Project of IISHJ

The Challenge of Soviet Jewry

Humanistic Judaism, Fall, November 1991

The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union is one of the most important events of the 20th century, equal in importance to the Bolshevik Revolution, which brought communism to power. For more than 70 years, all major political developments in both the West and the East evolved around the Bolshevik presence. Fascism, war, and the political tensions between Left and Right all were responses to communism, whether perceived as savior or devil.

In the early years of the revolution, thousands of Jews, both in and outside of the Soviet Union, shared the Bolshevik fervor. Caught up in its messianic enthusiasm, they believe that communism is the answer to anti-Semitism and the Jewish problem. But these devotees were crushed by the real realities of the communist system, which used anti-Semitism as a tool of social control. Enthusiasm was followed by disillusionment and the bitterness of betrayal.

Today, after 70 years of repression and isolation, the Jews of the former Soviet empire are free. They are confronted with both opportunity and danger. They have difficult decisions to make. Should they or should they not remain in the Soviet Union? What place should they give to Jerusalem and Judaism in their life? What kind of Judaism should they seek to embrace?

Lost for so long to the Jewish world, Soviet Jews have become a gold mine for Jewish recruitment. What do they choose to remain in the Soviet Union or to emigrate to Israel or North America, they are the largest body of unaffiliated you to suddenly appear as a major factor in the modern seen. Today, the “missionaries” of traditional and reform Judaism are busy looking for “converts”. And with books and videotapes, Lubavitchers have penetrated the remote cities and villages of the Soviet Union in search of followers.

Secular humanist a cutie as I’m cannot be indifferent to this new development and this new opportunity. After 70 years of secularization, most of your dues are not religious. If they never learn about the possibility of being both meaningfully secular and meaningfully Jewish, they would use traditional expressions that are inappropriate to their convictions and lifestyle, or-more likely-they will choose to do nothing about the Jewishness at all.

We, a secular humanist excuse, have a moral obligation to reach out to our Soviet Jewish brothers and sisters, wherever they may be. We need to share with them our experience that Judaism and humanistic convictions can go hand in hand. The task is overwhelming. But it also will be exciting and energizing for a movement.

The Voice of Reason

Humanistic Judaism, Spring, 1991

The Arkansas state legislature has passed a bill requiring science teachers to give as much time to the Genesis story of creation as a gift to the Darwinian story of evolution.

A California judge just recently declared the teachers and the California public schools must acknowledge the evolution is only a theory and not a fact.

Paul Laxalt, a conservative senator from Nevada, has co-sponsored a bill in Congress, which is called a Family Protection Act and what to remove the issues of abortion and teacher qualification from the jurisdiction of the higher courts.

Committees of the Christian fundamentalists in southern Texas organizing to remove the pornographic writings of Salenger and Hemingway from the shelves

Committees of the Christian fundamentalists in southern Texas organizing to remove the pornographic writings of Salenger and Hemingway from the shelves of public library’s.

Mark Siljander, and Michigan Republican primary candidate actually backed by the Moral Majority, recently want to surprise victory against seemingly overwhelming odds.

A letter arrives to my office address to ‘you humanist bastard’.The anonymous author proclaims, ‘The Age of the Enlightenment is dead. The Age of Faith is reborn’.

Is the age of enlightenment really dying?

Well, if it were up to the Moral Majority and to its allies in the New Right, it’s certainly would be. The advocates of political Christian fundamentalism are determined to reverse the course of 200 years of American history and to turn our country into a Puritan version of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran.

The ideas and the ideals of the Enlightenment are now under attack. The Age of Reason is now on the defensive. The belief in an orderly world governed by natural law, the valuing of reason is the best method for the discovery of truth, the ability to live with uncertainty and the tentativeness of judgments, the eagerness to welcome new ideas, and maximizing of individual freedom and personal options, the assumption that good citizenship as possible without denominational religion—all these affirmations of the enlightenment are now being assaulted by voices of reaction.

The voice of reason is being drowned out by the voice of Fanaticism.

Who is this voice of Fanaticism?

The list is long. There is…

The Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell

The Christian Voice of Jerry Jarmon

The Religious Roundtable of Ed McAteer

The Committee for the Survival of the Free Congress of Paul Weyrich

The Christian Crusade of Billy Joe Hargis

The Stop ERA of Phyllis Schlafly

The Conservatives Caucus of Howard Phillips

What do they want? They want. Period.

The National Conservative Political Action Committee of Tim Dolan

The Conservative Digestive Richard Viguerie

And the remnants of the John Birch Society

As well as many others.

To put prayers in the public school;

To insinuate Bible stories into public science classrooms;

To censor classic literature they deem morally offensive;

To undermine our judicial system a state secular education;

To use public money to support denominational religion;

To ban sex education;

To limit sexual freedom;

To defeat the ERA universe the hard-won gains of female liberation;

To ban abortions;

To revive political witch hunts in the name of anti-communism;

To secure a political power to make the changes they desire.

How are they going about getting what they want?

They have developed a simple message that everyone can understand. Unlike the complex answers of liberal intellectuals, their analysis of the causes of crime, poverty, and family decline can be reduced to a simple observation. Turning away from God and the Bible is responsible for moral decay. It, therefore, logically follows that, if we turn back to God in the Bible, all will be well.

