Happiness

The Jewish Humanist, March 1987

The pursuit of happiness will be the theme of our Temple retreat this year.

While the Declaration of Independence guarantees us the right to happiness, it does not tell us what it is. Nor does it tell us how to get it. We generally agree that happiness is something everybody wants. But we are not sure that everybody wants the same thing.

So what is happiness?

Before we can answer the question we have to confront certain realities about happiness.

  1. If we concentrate too hard on happiness it generally goes away. People who worry constantly about whether they are happy or not rarely are. Happy people do not spend a lot of time thinking about happiness. They are absorbed in compelling projects, work or leisure, that do not allow much time for introspection. When happiness becomes the goal of life, it is rarely achievable. Only when we pursue other more specific goals does happiness emerge as an unintended consequence. The most joyous people I know do not choose to talk about joy. Like the micro-particles of physics it changes, or even disappears, when you look at it too hard.
  2. Getting away from problems does not make us happy. It is an illusion to imagine that it is possible to achieve a problem-free life When one set of challenges goes away another replaces it. Even retirement from work or the departure of children is no guarantee that happiness is around the corner. Uselessness and boredom are often worse than conventional stress. They make us focus on all the minor negative things in our lives we never notice when we are busy. Many of the happiest people I know are overscheduled and overcommitted. They simply love what they are doing, even though what they are doing gives them stress and anxiety. Life in heaven, in the end, may be more taxing than life on earth.
  3. Pain is part of happiness. The hedonism of immediate gratification; is no path to lasting pleasure. If we need our “fix” now and are unwilling to wait for later, we are pursuing self-destruction. Almost all things worthwhile require the postponement of pleasure and sometimes even the endurance of pain. Education, sport skills and Successful parenting take time. They often also involve painful testing, wasting and failure. If we are afraid to risk pain, we shall never be happy. Our lives will consist of momentary pleasures that are tied together by depression.
  4. Small things in life can be important. There is a chemistry to life which reveals itself in the realities of human relations. Certain people attract us and we do not know why. Certain people annoy us and we can find no important reason to explain our response. Certain personalities make us feel good. Certain personalities, with no apparent defect, make us feel rotten. We look for the grand reasons why we should choose one person over another. But often the small things make the difference. A sense of humor, a willingness to listen, a disposition to be kind-each little characteristic embarrassingly trivial determines our choice. Out siders often wonder what we see in the people we like and love. But outsiders are looking for the big reasons and cannot see what makes us happy.
  5. Life needs variety. It is so easy to become obsessed with the things we need and do not have that we imagine that one and only one thing will give us happiness. If only we found a lover, if only we can have a child, if only we can secure interesting work, if only we can live in a warm place – then everything will be marvelous. But no lover alone can bring us happiness, nor can any child, job or climate. People who try to put their happiness eggs in only one basket find that the basket is too small. Long-run pleasure needs variety. It requires love – but not all the time. It asks for work – but not every hour. It revels in leisure – but not day after day.
  6. What other people think of us does make a difference. So many of us imagine that what counts in our life is what we think of ourselves that we rebel against pleasing others. We maintain that if we say to ourselves that we are worthwhile that we will be. But self-esteem does not come from self-congratulations. It starts with our ability to aim the approval of the people we love and respect. Since we are social beings, we are molded as much by others as by ourselves. The hostility of others is not incompatible with happiness, so long as the people we admire standby our side. To go through life, never willing to please, arrogantly indifferent to the demands of parents, friends and teachers is no sign of self-esteem. It is certainly no path to long-run fulfilment.
  7. Winning is preferable to losing. So much current advice focuses on the virtue of trying that the consequences of trying are largely ignored. Boldness and persistence are not enough for happiness. If we try for goals we cannot achieve, if we pursue people who always reject us, if we strive for work Our talents do not fit, then relentless failure and rejection will depress us. It is simply no fun to lose always, no matter how thrilling the effort. In the end, happy people choose goals their skills can realize. They may lose from time to time. But they do not arrange to lose always. They reach out to try things they have never tried before, but never so far as to be pretentious. There is a distinction between good-humored adventure and “suicide.”
  8. The world is a little bit crazy. Unhappy people always expect the world to be orderly and fair. They do not like surprise and resent imperfection. In the end, they stop playing the game of life and spend most of their time complaining about the rules of the game. Because they expect the world to be sane they go crazy. Happy people know that the world is disorderly and unfair. They expect surprise and do not insist on perfection. In the end they prefer to play an imperfect game to playing no game at all. Because they see the world as “nuts,” they stay sane.

So what is happiness?

Happiness is an enthusiasm for life, an eagerness to solve problems, a confidence in our strength to deal with reality, even when that reality is less than we want it to be.

 

The Message of Humanistic Judaism

The Jewish Humanist, June 1977

Humanistic Judaism is the Birmingham Temple. It is also more than the Birmingham Temple.

Humanistic Judaism is Deerfield Temple Beth Or, the Westport Congregation for Humanistic Judaism; the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Greater Los Angeles, the Toronto Jewish Humanist Congregation and dozens of individuals in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, Houston and San Francisco.

Humanistic Judaism is the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Established in 1969 by members of the Birmingham Temple, the Society serves as the link among all self-proclaimed Humanistic Jews in North America and beyond.

Our Temple is unique. It is the pioneer congregation of a new religious movement. It is the community voice for hundreds of Jews whose ideas and opinions need to be heard in the Jewish world.

Humanistic Judaism allows us to reach beyond the parochial boundaries of a single congregation and find the broader fellowship of like-minded believers.

This year Westport, Connecticut was the setting for the annual meeting of the Society. Delegates from all over North America came together to share achievements, to exchange ideas and to plan for the future.

The general consensus was that we have a distinct and unique message for world Jewry – different from the message of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Secular Judaism.

What is this different package of ideas and practices which Humanistic Judaism represents?

In order to articulate the ‘Humanistic’ answers we have to first spell out the questions we share with all other branches of Judaism.

There are six questions.

