Frequently Asked Questions
These "Frequently Asked Questions" (and answers) for Secular Humanistic Judaism were compiled by Dennis Geller, a graduate of the IISHJ Leadership Program. They address major areas of our personal philosophy and our approach to Jewish life. If you are interested in reading more about our philosophy, visit our Resources pages or explore our Publications.
Frequently Asked Questions About Secular Humanistic Judaism
What is Secular Humanistic Judaism?
- 1. How can you make up a new kind of Judaism?
Secularism and Humanism are both very old philosophies. Each has a long association with Judaism. Humanistic Judaism got its formal start when Rabbi Sherwin Wine recognized how Secularism and Humanism provided modern Jews with a way to retain their Jewish heritage. He articulated these concepts and brought them together into a viable movement called the Society for Humanistic Judaism. However, other rabbis had worked along the same lines; many continue to contribute to Humanistic Judaism, and some teach similar ideas in unaffiliated synagogues.
- 2. Do you or do you not believe in God?
We focus on the capabilities and responsibilities of human beings to help each other and to make the world a better place. Belief or disbelief in a god is not part of our philosophy, because we have no reason to believe that supernatural influences affect our daily lives or direct history. If there were a deity, many of us believe, events such as the Holocaust would teach us that we have no guides to understand or affect what such a deity might want from us. So, even if there were a deity, we think our best strategy would be to determine what behaviors make for a better world and act accordingly.
- 3. What role does faith play in your system?
Faith in the sense of "trust," is something we experience every day. We have a strong faith in human power, reason, and dignity. We trust human beings to improve our world, because experience has shown us that such trust is often merited. This is "rational faith." Faith in the sense of believing something for which there is no evidence is called, even by its adherents, "irrational faith." Most of us have not found this kind of "faith" to be meaningful, and it is not a part of Secular Humanistic Judaism.
- 4. Is Secular Humanistic Judaism a religion?
Most people think of religion as involving a god, and in that sense the answer would be no. However, many other people think of a religion as a community-based system in which people share beliefs and traditions, and join together for ceremonial observances of the events of their lives. Some of us, who grew up in other branches of Judaism or in other religions, feel that Secular Humanistic Judaism serves similar needs and like to think of it as a religion. Others, whose roots and traditions were secular, don't find the notion of a religion particularly helpful. What we do depends on our beliefs and traditions, and not on any labels we might use.
- 5. Why do people call you non-believers?
People who have not taken the time to study our philosophy come to conclusions based only on narrow meanings words like "belief" and "faith." These words do have great meanings for us. We are, in fact, powerful believers, but our belief is in the ability and moral responsibility of human beings to decide what is necessary to make a better society and to act based on those decisions.
- 6. Why be a Secular Humanistic Jew? Isn't there too much separateness already?
There has never been just one form of Judaism. It is the very diversity of Jewish thought that has kept it vital, in step with the times, and relevant to each age. Humanistic Judaism is a modern way to express Judaism, as valid in our times as the priestly and Rabbinic firms of the religion were in theirs. Today there are already many different forms of Judaism, each based on a particular view of philosophy and history and the meaning of Jewish traditions. Our philosophical roots include the same ones that gave rise to the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Movements. Like Secular Humanistic Judaism, each of these movements began with an attempt to reconcile centuries-old traditions with the new thinking and ways of living that began with the European Enlightenment; each developed its own notion of the value of traditions and the meaning of Jewish identity. In our case, Enlightenment thinking taught us to seek evidence as the basis of belief, even in the case of belief in a deity. Because of lack of evidence, we find that belief in a deity is not an important aspect of how we choose to live moral lives, and we found that it is not necessary to be restricted to expressing our Jewish identity through worship of such a deity. Secular Humanistic Judaism is the one way that we can remain Jews, be true to our own beliefs, and contribute actively to the Jewish experience and to Jewish Survival.
- 7. How are you related to the "rest of Judaism"?
Humanistic Judaism evolved, as did Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reformism, and Reconstructionism, from the clash between medieval Judaism and modern philosophy. As a response to the secular revolution and the Western European Enlightenment, which started about 400 years ago, Jewish thinkers developed four alternative ways of looking at Jewish history, Jewish life and Jewish identity. Each alternative responded to the philosophy of reason and scientific inquiry, to the political changes that led to increasing freedom for individuals, and to the development of democracies. The first, the rejectionist response, we call Orthodoxy. Conservatism, Reformism and Reconstructionism represent the second, ambivalent response. The third, total assimilation, has resulted in people losing all connection to their Jewish identity. The fourth response is what we call Humanistic Judaism. For more on these "four alternatives," see Sherwin Wine, Judaism Beyond God.
- 8. Most Jews do charitable acts. What makes Secular Humanistic Jews any different?
