Humanistic Judaism

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Humanistic Judaism (Hebrew : יהדות הומניסטיתYahadut Humanistit) is a Jewish movement that offers a nontheistic alternative in contemporary Jewish life. It defines Judaism as the cultural and historical experience of the Jewish people. It encourages humanistic and secular Jews to celebrate their Jewish identity by participating in Jewish holidays and lifecycle events (such as weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs) with inspirational ceremonies that draw upon but go beyond traditional literature. Its philosophical foundation includes the following ideas:

Hebrew language Semitic language native to Israel

Hebrew is a Northwest Semitic language native to Israel, the modern version of which is spoken by over nine million people worldwide. Historically, it is regarded as the language of the Israelites and their ancestors, although the language was not referred to by the name "Hebrew" in the Tanakh itself. The earliest examples of written Paleo-Hebrew date from the 10th century BCE. Hebrew belongs to the West Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family. Hebrew is the only Canaanite language still spoken, and the only truly successful example of a revived dead language.

Jewish religious movements, sometimes called "denominations" or "branches", include different groups which have developed among Jews from ancient times. Today, the main division is between the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements, with several smaller movements alongside them. This denominational structure is mainly present in the United States, while in Israel, the fault lines are between the Orthodox and the non-religious.

Nontheism or non-theism is a range of both religious and nonreligious attitudes characterized by the absence of espoused belief in a God or gods. Nontheism has generally been used to describe apathy or silence towards the subject of God and differs from an antithetical, explicit atheism. Nontheism does not necessarily describe atheism or disbelief in God; it has been used as an umbrella term for summarizing various distinct and even mutually exclusive positions, such as agnosticism, ignosticism, ietsism, skepticism, pantheism, atheism, strong or positive atheism, implicit atheism, and apatheism. It is in use in the fields of Christian apologetics and general liberal theology.


Culture Social behavior and norms found in society

Culture is the social behavior and norms found in human societies.

Religion is a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements. However, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion.


In its current form, Humanistic Judaism was founded in 1963 by Rabbi Sherwin Wine. [2] [3] As a rabbi trained in Reform Judaism, with a small secular, non-theistic congregation in Michigan, Wine developed a Jewish liturgy that reflected his and his congregation’s philosophical viewpoint by emphasizing Jewish culture, history, and identity along with Humanistic ethics, while excluding all prayers and references to God. This congregation developed into the Birmingham Temple, now in Farmington Hills, Michigan. It was soon joined by a previously Reform congregation in Illinois, as well as a group in Westport, Connecticut.

Sherwin Theodore Wine was a rabbi and a founding figure in Humanistic Judaism. Originally ordained a Reform rabbi, Wine founded the Birmingham Temple, the first congregation of Humanistic Judaism in 1963, in Birmingham, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan.

Reform Judaism Denomination of Judaism

Reform Judaism is a major Jewish denomination that emphasizes the evolving nature of the faith, the superiority of its ethical aspects to the ceremonial ones, and belief in a continuous revelation, closely intertwined with human reason and intellect, and not centered on the theophany at Mount Sinai. A liberal strand of Judaism, it is characterized by a lessened stress on ritual and personal observance, regarding Jewish Law as non-binding and the individual Jew as autonomous, and openness to external influences and progressive values. The origins of Reform Judaism lie in 19th-century Germany, where its early principles were formulated by Rabbi Abraham Geiger and his associates. Since the 1970s, the movement has adopted a policy of inclusiveness and acceptance, inviting as many as possible to partake in its communities. It is strongly identified with progressive political and social agendas, mainly under the traditional Jewish rubric Tikkun Olam, or "Repairing of the World". Tikkun Olam is a central motto of Reform Judaism, and action for its sake is one of the main channels for adherents to express their affiliation. The movement's greatest center today is in North America.

The Birmingham Temple was the first Humanistic Jewish congregation. It was founded in 1963 by Rabbi Sherwin Wine and eight founding families, who originally intended that the congregation would be located in Birmingham, Michigan. The temple originally followed many Reform practices but within six months decided to drop most of these, and began to pursue a humanist philosophy.

