Project of IISHJ

Building Communities for the New American Jew

Building Communities – Winter 1987

Building strong Jewish communities has never been easy. It is getting harder all the time.

Close to 40 percent of all Jews in North America are unaffiliated with any religious congregation. A high percentage of these people belong to no Jewish organization at all, secular or religious. Even Jews that do belong to conventional communities often have merely peripheral attachments and are notorious for their fickle commitments. Like many children of the consumer culture, they have difficulty relating to groups that do not provide them with an immediate and obvious benefit.

Modern America is very different from the social environment that spawned the traditional Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. In Russia and Poland, there was constant reinforcement of the tight-knit, all- encompassing character of Jewish commu­nity life. Jews saw themselves as aliens in a sea of hostile Gentiles. They were so ab­sorbed with survival that the security of group belonging far outweighed any indi­vidual indulgence they might conceive. And, of course, there were no options. You had to be religious. And you had to be Orthodox. America totally transformed the char­acter of the Jewish community. It provided a setting so different from what had ever existed before in the Jewish experience that old formats simply became obsolete.

In America, affluence replaced poverty, ambition vitiated the attractiveness of sacri­fice and obedience, and individual freedom undermined the power of conformity. State and church were separate. Religion was a private opportunity, which any citizen could embrace or resist. Many “flavors” of Judaism emerged, which received no gov­ernment support and which had to compete in the open marketplace of ideas. The secu­lar university took the place of the yeshiva, and the authority of doctors and professors became more impressive than that of rabbis.

The synagogue congregation became the standard Jewish response to the new envi­ronment. Unlike the old kehilla, with its power to intrude on every aspect of per­sonal life, the American alternative was much more like the secularized urban Prot­estant church, designed to serve the reli­gious needs of a middle-class clientele. The American synagogue was no European gemeinde. It did not seek to embrace all Jews for all of the time. It was a “part-time” institution, which competed with many other institutions to win allegiance, enthusi­asm, and money from the individual Jew. The leaders of the synagogue could no longer command. They had to persuade and cajole, with no guarantee that their efforts would be rewarded. Mandates from on high gradually yielded to a focus on the needs of prospective members. After all, if the “buyer” was not satisfied with synagogue A, he might choose synagogue B, or no syn­agogue at all.

On the whole, the American synagogue community, although radically different from any Jewish community that had pre­ceded it, proved to be quite successful. It dramatized the connection of Jews with their ancestral past. It educated the young with a smattering of ethnic culture and reli­gious ideas. It provided a setting for holi­days and rites of passage associated with family life. It gave a visible, legitimate pres­ence to Jewish identity in the general com­munity where Jews spent most of their time. It was sufficiently ambiguous so that Jews, at their convenience, could pass for either a nationality or a religious denomination.

In fact, the synagogue community proved far more viable in the American setting than the alternative Jewish organizations that emerged. The purely ethnic secular schools, whether Yiddishist or Zionist, and the home-country fraternal societies, the landsmanschaften, although strong initially, ulti­mately found oblivion. They lacked identifi­cation with a “church,” a familiar and respectable institution for most Americans trying to preserve their ethnic loyalties.

In the first phase of its development, the synagogue community relied on certain strengths inherited from the traditional communities from which its members came — props that had not yet been weakened by the transforming power of a capitalist cul­ture. The close-knit family with its high motivation to produce children, the social segregation of an immigrant community, the ethnic ghettos that did not admit strang­ers easily, the sense of duty to ensure group survival — all these transitional remnants of the old world persuaded people to join tem­ples or synagogues.

But the community of the future can no longer rely on this inherited support system. The power of an urban consumer culture has so changed the character of Jewish life in America that the old “glue” simply is no longer available. American Jews today are different from their parents and grand­parents. They have different values. They have different needs. They respond to a dif­ferent environment. If we, as Humanistic Jews, want to create strong communities to recruit unaffiliated Jews and to maintain their allegiance, we have to understand the anxieties and the needs of the people we want to mobilize. After all, in the free set­ting of a free society, they would have to choose to join our community above many other options available to them.

