Project of IISHJ

I Am A Believer

“I Am A Believer”  from Staying Sane in a Crazy World, (1995)

I am a believer.

But I am not a believer in a conventional sense.

I believe that we live in a crazy world, that there is no guarantee that the good will be rewarded and that the wicked will be punished.

I believe that the strength to cope with a crazy world comes from within ourselves, from the undiscovered power we have to look real­ity in the face and to go on living.

I believe that the best faith is faith in oneself, and that the sign of this faith is that we allow our reasoning mind to discipline our action.

I believe that the love of life means the love of reason and the love of beauty.

I believe that staying sane in a crazy world is not easy, but that in the long run, it is the foundation of our survival and self-esteem.

I believe that human dignity comes from the courage to live with real­ity and to enjoy its challenge.


In some ways, Sherwin Wine’s life experience demonstrated the need for and importance of his philosophy of life and Judaism. In A Life of Courage: Sherwin Wine and Humanistic Judaism, a celebratory volume published for Wine’s semi-retirement in 2003, two short biographies were written. This one, by his long-time collaborator, organizer and implementer Marilyn Rowens, sets the context for his life and work.

Biography – Marilyn Rowens from Life of Courage

Each of us tastes the bitter loneliness of the human condition. To be an individual is to stand apart and sense the separation that makes every person unique. In a soul where instinct has yielded to the challenge of free choice, decision is personal. Neither the tyranny of the species nor the oppression of society can dictate our will without our moment of consent. Birds and flowers conform to their race and offer no resistance. But human beings are plagued by the unpredictable freedom of our conscious mind. Each of us is distinct and different, defined by the path of our behavior. Within the limits of our possibility we can become what we will to become. Within the boundaries of our talents we can achieve what we choose to achieve. The open possibility of our future is a frightening excitement. We can withdraw in fear and seek to hide from its reality; or we can boldly assume its challenge and bravely confront destiny with the courage of free individuals. -Sherwin Wine, Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism

When Rabbi Sherwin Wine spoke those words during a Birmingham Temple service in 1976, he was already on a historic journey toward creating a new worldwide religion. Meditation Services was in its third printing in 1976 and the building of the Birmingham Temple, completed five years earlier in Farmington Hills, Michigan, was home to more than 400 families.

A people-centered Judaism—a Judaism that embraced Jewish culture, that was a beautiful marriage between Jewish historical literature and modern Jewish thinkers of the Enlightenment—had become a bold adventure for the young rabbi who had been born, in 1928, into a world of tradition in a vibrant Jewish neighborhood in Detroit.

Humanistic Judaism was created by Rabbi Sherwin Wine at the Birmingham Temple, and from that foundation, from that special place, grew and blossomed an awe-inspiring approach to Jewish life that embraced the reality of the human condition and valued and loved the umbilical connection to the Jewish people. In the forty years from 1963—when Rabbi Wine and several families established a new kind of Judaism in Detroit—to 2003, Secular Humanistic Judaism has become a worldwide movement.


What was it like for a young boy growing up in the late 1930s in the Detroit neighborhood near Clairmount and 12th Streets? That intersection represented the heart of Yiddish language and culture: the Jewish bakery, the Jewish butcher shop, the delicatessen, and other small-business storefronts were the centers for conversation. Customers and visitors could listen to political arguments, hear stories from the “old country,” and learn about socialism, communism, and Zionism, while at the same time absorbing how to become fully Americanized and assimilated into a secular urban world. One summer during that period, Sherwin spent a week at a fresh-air camp sponsored by the Jewish Community Center. His counselors would remember a handsome young boy with thick black hair and bright dark eyes, always curious, reading in his cabin. Already at nine he had memorized all the European monarchs and knew the population of every major city in the United States. At home he listened to the radio. He heard Hitler’s speeches; his hero was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Without question, Jewish culture, political history, and American society were major influences on his emerging worldview.

Sherwin was growing up in a world of Jewish religious orientation, but he was also surrounded by many other philosophical influences. Radical Reform Judaism, brought to the United States by German immigrants, was going through a transition. The Ethical Culture movement was burgeoning. The Eastern European neighbors who argued on the street corners came from backgrounds of socialism and Yiddish nationalism, and they took full advantage of the freedom of expression in America. World-famous rabbi and philosopher Mordecai Kaplan was constructing Reconstructionism and progressive American educator John Dewey was becoming the priest of public education, while the young Sherwin Wine sat in the synagogue.

Walking hand in hand with their father, Sherwin and his sister Lorraine went to Shaarey Zedek, a conservative congregation on Chicago Boulevard, every Saturday. Sitting in shul, Sherwin listened to the words of the Torah, sang the songs of his people, and internalized Judaism. He was mesmerized by the new young assistant rabbi, Morris Adler. With his tremendous oratorical presence, Rabbi Adler had the power and charisma to reach the heart of a young Jewish boy. But the questions emanating from that boy’s mind could not be contained. Why? Why? William Wine, Sherwin’s father, answered, Freg nit—don’t ask.

Sherwin’s parents came to the United States from Poland. They came to the goldene medina, the country where the streets were paved with gold. They came to escape the tyranny of the Russian army and the onset of World War I. They came to a new land to live a life of freedom not unlike the many thou-sands of immigrants that peopled the Jewish neighborhoods in cities across the United States. Growing up, Sherwin fervently absorbed the many flavors of American life—political thought, religious belief, modern culture—he was exposed to in his neighborhood. Detroit, home of the auto factories, also held for Sherwin the wonder and enlightenment of the public school system, as well as the pain of antisemitism as epitomized by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A curious nine-year-old started his life’s journey early: even at that young age, Sherwin was a keen observer of his neighborhood, his city, his world.

Each of us is the total of his yesterdays. Layers of experience rise in bold succession to build the personal present out of past performance. While the trauma of life shakes our soul and makes it quiver with each repetition, the heavy hands of strong events mold our minds to their conviction. For we can never escape our memories nor elude the imprints of daily experience. The power of our nostalgia always compromises the purity of our desire and the freedom of our decision. – Sherwin Wine, Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism

The American public school system was a gift to the first- and second-generation immigrant. The open doors of the public schools proclaimed, Come in to us and become an American. Sherwin Wine loved school. He learned civics, citizenship, and American history. He grew up with Jewish ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but he adopted with a passion Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. His Gentile spinster teachers became heroes to Sherwin, and they encouraged him to find intellectual challenges in debate, theater, and poetry. He was a brilliant student both at school and at home. At home he immersed himself in the written word: daily newspapers, library books, textbooks, and encyclopedias. The radio gave him current history. He was aware of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Churchill later became a role model in courage for him, at least in part because, through efforts to provide temporary refuge to Jewish children from Germany and Poland, England became one of the only countries helping the Jews. Even before his bar mitsva, Sherwin was advocating and debating the importance of the United States entering the war.


Sherwin’s ties to the Jewish people, his roots in that community, always informed his thinking. Although his parents were often silent on subjects he quizzed them about, they shared with him their experiences in the Polish shtetl and the worry of his grandfather that the “Jews would be wiped out.” He was fascinated by current events and by what preceded them, and it was only natural that in high school he excelled in history. Central High School, filled as it was in those years with second-generation Jewish immigrants, was a hotbed of ambition and intellectual striving. These children of immigrants were held to the expectation that they would succeed academically: they lived in the United States, the free world, and they had access to universities and career opportunities never even dreamed of by their parents. The adolescents in the old Jewish neighborhood who hung out at the Avalon Theater and Zukins Ice Cream Shop went on to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientists, and teachers.

Sherwin’s successful high school years were not without the pain of World War II. The death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was embedded in his memory. He was still very devoted to his religious connections, but even with his father’s continued admonishment, freg nit, he did ask, he did question, he did struggle with major philosophical issues, with ethical and moral choices, with who he was and who he wanted to be. It was later, at the University of Michigan, that he put a name to this questioning and discovered his great love for philosophy.

To live courageously is to live without guarantees, to make decisions without waiting for every fact, to take action without knowing all the consequences. Brave people do not need the illusions of absolute certainty. They will think before acting. But they will never think so much and so long that it is too late to act.

Courage is the refusal to wait for what will never come. It is the willingness to choose when it is time to choose. -Sherwin Wine, Celebration

Sherwin had excellent professors at the University of Michigan, and for a time he considered getting his doctorate in philosophy and staying in the academic world. But his interests went beyond philosophy; he had also discovered in himself a very strong quality of leadership, which he had exhibited in so many ways throughout his high school and college years: helping and advising friends, negotiating problems in the college dorm, discussing with sensitivity and insight people’s innermost problems. Sociology and psychology were favorite paths for many of his university peers who felt as he did a need to reach out to the world, to help make it better—the Jewish philosophy of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Sherwin’s early memories of Rabbi Morris Adler were never far from his consciousness. Adler’s charisma, power, and influence over a large congregation stirred Sherwin’s questioning mind. Could he also become a rabbi? He had already discovered that he was a humanist, that his connection to his ancestors was unyielding but cultural. He made a decision to attend Hebrew Union College, a seminary for Reform Judaism. Perhaps within the Reform movement he could blend his personal philosophy with a modern Judaism.


Jewish history is four thousand years of Jewish experience. It is the sum total of all the pleasure and pain, triumphs and defeats, fulfilled dreams and disappointments which have entered into our memories through centuries of struggle and striving.

The Jewish experience is the experience of change. – Sherwin Wine, Celebration

The decision to attend Hebrew Union College came only after serious deliberation. How could he become a rabbi if he did not believe in God? He considered many careers, thinking perhaps law would be a wise choice. After his father’s death in 1948, he reaffirmed his deep connection to his Jewish roots. His loyalty to his father’s Judaism, his own love of history, and the memorable impact of Rabbi Morris Adler as a community leader and a role model led him to a career in the Jewish rabbinate.

In 1951 Sherwin entered Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, leaving his familiar neighborhood in Detroit. By this time, the postwar building boom had begun. Families were moving farther from the core of the city. Folksinger Pete Seeger sang about “little boxes in the ticky tacky” suburbs. Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote about the phenomenon of the American nuclear family, predicting that it would be short-lived. The nuclear family, made up of a husband, wife, and 2.5 children, peopled all these grassy new neighborhoods. Attending temple or synagogue was socially encouraged, and all the moms and daughters wore their white gloves and hats. The times were definitely traditional and conformist, but Sherwin was a devout humanist studying at a Reform seminary.


Sherwin was at the seminary when another war, the Korean War, began. Hebrew Union encouraged its graduates to serve in the army as chaplains even after the war ended. Sherwin was inducted into the army six months after graduation. In January 1957, at the age of twenty-nine, Rabbi Wine became First Lieutenant Sherwin Wine. At that point, his world travels began, and they have never ceased.

If Jewish history has any message, it is the demand of human self-reliance. In an indifferent universe there is no help from des-tiny. Either we assume responsibility for our fate or no one will. A world without divine guarantees and divine justice is a little bit frightening. But it is also the source of human freedom and dignity. -Sherwin Wine, Celebration

When Sherwin joined the military, the Korean War had been over for several years, but numerous U.S. troops were still stationed there in the wake of the armistice. Young Jewish boys away from home welcomed the arrival of a chaplain from a background similar to their own. First Lieutenant Wine, himself new to a very different culture, became a popular Jewish chaplain.

Korea opened Sherwin’s mind and heart in so many ways. Serving as chaplain to the young Jewish soldiers reinforced his unique and changing approach to Judaism. Prayer and meditation were not high on the GIs’ list of needs. What they welcomed and appreciated in their young Jewish chap-lain was his ability to speak directly to their concerns, to listen to their voices, and to appreciate who they were as individuals. His meetings with them—he searched out many GIs in remote areas—were special times for sharing personal issues. He also set up lectures on topics of interest to them, providing intellectual stimulus and a time to share the comfort of their Jewish memories. Their Friday night services were more cultural than religious. Sherwin’s distinct leadership style and easy rapport with the troops reached out to the inner needs of these Jewish boys living in a strange land. He enjoyed representing Judaism and trying to make it relevant and meaningful to those soldiers overseas. He was able to provide the young soldiers with a connection to their deepest Jewish roots as well as helping them navigate the uncertainties of the human condition posed by the postwar world they were guarding. Most of all, he shared laughter with them. Sherwin’s exceptional sense of humor, expressed not by telling jokes or stories but by listening and laughing with the troops, gave those young men a sense of home and family.

Sherwin’s experience as a Jewish chaplain provided the seeds that would one day blossom into a humanistic rabbinate. For Sherwin, Korea was his initiation to the many worlds and cultures he had read about in books and to which he would travel continuously over the next forty years.

We will not run away from wisdom even though it comes from strange lands and strange people. Our bravery is our dignity. It feeds our strength. If old laws no longer fit, we will revise them. If old postures keep us from moving gracefully, we will find a new way to walk. A free world makes tradition only one of many options. There is more to life than imitation. Our ancestors created. So can we. -Sherwin Wine, High Holidays for Humanists


When his time in the military ended, Rabbi Wine packed away his army uniform and returned to a position as assistant rabbi at Temple Beth El, located at Woodward and Gladstone in Detroit. He enjoyed the opportunity of sharing a large congregation and introducing interesting programs. His sermons, his sense of humor, and his storytelling for children captivated many young families. But the traditional liturgy became increasingly uncomfortable for him. After eighteen months, Sherwin resigned and took a pulpit in Windsor, Ontario, with a new congregation, also called Beth El, which held the promise of developing a more modern Judaism. The Windsor congregation grew under his tutelage. But then he received a call from former Beth El congregants in Detroit, a couple who were disenchanted with Beth El and wanted to meet with him to discuss creating a new suburban-Detroit temple.

Jews in 1963 were moving north of Detroit. Young couples had settled in Oak Park, Huntington Woods, Franklin, Farmington Hills, and Birmingham. When Harry and Suzanne Velick and seven other couples met with Rabbi Wine in 1963, not even Sherwin realized what the future held for them. Eight couples and a rabbi decided to create a new Reform temple. Sherwin met with the core group on Sunday nights, planning the beginning. New people were attracted to the idea, and their numbers grew. On Sunday, September 15, 1963 (Sunday instead of Friday because Sherwin was still committed to the temple in Windsor), a first service was held, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.

It was not until a few months later that the real process of change began. A temple was created, a board of directors was established, and the Ritual Committee, chaired by Rabbi Wine, began to explore what these new members really believed. Meetings were held on Sunday nights throughout the metropolitan Detroit community. More and more people became aware of Rabbi Wine and this new temple. Space was rented in the Birmingham Masonic Temple. Sherwin owned a small Torah that was carried back and forth. And during this initial growth period, the discussions of philosophy, Judaism, and the meaning of God continued after each meeting and after each service until the early hours of the morning.

Was God the ideal in mankind? Was God the angry God of the prophets? Was God the salvation God of the rabbis? Was God the limited God of John Dewey and Mordecai Kaplan? Was God just another name for nature?

Judaism must be affirmed as a cultural and aesthetic framework in which a variety of philosophic outlooks are possible. Both mystic theism and empirical humanism should feel equally at home. Jewish custom and ceremony are an adjustable poetry, capable of embracing a wide spectrum of human values and experiences. -Sherwin Wine, Celebration

The congregation named itself the Birmingham Temple because the group often met in Birmingham and some members lived there. Rabbi Wine and the Ritual Committee established that the Birmingham Temple believed in Humanistic Judaism, a Judaism that was people-centered rather than God-centered; a Judaism that affirmed that moral and ethical problems were solved from within each individual, not with the assistance of a supernatural force; a Judaism that believed in the strength of ordinary Jewish people to survive a history of persecution.

A line was drawn in the sand between Reform and Humanistic Judaism. The new Humanistic Jewish community wanted to write their own meditations, using words they did not have to reinterpret, words that reflected what they believed. It was an act of courage for Rabbi Wine and the members of his new congregation to make the decision to exclude God-language from their liturgy.


People give meaning to the universe. If we call to the stars and say “tell us the purpose of life,” the stars are silent. If we caress the earth and ask, “what shall we do,” the earth gives no reply. If we pursue the wind and plead, “let us know the path we must follow,” the wind has no answer…. People give meaning to the universe. -Sherwin Wine, Celebration

Almost immediately, the Jewish com-munity was up in arms. On January 29, 1965, Time magazine wrote about the “atheist rabbi.” Letters of criticism came in from the local community. Letters of support arrived too, not only from the United States but also from around the world. For the most part, however, the local response was one of ostracism. Reform Rabbi Leon Fram wanted Sherwin excommunicated. Some of the Birmingham Temple members left because of hostility from their friends and family, but many others stayed. Sherwin Wine’s response was one of defiance.

He was and is a man of strong opinions, and this kind of confrontation energized him. He was determined to grow his community in spite of local Jewish condemnation. Like a locomotive, he forged forward. Some people on the tracks jumped off, but those who became passengers remained for the journey of a lifetime. Sherwin’s keen sense of humor was an effective tool not only for him personally, but also for the congregation to use in dealing with disapproval from others.