In 1969, these congregations and others were united organizationally under the umbrella of the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ). The Society for Humanistic Judaism has 10,000 members in 30 congregations spread throughout the United States and Canada.

Society for Humanistic Judaism organization

The Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ), founded in 1969 by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, embraces a human-centered philosophy that combines the celebration of Jewish culture and identity with an adherence to secular humanistic values and ideas.

The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism was founded in 1986. It is the academic and intellectual center of Humanistic Judaism. It was established in Jerusalem in 1985 and currently has two centers of activity: one in Jerusalem and the other in Lincolnshire, IL. Rabbi Adam Chalom is the North American dean. The Institute offers professional training programs for Spokespersons, Educators, Leaders (also referred to in Hebrew as madrikhim/ot or in Yiddish as vegvayzer), and Rabbis, in addition to its publications, public seminars and colloquia for lay audiences. [4]

Lincolnshire, Illinois Village in Illinois, United States

Lincolnshire is a village in Vernon Township, Lake County, in the U.S. state of Illinois. The village is a northern suburb of Chicago. The population of Lincolnshire was 7,275 at the 2010 census. Lincolnshire was incorporated on August 5, 1957, from the unincorporated Half Day area when land was purchased to build a residential subdivision. The community underwent an aggressive era of expansion from 1983 to the 1990s. The Des Plaines River bisects the village, passing from north to south; Illinois Route 22 also divides the village into two parts, crossing the village from east to west.

In Judaism, a rabbi is a teacher of Torah. The basic form of the rabbi developed in the Pharisaic and Talmudic era, when learned teachers assembled to codify Judaism's written and oral laws. The first sage for whom the Mishnah uses the title of rabbi was Yohanan ben Zakkai, active in the early-to-mid first century CE. In more recent centuries, the duties of a rabbi became increasingly influenced by the duties of the Protestant Christian minister, hence the title "pulpit rabbis", and in 19th-century Germany and the United States rabbinic activities including sermons, pastoral counseling, and representing the community to the outside, all increased in importance.

Principles of belief and practice

The humanorah, which is the primary symbol of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Humanorah (Society for Humanistic Judaism).png
The humanorah, which is the primary symbol of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

Humanistic Judaism presents a far more radical departure from traditional Jewish religion than Mordecai Kaplan (co-founder of Reconstructionist Judaism) ever envisioned. Kaplan redefined God and other traditional religious terms so as to make them consistent with the naturalist outlook, and continued to use traditional prayer language. Wine rejected this approach as confusing, since participants could ascribe to these words whatever definitions they favored. [5] Wine strove to achieve philosophical consistency and stability by creating rituals and ceremonies that were purely non-theistic. Services were created for Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and other Jewish holidays and festivals, often with reinterpretation of the meaning of the holiday to bring it into conformity with Secular Humanistic philosophy. [6]

Mordecai Kaplan Lithuanian American rabbi

Mordecai Menahem Kaplan, was a rabbi, essayist and Jewish educator and the co-founder of Reconstructionist Judaism along with his son-in-law Ira Eisenstein.

Reconstructionist Judaism denomination of Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism is a modern Jewish movement that views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization and is based on the conceptions developed by Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983). The movement originated as a semi-organized stream within Conservative Judaism and developed from the late 1920s to 1940s, before it seceded in 1955 and established a rabbinical college in 1967.

Shabbat Jewish day of rest; Jewish Sabbath

Shabbat or Shabbos, or the Sabbath is Judaism's day of rest and seventh day of the week. On this day religious Jews, Samaritans and certain Christians remember the biblical creation of the heavens and the earth in six days and look forward to a future Messianic Age.

Humanistic Judaism was developed as a possible solution to the problem of retaining Jewish identity and continuity among non-religious. Recognizing that congregational religious life was thriving, Wine believed that secular Jews who had rejected theism would be attracted to an organization that provided all the same forms and activities as, for example, Reform temples, but which expressed a purely Secular Humanistic viewpoint. The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, which is sponsored by the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, trains rabbis and other leaders in the United States and in Israel. The Society for Humanistic Judaism was organized with the mission to mobilize people to celebrate Jewish identity and culture consistent with a humanistic philosophy of life.

