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.  


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

The Greeks gave us the word orthodox which means the right way (as opposed to the wrong way). 

Alvin Reines, a professor of philosophy at The Hebrew Union College has given us the word polydox which means the multiple way (as opposed to any one way). 

‘I am a Polydox Jew’ may sound a bit esoteric. But it has become the label affirmation of a small number of libera REform rabbis and laymen who believe that establishment Reform is reverting to tradition and is betraying the unique message of historic Reform. 

Time Magazine recently publicized the first national conference of Polydox Jews in St. Louis. Alvin Reines spoike. The Polydox Jewish Confederation was established and the Institute for Creative Judaism, the research arm of the movement, was funded. 

At present, there is only one official Polydox congregation (in Richmond, Virginia). Most self-aware Polydox Jews are Reform rabbis who serve regular Reform congregations and who were disciples of Alvin Reines at the Hebrew Union College. 

The ‘scripture’ of Polydoxy is the written word of Reines, who has composed a series of essays about his ideology during the past thirteen years. 

Since Polydoxy, like Humanistic Judaism, is one step ‘beyond’ Reform, we may reasonably ask the question-what is the connection between PJ and HJ? 

We shall begin the answer with the articulation of the basic principles of Reines. 

  1. American Jews are in crisis because the official religion of the community-whether Orthodoxy , Conservativ or Reform, is unrelated to the private religion of its individual members. The Jewish establishment lacks integrity. 
  1. ‘Religion, in its broadest sense, includes three basic elements: an ideology of existence that responds to the ultimate problems of the human condition; a doctrine of morality; and a system of observances that expresses and celebrates peak moments and occasions in human experience.’ 
  1. Freedom is a fundamental value. ‘Every member of the Polydox Jewish Confederation pledges to affirm the religious freedom of all other members in return for their pledges to affirm his or her own. Equally binding on the members of the PJC is the corollary of the Freedom Covenant: every person’s freedom ends where the other person’s freedom begins.’ 
  1. ‘A Jew is a person who wishes to take the name Jew, and who is descended from a Jewish parent, grandparent, or ancestor; also a Jew is a person who wishes to take the name Jew and is a member of the Jewish community.’ 
  1. Jewish communal loyalty is produced by belief in the religion of Judaism of the community. Jews who do not really believe in the religion of their particular Jewish communities will themselves ultimately abandon membership in those communities, or their children or grandchildren will. Compared to shared religion, the shared elements of ethnicity are derivative and trivial, and call for no special loyalty. To deny one’s real religion is to deny one’s own true self; to deny ethnicity is to deny non-essential patterns of behavior. 
  1. The Polydox Jew has the right to set the times of festivals according to rhythms that he or she finds most meaningful. These rhythms may be natural, such as solstice and seasons; economic; cultural; or personal. An instance of rhythmic harmonization is changing the Hanukka celebration to eight days beginning at the winter solstice December 21-22, rather than at Kislev 25. This change of date brings the Hanukka celebration into harmony with the great, natural economic and social rhythms of the real world in which the American Jew actually lives. 

These six principles summarize the basic tenets of Reines. 

I would like to reply to them one by one. 

  1. Crisis. What Reines says is true. American Judaism suffers from advanced hypocrisy. The declarations of organizational Judaism do not coincide with the real religion of most American Jews. However, the crisis is even deeper. Private Jews, speaking privately, often say they believe what they, in fact, do not believe. Many individual Jews are self-declared. It is not their stated beliefs which are in conflict with the voice of the establishment. It is their behavior. The major task of an honest Judaism is not to challenge the establishment for their hypocrisy. In many cases, they are just echoing what many individual Jews claim they believe. It is to challenge the hypocrisy of the individual Jew whose behavior does not reflect any of the reverence for God and Torah he claims to have. 
  1. Religion. What Reines affirms is generally valid. Religion begins with the fear of death, or of the dead. It proceeds to use the reverence for the dead to enforce certain moral standards and it celebrates this reverence through community celebrations. The moral and community dimension is only one of two major aspects of the religious enterprise. The other is the fascination with supernatural power (the power possessed by the dead)-how to appease it and how to use it. 
  1. Freedom. The Polydox concept of freedom is the most difficult concept to understand. It suffers from the same negativism that plagues Unitarianism. It starts out with the claim that no person has the right to tell anyone else what he or she should believe. No individual can play the ultimate authority to any other. 

As a general political principle, radical freedom is workable and appropriate. Each individual, whether he is Jewish or non-Jewish has the right to practice whatever religion he wants to so long as he does not interfere with the equal freedom of others to do the same. We simply agree to disagree. We do not use state power to enforce religious conformity. But as a principle for organizing religious communities, it is neither workable nor appropriate. Resistance to authoritarianism is purely negative. It has no positive glue to bind a community together. 

Unitarians suffer from this malaise. Since they despise any official creeds and proclaim radical freedom, they often recruit congregants whose primary emotion is anger at the authoritarian religions of their childhood from which they have escaped. These congregants know what they don’t want out of religion. But they are never quite sure what they do want. 

Their essential thrust is liberty not co-operation (sic). Mystics and rationalists end up in the same congregation united only by their hostility to traditional religion. Since the group has such a wide diversity of religious beliefs, any of them often incompatible one with the other (sic), the congregation spends enormous amounts of time negotiating compromise. The result is no bold creativity but timid progress. Since every person’s belief must be respected, decision making suffers paralysis. Moreover, the educational system becomes vacuous, because no indoctrination is allowed. A thin smorgasbord of world religious options is presented, while the children are told to simply choose what is meaningful to them. No choice is better or worse than any other. Hare Krishna is as good as Bertrand Russell. The Lubavitcher Rebbe is as desirable as John Dewey. The greatest ‘sin’ is to tell children that some choices are better than others. The commonsensical boldness would smack of indoctrination. 

How, indeed, do you organize a congregation or a religious community when the only unifying principle is the agreement to disagree. How do you create a public service that both a humanist and a supernatural mystic would be able to share and find mutually inspiring? At best, what you would have is a convential (sic) Jewish Community Center where a series of religiously incompatible groups share the facility. 

All that Polydoxy seems to arrange for is a situation where flexible humanistic Jews are compelled to spend their time negotiating a joint service with less flexible, more traditional Jews. The result is a timid cautious presentation pleasing to neither side. 

What I say to Polydoxy Jews is what I have said to so many Unitarians. Since most of you are humanists, anyway, why torture yourself? Be bold. Announce your humanism and allow your paralyzing minority to find their religious satisfaction elsewhere. An institution which seeks to accommodate all opinions provides none. 

Does Polydox promote no ethical value other than freedom? Are cooperation, generosity, compassion and rationality to be only personal options? Will four hundred individual definitions of the word ‘God’ improve communication within a congregation and enhance the religious experience? 

Standing against authoritarian religion is commendable. But it is never enough for organizing a community-if indeed you want a community. 

  1. Jewishness. Reines’ definition of a Jew is a generous commonsensical explanation, which is re-enforced (sic) by the way people normally use the word. The defining character of the Jewish community is shared descent. One may enter this ‘family’ either by birth or by ‘adoption’. 
  1. Ethnicity. Because of Reines’ definition of a Jew, his objection to ethnicity as a survival glue seems difficult to understand. If, indeed, Jewishness begins with ancestry (which after all is ethnic) and if indeed there is no shared community religion other than a belief in the validity of radical freedom, how can ‘religion’ be the survival factor? If the power of family is ignored, what compelling uniting ideological substance remains? 

Reines provides no raison d’ etre for Jewish survival. If Jewish ethnic identity is trivial, if Jewish family loyalty is secondary, why bother to combine radical freedom with Jewishness? After all, it is presumptuous to preempt radical freedom as a uniquely Jewish concept. For those who want it the Unitarians are already there. 

  1. Holidays. Moving holidays to serve individual desire has a slightly self-destructive thrust. Festivals are community celebrations. If every Jew celebrates Hanukka when he wants to, then Hanukka is useless. 

If Polydoxy as a movement, wants to move Hanukka to the winter solstice, that strategy has some semblance of rationality. As a community action, it might be persuasive to other liberal Jews. (Although the winter solstice seems a silly criterion in an urban culture. Making it coincide with Christmas would make more sense.) 