They have infiltrated political parties. They are encouraging their members to become active Republicans and Democrats. They have already taken over the Republican Party in Alaska and are aiming for broader victories.

They pushed through members to go out and vote for the candidate they have chosen–or, in many cases, vote against the political figures they have targeted. Church of Idaho, McGovern of South Dakota, Bayh of Indiana and many others were victims of their effective campaign.

They have mastered the media. Ironically, the technology which the spirit assigned to sponsors of them better than it serves defenders of science. They understand the power of radio and television to indoctrinate the masses and to mobilize them for social action. Fundamentalist station channels are proliferating. Millions of dollars are pouring in weekly from enthusiastic audiences. The political fundamentalists have entered the home of every American with their electronic campaign.

Alliances with formally angry opponents. Hostility to the public school system, the advocacy to parochial education and hatred of abortion unite them with conservative Catholics. The salvation style of fundamentalist Christianity makes them appealing to native Blacks. The Bible approach to the importance of the state of Israel into the Begin government claim to the West Bank and Gaza gives them support in the Jewish community. They have cleverly decided to woo their old enemies.

They have encountered very little organized opposition. The tendency of many liberals and moderates to regard them as funny fanatics who will ultimately fade away serves them well. The smugness of the academic and intellectual communities make it easy for them to succeed by default. Why are they here to begin with? Why is there a resurgence of political fundamentalism the national scale?

There are several important reasons.

They have always been around. But, they now have a new self-confidence. The decline of the North and the growing prosperity of the South has given them economic clout and greater self-esteem. After all, the heartland of fundamentalism is the South. And the South is no longer the depressed region which sponsored the ‘hillbilly’ mentality. Prosperity has created a new assertiveness and an eagerness to defend the ethnic religion.

The economic recession in most of America has frustrated millions of citizens. They are angry and troubled about their declining living standards and do not know how to deal with economic forces over which they seem to have no control. This is a good beginning for religious fervor and paranoia.

Spreading problems of crime and family decline terrified money people. Liberal clichés about personal freedom do not deal with the real question. Concern for personal safety and the welfare of children is a valid concern. The fundamentalists have a silly solution to the problem. But, at least, they’re trying to answer the question.

Most people understand how to use technology. But, do not understand the spirit of free inquiry which makes the development of technology possible. Or educational system has produced technologists. But, it has not developed the mentality of true science. We are not living in an age of science. We are still living in an age of superstition, where irrational people have access to technology.

So what can we do? How could we, as defenders of reason and free inquiry, respond to their provocation?

We can take the problem seriously. Given their determination, economic power and mass appeal, the forces of the New Right and their social agenda will not easily sleep it away.

We can organize. We can band together to become a public Voice of Reason to counter the propaganda and political activity of the political fundamentalists.

What would be the message of the voice of reason?

It would be positive. It will not allow the New Right to put us in the position of always being against. It would state very clearly that we are for three traditional American values–free inquiry —having good citizenship in a secular state—community peace and harmony—with the consequent need to avoid imposing controversial moral values on everybody.

It would be patriotic. It would not permit the opposition to claim Americanism. It would demonstrate that the founding fathers were disciples of the Enlightenment –not pious religionists. Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Franklin resisted the Moral Majority of their day to lay the foundations of a secular state.

It would be moral. It would not simply defend negative freedom and turn over all the ethical vocabulary to the moralists on the right. It will declare that teaching values is an important part of public education. After all, reliability, honesty, cooperation, sharing, and self-control are part of good citizenship. They are necessary, non-controversial discipline n in a secular state. While denominational religion can reinforce these values, they can also be derived from reason and common sense. In a land of competing religions, the shared reasonable approach is the only feasible way to teach social discipline and to preserve community peace.

It would be sensitive. It would acknowledge the worries that many poor and middle-income Americans have about crime, child pornography, and family decline. It would be concerned with pragmatic responses to these issues.

It would be non-partisan. Many Republicans, as well as Democrats, fear the Moral Majority and its attempts to take over the machinery of the political parties. The Voice of Reason would not identify with the liberal economic agenda. It would recognize that both economic liberals and economic conservatives are in favor of the secular state and free inquiry.

How was the Voice of Reason go about spreading this message?

It would establish a national organization.

It would secure the endorsement of prominent ‘stars’ in the natural and social sciences, as well as the backing of public figures.

It would produce materials for public distribution.

It would create media programs for radio and television.

It would hold public meetings and rallies to generate publicity and create a sense of group solidarity.

It would train citizens to be the effective voices of reason and to answer the distortion of the New Right.

It would issue position papers to evaluate proposed legislation.

It would monitor the behavior of Congress and state legislators and support targeted candidates, whether Republican or Democratic.

It would solicit money to make this campaign possible.

Right now, the Voice of Reason is more than a ‘would’. It is an ‘is’. Last December, a national organization called the Voice of Reason was established in Michigan and Illinois. Its founding committee came from both the Society for humanistic Judaism and from other concern groups.

The voice of reason is growing. It is reaching out to many other states. It needs your help and support.

Anti-Semitism and Jewish Humanism

Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1983, Volume 9, No. 1

Saying something positive about anti-Semitism hardly seems rational. In the century of the Holocaust, such a statement seems an insult to the innocent martyrs to Nazi evil.

What could possibly be positive about the hateful force that has killed millions of Jews, humiliated thousands of others and filled our lives with fear and anxiety?

