Israel: How It Has Changed

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 26, No 3, Summer 1998

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women and Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 25-26, No 4-1, Autumn 1997_Winter 1998

Feminism is one of the most important social movements of the last two centuries. The liberation of women has more than historic significance. Above all, it has moral significance. From a humanistic perspective the freeing of women from male oppression and exploitation was ethically necessary. 

Respect for the dignity, equality, and talent of women is certainly humanistic. But it is not traditional. Prior to modern times there was no feminist reality in the Jewish or non-Jewish world. In a society dominated by agriculture, the primary role of women is reproduction and child rearing. The liberation of women depends on mass urbanization and the diminished need to produce children for cheap labor. When expectations rise, when children become both expensive and parasitic, when prosperity produces the cult of happiness and self-fulfillment, and when opportunities for female work emerge outside the home, then feminism is possible. These conditions have existed only in modern times. 

Traditional Judaism, whether priestly or rabbinic, is the enemy of feminism. In that respect it is no different from traditional Christianity, traditional Islam, or traditional Hinduism. Torah Judaism views women as a source of sin. Their menstrual blood defiles the territory they touch, and their immoral ambition can be checked only by male domination. Talmud Judaism sees women as the agents of frivolous and dangerous diversions. Conversing with them leads men into lewdness. No good can come from granting women either power or freedom.  

The opposition between feminism and traditional Judaism is very difficult for many modern Jews to accept. They want to believe that the roots of their feminist convictions lie in the ethics of the Jewish past. The apparent discontinuity offends their need to affirm the Jewishness of their values.  

How do Jews cope with this ideological discomfort? Many of them try to find support for their feminism in the literature of rabbinic Judaism. Since this endorsement is not there, they rip texts out of their ideological context and appropriate any obscure comment that might be regarded as pro-woman. The sadness in this effort is the need to be “kosherized” by these texts. Some liberals cannot listen to the past. They insist on using it for their ideological agenda. 

Feminism is morally right and appropriate even if our rabbinic and priestly fathers did not approve of it. The validity of an ethical value does not depend on the endorsement of the past, and the Jewishness of an ethical value does not depend on its being old. The experience of Jewish people in modern times is sufficient justification for its rightness. If there is any historic Jewish involvement with feminism, it lies in the fact that Jews were early pioneers in the urbanization of the western world. But that development is not endorsed by traditional texts. Jewish feminism has no significant past. It has only a present and a future. 

Four issues comprise the Jewish feminist agenda in the contemporary world. The first is the integration of women into all aspects of community life. The segregation of Jewish women denies them equality. The second is the opportunity to become community leaders, whether leadership means being president of the congregation or being the rabbi. Exclusion from any leadership role is morally unacceptable. The third is the need to make the language of celebration woman-inclusive. Inclusive language means that women share power and dignity with men. The fourth is resistance to any attempt to turn the obvious differences between men and women into an excuse for proclaiming female inferiority. Men are neither more intellectual nor less emotional than women are. 

Jewish feminism cannot be nostalgic. It has to be creative. It has to promote policies and practices that are new to Jewish life. Morality overrides tradition. Humanistic Judaism and other liberal Judaisms have to create what priestly and rabbinic Judaism failed to provide. 

A creative Jewish feminism must be based on six grounding principles: 

  1. A creative Jewish feminism does not fight the past. It listens to the voices of the past even though it does not approve. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism retells and rewrites Jewish history to emphasize the important contributions of women to Jewish life despite the hostility of the rabbis and the establishment literature. Most of these intellectual and artistic gifts were made in modern times. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism actively resists any attempt to force non-Orthodox Jews to participate in gender segregation at any public Jewish event outside an Orthodox synagogue. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism actively recruits women for leadership roles in the community. It assists women who want to become rabbis and helps them find employment. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism insists on inclusive language, even if familiar songs, prayers, and reflections thereby become less familiar. The dignity of women must take precedence over nostalgia. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism produces a new Jewish literature celebrating female equality and power and incorporates this new literature into Jewish education and celebrations. 

Our French Heritage

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 25, No 1-2 Winter_Spring 1997

We are here in Paris. And for us, as Humanistic Jews, Paris has a special significance. 

First of all, Paris is the most beautiful city in the world. Other cities have more imposing natural settings. But no other urban center possesses to the same degree the wonders of human creation. We Jews have been an urban people for more than two thousand years. Paris epitomizes the urban setting that has been our home for such a long time. 

More importantly, Paris was the setting for a series of political events that transformed the Jewish people. We call them the French revolution. It was in Paris that Jewish emancipation began in Europe. It was in Paris that an elected government first proclaimed religious toleration. It was in Paris that the Declaration of the Rights of Man was conceived and proclaimed. The secular revolution fought by French rebels against the old regime brought freedom to Jewish life, a freedom not only to taste the opportunities of the outside world, but also to defy the tyranny of tradition in the inner world of Jewish community life. That freedom brought positive energy to the Jewish world. 

The foundation of the French Revolution was an intellectual movement called the Enlightenment. The devotees of the Enlightenment celebrated the life of reason. They imagined that it was possible to create a new social order that was both compassionate and rational, a political and economic system that would promote dignity and happiness. Religion and tradition were viewed as obstacles to the achievement of these goals. Creative alternatives replaced the veneration of the past. 

Before the Revolution, the primary vision of social order was the family model. This model derived from the historic role of the family in an agricultural world. Loving the land and producing more and more children was what the farming life needed and demanded. The family ethos provided for both. It also provided authoritarian parents who offered protection and acceptance at the price of obedience. All larger units of social organization were modeled on the family. Clans had elders. Tribes had chiefs. Nations had kings. And the universe had God. Until modern times, people were viewed as subjects of higher authority in the same way as children were the subjects, and even servants, of their parents. 

The family model explains traditional religion and traditional ethics, with their emphasis on faith, reverence of the past, unconditional obedience, and hostility to outsiders. Traditional religion and paternalism went hand in hand. The alliance of the aristocracy with the church was as much a matter of vested interest as it was of belief. 

Capitalism and urbanization undermined the traditional family and the traditional social order. They produced mobility, ambition, and mixing — which, in turn, produced such new values as individualism, skepticism, and personal freedom. A world of free and ambitious individuals found tradition confining and authoritarian parents intolerable. In time, skepticism and free exploration produced the wonders of science. Evidence, not ancestors, now became the arbiter of truth. 

The French Revolution embraced a new social order, which we call democracy. It affirmed the right of human beings, using human reason, to rearrange the political landscape in the name of human happiness. It spoke of equality and fraternity. It honored personal autonomy. It rejected the paternalism of kings and bishops and encouraged the elevation of the lower classes through education. The authoritarian state was consigned to the dustbin of history. Even revolutionary dictators had to clothe their pronouncements in the language of freedom. 

The verbal flag of the Revolution was the word citoyen. No longer would people be the subjects of kings. They would be citizens, brothers and sisters in equality. A radical new social order was proposed. Instead of the authoritarian family-nation, there would be a community of autonomous individuals, bound together by patriotism and mutual interest, who would jointly promote the public welfare. Furthermore, the “public welfare” was no single goal determined by a supreme ruler. It was a multiplicity of individual agendas seeking some kind of workable harmony. 

