Project of IISHJ

Exploring HJ for Old-Timers


Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1990 (vol. 18 no. 4 p35-39)

Humanistic Judaism makes a difference in the way we lead our lives as Jews and as human beings.

The advanced workshop was an attempt to explore the meaning of this statement. Our task was threefold. We wanted to articulate a coherent philosophy that would accommodate our Jewish and humanist commitments. We wanted to become more familiar with the leading philosophers, both ancient and modern, who gave substance to our ideology — Maimonides, Spinoza, Herzl, Pinsker, Berdichevsky, Einstein, Freud, Hook, Fromm, Maslow, and Ahad Ha-am, as well as many other precursors and articulators of Humanistic Judaism. Above all, we wanted to deepen our understanding of basic principles of Humanistic Judaism so that they could more effectively motivate our behavior.

In our two sessions, we dealt with five basic questions:

  • What is Judaism?
  • What is the fundamental connection between our Jewish experience and our humanism? Or, put in another way, what are the Jewish roots of our humanism?
  • What is our world view? That is, what are the outlines of reality we need to acknowledge before we make decisions?
  • What are the values that should motivate our behavior?
  • What is our relationship to the legacies of the rabbinic tradition?

Here are some of the answers that were presented for discussion and for personal reflection.


While Judaism can be viewed as the culture of the Jewish people, this definition is limiting. Many Jews who identify strongly as Jews participate only peripherally in Jewish culture. Judaism can better be viewed as an ideology about the positive significance of Jewish identity.

Three positive views presently prevail. The traditional outlook maintains that the Jewish people are a chosen people, chosen by God either for privilege or for noble suffering. The “racial” view contends that the Jews are a “superior” race, gifted either intellectually or spiritually or both. The humanistic view maintains that Jewish history and the Jewish experience are testimonies to the absence of a just and loving God in the universe. The meaning of Jewish history is that people must rely on their own efforts and that love and justice come only from human behavior.

Jewish memories and an objective understanding of the Jewish experience are positive reinforcements for a humanistic approach to life. After the Holocaust, humanism.

Jewish Roots of Humanism

Judaism and humanism are vitally connected because of the consequences of the Jewish experience on the Jewish personality.

The rabbinic tradition did not value either skepticism or personal independence. But Jewish history made the Jews a marginal pariah people, deeply suspicious of external authority. This experience helped to direct the Jewish personality into creative assaults on establishment beliefs. When the Enlightenment brought freedom and civil emancipation to the Jews, this “underground tradition” burst forth to sweep the Jews into the center of modern intellectual development.

Many Jews are humanists, not because of exposure to an abstract philosophy, but because of their Jewish experience.

World View

The world view of Humanistic Judaism is identical with that of other forms of humanism.

In a world of many dangers and many threats to personal survival, the overwhelming human concern is where to find the power and the strength to cope with these provocations. The traditional response is to find the power in an external, divine source. The humanistic response is to find the power within oneself and in other people. Humanism and naturalism go together.

While humanism affirms human power, it does not — certainly after the horrors of the twentieth century — maintain that human beings are basically good. We are ambivalent creatures, sometimes prosocial, sometimes antisocial. We can choose to use our power for either good or evil.


Humanistic Jewish values come from two sources: the Jewish experience and the wider human experience.

The human experience teaches us that personal happiness and social welfare often go together. A society in which individuals are autonomous and free is likely to be more productive than a society in which individuals are imprisoned by conformity. Human experience also teaches us that freedom is not enough — that human dignity requires the discipline to keep promises, both implicit and explicit. Trust is essential to the survival of every individual and to the society on which he or she depends.

The Jewish experience teaches us that a world without compassion or equal opportunity produces intolerable suffering. If accompanied by the intensity of chauvinistic nationalism, it will explode into the horrors of holocaust. We need to be compassionate, just, and universalistic because we have been the victims of those who chose not to be.


A humanistic approach to Jewish tradition is respectful but not worshipful. Respect means four things: 1) We acknowledge that the rabbinic tradition was a human creation, neither infallible nor eternal. 2) We recognize that many protohumanists lived in the Jewish past and that they were compelled to articulate their humanism obscurely and discreetly. 3) We choose the right to be selective with the “treasures” of the past, using what we need and discarding what is unacceptable. 4) Above all, we choose the right to invent new traditions in the same way that the authors of “tradition” did.

Sometimes we even reverse the heroes and villains of traditional stories. Job’s wife and the snake in the Garden of Eden have a humanistic hutspa the rabbis did not admire, but we do.

These answers to our five questions demonstrate that Humanistic Judaism is different and does make a difference.


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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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