Project of IISHJ

A Sample Funeral or Memorial Service

Humanistic Judaism journal, “Death and Dying” Summer 1989


(Choose One)


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

As an individual, separate and distinct, each of us is temporary, an ephemeral chapter in the saga of the universe. As a moment in the never-ending process of life, each of us is im­mortal, an expression of the persistent thrust of vital energy. The leaves of last year’s sum­mer have died and have vanished into the treasury of mother earth, but each one lives on in the renewal of every spring. Every person dies, but humanity survives. Every living thing perishes, but life persists.


Friendship is possible when we know how to trust, when we know that others can be faithful and honest. In the earliest experiences of our childhood, in the first awakening of our infant minds, we discover the security of love. Families may scold and complain. Parents may lecture and cry. But their deeds are usually sweeter than their words. In the hour of need they do not judge. They help.

When parents die they leave us more than memory. They leave us the well-being of accep­tance, the possibility of trust, and the reassurance of unconditional love. Without their gifts we would stand alone in fear. We would not be able to reach out to other people in friendship.


Life offers the gift of many blessings. None is more precious than the love of family and friends. In the strength and compassion of parents, in the mutual devotion of husband and wife, brother and sister, we find the security of love. For the landscape of our years is peo­pled by the presence of open hearts that exact no price for the gift of themselves.

When an intimate friend dies, sadness and despair are normal responses. Two people cannot share the best and worst of life in mutual experience and find that absence is trivial. The tribute of love is the pain of separation.


Death is not always tragic.

If we have enough years to test our skills, if we can see and enjoy the results of our work, if we can nurture our family and have them near, if we can love our friends and share their pains and pleasures over many seasons, if we have the time to develop our own unique style and know that it will not easily be forgotten, if we can die quickly, without the agonies of prolonged suffering — well, then death is not tragic.

For some people, life scripts are never meaningful unless they last forever. Others derive their grace from the rhythm of growth, fulfillment, and decay. What never ends cannot be very precious. Today cannot be special if there is always a tomorrow.

In the flow of life, exits, like entrances, have their own dignity.


Death needs courage. It is so overwhelmingly final that it fills our lives with dread and anxious fear. When it arrives at the end of a long and happy life it is never welcome, yet not deeply resented. But when it comes too soon, invading young lives, disrupting hopes and dreams, it adds anger to our fear. We cry out at the injustice of destiny and wait for answers that never seem to come.

Courage is the power to confront a world that is not always fair. It is the refusal to beg for what will never be given. It is the willingness to accept what cannot be changed.

Courage is loving life even in the face of death. It is sharing our strength with others even when we feel weak. It is embracing our family and friends even when we fear to lose them. It is opening ourselves to love, even for the last time.

Courage is self-esteem. It prefers quiet determination to whining. It prefers doing to waiting. It affirms that exits, like entrances, have their own dignity.

__________ , whom   I loved very much and still do, chose to die with dignity. We shall

never forget his/her courage.


The past is unchangeable. What happened yesterday is beyond our control. We can cry and shout, we can scream and complain, but the events of just a moment ago are as far from our reach as the farthest star. Fools never forgive the past. They devote every present mo­ment to worrying about it, scolding it and wishing it were different. Wise people release the past. They do not need to assault what cannot be taken. They do not need to forgive what cannot be altered. They simply accept what they are not able to change. Since the future is open to human decision, they turn their energies forward and choose to create rather than to regret.

People of self-respect do not dwell on helplessness. They do not assault what cannot be taken. Since death is irreversible, they accept it and turn to the living.


Death is an intrusion.

Sometimes it arrives at the end of a long life when we are waiting for it. But sometimes it comes unexpectedly, interrupting young lives and wasting hopes and dreams. People we love are taken from our midst too soon, and we struggle to deal with their absence.

Destiny is often unkind. Since it is a mindless force, we cannot praise it or blame it. We simply accept what we cannot change.

But people are different from destiny. We have hearts and minds. We have hopes and dreams. We have love and loving attachments. Above all, we have the power of courage — the courage to affirm the value of life in the face of death.

The fates are beyond our control. But our response to the fates is in our hands. We do not know what will happen, but we do know that amid all the uncertainty, we have the courage to love.

Those we remember also had that courage. Love is the power that binds the living and the dead.

(A tribute [or tributes] is now offered by the leader of the service or by family and friends.)

(Choose One)


Our families and our friends are so close to us that we often take for granted what they do. What is familiar has a tendency to appear ordinary. We lose our perspective. We imagine that what is far away is superior to what is close at hand. People are only heroic when we cannot experience them.

We need to pay attention. We need to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. We need to see the special in the familiar. There are parents who give us love. There are children who give us hope. There are friends who give us courage. In their own unique way — without the privilege of spoken philosophy — they make us feel worthwhile.

In this hour of remembering, we offer them our tribute and our recognition.


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


After every spring comes the fullness of summer. After every summer comes the color of autumn. Beyond every autumn lies the serenity of winter. And beyond every winter appears the freshness of spring.

The circle of human existence reflects this return. It sweetens death with hope. Old peo­ple yield to the child. Old life is forever the prelude to the new.


Death is a reminder of human frailty. We are very vulnerable creatures. And we have so many natural enemies. Floods and earthquakes, disease and famine, heat and cold take their toll and thin our ranks. Even in the time of science, the ancient enemies of aging and decay still creep up on us uninvited and make us mortal.

In a world of peace there is still a war to be fought — not a war of people against people — but a war against death and all its friends. If we must fight, let us fight poverty. If we must enter battle, let us battle with disease. If we must assault the enemy, let us assault the poisons of our environment. There are many real foes to face.

Let our tribute to the dead be our struggle against death.


We live through hope. Where there is darkness we wait for the light. Where there is pain we anticipate pleasure. Where there is boredom we yearn for the arrival of new excitement.

Living without hope is living without dignity. It is a denial of everything vital. It is an ab­ject surrender to evil. It is a humiliating affirmation of the darkness, the pain, and the dullness of human experience. If the future holds no promise of better things to come, then the present weighs us down like an intolerable burden.

Persons of self-respect, people who esteem their own power, do not welcome despair. In the darkest hour, they resist the self-pity that paralyzes action. Even when the night seems more than eternal, they plead for the morning.


Loyalty is life. We live through the loyalty of others, not only the devotion of having family and friends but also the loyalty of the past to the future. Our ancestors worked, saved, and gave up their pleasure to provide for generations yet unborn. They pursued distant goals that they knew they would never reach so that their children and their grandchildren could ultimately achieve them. The mountain of human culture is built out of many layers of human achievement, each generation resting on the work of the one before.

We are here today because the people of the past did not forget us. Our ancestors have planted and we have reaped. Like them, we must live for more than the present. Like them, we must work for those who will follow.


Immortality is not an illusion.

The selfish kind of immortality is the vision that imagines that each of us is indestructible, exempt from the laws of nature, immune to personal death.

But there is a natural immortality. It finds its source in the two billion-year-old chain of life, in the experience of parents and children, in the sentimental power of human memory.

Each of us is an extension of the past. Each of us is an intimation of the future.

We are more than individuals. We have connections. That is how we are born. That is why we never completely die. We receive our inheritance, we leave our legacy.

__________ is part of the chain of life. It still continues.

May we regard the life of_____________ as a special link in the chain of vital existence.

May we honor him/her always with the gift of remembrance.


Death is real. In the world of changing nature it is inevitable. It may be postponed, but it cannot be avoided.

Loved ones do not pass away. They die. They do not escape the rhythm of life.

But they leave their gifts. We still bask in their love. We still use their instruction. We are still inspired by their deeds. We still linger on the memories of their style.

Immortality is very intimate. It is part of our mind. It is as close as our power to remember.

In the real world death is part of the drama of life. So is the loving tribute of remembrance.


Autumn leaves are more useful than they seem. Although in final glory they fall to the ground in a wistful descent of death, the fertile earth pays them tribute. She embraces their forms and turns their hidden energies into the evolution of new life. In the drama of human love, a similar pattern prevails. The thoughts and ideals of those we admire survive death. They fall on the fertile earth of our minds and hearts and renew our lives through inspiration.


Winter is a cruel season. It reminds us of how hostile nature can sometimes be.

It also reminds us of the power of human love and human connection.

In the winter, we become aware of how we derive our warmth from one another, of how much we depend on the loving care of parents and children and friends.

When it is cold outside, we must create our own human fires. When one flame is ex­tinguished, we must light another.

May this moment make us sensitive to our need for one another.

May the death of one we love encourage us to foster life.

May we regard the life of_____________ as_ a special link in the chain of vital existence.

May we honor him/her always with the gift of remembrance.


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

In the particular grace of_____________ lies his/her immortality.

May the memory of___________ , whom   we loved in life and still love in death, bless our thoughts and actions. May the special grace of his/her years reach out to touch our hearts and give us hope.

Let us all rise and stand for a moment of silent tribute to the life and memory of


(Choose One)


ZAY-KHER TSA-DEEK-KEEM LEE-V-RA-KHA Let the memory of good people bless us.

May the memory of___________ , whom we loved in life and still love in death, continue to bless our thoughts and our actions.






Listen now, you lovers of love.

Hear this, you seekers of happiness.

There is no happiness without love.

A New Strategy for Global Prosperity: The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs, Review

Humanistic Judaism Journal, “Celebrating 350 Years in America” Summer 2005

Who is Jeffrey Sachs? He is a Detroiter who became the world’s most famous living economist. He was one of the intellectual stars at Harvard University. He was chosen to be­come the first director of the new prestigious Earth Institute at Columbia University. Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, appointed him the coordinator of the Millennium Project, an ambitious attempt to rescue our planet from extreme poverty. Time magazine chose to place his latest book, The End of Poverty, on the cover of its journal.

Sachs is the son of one of America’s most respected labor lawyers, the late Ted Sachs. He has been the leading economic adviser to doz­ens of nations. He has transformed the econo­mies of countries as diverse as Bolivia, Poland, Russia, and India. His specialty has been the challenge of taking malfunctioning economies and making them work. Some of his advice and decisions provoked intense controversy.

Sachs now proposes to tackle the most difficult problem of our global economy, the problem of world poverty. One out of every six people on this planet lives in extreme depri­vation. One out of every three people suffers the humiliation of insufficient food, shelter, health care, and education. The dichotomy between the resources of the affluent in the First World and the resources of the poor in the Third World often reaches the ratio of twenty to one. Millions of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America endure daily suf­fering that we can barely imagine. And their misfortune is aggravated by disease, pollu­tion, and isolation. Although some of their difficulties are the result of bad government, most of their problems cannot be solved by eliminating corruption. Most of these nations are in economic, social, and environmental pits from which they cannot escape through their own efforts alone.