Secular Humanistic Judaism is the child of Paris, as much as of Jerusalem. It is the offspring of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It is the son and daughter of the two thousand years of Jewish urban existence, which is one of the sources of modern capitalism and science. It rejects authoritarian government and embraces the ideal of the citoyen

What does this social ideal mean for us as Jews? 

Citoyen means that the old family model will not work either for ethics or for governance. The test of right and wrong does not lie in the will of our ancestors or in the will of God. It lies in the connection between our behavior and the satisfaction of the basic needs of ourselves and of others. People are not the servants of government, whether divine or human. Governments are the servants of people. 

Citoyen means that love is not enough. In an urban world of strangers, justice cannot depend on love. Feelings of love are appropriate to the intimate world of family and friends. They cannot guide us in the anonymous outside world. Ethical behavior toward outsiders, moral concern for the welfare of people we do not know, derives from urban anxiety — from the deep-seated awareness that we, too, depend on the kindness of strangers. A particular stranger may not be able to help us, but every stranger is a symbol for all. Compassionate and respectful social behavior arises out of the knowledge that failure to respond to the needs of others will justify others in returning our indifference. Duty has foundations in both empathy and self-interest. Guilt is connected to the discomfort we feel when we receive more than we give. 

Citoyen means that democracy is a convenience. Societies in which permanent majorities oppress permanent minorities are not just. No individual outside the family model can be expected to be loyal to a social system from which he or she derives no benefit. Individual rights restrict the power of the majority and force it to become more sensitive and more rational. A just society may not necessarily arrange for equal rewards for equal talent and equal effort, but it enables every citizen to feel that he or she is included. 

Citoyen means that there is an inevitable tension between my needs and the needs of others. Family survival is no longer the only agenda. Personal happiness is also compelling and morally justified. Justice is a balancing act between the individual and the group. One extreme is masochism, the sacrifice of the individual for the group. The other extreme is an atomistic selfishness, the rejection of the group in favor of self-assertion. A meaningful life lies somewhere in the middle. Individual Jews do not exist only to promote Jewish survival. Personal identity and personal needs are also important. A compassionate and rational Judaism must be able to address not only the survival needs of the Jewish people and the ethical responsibilities of being a world citizen, but also the happiness of the individual Jew. 

Citoyen means that there are no utpisas. Messianic visions are tied to authoritarian thinking. They are the expectations that native  and dependent children have of “omnipotent” parents. Many followers of the French Revolution betrayed their new adulthood and indulged in childish expectations of the future. A world of competing personal agendas is not easy to harmonize. We will never stop bumping into each other. Frustration will not go away. Life will continue to be unfair. But the reward of personal dignity, plus the awareness that we can arrange for more happiness and more justice than we presently have, provides the basis for a meaningful life. 

We are individuals. We are Jews. We are humanists. All of these realities are important. No one of them is more important than the others. We are also citoyens, heirs of the French Revolution. We cannot go back to the family model. History will not allow that. Nor would we choose to return. Our balancing act is hard; but, if we value it, it will make us strong.  

Homosexuality: A Challenge to Traditional Morality

Humanistic Judaism,Vol 25, No 1-2, Winter_Spring 1997

Homosexuality is the hottest moral issue of the late 1990s because it strikes at the very heart of traditional morality. 

What we call “traditional morality” is the hand-me-down ethic of an agricultural society. The fundamental social unit of a peasant culture is the family. The family works or grazes the land and subsists on its produce. The cultivation of land requires cheap and plentiful labor. Having and raising children is the easiest way to provide that labor. Especially when infant mortality is high, reproduction is the primary responsibility of all family members. To abstain from procreation violates the law of survival. The traditional family is reinforced by the institutions of male domination, female chastity, marriage, ancestor worship, and land inheritance. The happiness of the individual is subordinated to the welfare of the group. Work and children are the foundation of all ethical norms. 

In such a context, homosexuality is deeply offensive. It is an insult to family continuity, a dereliction of duty, a refusal to conform to ancestral ways. It cannot be openly tolerated. If it exists at all, it is a covert behavior conducted by men and women who are married and who produce children. It is a private pleasure that is never allowed to interfere with the public responsibility of reproduction. Like romantic love, it is not essential to the family’s and community’s agenda. 

The authors and editors of the Torah, like all their contemporaries, were members of an agricultural, sheep-herding society. (Raising meat is a form of agriculture). They hated homosexuality and saw it as an “abomination.” Since they were deeply attached to their shepherd traditions and were hostile to any form of urban culture, they found any deviation from the reproductive mode of sexual behavior very offensive. Thus religious homosexuals must confront the fact that their ancestors hated them. The prohibitions in the Torah and in the sacred documents of other religions are too explicit to deny. 

Male homosexuals, in particular, were despised. Female homosexuals can perform their “duty” even if they derive no pleasure from it. The same is not true of men. A few societies gave a special status to male homosexuals, but the price was that they ceased to be regarded as men. 

Toleration of homosexual behavior begins with the development of uran culture. Since the Greeks were pioneers in urban culture, it is no mere coincidence that some of their intellectuals celebrated the virtues of homosexual love. But this love was confined to the attachment of married men for boys. It was assumed that when homosexual boys grew up, they, in turn, would be married. Athens was not San Francisco.  

Open homosexuality for men and women who intend to remain unmarried is quite new. It arose out of the rapid urbanization of Western Europe and North America in the past century and a half. It has no historic precedent because capitalism and science, the causes of mass urbanization, have no historic precedent. 

In an urban culture, reproduction is problematic. Children neither work for you nor stay with you. They may not even respect you because, in a world of changing information, they may know more than you do. In addition, they are expensive and parasitic for long periods of time. Choosing not to have children is a legitimate moral choice in an urban culture, especially in a technological society in which the life span of the individual is prolonged and infant mortality is reduced to insignificance. Only in an advanced urban culture can the values that now dominate liberal society emerge: individualism, feminism, happiness, and self-esteem. Only capitalism and affluence can allow what agricultural society forbids. Liberty rests on a sometimes fragile economic foundation. 

The homosexual rights movement first emerged in Berlin after the defeat of the kaiser. The turmoil of World War 1 undermined established conservative regimes and triggered the lifestyle revolution of the 1920s. From clothing to the cinema, sexual liberation emerged with stunning glitz. The sophisticated city of Cabaret was the perfect venue for a movement that defied social convention. The depression, the triumph of fascism, and the horrors of the Second World War pushed sexual liberation aside. But postwar affluence eventually revived the movement. 

The uproar of the Vietnam War and the student revolution that followed emboldened homosexuals. Before that time, it was difficult to press for homosexual rights beause, unlike some other minority groups, homosexuals, for reasons of safety, chose clandestine lifestyles. A group that is afraid to be visible cannot lobby or organize demonstrations. The emergence of the homosexual community from the closet gave them a new power to make demands and to gain political satisfaction. 

The Stonewall incident in 1969 in Greenwich Village mobilized widespread homosexual resistance to repression. Cities like New York and San Francisco became havens for men and women coming out. The word gay replaced queer in sophisticated parlance. Homosexual political and propaganda power grew. In time the defense of homosexual rights became “politically correct” in liberal circles. In some places laws were passed to end discrimination and provide protection from hatred. 

In the 1970s and ‘80s, homosexuals pressed for relief from persecution. They wanted the right to practice their lifestyle openly, the right to housing and employment, the right to be teachers, councilors, clergy and parents, the right to serve in the armed forces, and the right to have their lifestyle included as a moral option in public education. Over the course of these two decades, more and more of the American and European public came to support these demands. 