Jewish humor is the legacy of the Jewish experience. It did not arise from the Bible or the Talmud. It did not come down from priests, prophets and rabbis. It did not emerge from famous texts and famous writers. Jewish humor is the response of ordinary Jewish people to the extraordinary horrors of Jewish history. In the face of an uncaring and unjust world, we Jews learned to laugh rather than to surrender and die. – Sherwin Wine, Celebration

The Birmingham Temple expanded successfully over the next several years. Enrollment in the Sunday school grew to more than 175 children. Sherwin left Beth El in Windsor, and Birmingham Temple services were held on Friday nights. The first edition of Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism was compiled and published.

In spite of the qualms expressed by tradition-minded Jews, the religious climate in the Detroit metropolitan area was ripe for change. Who were the young people joining the temple? They were second- and third-generation Jews who had benefited from the opportunities of a university education and choice of profession. They were children during World War II and young adults in the 1960s, a time when all authority was questioned. A time of mobility, with people moving from city to city. A time of student rebellion, riots, assassinations. A time to protest the Vietnam War. A time to march for civil rights.

These young parents wanted a new Judaism for their children. They wanted honesty and the values they had absorbed in the secular urban environment in which they lived. They wanted a community of like-minded people who would be their friends and extended family. And so the temple grew to more than 400 families, and the loyal supporters helped to create materials, committees, and the new philosophy of Humanistic Judaism.

Sherwin Wine’s sister Lorraine and her husband Ben were loyal supporters from the beginning. Ben and Lorraine Pivnick supported Rabbi Wine emotionally, financially, and even physically, by always being there. They would continue to remain an important part of the Birmingham Temple and the development of the Secular Humanistic Jewish movement.

The congregation, having been expelled from the Masonic Temple building, had to find a new place to meet, and for a time, the meeting site rotated among several different places: the Birmingham Unitarian Church, Eagle Elementary School, High Meadow School, Frost Junior High. Sherwin’s mother, Tillie Wine, referred to members as “gypsies,” and the idea of a “home of their own” became an important part of Sherwin’s vision. In September 1971, services were held in the new building at 28611 West 12 Mile Road, in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

Jewishness is more than a conventional nod to old belief; it is the push of the past and the irresistible attraction of romantic roots. Samson and Samuel, Joshua and Joab may be dim figures of vanished years; but they are also firm links to the chain of our personality. The biography of each of us is not confined to the brief events of our own life; it transcends our time and adds the feel of former years. Since tradition is part of our uniqueness it deserves our wise respect. If it plays the taskmaster and beats us with the whip of conformity, then we shall with justice resist its malice; but if it acts the teacher and guides us gently to wisdom, we shall embrace it with the tribute of consent. – Sherwin Wine, Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism

During the early 1970s, a volunteer support group of women contributed tremendously to the rapid growth of the Birmingham Temple. This era was a transitional time in American history concerning the roles of women. The feminist movement was not yet widespread; Betty Freidan was not yet being read in every suburban kitchen. But the women members of the Birmingham Temple became Sunday school teachers, committee chairs, board members, and a dynamic source of creative energy for the development of Humanistic Judaism. Friendships were created, and the temple family grew.

Rabbi Wine’s lectures and constant encouragement provided the environment in which the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism flourished. Humanistic Judaism was not created in a vacuum. Jewish history is the history of change. The secularization of America, the influence of the Enlightenment, the impact of Zionism, the questioning of Jewish tradition after World War II and the Holocaust: all led to a need in the Jewish world for a Jewish identity that could blend with a personal philosophy of life. The early years of the temple had less to do with pulling away from God than with pulling together to form a community of “believers” in a humanistic and rational approach to life. The members were a generation of searchers. They had had the opportunity of education and living in a free society. They wanted their children to soar; they wanted to give them wings at a time when having wings meant flying away from tradition toward a universal world of wonder, science, and beauty. Rabbi Wine created meditations, poetry, and ritual to express congregants’ deepest human struggles and their attachment to the traditional Jewish world of their youth.


Rabbi Wine was called upon to lecture all across the country. Responses to his lectures and press coverage resulted in national interest and support. The next step for the ambitious rabbi was outreach to the general community. Coalitions were formed with other secular Jews, unaffiliated Jews who were not connected to organizations but were motivated to proclaim their Jewish identity with pride. A sense of solidarity with Israel increased for many Jews following the Yom Kippur War, creating a powerful urge to establish a stronger Jewish identity. In its initial years, the Society for Humanistic Judaism—created in 1969 to mobilize communities to celebrate Jewish identity and Jewish culture with a humanistic philosophy—began the serious work of outreach and community-building in other cities.

Sherwin also connected with other like-minded humanist organizations. It was the beginning of the real growth of coalitions of secular groups that had previously operated independently. A list of “alphabet soup” organizations, which have become Sherwin’s trademark, began to appear so rapidly that it was hard to define which meeting was being called to order. Rabbi Wine’s energy level could easily handle the multitude of meetings. His organizational skills were unparalleled. A first “Conference on Humanism” held at Oakland University in Michigan attracted stellar speakers and numerous participants. It was an exciting time for members of the temple and for so many unaffiliated humanists to come together and discuss and question: What is authentic in life, what is authentic in the human being? This first conference was not only the beginning of a strong philosophy of Humanistic Judaism, but also the nucleus for future connections with the larger world of humanism. Sherwin had the great talent of bringing people together. The list of organizations grew and grew:

  • Birmingham Temple (BT)
  • Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ)
  • Association of Humanistic Rabbis (AHR)
  • Center for New Thinking (CNT)
  • Humanist Institute (HI)
  • North American Committee for Humanism (NACH)
  • International Association of Humanist Educators Counselors and

Leaders (IAHECL)

  • TECHILA (formerly Israeli Society for Humanistic Judaism)
  • Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews (LCSHJ)
  • International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews (IFSHJ)
  • International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ)
  • Voice of Reason (VOR)
  • Conference on Liberal Religion (CLR)
  • Clergy and Citizens United (CCU)

All of the above organizations began with the very close supervision of Rabbi Wine; as they grew, they became more autonomous but never far from his influence. Simultaneously the Birmingham Temple expanded and became an established and accepted alternative in the Detroit Jewish community.

The literature of our people is an encyclopedia of many ideas. Some of them sprang from Jewish minds. Some of them were borrowed from the neighbors of our ancestors and the loan forgotten. Our religious tradition has been a matter of give and take.… We are the products of universal wisdom. – Sherwin Wine, Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism

Only part of Sherwin’s inexhaustible energy has gone into creating organizations and establishing communities. He is also a prolific writer. His articles appear monthly in the Birmingham Temple newsletter, The Jewish Humanist; quarterly in the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s journal, Humanistic Judaism; and twice a year in the International Federation Newsletter, Hofesh. He is the author of several books, including Celebration, Judaism Beyond God, Humanistic Judaism, and Staying Sane in a Crazy World. He lectures at least three or four times a week locally, he travels across the country to teach seminars several times a year, and he is the core faculty for training rabbis at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Those who have heard him speak know that Sherwin has a unique lecture style. He is able to present and teach the most difficult subject, somehow making it easy for his audience to understand. He is able to synthesize information and explain ideas in a dramatic and powerful way. This talent has enabled him to stimulate people to cooperate with each other in visionary endeavors, and he empowers others to act on their own to create philosophical connections, com-munities, and organizations. And this is only his public persona. As a counselor and a friend, he has a special gift. He is able to touch people deeply; he knows which questions to ask and he is an intent listener. He can walk into a room and light it up. His incredible sense of humor generates laughter, but, more important, he possesses the ability to sweep away melancholy.

Sherwin Wine, however, is not a saint. He is often a taskmaster with an exceedingly rigid set of standards for himself and others. He has no patience with wishy-washy endless discussion. He is a man of action who is more than willing to make a decision first and consult later. For forty years, this style has served him well; this style has enabled his visions to become realities. He is a natural leader: to paraphrase the old commercial, When Sherwin speaks, people listen. His congenial arrogance is sometimes abrasive, but it is also a key ingredient in many of his relationships. His peers, his congregants, the couples he counsels and marries, the boards of organizations he has created all give consideration to his ideas and suggestions and decisions he may have already made.

Sherwin’s daily agenda and schedule would be tiring even if divided among three people. Sleep does not seem to be a priority. Weather permitting, Sherwin walks every morning; when he’s in New York, he walks across the Brooklyn Bridge. He lectures, attends meetings, and is a sought-after speaker for community groups, clubs, elder hostels, retreats, and college campuses. He may not be totally tireless—occasionally he is caught napping when someone else is the speaker or while sitting in a dark theater during an opera. But when he is speaking in front of an audience, listening intently to others’ problems, or helping to solve a critical situation, he is 100 percent involved: supportive, helpful, and inspiring. He believes that “people are their behavior,” and he is the prime example of that concept: he is an optimistic friend, a rational counselor, a stimulating and affective teacher, and a loyal shoulder to lean on. Living life well is his daily challenge.

We are the survivors of two billion years of vital evolution. We are not miniature gods. We are not manufactured puppets. We are not visitors from outer space. We are the proud culmination of an epic of struggle. The earth is our home. We know it intimately. Its plants and animals are our cousins. Like them we have tested the kindness and cruelty of nature. Our brutal setting has made us strong. We have many talents for survival. Our brains, our limbs and our senses cooperate to make us a hardy fighter for life. We are not the heirs of the passive and the resigned. We are the children of action. We are the offspring of the will to live. – Sherwin Wine, High Holidays for Humanists

Over a period of forty years, contacts, friendships, and outreach efforts contributed to the process of creating the movement for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Not long after the Society for Humanistic Judaism was established, three groups—representatives from the Humanistic Jewish congregations in Westport, Connecticut, and Deerfield, Illinois, as well as from the Birmingham Temple—held a first meeting at the Northland Inn in Michigan. The society now boasts more than thirty-nine communities in North America. In 1981 a meeting was held in Israel at Shefayim kibbutz. It was the beginning of cooperation between Israel and the society. The early years of the society with Sherwin directing traffic resulted in many more conferences, the creation of Humanistic Judaism, the quarterly journal published by the society, and strong emotional connections between each developing community.

In 1982 Sherwin called a meeting of other Jewish secular organizations as well as the Society for Humanistic Judaism: the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, Polizion, Workmen’s Circle, the Labor Zionists of America, and Americans for Progressive Israel. That was the beginning of the Leader ship Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews, which marked the first time that so many separate secular groups sat together in one room to proclaim solidarity and to cooperate to create a publication of secular humanistic writing.

In 1985, at a meeting in Jerusalem at the American Colony Hotel, representatives from North America, Israel, and Latin America established the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. It had become apparent that in order for Secular Humanistic Judaism to have a future and be able to maintain members in a democratic and secular world, leaders would have to be trained. The institute became the educational arm of what was then the beginning of an international movement.

In 1986 representatives from eleven countries came together at the Birmingham Temple, and the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews was born. More than 350 people—local, national and international— gathered for the federation’s first leadership training seminar and conference. Speakers from France, Latin America, Israel, and North America, whose backgrounds were flavored by the Enlightenment, postwar secularism, Zion-ism, and the Holocaust, spoke from the heart about a shared philosophy: a Judaism of the twentieth century that embraced the culture, history, roots, and essence of the Jewish people; a Judaism that did not rely on a belief in the supernatural but on reason and the responsibility of human beings to create for themselves and others a life of good deeds and a better world.

The Jewish experience is the experience of change.

The power of people is the power of change. Circumstances never stay the same. Culture never stays the same. Judaism was created by Jewish people. It was molded by the Jewish experience. It was flavored by Jewish sadness and Jewish joy.

Holidays are responses to human events. Ceremonies are celebrations of human development. Music and literature are the expressions of human needs. Life is an evolution, a continuous flow of transformation. And so is culture. When circumstances change, people change. When people change, their laws and customs change. – Sherwin Wine, Celebration

Sherwin Wine is a man of social action. All of the organizations Rabbi Wine created had a focus and purpose. In addition to maintaining coalitions with the humanist world and the secular Jewish cultural world, he also encouraged confrontation in response to injustice and fundamentalist irrationality. A firm believer in separation of church and state, civil rights, individual rights, and personal freedom, Sherwin developed such social action organizations as the Voice of Reason, the Conference on Liberal Religion, and later, Clergy and Citizens United. His ability to recruit outstanding allies and specialists in their fields enabled these organizations to make an impact in the community. His motivation to fix the world had its roots in the traditional Jewish influence of tikkun olam.

The 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s were full of the excitement of the growth of Secular Humanistic Judaism. North American conferences were held, and meetings of the International Federation took place in Brussels, Chicago, Israel, Moscow, Paris, and New York, where, in the fall of 2000, a permanent office of the federation was established.


Rabbi Wine has devoted his life not only to making Humanistic Judaism a viable alternative in the Jewish world, but also to lecturing, teaching, and enriching others. All of the federation conferences have included a lecture series and a personal tour with him through each city. His incredible historical knowledge, his love of travel, and his need to learn about other cultures and people has provided him with yet another trademark: The Sherwin Wine Trip. A yearly fundraiser for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism—open to the general public—the Sherwin Wine Trip is the equivalent of a traveling history class and a participatory documentary.

Does Sherwin ever stop? This question has been asked many times by all those who work with him and love him. His energy is endless, his enthusiasm is genuine, and he always makes time to listen to his congregants, his friends, and his critics. But one month of the year belongs to him. Each summer Sherwin and his life partner of twenty-five years, Richard McMains, travel together. The trips have been logged from Turkey to Timbuktu, from India to Japan, from Egypt to Siberia. Sherwin and Richard have traveled the world together. Since his first taste of the wonders of travel during his military service in Korea, Rabbi Wine has absorbed the politics, the culture, the architecture, the history, the pain and struggle, and the heartbeat of people all over the world.

Societies may undergo revolutions and violent social upheaval; they may experience the overthrow of every existing value and idea. But the explosion is powerless to alter the relentless sequence of spring, summer, fall, winter—birth, puberty, maturity, and death. Nothing is more “eternal” than the seasons. Their continual repetition is an ultimate “security.” – Sherwin Wine, Humanistic Judaism


The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, established in 1985, became the important educational arm of the movement. The need for communities to have leaders—the key to ensuring a future for Secular Humanistic Judaism—was the motivation for the development of the Leadership Program, designed to train those leaders. New Humanistic communities needed specialists in ceremony and holiday celebration in order to grow.

Established secular groups wanted to make sure that they had educators, spokespersons, and trained leaders to keep secular Jewishness alive. Dedicated volunteers in the institute representing the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations worked diligently and created the Leadership Program, which became the most successful pro-gram of the institute. Rabbi Wine was the organizing force and energy that propelled the institute into the twenty-first century.

Again with the generous help of Ben and Lorraine Pivnick, and with matching funds from the Birmingham Temple, an addition to the temple was built to house the Pivnick Center for Humanistic Judaism. The Pivnick Center became the headquarters of the institute, hosting seminars and meetings and housing administration offices and the Milan Library.

Certified leaders, also known as vegvayzer or madrikhim, were trained and graduated from the institute. They then went out to their communities to reinforce and rekindle the flames of Secular Humanistic Judaism.

In 1990 the Institute initiated a five-year rabbinic program. Classes were held weekly in the institute’s Milan Library. Rabbi Wine was the core faculty. Arrangements were made with the University of Michigan to engage guest faculty members from its Judaic Studies department, and the rabbinic program began to take concrete shape.

By October 2001, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism had ordained four rabbis. By virtue of the acknowledgement and recognition from the United Jewish Communities, three of the rabbis serve on the Detroit Metropolitan Council of Rabbis, and the fourth will be recognized in Washington, D.C.


The International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews met for its ninth biennial conference in September 2002. An enthusiastic assembly from Israel, France, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Ireland, Latin America, England, Germany, and North America (plus greetings from Russia and Australia)—all interested in building communities—indicated a promising future for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Sherwin Wine is not the Wizard of Oz. He does not stand behind the curtain and pull levers. He has worked industriously to promote and make available to Jews all over the world a Judaism rooted in personal strength; a people-centered Judaism; a Judaism that embraces Jewish history and literature, culture and ethics; a Judaism that speaks to the needs of a cyberspace world and at the same time loves and recognizes with devoted attachment the wisdom and tradition of ancestors.

In the twentieth century, the true meaning of Jewish identity has been dramatized. It is no pious call to faith and humility. It is no saccharine invitation to prayer and worship. It is a summons to all that modern humanism stands for. If a people will not assume responsibility for its “fate” and its “destiny,” no one else will. If human beings will not take charge of their own happiness, the indifferent forces of the universe may arrange for human suffering. Reason and dignity are not built into the structure of the world. They are difficult human achievements. – Sherwin Wine, Judaism Beyond God

In May 2003 Rabbi Wine was honored with the Humanist of the Year award from the American Humanist Association, an organization that has joined with him in so many of the challenges and accomplishments of the last forty years. His enthusiastic unwavering voice for Judaism and humanism is cause for public appreciation and celebration.