  1. How do we define the nature of Jewish identity in an age when the spectrum of Jewish belief ranges from Lubavitcher piety to Marxist atheism?
  2. How do we deal with the historic primacy of the Torah at a time when the Torah life style corresponds in no way to the behavior of most Jewish people?
  3. How do we bridge the gulf between the Jewish personality of the past – pious, faithful, reverent and traditional – with the Jewish personality of the present – challenging, rational, skeptical and creative?
  4. How do we deal with the fact that the vocabulary and world-view of contemporary science In no way corresponds to the vocabulary and world-view of historic Judaism?
  5. In an age when a God who intervenes directly in the lives of people is no longer believable, is there any part of the religious enterprise which is still valid?
  6. In a cosmopolitan world where ethnic and religious groups live intermingled how open should Jews be to the non-Jewish world?

The six answers which follow are the ‘quickie’ summary of Humanistic Judaism.

Jewish identity. A Jewish identity which can embrace both Lubavitcher piety and Marxist atheism cannot be a religious identity. Neither a set of religious beliefs nor a single life style can define Jewishness. The only category which is broad enough is ethnic and familial. To be Jewish is to be a member of an international ‘nation’. This ‘nation’ has its center presently in the state of Israel. But Its members are citizens of many countries, speak many languages, embrace many political opinions and indulge a wide variety of cultural styles. The very nature of Jewish identity forces Jews to work for a world community. Because only a world community can give official sanction to the international character of Jewish identity.

Life Style. Unlike all the other liberal branches of Judaism Humanistic Judaism does not seek to save the words of the Torah while rejecting its substance. It boldly admits that the Torah is historically interesting but intellectually irrelevant. In an age when information about people and the world continuously changes, no sacred book is appropriate, even as a symbol. Wisdom comes from the testing and insight of contemporary science, which allows no absolute truth. New rules have to be invented for new situations all the time.

Jewish Present. Humanistic Jews find the Jewish present just as interesting as the Jewish past. The secular world of science and technology has given the Jew more education, power and intellectual clout than he has ever enjoyed before. By virtue of their unprecedented affluence and freedom, contemporary Jews are, at least, the equals of their desert ancestors. An appropriate Jewish history gives as much time to Einstein as to Moses.

World View. The ‘God’ vocabulary of historic Judaism cannot fit the naturalistic view of contemporary science. Saving theology is a waste of time. The language of prayer and worship is so inappropriate that it cannot be rescued. A successful Judaism seeks to use the language that the modern Jew uses in his daily life.

Religion. Much of the old religious enterprise is useless to Humanistic Jews. Contacting supernatural power is an act of futility. Character building and ethical training are the aspects of historic religion which are still appealing. The religious community is an extended family with shared values. The congregation translates these values into practical behavior. Rationality, trust, cooperation and generosity become skills for learning.

Openness. Humanistic Jews start with Jewish literature but do not stop there. They are open to receiving wisdom about solving problems from any ethnic source. The affirmation of human power, human reason and human happiness is-more than Jewish. It is also universal. Humanistic Jews find their ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’not only among other Jews. They find them also among other humanists.

These six brief answers are a unique combination. They are the missionary message of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. They unite us with hundreds of Jews outside the Birmingham Temple.

The Society needs your support to spread the ‘word’.

The Philosophy of Confirmation

The Jewish Humanist, January 1982

Growing up.

It deserves a celebration.

Most cultures arrange for one. A new adult is a useful addition to a traditional family. He is a promising asset to a struggling community.

Even in a modern industrial urban society growing up is important to more than the individual. Every society needs the talents and skills of its young people. They are the promise of the future.

Judaism arranged to celebrate this experience in a ceremony called Bar Mitzvah. It was for boys alone. And it was fairly uniform. Reading from the Torah or some other book of the Bible became the ritual, since the Torah was the constitution, it represented adult responsibility.

Now we in the Birmingham Temple, as proponents of Humanistic Judaism, find growing up to be a significant experience. But we find the traditional way of celebrating it to be less than adequate.

A good Jewish ceremony should satisfy the following criteria.

It should provide for equality. It should be available to both boys and girls. Bar Mitzvah should be complemented by Bat Mitzvah. In fact, calling it simply the Mitzvah ceremony avoids the hassle. The Hebrew word mitzvah means commandment and suggests that the celebrant is now eligible to be responsible for the requirements of his own life.

It should provide integrity. The symbols and words should honestly express what the celebrant believes and what the community stands for. If the Torah is only a famous book and no longer the constitution of humanistic Jews, it should not be the central future of this important celebration. Above all, at a moment when a child is reviewing his idealism and testing his commitments, sincerity should be a minimal requirement.

A good ceremony should provide inspiration. The adolescent should be able to focus on his interests and his talents and find connection with those who share them. An arbitrary Biblical reading is too impersonal to be meaningful. Choosing a heroic figure out of the Jewish past or present who can serve as a role model to the boy or girl and who captures the enthusiasm of the student, makes a lot more sense.

A good ceremony should provide a sense of competence, a feeling of achievement. The student should believe that he is now able to do something well that adults normally do. Presenting a competent lecture to an adult audience may be only one of many options. (On the secular kibbutzim in Israel community service is stressed). But it is certainly an effective one.

A good ceremony should reinforce a sense of roots. Jewish roots from the humanistic perspective, are not only religious roots. They are secular ones also. Music, dance, humor, science and business are as much a part of Jewish culture as worship.

It is very important that the student feel that he has real roots in the Jewish past. He may not be able to identify with his grandfathers’ dietary habits. But he can identify with his love of family.

A good ceremony should allow the community to experience its own ideals and its own commitments. The celebration is not only for the child. It is especially for the assembly of adults who need periodic opportunities to affirm their own beliefs. A young adult is an important symbol to a congregation. He is an expression of hope.

A good ceremony, above all, should occur at the right age. In a modern urban culture, thirteen is hardly the entrance to adulthood. It barely makes adolescence. However, it is a time of important physical and mental changes. The most creative alternative is to have two optional ceremonies – the mitzvah thirteen to celebrate the beginning of adolescence and a mitzvah (confirmation) at a later age (16 or beyond) to mark the entrance into adulthood.