But Polydoxy is sabotaged by its own principle. In any congregation individual members are encouraged to celebrate Hanukka on whatever date they choose. The Polydoxy community cannot be effective because it cannot take a strong community stand against the pressure of the overwhelming majority of Jews to conform to the traditional date. 

Reines is trapped by incompatible objectives. He wants radical individual freedom and bold community innovation simultaneously. 

I think that Reines really wants to be part of bold community innovation. But he has chosen to promote a tired and increasingly ineffective old Unitarian principle instead. 

The strategy of the Freedom Covenant is to allow Polydoxy to function as an alternative Reform Judaism. It allows Polydox rabbis to do humanistic things in Reform Temples without alienating the established membership. Given its political context it will have to proceed slowly. 

As Humanistic Jews, we’re glad the Polydoxy is around. We regard it as the first step on the way from Reform to Humanistic Judaism. 

Humanistic Judaism and the Birmingham Temple-A History by David C. Kreger

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

The Birmingham Temple is celebrating its thirteenth, its baritzvah birthday. This means that the Humanistic Jewish movement also has attained the age of 13. In its short but luminous history, the Birmingham Temple family has evolved from a small committed pioneer group with a different Jewish philosophy, into a strongly-based, maturing congregation which has established a firm identity in the community. It is a good time for us as members of the Society for Humanistic Judaism to pause and to recognize the Temple’s historical contributions to the development of this major Jewish alternative. 

The Birmingham Temple began in mid-1963, when a group of eight young couples gathered and decided to form a new kind of Jewish congregation with the leadership of Rabbi Sherwin Wine. Their needs for an ethical framework for modern day living just were not being met by the religious practices of the Jewish temples in the Detroit area. The group and its rabbi were eager to develop a unified humanistic school of thought, which would place people solely in charge of their own destinies, without the need for control by supernatural forces supported by traditional forms of worship. In the early service the Union Prayer Book was used, as was the Torah (wheeled into the gymnasium of a suburban school dutifully by an “ark committee”). The rabbi wore the traditional black robes. Sherwin Wine presented electrifying sermons on human topics and crowds of people would attend. By November, 1963, thirty-five couples signed the articles of incorporation to become Charter Members of the Temple. 

A ritual committee began to examine whether the traditional rituals were consistent with the evolving humanistic philosophy. New services substituted meditations for prayers. More importantly in the mid-1960’s the contents of the services changed from an emphasis on biblical teachings and history to an illumination of humanistic principles. These principles related to such concepts as: self-respect, Jewish cultural and ethical identity, and humanism. 

Gradually some of the traditional symbols were re-interpreted. The Torah became an important historical and philosophical book, but it lost its “sacred” stature. Readings during services were drawn from many authors who presented interesting ideologies or perspectives. In October, 1964, the congregation ceased to intone the Shema, which until that time had served as the pivotal statement of Jewish creed. The Union Prayer Book was eliminated in favor of a book of services and meditations constructed by Sherwin Wine. On a hot summer night the Rabbi removed the robes-permanently. 

In 1965, when the Birmingham Temple had grown to 140 member families, what had been local controversy in the Detroit area about the Temple’s Rabbi and its humanistic viewpoint, became a source of national publicity and discussion. Time and Newsweek published articles about “The Atheist Rabbi”. Time reported that God had been removed from the Birmingham Temple’s services, and that Sherwin Wine had said “man’s destiny and fulfillment are more important than the idea of a deity”. The Time article also reported that the congregation generally found “Wine’s godless approach meaningful and inspiring.” 

The Detroit News and Free Press reported in 1965 that the President of the Michigan Association of Reform Rabbis had determined Sherwin Wine was an “atheist who teaches atheism”. He wailed that the Birmingham “group aimed at losing all Jewish identity and was instead becoming a sort of cult of self-improvement”. Stating that the group had no interest in Jeiwsh culture, art and literature (and in the survival of Jewish thought), he called for national sanctions by the Central Conference of American Rabbis to discipline Sherwin Wine and to remove his Rabbinical designation. He cried that the congregation should not be permitted to continue under the label of a Reform Temple.  Rabbi Leon Fram was not successful-the Central Conference had no provision in its by-laws to defrock a rabbi. 

Rabbi Morris B. Margolies of Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City wrote in the National Jewish Monthly of May, 1965 that anyone has the right to be an atheist, but not a Rabbi. He ended a calamitous editorial by saying, “It is tragic to realize that man’s intoxication with atomic energy is draining awa his reservoirs of spiritual energy; these are the days of Wine and roses-with falling and malodorous petals.” 

Notwithstanding their intentions, the Rabbis Fram, Margolies, et al unwittingly helped to coalesce a Humanistic Jewish identity. The congregation had maintained its respect for Reform Judaism; but it was now clear that Humanistic Judaism was a distinct Jewish alternative and not a modern Reform spin-off. 

The Temple family went through paroxysms of self-examination for a year or so. Creative activity gave way to unremitting debate. Dissatisfied members resented being labeled atheists by outsiders, and were indignant when they were coldly informed that they “weren’t Jews.” Parents and relatives begged members to resign from the Birmingham Temple to avoid community ostracism. These tempestuous times did not last long but they did serve to test the survival strength of Humanistic Judaism. 

By May 1967 the Ritual Committee resumed its important task of developing services and rituals. Rabbi Wine wrote a Passover Haggadah. A special book of ten holiday services was published. In the introduction, Rabbi Wine said that the content of the services attempted to ”…wed intellectual honesty and Jewish identity with man’s perennial response to the cycle of the seasons.”  

The Adult Education program flourished. Sherwin Wine initiated his Monday evening series of courses on intellectual, historic, and philosophical trends. Guest humanists appeared as lecturers. The Sunday School curriculum took on an even more sophisticated mold, with heavy doses of Humanistic Jewish content. Non-members would audit the weekly services in great numbers; some nodding their heads, others gnashing their teeth. 

Humanistic Judaism did not flourish solely in Detroit during the late 1960’s. Rabbi Wine was increasingly in demand to give lectures everywhere. Word of the growth of the movement circulated throughout the United States. Temple members were continually quizzed about the Birmingham Temple by their friends and relatives in other communities. Temple Beth Or in Deerfield, Illinois and the Westport Congregation in Westport, Connecticut emerged as Humanistic Jewish congregations. 

In late 1968 the Birmingham Temple family began debating the possibility of constructing a Temple building. The congregation voted to proceed. In an impressive dedication service in June 1971, 160 member families moved into an aesthetically pleasing, but only modestly costly Temple home. Rather than a loftey synagogue of soaring heights, reaching for God, it was a compact, warmly intimate structure in which those seated in the meeting room were facing each other. The building proved to be a central focus for Temple activity increasing the sense of family experienced by the congregation. Within five years it would host 325 Temple families. 

Another milestone was achieved by the calling of the first annual meeting of the Society of Humanistic Judaism. It took place June 26, 1970 at the Northland Inn in Southfield, Michigan. Representatives of Temple Beth Or and of Westport Congregation joined the Birmingham clan and the Society for Humanistic Judaism was formed. 

This first meeting of the Society was a unique opportunity for Jewish Humanists to exchange ideas about: involvement of members, uniqueness of congregations, goals, ethical behavior, religious education, holiday observances, content of services and publications. Congregants from all three temples became better acquainted. 

Through annual meetings of (sic) the ensuing years, acquaintanceships have led to friendships. Our sense of mishpaha has become intracongregational. The Society for Humanistic Judaism has grown to include: 

Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan—Leader: Sherwin T. Wine. 

Congregation Beth Or in Deerfield, Illinois—Leader: Rabbi Daniel Friedman. 

Westport Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Westport, 

 Connecticut—Leader:Rabbi Phillip e. Schechter. 

Toronto Jewish Humanist Congregation in Toronto, Ontario, Canada—Assisted by  

Mr. Richard Neff. 

Adat Haverim in Los Angeles, California—Leader: Rabbi Leslie Freund 

And there are Chapters of the Society for Humanistic Judaism in: 


Los Angeles 




And we have individual Society members from all over the world. 

In the thirteenth year, the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism are welded into an ascending course. There is a sense of high optimism that the movement is here to stay. It is due for a period of maturing (sic) and proliferation, limited only by the imagination and the potential of the movement’s great human reserve. 