Even the intrusion of the AIDS plague did not retard the advance of homosexual rights. On the contrary, the assault of HIV forced the now openly homosexual community to mobilize itself for action, discipline some of its promiscuity, and develop a network of mutual support and fundraising. The community became more responsible, more self-confident, and more aggressive. One of the consequences of AIDS was a new emphasis on nonpromiscuous homeosexual partnerships that paralleled marriage in the heterosexual community. 

Of course, the success of the homosxeual community as a political constituency was bound to produce an intense conservative reaction. By the 1990s, the Religious Right in America, stalemated on the abortion issue, began to push gay rights to the forefront as the symbol of moral decadence. Assisted by the AIDS scare, its leaders chose resistance to homosexual demands as the “flag” of their moral crusade. Even Bill Clinton, who had been supported in his first presidential campaign by the gay community, retreated before the right-wing assault. 

Nevertheless, the homosexual political vanguard pressed forward with a new demand for gay marriage, arguing that homosexual partnerships are no different from childless heterosexual marriages. In our modern society, heterosexual couples who choose not to have children are nevertheless entitled to legal acceptance and the status of marriage. Why not grant an equal right to homosexual couples? Without marriage, homosexual partners are denied the priveleges that legal marriage brings: the right to inherit wealth, the right to manage the illness and death of life-long partners, the right to insurance and tax benefits, the right to spousal pension and retirement benefits. The homosexual world is filled with horror stories about alienated, hostile family members who, when a homosexual becomes ill or dies, suddenly emerge to claim control of money and funeral arrangements, driving away the partner whose presence is needed and who has the moral right to the assets and benefits. The push for gay marriage dramatizes how far the homosexual community has come in its drive for equality and moral recognition, but also the difficult battles still to be fought. 

Humanistic Judaism must stand against biblical Judaism and halakhic Judaism in defense of homosexual rights and homosexual freedom. From a humanistic point of view, the choice of a homosexual lifestyle is ethically appropriate. Individuals have the right to be the masters of their own lives insofar as they do not harm others. In its social consequences, gay sexual behavior is no different from contraceptive and childless “straight” sexual behavior. Indeed, in an urbanized world threatened with planetary overpopulation, gay sex may provide a social benefit. And stable homosexual partnerships are preferable to homosexual promiscuity, just as stable heterosexual partnerships are preferable to homosexual promiscuity. 

From a pragmatic point of view, however, the insistence on calling homosexual partnerships “marriage” is a stumbling block. The word marriage has a long association with the social right to bear children and, for most of the public — even for many people sympathetic to homosexual freedom — is not easily transferred to homosexual partnerships. The battle would be easier to win if homosexuals pushed for the rights and privileges of domestic partnerships, whether they be called “marriage” or something else. 

The issue of whether homosexuality is genetic is irrelevant to the moral discussion. If homosexual behavior were both bad and genetically determined, that would be an argument for enforced segregation and exclusion. Pleading helplessness is meaningless in the face of social harm; it is simply a victim’s strategy for arousing pity. It may indeed be the case that homosexual desire is genetically determined, but the moral right of homosexuals to practice their lifestyle derives from individual autonomy and social usefulness. Talented people who are not engaged in producing offspring provide and have provided enormous gifts to society. 

Israel after the Election

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 24, No 3, Summer 1996

The Israeli election is over, but the shock is not. If we are committed to the peace process, how do we live with a Likud victory? What does the election of Benjamin Netanyahu mean? What are the consequences we need to confront? What is an appropriate response? 

The election took place amid a peace effort that had been going on for more than three years. Agreements had been signed with the Palestianian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Jordan. Gaza had been evacuated. Six major urban areas and the the West Bank had been turned over to the Palestinian Authority. A Palestianian police force had been organized. An election for a Palestinian president and parliament had been held. Joint economic projects between Israel and Jordan had been launched. Dozens of Third World countries had ended their boycott of Israel. Investors were stimulating the economy. Israeli troops were about to depart from Hebron. 

The election took place amid still-fresh memories of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and even more vivid memories of fundamentalist terrorism. The militants were determined to undermine the peace process. Israel responded by striking massively at Lebanon. A tragic accident turned retaliation into a public relations disaster. 

The election featured an innovation. Until 1996 the choice of prime minister was up to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The people elected members of the Knesset, and the Knesset, in turn, chose the head of the government. The prime minister was usually the leader of the largest party in the Knesset. This time there were two elections: one for the Knesset and one, American-style, for the head of the government. 

This change, which was intended to enhance the authority of the prime minister, should have been accompanied by an American- or British-style system of parliamentary constituencies. Such a move would have eliminated small parties, created a two-party system, and made the prime minister the leader of a majority party. But the small parties in the Knesset insisted on retaining proportional representation, and the result was a political monstrosity. As in the past, the victorious prime minister might end up as the leader of a minority party and would have to paste together a coalition of small parties in order to govern; but now, small parties would proliferate because the people’s vote for representatives in the Knesset was no longer connected to their preference for prime minister. 

That is exactly what happened. Netanyahu was elected prime minister, but his Likud party came in second in the parliamentary running, with only thirty-two members. Under the old system the Labor Party, with thirty-four members, would have been invited to organize the government, and the peace process would have continued. But Netanyahu is now the prime minister regardless of the size of his party in the Knesset. The election also enhanced the Orthodox representation because Orthodox Jews no longer had to vote Likud to get a Likud prime minister. The Orthodox vote in the Knesset is now at an all-time high of twenty-three. The Knesset is hopelessly fragmented. The new system is worse than the old. 

Furthermore, Netanyahu won by only one percentage point. While many observers point out that he won a clear majority of the Jewish vote, that observation illustrates the problemL the Arabs who voted for Peres are not regarded as “real” Israelis. This response, the closeness of the vote, and the rise of Orthodox political power have exacerbated the resentment and despair of supporters of the peace process. 

Certain realities seem clear. 

Israel is changing. The secular rein of the original Zionists is fading. The religious sector is growing in numbers and influence. The Oriental immigration and the Six Day War started a chain of consequences that undermined secular strength. Most Sephardic Jews are not pious, but they are religious by sentiment. And the acquisition of the West Bank, with its traditional shrines, brought the militant Orthodox to Israel. 

The Sephardic vote has returned to its familiar place on the Right. (In Israel, the rich vote liberal and the poor vote conservative; nationalism and religion are more important issues to many Israelis than economic ones.) Terrorism reawakened the historic distatse for and fear of Arabs among the Oriental Jews. The Shas party, the voice of the Sephardic Orthodox, jumped from six Knesset members to ten on the strength of sacred amulets and the promise of a better afterlife. 

The gulf between secular and religious Israel is widening. The secular want peace; the religious want land. The secular want personal freedom; the religious want conformity to traditional norms. The secular value science and democracy; the religious value faith and authority. In many ways Jewish fundamentalists are closer to Muslim fundamentalists then they are to Jewish secularists. The handing over of education and culture into Orthodox hands will aggravate the confrontation as secular Jews join forces against the revived power of militant Orthodoxy. 

Netanyahu does not believe in the peace process. But, because of external pressure, especially from the United States, he cannot avoid it. He has to publicly support peace, although he may privately oppose it. Without a Palestinian state there will be no peace. Netanyahu and his allies are unalterably opposed to such a state. No matter what is said, that reality undermines the peace process that Shimon Peres and Rabin began. Verbal courtesies will not be able to cover up the incompatibility of agendas. The Palestinians and the Arab world will not settle for cliches. 