We all know that many Jews are masochists and that they thrive on suffering and persecution. The thought of happiness and pleasure fills them with dread. But do we want to praise masochism? Are there no more creative ways of serving their needs than finding them anti-Semites?

We all know that many Jews fear that Jewish identity in the Diaspora will fade away in a friendly environment and that anti-Semitism is necessary to motivate most Jews to remain Jews. (Look at the Jewish awakening in the Soviet Union.) but why turn the society into a virtue? How valuable is an identity that only persecution can sustain?

We all know that the state of Israel was made possible by the Holocaust. Without Nazi hostility, the Zionists would never have motivated a sufficient number of Jews to choose Palestine. Nor would the desire for a Jewish state have become so intense among the Jewish masses. Nor would American Jews, motivated by guilt and anger, have pressured their own government so relentlessly. But is any Jewish state worth the price of six million dead? Would we not forego the state of Israel if they could be restored to life?

So, of course, we start out our analysis by clearly stating that if we had our “druthers”, we would choose a Jewish history without anti-Semitism. But since we are not in control of the social forces that determine human events and since anti-Semitism has, indeed, been an integral part of the Jewish experience, we can seriously ask — have there been any useful consequences of this terrible assault?

For Jewish humanists who value their Jewish identity, the truth of the matter is that the parts of the Jewish personalities that are humanistically most interesting were produced by anti-Semitism.

Let me explain.

The Jew of ancient times was a pious peasant. He was a more likely candidate for the moral majority in the A.C.L.U. Attached to his family, clan, tribe and ancestors, he revered them all. Like most village people, he believed in the rightness of his own ways and was hostile to aliens.

In the Christian world, Jews became bourgeois pariahs, tolerated because they were economically necessary. Once their economic usefulness was threatened by competitors, they became “devils,” conspirators of evil who are worthy of death and destruction.

After the Enlightenment secularized a good part of the Christian world, the Jewish “devil“ became a secular “devil.” Instead of the old accusations of ritual murder in the stabbing of wafer hosts, the image of the world conspirator emerged. No longer viewed is only a religious enemy, the Jew became the racial foe, the atheistic planner of both materialistic capitalism and immoral communism. Since he invented both sides of a quarrel, he kept the Gentile world in social turmoil.

The danger of secular anti-Semitism was its exportability. A Christian setting was no longer necessary. Even Arabs (who were Semites) could enjoy it.

“The parts of the Jewish personality that are humanistically most interesting were produced by anti-Semitism.”

The Christian personality was not altered by anti-Semitism. Hostility to Jews flowed quite naturally from its dogma, its intensity, and its fanatic piety. Since the Christian world experienced power and success and kept Jews in a lowly position, fact and faith coincided. Experience and propaganda did not seem too far apart. The world had the semblance of order and justice.

But anti-Semitism had the opposite effect on the Jewish personality. Anti-Semitism separated fact from faith, experience from propaganda. The suffering of the Jews hardly seemed consistent with divine justice and love, especially for the favorites of God. Rabbinic Judaism might promise happiness in the future. But the rabbis found it difficult to explain the fury of the present.

Some Jews responded to the onslaught with guilt. They assumed that their suffering was due to their bad behavior and not to God’s injustice. They became even more pious, even more faithful. Some Jews discovered that resignation and appeasement were comfortable postures. They felt safer as pitiable creatures than as powerful ones.

But many Jews responded with anger. Since the religious establishment would never allow such an unworthy feeling to be openly expressed to God, it was redirected. Hostility to Gentiles was a safe alternative, so long as it was verbalized within the group.

Ultimately, the anger manifested itself in three behaviors and attitudes which became an important part of the Jewish personality in modern times, especially the European Ashkenazic one. These responses were attempts to preserve Jewish dignity, sins anger, as a positive emotion, is an expression of defiance, a defense of one’s own space against intruders.

Judaism the Old and the New

Humanistic Judaism, Spring/Summer, 1975

How can you call it Judaism if you don’t believe in God?

The eternal question.

A tiresome question.

But valid. If religion is identified with a set of theological beliefs, it is the ultimate logical challenge.

If Judaism is identified with the implicit creed of the Biblical and Talmudic authors, is the most rational of responses. The humanist cannot ignore the question. Not only because of the badgering of people in his environment. But also because he cannot, in good conscious, my call his religion Judaism if it is unrelated to the essentials of the Jewish religious experience.

Non-traditional Judaism, including Reform, justifies its label by establishing its adherence to the Torah. The Torah is on the peg on which all “real” Judaism supposedly hangs. The holidays and other ceremonies derive their “kosher” character from their presence in the Bible.

Traditional Judaism depends on an acceptance of the stories and the Torah. The Jewish religion begin with God who transmitted his commands to Abraham and Moses. Abraham’s son Israel had 12 sons each of who became the ancestor of a tribe. Ultimately all 12 tribes want to live in Egypt where they were enslaved by the pharaohs. After their liberation from bondage, the new leader Moses led them to Mount Sinai. At this mountain they receive the full doctrine of the Torah and pledged themselves and their children to fulfill the commitment.

By the official story the Bible came first. The religious regimen of Jewish life came second.

Humanistic Judaism, on the other hand, denies the truth of the story. It denies that the holiday and life-cycle ceremonies which express the rhythm of Judaism are the result of the Torah. It denies that the origin of Judaism is in the Bible and in the historic events described in the Bible.

