So You Want to be a Secular Humanist Jew Essayist

Bennett Muraskin defines the progressive Secular Jewish Movement. Reprinted from Jewish Currents.

For most of the older generation, Jewish secularism needs no explanation. It flows directly from their Yiddish immigrant background and their experience as progressives. However, this will not suffice for many English-speaking, mainly middle-class North American Jews, their children and grandchildren. If we begin with the premise that Judaism is a culture as well as a religion, it becomes clear that Judaism can be approached from a non-theistic or secular perspective. The humanistic component consists of the conviction that human beings can shape the world without divine power or sacred texts, and have the moral obligation to promote universal human rights. One need go no further than Hillel's dictums -"What is hateful to you, do not do to others.....In a place where there are no men [translation: decent human beings], you strive to be a man.....If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am not for others, what am I? If not now, when?"- for classic statements of the humanist ideal. The term "secular humanistic Judaism" best encompasses these principles. Pluralism is another key principle of secular humanistic Judaism. There never has been one "true" way to be Jewish. Judaism has been reinvented many times by priests, rabbis, mystics and rationalists to meet the needs of changing times. It has been most creative when it adapted elements of other cultures, as in Babylonia, or during the Hellenistic period, the Spanish/Islamic period, the Italian Renaissance and, of course, in the modern era.

Secular humanistic Jews believe that we need positive reasons to remain Jewish that are rooted in our experience as an urban, educated, international people committed to democratic values, who will invariably remain small minorities within non-Jewish societies. This means that neither Torah, anti-Semitism, Holocaust remembrance nor Israel is the basis of our Jewishness. As secular humanistic Jews, we are not afraid of an open society. In fact, we welcome it because it creates new opportunities for change and innovation.

We see the Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah as pivotal in Jewish history, precisely because it liberated us from Jewish Law and superstition, thus enabling us to participate in modern society. Our "founding fathers," Chaim Zhitlovsky, Simon Dubnow and Ahad Ha'am, were products as well as shapers of the Haskalah. Although they differed on the primacy of Yiddish vs. Hebrew and Diaspora Nationalism (the view that Jews should constitute legally recognized national minorities exercising with cultural autonomy within their home countries) vs. Zionism, they all stressed the concept of Jewish peoplehood and the need to create a secular Jewish culture as the key to the Jewish future.

How did these ideas come to fruition.? Revolutionary movements arose among Jewish workers that sought to combine Jewish cultural affirmation with modern concepts of socialism and nationalism. Jewish writers created a vibrant literature in Yiddish and Hebrew. Jewish intellectuals sought alternatives to both religion and assimilation. From these streams, explicitly secular Jewish movements, such as the Jewish Labor Bund and Labor Zionism, emerged in Eastern Europe. With mass immigration, they spread to North America, where Jewish socialists, communists, Zionists, anarchists and others disseminated secular Yiddishkayt through an impressive array of institutions. Although they often sharply disagreed on political questions, they shared the overriding goal of creating a secular alternative in Jewish life.

But enough of history. Yiddish as a spoken language, no longer has mass appeal. Our devotion to Yiddish has remained, but it is now focused on Yiddish songs and reading Yiddish literature in English translation. Social activism, in the broad sense, remains an important part of our philosophy, but that is not what attracts most people to our movement. We are concerned with the welfare of Israel, but consider it inappropriate to make Israel the center of our identity. What our members want is a place for their children and grandchildren to receive a secular Jewish education and for them to learn about Jewish culture and celebrate Jewish holidays and life-cycle events in a secular humanistic spirit. In some cases, this has required a substitution of Hebrew for Yiddish in the language curriculum, due to the perception that the former is more of a living language. Holidays previously shunned or ignored by secular Jews, such as Rosh Hashonah, Yom Kippur, Tu B'Shevat and Shevuos are celebrated. Numerous Shabbes/Shabbat programs have been developed. Certified leaders in our movement perform weddings and baby-naming ceremonies and preside at funerals. Annual conferences define the organizational direction of the movement and periodic colloquia explore its intellectual development.

All of this is done without invocation of God or prayer. This requires careful effort to capture the humanistic essence of the Jewish experience while retaining its Jewish character. For example, Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur have been reinterpreted as marking a period of self-reflection and renewed commitment to improved personal relationships and tikkun olam. Tu B'Shevat becomes a day to focus on environmental issues. Shevuous can be used to welcome intermarried families into our community. Even holidays always celebrated by secular Jews are approached in a new way. Chanukah is recognized both as a story of Jewish heroism in a just cause, and as a lesson in the abuse of Jewish power and the evils of Jewish intolerance.

What Jews with religious affiliations find strange about our movement is our refusal to rely on the Torah as our fundamental text. It is treated not as sacred, but as great Jewish literature and an integral part of our culture that we should study, even if we do not accept its authoritarian and ethnocentric premises.

However, there are books of the Bible that we do embrace. The Book of Ruth, for example, has an enlightened attitude toward intermarriage and demonstrates the Jewish principle of providing for the poor. The Book of Jonah shows an exemplary respect for the humanity of Gentiles. The Book of Job teaches the importance of challenging injustice, whatever its source, and Ecclesiastes displays a healthy skepticism toward prevailing dogmas. We admire the Song of Songs because it is beautiful love poetry that acknowledges that men and women are equally sexual. Some secular humanistic Jews derive their commitment to peace and social justice from the Prophets, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos and Micah.

Within post-Biblical traditional Jewish literature, we find inspiration in many of the humanistic aphorisms in Pirkey Avos (Sayings of the Fathers), a tractate of the Mishna, and in many of the folk stories and legends found in the Aggadah (the non-legalistic portion of the Talmud) and in Midrash (imaginative rabbinic interpretations of the Bible). We are inheritors of the Jewish tradition of arguing with God, which Sholem Aleichem captured when he created the Tevye character. We are also proud to identify with Jewish apikorsim (free thinkers) through the ages, from Elisha ben Abuyah and Baruch Spinoza to Itsik Manger and Sherwin Wine. They represent an anti-establishment current in Jewish life that we seek to continue.

Secular humanistic Judaism is a viable alternative in North American Jewish life. It offers non-religious Jews committed to secular humanism the opportunity to integrate their Jewish identity with their personal convictions. It is the only movement in Jewish life that accepts intermarried, or, as we say, "intercultural" couples and families without reservation. Our emphasis on the cultural element in Jewish life makes us inclusive rather than exclusive. Although it was Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, who said that "tradition has a vote, not a veto," it is secular humanistic Judaism that lives up to his words. Secular humanistic Judaism is a young and growing movement that looks forward to the challenge of being Jewish in the next century. We invites all secular-minded Jews to join us.

For further reading, I suggest Judaism Beyond God by Sherwin Wine, Judaism: Myth, Legend, History and Custom from the Religious to the Secular by Abraham Arnold, Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Jewish Secular Humanistic Thought edited by Zev Katz and Renee Kogel, and Festivals, Folklore and Philosophy: A Secularist Revisits Jewish Traditions by Max Rosenfeld. These books are available from the executive director of CSJO (address on p.2). I also recommend a new book, written by Mitchell Silver, an educator working with both the Boston branch of the Workmen's Circle and with Camp Kinderland, Respecting the Wicked Child-A Philosophy of Secular Jewish Identity and Education, University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, available from major bookstores.