The peace process will unravel. Hebron will not be fully evacuated. The “liberated” cities of the West Bank will become depressed ghettos surrounded and intimidated by Israeli troops. The departure of Orthodox settlers from the West Bank will stop, and new Orthodox settlements will be encouraged. The Palestinian economy will become the yo-yo of the Israeli government. The authority of Yasser Arafat will vanish. King Hussein of Jordan, fearful of his own Palestinians, will withdraw his enthusiasm for reconciliation. Arab moderates, unable to rely on Israeli cooperation, will turn back to militant Arab nationalists for safety, support, and solidarity. The confrontation in Lebanon will grow more intense. Likud will try to make a deal with the fundamentalist Hamas, exchanging access to Israeli jobs for an end to terrorism. Such an outrageous agreement would bring together two hard line opponents, which hate each other but are mutually opposed to the kind of Palestinian state that Arafat, Arab moderates, and Israeli “peaceniks” envision. 

Peace with Syria is out. It most likely would have been impossible even if Peres won. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad can justify his repressive government only by war with Israel. Peace would leave him exposed to the dangers of democracy and open borders. But now Assad will have a public justification of his confrontational position and his refusal to rein in the terrorist Shiites of Lebanon. He will also continue to cozy up to Arab moderates, who will become increasingly frustrated with the peace process, and he will simultaneously continue his liaison with Iran. 

Arab moderates will be in great danger. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek has to face a continuing civil war with fundamentalists. Hussein of Jordan has to contend with militant Palestinians. Maintaining their power will not be easy. They are very vulnerable to radical takeovers. One of the main reasons for Israeli support of the peace process has been to guarantee a friendly Egypt and a friendly Jordan. If they become hostile, no successful repression of the Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza can provide for Israeli security. Forty million Egyptians mobilized by fundamentalist propaganda would spell the end of the Jewish state. Only deluded Jewish militants imagine that an Israei atomic bomb will prove a deterrent. 

Terrorism will continue. Even if Likud and Hamas make a deal, the Hezbollah in Lebanon will continue its campaign, supported by Iran though not by public opinion. Likud will point to terrorism  as justfication of its reluctance to make concessions. And the refusal to make concessions will, in turn, fuel more terrorism. 

The Israeli economy, currently booming because of the peace process, will slow down. Foreign investors will grow afraid. Military expenditures will rise. Many Third World countries will gradually withdraw their support. Many Diaspora Jews, alienated by Orthodox control, will cease their financial subsidies. 

The United States remains the only real force that can restrain Netanyahu and his allies. The American alliance is not trivial. It is the only firm foreign connection that Israel possesses. Netanyahu knows that Clinton preferred Peres, but he also knows that he needs American good will and that American strategic interests in the Middle East dictate support of the peace process. The unraveling of peace would enhance the power of Muslim fundamentalists and threaten American access to oil. Still, there is no guarantee that American pressure can sustain the peace process. Netanyahu has to find a balance between American pressure and the demands of his own extremists. Foreign minister David Levy is a moderate, but Arik Sharon, who managed to enter the cabinet at the last minute, is not. 

The peace process began during the Bush administration through American pressure on a reluctant Shamir. To avoid the no-win results of continuing a war, such pressure is needed again. American Jews need to encourage their government to apply it. 

The Unaffiliated Jew

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 24, No 1-2, Winter_Spring 1996

The unaffiliated Jew — a “floating” Jew, unconnected with any formal Jewish community — is a modern phenomenon. Throughout most of Jewish history, membership in a religious community was a political and social requirement. Society consisted of rival religious groups. The only alternative was excommunication. 

The contemporary world features a historical novelty: the individual citizen, endowed with a large degree of freedom and autonomy and able to make affiliation a personal choice. Furthermore, the choice need not be permanent. Temporary affiliation is common, as is membership in more than one community. Competing groups vie for allegiance. Family and work connections are primary; leisure, ethnic, and religious connections are generally secondary. Some people prefer to be serviced by communities to which they do not belong. In a mobile, consumer economy, why bother to join a synagogue or church? Just use the rabbi or minister as the need arises. In most Western countries, the number of religiously unaffiliated people equals or exceeds the number who are affiliated. There are no precedents to guide us in coping with a situation in which religion is merely one of many alternative activities. Both Jewish and Christian institutions are entrepreneurial endeavors that must prove their value in the marketplace. The powerful clergy has been replaced by the fickle customer. 

In this free marketplace, new phenomena have emerged: people who choose to remain single, people who intermarry, homosexual unions, feminist assertiveness, sequential careers, leisure identity — all legitimate and popular options within a powerful culture based on rapidly changing technology and secular education. Assimilation to this culture is unavoidable except for a minority who choose to withdraw to islands of segregation. For most Jews in America, assimilation has already taken place. 

The profile of the unaffiliated Jew is not one of defiant rejection. It is one of a free citizen with a priority list that often changes daily. Most unaffiliated Jews enjoy being Jewish at some time or other. It is just that they have so many other, more important things they want to do.  

Jews have been ambivalent about the wonders of a free and secular society. On the one hand, capitalism, urbanization, and the disestablishment of the Christian religion have provided the Jew with unprecedented opportunities for economic power and social advancement. On the other hand, those same opportunities have wrought havoc with the tightly knit conformist Jewish communities of the past. The fading away of overt anti-Semitism in the upper classes has removed one of the sustaining forces for an intense Jewish identity, especially at a time when secular beliefs and secular views dominate the daily lives of individual Jews. Most Jews want to have their cake and eat it too. They want all the advantages of a free capitalist society without giving up the survival value of the old community structures — which, of course, cannot exist in a free environment. When nostalgia for the past bumps into vested interests of the present, almost invariably the present wins out, though guilt and regret may conceal what has happened. 

There is no single kind of unaffiliated Jew in North America. Some unaffiliated Jews are “believers” but find Jewish communities too expensive. Some regard the family as a sufficient venue for their Jewish activity and see no advantage to belonging to a larger group. Some are intermarried and do not find synagogues or temples comfortable places with which to connect. Some are in search of spiritual and philosophic answers that Jewish institutions do not provide. Some are absorbed with personal and family problems that are far more important to them than the issue of Jewish survival. Some acknowledge that they are Jewish but do not want to do anything about it. Still others see Jewishness as part of the smorgasbord life, choosing to taste it when it strikes their fancy. A substantial number would choose a Jewish community if it made them feel good about being secular and free. 

Being simultaneously Jewish and secular was, at one time, easier than it is now. Seventy years ago the overwhelming majority of Jews in North America lived in the ethnic culture of Ashkenazic Eastern Europe, dominated by the living presence of the Yiddish language. To be secular was to be ethnic. To be secular was to use and value Yiddish. A unique language is as powerful a preservative as a unique set of religious practices or a unique set of religious beliefs. 

But Jewish ethnicity, like other European ethnicities, is not sustainable in North America. In the end, all Europeans give up their native languages, use English, and meld into the category designated as “white.” Only African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians remain ethnically intact because they are visibly distinct. North American Jewry is becoming de-ethnicized. Especially given the increasing rate of intermarriage, its discrete character is fast disappearing. 

