The Humanist Institute

The Jewish Humanist, February 1985

On February 15 we shall be honoring the four members of our congregation who are students of the Humanist Institute.

The Humanist Institute is a new development in the humanistic world which is very important to the welfare and future of the Birmingham Temple.

The Institute is a graduate school for the training of humanist leaders which was established by the North American Committee for Humanism in 1982. The Committee is an international conference of humanist leaders who firmly believe that the growth and development of a humanist constituency in the United States and Canada depends on the training of competent and dynamic spokespeople who will go forth to proclaim the humanist message and to organize humanist communities.

There are seven important humanist organizations in North America today – the American Ethical Union, the American Humanist Association, the American Rationalist Association, the Bertrand Russell Society, the Council for a Democratic and Secular Humanism, the Fellowship of Religious Humanists (Unitarian), and the Society for Humanistic Judaism. None of them is strong enough or rich enough to organize a leadership school of its own. Only if they pool their energies and resources is a working school possible.

That cooperation is exactly what began in 1982. Frightened by the assaults of the religious right, the leaders of these seven groups came together in Chicago to establish an institution of higher learning which would provide visibility and training for the humanist world.

Important progress has taken place since then. A home was found for the Institute in the prestigious building of the New ‘fork Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan. A distinguished educator, Howard Radest, was chosen as Dean. Our most energetic humanist missionary, Roger Greeley of Kalamazoo, was appointed the Associate Dean in charge of student recruitment, and student placement. Twenty-five students, from different humanist backgrounds and from different parts of the country, were selected to be the first class of the Institute. A graduate curriculum of 90 credits (three full-time years of study) was designed to provide high-quality professional training for the leadership candidates. A part-time faculty of well-known academicians from Columbia, Harvard, State University of New York, University of Michigan and the University of Southern California were recruited as teachers. And a nation-wide fundraising effort was launched to secure the funds that the Institute requires for survival and growth.

Among the 25, students of the first class are four Humanistic Jewish candidates, who want to pursue careers in the world of Humanistic Judaism and who want special training and certification for their future roles as educators and community leaders.

Why is the Institute important to us in the Birmingham Temple?

The Institute is important to us because the ‘future of Humanistic Judaism demands well-trained rabbis, educators and administrators to lead congregations and communities. Without such leaders ‘established congregations cannot be maintained and new communities cannot be created.

The Institute is important to us because, until the Institute came into existence, there was no place where Humanistic rabbis and Jewish educators could be trained. Existing Humanistic rabbis are ‘refugees’ from the Reform movement and the Hebrew Union College. Given its commitment to a theistic Judaism, the Hebrew Union College is unwilling to train openly humanistic Jewish leaders who will not provide their talents and energies for Reform enterprises.

The Institute is important to us because it is the first step in providing us with the leadership training we need.

Right now the course work is concerned with general humanism. In the near future a Jewish curriculum will be added to serve the Jewish students. This curriculum will be designed in cooperation with the new Israel Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Jerusalem and with Judaic Studies departments in major secular universities.

The Institute is important to us because we will be able to help design the program we need together with a sympathetic school administration, instead of being the victim of hostile institutions who are indifferent to our welfare and our future.

The Institute is important to us because it will become a visible public academic center where Humanistic Jewish scholars in North America can be motivated to dialogue and to create new essential literature.

The Institute is important to us because now we can recruit young talented people to train for leadership careers in Humanistic Judaism. We no longer have to wait passively for the ‘refugees’ trained by other movements to choose us. We can choose and train our own leaders.

1998 US Elections – the Clinton Scandals

The Jewish Humanist, January 1999

America is changing. The last election dramatized that fact. The voters of America are very different from what they were thirty years ago. The Republican Party suffered the consequences of not understanding the reality of America today.

The ‘scandal’ did not punish the Democrats. Clinton returned from the ‘dead’. The Democrats increased their numbers in the House of Representatives. They won major senatorial New York and California. They defeated two Republican governors in Alabama and South Carolina. Only in Michigan, where Fieger led the team, were the Democrats humiliated.

