Project of IISHJ

Professional Leaders: Why and How

Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1992, Vol. XX, No. 2, pp 3-5. 

The oldest profession in the world is the clergy. Originally the clergy spent most of their time in ecstatic trances or in negotiations with the gods. Along the way they picked up other tasks. They invented literacy and started schools.  They offered refuge to the poor and started welfare.  

They took over rites of passage and made them   religious. In time their work included not only tasks that were intrinsically religious but also many tasks that were accidentally religious, tasks that could have been done just as easily by secular people. Nevertheless, the public associated the secular functions with religion and with the clergy.  

When the secular revolution dethroned religion, one would have thought that a secular clergy would emerge to replace the religious clergy. But that did not happen. While secular educators largely took over education and secular civil servants largely took over welfare, the role of guardian of community values, including the right to play “master of ceremonies” at certain community events, remained with the traditional clergy.  


The answer lies in the obsessive hatred of so many secularists toward organized religion. They hated priests and rabbis. They hated churches and synagogues. The fuel of anticlericalism energized many liberal and socialist movements. In socialist circles, anticlericalism was accompanied by an equally   obsessive egalitarianism, which refused to allow anybody to play leader. (Of course, since leaders are inevitable, the refusal to define the parameters of leadership turned many socialist leaders into unofficial dictators.) 

Negative secularism is driven by the need not to do anything that religious people might choose to do (short of eating, sleeping, and sex). A secular clergy was anathema to secular zealots, not because there was anything intrinsically religious in what such a clergy would be expected to do,  but because of refusal to admit that some  of the social functions performed by traditional religion might be useful. 

This negative secularism led to the death of the first secularist movements. Because their leaders were unwilling or unable to serve the personal and community needs of the members in a professional manner, their bourgeois children turned back to the religious clergy to handle life cycle ceremonies,   connections with  ethnic roots, and the inculcation of values in the young. Once the zeal of the socialist revolutionary was replaced by the indifference of the bourgeois professional, no dedicated full-time leaders remained to transmit the secularist message. The freethinkers fizzled as much from the lack of professional “missionaries” as from the obsolescence of their utopian rationalism. 

Negative secularism was rampant in Jewish ranks in the last century. Secular congregations were unthinkable. Secular rabbis, or even ceremonialists, were inconceivable. Secular professional leaders (other than teachers) were trayf. After socialism died, there was no one, in a world of middle-class individualism and specialization, to carry on the ideological and organizational drive of the secular Jewish movement. 

When Humanistic Judaism emerged in 1963, its ideology was not very different from the world view of the Yiddishist and Zionist movements that preceded it. The major difference was our commitment to use and develop professional leaders. We believed that, without a secular clergy, there would be no effective secular communities and no effective way to be given credibility in the Jewish community. 

We began with rabbis, because the first Humanistic Jewish communities (the Birmingham Temple in Michigan and Congregation Beth Or in Illinois) had rabbinic leadership. We also recognized that we needed professional mentors and spokespersons whose stature in the wider community would equal the status accorded Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis. (The title was secondary to the role. Many Reform rabbis, for many years, preferred the title “Doctor” to “Rabbi.”) 

Secular rabbis (or scholar-leaders) would have been ideal for most of our communities, had they been available. Since we did not have a training school of our own, we relied on defectors from the Reform movement. And the number of Reform rabbis who were believing humanists, who were willing to testify publicly to their beliefs, who would be willing to be pioneer developers of small communities with little financial compensation, could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Even most of these rabbis were too ambivalent when put to the test. 

What we needed we did not have. We could either wait until the right people emerged, with the risk that we would be waiting for Godot and disappearing from the inertia of waiting. Or we could go ahead and train the people we needed. We chose the second alternative. 

It was clear to us that we needed two kinds of professional leaders. We needed full-time rabbis or scholar-leaders to lead large communities. And we needed part-time mentors and guides to serve small communities. These part-time leaders could be drawn from the many talented volunteers who already worked for their groups. 

All they needed was a profession and a training program. 

The “pararabbi” was called a madrikh (feminine, madrikha; plural, madrikhim; in Yiddish, vegvayzer), a Hebrew word meaning guide. The madrikh would serve as a combination educator, ceremonialist, counselor, program planner, and spokesperson. He or she would be certified and trained by the movement and would be subject to the professional discipline of a professional code.  

The training, established in 1988 in North America and Israel, became the major project of the new International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Students who successfully complete nine intensive seminars are designated madrikhim.  Certification is granted by the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews. Madrikhim serve communities all over North America.  They teach children and adults. They conduct bar and bat mitsvas. They officiate at weddings. They offer philosophic guidance to their members. They represent their communities to the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. 

In 1991 the program for training Humanistic rabbis and secular scholar-leaders was established. One student has enrolled. In addition to Institute seminars and extensive field work, a doctorate in Judaic studies in a secular university is required for certification. The secular madrikh and the secular rabbi complement each other. They are two levels of Humanistic Jewish professional leadership. 

We have now begun to provide for our own future. We cannot depend on the “refugee” leaders of other Jewish movements.  We cannot rely on the well- intentioned efforts of untrained volunteers. We need trained leaders who know that their work is a profession and who receive recognition of their professional achievements from the people they serve. In time many madrikhim will evolve into full-time leaders. In time, both rabbis and madrikhim will form a corps of visible “missionaries” to sustain existing communities and to create new ones. In time, the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds will come to accept our professional leadership in the same way that they learned to accept Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis. 

A negative secular Judaism must be replaced by positive Secular Humanistic Judaism. The principle of a positive Judaism is guided by the necessity to serve the real needs of real people and the courage to be innovative when the movement we believe in demands it. 

Secular Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1979, Vol. VII, Number I

The Workmen’s Circle-the Sholom Aleichem schools-the Peretz Shulen- the Jewish people’s Institute-The Farband-Kibbutz Artzi-  

These organizations have been around for a long time. Although they enjoy no formal unity, they do share an informal ideology which many call Secular Judaism. The word ‘secular’ expresses their strong resistance to all forms of organized religion. While some Secular Jews are avowed atheists and others are discreet agnostics or indifferent believers, all are united by their avoidance of prayer, worship and Rabbis. 

Many Secular Jews have joined humanistic congregations. Others have been hostile because they cannot comprehend how humanism and religion can be brought together. Still others have been ambivalent, availing themselves of the services of Humanistic rabbis without being able to fit them into their ideology. 

Secular Judaism used to be stronger than it is now. In the heyday of Yiddish culture it flourished among the Jewish young. Today it is an aging movement, sabotaged by the Holocaust and affluence and surviving on the fading memories of old revolutionary causes. Nevertheless, it remains an important force in the Jewish community which the Jewish establishment continues to ignore. While it is certainly as old as the Conservative movement and was at one time just as widespread, it has never conformed to the public relations (we love the Bible) image that the rulers of the Jews have wished to convey in America. 

Given the obvious humanist thrust of Secular Judaism, it is appropriate to ask the question: what is the connection of Humanistic Judaism to Secular Judaism? 

In order to answer the question, let me first describe the origins and principles of the Secular movement. There are six main sources of the Secular ideology. 

The first is the ethnic experience of the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. The Jews began as a nation and until the French Revolution always conceived of themselves as a nation. Even in the Diaspora their fondest dream was the vision of national restoration in the land of Israel. Reinforced by distinct languages, unique work and religious segregation, the Jewish national experience persisted until modern times. While in Western Europe small numbers, linguistic assimilation, integration and formal citizenship persuaded many Jews to define themselves safely as only a religious group. In Eastern Europe the congestion of Jews in the settlements of Poland and Lithuania, where the economy was underdeveloped and the antisemitism was overt, the national experience persisted with great strength. In that environment atheistic Jews never doubted that they were Jewish. Nor did their Orthodox relatives ever question their Jewish identity. 

The second source of Secularism was the ethnic power of the Yiddish language. Before the French Revolution, Yiddish was the universal language of Ashkenazic Jewry. From the Rhine to the Dnieper, from Riga to Trieste, Yiddish was the linguistic bond that tied together most of the Jews of Europe. It was the most distinctive sign of their unique nationality and separation. In the nineteenth century, the new strength of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian nationalism with their strong anti-semitic edges made Yiddish the vehicle for Jewish self-assertion. The folk language despised by the rabbis was elevated into the vehicle for a new popular culture. Novels, drama and even science found their home in Yiddish. Eastern European Jews who despised the yoke of traditional Judaism could drop every traditional ritual and remain intensely Jewish by doing their secular things in Yiddish. To The commonsensical observer the Yiddish speaking atheist from Warsaw was far more Jewish than the god-loving Reform Jew from Berlin.  

The third source of secular Judaism was the Enlightenment. The fashion of science and reason which began in Western Europe and spread eastward profoundly affected the Jewish communities. Jews and rationalists shared a common enemy- the Christian establishment. The clerical power had to fall before the Jews would be free to participate in a scientific capitalistic culture. In general circles, the Enlightenment fostered secularism, a belief that a modern state did not need the assistance of supernatural powers or the clergy in order to serve its citizens. In Jewish circles the Enlightenment became the Haskalah, a movement which promoted scientific attitudes, secular studies, professional advancement and hostility to the Orthodox rabbinate. Secular Jews came to believe that organized religion, with its anti-scientific bias, was the enemy of human advancement and Jewish progress. 

The fourth source of Jewish Secularism was the message of Marxism. While the successful Jewish bourgeoisie of Western Europe were embarrassed by the revolutionary ideology of Karl Marx, many Jews in Eastern Europe, angered by poverty, antisemitism, underemployment of their intellectual skills and the passivity of their rabbinic leaders turned to Marxism. Regarding religion as the tool of the bourgeois establishment to justify the oppression of the working class, Jewish Marxists were militantly atheistic. Ironically, however, their provocative Yom Kippur eve dances and feasts, with their rich Yiddish intellectual debates, seemed more Jewish than the decorous Protestant style religious services of classical Reform. 

The fifth source of Secular Judaism was antisemitism itself. Although Marx proclaimed the international solidarity of the working class and implied that a Jewish proletarian was closer to a Russian worker than to his obvious Jewish relatives who ran businesses and spoke Yiddish, Jews found that Russian workers were as antisemitic as the Russian bourgeoisie. Stunned by this rejection but unwilling to abandon Marxism, thousands of Russian Jews reluctantly discovered that they were only comfortable doing their Marxism with other Jews. 

The last source of Jewish Secularism was Zionism. Responding to the emergence of the new antisemitism in Eastern and Western Europe, Zionism sought to solve the Jewish problem by making the Jews normal again, by turning them back into a territorial nation. The new antisemitism did not despise Jews because of their religion. It despised Jews because they were viewed as economic parasites and rootless intellectuals. Many Jewish secularists were drawn to Zionism because they were the victims of antisemitism also, and because they saw Palestine as a place where Jews could become a ‘normal’ nation rooted and close to the land. 

They did not wish to restore the old Israel. They wanted to create the new Israel, which would be a shining socialist beacon to the world. Most of the founders of the agricultural settlements in Palestine were fanatic secularists who wanted nothing at all to do with organized religion, but who wanted to express their Jewishness through Hebrew culture and Jewish nationality. 

Many of the immigrants who came to America after the Russian pogroms were not Orthodox (as their grandchildren often imagine). They were secular intellectuals, secular radicals and secular Zionists. They became the most creative element in American Yiddih culture. From the Jewish Daily Forward to the Second Avenue theaters they spawned a cultural life that required neither synagogues nor rabbis to make it Jewish. In fact, the passive traditional community fed off the enthusiasm they engendered. Secular achievement, much more than the Torah lifestyle, produced New York Judaism, the power of which radiated all over the world. The American Jewish Secular experience was reinforced by the vitality of Jewish Secular life in Poland, Russia and Palestine. The ideas of Ahad Haam, Simon Dubnow, Haim Zhetlovsky, Ber Borochov, Sholom Aleichem and dozens of others became the prestigious voice of this aggressive movement. Divided on a thousand issues, it was still able to challenge the traditional forces with a dynamic Jewish alternative. 

