The Fatwa Against Rushdie

The Jewish Humanist, March 1989

A brilliant and creative writer, by the name of Salman Rushdie, has been condemned to death for writing a book that his accusers have not even read.

Ayatollah Khomeini has re-entered the political spotlight by ordering the execution of a secular intellectual of Muslim origin. Rushdie, an award-winning novelist of international fame, has been declared guilty of blasphemy, a crime worthy of death in fundamentalist circles. His book, Satanic Verses, innocently plays with Muslim myths, including the stories of Mohammed and his wives, in order to demonstrate the ambiguity of good and evil. To the secular reader the presentation is subtle, creative and brilliant. To the pious Muslim reader it is nothing short of an assault on God.

In the post-Enlightenment secularized world of the West such a book has a right to exist, even though it causes pain and discomfort to pious believers. Free speech is a fundamental liberty which even traditional religious people have come to accept. After all, it simply evens the score. For countless centuries religious leaders have had complete freedom to speak and write scurrilously about atheism and secularism, defaming its teachers and philosophers in the most outrageous way. “Blasphemy” can go both ways.

But in the Muslim world, which never experienced a true Enlightenment and where religion has never had the opportunity to adapt to a secular democratic world, free speech is difficult to comprehend. Insulting God, by denying the infallibility of his prophets and scripture, endangers not only the individuals who are guilty of blasphemy but also the society that tolerates it without adequate punishment. If the guilty are not removed all will suffer the wrath of Allah.

The crafty Khomeini is using the opportunity of this scandal to re-assert his pre-eminence in the Muslim world, especially after the debacle with Iraq. However it is a diversionary tactic, which runs counter to the recent attempts of some of his lieutenants to cozy up to the Western powers in the hope that Western financial help will now be available to rebuild the economy of Iran. Khomeini cannot have it both ways. He cannot threaten the West and seduce them into assisting him at the same time. Right now, being the angry voice of a militant Islam is more appealing.

Interestingly, his new terrorism is working. Booksellers, like Waldenbooks and Dalton, are refusing to sell Rushdie’s book. Governments, like Canada, are forbidding its import. Religious leaders with a few exceptions are choosing silence. The author has offered an abject apology (which has humiliatingly been rejected). Even the American president, who is hardly a favorite in Teheran where he enjoys the status of a condemned Satan, has chosen to speak softly. Only the European community has responded with some courage, although it still continues to import Persian oil.

At stake in this encounter is the future of free speech as well as the future of art and science. If intellectual and literary figures, whose creativity deviates from the norm of religious prosperity, can be placed on death lists by fundamentalist governments and the Western public – then free speech will be an ultimate victim of international terrorism.

The attitude that assumes that Khomeini is a passing crazy and does not deserve our courageous defiance is dangerous. When Khomeini dies, others equally crazy and fanatic, will follow. But once the posture of surrender is begun, once the defiance is mild rather than bold, the battle will be lost. It will just be easier to comply then resist. Dignity will seem less important than physical security.

It is, therefore, very important that we, as secularists and humanists, who will suffer most from fundamentalist intimidation, should not yield to these threats. It is important that we encourage publishers and booksellers not to yield and that we denounce and embarrass those who do. It is also important that we encourage the American government to speak out boldly against this intimidation and to institute sanctions. America’s caution will neither protect American hostages nor encourage pro-Western elements in the Iranian government.

Whether you approve or disapprove of Salman Rushdie is not the issue. Free speech is. And now is the time to defend it.

Brussels 1988 – International Federation Conference

The Jewish Humanist, November 1988

Brussels 1988. An important place and time for Humanistic Judaism.

The second biennial meeting of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews produced an important document. The question “Who is a Jew?” was answered boldly, generously and with a unique voice. Never before had any Jewish movement drawn the parameters of Jewishness so broadly. Hopefully, the issuance of this statement to the Jewish press and to the Jewish world will challenge the traditional establishment and arouse useful discussion.

The meeting in Brussels also provided for emotional highs. Two hundred people from thirteen countries, speaking Hebrew, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Yiddish, created an environment of international excitement. Some came – out of secular Yiddishist backgrounds. Some came from active Zionist organizations. Some were children of the kibbutz, imbued with the results of over seventy years of humanistic experiments. Others were members of secular Jewish schools and secular Jewish culture clubs. Still others, like us, were the products of full-fledged humanistic congregations. Even famous free-floating Jewish intellectuals, like Albert Memmi and Amos Funkenstein, added to the variety of flavors.

The- main setting for the conference was the Centre Communautaire Laic Juif, a secular Jewish community center in the heart of Brussels. Established over twenty -five years ago by a charismatic couple, Simone and David Susskind, it has emerged as the major humanistic Jewish voice on the European scene. Its programs reach thousands of Jews in Brussels. Its publications, especially its French magazine Regards are read by over ten thousand Belgian Jews. Its special conferences embrace the famous leaders and intellectuals of the Jewish world and bring them together to discuss important issues.

There were many special moments. There was the triumphant conclusion of the day-long attempt to reach consensus on the Who is a Jew? statement, with regional delegations cheering and applauding-. There was the warm and inspiring message of Albert Memmi, famous writer and the honorary president of the Federation, who challenged us to respond creatively to the real world of assimilation and intermarriage. There was the simple and compelling acceptance speech of David Susskind, who received a special award for distinguished service to the cause of Jewish humanism, and who shared with us the passion of his commitment. There was the powerful challenge of Yehoshafat Harkabi, former Director of Military Intelligence for the state of Israel, who demanded that we dismiss our destructive illusions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and called us to confront the reality of Israel’s present position and the necessity for dramatic compromise. There was, of course, the incredible sense of solidarity and closeness as we all sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs with Jews from many places and many nations.

