Humanistic Judaism and tradition

For many Jews, Judaism is identified with the literature of the Bible, the Talmud and the Siddur.

Despite its fame and antiquity, this official literature of traditional Judaism is inappropriate as an ideological basis of humanistic Judaism. Humanistic Judaism does not seek to legitimize its norms and recommend behavior by finding proof texts in the Torah and the Talmud. In trying to determine the place of traditional literature in a humanistic approach to Jewish identity, we need to affirm certain realities.

Jewish identity does not depend on using the tradition. Jewishness is an ethnic identity, not an ideological one. No adherence to any ideas or documents makes a Jew a Jew. A Jew who does not believe in the value and truth of the Torah is equally as Jewish as one who does.

The endorsement of the past is unnecessary. We do not have to agree with our ancestors to have ideas that are valid and Jewishly significant.

The people of the past are entitled to their integrity. The literature of the past is more interesting if we allow the authors of the past to say what they think than if we force them to say what we think. An ethical approach to textual criticism allows people to mean what they say, even if their ideas are embarrassing. The language of tradition is not obscure. It is refreshingly plain and direct. We have a moral obligation to respect that directness.

God is not removable from traditional literature. The authors of the Bible, the Talmud and the Siddur had a deep belief in a supernatural father-figure who governs the world with justice. To the authors of tradition, the worship of God was supremely important. Modern Jews who are uncomfortable with this intense conviction should face up to it when they deal with traditional texts. The distinction between ritual and ethics did not exist. Ceremony guaranteed the life of the community.

Traditional ideas vary from period to period. The official literature of our tradition includes documents from four periods in Jewish history: the tribal, the royal, the priestly and the rabbinic. In each period the prevailing ideas of the ruling elite were distinctly different from those that came before and after. Kings did not agree with priests; and priests did not agree with rabbis. There has been continuous change of beliefs throughout Jewish history. A static view of the tradition is a distortion.

There are many motivations for ethical behavior. The major motivation for good behavior in the Bible and the Talmud is the authority of God and the rewards and punishments He administers. But that does not mean that divine favor was the only motivation. Many of the moral ideals in traditional literature, which we find ethically acceptable because they conform to our conscience and our reason, were also reasonable when they were first enunciated.

What really happened is as much tradition as what the authorities of the past thought happened. The Torah was written over a period of five hundred years by different authors. Jewish life was molded not only by what people thought happened but also by what really happened. Living before an official Torah was an important part of the ancient Jewish experience and in no way diminished Jewish identity. It provided for a richness of options that could never be fully suppressed.

The tradition is morally uneven. Humanistic Jews neither love nor hate “the tradition.” They love some, like some, deplore some of it, and view the rest with historic interest.

We must neither revere tradition nor ignore it. We must understand it and use it carefully.

From an article by Rabbi Sherwin Wine published in Humanistic Judaism Autumn, 1987, Vol. XV, No. IV, pp. 8-10.