The principles of this challenge were never clearly articulated as a consistent shared ideology. But they were always implied in Secular behavior. 

Here they are. 

  1. The Jews are not a religious community. They are a nation. 
  1. The chief manifestation of Jewish nationality is a unique language. Left-wing Marxists claimed that it was Yiddish and Yiddish alone. Zionists (because they did not wish to exclude Oriental Jews and because they wished to affirm their connection with the ancient Jewish past) claimed that it was Yiddish temporarily but Hebrew ultimately. 
  1. Religion, which is the worship of God with all its attendant traditional rituals, is superstitious and harmful. Synagogues and rabbis keep Jews from devoting their energies to practical matters. 
  1. The Jewish tradition consists of both theology and ethics. While the theology is useless, many of the ethical values are still valid. They arise out of the Jewish experience. Although values like peace and justice are universal, Jews can best understand them by relating them to their own historic experience. 
  1. Jewish holidays did not start out as commands of God. They started out as nature festivals and community celebrations which were intended to bind the Jewish people together and to give them a sense of unity. They are not religious holidays. They are folk festivals. They can easily be reinterpreted to emphasize the importance of the Jewish people as opposed to the importance of God. 
  1. The Jewish people should be preserved and Jewish identity should be promoted because cultural diversity is better than world uniformity. 

These six principles are ideas which Humanistic Jews would be comfortable with-with a few reservations. 

Here are the reservations. 

  1. The Jews are indeed an international recognition. With the destruction of Eastern European Jewry, the drive of secular Jews to achieve this recognition was subverted. What remained was a regretful nostalgia for a world that no longer existed. Neither proletarian solidarity nor Yiddish sentimentalism are appropriate to the affluent Jewish bourgeoisie who are part of the managerial class. 
  1. Yiddish has died and Hebrew is the language of only one-fifth of the Jewish people. English is spoken by more Jews than any other language. While language is still an important sign of Jewish identity, it cannot be the most important sign. The celebration of national holidays and cooperation for mutual defense now replace them. 
  1. Religion is not essentially the worship of God. It is the way (as the Jewish sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out) tribes and nations celebrate their immortality. The Jewish community transcends the life of any individual Jew and gives him continuity. A secular religion is not a contradiction in terms. It is (as the French humanist August Comte implied) simply describing in natural terms what tradition described in supernatural terms (by turning the community and its ancestors into God). 
  1. Jewish ethics require Jewish teachers. Secular Jews always relied on Yiddish linguists, renegade scholars and practical leaders to serve the teaching function Since they associated rabbis with religion, they could never conceive of a secular rabbi. This limitation has left them without professional leadership. The old informal ethical leadership has disappeared. And no real provision was made for the training of secular professionals who would serve as ethical guides, cultural scholars, creators of new materials, philosophical counselors and community leaders. Secular Judaism has to rely on inadequately trained leadership, which receives neither (sic) recognition from its own community, the Jewish community or the general public.  They need secular rabbis. 
  1. Since the Marxist debacle, secular Jews have lost their sense of being more than Jews, of belonging to a larger human community. Humanism is the religious celebration of the unity of the world community. Jewish holidays are necessary. But they are not enough. Secular Judaism has become parochial. It has lost the transcendent and universal thrust that the old May Day celebration had. As bourgeois and managerials Jews, Secular Jews have not yet figured out how to integrate their Jewishness with their humanistic loyalties. 
  1. Cultural diversity is important. But in the ‘global village’ national cultures tend to become less different and to conform to an emerging world culture of shared technology. Strident affirmations of national difference are less realistic than viewing national culture as an aesthetic option in certain areas of our lives. Otherwise our behavior will never fit our propaganda. 

Despite these reservations, Humanistic Judaism and Secular Judaism share unities that are far stronger than differences. 

We have every reason to cooperate and to help each other. 

The Controversial Rabbi Sherwin Wine by Henry Kingswell II

Humanistic Judaism Journal, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1976, Vol. IV, Number II

Mr. Kingswell was the interviewer for DETROIT magazine. 

“I am an atheist…school discrimination on the basis of philosophy, talent and sex should be allowed…Israel has made the Jew insular and chauvinistic…When people tell me their identity is in being a woman, Polish, a Black Muslim or a Ku Klux Klansmna, I don’t believe them…” 

Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine is not one to mince words. His shoot-from-the-hip style has on numerous occasions drawn the ire of the nation’s Jewish orthodox community which has publicly denounced Detroit’s “Godless Rabbi.” Undaunted, the 47 year old maverick is located with his loyal followers in Farmington Hills. Today, capacity crowds flock wherever he speaks. 

As a 17 year-old Central High School senior. Wine was to display the brilliant intellect and sarcastic wit that would be his trademark when he was honored as the nation’s top student in American History in the annual Hearst Newspapers Awards. 

Picking up his formal and street education in the Dexter-Davison area, Wine studied philosophy at U-M and went on to graduate from Cincinnati’s Hebrew College in 1956. He then served two years as an Army chaplain in Korea. The dapperly dressed Wine is a confirmed bachelor and founder of the Society of Humanistic Judaism, which serves people in six U.S. cities. 

Wine holds that “What a man does is the only adequate tst of man’s belief.” He believes synagogues are a permanent shelter for puberty, and that urban people have very little need for God. In an urban environment people worry about human power; both the good and evil of our city, says Wine, are the creation of man. 

Humanistic Judaism has no religious restrictions. Included in the Temple Birmingham (sic) congregation are several gentiles and many young people who believe they have responded to the secular revolution of the “New Jew” who is mobile, intellectual, science-oriented, skeptical, innovative, a money expert, atheistic and aggressive. 

Detractors call Rabbi Wine’s flock “Super Jews.” 

The followers of Humanistic Judaism couldn’t agree more. Freelance writer Henry Kingswell II found Rabbi Wine in his office at the Birmingham Temple. 

DETROIT: How does an ordained rabbi, a spiritual leader of the Jewish community with a new temple and a congregation of over 300 families explain to his religious members that there is no God? 

WINE: That’s gutless and unimaginative, but a question I’ve heard a thousand times before. It’s not that I have a non-belief in God, but that I’ve chosen not to use the word. I regard the word ‘God’ as troublesome because it keeps people from dealing with their own problems effectively and leads them to do things that are totally irrelevant…like prayers and worship. Believing in God is simply irrelevant to solving human problems. It is delegating one’s own power and resources to some sort of authoritarian father figure…My decision has been to stop using the word God and instead to talk about brotherhood, love, justice…The word God is just dragging in a word that is confusing to contemporary, urban lifestyles and carries an historical meaning that, in the long run, has always proved negative and unproductive…The issue of God is an absence of imagination. There are other words, other concepts, much more creative and efficient for describing reality. We shouldn’t turn any word or person into an idol. To be totally creative is to say ‘Kiddo…I’m never trapped.’ My congregation is composed mostly of well-educated, professional and business people. Not all are Jewish, but all share a common belief in Humanistic Judaism. The only real world to us is the natural world not the supernatural…If God wants the supernatural world to play with, be my guest. 

DETROIT: What about the Bible? 

WINE: The Bible–and other traditional religious books, do not answer the questions raised by modern man. As documents for a modern technological, urban society, the Bible, Koran, Torah and other sacred scriptures defy the principal of reason. Humanism holds that truth does not belong in a book because all books have mistakes..all books have authors..Moses, Einstein, Jesus, Philip Roth or what-have-you. Tomorrow a new piece of evidence could possibly turn up that would prove a book mistake and change your mind. There are much more satisfying, informative and entertaining books to read than those written 2,500 years ago. The problem with religious texts like the Bible is that their intellectual framework is authoritarian…it was written for a society that believed in an authoritarian God. Almost everyone in the Bible was a shepherd, fisherman, farmer or some sort of king. Nobody lived in the city, the settings were usually rural. You can’t take shepherds and farmers and the problems that grew out of a pastoral, arcadian society and make them models for people who live in big cities…The modern, urban, technological man can learn a hell of a lot more from Bertrand Russell and Erich Fromm than he can from Moses and Jesus. 

DETROIT: Can Detroit’s problems be solved? 

WINE: Certainly. But first what has to be done is to eliminate all the nostalgic, good-old-days concepts adn to initiate some rational, radical concepts. The city government is going to have to understand that they are going to have to renovate. 

DETROIT: Which means? 

WINE: The future of Detroit will ultimately be as an apartment city. Much of the housing that exists now will have to be torn down…I see Detroit as a city of high rises and shopping centers. You can’t restore downtown Detroit, downtowns are out. The future is going to be very different from the past, but most people are nostalgic and live in a fantasy world. The future frightens them. They don’t want to create or build, they want to restore the old. ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if downtown were alive again–nice trees, beautiful, clean streets.’ Such mentalities are very harmful if Detroit is to survive. The Detroit of the future must be a city where the contrasts between the rich and poor will have to change, where large spaces occupied by few people will have to go, a city where private auto transportation will not be the major means of getting around town. Detroit should be a planned city of a dozen major shopping centers and community districts, as opposed to a downtown centralization, which is irrational. 

DETROIT: Is it irrational to say that you don’t live or work in the city and therefore Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine’s views are not coming from Detroit, but from suburbia? 

WINE: Hardly. For one thing the very nature of our urban civilization is evolving into one city, one world city, from Hong Kong to London, from Toronto to Buenos Aires–and surely from Bloomfield to Detroit. Suburban spread, as we know it, will ultimately be restricted because of economics–the expensive costs of fuel, food and transportation will necessitate building apartment cities. But I’m not so naive as to not know that many of Detroit’s problems stem from poor race relations. That will only end when white people learn to accept black people as power figures. Once they (white people) grow accustomed and accept blacks as equals–in some cases as superiors and authority figures–they will stop running…Whites run from blacks because they put them in a lower class image, but that is changing…Realistically, they (the blacks) will have to be accepted as power figures who will make mistakes, be S.O.B.’s and everything that white people do and are…I’m optimistic that in the future Detroit will master its environment and problems. 

DETROIT: Is there any evidence that the church–organized religion–will help bring people together? 

WINE: Well, let’s say that a young Catholic priest today has a lot more in common with a young rabbi or a young reverend than during any time in history…Modern religions are more and more humanistic in their lifestyles and approach to problems, and less and less theistic. Idealistically, they are much closer and share many of the same humanistic, revolutionary concepts. Western culture has permeated and influenced almost all the world churches. For instance, at one time nearly all religions were deeply concerned with life after death but one rarely hears that kind of thing coming from a pulpit nowadays. People care about what is going on today–how can they better their position in life–and could care less for having lectures in ancient Latin or Hebrew and all the patented promises to heaven or hell…Today a minister, priest, rabbi and what-have-you must service the audience. People want to be inspired, and that’s a revolutionary change. Entire congregations are crying out that they want to be changed in one way or another. They want variety, in some cases it’s outright entertainment and the churches are changing their emphasis from one of prayer and worship to that of fellowship and counseling. If that means more guitars, poetry, clinics and X-rated films…well, that’s how the churches are going to hold people’s attention and fulfill peoples’ needs. Ultimately the religions that survive will be those which accept humanistic goals and transcend themselves, teaching that it’s not how people relate to God, but how people related to themselves and other human beings. 

DETROIT: How important is money? 