The conference made us an aware that, despite our differences, we were part of a growing world movement and that we needed to work together to make it strong. But we also recognized that context made a difference. The problems of North America were not the same as those of Europe. And the problems of Europe were distinct from those of Israel and Latin America. We discovered that we had to listen to each other very carefully so that we could really understand from where each one of us was coming and what each one of us needed.

Out of the conference came an agenda of tasks that we needed to undertake if we were going to be successful in serving the needs of secular and humanistic Jews. We needed to provide popular essays about our philosophy – in at least four languages – so that unaware secular Jews could identify with our ideology and our movement. We needed to strengthen our Institute in Jerusalem so that trained teachers and leaders would be available to serve struggling communities all over the world. We needed to develop the aesthetic and emotional side of our humanistic commitments so that shared celebrations and shared symbols would give us a heartfelt sense of Jewish identity. We needed to reach out to the thousands of Jews who had no knowledge of us but who belonged with us, especially the cultural Jews of the Soviet Union and the unaffiliated Jews of North America and Europe. We especially needed to map out an effective strategy to counter the militancy of the new orthodoxy and to help rescue the Jewish world for sanity and openness.

We left Brussels with the determination to undertake these tasks and with the comfort of knowing that we would undertake them together.

The closing event of the meeting was held at the Holocaust Memorial in Brussels, an outdoor shrine in the heart of the old ghetto where twenty-six thousand names of Nazi victims are inscribed in bronze. We stood in silent tribute and then sang the defiant song of the Jewish partisans. We felt the sadness and despair for all that was lost. We also felt deeply our connection to the suffering and survival of the Jewish people. We knew that, ultimately, we could not rely on the kindness of God. The future of the Jewish people and of humanity lay, in some small way, in our hands.

Eight Years of The Religious Right

The Jewish Humanist, October 1988

Eight years ago Ronald Reagan was running for President for the first time. And it was quite clear that – given the difficulties of Carter – he was going to win.

Eight years ago a sinister new political force presented its face to the public in the presidential campaign. The Moral Majority, under the leadership of evangelist Jerry Falwell, made its national debut in support of Reagan.

Eight years ago the Voice of Reason was born at the Birmingham Temple. Aroused by the danger to our civil liberties in the Falwell success, many of our members decided to respond in an organized way to this organized threat.

The Voice of Reason was an important chapter in our twenty-five year old history. It was an expression of our commitment to a liberal democracy and to the separation of religion and government which it implies. For that reason we have chosen to honor the Voice of Reason as part of our anniversary celebration.

Eight years later, at the time of another presidential election, it is appropriate for us to look back at the Falwell phenomenon and assess its successes and failures.

The religious right has been successful in mobilizing a large minority of the American people as a permanent activist lobby for fundamentalist causes. Some ten to fifteen percent of the American population is fanatically committed to tearing down the “traditional” barrier between church and state. Never before in American history have so many been so focused on this issue.

For many of the people in this political lobby the entrance of religious symbols and religious values into the public sphere is the most important political goal they have.

The religious right has been successful in assuming the mantle of moral defender in our troubled society. Sensitive to the concern that so many Americans have about the decline of traditional ethical values, especially those having to do with family and sex, the fundamentalist preachers have tuned into this anxiety and provided a simple and dramatic remedy. Secularism is now identified by many Americans with either immorality or moral permissiveness. Secular state schools are now regarded as neutral or negligent in the development of either patriotism or personal character. Private religious school systems are flourishing. And millions of non-fundamentalist parents have now come to accept the argument that religious education is moral education.

The religious right has been successful in encouraging a fanatic hostility to the decisions of the Supreme Court, especially those with regard to school prayer, school Bible readings, the integrity of science and abortion. The devotees of the right are determined to replace the justices on the court who espouse any liberal or moderate views with their own spokespeople. The chief criterion for the admission of these candidates to the court is their stance on the place of religion in public life.

The religious right has been successful in intimidating public educators and forcing them on the defensive. Cautious teachers, principals and superintendents are now reluctant to offer clear and direct support to secular education in a secular state.

Hoping to appease the “nudges” of the right, they have often consented to replace scientifically respectable textbooks with more timid alternatives. They have eliminated meaningful sex education. And they have allowed fundamentalist recruiters into their schools to seduce non-religious students into religious activity.

The religious right has been successful in putting science and scientists on the defensive. Building on the new fashionable anti-intellectuality of the past two decades and the stress that new information and new technology place on the public, the fundamentalists have compelled scientists to defend tried and true scientific conclusions that were no longer challenged forty years ago. In many places the theory of evolution is experiencing the same trial as Darwin experienced over a hundred years ago in England.

The religious right has been successful in making abortion freedom as a central issue of American political life. More determined than most conventional Catholics, they have elevated their answer to this question to be the moral litmus test for all politicians. Even Jerry Falwell, borrowing a page from the left and Martin Luther King Jr., has proposed a campaign of civil disobedience to undermine abortion freedom in this country. With assaultive demonstrations at abortion clinics, the debate is heating up to explosion.

The religious right has been successful in infiltrating the Republican Party and moving it to the right. Even though Pat Robertson did not succeed in remaining a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, his followers and the devotees of other fundamentalist preachers retain a strong influence on Republican decisions and strategies. The near-win of Robertson in Michigan may portend similar events in other places. For sure, no secular sentiment ever passes the lips anymore of any successful Republican candidate.

Well, as you can see, the successes of the religious right are quite impressive. But there have been several significant failures.

The religious right has failed to turn its propaganda into effective legislation. Despite the promised support of both Reagan and conservative Congressmen, most of the agenda has failed to become reality. While some abortion restrictions have passed into law, very little has been achieved with school prayer, Bible readings and anti-evolution. While the Supreme Court has helped, the ambivalence of both moderates and many economic conservatives have prevented the energies of the religious right to be transferred to the legislators.

