Project of IISHJ

Perspective – Leadership

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn, Volume 9, No. 3, 1981

Every community needs leaders. If the leaders must possess expert knowledge they need to be trained leaders.

Humanistic Jews need leaders. They also need trained leaders.

Up until now we have not dealt directly with the problem of leaders for Humanistic Judaism. We have simply taken advantage of Reform rabbis who have been willing to change. We have no training program for Humanistic Jewish leaders. And, because of that reality, we have no clear idea of what it means to be a Humanistic rabbi. If the education of our leaders is in the hands of others, we have to take what we can get.

We have never, as yet, dealt with some important questions. What does a Humanistic Jewish leader need to know? What should he be able to do? Is the title rabbi the best designation for such a leader? If it is, how does the role of the Humanistic rabbi differ from that of a traditional or liberal rabbi? Above all, how do we provide a Humanistic Jewish leader with the best possible training for his job?

Before I can answer these questions, I need to give you some background information about the history of Jewish leadership and about the problems of using our present ‘negative’ policy of recruitment and training.


In ancient times, when the Jewish people were a territorial nation, Jewish leaders were secular leaders. Shofets and warrior kings controlled the nation. Although these rulers claimed the sanction of the gods, they were not religious professionals. Priests and guild prophets were kept in subordinate roles.

With the defeat and occupation of Israel by the Chaldeans, Persians and Greeks the secular rulers were eliminated. The conquerors elevated religious professionals to national leadership, since they assumed that they would be the least dangerous and the most compliant. Like the Irish in the polls, the Jews ended up with theocracy, government by priests. The Zadokite priests completed the Torah, the first national constitution, and gave themselves supreme power.

In time a rival group of religious professionals, the rabbis challenged the priests. Advocates of new ideas about the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead, they were supported by a powerful political party called the Pharisees. The rivalry between the priests and the rabbis was ultimately resolved with the victory of the rabbis. Under the Roman occupation, the rabbis became the leaders of the Jews. While the rabbinate had begun as an informal vocation, it became more professional with prestige academies and official ordination. Ultimately, a second national constitution, the Mishnah, was published. The Mishnah confirmed the power of the rabbis and established a permanent theocracy. Rabbinic Judaism became the foundation of the Orthodox vision of Jewish politics.

The Diaspora reinforced the power of the rabbis. Deprived of territory and political freedom, the Jews had no trains leader ship other than the rabbinate. Religious passivity became a safe alternative to political action. As the custodians of supernatural wisdom the rabbis governed the Jews in an authoritarian fashion. Only the unavoidable decentralization of Jewish life and the popular acceptance of their right to rule kept the rabbinate for being overwhelmingly tyrannical.

When the Enlightenment came to Jewish life in the nineteenth century, two hostile responses to rabbinic control emerged. The first response was the secular movement. It value Jewish culture but despised organized religion and its rabbinic representatives. In a secular age, they rejected the rabbis, turned to socialism and Zionism, and created a new informal leadership of intellectuals, culture experts and political activists. The second response was the Reform movement. Since they were hostile to Jewish nationalism and defined the Jewish people as a religious denomination, they were in need of trained religious leaders. But who?

At first, the Reform movement avoided rabbis. Rabbinic leadership was identified with rabbinic Judaism and the traditions of Orthodoxy. Early Reform was initiated by laymen. Even the Hamburg Temple, the ‘mother church’ of Reform, used academic “preachers” for their leadership and recruited no rabbis. But the ‘conversion’ of many orthodox rabbis in the 1840s to the program of reform made an alternative labor supply available.It also posed the question of whether the title rabbi, associated with the advocacy of the Talmudic lifestyle, was appropriate to a Reform leader.

In the end, Reform embraced the “rabbinic,” howbeit awkwardly. It kept the title but change the role. The judge and scholar, the expert in Talmudic law was replaced by the secularly educated preacher and congregational leader. The Protestant model of Northern Europe became the guide to a new profession with an old name. Although the traditional rabbis denied legitimacy of Reform ordination, the title gave authority and religious respectability to the role. In time the designation rabbi made reform leaders more conservative. They had to justify their use of the label.