What is happening in North America is in direct contrast to what is happening in Israel, where the dominant culture is also secular. There Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Oriental Jews are thrown into a melting pot and emerge as a new ethnic group with Hebrew as its defining language. In North America, ethnicity is no longer an effective way of mobilizing unaffiliated Jews. Unless there is some inspirational, ideological element, Jewsih identity, like Italian identity, will be absorbed into the new white world. 

In recent years ideology has been the weak point of North American Jewry. In an age in which traditional belief is no longer possible for them, many committed Jews separate their personal belief systems from their Jewishness. Prayer is seen as unconnected with what they really believe. It is simply a traditional vehicle to do something Jewish. The words become more important than the ideas.The danger in this dichotomy is that time will weaken the need to imitate the past. Either the Jewish experience provides an important message and a guide for living, or Judaism turns into a cultural potpourri of form without substance. In the absence of conviction, Jewish identity will collapse before rival ideologies that address the daily problems of assimilated Jews with conviction and integrity. 

Unfortunately, the North American Jewish establishment, as represented by the new alliance of Reform and Conservative Jewry, avoids dealing with this issue and with the implications of mobilizing the free Jew in a free society for Jewish community life. A return to “tradition” means nothing if there is no return to traditional conviction. 

A truly effective campaign to recruit unaffiliated Jews for a significant community connection must start with two premises. The first is that a free society is a good society. Both the Enlightenment and the Emancipation were positive developments for the Jewish people. A false nostalgia for the past will only undermine the credibility of the recruiters. The second premise is that Jewish identity is important, that it is worth an investment of time, energy, and money. 

An effective campaign must be guided by the following realities: 

  1. Guilt-language is proving less and less effective. Fear of betraying roots and ancestors is no longer a powerful mobilizer. Contemporary Jews see themselves as consumers. They want to know what benefits they will personally receive from joining a community. Their sense of obligation to the past is weak. Collective appeals based on the sacrifices of the past are not working. In a time of rapid change, the question is “How will Jewishness improve my future?” 
  1. There are many kinds of Jewish communities for unaffiliated Jews to join. Some are formal; some are informal. Conventional synagogues and temples do not exhaust the possibilities. Some Jews want friendship and intimacy. Some want intellectual stimulation and social action. Some want spirituality and New Age mysticism. Some want large communities with many opportunities for education and friendship. Others want a quiet refuge from the stress of daily existence. No single community structure or strategy can, with integrity, serve all these needs. 
  1. There are many Jewish lifestyles. The conventional nuclear family no longer characterizes Jewish urban existence. There are armies of Jewish singles, both men and women. Many of them have chosen a solo lifestyle because they value work and leisure more than family. There are significant numbers of Jewish homosexuals who do not want segregated gay synagogoues. There are legions of Jewish feminists who want a more balanced view of the Jewish experience than patriarchal histories allow. Special events such as weekend seminars may be more attractive to a mobile, adult-oriented constituency than long-term membership in a congregation. Being unaffiliated need not be counterproductive to Jewish survival if it means continuous involvement in Jewish events. 
  1. Jews are more than Jews. They are husbands and wives. They are fathers and mothers. They are workers and professionals. Most of their anxieties do not deal with Jewish identity and Jewish survival Community programming has to embrace the whole person. Support groups for men and women, for children and senior citizens, for the sick and the emotionally wounded, are the lifeblood of successful communities through which a sense of Jewishness can course. Agendas of relentlessly Jewish content serve only a small minority. 
  1. Jewish identity must be viewed as a personal choice rather than an ethnic inheritance. In a time of intermarriage, international culture, and competing ideologies, Judaism must be seen as a philosophy of life, with roots in the historic experience of the Jewish people but with universal application. Non-Jewish partners cannot be attracted to Jewish identity if they see Jewishness as an exclusive and unachievable ethnicity. Jewish communities need to be less nostalgic and less parochial. 
  1. The culture and civilization of the Jews must be tied to the experience of the Jewish people, and that experience must yield some profound message. Unless Jewishness is bound to a compelling philosophic conviction, it will die of insignificance. The traditional perspective of the Jews as the Chosen People, the witnesses of God, is finding a declining audience. An alternative, secular message is that Jewish history testifies to a world in which the only power that guarantees life and justice is human power. But for Jewish history to become the foundation of a humanistic perspective, the traditional presentation of Jewish history needs to be revised. A new, more realistic story needs to be created. The themes of self-reliance and human cooperation, rather than piety, can offer an important message for the twenty-first century — a conviction with which young, well educated Jews can identify. 
  1. Successful experiments to meet the needs of unaffiliated Jews will not come from committees of the Jewish establishment. The most effective outreach will come from entrepreneurial individuals and groups outside the establishment, who are willing to take boldly creative leaps. A secular synagogue and secular rabbis would never have emerged from the deliberations of the cautious. The Jewish future will belong to those who refuse to wait for consensus. 

To serve the needs of the unaffiliated Jew is to recognize the wonderful pluralism of the Jewsih world, especially in North America. The old united, uniform Jewish community has vanished, never to be revived. The ability to live positively with openness, diversity, and change is the first step toward an effective strategy. 

Jewishness and Judaism are becoming choices. Adjusting to that new reality will be the key to Jewish survival in the Diaspora. 

Ten Humanistic Disciplines

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 24, No 1-2, Winter_Spring 1996

Since the Enlightenment, personal freedom has become a primary value in Western culture. Before that, obedience to the will of God or to God’s deputies was regarded as the source of all virtue. Humility, not self-esteem, was the path to paradise. Indeed, the very name of one major religion, Islam, means “surrender” to the divine will.  

The upheavals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries changed all that. The servant of God, the subject of the king, now became a free citizen. To be a free citizen was to acquire an array of rights: the right to choose your marriage partner, your work, and your place of residence; the right to say what you want to say; and the right to select your own religion — or no religion. All over the Western world, new democratic constitutions guaranteed these rights. The “age of enlightenment” had begun. 

In time the new freedom found a philosophic foundation in the writing of classical and liberal philosophers, such as John Stuart Mill. Personal freedom became part of a broader notion called autonomy. To be autonomous is to be the master of your life. Without autonomy there is no dignity. 

Personal freedom was enhanced by political, economic, and social change. Monarchies were overthrown. The authority of the clergy was undermined. The patriarchal family disintegrated in the face of urbanization. Science and industry were greater sources of power than military might. The mobile individual became the fundamental work unit of the new capitalism. Old, authoritarian structures crumbled, to be replaced by the new marketplace of goods and ideas. In recent years, personal freedom has expanded to include lifestyle and sexual orientation — even the right to burn the nation’s flag. The freedom wagon is on a roll. 

Humanistic Judaism, for obvious reasons, rejected authoritarianism. Freedom and choice became bywords in humanistic discourse. The value of autonomy seemed so self-evident that any attempt to restrict it was viewed as reactionary. 

But the worship of freedom poses dangers. The contemporary world gives testimony to that reality. Here are some of the problems of unrestricted freedom. 

Many free people make good choices, choices that lead to happiness and personal fulfillment. But many free people make bad choices, choices that lead to unhappiness and self-destruction. Bad choices are made because people behave impulsively and compulsively, failing to understand the consequences of their behavior. Often a craving for instant gratification prevents people from achieving long-run goals; immediate pleasure becomes a prelude to pain and suffering. Smokers and fat people use their freedom badly. So do dropouts and “flakes.” And since the consequences of their bad choices fall not only on themselves but also on others — family, friends, co-workers, and people who pay insurance premiums — their behavior poses an ethical challenge to defenders of personal freedom. Society may grant individual citizens the right to choose, but that does not mean that they will make good choices.  