The achievements of Sherwin Wine, summarized in the alphabet soup of organizations he founded, rely on who he is as a man, and as a human being. Sherwin never stopped being a philosophy major. He is a student of ethical behavior, an avid reader who maintains a constant passion for knowledge. The Birmingham Temple library is filled wall to wall with the books he has read and reviewed. His broad and deep knowledge is extraordinary. His lectures include spontaneous map drawings to help him clarify his topics. Rabbi Wine is a great teacher, in large measure because he loves to teach.

In his role as a rabbi, Sherwin meets the needs of his congregants in a very special way. During a hospital call he is able to soothe the family, inspire the patient, and often create a secure moment of healing laughter. Families rely on him to help them with the torturous decision of continuing or ending life support. His empathic presence at a house of mourning validates the family’s pain while enabling loved ones to join in a celebration of life. And Sherwin has the ability to empower people, to help them accept responsibility and find motivation to do things they never dreamed they could do. His lectures on themes of biblical history or new scientific theories, politics or psychology, poetry or current social issues have an exceptional way of touching and uplifting his audience.

This does sound like a lot for one person to do, but that’s what Sherwin Wine does. Upon his retirement from the Birmingham Temple, he plans to add a few more things to his agenda. To begin with, he will be the full-time dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. He will increase his involvement with the congregations and com-munities that make up the Society for Humanistic Judaism. He will travel to off-campus sites to teach institute seminars as well as choreographing the Sherwin Wine Trips. He will maintain his important role in the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews. He will continue his walking tours, his lectures, his traveling, his writing, his reading, and his outreach to other people. As long as there are still letters in the alphabet, they will certainly appear in the names of new organizations envisioned and directed by Rabbi Wine.

Happiness is no distant event which we strive to achieve, some future bliss we suffer to enjoy. It is the sensitive awareness of what is intrinsically valuable in the here and now. It is the special plea-sure of helping others, the beauty of friendship, the thrill of running, the excitement of learning, the exaltation in simple striving.

Happiness is not, in reality, the goal of life at all. It is the feeling of aliveness that pervades the pursuit of challenge. – Sherwin Wine, Sabbath Services

The New Jewish History

“The New Jewish History” From A Provocative People, (2012)

Once upon a time there was a man called Abraham. He lived in Chaldea near the city of Ur. One day a god called Yahweh came to him and told him to leave. Abraham listened to Yahweh and left. He moved to Haran in Mesopotamia and from there to the land of the Canaanites. Being a rich shepherd, he traveled with many servants. In Canaan, Yahweh promised the land to him and to his descendants. Abraham promised to obey Yahweh in all things. When his wife, Sarah, bore him a son, Isaac, at the age of ninety, Abraham was very happy. Isaac in turn fathered Esau and Jacob. With the double name of Jacob and Israel, Jacob in turn fathered twelve sons. From these twelve sons came the entire people of Israel, also known as the Hebrews.

Jacob and his twelve sons went down into Egypt. In time they were enslaved by a wicked king. After four hundred years Yahweh decided to rescue them. He chose a Hebrew named Moses to lead them back to Canaan. Two million strong, the Hebrews departed Egypt to march to the Promised Land. Along the way they stopped at Yahweh’s mountain, Mount Sinai. There Yahweh gave them rules and regulations to live by. After forty years they reached Canaan. Moses died. His successor, Joshua, led the Hebrews across the Jordan River and conquered the land in one fell swoop. The Hebrews settled down on the land and began to worship the gods of Canaan. An angry Yahweh punished them with disunity and enemies. The worst enemy was the Philistines. In time, the Hebrews united under the shepherd king David, defeated the Philistines and became an independent nation.

This is the biblical story of the origins of the Jewish people. Wherever Jews and Christians are to be found, this story is popular and familiar. It is so popular and so familiar that it has been incorporated into the patriotism and the holidays of the Jewish and Christian worlds.

While the story may be familiar, charming and even inspirational, it suffers from a major problem. It is simply not true. There is no evidence— beyond the text of the Bible—that most of these events took place, or that most of these people really existed.

If I tell you a story about a man named Uncle Sam who had fifty children named Massachusetts, Virginia, Missouri, California… you would laugh at the absurdity of the tale. But when a similar story appears in the Bible about Abraham, who is described as the ancestor of many nations, millions of people abandon their reason and embrace its credibility. Biblical tales are not so much descriptions of real events as they are propaganda for political and religious arguments which took place many centuries after the presumed events took place. If they have historical value, it is because they are clues to what was going on in Jewish life at the time the author of the story lived. The story of Abraham has less to do with 1800 BCE, when Abraham presumably lived, than with 700 BCE when his story was created.

Biblical mythology revolves around the central figure of Yahweh, a god whose devotees claim that he is the only God worthy of the name. In the biblical narrative, Yahweh precedes the Jewish people and is responsible for their formation through his covenant treaty with Abraham. He continues to manage the Jewish experience through thick and thin. Even when the Jews misbehave, he does not abandon them. According to the biblical writers, Yahweh and the Jewish people have been together from the beginning of Jewish history.

But, in reality, Yahweh, as a popular God, did not show up until much later. Even when Moses and David appeared, it seems that they spent much of their religious time with many gods other than Yahweh. The same is true of their Israelite contemporaries. The early history of Israel is a time of comfortable polytheism in which the life of the Hebrew shepherd and farmer was tied up with the gods of the Canaanites and other Semitic neighbors. Yahweh was around, but he was competing with other members of the pantheon for Jewish attention. The Hebrews were as yet unaware of an exclusive intimacy.

For almost five hundred years, the Jews grew up as a nation without Yahweh at the center. More important to their early story was the place where they lived, the neighbors they had and their own struggle for survival. The Jews, like all other people, have a human context for their birth.

Mythology is the story of the gods. If you believe that the gods intervene actively in human affairs, then mixing mythology with history is a valid enterprise. But if you do not, the mixing becomes an obstacle to the discovery of truth.

What would Jewish history be like if the mythology were fully dis-missed? Over the last two hundred years many scholars have attempted to deal with the Jews as a natural phenomenon.1 Some of them were Bible critics, some of them were secular historians, some of them were archeologists—all of them were united by their commitment to science as the best method for the discovery of the truth. Science simply means responsibility to the evidence of controlled investigation. Supernatural powers, supernatural beings and supernatural purposes have no place in the scientific perspective.

Over the last two centuries a great deal of evidence has been accumulated to create an alternative Jewish story. The origins of the Jewish people, the origins of the Bible, the evolution of priestly Judaism, the development of Talmudic Judaism, the realities of Hellenistic Jews, the emergence of antisemitism, the adaptation of the Jews to the Christian and Muslim worlds—all of these important chapters in Jewish history which have been distorted by the lenses of mythology and theological apologetics—now have alternative stories. In some ways the new alternatives are less roman-tic because the gods have been reduced to ideas in human minds and their passionate and whimsical agendas are absent from the tale. In other ways the new stories are more interesting and exciting because they are not merely the repetition of familiar religious doctrine. Flesh and blood people of the narrative are no longer the passive victims of divine manipulation, but rather the authors and creators of the events themselves.

It is not true that the real history of the Jews has been around for a long time and has been available to anyone who wants to study it. The real story of the Jews is only now emerging and confronts resistance from the de-fenders of the tradition. Since so many traditional stories have been woven into the fabric of Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays, literature and symbols, many people who are open to scientific change in less emotionally charged areas of their lives offer stiff opposition to this new telling of the Jewish experience.

The new history is full of surprises. It may be the case that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are purely legendary. It may be the case that the Exodus from Egypt is a theological fabrication. It may be the case that the fundamental cultural influence on early Jewish life was not monotheistic and Mosaic but polytheistic and Canaanite. It may also be the case that the biblical prophets recommended a life style that was profoundly at odds with the economic and social direction of Jewish history. In fact, the sacred literature of the Jews was unsympathetic, from the beginning, to the mercantile role of the Jews in Western history.

Jewish history is tied up with the theology of three very powerful religious systems. Judaism and Christianity, and Islam to a lesser degree, can-not separate their sacred events from Jewish events. The Jews, as the Chosen People, are beyond the normal patterns of human development. Jewish experience, as a theological lesson, is a witness to supernatural power and divine intervention. In the religious context, Jews become more than Jews. They become agents of God, sustained by mysterious forces that can neither be described nor scrutinized. For millions of believers, Jewish history is more than history. It is divine revelation.

Many historians have difficulty dealing with the Jews as a normal people who function in the natural world in which most other nations seem to exist. Because the mythology of the Bible is so familiar to the reading public, mythical figures like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are simply accepted as real. If the mythology were Chinese, an objective and skeptical approach would be more easily accepted. There is a tendency in the Jewish and Christian worlds to defend the indefensible because the indefensible is our very own.

Traditional history may be a denial of what the Jews really were and are. Monotheism and the Chosen People idea may not be the most important beliefs that defined Jewish power and suffering. Ideology and faith may not be the major reasons why Jews were assaulted and persecuted. The Jews have been, and continue to be, a “provocative” people. Jewish apologetics is comfortable attributing that provocation to “superior” religious and ethical ideas. But modern antisemitism has given the lie to this interpretation. The economic role of the Jew may have been more important than the theological one. The patriarchal, priestly and prophetic periods of Jewish history may not be the “Golden Age” of Jewish achievement. The present age may be an alternative candidate.

The contemporary Jew-hater is not provoked by Jewish monotheism and Jewish ethics. He is provoked by the economic power which he attributes to the Jews and by the modernist ideas (atheism, secularism and Communism) which he accuses the Jews of fostering.

The economic role of the Jews in Western history is not a role that makes Jews comfortable, especially because the power of the Jews has been exaggerated. Jews are more comfortable with shepherd ancestors like Abraham and Isaac than with craftsmen, merchants and moneylenders. But shepherds had very little to do with most of Jewish history—and merchants and money were omnipresent. It may be the case that the Jews, as the pre-cursors of capitalism and an urban society, may be more important than the Jews as the inventors of a new theology. If we shift our focus, then, the ancient period of Jewish history may turn out to be the prelude to more dramatic accomplishments. Modern times, with all of its problematic antisemitism, may emerge as the heyday of Jewish significance.

The Meaning of Jewish History

“The Meaning of Jewish History”  From Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1986.

For the Jewish people, Jewish history has been more than a history. It has also been a course in philosophy.

For more than three thousand years, priests, prophets, poets, rabbis, and scholars have used the Jewish experience to “prove” their vision of the world. The events of the Jewish saga became “evidence” for certain beliefs about the nature of God and the universe. The exodus from Egypt was more than an exodus. In priestly and rabbinic hands, it became the demonstration of divine power and divine justice.

The meaning of Jewish history is the set of answers to important questions about God, the world, and people, which observers derive from the Jewish experience. Four questions, in particular, became the dominant themes of this evaluation. What does Jewish history demonstrate about:

The nature of the universe?

The power of human beings?

The evolution of human experience?

The essence of Jewish identity?

Rabbinic Judaism, which was the establishment ideology of the Jewish people for more than two thousand years, used the events of the Jewish story to answer these four questions. The answers of the rabbis became the “official” meaning of the Jewish experience. Rabbinic literature derived its character from this unique perspective.

What were the answers of the rabbis?

From the rabbinic point of view, the existence, experiences, and survival of the Jewish people demonstrated the presence in the universe of an all-powerful, loving, and just God, who punished the wicked and rewarded the good, and who was attentive to the hopes and aspirations of all humanity. The world was a well ordered place in which a divine intelligence was actively concerned with the moral agenda of human beings. Therefore, whatever happened in the world—no matter how seemingly unjust— happened for the good. In the end, even the suffering of the innocent would be vindicated by divine rewards.

Jewish history, according to the rabbis, demonstrated that human power was extremely limited; that human beings, relying on their own power alone, could accomplish very little. Time after time, according to the Bible and the Talmud, the Jewish people were rescued from disaster and from the embarrassment of their own inadequacy by divine intervention. The message of the priests and the prophets was that reliance on human effort and on human ingenuity was as effective as leaning on a “weak reed.” The wise man recognized that human happiness was possible only with supernatural help.

Jewish history also revealed that the quality of human life was gradually declining. The present was inferior to the past, and the future would be inferior to the present. Similarly, the teachers of the present were inferior to the teachers of the past, and the teachers of the future would be inferior to the teachers of the present. The patriarchs, the prophets, and the rabbinic fathers were wiser, more saintly, and more inspired than any sages that would follow. Modern-day saints and scholars would be mental and spiritual pygmies in comparison with their ancient predecessors. God’s conversations with humanity, and the time of divine revelation, had come to an end with the prophet Malachi. The world would sink into corruption and violence until only the messianic intervention of God would rescue humankind.

As to the nature and character of the Jewish people, the rabbis were very definite in their answer. The Jewish people was inseparable from the Torah and the religion it embodied. Without the Torah, the Jewish people would lose its essence and its unique personality. Without the Torah, the Jewish people would lose its motivation to survive as a distinct nation and would quickly be absorbed by the Gentile world. The Jews and rabbinic Judaism were pragmatically one.

The Humanist Critique

The meaning of Jewish history, as it was conceived by the rabbis, presents many problems for Humanistic Jews.

Supernatural guidance of natural events is not a credible idea for rational secularists. The assumption that what happens in this world is caused by decisions made in another is without valid evidence. If there are natural events, they have natural causes.

The discoveries of the past are important. But there is no evidence that the experts of the present are inferior to the experts of the past. In the world of science and technology, the information of the present is far superior to that of the past. There is no reason to assume that the development of religions and philosophic truths has been any different.

Religious personalities have been important in Jewish history. But to maintain that priests, prophets, and rabbis were the chief actors in the Jewish drama is to ignore the secular dimension of the Jewish experience. The authors of the Bible and the Talmud may not have chosen to record the achievements of the merchants, bankers, and artisans. Yet these achievements, economic and cultural, may have been just as influential in molding the Jewish character.

Traditional scholars make no distinction between the experience of the Jewish people and the descriptions of that experience that appear in the official texts of sacred literature. They simply assume that what the Bible and the Talmud claim to have happened did happen. If the Book of Exodus maintains that the Red Sea split before the fleeing Hebrews, then there was a split. If the anonymous Talmudic storyteller declares that a one-day supply of holy oil lasted for eight days, then this extraordinary event was real. There is no awareness of the fact, so amply confirmed by modem scientific criticism, that the real history of the Jews is vastly different from the saga presented by the rabbinic tradition.

In the light of these objections to the rabbinic approach to Jewish history, Humanistic Jews provide different answers to the four questions.

A Humanistic Perspective: World View

From a humanistic perspective, the existence, experience, and survival of the Jewish people hardly demonstrate the existence of a loving, just God who is compassionately involved with the moral agenda of human beings. On the contrary, the very opposite is indicated. In the century of the Holocaust, after twenty centuries of continuous, unprovoked Jew hatred, the experience of the Jewish people points to the absence of God.

A humanistic Judaism finds a totally different meaning in Jewish history from that proposed by traditional Judaism. A believer in future supernatural rewards and punishments would be hard put to justify the scenarios of Jewish sorrow and suffering from a morally divine perspective. No good God would arrange or allow a Holocaust of six million innocent victims. A thousand glorious resurrections would never provide moral compensation.

If Jewish history has any message abut the nature of the universe, it is that the universe is indifferent to our suffering or happiness, that it cares nothing about the moral concerns of the human struggle. The Jewish experience points to the absurdity of the world. Events happen in accordance with physical laws, not in accordance with ethical ones. Earthquakes and wars cannot defy the law of gravity; they can easily defy the Golden Rule.

The cosmic implication of Jewish history is that you cannot rely on the kindness of the universe. In the end, if human beings want justice, they will have to arrange for it. If they want happiness and dignity, they will have to arrange for them, too. And there is no messianic guarantee that we will achieve what we strive to achieve. Uncertainty is the stuff of an absurd universe.

In the light of four thousand years of continuous reproduction, Jewish survival is not so dramatic. Look at the Chinese, the Hindus, and the Greeks, who are equally ancient. Look at the Arabs, our Semitic rivals. Whatever gods took care of them did a far better job than Yahveh.

A Humanistic Perspective: Human Power

The rabbinic answer to the question of human power is inadequate and contrived. To assume that every human failure is due to human weakness and that every human success is due to divine assistance is to build the desired conclusion into the premise. From a naturalistic point of view, human success is the result of human effort and human ingenuity. If the achievement occasionally seems “divine,” that is a tribute to human potential. Sometimes adversity evokes extraordinary results.

The Exodus from Egypt (if it is indeed a historical event) was a human happening that used human power to arrange for human freedom. The resistance of the Maccabees was a “human” rebellion that used human ingenuity to defeat the Greeks.