The Religious Right, who helped to orchestrate the Republican strategy, were slapped in the face by the voters. Two state referendums to restrict abortion freedom failed to win majorities. Two lottery proposals to finance public education succeeded.

The message to Republicans was clear. Assaulting Clinton was a political disaster. Following the agenda of the Religious Right was the path to self-destruction. The managers of this strategy were guilty of incompetence. They had to go. Newt resigned in a huff. The Democrats tasted the most delicious of victories.

What does this reality mean for us as Americans and as Jews?

It means that sexual morality in America has changed. Thirty years ago the Clinton scandal would have forced the resignation of the president. Kennedy only survived disgrace because the media were less intrusive. But, after the feminist and youth rebellions of the last three decades adultery and sexual promiscuity are ho-hum for a large part of the American electorate. Living with partners outside of marriage is respectable and homosexuality, despite fierce resistance, is gaining more and more acceptance. When behavior is no longer controversial it is called ‘private’. Most Americans believe that ‘private’ behavior, in so far as it does not produce public harm, should not be investigated or disturbed by public scrutiny. It is not the public’s business.

In a dynamic consumer culture, where individualism is triumphant and traditional families are shrinking, there is no will to punish presidents for behavior that is ‘ordinary’ in the middle and upper classes. The message for the political future is that sexual accusations are losing their intimidation power. The election revealed that the public, on sexual issues, is far more tolerant than Kenneth Starr ever imagined.

The election means that the Religious Right has power but not enough power to do what it wants to do. Their support is up to 25% of the American voters. However, that percentage is insufficient for political control. American culture is essentially a secular culture that resists religious fanaticism.

The election means that the religious Right is a liability to the Republican Party. There are two conservative agendas in America. One is economic and resists government intrusion into the work and money life of American citizens. The other is social and seeks to use the government to police the sexual and reproductive behavior of the American public. Voters on the Right believe in both agendas. Voters in the Center only believe in the first one. They are afraid of the second. Since most Americans are in the Center, parties can only win elections if they appeal to the Center. Ever since Nixon the Republicans have taken the Center and have gladly given the Left to the Democrats. But the dominant presence of the Religious Right at the Republican conventions of 1992 and 1996 frightened the Center and drove many of its voters into the Democratic camp. When Clinton embraced the economic agenda of the Republicans and rejected their social program the Democratic victory was sealed.

In some ironic way the Religious Right is the best thing that has happened to the Democrats in a long time. The people who fear and hate them have now forged a new alliance of the Center and the Left. The Democrats need a powerful enemy to mobilize their troops. And the Religious Right obliges by playing the role.

The election means that the racial composition of active voters is changing. More and more Blacks and Hispanics are voting. The Blacks helped to defeat the Republican governors in Alabama and South Carolina. The Hispanics gave Barbara Boxer her senatorial victory in California. The hidden Republican strategy to be seen as the party of white America only works if whites remain the overwhelming majority of the American people The Republican program that won political control of both the South and the West over the past thirty years no longer works.

The election means that the impeachment ‘push’ is now a retreat. The new Congress may impeach but they will not convict Clinton. Voter ‘backlash’ has already punished the Republicans. The issue now is how to abandon the campaign and save face. The determination of the Religious Right to impeach Clinton is now a political liability.

The election means that the Jews have returned to the Democratic Party. The abandonment by Jewish voters of D’Amato in New York, despite his years of support for Jewish causes, is a clear indication that Israel and reparations are not the only issues that-concern Jews. Most Jewish voters even if they are economically conservative, are in the Center. They fear the religious Right. And they fear a Republican party that is allied to them. As both Jews and Americans they do not wish to endanger a free and multicultural society that promotes affluence and opportunity. We do not need the native Anglo-Saxon ‘haredim’ running our lives.

American Diversity

The Jewish Humanist, February 1999

February is Brotherhood (and Sisterhood) Month in America. It is a useful time to celebrate the diversity which is part of American life. Our country, like most of the nations of the world, is no longer ethically or religiously uniform. It is a composite of people from all over the planet.

The original concept of a nation was that of a community of racially identical people with shared ancestors and shared memories. The Israelites of the Bible conformed to this model. Birth was the only legitimate entry into the nation. If strangers lived in the midst of the community, they were merely tolerated aliens. Modern Japan preserves this hostility to foreigners.