WINE: Personally, I am non-accumulative. I earn enough to have the things I want, but I have no concept of saving…I find it very tragic that people find identity with the things they own…I do not wish to own anything I cannot use…that’s my personal style. I like generous people who are not uptight about money. I like people who live in small rooms with very sparse settings so that when you walk into their homes they become the center of attention, not some expensive antique. 

DETROIT: Tradition does not seem to turn you on. 

WINE: Not in any form…and that includes “Fiddler on the Roof.” In a world of continual change, tradition is devastating. People must find new answers to problems as they emerge. A successful society requires a lot of people who concentrate on the future. Far too many people talk about something that cannot be changed–about going back to the land–which is just another way of not finding a creative alternative. It’s similar to the numbers of people who work at a place like the GM Tech Center, where they are involved in exciting work making decisions, blueprinting new designs. But then they go home and choke themselves off from the creative world…they become very conservative, unresponsive, lack imagination, become traditionalists. They are locked in a strict routine, a rut, while all the time they could be planning new, exciting adventures. Tradition can easily wind up causing self-hate and retardation of personal growth. 

DETROIT: Would this be the same kind of self-hate that you have written about Zionism and the State of Israel? 

WINE: My feelings about that are public record. I believe Israel has a right to exist and I will do what I can to see that it does. However, I do not view Israel the way other people–especially the Zionists–do, namely, that it is the center of Jewish life. To me, the center of Jewish life is where most Jews live. I don’t believe people have to go there to reconstitute a Jewish nation…Today Detroit has giben much more to Tel Aviv than Te Aviv has to Detroit…As for Zionism, it is a direct response to anti-Semitism. And anti-Semitism says that the most important thing about Sherwin Wine is that he is Jewish. Hogwash! I’m proud of being Jewish but I will not be brainwashed. Basically, Zionism has built into it the same premise of anti-Semitism…I will deal with the enemy on humanistic terms, as an individual. 

DETROIT: Your comments after returning from Israel met with much controversy. Would you care to reiterate or modify any of those statements. 

WINE: Why? I’m not afraid or embarrassed. Israel was founded to a large degree by Zionists who said the Jews are a nation and that they ought to return to their own land. From my view, Jews have stopped being a nation and have become a world people. Israel is simply not the most important aspect of Jewish life. For the most part Israel serves as a refuge for people who have nowhere to go…My problem with Israel is the same as my problem with the United States–I do not like nationalism. I am an internationalist. As a humanist I look forward to breaking down all national barriers. Indeed, the goal of religious teaching should not be to train good Israelis or good Americans but to teach people to be good world citizens. We live in an international, urban, world culture–more and more so–and we can only solve our problems if we learn to become international, world citizens…We must train Israelis not to think that Israel is the be-all-to-end-all. We must teach Americans that maybe it’s all right to give up some sovereignty to something greater and bigger… 

DETROIT: Do you believe in the international Jewish conspiracy theory that some people claim exists? 

WINE: Jews are by nature of their 2,000 year urban tradition very good with words. Their best skills are verbal. Therefore, they are bound to shine intellectually in any country they live. There is a large percentage of writers above and beyond the normal ethnic percentage. In countries like France, England, Canada…you can’t talk about literature without talking about Jewish participation. 

DETROIT: As well as the U.S,? 

WINE: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Leon Uris, Saul Bellow, Malcolm, Malamud and quite a few others have certainly left their mark on contemporary American literature. But when the overwhelming majority write about Jewish life they write about pious, religious, bible-reading people who aren’t in any way, shape or form like any Jewish people I know. 

DETROIT: What about the way catholicism was presented in “The Exorcist?” 

WINE: Undoubtedly “The Exorcist” was the funniest film I’ve ever seen. First of all the little girl–the little goody-goody, cutesy-wootsy kid that gets possessed–she deserved it. And those two priests! I could ot wait for them to go at the end.They were bad news. One was a self-pitying intellectual, the other was a mumbler. The most attractive person in that whole film was the devil…He had the best lines, the best style…I really liked him. 

DETROIT: Exactly how do other religious clergy members react to  your dialogue? 

WINE: What I do is say out loud what many of them already know and think. My role: I make it easier for them to come out of the closet, because I’ve let it all hang out. Basically, I’m good for ministers, priests and rabbis. They don’t hate me, because they know that the things I say paraphrase many of their own thoughts and beliefs…Another of my roles is to articulate those things that might appear very frightening to the religious community. 

DETROIT: What is the greatest frustration you find in your work? 

WINE: The absence of laughter in religion I find that the healthiest emotion is laughter. Laughter is necessary for seeing alternatives. When people can’t find alternatives they feel trapped, they can’t relax. I like people who look at life with imagination (sic) and enthusiasm of Zorba the Greek.If something collapses…you go on and build another. If that collapses, you have a rousing laugh and start all over again. Far too many people feel that if they lose that one special person , that one book, that one house, that they are gone…The key is being able to imagine alternatives. People who can laugh a lot, generally can cope. 

DETROIT: If you would, give an instant analysis of the following persons or situation…Busing. 

WINE: To me, busing would only be a very expensive procedure with very minimal results…It’s an old liberal cliche used by an unimaginative government bureaucracy and will not produce an integrated society. 

DETROIT: Rabbi Korf? (The self-appointed legal fundraiser for Richard Nixon.) 

WINE: That’s easy. The man is either an opportunist or insane…or both. 

DETROIT: Public financing of private schools? 

WINE: Money should be allotted to individuals to use as they choose…to provide as much educational variety as possible…Discrimination on the basis of philososphy, talent and sex should be allowed… 

DETROIT: Are you ready for hell? 

WINE: Sure, why not? Besides, I’m not sure I would want to be in heaven anyway. Before I would be interested in heaven I would need more information about the place and what they do there. I don’t want to go to some eternal spot before I know what the programs and activities are. I might find heaven a bore…and I’m not too sure I would like God. Hell might be just the right spot—valhalla! For me, physical death is mental death: when the body decays the central nervous system goes. Life after death hardly seems practical, either in heaven or hell. It exhausts me just thinking about the subject. I mean you’re speaking of eternity and like I say, I’m afraid that heaven is not all it’s cracked up to be and God may be an absolutely dull and boring person…Who wants to spend time trapped in space with a dull, boring person? I don’t. 

DETROIT: That is exactly the kind of dialogue that your detractors find indignant and sacrilegious. They say you should cool it. How do you deal with their anger? 

WINE: Well, I don’t mind dealing with hostility if it’s over important matters. I enjoy the whole process of convincing, persuading, talking, arguing—I enjoy it. Some people get very uptight, I don’t. Controversy has never been burdensome to me, it has never been traumatic or terrible. Well, it’s fun. Even obscene letters, they don’t upset me. I realize that there’s a lot of sick people out there, but as a human being, a Humanistic Jew, I can’t preoccupy myself with thoughts of what others think of me. I must get on with my work. 

The Spiritual Dimension

Humanistic Judaism Journal, “North American Federation Conference Highlights” Spring 1990 

Recently I was visiting in the hospital a woman who had just given birth to a child. She was holding her baby. Since she was a feminist and a female liberationist, she had never thought that having a child would be the greatest moment in her life. But it was. And the words she used to describe her ecstasy were that holding this child was “like a spiritual experience”. 

I know people who go up to Northern Michigan in the autumn to see the leaves changing. They walk through the woods and have extraordinary responses. And I find that more and more of them feel comfortable with saying that these experiences are spiritual happenings for them. 

I know people who for the past 20 years have been into yoga and meditation. Many of them are secular humanists. One woman said to me that she had an experience where she saw an extraordinary light. She did not think she was bumping into God (she’s not quite sure what he looks like), but she said it was an extremely intense spiritual experience for her. 

You cannot deny reality. If people who regard themselves as secular humanists are going around saying that they are having spiritual experiences, then you cannot sit around with some old secular dictionary and say the word spiritual is treyf

Given the history of secular humanism and Secular Humanistic Judaism, spirituality may seem to be something alien. The word spiritual conjures up certain non-humanist words and ideas; “supernatural”, “God”, a meaning that comes from “out there” for my life, withdrawal from everyday concerns, a sense that everything in the world constitutes some kind of harmonious whole. 

But when humanists talk about a spiritual experience, they may be talking about being at the symphony concert and hearing the Beethoven Ninth and being absolutely overwhelmed by the power, the beauty, the grandeur of the event. Or they are walking in the woods, or a child is born, or they have some special moment with a friend, or they are looking at the stars and observing the order of the universe. 

What does the secular humanistic version of spirituality have in common with the traditional kind? The experience of beauty. Both the traditionalist and the humanist acknowledge that the spiritual experience is one of intense beauty. 

Now beauty poses a problem. It is something that many people regard as trivial. It is also subjective. What one person regards this beautiful another may regard as ugly. How do you get a handle on beauty? 

Beauty is subjective but not trivial. The things that we perceive as beautiful in our lives are those things that give meaning to us, those things that are related to our survival and our happiness. What a human being would regard as beautiful would be different from what an insect would regard as beautiful if it had the power to think and feel. Since there are degrees of meaning, there are degrees of beauty. Objects, people, and events that are very meaningful and very beautiful are also very spiritual. 

One of the most beautiful things that we experience, which is part of every religion and every culture is light. Why do virtually all cultures light candles? The answer is quite clear. Without light, there is no life. When human beings first discovered fire, that discovery was the beginning of human civilization. Thus light and fire are understandably sacred and beautiful. 

Water is beautiful. Why does everyone want to live by the water? What is there about water that makes it so attractive and compelling? Well, where does life start? We start in water and some of us never want to leave! 

Vistas are beautiful. Why do people want to climb hilltops and enjoy the view? Remember, we started out as primates. For primates, the primary sense is vision. If they did not have good vision and they were jumping from one tree to the other and they missed, they were through. When they came down from the trees onto the Savannah grass and we’re looking apprehensively for danger, they needed vista and perspective. 

Symmetry is beautiful. Most people like symmetry; we ourselves are symmetrical. There are art forms that are asymmetrical, but we can get very disoriented when things are too asymmetrical. 

Order is beautiful. Why are people always turned on by the stars? I have a feeling that if you are out there next to Jupiter, it is not so orderly. But from a distance, from our perspective, it is different. Obviously, human beings cannot survive in chaos. There is something about order, predictability, that is related to our own sense of survival. 

Power is beautiful. Why are we into mountains? One of the ways to develop perspective on life is to feel insignificant. You get caught up in everyday problems and then you have what we call “experiences of something greater than yourself”, and all of a sudden the concerns that seemed so big become trivial. In fact, the sense of not feeling so important or feeling small against the universe, is an absolutely relaxing experience that enables you to prepare for the next chapter in your life. 

Grace is beautiful. Grace is doing the most difficult task with almost no apparent effort. ( there may be great effort involved, but it appears effortless. )  The most popular art form in our society is sports. For some people, watching participants in the Olympic games is like watching dancers. To them, athletic mastery is an affirmation that it is possible to establish perfect control over one’s body. It is the embodiment of an ideal. 

Solidarity is beautiful. Someone told me that the greatest spiritual experience in her life was back in the early 1960s, when she came to Washington and stood on the Mall and heard Martin Luther King Jr speak. She felt united with all those people, and for her that sense of unity was an ultimate experience. 

