Perspective: Zionism – Peoplehood, Not Religion

Humanistic Judaism, Summer, Volume 10, No. 2, 1982

There are many Jewish roots of Jewish humanism.

As a non-establishment Jewish tradition, humanism has been embraced by many Jews throughout Jewish history. But not until the age of science and the secular state did Jewish humanists feel free to announce themselves publicly. In the last two centuries, humanism has become an open viable alternative in Jewish life.

The most successful movement of the twentieth century was a humanistic one. We call it the Zionist Movement.

In the narrow sense, Zionism is about the establishment of an independent Jewish state and the return of the Jews to Hebrew speaking Israel. But, in the broader sense, Zionism is a new way of affirming Jewish existence in the Diaspora as well.

Against the Reformers who claimed that the Jews were only a religious denomination, against the Orthodox who maintained that Jewish identity was inseparable from piety, The Zionist pioneers proclaimed loudly and clearly that the Jews were a secular people- a nation without territory, but nevertheless a nation.

Zionism is the boldest attempt in modern times to take the definition of Jewishness away from the religious establishment and to create a new sense of Jewish self-awareness. The socialist Yiddishist movement in Eastern Europe was less successful and was ultimately destroyed in the trauma of the Holocaust.

There are two kinds of Zionism. The first is ‘theoretical’ Zionism. It found no value in the Diaspora and hoped for its disappearance. The second is ‘pragmatic’ Zionism. It’s drove for the Jewish state. But it accepted the reality that most Jews, even though they valued the Israel connection, would choose to live outside of Israel. For the pragmatist of the test of Zionism is not merely aliyah but also the affirmation of Jewish nationhood and Jewish peoplehood.

A people is a disbursed nation. A nation is a community of individuals, Families, clans and tribes who share a sense of common ancestry and who feel unique because of the unique language or culture. Most nations have a territorial base which they call their homeland. Most independent states are attached to a nation. But some states, like Belgium, Canada and the Soviet Union, are collections of nations. And others, like the United States, feature ethnic loyalties in addition to the dominant Anglosaxon culture.

For a long while we Jews had no independent territorial homeland. We had no secular rulers. We gave a little attention to secular culture. The Zionist pioneers created the revolution that altered this reality. They gave us an independent territorial homeland. They trained secular rulers. They produced a secular Hebrew culture.

In order to understand that our humanistic Jewish roots we have to understand the history of Zionism, its problems, it’s achievements in its failures.

NATIONALISM

We Jews have always experienced ourselves as a nation. The authors of the Bible in the Talmud saw us that way.Our friends and enemies never doubted our ethnicity. Even our religious leaders taught us to pray for a national restoration. No force in Jewish or Gentile life before the emergence of the reform movement ever viewed the Jews as merely a religious phenomenon.

Jewish nationhood was continuous. Even when our ancestors departed the land of his real, they did not lose their sense of national identity. Their dispersed communities were ethnic enclaves. Their religious leaders were also national leaders.

Modern Zionism was the expression of the liberation and renewal of the Ashkenazic Jewish nation in Central and Eastern Europe. This Yiddish speaking people lived with Germans, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians. They shared governments with their neighbors. But they saw themselves as distinct and separate.

In the nineteenth century, in the age of the Enlightenment and secular Emancipation, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe substituted territorial nationalism for religion as their reigning passion. The Germans, Hungarians and Russians unified their peoples. The Romanians liberated part of their nation. And the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians and Lithuanians strove to expel foreign oppressors.

The Jews were also cut up in this nationalistic fervor. But they suffered a major deficiency. All the territory they inhabited was claimed by other nations. And their smaller numbers and dispersion prevented them from claiming their share of land. Had Ashkenazic Jewry been able to establish an independent European territorial center, the Zionist Movement, as we know it, would never have emerged.

But Jewish nationalism was assaulted by many hostile forces. Racial antisemitism was the worst. Unlike religious hatred it’s focused on the ethnicity of the Jew. Birth, not belief, became the criterion for identifying the enemy. The Jews became ethnic intruders who were threatening the racial integrity of their host nation by their mere presence. Antisemitism became a convenient nationalistic tool for mobilizing the masses to display the patriotic fervor.

When Theodore Herzl published The Jewish State in 1986, a territorial haven for Jews, Away from Europe, had become a necessity. Palestine was the obvious alternative.

The land needed to be found. The state needed to be created. But the nation, the Jewish nation, already existed.

ROMANTICISM

Modern humanism divided early into two camps. In the first camp were the Rationalists. They valued human reason and envisioned a new social order dominated by science, emotional moderation and cosmopolitan taste. Voltaire, Paine and Comte were their heroes. In the second camp were the Romantics. They valued human will and imagined a New World of personal freedom and passionate autonomy in which creativity would replace tradition as the guide to living. Goethe and Nietzsche were their heroes.

Both Rationalists and Romantics were opposed to the old religious order. But they disliked it for different reasons. For the Rationalists it was superstitious. For the Romantics it was authoritarian.

Jewish humanists who were disciples of the Enlightenment and who emphasized the rational and the universal found both religion and nationalism boring. But Jewish humanists who admired Nietzche and his boldness of spirit found nationalism romantic. The task of rescuing oppressed people, taking charge of one’s own destiny against overwhelming odds, and creating a new state was an appealing arrogance and an exciting act of will. Micah Berdichevski, One of the first Zionist writers, articulated this mood when he proposed to reject the passivity of Diaspora history.

Romantic humanism, much more than its Rationalist counterpart, was the parent of the Zionist spirit. Zionism, as Ben Gurion pointed out, was a ‘revolution’ in Jewish attitude and Jewish emotion. It was the  herald of the ‘new Jew’ who abandoned passive piety for boldness, daring and courage and who also rejected rational arguments for caution and practicality. As Herzl implied, “If we want something hard enough, it will be no dream.”

Peoplehood and romanticism have been part of the Jewish experience for a long time. Zionism dramatized them.

PROBLEMS

From the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise Zionists disagreed one with the other. These arguments reflected the difficulty of translating the ideal of romantic peoplehood into a practical project.

If Palestine is not available as a Jewish homeland, will Uganda do? After all, the task is one of rescuing the nation, not a particular piece of sacred territory.

Does the territorial Jewish nation need to be independent? Would a secular Jewish cultural center be more feasible and less cumbersome?

What shall be the language of the Jewish state? Yiddish is the living language of the living people. Hebrew is shared by the Sephardim. But it is only the language of scholars.

What shall be the economic structure of the new state? Is capitalism compatible with humanism?

Can religion be separated from Jewish peoplehood and Jewish nationhood? Is a secular state possible for Jews?

How shall Jews defend themselves against their Arab enemies? Is the development of military virtue consistent with humanistic ideals?

Do the Arabs of Palestine have a right to be a nation in their own land? Is a binational state desirable and possible in Israel?

Should a Jewish state be morally superior to other states, and ethical example to other nations? Or are the Jews entitled to normality?

The conflicting answers to these questions continue to divide the secular Zionist world. And the ultimate acceptance of the Zionist enterprise by religious and Orthodox elements has added even more controversy to the debate.

In the midst of these continuing arguments Zionism has scored some incredible success. It has reconstituted 3 million Jews as a territorial nation. It has established an independent Jewish state capable of defending its own survival. It has revived a ‘dead’ scholarly language and made Hebrew the language of the Israeli masses. It has experimented in new forms of social experimentation and has produced the only free socialist communes in the world. It has brought together the Ashkenazic and Sephardic parts of the Jewish people into a single national effort. It has made Israel the center of Jewish life in the Diaspora and the most compelling Jewish concern of the Jewish world.