Using the result of a scientific survey of the Jewish past, a humanistic Judaism presents the counter-story to the story of the Torah. In the discoveries of archaeology and of the higher Bible criticism lie its scriptures.

Humanistic Judaism affirms 10 historical observations which are in conflict with traditional claims.

Here they are.

  1. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never existed; they are mythical figures. In ancient Palestine there were three somatic peoples who spoke the same language. There were the Canaanites (also called Phoenicians), the Amorites, and the Hebrews. Their difference was not racial, but occupational. The Canaanites were city-dwellers, the Amorites hill-country farmers, and the Hebrews wandering herdsman and shepherds. The Hebrews conquered the Amorite Hill-country in successive small invasions lasting over 1000 years. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are personifications of three important invasions. Although the authors of the Torah try hard to deny the ethnic and cultural connection between the Hebrews and the Canaanites, objective research proves them wrong.
  2. Most Hebrews never went down into Egypt. The exit is a story is a myth. There is no historical evidence the subs tonight a massive Hebrew departure from the land of the pharaohs. As far as we can surmise, the Hebrew occupation of the hill-country on both sides of the Jordan was continuous. The 12 tribes Joseph considered us to never left their ancestral land, never under 400 years of slavery, and never wonder the Sinai desert. The origin of their custom ceremonies had nothing to do with an Egyptian experience.
  3. Moses was never the leader of the Hebrews. One Semitic tribe called Levi did spend time in Egypt. They may have even been slaves. However by 1200 B.C., long after the Hebrews had been settled in Palestine, this tribe was wondering the Sinai desert. Their leader and shaman was a man called Moses (an Egyptian name) and their chief god was either a snake god called Nehushtan or a wind god called Yahveh. Under the leadership of Moses they infiltrated the Hebrew land of Judah (the south of the Hebrew territory was called Judah and the north is called Israel). Famous for their magical powers they were invited by the people of Judah (the Jews) to become their priests. After Moses died, his descendants, in particular, were in demand as priests. In time, the Levites, like the Magi in Persia, specialized in soothsaying and in the conducting of religious ceremonies. All the Levites remembered their leader Moses, the Jews had, for obvious reasons, no historic memory of his leadership.
  4. The Jewish religion was old before the Bible was written. Long before the Levites ever set foot in Palestine, long before the story of the Torah was written, the Hebrews had an ancient religion and an ancient set of religious ceremonies. The Torah was not even written by Moses (who is most likely illiterate). It’s written by a group of Levitical priests 700 years after Moses had died and centuries after the basic religious calendar of Judaism had evolved.
  5. Sukkoth, Hanukkah, and Passover were established holidays long for the Torah was dreamed of. In ancient Palestine there were three moments of the seasonal year which were suspenseful. The first was at the fall equinox when the rainy season was scheduled to begin. The second was at the winter solstice when the dying light of the sun was scheduled to renew itself. And the third was in the spring when the herds and the flocks regularly conceived. The failure of either the rain or, or the sun, or animal fertility to fulfill its promise spelled disaster. Therefore our Hebrew ancestors set aside a week of celebration at each of these annual crises to ensure success. They danced and they sang and sought to urge the natural forces on through imitation. They poured water on Sukkot, light candles on Hanukkah, and ate eggs on Passover to urge the rhythm of nature to assert herself. The Levitical authors of the Torah sought to deny the natural origins of these festivals and to attach them (with the exception of Hanukkah) to historic desert experience of the Hebrews never knew. But modern research gives the lie to the tampering.
  6. Judaism began as a series of nature experiences. Judaism is as old as the Jewish people. It began with the natural experiences of the Hebrew people in their own land. It began with a Jewish response to the season crises of autumn, winter, and spring as well as to the individual crises of birth, puberty, marriage, death. What the Bible denies, the evidence of history affirms. Although the orthodox leadership, both historical and rabbinical, sought to turn the attention of the Jews from nature to their god Yahveh, it could not erase the nature experience. Even when officially demoted to insignificance, it persisted as the major motivation for celebration.
  7. The Torah is an attempt to explain the already established Jewish calendar. After the destruction of the northern Hebrew (Israel) by the Assyrians and the defeat of the northern Hebrew (the Jews) by the Chaldeans, a power vacuum existed. Since the Chaldeans and their successors the Persians did not wish to restore the military leadership of Judah out of fear that revolt would be encouraged, they removed the royal house of David and replaced them with a group of harmless collaborators. This collaborators were the Levitical priests who were hungry for power. (We forgive their modern descendants, the Levines and the Cohens).
  8. The Levites had a problem. In the eyes of the people they were usurpers, opportunistic replacements of the legitimate house of David. They therefore had to prove the right to rule.
  1. The Torah is a deliberate attempt by the Levites to prove that Moses and his relatives (as contrasted to David and his descendants) are the rightful rulers of the Jews. A fictional Moses was created to become the leader of all the Hebrews and the start of a supernatural spectacular at Sinai.
  1. In order to re-enforce the authority of Moses the Levites deliberately associated all holidays with Moses and with Yahveh, the god of Moses. Passover emerges as the anniversary of the mythical Exodus. Sukkoth emerges as a commemoration of the never-never 40 years wandering in the desert. And the rest day, sacred to Saturn, the God of Jerusalem, is justified as the Sabbath through a childish story of creation. When the Levites get through with their book, but the history of Judaism is totally distorted. A non-hero called Modes arises as the savior of Israel, and the ancient Jewish calendar with all its pagan gaiety is reduced to a solemn desert travesty.
  2. The Biblical point of view is the Levitical point of view. The Bible is a series of 24 bucks either written by or edited by the Levites. It is an attempt to explain ancient Judaism through the vested interest of the priestly clan. If read uncritically, it distorts the truth and makes the origins of Judaism to appear as they weren’t. The Torah is not the source of Judaism. It is a clever and successful attempt to rationalize Judaism for the benefit of a small power elite.
  3. The Jewish religious experience precedes the articulated belief about the gods or God.The religious experience in all cultures is the attempt to celebrate the unchanging rhythm of life, whether seasonal or personal. Before there was a Moses or Levites, before there was any formal theology, there existed an ancient Hebrew calendar of life. The dramatic experience of this calendar, with all their sense of identity with the events of nature, were independent of any theological explanation. Only later when the caretakers of religion tried to articulate the significance of these experiences that they conjure up fantasies about the gods. Judaism preceded the gods and will survive them.
  4. Historic Judaism is not the Bible. It is the celebration of life through the seasonal and personal calendars of Jewish experience. An authentic Judaism seeks to go behind the official theological rationalizations. It seeks to articulate the human experience which makes Sukkot, Hanukkah, Passover, and the other celebrations significant. It finds the ethical values of these holidays and no mythical story but in the human response to this season. Reflection is natural to the autumn, hope is essential to the winter, and freedom is the imitation of spring.