Even evil can be beautiful, when it imitates elements of good. One of the things that was very troublesome to many people was that Hitler understood how to integrate beauty with evil. He created torch light parades – masses of people carrying torches in the night. He knew how to exploit the power of beauty. Someone who was at Yellowstone Park during the terrible fire last year told me that the raging fire paragraph ( which certainly wasn’t productive of human good ) was in itself something beautiful 

What are the implications of what I am saying? The first is that beauty or spirituality is an act of creation. It does not exist in the object out there. It is an interplay between the object and the human being. On Sukkot I heard a performance of Yiddish music. I was in Israel, and this performance really grabbed me, to the point where I had a spiritual experience. An Irishman listening to that music would not have had a spiritual experience. Chinese people listening to that music would not have had a spiritual experience. It is not related to the affirmation of their roots. 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I performed a wedding recently in which the man was in his early eighties and the bride was seventy-nine. He was standing there holding the bride’s hand and saying, “she’s beautiful, beautiful”. The guests were puzzled because she appeared old and decrepit. But in the eyes of this man she was extremely beautiful. She was, for him, a spiritual experience. 

Not everything is beautiful. I find it annoying when people say, “All is Love”. In the middle of an earthquake, they say, “All is love”. As people are dying of cancer, they say, “All is Love”. They keep affirming that behind all this turmoil and evil there is some good force that unites all things. 

One of the most refreshing things for me, when finally I was confirmed as a secular humanist was that I could be honest, that I could call evil “evil”, rotten “rotten”, good “good”, and beautiful “beautiful”. In fact, beauty would have no meaning if everything were beautiful. The difference between a humanistic spirituality and a theistic spirituality is our assertion that ugliness is as basic as beauty. The universe does not always serve the human agenda. 

For me spirituality is an experience of intense beauty, and beauty is no trivial value. It is not simply art it is not simply nice faces in the living room. Beauty can be part of the most profound experiences of life. 

I do not want to argue about a label. Some old-time secularists are uncomfortable with the word  spiritual. So let them simply say “beautiful” or “meaningful” or “inspiring” or whatever word they choose. But for people who are not uncomfortable with the word ( because they were less engaged in the old battle against organized religion ), experiences of intense beauty can be appropriately “spiritual”. 

The challenge to us is how to increase these experiences in our lives, especially the kinds of experiences we can share as a community: the music we use, The poetry we choose, the experiences that go beyond the intellectual. Beauty is not an explanation of what is valuable in the universe. It is the experience of what is valuable in the universe. How do we arrange this experience? 

Aesthetics is not a trivial concern for us Secular Humanistic Jews if all we can do is to articulate our ideology, we will lose. If we can create for ourselves and others experiences of intense beauty, then we will be able to reach out to the people who need us. 

Sherwin Wine’s ‘Humanistic Judaism’ – A Book Review by Rami Shapiro

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1978, Vol. VI, Number II

“The most interesting Jews of the last hundred years never joined a synagogue. They never prayed. They were disinterested in God, They paid no attention to the Torah lifestyle. They found bourgeois Reform as parochial as traditional Orthodoxy. They preferred writing new books to worrying about the meaning of old books. They had names like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Theodore Herzl.” 

And, though Sherwin T. Wine never explicitly says so in this introduction to his first book, Humanistic Judaism (Prometheus Books), we Jews have more in common with these Jews than we will ever have with Jews like Jeremiah, Rashi, and the Baal Shem Tov. 

Initially, one balks at the idea. Why can’t I retain and strengthen my ties to such ancestors?  And who is Wine to say that the chain of tradition suddenly kinks, cracks and crumbles with the advent of quantum mechanics and the post industrial world? What is the Humanist movement to suggest that my claim to carrying on the spirit (if not the letter) of the law and the prophets is just so much intramural politicking and bogus prooftexting (sic)? 

Rabbi Wine’s response is simple and direct: It isn’t he or Humanistic Judaism which is severing our links to tradition: It is ourselves and our behavior. No philosophical premise bars us from copying the lifestyle of Rambam or the Besht, rather it is our own behavior patterns that put the lie to such nostalgic desires. It isn’t theology so much that separates us from our ancestors. It is honesty. 

And honesty is just what Rabbi Wine’s book is all about. He demands it of his readers, and he wields it like a bludgeon. This is nowhere more evident than in his assessment of contemporary definitions of Judaism. Such definitions are, for the most part, academic fantasies in which the writer imagines the “ideal Jew”, and substitutes his imaginings for reality. As Rabbi Wine puts it, the Jews appear as “pious Bible lovers who can hardly wait for their next installment of Midrashic commentary.” Books on Jewish life in America deal in depth with the covenant between God and Israel and the centrality of Torah in Jewish life. Yet honesty demands a revision of these nostalgic musings. 

“If a person claims to love prayer but rarely prays, if an individual lauds the meaningfulness of God but never invokes God for the solution of his daily problems, if a man describes Torah as the greatest of all possible books but never reads it, he is either lying or self-deceived.” (Wine, p.18). 

Rabbi Wine believes it is self-deception that leads to this hiatus between espoused belief and exposed behavior; and self-deception is the most difficult deception to correct. If one believes the world is flat, only not falling off its edge will prove otherwise. 

In the case of Humanistic Judaism, however, Rabbi Wine is more apt to push one over the edge than to ask one to make that step on one’s own. With a combination of gestalt reality punching and fluid style, Wine pushes the reader to look objectively at his or her beliefs, and compare them to his or her behavior. If they are not consistent, one of them must go. And in a toss-up between belief and behavior, belief is usually the loser. 

“The lifestyles of most contemporary Jews, even those who profess a love of tradition, are in total opposition to the decrees of both the Bible and the Talmud. A nude bathing pre-medical student who lives with her boyfriend and refuses to eat pork as an affirmation of her Jewish identity is hardly a return to tradition. Even without pork she would give Hillel a heart  

attack.” (p. 4) 

The actual behavior of the Jews is a more accurate measure of our mores and beliefs than our rote mouthing of pious platitudes, and present Jewish practice does not point to a community motivated by the standards of the past. Despite wishful thinking to the contrary, “preferring Moses to Freud is irrelevant in an environment where nobody reads Moses.“ (p. 10). 

The point, then, is not very esoteric: our behavior suggests, or rather heralds, a break with the past. The mores and styles of medieval Jewry no longer apply to our lifestyle. And why should they? The rabbis never tried to mold their post-Biblical world to fit the Bible’s environs of priest and prophet. Quite the opposite: they created the talmudic dialectic in order to metamorphose pastoral patriarchs into urban savants. No Jewish society felt so bound to tradition that they refused to alter it to suit their own ends. It is only in the 20th century that we Jews have deified our heroes, and built a fence of guilt around our tradition; a fence which corrals fewer and fewer Jews, leaving those within comfortable and self-righteous, while the escapees flounder about seeking a cogent alternative to help them coordinate and articulate their break with tradition and their coming to grips with reality. 

It is Rabbi Wine’s hope that Humanistic Judaism will meet the need of these refugees by affirming a dynamic and creative alternative to tradition bound Judaism. Whether Humanistic Judaism will succeed in uniting these people is questionable. No inkling of success or failure can be garnished from Rabbi Wine’s book. Yet there is a precedent for this attempt to make Jews honestly confront the split between their actions and their words. This precedent is Reconstructionism, and it is a precedent which failed. 

Reconstructionism strove to articulate in a consistent philosophic framework the functions and needs of the folk. It, like Humanistic Judaism, is an elucidation of Jewish folk religion: what the Jews do religiously as opposed to what they say they are doing. Yet folk religion is by its very nature comprised of inconsistencies in practice, principles and beliefs. Kaplan and Wine are uncomfortable with inconsistencies, however, and hence a little uncomfortable with the folk as well. 

What makes the situation all the more fascinating is that both Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism claim to support the folk and their behavior. Their only desire is to consciously guide the development of that behavior in order to achieve swiftly and more efficiently the very goals for which religion unconsciously strives; the establishment of a society in which the individual can achieve happiness, balance, and self-actualization. Yet it is this conscious elitist ideological formulation of folkr practice that causes the folk to reject the elitists. 

Elitist religions like Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism are expressed in terms of ideology. Folk religion is expressed in terms of everyday behavior, customs and rituals. In fact the beliefs underlying the behavior of the people may well be incompatible with each other, and Even incompatible with the higher rationalism of the individual doing the action, yet this is never a problem until someone insists on formulating folk religion philosophically. 

Once such formulations are made, the contradictions become obvious, and then the ideologue seeks to adjust the behavior and beliefs to fit a more philosophically consistent system. This is done by establishing the primacy of ideology over behavior, which by definition does violence to the folk religion the ideologist sought  to help. 

In other words, Wine’s reliance on the people’s behavior to put the lie to the people’s espoused beliefs may very well backfire (as it did with Reconstructionism), leaving him with a small nucleus of ideology conscious Jews who cannot relate to the rest of us no matter how violently we transgress our pious mouthings. Nobody wants to be shown how inconsistent she or he is, and she or he will reject any attempt to do so. Being stripped of one’s inconsistencies may be ideologically necessary, but it isn’t very comfortable. Stripped of the theologically meaningless, yet psychologically comforting language of classical faith one is confronted with the awesome task of creating one’s own meaning in the world. Such a task may well prove to foreboding and harsh light of Humanistic Judaism which illuminates this very area may be too stark to capture the hearts as well as the minds of the Jewish people, even those who have left traditional modes behind. In a word, then, if one were to critique Humanistic Judaism as a religion, one could attack it for being so very elitist and so very discomforting. 

But then one has to choose. Which will it be: to etch out our own self-actualization and meaning in the uncarved block of the Real, or to lay back on the soft cushions of tradition and medieval godspeak, mouthing one thing while practicing another, and taking care to avoid noticing the contradictions? I, for one, prefer reality to illusion, and hence welcome Rabbi Wine and his challenging call for honesty.  


Rami Shapiro is a third year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Reconstructionist Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1978, Vol. VI, Number I

Reconstructionist Judaism? 

How does it differ from Humanistic Judaism? 

Many people have asked this question. 

After all, Reconstructionism has always identified itself as a form of religious humanism. Mordecai Kaplan, the founding father of the movement, was a signer of The Humanist Manifesto and an ardent disciple of John Dewey. 

If Reconstructionism is humanistic and Humanistic Judaism is humanistic then why are there two movements? Redundant denominations are legion. Judaism doesn’t need one more. 

In a recent article which appeared in The Reconstructionist, Harold Morris suggested that the difference between the two movements was that Reconstructionism was a moderate humanism while Humanistic Judaism was a radical humanism. He even proposed that Reconstructionism abandon the humanistic label because it is now identified with the extreme positions of atheism and secularism. 

Morris’ designation is hardly accurate. To declare that Reconstructionism is moderate is to avoid the more realistic label-namely that Reconstructionism is ‘chicken’. ‘Chicken’ humanism is a humanism which looks, sounds and smells like theism but which claims to be different on the inside. 

Before the contention that Reconstructionism is a form of ‘chicken’ humanism can be demonstrated we must first define Reconstructionism.  

The “Bible” of the Reconstructionist movement is a book called Judaism as a Civilization. It was written by Mordecai Kaplan and published in the 1930’s. It is now a Jewish classic, with enormous influence on Conservative and Reform rabbis who would choose to avoid the label Reconstructionist. 

Mordecai Kaplan, was born in Lithuania, about 100 years ago, came to America at an early age, attended and graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and remained to teach at the school. He organized his own congregation on the west side of Manhattan which he called the Society for the Advancement of Judaism and which became the pioneer congregation of his new movement. As more rabbis and laymen subscribed to his ideas, new groups arose in other cities. In time, the organizational structure of a new denomination distinct from the Conservative movement, which had fathered Kaplan, began to emerge. A magazine called The Reconstructionist was published. The traditional prayer book was revised to suit Reconstructionist conviction. An association of congregations, fellowships and communes was established. A rabbinical seminary was opened in Philadelphia which functioned as an adjunct to the graduate school of Temple University. Despite the smallness of the movement (some 3,000 identified families) the structure was impressive. 