But, from the humanistic point of view, it has failed in other areas. It has failed to create a secular Jewish state where religious and non-religious liberty is guaranteed.It has failed to Grant equal rights and equal privileges to the Arabs who reside within its borders. It has failed to provide peace and security for the Jews who chose to be Israelis. Above all, it has failed to define a successful relationship of equality with the Diaspora. Although Israel is the only territorial state in the world created by its own Diaspora, and although its significance derived from its connection with world Jewry, secular Israelis still regard Diaspora life as an inferior Jewish existence.

SIGNIFICANCE

As one of the important roots of a viable Jewish humanism and in the face of all its problems, successes and failures- what is the significance of zionism to a humanistic outlook?

Zionism is the most effective expression, in modern times, that we Jews are more than a religion. We are a people and an ethnic culture.

Zionism is the most dramatic manifestation of the humanist revolution in Jewish life- the refusal of Jews to be the passive victims of fate- and the determination of Jews to take their own destiny into their own hands and to shape it to their needs.

Zionism is the most creative force in Jewish life today for the development of a secular Jewish culture. The revival of a secular Hebrew and the ceremonial life of the secular kibbutz are important alternatives to the religious ritual of establishment tradition.

Zionism is the most powerful present commitment for mobilizing the world Jewish community. Israel has become the cultural center of an international people and is the unifying focus of the Diaspora.

Humanistic Judaism and a pragmatic Zionism go hand-in-hand. Jewish humanists can help to keep Zionism secular. Zionism can help to keep a humanistic Judaism Jewish.

Humanistic Judaism – A Religion

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn/Winter, Volume 4, No. 1, 1975-76

In recent years I have encountered a persistent objection to the vocabulary of the Birmingham Temple. Many perceptive and sensitive observers have affirmed the value of the Temple philosophy and program. They readily acknowledge that the group work and fellowship are meaningful experiences. But they encounter with the objection, “How can you call your organization at Temple?“ Humanism may be a ‘great’ philosophy of life. It may even be the ideological answer to man’s twentieth century needs. Yet, if there is one thing it isn’t, it isn’t a religion. If you’re so concerned about the meticulous use of vocabulary that you abstain from God language, why then would you not be equally careful with the word ‘religion’?

The question is a significant one. If we are going to designate our philosophy and institution as religious, then we must be as precise and accurate with the phrases we employ as we expect the theologian to be with the word he uses. After all, there is something called the ethics of words. One has a moral obligation to be faithful to the historic meaning of ordinary words.

Now to discover the authentic significance of ‘religion’ we must clarify the unique characteristics of the religious experience. It will not do to either arbitrarily pick a definition that is convenient to one’s vested interest or to cite those qualities of the experience it shares with other human possibilities. A proper definition must rely on what is peculiar to the event under analysis. Nor will selecting a vague phrase that makes ‘religion’ the sum total of everything promote understanding. To define religion as ‘the pursuit of fulfillment’ or ‘the pursuit of salvation’ or ‘the act of relating to the universe as a whole’ is to consign the term to the limbo of words that have lots of prestige but refer to nothing in particular. For after all, what human activity from psychiatry to politics is not concerned with human fulfillment? And what human procedure does not involve relating to the universe ‘as a whole’?

Initially we must do away with the verbal debris; we must clarify what religion is not. Many liberals are fond of designating the religious experience as the moral dimension of human life, as the ethical commitment of the individual. However, while it is certainly true that all historic religions have been vitally concerned with social right and wrong, it is also true that there are hosts of activities, normally designated as religious, that have nothing at all to do with ethical propriety. Lighting candles and celebrating spring festivals are part of piety and morally neutral. Moreover, large numbers of sincere and sensitive people think of themselves and are regarded by others as both ethical and nonreligious.

Many popular definers prefer to associate religion with the act of faith as opposed to the procedures of empirical reasoning. Religion is viewed as a unique approach to questions of truth. While this definition may be attractive by its simplicity, it will not “hold water“. Certainly the act of reasoning through observable evidence is common to parts of all sacred scriptures; and the procedure of intuitive trust in the truthfulness of self-proclaimed authorities is as common to the daily procedures of politics and business as it is to those endeavors that are normally regarded as religious.

As for the persistent attempts to identify religion with the worship of God, they may be appropriate within the narrow framework of Western culture but invalid universally. The Confucian ethical tradition and the Buddhist Nirvana are religiously as significant as God and yet are quite distinct from the normal notion of deity. Nor will the Julian Huxley definition of the religious experience as the apprehension of the sacred quite do. To simply describe the secret as that which is able to arouse awe, wonder, and reverence is to identify its consequences but not to clarify the nature of its constituent parts. Without analysis the definition simply substitute one mystery for another.

A proper view of religion requires an honest confrontation with certain historical realities. Too often clerical liberals choose to designate what is ‘unpleasant’ about traditional religious practice as secondary and peripheral. They refuse to confront the possibility that what they stand for may in any way be ‘less religious’ than what the traditionalists proclaim. In a culture where to be ‘more religious’ is to be more respectable, the refusal is understandable although it is hardly conducive to an objective study of religion.

What are the historical realities which our study cannot ignore? Six facts are most significant.

  • in almost every culture religious institutions are the most conservative. It is historically demonstrable that ecclesiastical procedures change more slowly than other social patterns. Ideas which are regarded as radical and revolutionary within the framework of church and synagogue are usually regarded as common place in other areas of human behavior. While most institutions resist change, organized religion has been the most supportive of the status quo. Intrinsic to established ‘priesthoods’ is the notion that change may be necessary but not desirable.
  • Religious teachers and prophets persistently refused to admit that their ideas are new. If they do, the indispensable sacred character of their revelations disappear. From Moses to Bahaullah the religious radical must always demonstrate that he is, in reality, the most genuine of conservatives. Moses pleaded the endorsement of Abraham; Jesus insisted that he was but the fulfiller of old prophecies. Mohammed posed as the reviver of pure monotheism; and Luther claimed that he desired only to restore the pristine and authentic Christianity. As for Confucius, he did Nied originality and attributed all his wisdom to old emperors. Even the Jewish reformers the vehemently affirmed that they were guilty of no basic novelty but were simply recapturing the true message of the true Prophets. No historic religious ‘genius’ has ever desired to claim a new idea. Change is made to appear an illusion. ‘New’ concepts are either old ones long forgotten or old ones reinterpreted. Novelty is historically irreligious.
  • In ordinary English the word ‘religious’ is usually equivalent to the Yiddish ‘frumm’. Both adjectives are tied up with the notion of ritualism. An individual is judged as ‘more religious’ or ‘less religious’ by the degree of his ritual behavior. The liberal may protest that this usage is narrow and primitive. But he still has to explain why even sophisticated speakers, then they relax with the word religious and are non-defensive, choose to associate it with repetitive ceremonies.
  • The annual cycle of seasons, as well as the lifecycle of human growth and decay are universal concerns of all organized religions. Spring and puberty may have no apparent ethical dimension but they are certainly more characteristic of historic religious interest than social action. We may deplore the religious obsession with Barmitsva. But then, after all, we have to explain it.
  • Despite Whitehead’s popular definition of religion as that, which man does with his solitude, most religious activities have to do with group action. In most cultures sacred events are not separable from either family loyalty or national patriotism. The very word ‘religio’ is a Roman term for the sum of public ceremonies that express the allegiance of the citizen to the state. Even the ancestor cult which defines the popular religion of most of the Eastern world is an act of group loyalty that diminishes the significance of the isolated individual and enhances the importance of family continuity. Historic religion started with the group and is not easily separable from it.
  • The notion of the saint or the holy man permeates most religious cultures. This revered individual achieves his status not only because of his impeccable ritual and moral behavior but also because he is able to enjoy the summit of the religious experience. To be able to transcend this messy world of space-time change and to unite mystically with what is beyond change, space and time is his special forte. The mystic experience has almost universally been regarded as the supreme religious event and the entree into the supernatural.