Since the first humanistic Jewish leaders were trained as reform rabbis and were involved with congregational communities, humanistic rabbis emerged as a coincidence, rather than as a deliberate choice. While some hostile opponents were always asking “how can you call yourself a rabbi,” the use of the title seemed convenient and appropriate. Humanistic leaders were performing the same congregational philosophic and celebration functions that most rabbis were engaged in. And if Reform, in its rejection of the traditional rabbinic discipline, had made non-halakhic rabbis possible, non-theological ones were equally plausible.

At present, professional Humanistic Jewish leaders are Humanistic rabbis. And they get their training at reform seminaries.


This situation is less than satisfactory.

Reform seminaries are designed to train Reform rabbis. They view the rabbinate as a religious profession, and not as a cultural and philosophical one. They overemphasize the theological traditions of the Jews and underemphasize the secular and profane dimensions. Humanistic trainees need exposure to humanistic philosophy and to humanistic Jewish celebration. They need a deep grounding in the Jewish Enlightenment and in the non-religious intellectual achievement of that experience. While many aspects of the reform curriculum are relevant to their training, many others are diverting, parochial, piously inappropriate and compromising of personal integrity.

Reform seminaries are ambivalent about training Humanistic rabbis. Some of the faculty at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion are sympathetic to a humanistic approach. But others are overtly hostile. Why should the seminary ordain rabbis who will not serve the congregations that support it? And why should it train leaders who will not identify with the public ideology of the Reform movement? Given the limited number of students who can be accepted into the rabbinic program, why should precious spaces be given to students who have no commitment to the Reform enterprise? In an environment of such ambivalence we have no guarantee that the Reform seminaries will continue to serve our leadership needs.

In fact, students may not presently receive internship credit for their service to humanistic congregations.

Men and women who are training for the Humanistic rabbinate need a Humanistic Jewish community to interact with. Isolation in a Reform seminary is a non-supportive environment. Exposed humanists are always involved in debate and defense, and not in creative sharing.

Reform rabbis, as part of an establishment movement, are trained to serve established congregations. They are generally not accustomed to organizing their own. But Humanistic rabbis presently have to create the organizations they serve. They need special training in ‘missionary’ work. They need special skills in ‘starting from scratch’. The emotional standards for recruiting Reform students is different from those appropriate to Humanistic candidates. Seminary environments of high material expectations and conventional internships are counter-productive.

Training Reform rabbis means conducting Reform services. Student interns serve small Reform congregations and have to function as Reform leaders. How can Humanistic students perform this role with integrity? If one of the prime ethical values we are seeking to inculcate is honesty and an absence of hypocrisy, how can we encourage humanistic students to pretend they believe in prayer. Studying about prayer is one thing. But doing it in public as a congregational leader is another.

There are many men and women who would make excellent Humanistic Jewish leaders (if they knew the opportunity were available) and who would, for reasons of integrity, never set foot in a reform seminary. Many bright Jews with leadership ability and humanistic commitment choose careers in political science, law, social work and psychotherapy because they believe that the rabbinate and seminary training are a violation of their belief system and a waste of time. If we insist on a Reform education and provide no alternative program, we will never recruit the best and brightest for our movement. We will solicit the cautious ones, who will want to hedge their rabbinic bet with a Reform option.

The most humanistic Jews are not called humanistic Jews. They designate themselves as secular or cultural Jews. They have no historic connection with the Reform movement and no great fondness for the rabbinate. They see themselves as non-religious and are generally unorganized. If they are organized they belong to educational and cultural societies with no professional leadership. Their present malaise partly stems from the absence of dynamic spokespeople who can give them a presence in the Jewish community and who are expert enough to invent secular Jewish alternatives. For these cultural Jews recruiting leaders from a reform seminary would be an absurd act. In fact, a professional leader who bore a title other than rabbi would be more easily accepted. [Madrikh (leader) is a possible option.]

We presently do not control the training of our own leaders. We have to settle for what we can get. We are scavengers. We are “beggers.“. The net result is that we wait around for reform rabbis “to see the light“ and subject to humanistic candidates to programs we have not designed. The smallness of our number is no reason for us to consent to this humiliation. We will never really grow unless we have the self-confidence to arrange for the training of our own “missionaries.” Aggressive expert leadership is the key to our expansion. Enemies and in different friends cannot provide it for us. Nor will our own timidity give us what we need.


In the face of these problems we need to take the following actions.

We need to assume the responsibility for the training of our own leaders.