People often confuse Humanism and humanitarianism. Humanitarians are people to take specific actions for the good of others, and we honor all such people, whatever their beliefs. Humanists also involve themselves with humanitarian endeavors, and most Humanists do social activism as a matter of choice and conscience. But Humanism is a specific philosophy, not an activity.
- 9. Aren't you really part of the Reform movement?
Reform is a theistic movement; its services worship a Jewish god. We are non-theist and do not use prayers to a supernatural deity in our celebrations. The Reform movement is an ambivalent response to the secular revolution (see #7 above). Reform Jews believe that the Jewish people have two missions: to tell the world that there is one god and to be an ethical role model to other people. The Reform movement at its outset also did away with many of the symbols of Jewish identity, to make their religious practice seem more like that of their German neighbors, though many of these have recently been reintroduced into Reform practice. Humanistic Jews do not begin with an older form of Jewish religion and try to tweak it to make it more modern. We begin with the modern philosophies of the Enlightenment and integrate our love of Jewish traditions and history.
- 10. What do you do about holidays and life cycles?
Humanistic Jews have the same life-cycle events that our ancestors had. We share the same experiences. Our expressions of those experiences, however, are drawn from the best of all the traditions that the Jewish people have developed through three thousand years and hundreds of Diaspora and Israeli localities. We approach life-cycle events by emphasizing personal autonomy and a naturalist perspective.
- 11. Would I be allowed to wear a kippah (tallis, tefillin) at your service?
Humanistic Jews respect other points of view. We emphasize personal autonomy and the right to choose our lifestyle so long as we do not harm other people. We do not dictate rules and regulations to which others adhere. If wearing certain traditional garb brings comfort or linkage or nostalgia in some way, we do not tell people that they cannot surround themselves with those familiar objects. You might want to know the background to the articles you wear and decide if the message is one you that wish to reflect, and we could help you look into this.
God and Faith
- 12. Can life have profound meaning without God?
Our understanding of the meaning of life is based on philosophies that have, over the ages, bettered individual lives and the state of the world. Rabbi Hillel said "If l am not for myself, who will be? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" We find similar messages throughout Jewish history (and in other traditions as well). More recently, Rabbi Sherwin Wine addressed the meaning of life this way: 1) You pursue your personal happiness; whether or not you achieve it, you go after it. 2) You must do good for your community, nation or humanity as a whole. 3) You must give back. The life experiences of the Jewish people, and their writings—from the Torah through Phillip Roth—all contain teachings about the meaning of life.
- 13. Do you believe that there is life after death?
Humanistic Judaism focuses on life before death, as do most of the other denominations of Judaism. Historically, notions of life after death are mostly post-Biblical additions to Judaism, and have generally been secondary aspects in Jewish life and practice, even though reference to resurrection and a "world to come" are key elements of traditional liturgy. We understand the comments of many great Jewish thinkers, like those of the Rabbis we mentioned above, to mean that we should live "here and now" on this earth and in our own time, making our best efforts to leave a better world to those who follow us.
- 14. Is it possible to be spiritual when one is a Secular Humanist?
Spirituality is about our feelings of connection to the world and to other people, feelings that celebrate overwhelming beauty and vitality. Humanistic Judaism espouses natural spirituality as opposed to supernatural spirituality. Our ways of celebrating the Jewish calendar, of commemorating life cycle events, and studying the history of the Jewish people all express our belief in human potential and affirm our spirituality.
- 15. If there is no God then who made this infinitely complex universe?
We now have scientific answers to many of the questions concerning this complex universe that we didn't have as recently as 100 years ago. We have evidence concerning laws of nature that were previously credited to gods and spirits. The future will bring additional answers, although it may not answer questions about the ultimate origin of everything. Whatever happened at the beginning—the cause of the Big Bang, the origin of the energy that fueled it—is a supernatural question that we can't answer today. It is impossible to prove or deny theories about it. Whether our universe has an origin in a previous one, in a supernatural being, or whether it has no origin at all are all are fascinating questions to speculate about. But these questions have no practical relevance to our lives or our moral responsibilities.
- 16. Is Judaism a religion?
It might be useful to distinguish between Judaism, meaning a religion, and Jewishness, meaning a people—a kinship and a culture made up of history, literature, language, music, ceremonies, rituals and perceptions. But, in truth, the outside world does not recognize this difference, any more than it recognizes the differences between the forms of Rabbinic Judaism (Hasidism, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc.). So it is true to say that Judaism is a religion, but it is truer to say that there are many Jewish religions, and many non-religious ways to be Jewish.
- 17. Can you be Jewish if you don't believe in God?
Belief in a god has never been a requirement for being Jewish. In communities that were tied together by religious practice, belief in a god was naturally assumed. But Jews no longer live in those communities and are free, as was largely true until the Middle Ages, to define their own degree of belief.
- 18. Belief in God is a support system that is important to many people. Is it right to take it away?