Most of our membership prospects no longer feel that they must join any Jewish temple or synagogue. The old sense of duty and the attendant guilt have simply van­ished. Jews today are less interested in dis­covering what they can do for the commu­nity than in learning what the community can do for them. In a society in which peo­ple are self-absorbed and see themselves as victimized by the demands of external powers, appeals to obligation tend to fall on deaf ears, especially if the institution, as with a humanistic congregation, has no tra­ditional connection.

Most of our membership prospects now come from small, dispersed families. These individuals have a need to find in a congre­gation or havurah the family feeling and family support they can no longer find in their personal settings. At a time when the old extended family is becoming mere memory, people are searching for substi­tutes. The old congregation used family loyalty to reinforce community loyalty. Now the tables are turned. The new congre­gation must provide family loyalty. For many temple members, the temple seder be­comes their family seder. Friends become more than friends.

Most of our membership prospects are professional people with advanced educa­tional degrees. They have intellectual skills that need recognition, and they enjoy partic­ipation. Repetitive rituals and passive listen­ing are less attractive to them than to their parents. They want high quality opportuni­ties for adult education in Jewish history and philosophy not readily available in the school settings they frequent. They prefer a seminar format of dialogue and interchange to didactic lecturing.

Many of our membership prospects are either single parents with grown children or young couples with no offspring on the horizon. They have very little interest in child-centered activity. Where the old con­gregation could rely on the support of unin­volved adults who were worried about the Jewish identity of their children, the new community has to develop intense pro­grams for adults themselves. Life cycle cere­monies that recognize the growth and achievements of adults become indispens­able. Reaffirmation celebrations of Jewish commitment, recognition of educational achievement at universities and profes­sional schools, acknowledgment of special birthdays and anniversaries—all these cer­emonies of passage become as important as thirteen-year-olds’ puberty rites.

Many of our prospective members are feminists. They do not want to be part of a community in which the major leadership roles are turned over to men. They do not want the “sisterhood” and “ladies auxiliary” segregation that in no way reflects the career world in which they function. They want to be part of a group in which impor­tant female leadership roles are visible and in which women work and study together with men.

Many of our prospective members are intermarried. They will not pay for toler­ance, rejection, or second-class citizenship. The old congregation was hostile to inter­marriage and had no place for non-Jews. The new congregation needs to welcome sympathetic non-Jewish humanists who are interested in Jewish culture. The former sharp distinction between Jew and Gentile is no longer as relevant as it was in a less mobile and less open society. There are many ways of expressing support for Juda­ism. Turning away prospective supporters who could help and be helped by the com­munity, simply because they do not fit into old kosher categories, is neither rational nor moral. At a time when 40 percent of all mar­riages by Jews involve non-Jewish spouses, such narrowness is also suicidal.

If we, as Humanistic Jews, want to create strong communities to recruit unaffiliated Jews and to maintain their allegiance, we have to understand the anxieties and the needs of the people we want to mobilize.

Some of our prospective members have embraced unconventional lifestyles. They may be living with lovers. They may be senior citizen couples who have chosen not to get married. They may be homosexuals. While the traditional congregation viewed these people with abhorrence, the commu­nity of the future will have to find room for them. From the humanistic point of view, their relationships, so long as they are not promiscuous, are morally valid. Their needs have seldom been acknowledged. And their talents have rarely been used.

Most of our prospective members are overscheduled and overcommitted. They no longer have the time or the energy to be per­manent volunteers. The army of gracious women who used to pour their energy into community work is disappearing. Unless professional leaders are hired, much of the essential labor will never be done. After the euphoria of pioneering is past, volunteers are hard to replace, especially if there is no professional help or direction. Humanistic Jewish congregations need access to a trained professional corps of guides and experts, whether these mobilizers are called rabbis, leaders, or teachers.