Any adequate theory about the nature of the religious experience and its unique characteristics must be able to explain these six facts. It must find the common cord that binds these disparate events together. While many factors can account for some of them, only one theory is inseparable from the initial concern of historic philosophy.

It is interesting to note that the origin of philosophic inquiry and metaphysics lies in the disdain for the sensible world of continual change and, any persistent love of what is eternal and beyond decay. Plato was adored by later theology ends because of his ‘religious’ temperament. He detested the world of impermanence and asserted that wisdom was only concerned with entities that never change. The chaotic world of space time events which modern science investigator was anathema to his pursuit of knowledge. If the Greeks were unable to develop the rudiments of a real empiricism, herein lay their problem. Whatever they searched for it had to be deathless and eternal.

In fact, the search for the deathless is the psychic origin of the religious experience. The human individual is a unique animal. He alone is fully aware of his personal separate this from other members of his species and countries of the temporary nature of his own existence. He fears death and needs to believe that dying is an illusion. In his anxiety he probes the world for persons and forces which enjoy the blessing of immortality. With these he seeks to identify and find the thrill of being part of something ‘bigger than me’. The religious experience is universally an act of feeling ‘at one with’ what seems to possess the aura of eternity.

If we take this definition, and test it by the evidence, it works superbly. It explains the essentially conservative nature of historic religion. Change, experiment, and mirror opinion are in spirit nonreligious. Only eternal truths will do. All seeming change is pure illusion; and even the most radical steps must be covered up by the cloak of ‘reinterpretation’. The definition also clarifies why all new truths must be labeled as old. The religious temperament requires the solace of age, and venerability. Even if the good word is humanly new, it turns out to be ‘divinely old.’

The theory explains the religious power of ritual. Traditional ceremony is not significant because of its ethical symbolism; that excuse is a sop for the modern intellect. Ritual ask derive their psychic punch from the fact that they are meticulously identical and repetitive. In a world of continual and frightening change they give to human behavior the feeling of eternity. Their power is not symbolic; it is intrinsic to the ceremony itself. New observances that are labeled as new may be aesthetically charming, but they lack the religious dimension. As for the seasons and life-cycle events, what greater evidence is required to substantiate the thesis? Societies may undergo revolutions and violence social upheaval; they may experience the overthrow of every existing value and idea. But the explosion is powerless to alter the relentless sequence of spring, summer, fall, winter – birth, puberty, maturity, and death. Nothing is more ‘eternal’ than the seasons. Their continual repetition is an ultimate ‘security’.

Moreover, the group character of the most religious observance reflects the human desire for permanence. The family and the nation have always been inseparable from the major religious experiences of any culture, simply because they suggest the immortality the individual does not. And the mystic experience is equally explained by this need to defeat change and death. The ecstasy of the ‘saint’ is rationalized as an encounter with the changeless. To ‘transcend’ the world of space and time may be informationally absurd; but as an explanation of victory over the fear of death it has emotional significance.

If then the unique character of the religious experience is the active identifying with what appears to be ‘permanent’, a proper understanding of Humanism requires the following observations.

  • The religious temperament and the pursuit of knowledge through empirical procedures are incompatible. Humanism is committed to the techniques of modern science; and all proper statements within the framework are tentative, subject to the refutation of future evidence. Empiricism cannot tolerate eternal truths about man and the universe. The conditional character of all knowledge with an infinite capacity for adjustment is its special power and glory. Whenever the religious need and the pursuit of truth come together there is disaster. The Greeks prove that point magnificently: they could never end up being interested in what was tentative and conditional.
  • Humanism is a total philosophy of life, which does not allow the religious temperament to invade every area of its discipline. However, there is one aspect of living where religion is indispensable. If man has a need to transcend his temporariness and identify with something or someone more permanent than the individual ‘I’, this need cannot be ignored. Within the framework of humanism, two ways of satisfaction exist. By asserting that every man is composed of the same matter – energy – that all other events in the universe derive from, humanistic teaching affirms that each of us shares an intimate bond, a basic identity, with any conceivable happening in the universe. Stars and flowers are material brothers to our nature. And by proclaiming that before and beyond the individuality of any person, each of us shares an essential oneness with all men, humanism proclaims that all of us individually share in the immortality of mankind as a whole. In fact, the very basis of ethical behavior lies in this religious experience. If every person can only feel himself as an individual, the social character of morality is impossible. Ethical behavior is only feasible when men sense that the essential nature that binds them together is more significant than the individual differences that separate them.
  • Humanism is more than a religion. There are certain areas of its discipline which provides the religious experience. But there are many involvements where the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. In opposition to the temper of much traditional philosophy with the mood of ‘ there are certain areas of its discipline which provides the religious experience. But there are many involvement where the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. In opposition to the temper of much traditional philosophy with the mood of ‘eternity’ pervades, humanism affirms the value of conditional knowledge and change. Therefore, the humanist never guards the description ‘less religious’ as a threat. He rather views it as a compliment. He is aware of the fact that the balanced life requires much more. While he resists the invasion of all lies by the religious temperament, he, at the same time, affirms the value of the religious experience in the simple rehearsal of nature’s seasons and in the image of in mortality in mankind’s survival.

Perspective – Leadership

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn, Volume 9, No. 3, 1981

Every community needs leaders. If the leaders must possess expert knowledge they need to be trained leaders.

Humanistic Jews need leaders. They also need trained leaders.

Up until now we have not dealt directly with the problem of leaders for Humanistic Judaism. We have simply taken advantage of Reform rabbis who have been willing to change. We have no training program for Humanistic Jewish leaders. And, because of that reality, we have no clear idea of what it means to be a Humanistic rabbi. If the education of our leaders is in the hands of others, we have to take what we can get.

We have never, as yet, dealt with some important questions. What does a Humanistic Jewish leader need to know? What should he be able to do? Is the title rabbi the best designation for such a leader? If it is, how does the role of the Humanistic rabbi differ from that of a traditional or liberal rabbi? Above all, how do we provide a Humanistic Jewish leader with the best possible training for his job?

Before I can answer these questions, I need to give you some background information about the history of Jewish leadership and about the problems of using our present ‘negative’ policy of recruitment and training.

JEWISH LEADERSHIP

In ancient times, when the Jewish people were a territorial nation, Jewish leaders were secular leaders. Shofets and warrior kings controlled the nation. Although these rulers claimed the sanction of the gods, they were not religious professionals. Priests and guild prophets were kept in subordinate roles.