David C. Kreger is a member of the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan 

Bar Mitzvah Ceremony of Ted Brooks, April 10, 1976, Birmingham Temple

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


The Barmitsva ceremony at the Birmingham Temple is not at all like a traditional Barmitsva service. At Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues, the thirteen-year-old reads the regular Torah portion for that particular day. He may read about shepherds or nomads About life in a tent or a fertile valley. His topic may be maid-servants, boils or leprosy. But whatever the Torah reading of the day-it is not likely to have any real meaning to the life of the twentieth century, space-age person who recites. It. 

In Humanistic Jewish congregations, the Barmitsva boy or girl picks a humanist hero. The Barmitsva celebrant spends a six month period researching his hero. The tutor and the student use the hero as a role model for the character development of the student. 

For the Barmitsva ceremony, the thirteen-year-old presents his paper on the life and the humanist qualities of his subject. The adolescent teaches the congregation about his hero. And the hero is the teacher about moral growth for the adolescent. 

At the Birmingham Temple, the Barmitsva experience is a meaningful one. 

The man who developed this style of ceremony did not have this kind of Barmitsva himself. He had a traditional service for his own thirteenth birthday. He spoke about Jeremiah. Jeremiah was the most dismal prophet in the Bible. He always predicted doom. He was a sad man. Jeremiah was hardly a person for a young boy to model himself after. 

If he had had the opportunity to pick a hero, he would never have selected Jeremiah. Instead he might have chosen Bertrand Russell or Albert Einstein or Sigmund Freud or Jean Paul Sartre or Erich Fromm. Or-he might even have chosen himself. 

Rabbi Sherwin T. wine is the founder of Humanistic Judaism. 

In the autumn of 1963, Rabbi Wine and eight couples met regularly to decide what kind of temple would have meaning for them. They were unhappy with the choices they had. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism did not suit their needs. They did not enrich their lives; They did not help them to solve their problems. 

What was needed did not exist. What was needed to help people had to be created. Rabbi Wine created Humanistic Judaism. 

A principle is an idea or an ideal. A set of principles is a philosophy. We use philosophy as a guide to the way we want to live. Religions are philosophies. Humanistic Judaism is our religion. Humanistic Judaism has seven basic principles. Let me define them for you. 

The first principle is humanism. Humanism is a belief in the power of people. It is a rejection of any supernatural power to be above the power of human beings. 

The second principle is reason. Reason Is the ability of the human mind to think about things in a logical manner. 

The third principle is autonomy. Autonomy is the freedom to rule our own lives. It is the freedom to be responsible for our behavior. 

Love is another principle of Humanistic Judaism. Love is the ability to care for and about oneself and others. 

The principle of self-reliance is the confidence in the ability to use one’s own power. 

The sixth principle is self-respect. Self-respect is the feeling of self-worth that a person earns for himself when he does things in a responsible manner. 

And the seventh principle is Judaism. We value our Jewishness. And being Jewish means being a member of a large international family. All the Jewish people have a shared history. And we share holidays. 

These seven principles make up the religion which Rabbi Wine called Humanistic Judaism. 

How does a person become a leader of a new religious movement? Who is this man Sherwin Wine? What were his beginnings? 

He was born January 25, 1928. His mother is tillie Israel Wine His father was William Wine. His sister is Lorraine Pivnick. 

Both Tillie and William wine were born near Bialystok in Poland. But they did not know each other until they met in Detroit. 

In order to understand Sherwin Wine, there are several names that we have to know. One is the name of an era. It was called the depression (sic). Wine was born in ‘28. The depression – in ’29. 

These were times of great stress for people all over the world. During his earliest years, he saw that people had to work very hard in order to get along. He saw the importance of each person’s contribution to the family 

William Wine was a designer and cutter of men’s suits. He worked very hard so that the family income could remain steady. Tillie Wine managed the household expenses very well so that the daily could live within their income. While other families had to move around a lot, the Wines managed to keep up the payments on their home. Until Sherwin went to the University of Michigan, he lived at only one address – 1961 Clairmount. 

When he was still little, he saw that children too could contribute to the welfare of the family. During these difficult years, children helped to keep optimism alive for the adults around them. In the movies, child stars were the biggest box office attractions. And in homes across America, children were entertaining their families.  

Young Sherwin found in himself an ability to make people laugh. He saw that he was helpful to people by making them laugh. He liked helping people. And he enjoyed having an audience. His family was his first audience. 

When he started school, he assumed the responsibility to do the best he could. His best was better than anybody else’s best. And he left behind him a record still unmatched in Detroit’s history. 

Tillie wine is proud of her son. And she is proud to be the first one to have recognized his genius. She loves to tell people that even when he was in the crib – she could tell he was thinking. 

Another name for us to know is Twelfth Street. The house on Clairmont (sic) was near Twelfth. That is where the family did their shopping. There were no home freezers in those days. So people shopped often. It gave neighbors the opportunity to see each other often. 

Twelfth Street was like the market place in the shtetl of Europe that most of the people had come from. Shopping gave them the opportunity to socialize and to exchange their views during the depression. Twelfth Street was a main source of entertainment. 

While his feet were making circles  in the sawdust at the kosher butcher shop, Sherwin was listening to people talk. He was learning how they felt about things. 

In the thirties, there were riots on Twelfth Street. They were different from the riots of the sixties. The Rabbi saw that Jewish riots are safer. Instead of rocks and bombs – Jewish opponents fight with words. 

The men of the community would come in groups to defend their positions. There were followers of Karl Marx who believed that the workers of the world should overthrow the capitalist governments. They believed that God was an evil invention of the ruling classes to make people content to suffer in this life and be rewarded in the next life. 

The Marxists and the Orthodox Jews hated each other. They had heated battles. They argued endlessly. 

Orthodox Jews were not the only enemies of the Marxists on Twelfth Street. There were also the Zionists. The Zionists saw a return to a homeland as the ultimate solution to world anti-semitism. 

The Marxists argued that the problem was not between Jews and non-Jews. They said it was between the world-wide workers and the world-wide ruling class. They were against the formation of another country to set up a society in the same manner. They wanted the workers of the world to unite under one system. 

Secularists believe in the scientific creation of the universe and the evolution of mankind. 

Traditionalists believe that God created this world and all things in it. One side argued for the virtue of reason. The other valued faith. 

One side saw Jewish people from a (sic) historical view. The other saw themselves as the Chosen People. 

One side was concerned with public education. The other side with Jewish education. One side turned to Einstein and Freud for guidance The other turned to the Bible. 

One side was screaming God damn it! And the other did not mention His name. 

This was the everyday scene on Twelfth Street. Most people were outraged. 

But one person was enjoying it thoroughly. Sherwin Wine listened and learned. He commuted between Twelfth and the library where he could look up more information on all the things he was hearing. Through its color, Twelfth Street introduced this curious boy to the world of philosophers. 

Young Sherwin was very interested in politics, in governments and in world powers. By the time he was eight, he knew the history of all the people in each of the royal houses of Europe. 

He loved to read. He liked historical novels best. Adventure was exciting to him. Royalty was fascinating. He admired royalty more than peasants. He liked powerful people better than helpless people. 

He liked the dramatic manner in which people fought for their honor. He liked the elegant style of the upper classes. He liked their theatrical costumes and their lavish furnishings. 

Alexander Dumas, who wrote “The Three Musketeers”, was one of his favorite authors. Young Sherwin liked the excitement of the unexpected. He liked the physical and intellectual grace of fencing swords. He saw that fencing with swords in a scene of a Dumas novel was very much like fencing with words on a corner of Twelfth Street. 

In college he took courses in fencing. Throughout his life, he has developed a graceful style of maneuvering words. He saw the powerful influence of using words with skill. And he has always used his natural ability and his intelligence to improve on that skill. Through his remarkable abilities for writing, speaking and debating Sherwin Wine has affected many people. 

Two more names to know are Shabbat and Hollywood. Shabbat mornings were spent with his father dovening at Shaarey Zedek. But Shabbat afternoons were spent at the movies. 

He found more lasting value in Hollywood than he did in the Torah. He still attends the movies regularly. But he rarely steps foot inside Shaarey Zedek. Cary Grant and Ronald Coleman have affected his style more than Rabbi Hirschman and Moses. 

Another two names that influenced the Rabbi in his childhood were Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolph Hitler. It fascinated him that these two men were complete opposites – yet, each had millions of devoted followers. 

One espoused the forces of good. The other was for evil. But both had the power to attract. Like magnets, they pulled people toward them. We call this ability charisma. 