These seven criteria have guided the development of our own growing up ritual. They define our goals. In the years to come our procedures may change. But our moral requirements will continue to direct change to valid alternatives.

 

The Persians

The Jewish Humanist, March 1977

The Persians.

Jews don’t have very strong feelings about Persians. Their name doesn’t conjure up any images of holocausts or pogroms. Unlike Germans and Arabs we seem to have no good reason to hate them – or to love them.

If it weren’t for Purim, we most likely would choose to ignore them.

But they deserve our attention. In fact, for that very reason, Purim is important.

As a story, the book of Esther is only a delightful myth. Neither Ahasuerus, Esther, Mordecai nor Haman ever existed. No Jewish queen ever graced the royal court of Susa. No wicked Persian prime minister ever plotted the genocide of the Jews.

The Esther story is a Mardi Gras myth dramatizing the victory of spring over winter, of life over death. Esther is the barely disguised Ishtar, goddess of fertility. Mordecai is none other than Marduk, guardian chief of the gods and the fatherly enemy of evil. The tale, in its origin, is Semitic and Babylonian.

The story of Esther was long resisted by the priests and rabbis because its thinly covered polytheism. Yahweh allowed no rivals. However, historical luck rescued it from oblivion. When the rabbis turned against the Maccabee kings of Judea because they had dared to call themselves kings, they abandoned all the holidays honoring that warrior family. Hanukkah was discarded and ignored for centuries. Nicanor’s day was also abandoned.

What is Nicanor’s Day?

It was a holiday, falling on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar (March), and commemorating a Maccabee victory over the Greek general Nicanor. In the days of the Second Commonwealth, it was more important than Hanukkah.

The rabbis pushed Purim, because Purim fell on the same day and because it would allow the people to keep their festival without having to pay honor to the Maccabees. Although it violated their theological purity, the changed the name of Nicanor’s Day to Purim and kosherized the book of Esther to justify the change.

Purim, n some strange historical way, is connected with Hanukkah and the Maccabees. Hanukkah (as well as Nicanor’s Day) was the holiday of those who loved the Maccabees. Purim (despite its Persian setting) was the holiday of those who hated the Maccabees and who wished to erase their memory.

Nevertheless, modern Purim has forgotten this old political controversy. It retains its importance for two reasons.

The first reason is fun. Purim is nothing less than the Jewish Mardi Gras. Even if it were called Nicanor’s Day the laughter would be the same.

The second reason is history. By the coincidence of the myth’s national setting, Jews are forced to pay attention to their Persian connection.

The Persian Connection?

The Persian Connection is that set of ideas, books and institutions which the Persian conquest of the Jews brought to Judaism. Around 530 B.C. Cyrus, the young and bold king of Persia, set out to create an empire through the conquest of foreign countries. When he was finished, Egypt, Phoenecia, Syria, Armenia, Assyria, Chaldea, Media, Parthia, West India and Judea were his possessions. The Persian Empire was the first true world empire. Cyrus was no longer merely king. He became the king of kings.

What did the Persian Connection mean for the Jews?

The PC gave us monotheism. Theological ideas do not arise in a vacuum. They reflect the political and social realities of their day. A world god is merely the image of a world king projected into the sky. The first real world king was Cyrus, ruler of the Persians. The first real world god was Mazda, the chief god of the Persians. If Yahweh, the god of the Jews, was to survive his competition, his devotees would have to make him Mazda’s equal. In the end the Bible, Yahweh’s professional portfolio did exactly that. The priests of Jerusalem, who did most of their editing of sacred texts in the Persian period, elevated Yahweh to universal rule – and claimed, with enormous chutzpa, that Yahweh was simply using the Persians Or any nation for that matter, as a way to reward or punish the Jews. In order to survive the Jews had to imagine themselves more important than the Persians and their god more significant than Mazda.

The PC gave us the Torah. The Torah, as the political constitution of the Jewish state, is a document which gives supreme power to the Jerusalem priests. These priests were called Zadokites. They were the editors and completers of the Torah. Under the leadership of Ezra, they came home from Chaldean exile with Persian permission. They ruled the Jews in the name of the Persian king. They were favored by the Persian court because they were clergymen who would be incapable of leading a military rebellion. Needing to justify their right to rule the Jews (as opposed to the non-traditional royal house of David) they completed the Torah and used the Torah to enforce their authority. A peaceful theocracy, diverted by ritual excess from armed revolt, was convenient for the Persians. The Jews were now too priestly to fight.

The PC gave us the Diaspora. In the Persian period for the first time in their history, the Jews found themselves part of a world empire. National boundaries were now irrelevant. People of different nations could now move freely from country to country. Living in a small mountainous country, bad for agriculture and harsh for survival, many Jews decided to emigrate for economic reasons. Some became merchants and settled in the cities of the Empire. Some signed up as mercenaries in the Persian army and went as far as southern Egypt to patrol the boundaries. Others wandered, without fixed skills, to more fertile places. An international empire spawned an international people.

Today the Persian Connection is less dramatic. The modern Persian calls his country Iran and himself Iranian (a pretentious title linking the Persians to the ancient Aryans). He has exchanged Allah for Mazda and given up the conquest of land for oil (a more lucrative substitute). The king still calls himself King of Kings, Shah in Shah, but he is hardly made of the stuff of Cyrus. The Rothschilds would be better models. Although Muslim, modern Persians hate the Arabs, as cultural rivals and former conquerors. They discreetly supply the oil’ needs of Israel and treat their local Jews as well as any Muslim country can.

Modern Persia is not terribly important for Jews.

Ancient Persia was.

Purim reminds us of this Persian Connection.

 

Jews and Christmas

The Jewish Humanist, December 1976

A local Reform rabbi recently described to me his act of heroism and integrity. Invited last December to a family dinner at the home of a wealthy temple member, he was astounded to find, in the middle of the den, a small Christmas tree festively decorated. Although, as he clearly pointed out, his host was a large contributor to the building fund, m former vice-president of his congregation, and a Jewish community leader of immense power, the rabbi refused the holiday egg-nog and, in the presence of amazed witnesses, proceeded to denounce “this tasteless sham.” He reminded his host that fawning assimilation was no vehicle to Jewish self-esteem and excoriated him for having- failed to set a proper example as a leader. The next day his embarrassed member indignantly resigned and withdrew his financial support. Despite congregational pressure to make the rabbi recant and apologize my friend bravely refused to comply. “I will not sell my integrity for money,” he announced.