With the defeat and occupation of Israel by the Chaldeans, Persians and Greeks the secular rulers were eliminated. The conquerors elevated religious professionals to national leadership, since they assumed that they would be the least dangerous and the most compliant. Like the Irish in the polls, the Jews ended up with theocracy, government by priests. The Zadokite priests completed the Torah, the first national constitution, and gave themselves supreme power.

In time a rival group of religious professionals, the rabbis challenged the priests. Advocates of new ideas about the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead, they were supported by a powerful political party called the Pharisees. The rivalry between the priests and the rabbis was ultimately resolved with the victory of the rabbis. Under the Roman occupation, the rabbis became the leaders of the Jews. While the rabbinate had begun as an informal vocation, it became more professional with prestige academies and official ordination. Ultimately, a second national constitution, the Mishnah, was published. The Mishnah confirmed the power of the rabbis and established a permanent theocracy. Rabbinic Judaism became the foundation of the Orthodox vision of Jewish politics.

The Diaspora reinforced the power of the rabbis. Deprived of territory and political freedom, the Jews had no trains leader ship other than the rabbinate. Religious passivity became a safe alternative to political action. As the custodians of supernatural wisdom the rabbis governed the Jews in an authoritarian fashion. Only the unavoidable decentralization of Jewish life and the popular acceptance of their right to rule kept the rabbinate for being overwhelmingly tyrannical.

When the Enlightenment came to Jewish life in the nineteenth century, two hostile responses to rabbinic control emerged. The first response was the secular movement. It value Jewish culture but despised organized religion and its rabbinic representatives. In a secular age, they rejected the rabbis, turned to socialism and Zionism, and created a new informal leadership of intellectuals, culture experts and political activists. The second response was the Reform movement. Since they were hostile to Jewish nationalism and defined the Jewish people as a religious denomination, they were in need of trained religious leaders. But who?

At first, the Reform movement avoided rabbis. Rabbinic leadership was identified with rabbinic Judaism and the traditions of Orthodoxy. Early Reform was initiated by laymen. Even the Hamburg Temple, the ‘mother church’ of Reform, used academic “preachers” for their leadership and recruited no rabbis. But the ‘conversion’ of many orthodox rabbis in the 1840s to the program of reform made an alternative labor supply available.It also posed the question of whether the title rabbi, associated with the advocacy of the Talmudic lifestyle, was appropriate to a Reform leader.

In the end, Reform embraced the “rabbinic,” howbeit awkwardly. It kept the title but change the role. The judge and scholar, the expert in Talmudic law was replaced by the secularly educated preacher and congregational leader. The Protestant model of Northern Europe became the guide to a new profession with an old name. Although the traditional rabbis denied legitimacy of Reform ordination, the title gave authority and religious respectability to the role. In time the designation rabbi made reform leaders more conservative. They had to justify their use of the label.

Since the first humanistic Jewish leaders were trained as reform rabbis and were involved with congregational communities, humanistic rabbis emerged as a coincidence, rather than as a deliberate choice. While some hostile opponents were always asking “how can you call yourself a rabbi,” the use of the title seemed convenient and appropriate. Humanistic leaders were performing the same congregational philosophic and celebration functions that most rabbis were engaged in. And if Reform, in its rejection of the traditional rabbinic discipline, had made non-halakhic rabbis possible, non-theological ones were equally plausible.

At present, professional Humanistic Jewish leaders are Humanistic rabbis. And they get their training at reform seminaries.

PROBLEMS

This situation is less than satisfactory.

Reform seminaries are designed to train Reform rabbis. They view the rabbinate as a religious profession, and not as a cultural and philosophical one. They overemphasize the theological traditions of the Jews and underemphasize the secular and profane dimensions. Humanistic trainees need exposure to humanistic philosophy and to humanistic Jewish celebration. They need a deep grounding in the Jewish Enlightenment and in the non-religious intellectual achievement of that experience. While many aspects of the reform curriculum are relevant to their training, many others are diverting, parochial, piously inappropriate and compromising of personal integrity.

Reform seminaries are ambivalent about training Humanistic rabbis. Some of the faculty at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion are sympathetic to a humanistic approach. But others are overtly hostile. Why should the seminary ordain rabbis who will not serve the congregations that support it? And why should it train leaders who will not identify with the public ideology of the Reform movement? Given the limited number of students who can be accepted into the rabbinic program, why should precious spaces be given to students who have no commitment to the Reform enterprise? In an environment of such ambivalence we have no guarantee that the Reform seminaries will continue to serve our leadership needs.

In fact, students may not presently receive internship credit for their service to humanistic congregations.

Men and women who are training for the Humanistic rabbinate need a Humanistic Jewish community to interact with. Isolation in a Reform seminary is a non-supportive environment. Exposed humanists are always involved in debate and defense, and not in creative sharing.

Reform rabbis, as part of an establishment movement, are trained to serve established congregations. They are generally not accustomed to organizing their own. But Humanistic rabbis presently have to create the organizations they serve. They need special training in ‘missionary’ work. They need special skills in ‘starting from scratch’. The emotional standards for recruiting Reform students is different from those appropriate to Humanistic candidates. Seminary environments of high material expectations and conventional internships are counter-productive.

Training Reform rabbis means conducting Reform services. Student interns serve small Reform congregations and have to function as Reform leaders. How can Humanistic students perform this role with integrity? If one of the prime ethical values we are seeking to inculcate is honesty and an absence of hypocrisy, how can we encourage humanistic students to pretend they believe in prayer. Studying about prayer is one thing. But doing it in public as a congregational leader is another.

There are many men and women who would make excellent Humanistic Jewish leaders (if they knew the opportunity were available) and who would, for reasons of integrity, never set foot in a reform seminary. Many bright Jews with leadership ability and humanistic commitment choose careers in political science, law, social work and psychotherapy because they believe that the rabbinate and seminary training are a violation of their belief system and a waste of time. If we insist on a Reform education and provide no alternative program, we will never recruit the best and brightest for our movement. We will solicit the cautious ones, who will want to hedge their rabbinic bet with a Reform option.

The most humanistic Jews are not called humanistic Jews. They designate themselves as secular or cultural Jews. They have no historic connection with the Reform movement and no great fondness for the rabbinate. They see themselves as non-religious and are generally unorganized. If they are organized they belong to educational and cultural societies with no professional leadership. Their present malaise partly stems from the absence of dynamic spokespeople who can give them a presence in the Jewish community and who are expert enough to invent secular Jewish alternatives. For these cultural Jews recruiting leaders from a reform seminary would be an absurd act. In fact, a professional leader who bore a title other than rabbi would be more easily accepted. [Madrikh (leader) is a possible option.]

We presently do not control the training of our own leaders. We have to settle for what we can get. We are scavengers. We are “beggers.“. The net result is that we wait around for reform rabbis “to see the light“ and subject to humanistic candidates to programs we have not designed. The smallness of our number is no reason for us to consent to this humiliation. We will never really grow unless we have the self-confidence to arrange for the training of our own “missionaries.” Aggressive expert leadership is the key to our expansion. Enemies and in different friends cannot provide it for us. Nor will our own timidity give us what we need.

PROPOSAL

In the face of these problems we need to take the following actions.

We need to assume the responsibility for the training of our own leaders.

We need to draft leadership guidelines, articulating what we can conceive the leadership role to be and specifying the requirements we believe to be necessary to qualify as a Humanistic rabbi or as a professional Humanist Jewish leader. These requirements should include a training program which concentrates on a humanistic approach to Jewish history and culture and which features special training in organizing a congregation and in developing secular forms of Jewish celebration.