The religious right has failed to win the support of a majority of the American people despite the title of its most powerful national organization, (Moral Majority). On the contrary, its leaders have become some of the most hated figures on the American scene. While Falwell is adored by his followers, he is feared by almost eighty percent of the American population. The intensity of the fundamentalists has produced a counter-intensity of disgust and loathing that serves as an effective wall to fundamentalist ambitions.

The religious right has failed to unite its forces or discipline its leaders. The recent delicious fiascos with Bakker and Swaggart have revealed a world of unseemly competition and hypocrisy under the moral platitudes. We now know that fundamentalists and charismatics do not like each other and that kinky sex is a prerequisite for television evangelism. People are now beginning to laugh at what they used to revere. A lot of devotees have departed the fold.

The religious right failed to win its most ambitious attempt to control the Supreme Court. Although Bork is an atheist, his staunch conservatism and sympathetic feeling for religious symbolism in public life made him a test case for fundamentalist aspirations. His defeat was an enormous disappointment to diehard conservatives and a ray of hope to frustrated separationists and civil libertarians.

Now these failures were due to a variety of causes. One was the basic centrist position of most of the American people. The second was the internal feuding among the fundamentalist leaders and the stupid and embarrassing behavior of their most visible spokesmen. The third was the dichotomy between the programs of economic conservatives and lifestyle conservatives, the former of which see no connection between free enterprise and anti-science. The fourth was the determined political effort Of the American Civil Liberties Union, the People for the American Way, and smaller organizations like the Voice of Reason (now renamed Americans for Religious Liberty) to mobilize opposition to the agenda of the religious right.

Despite the failures of the fundamentalists the successes of the “enemy” of our constitutional liberties means that we must continue to be vigilant, continue to stay organized to respond to danger. That vigilance is the meaning of our tribute to the Voice of Reason.


Jewish Book Month 1987

The Jewish Humanist,  November 1987

November is Jewish Book Month, a time to honor the literary creativity of contemporary Jewish writers – or to honor the writing of talented non-Jews who choose to write about Jews.

The best way to celebrate this special month is to read Jewish books – not just any old Jewish books, but good ones. In a country like America, where the Jewish literary establishment is very powerful, where Jewish culture and Jewish identity arouse widespread positive interest, and where successful writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, vie for the attention of the large Jewish reading public, there is no shortage of appropriate books.

During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I chose readings from five new books to illustrate my presentations on ethics. Each of them is a book worth reading and discussing.

Here they are.

Power and Powerless by David Biale. Biale is a professor of Jewish history at the University of California in Berkeley. He proposes a provocative thesis that many modern Jews are not comfortable with, because it does not conform to the image of the Jew which they wish to present to the Gentile public. Jews usually see their historic experience as one of weakness and powerlessness, a continuous story of suffering and humiliation. This perception feeds into the need to appear as victims of powerful enemies and to solicit sympathy and pity. But Biale disowns this perception. He maintains that for most of Jewish history Jews were indeed powerful in the environments where they chose to live or found themselves. The power was usually not military. However, it might be economic. The history of the Jews, according to Biale, is not one long tale of woe. It is a story of the effective use of -talent and connections to make useful changes and to provide strong defenses. Although we Jews are often more comfortable with losing than with winning, we cannot understand our roots if we insist on projecting our present anxiety onto our past experience.

Out of Step by Sidney Hook. This book is the autobiography Sidney Hook, one of America most prominent humanist philosophers – and one of America’s mc controversial intellectuals. A child of Jewish New York, Hook became a Marxist radical during his student days at CCNY (the training ground of so much of the Jewish intellectual elite). In the decades that followed, as established his -credentials as philosopher and an academician, he repudiated his Marxist ideology and embraced a more moderate social democratic liberal posture. Throughout his career, given his strong Jewish attachments, he fought for the legitimacy of his Jewish atheistic position. Controversy entered his life during the Vietnam era and the radicals and championed the old liberal notion that a school of higher learning should be open to hearing all opinions, right and left – and should not become a political instrument of political radicals. Hook’s autobiography reveals that he still retains his feisty and acerbic style in his 80’s

Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies. This memoir is the story of the woman who befriended the Frank family in Amsterdam and supported them in their hiding place. An employee of Otto Frank, Miep was confronted with a terrifying moral choice. Should she risk her life and the life of her family to rescue Jewish friends? Her response was without hesitation. Even when her friends were arrested, she recklessly ran to Gestapo headquarters to appeal for their release. Her story dramatizes the moral courage of many Gentiles, who, to no personal advantage for themselves, chose to save Jews. What makes her memoir so powerful is that it is told with no self-conscious heroism.

The History of the Jews by Philip Johnson. Johnson has become a well-known popular historian, whose conservative opinions on the malaise of modern society have been enshrined in a series of successful books. Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions his style and the force of his opinions are of compelling interest. Given his ethnic background, it was surprising that he chose to devote such extensive research to the history of the Jews. But he is obviously fascinated by us and by our achievements. While his presentation of the early history of the Jews is dominated by a naive reliance on the truth of the Biblical myths, his analysis of the evolution of the Jews in the Diaspora is nothing less than brilliant. He is not troubled by the economic role of the Jew in both the Middle Ages and in the contemporary capitalist world. He finds it fascinating and deals with it realistically. This history is written by an admirer of the Jews – but not one overly sentimental or fawning.

To the Land of the Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld. Appelfeld is an Israeli who spent his youth in Bukovina in Eastern Europe. He is intimately familiar with the Holocaust and has devoted his writing career to dramatizing the devastation of his people through short somewhat surrealistic novels. Badenheim 1939 made him famous. And this novel follows in the same tradition. A Jewish woman is accompanied on her ill-omened trip to death by her adolescent son. Neither she, nor the people with her, are willing to acknowledge what is happening to them. All is denial. And this denial, in the midst of the most ominous warnings, is Appelfeld’s commentary on the Jewish response to the inconceivable horror of the Holocaust.

