Jewish humanism

Last month’s column cited Corliss Lamont’s book, The Philosophy of Humanism. This book was used by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism, while teaching a class I attended as a new congregant of Rabbi Wine’s Birmingham Temple.

This month I propose to explain Jewish Humanism in Rabbi Wine’s words written for the Introduction to his Guide to Humanistic Judaism, obtainable from the Society for Humanistic Judaism at www.shj.org, and received when one becomes a member of the Humanistic Jewish Havurah of Southwest Florida.

“Are we Humanistic Jews or Jewish humanists? That question appeared very early in our development and remains persistent. We have two powerful connections – one Jewish and the other humanistic. Which is primary? Or are they both of equal significance?

People who join our movement have minds of their own. They do not easily fit into formulas that we may choose to create. Most people who join want to find a way to live their lives Jewishly with integrity. Others who enter our movement enjoy Jewish culture but the message of humanism is what motivates them to stay. Both groups are legitimate parts of our movement.

Frequently, people who are members of humanist groups will challenge me. They want to know why our communities have this parochial interest in Jewish culture when they should be promoting a universal humanism. They claim that our Jewish loyalty diminishes or is incompatible with humanism.

From the beginning we have been Humanistic Jews, rooted in the history and culture of the Jewish people. Our humanism has always been enhanced by our Jewish connection, because the message of Jewish experience is that we cannot rely on the kindness of the fates. Most of us are humanists because the memories of Jewish history are ‘in our bones.’ The rabbinic establishment told us that we are the Chosen People. But our memories tell us that we are the victims of a cruel destiny. If the Jewish people survived, it was only because of human self-reliance, courage and cooperation. Our survival is a tribute to people power.

We are part of the Jewish world. Even when other Jews do not share our philosophy of life, they share our culture – and we share the social fate to which all Jews are subjected when society is in turmoil. Judaism has evolved over many centuries and provides us with roots and with a distinctive place in human culture.

Most cultures and religions accommodated different philosophies of life. Christianity, even though it did not begin as a nation, has roots in the Greco-Roman world, which embraced and molded its teachings. In many ways it has its own culture, independent of any specific ideology. In modern times, the battle over the Enlightenment has splintered the church into many ideological factions. Like Judaism, it has become a culture with great ideological diversity.

The main divide in religion today is between the humanists, who explicitly embrace the Enlightenment, and the fundamentalists, who reject it. In the middle lie the overwhelming majority of adherents who linger in the limbo of confusion and ambivalence, paying lip service to old creeds they have ceased to believe in and feeling apprehensive about change. Humanistic Christians find it easier to talk to Humanistic Jews than to fundamentalist Christians. Humanistic Jews find it easier to talk to Humanistic Christians than to converse with Orthodox Jews.

Most humanists who choose [religious] affiliation will be Humanistic Jews or Humanistic Christians or Humanistic Buddhists. Some will choose groups with strong ideologies but shallow cultural roots. Jewish humanists may be comfortable there. But we have chosen to be Humanistic Jews.”