Project of IISHJ

High Holidays for Humanists – Yom Kippur Excerpts


Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1979, (vol. 7 no. 3, p42-44)


Happiness is not a need. It is a consequence. When our basic needs are satisfied, we feel the pleasure of fulfilment. Knowing our needs is very important. Without that understanding we may pursue what we do not really want. But it is so easy to be deceived! When one desire finds no satisfaction, it seizes the center stage of our attention and pretends to be the most important one of all. When we are hungry, food is an obsession. When we enjoy no sensual pleasure, sexual desire becomes an inner beast. When we receive no love or recognition, loneliness and indifference make all other problems seem trivial. At the moment we imagine that what we want is our first and fundamental need.

The truth is otherwise. We humans share a host of inner demands. Some are more important than others. But none is primary. People will even forego food and sex to attain other more compelling ends. The wise person does not narrow human nature. He does not restrict happiness to what his culture either allows or forbids. He does not confine fulfilment to what his experience makes scarce. True happiness rests on the harmony of many satisfactions. Love, recognition and usefulness are universal needs which transcend any particular culture. They are our needs. They are a bond we share with all other people. If we know this truth no local obsession, no private compulsion can deceive us.


The spiritual option is not confined to those who spend their time with imaginary spirits. It has nothing at all to do with people who avoid sensual pleasure and who turn their mind to meditation. The spiritual condition is the special radiance we perceive in noble people. Nobility starts with the strength of reason. It grows with self-reliance and the sensitive awareness of the human condition. It expands the human spirit and allows it to cross the barriers of ethnic pride and parochial vision to encompass humanity. The noble person avoids tolerance and patronizing niceness. He is humane because he allows himself to feel the common fate we all share. He knows that, in some fundamental way, the stranger is a member of his own family.

True nobility rests on no social gift. Neither pedigree nor wealth can guarantee it. Neither humiliation nor poverty can prevent it. The noble person is the member of no special class and no special race. He is an aristocrat of the spirit whose style is an enormous compassion and whose wisdom is an extraordinary empathy. His generosity and openness make him radiant. He shines with the special power that kindness brings when it can flow freely. The spiritual option is our option. Let those who wish to meddle with mysterious spirits do so. We shall train the spirit of our own humanity.


We are humanists. We believe in the power and beauty of the human potential. We believe in the necessity of human reason. We believe in the human right to satisfy human needs. We believe in the human ideal of human unity. Cynics may mock our commitment. They will give examples of human weakness and ugliness. They will testify to the irrational decisions of countless men and women. They will decry the pettiness of so much human desire they will point triumphantly to the scourge of hate and war. But they will not prevail. They confuse our present limitation with our future possibility.

We do not praise what we are. We praise what it is possible for us to become. If human history has featured the base, it has also presented the noble. If the human saga has revealed the terror of irrational destruction, it has also delivered the marvel of rational survivals. If human nature has chosen its moments of petty selfishness, it has also found its seasons of grand compassion. If nations have killed and slaughtered, they have also made peace. They have exchanged ideas and useful work. They have fostered a new world society where no great nation is any longer independent and where no little people is unknown. For many timid spirits cynicism is more comfortable than hope. It justifies inaction. But we will not be seduced by this fatal reward. We shall strive to be what we believe we can become. To do less is to betray our potential and to become the victims of our own fear.


Yom Kippur is a day of reason. It is a day when no single feeling may prevail, no lone emotion may control. Reason is not the absence of emotion, a cold rejection of warm responses. It is the power to relate our action to our needs. It is the ability to relate our behavior to our survival and to the survival of the human world we live in. Without the heat of our own desire the search for truth would Perish from its own uselessness. Reason gives this search the strength of patience, the honesty of doubt, the fire of surprise and the vision of all that we need. If we are obsessed with nostalgia, we will forget our creative drive. If we are consumed by fear, we will no longer remember the thrills of risk. If we only have time to hate our enemies, we will never find time to love our friends.

We resolve this day to serve the reason within us. We will resist the madness of hate without love. We will defy the threat of fear without hope. We will fight against the terror of feeling without vision. We will affirm the richness of our desires and needs. We will open our hearts to useful change. We will strive to be more patient, more honest and more open to surprise than we have been before. We know that the human possibility is greater than what our present fears will admit. We need our reason to keep us sane.


Yom Kippur is a day of transcendence. We reach out beyond ourselves to embrace all our connections. We affirm our wider attachments and know that we belong. Our friends touch us and reassure us. The Jewish people gives us shelter and caresses our identity. The world of humanity beckons to us and promises the excitement of a universal family. We know that each of us is more than an individual. We know that life offers more than self-absorption. If we reach out no farther than friends, our thrust will be timid. If we extend ourselves only to the boundaries of the Jewish people, our openness will be closed in by the fear of strangers. But if we push ourselves dangerously into the realm of the human connection, our transcendence will have the boldness our future deserves.

We resolve this day to be truly human. We will not allow old fears and old paranoia to keep us from the world beyond. We will not allow old propaganda and old history to hide from us the unity of human nature. We will not allow old customs and old laws to shield us from the wisdom and insight of other peoples and other nations. We need to expand the frontiers of our family. We need to feel that goodness and beauty exist beyond the narrow confines of those we understand. We need to go beyond our comfortable attachments to a greater bond of human concern. In a world where we will soon be able to control our own evolution, the commitment to one humanity if not a desirable option. It is a necessity.



Life is struggle. It is the solving of problems. It is the mastering of skills. Our brains are so complex, that unlike lower forms of life, we do not have a single response to a single stimulus. An infinite number of options greets us with each new intrusion of reality. Exploring and testing begin as childish games. They stay with us to become the special strength of maturity. We try and blunder. We try and succeed. Error and accuracy are the polar ends of our learning experience. Pursuing knowledge makes us awkward. We fall and stumble so often along wisdom’s way that we are embarrassed by our graceless action. We sometimes wish that we enjoyed the programmed ease of birds and cats. But we possess a freedom that they will never know. We can change what no longer works. We can alter what no longer pleases. We can transmit to future generations the fruits of our awkward struggle.

Memory is the storehouse of practical wisdom. The defeats of the past need not be preserved if we are willing to listen to its victories. The blunders of the past need not be repeated if we are willing to imitate its successes. Progress is the freedom to avoid doing what the past has already done. We stand on the building blocks of memory to reach higher and higher. The tower of human knowledge rises to heaven and allows us to visit the secrets of human existence that tradition forbade us to explore. Sometimes when we look up to confront the vast open spaces we have not yet attained, we despair. We forget how high we have already climbed.

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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.
All texts, photos, audio and video are © by the Literary Estate of Sherwin Wine, whose custodian is the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism – North American Section. All rights reserved.