And so, there they are. 10 historical assertions. 10 humanistic interpretations of Jewish history. Just as the modern Jew is utterly distinct from the man official theology described, so was the ancient Jew vastly different from the pious image the Bible prefers.

Ethical Culture and Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Spring/Summer, Volume 8, 1980

Ethical culture is a humanist movement. Many, if not most, of its members, are Jews or ‘former Jews’. Its founder, Felix Adler, was the son of a rabbi and a Semitics scholar. Its programs and projects have enjoyed wide Jewish support.

But it is different from Humanistic Judaism.

Before I tell you how it differs, let me give you some background information on its origins, development, and decline.


 The roots of ethical culture lie in five conditions.

  1. Reform Judaism. The development of a liberal alternative to orthodox Judaism started in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century. Jewish immigrants from Germany brought reform to America where it flourished because the government did not interfere with any form of radical religious change and because the American environment was almost without tradition. By 1870, the American Reform movement had split into three factions – Conservative, Moderate and Radical. The conservatives ultimately withdrew to organize the Conservative movement. The Moderates and Radicals maintained an uneasy truce, trying to negotiate incompatible positions. The Radicals wanted to divest Judaism of all distinctive ritual and to emphasize the importance of what they called ‘prophetic ethics’. The Radical problem was that ‘prophetic ethics’ was universal and provided no basis for a unique Jewish identity. The first members of Ethical Culture came from this Radical Reform orientation.
  2. Free Religion. The influence of Darwin in the new science radicalized many liberal Protestant ministers in America, particularly Unitarians. They began to talk about a humanistic religion which would be ethics- centered and not God-centered. They ultimately organized the Free Religious Association. One of their most distinguished advocates was a clergyman named Frothingham, who attracted many Jews to his Sunday lectures in New York.
  3. Secularism. The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century transformed the lives of the American people. A new sense of progress and betterment through science dominated the attitudes of the ruling elite. Men of science replaced the clergy as the wise men of society. Thousands of people abandoned organized religion or remained attached in only a nominal fashion. Many preferred secular education to religious training, secular pursuits to worship and prayer. Secularized Jews were open to an ideology that did not appear genuinely religious.
  4. Bourgeoisie. The German Jews who came to America ended up in the middle class. As members of the bourgeoisie, they cherished the American middle-class values that everybody should have a religious identity. Many German Jews who were secular and universal still felt the need for some kind of ‘religious’ identity that was not really religious. Since the ethnic, linguistic and cultural aspects of Jewishness had long since been abandoned by most Germany Jews, a cultural Judaism was inconceivable to them. They much preferred to go beyond Jewish identity to a universal secular religion.
  5. Felix Adler. Ethical Culture came into existence because of the charismatic leadership of a young man whose father was the rabbi of Temple Emanuel, the leading reform temple of New York City. Sent to Berlin to train for the rabbinate as the successor to his father, Felix Adler became a disciple of Radical Reform. Unlike his colleagues, he took this position to its logical conclusion, going beyond Judaism to universal ethical religion. Influenced by the agnostic position of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, He substituted the Golden Rule for God. When he returned to America, he found that he could not to, with integrity, serve as a rabbi, even a radical one. Utilizing the new spirit of the times which afforded him a sympathetic audience in both the Jewish and Gentile world, he organized in 1876 a new religious group which he dubbed the New York Society for Ethical Culture. He chose the word ‘culture’ because he did not wish to alarm the reform movement into thinking that he was initiating a competing religion, and because he wanted atheists, agnostics and confirmed secularists not to feel estranged. His guiding genius and strong will continue to mold the movement until his death in 1933.