If you are looking for good Jewish reading, any one of the five will do.

Argentina and Peronism

The Jewish Humanist, February 1997

I loved Evita. I loved the musical. I loved the movie. And, I thought that Madonna was an extraordinary Eva Peron.

But seeing Evita made me reflect on the politics of the modern world. After all, the fascism of the Perons was a unique fascism, an alliance between the army and the labor unions. Historically, in most conservative countries, the army allies itself with the clergy and the upper classes. But not in Argentina under Peron. As we can tell from the frustrated oligarchy in the Webber musical, singing in their upper class accents, the old ruling class were not happy with the Perons. Eva hated them. She was happiest when she was mesmerizing the descamisados, her shirtless workers.

Fascism is on the Right. But it is not conservative. It is a radical response to the traumas of modern capitalism. Unlike Communism which glorifies the industrial worker and the international working class, fascism glorifies the peasant, the soldier and the patriot. The soldier, in particular, is the hero of fascist intellectuals. The soldier is also peasant and patriot. In a capitalistic world he is seen as the victim of the masters of money, the corrupt politicians of democracy and the effete and indifferent upper classes. His rescue can only be effected by a soldier of honor, a leader who embodies the will of the people, a hero who will turn the whole nation into an army of virtue and mutual support.

Both Hitler and Mussolini hated the upper classes. They played to the lower classes, to their sense of victimization in a cruel capitalistic world, to their hatred of urban life, to their fear of foreigners, to their yearning for self-esteem through military glory. Both Hitler and Mussolini were veterans of the First World War. Their first followers were lower class unemployed veterans, filled with hatred of the rich and the privileged, and open to any conspiracy theory that featured foreigners and Jews. The gauleiters of the Nazi Party were not aristocrats. They despised aristocrats. They preferred German leaders who talked like Huey Long, George Wallace and Pat Buchanan. Unlike the old conservative ideologies of pedigree and property, fascism had the power to mobilize the masses.

But neither Hitler or Mussolini succeeded in winning over the leaders of industrial labor. The urban workers voted against fascism. In the end, both dictators were forced to make alliances with the aristocrats they despised. It was the Perons, in the very hour when the forces of fascism experienced their terrible defeat in both Europe and Asia, who succeeded in making an alliance between the army and the labor unions. Behind the songs and biography of Evita lies an extraordinary and frightening political development.

Argentina had become a rich country by the beginning of the twentieth century. British investment, the invention of refrigeration and the European demand for Argentine beef and wheat produced enormous wealth. But this wealth was very unevenly distributed.

A small number of landed aristocrats controlled most of it. They indulged themselves with excessive luxury and monopolized all positions of political power. Needing workers for their economic empire, they imported large numbers of Spanish and Italian immigrants who transformed the port city of Buenos Aires into one of the great metropolitan centers of the world. Many of these immigrants created a new middle class who struggled with the aristocrats for political control. For a short time in the 1920’s the middle class prevailed. But most of the peasants and urban workers remained excluded, oppressed and ignored. They were the ‘losers’ of an emerging modern economy.

The key to the success of Juan and Eva was that they spoke to the ‘losers’ in a language that the lower classes could understand – language of paternal and maternal love, a language of patriotism and lower class resentment. The turn-off language of intellectual socialism and sophisticated atheism never burdened their communication. The lower classes did not want democracy. They wanted jobs, recognition and revenge. Eva understood them. That is why in poor neighborhoods in Argentina she is still remembered as ‘Santa Evita’.

In time, without Eva, the Peron regime collapsed from its own economic mismanagement. The upper and middle classes rejoiced. The army returned to its traditional alliance with the rich and the clergy. But the new government, including the present one (which is ironically Peronist without any of the programs of Peron) had not found the solution to the problem of the unhappy ‘losers’, the workers that modern capitalism so easily displaces.

Evita makes you think. In an America where so many workers are discovering that their standard of living is falling, that their jobs are disappearing to automation or to foreign competition, where foreigners abound in ethnically, mixed cities and where the separation between the winners and ‘losers’ is growing wider – is it possible that disgruntled labor could make an alliance with undemocratic politicians and soldiers in an outburst of impulsive resentment. L think not. But Evita makes me think of the danger of a world where the winners indulge their right to self-absorption and where the ‘losers’ are cast aside, alienated from the economic game, and consumed by envy and anger.

The problem of Evita will not go away.

Bosnia – US to Intervene?

The Jewish Humanist, January 1996

Should American troops go to Bosnia?

Many Americans are having heated arguments about this question. After all, there is the risk that American soldiers will be trapped in a civil war that no outside force has the power to stop. Bosnia is not Vietnam. But it is also not Haiti.

The tragedy of Bosnia is the tragedy of Yugoslavia. Many centuries ago a single nation was split into three parts by religion. First the missionaries of Christianity divided the Slavic tribes of Yugoslavia into Catholics and Orthodox. The Croats became Catholics. The Serbs, who spoke the same language as the Croats, became Orthodox. When the Ottoman Muslim Turks conquered the area, many Serbs and Croats chose Islam. Most of the new Muslims lived in the Turkish province of Bosnia. In time the division was aggravated by literacy. The Croats wrote the language in Latin letters. The Serbs wrote the language in Cyrillic letters. And the Muslims sometimes resorted to Arabic script. What had been one became three. And, as we know, there is no hatred like the hatred inspired by religious faith.