Why should we devote our time, energy, talent, and wealth to a problem that has defied solution until now? Obviously, there are ethical and compassionate reasons. But “spinning your wheels while staying in one place” may salve personal conscience; it does not have much moral value. Without a combination of vision and realism, all noble plans end up mired in fantasy. Jeffrey Sachs claims that he has a real­istic plan. And many expert critics, both liberal and conservative, agree that he has.

Sachs denounces the proposal offered by many economic conservatives (formerly classical liberals) and libertarians to open poor countries to the open competition of the free global market and to the opportunities of foreign markets, foreign investment, and foreign borrowing. This strategy has been recommended by both the International Mon­etary Fund and the World Bank. Taking this advice has yielded disaster. Foreign markets are not readily available for cheap agricultural produce. Foreign investment is scarce because the native infrastructure and judicial systems are inadequate. Foreign borrowing takes place and produces huge debts from which poor nations can never liberate themselves. Mired in loans they cannot repay, they discover that their meager national income is now con­sumed by relentless interest payments. What is a winning strategy for developed nations is a disaster for struggling nations.

Sachs maintains that any successful ac­tion needs the combination of personal deter­mination, state help, and foreign donors. No single factor can rescue poor nations. China and India are perfect examples of the suc­cess that follows this necessary cooperation. There is enough state management to protect a vulnerable economy. And there is enough freedom in the private sector to allow for cre­ativity and to encourage investment. Above all, poor nations need international allies that prevent them from accumulating debts that guarantee failure.

Poor nations that suffer from the mas­sive presence of AIDS and malaria are too depressed and demoralized to sustain any decent level of economic activity. Poor na­tions that are cut off from the global economy because there are no roads, no ports, and no airports cannot join the global world even if they want to. Poor nations that lack any con­sistent system of education for young people are separated from the world of science and technological information, the power base of the modern economy.

“Clinical economics” is the recommended strategy of Jeffrey Sachs. We have to start on the lowest level of economic survival – not cor­rupt governments but poverty-stricken villages. We have to teach the residents how to fertilize their fields, how to provide for sanitary living, how to manage the distribution and sales of their local products. We have to persuade all developed nations to take only 0.7 percent of their gross national product and “invest” it in this noble project. With this minimal and feasible gift, the problem of extreme poverty can be alleviated within twenty years.

Poor nations are a continuous provoca­tion to world stability and world peace. Poor people in poor nations are easily swept away by extremist movements and religious funda­mentalism. Rich nations have a choice. They can cynically hang on to their possessions without sharing and simultaneously endure the misfortunes of hatred and terrorism. Or they can offer consistent and modest help and discover, to their surprise, that they have created wonderful new markets and shrunk violence by providing hope.

The power of Sachs’ message can be ex­perienced only by reading his book, You will be excited by his realism and his optimism.

Meeting the Challenge of Renewal

Humanistic Judaism Journal, “Challenge of Jewish Renewal” Autumn 1998

A new religious movement is emerging in the Jewish world. It has its roots in the explo­sion of interest in Eastern religion that followed the Vietnam War. Thousands of Western Jews fell in love with the mystical insights and prac­tices of Hinduism and Buddhism. Reincarnation became Jewish. So did meditation, yoga, and mind power healing. New Age religion was born, and a high percentage of its devotees were Jews.

Why did the alumni of the New Left turn in droves to transcendental meditation and Zen philosophy? Why did so many Jewish youth find a religious home with the Maharishi and the Maharashi? The transformation puzzled experts. Was there a spiritual vacuum in Jew­ish life that conventional Judaism could not fill? Was the romantic utopianism of the New Left simply a prelude to the romantic vision of a universe infused with personal immortality and angelic power?

Rabbis and Jewish community leaders became alarmed. While most New Age devo­tees did not repudiate their Jewish connection and Jewish identity, their flirtation with other religions frightened the establishment. Jewish jokes mirrored this anxiety. Jewish mothers were climbing mountains in Tibet to confront the guru and say, “Melvin, come home.”

It was only a matter of time before the Jew­ish world learned to accommodate what it could not dismiss. If New Age religion was not exactly Rabbinic Judaism, then Rabbinic Judaism could be reinterpreted to mean New Age religion. With a little creative experimen­tation, anything was possible.

The surge of Eastern mysticism coincided with a Hasidic revival. The new Hasidim also were into the wonders of spirituality. However, in Hasidism, spirituality was subordinate to is­sues of Jewish identity, Jewish survival, Jewish ritual, and Jewish segregation. The Kabbalah as a mystical, far-out interpretation of Torah text was encased in a box of Orthodox conformity.

Jewish New Age religion was as comfort­able with Buddhist sutras as it was with kabbalistic numerology. It was an open and free exploration by Jews who wanted to be open and free. The authoritarianism of Hasidism was repugnant to these searchers for spiritual mean­ing. The New Age style was individualistic and egalitarian. Every devotee had to discover his or her own truth. The philosophic mantra of the new spirituality was the inner wisdom that lay within every human being. Each New Ager picked from the mystic smorgasbord what was to her or his taste. Out of such beginnings it was not easy to organize a movement.

During the past ten years, Jewish Renewal has arisen from this chaos of personal explora­tion, and charismatic leaders such as Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Arthur Waskow, and Michael Lerner have given it a Jewish focus. Communities of Jews eager for spiritual re­newal, such as P’nai Or in Philadelphia, emerged from the amorphous mass of seekers. Lerner’s journal Tikkun became the voice of the new movement. Schachter-Shalomi and others created a seminary to train rabbis for Renewal groups. Dozens of rabbis in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements offered their sup­port and enthusiasm to these organizing efforts. Renewal congregations with Renewal rabbis began popping up all over North America. Even the Reconstructionist seminary, at one time a bastion of Kaplanian rationality, succumbed to the invasion of Renewal ideology.

The most interesting phenomenon is occur­ring in Israel. Hundreds of secular Israelis, turned off by Orthodoxy, bored by Conserva­tism and Reform, and finding no personal mean­ing in Zionist nationalism, have been making pilgrimages to India. In love with gurus and ashrams, they have returned to Israel to orga­nize spirituality centers and communities that do Eastern religion in Hebrew. The major rival to Orthodoxy in Israel today is neither Reform nor Conservatism (which are viewed as bland North America imports); it is “Israeli Renewal.”

What does this all mean?

It means that there are large numbers of Jews who are attracted to Eastern religion and who, for reasons of either guilt or ethnic at­tachment, want to clothe these ideas and experiences in Jewish symbols.

It means that the quest for magic power is a strong human need, especially for people who feel overwhelmed by the stresses of modern urban society.

It means that the liberal Jewish establish­ment, whether Reform or Reconstructionist, will try to appropriate the new spiritual fer­vor for its own movements, especially because their philosophic messages provide very little magic power.

It means that there are now two rival radical “religions” in the Jewish world, one mystical and the other rational. Both oppose authoritarianism. But their messages are not the same.

It means that Humanistic Judaism not only confronts the traditional opposition of the old Orthodoxy and its pale reflections in Conservatism and Reform. It especially confronts the rising tide of freewheeling spiri­tuality in the Renewal movement.

How do we respond?

We are not opportunists. We do not appro­priate popular ideas we do not believe in because they are marketable and temporarily attractive.

We make a distinction between natural­istic spirituality, which celebrates the beau­ties of life, and mystical spirituality, which yearns for the magic power of instant healing and eternal bliss.

We recognize that reincarnation, angels, and numerology are just as irrational as the resurrection of the dead.

We refuse to accept the accusation that rationality is cold and unromantic. Facing the world realistically requires passion and de­termination. It also makes us romantic about beauty in a world where so much ugliness prevails. Love and friendship are beautiful and magical, but they do not confer magic power. They are rooted in the natural power of the human condition.

We acknowledge that we have a unique role to play in a Jewish world consumed by irrationality. The life of courage is a powerful Jewish message for those who are strong enough to accept it.

In the years to come, Jewish Renewal will be an important force in the Jewish world for us to dialogue with. We have to enter into the conversation with a clear sense of who we are.

Spirituality as Empowerment

Humanistic Judaism journal, “Colloquium ’01” Spring/Summer 2002

Spirituality is a controversial word in the secular world. For most “traditional” secular­ists the word is a weapon in the armory of the enemy. It conjures up the illusory world of spiritual beings — all the way from gods to spirits of the dead. People who are genuinely and consistently secular, it is said, cannot be spiritual. They can be emotional, artistic, im­passioned devotees of beauty — but they can­not be spiritual. A secular spirituality is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, very much like a square circle.

Yet for many other secularists, both old and young, the word spirituality has become a com­fortable addition to their lives, pointing to a secular reality that no other word adequately denotes. They recognize the historic use of the term for supernatural events. But for them the word easily crosses over to the world of space and time, to the realm of here and now. Many religious people are spiritual. But so are many secular people. Spirituality is an experience that can happen in both places.

If there is a real, this-worldly experience that can be designated spiritual, what is it? And what is its connection to the secular experi­ence that would justify our use of the word?

The answer to this question lies in the origins of religion. The foundation of religion is the human experience of suffering and death. If there were no suffering and no death, there would be no religion. All religions are coping strategies for dealing with these two frightening realities.

As a coping strategy, historic religion of­fered magic power. Magic power is extraordi­nary power. It can achieve what natural power never allows. Magic power that is manipulated by magicians and wizards belongs to the world of magic. Magic power that is personalized and attributed to ancestral spirits — and that be­comes the focus of acts of reverence and wor­ship — belongs to the world of religion.

Holiness and sacredness mean the pres­ence of magic power. Holy things radiate power and are often too dangerous to touch. If they are near, they can cure suffering and post­pone death. Holy spirits possess the power of immortality. They defy death and stand in contrast to the change and decay of the natu­ral world. The original spirituality was indeed access to or contact with this spirit world. It provided the serenity of eternal life, the tran­scendence of the supernatural, and the sense of power that dispels fear. In short, spiritual­ity is a form of extraordinary empowerment.

Spirituality as empowerment comes in two forms: external and internal. External spirituality is the most common form. The seeker sees himself as helpless and powerless, a childlike victim in need of rescue. Magic power is external to him, present in the god or the angel that will save him. The normal experience of prayer is an example of this unequal connection. The source of power is outside of the supplicant, beyond him. He seeks to be touched by it and transformed.