The development of Ethical Culture was rapid. Within twenty years branch societies were founded in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Boston – as well as overseas in London, Berlin and Vienna. And the international union was established. Leadership training for an Ethical clergy was implemented. And, most important of all, programs of social action were undertaken. In the days when government welfare was unavailable, Ethical Culture was the leading pioneer in organizing the schools, camps and settlement houses for the poor.

The decline of the movement set in after the First World War. The aging and shrinking of the German Jewish population reduced the possibilities of recruitment. Russian Jewish secularists were not sufficiently bourgeois and did not need a religious identity for respectability. they turned to socialism and Yiddish culture, preferring political and ethnic associations to religious ones. Above all, rising antisemitism and Hitler’s Holocaust drove many universalists back to Jewish identity. Both disillusionment and guilt made them alter their ideological commitments.

But the main reason for the decline of the Ethical movement was the rise of a formidable competitor. The Unitarian churches, originally Christian in their creeds, turned increasingly to the ideas of free religion. After 1925, a high percentage of them became humanistic. With superior funds, better organization, a long tradition and no taint of Jewish association, they were able to organize the Gentile world for humanism more effectively than Ethical Culture. With the death of Adler, his movement could no longer meet the competition and win. It retired to a small Jewish corner and left the field to the Unitarians.


The Ethical movement started out with the strong philosophical commitments of Felix Adler, who adored the writings of Immanuel Kant. As time went on, the ideology became more explicitly humanistic through the influence of new leaders and new members. Ten years ago, the name of the movement was changed from Ethical Culture to Ethical Humanism.

Certain basic ideas defined the commitment of ethical members.

  1. Agnosticism. Adler maintained the discussions about God were a waste of time because his existence could not be logically determined. Ultimately, decisions about right and wrong would have to depend on human intuition and human reasoning. While the existence of God is not denied, it is also not affirmed. It is simply regarded as irrelevant to the ethical life.
  2. Ethics. Adler maintained that the heart of a good religion was deed, not creed. Religious training was ethical training. Character building becomes the essential program of a humanistic commitment.
  3. Spirituality. The word ‘spiritual’ appears often and Adler‘s writings and in Ethical literature. It refers to a state of commitment and behavior which comes from doing what is right and not from either prayer or piety. By this definition, An atheist may be more spiritual than a fundamentalist. The word was very important to Ethical Culture because it gave it some claim to be regarded as a religion.
  4. Universalism. Adler believed that ethnic boundaries were outmoded and that the new world would see the emergence of a single human community. Since the only thing Jewish worth preserving was its prophetic tradition, Jews were expressing their loyalty to their heritage by giving up their Jewishness and following their ethical values into a broader group.
  5. ‘Liberalism’. Adler ultimately disassociated himself from the Free Religious Association because it was not interested in remedial social action. From its inception, Ethical Culture has espoused political values which are normally designated ‘liberal’. Both desegregation and internationalism, as well as government support of the poor have been goals of action program sponsored by the movement.


How should we Humanistic Jews respond to Ethical Culture? How is it related to our endeavors?

The truth is that ethical culture and Humanistic Judaism are far more alike than they are different from each other.

We share a commitment to the humanistic way of life. The original Kantian emphasis of Felix Adler has evolved into a full rational humanism.

We share the history of expressing our humanistic commitments through organizations called religious, although the activity of these organizations would normally be called secular.

We share, on the whole, a Jewish connection (even though the official literature of Ethical Humanism plays this fact down). The members of both groups are chiefly of Jewish origin and experience the social situation of being Jewish. Just as Unitarianism has a Christian overtone because of its roots, so does Ethical Culture have a Jewish association, even in the minds of Gentiles who join it. (Only the St. Louis group, with its German Rationalist background, seems to have escaped his connection).

We also share a commitment to a single human community and to an emerging world culture, recognizing that our primary identity is our human identity.

But, there are differences.

Although its members are overwhelmingly Jewish, Ethical Culture is disinterested in serving their Jewish cultural needs. One reason for its disinterest is that the movement sees a focus on Jewishness as diverting from a focus on humanness and that such parochialism will exclude humanistic Gentiles. Another reason for its indifference lies in the old German Jewish Radical Reform view of Judaism as primarily a religion and the refusal of this view to see it as a national culture. The consequence of this refusal is that Ethical Culture failed to serve the needs of many of its Jewish members and lost them while it never gained the allegiance of Gentiles who were skeptical of joining a Jewish organization.

We in Humanistic Judaism see no conflict between Jewish identity and ‘human’ identity. We regard both as cultural heritage and cultural options. All of us experience multiple identities in our daily living. Most of them do not compete with each other. They supplement each other. Being Jewish and being ‘human’ can be enjoyed together. In today’s world, because of their historic vulnerability, Humanistic and secular Jews need cultural reinforcement for their Jewish identity.

The humanistic Jewish option does not exclude organizations that desire to be concerned with only humanistic philosophy and humanistic identity.But these groups cannot start out as part of a Jewish secessionist movement. They need a broader base and less vulnerable sponsors. To pretended to be universal when one is indeed both Jewish and universal is to end up being neither successfully Jewish nor successfully universal.

Another difference between the two of us is in our view of a humanistic religion or a humanistic culture. Ethical Humanism, By virtue of its origins as a lecture society in a social action group, failed to create a strong aesthetic tradition to fit the universalist commitments it spoke of into serving as an alternative to the rituals of Jewish and Christian celebration. In an age when the lecture is a dying art form and social welfare has been assumed by the government, the absence of strong humanist celebrations makes Ethical Culture bland and sterile.

