Project of IISHJ

Ethical Culture and Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Spring/Summer, Volume 8, 1980

Ethical culture is a humanist movement. Many, if not most, of its members, are Jews or ‘former Jews’. Its founder, Felix Adler, was the son of a rabbi and a Semitics scholar. Its programs and projects have enjoyed wide Jewish support.

But it is different from Humanistic Judaism.

Before I tell you how it differs, let me give you some background information on its origins, development, and decline.


 The roots of ethical culture lie in five conditions.

  1. Reform Judaism. The development of a liberal alternative to orthodox Judaism started in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century. Jewish immigrants from Germany brought reform to America where it flourished because the government did not interfere with any form of radical religious change and because the American environment was almost without tradition. By 1870, the American Reform movement had split into three factions – Conservative, Moderate and Radical. The conservatives ultimately withdrew to organize the Conservative movement. The Moderates and Radicals maintained an uneasy truce, trying to negotiate incompatible positions. The Radicals wanted to divest Judaism of all distinctive ritual and to emphasize the importance of what they called ‘prophetic ethics’. The Radical problem was that ‘prophetic ethics’ was universal and provided no basis for a unique Jewish identity. The first members of Ethical Culture came from this Radical Reform orientation.
  2. Free Religion. The influence of Darwin in the new science radicalized many liberal Protestant ministers in America, particularly Unitarians. They began to talk about a humanistic religion which would be ethics- centered and not God-centered. They ultimately organized the Free Religious Association. One of their most distinguished advocates was a clergyman named Frothingham, who attracted many Jews to his Sunday lectures in New York.
  3. Secularism. The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century transformed the lives of the American people. A new sense of progress and betterment through science dominated the attitudes of the ruling elite. Men of science replaced the clergy as the wise men of society. Thousands of people abandoned organized religion or remained attached in only a nominal fashion. Many preferred secular education to religious training, secular pursuits to worship and prayer. Secularized Jews were open to an ideology that did not appear genuinely religious.
  4. Bourgeoisie. The German Jews who came to America ended up in the middle class. As members of the bourgeoisie, they cherished the American middle-class values that everybody should have a religious identity. Many German Jews who were secular and universal still felt the need for some kind of ‘religious’ identity that was not really religious. Since the ethnic, linguistic and cultural aspects of Jewishness had long since been abandoned by most Germany Jews, a cultural Judaism was inconceivable to them. They much preferred to go beyond Jewish identity to a universal secular religion.
  5. Felix Adler. Ethical Culture came into existence because of the charismatic leadership of a young man whose father was the rabbi of Temple Emanuel, the leading reform temple of New York City. Sent to Berlin to train for the rabbinate as the successor to his father, Felix Adler became a disciple of Radical Reform. Unlike his colleagues, he took this position to its logical conclusion, going beyond Judaism to universal ethical religion. Influenced by the agnostic position of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, He substituted the Golden Rule for God. When he returned to America, he found that he could not to, with integrity, serve as a rabbi, even a radical one. Utilizing the new spirit of the times which afforded him a sympathetic audience in both the Jewish and Gentile world, he organized in 1876 a new religious group which he dubbed the New York Society for Ethical Culture. He chose the word ‘culture’ because he did not wish to alarm the reform movement into thinking that he was initiating a competing religion, and because he wanted atheists, agnostics and confirmed secularists not to feel estranged. His guiding genius and strong will continue to mold the movement until his death in 1933.

The development of Ethical Culture was rapid. Within twenty years branch societies were founded in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Boston – as well as overseas in London, Berlin and Vienna. And the international union was established. Leadership training for an Ethical clergy was implemented. And, most important of all, programs of social action were undertaken. In the days when government welfare was unavailable, Ethical Culture was the leading pioneer in organizing the schools, camps and settlement houses for the poor.

The decline of the movement set in after the First World War. The aging and shrinking of the German Jewish population reduced the possibilities of recruitment. Russian Jewish secularists were not sufficiently bourgeois and did not need a religious identity for respectability. they turned to socialism and Yiddish culture, preferring political and ethnic associations to religious ones. Above all, rising antisemitism and Hitler’s Holocaust drove many universalists back to Jewish identity. Both disillusionment and guilt made them alter their ideological commitments.

But the main reason for the decline of the Ethical movement was the rise of a formidable competitor. The Unitarian churches, originally Christian in their creeds, turned increasingly to the ideas of free religion. After 1925, a high percentage of them became humanistic. With superior funds, better organization, a long tradition and no taint of Jewish association, they were able to organize the Gentile world for humanism more effectively than Ethical Culture. With the death of Adler, his movement could no longer meet the competition and win. It retired to a small Jewish corner and left the field to the Unitarians.


The Ethical movement started out with the strong philosophical commitments of Felix Adler, who adored the writings of Immanuel Kant. As time went on, the ideology became more explicitly humanistic through the influence of new leaders and new members. Ten years ago, the name of the movement was changed from Ethical Culture to Ethical Humanism.

Certain basic ideas defined the commitment of ethical members.