We need to provide options for training leaders. We need more than one training program. Being dependent completely on reform goodwill is too tenuous situation to be tolerable. Candidates for the Humanistic rabbinate or for Humanistic leadership who desire to attend a Reform seminary and to receive a Reform ordination (or to attend a Reconstructionist seminary and to receive a Reconstructionist ordination) should be encouraged to do so. But an alternative program should be created for candidates who desire a specifically Humanistic Jewish education. Since the creation of a Humanistic rabbinic seminary is financially not feasible, a rational alternative is the use of the graduate program of a major university. An institution like the University of Chicago, which trains many religious leaders, which features superb Department of philosophy, history, psychology and Semitic studies, and which is located in a big city with a big Jewish community is an ideal setting. The leadership candidate would undertake a doctoral program designed to make him an expert in both Judaism and humanism. he would also serve as an intern of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, testing his skills in the practical work of congregational life. Upon the completion of his doctoral program (an investment of time equal to that of seminary training) and his internship training, he would be eligible to be declared a rabbi and Madrikh (leader) by the Society.

We need to go out and recruit bold and adventurous young men and women to enter these programs. Humanistic Jewish congregations will be created by Humanistic rabbis. They will not develop viability and community presence from only the effort of part-time volunteers. Reform rabbis who are cautious humanists and who are looking for established congregations to serve are from our point of view, next to useless. The successful ones, at this stage of our development, will be the leaders who enjoyed being pioneers and who enjoy creating their own congregations.

Many people who want to be rabbis and who are believing humanists will not be successful humanistic rabbis or madrikhim, because they are too timid. But I am convinced that there are others, who have never considered the conventional rabbinate for ideal logical and emotional reasons, who would make superb Humanistic Jewish leaders if they were informed of the opportunity.

We need to cooperate with Secular Jews and with other organized humanists to develop our program. Secular Jews need community and professional leadership. Non-Jewish humanists also need professional leadership. They can help us develop the humanism side of leadership training.

OBJECTIONS

One can already imagine some of the objections to these proposals.

“Training Humanistic rabbis in Reform seminaries is a good thing. It exposes them to other points of you and rescues them from professional isolation.“

“No one will accept a rabbinic ordination issued by the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The idea is pretentious.”

“Why are we bothering to train rabbis to be leaders of secular and humanistic Jews? If we simply called them madrikhim we wouldn’t have any problems.”

Answers are necessary.

Exposure to other points of you is important for rabbis and for all Jews. But it is not the first requirement. Of what value is understanding Reform Judaism for a Humanistic candidate, if he has no opportunity to fully understand Humanistic Judaism. Given the limited amount of time he has to master his profession, and given his need to go out and motivate others, the Humanistic rabbi needs a good grounding first in his own chosen approach. Spending his time arguing with Reform students at a Reform seminary will not rescue him from professional isolation. It will be a needless indulgence in alienation. Humanistic candidates who want ordination from an established rabbinic seminary should not be deceived about the nature of their experience. The reward exacts a high price. And those candidates who do not want to pay that price should not be rejected. They should have an option.

As for the credibility of ordination by the Society, three considerations should be kept in mind. (1) Humanistic rabbis who choose the optional program will also have the title doctor from a major university. (2) In the organizing phases of a movement the label of the leader is less important than his personal authority and charisma. (3) The conventional alternative still exists for those who want it. The other alternative is a risk-taking venture for the bold. And what we need are bold and creative leaders.

As for the title rabbi, the use of it is optional. Leaders who want to call themselves doctor (if they’ve earned it) or madrikh can do so. But, for most Humanistic leaders and laypeople the word rabbi will continue to be important. As a label it suggests authority, expert Ness and Judaism and Jewish leadership. All three conditions are necessary and appropriate for those who want to guide the community. In a world where rabbi is no longer identified with halakha (orthodox law) and where Judaism is increasingly viewed as a culture, a secular rabbi is a natural development.

CONCLUSION

The future of Humanistic Judaism will depend it to a large degree on the quality, self image and training of Humanistic rabbis. It is time for us to accept this fact and to proceed with integrity.

Humanism and Reform

Humanistic Judaism, Summer/Autumn 1977

This issue is about Congregation Beth Or. Congregation Beth Or was a reform congregation. It is now a humanistic one.

Beth Or is humanistic-because of the special power and integrity of its rabbi, Daniel Friedman-And also because of the unique courage and hutspa of its own members.

Beth or is also humanistic because reform Judaism is less than it should be.

The Jewish Reformers of the 19th century prided themselves on being the avant-garde of religious innovation-the rescuers of Jewish identity for the age of science. They saw themselves as bold and radical-eager to remodel the structure of Jewish authority.

The Jewish performers of the late 20th century are tired and cautious. They pride themselves on their return to tradition. Preferring nostalgia to creativity, they have become the promoters of Halachic antiquities. Fearful of Orthodox and Conservative disapproval, they label every surrender to old authority as a concession to the unity of the Jewish people. All the hutspa is gone. All the radical passion is absent. Pleading for the approval of the past, they have no energies to deal with the future.

What happened?

Not really very much.

In the very beginning the radical image of Reform was more glitter than substance. Using a Protestant model, the early reformers tried to demonstrate that Orthodox Judaism had betrayed the real Jewish past. Reform Judaism was not new at all. It was simply the revival of the original teachings of the great Jewish prophets.

From the very beginning Reform presented itself is ultimately traditional.

And that was silly.

Reform Jewish behavior, as any mildly retarded observer wouldn’t have noticed, had nothing at all to do with the tradition. Not only would the Talmudic rabbi have found it offensive, the Biblical prophets would have preferred Astarte worship to Abraham Geiger.

The early reformers were forced to distort the story of the Jewish past in order to kosherize the Jewish present. It never occurred to them that kosherizing was unnecessary. Admitting innovation has greater dignity than depriving heroic figures of the past their real thoughts and feelings.

If the Talmud was essentially irrelevant to the western urban lifestyle, then the Torah was even worse. Protestant Biblical piety is a joke amongst people who want to be winners in a secular world.

In the end, Reform- and most of all classical Reform chose the Bible is the ultimate sacred Jewish symbol. The religious energies could no longer be directed to real creativity. It had to be wasted proving the unprovable- demonstrating that the sprit of the Torah was essentially the same as the spirit of humanistic science.

Reform Judaism left courage. And the desperate effort of social climbing, the classical reform tried to please the protestant establishment. And that guilty response to this desperate effort, the new were firm tries to please additional geez.

The net result is humiliation and fiasco. Because, quite frankly, nobody can do Protestantism better than Protestants. And nobody can do traditional Judaism better than traditional Jews.

In both cases, Reform started out as the victim of other people’s initiative – a second-rate imitation of what the imitators could do better. Behind the radical mouth lay the obsequious need to please. Reform sought out its own oppressors.

When the Protestant bourgeoisie lost their clout, Conservative Judaism moved in to terrorize. Once the enormous social snobbery of German Jews was overwhelmed by Russian Jewish success, the social barriers that made reform seem boldly anti-traditional broke down. Reform Judaism was then able to show its true colors.

It is not the way many latter relics of the old classical Reform have maintained, that the old Reform was truly radical before it was destroyed by the new Reform. The need to apologize is intrinsic to both varieties.