Most of our prospective members have multiple identities. As achieving individ­uals, they belong to a variety of career and friendship associations that have nothing to do with the Jewish community. They no longer function in the world of social segre­gation their parents enjoyed, and they no longer have the intense sense of Jewishness that flowed from this segregation. They want more from a Jewish congregation than Jewishness alone. Inevitably encountering in their daily experience ethical dilemmas and personal crises that require the help of a coherent view of human existence and human values, they want more from a con­gregation than Jewish culture and Jewish roots. They want a philosophy of life that can reinforce their self-esteem and give them the strength and insight to make wise decisions. Communities need to appeal to the search for personal happiness as well as to the traditional push for group survival.

Of course, the successful congregation of the future will still have to do many of the things that assured success in the past. Sabbath meetings, youth education and youth groups, holiday celebrations and life cycle events — all these tried and true formats of the past will continue to have their place. But they will have to be sup­plemented by a new openness to deal with new developments.

In many ways, Humanistic Jewish com­munities are better able to take this neces­sary plunge into the present and the future than our Conservative counterparts. Opportunity knocks. It is up to us to open the door.

Will There Be War in the Middle East?

Humanistic Judaism Journal, “Building Bridges to a Wider Jewish Community” Autumn 2000/ Winter 2001

That question dominates the anxiety of the Jewish world.

Before the Camp David breakup, we were talking about peace — peace between the Is­raelis and the Palestinians, peace between the Jews and the Arabs. At this writing, the peace process apparently has collapsed. We no longer believe in the possibility of peace. We only talk about a way to end the violence.

There are horrifying memories that will not go away. A Palestinian child shot to death by Israeli fire while his terrified father tries to shield him. The bloodied body of an Israeli reservist tossed from the window of a Ramallah police station to an exultant Palestinian mob below. An enraged Israeli Arab screaming, “Death to the Jews” while rushing the Israeli police. Jewish settlers from Upper Nazareth rampaging through the lower city in search of their Arab victims.

Who is to blame for this shocking change? Was it Ariel Sharon, who defiantly marched through the Dome of the Rock sacred com­pound with an enormous retinue of security guards? Did he want to provoke the Arabs and destroy the peace process? Did he want to up­stage Bibi Netanyahu, his archrival, for the leadership of the Likud Party, the political voice of hostility to the Oslo peace agreements?

Was it the fanatic Hezbollah in Lebanon, who orchestrated the Palestinian street dem­onstrations and whose stated ambition is to drive the Israelis into the sea? Did they mobi­lize the perpetrators of Palestinian violence?

Or was it the sleazy Yasser Arafat, who refused the brave and generous offer of Ehud Barak, the prime minister of Israel, and later the last-ditch proposals of President Clinton, subverting seven hard years of peace negotia­tions? Does he believe that he can wring more concessions from the Israelis through violence rather than through talking?

All these “culprits” may have added fuel to the fire. But the main trigger to the violence was the increasing disillusionment with the peace process felt by thousands of Palestin­ians who came to see that an independent Palestinian state, as conceived by the Israe­lis, would be nothing more than a Bantustan. The Palestinians had had false expectations of what the Israelis would be willing to yield.

There are certain unavoidable realities that we need to confront in order to understand the nature of the crisis. There are two incompat­ible agendas. The maximum concessions of the Israelis cannot meet the minimum demands of the Palestinians. Whether the issue is Jerusa­lem or the return of Palestinian refugees, the gulf between the two sides is very wide.

Israel, including the Palestinian territo­ries, is a very small country. Jews and Arabs have intermingled. Finding appropriate boundaries to separate them is not easy. Even if both sides loved each other it would not be easy.

The hatred and suspicion engendered by seventy years of war are so intense that inter­nal negotiations are an impossibility. Each side perceives itself as the victim and rein­forces its victimhood with horror stories of eviction and terrorism. Jews and Arabs find it difficult to talk to each other. They find it easier to scream at each other.