A cousin of mine confided in me last year that her neighbor, whom she had always regarded as intelligent and sensitive, had sent her a Christmas card. Although the card contained only some, innocuous poetry about the winter season, my cousin was deeply troubled by this religious boorishness. After all, Hanukkah greetings are easily available. It would have been so nice to have her Jewishness acknowledged in the same way that she took great pains to respect the “Christian” character of her neighbor’s home. (Of course, her neighbors never went to church and despised all of organized religion. But Christmas as Christmas is not Hanukkah.)

Several winters ago one of my Sunday School teachers chastised me for having referred to the annual winter recess in the presence of the children, as Christmas vacation. She protested that Jewish students are always assaulted by the barrage of Christian propaganda through the mass media and the programs of the public school. – The Temple, of all places, should be the one haven where the individuality of their own tradition is affirmed. “Christian vocabulary,” she asserted, “has no place in a Jewish school. We ought to make our children proud of their own holidays.”

These three incidents reveal a fundamental sociological truth. Christmas is a problem for most American Jews. In a culture where Jews are rapidly becoming an assimilated minority, this holiday season is never for us what it is for our Gentile friends – a time of family reunion and community goodwill. It is usually a season of guilty anxiety when our Jewish loyalty and commitment are publicly tested. Christmas decorations confront the Jewish parent, not as objects of beauty, but as devilish enticements, too seductive for the Jewish good. If only Christmas carols were not such lovely musical threats. If only Christmas trees could be uglier. It takes immense strength to resist such pleasant temptations, and we are bound to resent what is so delectable but forbidden.

Rabbis used to express their ritual concerns by denouncing violations of dietary laws and Sabbath rest. But in a milieu where dietary laws are for caterers and Sabbath observance is an activity of grandparents, the Christmas tree is the new -bite noir. Reform rabbis who have long since abandoned any form of Jewish ritual discipline and who eloquently announced the priority of ethics over ceremonial trivia, reveal a righteous indignation about the Jewish observance of Christmas that even civil rights, Vietnam, and a nuclear holocaust could never evoke. The Christian “enemy” must be resisted at all costs, even at the price of glorifying the ordinary. The deification of Hanukkah is a tribute to our fears. A minor winter festival, with its roots in a pagan fascination with lights and with its historical justification tied to a shabby battle between two kinds of religious fanatics, has been elevated in America to the highest of ritual heights. Yom Kippur pales before its current splendor – Passover cannot touch its expenditures. As the Jewish answer to Christmas in a child-centered culture, it has wildly succeeded. It has become the annual badge of identity.

My rabbi friend, who preferred integrity to money, revealed in a recent temple bulletin the reasons why Jews should have nothing at all to do with Christmas. It is clear, he says, that Christmas is a Christian holiday, intimately tied to the story of Jesus’ virgin birth and ‘inevitably bound to the dogmatic beliefs of the historic Church. To celebrate Christmas is to symbolically affirm one’s identity with this tradition, as well as one’s agreement with its principles Christ is not separable from Christmas. In fact, Protestant and Catholic clergymen are valiantly resisting the efforts of the religiously indifferent and the crassly commercial to turn the occasion into a mere secular holiday of goodwill, devoid of any theological meaning. They want to “put Christ back into Christmas.” And we as Jews ought to respect their effort. We ought to help them in their struggle for religious purity by keeping our “unbelieving Jewish hands” off their sacred festival. We have our own holiday. We don’t need theirs.

In fact, the rabbi says, Jewish observance of Christmas only excites Christian contempt. Many obsequious early Reformers imagined that, if they imitated their Gentile neighbors and pretended to be less conspicuously Jewish, they would more readily win the social approval they desired. But just the opposite occurred. The more they imitated, the more they tried to affirm their identity with the majority culture, the less they achieved the respect and admiration they craved. Without authenticity they were contemptible beggars of community acceptance. The authentic Jew, who proudly affirmed his difference, was much more likely to be successful at finding approval.

The classic Reform indulgence of a Jewish Christmas, our bulletin writer suggests, was an expression of the immense self-hate that pervaded the psyche of an insecure and vulnerable minority. Self-respecting people are not afraid of difference and are not obsessed by the need for community acceptance. Christmas decorations in a Jewish home are pitiful, not so much because they violate religious requirements, but especially because they reveal the fear and self-contempt of their owners. Jewish dignity is always expressed in the willingness to assert Jewish identity under all conditions. Proud people do not hide behind, another person’s inheritance. They use their own.

It is certainly true, the rabbi maintains, that there are major religious differences between Judaism and Christianity. For Jews to celebrate Christian holidays, or for Christians to observe Jewish festivals, is to ignore these historic distinctions` and to treat religion lightly. The Jewish refusal to observe Christmas is an expression of, an ideological reality. To pretend to agree when .there is no agreement, to express unity when there is no unity, is to indulge futile gestures that feebly hide the truth. Honesty requires us to subscribe to no false brotherhood.’ We are honor bound to affirm our difference and the symbols of our difference.

Nor can we forget, the writer continues, the immense suffering our people have endured at the hands of official Christianity. Peace and goodwill may be the propaganda of Christmas; but they have nothing at all to do with the reality of Christian behavior toward Jews. The holidays of the Christian calendar are too intimately identified with the blood of our martyrs for us to practice them without guilt and hostility. We cannot erase the memories of two thousand years and reverse our conditioning. If we are sometimes angrily parochial, we are amply justified.

