A Humanist’s view of Jewish identity

Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism and the Birmingham Temple in Michigan, was my rabbi until his untimely death in the summer of 2007. He left a prodigious legacy, not only founding the first Humanistic Jewish congregation, but also the Society for Humanistic Judaism, our national organization, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, the body charged with training our leaders, including our Humanistic Jewish rabbis, as well as many secular Jewish coalitions. Additionally, he was an influential member of the American Humanists Association, receiving its prestigious Humanist of the Year award.

This month I turn to Rabbi Wine’s writings in the Guide to Humanistic Judaism, a publication distributed to every new member of the Humanistic Jewish Havurah. This book provides a wealth of information about our movement that many describe as the fifth branch of Judaism. If you are moved by Wine’s words as they appear below, know that membership in the Humanistic Jewish Havurah of Southwest Florida is an experience you will find to be a fulfilling expression of your own individual Jewish identity.

Rabbi Wine wrote:

“It might be presumed that after three thousand years of Jewish existence, it should be possible to describe precisely what the Jews are. However, due to the singular character of Jewish history, a clear accurate definition of Jewish identity is exceedingly difficult to formulate. The dispersion of the Jews among other nations throughout most of their existence, their participation in widely diverse cultures, and the lack of a unifying religious commitment shared by all Jews make it impossible to define the Jews except as a unique people; a transnational, transcultural, transreligious, yet identifiable people.

Being Jewish is a social, psychological and historical identity. The large number of Jewish secularists, atheists, agnostics and otherwise unaffiliated Jews belies the popular assumption that Jews constitute a religious community. Jews are united, not by theological conviction, but by social identification (with ethnic overtones) and ancestral roots. Jews are free to believe whatever they wish. Membership in the Jewish people via birth or choice, rather than religious commitment, gives them their Jewish identity. There are Jews who believe in God, many who do not, and some who are unsure. All are equally Jewish insofar as they affirm their connection to the community of persons known as Jews.

More basic than Jews’ beliefs and more significant than their politics or ethnics is their history. Jews share a sense of participating in a historical continuum that reaches back to biblical times. One may be born into the Jewish continuum or one may choose to participate in it. In either case, Jewishness is not a religious or ideological identity. Nor is it a national or racial identity. It is a historical identity. Jews are an evolving historical people.

Jewish identity is pluralistic. Given the complex nature of the Jewish historical experience and the many and contradictory beliefs and commitments that Jews have accepted over the centuries, the meaning and significance of Jewish identity depend upon the perspective of the individual Jew. A person’s desire to identify himself or herself as a Jew – to identify with the Jewish people, its history and future – is sufficient reason for membership in the Jewish community.

The growth and development of Humanistic Jewish communities enrich the life of the wider Jewish community. Humanistic Jewish communities reach out and attract many unaffiliated, uncommitted and unconnected Jews, promoting pluralism and Jewish survival.”

The Humanistic Jewish Havurah offers a unique combination of adherence to universal Humanistic ideals coupled strongly with recognition of the value of our Jewish culture. Please join us.