TFN no.5751.4 9-15


Humanistic Congregation



A secular humanistic congregation is interested in joining the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (hereafter referred to as “the Union”) whose constitution provides in Article III (1) that “any Jewish congregation”…may become a member; and in Article II (d) that it is among the objects of the Union “to foster the development of Liberal Judaism.” Does this humanistic congregation comply with these objectives? Its rabbi is a graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (hereafter called “HUC-JIR”) and a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (hereafter called “CCAR”).


(The inquiry comes from Rabbis Alexander Schindler, James Simon and Allen Kaplan of the Union.)



The question before us is twofold:


1. Can the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism (hereafter referred to as “the Congregation”) be considered a “Jewish congregation” in the meaning of Article III (1) of the Union’s constitution?


2. Can it be said to “foster the development of Liberal Judaism” in the meaning of Article II (d)?


1. The Congregation sees itself as a legitimate member of the Jewish community; it is not syncretistic like the Hebrew-Christians; it is, quite simply, a Jewish group that has banded together for the celebration of festivals, life cycle events, etc., but without the traditional theistic framework.


In its statement of belief (adopted December 1989) the Congregation avows:


Judaism is a way of life from which a rich tradition has evolved. Interpreting and preserving the history and tradition for posterity is the responsibility of Jews in every generation.


The publications of Congregation leave no doubt about its being a Jewish congregation in the meaning of the Union’s constitution.


2. The Congregation proclaims itself as a Reform congregation. Seeing that it acclaims the human being and not a supernatural power as the ultimate reference point, may it indeed be said to “foster Liberal Judaism”?


Reform Judaism has been an open-ended and variegated movement. It is historically flexible, but how far does its flexibility go? Can it accommodate the philosophy and liturgy of this particular Congregation?


The Congregation’s liturgy deletes any and all mention of God, either in Hebrew (of which there is almost none) or in English. One of its publications, entitled A Concept of God, and a Statement on Liturgy, explains the congregation’s position in this regard as follows.


The concept of God has undergone constant modification in Judaism…There has always been and continues to be great diversity in the Jewish understanding of God.


There can certainly be no disagreement with the statement that Reform Jews (like other Jews) have different conceptions of God. Our Gates of Prayer, in the sixth Shabbat eve service, while leaving the traditional Hebrew God-language undisturbed, does not use the word “God” in the English text. Instead it speaks of “The Power that makes for freedom” and says: “We worship the power that unites all the universe into one great harmony” (p.210). It is clear that the sixth service remains a prayer service, which leaves it to the worshippers to fill the word “Power” with their interpretation of the supernatural. The language is purposefully ambiguous only within these limits.


That kind of ambiguity does not, however, exist in the Congregation’s liturgy. To be sure, the above- mentioned statement says:


Many falsely assume that humanism is atheistic…The definition of Humanistic Judaism does not preclude one’s having a concept of God.


This affirmation of people’s right to interpret the God-concept in their own way is, however, not borne out by the liturgy which precludes the exercise of this right by omitting any and all references to a supernatural power in whatever language.In fact, the statement goes on to say unequivocally:


The use of prayer in services would be incompatible with such a theological system.


The Congregation’s liturgy therefore, and quite logically in its view, does not include either Kiddush or Kaddish. The rabbi of the Congregation states expressly (in his publication Resources and Reflections ) that on principle he will not say Kaddish, though he would allow someone else to say it if so desired by a congregant.


Needless to add that such key liturgical portions as Barekhu, Shema, Ve’ahavta , Amidah or Aleinu are also absent, as are selections from Psalms, or the familiar songs Yigdal, ‘Adon Olam, and Ein keloheinu.


The congregation’s Haggadah is equally instructive. In the song “Who knows one?” ( ‘Echad mi yode’a?” ) the traditional response, “One is our God who is present everywhere,” is replaced by “One is all the universe.” And in the second verse (where the number two stands traditionally for the two tables of the Covenant), the two we are to remember are the “two people in the Garden of Eden.”


The latter change is especially noteworthy: Because of its elision of God, the Congregation’s philosophy does not admit of Covenant or commandments. Hence, the shenei luchot ha-brit (the two Tables of the Covenant) have been replaced by two human beings.


While the Congregation’s liturgy contains a number of sensitive and poetic meditations, may we consider the Congregation’s agenda as a recognizable form or development of Reform Judaism? Can Reform Judaism accommodate this kind of philosophy? It is well, therefore, to turn to the three basic Reform statements, the Pittsburgh and Columbus platforms and the CCAR’s Centenary Perspective, which attempt to define the nature of Reform Judaism.


Pittsburgh (1885).


We recognize in every religion an attempt to grasp the Infinite One, and in every mode source or book of revelation held sacred in any religious system the consciousness of the indwelling of God in man.. We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God-idea as taught in our holy Scriptures…We maintain that Judaism preserved and defended…this God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race.


Columbus (1935).


The heart of Judaism and its chief contribution to religion is the doctrine of the One, living God, who rules the world through law and love. In Him all existence has its creative source, and mankind its ideal of conduct …


Judaism affirms that man is created in the Divine image…He is an active co-worker with God …


The Torah. both written and oral, enshrines Israel’s ever-growing consciousness of God and the moral law.