The greatest ‘crime’ of both old and new Reformers is that, in the name of serving tradition, they distort it. Unable to stand up courageously to the hostility of their ancestors, they preferred to do cheap psychotherapy. The search for ‘roots’ became the search for approval.

Humanistic Judaism is an attempt to do what Reform Judaism should have done. Its main concern is not with the past. It looks to the future. Whether the past loves us or hates us is irrelevant to our long-run welfare is. Whether the future consequences of our present behavior love or hate us does make a difference.

We ought to understand our past without needing it. To feel that insight is true liberation.

The Rabbi Writes – Prayer in Public Schools

Volume 31, No. 6, January 1995

Newt Gingrich has spoken. He wants prayer in the public schools. And so do millions of other American. Most of them are not members of the Religious Right. They just want to improve the personal and social values of their children.

The separation of religion and government is a traditional political principle in our nation. It is embodied in the Bill of Rights of our Constitution. It has been made sacred by the endorsement of Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It has been confirmed by the decisions of the Federal Supreme Court.

Separation in America had three roots. One was pragmatic. America was Protestant. There were many Protestant denominations, none of them holding the allegiance of a majority of the American people. They were often at war with each other, competing for members and state support. It was not feasible to establish any one of them as the state religion. The most practical solution was to establish none of them.

The second root was a minority new among Protestant dissenters, many of whom had come to America. Both the Quakers and the Baptists subscribed to the supreme importance of individual conscience. Religion only had value when it was free and uncoerced. State religion was coercing religion. It had the power to violate individual conscience. It was unacceptable, even though religion and God were indispensable to salvation. Every individual had to work out his own personal connection to God.

The third root was the Enlightenment. The spokesmen of the Enlightenment exalted reason over faith. There were contemptuous of religious superstition. They were hostile to intrusive clergy and established churches. They wanted to mold a new kind of citizen who would assume responsibility for his own life and who would use science as the path to knowledge. They saw no benefit to the state from religion. If individual citizens wanted to be religious, they should pursue it privately in private institutions and at private expense.

The anti-establishment clause of the Constitution arose from these three diverse roots. All three groups were in favor of it, but for different reasons. Ultimately, they would disagree about what “no establishment” meant.

For conservatives, state schools were Protestant schools. They could authorize Protestant prayers and Protestant Bible readings and Protestant holiday celebrations so long as they did not favor any particular Protestant denomination. For moderates, state schools were agencies of an American civil religion, which was neither Protestant nor Catholic, nor Jewish.

They acknowledged the importance of God and prayer and believed that public ceremonies where God was included were perfectly appropriate.

For Catholics separation meant that their children did not have to go to state schools. But it was only fair that the neutral government would support their own parochial schools, as other governments did in many of the countries of Europe.

For liberals, separation meant the total absence of religious vocabulary, religious literature and religious celebration in the public schools and in the public life of the nation. It also meant no state money for religion sponsored schools. Up until the 1960’s the courts did not completely support this position. But in the early 1960’s the Supreme Court explicitly forbade prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. Over the years, with religious diversity the state schools had become increasingly more secular. The Supreme Court confirmed this trend and gave a victory to the liberals.

 Through the years the liberal agenda had been ironically reinforced by the hostility between fundamentalist Protestants and the Catholic Church. Many Protestants who were in favor of prayer in the public schools supported a strict separation because they did not want any state money going to Catholic parochial schools. In the past three decades, however, anti-Communism, anti-secularism and anti-feminism have broken down the old hostility and united the Protestant Right with the Catholic Right. It is very important for all of us who embrace the political position of “strict separation” to understand that we can no longer rely on the old religious hatreds to serve our purpose. Anxiety over moral change has broken down the barriers to cooperation.

Some liberals, like Bill Clinton, are running scared. They see compromise as the best strategy. They are willing to settle for a “moment of silence”, but they fail to understand the real nature of the opposition. The opposition feeds on the ever-present anxiety that our children are not receiving the moral training they need to be good citizens. And for most people, moral training is tied up with religion. Prayer and morality go together in their minds.

Most Americans want the public schools to teach values as well as information. They want the schools to be a bulwark against drugs, crime and self-destruction. In the past, public schools did teach the values of good citizenship. And they taught them in a secular way.

Somewhere, along the way, many separationists gave up on the importance of teaching values in the public schools. They replaced values indoctrination with values clarification. They abdicated the responsibility of the schools to provide for direct moral education. Disagreeing on abortion, pre-marital sex and homosexuality does not mean that you cannot agree on self-discipline, responsibility and abstinence from drugs. Relying on the Constitution and the Supreme Court as the chief strategy of survival is a weak program for separationists. Both the Constitution and the Supreme Court can be changed. Strict separationists are a distinct minority in this country.

The most effective counter to prayer in the public schools is to demonstrate that good values can be taught without prayer. The focus of our message must not be only personal freedom and individual conscience. Those issues are not at the heart of the Gingrich initiative. The focus of our message has to be what secular schools can do to enhance the moral behavior of our children. It needs to concentrate less on liberty and more on discipline.

The Rabbi Writes – Zionism

Volume 33, No. 6, January 1997

1997 is an important anniversary for Jews. One hundred years ago-in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland-the Zionist movement was established by Theodore Herzl. Zionism is the most powerful and most successful Jewish movement of the twentieth century. The Jewish state is its incredible achievement. No other Jewish development has embraced so many Jews so passionately as has the Israel connection. If we add the revival of the Hebrew language to the accomplishments of Zionism, it emerges as one of the most significant forces for national liberation in the history of modern nationalism.

The victories of Zionism were won against overwhelming odds. A dispersed people were turned into a territorial nation within fifty years. Money was solicited-land was acquired-immigrants were recruited-communities were established-enemies were defeated-and a modern urban industrial state emerged from the desert. Even the agricultural sector was so successful that it became the producing ground of Israel’s military leaders.

From the beginning Zionism was essentially a secular enterprise. While the attachment to Palestine was reinforced by the Messianic fantasies of Orthodoxy, the determination to defy the “fates” and to establish a Jewish state through human effort came from the secular resistance to tradition. The overwhelming majority of the intellectuals, leaders, pioneers and activists of Zionism came out of the secular world. Antisemitism had driven many of them from assimilation to a militant nationalism. The Jewish state they envisioned had nothing to do with Torah Judaism. It was to be governed by the ideas and ideals of a secular nationalism. The Zionism of Herzl Nordau, Ben Gurion- and even Jabotinsky-promoted a secular Jewish state in which Jewish national identity was separated from religion, a state which granted equal status and equal freedom to the atheist and to the “believer?” It pioneered a secular Jewish culture in which the primary intention of Jewish identity was not Halakdic observance but was the use of the Hebrew language. In fact, the Jewish state would produce the “new Jew” who would be radically different from the pious Jew of the East European ghetto.

The Zionist founders imagined that the new Jewish homeland would become a role model for the development of an open democratic state in which non-Jews and national minorities would be accorded equal treatment to that of the “natives?” It would also put an end to antisemitism by terminating the Diaspora, normalizing the Jewish condition and removing the provocation of a “ghost people”.

But the founder’s vision ran into problems. While the early years of the Jewish settlement and the Jewish state were fairly secular the later years have been much less so. The later immigration was different from the early immigrants. The first pioneers were secular idealists who chose Palestine because they wanted to be a part of an important social experiment. They were willing to endure privation and suffering in order to realize their “dream.” In some ways they were secular “monks and nuns” whose ascetic lifestyle added to their moral purity and nobility. The later immigration was very different from the first. Most of the arrivals came because they had to, not because they wanted to. Many of them were religious. Many of them came from Oriental countries where the experience of a secular democracy was unknown. Many of them felt no ideological restraints on their prejudices and their hatreds. All of them came after the terrible Holocaust which crushed much of their naïve idealism of the past. All of them had to confront a never-ending war with the Arab world.