Kaplan was the emotional child of Europe and the traditional lifestyle of the Litvak Jew.  But he was the intellectual child of two ideologies who were the ‘rage’ at the beginning of the twentieth century. One was John Dewey. The other was Emile Durkheim. 

John Dewey, together with William James, was the father of American pragmatism. He maintained that the truth of a statement is a function of its usefulness in the struggle for survival. Salvation is successful survival in the here and how. There is no long-run ultimate goal to human existence. There are only a continuous series of day to day problems in which the latter may be no more significant than the earlier. Statements about the after-life, which have occupied the minds of so many for so long, are diversionary and irrelevant to the day to day struggle. Religion, if it can have humanistic meaning, is the celebration of those powers in the universe which help us stay alive and find our happiness. God, if the word has any humanistic meaning, is the symbol of that power. 

Emile Durkheim was a French social scientist of Jewish origin who is often referred to as one of the ‘papas’ of the discipline of sociology. He was curious about religion and disdained the conventional descriptions of the religious experience which always made it personal and private. For Durkheim, religion was a social enterprise, a ritual glue which kept everybody together. The heart of religion was sacred behavior. The untouchable and unchangeable set of actions by which the group affirmed its unity with the past, the present and the future. Religion was never personal. It was always social. That was why it was so hard to change. It was the sanctification of group survival. 

If one takes Dewey and Durkheim, mixes them up, and adds a large dose of Litvak loyalty, one gets Mordeai Kaplan. Kaplan’s ideas are Reconstructionism. Two principles articulate them. 

1. Judaism is a religious civilization. Judaism is more than a religion in the formal sense. It is more than a set of theological statements. It is more than a set of personal rituals. Judaism is the historic culture of the Jewish nation, just as Hellenism is the historic culture of the Greek nation. Religion is that aspect of the culture which sanctifies group unity and group survival. Of course, there is more to Judaism than just religion. There is music, dance, poetry, crafts and science. Christianity is a contemporary deception. At one time it was the religious enterprise of the Greco-Roman empire. Today it is the name of a series of religions each one a function of a living ethnicity. Without the group, without the nation, there can be no true religion. The so-called religion of the individual is religion in decay. 

2. Salvation is the survival of the individual in his community. Salvation is not some far-off distant event in the ‘world to come’. It is on this earth here and now. Wisdom is not the warning of the fantasy tales of traditional theology. Wisdom is pragmatic. 

3. God is the power in the universe which makes for salvation. Since the supernatural is a useless fantasy, the word God can only be rescued if it is ‘naturalized’. A la Dewey. Kaplan redefines the word as the creative energy of the universe which keeps us going. God is a sum word. It is the sum total of all the forces in the world which enable us to preserve community and the individual who depends on community. 

4. Judaism needs the reconstruction of the Jewish nation. Contemporary Judaism is sick because the Jewish people is sick. Western secular culture has undermined the communal institutions of the Jewish people. The Diaspora has distributed the Jews over the face of the earth, depriving them of linguistic unity and a territorial center. The result of these traumas is either frozen Orthodoxy, with its clinging to what the nation used to be or silly Reform, with its contention that the Jews are not a nation at all, that they are simply Americans and Germans of Mosaic persuasion. Reconstruction means reconstructing the Jewish people so that a vital religious civilization can continue to flourish. Reconstruction means (1) the creation of a Jewish territorial center in Palestine, a Jewish homeland where Judaism is the primary civilization (2) the revival of Hebrew as the linguistic glue of the nation (3) the recognition that Jews, no matter where they live, are members of the Jewish nation (Ahad Haam and Simon Dubnow were Jewish intellectuals who preceded Kaplan with this idea) and (4) the rebuilding of Jewish communal structures in the Diaspora so that religion, education, the arts and the sense of peoplehood could all come together in one institution (the Jewish Community Center is the child of Kaplan). 

5. Religion reinforces group unity through sacred symbols called sancta. The history of a people produces certain symbols which are invested with the meaning of group survival. By their association with epic events they go beyond their origins to embody the hope of the culture for its own continuity. They also enable individual members of the group to identify with the group, no matter where they live, no matter what they personally believe and to share a single experience. God and Torah are the most powerful sancta of Judaism. They cannot be abandoned without disrupting the unity and continuity of the Jewish people. 

These five principles are hardly exhaustive in the Reconstructionist position. But they are the essence. 

How does  Humanistic Jew deal with them? We’ll take them one by one. 

  1. Kaplan’s observation that Judaism is more than a theology is perceptive and right. But to call it a civilization is pretentious. Culture would be a more modest and accurate word. But even culture misses the defining character of Jewishness in modern times. While some Jews share in the historic culture, large numbers do not and still preserve the Jewish identity. The relationship of one Jew to another has become primarily familial whether through a sense of shared ancestors, shared history or shared danger. Judaism is the behavior of a large International family called the Jewish people. It has radically altered in the past one hundred years just as Jewish behavior has radically altered.  
  1. The word salvation is an old religious word which is best discarded because it implies exactly what any good-humored pragmatists would avoid, the suggestion of overwhelmingly dramatic trouble in an equally overwhelming solution. However, the substance is appropriate. Finding survival and happiness in the hearing now is certainly humanistic. 
  1. Kaplan’s rescue of the word God is no rescue at all. He has invented the dreariest duty ever.  In saying the word he has killed God. A God who is nothing more than the sum total of every helpful force in the universe, from electricity to gravity is not somebody you would want to spend three hours on Saturday morning talking to.  

And what is ‘creative energy’ ‘the power that makes for salvation’ (sic). Yahweh at least had a distinct personality you could sink your devotion in. The so-called humanist alternatives are like the ‘emperor’s clothing’ – nothing. When atheists are afraid to admit that they are atheists they invent gods that nobody wants. The word God, because of its historic associations, cannot be radically redefined by fiat. Kaplan ought to know that, since he is always so interested in the importance of social meanings and gradual change. 

  1. The Reconstruction of the Jewish Community is an admirable goal. Part of that reconstruction already exists in the success of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel. But to force the Humanistic and Orthodox Jews into community structures where they will have to negotiate religious change together is to have a strong love for suffering. The Jewish Welfare Federation, which raises money for common causes and to fight common enemies, is the only feasible communal structure. Otherwise, we shall be devoting our Jewish energies to continuous infighting. In an age when all other religious communities are experiencing the painful disintegration of their outmoded bureaucratic structures, we cannot reverse the procedure. We ought not to. The Jewish community does not have to imitate the U.S. government in order to be effective. On the contrary, it should maximize individual freedom so that new bold and ‘saving’ ideas can easily emerge.  We need more excitement in Jewish life, not more meetings. 
  1. Sancta like God and Torah are no longer effective as agents of communal unity. In reality, they are divisive. Overwhelming numbers of Jews today are thoroughly secular whether in Israel or in America. Moreover, the fact that both these symbols are associated with a vast literature of law and liturgy which is supernaturally oriented means that those who insist on using them must devote enormous amounts of time to reinterpreting old texts. Reinterpretation generally involves proving that what appears to be unacceptable really isn’t. It’s the work of clever lawyers but not good-humored Jews who want to use their time profitably. Reconstructionists on a Sabbath morning, because they insist on keeping God and Torah, are forced to study the sacrificial laws of Leviticus, when, quite frankly, if they weren’t so nostalgic, Einstein and Bialik would be so much more enjoyable. 

In the end, a Reconstructionist life style Is hardly distinguishable from a Conservative one. If people are their behavior, and not their reinterpretations, then Reconstructionism is hardly humanism. 

If one’s major task is to reconstruct the unity of the Jewish people, he cannot be an effective Jewish humanist. He will always be the victim of nostalgia and the continuous veto of his unrelenting ancestors. 

And effective Jewish humanism cannot be the community conciliator. It has to be true to its nature. It has to be bold, creative, provocative and daring. It has to be the cutting edge of change. If already it is going to receive the hostility of the traditionalists (as Kaplan did) it should receive it for good reason (sic). 

A futile pursuit of Jewish unity leads to ‘chicken’ humanism and the loss of Integrity. 

Humanistic Judaism believes that we must first deal with the problem of Integrity – making the symbols of religion truly fit what we are and do. 


Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, leader of the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan is the founder of Humanistic Judaism.  

The Future of Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1976, Vol. IV, Number II

What is the future of Humanistic Judaism? 

I don’t know. It’s hard for me to be objective. For me it’s such a sensible philosophy of life that I find it difficult to understand why so many seemingly rational people do not choose to identify with it. 

All that I can perceive in the American Jewish community seems to indicate that more and more Jews need to hear what we are saying. These are people who are emotionally and intellectually alienated from existing Jewish institutions but who value their Jewish identity. 

Why are they alienated? 

Many are turned off by the mumbo jumbo of theology. They come to the synagogue to receive some kind of meaningful guidance for their daily lives and find themselves involved in a world of theistic fantasy where the rules of the game have nothing at all to do with real life. Too rational to accept romantic nostalgia as an adequate substitute and too honest to stomach hypocrisy they enter the limbo of malcontents who have no Jewish alternatives. Unlike their friends who have chosen compromise, they are not burdened by family guilt or peer pressure. Unlike their friends who have chosen “to leave,” they find Unitarianism and Ethical Culture deficient in Jewishness. 

Many are repelled by the open hypocrisy. There seems to be no correlation between what Jews say they believe and what they do. The Torah is exalted as the ultimate book of wisdom and no one reads it. The Talmud is praised as a source of great ethical insight and no one consults it. Prayer is announced as an essential human discipline and everyone ignores it. Judaisms appears to be an immense pretension, a behavioral lie. For some Jews this game of illusions is necessary for Jewish survival. For others less willing to subordinate their personal integrity to a doubtful strategy, the inconsistency is insufferable. 

Many are alienated by an absence of real experiment. In the establishment institutions whether conserative, reform or reconstructionist, change has been trivial – a jazz service here, a cinema service there, but no real coming to grips with the revolution in ideas and feelings that is part of the computer age. The radical Jewish Left has pioneered the communal havurah. But the religious structure is irrelevant to the life style of the average middle-class Jew and even the most ambitious of the avant-gard (sic) Jewish activity is burdened by nostalgia. There is so much fear among th rabbinic leaders that we will lose contact with our past that little energy survives to establish some kind of meaningful contact with the future. The burden of proof is distributed irrationally. Those who wish to make changes bear the most of it, even though what they resist has long since been ignored. Jews today often try to prove their right to their identity, not by doing what they need not defend, but by defending what they do not need. 

Many are turned off by the parochialism of the Jewish community. In a mobile age when national boundaries are ceasing to be relevant and when the worlds of business and education demand social intermingling, the hysterical response of rabbinic leaders to intermarriage is deeply reactionary. The charges against the Jews of tribalism and clannishness have usually been dismissed as the rantings of antisemites. But many Jews experience these attitudes as the normal response of their family and friends. They find themselves surrounded by a fear of openness and a passion for  social isolation that belie the propaganda of liberalism which Jews associate with their image. An obsession with the question of Jewish survival dominates the work of the community and claims all energies. Jewishness becomes the ultimate criterion by which all activities are judged and by which all goals are evaluated. The result is stifling. 

Many are alienated by the appeal to antisemitism. They are resentful of an establishment that seeks to frighten them into being Jewish. Group paranoia hardly seems an acceptable base for an affirmative identity. While one may have to be Jewish for negative reasons, he does not have to build an organizational identity out of a social disease. Moreover, young Jews do not perceive the American Jewish community as a destitute, downtrodden community. Having been raised in the affluence of middle-class suburbia and have tasted every opportunity for bourgeois success, they see their people as one of the wealthiest and most influential components of the American establishment. They perceive that the intellectual and financial resources of the Jewish world are too vast for only self-pity and self-defense, and that, with proper motivation and direction, they could be used for more humanistic ends. The self-image of the Jew raised in Hitler’s era is different from the vision of his (sic?) post-war child. 