Internal spirituality is less common. The devotee feels the magic power within herself. She feels himself capable of performing miracles. A sense of extraordinary power per­vades her being. She easily turns into the prophet, the healer, the saint, the guru, the holy person. Internal spirituality is the sense of empowerment felt by charismatic and mes­sianic leaders. They may plead humility, but their followers see them as godlike. The goal of mysticism, as opposed to ordinary prayer, is to achieve this condition.

Both external spirituality and internal spirituality can be dangerous to the welfare of the individual. If one becomes addicted to prayer, he can aggravate passivity and depen­dency. If one sees himself as godlike, he can easily fall into the foolishness of pretension. Traditional spirituality, when it works well, can provide its devotees with a special em­powerment. But when it works badly, it can lead to self-destruction.

So what is the connection between spiri­tuality and anything that secular people may be comfortable with? How can one have spiri­tuality without magic power?

Secular spirituality, like traditional spiri­tuality, is the experience of extraordinary empowerment — not so extraordinary that it defies natural law, but extraordinary enough to make it special. The birth of children, the intense solidarity of determined groups, the euphoria of great achievement, the inspira­tion of beautiful nature or beautiful people — all of these experiences provide the seeker with a new sense of significant power.

Secular spirituality can be both external and internal. It is external when we feel the power coming from outside of us. When we feel insignificant in the midst of a vast and overwhelming universe but feel significant as a part of a single nature evolving through the ages; when we feel insignificant as a lonely and mortal individual but feel significant as part of a centuries-long chain of family love; when we see ourselves as powerless in fight­ing the forces of evil alone but see ourselves as powerful when joined together with oth­ers in a movement of political idealism — we experience the wonder of natural transcen­dence. For many Jews their spirituality arises from their sense of connection to generations of ancestors — a sense of solidarity with the past and with time. The pleasure of roots gives us a sense of “immortality,” of continuity be­yond our all-too-brief personal existence. Having children and grandchildren is grow­ing roots in the future.

Secular spirituality is internal when we feel the power residing within ourselves. Self- confidence and personal self-esteem are not as extraordinary as sainthood. But they fill us with an energy of hope and well-being. There are times in our lives when we feel euphori­cally that we can seize the moment and achieve goals that we once thought were un­reachable. Such moments are the stuff out of which internal spirituality is made.

Like traditional spirituality, secular spiri­tuality can be dangerous. If we never feel pow­erful within ourselves but only feel powerful when we are connected to nature and to other people, then this losing oneself in something greater than oneself is the path to passive sur­render and conformity. If we exaggerate our personal power and imagine that we can change our lives and the weather by simply wishing it, then we become the victims of megalomania and illusion.

A healthy secular spirituality is a balanc­ing act. We need to feel connected to forces beyond ourselves without ever losing our per­sonal identity. And we need to feel powerful enough within, yet never imagine that we can survive independent of the help of others.

A healthy spirituality for Humanistic Jews needs the following guidelines.

We need to distinguish between the word spirituality and the experience of extraordi­nary empowerment. Some Humanistic Jews will feel comfortable using the word spiritual to describe this experience. Others will not. As long as we understand the experience we are talking about, we can generously let the word be optional. If someone prefers to say “empowerment” or “transcendence” or “ex­altation,” that choice is legitimate. Leaving the word as an option is kind, good-humored, and pragmatic.

We need to recognize the spiritual qual­ity of many secular lives. The spiritual ideal­ism of halutsim and kibbutzniks, which defied both nature and the limits of human ingenuity to achieve almost impossible goals, has a spiritual quality that can surely equal the devotion of monks and nuns. The resistance of secular ghetto fighters who of­fered their lives to rescue the dignity of the Jewish people certainly has as much spiritu­ality as that of the religious martyrs who died for their faith. Secular scientists such as Einstein and Darwin, who brought unity out of difference, were as spiritual as the most famous theologians.

We need to distinguish between the spiritual experience and its consequences. Empowerment may make us feel energetic and ambitious, willing to confront all odds. It also may make us feel satisfied and secure, dispelling all fears. Ambition and serenity are the consequences of empowerment, not the substance.

We need to develop the ethical side of our spirituality. Transcendent experiences that focus only on nature and the universe to the exclusion of other people are morally danger­ous. A healthy spirituality is not so transcen­dent that human affairs become unimportant. Some of the most significant moments of empowerment come from working with oth­ers to alleviate suffering and to strengthen the community.

We need to develop the aesthetic side of our spirituality. Beauty is the reflection in nature and people of whatever fosters life. Romantic love and sunlight are beautiful be­cause they nurture life. In a universe where ugliness reflects all the dangers to human ex­istence and happiness — from pestilence to violence — we need to feel strengthened by everything in the universe that supports our will to live.

We need to cultivate the internal spiritu­ality that courage brings. In a world where guaranteed happy endings are illusions and magic power is the stuff of fantasy, the ulti­mate spiritual experience is not the surren­der to God. It is the sense of empowerment that refuses to surrender to adversity and insists that taking risks is as sublime as naive faith.

Jews and Non-Jews: The Love/Hate Relationship

Humanistic Judaism journal, “Colloquium ’03” Spring 2004

After the Holocaust, the specter of antisemitism hovers over any discussion of the Jewish-Gentile encounter. Six million Jews died. The Holocaust has emerged as the Jew­ish “crucifixion.”

But the reality of Jewish life in America today is hardly one of antisemitism. The rise of the Jews to economic and political power, the fashionableness of Judaism and Jewish culture, and the overwhelming phenomenon of intermarriage testify to widespread accep­tance — and even love.

Ironically, both the love and the hate de­rive from the same source. While modern antisemitism certainly has its roots in the reli­gious hostility of the Greeks and the Church, it also has more powerful roots in the economic and political transformation of the Jew in the Western world in the past two centuries.

The demonization of the Jew as “Christ- killer” still persists. But the image of the Jew as the evil manipulator of power in an urban- industrial society is far more pervasive. In a secu­lar age of capitalism, religion is not the major grievance against the Jew. The word antisemitism arose in nineteenth-century Germany and Aus­tria during an economic depression. It was not directed at the theology of the Jews. It was di­rected at the “race” of the Jews and their pre­sumed hereditary disposition to sow social evil.

The world of capitalism provided Jews with emancipation, education, economic op­portunity, and even social acceptance. The decline of religion and the rise of bourgeois culture established the foundation of tolera­tion. Jews became prominent in the arts and sciences and in the evolving scene of the me­dia and entertainment. This power was both attractive and provocative.

Philosemitism is the response of people who find Jews attractive and benign. In America there are millions of people who do. Increasingly they choose to marry Jews. It is the transformed, assimilated Jew that most philosemites love. And it is the very same Jew that most antisemites fear and hate.

During our Colloquium this past October on “Jews and Non-Jews: The Love-Hate Rela­tionship,” our extraordinary presenters ex­plored the meaning of this dichotomy. Now that the Colloquium is over, it is important for us to pick up the messages that were de­livered and to summarize their implications.

Here is what I heard.

Be self-aware. Most Jews see themselves as an abused people who have been victim­ized by forces over which we have no con­trol. The Holocaust has become, in Jewish eyes, the ultimate symbol of Jewish suffering and Jewish loss. But most antisemites and many philosemites see the Jews as an ambi­tious and powerful people who have reached the top of the economic, social, and political ladder, especially in North America. The truth of the matter is that we have been both a vic­timized and a powerful people. Jewish influ­ence in business, academia, and the media is out of proportion to Jewish numbers. If we were content to accept any social status the fates dished out, antisemitism would rapidly decline. Ever since we chose to deny the ex­istence of other people’s gods, ever since we became a commercial people in a peasant world (just like our Phoenician cousins), our ambition has been a source of confrontation and resentment.

We will not give up our ambitions sim­ply because our enemies do not like them. Our success is mostly good for the world, not bad. And our success gives us the power to resist our enemies.

Do not exaggerate. Antisemitism is a source of Jewish annihilation, but it is also a source of Jewish survival. Hatred of the Jews forces Jews to remain Jews, and — if it is not lethal — reinforces community solidarity. Therefore, it is tempting for Jewish leaders to cry antisemitism even when it does not exist. In the free and assimilating environment of North America, the threat of antisemitism becomes an opportunity to mobilize Jews who otherwise would not be interested in their Jewish identity.

Just as it is urgent that we do not play Pollyanna and deny hostility when it rears its ugly head, so is it equally important that we do not see enemies where enemies do not exist. All challenges to our success and sur­vival are not due to antisemites.

Be sensitive. Jews usually imagine that hostility is one-sided, directed by Gentiles at the Jewish world. The possibility that Jews, in turn, bear hatred toward the Gentile world is rarely acknowledged. The new reality of intermarriage highlights this “blind­ness.” Many non-Jewish spouses of Jewish men and women encounter a wall of rejec­tion and exclusion that is puzzling, especially since the rejecting Jews see themselves as liberals embracing the ideals of love and human solidarity.

Jewish history has filled the Jewish heart with fear, hatred, and resentment. We must make sure that we do not choose to punish the people who love us. The price of Jewish survival is too high if it includes Jewish bigotry.

Do not be naive. In modern times antisemitism has been fostered by the politi­cal forces of the Right. The aristocracy, the military, the church have been the primary perpetrators of antisemitic violence. Add to their hatred the hostility of traditional peas­ants and the conservative bourgeoisie, and you complete the roster of enemies. The Left was always assumed to be a friend to the Jews. One of the reasons Jews chose the Left was that it offered resistance to antisemitism. Dur­ing the fascist era many Jews chose commu­nism because the communists seemed to be the most effective opponents of fascism.

But that is no longer true. The struggle between the Jews and the Arabs has changed the picture. In Europe and in many other parts of the world, Israel has become the new vil­lain of the Left. The Palestinians are romanti­cized, and the Israelis are identified with Na­zis. While it is certainly true that the behavior of the Israeli government and the Israeli army has often been oppressive, this fact cannot fully explain the hostility of the new Leftist propaganda. The Jews now find themselves besieged from both sides. The resentment of Pat Buchanan is now matched by the resent­ment of the leaders of the French and German Left. It is naive to assume that antisemitism is only a Rightist phenomenon.

Recognize the danger. Because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the center of world antisemitism has shifted to the Muslim world. Nazi-style anti-Jewish propaganda is now regular fare on Muslim radio and television. A region that had been historically mildly anti- Jewish has now become rabidly anti-Jewish. The leaders in this new fanatical hatred are the leaders of the new Muslim fundamental­ism, more popularly known as radical Islam. Radical Islam is now responsible for most antisemitic activity in the world, whether in Argentina, where the Jewish central federation building was blown up, or in France, where Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. There are very few Jews remaining in Muslim coun­tries, but there are millions of Muslims resid­ing in Europe and the Americas.