In time Israelis by birth replaced Israelis by choice. The native-born discovered that they were Israeli in the same way that they were native. Greeks discover that they are Greek. Israel was simply home-not a social experiment, not a utopian dream, not a role model to the world. Emigration began to match immigration. Materialism began to win out over self-imposed sacrifice. The consumer culture, with all its abrasiveness, took over the streets. It was the compensation for the annoying war that refused to end.

After the Six Day War new “idealists” arrived. They were ultra-Orthodox Jews who saw in the victorious Jewish state the hand of God. As the secularists became more clinical they became more passionate. Only this time the secular vision was replaced by a militant religious vision, a combination of the old Messianism and the new nationalism. The “idealistic” shoe moved to the foot of the old opposition. The new “ideal” was a Torah state run by Orthodox Rabbis and hostile to secularists and Arabs.

Today in Israel there is no secular state. The orthodox rabbinate governs Jewish marriage, divorce, and death and determines Jewish identity. Every Israeli is assigned to a religious group-Jewish, Muslim, Catholic etc- and to the control of an officially recognized clergy for each group. There is no civil marriage. There are no non-religious cemeteries.  There is no secular path to divorce. There is no universal Israeli identity. The only way to become a Jew in a state committed to the nationhood of the Jewish people is to be converted by an Orthodox rabbi.

Today in Israel the original secular culture is being compromised. The state schools are under the control of an Orthodox minister of education. Ever since the Likud assumption of power in 1977 the teaching of the Bible in the schools has fallen into the hands of traditional people. Religious values and Israeli patriotism are becoming inseparable. Increasingly in Israel, being secular simply means not being Orthodox.

Today in Israel the grandchildren of the pioneers have joined the consumer culture. The old idealism has been replaced by a quite normal and quite pervasive ambition to live more comfortable. The ironic twist is that the people non-willingly to make “sacrifices” for their ideals are the Orthodox.

Today in Israel there are both ethnic bigotry and antisemitism. The conflict with the Arabs has produced a level of mutual hatred and suspicion unmatched in many other countries. This war has also turned the Muslim world into a hotbed of fanatic Jew hatred. The Zionist dream of eliminating antisemitism has failed. It may be the case that the peace process will inevitably win out, simply because it is unavoidable and because external pressures will be overwhelming. But the gradual, yet dramatic, reversal of Zionist culture will continue. Both the orthodox birth rate and secular emigrating will reinforce that development. As Israel approaches its 50th birthday anniversary, the new Israel, is vastly different from that of the Zionist pioneers. The secular forces are no longer in charge. They are on the defensive and they will need the help of secular North America to defend themselves in the cultural war that is looming. Zionism pioneered a new secular way to be Jewish. We must do whatever we can to support the beleaguered heirs of that vision.

The Rabbi Writes – Intermarriage

Volume 20, No.7, February 1983

Ahashuerus was not Jewish. But Esther married him without a peep of protest from the author of the Book of Esther.

However, other Biblical writers were less approving about intermarriage – at least about intermarriage with anybody less that a king. Together with the Talmudic rabbis they made it a Jewish no-no behavior.

The reasons for the prohibition varied. Some were conscious. Others were unconscious. The conscious ones had to do with the defense of religious beliefs and practices. The unconscious ones involved the preservation of racial purity and the exclusions of ethnic enemies. It took many generations for converts and their descendants to be fully accepted.

Today all three branches of Judaism remain opposed to intermarriage. While some Reform rabbis will officiate at mixed marriages, they do so reluctantly. They deal with it as they would deal with an unavoidable misfortune.

This attitude is not trivial. Right now two out of every five Jews who chooses to marry chooses a non-Jew. Enormous numbers of children have Jewish and non-Jewish parents. Enormous numbers of parents are dealing with non-Jewish in-laws.

Intermarried couples experience a lot of rejection. Their traditions denounce their decision. Their parents feel betrayed. Their children assault them with questions of identity. And even religious conversion is viewed as a cynical convenience by relatives, friends and neighbors.

The Jewish community leaders have responded to this phenomenon with helpless hysteria. They see intermarriage undermining the survival possibilities of a small minority group. But they do not know how to prevent it. Nor do they know how to deal with the host of non-Jewish people how have now married into the Jewish fold. Most of their responses are awkward, and patronizing- expecially in a country which praises openness, love and individual freedom.

Something needs to be done in the Jewish community to provide a realistic, dignified, effective and compassionate approach to this development. We as Humanistic Jews, because of our beliefs and commitments, may be able to provide this alternative.

We can declare that love, personal compatibility and individual freedom are morally more important that group identity. Individuals do not exist to save groups. Groups exist to serve individuals.

We can acknowledge that most intermarriages do not involve real religious differences. The bride and groom usually get married because they already share a philosophy of life. What they do not share is the cultural tradition of ancestors. Beliefs and values are different from family loyalty. They are different from holidays and life-cycle ceremonies. Since most group identities are inherited, since most religious identities are a reflection of ethnic background, many people confuse cultural attachments with theological beliefs.

We can help the overwhelming number of intermarried couples whose differences are really cultural and not theological. We can help them participate in more than one culture. An Anglo-Saxon not become less-Anglo-Saxon by doing things Jewish. A Jew does not become less-Jewish by doing things Anglo-Saxon. Each of us can handle several identities, both professional and familial. A non-Jew does not have to repudiate his own cultural attachments in order to take part in Jewish life.

We can help the children of intermarried couples. We can help them understand and respect all their ancestors. We can love their Jewish past without having to give up the other side of their inheritance. Where secular goodwill prevails cultural loyalty does not have to be either-or. If Jewish identity is less exclusive, it will have a wider scope.

We can help the parents of intermarried couples. We can enable them to see that hostility is unproductive and immoral. Their first job is not to echo their ancestors – who lived in different times and in different environments – but to help their children.

Denouncing intermarriage is neither right nor effective. Using it creatively is more important.

The Rabbi Writes – The Return to Tradition

Volume 13, No.6, February 1976

Are Jews returning to tradition?

Is orthodoxy on the upswing?

Is humanism passe?

Some say yes. They cite the following evidence.

The Lubavitcher Hasidim are popular, militant and growing in number. The public display of the yarmulka is increasing. Reform Temples have embraced Hebrew, Barmitsvas and prayer shawls. Parochial schools are getting bigger and bigger. Rabbinic students at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary are doing more and more ritual.

Denunciations of intermarriage are getting louder and louder. More and more Jews are wearing mezuzas around their necks. More and more Jewish students have signed up for courses about Jewish tradition at secular universities throughout America.

Etc. etc….

What does it all mean? Have secularized Jews seen the theological light? Has the recession exposed the futility of material pursuits and revived an interest in old-time spiritual values? Have young Jews discovered that the new American life style is vacuous and now yearn for the meaningful discipline of the old halakha?

Before we answer the questions, a few facts are appropriate.

