Religious Naturalism and Humanism in Modern-day Judaism

Much of modern-day Judaism, in particular the non-Orthodox movements known as Reconstructionist Judaism and Humanistic Judaism, but also to some extent Reform Judaism, is for all intents and purposes devoid of notions of supernaturalism. This should not come as a surprise, as there has always been much less emphasis on the supernatural in Judaism than in, say, the religion of Christianity which sprang from it. There is more supernaturalism in the Christian New Testament than in the Hebrew Bible. The Jesus of the New Testament reportedly wrought countless miracles which are accounted by many of his followers as evidence not only of his supposed divine status but also of the supernatural activity of God Himself. Insofar as the Jewish scriptures are concerned, Baptist minister Geoff Thomas (2004:Online) has aptly noted:

‘There were just three periods of miraculous activity during the Old Testament dispensation. There were virtually no wonders wrought by Abraham and the patriarchs, or the judges, nothing during the reign of David, in the period of Isaiah and Jeremiah, or at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. The first period of miracles was during the exodus from Egypt, and the second was under the prophesyings of Elijah and Elisha, and finally in the Old Testament during the time of Daniel in Babylon there were some extraordinary signs.’

Even the prophecies contained in the Hebrew Bible were ‘not about fore-telling but about forth-telling (ie about speaking out on issues immediately at hand)’ (Harpur 2004:159).

Judaism, which like all religions is the result of natural human development, has often being referred to as a religion of ethical monotheism. However, as a result of a number of changes wrought by Reform Judaism and, in the United States of America, Reconstructionist Judaism, as well as such events as the Shoah, Judaism is becoming more and more ‘a way of life based upon a Jewish system of monotheistic ethics’. As Felix Adler (1913:26), the founder of the Ethical Culture movement has pointed out, ‘the Hebrew view of life is essentially the ethical view’. Jews accept the ‘Kingdom of God’ (malchut shamayim) by building it here on earth, for Judaism is ‘not a religion of personal salvation but of social justice’ (Brasch 1955:5). Thus, the Kingdom of God is not some supernatural event that will supposedly come to pass when this world comes to an end but a kingdom of this world in which there is justice, equality and freedom for all. In that regard, Mordecai Kaplan (1962:55) spoke of the dangers of ‘other-worldliness’ in the following terms:

‘[R]eligion owes a genuine debt to those who have called attention in our own day of drugging the human with the opiate of other-worldliness. The effect of such an opiate … is to keep us from the attainment of salvation on earth.’

Judaism forever emphasizes our tasks and responsibilities in the here and now; we must all labour together to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. Thus, laborare est orare (‘to work is to pray’). The notion of the Messianic Age, although variously interpreted in Judaism, is nevertheless very much associated with world peace. ‘[The] thread that runs throughout these interpretations is that it will be tied to peace, and we’re helping by doing works of reparation – repair of our shattered world by doing good’ (Rabbi Aviva Bass, of Temple Beth Israel, Melbourne Victoria, as quoted in Manners (2002:25)). Even the Sabbath--as understood in Judaism--which has links back not only to Creation but also to revelation (viz the giving of the Ten Commandments), is ‘a taste of what the future world will be like, with an emphasis on peace and wholeness’ (Manners 2002:25).

Further, it is the position of Jews, not just Humanistic Jews, that it was Jews who created the religion of Judaism --- they are not converted to it. Rudolph Brasch (1955:3), the author of the first book to be published in Australia on Judaism, The Star of David (1955), has aptly written:

‘Judaism is rational, logical and moral. It is not a creed, but a way of life. It demands righteous living and not acceptance of dogma. Beliefs as such are only significant if they serve as a means to foster goodness and holiness.’

Indeed, it is permissible in Judaism to break all of the commandments, to save a human life. Felix Adler (1913:18) has alluded to Judaism’s propensity for re-inventing itself:

‘There is a time to act for the Lord by breaking his commandments’ was a saying current among the ancient Hebrew. This means there is a time to act for religion by protesting against what passes for religion; there is a time to prepare the way for a larger morality by shattering the narrow forms of dogma whereby the progress of morality is hindered.’