Centenary Perspective (1976).


The affirmation of God has always been essential to our people’s will to survive. In our struggle to preserve our faith we have experienced and conceived of God in many ways. The trials of our own time and the challenges of modern culture have made steady belief and clear understanding difficult for some. Nevertheless, we ground our lives, personally and communally, on God’s reality and remain open to new experiences and conceptions of the Divine. Amid the mystery we call life, we affirm that human beings, created in God’s image, share in God’s eternality despite the mystery we call death ….


Torah results from the relationship between God and the Jewish people ..


The Congregation has cut itself loose from the three platforms that define Reform Judaism for their times. Instead, it declares itself to be a group that makes the human being the measure of all things. This concept, with its roots in Greek philosophy, has been opposed by Judaism, which has always staunchly affirmed its belief in a supernatural God and Creator who sustains the world. Reform has never wavered in its adherence to this faith and has never abandoned the central role of prayer from its belief structure. Persons of various shadings of belief or unbelief, practice or non-practice, may belong to UAHC congregations as individuals, and we respect their rights. But it is different when they come as a congregation whose declared principles are at fundamental variance with the historic God-orientation of Reform Judaism.


In view of these statements we find Congregation’s system of beliefs to be outside the realm of historical Reform Judaism.


But should we not open the gates wide enough to admit even such concepts into our fold? Are not diversity and inclusiveness a hallmark of Reform? To this we would reply: yesh gevul., there are limits. Reform Judaism cannot be everything, or it will be nothing. The argument that we ourselves are excluded by the Orthodox and therefore should not keep others out who wish to join us, has an attractive sound to it. Taken to its inevitable conclusion, however, we would end up with a Reform Judaism in which “Reform” determines what “Judaism” is and not the other way around.


The argument has been made that our doors should always be open to ba’alei teshuvah, that is, those who repent and turn back. Our reading of the texts the congregation has published does not bear out the intent that, by joining the Union, it is prepared to turn back to the principles of historic Reform. Rather we find in its literature a declared purpose to redefine the essence of Reform Judaism. The Congregation is of course free to pursue this goal and may wish to attract other groups to its philosophy. It must do this, however, outside and not inside the Union.


In sum, we hold that the Congregation, as presently constituted, breaks the mold of Reform Judaism and does not have a place among the Union’s congregations.


Postscript: The above opinion was not unanimous; three members of the Committee disagreed. Prof. Eugene Mihaly of HUC-JIR, whose opinion was also solicited by Rabbi Schindler, published a vigorous critique of our teshuvah, which in turn was rejected by Prof. Michael Meyer of HUC-JIR. The controversy reached the press and was, inter alia, debated before the Board of Governors of Hebrew Union College. The Responsa Committee did not at first involve itself in the public discussion, but in view of the Mihaly responsum (which appeared in printed form) the Committee’s teshuvah was printed (along with the dissents) and the following addenda by the Chair:1


The above represents the first publication of the responsum (to which


the three dissenting opinions are appended). It was sent — as is the custom of the Committee — to the questioners. Not long thereafter, Prof. Eugene Mihaly issued a 14-page counter-responsum which was at once widely disseminated and reprinted in full in a national Jewish newspaper. His major points may be summarized to be:


1. Admission to the Union is a legal question which is not meet for the Responsa Committee.


2. The Union’s constitution gives full religious autonomy to its members.


3. The rabbi has been ordained by HUC-JIR.


4. The congregation includes men and women who have achieved prominent positions.


5. Reform Judaism is more authentic when it includes rather than excludes, and inclusion represents sage rabbinic advice.


6. While there is a limit to what may be considered to fit the term “Reform”, the exclusion of God from the liturgy and philosophy of the congregation does not go beyond the limit.


Prof. Mihaly was answered in a number of unpublished communications, amongst which was a point-by- point refutation by Prof. Michael Meyer. The refutations of the above-listed points stressed the following: 1. If a legal question were at issue, why ask the Responsa Committee in the first place, and why ask the professor of Midrash for another opinion?


2. Article VI of the Union’s constitution affirms the religious autonomy of its constituent congregations, and not of those who apply for membership. Similarly, an American citizen is free to declare the Constitution a worthless document, while applicants for citizenship are in a different class regarding their affirmations. Their admissibility is judged on the basis of that very Constitution.


3. Not relevant; the congregation, not the rabbi, is the applicant.


4. Is prominence of individual persons a ticket for approval?


5. Classical Reform was very particular in marking boundaries between itself and such movements as Ethical Culture, though the latter’s founder was a rabbi who considered himself to be the true heir of Reform ideals.


6. If the presence or absence of God does not qualify as a limit, then faith in God or its absence would be irrelevant to Reform Judaism.


It is worth adding that it is not the task of the Responsa Committee to legislate new goals for the movement. That is the task of its constituent national bodies. Our Committee arrives at its decisions on the basis of what Jewish, and in particular, Reform Jewish history and tradition say to us up to this point. Eventually the controversy reached the Board of Trustees of the Union, whose members overwhelmingly refused to admit the Congregation.



CCAR Journal, Fall 1991, pp. 55-63.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.