What Secular Humanistic Jews Believe

Secular Humanistic Judaism is a Jewish denomination that celebrates the centrality of human judgment and human power from a uniquely Jewish perspective. As secular humanists we believe that reason, rather than faith, is the source of truth, and that human intelligence and experience are capable of guiding our lives. As Jews we express these beliefs through the culture and practices that have evolved over centuries of Jewish history, encompassing many languages and a vast body of literature, art, dance, music, and food. It is the cumulative cultural, moral, and historical experience of the Jewish people

Secular Humanistic Jewish Values

As Secular Humanistic Jews we derive our values from the lessons of those cumulative experiences. Not just the events of biblical times but of all history. Humanistic Jews regard classical texts like the Torah and Talmud as valuable sources of learning and inspiration although we do not automatically accept them as authoritative. We also draw ethical principles from centuries of Jewish philosophy and the folk wisdom of our ancestors. And because no one people have a monopoly on truth, we embrace worthy lessons from cultures other than our own. We strive to put our values into practice through a commitment to social justice, championing the cause of the oppressed, the disenfranchised, and the suffering.  

Secular Humanistic Jewish Practice

Throughout Jewish history, observing holidays and special events in our lives has been a boundless source of joy, comfort, and strength. Our secular, humanistic Jewish services bind us to Jews through the ages while meeting our contemporary spiritual needs as atheists, agnostics, or believers in a non-interventional higher power. We preserve those traditional rituals, songs, and practices that are meaningful to us. We adapt others so that they speak to us more appropriately, and we create new ones specifically for our present and future generations.

Secular Humanistic Jewish Community

As Humanistic Jews we affirm that we have the responsibility to shape our own lives. We also teach that we are responsible to one another. We need one another to celebrate our joys, to endure our sorrows, and to become partners together in making the world a better place for all people. And so we form communities, like The Jewish Secular Community of Asheville, to share in these common purposes and goals.


A Brief Primer for Understanding
Secular Judaism

1. What is Humanistic Judaism?

Humanistic Judaism is a movement within Judaism. It combines an attachment to Jewish identity and culture with a human-centered approach to life. It defines Judaism as the historical and cultural experience of the Jewish people. Humanistic Judaism affirms that people are independent of supernatural authority and responsible for themselves and their behavior.


2. How can you be Jewish if you don’t believe in God?

The Jews historically have not been a religious denomination. At one time the Jews were a nation, but the Jews have become a world people. Being Jewish is a consequence of ancestry or choice. Membership in the Jewish people is not a function of belief; it is a function of identification, connection, and loyalty.


3. Why call what you do Judaism?

Judaism is the evolving culture of the Jewish people. Over time, in response to historic events, people’s needs, and the surrounding culture, the practices of Judaism have changed. There is no single way to be Jewish. Humanistic Judaism is a step along the continuum of evolutionary changes in Jewish practice. Pluralism in Jewish life enriches Judaism and enables a stronger, more inclusive Jewish community.


4. Why are you a separate movement in Judaism?

What distinguishes Humanistic Judaism from other movements that identify humanistic themes in Judaism is our resolve to create a consistency between our philosophy and our liturgy (what we believe and what we say and do). Humanistic Jewish celebrations, ceremonies, and commemorations use human-centered, non-theistic language. The words we say and the songs we sing follow this guideline. We call this principle integrity and it is fundamental to our identity as Humanistic Jews.


5. Is Humanistic Judaism a religion?

According to the dictionary, a religion is a set of beliefs to which people hold fast. Humanistic Judaism is a religion using that definition. In Rabbi Sherwin Wine’s description of religion, Humanistic Judaism falls into the category of an ancestral religion, rather than a salvation religion. Humanistic Judaism is also a religion in its structure. Its congregational model, school for children, adult education programs, and life cycle and holiday celebrations all follow the religious model.


6. If you are not religious in a traditional sense, why have rabbis?

A rabbi is a leader and teacher of Jewish people, someone who is knowledgeable about Jewish history and ceremony. We choose to be part of the Jewish community and calling our leaders “rabbis” helps us to participate fully in Jewish communal life.


7. Isn’t the Jewish religion (orthodoxy/Torah) responsible for the survival of the Jewish people?

The survival of the Jewish people is a consequence of the adaptability of the Jewish people. What has kept us alive is the willingness of the Jewish people to adapt to the dominant culture, while still adhering to the ever-changing, yet enduring customs and ceremonies of the Jews. The common history, literature, and traditions are all responsible for Jewish continuity.


8. Without God how can there be ethics?

The foundation of ethics is human dignity, human survival, and human happiness. The foundation of ethics is not God. Ethical behavior consists of relationships between people. Some people behave well without believing in God, and some people who believe in God do not behave ethically.


9. If you don’t pray, what do you do?

We celebrate our Jewish identity. We use poetry and prose to express that connection. We sing Jewish songs in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. We use materials that encourage reflection and meditation. We celebrate the historic, human, and natural bases for Jewish holidays and mark the passages of life with ceremonies that reflect both Jewish culture and our humanistic values.


10. Can someone convert to Humanistic Judaism?

We define a Jew as someone who identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jewish people. If a person would like to participate in the Jewish experience, they can adopt Judaism and join a Humanistic Jewish community or the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Because being Jewish is defined as the historical and cultural experience of the Jewish people, an individual does not have to “give up” who they are to add Jewish identity to their self-definition.


11. If you are Humanists, why bother with Judaism at all?

Being Jewish is part of our identity. We are all curious to know who we are, to discover our roots and establish connections, to learn and celebrate. Culture adds interest to our lives, whether it be community, music, literature, art, dance, or food.


12. Is intermarriage contributing to the demise of Judaism?

Intermarriage is the positive consequence of a free and open society. If the Jewish community is open, welcoming, embracing, and pluralistic, we will encourage more people to identify with the Jewish people rather than fewer. Intermarriage could contribute to the continuity of the Jewish people.


13. Is not all Judaism humanistic?

Some of Judaism is humanistic, although not all of it is. The confusion is usually around the differences between humanitarianism and humanism. Humanism is the reliance on people to solve human problems. Humanism includes humanitarianism, which is the act of promoting human welfare and social reform.