When America began, the nation was overwhelmingly homogenous in both race and religion. Anglo-Saxon Protestants predominated. Native Americans were excluded. Africans were viewed as sub-human. And the few Germans in Pennsylvania hardly counted. Jews and Catholics were too few in number to make any difference.’

Two hundred years later America is vastly different. Anglo-Saxon Protestants are a minority. Native Americas and Africans have been absorbed into the body politic. Catholics have become the largest religious denomination. And the largest Jewish community in the world is settled in the major cities of America. Over the last two centuries millions of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America have come to live in this country. Their descendants have changed the racial and religious face of the United States. In many parts of our nation it is impossible to find any ‘original’ Americans.

What has happened to America is also the story, of many other advanced nations who have attracted large numbers of foreign immigrants because of urbanization and economic opportunity. The immigrants need jobs. The hosts need cheap labor. Mobile urban communities accommodate newcomers far more easily than traditional peasant communities. The Indians and Palestinians in England, the Algerians in France and the Turks in Germany – all of them testify to the new diversity among the prosperous nations of the Western world.

But this diversity also exists in the Third World. Brazil is a stew of invading Europeans, imported Africans and natives. All over Latin America and Africa white invaders have left mixed communities. Both in Asia and Africa the national boundaries drawn by colonial conquerors ignored the historic boundaries between ethnic groups. Nigeria is a country with five significant nations. India is a coalition of at least fifteen. The Congo is a nightmare state that embraces dozens of different tribes which hate each other.

The consequences of all this mixing is the emergence of a distinction between nationality and citizenship. Your nationality is your ethnic origin. Your citizenship is your territorial allegiance, the land which claims your political commitment. Modern territorial states are different from historic nations. They are often composed of people who no longer share a long-run common history or even a single language. States like Canada, India and Peru feature more than one territorial language.

All this change is accelerated by the increasing mobility of the world population. Modern technology has reduced our planet to a global village. Air travel has shrunk distance. And computer slaves enable people from faraway places to communicate with each other as though they were ‘in the same room’. The new ‘intimacy’ reduces fear, increases the sharing of ideas and goods and encourages people to explore new venues. The incredible rise in the number of international travelers is a prelude to the more permanent migration of millions of people.

In such a ‘global’ world territorial states do not have the opportunity to integrate their ‘diverse populations’ into some kind of nationality. Instead, a new international culture is arising which transcends national boundaries and which embraces the urban residents of the world. Much of their international culture is derivative from American culture. Skyscrapers, expressways and jeans are no longer American. They bear no national identity. They are the artifacts of an emerging international community.

The evolution of territorial states and an international culture does not obliterate differences. As group conformity dissolves individual difference is enhanced. Some people eat Italian food on Monday and Thai food on Tuesday. Others choose Chinese food for Monday and Mexican food for Tuesday. Some people choose to master English as their second language. Others choose to learn Spanish. Many Jews enjoy Christmas. Many Christians find meaning in Passover and the Seder.

As societies become more pluralistic, the boundaries between nationalities and religions do not dissolve. They become softer, more flexible, more ‘individual friendly’. While many traditionalists view this development with honor, liberals see this development as a way of breaking down the age-old hostilities between groups. Once self-righteousness and the fear of strangers diminish, the possibility of building an international community emerges. What was once a utopian ‘fantasy’ is at the beginning of its realization.

Of course this new mixing has its negative diversity. Racism and bigotry thrive in environments where old boundaries break down and where traditional belief systems are threatened. Both the rise of intense nationalism and religious fundamentalism are responses to the traumatic changes engineered by this social revolution. At a time when people should be optimistic, all these fierce reactions make them think that the world is falling apart.

As we celebrate Brotherhood and Sisterhood month in America let us understand that the old monocultural America is gone. We Jews are no longer strangers in an Anglo-Saxon country. We are one of the vital options in a diversity of free and open choices. America is our home, as is the world.



Israel at 50

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1998


Israel is fifty years old. But the birth day ‘party’ is not as festive as many Israelis and Jews would want it to be. The American government is not very happy.

