This post first appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in June 2018
Humanistic Judaism casts a wide net when it comes to finding inspiration and connection. To paraphrase the 19th century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, “nothing Jewish is alien to us,” which means we can draw from the complete library of Jewish creativity, ancient, medieval and modern. We also agree with the 2nd century BCE Roman playwright Terence that “nothing human is alien to me” – anything that responds to the realities and possibilities of being human is related in some way to our own journeys.
Our ark of inspirational sources and intellectual insight is wider than Jewish tradition. At the same time, we are not simply an archive – we make choices about that which speaks to us most profoundly. After all, our High Holiday services are only 90 minutes, which means we must make some editorial choices! Some of what we find in the Jewish and human experiences does not reflect our values and beliefs, and we can acknowledge its existence without celebrating it. Slavery in the Torah, genocide in human history, cruelty between individuals are all part of being human even as we celebrate the “better angels of our nature,” in Lincoln’s phrase.
Humanistic Judaism evaluates choices from its inheritance through two criteria: 1) Is it Jewish, does it enhance Jewish connections? And 2) Is it true, does it reflect my values and beliefs? We are not unique in this approach, even if we frame it differently. Gender segregation and animal sacrifice are historically Jewish, but they are not immediately relevant for the large majority of Jews today; some liberal Jews may study these Jewish elements, but they do not live them.
Our founding thinker Rabbi Sherwin Wine posed the challenge this way:
We need to insist that the question “Is it true” is more important than the question “Is it Jewish” The Shma [prayer affirming God] is Jewish, but it is not, from our perspective, true. The Kaddish is Jewish, but it is not consistent with what we believe. A strong ideology insists that when we celebrate who we are, we speak with conviction. New words that express our convictions are preferable to old words that do not. Nostalgia is valuable, but not primary. (“Secular Humanistic Jewish Ideology”, Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1991).
If the “is it Jewish” question were the only criteria, we would say and do things we would find offensive, objectionable, and untrue in any other setting. If we only cared about “is it true,” we would be dissolved in the sea of world culture without roots, tradition, and a sense of ourselves in historical and personal context.
When we choose from our Jewish and human inheritance, we find what rings true, what reflects our values in both Jewish and human culture, philosophy, art and music. We draw on both to celebrate who we are, in all of our complexity and freedom.