Sherwin recognized that he too had the talent for charisma. 

He looked at Hitler and Roosevelt and he saw that charisma demanded responsibility. He saw that responsible leadership comes from using one’s ability to reason. This is the force for good. People who are driven by passion are irresponsible leaders. They are forces of evil. Roosevelt used his reason. Hitler – his passion. 

Sherwin was always a sensitive person and he knew that within himself – as in all  

people – there were the possibilities to do good as well as to do evil. He saw that  

people used their power to do what they wanted to do. 

He thought about another person who was said to be all-powerful. Yet – with all his talk about his power, he could not overcome Hitler. Sherwin saw that Roosevelt and Hitler possessed more power than God. He saw that people had more power than the supernatural. 

He also saw that both Hitler and god were humorless – while Franklin Roosevelt was filled with good humor. He had the ability to enjoy life. He dealt with serious matters in a responsible manner – but never without humor. He never took life or himself too seriously. He knew how to laugh at life and at himself. He helped people of our nation to overcome their economic and emotional depression. 

FDR was Rabbi’s model of how a leader should behave. 

Rabbi wine received his bachelor’s (sic) and his master’s (sic) degree in philosophy at the University of Michigan. He was ordained as a reform rabbi at the Hebrew Union College. 

A good rabbi has to be a good 









and public relations person. 

Sherwin wine excels in all of these things. That is why he chose to become a rabbi. 

I would like to read to you some of the Hebrew poetry that Rabbi Wine has written. These poems express his optimistic view of life. 

…      [Handwritten Hebrew omitted] 

The world is neither good nor bad. 

The world is neither beautiful or ugly. 

The world is neither negative or positive. 

People are. 

…      [Handwritten Hebrew omitted] 

Listen now you lovers of love. 

Here (sic) this you seekers of happiness. 

There is no happiness without love. 

…      [Handwritten Hebrew omitted] 

Just as the water mirrors the face of man, 

So does the heart of one person reflect the heart of another. 

…      [Handwritten Hebrew omitted] 

Who is wise? 

A person who can distinguish between 

his words and his behavior. 

Who is strong? 

A person who has the power to see  

himself as others see him. 

Who is noble? 

A person who seeks to rule his own 

life instead of the lives of others. 

…      [Handwritten Hebrew omitted] 

We dreamed 

We hoped and we worked 

And our dream has become real 

Let us continue to dream. 

…      [Handwritten Hebrew omitted] 

Where is my light? My light is in me. 

Where is my hope? My hope is in me. 

Where is my strength? My strength is in me. And in you. 

I have learned a great deal from my Barmitsva research. The most basic thing I learned is that we are very lucky to have Rabbi Wine as our leader. 

He has the courage to create a new form of Judaism that has helped all of us to have better lives. 


                             Ted Brooks is a member of the Birmingham Temple family in Farmington Hills, Michigan 

Humanistic Judaism Answers Some Questions about Death and Mourning

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

Responses by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine 

Interview by Jacqueline Zigman 


Q. Since Humanistic Jews would find the traditional mourning services inappropriate, what meditations might they find useful? 

  1. We as Humanistic Jews ought to articulate our philosophy of life at the crisis of death. Meditations, both public and private, can be used for this purpose. These meditations are alternatives to the recitation of the traditional Kaddish. Many Humanistic Jews are uncomfortable with the Kaddish because it is fundamentally a praise of God. In the situation where a deceased relative or friend had requested the Kaddish, the Humanistic Jew obliges by finding a substitute who truly believes in saying this prayer. Humanistic Jews promote their integrity by saying publicly only what is consistent with their convictions. 

Suggested Meditations: 

Death is something individual. Against the collective stream of life it seems powerless. Particular flowers fade and die; but every spring repeats them in the cycle of nature. Individual man is a brief episode and is devoured by death; but mankind bears the marks of immortality, renewed in every generation by the undying spark of life. We are, each of us, greater than ourselves. We survive in the children we create; we endure in the humanity we serve. 

As an individual, separate and distinct, each of us is temporary, a short chapter in the story of the universe. As a part of the neverending process of life, each of us is immortal, a wave in the eternal flow of vital energy. The leaves of last year’s summer have died and vanished into the soil of mother earth. But, in a special sense, each lives on in the revival of every spring. Every man dies, but mankind survives. Every living thing perishes, but life persists. 

The past is unchangeable. What happened yesterday is beyond our control. We can cry and shout. We can scream and complain. But the events of just a moment ago are as far from our reach as the farthest star. The fool never forgives the past. He devotes every present moment to worrying about it, scolding it, and wishing it were different. 

Memory is a precious possession. It captures the past and trains it to our needs. The harshness of old events is softened by vagueness and the pleasure of happy moments sharpened by vivid imagination. Loved ones linger on in the glory of their individual uniqueness. In life they willed to live and hewed the path of their personal difference. In death they transcend decay and find their niche in fond remembrance. No man is defined by the sameness of another; if it were so, memory would die from generalities. 

Death hovers over every deed of man, over every action he performs. For some men death is an obsession, destroying their pleasure and filling their soul with anxious fears. For others death is a challenge prompting them to enjoy life while they live and urging them to taste their talents while they can. These men are men of dignity who respond to death with courage and to life with zest. 

The glories of our universe are never eternal. They shine for a while and are then consumed by the darkness. All things change. All life yields to death. If the beauties of nature endured forever, they would not be precious. We cannot love what we do not fear to lose. 

Freedom is the power to release the past. It is the good humor (sic) to give up what cannot be altered-the easiness to surrender what cannot be changed. Countless men and women live in the prison of their past. They are the tortured victims of their memories. They are the martyr slaves of their regrets. The present and the future hold no special challenge to them. They are merely opportune moments to reflect on old pleasure and an old pain. What might have been is an obsession. What could be is scarcely a thought. 

The free man learns from the past. But he does not live there. He does not seek to recapture old pain. He works to achieve new pleasures. He does not need to survive on the faded memories of faded happiness. He strives to create new joy. He uses the past to fashion a more interesting future. 

We often run away from life. We think of death and are obsessed by it. The threat of aging fills us with dread and casts a shadow over all our youthful pleasures. The end of our story ruins the middle and sours the taste of our happiness. Why bother to pursue what must pass away? Why bother to value what must cease to be? 


Q. Since humanists affirm responsibility for their lives, it would seem fitting that they should make their own death arrangements. What pre-death arrangements can humanists make? 

  1. EUTHANASIA-We as Humanistic Jews do not believe the purpose of life is mere survival. We  believe the purpose of life is survival with dignity. When survival with dignity is no longer possible, we affirm our right to choose to die. Euthanasia is an appropriate alternative to involuntary death when there is terminal illness and physical humiliation. If we can not arrange in advance to guarantee our right to dignity we shall, like most people, become victims of guilty relatives and timid physicians. Legally our moral right to euthanasia has not yet been granted, but we can apply moral pressure on our surivvors by signing a document called The Living Will. Copies of The Living Will may be obtained from Euthanasia Educational Council, 250 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019. A tax-deductible contribution is appropriate when sending for copies. 

PARTIAL DONATION-The organs are removed from the body to be used for transplants or research programs. Both of these processes aid in improving the quality of life. The following organization have a desperate need for organs: 

Deafness Research Foundation, 366 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10617 

Michigan Eye Bank-Wayne State University, 540 East Canfield Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48201 (Note: each state has its own eye bank) 

Human Growth Inc. (Pituitary Gland), 307 Fifth Avenue, new York, New York 10016 

Kidney Foundation of Michigan, 3378 Washtenaw Avenue, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48014 (Note: each state has its own Kidney Foundation) 

Whole donation-Whole body donation allows you to contribute to the advancement of medical knowledge. This new knowledge is used to benefit those people in need of medical care. The entire body must be donated with no organs removed except the eyes. Also, there is no expense to the daily for transportation, casket or disposal of the body. Inquiries should be made of medical schools in your area. 

CREMATION-Most Humanistic Jews prefer cremation to burial. This preference is defined in three ways: 

  1. Historically, burial was performed because of the traditional belief in the resurrection of the dead. Therefore the function of burial is negated by its contradiction to reality. 
  1. In an overpopulated world with limited space, cremation is the more reasonable method of disposal. 
  1. The quick finality of cremation has more aesthetic appeal then the traditional custom of dumping remains to rot. 


