The Roots of Secular Humanistic Judaism

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June 1, 2000
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Sherwin T. Wine

Over the last two hundred years, many Jews have been alienated from the traditional religious establishment. Many of them created religious alternatives to Orthodoxy. The Reform, the Conservative, and the Reconstructionist movements are the result of their work. But there were also many alienated Jews who were not comfortable with any religious alternative. They felt intensely Jewish but found no meaning in prayer or in theistic philosophies of life. Even redefining theistic vocabulary did not engage their interest.

Like Reform and Conservative Jews, these secular Jews were the products of both the Enlightenment and the Emancipation. They valued reason, despised superstition, and were attracted to the idea of forging a “new” Jewish identity, one that was rooted in the experience and the culture of the past and one that reflected the beliefs and lifestyles of the present.

Many of these Jews were attracted to the message and passions of Jewish nationalism. Being Jewish by nationality and not by religion gave them a sense of authenticity and integrity. Both the Yiddishist and Zionist varieties provided a Jewish home for these lovers of Jewish identity. Out of their commitments came language, literature, music, art, dance, theater, and ethical idealism that were both Jewish and secular. Both the revival of Hebrew as a spoken popular language and the establishment of the State of Israel were their creations. In fact, the most successful Jewish movement of the 20th century was Zionism. The culture of that state became the staple of much of Jewish Diaspora education.

Attached to Jewish nationalism are hosts of great intellectuals and writers who are the fathers and mothers of Secular Humanistic Judaism. They include Simon Dubnow, Haim Zhitlovsky, Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Max Nordau, Micah Berdichevsky, and Joseph Brenner. They also include poets and storytellers like Shaul Tchernikhowsky, Rachel Bluwstein, Avraham Shlonsky, and Y.L. Peretz.

In the last two centuries the major Jewish figures in the world of universal culture have been unable to find a home in any religious Jewish movement. From Albert Einstein to Sigmund Freud, from Emile Durkheim to Erich Fromm, the Jewish “giants” of intellectual power have been openly secular in their beliefs and commitments. Secular Humanistic Judaism uses the legacy of their achievements and their discoveries. They have radically altered the way that those who are and are not Jewish see the universe and the human condition. Perhaps some of them would have found a happy connection with a Jewish movement that celebrated their beliefs.

From these movements and teachers, many communities and institutions have emerged that seek to serve a large population of cultural Jews. Both the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations on the North American scene and the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews on the world scene provide a home for this distinctive “fifth” alternative in Jewish life. While the Society features congregations and rabbis, the Congress prefers the more “traditional” secular format of schools and cultural associations. In each of our communities, the celebration of Jewish holidays, the teaching of Jewish languages, the study of Jewish history and literature, the presentation of a humanistic philosophy of life derived from the Jewish experience, and the mobilization for social action are ongoing activities.

Our movement is secular because its focus is on the pleasures and pains of this world. It is humanistic because it finds the source of power for solving problems in human beings and because it sees the meaning of Jewish history in the Jewish defiance of an unjust world. It is cultural because it views Judaism as the culture of the Jewish people. Our movement is part of the struggle for Jewish continuity and Jewish integrity.

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Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine is the founder of Humanistic Judaism and its flagship congregation, The Birmingham Temple, which he established in 1963. He also established the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which serves as a national outreach of the humanistic movement, and he helped to create the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews. Rabbi Wine is author of Humanistic Judaism, Judaism Beyond God, Celebration, and Staying Sane in a Crazy World.

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