Humanistic Judaism is not for everyone. Some do believe in an outside force, a god, who will protect and respond to their prayers. Humanistic Judaism is for those people who feel the need for a system of belief that does not rely on supernatural intervention as an answer to life's challenges. We respect the beliefs and choices of others, and ask for the same.
Ethics and Philosophy
- 19. How can you have ethics without God?
Ethics are principles of right or good conduct and inform the specific moral choices made by individuals. We believe that these are not supernatural or divinely ordained behaviors; they are unrelated to any gods. Ethics and moral values are human constructs that shape our behavior. Humanists formulate and evaluate moral principles on the basis of their contribution to improving individual lives and to furthering the progress of humanity. These notions are explained further in the Humanist Manifesto III, which states:
Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.
- 20. If there is no reward and punishment in the afterlife, then won't people feel free to do anything? The notion of reward and punishment has been around for millennia and has not stopped people from committing dastardly acts against others. People who believe in an afterlife have committed terrible crimes against others who share that belief. Believers who expected to be rewarded for their deeds have justified tragedies from the Crusades to 9/11. Of course, believers have also contributed enormously to civilization and to the betterment of others. Humanistic Jews conclude that belief in an afterlife of reward or punishment cannot be trusted to improve our lot on Earth. Therefore, Humanistic Jews join with all those who apply their energies to creating a better world in this life for all people.
- 21. Why should I be good if I will not be rewarded or punished?
Humanistic Jews look at experiences in terms of consequences and the satisfaction of basic human needs: survival, pleasure and dignity. You will be punished or rewarded by the results of your behavior on those influenced by your actions.
- 22. If rules are not absolute, who will decide the exceptions?
Rules are simply guides. Throughout (Jewish) history rules once considered to be absolute have been revised and reinterpreted on the basis of experience and changing conditions; these rules have always been tempered by reason and sensitivity. We say that you have a moral obligation to discipline yourself, your body and your mind to realize the potential that will give you increasing mastery over yourself and over your environment. Today's rules are exceptions to rules of the past that became irrelevant or unworkable and were changed in ways that led to increased freedom and dignity for more and more people. When rules are not considered absolute, it is possible for mistakes to be made, but we find from history that mistakes are usually corrected—and that worse mistakes are made when rules are considered absolute.
- 23. Is enlightened self-interest a good foundation for ethics?
Yes. An "enlightened" self-interest is one that calls for pursuit of happiness, supporting the basic rights and the dignity of all individuals. This is as good a guide to behavior as has ever been found—and it has been found and applied repeatedly in Jewish and other traditions.
- 24. What difference does it make what you believe when it's action that counts?
We think that it is an important aspect of our self-respect and dignity to be true to our beliefs. People of faith have often performed great and noble actions that improve the lives of people, as have Humanists and others whose actions were not motivated by supernatural beliefs. All people should have the opportunity to act well in ways that are consistent with their beliefs.
- 25. How can we believe in people after all the terrible things that people do?
Human beings are capable of choosing between right and wrong; they also have the capacity to differentiate between the two. History has provided sufficient lessons about how to choose wisely. It is our task to learn and teach those lessons. As it is written "And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up"—traditionally applied to faith, in our case applied to ethics.
- 26. How can we believe in science after all the terrible things that science has done?
Science is a study undertaken by people. "Science" has done nothing. It is the tool that people choose to prove or disprove certain hypotheses. It is human beings who will use the technologies resulting from science, for either the benefit or detriment of humanity. We are obliged to understand the capabilities and limitations of science as a discipline and to regulate technologies that can be harmful. We value scientific methods, but we would oppose any attempt to set it us as an alternative form of deity.
- 27. Why should I be concerned with welfare of others?
Jewish tradition teaches us not to ask, "Am I my brother's keeper?" and to avoid the fate of the one who asks at the Passover seder "What has this to do with me?" Other traditions teach similar lessons. Certainly stinginess is a sign of weakness, and learning to not be stingy goes along with an increasing sense of self-awareness and awareness of one's participation in the world at large. It may be true that when you help others, in some way you serve some basic need in yourself.
- 28. Why should the individual be absolute master of his/her life?
Human beings are a small part of this universe. They live in a little air packet on a little planet that revolves around a little star in a vast galaxy of stars. We do not have unlimited power; we are quite, quite limited. In a very real sense we are not "masters" of anything but instead live in a natural world of continuous change. And within this small part of the universe we must take care of ourselves by making our own plans and deciding how to fulfill them.
- 29. Is there such a thing as spirituality in your philosophy?
Spirituality is a good word and it's not a word that Humanistic Jews would generally discard. We think about two kinds of spirituality. One is supernatural spirituality, which is presumed to originate in a supernatural being or in supernatural forces. The other is natural spirituality, which flows out of a Humanistic ethic. Supernatural spirituality assumes that "spiritual" means "in contact with spirits." Natural spirituality flows from the beauty of the world here on earth in this universe, from nature, and from our relationships with other people.