Perhaps. Yet the answers of our bulletin writer rest on a false assumption. It is assumed throughout his discussion that Jews have an option that they are free not to celebrate Christmas. But no option exists. All Jews in America must celebrate Christmas in some fashion or other. Since our whole American culture makes of this holiday a national festival, more Jews abstain from work on Christmas (through no choice of their own) than stay home for Rosh Hashana. All work stops; all business closes. Even Jewish families are forced to be together and to eat together. Some of our people celebrate the day with uncomfortable hostility, wasting its potential. Others relax in the pleasures of family reunion and hospitality, savoring its secular opportunities. Like the Sabbath in Israel, even nonbelievers have to observe it as a day of rest. If we are honest about the holiday question, we never ask: should American Jews celebrate Christmas. We rather inquire: how should American Jews celebrate Christmas (even if it means spending the whole day making invidious comparisons with Hanukkah or self-pityingly denouncing anti-Semitism).

Given the fact that Christmas is a holiday for Western Jews, however imposed, rabbis cannot close their eyes to its presence. Even Reconstructionists wax eloquent with programs for Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving. But Christmas as a national day of leisure is conspicuously ignored. It is as though the experience is too painful to acknowledge or too embarrassing to admit. After all the protestations about the virtues of Hanukkah, no one takes off for Hanukkah, but Christmas ends up as our day of rest. Even the dullest child can see the power of that difference. One fact is clear. Hanukkah is no substitute for Christmas. First of all, it rarely ever falls on Christmas Day. And secondly, after one has finished with eight days of candles, dreidels, gifts, potato pancakes, and holiday-streamers, Hanukkah is a second-rate aesthetic experience next to its rival. As a winter festival for northern climates, Christmas with all its greenery, lights, and snowy songs is incomparable. Not even Judah Maccabee and his brave brothers can change that reality. (If only they had been a ski patrol and worshiped evergreens)

As long as we Jews have to celebrate Christmas, we might as well enjoy it. Instead of moping around with useless guilt and sour-grapes jealousy, we ought to make Christmas as comfortable for Jews as possible. In this regard the “religiously indifferent” and the “crass commercialists” are our allies. It is absolutely ludicrous and masochistic for Jews to attempt to reverse historical evolution and to “put Christ back into Christmas.” Why should we want to encourage a parochial mythology at the expense of a universal ethical message? Why should we allow stuffy and irrelevant clergymen to wreck Christmas? Is it not enough that the historic Church took-a perfectly charming Roman festival of the winter solstice and ruined it by identifying it with a myth about gods and mangers that had to be taken literally? Are we then to regret the death of the story? Ought we not to rejoice that young American children (despite their priests’ and ministers) prefer Jingle Bells to crèches? Japan has evolved a Christless Christmas which has become one of the major festivals of its calendar year. The Japanese have made of the holiday what they wanted to make of it – to serve their needs – without guilt or anguish.

Just as Christianity took the Roman “Christmas” and transformed-it to serve Christian needs; so can modern secularists use it to express humanistic needs. With millions of non-Christian Christmas observers in Russia, Japan and in Western Europe, and with the inevitable assault of the scientific age on all mythologies, our winter festival ought to inevitably evolve into an aesthetically charming holiday of international goodwill devoid of any serious theological implications. Of course, the Christian legend will linger indefinitely. But it will be on the defensive. A delicious irony will have evolved. Like Chinese food, the holiday will become more pleasurable for the tourists than for the natives. If such a procedure hardly seems “cricket”, the Christian traditionalists, given their past record of sympathy for others, richly deserve it.

Nor can the argument of Christian contempt be a telling one. Jews who observe a secular Christmas are no more contemptible to the hordes of Gentiles who are equally secular than Jews who •indulge Halloween, Valentine’s Day, or Thanksgiving. Christmas trees are no more religiously compromising than painted eggs for Easter. The charge of self-hate is equally absurd. On the contrary, the desperate attempt to avoid “contamination” with Christian symbols is the sign of self-doubt. It is no affirmation of self-esteem. Unwilling to forego the pleasures of assimilation, Jewish parents feebly protest their tribal loyalty every Hanukkah by the vehemence with which they resist Christmas. A self-confident Jew has no fear that a secular Christmas will destroy his identity. He is terrified by no ceremonial trivia and is afraid of no cosmopolitan experiment. As a Jewish humanist, free to demythologize whatever is aesthetically indispensable, he feels no need to be restrictive. He can celebrate and enjoy both Hanukkah and Christmas.

The either-or alternatives of distinct ideologies are quite irrelevant to the realities of contemporary religious belief. Educated Jews and Christians are much closer to each other in their humanistic dispositions than they are to the more traditional uneducated members of their respective denominations. Jewish and Christian belief on the university level are not very distinct. Hanukkah and Christmas emerge only as aesthetic options identified with childhood memory and family loyalty. To convert them into irreconcilable symbols is to distort the truth. It is to turn ideological molehills into ceremonial mountains.

Nor is Christian persecution a sufficient reason for the rejection of Christmas. If the holiday season had retained its historic theological significance, the reaction would be appropriate. But as the official winter festival of a secular Western culture, it survives primarily as a ceremonial opportunity for cozy goodwill. Despite the pleas of a vocal pious minority, its humanistic evolution is inevitable in the end it will turn out to be a repudiation of the very myth that sponsored it. It will slowly transfer its attention from the vocabulary of divine-grace to the reality of human love.

The Jewish hang-upon Christmas is a function of Jewish guilt. Ambivalent about assimilation and yet committed by his ambition to total integration, the modern American Jew finds it difficult to mediate between his past and future. His aggressiveness for Hanukkah and against Christmas is an expression of self-delusion. It helps sustain the fantasy that he has preserved the religious uniqueness he has long since abandoned. It makes him feel terribly Jewish without any real effort – and without any real insight.

A rational Jew accepts the fact that he celebrates Christmas. Since this ceremonial truth neither disturbs him nor frightens him, he desires to evaluate it fairly. He knows that, as a universal holiday Christmas has no peers. It transcends all national boundaries and unites millions of Christians and non-Christians in a worldwide celebration of goodwill. As a humanist, he is delighted by this development and works to make Christmas less Christian. As a Jew, he also celebrates and enjoys Hanukkah, but is wise enough to realize that it is no adequate substitute for its sister holiday. He does not view these festivals as mutually exclusive but sees then as complementary companions. If he is a parent, he will not deny his child either opportunity and has no objection to the celebration of a secular Christmas within the framework of his Sunday School, temple, or public school. He even welcomes humanistic procedures for Christmas as he welcomes then for Thanksgiving. In short, he is aware that he is more than Jewish, and accepting that “more” makes him feel a more effective and more understanding person.