The Palestinian agenda is ambiguous. The pragmatic side recognizes that Israel is here to stay and that Palestinians will have to settle for a small state surrounded by Israeli mili­tary and economic might. The emotional side wants to expel the Jews and restore the old Palestine. The Palestinian dilemma is whether to accept a real state with permanent inferi­ority or to fight for a big state in a war that can only lead to self-destruction.

The rebellion revealed that the Arabs of Israel see themselves as Palestinians first and Israelis second. This reality is a frightening discovery for the Israelis. Over one-fifth of the Israeli people are Arabs. And, after years of discrimination and rejection, they do not identify with the culture of the government that claims them. Even if Israel successfully separates from the Palestinian state, it remains a volatile “mixed neighborhood.”

The major issue that undermines the peace process is not Jerusalem. It is the re­turn of Palestinian “refugees.” No Palestin­ian government can hope to survive if it surrenders the right of Palestinians to go back to their original home. And the state of Israel cannot survive as a Jewish state if it allows the refugees to return. A Jewish state with an Arab majority is an impossibility.

The rebellion struck a blow at moderate governments in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It gave power to fanatics and extremists who are calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and for the elimination of Arab and Muslim “traitors” who would deal with the Jewish state. The trouble can only provide added credibility to Saddam Hussein and the Iranian regime. The moderates are on the de­fensive and scared. Even the Arab-hating secu­lar Turks have chastised Israel.

Yasser Arafat is no longer in control of his “troops.” His refusal to accept Barak’s peace offer and Clinton’s proposal came out of fear that acceptance would mean assassi­nation. As a survivor, his political stand al­ways follows what he perceives Palestinian public opinion to be. He is, tragically, a fol­lower rather than a courageous leader.

The Israelis’ gains of the past few years in the Arab world are lost. Arab and Muslim nations, which had opened themselves to the possibility of opening the door, are pulling back. From Morocco to Oman, from Jordan to Indonesia, an Israeli connection is now per­ceived to be a liability. It will not be easy to reopen that door. Israel remains a European state stuck provocatively into the middle of the Muslim world. Only North America and part of Western Europe can be reliably counted on to offer support and protection.

The days of Barak are numbered. The peace process failed — at least for now. What probably will follow is a govern­ment led by Ariel Sharon, which will nix any peace initiative.

The consequences of a real war between Israel and her Arab enemies are too frighten­ing for the world to contemplate. An oil em­bargo alone could attack the global economy and wreak havoc on America and other in­dustrial nations. Nobody interested in the welfare of the global economy can allow this war to happen.

So what are the implications of these re­alities for the future?

Outside intervention by the great powers, organized through United States initiative, is the only way to stop the violence. Israel and the Palestinians, left to their own devices and without outside pressure, cannot do it.

For the foreseeable future the most that can be arranged is a truce. Israel would be well-advised to pull back to the line it can sustain as the boundary line between itself and the Palestinians — and hold it. Interna­tional supervision of the truce line may be necessary, even though Israelis mistrust any international intervention.

The alienation of Israeli Arabs will in­crease, presenting the state with a continuing provocation. An Arab minority friendly to Is­rael would require major changes that the Is­raeli public is not willing to concede.

The new Israel will again be a fortress Israel, mobilized for war and increasingly de­pendent on its American allies. Its govern­ments will be conservative, dominated by Sephardim and Orthodox Jews. Many secu­lar Jews will choose to emigrate. Many high-tech industries, the gems of the new Is­raeli economy, will decide to locate in safer places of the global economy.

If violence continues, Diaspora Jews will be caught up in the violence and the terror­ism. The Muslim enemies of Israel will not distinguish between Israelis and the Jewish people. An uncomfortable vigilance will en­ter into Diaspora Jewish life.

