Humanism: Or, What's Missing From Orthodox Judaism
09/27/2011 - 17:16

When you hear the word "humanism" today, you probably think it's coming from some secular leftist.  But you'd be wrong, or at least, you should be wrong: Orthodox Judaism once had a healthy humanistic vein that Jews would do well to remember.  That is the argument put forward by Rabbi Shai Held in a provocative article last month.

Held points out that the leader of the Israeli Knesset's first religious bloc, the rabbi Moshe Unna, was a powerful proponent of what he called "Jewish humanism." Unna's basic argument was that the humanistic belief in universal human worth, and one which privileges no faith over any other, is the foundation upon which the Jewish religion was built.  What's more, the religious tradition of Judaism is so rich, so diverse, and in many ways, so contradictory, that it offers no single moral code.  Like all faiths, Judaism can be interpreted to mean whatever you want it to.

In a speech Unna gave to Orthodox Zionists in 1945, he concluded: "It is crucial to emphasize the word 'humanism.' It is not enough simply to say 'according to the Torah,' because from the Torah many different things can be learned. 'The Torah has 70 faces,' and one can even learn from it the obligation to commit acts of terrorism ... The word 'humanism,' therefore, comes to explain and clarify which values from among those values found in our literature we seek to internalize in our educational system."

Those are words you are not likely to hear among today's Orthodox Jews, and especially religious Zionists. And it's too bad.  The word "humanism" has, sadly, been misconstrued today that speaking it among conservative-minded people of any stripe is likely to invite derision.  On the surface, this stems from the fact that humanism is today the rhetorical moral code tossed off by many secular intellectuals.  In turn, religious people, whatever their faith, infer that humanism must entail a god-less sanctification of man.  Or, put another, they think it implies that man is the center of the universe, not God. 

For some secular humanists, this is no doubt true. (I, for one, have no problem with it.) But rabbi Held reminds us that there was once a strong sense of humanism even among the most religious, and Zionist Jews.  Religious Zionists like Rabbi Unna could easily see that Judaism in many ways was premised on a kind of humanism, one in which God's will was made manifest through a universal respect for all mankind.  And they could easily understand that Jews might stray from the universal moral teachings of Judaism even if they kept the outward appearance of orthodoxy. 

The context of this article is obvious, of course: in Israel, and many parts of the Orthodox Jewish world, an ethnic chauvinism has superseded the universalist code that lies at Judaism's foundation.  It is a moral vision that sees Jewish life as holy, and, when push comes to shove, more worthy of our sympathy and support than another. It is a dangerous mentality, and one that all Jews--including secular ones, who should have just as much respect for Orthodox Jews as they do anybody else--should work hard to overcome.  

Sadly, it is still the case that when it comes to Muslim extremism, many Jews ask, Where are the Muslim voices speaking out against them?  They're there. They just choose not to listen.  But the question no one seems to ask is this: where are the Jews speaking out against our extremists--and speaking out against them as Jews, that is, speaking from the Jewish tradition?  We need to hear them now.

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I think that if Orthodox Jews had the ruling power in Israel, they would be no different than some of the extremist Muslim countries. they likewise would ban all western influence, no TV, soccer games, or plane landings on Shabbat. Would would be required to dress in a more modest fashion, with required male heads to be covered. Other forms of Judaism would be outlawed and banned from the country and there would be no tolerance for anything differen and the only conversion alllowed would be by Orthodox only. Oh, that's already in place.

