What is Humanistic Judaism?
Humanistic Judaism is a movement that combines attachment to Jewish identity and culture with a human centered approach to life based upon the principles of modern secular Humanism. Our attachment to Jewish identity and culture is guided by our understanding of Judaism as the historical and cultural experience of the Jewish people. Our exercise of Humanistic values arises from our belief that people live their lives independent of supernatural authority, responsible for themselves and their behavior.
Is Humanistic Judaism a religion?
When most people think about religion, what usually comes to mind are worship and other demonstrations of a relationship with God. Yet, according to at least some dictionary definitions, a religion is any set of beliefs to which people hold fast. Using that definition, one might reasonably describe Humanistic Judaism as a religion. No matter how we define Humanistic Judaism, the movement recognizes the significance of many of religious Judaism’s forms and functions. We value community, so we maintain congregations. We believe in passing along our values and culture, so we maintain educational programs for youth and adults. We feel drawn to gather for holidays and Shabbats, so we organize services. And we believe in the power of commemorating life’s precious moments, so we mark the life cycle.
Without God how can there be ethics?
The foundation of ethics is human dignity, human survival and human happiness. The foundation of ethics is not God, nor does faith in God or some other kind of supernatural or ancient source of authority guarantee ethical behavior. Humanists do not judge people by what they believe. Humanists judge people based on their behavior, which we consider to be the truest reflection of a person’s deepest commitments.
Any honest consideration of human nature reveals that some people with faith in God behave admirably while others do not. Another significant argument against the necessity of God for ethical decision making can be found in the fact that many people of faith fiercely disagree about the requirements of God.
How can you be Jewish if you don’t believe in God?
Even those who tend to relate to Judaism as a religion are aware that there are many more dimensions to being Jewish. Throughout history Jewish identity has meant different things to different people. The variety of ways of understanding Jewishness has included national, religious and cultural dimensions. Many Jews see it in terms of “peoplehood.” Each of these has precedents and proponents. What many Jews generally agree upon is that being Jewish is a consequence of either ancestry or choice. For Humanistic Jews, Jewishness is not a function of belief, but of identification, connection and loyalty.
If you don’t pray, what do you do?
Our services and ceremonies draw from Jewish culture and history and also frequently reflect upon Humanistic values. We use music, poetry and prose to express these sentiments. At The Birmingham Temple, our services include Jewish and secular songs in English, Hebrew and Yiddish. Our readings—in English—promote reflection about a wide variety of themes.
Isn't all Judaism humanistic?
Humanism is a word with many different meanings and a labyrinthine history.
The Renaissance saw the birth of a type of humanism that began to focus religious and other institutions on human needs.
In the modern era
a new kind of humanism emerged called Secular Humanism. This approach rejected supernatural sources of authority, placing the sole responsibility for human thriving in human hands. Humanistic Judaism adheres to this formulation of Humanism (often capitalized to distinguish it from other forms).
Sometimes Humanistic Judaism is described as a kind of
religious humanism, taken to mean the combination of religious ritual with Humanistic ethics. This is an accurate description. However, there are many theists who have appropriated that term to describe what they do. This has sown even more confusion. For some, the term
"Congregational Humanism" best describes what we do.
Further confusion arises when people misunderstand the word to mean “humane” or “humanitarian.” These are laudable, but they are not identical with the Humanism associated with a non-supernatural, human-centered approach to life.
If you are Humanists why bother with Judaism at all?
It is true that Humanism is a universalistic value system, but it does not require any person to abandon deeply held attachments to family and heritage. Most people desire a connection to some kind of cultural roots, whether that means their family’s traditions or something that they come to on their own. Our Jewish culture encompasses many things - from our history to our holiday calendar to the way we mark life’s important transitions. Our Jewish culture also consists of our music, literature, arts and other pursuits that enrich our lives.
Why are you a separate movement in Judaism?
There are certainly other movements in Judaism which share many of our commitments. Nevertheless, we do have important philosophical differences. The Reform and Conservative movements, for example, usually ascribe their values to a special relationship between God and the Jews as expressed through the Torah (understood to include the entire corpus of Jewish literature).
Humanistic Judaism has great regard for Jewish culture, including our literature, but does not view Torah as an indispensable source of wisdom or values. We believe that people can create meaningful and ethical lives by applying reason together with the discoveries of science and human experience.