The survival of the Jews through fifteen centuries of unremitting persecution is no testimony to divine benevolence. It is a witness to the continuous ability of the Jews to invent new reasons for their enemies to let them live. If their religious ideas were offensive, their economic skills remained indispensable. The Zionist enter-prise was a determined effort on the part of secular Jews to reject the historic passivity of the pious, with all its messianic waiting, and to assume conscious responsibility for the Jewish fate.

Jewish history testifies to the power of human ingenuity to cope with the cruelty of destiny. While Jewish suffering was more destructive than helpful, it did hone Jewish survival skills and stimulated the development of group solidarity and ambition.

A Humanistic Perspective: Progress

The rabbinic vision of human development, its answer to the question of human progress, is a distortion of reality. The belief that the best, the smartest, and the most charismatic lived long ago and that succeeding generations of religious experts and moralists can only manage to be less brilliant and less inspiring would be a charming myth if it did not have such harmful consequences.

The helplessness of modem Orthodoxy to find legal and moral relief for its overburdened adherents is the result of this doctrine. If contemporary scholars are overwhelmingly inferior to Moses and

Jeremiah, Hillel and Akiba, they have no moral authority to change what the superior ones have sanctioned. If divine revelation is con-fined to the distant past, nothing in the present can override its commands. Religion is reduced to the worship of the past.

Even modem liberal expressions of rabbinic Judaism such as Conservatism, Reform, and Reconstructionism, which accept some form of contemporary revelation, suffer from this view. They still vigorously seek to find sanction in the Bible and the Talmud for the changes they institute. Without the “kosherizing” of the past, present decisions lack validity.

Nostalgia for the pious past pervades the historic perspective of contemporary Jewish leaders. Most of these commentators on the Jewish scene see modem Western urban Jewry as less “Jewish” and less exciting than the pietists of earlier generations. They imagine that the age of the Secular Revolution has devastated the Jewish people through skepticism, assimilation, and intermarriage.

For Humanistic Jews, this nostalgia is deplorable. From our perspective, the Secular Revolution was the best thing that ever happened to the Jewish people. It removed the tyrannical religious monopoly of the traditional rabbis. It opened the Jewish mind to scientific inquiry and naturalism. It provided Jews with a more realistic understanding of the Jewish past and the evolution of Jewish culture. It introduced Jews to secular studies and to the intellectual pursuits that enabled them to make their mark on the revolutionary rethinking of the human condition. It provided them with a free economy and a democratic political structure that enabled them to reach unprecedented heights of prosperity and community involvement. It rescued them from religious passivity and gave them the confidence to assume responsibility for the Jewish fate.

Despite wars and massacres, the human condition and the Jewish condition have vastly improved. Few contemporary Jews, if offered the option, would volunteer to return to the Age of the Patriarchs.

Jewish wisdom and creativity in the twentieth century does not have to take a back seat to the legacy of the distant past. The Jews of this century are, probably, the most interesting, the most challenging, and the most creative generations of Jews that ever lived. Einstein was not inferior to Moses. And Freud did not have to offer reverence to Isaiah. Bialik and Tchernikhovsky are the equals of the psalmists. Herzl and Nordau are more relevant than Leviticus.

None of us need the sanction of the Torah or of the rabbis to be Jewishly valid. The worship of the past is replaced by respectful listening.

A Humanistic Perspective: Jewish Identity

The rabbinic answer to the question of Jewish identity is simply untrue. Jewish identity and Torah allegiance are not wed to one another. As the Zionist ideologue Ahad Ha’am pointed out, the Jewish people existed before Judaism, and the ethnic will to live preceded any theological formulations that justified it.

From the humanistic point of view, rabbinic Judaism did not create the national determination to survive. It provided a respectable public justification of it. In modem times, secular Zionism is an equally successful expression of the same ethnic drive.

The constant in Jewish identity is not theological conviction or Torah allegiance but Jewish peoplehood. In every age, the urge to survive—universal among nations—motivated Jews to find appropriate ways to satisfy it. In a religious age, they found religious strategies. In a secular age, they have found secular strategies.

The experience of Jewish ethnicity is the heart of Jewish identity. Even today, returnees to traditional Judaism do not first come to it out of theological conviction but out of a profound (if misleading) conviction that it is the best means of guaranteeing Jewish ethnic survival.


The meaning of Jewish history is radically different for Humanistic Jews from what it is for traditional or even liberal Jews.

The moral universe of the rabbis dissolves into the indifferent universe of the post-Holocaust era. The depreciation of human power and ingenuity is replaced by an appropriate tribute to the surprise of the human potential. The gloomy vision of a world declining in wisdom yields to a reassuring recognition of human progress. The rigid equating of Jewishness with religiosity gives way to recognition of the creative power of the Jewish will to live.

This new meaning is an important message we must share with the Jewish world.


Jewish Identity Through Jewish History

“Jewish Identity Through Jewish History” from Judaism Beyond God, (1985)

Before we explore the value of Jewish identity in a secular age, we need to clarify what Jewish identity is.

We need to evaluate certain words that people use to describe Jews. Religious, racial, cultural, national are common designations. They have been used frequently by both friends and enemies.

What friends and enemies think is not irrelevant. Useful labels are public creations. They belong to a world of shared meaning. Groups have boundaries. What those boundaries are for Jews is determined not only by Jews but also by those who stand on the other side of the boundary. We are not only what we say we are. We are also what others say we are.

Sometimes what we think about ourselves and what others think about us is not part of our awareness. It is unconscious and can only be detected through behavior. Our actions are always more interesting than our words. They reveal what we really believe about ourselves. If we want to understand the nature of Jewish identity, we have to watch how Jews behave, not just how they choose to present themselves to others.

Are the Jews a religious group?

Certainly, in the countries of the Western world, that designation is the most convenient. It avoids the accusation of dual nationality and identifies Jews with a community activity that is viewed as positive. In Eastern Europe, it is less convenient. Seventy-five years of Communism secularized most Jews. In Israel, a definition of the Jews as a religious denomination would subvert the reason for a Jewish state. Theological fraternities do not need countries of their own.

The truth of the matter is that while many Jews do religion, many do not. No common set of theological beliefs unites all Jews. Many have no theological beliefs. Many openly denounce religion. Many espouse atheism. But their Jewish identity remains intact. Jews are proud to claim both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as members of the tribe.

The Reformers’ attempt to define the Jews as a religious denomination—and nothing more—failed. It excluded too many people who were obviously Jews. A definition that cannot accommodate Theodor Herzl and Golda Meir is less than convincing. Even the Rejectionists, who defend rabbinic Judaism, live by the criterion that the children of a Jewish mother are Jewish and remain Jewish, no matter what they believe or do.

When the Israeli Supreme Court denied Jewish status to Brother Daniel, a bom-Jew who had become a Catholic monk, they did not behave appropriately.1 They had no difficulty giving Jewish Marxists what they had denied to him. Was the fact that Brother Daniel had suffered as a Jew in wartime Poland, despite his religious beliefs, irrelevant?

In fact, anti-Semites always ignore Jewish religious behavior. Conversions to Catholicism meant nothing to the persecutors of the Marranos. And the Nazi bullies never believed in “former” Jews. In their eyes, credal statements could neither make nor unmake a Jew.

It is quite clear that the Jewish status of a Mr. Cohen is usually determined long before anybody bothers to ask him what his religion is. In the secular age, as a Jew, he has many options—both religious and secular.

Are the Jews a racial group?

Ever since Hitler, Jews have avoided this designation. It reeks of persecution and concentration camps. Jews go to great length to prove the diversity of physical form that exists among Jews. The differences between Western and Oriental Jews, so apparent in Israel, are obvious examples.

But it is quite clear that the Jews, at the very beginning of their history, enjoyed some form of racial conformity. They were a collection of Semitic tribes. They were part of the gene pools of Western Asia. They viewed themselves as the descendants of a single ancestor called Abraham.

In the nineteenth century, the word race was loosely used to describe a group of people who shared a common origin and who behaved as a nation. But in the twentieth century, the word has been given a more precise scientific meaning. Physical characteristics, more than pedigree, are the criteria.

After twenty centuries of breeding with slaves, converts, and outsiders, the original Semitic mix has been diluted. And the new rage for intermarriage in Europe and North America will make any racial classification more difficult.

Oddly enough—or not so oddly—Rejectionists, like the Lubav- itchers, retain the racial outlook of the biblical editors who view outbreeding as religiously dangerous. They maintain that Jews have an inherited disposition to spirituality. Even if well-intentioned Gentiles want to become Jewish, their desire is a hopeless one. They lack the genetic equipment to become what they want to be. Racial theories are not confined to Nazis.

Are the Jews a national group?

The Zionists think so. The authors of the Bible think so. And the rabbinic fathers concur.

A nation, in ancient times, was a confederation of tribes who shared a common language and a common territory. Outside Judea, rabbinic Jews believed that they were in exile, that they were not part of the nations among whom they lived, and that they would return someday to their territorial homeland. Their hostile hosts agreed with them and gave them the status of aliens.

But very early, the dispersion of the Jews created subnations. Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic faded away. New territorial enclaves with unique Jewish languages emerged. Northern Europe produced Yiddish. Spain invented Ladino. Jewish Arabic united the Jews of the Near East. And Jewish Persian became the mother tongue of Jewish Central Asia.

Were the speakers of Yiddish and Jewish Arabic one nation because the Bible said so and because they shared Hebrew as their devotional language? Or were they separate nations, distinct from their neighbors and distinct from each other? The coming together of Western and Oriental Jews in modem Israel is similar to the experience of Anglo-Saxon and Italian ethnics on the streets of Boston. If there is an Israeli nation today, it is being molded by secular Hebrew, Arab hostility, and “intermarriage.”

The Jews were a single nation. They divided up into several smaller nations. And now some of them are creating a new Hebrew-speaking nation. But the majority of the Jews of the world have abandoned unique Jewish speech to adopt the language of their local environment. In America, Jews are pragmatically identified with the white subnation, those Americans who share American English and who are visibly neither black nor Chicano.

For most of their history, Jews were part of unique Jewish nations because they spoke unique Jewish languages, even though they did not possess territory of their own. Today, linguistic assimilation has undermined Jewish nationality in most parts of the world. If many Israelis did not speak English, American Jewish tourists would feel less sentimental about Israel.

Nations without territory are possible. (Look at the Yiddish nation.) But nations without either language or territory are illusions. Communities of Hebrew-speaking Jews form the only viable Jewish nation today. Israel is a Jewish nation. But not all Jews are part of that nation.

Israel is a unique phenomenon. Its roots lie in the Diaspora. It is the creation of the Diaspora. Other diasporas are the creation of their homeland. They have their roots there. They have their linguistic memories there. Israelis have to deal with their past in the same way that most Americans do. They have to think about Europe, Asia, and Africa. They have to deal with the fact that their families are recent arrivals. They have to confront the fact that their grandparents speak Hebrew less fluently than they do.

Italian-Americans look back to their homeland. Israeli Jews look back to their Diaspora. The importance of the Bible in Israel is related to this strange reversal. By emphasizing the Bible, the early Zionists wanted to negate the two thousand years of the dispersion. They wanted to create the illusion that the roots of modern Israel are in the ancient kingdom of David and Solomon. But the connection is tenuous. The real connection is with that disturbing Diaspora that refuses to disappear or to come home. Jewish identity in Israel can never be “normal” in the same way that English identity is taken for granted in England because the creation of Israel was abnormal. No invading illiterate barbarian tribes invented it. Israel was the planned project of urban sophisticates with long written memories. Some Jews today are part of a Jewish nation. But it is highly unlikely that most of them ever will be.

Are the Jews a cultural group?

Many secular Jews like to refer to themselves as cultural Jews. By that description, they mean to suggest that while they no longer have any attachment to rabbinic theology, they do have a sentimental connection with Jewish holidays, Jewish music, Jewish food, and Jewish symbols. They may even enjoy Jewish literature and dance Jewish dances. They may even dabble in Jewish languages.

Cultural attachments are what survive when linguistic and religious behavior disappear. They survive on pick and choose. They can often be done in translation.

But cultural attachments are different from living cultures. Vital cultures are the merging of language with lifestyle and daily activity. They require their own unique space and exclude others. Hasidic Jews and Shiite Persians understand that reality. American Jews who eat matsa and dance the hora have Jewish cultural attachments. But they do not live in Jewish culture.

In the perspective of Jewish history, Judaism can be viewed as a civilization. There was no single Jewish national culture. There was Ashkenazic Jewish culture. There was Sephardic Jewish culture. Each culture was defined by a unique Jewish language written in Hebrew letters. A civilization is a collection of nations united by symbols and lifestyle. In that sense, Hellenism, Christianity, Islam, and Confucianism were also civilizations—but on a much grander scale. Yet all of these civilizations are now yielding to a new one, the emerging new civilization of western capitalism. And the urban Jew is at the center of this development.

The culture of most Jews today is Western European secular culture, which has been refined by North America and which is spreading all over the world. Modem technology and modem architecture have no real nationality. They are international in the same way that science is. World languages like English, French, and Spanish unite the educated elites of all participating nations. Even the insular Japanese patronize symphony orchestras and collect Renoirs.

Modem Israel is nationally distinct. But it is not really culturally distinct from North America. A world of shared artifacts and shared education does not breed separate cultures. Tourists today are getting less for their money. They are finding it harder to visit quaint nations and to view charming local customs. Even the natives find it demeaning to be quaint, and they are cynical enough to turn local customs into tourist traps. Jewish visitors to Israel prefer Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. But Tel Aviv is where the action is.

Some Jews, Rejectionist Jews who live behind the walls of segregation, have their own culture. But most Jews, including Israeli Jews, have become part of a culture that is not uniquely Jewish. Western culture, as a consumer culture with many options, allows for cultural attachments. American Jews can choose Passover and Hebrew classes. But they can also choose Chinese food, karate, and French lessons.

Some people may deplore the disappearance of grand old cultures and the emergence of an international style with cultural options. But the old cultures will survive only as segregated islands. The wonders of the new culture are too attractive.

As for many Jews, they do not choose to indulge any of the Jewish cultural options that are available. But they still are Jews. And some of them value their Jewish identity.


It is quite obvious that Jewish identity includes religious, racial, national, and cultural behavior. But it cannot be adequately defined by any one of them. A broader and more inclusive concept is required.

What realities should this concept embrace? What are the parameters that surround all Jews, whether they choose to engage in uniquely Jewish activity or do not choose to do so, whether they value their Jewish identity or do not value it?

Jewish identity, first of all, means a sense of shared ancestry. The Jews began as a nation, an ethnic federation of tribes. Their epic literature, which has become part of the sacred scriptures of the Christian world, speaks of their common ancestors. Whether Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob were real personalities or personifications of tribal invasions is irrelevant to the issue. The Jews saw themselves (and their neighbors saw them) as a true nation, a people united by “blood” ties and family loyalty. Even in talmudic times, joining the Jews was never a mere religious conversion. It was an “adoption.” New Jews severed all connections with their old families and adopted the ancestry of Abraham and Sarah.3

The Jewish people was dispersed from its homeland and became a family of new nations. But Jews never lost their sense of kinship. No matter where they lived, no matter what language they spoke, no matter what culture they adopted, no matter what racial elements they incorporated—they believed (and their neighbors believed) that they were united by a bond of “blood.” Nineteenth century writers would not have hesitated to use the word race to describe this awareness—even the most pro-Semitic. But the dangers of that word in the twentieth century forbid its use. The more benign word kinship may be more discreet. Or the phrase family sense.

All Jews—even those who hate being Jewish—have this awareness of other Jews being their “relatives.” New Jews, those who choose to become Jewish, also sense that they are joining a family fraternity where enthusiasm may confer fewer privileges than birth. Outsiders, too, both the pros and the antis, have this view of tribal connection. The phrase member of the tribe, although offensive to some, captures the awareness of a condition that is less than national but more than ideological.

The second parameter of Jewish identity is shared memories. Kinship means family roots and family history. The story of the Jews, whether positive or negative, fills the popular culture in the Western world. Christians give the Jews center stage in their drama. Muslims assign them a more peripheral role. But both traditions force Jews—even Jews who want to run away from their history or who are indifferent to or ignorant of it—to confront their past. The Jews have a secure place in the popular memory. Announcing that you are a Jew is different from announcing that you are a Swedenborgian. Receivers of the news can fit you into their cultural memory Even the peasant folk who have “never met a Jew before” know that Jews are not novelties. Even Jews who claim that they “know nothing about Judaism” know that they have a secure place in the history of any Western culture.

The third parameter of Jewish identity is shared danger. Jews are a vulnerable family. For whatever historical reasons, we are surrounded by hostility. The potential of anti-Semitism is part of the self-awareness of all Jews. It is also part of the awareness of Gentiles who deal with Jews. The events of the twentieth century have reinforced this apprehension. The Holocaust has tied Jewish identity to such fundamental emotions as fear, anger, loyalty, and pride. Frequently, Jews and Jewish leaders complain about the overemphasis on the negative side of Jewish existence. But Jewish anxiety and Jewish behavior do not pay any attention to this warning. Most parents who seek a Jewish education for their children want their sons and daughters to feel “proud” of their Jewish connection. They are obviously afraid that someone will make them feel less than proud. Being defensive is part of the Jewish condition.