Do not be ashamed of Jewish power. Jews are always uncomfortable talking about Jewish power. They are more comfortable talk­ing about Jewish persecution. But Jewish power is the consequence of Jewish talent and Jewish diligence. Jewish political power in America is considerable. Neither Congress nor the President would choose to turn against Israel. And Holocaust awareness in America is no coincidence.

Jewish power is legitimate if it is used for legitimate ends. There is no virtue in culti­vating weakness. And sometimes the fear of Jewish power can serve good ends. In Ukraine the government subsidizes Jewish institutions because the Ukrainians wish to ingratiate themselves with America and because they assume that Jews control America.

Be fair. Some hostility directed toward Israel and toward Jews is not antisemitic. It addresses present Jewish behavior. The plight of the Palestinians is real. Justice demands a Palestinian state that works. Screaming “antisemitism” when any negative criticism of the Israeli government is offered is coun­terproductive. Israeli extremism and Jewish support for it are wrong.

A fair peace settlement that allowed for a reasonably secure Israel and a reasonably vi­able Palestine would not only diminish Mus­lim resentment. It would also appreciably shrink the recruits of radical Islam.

Be open. One of the signs of philosemitism is the rising rate of intermarriage. Given the fact that Jews live in a free and open society, and given the fact that most Jews are not prepared to repudiate it, intermarriage will be an important continuing phenomenon of Diaspora Jewish life.

If that is the case, we have a moral obliga­tion to respond to love with acceptance. We have a moral obligation to acknowledge ev­ery individual as a person, and not as a label.

There are many Jews who fear the new freedom. They imagine that a free and open society, like violent antisemitism, will lead to Jewish extinction. For them philosemitism is as dangerous as antisemitism; even a mild, nonlethal antisemitism would be better. At least it would preserve Jewish identity and the Jewish people.

Over the centuries we Jews have learned to cope with hatred. Now we are being forced to learn new skills, the skills for coping with love. The balancing act between survival and freedom is not easy, but the ethical quality of a future Judaism depends on the ethical ne­cessity of never turning against love.

Gibson’s Bad News for the Jews: The Passion of the Christ a film by Mel Gibson, Review

Humanistic Judaism Journal, Spring 2004

The most famous Jew who ever lived is a problem for Jews. His name was Jesus, and he became the central figure of the world’s most successful religion. Today more than two billion people — one-third of the human race — proclaim themselves to be Christians.

The Christian Church persecuted Jews for more than fifteen centuries. Christian leaders accused Jews of being Christ-killers. They slaughtered them in pogroms. In the Jewish mind, Jesus and antisemitism go together. We cannot even talk about him in our services and Sunday Schools. He belongs to the “en­emy.” For a Jew to become a Christian is an act of treason.

The only ancient stories we have about Jesus are Christian stories. There are no reports from contemporary Greek or Roman histories. The official Christian story of his life and death dates from the fourth century C.E., when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This official story is contained in four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and in two creeds, Athanasian and Nicene. In this narrative there are five major events: Jesus’ virgin birth during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, his four-year preaching career, his passion and crucifixion at the age of thirty-three, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension to heaven after forty days on earth. This official story was re­inforced by punishment for those who devi­ated from it.

Throughout the ensuing centuries, the Western Church (the Roman Catholic Church), in particular, focused on the details of the Crucifixion and demonized Jews as Christ- killers. In the Middle Ages, passion plays were created, which retold the New Testament story with gory embellishments and depicted the Jew as the agent of the Devil.

The antisemitism of the Catholic Church was alleviated in the past three centuries by the arrival of the secular revolutions that transformed modern society: capitalism, sci­ence, and democracy. The Church was de­prived of its temporal power. Modern schol­ars wrote new versions of the Jesus epic, in which the role of the Jews was downplayed and the message of love became the central theme. When antisemitism reasserted itself in the twentieth century, the guilt engendered by the Holocaust produced the apologies of the Church after Vatican Council II.

When the cinema arrived on the scene, with all its power to influence public opin­ion, film versions of the story of Jesus, from De Mille’s King of Kings to George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told, were relatively benign. In later years, Jewish Hollywood reversed the roles. The “crucifixion” of the Jews, as embodied in the Holocaust, now became a continual theme. Jews were the victims; Chris­tians were the cruel murderers.

Mel Gibson’s new movie about Jesus de­fies all this “positive” development. It is an old-time Catholic passion play on film, with its gory sadism and its powerful antisemitism. It is as though Gibson wanted to cancel out the “Holocaust syndrome” and to restore the time when Christians felt perfectly free to portray Jews as villains, without guilt. After all, Gibson and his father belong to a seces­sionist group of Catholics who disapprove of the liberal reforms of Vatican II and wish to restore Catholicism to its former orthodoxy. Some of these secessionists, including Gibson’s father, deny the Holocaust.

The film is a powerful cinema experience. Jews cannot appreciate it because they are turned off by its obvious antisemitism. Liberals cannot appreciate it because they cannot identify with the virtue of suffering. All they can talk about is the excessive and intolerable gore. Liberal Christians cannot appreciate it because they have “converted” to the Jesus of the Enlightenment, whose main achievement is not the atonement for sin or the conquest of death but the message of love.

But for conservative Christians this film is a triumph. It recaptures the central message of traditional Christianity: Jesus Christ suffered and died for our sins. His chief enemy is the Devil, who seduces humanity to defy God. Two powerful emotions are aroused by this movie. The first is guilt — the guilt the believer feels for his own sins and for the suffering of Jesus, who takes on himself the punishment that the believer deserves. The second is rage — rage against the cruelty of the Devil and against the sinners who embraced his cause. All their noses are crooked and Semitic. Only one Jew­ish nose in the film is straight.

The film is bad news for the Jews. Although inspired by Catholic fervor, it will become a cult film with the Protestant Religious Right, the lovers of Sharon’s Israel. (Will wonders never cease!) It will be embraced by enthusi­asts in Europe and by the anti-Jewish public of the Muslim world (even though official Islam does not accept the crucifixion of Jesus).

The good news is that Western Europe is so secularized that Disney is doing better than Gibson. And, in North America, skepticism and nonconformity are so widespread that The Da Vinci Code remains a bestseller — a book with the thesis that Jesus may never have been crucified, but instead got married and had a child. An America that is willing to entertain such an idea is very far from the mindset of The Passion of the Christ.

Jews and the Muslim World

Humanistic Judaism journal, “Colloquium ’07” Summer 2008

Since the advent of Zionism, the Arab and Muslim worlds have become obsessions in Jewish life. And since September 11, 2001, the world of Islam has become an obsession in American life. Similarly, Jews and Americans take the center stage in the Muslim perception of evil. The demonization of the Jew in Muslim propaganda during the past forty years echoes the strident hatred of German fascist leaders before and during the Second World War.

For most of the past fourteen hundred years the fate of the Jew in the Islamic world has been kinder than his fate in the Christian world. While there are harsh tales of Muslim persecution of the Jews, the steady stream of murderous assaults that defines the experience of Jews in Christian Europe is absent from the Muslim chronicles. Jews were not loved in the countries of Islam, but they were not demon­ized. In Spain and in many other places Jews and Muslims established alliances of conve­nience, which lasted for centuries.

Both Judaism and Islam had Semitic roots. The patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible were just like the patriarchs of Arab recollection. The detestation of painting and sculpture, the reverence of unhewn stones, the Bedouin abhorrence of pig meat, the love of animal sacrifices, the attachment to polygamy and secluded women – all of these cultural tastes were shared by Jews and Arabs. There was a compatibility of spirit and practice between the Jewish and Muslim societies that did not exist between the Jews and the Greco-Roman culture of the Christian world. Even the status of the Jewish and Muslim clergy and their pri­mary role as interpreters of sacred scriptures stood against the functioning of the Christian clergy as masters of ritual and worship. Ac­commodating to Muslim practice was easier for Jews than adapting to the cultural milieu of the Christian nations.

It was in the Christian world that the Jews were demonized. The militancy of the Crusades, the emergence of the aggressive missionary activity of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, and the persistent hostility to the banking and commercial activities of the Jews encouraged intense hatred. The Third and Fourth Councils of the Western Church, held in 1179 and 1215, respectively, turned the Jews into devils whom neither conversion nor baptism could cure. It was in the Christian world that Jews become racial pariahs that later secular writers would appropriate for modern antisemitism. The Jewish devil became the Jew­ish conspiracy to dominate the nations of the world. Zionism was a response to the intensity of Christian hostility to the Jews.

But Zionism sought to solve this Jewish problem in the Muslim world. Jewish na­tionalism chose a Muslim territory for Jewish settlement, a territory that had played host to a Muslim majority for more than one thousand years. While Christian antisemites were happy to see the Jews leave Christian Europe for Mus­lim Asia, the Muslims did not share their joy. The arrival of the Zionists reminded them of the arrival of the British and French. While the Jews saw themselves as the victims of Christian antisemitism, the Muslims saw the Zionists as the last invasion of European colonists. They saw no virtue in solving a European problem by transporting the Jews to a Muslim land. The European arrogance of using the whole world as a place to solve European problems infuriated the Arabs and triggered an Arab and Muslim hatred of the Jews that had not existed before.

The Muslim obsession with the Jews is something new. The advent of Zionism was the provocation. A noble and idealistic move­ment to rescue the Jews was perceived by its Muslims enemies as a travesty of justice. Jewish victims became Jewish villains. Jewish settlers were viewed as Jewish invaders. The vision of Jewish suffering was turned into an image of Muslim suffering. No genocide or Holocaust could reverse the confrontation. The victimiza­tion of the Jews was no excuse for the victim­ization of the Arabs.

The 1967 war turned hatred into antisemi­tism. The Jewish victory in the Six Day War was an ultimate humiliation. The Muslim world struggled with the question of how this defeat was possible. Antisemitism provided the an­swer. Straight from Hitlerian Europe came the reply. The Arab and Muslim worlds were not defeated by tiny Israel. They were defeated by a giant world conspiracy organized and financed by the world Jewish community. This com­munity controlled all Western governments and every development in the global economy. Jewish leaders had already sponsored two depressions and two world wars to enrich themselves and to enhance Jewish power. They had initiated the saga of the Holocaust to hide their ruthlessness and to persuade the Gentile world to see them as sufferers and not as conquerors.