Eric Herschthal¹s blog post in the Jewish Week, ³Humanism: Or, What's Missing From Orthodox Judaism², echos a more subtle and eloquent article by Rabbi Shai Held in Haaretz ("Religion's most urgent problem.")  Both challenge religion in general and Orthodox Judaism in particular to embrace a more humanistic and broad minded view towards the other . While this suggestion deserves serious reflection, one familiar with Jewish literature from the Early Prophets through more contemporary Hasidic writings may find Herschthal's claim that ³the universalist code Š lies at Judaism's foundation² less than certain.  I think that Rabbi Held is correct in his claim that ³All religious traditions contain the raw material to generate and cultivate lives of enormous beauty and moral sensitivity, and the raw material to generate and cultivate unspeakable ugliness and moral obtuseness. ³  Choosing which aspects of Judaism and Torah texts to emphasize and which to be challenged by is really the question. But perhaps herein lies the rub.  How can traditionally minded Jews build a universalistic approach while at the same time maintain fidelity to Jewish Tradition? Unlike Rabbi Held and our other counterparts from the liberal movements, traditionally oriented thinkers cannot simply ignore critical Jewish texts and ideas.  Furthermore, it often seems that ethnocentric concepts motivate religious engagement more than universalistic messages do. It is hard to be passionate about being moderate.  None-the-less, I think change is in the air. Herschthal's exasperatedly demands: "Where are the Jews speaking out against our extremistsŠ from the Jewish tradition?"  What he needs to realize is that great Orthodox thinkers are protesting.   Well known rabbis such as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, and many others have taken public stances against the racist views Herschthal and Held condemn.  On a personal level, in Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, we confront these issues head on in courses, special lectures, and the general educational atmosphere.   I don't think we are unique in this.  One need only glance at the latest debate in Bar-Ilan University's  listserv for educators, Lookjed, over the public criticism of  Israeli Zionist education authored by Rabbi Yosef Blau, to see the beginnings of a surge of Orthodox voices demanding an end to the overly particularistic and  potentially racist rhetoric. The issue at hand is a complex one which needs to be addressed forcefully and thoughtfully. Rabbi Todd Berman Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi

Wow, I guess that Religious Zionists are all just one big monolith; all lacking a sense of "humanism" that must be restored, lest we all start constructing suicide belts next to our Rav Kook books.

Because the "settler movement" which in and of itself is not monolithic has spawned some extremists it has become popular to broad brush all Religious Zionists as having lost their way.

This is simply not true. Within the Religious Zionist camp you will find humanists, environmental activists, human rights activists and all manner of right wing settlers, as well as, peace activists. The fact that Rav Amital z'l of Yeshivat Har Ezion a peaceful and kind man and what you would deem a humanist, coexisted peacefully with "right wing" Rabbis with very radical right wing and insular views proves the breadth of opinion within Religious Zionism.

The best example of 'humanism" within the Religious Zionist camp is an organization named Tzohar ( The religious world is much more complex and much more fractured than what seems to meet the author's eyes. To look as this issue on its surface and paint all Religious Zionist with one color (orange in this case) is simplistic and seems to call for the author to examine his own prejudices and motives.

I was not aware that JEWS run around murdering Muslims. Seems as if extremist Muslims are murdering innocent people throughout the world. Many of us have spoken out and even supported bigotry against anyone. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

I have never heard of Moshe Unna before, but the notion that Judaism "can be interpreted to mean whatever you want it to" is patently false. There are norms within Jewish law and thought, based on written, binding legal sources as well as oral traditions passed down in an unbroken chain for thousands of years. Of course there are different customs and interpretations of laws, but that does not mean there aren't norms and lines that can't be crossed. To say that Judaism, or any belief system (particularly one rooted in legal precedent), means whatever you want is to to say that Judaism has no meaning at all. That, unfortunately, is where the Reform and Conservative movements have ended up.

Also, it is truly shocking that you compare Muslim extremism to Jewish extremism in any way, shape or form. Where is the Jewish equivalent of the suicide bomber or the religiously sanctioned murder of innocents, including children? It doesn't exist. Yes, we have too much intolerance in the Jewish community, both among Jewish "pluralists" and "progressives" and in the Orthodox community. But to imply that we have anything in common with Muslim extremists (who unfortunately seem to comprise a large percentage of the Muslim world) is shameful.

You are quite right. The attempt to deligitimize traditional Judaism by claiming it meanss whatever you want is offensive to what Judaism really is:a G-d centric, normative religion, which contains certain precise fundamental tenents, beliefs and binding legal rulings passed down in an unbroken chain through hundreds of generations. Attempting to confuse having different customs and interpretations within the basic framework of Judaism as meaning everything goes has indeed led to Conservative and Reform Judaism sliding down the slippery slope of becoming just flexible moral systems with a Jewish cultural veneer. That phenomenon results in many of today's generation finding no compelling answer to the question "Why Be Jewish?" and not something else if not also hostility to Judasim.