Vulnerable kinship is an imperfect classification of Jewish identity. But it is more accurate than the words religion, race, nation, or culture. The word people is a convenient designation. Yet its usefulness is its vagueness. You can make it mean whatever you want it to mean. The word is part of public relations, not clarification. If a people can be a vulnerable international family—then fine.

Jewish identity is not an enigma. It is not a mystery. Vulnerable kinships exist elsewhere. Gypsies are an example. They are lower in the social scale than we would prefer as a parallel. But they are less than a nation and more than an economic function. And they know that when they announce themselves, they are in danger.

Apprehensive international families can provide many positive benefits. Danger—if it is not physical—can be an exciting condition. It keeps you on the alert and forces you to be very aware of your environment. It trains you in the survival skills of flight, appeasement, and confrontation. It persuades you to try cooperation and group solidarity. It makes you always envision alternatives to what you are doing presently. If anti-Semitism is not overt, Jews have one of the best training programs for survival in the modem urban world.

The House of Omri

“The House of Omri”  from A Provocative People, (2012)

The first significant archeological signs of urbanization and power appear in the reign of Omri (884-873 BCE) and his son Ahab (873-852 BCE). Omri transformed Israel into a credible military power. Under Omri, the backward northern highlands became a center of military and political intimidation. But the Jewish writers and editors of the Bible viewed him with scorn. They detested his political policies, especially his alliance with the Phoenicians. They also abhorred his toleration of the religious practices of the Canaanites, who were almost one-half of Israel’s inhabitants. That Omri and Ahab vastly expanded the nation’s borders, that they enhanced the economy with their two-way trade between Israel and Phoenicia, that they repelled both the Arameans and the Assyrians—all of that was irrelevant to the Yahweh-worshiping Jews. Ahab had dared to marry the Phoenician princess Jezebel and to subsidize the Phoenician Baal cult. His impiety cancelled out all political and economic achievements. The Biblical lens distorted the importance of the secular work of the House of Omri. The marriage of a foreign princess was of great concern to later editors of the Bible (see Solomon). It was of no concern to most of the people of Israel, who were used to mixed societies and religious toleration.

The Phoenicians were coastal Canaanites who chose manufacturing trade and commerce as their specialty. Shrewd and competent businessmen, they turned the Mediterranean Sea into a Phoenician lake. Israel became their agricultural hinterland, providing olives, wheat and wine. If you can recover from your antipathy to Baal, the alliance between Israel and the Canaanite Phoenicians was made in heaven.

Zadokite Priests

“Zadokite Priests”  from A Provocative People, (2012)

Judea was an economically difficult place. The Yahweh cult provided the basis for its economic survival, if not prosperity. At the heart of the Yahweh cult was the ancient world’s version of tourism—religious pilgrimage. Judea was so small that it functioned pretty much as suburban Jerusalem. And the basis of the Jerusalem economy under the Zadokites was religious pilgrimage. Jerusalem became a shrine city, very much what it is today.

This shrine city featured a famous sanctuary, an impressive clergy, elaborate ritual, rites of purification and the aura of holiness. The city of warrior monarchs was transformed into a city of priests. Jerusalem took on the persona of a minor Vatican City. At its head ruled the High Priest in all his splendor. Below him were the administrative clergy. And below them were clergy who dealt with the public.

Some of the state revenue came from taxation and the profits of Zadokite-owned land that grew in size over time. Most of it came from the Diaspora, from prosperous Jews who made substantial gifts to the Temple treasury and from the thousands of Diaspora pilgrims who lived outside Judea but spent their money on what was now more than the homeland. It was the Holy Land. The emergence of the Diaspora and the beginnings of the Jewish middle class enabled Judea and Jerusalem to survive in a manner that its local economy would never have allowed. The cult of Yahweh helped to preserve Jewish national identity outside of Judea.

The Zadokite administration confronted several serious problems. The first problem was the presence of competing scriptures. Over the years, the Protest Movement and the schools of Yahweh prophets had produced many books about Yahweh and his connection with the Jewish people for which their devotees claimed divine origin. The most prominent troublesome books had been part of the “D” narrative and had been excluded from the Torah because they anticipated or exalted the house of David. Today we call these books Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. In these books the story of the Protest Movement is told.

Because of the residual affection for both the royal house of David and the Protest Movement in Judea, the Zadokites reluctantly accepted these books as the word of Yahweh. But they consigned them to a status inferior to the Torah, claiming that the revelation at Sinai was far more important than the teachings of “later” prophets. In fact, these prophets were only repeating what had already been revealed in the Torah. The Zadokites reversed the order of reality. They asserted that the Torah was the inspiration for the “protest prophets,” when indeed the truth was the opposite. The protest prophets were the distant parents of the Torah.

The “book” problem was only a symptom of a larger problem of public dissatisfaction with Zadokite rule. The Zadokites had become an entrenched aristocracy who, together with their supporters, reaped most of the benefits from the wealth of a shrine city. They were pedigree snobs who excluded ambitious families rather than embraced them. The pedigree system was too narrow a foundation for an expanding shrine city.

The pedigree issue was the trigger for the second problem of racism. As the Yahweh cult expanded in the Diaspora, non-Jews were attracted to the religion of the Jews. But racial criteria excluded them from joining. These non-Jews were willing to accept the fact that becoming Yahwists meant that they would have to become Jews and to repudiate their birth nationality. But the Ezra restrictions provided them with no possible way to become Jews. In time, the Ezra system broke down in the Diaspora. Non-Jews were admitted to the Jewish nation. But Jewish public opinion was ambiguous. It still is. Converts still have difficulty being fully accepted as Jews. What is most interesting about this development was the rising non-Jewish interest in the cult of Yahweh. Was it the monotheism of the cult? Was it the iconoclastic severity? Was it the discipline of its devotees? The Jews as a nation had found a way to increase their numbers independent of reproduction and territorial conquest.

The third problem of the Zadokites was their ideology. Yahweh had no devil to accept responsibility for evil—and no other gods to blame for dis-aster. In a world filled with evil and injustice the only defense of Yahweh became the notion that all suffering is a function of sin, and that the blame falls on human beings. The reward system in the Torah is clearly this-worldly: long life, prosperity and many children. If you view punishment as collective, there is always somebody’s sin floating around for which you can be justifiably punished. But in an age when individual self-awareness was growing, it was only just that every individual should suffer for his own sin. The suffering of the innocent was intolerable. That is the lament of Job, the protagonist in one of those trouble-making new books which challenged the Zadokites. Clearly, in a world where the good suffer and the wicked prosper, a “this-worldly” reward system is not enough. It needed overhauling.

The overhauling would lead to trouble for the Zadokites. Their staid little system of unavailable rewards, especially for the common people, inspired religious resistance. This resistance featured visions of spectacular rewards in a life after death. Unjustified suffering was the result of evil forces in the universe which Yahweh had not yet subdued. But a time was coming very soon when a final battle between Good and Evil would take place. At this time Evil would be crushed, God would triumph, the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked punished. Even the dead would rise from their graves to face judgment. The Kingdom of God would be established. By implication the government of the Zadokites would cease to exist.

Some of the teachers who embraced this “unorthodox” Final Judgment were, most likely, former leaders who bore personal grievances against the Zadokites. One of these groups may have come from the Levites, the relatives of the family of Moses, who had been deprived of their historic priesthood by the triumphant Zadokites. They now functioned as assistants to the Zadokites, pushed away from the altar to the choir. Closer to the spirit of the Protest Movement and its warnings of doom—and op-pressed by the loss of their jobs and status—the disgruntled Levites were natural candidates to be leaders of this ideological opposition. As religious propaganda, this vision of a dramatic “end of days” was more powerful than a pedestrian system of little rewards and punishments that did not work.

The last problem of the Zadokites was the plague of interpreters. The Torah, like the Constitution of the United States of America, was a collection of words. The words would mean what the prevailing authority and public opinion would allow them to mean. The idea that a final written document would dispense with disagreement was naïve. Believing in the Bible as an ultimate authority solved no problem, especially if there were three thousand different interpretations of the Bible. Once you had dispensed with prophets, what replaced them were interpreters. The scholar-interpreters, like any supreme court, proceed to tell you “what the text really means.”

The Zadokites could not avoid interpreters. They needed judges to ad-minister the law. Since no human authority could pass any more laws, every new regulation to deal with new circumstances had to be derived from the text of the Torah. Zadokite judges inevitably had to become scholar-interpreters or find scholar-interpreters as consultants. The system became an absurd exercise where most energy was devoted tofinding textual justification for a conclusion that had already been reached—instead of simply seeking the best way to solve the problem.

Most of the judge/interpreters, the soferim (Masters of the Book),* were part of the priestly establishment. With increasing frequency, however, tolerated outsiders were most likely included, simply because hereditary systems decline with time. Thus a new non-hereditary clergy emerged. In time, the judges disagreed on major issues. They formed factions. Some factions were liberal, some conservative—some universalistic, some parochial—some open to the vision of the Final Judgment and some unalterably opposed. The Zadokite government was vulnerable if a compelling issue would assault the establishment.

That issue was created by a new conqueror and a powerful new culture that challenged the culture of the Torah and its Zadokite defenders—the Greeks.

Creation of the Bible and Mishnah

“Creation of Bible and Mishnah” from A Provocative People, (2012)

By the end of the second century CE the Jewish population of the Roman Empire and the Western Diaspora, despite all the setbacks, stood at seven million.* In the eyes of the Romans, the Jews were still annoying troublemakers; but they were still too numerous to destroy. Hadrian’s successors would have to find a new way to control them.

In the second century, the Empire was at the peak of its power, with the best system of imperial management that had yet been devised. The Flavian dynasty of Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian, yielded to a stronger alternative—succession by merit. Three emperors in a row chose successors who were not members of their family, but military men who commanded the respect of the army and the administration. Trajan chose Hadrian, Hadrian chose Antoninus Pius; and Antoninus Pius chose Marcus Aurelius (98-161 CE). All three emperors wanted to solve the Jewish problem.

After their second defeat by the Romans, the Jews (for all practical purposes) had ceased to be a territorial nation. They were still a nation, both in their own view and in the eyes of their neighbors—but a dispersed nation. This nation lived in two empires which were hostile to each other. Most lived in the Western Diaspora, under Roman control. Many lived in the Eastern Empire, which was under Parthian control. Western Jews lived with the challenge of the Greek world and the attractiveness of the Hellenistic option. Eastern Jews experienced a world where the old authoritarianism of the Semitic and Persian worlds prevailed. In the Jewish mind the Jews, wherever they lived, were one and the same people. But time and distance would aggravate the differences between East and West.

The Romans were confronted with the problem of taming the Jews. Forced Hellenization was no longer a feasible alternative. The only credible leadership group that survived the two messianic wars was the rabbis. There was nobody else left, not even a few Alexandria Jewish philosophers. And the leader of the rabbis was a presumed descendant of Hillel, a famous Pharisaic scholar whofounded a dynasty of rabbis, many of whom became the chiefs of the Sanhedrin. His name was Judah (170-220 CE).

In the middle of the second century, the presidency of the rabbinic Sanhedrin was permanently assumed by the House of Hillel. What David was to the monarchy, what Zadok was to the High Priesthood, so was Hillel to the “chief rabbinate.” Until 429 CE every “chief rabbi” was a descendant of Hillel.

Judah was the great-grandson of Gamaliel II. He had grown up in the turmoil of the Second Jewish War. He had witnessed the failure of the Akiba administration. He saw the devastation and demoralization of the Jews. He knew that the stability of Jewish life was only possible through an effective central control and through a long-run accommodation with the Romans.

The Romans wanted law and order from the Jews. They wanted centralized control with effective management. What was needed was a Jewish “emperor” who would tame Jews in the West and who would be directly responsible to Roman authority. A new job gradually emerged called the Nasi (Prince). The Nasi might have a Sanhedrin to whom he would defer. But from the Roman perspective, the ultimate authority would not be the council; it would be the Nasi.

The Nasi became the effective king of all the Western Jews. He became responsible for their good behavior. He became responsible for their payment of the special “Jew tax.” The Jew tax was the price that Jews paid to receive exemption from the impossible requirement of emperor worship. A king and pope wrapped into one, the Nasi was a royal personage, belonging to the “royal” family of Hillel, which now joined the house of David and the house of Zadok as an ultimate Jewish pedigree. It was rumored that Hillel himself was descended from David.

From the Roman perspective, the role of the Nasi was to check messianism. The rabbis were to return to their former Pharisee carefulness—a Messiah yes, but not for a long time. The Jews must remain a well-behaved minority nation under the control of their clergy. The Persians had authorized the Zadokite theocracy. The Romans now authorized the rabbinic theocracy, or government by the rabbis. The Nasi established rabbinic courts and ordained rabbis to serve in them. The certification of rabbis was now formalized (semikha). All legitimacy now depended on the Nasi.

The residence of the Nasi was in Galilee, the surviving center of Jewish life in Roman Palestine. The Nasi first resided in the Western Galilee in Beth Shearim, not toofar from the big city of Sepphoris. Later on the court of the Nasi moved to Tiberias in the Eastern Galilee. For two centuries Tiberias was the capital of the Jewish world. There the Nasi held court. There he lived in splendor. There he revived the politically obedient posture of the former Zadokite High Priests. But his jurisdiction was no longer little Judea. It was the boundaries of the Roman world.

The power and prestige of the Nasi did not emerge immediately. It took over two centuries to perfect them. First, the Romans had to recover from their anger. Then the rabbis had to reorganize themselves in Galilee. And then the Nasi had to create the institutions that would give reality to this power. The most important institution would be the yeshiva (Torah academy). At the heart of the yeshiva would be a new document, a Second Torah, which the Nasi himself would create.

The Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple had rendered useless the old Zadokite clergy. They had been the masters of the Temple. They had been hoisted on their own petard. The Torah which they had championed did not allow them to build a Yahweh temple in any place but the sacred hill of Jerusalem. They had foolishly arranged for their own demise. The new clergy, the rabbis, cleverly attached themselves to a portable symbol of God’s presence, the Torah book itself. They were the masters of the book. This book, which their Zadokite competitors had created, was tied to no single place. It praised and exalted Jerusalem, but it did not need it. The rabbis sincerely mourned the loss of Jerusalem. Yet, ironically, the loss of Jerusalem eliminated their competition and gave them undisputed power. The book was the very voice of God, and the rabbis were now the only people who understood what this voice was saying.

If the challenge of a temple religion is to determine which temples are “kosher,” then the challenge of a book religion is to determine which books are “kosher.” A kosher book is a book which is clearly the work of God. Human books have human authors. Divine books have divine authors. In Zadokite times, nine books had already been acknowledged as sacred— Torah, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve. By dividing the Torah intofive books, the Greek Jews had already made it thirteen. But the Hellenistic centuries had produced a whole series of new books that their devotees also claimed were divine, each of them attributed to a prophet who served as the secretary of Yahweh. There were the songs used by the Levites in the Jerusalem Temple (Psalms). There were Hellenistic books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Ben Sira. There were anti-Hellenistic books like Daniel and Jubilees. There were Zadokite histories like Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. There were anti-Zadokite books like Ruth and Job. There were pro-Maccabee books like Maccabees I, II and III. There were anti-Maccabee books like Esther. There were even leftover Asherah books like the Song of Songs.

The Zadokite priests had been reluctant to add books to the Torah. But the rabbis, with their messianic and Davidic agenda, had been eager to do so. The collapse of the temple regime gave them the freedom to do what-ever they wanted. What they wanted was to impose their own ideology on Jewish life in the same way that the Zadokites had done in their time. The rabbis were still eager to add books if they fit the Pharisee belief system. But they were also now eager to ban books which they saw as doctrinally dangerous. Books were instruments not only of devotion but also of instruction.

The selection process for the Bible took place at one of the most catastrophic times for the Jews. The Temple had just been destroyed and the rabbinate was rallying to assert its control over Jewish life in Yavneh. The symbol of their new power was a council of rabbis in Yavneh (90 CE), which fixed for all time the “word of God.” There were dozens of competing books to choose from. A set of stated and unstated criteria guided their decision making. The first was that all prophecy had ended. Malachi (c. 515 BCE) was the last prophet. Any legitimate book needed an author who lived before Malachi. The rabbis, like the Zadokite priests, wanted no new prophets to challenge their authority, especially at a time when hundreds of men were running around claiming to be prophets and claiming to be better messianists that the rabbis were. Of course, at one time there had been prophets. But now there were only rabbis to interpret their words. In other words, anybody claiming to be a new prophet was a false prophet. And whatever Yahweh had wanted to say to the Jews he had already said. The rabbis were now, as the official interpreters of the Divine Book of the Divine Word, the sole spokesmen for God.