After 1967 antisemitism became an im­portant ingredient of Muslim propaganda and Muslim politics. Anti-Zionism was replaced with the detestation and demonization of the Jew. Only the “Jewish enemy” of antisemitism could inspire the terrorist assault on Israel, the Jewish Diaspora, and their perceived allies. The assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 by an enraged Palestinian was the beginning of the Muslim war against the devil. America had become the tool of the Jews. The Muslim fundamentalist assault on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001 was a con­tinuation of this war. New York, “the real capital of the Jews,” was to feel the brunt of Muslim revenge.

The Jewish response to this confronta­tion is fear and contempt – fear of Muslim numbers and Muslim power and contempt for the ignorance that allows this antisemi­tism to be believed. With some Jews, fear and contempt have united into hatred. The enemy has arranged for us to turn into mirror images of themselves.

Is this confrontation between Jews and the Muslim world irresolvable? Are we con­demned to eternal war? Or is there a real possi­bility of “shrinking” the hatred, of diminishing the confrontation?

Jews and Arabs

Humanistic Judaism journal, “Crisis in Israel” Autumn 2002

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for the war in the Middle East? Or is the Jewish-Arab war condemned to last forever?

The war between the Jews and the Arabs in former British Palestine has been going on for eighty-one years. In 1921 the first Arab explosion against the Zionist pioneers an­nounced the beginning of the fray. For eight decades the war has waxed and waned. Thou­sands have been killed and maimed. Hatred and suspicion have undermined any success­ful resolution of the conflict.

After the Jewish War of Independence in 1948, the war became a war between the Jew­ish state and external Arab enemies. In that conflict, the Israelis were generally victorious. The Israeli triumph in 1967 crushed Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hero of Arab nationalism. But in 1987 the Palestinian Arabs chose a new kind of battle: internal rebellion. The intifada was born. And it has grown in fury ever since.

The foundation of the war is the power of nationalism. Jewish nationalism was born out of the defiance of the oppressed Jewish masses in Tsarist Russia. It was fed by racial antisemitism. Diaspora nationalism sought to liberate the Jews of Eastern Europe and give them cultural autonomy. It was destroyed by native resistance and the Holocaust. Zionist nationalism also saw itself as a national lib­eration movement. It naively proposed to solve the Jewish problem of antisemitism by return­ing the Jews to their ancient homeland. Rein­forced by socialist idealism and the revival of Hebrew as a popular language, Zionists estab­lished a Jewish settlement in Palestine. The closing of the doors to immigration in America, the support of the British govern­ment, and the rise of Adolph Hitler provided an impetus that the slaughter of six million Jews was to make irresistible. Zionism became the most powerful movement to mobilize the Jewish masses in the twentieth century.

Arab nationalism was an import from the West, cultivated initially by Christian Arabs as a way of countering their exclusion by Muslims. Propelled by Turkish oppression and by the humiliation of European conquest, the nationalist movement was led by West­ernized Arab intellectuals who embraced secular values and placed nationhood above religion. But since the Arab world never fully experienced the secular revolution that trans­formed European life, the Arab nationalism of the street had difficulty distinguishing be­tween Arab loyalty and Muslim loyalty. Reli­gion inevitably became part of the nationalist package in the Muslim world.

Since the Arab world is vast, divided by regional differences, cultural diversity, and the internal boundaries of twenty-two states created by colonial masters, the unification of the Arab nation has not been easy. Nasser tried and failed. He was defeated both by the Israelis and by the hostility of his political enemies and rivals in the Arab world.

The one issue that has the power of tran­scending the internal state boundaries of the Arab world and mobilizing the Arab masses is Zionism. The Jewish state, whether deserv­edly or not, has become the symbol of Arab humiliation. Perceived as the last and most outrageous example of European colonialism, Israel is the object of universal hate in the Arab world. The defeat of Israel has become the ultimate perceived means of restoring Arab honor. The hatred of Zionism is so intense that it is difficult for most Arabs to distinguish between their hostility to Israel and their ha­tred for Jews.

In fact, the suspicion and hatred between Arabs and Jews is so fierce that dialogue is condemned to failure. Most public and pri­vate encounters between conventional Arab and Jewish leaders degenerate into shouting matches. Each side insists on its rights. And, of course, both sides are “right.” The Pales­tinian Arabs have been invaded, abused, and oppressed. The Israeli Jews are by now mainly native-born residents of the land they defend and the creators of a dynamic, modern, high- tech state, who have no place else to go.

From the Jewish point of view, Arab hos­tility cannot easily be distinguished from antisemitism. The memories of the Holocaust hover over every response. Of course, the popular media in the Arab world reinforce this perception by aping the propaganda of European Jew-hatred. From the perspective of the Arabs, Jewish voices are confused with the voices of Jewish extremists who advocate expulsion and deportation.

There is an abundance of extremists on both sides. The Arab and Palestinian nation­alist and fundamentalist worlds feature many militant groups who advocate terrorism and who call for the destruction of the Jewish state. The Jewish and Israeli extremists are equally militant in their refusal to recognize the right of a Palestinian state to exist (other than by suggesting that Jordan is already a Palestin­ian state). But, to the credit of the Israelis, Is­rael has a peace movement that has no counterpart in the Arab world.

Both sides see themselves as victims. Jews see Israel as a small, beleaguered state in a vast and petroleum-rich Arab world that does nothing to rescue its Palestinian brothers and sisters from poverty. Arabs see Israel as the agent of American imperialism, supported by the wealth and military technology of the world’s only superpower, a nation beholden to Jewish political power.

The failure of the Oslo peace process is as much the result of intense hatred and sus­picion as of the incompatibility of vested in­terests. The issues of boundaries, Jerusalem, and refugees are surrounded by such levels of distrust that the normal compromises that negotiations bring can never emerge. No ar­rangements can provide the security that most Israelis want. And no “deal” can yield the sense of honor and vindication that most Pal­estinians and Arabs want.

In the search for alternatives to endless war, certain realities need to be confronted.

  • This war is not only bad for the Israelis and Palestinians. It is also bad for the Jews and the Arabs. For the Jews the war has already spread to Europe, where Muslim militants as­sault synagogues and vulnerable Jews. For the Arabs the war prevents any real confrontation with the political, economic, and social issues that confront the Arab world. War continues to justify government by military dictators.
  •  This war is bad for America and the world. The Palestinian issue has provided the fuel whereby Muslim militants have won the allegiance of millions of Arabs and Muslims in their desire to wage war against America and Western culture. A war between the West and Islam is a world war. It is different from a war against Muslim fundamentalist terrorism. In the latter war we enjoy and will enjoy the support of most Muslim governments. The success of our response to September 11 lies in our ability to make the distinction.
  •  Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians by themselves cannot achieve peace — or even an effective truce — by relying on negotia­tions alone. The cycle of vengeance has its own logic. Every terrorist action requires re­taliation. Every retaliation requires counter- retaliation. No antagonist can allow itself to be seen as weak. Revenge is a necessary tac­tic to maintain credibility. The cycle cannot stop itself without outside intervention.
  •  The proposed Palestinian state is no more than three thousand square miles in size, hardly a formula for viability. It is presently a series of urban “doughnut holes” in Israeli- occupied territory. The presence of the Israeli army is justified, not only by the argument for security, but also by the necessity to defend small Jewish settlements, which have been placed in the West Bank and Gaza by religious Jewish settlers laying claim to the land. These settlements prevent peace, add nothing to the security of Israel, and only provide more provocation to Arabs to kill more Jews.
  •  Jerusalem is already divided. Jewish Jerusalem (about two-thirds of the expanded city) has no Arabs; Arab Jerusalem (the east­ern sector) has no Jews. While some Arabs work in Jewish Jerusalem, almost no Jews ever penetrate Arab Jerusalem unless they are on military duty. A unified city is more desir­able than a divided city. But the division al­ready exists.
  •  A bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state (a dream of many peaceniks) is not politically viable even though it would be economically desirable. Jewish and Arab nationalism are realities. They cannot be wished away. Mu­tual hatred and suspicion are realities. They cannot be dismissed. Arguing against nation­alism may work a hundred years from now. It does not work now. A Jewish state is no more a racist state than an Arab state. It is a state where Jewish national culture is the dominant culture and where most people speak Hebrew. It is Jewish in the same way that Palestine will be Arab. Three million Palestinian refugees cannot return to the Jewish state without de­stroying the Jewish national character of the Jewish state.
  • Because outside intervention is required, the only superpower capable of orchestrating a successful intervention is America. Since September 11, Bush has mobilized an effec­tive coalition of world powers, including Eu­rope, Russia, China and India — as well as many allies in the Muslim world. The war between the Israelis and the Palestinians has begun to undermine the coalition, especially with Bush’s perceived support of the Sharon government in Israel. Joint intervention, with the approval of the United Nations and with the support of moderate Muslim powers would restore the coalition. This intervention is no different from the intervention that America initiated in Bosnia or Kosovo.

What would be the elements of such an intervention?

  1.  America controls the process of interven­tion. The Israelis do not trust the United Na­tions and will not cooperate with an effort managed by the hostile nations of the Third World.
  2.  America behaves as a neutral “parent.” It does not always praise one side and condemn the other. It creates a setting for negotiations, with the presence of major members of the coalition. The format of negotiations is only a pretense. In the “back room” America dic­tates the settlement. Everybody knows that America has imposed the settlement. Both antagonists protest. But they yield because they have no choice. The imposition gives the leaders of both sides an excuse. They can jus­tify their “surrender” to their constituencies by pleading helplessness. They may even shake hands reluctantly. Of course, Arafat will be there. The latest Israel foray has restored him as the popular leader of the Palestinians.
  3.  The imposed settlement will include the following: 1) the removal of all Jewish settle­ments from the West Bank and Gaza with the exception of those settlements that function as contiguous suburban communities for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; 2} the digging of a ditch and the building of a fence along the adjusted 1967 boundaries between the Jews and the Arabs; 3) the policing of this fence by America and its European allies; 4) the granting of Arab East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as their national capitol; 5) the demilitarization of the new Palestinian state, with periodic inspec­tions by Americans and their coalition part­ners; and 6) compensation for Palestinian refugees who cannot return.
  4.  Compensation for Palestinian refugees may cost more than thirty billion dollars. It will be covered by America, Japan, and our European allies. If the compensation helps to bring about an effective truce, it will be worth the investment. Rescuing the global economy for peace justifies the expense.
  5.  All that can presently be achieved is an effective truce. Peace will have to await a re­duction in the fury and hatred and suspicion.
  6.  Israel needs to be compensated for its willingness to shrink and to confront the wrath of its right-wing extremists. Since it will not in the foreseeable future be accepted by the Arab and Muslim worlds, it needs to be regarded as the European power that it is. Israel’s high-tech economy needs the Euro­pean market, just as its European culture needs a European support system. The price that Europe pays for this necessary peace is that it accepts Israel as a member of the Euro­pean Union. Such acceptance is no different from accepting Cyprus or Turkey. Israelis will be better off with euros than with shekels.

