Jewish Journal

Humanistic Judaism Trods Different Path

by Gaby Wenig

Posted on Jan. 16, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Rabbi Sherwin Wine of Birmingham Temple in Detroit founded Humanistic Judaism in 1963. Today, there are over 30,000 Jews involved with Humanistic Judaism in North America, including 1,000 in the greater Los Angeles area.

He was named Humanist of the Year for 2003 by the American Humanist Association in recognition of 40 years of professional service that have benefited the Humanist community. Past recipients of the award include Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould and Margaret Sanger. He spoke to The Jewish Journal about Humanism.

Jewish Journal: What is Humanism?

Sherwin Wine: Humanism is a philosophy of life which believes that the basic power for solving human problems lies within human beings. And Humanistic Judaism is a philosophy of life which maintains that the basic power for solving human problems lies within human beings and is enriched by the history and culture of the Jewish people.

JJ: How does Humanistic Judaism differ from regular Judaism?

SW: On a practical level, it means that our services and instruction of both adults and children is different. Most of traditional Judaism and even liberal Judaism is a God-centered Judaism, and we are a people-centered Judaism. So the conventional prayers that would be said in traditional synagogues are not part of our services. Our services consist of different writings, poetry and music that are consistent to a people-centered Judaism.

JJ: What sort of tenets does Humanistic Judaism have besides these services?

SW: The heart of a good philosophy of life or religion, whether it is Orthodoxy or Humanistic Judaism, is ethics. So for us, the foundation of our teaching is ethical, and those are the same ethical norms that all the great philosophies of life and religions of the world maintain. Character training is the most important thing that we can do, and that is the heart of it. All the other rituals are secondary to ethics. In addition, since the history and culture of the Jewish people is for us a reinforcement of our Humanism, we celebrate all the Jewish holidays, but we celebrate them in accordance with our people-centered philosophy. We do not believe these holidays were announced on top of a mountain. We believe these holidays were created by the Jewish people over many centuries, and the themes of the holidays are not about miraculous power, but the themes are, for us, about human ethical values.

In addition, we have the full panoply of lifecycle celebrations, which are birth ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvah, weddings. We have all of that, and we spend a lot of time studying the history and literature of the Jewish people. For us, the literature of the Jewish people includes the Torah, but not only the Torah. It includes all the literature of the Jews until modern times.

JJ: Was Humanistic Judaism established because traditional Judaism did not have enough focus on ethics?

SW:  The reason why Humanistic Judaism came into existence was surveys indicated that close to 47 percent of the Jews in North America identify themselves as secular, which means that they don't find any meaning in a God-oriented Judaism. Their main orientation to Judaism is cultural and ethical.

We are trying to reach out to Jews who are not Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist, but who want to connect themselves to the Jewish community, but haven't been successful in doing that, because they haven't found a community where their beliefs and their desire to be Jews come together.

We are not saying that traditional Jews don't have that [ethical] emphasis. Rather, we are saying that we don't want to be part of saying prayers we don't believe in and asking for divine power that we don't believe in.

Our job in life is not to train ourselves to depend on divine power -- for us, our job in life is to make ourselves strong in order to deal with a difficult world.

JJ: What are the five main points of Humanistic Judaism?

SW: 1. Humanistic Judaism believes that Judaism is the historic culture and civilization of the Jewish people.

2. It believes that the highest ethical goal of life is the creation of dignity for all human beings.

3. That the basic source of power for solving human problems lies within human beings

4. That the culture of the Jewish people -- its literature, its holidays -- are the creation of the Jewish people over many centuries

5. That the meaning of Jewish history, given the experience of the Jews in particular over the last few centuries, means in the end, we Jews, like all people, have to find the power within ourselves and to develop our own strength to meet the challenges of life.

Rabbi Wine will address Adat Chaverim on Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Universalist Center, 9550 Haskell Ave., North Hills and will also speak on Jan. 19 at 11 a.m. at the Skirball Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.,Los Angeles. For information, call (818) 623-7363.  

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