The second criterion was that every book must have a legitimate prophet as its “secretary.” Since most of the books had been written long after Malachi, finding suitable transmitters provided an ideological strain. Two ancient warrior kings (who were certainly illiterate)—David and Solomon—were now turned intofamous authors, composing everything from songs to sex poetry to Hellenistic proverbs and philosophy. The age of illiteracy was transformed by the rabbis into the age of literary giants. But, of course, that made no difference. The only author was God himself.

The third criterion was that texts must be Messiah friendly. But that was not enough. They must also never suggest that a Messiah other than the one from the house of David was legitimate. Messianic texts that celebrated a Zadokite or priestly Messiah were not kosher.

The fourth criterion was that nothing positive about the Maccabees must be included. The less said about the Maccabees the better. The rabbis detested the Hellenizing Maccabees with great passion. The two great holidays celebrating Maccabee victories, Hanukka (Kislev 25) and Nicanor’s Day (Adar 13), were anathema to them. The story of Hanukka in the Books of the Maccabees was excluded. And the more important Nicanor’s Day, the celebration of the victory of Judah Maccabee over a mighty Greek army, was cleverly replaced by the Fast of Esther and Purim. The story of Purim in the Book of Esther was declared divine, even though the book was very problematic, with no mention of Yahweh and with two chief characters who have the names of Babylonian gods: Marduk (Mordecai) and Ishtar (Esther). On its own it would never have been included in the rabbinic Bible. But the rabbis hated the Maccabees. The chief holiday of the Maccabees was Nicanor’s Day (Adar 13). Purim was Adar 14. The rabbis adopted Purim and the Book of Esther and turned Nicanor’s Day, the day before Purim, into a preparatory fast day called the Fast of Esther. Purim and the Book of Esther were the gifts of the Maccabee-hating rabbis. Of course, the rabbis were already covered by their principle that all prophecy had ended with Malachi, 350 years before the Maccabees appeared. No story about the Maccabees could, therefore, be divine.

By the time the selection process was over, only eleven new books passed muster—Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The rest were consigned to destruction. What emerged was a collection of twenty-four books which we call the Hebrew Bible. For the rabbis they were the revelation of Yahweh to the Jews and the world. Nothing might be subtracted. Nothing might be added. Whatever Yahweh had wanted to say he had said in these books. And their true meaning and their true implications were in the hands of the rabbis. The books without the rabbis—and the rabbis without the books—were incomplete.

The Bible began with the Protest Movement and was refined by the Zadokites. But in its final form, it was a rabbinic document. We know it to be a human document with serious problems—historical inaccuracies, contradictions, anachronisms and a parochial ethics and world view. But for the rabbis, it was perfection, superior to all other literature, the presence of God on earth and the message of God to the Jews and the world. Although the Temple had been destroyed, the rabbis had fashioned a document that would replace the Temple. The study of Torah and its nineteen supplementary books would be, like the Sabbath, an alternative sacrifice to meat and incense, a sacrifice of time and devotion.

Yet the completion of the Bible did not provide the rabbis with the constitution that they needed. There was no clear and explicit articulation of rabbinic ideology. The Torah was overwhelmingly a Zadokite document. And while the prophets of the supplementary books were often deliciously anti-priestly, they never spoke about rabbis and synagogues and yeshivas. The heart of rabbinic Yahvism did not comfortably lie there. The Bible as a codebook was an inadequate foundation for a new rabbinic theocracy.

An alternative to the Bible already existed. It was the 250 years of legal decisions which the rabbis had issued both as teachers and as judges. Sometimes these decisions cited support from the Bible; sometimes they did not. There was a defiant rabbinic strain that was trans-biblical. It was the doctrine of the “Second Torah,” the bold claim that most of the decisions of the rabbis did not derive their authority from the Bible. They came directly from God, Moses and Mount Sinai. The rabbis needed their own Torah, especially now when their supremacy had been achieved.

The rabbis enhanced the mystery of this Torah by keeping it “oral.” It existed only in the memory of the rabbis who transmitted it from teacher to disciple. No lay person had access to it unless he/she consulted the rabbis. The advantage of the system was that it conveyed an ancient pre-writing authenticity to the statements. The disadvantage of the system was the bur-den of memorizing.

There is no doubt that some of the teachings of this “Second Torah” had their origins in ancient stories and practices that the Zadokites priests and even the Protest Movement prophets had excluded in their zeal. There was a folk anti-elitist edge to some of it. But most of it was comparatively recent, a vast collection of teachings derived from the schools of many rabbinic masters. The language of this transmission was Hebrew, even though the common language of the Jews was Aramaic—but not the Hebrew of the Bible; a more elegant and flexible Hebrew that had evolved in the rabbinic academies. Pharisaic ideology forbade these teachers from calling themselves prophets. But they were inventors of a new lifestyle, a pious lifestyle that was trying to adapt the severe message of a shepherd Protest Movement to the demands of an urban Hellenistic world.

Out of this struggle came the foundations of the traditional Judaism with which we are familiar. The Torah lifestyle was modified tofit the world of craftsmen and merchants, as well as farmers and herdsmen—the world of bourgeois families as well as peasants in huts and shepherds in tents—the world of literacy as well as the world of trances and ecstasies. Sabbath lights and synagogue prayers, Passover seders and commercial transactions—all take their place on the Jewish stage as though they were perfectly traditional. And the rabbis make it all kosher with their wonderful oral transmissions.

The great rabbinic masters, the founders of important schools, were called tannaim (repeaters), and their teachings or repetitions were called mishnayot (mishnah in the singular form). By the time of Judah the Prince, there were thousands of these transmissions floating around the rabbinic world. If they could only be collected, if they could only be written down, they would become an effective “second constitution” for the new rabbinic establishment.

Attempts had been made to relieve the burden of memorization by writing down the teachings to facilitate study and judicial decision making. But there was strong resistance from conservatives who feared innovation and who also feared that it would undermine rabbinic authority. In the second century, before the Bar Kochba rebellion (and even after), famous rabbis like Akiba and Meir encouraged the recording out of fear that the destruction of the rabbis through Roman persecution would lead to the loss of the transmitted teachings.

Judah the Prince bit the bullet. As the first Nasi of a new Jewish regime, as a new High Priest without the Temple, he saw the necessity of the “Second Torah,” a visible constitution for the new Jewish government. The Bible held a primary place of honor but was too disconnected from the behavior and lifestyle of the evolving rabbinic world to be useful. Having just been finalized, it was already obsolete, even for the pious. Something in the language and style of the rabbis was required.

The monumental task of collecting and editing the mishnayot began. It was fed by the energy of the Jewish government, by the victory of propagandists who warned that the legacy would otherwise be lost and by the excitement of finally transcending the disasters of the recent past. By 200 CE it was complete. Once completed, it would become the major document of Jewish life until modern times. The Bible, like the Aaronide priests, would always be granted first honors. But the stuff out of which government and scholarship emerged was to be found in the new constitution.

The name conferred on the document was Mishnah. It turned out to be an anthology of sixty-three books organized into six sections. Each section dealt with a different area of Jewish concern—farming, holidays, family, crime, worship and purity. The organization of the Mishnah was different from that of the Bible. At the heart of the Bible was a rambling narrative with laws inserted. The Mishnah was a law book with stories inserted. The Mishnah, although its spirit was anti-Hellenistic, reflected the Hellenistic penchant for order and classification. It was sometimes more Greek that it wanted to be.*

In many cases, where rabbinic masters disagreed, the Mishnah cited both the majority and dissenting opinions, but, in general, the prevailing law was stated simply and clearly without the frills of biblical Hebrew. The anthology was all-encompassing. It recognized no boundary between state and religion. Religion was not a department of state as it was in the Greek and Roman world. The state was a department of religion, as it was in the mentality of salvation religion. Since the Jews at this time were a dispersed minority, a nation without territory, the Mishnah focused more on family, work and worship than on political administration. The Temple had its own section, a powerful reminder of its continuing hold on Jewish imagination and patriotism. But it remained the most neglected part of the Mishnah.

Of course, there were defects. Many teachings of many masters were excluded either deliberately or because they were not available. Hasty collecting was bound to leave out many candidates. Where there was no controversy, laws were frequently not included. Underlying the document was the existence of a world of shared culture and general consensus where everything did not need to be spelled out for the reader. The order was often less than Greeks would demand. It would require future code breakers to make the information in the Mishnah consumer accessible. But it was, in many respects, a workable compromise between Hellenistic reason and Semitic problem solving.

The Mishnah had one book devoted to ideology. It was called Avot (rabbinic Fathers) and clearly articulated the philosophy of salvation so dear to the hearts of the Messianists and Pharisees. This world was but an antechamber to the next. Every deed was observed and recorded. The final Judgment Day hovered over all reality. Justice would prevail. The ultimate reward was the presence of God. The taste of that presence on earth was the study of Torah (read Mishnah). The opening of the Book of Avot is the most important ideological statement in the entire Mishnah—that God di-vided the Torah into a written and oral one; the first he gave to the Zadokite priests. The second he gave to Moses and Joshua, who ultimately transmitted it to the rabbis.* Loud and clear!

The Mishnah became the foundation of the new Jewish government. It transformed the Jewish culture of the Western Diaspora, and ultimately that of the Eastern Diaspora as well. It became the foundation of the new rabbinic academies in the Galilee. Mastering the Mishnah was the avenue to ordination to the rabbinate. The rabbinate became the most prestigious Jewish profession. Rabbinic appointees and missionaries were placed all over the Roman world, enhancing the prestige and power of the Nasi. As the Hellenistic Jewish world retreated, it was embraced by this new Jewish authority. Government by the clergy returned to Jewish life.

In the third century, the Roman government dramatically underwent an ethnic transformation. Greek shared with Latin an equal authority. The merit system for the emperors broke down. Ambitious soldiers, chiefly of non-Roman origin, seized power. One of them was the child of a Syrian Baal priestess. Ultimately all the inhabitants of the Empire, including the Jews, received citizenship (212 CE). In a less Roman and more oriental empire, the Jews felt perfectly comfortable, even though Greek antisemitism would not go away. Citizenship arrived just as the economy began to decline from too much taxation and too much disorder. Salvation cults from the East poured in, catering to imperial citizens who were withdrawing from public life and turning to personal salvation. The messianic idea of impending catastrophe and rescue grew in popularity. The Jews found themselves in an ideological world where the Mishnah message was not so strange. The trauma of the last century faded away. The power and prestige of the Nasi increased. Like multicultural America with a problematic economy of self-absorbed consumers, Jews in the Roman world achieved the security of becoming a multicultural option.

In the rabbinic academies of Galilee, the Mishnah became the focal point of discussion and judicial debate. A new set of Mishnah masters appeared. They were the Amoraim. In typical religious and ancestral worship fashion, they viewed themselves as inferior to the Tannaim who preceded them. They were simply scholars, not transmitters. Questions from the Diaspora were referred to their academies. Disputes over the meaning of the texts then ensued. Disciples recorded the discussions of their masters. Succeeding generations referred to them and added their own commentary.

From time to time, challengers wanted to know whether the laws of the Second Torah could be found in the first one. There was a continuous insecurity in the Mishnah world over the equality of the Mishnah with the Bible. Much time was spent pursuing this search for “appropriate” Bible quotations. Along the way, much of the dialogue was recorded. After one hundred years, most mishnayot in the Mishnah had footnotes ten times as long as the original text. In the world of the rabbinic academies, nothing could stop this endless digression. What began as a pragmatic search for practical answers was now turned into a stream-of-consciousness doctoral dissertation.

At the beginning of the third century, an important event occurred. A Galilean master by the name of Rav (c. 220 CE) crossed over the eastern border of the Roman Empire to Parthian Chaldea and brought the Mishnah yeshiva with him. Rav was one of the most important teachers in the rabbinic world of his day, which was centered in Galilee. But the Jews of the Eastern Diaspora in Chaldea, who were numerous and populous, lacked the institutions and scholarship of Galilee. Rav’s decision to move to Chaldea was not the result of persecution or the anticipated collapse of the Roman Empire. It was an opportunity to incorporate the Eastern world (Jews of the Parthian Empire) more tightly into the rabbinic system.


Jewish History and the Jewish Future

“Jewish History and the Jewish Future” from A Provocative People, (2012)

From the early Semites to the global economy is a stretch of eight thousand years. From the emergence of Israel and Judah to the present, at least three thousand years intervene. The Jewish reality has been around for a long time.

Along the way the Jewish nation has acquired or created the structure and pieces of a resilient and adaptive culture. There have been many languages, many social institutions, many family practices, many rituals and celebrations, many dominant ideologies, many strategies for group survival and many historical memories interwoven into the fabric of Jewish identity. Since the Jews have never been an imperial power, their national culture reflects the diversity that conquering civilizations have left.

Along the way, the Jewish nation experienced three powerful social and economic transformations. The Jews began as herdsmen and gradually entered the agricultural world of farmers and villages. They then moved from the farmer side of the agricultural world to the emerging urban and commercial side of the same world. And finally they were swept up in the many revolutions of the urban industrial upheaval, which radically changed the material and social conditions of their historic existence. Each of these transformations produced massive internal confrontations. The conservatives who resisted change fought the liberals who welcomed it. The Protest Movement of the nostalgic prophets, the anti-Hellenist fervor of the Rabbis and the present dramatic dichotomy between the ultra-Orthodox and the secularized masses testify to the power of these changes.

Along the way, the Jewish nation experienced a dramatic shift in management and leadership. Tribal warrior chiefs were replaced by warrior kings. And, more importantly, warrior kings were replaced by the clergy. Theocracies, government by the clergy, became the norm for most of Jewish history. The replacement of the Zadokite priests by the rabbis was a significant change, but it did not alter the reality of clerical domination. Not until the nineteenth century were the rabbis deposed and turned into employees of the new secular professionals, whofollowed in the wake of the urban industrial revolution. The success of Zionism has now placed the secular leaders of the Jewish State in the role of informal spokespeople for the Jews.

Along the way the Jewish nation has hosted many powerful ideologies. There was the cultic mythology of the El, Asherah and Baal religion. There was the theology of the protest prophets and their monotheistic devotion to Yahweh. There was the ideology of the Zadokite priests that celebrated the Jews as the chosen people of God, the Jerusalem Temple as his residence on earth and the Torah as the embodiment of divine wisdom. There was the belief system of the Rabbis, which expanded divine revelation to the Tal-mud and offered the prospect of a happy individual immortality. There was the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah, shared with Eastern philosophy, which promised the ecstasy of a personal union with the Deity. There was the “rational theology” of the Hellenized philosophers like Maimonides, who exalted reason as the path to truth and an “Aristotelian God” to guarantee the order of the universe. There was the Enlightenment enthusiasm of the radical Haskalah, which championed science, humanism and a utilitarian ethics. There was the Marxist ideology of the radical socialists, which replaced religious devotion with revolutionary fervor. There was the liberal philosophy of bourgeois capitalism, which championed individual rights and consigned God to the role of ethics endorser. There was the self-affirmation of New Age religion, which rendered every introspective individual an authentic voice of spirituality. None of these ideologies was compatible with any of the others. All of them had counterparts in other cultures. All of them were Jewish—because they were embraced in time by large numbers of Jews. An ethnic culture—filled with diversity—embraced them all.

Along the way, the Jewish nation also became intensely provocative. Being Jewish was not like being Swedish. For millions of people, the Jews aroused emotions of intense fear, hatred and genocidal rage. The hostility was not only racial contempt directed toward those considered social inferiors. It was not only the exclusionary fear that was directed by most nations toward strangers. The hostility almost always acknowledged the cleverness and power of the Jews. This demonization of the Jew as the source of evil power lay in two places—the historic hostility of the Christian clergy to Rabbinic Judaism and the assumption by enterprising Jews of an economic role that was provocative. Of the two sources, the role of the Jew in the world of commerce and money was the more provocative.

Along the way, the Jews split into two main branches—an Eastern and a Western. For most of Jewish history, the Eastern Diaspora was dominant. In recent centuries, the Western Diaspora took first place. The center of the Jewish world shifted from territory to territory. Judea, Chaldea, Spain, Turkey, Poland, America and Israel have all featured major expressions of Jewish cultural vitality.

Along the way, the Jews became a small nation with extraordinary influence. The sacred scriptures of Zadokite and Rabbinic Judaism were appropriated by the imperial Christian civilization of the Greco-Roman world. Jewish merchants and bankers helped to lay the foundation of the urban industrial world. Secular Jewish intellectuals became major figures in the scientific revolution. The number of Jews who today function prominently at the top financial, cultural and intellectual institutions of the emerging international culture is out of proportion to their numbers in the world population. The Jews, in modern times, have become an ethnic and cultural phenomenon.