After this settlement is imposed, terrorist violence will continue. The war against Mus­lim fundamentalist terrorists also will continue. For the extremists in the Arab and Muslim world — and even in the Jewish world — hatred is a way of life. For the moderates, an effective truce will enable them to join the forces of peace.

The ball is in President Bush’s court. Only he can lead the way. The leaders of the De­fense Department and the religious right will oppose this kind of proposal. But only such action can provide any light at the end of the tunnel in the Middle East.


Humanistic Judaism Journal, “Death and Dying” Summer 1989

To cremate or not to cremate. That is a controversial question in the Jewish world.

Cremation is forbidden by the rabbinic tradition. The burning of the body is viewed with horror. Burial is the only legitimate way of dealing with the corpse.

The tradition prescribes not only burial, but burial on the same day as death, burial in shrouds, burial without embalming, and burial without a coffin.

In the Bible, burning is viewed as a form of humiliation and punishment. “If a man marries a woman and her mother it is depravity; both he and they shall be put to the fire” (Leviticus 20:14). “When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father she defiles; she shall be put to the fire” (Leviticus 21:9). “He that is indicated for proscription and all that is his shall be put to the fire” (Judges 7:15).

In the Mishnah, cremation is identified as an idolatrous practice (Avoda Zara 1:3). Even the burning of sinners is discontinued, though this form of punishment is still regarded as legal.

Why is cremation forbidden?

The official reason is provided in the Shulkhan Arukh, the sixteenth century code book prepared by Joseph Caro. The prohibi­tion of cremation is justified by the resurrec­tion of the dead. Rabbinic Judaism main­tains that a final Judgment Day will take place and that the dead will rise from their graves to stand before the justice of God. No body means no resurrection. And no resur­rection means no access to Paradise.

However, this official reason seems to be a rationalization, an ideological after­thought, rather than the real historic motiva­tion. The prohibition against cremation preceded the emergence of the resurrection idea. And the assertion that no body means no resurrection seems silly when one realizes what happens to the corpse after burial, especially without embalming. Time reduces the body to a dust that is almost in­distinguishable from the ashes of burning. Moreover, if the resurrection idea were true, wicked people could avoid the punishments of Gehenna by simply choosing cremation.

Anthropologists tell us that early cultures are divided into burial groups and crema­tion groups. Both dispositions of the dead seem to be equally ancient, with their roots deep in the behaviors and beliefs of the Stone Age.

Inhumation, or burial, seems to derive from a belief that the souls of the dead con­tinue to reside in their respective bodies and cannot successfully survive without this at­tachment. The preservation of the body assists in the preservation of the soul. The embalmed Egyptian dead are an exagger­ated testimony to this belief, as are the tombs filled with material possessions for the afterlife. Cremation, on the other hand, follows from an opposing conviction that the souls of the dead do not depend on the body for their continued existence. The destruction of the body in no way adversely affects the welfare of the soul. In fact, it may be liberating.

Another motivation for cremation is the belief that corpses are a source of defile­ment and dangerous to keep, even in a buried condition. Still another belief main­tains that fire is sacred and therefore purifying.

Many famous cultures featured crema­tion. In ancient Greece and Rome, much of the aristocracy chose burning. In India, cremation became the universal ritual of death and has remained deeply identified with Hinduism. Buddhism followed suit and planted this Indian practice in In­dochina and Japan.

In the West, the triumph of Christianity and Islam, both anti-cremation religions, made cremation a ritual taboo. Burning bodies was a no-no for orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Only criminals or apos­tates deserved the indignity of immolation.

But the arrival of the Enlightenment undermined this solid front of opposition. In the age of science, believing in the resur­rection of the dead was difficult even for Christians and Jews who tried to be loyal to ancestral tradition. Reason challenged the unconscious fears of many religionists. By the nineteenth century, immortality had be­come so ethereal that bodies seemed quite irrelevant to the project of eternal life. Romantic spirituality had no need for the physical. Enlightened religion was open to alternatives to burial.

This development was reinforced by new social realities. As long as people lived on farms, burial was easy and cheap. But city life added complications. Death specialists in the form of morticians and funeral chapels now intervened. Affluence and con­spicuous consumption made rituals and ceremonies more elaborate. What was once simple and inexpensive now became com­plex and costly. Burial involved a lot of money and a lot of time.

Overcrowding and mobility added to the problems. In an uncrowded world, giving land to the dead was no imposition. But in densely populated centers, cemeteries com­peted with the demands of the living for the rational use of scarce land. In the stationary world of farm life, the graves of ancestors could be revered and cared for by genera­tions of descendants. But in the fast-moving milieu of urban displacement, people hardly stay in one place long enough even to re­member where their ancestors are buried. Within two generations, graves are abandoned.

The consequence of all these changes was the emergence of an interest in crema­tion. In the 1870s, cremation societies were established in England and North America. Although religious opposition was strong and vocal, they continued to grow and flourish. An increasingly secular society now found what was once abhorrent ra­tionally attractive. Even many “spiritual” people chose cremation as an expression of their new, free religious commitments. By the middle of the twentieth century, in­cineration had become a major choice in northern Europe and in the antireligious regimes of the Soviet Union, its satellites, and China. In both Russia and China, the reversal was dramatic and revolutionary. Both nations had been deeply involved with the sacredness of burial. But ideology and necessity combined to produce a quick transformation.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Jews in Western Europe and North America followed the new fashion. Influenced by science and secularism, they found crema­tion an appropriate choice. In North America, cremation became so popular among liberal Jews that the Reform rab­binate, defying tradition, legitimized its use. Even Modern Orthodox rabbis — Hermann Adler in England and Zadoc Kahn in France — conceded “burial” rights to the ashes of Jews in Jewish cemeteries.

The influx of Polish and Russian immi­grants into Western countries dampened the new enthusiasm. Even the radicals among them retained a traditional prefer­ence for burial. And this traditionalism was reinforced by the events of the Holocaust. Cremation became associated, in many Jewish minds, with the horrors of Nazi bestiality. Even today, among secularists in Israel, cremation is an inconceivable option for Jews.

But cremation remains an important op­tion for Jews outside of Israel. A significant and growing minority are choosing it for themselves. For humanistic Jews like me who prefer cremation, the choice is gener­ally based on the following considerations:

  1.  Death is final. No significant part of the human personality continues to reside in the remains of the body. The preservation of the body through embalming is a meaning­less expense. Without embalming, the body will disintegrate in a short while into substances equivalent to ashes. Cremation is the affirmation of human mortality.
  2.  The monies expended on burial can be used more productively for the living. The best tribute to the dead is the support of pro­grams, causes, and institutions that were important to them while they were alive.
  3.  Where reason and tradition conflict, reason has a right to override. Both laws and customs ought to be responsive to human needs and human welfare.
  4.  The Holocaust is irrelevant to this issue. The extermination campaigns of the Nazis were as much associated with mass burials as with mass cremations. In both cases cruelty and indignity accompanied dying and disposal. Where there is love and respect, cremation, like burial, provides a setting of dignity.

If you choose cremation for yourself, you will need to deal with certain problems.

Your family may be strongly opposed to cremation and may resist carrying out your wishes. It is very important to be very ex­plicit with your spouse, your children, and your siblings. They should know in advance how you feel. You have a right to be the master of your own death. Written state­ments entrusted to your family and to your lawyer will reinforce your spoken desire. Since your family are the legal owners of your body after your death, their coopera­tion is indispensable. Refusing to discuss the matter before you die will leave your family open to manipulation by hostile funeral directors, rabbis, and relatives. Even families open to cremation will choose burial unless you say otherwise. The inertia of tradition has power.

Getting your body to the crematorium may not be as easy as you imagine. In most states and provinces, because of the lobby­ing of funeral directors, a coffin is required for cremation. The best procedure to follow is to contact a sympathetic funeral home or memorial society before you are too ill to act. In some states, cremation societies offer cremation services at moderate costs. If a sudden catastrophe occurs, your family will have to act on your behalf. Make sure that you tell them what to do, while you are still healthy, so that they will not deviate from your desire.

Many people who choose to be cremated also choose to donate their bodies to medical research. After the body has been appropriately studied, it is usually burned. The time to make arrangements for this donation with an appropriate medical school or medical institution is while you are still able to.

Your memorial service (whether public or private, whether formal or informal) generally follows the cremation at a time convenient for your family and friends. The place can be a temple, a funeral chapel, your own home, or a setting — indoors or outdoors — significant in your life. If you have any preference, you ought to indicate it while you are still alive. If you want the service to precede the cremation, then pro­vision has to be made for the presence of the coffin.

In most states, disposing of ashes by scat­tering (the choice of most people) is illegal for obvious sanitary reasons. Despite these legal prohibitions, many families choose to scatter the ashes of loved ones clandestinely in lakes, rivers, fields, and woods. The legal options are 1) retaining them in an unburied urn, 2) placing them in a mausoleum niche, 3) burying them in a cemetery plot, or 4) burying them in a memorial garden with no distinct plots. Many liberal religious organi­zations now set aside an area on their con­gregational grounds for a memorial garden where “cremains” may be legally buried. Quite often a memorial wall accompanies the garden. Names of the dead are inscribed on the wall.

Cremation is a legitimate and appropri­ate option for humanistic Jews. Since it is nontraditional and arouses hostility among many Jews, a special effort is required by both you and your family — if cremation is your choice — to guarantee your option. Discussing death after death is a humanistic impossibility. You have to make your ar­rangements beforehand.

Remembering the Dead

Humanistic Judaism journal, “Death and Dying” Summer 1989

Remembering the dead is the way we, the living, give them a “temporary immortal­ity.” Family and friends who have died sur­vive in our memories and in the rituals and ceremonies we create to stimulate our memory.

The rabbinic tradition provided many op­portunities for remembering.

There was the shiva, a seven-day period of intense mourning immediately following the death of a family member. While its main purpose was not remembrance, remi­niscence was unavoidable. After all, the regular routine of work and leisure stopped in order to pay tribute to the dead.