Many Jews are estranged by the vicariousness of contemporary Jewish experience. They recognize the obvious truth that the only Jewish reality that excites the majority of American Jewry is the state of Israel. In present day synagogues and community centers the programs for both youth and adults are overwhelmingly devoted to the culture and political problems of the Israeli people. While they do not deny the uniqueness and grandeur of the life style in the Jewish state, and while they are eager to work for the survival of this nation, they find the Israeli experience a second-hand adventure. For those Jews who choose to be truly Zionistic and to immigrate to the Jewish homeland, Jewishness built around the excitement of Israeli patriotism is direct and authentic. But for the vast majority of American Jews it is an exercise in futility. By labeling Diaspora-living as inferior, Zionism condemns the Jew who chooses to live in the Diaspora to be an “almost-Jew”, to be a Jew who is incapable (by his place in the world) of being fully Jewish. The world of Jewish Identity has been split in two. There are those who live Jewishness in the state of Israel, and there are those who stand on the sidelines and “kvell.” For a Jew who selects to be neither an Israeli nor a “kveller”, there are almost no options. 

Many are driven away by the excessive nationalism that permeates the community leadership. Their education and their sentiments lead them to struggle for the humanist ideal of a unified mankind. Involvement in the affairs of the Jewish community only brings them problems of conscience. Instead of encountering the tradition of international culture, which Jews helped to pioneer in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they find themselves embroiled in the internal politics and foreign relations of a small Middle Eastern state, and discover that the United Nations and American disarmament are not the enemy. The concept of the Jews as an international people, skeptical of all chauvinism, and committed by their history to world unity has become a soul without an institutional body to give it reality. 

The alienation of so many American Jews from Jewish institutions and from any kind of positive Jewish association is deplorable. Not because being Jewish is important in and of itself; and not because Jewish survival has some religious or supernatural significance which the rational person is unable to perceive. But because Jewish identity has a humanist and ethical value which mankind needs. 

To be Jewish is to be a member of an international family whose structure and whose loyalty transcend the nationalist disaster of the contemporary world. The Jews are more than Judaism. They are more than Israel and the Zionist experiment. They are more than a unique ethnic culture. They are, in experience, an ‘internationality’, a people whose worldwide extension is a harbinger of future group identity in our rapidly changing world. For the past two centuries Jews have been the initiators and developers of cosmopolitan culture in the European environment. From Ludwig Zamenof to Albert Einstein Jews have helped to pioneer the idea of a world society in which the primary social identity of each individual would be “hunman”, and in which the ultimate group loyalty would be mankind. 

If this humanistic ethic, strongly embedded in the modern experience of the Jewish people, can be divorced from the irrelevant supernatural trappings of the past, it will provide a secular Jewish alternative to both secular nationalism and to religious mysticism. A truly humanistic Judaism will create a Jewish alternative which is sorely needed and which has never been given an organized public expression. 

A Jewish humanism which is courageous enough to dispense with the hypocrisies of conventional religion must be honest enough not to be all things to all people. It cannot with integrity satisfy the ethical and Jewish needs of every alienated Jew. If it tries to be meaningful to every Jew who is estranged from exiting religious institutions, it will be meaningful to none. Some who are alienated want more religion, more supernatural experience, more mysticism. Others want more nationalism, more Zionism, more involvement with the state of Israel. To reject theology does not mean that one accepts humanism or humanistic ethics. Secular Jews can be as chauvinistic and as parochial as religious Jews. 

There is, in my mind, a personal and social need for an “ethical” institution which carries on the historic moral role of the conventional religious congregation, without the supernatural sanctions which a belief in God provided. Since there are many possible secular moral systems, there are many possible “ethical” congregations. A humanistic Jewish temple is one that trains its members in a humanistic morality and in the humanistic value of Jewish identity. 

I believe that there are thousands of Jews in America who would find such an institution emotionally and intellectually satisfying. Whether we, as pioneer groups, have the power to reach them, will depend on the strength of our desire and our will. 


Rabbi Sherwin T. wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism, is the leader of the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan 

German Reunification

The Jewish Humanist, April 1990, Vol. XXVI, Number 9

The impossible is taking place.  What everybody vowed would never happen has happened!  Germany is coming back together again. 

For many Jews and for many other victims of the Nazi terror, the thought of a reunified Germany is terrifying.  They see antisemitism.  They see fascism reborn.  They see military rearmament. 

How realistic are their fears?  Is the coming together of West and East Germany a danger to Europe and the world?  Or will it turn out to be something positive? 

The Poles are apprehensive.  Over one-third of their territory was taken from Germany after World War II and its German population expelled.  Will a united Germany demand its restoration?  The French are apprehensive.  For over a century the Germans were the traditional enemies of the French, conquering and occupying France twice.  In recent years, West Germany, deprived of German unity, has sought a European alliance with France.  Will this alliance now collapse?  Will a renewed German nationalism and militarism again threaten France?  The Russians are apprehensive.  Over twenty million Soviet citizens died in the German invasion  One third of the nation was devastated.  Will the Germans turn against Russia again?  Will they threaten the security of the Russian state? 

The setting pf German reunification is important to note.   

West Germany is a success.  East Germany is a failure.  The West Germans will dominate the union. 

Unlike the Weimer (sic) Republic when Hitler took over, West Germany is experiencing no catastrophic depression.  It is (with the exception of the Scandinavians) the most prosperous and productive country in Europe. 

West Germany has a vital functioning democracy.  The ruling Christian Democrats, like their opposition Social Democrats, are in the political center.  Extremist parties have small constituencies.  The neo-Nazi Republican party is vocal and visible.  But it has no significant following. 

Russia, France, Britain were well-armed.  They would never allow German rearmament.  And for the Germans rearmament is counterproductive.  It is very expensive and it would subvert the economic relations with other nations that give Germany her present power. 

The West Germans, like the Japanese have discovered that the most effective way to ‘conquer’ the world is not through armies but through trade.  The German work ethic and scientific know-how are far more powerful guarantors of success than German militarism. 

Young West Germans are quite different from their Nazi grandparents.  They have been raised in prosperity and with real democratic opportunities.  They are attached to ‘yuppie’ ambitions and ‘yuppie’ life styles.  They do not seem to be terribly nationalistic.  Polls have indicated that many of them are apprehensive about merger because they fear the economic cost of absorbing so many East Germans. 

The dream of a united Europe is a very powerful ideal in West Germany.  In 1992 the bonds of union will be tightened.  A common currency will be established.  Europeans nationals will be able to live wherever they want to in Europe.  The union will add more power to the German economy but it will diminish the separation necessary for chauvinism. 

The Christian Democrats are now the dominant party in both Germanies.  The East Germans defied the pollsters and repudiated the socialists in their recent election.  Their motivation was less nationalism than economics.  They want to be ‘yuppies’ too.  And they believe that the capitalistic Christian Democrats can do for them what they did for their ‘western’ brothers and sisters. 

Reunification for all practical purposes, has already taken place.  The East Germans do not want a separate East German state.  That reality has been apparent ever since the Berlin Wall fell.  But unification will not be easy.  Merging two incompatible economic and social systems will take a long time.  Hating socialism is different from being willing to give up the benefits and security of the welfare state.  Satisfying the demands of the East Germans will provide many opportunities for crisis. 

So what does this all mean? 

It means that formal reunification will move fast-not as fast as many East Germans want it to, but fast enough.  First will come currency merger (sic) this year.  Then all-German elections will follow next year.  The Christian Democrats are likely to win these elections. 

The new Germany will dominate the new united Europe.  This domination will be economic, not military.  Berlin (as the restored capital of a united Germany) will become the unofficial capital of Europe.  And Europe will become the dominant economic power in the world.  Many former Soviet satellites-like Poland  and Czechoslovakia-will join a united Europe. 

The new economic environment will serve to dampen nationalism.  Vocal and visible fascists will be spurning their hatred.  But there will not be a large sympathetic audience for what they have to say.  Nazism no longer fits into the economic realities of a united Germany and a united Europe.  Changing boundaries through military aggression is highly unlikely.  Poland is more valuable as an economic ally and market than as a resentful and hostile neighbor. 

Jews will return to Germany.  Some will be Russian refugees.  Some will be financially frustrated Israelis.  Some will be expatriate Americans seeking their fortune.  Jews have always gravitated to places of economic opportunity.  A peaceful Europe will be no exception. 

How do we respond to all these changes?  It is all happening so fast.  First the Communist empire falls apart.  And then the Germans get back together again. 

Cautious optimism is a good strategy.  The unification of Germany means the end of the Cold War.  And the end of the Cold War is the best guarantee that holocausts will not happen in the future. 

Zionism and Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism Journal, Spring_Summer 1979, Vol. VII, Number II

The state of Israel. 

No expression of Judaism can be complete unless it deals with this reality and with the political movement that spawned it. 

Zionism is the most successful and the most dramatic Jewish movement of the twentieth century. It is also the most universal. Theology and ritual divide Jews. But loyalty to the state of Israel unites them. The religious and the secular can be comfortable with Zionism. Although anti-Zionism was, at one time, powerful, it now condemns its devotees to the role of the peripheral and the pariah. 

Zionism, as a political movement, seeks to establish and to maintain a Jewish state in Israel. Zionism, as a cultural movement, strives to promote Hebrew speaking culture among Jews. 

The roots of Zionism are both ancient and contemporary. Throughout Jewish history the Bible, the Talmud, the Siddur and the folk literature preserved the memory of a Jewish territorial nation. Jews living in lands other than Israel believed that they were residing in Exile. They believed that, in the future, they would be rescued by the Messiah and would be returned to their homeland.  

The modern source of Zionism was a sense of nationhood which Western Ashkenazic Jews experienced in Central and Eastern Europe. United by folk memories and the Yiddish language, the Russian and Polish Jew saw himself as neither Russian nor Polish. He viewed himself as a national Jew, with a language and culture all his own. This ethnic self-awareness was reinforced by the rising power of nationalism in Europe. Germans, Hungarians, Ukrainians and Romanians were beginning to feel more German, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Romanian. One of the devices they used to create greater internal solidarity was to invent an external enemy. Antisemitism turned the Jews into the national enemy, excluded them, and made them, ironically, feel more Jewish. 

If the Jews were indeed a distinct nation, they required a territory of their own, like every other nation. Since the Europeans were not prepared to surrender a piece of their own national territories, the Jews would have to look elsewhere. Nostalgia and the desire for territorial roots offered no alternative but Palestine. Uganda was a possibility that no one ever took seriously. 

Since Zionism is a political ideology, it comes in many varieties. Bourgeois or General Zionism wants Israel to be a free enterprise capitalist state. Labor Zionism prefers a socialist Israel where the workers control. Revisionist Zionism, the choice of Menahem Began, advocates a Jewish nation that is well-trained in military virtue. Religious Zionism wants a Jewish state where God rules and where the constitution is the Torah. 

But, regardless of the differences, all Zionists agree on ten principles. 

1. The Jews are a nation. more than a religious group, more than a theological fraternity, more than a cultural entity. Jews are Jewish the same way that Frenchman are French. 

2.  Every nation, including the Jewish nation, needs a territory all its own. A unique territory allows the nation to cultivate its own language, promote its own customs, and be the master of its own destiny. 