The traditional rabbinic view of Jewish history identified the greatest era of Jewish existence with the distant past. Since the rabbis deemed religion to be the most important achievement of the Jewish people, the age of the greatest religious teachers was the “Golden Age” of the Jews. Some-where between 1800 BCE and 500 CE, there supposedly appeared the noble prophets, the devoted priests and the wise rabbis. Inspired by God, they produced the incomparable Bible and Talmud and revealed the path to personal and national salvation. After the Enlightenment, most of the new secular and secularized scholars of the Jewish world ironically preserved this evaluation. Having transferred the Jewish genius from God to Jewish thinkers, they still persisted in maintaining that the greatest gift of the Jews to the world was monotheism and the Bible. The success of Jews, and Christianity, became proof of Jewish success, even though the old Christianity was rapidly fading away in the new secular world. For the old rabbis, Jewish life and Jewish wisdom had gone downhill after the completion of the Talmud. Modern times exemplified Jewish decadence. For the new scholars, the genius of the Jewish present was only derived from the special genius of the Jewish past.

But the opposite is actually true. The greatest era of Jewish life is the present. Despite the Holocaust, never before have the Jews, both individually and collectively, possessed more wealth, more power and more influence. The global economy, which the Jews helped to pioneer, now embraces the planet, including regional cultures that lie beyond the domains of Judaism and Christianity. The realm of science, in which Jews have ex-celled far beyond their numbers, has now replaced religious faith as the dominant source of intellectual power in the countries that possess military and economic strength. The legacy of Jewish Nobel Prize winners out-shines the prophets and sages of the religious past; it is science that now has the power to transform human existence. None of the insights of the biblical past have cured disease, lengthened life, triggered a dynamic economy or forged the technology to unite humanity. In fact, the hard core of religious fundamentalists who hate the modern world and the world of science derive their inspiration from the “wisdom” of that era. The emerging global culture, which rests on the achievements of science, has dramatically raised the standard of living for over one-half of the people on our plan-et. Most of the readers of this book would not be alive to read any book without the successes and special contributions of Jewish medical scientists.

The greatest era of Jewish history is now. Neither antisemitism nor the Holocaust can diminish the glory of the Jewish present. In fact, their virulence, including the virulence of religious fundamentalism, pays tribute to the provocative power and influence of the Jew and to the success of the Jew in a new and unsettling environment. Modern antisemites do not hate Jews because of their intense religious faith. They accuse the Jews of being the fomenters of atheism and radical change. They define them as devilish inventors of the global culture. Not even Zionism and the state of Israel have been able to undermine the image of the “International Jew” who conspires to undermine traditional values and structures of the old society. Jews are associated, in the public mind, with the destabilizing effects of money, urbanization, international trade and racial mixing. Everybody agrees that the Jews are smart. But not everybody agrees that they are good for the world.

Antisemitism and the Holocaust have made Jews uncomfortable with Jewish success. In America, the fact that it is known that Jews wield enormous power in both the Democratic and Republican parties does not stimulate Jewish pride; it stimulates Jewish fear. Jews are perfectly comfortable discussing Jewish power in private. But they are hostile to anybody who dares to discuss Jewish power in public. Jews are reluctant to display their power and their wealth, even though they have achieved the distinction of being one of the most affluent and best educated ethnic groups in the world. Jews prefer—and given their history, justifiably—to present them-selves as victims. The popularity of Holocaust centers and Holocaust studies in Jewish life is not only a protest against ruthless genocide. It is also a function of Jewish anxiety. Victimhood is a safer image than power. Jews are uncomfortable being seen at the top of the world in money and intelligence. They prefer to present themselves as the inventors and role models of humane ethics, even though the non-Jewish world does not perceive them that way.

When socialism came to Jewish life in the aftermath of the rise of the new antisemitism, Jewish socialists were uncomfortable with the existing Jewish profile. Neither the image of the affluent Jew as a successful entrepreneur nor the image of the poor Jew as an unsuccessful entrepreneur were perceptions that Jewish socialists were comfortable with. The Jewish worker and the Jewish farmer were more desirable paradigms. With the rise of the textile industry in both Eastern Europe and North America, a Jewish working class “fortunately” emerged for a short while. Labor un-ions and strikes now placed Jews on the “right” side of the struggle. Zion-ism created the image of the Jewish farmer, strong lover of the land and manual labor. But within two generations the children of the working class and the kibbutzim abandoned their work profile and their socialism. All that remains are stories about the Jewish working class that Jews on the Left cultivate as a new nostalgia. Bobes (Grandmas) and Zeides (Grandpas) are now turned into worker heroes, while the achievements of their bourgeois grandchildren are overlooked, certainly not praised or idealized. Even the prophets of the past are turned into precursors of a radical socialism. The truly radical transformation of the Jews into a people of power and influence conveniently goes unnoticed. Individual heroes like Einstein and Freud can be honored for their success, but never the modern Jews collectively.

In the religious centers of Jewish capitalist success, the synagogues and temples of Reform and Conservative Judaism, the public presentation of contemporary Jews always hovers at the level of the interfaith banquet. Jews are either presented as the victims of antisemitism or as the inventors of utopian and Messianic visions of social reform. The intellectual contribution of the Jew to the modern world is praised, but it is always subordinated to the Jewish genius for religion. Jews are touted as the people of the Book, rather than the people of the books. What most Jews really read and value is never admitted publicly. Jews are reduced to a distortion in order to counter antisemitism. What really needs to be said—that the Jews have become the vanguard for the radical transformation of society through the power of science and its global vision—is just too provocative for Jews to handle.2


The future of the Jewish ethnic nation, like that of all nations, is problematic. The urban industrial world, with its emerging international culture, is not friendly to exclusive national identities. There is too much merging, mobility and intermarriage to allow for rigid boundaries between ethnic groups and cultures. Only a deliberate effort of separation, a repudiation of the major rewards of the new system—from money to personal freedom— can enable old cultures to survive with some purity. The price of this disciplined separation is militancy, a perpetual state of war with the dominant culture.

In the new world of continuous and rapid change, with its counterpart of continuous and rapid technological innovation and obsolescence, the future becomes almost impossible to predict. But certain lasting or emerging features of Jewish life have a good chance of defining the Jewish future.

The expanding secularization of Jewish life will continue. Most Jews complain about urban and suburban life, the materialism of the consumer culture and the stress of competition. But they do not want to give up the rewards of the new world; nor does effective separation seem either attractive or feasible. The new global economic system is very powerful and seductive. Only a few “wounded” people will have the desire and will-power to separate from it. Israel is now as much a part of this system as the Diaspora.

On the whole, Jews will remain near the top of the economic hierarchy. Education is the key to success in the information age. Jews have a surfeit of it. Of course, they will not be alone. There will be the remaining European elites in Europe and North America, as well as the rising presence of East and South Asians. Jews may cease to be extraordinary. But they will still be rich in comparison to other peoples of the world. Only the unfortunate Eastern Jews of Israel—lost in the corruption and failure of Orthodoxy and the state school system—will remain on the other side of the prosperity line.

The world Jewish population will shrink. Prosperity in an urban world lowers the birthrate and ages the nation. Neither the substantial reproduction rates of both secular Israelis and Orthodox Jews will be able to compensate for the dramatic shrinkage in North America and Europe. Jewish youth will become a scarcer commodity. Programs and facilities for older Jews will achieve a greater presence. None of this means extinction, just a different balance of young and old.

The distinctions between Eastern and Western Jews will gradually fade away. Both groups have now been appropriated by the new economy and the new international culture. Intermarriage in Israel between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim will accelerate. The mix will not change the direction of things. Mizrahim may be two centuries behind the Ashkenazim in their recruitment for urban culture. But they are heading in the same direction. The rift between secularized and ultra-Orthodox Jews will widen into a major dichotomy. Not only radically different lifestyles will promote this split. Intermarriage especially will make the divide unbridgeable. The ultra-Orthodox will remain about ten percent of the Jewish population, their fabulous birthrate balanced by inevitable defections. But they will be well-organized, aggressive and demanding—and never open to compromise. They will continue to infiltrate establishment institutions with the young “cheap labor” of teachers and communal workers they will be able to pro-duce. Confrontation will be frequent. Just as the Orthodox and the Hasidim united to battle the new secularism, so will Conservative, Reform and secular Jews band together to oppose the “enemy.” Modern Orthodox Jews will be sucked into the militancy of ultra-Orthodoxy. Increasingly, in the Diaspora, the face of Judaism for non-Jews will look more and more Orthodox. However, the check on Orthodox power will be their inability to go beyond the ten percent mark. Militant segregation—the only way Orthodoxy can work in the modern world—is too high a price for most Jews to pay for Jewish survival. The Orthodox will be conspicuous, but not triumphant. Like all fundamentalism, they will be a chronic condition in Jewish general life, an annoying anachronism in the rapidly changing global civilization.

Reform and Conservative Judaism will change places in the Diaspora. Once the dominant movement of North American Jewish life, Conservatism will shrink. Jews interested in returning to tradition will be attracted to the new dynamism of militant Orthodoxy. Those interested in a conservative Reform can now find it in Reform—with less of the scolding that the ambivalent Conservative movement still provides. Reform Jews will re-main heavily secularized, with periodic indulgences in traditional behavior as a way to reinforce family connection.

Most Jews in the Diaspora will pursue the individualist agenda of the global culture. Marriage will continue to evolve into partnerships of love and personal fulfillment, with all the attendant pleasure and instability that such partnerships bring. Children will be stressful and divorce will be frequent. Family loyalty will be less significant than individual happiness. Even besieged Israel will not be immune to this development. Lonely individuals and couples will seek community with people who share their work, their leisure interests and their convictions. Others will choose non-affiliation on all levels, preferring to pay for services rather than joining communities. A large number of rabbis, ceremonialists and teachers will provide rites, classes, and inspirational weekends for Jews who seek them out. The unaffiliated, in terms of marriage, children and congregation will play an important role in Jewish life. They will radically change the institutional ways that Jews are served as Jews.

Diversity in Jewish life will increase. With so many individuals freely making individual choices, the number of Jewish religious and cultural options will grow. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform have already added Reconstructionist, Renewal and Humanistic. More Jewish choices will inevitably appear. Conventional Jewish choices will shrink in number. Un-conventional connections will increase. Individual Jews, in their search for personal fulfillment, may prefer to be eclectic, tasting a wide variety of Jewish options.

With the exception of the militant Orthodox, the boundaries between the Jewish and non-Jewish world will be less fixed, more fluid. A shared global culture and world languages will enable people from ethnic enclaves to mix freely with people from other ethnic places. This development is taking place right now. There are three manifestations of this development. The first is the emergence of a smorgasbord of literature, music, food, holidays and celebrations that is now available to any educated person. Jews choose many non-Jewish items for their intellectual, cultural and ceremonial life. Non-Jews increasingly find Jewish cultural creations as attractive options. Jewish identity is far more open and porous than conventional Jewish leaders can tolerate.

The second manifestation is growing intermarriage. Most of this marriage is not interfaith, a difference of beliefs and values. Most of this marriage is intercultural, a difference of ancestors and ceremonies. Neither scolding nor denunciation by Jewish leaders manages to change this reality. Intermarriage is the inevitable consequence of living in a mixed ethnic environment where personal freedom prevails and where the secular values of an emerging global culture dominate personal choices. While the racial profile of Israelis is getting “darker” because of intermarriage between Eastern and Western Jews, the racial profile of North American Jews is getting “lighter” because of intermarriage between Jews and Anglo-Saxons. Ultimately African, Asian and Hispanic genes will also make a dramatic appearance. Ethnic attachment and ethnic stereotypes are beginning to coincide less and less. Even Israel, with its enormous number of intermarried Russian immigrants, is confronting the same challenge. Only abolishing the new economy or militant segregation can change this reality. Many contemporary Jews have more than one ethnic connection. And future Jews will, too.

The third manifestation of an open society is that for many loyal Jews, Jewish identity and Jewish culture will not be their primary commitment. They love being Jewish and they want to participate in Jewish family life. But they have other commitments in the areas of personal relations, friend-ships, work and leisure that are more compelling. Even in Israel, many young Jews are weary of persistent appeals to nationalism and patriotism. The old, all-encompassing collectivism of family and tribe has lost its power for many Jews. Not even guilt can alter this new behavior. The Jewish world functions with increasing numbers of Jews who do not place their Jewish commitments in first place.

One of the future realities in Jewish life will be the growing importance of Israel in Jewish self-awareness. Given the military power of the Jewish state, it is highly unlikely that its enemies will be able to destroy it in the near future. Despite the shrinking of Jewish immigration to the Jewish state, within two decades the majority of the Jews in the world will be living in Israel. The new center of Jewish life may even become bigger than the dispersion. Inevitably, the external and internal problems of Israel will remain an important part of the Jewish national agenda. The culture war between the secularists and the Orthodox in Israel will feed the same war in the Diaspora. And the place of Israeli literature, music and film in Diaspora life will only increase.

Antisemitism will continue to be a significant force in Jewish life. Whatever its origins, the Jews continue to be a provocative people, demonized by both the Right and the Left. The grievances arising from life in a global economy and an emerging global culture feed the hatred of a people who are perceived as winners in the trial of global transformation. While Zionism has restored a vibrant center to the Jewish nation, it has simultaneously provoked an intense antisemitism in the Muslim world. This Jew-hatred will continue to endanger the survival of the Jewish state, even if some kind of accommodation between Israelis and Arab Palestinians is achieved. The imagined solution to antisemitism has only produced more. Of course, a continued antisemitism will continue to keep Diaspora Jews interested in preserving their Jewish identity and will contribute to Jewish group survival.

The consequence of this connection will be the movement of Jewish establishment political life to the Right. The defense of Israel and the defense of Jewish economic interests will finally coincide. The Jews, in modern times, chose the Left as the best guarantee against antisemitism. The future will feature increasing Leftist discomfort with the existence of the Jewish State. But the Right is also problematic for the Jews. Much of it is still antisemitic. And much of it is now religiously fundamentalist, an odd ally for a people that is overwhelmingly secularized or secular. This last development will keep many Jews uncomfortably on the Left. Even if a future American government forces peace by compelling the Israeli government to return to something close to the 1967 borders, persistent Muslim fundamentalism and Third World ambivalence will leave the Jews hovering between the Right and the Left.

Perhaps the most astounding development of the Jewish future will be the relevance of the Jewish Diaspora model to all nations. With national populations shifting and changing, especially in the First World of Europe and North America, the United States, Britain, France and Germany are turning into multi-national states in which racial and ethnic homogeneity has vanished. African, Asian and Mestizo populations are becoming local majorities in many western venues. Aging white populations are importing thousands of necessary young non-whites to sustain their economies. In America, the notion of a multi-cultural society is taking hold. In a time when technology can connect us instantly to any place in the world, dispersed communities can be tied together by the bonds of new communication and transportation which defy distance. Nothing is far away any more —neither South Africa, Japan nor Israel.

Even Israel is changing. The size of the population of Israeli Arabs and foreign workers is growing. The Jewish state is going through the same trauma as Europe and North America. It, too, is part of the dynamic First World. It, too, is experiencing itself as a multi-cultural or multi-national society. The future will only aggravate this development. Perhaps the age of the ethnically pure state is ending. Nations and states no longer coincide. States are territorial units accommodating people of a wide variety of national identities. Perhaps, in such a global society, state citizenship will be separated from national identity. The Chinese in America can be Chinese by nationality and American by citizenship. They can be loyal to the historic family to which they belong and loyal to the state that is their home. They can speak both Chinese and English and feel no discomfort in a multilingual global society. If it is possible for the Chinese, it is also possible for the Jews. As for the Jewish State, it will be like every other First World state, a mixture of several nations. In a global economy, Israelis will produce their own Diaspora, and necessary foreign workers will find their way to Israel. In a mobile world, forcing immigrants to conform to a single territorial model will no longer work. Israel will remain the center of the Jewish world. But it will never become a fully Jewish state.

It is quite possible that territorial nationalism, which is still very strong, will be undermined by the very economic and technological development that territorial nations embrace. By the end of the twenty-first century, the mixing of people will be so universal that old nations will turn into world-wide dispersions. When that happens, not Zionism, but the old Jewish ethnic model of a dispersed people will again become relevant.

Very early in their history, the Jews tasted the possibility of becoming a world people. This development may be their most enduring contribution to the world. Many historians will still maintain that monotheism and a compassionate ethics were the major contributions of the Jews. But monotheism is an increasingly problematic ideology in a secular world, and philosophic monotheism has its roots in many cultures. As for compassionate ethics, it is neither ethical nor empirically responsible for any nation to designate itself the inventor of ethics.

Given their history and influence, the Jews have been and remain a provocative and extraordinary people, the unwitting precursors of a global world they helped to invent.

Capitalism and the Jews

The Jewish Humanist March-April 1976


Hester Street. Eighty years ago.

They came by the thousands. The greatest mass migration in the history of the Jewish people.

They came from Minsk and Pinsk. They came from Zhitomir and Berdichev. They came from Lodz and Bialystok.