Because of our experience in Jewish celebration, we Humanistic Jews understand the importance of Humanist holidays and Humanist ceremonies. The development of World Day and People Day as part of our celebration calendar is an expression of our awareness of this humanist need. While nothing in the philosophy of Ethical Culture prevents them from creating this alternative calendar, their historic rebellion against all forms of ritual has pragmatically inhibited their creativity.


Despite the differences, the similarities between Ethical Culture and Humanistic Judaism is so great that we have to regard ourselves as part of the same religious and – philosophic commitment.

In fact, because of our common Jewish origins, we are also part of the same Jewish orientation which we have designated as The Fourth Alternative. (The other three are Orthodox, Reform-Conservative, and Mystical).

The Fourth Alternative includes all the Jews within the humanistic spectrum, Whether they are called Humanistic Jews, Secular Jews, Creative Jews, Cultural Jews or Ethical Jews – and whether they are actively or passively involved with Jewish identity.

It is my hope that Ethical Humanism will ultimately recognize the importance of dealing with the Jewish cultural needs of its Jewish members and will seek to cooperate with other Jewish humanists in the development of a viable Fourth Alternative in Judaism.

We, avowed Jewish humanists, are too few in number not to recognize our connection. We need to work together so that we can be more effective and fulfilling our own needs and in resisting the assaults of our well-organized opposition.


Humanistic Judaism, Summer 1974

Jewish Book Month has always meant an attempt to read books by Jewish writers and Jewish themes. But I must confess that having pursued the current annual output of chauvinistic ego therapy, I much prefer books by anti-Jewish writers on Jewish themes. Not that these enemy authors accurately describe the behavior patterns of living Jews or correctly assess the present state of Hebrew culture. It is just that their vision of the Jew is so much more appealing to the reality. If only we could live up to their expectations!

If one reads the antisemitic classic by Hillary Belloc and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the imaginary Jew they assault is the extremely attractive figure. Rootless, cosmopolitan, and without patriotism, he embodies all the humanistic virtues. He is a projection of all the values that threaten the tribal mind, the nemesis of clan loyalty and irrational feeling. As a wanderer and international vagrant, the Jew is the enemy of stability, permanence, and landed property. Revolution, change, and fluid money are the signs of his subversion and the expressions of his degeneracy. Condemned to belong nowhere and to live everywhere, he is a perennial outsider, a predator of those who are emotionally involved in a manipulator of those who have intense commitment. The disease of cold objectivity provides his mind and he views all the world with a sardonic smile.

The “villain” of modern sophisticated antisemitic lore has a variety of personal voices, ranging from dirt to sexual incontinence. But the list of his social deficiencies is more intriguing. It reveals the Jew we aren’t but could be. Having responded to the antisemite by adopting his fears and values, the Jew rejects the bigot’s image and strives to prove that he is with the bigot says he isn’t. Instead of greeting the hatred of the enemy as an honor, he desperately wants to be loved by the message and to be heroic in the eyes of the common man.

The recent charges against the Jew in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia illustrate this reality. The party bureaucrats have chosen the Jew as a scapegoat for their frustration. They accuse him of the dread sin of “cosmopolitanism” and imply that he is incapable of Polish, Czech, or Soviet patriotism. To be a cosmopolitan is to be, and their eyes, an international adventure, a sophisticate devoid of those simple communal attachment which makes a socialism of scarcity possible. Land is to be loved, not merely lived on; it is to be revered, not nearly rented. If there’s a difference between Jew and Arab, it is that the Jew is a craft imperialist invader and the Arab is the land-loving peasant saint.

The irony of this left is the accusation is that it is a word for word repetition of the fantastic right-wing assault. From the Wagnerians through the anti-Dreyfusards to Adolf Hitler, the principal change against the Jew was his psychic inability to abide by patriotic reasoning. It was not that he betrayed one country for the sake of another. That deception would be forgivable since it at least revealed a passion for some nation or other. It was his being above such feelings they made his presence both intolerable and insidious.

To imagine that the Jew would receive this complaint with ardent applause and pleasure is to give to do as much credit for wisdom as the anti-Semite does. It would imply that our people view Ludwig Zamenhog with his utopian Esperanto invention as more heroic than Moshe Dayan. How far from the truth such an implication would be! For the historic Jewish entry to the cosmopolitan charge was to deny its validity. It was to plead the normalcy of the Jew and the ardor of his patriotic sentiments. Zionists defended their people by pointing out (quite correctly) that, given his own historic soil, the Jew could be as competent a nationalist as the member of any ethnic group. In fact, he could be more devout and more loyal than any other patriot because he had suffered land deprivation for nearly 2000 years and could appreciate the recovery of his homeland all the more. Even the Bible and the Prayerbook reflected the intense commitment of the Jews to Palestine so that every waking Fantasy was attached to the idea of messianic restoration.

The anti-Zionist defended the popular honor by demonstrating that Jews were such gung-ho Americans that the thought of any foreign national agent was alien to both their religion and their sentiments. They assaulted one kind of chauvinism by affirming another. The ideology of the American Council for Judaism is in reality, an inverted form of Zionism. It is never been a cosmopolitan critique of nationalism. It has never questioned the virtue of patriotism. It had only argued about which patriotism.