The Serbs were the first to achieve independence. After the defeat of their Austrian and Turkish enemies in the First World War, the Serbs created Yugoslavia. The new country brought the Croatians and Muslims under Serbian domination. The forced union did not work. The arrival of Hitler and the German army in the Second World War split the new nation into a Croatian and Serbian part. With the help of the Nazis, the Croatians and their Muslim allies carried out a war of extermination against their Serbian enemies. Together with fifty thousand Jews, over six hundred thousand Serbs perished. The Serbs never forgot this genocide.

After the Second World War, the Russians and their Communist allies decided recreate Yugoslavia. For thirty-five years th federation” was preserved by the iron will a Communist dictator called Tito. Tito tried to secularize the country and encouraged the Serbs, Croats and Muslims to intermarry. But he continued to preserve Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia as sub-units of Yugoslavia. He had no alternative since the official party line did not correspond to the strong nationalist loyalties and hatreds which survived despite propaganda. The death of Tito and a world recession undid the bonds of the fragile Yugoslav nation. War was inevitable because the boundaries Tito had drawn did not correspond to the ethnic realities. The Serbs were the first aggressors, egged on by painful memories, arrogant chauvinism and the ambitions of a former Communist leader, the Serbian president Milosevic. Since the aggression in 1991, four years of war have produced three hundred thousand dead and three million refugees. And Bosnia he turned into a devastated land. Along the way genocide (euphemistically called “ethnic cleansing”) became an ordinary weapon of war.

Despite the moral outrage of the terrible genocide and the threat to peace in the Balkans, neither America, its European allies, nor the United Nations were willing or able to stop the war. America was absorbed by domestic concerns and saw no vested interest in intervention.

And Russia prolonged the war by offering its support to the Serbs. Even the nearby Germans, French and British were ineffective because their so-called unity was only a sham.

But now Clinton has decided to intervene. After all these years of indifference, his action is hardly humanitarian. It is clearly political. He needs to establish his credibility in the face of Republican victories and an aggressive Republican Congress. Having long neglected foreign affairs, he has now concluded that becoming a world leader will enhance his chances of staying in power after November 1996. What followed was the impossible “Treaty of Dayton.”

Right action often emerges from questionable motivation. The intervention in Bosnia is one of them. Regardless of Clinton’s agenda, it will provide relief to a desolate population, enhance world law and order and serve the vested interest of the United States.

World law and order depends on the power and initiative of America. There is no democratic nation able to assume the necessary role of world disciplinarian. The United Nations suffers from the disabilities of too many conflicting agendas and too many vetoes. With the fall of Communism and the balance of power provided by the Cold War, the alternative to American resolve is chaos. Worse wars than the war in Bosnia will ensue if ‘outlaw’ nations realize that there are no penalties for bad behavior.

The vested interest of America lies in a stable international economy. That economy depends on restraints being imposed on aggressive nationalism. A continuing war in Bosnia will bring the Russians and fundamentalist Muslims into the fray. It could unleash a broader war in the Balkans and destabilize fledgling democracies in the area. Anti-democratic militaristic states are more interested in arms rather than trade.

The “Treaty of Dayton” provided for the restoration of Croatia to its pre-war boundaries. It also provided for the preservation of Bosnia as a “unified” state with two parts, one Serbian and one Croatian-Muslim. It is not clear that this “new” Bosnia will be viable. In the end Bosnia may have to be divided between the Serbs and Croats, with the Muslim state becoming a protectorate of Croatia. A multiethnic Bosnia may be more illusion than reality. But, as a first step, the treaty is appropriate.

There is always the risk that Americans will be killed. But the alternative of non-intervention is worse. Educating the American people to this reality is the task of the Clinton administration.

Shulamit Aloni

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1993


Aloni is the leader of the Meretz coalition in the Israeli Knesset She is the controversial Minister of Education and Culture, whose defense of a secular state has aroused the passionate hostility of the ultra-Orthodox. Over the past few months a public battle has been waged between liberals and religious conservatives over her membership in the Israeli government. The Orthodox want her head. The moderates see her as the one guarantee that the present regime will defend civil liberties and begin to dismantle the state support of traditional religion. This controversy has been featured on the front pages of most newspapers and given Aloni international fame.

Shula is a native Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem. Her early years were the formative years of the Jewish state. Reared in the secular Zionism of the Zionist pioneers, she hoped that the state of Israel would fulfill the humanistic dreams of the founders. To her dismay the Labor government of David Ben-Gurion compromised these ideals for political expediency and turned over the regulation of family life to the Orthodox. Her response to this betrayal was not the cynical resignation of most Labor politicians, but open defiance. She committed her life to politics, to feminism, to personal freedom and to the defense of the liberal democratic tradition of the modern Enlightenment.

This defiance was not easy. Given her talents and charisma, she could have, with little effort, achieved political power If had been willing to compromise the Integrity of her ideals. Her punishment was that she was banished by the leaders of the Labor Party to the periphery of Israeli political Golda Meir, in particular, was incensed her disobedience and by her embarrassing persistence. Golda, as Aloni points out, saw herself as the ultimate Jewish mother of the Jewish nation, whose children were not as wise as she was. When she encountered political resistance, especially within her own camp, her response could be ruthless. Golda believed that pursuing the cause of either feminism or civil liberties was a harmful division from the main task of Unifying the Israeli people in defense of the Jewish state against the Arab aggressors.