Q. What are appropriate settings for a Humanistic Jewish memorial service? 

  1. TEMPLE-Our Temple is our family home and we feel it should be used for sad as well as happy occasions. Therefore, we feel it appropriate to have the memorial service at the Birmingham Temple. It is not necessary to the body present, arrangements can be made with the funeral director. 

           HOME-Another available option for the Humanistic Jew is for the memorial 

           service to be performed in a home. The body need not be present. 

FUNERAL CHAPEL-Another alternative. 

See MEDITATIONS AND PHILOSOPHY at the beginning of this interview for suggested readings at the memorial service. 


Q. What mourning procedures can Humanist Jews follow comfortably? 

  1. Most Humanistic Jews need the support and understanding of a loving community. There are various ways in which family, friends and the congregation may help. 

RECEIVING VISITORS-traditional mourning required a seven day period of fasting, abstinence and immobility after death. The purpose of this shiva (7 days) was to divert the anger of God. For Humanistic Jews such activity is inappropriate. However, the custom of visiting mourners is still very appropriate. Most people enjoy the empathy and understanding of their family and friends during the crisis of death. We as Humanistic Jews can choose to remain home to receive visitors after the memorial service. If we do so, the number of days that we remain at home is up to our own personal feelings. Such a response is equally valid. If visiting is desired, there is no reason why sadness and solemnity should prevail. We can best honor the dead by affirming their joy and not by dramatizing their sadness. 

YAHRZEIT-The word Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word meaning anniversary. It refers to the traditional custom of remembering the dead on the anniversary of their death. It is traditional on the yahrzeit day to kindle a light which burns all day in memory of the loved one. It is also customary in many Conservative and Reform congregations to read the name of the loved one on the Sabbath preceding the yahrzeit. It would therefore be appropriate to kindle such a light. We also find meaning in the public recitation of the name of our loved one, since we can then share their memory with the congregational family. However, many of us need no ceremony to remember. Some HumanisticJ ews may regard both candles and public announcements as irrelevant and intrusive. We respect their rights to remember privately. Tradition determines the yahrzeit date fby the use of the Hebrew lunar calendar. Since no Jew in his daily life uses this calendar, calculation is awkward and makes anniversary (sic) hard to determine. Common sense indicates that we use the universal Roman calendar to determine this date, since this calendar has become the effective way of counting time for all Jews. 

YIZKOR-Yizkor is a Hebrew word meaning memorial. It refers to a public memorial service which is held traditionally 4 times a year–Passover, Shavuot, Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret. We as Humanistic Jews believe that a public memorial service during which the entire Temple family can share the experience with mutual support is useful and desirable. However, repetition within a short period of time usually dulls the effect of most important events. We therefore regard it as appropriate to hold such a memorial service on Yom Kippur afternoon. 

MEMORIAL STONES-Markers are appropriate to burial sites since Humanistic Jews believe in both discretion and simplicity as aesthetic virtues. Markers should be small and fairly inconspicuous. Large and ostentatious memorial stones are inappropriate. The most desirable kind of marker would be a small stone or metal marker parallel to the ground. 

UNVEILINGS-Ceremonies of unveilings are neither traditional nor psychologically desirable. They are American inventions which have no deep roots in Jewish history. Unveiling ceremonies tend to be unnecessary second funerals. They needlessly awake old grief. The proper memorial is either the yahrzeit or yizkor ceremonies. 

Here We Are: A Process of Self-Awareness

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1989, Issues Facing The Movement, page 3

Twenty-six years ago in 1963, eight families and I organized the Birmingham Temple. During the next year or two, what evolved out of our very intense, passionate discussions was an ideology that gave purpose to the organization we had established, and we gave a name to it. We called it Humanistic Judaism. 

Although we certainly didn’t use the word movement, in some respects at that time there was a kind of movement. That is, we were moving. We were out there trying to share the message. People were contacting us. We had a sense that we had something important to say and that we had a responsibility to share it with others who would find it meaningful. So, although we were only a tiny organization trying to grow, we had a sense that we were moving; and it was a kind of beginning, if you will, of a movement. 

We have been on the move in a variety of places for a long, long time. I have a lot of memories of the evolution of the movement. The rabbis’ meeting with Dan Friedman in 1967 in Detroit, and the beginning of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis, when six rabbis from the Reform movement signed a humanistic statement. In 1969, when Congregation Beth Or very courageously determined that it was a humanistic congregation. The meeting in 1970 in Detroit, the first meeting of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. It was in that year also that the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO) was formed. The meeting in 1981 at Kibbutz Shefayim in Israel. We had taken a group over to see whether, with the help of (M.K. Shulamit  Aloni, we could contact leading Israelis in the humanistic and secular tradition. The meeting in 1982 – Gerry Revzin, Executive Director of the CSJO, was there – when secularists who had not spoken to each other for eighty-six years finally met face-to-face. They had been divided by issues and conflicts they couldn’t even remember; they didn’t remember why they were mad at each other. We came together, and out of that came the Leadership Conference of Secular Humanistic Jews. The meeting in 1983 when Miriam Jerris, Executive Director of the Society, and I went to Israel, where Zev Katz, together with Yehuda Bauer, was instrumental in organizing the Israel Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The meeting in 1985 in Jerusalem, when The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism was established, and a year later in 1986 in Detroit, when the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews was established, and a year later when the North American section of the Federation held its first meeting in New Jersey. That marvelous meeting in 1988 in Brussels – a warm celebration of our movement – when, as a movement, we expressed our ideas on Who is a Jew

So we’ve been moving for a long time. We’re in the process now of what I call self-awareness. Sometimes you behave and you act and you do, and all of a sudden you stop and say, semicolon “So, where am I – what am I doing?” 

 Along the way we discovered that what we were doing was important. We had an important message. We were helping people. We were providing an opportunity for effective identity for a lot of people. It became clear that young people with children wanted to join a group in which if somebody asked their children what they were, they could respond with a label that somebody knew about. That was possible only if there was some kind of visibility. 

Along the way, of course, in this movement, we ran across a lot of problems. There was the problem of parochialism – the people who said, “I’ve got my friends here in this town. We got together and had a marvellous discussion. We liked the food. We enjoyed their company. Why do you hok me a tchynik?” 

To take a group of secular humans and turn them into an organization is a great feat. Because each one of us is autonomous. Each one of us is in charge of his or her life. Each one of us has his or her mind. Each one of us has his or her ideas. Not only that – many of us have memories of having belonged to oppressive organizations that sought to hit us over the head, and so we don’t like organizations. 

Then we have had the problem of negativism. It was hard to feel ourselves to be a movement because we were always telling people what we did not believe. We second; the movement is more than a series of organizations. The organizational chart is very important, but if you think that’s the movement, it’s like thinking that the skeleton is the person. The movement is the collection of people who experience a sense of solidarity through this shared message and shared need, who are drawn together by passions and by commitments to do something. In the process, they may create organizations, but the organization isn’t the movement. The movement needs the organization, but the movement is bigger and broader than that. It is the sum total of all of the people and their passions.  

It is important to remember that we are bigger than we seem. I mentioned that we were a movement to somebody in Detroit who is not a secular humanist. He said, “A movement! You, a movement? Chutzpah! This is colossal chutzpah – calling yourself a movement. One thousand – now, that’s a movement. The conservatives – five hundred thousand, that’s a movement. What are you talking about, a movement?”  

We are indeed a movement because our appeal is to an enormous number of people. 40% of the Jews in this country are unaffiliated. In many cases, they are alienated from existing Jewish institutions. And if you could sit them down and have a conversation with them, they would discover that although they have no label for what they are, they are most likely secular humanistic Jews.  

So we have large numbers out there, potential numbers, and our chutzpah is associated with the fact that we have some kind of responsibility to reach them. I believe that if you have something that you think is beneficial to other people, then you want to share it with them – not in some aggressive missionary fashion, but you certainly let people know you’ re around. You have a moral responsibility if somebody needs you.  


The movement is more than a series of organizations… It is the sum of all the people and their passions.  

We’re a group that didn’t believe in God, and that’s how we got in the newspapers. Other groups were movements because they had something positive to say. We were the anti-movement. 

And there were all these internal arguments – the ones that divided fundus and Zionist, and the arguments that divided secularists and humanists, and the arguments that many people couldn’t remember but the residual emotional hostility survived. 