Jewish identity and intermarriage

Within Humanistic Judaism, Jewish identity is largely a matter of self-identification. [7] Rabbis and other trained leaders officiate at intermarriages between Jews and non-Jews, and the Humanistic Judaism movement, unlike the Conservative and Orthodox Jewish denominations, does not take any position or action in opposition to intermarriage, rather it affirms that "Intermarriage is an American Jewish reality—a natural consequence of a liberal society in which individuals have the freedom to marry whomever they wish...that intermarriage is neither good nor bad, just as we believe that the marriage of two Jews, in itself, is neither good nor bad. The moral worth of a marriage always depends on the quality of the human relationship—on the degree of mutual love and respect that prevails." [8] Secular Humanistic rabbis and leaders will also co-officiate at intercultural marriages between Jews and non-Jews. These views concerning Jewish identity and intermarriage are criticized by those who believe that they will hasten the assimilation of Jews into the general society and thus adversely affect Jewish continuity.


Humanistic Judaism is egalitarian with respect to gender and gender identification, Jewish status, and sexual orientation. Brit shalom (baby-naming ceremonies), similar for boys and girls, are performed rather than the brit milah. Those who identify as Jews and those who do not, as well as LGBTI members, may participate in all ways in all Humanistic Jewish rituals and leadership roles.

Humanistic Judaism ordains both men and women as rabbis, and its first rabbi was a woman, Tamara Kolton, who was ordained in 1999. [9] Its first cantor was also a woman, Deborah Davis, ordained in 2001; [10] however, Humanistic Judaism has since stopped ordaining cantors[ citation needed ]. The Society for Humanistic Judaism issued a statement in 1996 stating in part, "we 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 the complex psychological, emotional, and ethical implications." [11] They also issued a statement in 2011 condemning the passage of the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” by the U.S. House of Representatives, which they called "a direct attack on a woman’s right to choose". [12] In 2012 they issued a resolution opposing conscience clauses that allow religious-affiliated institutions to be exempt from generally applicable requirements mandating reproductive healthcare services to individuals or employees. [13] In 2013 they issued a resolution stating in part, "Therefore, be it resolved that: The Society for Humanistic Judaism wholeheartedly supports the observance of Women's Equality Day on August 26 to commemorate the anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allowing women to vote; The Society condemns gender discrimination in all its forms, including restriction of rights, limited access to education, violence, and subjugation; and The Society commits itself to maintain vigilance and speak out in the fight to bring gender equality to our generation and to the generations that follow." [14]

In 2004, the Society for Humanistic Judaism issued a resolution supporting "the legal recognition of marriage and divorce between adults of the same sex", and affirming "the value of marriage between any two committed adults with the sense of obligations, responsibilities, and consequences thereof." [15] In 2010 they pledged to speak out against homophobic bullying. [16]

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Interfaith marriage, sometimes called a "mixed marriage", is marriage between spouses professing different religions. Although interfaith marriages are most often contracted as civil marriages, in some instances they may be contracted as a religious marriage. This depends on religious doctrine of the two party's religions; some of which prohibit interfaith marriage, but others allow it in limited circumstances.

Brit shalom (Hebrew: ברית שלום, also called alternative brit, brit ben, brit chayim or brit tikkun, is a naming ceremony for newborn Jewish boys that does not involve circumcision. It is intended to replace the traditional brit milah, and is promoted by groups such as Beyond the Bris and Jews Against Circumcision. The term is generally not used for girls, since their naming ceremony does not involve circumcision.

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The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, founded in 1991, is the only Humanistic Jewish congregation in Manhattan, and the first Humanistic congregation in New York City to be led by a Humanistic rabbi. The aim of The City Congregation is to provide a welcoming, diverse community for cultural and secular Jews where they can celebrate and preserve their Jewish identity. As adherents of Humanistic Judaism, founded in 1963 by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, TCC members rely on reason, inner strength, and the support of community to face life’s challenges and collectively improve the world.

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Same-sex marriage in Judaism has been a subject of debate within Jewish denominations. The traditional view among Jews is to regard same-sex relationships as categorically forbidden by the Torah. This remains the current view of Orthodox Judaism, but not of Reconstructionist Judaism, Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism, which started changing its position to same-sex unions in 2006.

