Humanistic Judaism

About the Curator:
Gregory Gronbacher earned his B.A. in philosophy and theology at Franciscan University, his masters in philosophy (M.Phil.) at the International Academy of Philosophy, and his doctoral work in philosophy (Ph.D.) at the Loyola Institute, Trinity College. Gregory’s academic and spiritual interests focus on drawing out the nature-based and naturalist aspects of the Jewish and Christian traditions.  He’s actively engaged with both his local Quaker and Jewish communities.

Introduction

There are various strands of naturalism within Judaism, including Humanistic Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism and the work of theologian Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1993), the NeoHasid movement and the work of Rabbi Arthur Green (1941- ) and the classic works of Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). There are also emerging naturalist trends in Reform Judaism.

Jewish naturalism applies process theology, humanism, and naturalist methodologies to Jewish tradition, resulting in a rethinking of God that then impacts the understanding of Torah, Halachah, and Jewish observance.

Most forms of Jewish naturalism approach God as the creative, ordering force in nature that also serves as the orienting focal point for religious devotion and moral thinking. Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism understood God as the “power that causes salvation” – the symbol of the collective personalist, humanist, and moral forces in the world that lead to human fulfillment. Sherwin Wine (1928-2007) founded Humanistic Judaism, an attempt to reorganize Judaism while significantly downplaying or even rejecting any reference to the Divine.

Key Themes & Questions in Jewish Naturalist Theology

Adopting a naturalist worldview raises profound and crucial questions for any theology, Jewish theology included:

  • What or who is God? What does Judaism look like without a personal God or any God?
  • If God is an impersonal force or doesn’t exist, who commands us in terms of Mitzvot, and what does this mean for Jewish observance?
  • How then should we approach and understand Jewish sacred writings? The Tanakh, Talmud, etc.?
  • What does this mean for central Jewish events such as Passover?
  • What do we do with biblical claims of miracles and other supernatural events?

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Mordecai Kaplan

Kaplan’s theology held that given the advances of philosophy, science, and history, it would be impossible for modern Jews to continue to adhere to many of Judaism’s traditional theological claims. He therefore set out to (re)construct a Jewish theology based on Judaism as a sacred civilization and religious culture, rooted in a naturalist-process theology of the divine. Kaplan was highly influenced by John Dewey, Hermann Cohen, and Émile Durkheim’s argument that our experience of the sacred is a function of social solidarity.

In agreement with prominent medieval Jewish thinkers including Maimonides, Kaplan affirmed that God is not personal, and that all anthropomorphic descriptions of God are, at best, imperfect metaphors. Kaplan’s theology went beyond this to claim that God is the sum of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fulfilled:

To believe in God means to accept life on the assumption that it harbors conditions in the outer world and drives in the human spirit which together impel man to transcend himself. To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man’s destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society. In brief, God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.

Not all of Kaplan’s writings on the subject were consistent; his position evolved somewhat over the years, and he wavered between asserting God as a symbol-metaphor, and God as a unified ontological reality that despite a sustaining role in creation, did not intervene through supernatural events.

Sherwin Wine 

Given the increasing numbers of Jews who identified as “secular” and recognizing that most Americans are members of thriving religious congregations, Wine concluded that a congregational format, emphasizing Jewish culture and history rather than a theistic outlook, could attract non religious Jews who were not served by other Jewish organizations. The goal was to provide members with a sense of community and all of the services that are provided by congregational life, but in a manner consistent with the nontheistic outlook of Wine and the others in his movement.

Wine emphasized intellectual integrity, keeping words consistent with beliefs. For him and his congregants, this meant that references to a deity had to be excluded from the liturgy. As a result, Wine discarded virtually all previous Jewish liturgical writings.

Since I believe that being rational is essential to human happiness and human dignity, I have sought to help people deal more realistically with their frustrations and their expectations.

Baruch Spinoza

Exploring Judaism through the lens of Spiritual Naturalism brings forth many possibilities. On the one side it challenges Jewish traditions by denying a supernatural agency.  But in as much as Judaism has been less “otherworldly” than some of the other major religions, Naturalism and Judaism do have a common ground.

Treating Jewish theism as mythology, rather than taking it literally, challenges the heart of what it means to be Jewish to those who hold to a more static interpretation of the tradition. This same sort of attitude reflects the reaction that the Jewish community in Holland took towards Baruch Spinoza in an earlier time. His idea of God challenged the traditional view as it also challenged the idea of God held by the Christian churches of his day.

Spinoza began his life much like any other Jew of that period. His parents had moved to Holland from Portugal to escape religious persecution.  But more radically than other Jews of the time, Baruch questioned tradition and consider other options. Whether or not he saw himself as a radical, it’s difficult to know, but it led to his being excommunicated. In a sense he became the first secular Jew.  In an article in the Jewish Virtual Library, it states:

At first Spinoza was reviled as an atheist – and certainly, his God is not the conventional Judeo-Christian God. The philosophers of the enlightenment ridiculed his methods – not without some grounds. The romantics, attracted by his identification of God with Nature, rescued him from oblivion.

It is a bit ironic that while Spinoza’s family had immigrated from Portugal to gain religious freedom, Baruch sought in his new country a different kind of religious freedom.  He remains today one of the hero’s for those of us who think that the words “God” and “Nature” essentially refer to  the same thing.

Today, we possess a freedom that many in the past did not have. This allows us to explore our Jewish identity, even those of us who can no longer accept its model of theism.  We can acknowledge the well-known literature (or canon) of Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, Siddur; we can appreciate how they established norms as well as humanistic ideas and values in the past, but we do not have to give them undue authority or take them literally. We can still connect to the memory of our ancestors and their stories, but in a different, perhaps more authentic form to us and our communities; one that can be integrated with the world view revealed by modern science.  We can accept the possibility of new stories and new interpretations arising in the present and furthering the tradition.

We do not think religious expressions necessarily fit secular interpretations of Jewish history and human experience. Yet we wish to speak for ourselves. We wish to experiment with many of the concepts presented on our own outside of religious guidelines. We do not necessarily need to be validated by traditional religious texts.

We approach a plurality of Jewish roots so we have the power to choose. We deny a single Jewish tradition but accept many “Judaisms”. Many counter-establishment traditions have existed in the past and continue to exist.  These have included both mystical and secular varieties. The presence of these traditions is written of in the Talmud and elsewhere, even if some were officially ignored once issues were “decided”. Underground and folk traditions are as rooted in Jewish tradition as much as official ideology.

A Spiritual Naturalist’s approach to Judaism can be seen as a new counter-establishment tradition.  Who has the authority, now? It is us. Spinoza’s ideas precede those of modern science, yet to some degree, he inspired them. Currently, he also serves as an inspiration for those of us who embrace the world view advanced by science, yet continue to value their Jewish identity and the rich, ages-old tradition in which that identity has developed.  We can embrace the incredible picture of “the creation” that modern science is presenting to us, while maintaining our roots in the Jewish tradition.

Section on Spinoza written by Aron Gamman


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