Choosing to be Ethical

The Jewish Humanist, September 1987

For Humanistic Jews morality and ethics are the heart of the good life. Being a moral person is much more important than being a religious person.

But what does it mean to be moral? How do you tell the difference between right behavior and wrong behavior? In a world in which so many people believe that ethical action is on the decline, these questions are important – so important that they will be the theme of our New Year holidays.

For many people right and wrong are very clear. The main problem is motivating people to pursue the right and avoiding the wrong. For others choosing to be ethical is not quite so simple. They believe that right and wrong are not so obvious, that specific situations do not offer easy moral answers.

Certainly, in a time of so much social change, old answers do not seem as obvious as they used to. Work, love, pleasure and marriage are not what they were. And the relationship between them and community welfare is not what it was. In fact, under new circumstances, the moral action of yesterday becomes the immoral action of today. Multiplying babies is right for an undercrowded world. It is wrong for an overcrowded one.

Choosing to be ethical today starts with many difficulties.

In an age when we feel that we have a right to personal happiness and fulfillment, it is difficult to figure out the proper moral balance between individual need and community need. When is it appropriate to be self-centered and to pursue my own agenda? And when is it appropriate to sacrifice my own pleasure and happiness for the sake of the pleasure and welfare of others? In a traditional society, which accepts the justice of human suffering, this dilemma never occurs. But, in our fulfillment-centered society this is a recurring problem.

In a world where romantic love has become supremely important, it is difficult to negotiate the claims of love and the claims of duty. In fact, the harshness of the concept of duty seems a cold contrast to the warm appeal of loving attachments. But the feeling of love is a fickle experience. If human relations depended on love alone, they would become the victims of a flaky anarchy. What I love today I may not love tomorrow. There must be some other moral value that allows for stability, continuity and commitment.

In a psychotherapeutic world which has banished the notion of guilt from respectable values, it is difficult to deal with rotten people who have rotten behavior. Guilt is a form of fear and intimidation, which has been successfully used for most of human history as a way of controlling human behavior. If inducing it is immoral, then one of the most effective techniques for persuading other people to change their actions – and for others to influence as to change our actions – is eliminated. It is almost impossible to do the business of ethics and avoid guilt.

In a time when people are very much caught up with their own subjective feelings and ideas and where the opportunities of an affluent society create so many options, it is difficult to talk about an objective ethics: which applies to everybody. Many men and women, in the name of personal equality and autonomy, deny that there is a single ethical standard for all people. What may be right for you may not be right for me. And, what may be validly moral for me may not be validly moral for you. My conscience is just as authoritative as your conscience. And where they disagree – well they just disagree. If this argument sounds familiar, it certainly is. And if it seems a bit chaotic, it certainly is too.

In, a shrinking world of international trade and technological wonders where isolated communities no longer exist, it is difficult to figure out what loyalty to the welfare of the community really means. Historically, moral behavior was action that placed group survival over individual survival. But, in a place where each individual belongs to many communities – familial, local, national and transnational – this standard is confusing. What may be good for my family may not be good for my city. What may be good for my city may not be good for my nation. And what may be good for my nation may not promote the welfare of humanity. Group loyalty now is more complex than it ever was. Chauvinists who are willing to die for their nation and their nation alone may not be as noble as they used to be.

On a planet where large urban centers bring strangers together into single communities, it is difficult to kindle moral concern for people we barely know. Giving up time, energy and wealth for members of our family we can understand. Sharing our assets with friends and fellow workers can arouse some enthusiasm. But worrying about people we do not know and whom we do not want to know is hardly natural. It takes an enormous discipline of mind and will to include distant strangers within our ethical commitments. “Foreigners” do not win our hearts in the same way as members of our own “tribe.” And we find convenient ‘moral excuses to exclude them.

As you can see, choosing to be ethical is not as easy as some make it out to be. We need to explore its difficulties and what we can do about it.

Feelings

The Jewish Humanist, October 1986

Feelings.

They are a very important part of our daily life. They are the energy of our desires and motivation. They are the source of our pain and our pleasure. They are the signs’ of our success and failure.

Understanding our feelings and learning to control them is the theme of our New Year celebration. Ultimately the quality of our life is determined by what we do with our emotions and by what they do to us.

Our feelings present us with many problems.

We do not choose them. They just happen. If they enter our consciousness we cannot command them to leave. Fear, anger, love and guilt arise from unconscious causes over which we exercise no control. The only way to avoid certain feelings is to avoid the situations that provoke them. But many life situations are unavoidable, especially if they involve family, friends, and work.

Emotions are difficult to control. They trigger our behavior. When the conscious mind is uncooperative emotions bypass it and make us do what we do not deliberately choose to do. Changing behavior can be very difficult, especially if our feelings are in conflict with our behavior.

Our emotions do not share a common agenda. Each feeling wants its own way and seeks to command all our energies. Our love and our anger compete for, the same body, driving to use it indifferent ways. No easy internal harmony prevails in the human mind.

If our feelings are allowed to run wild, if they are given complete freedom, they are able to wreak havoc in our lives. Since they have the short-run goal of discharging their energy, they often stand in conflict with the long-run goals of our reason. The planning part of our mind is concerned about later. Our emotions tend to be focused on now. They often make us do things that give us immediate relief from tension, but which have rotten consequences for our future happiness and success.

Our emotions love to hide. If they are embarrassing for our conscious mind to handle, if they offend our self-image, we sometimes have the power to expel them to the “basement” of our mind. While’ they fester in the darkness we can pretend that they are not there even though they really are. Trying to hide from our feelings uses up an enormous amount of energy and often exhausts us.

As you can see, simply asking people to be spontaneous can be very dangerous. Indulging hate, anger and jealousy can be just as spontaneous as indulging love. And expressing love may not always be appropriate, especially if the people we love exploit us and abuse us.