We appreciate the fact that many members of other Jewish movements agree with us about significant issues. However, we feel strongly that the Humanistic basis for our commitments should be on full display in all of our Jewish ceremonies, celebrations and commemorations. This is an expression of our regard for the value of “saying what we mean and meaning what we say.” In practice, it guides us to use human-centered, non-theistic language when we gather for Shabbat, holidays and life cycle events. This is one way of honoring the principle of integrity and it is fundamental to our identity as Humanistic Jews.
Why do you have rabbis if you're not religious in a traditional sense?
In contemporary Judaism a rabbi is someone who is knowledgeable about Jewish history and ceremony and trained to provide philosophical guidance. Our rabbis perform many of the same duties as rabbis at any other Jewish congregation, including teaching, leading our services, visiting the sick and conducting life cycle ceremonies.
We choose to continue the use of the title “rabbi” for several reasons. Among these is the fact that this is the accepted Jewish title for the type of leadership our rabbis provide. And even among traditional Jews the title of “rabbi” often denotes an educator.
Humanistic rabbis who currently serve in the movement have received ordination from a recognized rabbinical program, many of them from the movement's own seminary, the
International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The rabbi of The Birmingham Temple received rabbinical ordination at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Humanistic rabbis also maintain a professional organization, the
Association of Humanistic Rabbis.
Isn’t intermarriage contributing to the demise of Judaism?
Intermarriage continues to be a source of great controversy in the Jewish community. Traditional Jews reject it on religious and ethnocentric grounds. The reality is that intermarriage is actually a very positive development in Jewish history. It signals an acceptance of the Jews that was virtually unheard of in previous eras.
Humanistic Judaism was among the first to articulate this now common understanding of this positive phenomenon and to enthusiastically welcome intermarried couples into full participation in our communities. Our rabbis happily perform or co-officiate at inter-cultural wedding ceremonies. We believe that if the Jewish community provides a warm embrace to anyone who expresses interest in engaging with Jewish life, we will discover that intermarriage will actually help to preserve and expand our community.
Isn’t the Jewish religion / Orthodox Judaism / Torah really responsible for the survival of the Jewish people?
Judaism has never been a monolithic community. Moreover, the continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people is not the consequence of adherence to one way of being Jewish.
From the early days of the biblical Israelites straight through to modern times, Jews and their ancestors have preserved a group identity because of their willingness to adapt to new circumstances. Though this way of viewing Jewish history is often denied in more traditional quarters, it is the view that is endorsed by historians.
It is true that Jews have preserved many customs, some of them for thousands of years. It is equally true that even a very traditional Jew of the 21st century would barely recognize the Judaism of 2,000 or more years ago. And a Jew from ages past would be baffled by the varieties of Jewish possibilities in our modern age. This ability to evolve and adapt is what has preserved Jews and their various forms of Judaism for so many years.
How widespread is Humanistic Judaism?
The Birmingham Temple is a member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ)which serves communities throughout North America and has its headquarters in our building.
Humanistic Judaism has congregations and groups throughout the U.S., and in more than a dozen countries including Canada, Israel, England, Australia and Russia. There are more than 30,000 Humanistic Jews worldwide who identify with our Movement. In 2000 the Jewish Federations of North American (then known as United Jewish Communities) recognized the movement as a fifth stream in Judaism alongside Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.
How do I join The Birmingham Temple?
Committing to membership in our congregation is an important, often complex decision. A personal discussion with Rabbi Falick will help answer your questions. You can contact him at 248.477.1410 or link to the "Contact" form on our Home Page.
Why call what you do Judaism?
Judaism is the evolving culture and civilization of the Jewish people. There is no single way to be Jewish. Anything that Jews do which draws upon and connects them to their Jewish heritage can reasonably be called Judaism. Humanistic Jews draw upon our heritage in many ways. We celebrate the Jewish holidays and life cycle. We study Jewish texts and history. We participate in the wide range of secular Jewish culture that takes place in every Jewish community. Just as significantly, we highly value our involvement with the greater Jewish community which is made possible by the commitment that we share with many other Jews to Jewish pluralism.
Can someone convert to Humanistic Judaism?
We define a Jew as someone who identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jewish people. In practice this means that anyone who desires to join our community is welcomed into full participation at The Birmingham Temple. This viewpoint is consistent with our Humanistic value system and with our understandings about the nature of Judaism.
Additionally, participation in our community in no way compels people to choose between their family’s heritage and identity and belonging to our Humanistic Jewish community. People can and do feel simultaneous attachments to a variety of cultural groups and practices.
Though Humanistic Jews do not generally employ the term "conversion," at The Birmingham Temple we offer the option of ceremonies of affirmation for those who find it meaningful. Please see the discussion of “Who is a Jew” on the page about “Our Beliefs.”