Many free people are rational. But many free people are wildly irrational. In a democratic society, people tend to resist authority, no matter how legitimate or commonsensical. “It’s a matter of opinion” is how many conversations end. The implication is that all opinions are of equal value; to say that I am right and you are wrong is to impugn the equality of your freedom. In a totally free and equal society, there can be no objective truth. What is true for me may not be true for you; I am just as good as you are, and so my opinion is just as good as yours. Evidence is irrelevant. Facts are annoying intrusions. Knowledge is a function of uninformed free will. Anything can be true because I have chosen it to be true. If it makes me feel good, if it relieves the burden of my uncertainty, then who are you to tell me that it is false? Egalitarianism turns freedom into an instrument of ignorance. 

Many free people are sensitive to the fact that they live in a community with competing agendas, where space and resources are limited. But many free people are narcissistic; they claim the absolute right to do what they want to do. In America, we are now confronted by irate libertarians who refuse to pay taxes, irate property owners who refuse all restrictions on how they can use their property, irate parents who refuse to provide child support, and irate rifle owners who reject government control. The claim to freedom becomes a form of grievance collection, in which the sacredness and supremacy of liberty are upheld regardless of social consequences. Indeed, society is often sidestepped by designating absolute personal freedom as “God-given.” 

Many free people take responsibility for their lives. They understand that the price of freedom is that there is no one else to blame for the choices they make. But many free people see their choices as limited by circumstance. They see themselves as victimized by abusive parents, abusive bosses, abusive neighbors, and abusive government. Only when these abuses are removed will they be free. Resentment replaces responsibility. The burden of making things work rests with others. For such people, freedom has more to do with rights and grievances than with taking personal control. Like children, they want to be free and to be taken care of at the same time. The two agendas are incompatible. We have become a society of endless litigation because the freedom to make a positive difference in an imperfect world is replaced by the freedom to complain. 

Many free people turn their talents to good purpose and seek to fulfill their potential to be useful. They see freedom as an opportunity to study and to serve others in a meaningful way. But many free people are lazy. They neglect their talent. They never fulfill their potential. When confronted with their failure, they insist that they have a right to do with their lives whatever they want. They have no obligation to others. Their life is their life, just as their opinion is their opinion. Social utility is an illegitimate “guilt trip.” Either autonomy is complete or it is a sham. Against this peevish self-assertion, ethics vanishes into wilfulness. 

Many free people choose to help neighbors and strangers. Even in anonymous urban settings, they choose to be kind and supportive. But many free people use urban anonymity as a screen for indifference. Shielded from the eyes of public opinion, they do only what pleases them. Walking, driving, listening to music, disposing of garbage, greeting people — all become opportunities for aggressive rudeness. Strangers in need become annoying intrusions on their freedom to pursue their own agendas. We are certainly free to be hostile. But what happens to a society in which no one cares what other people feel and think? The terror and chaos of such a society will ultimately lead to the reintroduction of authoritarian regimes with strict surveillance to secure law and order. 

Freedom and autonomy cannot be ends in themselves. They are merely means to greater ends. Those greater ends have to do with long-run personal happiness and the welfare of communities. Personal freedom without personal discipline is a danger both to the individual and to society. 

In order for freedom to have value, it needs ten important disciplines. These disciplines are as important to Humanistic Judaism as is freedom. 

  1. Positive freedom needs the strength to face unpleasant facts and to live with them. All opinions are not of equal value. There is objective truth. 
  1. Positive freedom needs the strength to live with uncertainty. Most questions concerning the nature and development of the universe cannot at present be definitively answered. Making up answers to relieve the anxiety of uncertainty is not a good long-run strategy for dealing with reality.  
  1. Positive freedom needs the strength to respect legitimate authority. To be legitimate, authority must be rational. Rational authority is the voice of evidence. It is the voice of the consequences of behavior. 
  1. Positive freedom needs the ability to postpone pleasure. Most worthwhile goals, especially health, require enormous discipline. If we cannot endure temporary pain and depression, our freedom is useless and dangerous. 
  1. Positive freedom needs the ability to control emotions. If we are the victims of the relentless agendas of fear, anger, hate, and love, our freedom is illusory. We are the slaves of masters in combat with each other. 
  1. Positive freedom needs the willingness to be useful to others. Freedom to waste our talents and to be parasitic is a very harmful form of autonomy. Training for useful work is a responsibility that should go with the freedom to choose work. 
  1. Positive freedom needs the willingness to keep promises and the determination to pursue long-run commitments. Freedom to be irresponsible is no virtue. 
  1. Positive freedom needs the willingness to see ourselves as a part of some greater societal whole. Every behavior, from talking to taking up space, has social consequences. No freedom is absolute. All freedom is limited by the presence of other people and their agendas. 
  1. Positive freedom needs the ability to be caring when nobody we know, or nobody with power to punish, is watching us. Anonymous urban environments require personal discipline if they are to remain free of authoritarian intrusion. 
  1. Positive freedom needs the willingness to take responsibility for the choices we make. A free society that works needs fewer professional kvetches and more people who are willing to help themselves and to help others, even when the fates have not been kind. 

Freedom is an opportunity, not a virtue. Autonomy is an asset when it leads to long-run happiness, personal dignity, and social usefulness. Liberty is a liability when it does not. Free societies that are successful are made up of people who know how to take advantage of the opportunity of freedom while striving to be strong, realistic, and responsible.  

Confronting the Religious Right

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 23, No 3-4 Summer_Autumn 1995

Confronting the Religious Right 

Because of the Religious Right, political decisions in America have become ethical issues. Preserving the separation of religion and government is a moral challenge of supreme importance. 

The power of the Religious Right rests on a variety of developments. Charismatic leaders, money, media exposure, the exploitation of available church audiences, the vulnerability of the Republican Party — all these factors are important to the rise of the political fundamentalists. But the most important foundation is the growing concern of millions of Americans with the moral decline of America. Selfishness, rudeness, “flakiness,” disrespect for all authority, and the incessant demand for instant gratification are more visible than ever before. The Religious Right claims that a return to religion, especially in our public schools, will cure this “disease.” 

Even though the cure is an illusion, the “disease” is real. There is a values crisis in America. Something has to be done to deal with it. And the great danger is that we will turn the problem over to “quack doctors” who will do more harm than good. 

Opposing prayer in the public schools, fighting government vouchers for parochial schools, removing Bible readings from state-run classrooms — all of these efforts will fail if we do not address the values issue. 

A negative strategy, a strategy that simply says no, will not work. Only a positive strategy, a proposal that seeks to confront values anxiety with values education, has any real chance for success. It is not enough to romanticize the historic importance of the separation of church and state. We must also have some alternative answer to the need to teach values to our children. 

“Politically correct” liberals often claim that values are too subjective and too controversial to be taught in the public schools. Only the home and the church can appropriately handle them. But what if the home and the church are not able to do what the community expects from them? What if millions of children have no exposure to a decent home or to an effective church? Are there no shared values that a public school can transmit? Is morality only a matter of sex education, feminism, and abortion? 

