Why I Am a Humanist Skeptic - and Still a Jew

By Gottlieb, Sheldon F. | Free Inquiry, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Why I Am a Humanist Skeptic - and Still a Jew


Gottlieb, Sheldon F., Free Inquiry


I am Jewish--a humanistic skeptic if not outright atheist but still a Jew. I have no need to deny my Judaic heritage and its influence on the genetic and environmental bases of my physical being, intelligence, personality, character, and thoughts. I choose to identify with the humanistic aspects of Judaism. Before discussing them, and the reasons for my identification with them, two important distinctions need to be mentioned.

Judaism is unlike other religiously based belief systems in that Jews may relinquish the deistic aspects of the religion and still consider themselves to be culturally and ethnically Jewish. Also, rational rejection must be distinguished from self-hate or anti-semitic renunciation of the deistic aspects of Judaism.

As I developed a skeptical, secular humanist perspective, one of my reasons for not needing to deny my heritage was my realization that there is something special about Jewish culture that is worth preserving. I considered the enormous contributions that Judaism has made to civilization that place it alongside, if not in front of, the great Greek and Roman cultures in influencing the development of the modern world. Even the per verse, ugly, despicable, anti-social reactions that these contributions sometimes produced gave rise to important socially constructive outcomes. The non-deistic aspect of the Decalogue and Jewish religious philosophy provided the basis for denying the Divine right of kings, and, thereby, formed the philosophical basis underlying the American Revolution. Jewish experiences through the ages helped the American Founding Fathers develop the concept of freedom of religion that is embodied in the Bill of Rights.

As a child, I was inculcated with Orthodox Judaism based on the centrality of ethics with emphasis on the rational wisdom of Rabbi Hillel. Hillel taught that each generation was entitled to derive new meanings from Torah through the use of logic and reason. Hillel exemplified this concept when, challenged by a prospective convert to recite the entire Torah while standing on one foot, he responded: "That which is hateful unto thee do not do unto thy neighbor. The rest is commentary. Now go and study."

Thus, a Jew can be a skeptic. A skeptic can be a Jew. It is incumbent upon one who doubts God's existence to study. Judaism has no central core of dogma, no official theology, no catechism, no single central voice of authority issuing edicts on faith or morals that must be accepted without discussion. There is no injunction in Judaism about what to study, nor a requirement that a particular conclusion be reached. An individual may spend a lifetime in study and never reach a conclusion, especially concerning the existence of a deity or the nature of the deity. An intriguing intellectual aspect of Judaism is the lack of a requirement that individuals are obligated to believe in a deity.

As I got older, I had more time to delve into aspects of halakah, Talmudic, and post-Talmudic Jewish literature. I was intrigued with the range of subjects it covered that were concerned with human needs and values. I came to realize that mutual respect is greater than universal love--an unrealistic goal and one that is impossible to attain; that it is only through a strong sense of justice that true respect can be expressed between and among people. Don't humanists stress the importance of justice and mutual respect?

In the Talmudic book Pirkei Avot or The Sayings of the Fathers Rabbi Hillel is quoted as asking three interrelated questions: "If I am not for myself who is for me? Being for my own self what am I? If not now, when?"

From the time I was introduced to these ethical questions, they profoundly influenced my life. I believe these three penetrating questions, with their multilevels of significance emanating from the depths of Jewish culture, provide humanists with a fundamental approach to understanding the basis of humanism. …

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