One of the fundamental questions asked and answered by all religions and philosophies is: “Where does ultimate authority over the individual person reside?” The distinctively humanistic answer is that ultimate authority resides in the individual person. Although one may delegate power to properly structured secular or religious functionaries, no external power – religious or secular, human or divine – may legitimately usurp that authority.
One of the most prominent characteristics of Jewish history is the vulnerability of Jews, in all times and places, at the hands of authority. Lacking political sovereignty, living typically as a minority within larger societies, and dispersed among the nations of the world, Jews found that to be Jewish meant to be subject to the favor or hostility of external power. Repeatedly, they learned a painful lesson: Do not trust your fortune to authority. At one moment, it might promise safety and prosperity; in the next it might deliver violence and destruction. While sacred texts taught that divine authority is benevolent and reliable, daily experience demonstrated that authority (whether divine or secular) was fickle, dangerous and, ultimately, deadly.
Thus, humanism and Jewish experience confirm one another. Both demonstrate that 1) there is no authority in the universe, human or divine, that may rightfully impose its power on human beings; and 2) every person owns himself or herself and possesses the right to determine the purpose and course of his or her life.
An essential value of Humanistic Judaism is freedom, which follows directly from the humanistic principle of self-ownership. In the absence of belief in an authority who created human beings and who, therefore, has the right and the power to determine what they must be and do, and in the absence of an authoritative document (such as a sacred text) that lists people’s duties and responsibilities, each person is free to set the purpose and course of his or her own life.
Freedom is a prerequisite to exercise one’s rational faculty. Human beings cannot be forced to think, nor can the results of thinking be coerced. Reason demands freedom.
The limits of freedom are defined by the equivalent liberty possessed inherently by all human beings. One’s freedom to act ends when it impedes that of others.
Humanistic Jews embrace a wide range of ethical perspectives and moral philosophies: from libertarian to utilitarian, from individualist to communitarian.
The central ethical message of libertarian humanism is: You are responsible for yourself, including the immediate and long-range consequences of your freely chosen behavior upon yourself and others.
Utilitarian or communitarian humanists agree that personal autonomy is important, but of equal or greater importance is the development and use of one’s talents for the benefit of oneself and others, i.e., the importance of the survival of the human community to which all individuals belong.
While the conclusions reached by one Humanistic Jew may differ from those reached by others, all are committed to rational, free inquiry as the most effective and appropriate means for the discovery of ethical truth.
For Humanistic Jews, reason is the best method for the discovery of truth.
Reason is a tool for solving problems. Problems are a function of the human desires for survival and happiness. The desires for survival and happiness are tied up with the powerful emotions of fear, anger, love and guilt.
Reason, by appealing to the observed consequences of behavior, helps to create a proper balance among these emotions. Rational people never become hostage to any single emotion. The use of reason, a distinctively human capacity, enables human beings to be most fully human.