There was the sh’loshim, a twenty-three- day period of less intense mourning follow­ing the shiva — and an eleven-month sequel for the loss of parents, with daily recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish. Certainly all this formal grieving focused the minds of the survivors on the life of the deceased.

There was the annual yahrzeit, the anni­versary of the death. (Traditional Jewish cul­ture ignored birthdays but found meaning in deathdays.) A flame of remembrance was kindled. The mourner’s Kaddish was recited. Thoughts of remembrance were inevitable.

There was the Yizkor service four times a year, on Pesakh, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atseret, when the souls of the dead were remembered and prayed for.

There was the matseva, a memorial stone placed on the grave of the deceased, often inscribed with tributes of love and respect in the form of Biblical quotations. Visiting the stone and reciting prayers before it were acts of remembering.

There were the many gifts to the syna­gogue and Jewish educational institutions — from Torah covers to buildings — which were dedicated to the memory of loved ones and which were on continuous public display.

Most of these remembrance rituals are still with us and permeate much of Jewish life. Although their theological significance has become less important for most Jews, their memory function has become more significant. We use these rituals as a way of connecting with people who were impor­tant to us.

Since religion began as a way of coping with death, especially the death of family members and loved ones, it is no mere coin­cidence that so much time is devoted to ceremonies of remembrance. And since so much of Jewish loyalty is built around tribal and ethnic roots, nostalgia is a primary emotion in our psychic makeup.

Although we as humanistic Jews con­tinue to practice many of the same rituals as do our traditional brothers and sisters, we do them differently and act out of a different set of ideological principles.

We do not believe in life after death. We do not believe that the souls of the dead presently exist and that we can help them in their spiritual journey through our prayers. We do not believe that it is possible to feel their presence and to benefit from their in­tervention. For us, death is final.

We do not believe that the dead pose dangers to us and that we must appease them through supernatural assistance. The mourning period does not need to be filled with fasting and anxiety. It is not only a time to express our sadness and grief but also a time to celebrate the life of the person we loved. We are more open to messages of inspiration than to prescriptions for ritual.

We do believe in the significance of human life here on earth. We do believe in the value of human love and human cour­age and in the importance of remembering their expression in the lives of the people we know and loved. Our own ethical com­mitments come from the role models who touched our experience in a powerful way.

We do believe in the autonomy of the in­dividual and in the right of every Jew to mold the culture of the past to his or her need. There can be no fixed, compulsory way to remember. People do not exist to serve the survival of ritual. Ritual exists to serve the needs of people. We are open to new and creative ways to remember the loved ones of our past.

Given these ideological premises, we have many humanistic opportunities, both traditional and new, to pay our tribute to the dead.


Staying at home for several days after the death of a family member gives us the op­portunity to be consoled by friends and to talk about the loved one we lost. It is very important to set aside some time during each day of the mourning when everyone gathers around to share stories and remi­niscences. The social encounters of the shiva often lead to trivial and awkward con­versation, which offers us no consolation and leaves us empty. Informal remembering in the informal setting of the shiva is far more powerful and therapeutic than any well-crafted eulogy.


Recalling our loved one on the anniver­sary of the death is a significant way to acknowledge the continuing influence of that person through whatever legacy of love and learning was bestowed. We may choose to light a flame of remembrance in our home. We may choose to attend a Shabbat celebration and listen to the recitation of remembered names in a service of memo­rial. We may choose to spend quiet time with ourselves and with our memories. We may even prefer the Roman calendar date to that of the Hebrew calendar, since the former is what we tend to remember.


If we are part of a humanistic Jewish community, we may help to create an an­nual service of commemoration on Yom Kippur. At this service the continuing generational cycle of receiving and giving can be acknowledged and celebrated.


People are often defined by the causes they support. If there was some cause, political or charitable, which the deceased was identified with, an appropriate tribute is to support it on a continuing basis. A woman at whose funeral I officiated ten years ago loved animals and worked for the Humane Society. Her husband, out of a sense of commitment to her memory and to her values, has made the Humane Society a major focus of his charitable giving since her death.


Concrete, visible memorials help us remember because they are there to be seen and visited. However, they should be neither costly nor garish. Our remembrance will not be enhanced by ostentation. Nor will the dead be served by what they cannot experience.

If our loved ones are buried in a ceme­tery, memorial stones are appropriate. In­scriptions should be simple. Names and dates are often enough. Attempts to charac­terize the life of the person on a small stone are usually futile. Visitors will bring their own memories.

If a humanistic Jewish community owns its own land, a memorial wall is appro­priate. Such a wall would contain the names of community members who have died and would allow for the commemoration of both the buried and the cremated.

If a humanistic Jewish community creates a library, a personal memorial book may be very meaningful. When I visited Kibbutz Kfar Hamakkabi eight years ago, I discovered in the library an entire section devoted to memorial books. Each book was dedicated to an individual member of the kibbutz who had died. It contained a biog­raphy, photographs, personal statements and letters of the deceased, and, most im­portant of all, reminiscences and tributes from other members of the kibbutz. Each collection was unique and interesting, worthy of the great effort and devotion ob­viously required to create it. The book made the person real and significant in a way that more conventional memorials could not provide. For the young people of the kib­butz, these books were available to read or leaf through at leisure. They were wonder­ful vehicles for producing a sense of com­munity and solidarity with the past.

We do not have the power to abolish death. We do have the power to value life. The character of human life is ultimately in­dividual. Our refusal to forget, our insis­tence on remembering persons as persons, is our defiance of death and our tribute to life.

Celebrating 350 Years of Jewish Life in North America

Celebrating 350 years in America: Summer 2005

This is an important year for Jews in America. Three hundred and fifty years ago, in 1654, a small, bedraggled band of Jews sailed into the harbor of Dutch New Amsterdam and sought refuge. They were the leftovers of a major exodus of Portuguese Marranos from Dutch Brazil after Brazil was retaken by the Portuguese. Most of the refugees returned to Holland. Some of the refugees disembarked in Curacao. A few chose North America as their destination. The Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, resisted the entry of the Jews. But the corporate leaders of the Dutch West India Company, including wealthy Portuguese Jews, overruled Stuyvesant’s prejudice. The first self-proclaimed Jews had arrived in North America.

North America was no ordinary desti­nation for the Jews. It was not like arriving in Iraq, Germany, or Poland. America was to become the leading nation of the ur­ban industrial revolution, the dynamo of capitalism and the money economy. Not since the invention of agriculture ten thou­sand years before had a revolution of this magnitude taken place in human develop­ment. The assault of science and technology transformed Western civilization and ulti­mately the world. Although the weary Por­tuguese Jewish refugees who arrived in New Amsterdam had no idea of what would fol­low, they had landed in the place that would change the Jews more powerfully than any other country in which they had sojourned. That change was so powerful that Jews in America today cannot even comprehend what Jewish life and Jewish belief were like three hundred years ago.

America turned into such an attractive destination for Jews that it ultimately became home to the largest Jewish community in the world. The immigration came in waves. First came the trickle of Portuguese Marranos, who settled in the coastal cities of New York, Philadelphia, Newport, and Charleston. Then came the bigger wave of German Jews, who laid the foundations of American Jewish life and institutions. After the Germans came the overwhelming numbers of Yiddish-speak­ing Eastern European Jews, who created a powerful Jewish presence in the major cities of North America. In the twentieth century refugees from Nazi and Soviet terror arrived. Even a substantial number of Israelis have established a Zionist diaspora in the United States and Canada.

The roots of American culture lie in many places. One is the incredible potential wealth of the continent we live on. Another is the Anglo-Saxon world from which the reality of a liberal democracy first emerged. Still another is radical Calvinism, which despised aristocracy and glorified human equality. Above all, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which coincided with the American Revolution, championed the powerful no­tions of science and progress. This country, like England, was an ideal place for the urban industrial revolution to begin. Prosperity and freedom were the consequences. Toleration and the separation of religion from govern­ment became the law of the land. The social reality of America was radically different from any previous environment in which Jews had found themselves. Secular education and public schools were available to everyone. No pedigreed upper class prevented social climb­ing. In one generation, money and education could lift immigrants from poverty to success. New secular professions, from accountant to psychiatrist, offered niches of influence and status. Technology and leisure lifestyles opened the worlds of the media and mass entertainment. In America, all the Jewish com­mercial skills that the peasants and warriors of Europe had despised were the very skills that every American citizen needed in order to succeed in a free-enterprise economy. No social environment had ever been as friendly to the Jews as that of America.

But the influence of America on Jewish life lies in something more powerful. Not only did American secular education un­dermine the traditional beliefs of the past, but it also transformed the value system that Jews historically had embraced. Most of the immigrants had come from families and communities that were authoritarian, male chauvinist, and archly collectivist, a milieu where reverence for the past and pes­simism about the future prevailed. America presented a radically new alternative. There was the celebration of dignity and personal freedom, the radical assertion that I have the right to choose my work, my residence, my politics, my religion – and even my marriage partner. There was empowerment, the chal­lenging claim that my role in life was not to be passively humble but to find my own strength and to forge my own destiny. There was the right to happiness, a provocative alternative to accepting suffering with faith. There was a strong shift of focus from the afterlife to the wonderful options for happiness in the secu­lar choices of a dynamic economy.

American Jews embraced these new val­ues with enthusiasm even though they were dramatically opposed to the Jewish values of the past – so much so that many Jews today believe that these values are contained in the Torah; so much so that most contemporary Jews cannot imagine an ethical world without them. If the revolution at Sinai had been a real event, it could not have been more powerful than the American experience in transforming the Jewish people.

Now, these new values can be problematic. A free, individualistic world breeds stress, self-absorption, loneliness, anonymity, and weak nuclear families. Marxism, hippieism, and religious fundamentalism have emerged as challenging alternatives. But, for the vast ma­jority of the people in the Western world, this value system, with all its problems, remains the most attractive. Even modern Israel is more American than it is traditionally Jewish.

It is appropriate this year that we take the time to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Jewish arrival in America and to reflect on the revolution that America has provoked in Jewish life. Humanistic Judaism is the child of America.

Atheism in the Soviet Union

Building Communities  – Winter 1987

Atheism in the Soviet Union. It seemed an irresistible thing to investigate en route to Oslo for a world meeting of humanists. Twenty-five of us from the North American Committee for Humanism, leaders from six major humanist organizations, arrived in Leningrad on Friday, July 25, 1986. Victor Garadzha, director of the Moscow-based In­stitute for Scientific Atheism, a research center for the study of religion and anti- religion, had invited us to visit and learn after a letter of inquiry sent by me. Our stay in the Soviet Union was to be for eight days.