Shula expressed her defiance in many ways. She wrote books and newspaper articles and hosted a provocative radio show. She counseled the marriage and divorce victims of Orthodox law, finding creative ways for secular Jews to avoid Orthodox jurisdiction. She became a consumer advocate, mobilizing thousands of followers to press for domestic reform. She was elected to Knesset where she remained, for a long time, a sole advocate for women’s rights and Separation of religion and government. She organized a new political party, the Citizens Rights Movement (Ratz), which provided a clear public voice for the elementary personal freedom which we in America take for granted. For over a decade she was treated as a political pariah, a solo prophetic voice in a sea of cynics and chauvinists. But, in the last election, her party helped to create a coalition of the liberal left – Ratz and Mapam and Shinui – which named itself Merétz and went on to win ten seats in the Knesset. With Meretz, the Labor Party and Rabin were able to unseal the Likud and to achieve political supremacy. Aloni’s reward was the Ministry of Education and Culture, a crucial ministry which had been under Orthodox control in the previous government and which had wrought havoc with the secular curriculum of the state schools. The battle lines were now drawn, especially when she proclaimed that feministic values needed to re-enter the Israeli school system. She has now become the chief target of Orthodox hate. Even Rabin has wavered in support of her and has tried to censor her.’ Power has brought her no relief from continuous assault.

Now Shula is more to us than a brave Jewish defender of freedom and human dignity. She is the longtime friend of the Birmingham Temple and one of the founders of the Humanistic Jewish movement in Israel.

We first met her in 1979 when she consented to come from Israel to be our special guest at the annual meeting of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Her appearance was transforming. The rapport between her and her American audience was electric. We loved her from the start. And she loved us.

In 1981, enthusiastic about the prospects For Humanistic Judaism in Israel, she helped to organize a dialogue between secular Jews from America and secular Jews from Israel at Shefayim, a seaside kibbutz north of Tel Aviv. Many important Israeli intellectuals and writers attended. Within two years the Israeli Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism was born.

Shula’s coming is part of our celebration of our Temple’s thirtieth birthday anniversary. One of the best things that has happened to us in the past thirty years is that we made the Shula connection. Her participation in our celebration is testimony to the fact that Humanistic Judaism has an important part to play In the Jewish world.

Russia After Communism

The Jewish Humanist, September 1993

I have just returned from Russia. Having been there four times before I was amazed by the radical transformation taking place. Capitalism and democracy may be having a hard time winning their victory. But Communism is dead.

Do not get me wrong. The legacy of Communism is everywhere. Acres and acres of decaying gulag-style apartment buildings fill the urban landscape. Families stuffed into cubbyhole fiats, without the opportunities of privacy or comfort, remain the norm. Surly bureaucratic personnel still fill the offices and the stores. Aging junk heaps of factories still belch their pollution into the air. Millions of red stars and hammers and sickles are still embedded in the stone of thousands of public buildings.

But the changes are dramatic. The red flags and Communist slogans are gone. Consumer goods from the West are everywhere. The streets are filled with the energy of flourishing kiosks and private enterprise. People are talky, pushy and defiant. Book stores and newsstands are filled with publications that people really want to read. Jaywalking and traffic jams are becoming commonplace. Nightlife, billboard advertising and fashionable dress are flourishing. The renovation of former beauty is everywhere. Public complaining is loud, raucous and outrageous.

Of course, transitions bring their terrible problems. Beggars now fill the streets. Gangsters and violent crime, emerging from the underworld of the old black market, make urban life unsafe. Prices are high. Unemployment is growing. The differences between those who make it and those who do not grow wider. Two governments, one presidential and one congressional, vie for power. The new ruble hovers on the edge of credibility. Sex shops and psychics are thriving.

If stability can be achieved, Russia is a land of opportunity for Western “investors”. Undeveloped mineral resources abound. Cheap educated labor is eager to play Mexico to Germany’s America. Confused survivors of Communist indoctrination are open to the missionary work of American fundamentalist religion. An admiration for all things Western, from MacDonald’s to rock music, is part of youthful ambition.

The turmoil in Russia worries everybody. But, except for the diehard Marxists and Stalinists who hold their pathetic rallies in a few public squares, almost nobody you talk to wants to go back to what was. Mumbling and grumbling are commonplace. Suffering is real. Yet the rightwing nationalists and fascists have been unable to mobilize a credible opposition. The right is hopelessly divided and ineffective. Monarchists and racists and anti-Semites cannot seem to get their act together. Even an opportunistic alliance with conservative Communists is a failure. They are not able to win elections, recruit the military, or to win wide public support. Even the Pamyat party, which frightened everybody, is falling apart. In the end, nobody has a real alternative to Yeltsin. And that’s why, with all his faults, buffoonery and indecision, he remains in power.

In the midst of all this uncertainty are two million Jews (and, counting the fourteen other republics of the former Soviet Union maybe three million). Their numbers have been depleted by emigration to America and Israel. But, strangely enough, for every Jew who leaves, another mysteriously appears to take his place. The hidden Jews of intermarriage and assimilation are surfacing all the time.

The Jews of Russia are free to leave for Israel. But they are not moving right now. On the whole professional and well-educated, they are reluctant to move to a Jewish state that can only provide them with the opportunities of taxi driving, street cleaning and unemployment. Although they are uncomfortable with the persistent anti-Semitism, some of them are deeply attached to Russian culture and are reluctant to leave Russia for an environment where they will be struggling foreigners. Listening to them is listening to all the ambiguities and ambivalence that are part of Russian Jewish identity.

My most exciting experience of this visit was my encounter with sixty, Jewish students from over thirty communities of Russia and the former Soviet Union, who had come to Moscow for a five day seminar on Humanistic Judaism. The seminar was sponsored by the Eurasian Section of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The purpose was to train lecturers for our movement, who would serve as spokespersons of our unique approach to Jewish identity. The organizer was Simyon Avgustevich, the director of the Institute in Moscow.

Simyon is an extraordinary man of great energy and determination. Trained as a psychologist In Saratov, a Russian city on the Volga, he became part of the Jewish reawakening that accompanied the fall of Communism. Chosen as an education officer for the newly founded Vaad (Council of Jewish Communities) he encountered Humanistic Judaism through the energetic work of Zev Katz, professor of Russian studies at the Hebrew University and the Israeli Dean of the International Institute. Over the past two years Zev and he have visited dozens of Jewish communities all over Russia and the other “Soviet” republics. Out of this whirlwind effort emerged 35 small Humanistic Jewish associations which are now federated, into a larger regional association.