3. For the past two thousand years Jews have been abnormal. Until 1948 they were a nation without a territory. They will only be normal again when the majority of the Jews of the world return to their homeland. 

4. Israel is the only feasible Jewish homeland. The personality of a nation cannot be separated from its memories, and from the territory where it evolved. 

5. Hebrew is the national language of the Jewish people. English is too universal. Jewish Yiddish is too parochial. A unique language becomes the cultural bond of both secular and religious Jews. 

6. immigrating to Israel is more virtuous than staying in the Diaspora. If Jews refuse to move to Israel, there will be no viable Jewish state. Jewish life in a Jewish state is qualitatively better than Jewish life in the midst of a Gentile nation. 

7. The establishment of a Jewish state will reduce antisemitism. If Gentiles can see Jews as members of a normal nation, they will no longer fear them. If Jews leave the countries where they arouse hostility, antisemites will have to find other scapegoats for their envy and hatred.  

8. Jews who remain in the Diaspora will ultimately assimilate to the majority culture of their host nations. Since modern urban industrial culture is essentially secular, assimilation involves no formal conversion. It is the gradual assumption of a new patriotism. Jews can only remain Jews where they can be Jewishly patriotic. 

9. Israel is the viable solution to the problem of Jewish survival. In an age when ritual segregation is rejected by most Jews, territorial segregation is the only feasible means to insure group Integrity. 

10. For every Jew, his primary identity is his Jewish identity. He must be prepared to do first what is necessary to insure Jewish community survival. Aliya (moving to Israel) is a primary mitsvah. 

How does Humanistic Judaism relate to these ten principles? 

The Humanistic Jew accepts the fact that the Jews are a nation. Like the Zionist, he makes a distinvtion between citizenship and nationality. It is quite reasonable to describe oneself as an American citizen of Jewish nationality. Because of the Jewish fear that such a statement may be construed by modern governments as an act of dual loyalty, the word ‘people’ is usually substituted for the word ‘nation’. But, in essence, it means the same thing.  

The Humanistic jew accepts the fact that, in the past, a nation needed a specific territory in order to remain a nation. But, in the age of industrial technology, this requirement no longer applies. Today the time it takes to fly from New York to Tel Aviv is far less than the time a traveller took to donkey from Jaffa to Jerusalem a century ago. In former times, isolation from a nation’s territory meant isolation and ultimate assimilation to the host culture. In modern times, both literacy and advanced communication and transportation make it possible for a dispersed nation to preserve its sense of community. The Greeks, the Armenjians and the Irish know that, as well as Jews. 

The Humanistic jew recognizes that many people regarded the Jew as peculiar and abnormal because he had no territorial base. But what was Jewishly abnormal is now rapidly becoming humanly normal. In the age of labor mobility an inaternation nation is no longer bizarre. It is avant gard (sic). Territorial nations are becoming territorial states. A territorial state is a political entity where people of different nationalities discover that they must share the same piece of land. The connections among the inhabitants are geographic and economic rather than ethnic. America is no longer an Anglo-saxon nation. And Israel is one-third Arab. 

The Humanistic Jew recognizes that Israel is the Jewish homeland. As the mother country of the Jewish nation it is the appropriate headquarters and center of that international corporation. Memories cannot be manufactured. Like nations, they develop their power over long periods of time. New Yrok may have more Jews than Jerusalem. But Jerusalem includes the armies of the faithful dead, not just the living. 

The Humanistic Jew values the Hebrew language. It is the unique Jewish alternative to traditional ritual. Every viable ethnic community that is not racially distinct cultivates its own language. The greatest of all the Zionist achievements was the revival of the Hebrew language as the spoken tongue of the masses. Since Hebrew is not a world language like English, it requires for its survival a special territory where a majority of the inhabitants use it for their daily speech. One of the major reasons for the preservation of the state of Israel is the maintenance of Hebrew speaking culture. With Israel as the Hebrew center, the language becomes available to the world Jewish community as a resource for community expression. 

The Humanistic Jew understands that Israel cannot accommodate the majority of the Jewish people. The reason is not only that Israel is too small, it is also that Israel cannot suitably employ the members of a nation, the overwhelming majority of whom now belong to the managerial class. The Jews of both America and Russia would have to lower their professional sights if they immigrated to Israel en masse. Israel does not need more lawyers, accountants and psychiatrists. She needs farmers, porters and construction workers. The only people willing to do this work are Oriental Jews (none of whom is available any more in the Diaspora) and Arabs. The continuing migration of Ashkenazic Jews from Israel is a continuing testimony to this reality. Immigrating to Israel is a virtue if the immigrant’s talents will be fully utilized in that environment. To waste managerial potential is a waste not only for the world Jewish community but also for the human community. 

The Humanistic Jew does not believe naively that the creation of the state of Israel will reduce antisemitism. In the Middle East, Zionism has increased anti-Jewish feeling. In Europe and America loyalty to Israel reminds many people of the multiple attachments that they suspect that all Jews have. Above all, Zionism does not strike at the heart of modern antisemitism. The very reason why most Jews cannot be accommodated by Israel is the very source of Anti-Jewish feeling. Jews are hated because they are conspicuously successful in an urban industrial society-out of proportion to their numbers. If all Jews would abandon the managerial and professional class and consent to become skilled peasants, Israel could provide for their needs and antisemitism would fade away. A small Jewish state ironically depends for survival on the power of Jewish success in the Diaspora. Israel needs the very power out of which antisemitism grows. 

The Humanistic Jew does not believe that living in the Diaspora means ultimate assimilation. Since Jewish communities are no longer isolated from each other and can maintain effective contact with the Israeli center, Jewish self-awareness has increased, not declined. Moreover, it is quite clear that all nations, even large territorial ones, are assimilating to a new culture. That culture is the world culture of science and technology, which has secularized most of our planet and created a world of shared work styles, shared products and shared values. In the past twenty years the Oriental Jew in Israel has experienced more assimilation than the Jew of New York. In future years, the differences among all nations will be reduced because of this shared culture. From the humanistic point of view, this shared cultural bond with all people is something good. 

The Humanistic Jew is well aware of the fact that no small territorial state is the master of its own destiny. Even large states, like America, are no longer independent because of their heavy dependence on external resources. The fate of the Jews in Israel is not separable from the fate of the Jews in America since Israel depends on America for its survival. The key to Jewish continuity remains what it was, even before Zionism. The Jews should be as widely dispersed as possible, so that the destruction of our community will not result in the destruction of all. 

The Humanistic Jew affirms the value of his Jewish identity and he works to express it within the setting of the Jewish community. But he chooses his human identity as his primary identity. A healthy Jewish community can only be realized if it sees itself as part of a larger community which has its own needs and demands. Without this transcendent ideal, Zionism becomes a cynical chauvinism. Jews and Arabs can learn to share the same territory if they have the vision to go beyond their national identity and to celebrate their shared human identity. Every intelligent person recognizes that he has more than one identity. 

Humanistic Judaism and historic Zionism share many convictions. The values of Jewish nationhood and of Hebrew culture are two common principles. 

But Humanistic Judaism finds value in the reality of the Jews as a world people and as an international nation. 

Israel as the be-all and end-all of Jewish existence is too much.Israel as the cultural homeland of a planetary people is just fine. 

The New Egalitarianism and the Death of Deference

Humanistic Judaism Journal, Autumn 1984, Vol. XII, Number III

The family isn’t what it used to be. Almost every social commentator has noticed that fact. 

The traditional family was a survival and reproduction unit. It provided food, shelter and protection to every individual member. It also demanded work, cooperation and loyalty. Virtually all important social activities were encompassed by it. Education, entertainment, friendship, and religion were usually conducted within its walls. 

The structure of the traditional family was authoritarian; the male chauvinist father was the ruler and demanded obedience. If wives and children exercised power, they did so deviously, never openly admitting to the privileges they enjoyed. 

As a social reality, the family was universal. From England to China, from Norway to Timbuktu, in a world of pastoral nomads in agricultural villages, the family dominated. Outside the family, the individual had no real opportunities for survival and safety. 

Urban industrial society has changed all that. And it continues to undermine the foundations on which the traditional family rests. 

The urban environment deprives the family of its major functions. Work, leisure, education and entertainment all take place outside the home. The most efficient unit of labor in the industrial world is no longer the cumbersome extended family. It is the mobile individual free of ties to spouse and children. 

The urban environment also provides alternatives to family protection. The emergence of the welfare state, with its myriad agencies and clinics offers another way to deal with poverty and disease. When the family cannot or will not help, the government will. 

In the urban world, children have a negative economic value. Unlike farm children, who provide free labor to their parents (as well as old age security), city children are parasitic and costly. When they grow up, they leave home and are not readily available to take care of their aging parents. Instead of being a workplace and social center, the urban home is a dormitory, and disappointed parents discover that they are merely caretakers. 

In the urban world, education is no longer short and pragmatic. It is long and theoretical. The consequence of the new schooling is an increasing self – awareness, which questions traditional authority and heightens individual identity. 

In an advanced industrial society, the emphasis on work shifts to an emphasis on consumption.  Affluence breeds at consumer culture. Increased leisure affords the individual the time to think about personal satisfaction and personal happiness. Duty and responsibility become less important than discovering the requirements for self – fulfillment. 

The New Egalitarian 

The post-agricultural world undermines the old authoritarian structures and sponsors an environment of greater social equality. 

Money and education replace land and pedigree as the vehicles to success. For the ambitious, social climbing is easier than under the old system. Earning and learning are easier to arrange than having the right ancestors. 

Mobility gives people more options than ever before. If one boss is no longer satisfactory, another can be found. Where bosses are transient, they tend to be treated with less respect. 

Affluence rescues the majority from the struggle for survival and allows them time to pursue the good life. Leisure skills which were, at one time, confined to the small minority of the rich and powerful now become universal. The middle class replaces the lower class as the dominant chunk of contemporary society. The upper class struggles to keep its lifestyle one step ahead of the masses 

Family behavior patterns have changed.  Husbands and fathers are less authoritative. Wives and children are more assertive. 

Work opportunities for women reduce their dependence on their husbands and make them less deferent. Female liberation reflects female economic power. Women who are free to provide for themselves find husbands less intimidating.  

Science discredits the wisdom and the knowledge of the old. What is more vulnerable is no longer necessarily truer. In fact, new discoveries and new evidence may make the young wiser than their parents. Under these circumstances the authority of elders vanishes. 

The decline of religion in a secular age produces a decline in worshipful behavior. As displays of reverence to the gods fade away, so does reverent behavior toward human authorities. 

The anonymity of the big city removes the surveillance of familiars. The disapproval of strangers is not as effective in restraining provocative behavior as the disapproval of long-time neighbors. 

The consequence of all these changes is a change in family behavior patterns. Husbands and fathers present themselves in a less authoritative way. Wives and children have become more assertive.  

Personal autonomy is… an earned privilege. Children need parents who prepare them for responsibility.  

Under the traditional system, husbands and fathers strove to be intimidating. Wives and children were deferential. This difference was expressed in three ways. The first way was use of a special language of courteous appeasement. Lavish praise and gestures of subordination defined its style. The second way was obedience. The master’s commands were seen as legitimate and irresistible. No public challenge was appropriate. The third way was service. Subordinates expressed concern about the needs of the master and sought to satisfy them. In many ways, the behavior of wives and children was indistinguishable that of servants. 

To say the least, that sort of behavior is now a dim memory in egalitarian America. 

Egalitarian Behavior 

The most startling sign of the revolution in family life is the death of deference. Children now talk to parents and teachers in a way that would have earned them public execution only a few centuries ago 

The following scenes have become commonplace:  

Text Box

All this new behavior arouses ambivalent feelings in liberal parents. They are dismayed and humiliated by their loss of authority. But they find themselves prisoners of the fashionable new realities (often labeled “humanistic”) which justify this behavior. 

