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A Rabbi’s Reflections on Humanism

By Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE

In this short article, Jonathan expresses his admiration of humanism, based on the shared ethics of living a good life centred around the Golden Rule to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. However, he critiques humanism for lacking the communal solidarity and emotional warmth found in religious weekly gatherings, because a sense of community is just as important as ideas for living a fulfilling life.

I write as a rabbi who is a critical admirer of humanism. Let’s deal with the admiration first. For me, Judaism is a three-legged stool based on God, ethics and rituals.

Jonathan leads a service at Maidenhead Synagogue

The God bit is the belief in some power that was responsible for the world and life as we know it. I am content to leave the definition at that – the creative force – as there is always the danger that in trying to define God too closely, you tie God down and start to own God. The ethics are the moral way in which we interact with other humans, as well as with animals, and also the manner in which we treat the planet at large. The great cry of Leviticus 19.18 “Love your neighbour as yourself” – repeated in the New Testament later on and elsewhere – is the basic starting point. The rituals are the reminders, be it the annual festival, weekly Sabbath or daily observances such as eating kosher food. Their primary raison d’etre is as reminders about God and ethics, because we are so often caught up with other day-to-day distractions and can forget how best to behave.

Of these three aspects, the ethics is by far the most important. As the rabbis of old put it: “If any person tells you that he loves God, but cannot stand his fellow human beings, you will know he is lying”. We show our love of God by the way in which we treat God’s creatures. It is the ethics which Judaism shares most with humanism.

I do not have a detailed analysis, but I would have thought that your ethics are our ethics, and vice-versa. If we can work together in our own ways to make the world a better place, then that’s great, and all that counts. It is why I personally – when I was Chair of the Accord Coalition – worked closely with Humanists UK (and Andrew Copson in particular) in trying to make faith schools more inclusive, both in terms of admissions and curriculum. Similar co-operation occurs right now as I am currently Chair of Dignity in Dying – which campaigns to legalise the right to an assisted death for those who are terminally ill, mentally competent and wish to choose it of their own free will – a cause which Humanists UK also supports.

Now for the criticism, or rather, more gently, the feeling that humanists lack a vital ingredient: communal solidarity. Individuals are humanists, and there are periodic national and local events, but it does not have the set-up of weekly local meetings that most religious groups do. Yes, you have cycle of life ceremonies, but not the week-in week-out gatherings that can sometimes be rather mundane, but which offer enormous support for those who wish to share a sadness or a joy, or just feel the warmth of human company. Where is the sense of community and of camaraderie, which mosques offer every Friday, synagogues provide every Saturday, and churches every Sunday? You may provide the cerebral and intellectual qualities people need, but you lack the emotional and communal warmth that are equally essential.

I hope I am not being unfair in expressing the above, though I expect the rise of the loosely-formed secular movement, sometimes known as ‘The Sunday Assembly’, which tries to address this gap, is an indication that people need people, and not just ideas.

Links and further reading and watching

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Nov 10, 2023

In the opening paragraph to this article, it states that:

“The rabbi is critical of humanism for the lack the communal solidarity and emotional warmth found in religious weekly gatherings”

Since when was this exclusive preserve of religion and religious groups?

What does he think the many humanist groups all across the country are for?

Why does the particular phenomenon that he alludes to have to be couched around silly, nonsensical rituals, and an absurd belief in a mythical Sky daddy? They don’t!

If he is critical of humanism for an apparent lack of these things then I’m sorry, but I have very little respect for his views as they smack of ignorance and a kind of superciliousness that I…

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