Of course, by some “miracle,” the peace process could be restored by dramatic changes in the perspective of Israelis and Palestinians. But I would not hold my breath.

Going Mainstream: The Fifth Branch

Humanistic Judaism Journal, “Building Bridges to a Wider Jewish Community” Autumn 2000/ Winter 2001

What is the place of Humanistic Judaism in the Jewish world? Is it on the inside or on the outside? Is it rooted in the beliefs and be­havior of contemporary Jews? Or is it a pe­ripheral and bizarre phenomenon, a passing wave of Jewish heresy?

The enemies of Humanistic Judaism see it as alien and peripheral and seek to ex­clude it from membership in the established Jewish community. Some secular and human­istic Jews consent to this exclusion and reluctantly accept being on the outside. They see themselves as beyond the pale, a strug­gling minority of defiant Jews. But others find this exclusion humiliating and unacceptable. They see their philosophy as representative of the feelings and beliefs of a large segment of the Jewish people who deserve community recognition and power.

The test of our self-esteem as Humanistic Jews is that we reject exclusion. Secular con­victions and secular behavior are an important part of contemporary Jewish life. In Israel, Europe, North America, and South America, the Jewish world has been transformed by the gradual secularization of public and private behavior. Denying this reality and pretending that all conventional Jews are religious is an abuse of the rights and dignity of hundreds of thousand of Jews. Fighting for recognition of Humanistic Judaism within the framework of the Jewish community is more than a political struggle. It is a moral demand to define the Jew­ish reality as history has made it.

The traditional Jewish community was the child of the age of religion. It was the creation of religious orthodoxy and authori­tarian governments. The rabbis, like the Christian and Muslim rulers, did not believe in democracy, personal freedom, or pluralism. They assumed that there was one true path to salvation and that all members of the com­munity should conform to it. They viewed all dissent as heresy, worthy of excommunica­tion. Unity meant conformity. Deviation was a sin. The benefits of community — social acceptance, protection, and welfare — were purchased at the price of conformity.

In the past three hundred years, Jewish communities have changed. The rapid spread of liberal democracy throughout the Western world and the triumphant political and economic power of Western nations have radically altered the political structures of the Jewish world. Large numbers of Jews have be­come Reform and Conservative. The practice of toleration and the acceptance of diversity have, through necessity and conviction, be­come standard operating procedures of Jew­ish politics. The separation of religion and government has rendered Jewish communities autonomous and Jewish identity voluntary. Taxation has turned into fundraising. And the fundraising institutions have become the most important institutions of Diaspora Jewish life. Secular leaders and philanthropists have re­placed the rabbi as the ruling powers.

Diaspora Jewish communities are no longer institutions of compulsory uniformity. They are coalitions of autonomous congrega­tions and institutions, which are self-govern­ing and which join together to pursue shared goals. These shared goals include social wel­fare, cultural programming, and the fight against anti-Semitism. During the past fifty years, support for the Jewish state has been the most compelling force for unified action. In North America, where Orthodoxy is weak, Reform and Conservative Jews have domi­nated Jewish community life.

In Israel, of course, Jewish life is no longer a matter of minority politics. The state and the government are Jewish. But while the founders of Zionism were secular and liberal, they were not able to produce an impeccable liberal de­mocracy. In contemporary Israel, secular and non-Orthodox Jews enjoy personal and politi­cal freedom, but they suffer the humiliation of Orthodox power over many areas of their personal and public lives. Marriage, divorce, inheritance, burial, food, and Sabbath obser­vances are subject to Orthodox tyranny. Even Jewish identity lies in the hands of Orthodox rabbis and Orthodox courts. A large secular Jewish population cries out for political relief.

In the Diaspora, secular and humanistic Jews enjoy the freedom that Western govern­ments and constitutions have conferred on them. But, within Jewish communities, both local and national, they have suffered from exclusion. And, ironically, this exclusion has been inflicted on them by Reform and Con­servative Jews, who have been victims of exclusion in other places.

