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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick


If you've been in our building recently, you may have noticed a new and nicely framed series of posters gracing the wall above our information table. I like to call these posters "Sermons on the Wall." They are quick reads and graphics designed to help visitors and newcomers understand Humanistic Judaism and remind us of our fundamental values. Over the next few editions of the newsletter I want to expand upon some of the ideas behind each of them, beginning with a sentiment from Rabbi Wine which I paraphrased as "Human Dignity is the Purpose of Life." In his book Celebrations, he put it this way:

We humanists believe that the purpose of life is human dignity. Enabling people to become the masters of their own lives and to respect this potential in others is the moral enterprise. Where human dignity is at stake, it is appropriate to defy tradition, it is ethical to risk death, it is moral to choose painful challenge.

The American Humanist Association (AHA) also speaks of human dignity as a foundational principle of humanism:

Affirming the dignity of each human being, [humanism] supports the maximization of individual liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility.

These are some beautiful ideas, but what do they really mean? And are they unique to secular humanism?

Both Rabbi Wine and the AHA see human dignity as the fundamental product of individual autonomy, the need for people to be able to exercise as much control over their own lives as possible while also recognizing that our "dignity through autonomy" requires us to identify those same needs in others.


As a kind of refugee from conventional Jewish religion, Rabbi Wine frequently expressed defiance about Jewish traditions of obedience to God. Though the risks he took did not rise to life-threatening, his empathy and compassion for others made him acutely aware that this was a reality for many. In any case, having distanced himself from tradition, Rabbi Wine faced a great deal of criticism for challenging old practices. His courage was born from his empathy and willingness to offer humanistic alternatives.

To position human dignity as the purpose of life is to support the rights of people to live their lives as they choose and to have the opportunities to pursue their goals, dreams, and well-being. In short, to have autonomy over their own lives. In so doing, we take on the moral imperative to protect this central principle, even at personal cost. Are there limits? There certainly are some. As the short quote from the AHA reminds us, "individual liberty and opportunity" must remain "consonant with social and planetary responsibility." We can't just do anything we want. We must weigh our behavior and how it will affect the dignity of other people. There are also additional considerations. For example, there are some who argue that we humanists are too much focused on human dignity.

Noted humanistic philosopher Joseph Chuman addresses such concerns this way:

Though humanism focuses on human concerns, ethical relations and human flourishing, I don’t think it need end there, nor should it. We know, of course, that we are natural beings, children of nature, and we are dependent at every moment on the viability of the natural world. This undeniable realization should lead us to be stewards of the earth and to feel a kinship with living things. It should lead us to feel a sense of piety and humility before the grander universe, which by an accident of nature, has given us birth and has endowed us with consciousness to reflect on its grandeur.

Religious thinkers—even those who share our concern for human dignity—often assert that we humanists have nothing real that grounds our commitments. They believe we need God. For this reason Christians and Jewish theists like to cite the Torah's creation myth where it says that humanity was "created in the image of God."

I say that assertions of a godly source of human dignity make for a slippery slope. Human history has taught us that belief in God too frequently brings with it demands for adherence to divinely-based absolutist moral dogma. Better that we should teach our children moral reasoning and balance our autonomy with compassion and empathy than pretend it comes from somewhere outside of ourselves.

Barring any urgent demand to address a different topic, next week I'll look at another one of the framed poster-sized "Sermons on the Wall" of our lobby.


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