The new egalitarianism is supported by new doctrines that inhibit parents from behaving like effective authorities. The most important of these doctrines is the affirmation of personal autonomy. 

In its absolute form, the principle of personal autonomy guarantees each person the right to be the master of his own life.. All people are equal in authority. No one can justly dominate or control another. Nor, if he wished to retain his dignity, can he allow himself to be dominated or controlled. The right to command is replaced by the right to suggest. 

With such a doctrine, the old hierarchy collapses. Not only do wives no longer have the obligation to submit to the authority of their husbands, but children no longer have the duty to heed the commands of their parents. Children resist conformity to the expectations of their elders. Rebellion becomes an expected part of growing up and turning into a successful human being. 

Liberal parents who embrace the value of personal autonomy move from a posture of command to the more egalitarian one of discussion. The language of deference disappears. Reverence for authority would only impede the give and take of negotiation. 

Children’s autonomy takes up a lot of parents’ time. To keep the child from feeling intimidated and to reassure the child that they have no intention of trying to run his life, parents are compelled to use the language of appeasement. “I have my life and you have your life” is a familiar refrain. 

Not only parents, but also children, have a moral responsibility to strengthen the family.  

Since children see themselves as masters, and not as servants, they behave accordingly. Their mouths express their self-image. They view autonomy as a birthright and not as a privilege to be earned. Although they are financially dependent and even parasitic for increasingly longer periods of time, they see themselves as independent. Quickly learning the language of mastery, they use it to intimidate their bewildered parents. Many parents reverse roles and become servants of their assertive children-especially if they feel guilty about not enjoying parenthood. 

The line between childhood and adulthood, becomes very vague, except for one simple distinction: parents are the ones who have to pay. Children are the ones who never have to pay. 

With such tantalizing rewards for having children, is it any wonder that the birth rate among the educated is plummeting?  

More and more people (as surveys indicate) are regretting parenthood. They are finding their children less and less satisfying. Despite the enormous amounts of money they spend on their children (for which they can now expect no economic return in their old age), they do not even receive the small gift of respect. 

The death of deference poses a serious threat to the survival of advanced industrial societies. Mouthy, aggressive, parasitic children reduce the motivation for having children. Only the influx of young people from less sophisticated, traditional societies will ultimately prevent the new “autonomous” society from turning into an old folks home. 

Humanist Response 

As humanists, we have a vested interest in encouraging the educated to have children. Since no adequate alternative to the family has yet been devised for the production and rearing the children, we also have a vested interest in strengthening the family. 

The awareness of four important realities may help us reverse some of the damage. 

The first is the fact that the traditional family cannot be restored. And, even if it were possible to restore it, it is not desirable to do so. The freedom and creativity of the new urban world have enormously enhanced the quality of personal life. These benefits far outweigh the reproductive advantages of the traditional society.  

The second reality is the fact that the liberation of women from male domination is a positive step forward, even though the sharing of power in the family creates greater  

instability – and even though female economic power encourages divorce. As achieving adults, women deserve the dignity of equality. And society cannot afford to waste their talents. 

The third reality is the simple truth that autonomy is not a birthright. It is an earned privilege. Children must train themselves for freedom. They need parents who prepare them for responsibility and who give them knowledge and structure. Without appropriate self-discipline, autonomy is harmful. There are times when parents need to see themselves as authorities, as caring experts in long-run planning. There are times when negotiation is silly and when parents need to command. 

The fourth reality is the reality that is resisted the most. Not only parents, but also children, have a moral responsibility to strengthen the family. Children also have a moral responsibility to acknowledge that, in this age of prolonged economic dependency, they usually receive much more than they give. The normal expression of this awareness is an age-old behavior of deference called gratitude. 

It is naive to assume that the deferent children of the past are restorable. Nor would we want children who never challenge old and possibly obsolete ideas and values. But respectful gratitude is a small price to pay for enormous investments of love and money. 

Humanistic families do not aim for total equality. There are times when parents are appropriately authoritarian. There are times when children are appropriately submissive and deferent.  

The Israel Secular Association–Why is it Necessary

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1978, Vol. VI, Number II

Today, in Israel, the orthodox non-humanistic approach to personal and social life is increasing its influence. The political victory of the convervative coalition, the fatigue of the liberal Left, the spreading propaganda that Traditional religion reenforces (sic) patriotism, the cult of nostalgia which feeds on the fear of the future, the seeming need to resist religious controversy in the face of Arab threat, and the growing power of the Oriental Jew-all contribute to the emergence of a ‘new’ Israel. The secular and humanistic Jews who were the primary force in the establishment of the Jewish State now find themselve ‘strangers’ in their own land. Many of them are emigrating to avoid the stifling cultural environment of the new state sponsored religious chauvinism. However, a small group of determined humanists continue to resist. They have established the Israel Secular Association to struggle for a secular state which promotes humanistic values and universalism among all Israelis-Jew and Arab alike. 

The ISA needs your help and support. They need their cause-which is our cause advertised among American Jews. They need their opinions and attitudes published in the opinion organs of world Jewry. They need contact with sympathetic Jews. They need to know that they do not stand alone. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Sara and Isaac Hasson (who are the leaders of the ISA) in London at the world conference of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. They are courageous and articulate humanists who, at great personal sacrifice, are organizing resistance to ‘creeping orthodoxy’ in Israel. They are fighting to preserve in the Jewish State the ideals of a secular and humanistic Zionism-a Zionism which goes beyond the issue of Jewish identity alone to the issues of human integrity and human survival. 

—Sherwin Wine 

Israel: How It Has Changed

Humanistic Judaism Journal, Vol 26, No 3, Summer 1998

Israel is fifty years old. In some respects it is the same state as in 1948. In many respects it is very different. 

There is an ethnic difference. Zionism was created by Ashkenazic Jews to solve the problem of European anti-Semitism. The first Zionist immigrants were Russian Jews. Until 1949 the new arrivals were overwhelmingly European. Like most European Ashkenazim, they had experienced the capitalist revolution and its secular aftermath. In 1949 new immigrants from the Eastern world began to arrive, the beginning of a large wave of Jewish immigrants from the Muslim world. They were the substitutes for the Russian Jews who could not come and the American Jews who would not come. Since they were dark and racially distinct from Ashkenazic Jews, they faced racial bigotry on the part of their European brothers and sisters. The pioneers and the new immigrants did not mix. Contempt and resentment kept them separate. In time the barriers broke down. Intermarriage grew. A blending of Ashkenazic and Eastern Jews began. Today that blending is turning into a new Jewish ethnicity. A unique Israeli gene pool is emerging. In time Ashkenazim and Sephardim will be absorbed into this new creation. Within fifty years most Israelis will be darker than Europeans and lighter than Iraqis and Moroccans. 

How else is Israel different? There is the economic difference. The Zionist pioneers who claimed the land and built the cities were overwhelmingly socialists. Some were romantic socialists, and some were Marxist socialists, but they were strong believers in collectivist economies. The kibbutz is a popular example of their creativity and success. At the beginning socialism worked. There were no grand capitalist investors. The labor unions had to develop their own industries, representing both management and workers. In time these industries became public, state-subsidized enterprises. 

But economic reality intervened. Socialism cannot produce a dynamic economy. The United States and Western Europe were setting the pace. The strengthening of the American alliance sealed the fate of socialist Israel. The Labor Party, the leftist party of the Ashkenazic pioneers, abandoned its socialist program and opened the economy to capitalist development. When the opposition Likud came to power in 1977, the capitalist culture arrived. Money and pleasure became Israeli goals, and the dichotomy between winners and losers sharpened. In time, even the welfare system was assaulted. Ironically, the chief beneficiaries of the new economy are the Ashkenazic elite, the supporters of the Labor party and the Russian immigrants who have tuned into high technology. The chief losers are the underskilled Sephardim, who are supporters of the Likud. Their patriotic agenda and their economic agenda do not coincide. Today, Israel is a first-world economic power with a big foot in the burgeoning high-tech industries. The agricultural sector is shrinking. The kibbutzim are turning into private corporations, which are becoming an intrinsic part of the Israeli way of life. 

How else is Israel different? There is a religious difference. The Zionist founders were overwhelmingly secular. They saw religion as a reactionary force inhibiting the progressive development of Jewish nationalism. The hostility to Zionism in most of the Orthodox world reinforced the Zionist disdain of religion. Zionists saw Hebrew nationalism as a vital alternative to religious identity. The first leaders of the Jewish state openly flouted Orthodox law and avoided yarmulkes as though they were the Arab enemy. The Six Day War changed everything. The victory won the allegiance of many Orthodox Jews, especially because the Israeli army had conquered the West Bank. This territory contained most of the holy sites of traditional Judaism, the most important of which was East Jerusalem. In time Orthodox immigration increased. The Lubavitcher rebbe publicly supported the Jewish state. A vast array of new yeshivas arose. Orthodox settlers organized new settlements in the West Bank. Aggressive missionary activity recruited thousands of Sephardim to fundamentalism and religious militancy. An alliance of convenience between Likud and Orthodoxy in the Knesset produced state subsidies for the yeshiva world and state support for religious intrusion. Yarmulkes were “in.” The state schools and the army were opened to Orthdodox indoctrination. 

The secular resistance to this development was paralyzed by smugness and the continuing diversion of war with the Arabs. A new majority was arising in Israel, an odd combination of ambivalent secularists, aggressive Orthodox, disgruntled Russian Jews, and angry Sephardim. Whatever religious opposition to Orthodoxy existed was ineffective. Reform and Conservative were dismissed as American imports. The only new grassroots religious development, the spirituality movement with its Judaism connection, had no political agenda. The Orthodox sector, reinforced by a mind-boggling birth rate, grows stronger and more demanding. Even if Netanyahu should fall from power, any subsequent government, even a Labor one, would have to make peace with the Orthodox. More and more of the Israeli urban environment and more and more of Israeli life is being religionized. Secular Jews are on the defensive. 

How else is Israel different? There is a military difference. The Israeli army is not what it used to be. Its former strength lay in pioneer idealism and a bold officer corps. This elite officer corps was drawn from the kibbutzim and other agricultural settlements. This source of leadership is now fading away. The present army rests on pampered recruits from the urban consumer culture.Their idealism and openness to sacrifice are no greater than those of their counterparts in America and Western Europe. Today, thousands of soldiers are Orthodox. The kippa has become a familiar part of military dress. The political agenda of Orthodox recruits is different from that of the old officer corps. The unity of the army is compromised by religious fanaticism. The Orthodox assassin of Rabin was a patriotic soldier. One of the reasons that the collapse of the peace process is dangerous is that the Israeli army is not prepared for another major war. 

What are the implications of all those changes for Israel’s future? 

If war does not come, Israel will emerge as a significant economic power. The sector of the economy that is high-tech will flourish, fueled by Israeli brainpower. There will be a continuing internal war between the secular and the religious. Many secularists will abandon Jerusalem for more secular Tel Aviv and Haifa. Political considerations will make it difficult for secularists to expel Orthodox influence from the centers of power. The new blending of Western and Eastern Jews will be less hostile to Orthodox intrusion than the old Ashkenazic establishment. Reform and Conservatism will remain on the periphery. New Age spirituality will flourish. 

Given the new majority, a true peace with the Arab world is unlikely. Israel will remain isolated in its region. It will function as a European island in a Muslim sea, defended by its continuing alliance with the United States and with enemies of the Arab world, such as Turkey and India. The next fifty years will be both similar to and very different from the first and fifty years. 

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.