There are two reasons for this rejection in a seemingly pluralistic Jewish world. In Diaspora environments Jews have preferred to define themselves solely as a religious group. By this definition, to be Jewish is to be religious. Nonreligious Jews represent some kind of internal contradiction or lapse in Jew­ish identity. This absurd restrictiveness is re­inforced by the discomfort that many Jews have with Jewish atheism. In America espe­cially, religious belief has been identified with both respectability and morality. Many secu­lar Jews are uncomfortable to identify them­selves as secular. They fear adverse public opinion in the non-Jewish world.

The second reason for exclusion is that secular Jews have been largely disorganized. They have functioned as alienated people without congregations or communities. Or they have participated in Jewish organizations that do not have a religious agenda, but that include Jews from many denominations. Hadassah, ORT, and B’nai Brith are not actu­ally religious. Their programs are secular. But the majority of their members are not.

Humanistic Judaism, when it was estab­lished thirty-seven years ago, was a deliber­ate attempt to give organizational reality to the secular Jewish world. Orthodox, Conser­vative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Juda­ism presented themselves as branches of Judaism with congregations, trained leaders, and federations of communities. The failure of secular Jews to conceive of themselves as a fifth branch of Judaism and their hostility to congregational structures and professional leadership made it easy for their enemies to keep them on the outside. Reading circles and schools, however reinforced by ethnic and national sentiment, were not enough to break through the barriers. Secular Humanistic Judaism had to be reconceived as a Jewish de­nomination, standing side by side with the four religious denominations. The negative appellation non-religious had to be replaced by the positive humanistic.

During the past ten years the Jewish es­tablishment in North America has become more receptive to recognizing Humanistic Judaism as a legitimate fifth alternative. Many developments are responsible for this change. The increasing freedom of Jews to choose not to be Jewish in a society of declining anti- Semitism; the growing anxiety over the sur­vival of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, triggered by the rising rate of intermarriage; the increasing secularization of Jewish life through prosperity and family decline; the increasing diversity of lifestyles in the Jew­ish melieu; the decline in synagogue affilia­tion in a world where old formulas no longer fit new needs; a greater openness to choices that at one time were viewed as being on the fringe — all of these factors form the context for change.

One manifestation of change is the delib­erate attempt to recruit openly declared Secular Humanistic Jews for leadership roles in Jewish community federations, Jewish community councils, and Jewish community centers. Another is the admission of Humanistic rabbis to local boards of rabbis and their active participation in the work of these associations.

The most dramatic development occurred in Atlanta in November, 1999. At that time United Jewish Communities (UJC), the new “congress” of all the Jewish communities in North America, held its first continental as­sembly. The Society for Humanistic Judaism was invited to present a session at that con­ference. In November 2000 in Chicago, the leaders of our movement presented, together with their Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist compatriots, a Shabbat service and a study session. The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism hosted a booth to advertise the programs of the Institute to train rabbis and madrikhim. Our presence at the UJC General Assembly and our participation in its programs is a quantum leap in community recognition and acceptance. We hope that this precedent will provide a stimulus to similar developments in Europe, Latin America, and Israel.

Conceiving of ourselves as part of the mainstream and not as part of the fringe is a radical departure from our traditional self-im­age. But reality justifies our new approach. A large percentage of the Jewish people are secu­lar in conviction and behavior. They are often at the center of Jewish community life. The time may have arrived when their presence and true identity will finally be recognized.

Building Secular Humanistic Judaism – The Tasks of the Federation

Building a Strong Secular Humanistic Judaism: Spring 1988

The founding of the International Feder­ation of Secular Humanistic Jews in Detroit in 1986 was a very important event. The philosophy of a secular Judaism was turned into a world movement.

Our movement has a unique role to play in the world Jewish community. We have a unique message to proclaim. We have a unique approach to the purpose of life and the source of ethical commitment. We have a unique view of the nature of Jewish identity and the meaning of Jewish history. We have a unique connection to the revolu­tionary developments in Jewish life during the past two hundred years.