The historic public school in America taught values. It was called “good citizenship.” Many of us grew up with a report card that evaluated our self-control, reliability, and cooperation. Our teachers saw themselves not only as information dispensers, but also as moral disciplinarians. While their techniques would now be regarded as too harsh and too authoritarian, their message was appropriate. Education is not only about personal development and personal rights; it is also about living in a community. 

Many public school teachers are still trying to teach citizenship values, either through personal example or by direct instruction. But they are often afraid, in the present environment of the fundamentalist right and the multicultural left, to say so. They are intimidated into claiming that they are teaching no values at all.  

Such a strategy feeds into the political agenda of the Religious Right. This reticence enables them to condemn “valueless” education and to push for prayer in the public schools. Only the refusal to be reticent, only the willingness to resist the pressures from the right and the left, only the courage to advocate values education in the state schools, will provide a workable counterforce to fundamentalist pressure. 

The premises of such a values education have been with us for a long time. Here they are: 

  1. The Founding Fathers of this nation, together with thousands of other historic figures — male and female, black and white — are appropriate ethical role models for our children. 
  1. There are certain moral values that are shared by almost all Americans, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, religious or nonreligious. Values like fairness, responsibility, reliability, compassion, cooperation, and the postponement of gratification are universal. They are important and noncontroversial. 
  1. Ethical values can be taught in both a religious and a nonreligious way. One way is to attach the value to the command of God. The other way is to connect the value to the consequences of behavior. Keeping promises can be important because God wants us to keep promises. It also can be important because society will fall apart if nobody can trust or believe anybody else. Teaching values in a secular way does not negate the possibility of teaching values in a religious way. But it is possible to present them in a nonreligious way, which does not violate the religious beliefs of the students. 
  1. Citizenship values do not have to be taught in a separate class. They need to be integrated into the discussion of every subject and into every classroom situation. An effective teacher, regardless of academic discipline, knows how to teach values. 

These four premises are the foundation of a positive strategy for confronting the Religious Right. Perhaps what we need in the public schools is not to begin the day with prayer, but to hear and see ethical quotations from great Americans. With a quotation, at least you can have a discussion. 

Palestine and Jordan

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 23, No 3-4 Summer_Autumn 1995 Palest Jordan

This summer I fulfilled a dream. I crossed over from Eilat to Aqaba and journeyed to Petra and Amman. Visiting Jordan is hardly new. But crossing over from Israel is the dramatic sign that peace is beginning to work in the Middle East. 

Two Arab states — one real and one emerging — lie to the east of Israel. Both are theoretically at peace with the Jewish state. Arafat’s Palestine is a reluctant neighbor. Hussein’s Jordan is more enthusiastic. Israel, Palestine, and Jordan were, at one time, all part of British Palestine. Like Gaul, Palestine has been divided into three parts. 

Jordan used to be Transjordan. It is an artificial state with artificial boundaries, a bureaucratic creation of British imperialism. The East Bank was separated from Palestine in 1992 as a gift to an Arab ally whom England had betrayed. It was a substitute for Syria, which Britain had promised both to Hussein ibn-Ali, the leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks, and to the French. Hussein’s son Faisal was given Iraq. His second son, Abdullah, was given Transjordan, then an unredeemed desert with a sprinkling of Bedouin and an isolated railroad to Mecca. Amman, the capital, was a sleepy village. 

Transjordan was transformed by the British and by the Zionist threat. Out of the remnants of Hussein’s Arab army the British fashioned the Arab Legion, the best-trained and best-disciplined Arab army in the Arab world. Most of the soldiers were Bedouin who despised and were despised by urban Arabs. In the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, this army alone prevailed against the Israelis.Their reward was the annexation of what today we call the West Bank, including Nablus, Hevron, Bethlehem, and East Jerusalem. Transjordan became Jordan. And hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Palestinian refugees became Jordanians. 

The annexation was followed by more dramatic change. King Abdullah was assassinated in 1951 because he wanted to make peace with Israel. His grandson Hussein ibn Talal, who became king in 1952, was a young and inexperienced teenager. The Cold War between America and Russia was becoming hot. Gamal Abdel Nasser took over in Egypt and proclaimed his desire to unite the Arab world under his leadership. Radical military regimes, imitating Nasser, seized power in Syria and Iraq. Jordan faced overwhelming internal and external Arab enemies. In 1967 the West Bank was lost to Israel in the Six Day War. Thousands of new Palestinian refugees poured into the remaining East Bank. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established and chose Jordan as its base of operations. By 19970 PLO leader Yasser Arafat threatened to take over Jordan and to turn it into Palestine. 

What saved Hussein and Jordan was the intervention of the Arab Legion. It is this army and this army alone that prevents Jordan from being taken over either by the internal enemy, the Palestinians, or by the external enemy, the Syrians. Ironically, Israel has always been a friendly power, preferring a moderate Hussein to the radical alternatives. But Hussein could not make peace so long as the Palestianian issue was unresolved. 

Along the way Hussein made an almost fatal mistake. Driven by internal public opinion and by the powerful economic ties of Jordan to Iraq, he chose to support Iraq’s ruler, Saddam Hussein, in the Gulf War. His reward for this act of stupidity was the alienation of moderate Arabs, the loss of American alliance, and the sudden return of thousands of disgruntled Palestianians fleeing Kuwait. In the midst of all this trouble the fundamentalists threw down the gauntlet and threatened to win control of Parliament. 

The man who rescued Husseim was, ironically, his enemy, Arafat. By making peace with Israel in 1993, Arafat made it possible for Hussein to offer peace in 1994. The American alliance was restored. The Israelis, for their part, were eager to take what they had been waiting for since 1948. Peace with Jordan, unlike peace with Palestine, was overwhelmingly popular with all Israelis, since no territory had been surrendered. 

Husseins’s Jordan has many problems. It is an artificial country with no fundamental national identity. It is filled with militant Palestinians who hate Hussein and who would prefer to unite the West Bank and the East Bank into a large Palestinian state. It suffers from a rising Muslim fundamentalist movement with connections to fundamentalist movements outside of Jordan. It is experiencing inflation and unemployment, triggered by all the consequences of choosing the wrong side in the Gulf War. 

But good things are happening also. The visitor can see them. Impressive economic development is taking place. Amman has replaced troubled Beirut as the banking center of the Arab world. The Palestinians have developed a prosperous middle class. Now Jewish tourism is stimulating the emergence of striking facilities including kosher hotels for Israeli travelers. The chemical riches of the Dead Sea are being jointly developed by Israel and Jordan. 

What is most striking about Jordan is the emergence of an expanding bourgeoisie committed to business and trade rather than war and reinforced by an educated professional class that is generally wary of religious and political extremism. Some of the best medical facilities in the Arab world are now to be found in once-sleepy Amman. The middle class is Westernized. Women appear bolder in urban Jordan than they do in most other Mulim countries. All of this development supports Hussein and moderation. 

Jordan’s new role as a tourist mecca will accelerate the Westernization process. The land is extraordinarily beautiful, with high mountains and unusual archeological sites such as Petra and Jerash. The ancient trade route that passed through Jordan from Yemen to Damascus was coveted by many conquerors. Canaanites, Greeks, Romans and Nabatean Arabs have left their marks. 