The students who came to Moscow were of all ages, but primarily young. Most of them grew up in assimilationist backgrounds, where neither Yiddish nor Hebrew nor Jewish culture were present. But all of them were eager to discover their ethnic roots and to affirm their Jewishness in a way that was consistent with their secular convictions. Assaulted by the prevailing confusion and by the relentless determination of the new Orthodox Jewish missionaries to win the hearts of Russian Jewry, they had opted for Humanistic Judaism and were eager to learn more about what that commitment meant. I was overwhelmed by their sincerity, enthusiasm and desire to learn I was also distressed by the economic hardships which they daily face.

If democracy and incipient capitalism survive in Russia, there will be a future for a vital Jewish community and for a vital Russian/Eurasian Humanistic Judaism. Hopefully, in the year to come we can find brother and sister communities in North America, Europe and Israel for the new Humanistic communities in the former Soviet Union. Perhaps San Diego would like to pair with Vitebsk or Detroit with Minsk or Brussels with Kiev, or Boston with Saratov.

At the end of September 1994, the fifth biennial conference of the Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews will be held in Moscow. It will be a wonderful opportunity for Humanistic Jews, from all over the world, to express their support for the rebirth of Secular Humanistic Judaism in Russia.

I hope that you will join me in this wonderful “pilgrimage of hope.”

The Lubavitcher Messiah

The Jewish Humanist, August 1994

The Rebbe is dead. Or is he?

Hundreds of Lubavitcher Hasidim are waiting breathlessly for his resurrection. They cannot accept his death. They await his return.

Whoever would imagine that the death of a Jewish cult leader would make front page news seven days in a row. But the Lubavitchers are no ordinary cult. Next to the state of Israel, they are the most successful Jewish organization in the world. Now 250,000 strong, they have quintupled their numbers over the past 40 years and entered into the mainstream of Jewish life. In 1951 when the Rebbe took over, they were a bizarre Jewish sect that few Jews even knew about. Today their emissaries cover the globe and negotiate with the rulers of the world.

Hasidism has been around for almost 300 years. Emerging in southeast Poland at a time of political and economic devastation, it gave hope to hope-hungry Jews. God would send his Messiah to rescue his people only when they loved him enough. Observing the commandments was not enough. But observance with heartfelt devotion was the key to salvation. Hasidism began with singing and dancing with fervor and shaking, and ended up with miracle working Rebbes who were the dispensers of supernatural power. Devotional leaders founded devotional dynasties. Each dynasty turned into a cult of the personality. If the Rebbe was not God, he was, at least, the deputy of God on earth. He was the very gate to Heaven. Devotion went up. Power came down.

Zalman Schneersohn of Lubavitch was unique. While most Hasidim came from Galeia and the Ukraine, he hailed from Lithuania, the homeland of Hasidim haters. Litvaks almost invariably denounced Hasidism as craziness and heresy. But Zalman the Litvak became a Hasidic Rebbe. Being a Litvak, he tried to give his movement a slight intellectual twist. Habad is the acronym for three Hebrew words that denote wisdom. The Lubavitchers became Hasidism with a Litvak edge.

In 1957, the Lubavitch movement was in exile. Devastated by Communism and the Holocaust, its leadership was in exile in Brooklyn, its followers depressed, its numbers diminished. The old Rebbe died that year and was succeeded by his son-in-law who was also descended from the original Zalman. The new Rebbe was brilliant, charismatic and creative. Familiar with the secular world as an engineer graduate of the Sorbonne in Paris, he combined Hasidic piety, intellectual mysticism and a missionary zeal to reach the ‘lost’ Jews. Instead of despising them he went out to recruit them. The result is a powerful religious empire spanning six continents and a cadre of thousands of dedicated workers who, for an economic pittance, go forth to conquer the Jewish world. In time, some of these devotees would proclaim their Rebbe the Messiah.

What is the significance of all this Messianic fervor?

It means that all these old ideas about Messiahs and resurrections, which liberal Jews assumed were fast fading away in Jewish life, were wrong. They are alive and well. After four centuries of the age of science, fundamentalism is still strong. And the Jews are as much a part of that world as the Christians and Muslims.

It means that the “Jews for Jesus” and the Lubavitchers are on the same wave length. Both believe in salvation. Both believe in Messiahs. Both believe in resurrection. In the end, whether you prefer Jesus or the Rebbe, the mind-set is the same.

It means that rationality is having a hard time in Crown Heights.             The smartest strategy is to keep postponing the coming of the Messiah. But true believers want the Messiah right now. The rub is that he may not show up. And if he doesn’t there is always the risk of mass disillusionment. However, the history       of religion has demonstrated that true believers always find the perfect excuse. Perhaps the Rebbe did not find the world worthy of salvation.

It means that a lot of Jewish energy is being devoted to harmful illusion. Believing that everybody’s life can be rescued by a single person is a dangerous conviction. It undermines self-reliance and turns people into childlike dependents. The coming of the Lubavitchers is no great boon for the Jewish people. Jewish identity survival has no humanistic value if Jewish passion means the abduction of reason, autonomy and self-esteem.

It means that a movement built around the cult of personality needs a personality. It may be the case that the dead Rebbe will serve that purpose. But that has not been the Hasidic tradition.         Schneersohn designated no heir. Internal bickering has now resulted in major confrontations. The danger of splits is real. If no new charismatic Rebbe shows up, can the movement hold together? Ironically, the strong point of the Lubavitchers, their reverence for their leader, is also their weak point.

