Sometimes we confuse our terminology. The term “humanism” is often misunderstood and is often confused with related terms such as “liberalism” and “individualism.” Unfortunately, this misperception causes many religious people to reject the core values of humanism, many of which are central to Jewish belief.
Fundamentally, humanism addresses the question of man’s innate nature: Are human beings inherently noble or inherently evil? Many modern thinkers asserted that we are inherently evil and, if left to our own devices and our own conscience, we would quickly descend into chaos and violence. Hobbes, Dostoevsky and Orwell all portrayed man as inherently corrupt and sinful.
Judaism sharply disagrees with this pessimistic view of human nature, claiming instead that man is created virtuous and noble. Observing the final stage of creation capped by the formation of man, God announces that his handiwork is “tov me’od” – wonderful and agreeable.
Of course, man, though inherently virtuous, also possesses powerful desires that, if left unchecked, lead to moral free fall. The story of the flood displayed the depths of moral degeneracy, and God was forced to reboot all of civilization. Yet, even in the aftermath of this apocalypse, God never decries man as innately evil. Rather, God acknowledges man’s penchant for disobedience and vows to never annihilate humanity. The Torah never deviates from its optimistic view of human nature, even at this low point of moral history.
Asserting the nobility and dignity of man, Judaism is predicated upon a humanistic outlook. Every human possesses a tzelem elokim, or divinely endowed traits exclusive to the human condition, such as free will, consciousness, creativity, moral sensibility, cognitive communication and emotional awareness.
Additionally, Judaism designates superior status to human beings based upon their divinely assigned mission and duty. Man’s superior station is not just a product of his inborn lofty character traits but more importantly, is a function of his religious and moral calling.
A humanistic view demands that we respect the dignity of every individual crafted in the image of God. Similarly, we should respect their intelligence and learn from both their greater wisdoms and their worthwhile achievements. These humanistic values are enshrined with Judaism.
Yet, even though Judaism is built upon humanistic values, the term “humanism” is often threatening to religious people. Ironically, it is not humanism per se but some of the historical effects of humanism that pose challenges to religious values.
Conceptually, humanism draws upon a religious belief that God invested man with superior and uncommon potential. Many of the first humanists were deeply religious and derived their ideas from the Bible. One of the first humanists, Pico Della Mirandola, a 15th-century Italian philosopher, wrote a manifesto of humanism titled “Oration on the Dignity of Man” in which he claimed “to [man] it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills.”
Though Pico and his fellow Renaissance thinkers were deeply religious, regrettably, their lofty ideas eventually yielded a secularized humanism that eliminated God from human history. Gradually, the belief that man is a surpassing being implied that human potential alone was sufficient. With its tools of rationalism and science, and its inherent moral sensibility, humanity could produce utopia without any need of divine assistance or religious guidance. Sadly, secular humanism yielded the secular world we currently inhabit.
In addition, secular humanism often prioritized human experience over religious submission. If man was a superior creature, perhaps human prosperity and enjoyment represented the highest goal. Whereas religion elevates obedience to God as the supreme value, secular humanism often designates human prosperity as the highest achievement.
Ultimately, secular humanism clashes with religion on these two central issues: It suggests that man has little need of heavenly assistance, and it designates human prosperity as the highest objective. Though secular humanism is incongruent with religion, humanism itself, with its belief in the majesty and potential of human beings, is central to religion. It is imperative not to confuse the two, and it’s crucial that religious people define themselves as humanists as well.
Secular humanist thought didn’t just pose intellectual challenges to religion but also caused a reimagination of society and politics. As religion and state became separated, society was viewed as a collection of different citizens rather than an organic community united by race, religion or nationality. This shift was welcome news for many Jews looking to integrate into the broader society, who could now achieve full membership in liberal societies that didn’t discriminate between their citizens.
However, liberal societies always challenge national identity and, in particular, raise questions about the concept of a chosen people. If citizens of liberal democratic societies are all equal, how can Jews also lay claim to being a people chosen by God? For many Jews, living in liberal societies that stressed the commonality and universality of all human beings, Jewish rituals and traditions now appeared tribal or parochial. Historically, many Jews who entered liberal society rejected or significantly diluted their Jewish identity, practice or their sense of historical Jewish mission.
Erosion of values
Additionally, since humanism champions the potential of each individual, it also, implicitly, defends the rights of each individual, thereby providing the intellectual grounds for political democracy and the protection of basic human rights. The doctrine that the rights of each individual are sacred led to the false notion that the values and ideals of each individual are also sacred. In this manner, liberal society, founded upon humanist values, generates a swirl of moral relativism that blurs core religious and moral values.
We have witnessed the erosion of traditional values such as identity, family, community and morality. In response to this deterioration of values, religious people turn away from liberalism toward more conservative approaches, which appear to more strongly uphold traditional religious values.
Religion and conformity
There is a third effect of humanism that threatens religious identity. Religious commitment is a delicate calibration between personal expression and conformity to values and practices common to all. Religion demands surrender of unlimited personal autonomy and submission to divine will. Each religious community establishes a different balance between collective experience and personal expression.
For several reasons, many modern religious communities have veered toward greater conformity and less personal expression. This is very evident in hassidic and haredi cultures but is also evident in many other religious communities.
Humanism glorifies the singular traits of each and every human being and thereby encourages more personal expression and individual behavior. For this reason as well, many religious people remain suspicious that humanism will subvert conformism and sabotage religious submission.
It is crucial to discriminate between core tenets of humanism and the manner in which secular humanism has crafted liberal societies that challenge national identity, muddle our core values and overemphasize personal expression. Religious people must unconditionally reject secular humanism and its social and cultural influences. It is crucial, however, not to reject the core notion of humanism – belief in human nature and respect for every human created in God’s image.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.