If we turned to the classic antisemitic charge that the Jews are by nature so rootless that they have conjured up the present monster of a mobile technological society, we find the same differences. The anti-Semite finds a virtue on the farm; he sees an ability in the man of the soil. Those who are rooted in fixed places and pursue simple occupations are morally preferable to international financial speculators and the creators of complex capital wealth. Manure is ethically sounder than money. Jesus is preferable to the Rothschilds. The antisemitic utopia has always been a nation of peasant warriors were bound together by personal friendship and simple trust. It is the futile dream of the village mentality which cannot part with the technological wonders.

The conventional Jewish response to this recurrent charge has been nothing short of ludicrous. Instead of greeting the assault with gratitude and with a site “that it should only be true,” the apologists resist the claim with all their might. Brainwashed by the pervasive propaganda over conservative morality, they plead the agricultural virtues of the Jews. Fearful of the label of the “city slicker,” the apologist is eager to explain that Jews ceased to be farmers because they were forced up the land by Gentile prejudice (as though ceasing to be farmers was some sort of hideous social crime would require justification, rather than a magnificent liberation from Village conformity).

The founders of modern Israel carried this apology to absurd lengths. They took highly sophisticated professionals, physicians, lawyers, and scientific intellectuals, and turned them into orange growers on the pretext that the return to the soil was necessary for Jewish redemption. Stung by the accusation of domestic anti-Semites, Baron de Hirsch, subsidized the shipment of thousands of Eastern Jews to the pampas of Argentina and cold planes of Saskatchewan. That the majority of the settlers deserted their Homestead and preferred the life of one of Buenos Aires and Winnipeg was a continual source of embarrassment to the Jewish establishment. After all, a nation of only merchants and intellectuals seem to grossly abnormal. The romance of the Kibbutz, which exalts the simple virtues of communal agricultural living, is a function of this discomfort. Jews are unwilling to be the avant-garde of the total urbanism and are unwilling to find it pleasurable. Although we are in the oldest continuous bourgeoisie in the Western world, we deplore our situation and prefer pastoral dreams.

Even the charge of Jewish secularism is regarded as a threat and insult. Instead of congratulating ourselves on our mass abandonment of worship and prayer with its complementary preference for science and analysis, our conventional defenders plead our piety and our ancestral connection with religious devotion. The modern Jew was embarrassed by his incipient humanism. He feels that Jews are to be devout and is willing to support institutions to make it appear as though we are. Within the framework of this concession, the rabbi becomes a substitute bigot. His role is to chastise Jews for what the anti-Semite deplores in them-namely, their skeptical reason. Our people annually subject themselves to high holidays denunciations of their loss of faith, which echo the bigots’ accusation and endorse its validity. The prospect of finding skepticism attractive and virtuous is beyond the vision of the average Jew. He prefers to defend his nonexistent piety against all assault, or at least to apologize for his absence.

As to the assertion that Jews undermine stable societies by their over-reliance on intellect and reason, the Jewish apologist resists its claim. He counters the charge by maintaining (quite accurately) that Jews can be as irrational as anybody else. After all, only a very sentimental people would have preserved the religious tradition over 3000 years without the need to admit change. Even reform denies that it is new and amusingly suggests that is nothing more than the revival of prophetic thought. The Jew was presented, and the official propaganda of television and newspaper, as much more the descendants of Abraham than the brother of Einstein and Marx. While Jewish middle-class children plant relevant attacks on the bastions of the establishment, their parents plead their respectability. While hordes of Jewish university students question the rationality of war, military conscription, and national boundaries, their fathers finance historical studies to demonstrate that Jews are as American as apple pie. The latter often perverse enough to praise the Bible they never read and old virtues they never practice.

If the modern anti-Semite turns conventional and hurls the old epithet of “Christian killer,”  few Jews have the courage to say “Why not?” Most of our people either become obnoxiously innocent, shifting all the blame, in scapegoat fashion, and to the shoulder of dead Romans who can no longer defend themselves, or, with understandable self-pity, irrelevantly describe the crucifixion of the Jew by the Christian world. The heart of the matter, the personality, and teachings of Jesus is too sacred to assault and remains beyond reproach. In fact, in Jewish propaganda, official Christianity is always safely distinguished from the real doctrines of the saint, while the Jewishness of Jesus is repetitively affirmed.

It would be inconceivable for the modern Jewish apologized to denounce the teachings of Jesus as a harmful religion. To assert that the romance of poverty, the view of virtue as simple, the glorification of good intentions above competence, and the preference of intuitive faith over intellect are doctrines designed to maximize fantasy, childish dependency, and low-self-esteem is totally unacceptable as a contemporary Jewish answer. Such current religious here as it is the Baal Shem Tov and Hasidism might even get caught by the same accusation. And, while interfaith dialogueniks are willing to discuss the sins of Christians, they are not willing to discuss the mental deficiencies of Jesus.

Unfortunately, do you do not live up to the expectations of anti-Semites? We are not as cosmopolitan, as urbanized, as skeptical, as intellectual, and as bold as they imagined us to be. If only we could achieve this status. If only we could be as dangerous and is threatening other enemies insist we are. We would then be the vanguard of a liberal society and the pioneers of a new and more meaningful ethic.

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