We need to draft leadership guidelines, articulating what we can conceive the leadership role to be and specifying the requirements we believe to be necessary to qualify as a Humanistic rabbi or as a professional Humanist Jewish leader. These requirements should include a training program which concentrates on a humanistic approach to Jewish history and culture and which features special training in organizing a congregation and in developing secular forms of Jewish celebration.

We need to provide options for training leaders. We need more than one training program. Being dependent completely on reform goodwill is too tenuous situation to be tolerable. Candidates for the Humanistic rabbinate or for Humanistic leadership who desire to attend a Reform seminary and to receive a Reform ordination (or to attend a Reconstructionist seminary and to receive a Reconstructionist ordination) should be encouraged to do so. But an alternative program should be created for candidates who desire a specifically Humanistic Jewish education. Since the creation of a Humanistic rabbinic seminary is financially not feasible, a rational alternative is the use of the graduate program of a major university. An institution like the University of Chicago, which trains many religious leaders, which features superb Department of philosophy, history, psychology and Semitic studies, and which is located in a big city with a big Jewish community is an ideal setting. The leadership candidate would undertake a doctoral program designed to make him an expert in both Judaism and humanism. he would also serve as an intern of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, testing his skills in the practical work of congregational life. Upon the completion of his doctoral program (an investment of time equal to that of seminary training) and his internship training, he would be eligible to be declared a rabbi and Madrikh (leader) by the Society.

We need to go out and recruit bold and adventurous young men and women to enter these programs. Humanistic Jewish congregations will be created by Humanistic rabbis. They will not develop viability and community presence from only the effort of part-time volunteers. Reform rabbis who are cautious humanists and who are looking for established congregations to serve are from our point of view, next to useless. The successful ones, at this stage of our development, will be the leaders who enjoyed being pioneers and who enjoy creating their own congregations.

Many people who want to be rabbis and who are believing humanists will not be successful humanistic rabbis or madrikhim, because they are too timid. But I am convinced that there are others, who have never considered the conventional rabbinate for ideal logical and emotional reasons, who would make superb Humanistic Jewish leaders if they were informed of the opportunity.

We need to cooperate with Secular Jews and with other organized humanists to develop our program. Secular Jews need community and professional leadership. Non-Jewish humanists also need professional leadership. They can help us develop the humanism side of leadership training.


One can already imagine some of the objections to these proposals.

“Training Humanistic rabbis in Reform seminaries is a good thing. It exposes them to other points of you and rescues them from professional isolation.“

“No one will accept a rabbinic ordination issued by the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The idea is pretentious.”

“Why are we bothering to train rabbis to be leaders of secular and humanistic Jews? If we simply called them madrikhim we wouldn’t have any problems.”

Answers are necessary.

Exposure to other points of you is important for rabbis and for all Jews. But it is not the first requirement. Of what value is understanding Reform Judaism for a Humanistic candidate, if he has no opportunity to fully understand Humanistic Judaism. Given the limited amount of time he has to master his profession, and given his need to go out and motivate others, the Humanistic rabbi needs a good grounding first in his own chosen approach. Spending his time arguing with Reform students at a Reform seminary will not rescue him from professional isolation. It will be a needless indulgence in alienation. Humanistic candidates who want ordination from an established rabbinic seminary should not be deceived about the nature of their experience. The reward exacts a high price. And those candidates who do not want to pay that price should not be rejected. They should have an option.

As for the credibility of ordination by the Society, three considerations should be kept in mind. (1) Humanistic rabbis who choose the optional program will also have the title doctor from a major university. (2) In the organizing phases of a movement the label of the leader is less important than his personal authority and charisma. (3) The conventional alternative still exists for those who want it. The other alternative is a risk-taking venture for the bold. And what we need are bold and creative leaders.

As for the title rabbi, the use of it is optional. Leaders who want to call themselves doctor (if they’ve earned it) or madrikh can do so. But, for most Humanistic leaders and laypeople the word rabbi will continue to be important. As a label it suggests authority, expert Ness and Judaism and Jewish leadership. All three conditions are necessary and appropriate for those who want to guide the community. In a world where rabbi is no longer identified with halakha (orthodox law) and where Judaism is increasingly viewed as a culture, a secular rabbi is a natural development.


The future of Humanistic Judaism will depend it to a large degree on the quality, self image and training of Humanistic rabbis. It is time for us to accept this fact and to proceed with integrity.

Related Categories

Related Tags

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.