What this whole fiasco adds up to is the dichotomy in Jewish life. Humanistic Judaism looks at the Jewish experience and arrives at a totally different conclusion from that of the Lubavitchers. They see Messiahs. We find the need for self-reliance. They see divine determination. We find human determination. What we have to remember is that our style may not be as dramatic, our           songs may not be as lively, but our message is a lot healthier. Messiahs have always  been an enormous disappointment. “Jews for the Rebbe” are, after all, in the same delusionary world as Jews for Jesus.

The Future of American Jewry

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1994

What is the future of American Jewry? That is no idle question. Because what the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism need to do to guarantee their future depends on the character of the Jewish community they will be serving.

Profound changes are taking place. They have been going on for a long time. They are, most likely, irreversible. We are living with their consequences right now.

The first change is intermarriage. Priestly and rabbinic Judaism forbade intermarriage for both religious and racial reasons. But the modern urban world has made this ban unworkable and unenforceable. Increasing numbers of Jews choose to marry people they love, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. The endless condemnations of rabbis make absolutely no difference. In a free and open society cross-cultural unions are inevitable.

The major consequence of intermarriage is not so much that intermarrieds choose to give up their Jewish identity or to leave the Jewish community. It is the “de-ethnicization” of American Jewry. The deep ethnic roots of American Jews in the Yiddish experience of Eastern Europe are fast disappearing. The ethnic roots of increasing numbers of American Jews are as much Anglo-Saxon or Irish as they are Ashkenazic. The ethnic flavor of American Jewry will be hard to maintain in the face of Jews with multi-ethnic backgrounds.

Two forces are pulling in opposite directions in America. One force is the power of Zionism and Israel which dramatizes the ethnic dimension of Jewish identity, with its strong appeal to a national self-image, national culture and national language. Zionism has helped to re-ethnicize many Jews. The other force is the power of intermarriage which tends to universalize the Jewish community, diffusing Jewish ethnic memories in a sea of competing and complementary memories. The child with a Yiddish grandmother and an Irish grandmother may indeed be Jewish. But he is not ethnically Jewish in the same way as a child with two Yiddish grandmothers. What is happening in Israel is the opposite of what is happening in America.

The second change is the shrinking of the extended all-encompassing family and the emergence of the individual. For many American Jews permanent indissolveable relations are things of the past. More than one marriage, more than one career, more than one residence are commonplace. Mobility is the name of the game. The serenity or boredom of unchanging conditions are gone.

Jews of the past were burdened by the intensity of their connections. For many of them the demands of family and community were too oppressive, too guilt-producing, too intrusive for comfort. They often fled them to breathe the fresh air of privacy and aloneness. But, now the tables have been turned. The big anonymous city of individuals, separated from parents and children, is a cold and cruel environment. They crave connection. They search for community. In many cases they will even join communities with ideologies they do not believe in because they are desperate for connection, nurturing, and acceptance. The children of Jewish affluence are, in particular, vulnerable

The third change is the power of feminism. Society is being transformed by the entry of women into all professions and into all the chambers of political decision. The old male chauvinism of the Jewish world has collapsed, except in the Orthodox enclaves. The face of the American Jewish leadership is changing Even traditional women are choosing to do traditional things that only men did before, from wearing yarmulkes to lifting Torahs. The change is so revolutionary that it defines the boundary between the Jewish establishment – whether Reform, Conservative or Secular – and the fundamentalist dissenters who repudiate the Enlightenment. Feminism is creating this unbridgeable gap between the Jewish world that embraces female equality and the Jewish world where men still rule exclusively. It is a dichotomy that will only expand with time.

The fourth change is the “demacherization” of Jewish communities. With the arrival of capitalism and emancipation the rabbis lost their political power. They were replaced by “machers”, successful Jewish businessmen who became the new leaders of the Jewish world. “Machers” might be bossy and undemocratic; but they were generous with their time, talent, devotion and money. They had a strong sense of community commitment and responsibility.

But the last two decades have failed to produce new “machers.” The children of “machers” tend to be yuppie professionals who prefer the pursuit of personal fulfillment to community work. The “next” generation is less interested in building and strengthening community institutions. Jewish organizations all over America are worried about where the necessary army of devoted workers and leaders are going to come from. A hedonistic culture of affluence makes public work less exciting than private adventure.

The fifth change is the ideological free-for-all that an educated autonomous Jewish population inevitably creates. The world of ideas is a smorgasbord of choices, ranging from atheism to reincarnation, from rationalism to mystical spirituality. Every individual puts together his or her unique combination of choices as a personal philosophy of life. The endless variety of choices makes any set of denominational labels obsolete even before they are proclaimed Jewish diversity is like American diversity – an amorphous collection of shifting personal opinions.

How do we need to respond to all these changes and their consequences?

We need to be less ethnic and more universal. A Jewish people with diverse ethnic roots has to place less emphasis on nationalism and more emphasis on the planetary importance of Jewish identity. The Jewish strategies of North America and Israel may not always coincide.

We need to be a family to people who crave family connection and support. We must be the family of choice that works where the family of inheritance has failed. The importance of the new            groups that have emerged in our congregation will continue to grow.

We need to be open to all the possibilities of female leadership. Women rabbis will most likely be a dynamic force in the Judaism of the twenty-first century.

We need to train our young people for community service. A congregation is more than a service center. It is a place where the ethical virtues of commitment and devotion are cultivated. We need to never lose sight of our humanistic message and our ideological focus. In a world of endless diversity of beliefs it is convenient to be all things to all people. Our strength is the clarity of our philosophy of life. In the emerging Jewish world the Jewish ideological realities will correspond less to Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. It will more easily fit a loose division of fundamentalism, New Age thinking, and rational humanism. In such a world we have a good chance to embrace many new seekers of the “truth” if we have something real, consistent and significant to say.