Should the Sabbath be important to Humanistic Jews?

Humanistic Judaism North American Federation Conference Highlights
Page 42-43

QuestionShould the Sabbath be important to Humanistic Jews? 

Responsum: In priestly and rabbinic Judaism, the Shabbat is regarded as one of the two supreme signs of the covenant between Yahveh and Israel. Its origin is traced back to the creation of the world; and it remains the only ritual observance demanded in the Ten Commandments. 

The Shabbat is traditionally viewed as a day on which all significant activities should stop, whether work or leisure. Games are no more permissible than selling. In priestly Judaism the prohibitions were quite severe. The day was spent in the house in the dark with no cooking fires allowed. To alleviate some of the severity of the Shabbat, lights could be kindled before the Sabbath, to be used on the Sabbath. People were permitted to leave their houses, especially if they were attending the synagogue or the house of study. Reading and discussion of sacred   texts were encouraged. But the Talmud was very specific about the thirty-nine prohibited forms of activity. Actions like writing, carrying small objects, and tearing paper were no-no’s and religiously provocative. 

If one wants to talk about this abstinence from activity as “rest,” one is using the word rather freely. Although the day was filled with Sabbath meals and family togetherness, it was also filled with great anxiety about not accidentally slipping into prohibited behavior; for the divine punishments for violating the Shabbat were very severe. 

Modern critical study reveals that the Sabbath did not begin as a rest day. It began as a day when it was believed that all activity, whether work or pleasure was dangerous. The earliest use of the word shabbat is not with regard to the seventh day of the week but to the full moon. Even today many people believe that it is dangerous to leave the house when the full moon shines. 

Secular society has turned the Shabbat Sabbath into a day of leisure for both Jews and gentiles. The 5-day week has produced the “weekend,” of which Saturday is an integral part. Whether leisure is rest depends on the kind of leisure that you do and also on the personality that is indulging it. Idle shopping can be pleasurable for some and tedious for others, just as Bible study can be pleasurable for some and tedious for others. Enforced staying at home, especially if the family is absent, would hardly be regarded as restful. 

For Humanistic Jews, the Sabbath is significant not because it is a day of no activity but because it is a day of Jewish activity. The Shabbat has evolved in modern times as a weekly day when many Jews affirm their Jewish identity. They may do so in a variety of ways. They may hold a special Shabbat dinner. They may light Shabbat candles. they may come together with other Jews in a public service. They may study Jewish books. The Shabbat is a day when Jews can feel more Jewish and know that this experience is shared by other Jews, at the same time, throughout the world. 

Whether one indulges in work or leisure on that day is quite irrelevant to its humanistic significance. An individualistic society has to allow for a wide variety of schedules and a wide tolerance of ways to express Jewish identity. Writing a Jewish memoir may be just as appropriate to the Sabbath as not writing at all. 

In short, the Sabbath, as a day of rest, is not relevant to Humanistic Judaism. The Sabbath as a day for affirming and celebrating Jewish identity, certainly is. 


Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1990

Should Jews marry only Jews?  

Most Jews think that they should. Even the most sophisticated prefer the perils of atheism to the trauma of mixed weddings. The prospect that their children will be doing their reproducing with Gentiles arouses the deepest dread that their unconscious can conjure up.  

Outspoken liberals who are big on brotherhood, open pot, and female liberation, often turn hysterical when they learn that their Jewish son intends to cohabit in a legal way with a non-Jewish woman. Infamous Jewish anti-Semites who are turned off by all forms of organized religion and who find Jewish culture depressing, are known to become violent when their daughter announces her intention to marry a Gentile man. 

Why this overreaction to what appears to be decent love?  

The answer is important because no issue in Jewish life is as explosive as the question of intermarriage. Even the Reform rabbinate, the so-called paragons of religious liberalism, are deeply divided on the issue. We are witnessing the ironic spectacle of radical egalitarians and libertarians turned into fanatic and inquisitors eager to expel airing rabbis from the rabbinic fold for the unspeakable sin of officiating at mixed marriages.  

The reason for this behavior is no mystery. Tribal loyalty is an old and respectable human emotion. Although it is not uniquely Jewish. It has been strengthened among Jews by centuries of exile and homelessness. Jews have had to make a special effect mistake effort to survive as a group. Without the dramatic differences in their rituals, food, language, and dress, they would have had great difficulty resisting the religious onslaught of their hostile neighbors.  


Throughout the centuries Jews worked very hard to maintain these differences. As a result, their descendants feel very guilty when they give them up. Even when they no longer believe in the viability of traditional customs, even when the tyranny of outmoded practices violates their individual integrity; they often consent to do them. The guilt of repudiating what so many of their ancestors died to preserve is too much for them to bear.  

The most effective technique for group survival in an alien environment was social segregation and compulsory inbreeding. The ban on intermarriage followed logically from the overwhelming desire to preserve Jewish identity. People who reproduce together, stay together. As a technique for the maintenance of dispersed minorities, this prohibition is both universal and familiar. The Aaron conquers of India used it well when they devised the caste system. And the English colonials found it useful in the preservation of Anglo-Saxon identity in the colonial environments.  

The Jewish ban on intermarriage dates from the 6th Century B.C.E. When the Jewish Aristocracy were taken by the Chaldeans to a Babylonian exile, they found themselves a small minority in a sea a Semitic strangers. Two snobbish to assimilate and two affluent to forgo the new luxuries of Babylon for the rural prop poverty of Judea they turned to rigid inbreeding as a way of enjoying the best of two worlds. Under the leadership of fanatic priests, they elevated their new custom into divine law. The Zadolite priests inserted this prohibition into the text of the Torah which they were writing, giving it a divine aura.  

When some of the Babylonian Jews returned to Jerusalem in the fifth century, they brought with them both the Torah and the ban. Their charismatic leader Ezra forced the native Jews to accept the authority of the Torah and to divorce their non-Jewish wives.  

In the contemporary world, the prohibition against outmarriage is a crucial importance to Jewish survivalists. With the rapid disappearance of many unique Jewish forms of behavior and with the quick assimilation of Jews to the cultures of Western nations, the only barrier that seems to stand between group identity and the ethic melting pot is segregated reproduction.  

Since group survival for the sake of group survival is no longer publicly respectable, Jewish professionals are driven to find “nobal” reasons for this parochialism. Jews and gentiles are annually inundated by variety books that make the old claim that without Jewish exclusiveness mankind would enjoy less brotherhood, justice, an intellectual greatness. a world without jews, they claim, would almost be a world not worth having. Paragraph threatened minorities do not survive unconsciously ( like the Russians and the Chinese (. They often survive only by becoming obsessed with the problem of their own survival everything in Jewish life today is seen from the perspective of group survival, from the perspective of group identity period for many Jewish professionals, synagogue social action, experimental services, and the updating of Jewish philosophy are not avenues for individual fulfillment. Their gimmicks for involving Jews and Jewish institutions. Their value is a function of their ability to to promote Jewish identity.