The establishment of the North Ameri­can section of the Federation this weekend is an attempt to bring this unique message to more and more Jews on this continent.

Of course, we have many problems. Most Jews who are secular and humanistic do not know that they are. Many self-aware humanistic Jews are able to articulate what they do not believe and to express their hos­tility to organized religion; but they are not able to present what they do believe in a positive and constructive fashion. The visi­bility of our movement is very low. For most Jews and non-Jews, there are only three “flavors” of Judaism — Orthodox, Con­servative, and Reform.

There is also the problem of an aggres­sive Orthodoxy. At one time most Jews as­sumed that religious fanatics were vanish­ing and that they would ultimately be con­signed to the oblivion of history. But, despite the predictions, they are a vital and growing segment of the Jewish people. And they have mastered all the techniques of public relations. Because of them and their reac­tionary definitions of Jewish identity, thou­sands of people who want to identify as Jews find themselves excluded from the Jewish people.

Especially important is the problem of the young. The secular community, like the liberal community, is an aging group. Most young adults who are unaffiliated are secu­lar, but they see no reason to do anything about their Jewishness. They are estranged from the formats and propaganda of the old secular world, with its emphasis on Yiddish culture and group survival. They want something more personal, more attuned to the contemporary concern for “meaning in life” and personal fulfillment. How do we respond to these problems?

We need more than meetings where we get to know each other. We need projects that we share.

The first project is solidarity and visibility.

In Jerusalem, at the last meeting of the International Executive of the Federation, a statement was drafted in response to the question “Who is a Jew?” That question is a major controversial issue in the Jewish world today. Orthodox Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora have sought to impose their answer on all the citizens of Israel, most of whom are secular, and on the Jewish institu­tions of other countries. In an age when the trend toward intermarriage is overwhelm­ing and when most Jews have repudiated the authority of tradition, the Orthodox want to restrict Jewish identity to persons having Jewish mothers or undergoing Orthodox conversion. Even the Reform movement, which now says that Jewish fathers will do also, maintains that to be fully Jewish is to be religious.

What the Jewish world needs to hear and has not heard in any dramatic way is a gen­erous statement that does not keep Jews out of the Jewish community and that does not reject individuals who genuinely want to be part of the Jewish people, even though they do not want to be Orthodox or religious. We need a statement that openly declares that we Jews are more than a religious denomi­nation, that we are a historic nation and an international people.

The Federation declares in its proposal: “Therefore, in response to the cruel and self-destructive definition of the Jew now proclaimed by the Orthodox authorities, and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people, we affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent, or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, civiliza­tion, community, and fate of the Jewish people.”

This statement will be submitted to all the constituent members of the Federation for discussion and debate. During the coming year, all members — the Society for Human­istic Judaism, the Congress of Secular Jew­ish Organizations, the Israelis, French, Bel­gians, British, Argentines, and Uruguayans — will have the opportunity to discuss this statement, involve their people in the resolu­tion of this issue, and offer their recom­mendations.

When we all come to Brussels for the second congress of the Federation, we will continue the discussion and arrive at a con­sensus statement. This proclamation will then be publicized to the Jewish and general worlds. A dramatic declaration on an im­portant issue in Jewish life will give us a public voice, make us visible to the people we want to reach, and enhance a sense of solidarity among our own adherents. It is about time that the reactionary boldness of Orthodoxy and the timid voice of liberal religion be matched by a courageous and ethically sound alternative.

The second project is literature.

Where is the history book that articulates our point of view? Abba Eban, in his popu­lar television series, said that the greatest gift of the Jews to the world was the idea of monotheism. If, indeed, the greatest gift of the Jews to the world is monotheism, and if the meaning of Jewish history is the banner of monotheism, then we, as secular Jews, are illegitimate.