Rabbi Tamara Kolton is the first rabbi ordained in Humanistic Judaism.

Or Emet is a Humanistic Jewish congregation in Minneapolis – Saint Paul, Minnesota and is a member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. It is a community of cultural Jews, secular Jews, Jewish humanists, and other humanists, united by a commitment to humanism and by respect and support for Jewish culture, traditions, and Jewish identity, and by those traditional Jewish values most consonant with humanism -- "tikkun olam", social justice. Or Emet embraces a human-centered philosophy that combines rational thinking and scientific inquiry with the celebration of Jewish culture and traditions.

Kahal B’raira is a congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. Affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism, Kahal B’raira has offered a nontheistic alternative in contemporary Jewish life since 1975. The congregation aims to welcome all who identify with the history, culture and fate of the Jewish people,including multi-faith families and LGBTQ families.

Miriam Jerris was the president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis, and is the rabbi of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. She has been a member of the Society since 1970. In 2001 she was ordained as a rabbi by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. She also has a PhD in Jewish studies with a specialization in pastoral counseling from the Union Institute and University in Cincinnati. In 2006, she received the Sherwin T. Wine Lifetime Achievement Award.

Machar is the Washington, DC metro area affiliated congregation of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Founded in 1977, the nontheistic congregation celebrates Jewish culture, education and celebrations. The congregation has a Jewish cultural school, social action committee, and regular newsletter, and welcomes interfaith couples.

Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, founded in 1969, is Canada’s first Humanistic Jewish congregation. It is based in Toronto, Ontario and is affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

This is a timeline of LGBT Jewish history, which consists of events at the intersection of Judaism and queer people.


  1. "What is Humanistic Judaism?" The Society for Humanistic Judaism.
  2. "International Federation for Secular & Humanistic Judaism" . Retrieved 2010-12-16.
  3. Hevesi, Dennis (July 25, 2007). "Sherwin Wine, 79, Founder of Splinter Judaism Group, Dies". The New York Times . Retrieved 2010-12-16.
  4. "Home | International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism". Archived from the original on 2013-10-01. Retrieved 2013-09-10.
  5. Wine, Sherwin (1985). Judaism Beyond God. Society for Humanistic Judaism. ISBN   978-0912645087.
  6. Rosenfeld, Max (1997). Festivals, folklore & philosophy: A secularist revisits Jewish traditions. Sholom Aleichem Club. ISBN   978-0961087029.
  7. "We believe: 1. That Jewish identity is primarily a cultural and ethnic identity. 2. That belief systems are too diverse among Jews to serve as criteria for membership. 3. That joining the Jewish community is a process of cultural identification. 4. That a person who seeks to embrace Jewish identity should be encouraged to do so and should be assisted in this endeavor.
  8. "Statement on Intermarriage". Association of Humanistic Rabbis, 1974.
  9. "Society for Humanistic Judaism - Rabbis and Leadership". Archived from the original on 2013-09-28. Retrieved 2012-03-12.
  10. "Contributions of Jewish Women to Music and Women to Jewish Music". JMWC. Archived from the original on 2016-05-12. Retrieved 2012-07-09.
  11. "Society for Humanistic Judaism - Reproductive Choice Abortion". 1996-08-28. Archived from the original on 2004-03-05. Retrieved 2013-09-10.
  12. "Society for Humanistic Judaism Condemns Limit on Choice". Archived from the original on July 9, 2011. Retrieved 2013-09-10.
  13. "Society for Humanistic Judaism Opposes Conscience Clauses". 2012-02-12. Archived from the original on July 25, 2013. Retrieved 2013-09-10.
  14. "Society for Humanistic Judaism - Gender Equality". Archived from the original on September 28, 2013. Retrieved 2013-09-10.
  15. "Society for Humanistic Judaism - Same Sex Marriage". Archived from the original on October 10, 2013. Retrieved 2013-09-10.
  16. "Society for Humanistic Judaism Pledge Against Homophobic Bullying". Archived from the original on July 25, 2013. Retrieved 2013-09-10.