As I crossed back to Israel via the Allenby Bridge, I saw both Israel and Palestinian flags shimmering in the heat of the West Bank. In a few years, travelers will pass through Palestine on their way to Israel. In the interim the Likud opposition to the Rabin government will huff and puff, the Jewish settlers in the West Bank will conduct a thousand violent demonstrations, the terrorists will provide their exploded martyrs, and the Israeli public will express its deep ambivalence. But the withdrawal from the West Bank will continue. An irreversible reality is being created. Between Israel and Jordan, little Palestine is emerging. Neither Israel nor Hussein really wants it. But they will have to learn to live with it and with Arafat. 

Great changes are taking place in the political landscape of the Middle East. Even touristy Bethlehem flies its Palestinian flag, a few miles from Jerusalem. Three years ago peace seemed an illusory hope, and Jordan seemed as far away from Israel as the moon. Today, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan have become neighbors. Their destinies are tied together. Sharing peace will mean sharing water and economic development. Some Israelis will turn to Europe to import foreign, non-Arab workers. But others will see that, in the end, there is no alternative to intimate cooperation. 

The Jordan venture was more than sightseeing. It was an invitation to hope. 

Rethinking Shavuot

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 23, No 2 Spring 1995

In priestly and rabbinic Judaism, holidays were celebrations of divine power and divine “history.” They recalled and dramatized the intervention of God in human and Jewish affairs. One of the most spectacular of such events was the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, especially the giving of the Ten Commandments, when Moses was believed to have spoken face to face with God. For the rabbis, Shavuot commemorated this awesome moment. 

Reform Judaism built on this rabbinic model. Although more skeptical than the traditional rabbis, the reformers found divine reasons for Jewish holidays. Since Shavuot was the day that celebrated the covenant between God and the Jewish people, many Reform congregations chose that day to celebrate the confirmation of teenagers. There was an obvious connection between the covenant idea and pledging allegiance to Judaism and the Jewish people. 

Secular Jews had a hard time with Shavuot. Divine revelation and divine covenants were not their cup of tea. Furthermore, modern biblical criticism separated the Ten Commandments from Moses and Mount Sinai, assigning their origin to historical events that took place some six centuries later. As for the Commandments themselves, the first four are hopelessly theistic. Amon secularists, only the Zionists were comfortable with Shavuot. As farmers of the land, secular kibbutzniks restored the old agricultural significance of the holiday as the closing day of the spring harvest. Yet, even for Zionists, Shavuot was problematic, since most “yishuvniks” were confirmed urban dwellers. 

Very little secular effort went into saving Shavuot. Pesakh and Hanukka were the dramatic symbols of Jewish loyalty. The fortunes of Shavuot had sunk all over the Jewish world. It came at the wrong time of the year. It featured no compelling home rituals. There was no need to deal with a holiday that Jewry in general ignored. 

Humanistic Judaism inherited the Shavuot malaise. What should be done with this anachronism? Is it as useless as Tisha b’Av? Or is it worth rescuing? 

Ironically, the rabbinic model provides the key to the secular rescue of Shavuot. By designating Shavuot z’man mattan toratenu (the season of the giving of our Torah), the rabbis connected the festival with the literature of the Jewish people. Jewish literature is the most important Jewish cultural creation. For a verbal people with very little historic attachment to the visual arts, writing and books have been the central focus of Jewry’s cultural life and religious worship. 

Shavuot as a holiday to celebrate Jewish books and Jewish literature can be both useful and exciting. The major harvest of the Jewish people throughout the past two hundred years has not been wheat. It has been the written word. From the secular perspective, that “harvest” is not the creation of God. It is the creation of the Jewish people. It is a tribute to human ingenuity and human effort. Celebrating Jewish literature is a way to celebrate the creative energies of the Jewish people. 

Celebrating Jewish literature is quite different for Secular and Humanistic Jews from what it is for Orthodox Jews. For Orthodox Jews, there are two kinds of Jewish books: books written by God and books written by people. Of the two categories, the first obviously is more important. The Torah is the center of literary attention because it is sacred, primary, and superior. All other books are insignificant by comparison. For humanistic Jews, all authors are human. All books are human creations. The Torah is simply one of them. As a human creation, the Torah is a work of mixed value. Some parts of it are wonderful; other parts are mediocre. Its importance lies in the fact that it is the beginning of a long process of Jewish literary achievement. The continuation of the process is just as important as the launching. The present is just as significant as the past. 

That perspective is central to a secular rethinking of Shavuot. Simply knowing the Torah and the Ten Commandments is a pale imitation of the rabbinic process. The Torah and the Ten Commandments — no matter what interpretive permutations we invent — cannot take the center stage of humanistic allegiance. Our holidays must express our unique approach to Jewish history and Jewish identity. They must avoid the often justified accusation that what we choose to do with the tradition is to use it, only less. 

A humanistic Shavuot must not be “less.” It must be different. It must be based not only on the Torah, but on the whole spectrum of Jewish literary activity. Worthy of honor are dozens of books and dozens of authors. Worthy of honor is all the prose that motivated Jewish ethical activity and all the poetry that celebrated beauties of this world. 

The heart of our celebration of Shavuot should be the reading of the literature, whether old or new, that gives expression to our beliefs and commitments as Humanistic Jews. Since all this prose and poetry cannot be read at one celebration, the criteria for selection becomes all-important. Three formats are possible. 

The first format would be to select five or six readings that summarize the basic ideas of Humanistic Judaism. This summary could be repeated every year as a core statement of belief. The advantage of this format is that the community would have a brief literary presentation that identified its convictions both to itself and to others. The annual celebration of this creed would reinforce group identity and tie the literature to personal conviction.  

The second format would be to select five or six readings that change from year to year. The advantage of this format is that Shavuot would become an educational opportunity to experience more and more the humanistic dimension of Jewish literature. Instead of the traditional comfort of hearing the same readings repeated every year, there would be the excitement and freshness of new materials. In time the assembled collection of readings would become the community’s “Shavuot Book.” 

The third format would be to honor a Jewish thinker whose ideas and writings are at the foundation of Secular and Humanistic Judaism. Biographical and literary materials could be assembled into an appropriate tribute. Over a period of years the community would be exposed to the words of the historic founders and pathbreakers of our movement.\ 

In order to develop any of these three formats, there has to be a strong awareness of the full extent of Jewish literature: biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and modern; Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Oriental; philosophic, ethical, and historic. Most early Jewish writing is anonymous. But most later and contemporary Jewish writing is attached to interesting and sometimes provocative personalities. Secular Humanistic Jews study the Bible and the Talmud. But they also study and admire Moses Maimonides, Barukh Spinoza, Shaul Tchernikovsky, Joseph Brenner, Haim Zhitlovsky, Avraham Shlonsky, and Yehuda Amichai. The forthcoming anthology of Secular Humanistic Judaism, which contains excerpts from the works of important thinkers such as these, will be an invaluable resource for developers of a new Shavuot. 

Shavuot, as a day to dramatize and reaffirm our Humanistic Jewish convictions through Jewish literature, provides many additional opportunities. It is an ideal time to sell, or to encourage the purchase of, Jewish books. It is a perfect occasion to celebrate the completion of a course of Jewish studies by members of the community. It is an appropriate time at the end of the school year to honor students who have studied and mastered some of the literature in the “Shavuot Book.” 

What began as an agricultural festival to celebrate the end of the spring harvest and was transformed into a tribute to divine revelation now can become the occasion to honor the meaningful words of a verbal people. 

Our Shavuot has roots. But it also has a harvest that never ends.