- 30. How do you feel about feminism?
We do not derive our ideas of justice and morality from authoritarian or patriarchal models. We reject subordination of one gender to another, just as we reject notions of racial or ethnic superiority. We do strive to help all people achieve dignity by being the best that they can possibly be and by achieving their own goals.
- 31. How do you feel about same-sex marriages? We affirm the right of all individuals to choose their own marriage partners. We also deplore the social and legal barriers that prevent gays and lesbians from living complete and fulfilling lives of dignity. We applaud those States and Provinces that have granted full legal marriage rights to same-sex couples and look forward to further extensions of these fundamental freedoms.
- 32. What do you believe about abortion?
Humanistic Jews affirm that a woman has the moral right and should have the continuing legal right to decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy in accordance with her own ethical standards. Because a decision to terminate a pregnancy carries serious, irreversible consequences, it is one to be made with great care and with keen awareness of its complex psychological, emotional and ethical implications.
- 33. What do you mean by the separation of religion and government?
All people have the fundamental right to freely determine the course of their own lives and to control the use of their own bodies, and each person must accept the responsibility that goes along with this freedom. No group or individual has the right to use its views or beliefs as justification for interference with this or any other fundamental right.
- 34. What does it mean to be rational?
Rational means having the ability to reason. Reason depends on applying good judgment, logic, and common sense to facts. Facts derive from evidence, not from wishful thinking.
- 35. Why are rational people so cold?
On the contrary, rational people are very passionate regarding their belief in their own ability to make a difference. Like other people, we learn from our intuitions and our feelings, and use these feelings to help guide our actions. What may make us seem "cold" to those who don't know is that we try to temper those feelings by understanding the likely consequences of the behaviors they suggest to us.
- 36. Who is a Jew?
At one time, to be a Jew meant simply to be a resident of Judea. As Jews spread across the world, there was a period when any person with a Jewish father was considered a Jew; later it was having a Jewish mother that made one Jewish. This question is a bone of contention between different branches of Judaism today, especially in Israel. For Humanistic Jews, a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, culture, ethical values, civilization, community and fate of the Jewish people.
- 37. How can you be Jewish if you reject ________ (fill in the blank)?
Judaism has had many, many different forms of expression over the centuries—what we call "Jewish" today is not necessarily what was considered "Jewish" 500 or 2000 years ago. We view our Judaism from a historic and ethnic perspective rather than from a theistic or traditional perspective. We measure Jewish identity by a different yardstick than traditionally religious Jews, but that doesn't make us any less intense or involved.
- 38. Can non-Jews be converted to Secular Humanistic Jewishness? To become Jewish from our point of view means to identify with the Jewish people and to be welcomed into the Jewish family. In that case, the appropriate word would be "adoption" into our extended Jewish family. That's terrific. You don't have to be "converted." We don't assume that a light has suddenly gone on in your head. Come study the culture and history of the people, study Humanist philosophy and if you want to identify with us, marvelous. You become as a son or daughter who comes into a warm and loving family. Some of our members have undergone formal "adoption" or "conversion" ceremonies, and others have never felt the need.
- 39. How does someone become a Jew? We don't believe in instant conversions in which someone suddenly changes her or his worldview. So we would never expect that somebody in a moment, by taking a course or reading a book, could change a whole philosophy of life. We recognize that the Jewish people do not have a single philosophy of life, so there is no single philosophy to be converted to. To become Jewish means, from our point of view, that you wish to be identified with the Jewish people. You find Judaism a congenial, extended family with which to cast your fate. You find that there are philosophies and traditions within Jewish history that are attractive and consistent with your own. If a person says, "I want to identify more strongly with Jewish people and with their culture, and I wish to tie my fate and my future with the Jewish people," that person is now free to choose to be a Jew.
- 40. Can someone who is born a Jew choose to cease being Jewish?
Halachically, according to Orthodoxy, someone born of a Jewish mother always remains a Jew. But Judaism is a philosophy of life and a belief system that one can change with serious introspection; in that sense one can choose to no longer be a Jew, just as one can choose to disown one's family. For example, certain priests and bishops who converted to Catholicism no longer consider themselves Jews.
- 41. Can someone participate in both Christian and Jewish culture simultaneously?
Many Humanistic Jews belong to families that blend different cultural traditions, and we encourage them to participate in them freely. Choosing to identify with one particular culture and to celebrate both its holidays and those of another tradition can present challenges that need to be dealt with honestly and with self-respect and dignity. Parents can acknowledge other cultures within the household. Many children have grandparents and parents who represent as many as six or more different cultures under one roof. Clearly expressing the differences in a positive way that reinforces a child's self-image is what is important. Respect is the key concept.