Traditionally Judaism is defined as a set of theistic beliefs: belief in the existence of a supreme being who rules and regulates the universe, our planet and humanity.
But it would be a mistake to argue that Judaism equals the religious beliefs of Jews. First, because Jewish beliefs were and are different, even mutually contradictory; and second, because religion was and is just one aspect of Jewish existence. Today for many Jews it is not even that. Judaism, then, is everything that the Jewish people in their very long history have produced.
The close identification of religion with peoplehood began to wane with the rise of secularized nationalism during the Age of Enlightenment. Consciously or not, Jews increasingly ceased to observe their religious traditions and customs, and ceased to believe in a God who was concerned about whether they ate their salami with cheese.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, more and more Jews, particularly those living in western European countries who were urban, and were impacted by both the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason, began to alter their self-definition of what it meant to be Jewish. They equated Judaism not with religion, but with a culture, a way of life. The advent of socialism and then of Zionism added to the number of secular Jews.
Secular Jews come in different shapes and forms: nonreligious Zionists, nonreligious Yiddishists and those who don’t identify with either but are acculturated to the host society where they are quite at home with their culture yet also feel their Jewishness quite strongly and wish to identify with Jewish matters and causes. Secular Jews seek an interpretation of Jewish civilization that accords with their own preferences and beliefs.
Secular can be defined most simply as “nonreligious.” If you believe that the idea of a God is irrelevant to your life – either because you do not believe in a God, or because you think that even if a God exists, he (or she) is not the kind of being that controls the universe and your own life – then you are a secularist.
A humanist can be defined as someone who believes in the centrality, inviolability and the sacredness of human life and human integrity. There can be religious humanism because people who believe in a godhead may still see human life as inviolable and may view human integrity as a supreme value. However, if human life and human integrity are the central values, they must be independent of a God; otherwise it is God who is the central thing, not the human personality. The logic of humanism is not religious.
For secularists, then, humanism means that we believe there is no God out there to take the responsibility for our lives off our shoulders. The moral values propounded by the Jewish religion are not the result of divine intervention in human affairs, but were conceived and pronounced by humans much like ourselves. Our attitude toward ourselves and the world around us is one in which the human being is the center of our endeavors, in the sense that it is we ourselves who are responsible for our actions and welfare, for the welfare of others and, indeed, to whatever extent possible, for the welfare of the planet.
Secular humanistic Jews view Judaism as the evolving culture and civilization of a world people. It allows many interpretations of the Jewish experience. What unites Jews is an active identification with the history and fate of the Jewish people.
Compiled from the writings of Yehuda Bauer as they appear in the introduction of Judaism in a Secular Age (Milan Press 1995)