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What is Humanistic Judaism?

"Secular Humanism" is a non-religiously based philosophy promoting man as the measure of all things. They value knowledge based on reason and hard evidence rather than on faith. They generally reject the concept of a personal God. 1 The movement can be traced directly back to the rationalism of the 18th Century and the free thought movement of the 19th Century. Its roots are in the system of rational philosophy created in ancient Greece.

"Religious Humanism" is similar to secular Humanism, except that it is practiced within a religious setting with community, fellowship and rituals. Its various forms are seen in Ethical Culture Societies, some groups affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and in congregations associated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

Humanistic Judaism, then, is a group within Judaism which follows religious Humanism.  According to an article in the Washington Post, "Stephen P. Weldon, a historian of humanism at Cornell University, said that Jewish humanists reflect an emerging pattern of religious humanism as distinct from secular humanism. 'A lot of humanists have decided that religion is a natural human impulse and...that there needs to be some kind of ritual and socializing aspect and that going to church or going to temple can help us do that,' Weldon said." 2

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Humanistic Judaism has existed since the early 19th century as an intellectual tradition. It was first formally organized in 1969 as the Society for Humanistic Judaism -- founded by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine in Detroit, MI. The Society currently has about 50 affiliated communities in the U.S. and about 35,000 members worldwide. According to their official web site: "Humanistic Judaism embraces a human-centered philosophy that combines rational thinking with a celebration of Jewish culture and identity. Humanistic Jews value their Jewish identity and the aspects of Jewish culture that offer a genuine expression of their contemporary way of life. Humanistic Jewish communities celebrate Jewish holidays and life cycle events (such as weddings and bar and bat mitzvah) with inspirational ceremonies that draw upon but go beyond traditional literature." 4

The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism was founded in 1985. According to their official web site, the Institute "is the intellectual and educational arm of the Secular Humanistic Jewish movement. It was train Humanistic rabbinic and non-rabbinic clerical leaders and teachers and to provide philosophic and cultural guidance to all its members. The Institute's commitment to Jewish identity and continuity forms the foundation of its programs. Humanistic Judaism sees pluralism as the best guarantee of Jewish survival. By training rabbis, leaders, and educators for communities and schools, by publishing philosophical and celebrational texts, by offering adult outreach and children's programs to the world Jewish community, the Institute serves as a positive force for the continuation of the Jewish people, enriching life for all Jews." 5 The Institute has published a book "Judaism in a Secular Age;" it assembled "the secular Jewish voices that the Enlightenment allowed to be heard." They have also sponsor Colloquiums on various topics, such as: "Reclaiming Jewish History," and "The Struggle for a New Jewish Identity." Plans are underway for Colloquium 2001, which will discuss secular spirituality.

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Beliefs and practices:

Beth Chai is a Humanistic Jewish congregation in  Bethesda, MD. Beth Chai means "House of Life" in Hebrew. Their web site states:

Humanistic Jews affirm that:


Human beings possess the power and responsibility to shape their own lives independent of supernatural authority.  In other words, not all Humanistic Jews believe in a God:  Your own beliefs are up to you.


A Jew is a person who identifies with the history, culture, and future of the Jewish people.


Judaism is the historic culture of the Jewish people.


Jewish history is a human saga, a testament to the significance of human power and human responsibility.


Jewish identity is best preserved in a free, pluralistic environment.


The freedom and dignity of the Jewish people must go hand in hand with the freedom and dignity of every human being. 6

According to Neil Gillman, professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Humanistic Judaism "plugs into the feeling of some Jews who want to be identified as Jews but who are turned off by the religious baggage...We know that modern believers are very individualistic. They feel they have the right to do it their own way. And this is one other way." 2

Walter Hellman maintains a web site "Humanistic Judaism Homepage." He explains that "Humanistic Judaism differs from secular or cultural Judaism in that it is congregational in form and substance. Jewish education, holidays, tradition and life cycle events are the foundation of Humanistic Judaism. While the important role of the idea of God in Jewish history and tradition is recognized, and spirituality is greatly valued, Humanistic Judaism holds that supernatural authority should play no role in human affairs; the branch is non-theistic in observance and content." 3

Sheldon Hofferman is the president of Beth Chai. He said: "Our services do not consist of worship of a supreme being. We all believe that it is human beings who have the power and duty to make the world a better place. We are not looking to someone else to help us." Their part-time rabbi is Arthur Blecher, 53. He was ordained within the Conservative movement and is a member of the Washington Board of Rabbis. He regards himself as a Deist because he does not believe in a personal God "who stands apart from the world." According to the Washington Post: "Their rabbi wears a yarmulke and prayer shawl but doesn't preach about God. Their children learn Hebrew but don't read from the Torah at their coming-of-age rite. And an atheist would feel right at home in their formal gatherings...Both Beth Chai and Machar hold regular Shabbat services and celebrate Jewish high holy days in local churches of the Unitarian Universalist Association, another religious body that does not worship a supreme being. Both also have Jewish cultural schools, social action committees and newsletters. They welcome interfaith couples." [Actually, many Unitarian Universalists are theists; about one in four regards themselves as Christians.]

Some personal comments by Humanistic Jews in the Washington DC area:

bullet Jo-Ann Neuhaus, a member of Beth Chai said: "The service is a way to connect to your past and heritage without having to sit through dogma that for me has no meaning and also is boring. It offers people a chance to...experience themselves as Jews without being religiously observant."
bullet Marlene Cohen, runs a school at the Machar congregation -- another Jewish Humanistic congregation in the Washington DC area. Its name means "tomorrow" in Hebrew. She said: "God is not an important issue to this movement. What we are trying to teach is the importance of taking responsibility for your own life and the community around you."
bullet Michael Prival, a member at Machar, believes that Jewish Humanistic congregations will continue to appeal to Jews in this modern age. "We provide a way for them to retain their Jewish identity and their rational worldview."

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The Humanistic Judaism movement is often incorrectly referred to as "Humanist Judaism." According to the soc.culture.jewish newsgroup, " 'Humanist', similar to 'Buddhist,' designates an adherent of a specific non-Jewish religion. 'Humanistic Judaism' is a non-theistic branch of Judaism, based on a humanistic interpretation and application of Jewish traditions."

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bullet Sherwin Wine, "Celebration: A ceremonial and philosophic guide for Humanists and Humanistic Jews," Prometheus Books, (1988). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
bullet David Ibry, "Exodus to Humanism: Jewish identity without religion," Prometheus Books, (1999). Read reviews or order this book  

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Related essays on this web site:

bullet Humanism
bullet Unitarian Universalism

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  1. The Humanist Manifesto II, The Humanist, 1973-SEP/OCT issue, American Humanist Association. Available at:
  2. Caryle Murphy, "God's place shifts among some Jews: Humanists' services put a new spin on tradition," Washington Post, 2001-JUN-16, at:
  3. Humanistic Judaism Homepage is at:
  4. The Society for Humanistic Judaism has a web site at:
  5. The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism has a web site at:
  6. "What is Humanistic Judaism," Beth Chai congregation, at:
  7. "Question 2.16: Why shouldn't I say 'ultra-Orthodox', 'Reformed Judaism', or 'Humanist Judaism'?," soc.culture.jewish FAQ, at:
  8. The term "pluralism" is ambiguous. It is sometimes used to refer to religious diversity. Other times, it refers to the belief that all religions are true.

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Copyright 2001 & 2003 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-JUN-19
Latest update: 2003-JAN-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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