The roots of Judaism in its more humanistic forms go way back to Biblical times, when, for example, Micah, who has been described as ‘the great prophet of ethical conduct and personal integrity’ (Marshall 1970:46), set out what he saw as real religion:

‘“Wherewith shall I come before HaShem, and bow myself before G-d on high? Shall I come before Him with burnt-offerings, with calves of a year old?
‘Will HaShem be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
‘It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what HaShem doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy G-d.’ Mi 6:6-8 [Jewish Publication Society ed, 1917].

American Unitarian minister George N Marshall (1970:46) has written:

‘These three verses from the sixth chapter of the book of Micah have been called by many liberal religious persons the high point of Old Testament religion because they turn religion from the external forms to the internal faith which propels and guides a man. There is nothing more required than to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. In this sense Micah gives us an adequate definition of religion.’

Felix Adler (1913:26-7) has written that Judaism is the only true ethical religion:

‘There are moral traits in all religions, but, as a rule, they are subordinated. Morality is subordinated to beauty and harmony in the Greek ideal. It is the accompaniment and consequence of order in the Confucian scheme. It is but one form of the brightness of things, as opposed to darkness and evil, in Zoroastrianism. But to the Hebrew thought, moral excellence is the supreme excellence to which every other species of excellence is tributary.

‘The Hebrew religion and its descendants are the only ethical religions, strictly speaking, because in the Hebrew religion the moral element is constitutive and sovereign.

‘That the moral ‘ought’ cannot be explained as the product of physical causation, is the greatest contribution which the Hebrew people have made to the religious and moral history of mankind.’

In many ways, and increasingly so as time goes by, Judaism is the most humanistic of all the world’s religions, even more so than Buddhism. In the Jewish Bible, God was the very first humanist, who created humanity and everything else, ‘and, behold, it was very good’ Gen 1:31 [Jewish Publication Society ed, 1917]. God considered human beings so sacred that he issued a commandment that they not be murdered. Further, there is no doctrine of original sin in Judaism, nothing of the ‘total depravity’ of man that is so much a part of certain versions of Christianity. There is an evil inclination (yetzer ha’ra) as well as a good inclination (yetzer ha’tov), but throughout Judaism in all of its forms there is a solid emphasis on the human capacity for doing good.Judaism teaches the three very human virtues of self-reliance, self-giving, and living and acting in the now. ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now – when?’ (Rabbi Hillel, in Sayings of the Fathers, I:14).

Modern liberal Jewish theology - very much a ‘theology of man’, that is, a ‘humanistic theology’ (Bush 2003:47) - owes a great debt to what is known as ‘predicate theology’. This school of theology, which has contributed to a new understanding of the nature of God and religion not only in Judaism but also in liberal Christianity, was initially developed by Mordecai Kaplan and has been popularized and further developed by one of Kaplan’s former students Harold M Schulweis. In predicate theology God, as opposed to the ‘qualities’ of God, is essentially unknowable; the emphasis must therefore be on ‘godliness’ and those qualities or virtues that are ‘godlike’ or ‘divine’. Schulweis (1984:122-3) has written:

‘the religious contention [therefore becomes] … that the humanly comprehensible qualities of goodness, love, intelligence and creativity are godly: that they themselves are worthy or adoration, cultivation, and emulation in the lives of the believers. In Feuerbach's formulation [in The Essence of Christianity], “God does not love, He is himself love, He does not live, He is life, He is not just but justice itself”, “not a person, but personality itself.”’

Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist theology has been described as ‘a historic compromise with humanism’ (Bush 2003:47). For Kaplan (1962:26) God had no meaning apart from humanity: ‘Godhood can have no meaning for us apart from human ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty, interwoven in a pattern of holiness.’ Kaplan (1956:103) and Liebman (1946:170-1 [excerpted and adapted]) spoke in terms of God, not as a person, but as ‘the Power’, ‘the Process’, and the very life of Nature:

‘God is the Process by which the universe produces persons, and persons are the process by which God is manifest in the individual.’

‘God is the Oneness … the sameness … the unity of all that is … the uniformity of all that moves … the rhythm of all things … the mystery of life … the creative flame … God is in the face by which we overcome the fear of loneliness, of helplessness, of failure and of death … God is in the love which creates, protects, forgives.’

