Is Humanistic Judaism a religion? Winter 2002
Is Humanistic Judaism a religion?
For many people, including many Humanistic Jews, the answer would be no. There is no God. There is no worship. There are no prayers. There is no recognition of supernatural power. A philosophy of life for atheists and agnostics cannot be religion.
But this answer may be naive. It fails to understand the history and function of religion — especially in the lives of people who are products of the modern secular world.
Historically, religion has its origins in two developments.
The first is the human condition. To be human is to confront continuously two persistent and unpleasant realities: suffering and death. If there were no suffering and no death, religion would not exist. The need to cope with these two unwelcome intrusions is the mother of religious belief and religious behavior.
The second development is the human imagination. It is obvious that ordinary power — human power — cannot eliminate all suffering and abolish all deaths. It may reduce suffering and postpone death. But it cannot defeat them in the long run. Human imagination, prompted by human desperation, provides an alternative power so extraordinary that it can only be called magic.
Magic power defies the limitations of ordinary experience. It transcends the restrictions of the natural world. Being supernatural, it does not need to obey the laws of nature. Being sacred, it cannot be measured and cannot be exhausted. As a mysterious and overwhelming force, it can do what ordinary power is powerless to do. It can conquer both suffering and death. Magic and religion have a common origin: the human need to transcend the human condition.
The belief in magic power is reinforced by the uniqueness of the human experience. When we are born, we are helpless, unable to do anything for ourselves except cry for help. When our parents respond to our cries, when they rescue us, wipe us, and feed us, our infant minds perceive their power to be extraordinary and magical. Since childhood is very long, the addiction to magic becomes a natural predilection that we are never fully prepared to give up. Fairy tales and Harry Potter continue to charm us even when we grow up. Part of us never wants to leave childhood. Part of us never wants to surrender magic power.
But magic and religion are not identical. Magicians seek to manipulate magic power. Religion worships it. Religion emerges when our parents and our more distant ancestors achieve the power to transcend death. They do this through the human belief in spirits of the dead. Since these spirits are familial and parental, we respond to them the way we respond to our mother and our father — with fear and with reverence. Ultimately the spirits of the ancestral dead turn into gods. And the gods turn into God. Worship is the continuation of the awe and the reverence that our childhood connection to parental power inspires. In the end our infant cries turn into prayer. And God remains our heavenly father and mother.
The two themes of religion, then, arising from the origins of religion, are magic power and ancestral reverence. When religion begins, it is attached to family, clans, and tribes. It is not something chosen. It is a set of practices that are inherited, from holidays and sacred symbols to prayer and dress. In most cultures religion and patriotism cannot easily be distinguished. They have the same roots and are inspired by the same attachments. Most people end up in the religious systems they embrace, not because of conscious reflection or personal beliefs, but because they love and fear their parents and their ancestors. Where the ancestral theme is the most powerful, religion can be called ancestral religion.
Sometimes, however, the theme of magic power becomes the central focus. During the past two thousand years, as ancestral ties have been weakened by urban civilization — as individualism and individual identity have been strengthened by mobility and the power of new technology — religion was separated from patriotism and became a matter of personal choice. Personal immortality and eternal happiness became the major rewards, both of them guaranteed by magic power. In this way an alternative to ancestral religion was born. Because of its emphasis on individual reward, it can best be called salvation religion. Christianity and Islam are salvation religions. Buddhism, in its popular expression, is a salvation religion. The array of modern urban cults, from Hari Krishna to Scientology, are salvation religions. Even Rabbinic Judaism, with its final judgment day, is a salvation religion.
In salvation religion, ancestors fade away and magic power comes to the fore. Rituals, magical formulas, and personal faith release the powers of “the Force.” Ethnicity and ethnic memory become irrelevant. Attachment to roots is less important than attachment to the message. The drama of personal conversion replaces the quiet comfort of inherited status.
Of course, salvation religion, if adopted by tribes and nations, can turn into ancestral religion. What starts out as personal choice can turn into an ancestral legacy. What starts out as personal conviction becomes piety, an intense desire to imitate one’s ancestors. Most Christians today are not part of salvation religion. They are Catholic because they are Irish, Orthodox because they are Greek, Presbyterian because they are Scottish. Most Muslims today are Muslim for the same reason. Most Jews are Jewish, again for the same reason. Ancestral loyalty replaces supernatural salvation as the primary motive for connection.
Since the Enlightenment, most Jews have been ideologically divorced from the salvational message of traditional Rabbinic Judaism. They are not even aware of it. The resurrection of the dead and the final judgment day have no place in their world view. If they think of themselves as religious, it is not because they have firm convictions about the reality of magic power. They are Jews because their ancestors were Jews or because they married Jews. Their holidays and group symbols are not matters of personal choice, but inherited gifts, warmed by childhood memories and family nurturing. They are Jews because that is where “destiny” has placed them. With Buddhist parents, they would have been Buddhist. While their rabbis struggle to offer feeble proofs for the “superiority” of their faith, their faith has long since vanished. But their attachment to their roots remains strong.
If Judaism is viewed as a salvation religion, then Humanistic Judaism cannot be a religion. But if it is viewed as primarily an ancestral religion, then Humanistic Judaism is comfortably a religion. Humanistic Jews today are Jews for the same reason that most Jews today are Jews. Their “patriotism” is their religion.
For many “ancestral” Jews, magic power remains a minor theme in their attachment. For others it has disappeared entirely. For many “ancestral” Jews, loyalty to their ancestors is so intense that they are willing to repeat theological formulas and prayers they no longer believe in. For others, loyalty yields to personal integrity. They are unwilling to say what they do not believe.
Humanistic Judaism is a religion, but it is “less religious” than the more intense forms of ancestral religion. It refuses magic power. And it refuses to affirm what its adherents no longer believe.
Judaism, the historic culture of the Jewish people, is an ongoing legacy from the ancestral past. Our continued participation in that culture is often motivated by affection for our ancestors. Whether we personify them as “God” or view their creations as human, our sense of roots can be equally powerful.
The Latin word religio refers to the binding power of ancestral connection. Humanistic Jews are Jews because of that cultural and religious connection.