  1. Agnosticism. Adler maintained the discussions about God were a waste of time because his existence could not be logically determined. Ultimately, decisions about right and wrong would have to depend on human intuition and human reasoning. While the existence of God is not denied, it is also not affirmed. It is simply regarded as irrelevant to the ethical life.
  2. Ethics. Adler maintained that the heart of a good religion was deed, not creed. Religious training was ethical training. Character building becomes the essential program of a humanistic commitment.
  3. Spirituality. The word ‘spiritual’ appears often and Adler‘s writings and in Ethical literature. It refers to a state of commitment and behavior which comes from doing what is right and not from either prayer or piety. By this definition, An atheist may be more spiritual than a fundamentalist. The word was very important to Ethical Culture because it gave it some claim to be regarded as a religion.
  4. Universalism. Adler believed that ethnic boundaries were outmoded and that the new world would see the emergence of a single human community. Since the only thing Jewish worth preserving was its prophetic tradition, Jews were expressing their loyalty to their heritage by giving up their Jewishness and following their ethical values into a broader group.
  5. ‘Liberalism’. Adler ultimately disassociated himself from the Free Religious Association because it was not interested in remedial social action. From its inception, Ethical Culture has espoused political values which are normally designated ‘liberal’. Both desegregation and internationalism, as well as government support of the poor have been goals of action program sponsored by the movement.


How should we Humanistic Jews respond to Ethical Culture? How is it related to our endeavors?

The truth is that ethical culture and Humanistic Judaism are far more alike than they are different from each other.

We share a commitment to the humanistic way of life. The original Kantian emphasis of Felix Adler has evolved into a full rational humanism.

We share the history of expressing our humanistic commitments through organizations called religious, although the activity of these organizations would normally be called secular.

We share, on the whole, a Jewish connection (even though the official literature of Ethical Humanism plays this fact down). The members of both groups are chiefly of Jewish origin and experience the social situation of being Jewish. Just as Unitarianism has a Christian overtone because of its roots, so does Ethical Culture have a Jewish association, even in the minds of Gentiles who join it. (Only the St. Louis group, with its German Rationalist background, seems to have escaped his connection).

We also share a commitment to a single human community and to an emerging world culture, recognizing that our primary identity is our human identity.

But, there are differences.

Although its members are overwhelmingly Jewish, Ethical Culture is disinterested in serving their Jewish cultural needs. One reason for its disinterest is that the movement sees a focus on Jewishness as diverting from a focus on humanness and that such parochialism will exclude humanistic Gentiles. Another reason for its indifference lies in the old German Jewish Radical Reform view of Judaism as primarily a religion and the refusal of this view to see it as a national culture. The consequence of this refusal is that Ethical Culture failed to serve the needs of many of its Jewish members and lost them while it never gained the allegiance of Gentiles who were skeptical of joining a Jewish organization.

We in Humanistic Judaism see no conflict between Jewish identity and ‘human’ identity. We regard both as cultural heritage and cultural options. All of us experience multiple identities in our daily living. Most of them do not compete with each other. They supplement each other. Being Jewish and being ‘human’ can be enjoyed together. In today’s world, because of their historic vulnerability, Humanistic and secular Jews need cultural reinforcement for their Jewish identity.

The humanistic Jewish option does not exclude organizations that desire to be concerned with only humanistic philosophy and humanistic identity.But these groups cannot start out as part of a Jewish secessionist movement. They need a broader base and less vulnerable sponsors. To pretended to be universal when one is indeed both Jewish and universal is to end up being neither successfully Jewish nor successfully universal.

Another difference between the two of us is in our view of a humanistic religion or a humanistic culture. Ethical Humanism, By virtue of its origins as a lecture society in a social action group, failed to create a strong aesthetic tradition to fit the universalist commitments it spoke of into serving as an alternative to the rituals of Jewish and Christian celebration. In an age when the lecture is a dying art form and social welfare has been assumed by the government, the absence of strong humanist celebrations makes Ethical Culture bland and sterile.

Because of our experience in Jewish celebration, we Humanistic Jews understand the importance of Humanist holidays and Humanist ceremonies. The development of World Day and People Day as part of our celebration calendar is an expression of our awareness of this humanist need. While nothing in the philosophy of Ethical Culture prevents them from creating this alternative calendar, their historic rebellion against all forms of ritual has pragmatically inhibited their creativity.


Despite the differences, the similarities between Ethical Culture and Humanistic Judaism is so great that we have to regard ourselves as part of the same religious and – philosophic commitment.

In fact, because of our common Jewish origins, we are also part of the same Jewish orientation which we have designated as The Fourth Alternative. (The other three are Orthodox, Reform-Conservative, and Mystical).

The Fourth Alternative includes all the Jews within the humanistic spectrum, Whether they are called Humanistic Jews, Secular Jews, Creative Jews, Cultural Jews or Ethical Jews – and whether they are actively or passively involved with Jewish identity.

It is my hope that Ethical Humanism will ultimately recognize the importance of dealing with the Jewish cultural needs of its Jewish members and will seek to cooperate with other Jewish humanists in the development of a viable Fourth Alternative in Judaism.

We, avowed Jewish humanists, are too few in number not to recognize our connection. We need to work together so that we can be more effective and fulfilling our own needs and in resisting the assaults of our well-organized opposition.

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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