After fifty years of independence and one hundred years of Zionism the state of Israel can boast some extraordinary achievements. It has molded a new Jewish ethnicity, a blending of European and Oriental Jews. It has transformed ancient Hebrew into the unique language of the Jewish State. It has developed a viable economy of farming and manufacturing which has brought Israel into the ‘first world’. It has fashioned democratic political institutions, which are imperfect, but which allow for a high level of personal freedom. It has created a stunning military, which wields a power out of proportion to its numbers. It has even forged a long-lasting alliance with America, the leading military and economic power in the world.

It has also experienced some significant failures. The losses of the Yom Kippur War and the Lebanon War embarrassed the Israeli army. The dichotomy between the living standards of European and Oriental Jews breeds resentment. The unique farm experiment of the kibbutzim is collapsing into socialist failure. The laws of the Jewish State ironically deny full religious freedom to Jewish alternatives to Orthodoxy and compound the inequity with large subsidies to orthodox institutions. The secular character of the early Israeli State has been replaced by the growing presence of aggressive religious fundamentalists. The enthusiastic support of American Jews, the largest and, most powerful Jewish community in the world, has been compromised by the refusal of the Israeli government to resist the demands of ultra-Orthodox Jews who despise the liberal Judaism of the United States. The economic and political status of Israeli Arabs remains inferior to that of Israeli Jews; Above all, the acquisition of new land in the Six-Day War triggered Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian rebellion.

Even the alliance with America has become a troubled connection. The fall of Communism removed the attractiveness of the Israeli military as a bulwark against Soviet expansion and the Arab allies of the Soviet Union. America now wanted to woo the Arab world as a counter-force against the new danger of Muslim fundamentalism pouring out of Iran. The vested interests of the United States began to clash with the vested interests of the Jewish State. Certainly the Gulf War demonstrated the necessity of winning the support of moderate Arab regimes.

Most of the old Israeli establishment, the leaders of the Labor party, read the ‘handwriting on the wall’ and were willing to yield to American pressure, and to make an accommodation with the Palestinians and the moderate Arab world. Their decision was reinforced by the continuing problem of Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories, the war exhaustion of the Israeli public, the vision of an economic opening to the Arab world and the anxious desire to preserve the Jewishness of the Jewish State by excluding the Arab presence. It was also clear that no peace could exist with the Arab world so long as the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs continued. The popular leader of this ‘peace’ faction was Yitzhak Rabin. The assassination of Rabin effectively undermined the power of the accommodationists.

Today the extremists, who are determined to resist all American pressure, are in charge. They are an odd coalition, united by their hatred of the old Labor establishment. They include conservative military officers, secular chauvinists, Orthodox Jews, Oriental Jews from the Muslim world, and recent Russian immigrants. Their leader is Benjamin Netanyahu, the present Prime Minister of Israel. They view any surrender of territory to the Palestinians or to other Arabs as subversive of Israeli survival.

Their power is reinforced by periodic Arab terrorism and the ambivalence of many Israelis about the risks of territorial concessions. Despite scandals and defections, the coalition is holding its own.

The real power of this new coalition lies in the changing demographics of Israel. In 1998 Israel is no longer what it was in 1948, a secular European state. Over the past fifty years Oriental Jews and Jewish religious fundamentalists have entered the Israeli scene in large numbers and transformed it. They do not wish to make any meaningful concessions to the Arab world. They want peace; but they do not want to pay the price for peace.

The Israeli people have two choices. They can continue to support the present government, subvert the peace process and alienate the American establishment. Or they can repudiate the Netanyahu regime, continue meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians and other Arab nations, and cooperate with Egypt and Jordan in their resistance to religious fundamentalism.

The vested interests of the United States in the Middle East demand that the peace process continue. The collapse of the peace process will promote support for radical Arab regimes like Iraq, and religious extremism. Neither consequence serves the long run interests of America or the maintenance of law and order in the global economy.

The future is up to the Israeli people. They have to make the fateful decision. Arafat may not be the most attractive or reliable ‘ally’ for the Israeli public. But he is preferable to the storm of fanatics who will follow his downfall.