So, in the face of all these problems, how do we establish an effective control of our feelings so, that they serve our long-run goals for survival and dignity?

The path of self-control is hard but absolutely necessary.

We, first of all, have to accept our feelings and stop running away from them. We cannot be held responsible for what we do not control. Emotions are not dangerous unless we allow them to be. Fear, hate, and sexual lust are normal and human. They make their appearance in every psyche. If we pretend, that they are not there, they will hide in the unconscious and do their dirty work against our will. If we are willing to confront them and to own up to them, then we will have a chance to discipline them. We cannot control what we refuse to acknowledge.

We have to clarify our long-run goals. We have to go beyond the present and determine what we want for our future. What are the human relations we want to maintain? What are the work skills we want to acquire? Self-indulgence is inevitable if we never use our reason to go beyond today and plan tomorrow.

We also have to calculate the price of spontaneity. What will be the consequences of our behavior if we allow any particular feeling to take control of our body? In many situations spontaneity works and makes us happier. In many circumstances it disrupts friendships, undermines family loyalty and destroys useful work. Being a warm person does not mean being a foolish person.

We have to train our will. We do not have to be the victim of every passing feeling. Our conscious mind gives us the power to control and restrain. The word “will” denotes the complex mental process which enables us to say “no” when our feelings say “yes”, to say “yes” when our feelings say “no.” The best way to exercise our will and to give it strength is to force ourselves to do what we are afraid to do. Endless introspection is depressing and weakens our decision making power. Only by acting and discovering that indeed we are able to do what we did not think we were able to do can our will become a reality. If we always wait to make decisions until we are no longer afraid, we will never be decisive. Practice gives muscle to our will.

On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur I will expand on these observations.

The Right to Die

The Jewish Humanist, August 1990

The right to die.

An eccentric doctor, a desperate woman and a bizarre contraption have dramatized that issue. Ever since Dr. Kevorkian assisted Alzheimer victim Jane Adkins to kill herself, the question of justifiable suicide has received undue public attention.

Traditional religion forbids suicide, even the suicide of terminally ill patients. Since God has given us life, only God has the right to take it away. And since God is just, there must be a good purpose for the suffering and humiliation endured by the hopelessly sick. Because the limited human mind sees suffering as evil does not mean that it is evil. God works in mysterious ways.

For traditional religion there is no right to die. Only the threat of sexual violation or religious apostasy can justify the choice of death. And even then, not by one’s own hand.

In recent years the right to die issue has become important because we live in an aging society. Medicine and medical technology are now able to prolong life to the point where the quality of life hardly justifies its continuance. Thousands of -old people are attached, as helpless victims, to mechanical life-support systems. Millions of old people suffer chronic and terminal illnesses -which deprive them of any reasonable control over their fate. They are deprived of dignity and happiness and are condemned to endure a living death.

This medical “advance” has been accompanied by a quantum jump in human expectations. At one time people – expected no more out of life than suffering. Today they expect far more. They want -pleasure, fulfillment and dignity. They are – no longer prepared to settle for resignation and degradation.

The right to die derives from the even more fundamental right to happiness. Life is not sacred when it is all pain, misery and fear. It is not meaningful when all it provides, is the prospect of endless suffering. To view human existence as an irreversible prison sentence is to deprive it of all significance.

People with terminal illnesses, with unendurable pain and humiliation, have the right to die. They have the right to choose death. And they have the right to be assisted by the medical profession to achieve their goal with the minimum of pain.

Many doctors acknowledge the right to die. But they vehemently deny the right to medical assistance. If the patient wants to kill himself, he should not be prevented from doing so. But he should expect no help from his physician. After all, the doctor is under oath to save lives.

But, without medical assistance, the patient is deprived of the expertise he needs to execute the deed efficiently and painlessly. To deny the patient the help of a physician or a medical technician is an act of cruelty. The patient must suffer because the physician is emotionally unable to terminate the suffering or morally unable because of the promise he has made.

However, when morality sponsors cruelty, maybe it is not morality. Perhaps the doctors’ oath ought not to be one to preserve life. Perhaps a more ethical oath would be a promise to heal the sick and to alleviate suffering. The moral and compassionate thing to do is to enable the patient to die.

What are the implications of this morality? Should any individual have the right to recruit any physician to assist him in an act of suicide when he determines that he is suffering from an incurable and unbearable illness?

The answer is no. There is no absolute right to suicide. If there were, we would have to allow depressed teenagers, who cannot endure the pain of hopelessness, to kill themselves. We would have no right to intrude. To leave the decision of what is terminal and unendurable to the victim alone would be to surrender to the distortions of reality which many depressed people suffer from.

The decision of the patient needs to be supported by the concurrence of experts who determine that the perception of the victim is indeed accurate. (There is a terminal unendurable illness.) And these experts cannot be self-appointed (as in the case of Kevorkian). They have to be appointed by the community and be responsible to the community.

Jane Adkins had the right to die. She had the right to be supported in her decision by the medical profession. In a moral world that recognizes her right she would have been assisted by members of her own community – doctors, lawyers, psychologists and clergy. She would have died at home or in any setting of dignity that she would have chosen.

She deserved more than death in a car van. Perhaps her courage will force our society to find a more compassionate way to deal with the rational despair of needy people.

Jewish Book Month 1986

The Jewish Humanist, November 1986

November is the month when we think about books we should be reading, especially books about Jewish history and Jewish culture, philosophy and ethics.

During the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services I either used or made reference to books which many people subsequently wanted to read. In response to their request I am presenting the following recommended reading list. Some of the books are easy to read. Others are painful. All are important.

Shcharansky by Martin Gilbert – This is a powerful biography of one of the genuine Jewish heroes of this century. As the son of a devoted communist, Shcharansky repudiated the life of comfortable conformity and became one of the Soviet Union’s most famous dissidents. Fearlessly challenging the Soviet government on human rights issues and demanding the right of emigration for himself and all Russian Jews who wanted to leave. Shcharansky was ultimately imprisoned and subjected to torture and humiliation. The story of his personal resistance – with its extraordinary courage and with its intensification of his Jewish identity is inspirational reading. Gilbert, the historian of the Holocaust, relied heavily for his information on the letters Shcharansky wrote to his wife Avital while in jail.