As naturalistic, nontheistic humanists, many of us perfectly willing to identify ourselves as atheists, we were curious about what the establishment of atheism as the of­ficial “religion” of the Soviet Union (replac­ing Russian Orthodoxy) meant. How perva­sive was atheist belief? How were school­children indoctrinated? What were the ceremonies of birth, puberty, marriage, and death that had been substituted for the old Christian rites? How were the sick and the dying counseled and consoled?

We knew that between the two world wars, atheism was militant. The govern­ment closed down churches, synagogues, and mosques, forbade all religious teaching, banned religious books, and interfered massively with religious activity. Many churches were turned into community cen­ters, schools, and even stables. The clergy were portrayed as agents of reaction. Dur­ing World War II, Stalin softened his anti- religious policies because he wished to mobilize all parts of the population to resistance against the Germans and desired to revive the old Russian nationalism for political purposes. After the war, the anti-religious militancy never returned.

We knew that no religious propaganda was allowed. Many of the churches, now restored to their former glory, are either purely ceremonial centers or museums. We knew that being religious publicly in the Soviet Union was a disadvantage in the pur­suit of work, power, and prestige — in the same way that being an atheist is in North America.

Our meetings were held in the House of Atheism in Moscow, an old pre-Revolutionary mansion that had been transformed into a local center for the dissemination of atheist propaganda. Located in the eastern Taganka district, this center was one of 53 such centers in major cities throughout the Soviet Union. Its exterior retained some of the elegance of czarist times. Its interior was more pedestrian, with offices, study rooms, lecture halls, and a row of photo­graphs of atheist heroes.

Present at the meetings was an array of atheist officials from many organizations connected with education, ceremonial life, publications, and research. Feodor Timo­feev, vice-director of the Institute for Scien­tific Atheism, chaired the gathering, which included Igor Romanov, leader of the Mos­cow Central House of Scientific Atheism, Yevgenia Osipova, professor of atheism and philosophy at the Moscow State Institute of Culture, and Boris Maryanov, co-editor of the main atheist journal, Science and Religion.

Our discussions, which lasted for two mornings and an afternoon, ranged over a wide variety of topics. We carefully avoided certain subjects, since we did not want to spend our precious time on political cliches. We had no intention of arguing about the virtues or vices of Marxism and the Soviet political system, since that conversation would have ended up with useless confron­tation and no information concerning the subjects we were interested in. We mainly directed our questions to atheist education, life cycle ceremonies, and personal counsel­ing — aspects of Soviet daily life that were less visible to Western eyes than the blustery Marxist propaganda we were accustomed to reading and hearing.

There are no special atheist communities in Russia comparable to humanist or reli­gious communities in the Western world. Atheism is simply an integral part of the of­ficial “religion” of Leninism and is express­ed through all the agencies of the state and, especially, through the multitude of com­munal organizations — social, military, in­tellectual, and athletic — that claim the time and allegiance of Soviet citizens. The “god” of the Soviet Union is Lenin. His face and figure are everywhere. Since he was an atheist, atheism is part of Soviet doctrine.

Atheist indoctrination is handled by six different agencies and institutions: 1. The Ministries of Education are in charge of the school system and the molding of young Russian minds. All teachers in the Soviet Union are trained to present the atheist point of view to their students, whether in study or play. 2. The Ministries of Culture are responsible for many intellectual and ar­tistic activities, including state-managed life cycle ceremonies. 3. Faculties of atheism and philosophy, in all major schools of higher learning, provide compulsory courses in atheism for all university students, regardless of their specialties.

  • The many houses of atheism in the major cities, such as the one we visited in Moscow, are propaganda centers where the history of religion is presented from an atheistic point of view and where lecturers, voluntary or paid, are trained as atheist “missionaries” to the general public. 5. The Institute for Scientific Atheism, head­quartered in Moscow, has a faculty of some 40 scholars who research the history of religion and atheistic thought and publish scholarly papers. 6. Science and Religion, a popular journal with a circulation of 400,000, seeks to expose the evils of religion to the Soviet people and to demonstrate the incompatibility of religion with a modern scientific outlook.

None of these six agencies really coor­dinates its atheist activities with the other five. Informal ties exist, but they do not con­stitute an efficient central control.

Soviet authorities have developed alter­native ceremonies, however pedestrian, to those of the old religion. The first Bolshe­viks were so hostile to organized religion that they avoided any kind of celebration that could be remotely connected with the traditional ceremonies of the church. Mar­riages were conducted in registry offices, and babies received no ceremonial wel­come. But, after a while, the authorities came to realize that even atheists needed a ceremonial life with some kind of aesthetic dimension. The result was the gradual development of a series of state-sponsored institutions and celebrations to serve as an integral part of the developing cult of Leninism.

Now citizens of the Soviet Union have options. If they are secularists who hate cer­emonies, they can avoid them, except for a perfunctory procedure at the marriage registry office. But if they want something more “poetic” at special life cycle moments, the system has arranged for this need. There are baby-naming palaces and wedding pal­aces and ceremonial houses at cemeteries.

In the main wedding palace in Moscow, the marble interior is both spartan and grand. Sophia Bulayeva, its manager and director, invited us to witness a marriage ceremony.

On a typical busy day, couples and their families wait in the large reception halls to be summoned to their respective ceremo­nies. Grooms dress conventionally, but brides wear some shortened facsimile of a wedding gown and headdress. The celebra­tion is held in an impressive room with a dramatic rug, desk, and governmental seal. A female wedding professional, assisted by a female representative of the Moscow city government, conducts the ceremony. The shy couple stand by themselves in the mid­dle of the room with family and spectators along the walls. A three-piece orchestra, engaged for four rubles, introduces the celebration with a very short section of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. The of­ficiant, dressed in a severely tailored blue ceremonial suit, instructs the couple on their obligations as husband and wife and as good Soviet citizens. The bride and groom walk forward to sign the marriage docu­ments. Witnesses follow. Rings are ex­changed. More exhortation is offered. Wed­ding chimes are heard. Family and friends rush forward to embrace the couple. But the bride and groom never kiss each other. After the ceremony, the couple, like most Soviet newlyweds, may go off to one of the public statues of Soviet heroes, especially Lenin, to offer their tribute of flowers.

Weddings, babynamings, and funerals are increasingly being conducted by a new breed of professionals, trained by the Ministries of Culture, who function as a secular “clergy.” They are full-time workers with special ceremonial costumes and ritual formats. Almost all of them are women. When Bulayeva was asked why, she replied with the surprisingly traditional response that women are more appropriate than men because they are more nurturing.

The most developed and successful athe­ist ceremonies are the growing-up rites that are provided for children in the schools. Throughout their school careers, Russian children participate in group celebrations of high emotion, which mark important steps in their development as Soviet citizens. There are ceremonies when school begins, when school ends, when important achieve­ments are made. And the school ceremonies are supplemented by dramatic celebrations in the youth groups, especially the Pioneers, which almost all Soviet children join. Rus­sian youths are more innocent and less jaded than Western children and do not pos­sess the cynicism of affluence that affected so many American young people in the six­ties and seventies, when graduation cere­monies were often avoided.

The counseling of the sick and the dying is much more traditional than parallel pro­cedures in the West. In America, in recent years, serious efforts have been made to protect the dignity of the patient by enabling him to confront the truth of his condition, even when it is fatal; in Russia, fantasies of hope are preferred. Pessimism of any kind is regarded as subversive. The vision of a world that is getting better and better is part of Soviet triumphalism. The real human condition, with all its disappointments, disillusionments, and frustrations, is never allowed to surface — especially on an offi­cial level.

Philosophically, Soviet atheism is nega­tive in content. It devotes most of its time to denouncing religion and old superstitions. It spends very little time articulating the positive humanistic side of atheism. What­ever positive elements exist are tied up with the cliches of a traditional Marxism that very few young people really believe in pas­sionately anymore.

We visited the famous Museum of Athe­ism in Leningrad, ironically and deliciously the former great cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. When I was there sixteen years ago, its magnificent classical and baroque in­terior was filled with an appallingly tasteless anti-religious exhibit. Today, the assaultive elements have been subdued, and a more objective history of religion is pre­sented. Still, the emphasis is on what atheists do not believe — very little on what they do believe. Even the magazine Science and Religion and the scholarly work of the Institute are negative in tone, always find­ing fault and rarely stating a positive, per­sonal alternative to the old religion.

At the same time, nostalgia for the art and artifacts of the old religion is growing. It is now fashionable among the young to collect icons and religious pictures, to “ooh” and “aah” over old religious architec­ture, and to choose a church wedding. While most people in the Soviet Union have become overwhelmingly secular after 70 years of atheist power, many of them find Soviet life boring and search for romantic roots in the past. This nostalgia becomes a safe rebellion against a regime of tired pro­gressive slogans.

One afternoon, one of the voluntary guides at the House of Atheism took us on an “atheist” tour of Moscow. All the sites we visited were religious buildings, old churches that had been restored. When our guide talked about these structures, tied so intimately with the history of Moscow and Russia, his presentation was positive and sentimental.

Although our stay was too short for com­prehensive analysis, it was a marvelous learning experience — although quite depressing at times.

From a North American humanist per­spective, Soviet atheism is disappointing:

  •  It is intimately tied to the “religion” of Leninism, which possesses all the dogma­tism, worship, and naivete of the Orthodox Russian religion that preceded it.
  •  It has succeeded in producing a nation of secularists but not a nation of humanists. Most Soviet citizens do not find aesthetic and personal satisfaction in the doctrines of the regime.
  •  It is managed by nice but innocuous bur­eaucrats, whether academic or administra­tive, who are incapable of building any pas­sionate belief out of all the state power they possess and who, despite this power, have never recruited the finest writers and artists to offer their skills to the development of an effective atheism.
  •  Its brightest side is the ceremonial life it has created for the young, with the help of unsung legions of teachers and youth leaders.

The best thing to come out of our trip was the contact we made with some of the lead­ers of Soviet atheism. Despite our political, social, and economic differences, we share a commitment to a nontheistic philosophy of life. We hope to stay in touch. Perhaps, if a more liberal Russian regime ultimately emerges, with less of an investment in the cult of Leninism, a more meaningful dia­logue can take place.

Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
All texts, photos, audio and video are © by the Literary Estate of Sherwin Wine, whose custodian is the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism – North American Section. All rights reserved.