Then there was the problem of being on the periphery. There is a thing called self-esteem. Big reform temples have self-esteem. They know they deserve to exist. But our group had a kind of Jewish angst. Should we be? Do we have a right to be? Don’t we have a right to be? Should we open our mouths? 

So what we are in the process of doing is not simply saying, “ Shall we be or not be a movement?” What we are really doing is an act of self-awareness. We’re here. We’ve come this far. We’ve got a long history. Whether it’s the SHJ or the CSO or the is really experienced or the European Yiddish experience as – whatever it is, they’ve all been moving for a long time. Now, as an act of self-awareness, I’d like to share what I consider to be some very important affirmations – things to remember – as we go through the process. 

First: we have a message. If we didn’t have a message, it wouldn’t pay to organize. In various discussion groups, people were talking about the differences of opinions in their groups and the great fear that somebody would impose an opinion on somebody else. My general experience in humanist and secular groups is that it’s very difficult to impose your opinion on anybody else. People are always focusing on differences. Yet, the reality is that we are united by a pretty strong consensus: our message about Jewishness and Jewish culture and human beings that we give to the world and that defines our movement. 

Second: The movement is more than a series of organizations. The organizational chart is very important, but if you think that’s the movement, it’s like thinking that the skeleton is the person. The movement is a collection of people who experience a sense of solidarity through the shared message and shared need, we are drawn together by passions and by commitments to do something in the process they may create organizations, but the organization isn’t the movement. The movement needs the organization, but the movement is bigger and broader than that. It is the sum total of all of the people and their passions. It is important to remember that we are bigger than we seem. I mentioned that we were a movement to somebody in Detroit who is not a secular humanistic humanist. He said, “ Movement! You, a movement?! Chutzpah! This is colossal chutzpah – calling yourselves and movement. One hundred thousand – now, that’s a movement. The conservatives – Five hundred thousand – now, that’s a movement. What are you talking about, a movement?”  

We are indeed a movement because our appeal is to an enormous number of people. Forty percent of the Jews in this country are unaffiliated. In many cases they are alienated from existing Jewish institutions. And if you could sit them down and have a conversation with them they would discover that although they have no label for what they are, they are most likely secular humanistic Jews. 

So we have large numbers out there, potential numbers and our chutzpah is associated with the fact that we have some kind of responsibility to reach them. I believe that if you have something that you think is beneficial to other people, then you want to share it with them – not in some aggressive missionary fashion, but you certainly let people know you’re around. You have a moral responsibility if somebody needs you.  


The movement is more than a series of organizations… It is the sum total of all the people and their passions.  

It is important to remember that we have a positive message. We have to be able to say very positively what it is that we believe. We are not an anti-God movement. We are a movement in favor of Jewish culture. We are a movement in favor of human autonomy. We are a movement in favor of the human spirit. We are a movement in favor of human creativity. That is what the word humanism is used. In addition to that, we need to have a personal message. The New Age mysticism is a real competitor, and I think it’s going to be a more significant one. I think by the 21st century there will be three significant modes: the humanistic mode, the New Age mode, and the fundamentalist mode. The establishment churches are going to continue to decline in the power of that New Age mysticism is the power of the personal message. We can talk about Jewish identity, but that’s never enough. You must have Jewish identity plus some kind of message to the individual about how he or she might lead his or her life to make it more creative, more fulfilling, happier, and so forth.  

It is important to remember that labels do not describe reality. Some people live by labels, but I’ve learned, since I do a lot of intermarriages, that labels are very deceptive – that often two people of different labels believe the same thing, and two people of the same label believe totally different things. In several of the discussion groups, they were discussing, “What’s secular? What’s humanist? Why are they together? I am a humanist, but I’m not a secularist. Well, I’m a humanist and a secularist. I’m a humanist because I affirm the human being as the center and focus my attention on humanity. I’m a secularist because I am first this – worldly and not otherworldly.  

Then there’s this argument about “Are we a religion?” There are people inside Humanistic Judaism who view the philosophy as a religion. I have used the phrase secular religion. All I mean by that designation is that we are this worldly and that a religion is simply an organized philosophy of life. 

If we sit around arguing about these words and some kind of exclusive tone, then we are betraying the movement, because the movement is the shared consensus that we all have, and the labels become barriers to mutuality and solidarity when they should enable us to work more closely together.  

It’s important to remember that awareness comes from training. I think it would be nice to have a requirement in every group that a certain amount of time be taken by new members to sit down and talk about the movement – this thing that is yet evolving – so that people don’t just walk in and say, “Well, I like the people,” or “It’s a nice friendship circle,”  or rather that there’s an ideology. Somehow, as we become more self-aware, we have to share that self-awareness with other people.  

It’s important to remember that the movement means communities. The way we reach people most effectively is not simply through sending them literature. The way we reach people most effectively is by seeing the evolution of communities. We can see what happened here in Phoenix with our Valley of the Sun chapter, this community that, in a very short time, has developed bonds of connection and commitment and enthusiasm for their ideology.  

But communities don’t grow all by themselves. They need help and they need support. They need help for their schools and school curricula. They need help with their literature for adult education. They need help to get good trained leaders and teachers. And we have a responsibility, since we have a sense of solidarity, to help each other. Every group has some kind of an experience – some kind of expertise that can help others and can be shared. And that means we, as a movement, have to organize the literature and the teachers and leaders meetings. 

Our movement will have no credibility unless we have leaders who have adequate training and presence. In order for them to be trained, we need to school, and that school is the Institute that was founded in Israel in 1985, which has now established its programs in North America to train the teachers and leaders that we need.  

It’s important to remember that contacts bring friendship and solidarity. One of the nice things about this weekend for me is that I see people I look forward to seeing. There are people I’ve seen almost from the very beginning of history of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and although some of them some of them live a long distance from me, they are my contact with the movement. what we need to do as a movement is to arrange for more and more events where we can come together, whether on a regional level or on a national level or on an international level. what happens is that the movement turns into something not organizational. I would imagine that people will leave this weekend who have made friends out of strangers – people they never met before who come from other places – whom they have come to know in a very special way in a short period of time, and that contact will be important. Those contacts define the flush and blood and muscle of the movement. 

We need to remember that we are all part of the same movement. People talk about their organizations, and they refer to the movement as another organization out there, to which maybe they would have a relationship or maybe not. That’s not the movement. It isn’t his Institute. It’s my Institute. It isn’t His Society or Her Society. It’s My society. It’s My Society My Institute My Federation and not only is it the people out there trying to reach me with their demands, it’s me reaching them with my demands, and not only people out there reaching me with their sense of responsibility, but my reaching out to them with my sense of responsibility. 

Last, we have to remember that we have a right to succeed. There are many people who are cursed with self-destruction. They arrange their lives to destroy themselves by eternal arguments and protestation. Protestations over small issues and defenses of ego. We have a right to succeed. We have worked. This movement has been moving for close to one hundred years. One hundred years. We have a right to succeed because we represent an important element in the population – the Jewish population – and they need us. The sign of our success will be when each of us in our community, because we sense that we are part of the movement, will never consent to community events being conducted with representatives of the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform persuasion without speaking out and saying, “Wait a minute. There’s a fourth variety in this community, and we deserve recognition.” We are real. We are authentic. We believe in success. That’s what a movement is. 

The self-awareness will continue. We now have to figure how we can make our movement effective and how we can succeed in the way we deserve to succeed. Since I’m a congenital optimist, I think we will.  

A Historic Event

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 34, No 4, Autumn 2006_ Vol 35 No 1 Winter 2007

The date is Friday, December 22. The time is 2:00 in the afternoon. The setting is the western hills of Jerusalem. The place is the famous Israel Museum, perched on top of Israel’s cultural and Parliamentary “mountain,” a secular “temple” to the message of Zionism. The event is the first ordination of Secular Humanistic Rabbis in Jerusalem. It is an historic moment. 

