use poetry and prose to express that connection. We sing Jewish songs in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. We use materials that encourage reflection and meditation

What is the role of the Torah in Secular Humanistic Judaism?

For Secular Humanistic Jews, all texts are the creations of human beings. The Torah is not a reliable source of historical information about the Jewish people. When studied with the aid of modern biblical scholarship, however, the Torah can provide a window into the lives of the Hebrew people, especially their literature and legends. There are many kernels of humanistic ethical precepts found in the Torah. The Torah also includes dictates that are horrifying to us today. The legitimacy of its ethical principles is derived not from the authority of the Torah itself, but rather derived from rationality and the consequences of human behavior. However, the Torah, by virtue of its historic prominence within the Jewish community, can serve as a symbol of truth and of the Jewish saga. In the Secular Humanistic Jewish communities that own a Torah, they are used in a variety of ways, including, in a few cases, at Bar and Bat Mitzvah.

Can someone convert to Secular Humanistic Judaism?

We define a Jew as someone who identifies with the history, culture and fate of the Jewish people. If a person would like to participate in the Jewish experience, they can adopt Judaism and a Humanistic Jewish community or the Society for Humanistic Judaism can adopt the person wanting to be part of the Humanistic Jewish family. It's a mutual experience. Because being Jewish is defined as the historical and cultural experience of the Jewish people an individual does not have to "give up" who they are to add Jewish identity to their self-definition.

Isn't intermarriage contributing to the demise of Judaism?

Intermarriage is the positive consequence of a free and open society. If the Jewish community is open, welcoming, embracing and pluralistic, we will encourage more people to identify with the Jewish people rather than less. Intermarriage could contribute to the continuity of the Jewish people.

What is the Secular Humanistic Jewish position on b'rit milah and circumcision?

A Secular Humanistic birth celebration has two functions: to name and to welcome. In celebrating the birth of a child, Secular Humanistic Jews recognize several underlying assumptions: 1) male and female children ought to be treated equally; 2) children of all intermarried couples should have equal status, regardless of whether the mother or father is Jewish; 3) medical or moral decisions about circumcision should be considered separately from decisions about birth and baby-naming celebrations; 4) the birth celebration should affirm the family’s connection to the Jewish people and to the human community in a philosophically consistent, meaningful way.Participating in a traditional b’rit milah negates our commitment to treating male and female children equally and also is inconsistent with our human-centered philosophy of life.

If you are Humanists why bother with Judaism at all?

Being Jewish is part of our identity. We are all curious to know who we are, to discover our roots and establish connections, to learn and celebrate. Culture adds interest to our lives, whether it be music, literature, art, dance, or food.

Isn't all Judaism humanistic?

Some of Judaism is humanistic, although not all of it is. The confusion is usually around the differences between humanitarianism and humanism. Humanism is the reliance on people to solve human problems. Humanism includes humanitarianism, which is the act of promoting human welfare and social reform.