1 There is no evidence that the behavior of Jews outside the synagogue has changed. Pre-marital sex, frequent divorce, intermarriage and female equality are on the increase. The pursuit of leisure, pleasure and individual happiness is absorbing not only the young but also the middle- aged and the old. The life styles of most contemporary Jews, even those who profess a love of tradition, is in total opposition to the decrees of both the Bible and the Talmud. A nude bathing pre-medical student who lives with her boyfriend in Ann Arbor, who refuses to eat pork as an affirmation of her Jewish identity is hardly a return to a tradition. Even without pork she would give Hillel a heart attack.

2. Orthodox Judaism has become Americanized. At one time the leadership of traditional Jewry was foreign and Yiddish speaking. It was unable to compete with the assimilated graces of Reform rabbis. It lacked the skills for successful social exposure. This past reality is not the present one. What we are now experiencing is the new-found articulation of people who could never before claim the public forum. Orthodox Jews today are as well-educated and as Americanized as their liberal opposition. Their new-found aggressiveness is a sign of their new security in the American environment. It is not a sign that they are holding or recruiting large numbers of American Jews to traditional life. Christian fundamentalism is more vocal and more conspicuous in urban America – not because thousands of new recruits are flocking to its standards but because the lower- class Appalachian refugee has now come into his own power and affluence in Northern cities.

3. Jewish ethnicity has lost its major expression in America. The Yiddish language is, for all practical purposes, dead. A non-observant Yiddish speaking atheist had no trouble identifying himself as a Jew or being identified as a Jew. But secularized Jews who have lost their linguistic uniqueness are now struggling to find other unique forms of Jewish behavior. In the absence of secular Jewish creativity, they are forced to turn to the one remaining behavior pattern which is uniquely Jewish – traditional religious ritual. Since they have no serious intent to adopt a traditional life style, and since they are totally divorced from the cultural context in which these rituals had meaning, they dabble in Jewish exotica. Mezuzas which are intended for doorposts are hung around necks. Avoiding pork becomes a dramatic gesture in seafood tasty Chinese restaurants. The kiddush becomes the family introduction to the busiest day of the week. Nostalgia in bad taste is hardly a return to tradition. It is simply a sign of secular laziness.

Is there a return to orthodoxy?

Not really.

In an age of life-style transition Jews who want to be Jewish are looking for unique ways to identify themselves to others.

Nostalgia most likely won’t work for long.

The only solution is to create new Jewish rituals that really fit our new life-style.

After all, celebrating Einstein’s birthday may have a lot more contemporary meaning than crying over the tallis you never use.

The Rabbi Writes – The New Year

Volume 14, No. 1, September 1976

The traditional Rosh Hashanah was a frightening day. It was the Day of Judgment when the insignificance of man confronted the power of God. Helplessness, dependence and reverent awe were the moods of the season.

Everyone felt unworthy to be saved and pleaded to his sins. Feeling worthy was, in itself in the act of arrogance, in inappropriate hutspa, which was ironically self-destructive. God punished those who lacked humility.

The Rosh Hashanah game was amusing Lee sick. You had to look like a loser in order to be a winner.

A humanist Rosh Hashanah is a rejection of this mood. It refuses the posture of weak people who are trying to appease the strong. It resists the theater of dependency where helpless beggars plead for divine crumbs.

A humanist Rosh Hashanah affirms human dignity. It affirms human power. It regards human arrogance and Promethean hutspa as less dangerous than pious resignation and humble confessions of inadequacy.

This distinction is not trivial.

The old theology is not offensive. Theological beliefs are usually only the intellectual frosting on an emotional cake.

The old emotion is offensive. A sense of powerlessness can be justified in many ways. If you do not like Jewish, Christian or Muslim theology, you can try Buddhist mysticism. If Buddhism bothers you, astrology may please you. If astrology seems intellectually thin, then Marxist destiny may give your mood a sense of respectability.

What is disturbing about our present world is not the presence of silly theologies and simplistic sociologues. Weariness is a mood that intellectuals are paid to justify.

All observation is selective. Pessimists are especially adept at noticing pollution, war crime and hatred. They have great difficulty in viewing things in the long run. They romanticize the past. They enjoy their melancholy nostalgia.

The truth is that human beings are not helpless, bumbling victims of their own fates. They are also the conscious creators of happiness and beauty.

The truth is that, for most of the people of the world, the last century, despite all its horrors, is a vast improvement over any the preceded.

Optimism maybe less fashionable than being disbanded. It may even sound maudlin in poetry. But it sure is more attractive than guilt-ridden timid admissions of boredom.

Jews, if anybody, have the skills for justifying pessimism.

But we ought to avoid it. It doesn’t look good. And it’s bad for our health.

The Rabbi Writes – Dignity and Self-Esteem

Volume 20, No. 2, September 1982

The Jewish New Year is it time for reflection on what we want out of life.

Present hard times make us aware of our need to choose among alternatives, since we cannot have everything we want. Economic restrictions often force us to consider all the other limitations on the satisfaction of our desires. They also enable us to focus on those areas of our lives where we still enjoy freedom and power.

What are the goals which a good humanist strives to achieve?

There are three general values which reflect our basic human needs. The first is security, a desire for safety and freedom from want and danger. The second is pleasure, the positive pursuit of sensual gratification. The third is dignity and self-esteem, the experience of inner mastery and control.

These three values are not always mutually compatible. If security is uppermost in our mind we may forego both pleasure and dignity. If pleasure is primary, we may sacrifice safety and self-esteem. and if dignity is first, we may risk our lives and endure pain.

Human philosophers, on the whole, preferred dignity as their first value. Much of modern existentialism is an explanation of this choice.

What is dignity?

Self-esteem is both an inner and an outer experience. As an inner experience, it is a sense of being in charge of one’s own life. As an outer behavior, it is the refusal to allow other people to treat ‘me’ as a child, A servant, or a defective. Or, to put it more positively, ‘I’ discover that others regard ‘me’ as perfectly capable of making my own choices and allow me to do so.

A person who has dignity is willing to do the following things.

He is willing to assume responsibility for all his actions, Even when he feels victimized or abused. He refuses all excuses.

He avoids complaining about situations that cannot be changed. People who engage in useless complaining or seeking appeasement rather than self-esteem. They want to arouse pity and to avert anger. Since we learn appeasement as children, it is more familiar to us than dignity.

He is willing to take risks. Self-esteem is incompatible with total security. Meeting new friends, training for new jobs, investing in new businesses – all of these ventures reinforce dignity. Insisting on guarantees of success is in bad taste, a sign of paralyzing fear. Adventure and mastery go together.

He is generous. Stingy people are obsessed with their weakness and vulnerability. They imagine that every gift diminishes them. Self-esteeming people feel stronger because they’re able to share. They feel more powerful because they’re able to give, without asking for something in return.

He enjoys privacy. He sees himself as a distinct individual with his own space. While he needs other people, he does not need them all the time. He is willing to confront uninvited intruders.

He is concerned about the consequences of his actions. He does not dump his ‘garbage’ and expect other people to pick it up.

He makes a distinction between pleasure and happiness. He knows that, even when there is long-run pain, A striving for independence is more satisfying than momentary gratification.

He chooses to be hopeful. Pessimism is the privilege of servants. Leaders – especially masters of their own lives – need to mobilize their energies. They recognize that optimism is a style, not a view of the future.

It’s not run away from reality. If death is real, he will except it and defy it. The quality of life will always be more important than its quantity.

In hard times, it may be difficult to guarantee security or to find pleasure. But it is always possible to strive for dignity and self-esteem.