In a similar vein, Liebman (1946:171) wrote:

‘I believe that God is the Power for salvation revealing Himself in nature and in human nature, in networks of relationships, in countless situations and fields of operation where evil is vanquished and goodness triumphs. God is in the pain of growth, in the seed of sorrow, in the lure of thought, and in all the laws of fulfillment which bind men and stars together.’

Writing from a kabbalistic point of view, David A Cooper (1997:65), like many other ‘modern’ religious leaders and teachers, has challenged contemporary views as to the nature of God:

‘What is God? In a way, there is no God. Our perception of God usually leads to a misunderstanding that seriously undermines our spiritual development.

‘God is not what we think It is. God is not a thing, a being, a noun. It does not exist, as existence is defined, for It takes up no space and is not bound by time. Jewish mystics often refer to It as Ein Sof, which means Endlessness.

‘Ein Sof should never be conceptualized in any way. It should not be called Creator, Almighty, Father, Mother, Infinite, the One, Brahma, Buddhamind, Allah, Adony, Elohim, El, or Shaddai; and It should never, never be called He. It is none of these names, and It has no gender.’

Cooper (1997:69) goes on to say:

‘The closest thing we can come to thinking about God is as a process rather than a being. We can think of it as “be-ing,” as verb rather than noun. Perhaps we would understand this concept better if we renamed God. We might call It God-ing, a process, rather than God, which suggests a noun.’

One of predicate theology’s modern exponents is Rabbi Harold S Kushner (1989:203-4) who has written:

‘“Predicate theology” means that when we find statements about God that say, for example, “God is love, God is truth, God is the friend of the poor,” we are to concentrate on the predicate rather than on the subject. Those are not statements about God; they are statements about love, truth and befriending the poor, telling us that those are divine activities, moments in which God is present.…. They are not things that God does; they are things that we do, and when we do them, God is present in our lives.’

For example, Erich Fromm, ‘one of the most respected humanists and social philosophers of the twentieth century’ (Sonsino and Syme 2002:119), saw God as standing for ‘the highest value, the most desirable good’ (Fromm 1956:63), a ‘symbol of man’s own powers which he tries to realize in his life’ (Fromm 1959:37), the ‘image of man’s higher self, a symbol of what man potentially is or ought to become’ (Fromm 1959:49). In other words, God was only an image, an idea, a symbol of what human beings can ultimately become.

There must surely be some limits to this seemingly endless process of redefining God. As the secular humanist Corliss Lamont ([1965] 1979:143) has written:

‘Unless we insist on limiting in some manner the acceptable meaning of God, it is easy, as Professor [Max C] Otto maintains, to prove the existence of God by “dilution into vagueness”; through reducing the definition of the term “until it means no more than everyone, even the confessed atheist, will have to admit to exist. Thus the definition of God virtually proves his existence. … The word God is made to stand for so much that it loses all distinctive meaning. … Belief bought at this price costs too much. It not only impoverishes the religious life … but it tends to dissipate the mental discipline so laboriously and slowly achieved by men.”’

Hardon (1952:Online) makes the point that most redefinitions of God are tantamount to a ‘doctrine of atheism’ pursuant to which ‘God does not exist except as the projection by our imagination of those non-objective ideals which guide our human conduct’. Nevertheless, redefining God is not something new. It is inherent in all the major religions. However, there may be an even worse problem. As the Scottish-born Australian philosopher John Anderson would point out if he were still alive, predicate theology---despite its laudable attempts to de-mythologize and de-supernaturalize religion---suffers from the fatal error of relativism, that is, the ‘confusion of a thing with its relations or things related to it’ (Anderson 1982:32). The statement ‘God is love’ is not a logically acceptable definition of God at all, for nothing can be meaningfully defined by reference to the relations it has to us or to other things. It tells us nothing about who or what God itself supposedly is (Emilsen 1991:276).

Be that as it may, both Reconstructionist Judaism and Humanistic Judaism were created by cultural Jews who wanted a Judaism that was relevant, rational and humane which at the same time would affirm their identity as members of the Jewish people. Both movements and organizations view Judaism as the natural ‘outcome of the religious experience of the Jewish people in their search for meaning and sacred living throughout history rather than revelation from a supernatural God’ (‘What is Reconstructionism?’:Online). Both movements exist in their own right in congregations that have been formally constituted as congregations of Reconstructionist Judaism and Humanistic Judaism, respectively. The latter also exists as a palpable presence that can be felt in other Jewish congregations, most notably in some Reform congregations throughout the world.