Most of them were pious and Orthodox, obsessed by the rituals of shtetl life. Many of them were secular and socialist, impatient with poverty and dreamers of the proletarian revolution.

Eastern Europe was the homeland of the Ashkenazic Jew. Eighty percent of world Jewry was squeezed into the ghetto of Western Russia, Galicia, Slovakia and Transylvania.

By 1945 the “homeland” was ten thousand miles away. Emigration and holocaust were the movers. America became the new center of Ashkenazic life. English replaced Yiddish as the major language of Western Jews. Six million Americans represented half of world Jewry.

Collins Avenue. The faded focus of a new migration. An internal migration.

They came from New York and Pittsburgh. They go to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. They come from Detroit and Chicago. They go to Los Angeles and San Diego. Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cleveland are old Jewish words. Houston, Phoenix and Aspen are new Jewish words.

The second migration is different from the first one. The Jews are different. In a short span of eighty years the Western Jew was transformed by the most dramatic revolution in Jewish history. Never before had any Jew been changed so much so quickly.

Secular capitalism did it. It undermined traditional Christianity. It undermined the Jewish life style. It “destroyed” —not by being mean. It subverted—by being so very nice.

All the characteristics of the historic Jew, which feudal society deplored and condemned, applauded and rewarded.

Jews had a head start for survival in a capitalistic society. They had skills that other people lacked.

Capitalism sponsors a mobile society. Rooted peasant people find moving traumatic. Jews are addicted to wandering. Because of antisemitism, they had to defend themselves against a heavy emotional investment in any place (except the fantasy land of Israel). Long before the bourgeoisie made a distinction between ancestral land and real estate, the Jews had experienced the difference. Feudal society condemned them for their rootlessness. The industrial world rewards their mobile skills with wealth.

Capitalism admires verbal abilities. Language is the intellectual vehicle for science and technology. Language is the way you educate workers in schools for new professions and jobs. Language is the tool of salesmanship—the art of convincing consumers to consume. If Jews are anything, they are verbal. They had to be. Deprived of all physical means of self-defense, they had, to train their mouth to do what weapons do for most people. The Jewish mouth became a formidable instrument of war and protection. Hostile, non-verbal peasants find this characteristic frightening and unattractive. Theurban bourgeoisie pay a lot of money to acquire it. Lawyers, writers and academicians become the conspicuous edge of an industrial culture. Jews take to these professions like birds to air.

Capitalism adores aggressiveness. How else can you sell? How else can you promote new ideas and sponsor new products? Peasants and feudal lords hate pushiness. It is so inconsistent with the tranquil and stable life of village and manor. But urban survival demands aggressiveness. The passive waiter is a winner in the eternal scheme of the feudal world. He is a guaranteed loser in the urban scene. Jews are pushy because they were never able to relax. Antisemitism produced a continuous state of alert. Jews were never safe enough to be less than nervous. Now nervous pushiness may not be the most attractive aggressive style. But, in a capitalistic world, it is better than dull passivity.

Capitalism was the first environment to reward the very Jewish characteristics which the feudal antisemite found intolerable.

No Jewish community, in the long history of the Jewish people, has been as wealthy, educated and politically powerful as the American Jewish community.

The radical changes in contemporary Judaism, whether conservative, liberal or humanistic—which make it a distinct religion from traditional Judaism—are the results of a revolutionary adjustment. Secular capitalism has created a new Jewish religion. What is it? What is it becoming?

Judaism in America.

It is unlike any Judaism that ever came before

It is a radical break with the past and with the life style of the Jewish tradition.

It is a product of western capitalism and the urban industrial society which capitalism spawned.

Western capitalism presented the Jew with social realities that violated the essence of Jewish piety.

It sponsored female liberation. An expanding industrial economy provided women with options other than motherhood and wifehood. Female freedom is the consequence of money power and financial alternatives

Western capitalism sponsored secularism. The industrial state was built on the premise that the most readily available power for economic expansion was natural— not supernatural. Divine power was so secondary that it could be relegated to private choice. The state could not be bothered with religious controversy because no essential power was being provided anymore by religious institutions and by clerical professionals.

Western capitalism sponsored the right to happiness. Divine justice had decreed that, given Jewish behavior and Jewish disobedience, suffering and death were deserved. If the Messiah came, it would be an act of divine mercy, a gracious Yom Kippur style act of a sentimental deity. But the capitalist consumer culture cannot be built on the right to suffer.

The growing industrial state needs the citizen conviction that pleasure is appropriate and that happiness is deserved. The early stages of development can use masochistic thrift. But the later stages require massive spending.

Western capitalism sponsored individualism. The traditional family unit makes sense in an agrarian environment where children are free labor and protectors of the aged. In an urban culture the most efficient labor unit is the mobile individual. Individualism is the social product of this economic reality.

Judaism in America cannot survive unless it affirms these four realities of an industrial economy. It does not have the power to repudiate the social reality.

It must reject male chauvinism and affirm female liberation.

It must reject the primary significance of supernatural power and affirm that the essential available energies are secular, human and natural.

It must reject the ethics of sacrifice and suffering and affirm the right of men and women to personal fulfillment now.

It must reject the primacy of the family unit and affirm the significance of individual identity in all relationships—whether marriage or work. The revolutionary consequence is the endorsement of temporary relations as kosher.

The life style of this new Judaism is not a gradual evolution of the old life style. It is a radical and traumatic break with the past.

When the majority of American Jews will be able to accept this reality, official Judaism will stop playing around with the nostalgia and will be able to use its creative energies to celebrate the new life style.

Masters of the Enlightenment: Precursors of Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1989, vol. XVII no. 1


Humanistic Judaism is a new alternative in Jewish life. Self-aware secular and humanistic Jews have been around for less than a century. But their roots are deeper and older than their self-awareness. They have strong connections with important events that preceded their public debut.

While the Orthodox rabbinic tradition with its trinity of Bible, Talmud, and Siddur contains isolated statements of humanistic value, the premises of this tradition are hostile to humanism. They cannot serve as the basis for a humanistic Jewish outlook. On the contrary, the assault on this tradition is the root of secular Judaism.

Two major historic forces have assaulted the tradition. The first was subtle, unconscious, and nondeliberate. It was the experience of the Jewish people through centuries of undeserved suffering and oppression. The inconsistency of that experience with the official ideology of divine justice laid the emotional foundation for Jewish skepticism. The second force was overt, conscious, and deliberate. It was the impact of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, on the belief system of traditional Jews. The leaders of the Haskala were the precursors of Humanistic Judaism. Their writings became the intellectual groundwork for a secular approach to Jewish identity.

The Jewish Enlightenment was part of a wider movement that radically transformed the world view of the European intellectual elite. The original Enlightenment did not begin with the Jews. It began with non-Jewish philosophers and scientists who lived in Holland and England in the middle of the seventeenth century. Later it was embraced by Jewish enthusiasts who used its energies to refashion Judaism.

The European Enlightenment

The European Enlightenment was the intellectual expression of profound social and economic changes that were taking place in the countries of northwestern Europe. City life was replacing village life. Manufacturing was becoming the rival of agriculture. Affluence was softening the struggle for survival. Revolutionary new ideas were a reflection of revolutionary new styles of living. At a time when human beings were increasingly experiencing their own power, philosophy had to follow suit.

The Enlightenment was reinforced by religious developments in Western Europe. In the Germanic countries of the north, the Protestant Reformation succeeded in sweeping away the priestly structures of the Roman Catholic Church. Although the ideas of the Reformers were hardly consistent with those of the Enlightenment philosophers, the Protestant emphasis on literacy and individual conscience provided the soil in which more radical belief systems could grow. While the Catholic Counter Reformation held southern Europe in the thrall of censorship and physical intimidation, the Protestant ideology mobilized the northern bourgeoisie for secular success.

Holland and England were two strongly Protestant countries that became “homelands” of the Enlightenment. Amsterdam and London sent their merchant fleets to the four corners of the earth and became the financial centers of the world. Money and investment rivaled the Bible as consuming passions. The new capitalism proved a stimulus to science. And the new affluence made people less desperate for the rewards of the afterlife and more eager for the pleasures of this world.

In this energized environment of trade and exploration, with its bizarre mixture of Biblical fundamentalism and secular science, a radical new world view emerged. The people who hated its ideas called it the work of Satan. The people who embraced it called it the Enlightenment.

The intellectuals, both professional and non-professional, who articulated the ideas of the Enlightenment were not organized in some militant fraternity. They were solo scientists and philosophers with unique personal styles, who made their attacks on the enemy with very little awareness that they were part of an ideological movement. Later on, when the Enlightenment reached France in the eighteenth century, an authoritarian state and church aroused more solidarity and more militancy.

Hindsight has recruited many “soloists” for the work of the Enlightenment. Spinoza, Grotius, and Descartes worked in Holland. Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Shaftesbury, Butler, Johnson, and Hume graced the British scene. Voltaire, Diderot, de Condorcet, d’Holbach, and Rousseau were the “stars” of the French campaign. Germany featured Leibniz, Kant, and Lessing. Although there were many disagreements among these ideologues, certain central ideas were common to all of them. These ideas are the message of the Enlightenment.

Most of these thinkers were committed to a method for the discovery of truth, which they called reason. Reason meant different things to different philosophers. But on the whole, there was a shared meaning, which included the autonomy of the human mind, skepticism with regard to faith and tradition, attention to the evidence of human experience, and a preference for consistency. Although the inductive reasoning of John Locke and the deductive reasoning of Rene Descartes may seem worlds apart, they were united in the new affirmation of the power of the human mind.

Most of these thinkers believed in the essential goodness of humanity. Rejecting the thesis of Christianity that people were inherently sinful and anti-social, they argued that ignorance, not defectiveness, was the cause of immorality, and that the proper cure was education, not repentance and grace—which, in fact, now seemed quite irrelevant.

Most of these thinkers firmly believed in human progress and imagined that the age of reason was the prelude to the redemption of humanity. The age of religion that preceded was viewed as a time of primitive superstition. And the age of science that would follow was anticipated as a time of utopian happiness. While the philosophers of the Enlightenment did inherit the nostalgic Renaissance fondness for the cultures of Greece and Rome, they really believed that the present was better than the past and that the future would be better than the present.

The message of the Enlightenment was no idle intellectual exercise. It was used for practical political purposes to assault existing institutions and to reform society.

The first victim was traditional religion. Although most of the early Enlightenment thinkers were deists (like Newton and Voltaire), they despised orthodox Christianity and the priesthood that sustained it. They sought to remove education from the hands of the clergy and to separate religion from government. Anti-clericalism was a major theme of the political Enlightenment. When the French revolutionaries disestablished the church and secularized the state, they were carrying out the dictates of their Enlightenment mentors.

The second victim was the feudal system of hierarchy and privilege. While many of the new thinkers identified very strongly with a Whiggish aristocracy, they undermined the stability of the very system they enjoyed by destroying the credibility of traditional authority. In the end, kings were no better than bishops. Their divine certificates were equally invalid. Unwitting liberal aristocrats, who loved the world of elitist salons, laid the foundations for democratic revolutions. They could not mock their own peers without, in turn, subverting their own privileges.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, the leaders of the Enlightenment were cautious religionists and timid reformers. By the end of the eighteenth century, many of them had become devout atheists and democratic revolutionaries.

The Jewish Enlightenment

The Jews of Western Europe—although few in number—could not escape the Enlightenment. Their bourgeois affinities and their political vested interests drew them irresistibly into the controversy.

Some Jews were attracted to the ideas of the Enlightenment because of self-interest. Even if they were personally traditional, they were oppressed by the same Christian authorities that were threatened by the new ideology. Conservative Jews and radical humanists shared the same political enemies and, therefore, the same political agenda. While Torah Judaism maintained the unity of religion and government, its devotees, as a vulnerable minority in Gentile countries, found no immediate value in theocracy. Secular governments were better for Jews—even religious Jews—than Christian ones.

Some Jews were attracted to the ideas of the Enlightenment because their involvement in the capitalist revolution made them open to a rational critique of traditional religion. Eager for secular education and impatient with their own reactionary rabbinic authorities, they were drawn to an ideology that promised liberation from the tyranny of tradition. These Jews became the forerunners of humanism in Jewish life.

It took more than a century for a full-fledged humanism to emerge in the European Enlightenment. The same is true of the Jewish Enlightenment. Starting in the middle of the eighteenth century, the Jewish devotees of reason needed more than a hundred years to produce an unashamed secular point of view.

The first Jewish responses were ambivalent. Centered in Germany, where the only substantial Jewish community in Western Europe resided, the Haskala (as the Jewish Enlightenment was known in Hebrew) was a fairly timid venture. Its chief ideologue was Moses Mendelssohn, the darling of the liberal German intelligentsia. Mendelssohn claimed to be both a rationalist and a traditional Jew. Making an arbitrary distinction between philosophy and religious practice, he assigned the first to reason and the second to divine revelation. The first was discussable; the second was not.

Out of this ideological mish-mash came a strategy for modernizing the Jews. Mendelssohn was assisted by an ardent reformer named Naphtale Herz Wessely. The strategy included the following projects: the establishment of free secular schools with secular studies for Jewish youth, the training of Jewish teachers in secular seminaries, and the revival of the Hebrew language as a secular language for literary inspiration. Later, after Mendelssohn’s death, the commitment to traditional religious practice was abandoned and conscious attempts to reform Judaism in the spirit of the Enlightenment were undertaken.

In time the Haskala recruited thousands of Jews and produced a vast body of literature. Its scholars were called maskilim, and they presented themselves to their respective communities as the vanguard of the Enlightenment and the enemies of superstition.

The primary achievement of the maskilim was the creation and development of what Leopold Zunz called the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Science of Judaism. This bold project was an attempt to provide a substitute for the naive traditional-supernatural presentation of Jewish history. In its place emerged a secular, naturalistic view of the Jewish past, appropriate to the new historical style inspired by the Enlightenment.

The new history had very clear secular and humanistic implications. Once you remove divine intervention from Jewish history you are left with Judaism as a human creation. But most of the maskilim were not prepared to affirm these implications. Most of them were fairly traditional. Their ideas were more radical than their personal lifestyles.

Some of them preserved the dichotomy of Mendelssohn, attempting to separate their historical research from their religious commitments. They remained religiously observant and religiously conservative.

Some of them tried to redefine God in naturalistic terms. Like [early Reform rabbi] Abraham Geiger, they now saw the hand of God in the natural development of the Jewish people. This accommodation gave rise to the Reform movement.

Some of them tried to remain scholars alone, making no connection between their research and the struggle of the Jewish people to deal with the new ideas of the Enlightenment and the traumatic effects of political emancipation.

A few of them followed reason to its inevitable end. If the history of the Jews that tradition had presented was no longer valid, then the religious ideas that flowed from it were no longer valid.

Not all the new historians, then, were consistently naturalistic. Neither Graetz nor Frankel nor Geiger nor Krochmal was able to fully divorce his religion from his research. But their achievements were significant. A new way of looking at Jewish history had been born, which turned the legendary story of Judaism into a this-worldly saga. Facts, rather than faith, became the arbiter of our roots. The myth of the superior past and the inferior present was replaced by a more reasoned, realistic view of Jewish progress.

The secular and humanistic Jewish thinkers, Yiddishist and Zionist, who emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and who boldly and explicitly voiced their humanistic beliefs, were the heirs of this Jewish Enlightenment. Both the timid and the more radical maskilim laid the foundation for their humanism. These thinkers were “step two” to the Haskala’s “step one.”


As humanistic Jews, we are the “descendants” of the Enlightenment. Without it we would never have been able to see the Jewish experience in a humanistic way.

It is true that some of the Enlightenment ideology was naive. Experience has taught us that wickedness is not simply the child of ignorance and that human progress may not be quite so inevitable. But we cannot even reach these conclusions without the realistic tool of reason. And reason, in all its glory, is the special legacy of the Enlightenment.

You Shall Love the Lord Your God

“You Shall Love the Lord Your God”  from A Provocative People, (2012)

Loving deities is not easy. After all, an emotion that began with the intimate relations of parents and children, men and women is not easily transferred to intimidating gods. But “love” movements have arisen in many religions. Their cause is the need of many devotees to establish relationships with the gods that mirror the intense personal relationships of family. What we call mysticism flows from this need; the Baal Shem Tov, Jesus and the Bhakhti gurus of Hinduism manifest this development. The assumption is that the god returns the love which the devotee offers. Certainly, the fear that most gods have inspired is reduced if we can imagine them behaving as loving parents.

What is most puzzling is commanding a feeling. Love certainly includes behavior, but it starts with feeling. Commanding feeling is impossible. We feel what we feel. Our behavior we can control, but not our feelings. Ordering somebody to love you borders on absurdity. “You shall obey your god” is more reasonable. Early religion focused more on behavior than on feeling.

Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
All texts, photos, audio and video are © by the Literary Estate of Sherwin Wine, whose custodian is the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism – North American Section. All rights reserved.