The path to this moment has been long and circuitous. First came the movement of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, organized by secular Jews in response to antisemitism and in rebellion against the religious passivity of traditional Judaism. Second came the dramatic attempts by secular Jews to organize secular Jewish communities in Palestine that would celebrate Judaism as a culture, and not as a religion. The kibbutz was the most viable result of this effort. Third came the establishment of the Jewish state and the emergence of a new national Jewish culture expressed in the renaissance of the Hebrew language. Fourth came the cultural and political crisis, embodied in the growing power of militant Orthodoxy, the decline of socialism and the kibbutz movement, and the increasing search by young secular Israelis for philosophic and spiritual answers that secular nationalism could not provide. And last, the arrival in Israel of the ideology of Humanistic Judaism, with its marriage between Jewish culture and a humanistic philosophy of life – and with its special creation, the profession of a “secular rabbi.” 

Secular Judaism in Israel suffered from two problems during its impressive history. The first was that secularism and humanism played second fiddle to two more powerful movements to which they were attached. Nationalism and socialism were both secular. But they had other more compelling agendas that were competitive with humanism and that inhibited the development of a positive personal philosophy of life capable of transcending political boundaries. The second was the profound hostility of most of the Zionist pioneers to organized religion and its manifestation in a militant political Orthodoxy. Much of secularism in Israel was negative, a continuing battle against the hated religious establishment. There was no energy left for fashioning the institution of a positive secularism, which could embrace a clear alternative to the life of faith. Secular Israelis lived the life of courage. But they did not know how to translate this experience into an inspiring message for young people struggling to find hope and meaning in a dangerous world. 

When North American Humanistic Judaism first arrived in Israel, old-time secularists were comfortable with its message. But they were not comfortable with the idea of a secular rabbi. Although they had not trained any philosophic and ceremonial leaders to serve the philosophic and ceremonial needs of their families and communities, they were hostile to the word rabbi, with all its connotations of traditional religion. In many cases – whether a wedding, a funeral, or a bar mitzvah ceremony – they often used the services of traditional rabbis. But they were reluctant to create a secular version of a rabbi to serve their needs with integrity and dignity. It was ironic that the people who were bold enough to create a Jewish state against overwhelming odds and to invent a new Hebrew culture were paralyzed by this provocation. 

But their grandchildren do not suffer the same ambivalence. They are the generation of Israelis who are openly searching for personal answers beyond nationalism and socialism. Some of them make the now familiar pilgrimage to India after their army experience, exploring the mysticism of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. Some of them are captured by the aggressive missionaries of the Lubavitchers. But most of them are open to a powerful humanistic message from empowering humanistic teachers. They have no difficulty with the concept of a secular rabbi. They have no difficulty with the idea of a secular clergy. While they oppose the ambitions of the militant Orthodox, they are open to positive teachers with positive messages. Jewish culture can be meaningful for them only if it touches their desire for happiness, personal fulfillment, and moral idealism.  

The audience of 300 at the ordination in the Israel Museum were mainly young. Interspersed among them were political leaders, writers, journalists, academicians, and representatives from liberal religious movements. The audience was a sign of hope for our movement in Israel. Their enthusiasm, excitement, and joy were a mirror to the thousands of Israelis outside the museum who would welcome secular rabbis and the positive message of Secular Humanistic Judaism. 

North America was represented by me, by Rabbi Adam Chalom, by Rabbi Greg Epstein, and by movement leaders including Michael Egren, Ron Milan, Phillip Gould, and Marvin Rosenblum. 

The program featured the participation of some very important leaders. A.B. Yehoshua, Israel’s most famous writer and an impassioned secularist, opened the event with a profound analysis of the permanent connection of Israel and the Diaspora. Yehuda Bauer, Israel’s most distinguished Holocaust scholar and the first president of the International Federation, celebrated the importance of this historic event. Above all the team of father and daughter, Yaakov Martin and Rabbi Sivan Maas, who together created the International Institute program for the training of Secular Humanistic rabbis and leaders in Israel, articulated their vision. Sivan Maas  was ordained as a rabbi in Detroit during the Colloquium of 2003. Her charisma, wisdom, and determination are largely responsible for the dramatic new success of our movement in Israel. 

Seven rabbis were ordained. They had visited the United States in 2005 when they were graduated as madrikhim. They are quite extraordinary. Each of them is the recipient of many graduate degrees. Each of them possesses a unique charisma. Each of them is an articulate exponent of the philosophy of Secular Humanistic Judaism. Each of them is creating an important niche in Israeli life as community leaders, teachers, ceremonialists, and counselors. Each of them spoke so eloquently that the audience rose to cheer them. 

The ordination received strong coverage in the press and on the radio and television. Almost all interviewers were friendly and excited. We extend special thanks to Yona Metzger, the Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Israel, who denounced the ordination and petitioned the Attorney-General to close the event down. Nothing happened – except that he managed to raise our visibility.  

Everybody who was present felt that they were present at a historic moment in the evolution of Secular Humanistic Judaism, a turning point for our movement. 

The best news is that more Israeli secular rabbis are waiting in the wings to be ordained. 

The Millennium: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

HJ Vol 27 No 4 Autumn 1999

Millennium fever is abroad. Some people are expecting the end of the world. Others are preparing for computer catastrophes. Still others are planning parties. Since socialism died, secular utopian visions for the next thousand years are hard to find. Of course, all of this anxiety is technically inappropriate. Since Jesus was most likely born in 4 B.C.E., the beginning of the millennium (as dated from his presumed birth) happened three years ago! 

Millennium time is an obvious time for prophecy. Secular prophets can be excused if they turn out to be fallible. There are so many variables to tangle with. The way to begin the process is to look at the amazing transformations of the past millennium. 

One thousand years ago, most of the planet’s people were subsistence farmers living in villages. The muslim world was at the peak of its power. Christian Europe was an economic backwater. Human minds and lives were centered on religion. Governments were princely and authoritarian. 

One thousand years later, the Muslim world is economically primitive. European culture dominates the world. Most people live in cities, not villages. The lifestyles of urban people are overwhelmingly secular. The political environment of most powerful nations is one of democracy and personal freedom. Our millennium has been unique. There is a radical discontinuity between its beginning and its end. 

For the Jews of the world, the past millennium has brought an equally radical transformation. One thousand years ago, most of the Jewish people lived in Muslim countries. Their lives were controlled by religious ritual and religious authority. External and internal governments were authoritarian and oppressive. One thousand years later, most Jews reside in nations of predominantly European culture, including a Jewish state. Their lifestyle has more to do with consumer choices than with divine commandments. Their political and economic environments offer emancipation, freedom, and prosperity. Their connection to their historic past is minimal. 

Never before in Jewish history has change been so dramatic. In the last two hundred years of this millennium, the interests and behavior of Jews have completely diverged from the traditions of the past. Synagogues and temples have become haves of nostalgia, where Jews can pretend to be traditional and to dent that they have radically changed. But the reality is too powerful to sustain the denial. A secular environment of personal freedom has no precedent in human history. At the end of this millennium has no precedent in human history. 

A free society, the gift of Anglo-Saxon Protestant politics, has undermined the walls of Jewish conformity. Today Jewish diversity is expanding. No single Jewish authority has the power to regulate Jewish life. Every Jew enjoys the privilege of choice. And the “menu” is almost infinite. Moses and Marx, Jeremiah and Freud, Akiba and Camus, gefilte fish and bacon, all are possible combinations on the buffet of freedom. Many Jews don yarmulkes at intermarriages. Some choices are rational and in good taste. Some choices are irrational and in bad taste. But no one seems to have the power to stop choosing. Of course, all this rapid change has produced high levels of guilt and anxiety. Many Jews are traumatized by freedom. Many want to go forward and backward at the same time. The rise of a militant Jewish fundamentalism is not a sign that change is reversing. It is a tribute to its success.  

So what are the prospects for the next millennium? Will the technological transformation of the industrial world render nationalism obsolete and break down the ethnic and religious barriers that have divided humanity? Will communication and transportation be so swift that the “global village” becomes real? Under today’s circumstances it is difficult to predict events beyond the next one hundred years. Empirical prophets are restrained by insufficient evidence. Nevertheless, it is clear that the beginning of the next millennium will continue the radical transformation of the Jew.  

What can we expect? 

Prosperity, leisure, and secular education will continue to make the Jew more secular. The secular goods of the market economy and the consumer culture have become more attractive than the offerings of traditional religion. 

Israel will continue to exist. A global economy will utilize its buying power and make it prosperous. The gradual secularization of the Arab and Muslim worlds will enable Israel to find allies, if not friends, in the Near East. 

Jewish life will grow more chaotic through diversity. Atheists, mystics, and Jesus-freaks all will be a part of it. In Israel, peace will bestow new power on the secular minority. New Age religion will share the marketplace with Orthodoxy. 