In various cities and towns throughout the United States of America there are congregations of Reconstructionist Judaism and Humanistic Judaism. Congregations of Reconstructionist Judaism are almost invariably presided over by rabbis affiliated with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association whereas some congregations of Humanistic Judaism are lay-led while others are presided over by rabbis. Ordinarily, there are services for Shabbat as well as for High Holidays, using a non-theistic ritual drawing upon ancient and modern materials.

One Reconstructionist congregation describes itself in these terms:

‘As Reconstructionist Jews, we seek the beauty and power of Jewish tradition without abandoning a commitment to intellectual integrity. Other liberal branches of Judaism try to change the way in which Jews are Jewish; the rituals and observances of being Jewish.

‘Reconstructionism changes the why of being Jewish – the meaning!’

The Society for Humanistic Judaism states on its website:

‘Humanistic Jews find meaning in the celebration of life through the historic Hebrew calendar and seek to interpret this calendar in a naturalistic way.’

In addition, in a manner altogether similar to Conservative, Orthodox, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations, congregants of Humanistic Judaism meet for Shabbat dinners and other social activities. Many congregations have regular educational programs throughout the year, and ordinarily there is a Sunday School as well in which children learn about their Jewish heritage and culture, the Hebrew language, and the State of Israel. Some of the congregants are atheists in the traditional sense while others are not, but all would see themselves as humanists who have rejected supernatural views of reality. The website of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York City contains a very good summary of the aims and objectives of Humanistic Judaism:

‘Humanistic Judaism offers secular Jews a nontheistic philosophy of life that integrates the value of Jewish identity with a belief in the importance of human reason and human power. It declares that reason, rather than faith, is the source of truth, and that human intelligence and experience are capable of guiding our lives. And it offers an opportunity to practice Judaism in ways that are consistent with our humanistic outlook.

‘Humanistic Jews understand Judaism as the human-centered history, culture, civilization, ethical values and shared fate of the Jewish people. Encompassing many languages and a vast body of literature, art, dance, music, and food, Judaism is much more than a set of religious beliefs and practices. It is the cumulative cultural and historical experience of the Jewish people.’

Similar to religious humanism and religious naturalism, supernaturalism is rejected by Humanistic Judaism, as it is in Reconstructionist Judaism, the emphasis being on the celebration of Jewish holidays, life cycle events, and traditions and practices from a secular cultural and historical point of view (Cohen 1962). Spirituality, of a non-supernatural kind, is valued. Many, including exponents of Humanistic Judaism, see the movement as ‘a natural development in the evolution of Judaism which was the principal force in the creation of humanitarian values in Biblical times and later’.

Finally, there is Jewish Renewal, a worldwide, trans-denominational, even post-denominational movement - although it dislikes the word ‘movement’ - with roots in Judaism’s prophetic and mystical traditions including Hassidism and the Kabbalah. Religiously pluralistic, Jewish Renewal also draws on the spiritual traditions of other world religions, especially Buddhism as well as religious naturalism. There is a heavy emphasis on meditation, yoga, chanting, creating a sacred space (HaMakom) earth-centered spirituality, soul-breathing, mysticism (in particular, Kabbalistic mystical traditions), spiritual self-help, and holistic healing. In various parts of the United States of America, and in other countries (including Australia), one finds Jewish Renewal congregations as well as Jewish Renewal services in other synagogues.

These changes in the practices and belief systems of Judaism are not an aberration and must not be underestimated. They are far-reaching and unstoppable, and entirely consistent with the ever-evolving theological history of Judaism throughout the ages. Additionally, these changes have had a considerable impact upon modern Christian thought as well. The latter is beyond the scope of this present article.

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Note. This article contains material extracted from the author’s PhD thesis (University of Technology, Sydney: degree conferred 2007), ‘Beyond the Scientology case: towards a better definition of what constitutes a religion for legal purposes in Australia having regard to salient judicial authorities from the United States of America as well as important non-judicial authorities’, Please see the bibliography of the thesis for other salient references and citations.