What is Humanistic Judaism?

Humanistic Judaism is a human-centered philosophy. Humanism is the belief that we all have the power and responsibility to shape our own lives in an ethical and moral way, independent of supernatural authority; that we should be accountable for our own decisions and actions, and respect the dignity of others while working toward group goals. We believe that only people can solve human problems.

Humanistic Jews combine that belief with the secular celebration of Jewish identity and culture. We take pride in our identity as Jews and in the history and achievements of the Jewish people. We view that history as the consequences of purely human actions and natural occurrences.

The key perspective of our creed is expressed in the hymn by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine:

      Where is my light? My light is in me. 
      Where is my hope? My hope is in me.
      Where is my strength? My strength is in me,
      And in you.

How do Humanistic Jews view God?

Some Humanists believe in some kind of God, and others do not. Whatever their beliefs, the notion of God is not central. Humanists center their lives on people and believe that we can and should live with strong ethics and morals that strive to enhance the quality of life for all, whether God exists or not.

We take responsibility for our actions and find pleasure in human activities. We do not see some master plan in everything that happens. We admit that there are some things that we simply cannot control (like earthquakes). We believe these things are the product of nature or human actions that can happen just by chance, and we learn to accept this partial lack of control. As we explore the strength within ourselves, we discover the courage to live in the world as it exists.

How do Humanistic Jews define Judaism?

Humanistic Jews consider Judaism as the shared 6,000-year-old historic experience and culture of the Jewish people. We affirm our Jewish identity without reference to divine authority and believe that Judaism evolves as the Jewish people evolve.

Humanistic Jews view their Judaism as a family identity–a family they are either born into or choose to become a part of. They know that there are Jews of many different races who hold many different religious and philosophical perspectives. Just as there are special bonds within most families, there are bonds that connect all Jews. Humanistic Jews value this family connection.

Why do Humanistic Jews form congregations?

Humanistic Jews form congregations to establish a community to share their beliefs and life experiences, to enrich each other. Humanistic Jews celebrate Jewish holidays. We emphasize our historical and natural origins and highlight the Humanistic values within the holiday stories. We celebrate life-cycle events, such as baby namings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and weddings, creating ceremonies to suit our needs and tastes. We learn together through speakers, discussions, and classes about Jewish history, Israel, current events, philosophy, etc. We take time at Shabbat services, conferences, etc. to explore together ideas about life and relationships and to affirm our connection to the larger human family. We believe in and practice traditional values of study and education, acts of kindness, and repair of the world.

How do Humanistic Jews express their faith and spirituality?

Humanistic Jews are believers. We believe in ourselves and in others. Ours is a faith of optimism and hope…that things can and will get better through human intervention. We believe in the hereafter through the generations that will follow us. Our spirituality is the intrinsic appreciation of life, both the explained and unexplained, from the wings of a butterfly to the surge of overwhelming love we feel for our children. Our beliefs are a seamless part of our lives, reflected in both our congregation services and how we act in the world.

We rarely use worshipful or prayer-like language, and do not name any supernatural force in our services. When we make blessings over wine and bread at our services, we thank those who bring forth the fruit of the vine and bread from the earth. We derive our sense of spirituality from the accomplishments of people.

How do Humanistic Jews view Intermarriage?

Humanistic Judaism is the only Jewish movement that actively welcomes (and performs) intercultural marriage. We believe that sound relationships have their basis in mutual love and respect, not cultural similarity. We believe that multicultural families should be welcome to actively participate in all aspects of Jewish life. We recognize and treasure those things that are unique to the Jewish experience and to our culture, but because we have a Humanistic philosophy, we see ourselves as one part of the human family, not set above or chosen to be superior to other people.

How do Humanistic Jews feel about the Torah?

Humanistic Jews value the Torah because it is a historical, political, sociological text written by their ancestors. They do not believe that every word of the Torah is true, or even morally correct, just because the Torah is old. They are willing to question the Torah and to disagree with it. They believe the entire Jewish experience, not just the Torah, should be the source for Jewish behavior and ethics.

How do Humanistic Jews view Jewish Traditions?

Humanistic Jews perceive Jewish culture and civilization as a creation of the Jewish people over many centuries. As such, each generation must add to and adapt Jewish tradition to meet its needs. Creativity is highly encouraged, and tradition is viewed through the eyes of the Jewish present. Where tradition is useful and meaningful and consistent with a Humanistic philosophy (or can be adapted to be so) it is used. Where it is not, Humanistic Judaism encourages adaptation and creation of new approaches.

How do Humanistic Jews view Israel?

Humanistic Jews actively learn about and support Israel. They recognize the value and importance of a Jewish State. With regard to conflict with the Arab world, they believe that the freedom and dignity of Jews must go hand in hand with the freedom and dignity of all people.

How can Humanistic Jews call themselves Jewish if they don’t pray, revere the Torah, or worship God?

Many Jews throughout history were Humanists. They were not in power, so their ideas did not get recorded in the official Jewish texts. Jews developed two responses to the ravages of anti-Semitism and invasions throughout Jewish history. One response is the religious response. This includes guilt for sins committed (real or imagined) and a surrendering to “greater powers.” The second response is Humanistic. It includes justified anger and skepticism and defiance of authority. It includes humor as a coping response–a mocking of ourselves and the absurdity of the world. It also includes self-reliance. Most Jewish heroes and most Jews today exhibit this second type of response in their daily lives. These Humanistic traits have likely been more important than faith and tradition in enabling the Jews to survive and preserve their identity.

Please see the Links page for references to sources on Humanistic Judaism.