The dichotomy between ultra-Orthodox and secularized Jews will grow wider. As a protest against the modern world, ultra-Orthodoxy will continue to recruit many Jews who find the stresses of contemporary urban society intolerable. Living in their islands of segregation, traditional Jews will feel increasingly alienated from the rest of the Jewish community. 

Intermarriage will remain a significant part of Jewish life. Even in Israel, marriages between Jews and Arabs will flow from the freedom of an open society. Anti-Semitism will persist as a chronic annoyance. Since its foundations lie in the discomfort of millions of people with the stresses of a modern capitalist and urban culture and the perceived dominant role of Jews in that culture, its locus will continue to lie chiefly among the poor and lower classes. 

In the Diaspora, assimilation and intermarriage will de-ethnicize the Jewish people. After several generations, the stereotypes of Ashkenazic Jews will vanish. Jewish identity will be primarily a matter of choice. In the Jewish state, a new ethnicity will emerge out of the mixing of Ashkenazic and Eastern Jews. In both places the Jewish profile will become radically different. 

Higher birthrates in Israel will reverse the current population edge of the Diaspora. By 2050 the Zionist dream will be realized: the majority of the Jews in the world will reside in Israel. Israel will continue to play a greater and greater role in Jewish life, even for the de-ethnicized Jews of the Diaspora. 

American Jewry will shrink in size through low birth rates and attrition. But many non-Jews will choose a version of Jewish identity. A fascination with the achievements of Jews will continue to recruit adherents from the middle and upper classes. 

Humanistic Judaism will continue to grow and to become more respectable. Secular Jews will be attracted to Humanistic Judaism if the movement is both strong and visible. Reform and Conservative Jews will keep shifting between traditional and liberal initiatives in order to deal with their diverse and amorphous constituencies. Internal disputes may fragment both movements. 

Relentless change will be the order of the day. The technology of the next millennium will continue to generate both power and anxiety. More than theology, it will determine the future of Jewish life and of Judaism. 

The Future of Israel

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 27, No 3, Summer 1999

Netanyahu is out. Barak is in. What does it all mean? 

The Jewish state is fifty-one years old. For the first thirty years of its history it was governed by the socialism Ashkenazi elite that had founded the state. Members of this establishment dominated the government, the media, the army, the state industries, the labor unions, and the arts. They defined what it meant to be Israeli. The 1967 war brought them to the height of their power.  

In 1977 renegade Ashkenazim, led by Menahem Begin, came to power. They emerged from the same secular Eastern Europe background, but they repudiated socialism and embraced an expansionist nationalism. Their victory was made possible by cultivating the outsiders who hated the establishment: Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews, who were growing in number, and Sephardim, who by then constituted one-half of the Israeli population. The irony of the new government was that it was essentially a Sephardic protest movement led by secular Ashkenazim. 

The “protest” government stayed in power by cultivating every new group that hated or resented the old establishment. Almost one million resentful Russian immigrants were available for the picking. But the intifada, the Arab rebellion, undermined the credibility of the Likud, the party of Begin. The Labor establishment returned to power by promising peace. When the assassination of Rabin made the colorless Peres prime minister, the establishment lost again. The “protesters” returned under a new charismatic upstart leader, Bibi Netanyahu. 

The Netanyahu government was united by one compelling bond: hatred of the Labor establishment. This establishment had long since abandoned socialism and had become the heart of the wealthy bourgeois and professional class. Netanyahu cultivated this hatred, bringing together in one cabinet many parties with incompatible agendas and mutual hostilities. Secular Russians and the Sephardic Orthodoxy both hated Labor, but they also disliked each other. Netanyahu remained the Ashkenazic kingpin of a largely non-Ashkenazic constituency. 

In the end Netanyahu’s arrogance, sleaziness, and inept opportunism brought down his government. Abandoned by the Russians and die-hard Ashkenazi nationalists, he lost to Barak. The Labor establishment has returned to power, again with the promise of peace. But the Israel it will be governing is vastly different from the Israel it created. 

There is a prevailing misconception that the ascension of Barak to power will tame the Orthodox and will secure peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. But the Barak government of necessity includes both Orthodox and nationalist leaders who are wary of the peace process. The stunning victory of Barak in the race for prime minister was not matched by an equally significant victory in the Knesset. The Labor party, like the Likud, lost votes. Many new, small parties have emerged. The establishment could have governed without the Orthodox and the nationalists only by accepting the support of the Arab parties. But the Jewish public would not make concessions to the Palestinians if there were Palestinians in the government. 

Barak’s problem is that Israel today is divided into six rival communities, none of which has a clear majority. There is the old Labor establishment filled with liberals, peaceniks, and civil rights advocates. Most of the well-known writers and intellectuals belong to this constituency. There is the rival Ashkenazic community of renegade nationalists who established the Likud party. There is the militant union of Ashkenazic Orthodox Israelis who represent the fanatic settlers of the West Bank. There is the Sephardic or Oriental community, now represented increasingly by the Sephardic Orthodox party called Shas, which received wide support in the recent election. There is the Russian community, which has developed its own political parties to defend its own interests. There is the Arab community, twenty percent of the Israeli population, which has created Arab parties to give it representation. The old system of two major parties is gone. Each constituency has its own little party to give voice to its demands and grievances. 

Barak needed to paste together enough constituencies to make his government viable. If he is going to make peace with the Arab world, he needs the support of a large majority. A narrow majority of secularists and Arabs would only trigger violent resistance. As long as the peace issue is the dominant one, the conflict between the religious and the secularists will have to wait for resolution. The secular establishment is no longer large enough to have its way. 

Peace will not be easy to achieve. While the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews are now in favor of territorial concessions, most of them do not want to concede very much. The current Palestinian entity in the West Bank consists of eight urban “doughut holes” surrounded by the Israeli army and militant settlers. Giving the whole West Bank to the emerging Palestinian state is unacceptable to most of the Israeli electorate. Giving any part of East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority is even more unacceptable. Making a deal with Syria is now popular. But abandoning the Lebanon enclave is less popular, and giving up the Golan Heights even less so. Without the surrender of the Golan Heights no peace with Syria is possible. The maximum concessions the Israelis are willing to make do not even touch the minimum demands of the Palestinians and other Arabs. 

There is no doubt that the recent election mobilized secular Jews with a greater passion than ever before. The hatred of Orthodox intrusion and coercion, aggravated by the continuous provocations, is very intense. While the Meretz party, the old secular voice, grew stronger, a new, more militant secular party called Shinui burst on the scene with six Knesset seats. Shinui, led by a famous and controversial antireligious television personality, is a sign that the formerly passive secular constituency is now prepared to resist. But a combined sixteen votes in the Knesset is less than what the Sephardic Orthodox have. Barak is confronted by a country that is on the whole ambivalent on the religious issue. Most Israelis hate the greedy fundamentalists, but they are not comfortable with secular militancy either. Even the Reform and Conservative movements, which are ironically viewed as secular in Israel, have not won wide support among the Israeli public. They tend to be seen as North American imports. 

The setting for all these controversies is the Israeli economic recovery. Market capitalism is triumphant. State enterprises are being privatized. The welfare state is shrinking. The American-style consumer culture has replaced socialist asceticism. The old textile industries are closing in the face of world competition. The new high-tech industries are thriving, laying a good foundation for Israel’s economic future. Israeli aggressiveness is enhanced by the new competitive environment and the rise in personal expectations. Israel has been normalized as a successful first-world country with an American edge. While poverty and unemployment linger among the Sephardim, the Ashkenazic establishment has enough money to plant trees in America. 

The future of Israel is considerably different from the vision of the secular kibbutzim. It has an ambiguous character. Israel is a Hebrew state with a large Arab minority. It is a Western nation with a large Eastern population. It is a secularized people with strong nostalgia for tradition. It is a consumer culture filled with fundamentalist protestors, symbolized by Planet Hollywood on the one hand and yeshivot on the other. Barak has to manage this ambiguity, not some theoretical body of liberal democrats. 

Humanistic Jews should be heartened by the Barak victory. The peace initiative will be resumed. The Orthodox will be restrained. Secularism is taking on a life of its own. But our expectations should be tempered by reality. There is no simple Israeli agenda. There are six of them, all of them mutually incompatible.