The Affair by Jean-Marie Brevin – Brevin is a successful French lawyer who is fascinated with the famous Dreyfus Affair and the political drama which surrounded it. When an obscure Jewish officer is convicted in 1894 of giving military secrets to the German enemy, France explodes into a mighty confrontation between those who think him innocent and those who think him guilty. The Anti -Dreyfusards want to use his conviction and the anti-Semitism which accompanies it to overthrow the fragile Third Republic and replace it with the elitist rule of monarchy, army and church. The Pro-Dreyfusards, like Emile Zola, want to use the case to promote a secular democratic state. The details of the story are so compelling that you cannot put the book down once you start reading it.

Shoah, a documentary with Claude Lanzman – No film has more devastatingly revealed the horror of the Holocaust than this production by this eccentric French Jewish director. Using none of the usual “body scenes” of most Holocaust presentations, Lanzmann relies only on the verbal testimony of victims and observers. The imagination of the viewer takes over from there. The most powerful scene – recorded in this book version of the movie script – is the interview with the barber from Czestochowa who is spared at Treblinka to cut the hair of other victims before gassing. The Jews were turned into the executioners of their own people.

Arab and Jew by David Shipler – Few books have revealed the di lemma of modern Israel more than this powerful commentary by the former New York Times reporter in Jerusalem. Two nations – Arab and Jew – live within the boundaries of the Jewish state. How do they see each other? How strong is their mutual fear and anger? What are the possibilities for mutual understanding and reconciliation? Shipler attempts to answer these questions through his assessment of dozens of Jews and Arabs from every walk of life and from every political and religious persuasion. The revelations are startling and frightening. The most pathetic story is the tale of love between a Palestinian radical woman and a Jewish right-wing Likudnik who discover that there is too much hate to allow for their love. No book has presented the problem of mutual intolerance more vividly and more dramatically.

Falling in Love by Francesco Alberoni – This Italian classic, recently translated into English, allows sociologist Alberoni to explore the meaning of love. He makes a very sharp distinction between falling in love with all its anguish and euphoria and love itself. Falling in love he regards as a disease. It happens to people who are experiencing strong senses of personal inadequacy and who project unrealistically on to the beloved what they themselves do not think they have but want for themselves. The result is that most romantic- love, like most revolutionary fervor, ends in disappointment. Or it may resolve itself into something healthier and realistic, which he calls love. Alberoni’s exploration is a unique assessment of an important emotion.

World’s Fair by E. L. Doctorow – A novel by Doctorow is always a treat, especially when it is a nostalgia trip. A Jewish boy in New York in 1939 (most likely Doctorow himself) is taken to that wondrous vision of the future called the World’s Fair. The naive excitement of an enthusiastic child allows the wonder and innocence of the reader himself to reawaken.

Happy reading!

Ethics and Morality

The Jewish Humanist, March 1986

Ethics and morality. They are not trivial issues. They are the very stuff out of which daily decision making is made.

Moral issues of the ’80’s will be the theme of this year’s Retreat discussion. They are bound to stir up some provocative dialogue.

Over the past 20 years, moral values in America have been radically altered. They have been molded by the traumatic political and social events which have left their mark on the American psyche.

The Vietnam War altered our view of patriotism and respect for government. The Black Power movement changed our attitudes toward civil disobedience and conformity to the law. The feminist campaign assaulted our traditional perspectives on gender inequality and the role of women in our society. The contraceptive revolution undermined our conventional vision of sexual behavior and sexual restraints. The psychotherapy “explosion” redirected our attention from historical values like duty and guilt to newer concepts like self-fulfillment, autonomy, and happiness. The persistence of affluence guided us away from an obsessive concern with work to an appreciation of leisure and leisure skills. And the cosmopolitan influence of Eastern religions introduced us to the importance of meditation and holistic health.

But the moral revolution produced its problems. In the heyday of its churning, the consequences of all this change were not clearly discerned. Many of its advocates did not reckon with the negative side of its assault on traditional values. The recession of the early ’80s dramatized the limitations of an ethics of leisure (“Finding oneself” simply became too expensive). The appalling divorce rate and the breakdown of the old family structures brought into question the feminist assault and the self-absorption of self-fulfillment.

The increasing isolation and alienation of so many citizens challenged the values of personal autonomy and sexual liberation. The fundamentalist religious revival reminded us of the danger of tearing down all authority structures and replacing them with clichés about options. And the pervasive disillusionment and pessimism among both the old and the young became an indictment of freedom without direction.

In the environment of the more sober ‘80’s, we need to assess the meaning and value of the moral revolution. Many of its changes were important and necessary. But some of its claims were naive, and many of its effects were harmful.

Because of the excesses of its proponents, we are experiencing a social and political backlash that may undo a good part of its positive achievements.

In order to get a handle on the problem, we need to focus on three ethical issues that dominate our personal decision making.

The first is the issue of risk vs. security. Conservatives have historically been concerned with safety and protection, with law and order, with evenness and stability. Liberals have usually opted for adventure and excitement, novelty and experiment, danger and the rejection of the routine. Both sides have often been carried away by their anxieties and enthusiasm. What is needed is an appropriate balance between the two.

The second issue is the issue of commitment vs. freedom. Conservatives have generally used the vocabulary of duty and obligation, of responsibility and eternal promises. Liberals have resisted with an alternative vocabulary of freedom and self-determination, of dignity and self-esteem. Their controversy has often led to pushing harmful extremes. A rational morality hovers somewhere in between their respective propagandas.

The third issue is the problem of authority vs. autonomy. Conservatives tend to emphasize the necessity of subordinating individual judgment to the wisdom of the past. Liberals are more likely to insist on the importance of personal judgment, personal conscience, and individual uniqueness. When either side is followed to its logical extreme, tyranny or chaos prevails. Neither external authority nor autonomy can be absolute.

These three issues dramatize the moral agonies of the ’80’s.