Almost every available story of the Jew­ish people champions that point of view.

The alternative view, the idea that the signif­icance of Jewish history lies in the abandon­ment of the Jewish people by an “unjust” destiny and the emergence of a skeptical self-reliance, exists in no history book avail­able to the public.

Who is going to be responsible for cre­ating this book? We need to find the best his­torians of the secular humanistic Jewish world and commission them to produce such a work.

We also need an anthology of basic humanistic Jewish thought, a basic reader that can serve as our “Bible.” If somebody asked me today to put in his hands a book containing the fundamental statements of a secular Judaism by our leading intellectuals, I would not be able to do it. These state­ments are dispersed in a vast literature cre­ated throughout the past two hundred years and unavailable to popular use. Without that anthology we have no real intellectual and ideological visibility.

Fortunately, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Jeru­salem, established by the Federation to be our intellectual center, has undertaken to create this reader within the next two years. When the anthology becomes available, we will have an important educational and inspirational tool for popular outreach.

The third project is trained leadership.

The success of the opposition depends on the existence and enthusiasm of full-time professional people who have a vested inter­est in the growth of their movement and who devote enormous time to preaching the word and spreading the message. If we do not have a cadre of men and women of equal commitment and better training, we will never be able to do what we need to do.

In response to this need, the Institute in Jerusalem has begun to develop a training program for professional leaders to serve in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. And the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews in North America has initiated the certification of qualified profes­sionals as leaders for secular Jewish com­munities, with the privilege to serve all the life cycle needs of humanistic Jews, includ­ing marriage.

In time, we hope that a substantial num­ber of idealistic young secular Jews will choose to pursue doctoral studies in Juda­ism and humanism and will emerge as a trained intellectual leadership for our cause and as an effective alternative to the tradi­tional rabbinate.

The fourth project is ethical idealism.

At one time most secular Jews had a “religion.” It was utopian socialism. One of the reasons why their Jewishness had tarn was that they went beyond self-absorption with Jewish survival to more inspiring causes. They used their Jewishness for moral purposes.

In an age when the glories of socialism have, to a large degree, faded, we need to ask ourselves: What are the ethical enter­prises we should be engaged in that flow from our humanistic commitments?

There is one ethical enterprise that is ger­mane to the very survival of a free society. It is our response to the assault of the religious fundamentalists on the intrinsic character of a constitutional and liberal democracy, whether in North America or in Israel. The issue is more than the separation of church and state. It is the defense of the Enlighten­ment, of modern learning and science. It is the defense of the importance of openness and creative change. The battle for reason and against obscurantism, the battle for individual rights and against religious con­formity can provide some of the idealism we need for an enthusiastic Judaism.

The fifth project is the articulation of a personal philosophy of life.

I recently met a young man who grew up in a secular Jewish family in Detroit and who is now living on the West Coast. When I asked him whether he was still involved with secular Judaism, he replied no. He ex­plained that he still saw himself as a secular Jew but that he had become a member of a liberal church movement in Southern Cali­fornia. Although he did not agree with some of the theistic teaching in his new group, he enjoyed the fact that they dealt with ques­tions that his own secular Jewish training never bothered to respond to. What is the purpose of life? How do I deal with my daily anger and frustration? How can I become a happier and more fulfilled human being? He claimed that Jewishness was important to him but that it was only part of his own philosophy of life.

We, as humanists, as secular Jews, have answers to the questions he was asking. But we get so absorbed with the promotion of Jewish identity that we fail to realize that we need to appeal to the whole person and not simply to part of him. We need to do what traditional religion and traditional philoso­phy do, but in a secular way.

Young people want more from Secular Humanistic Judaism than a meaningful Jew­ish identity. They also want a meaningful life. We cannot present the one without the other.

Our ability to undertake and complete these projects will be a test of whether we are able to deal effectively with the prob­lems we confront and of whether we can turn a present aspiration into a significant movement in the world Jewish community.

Assisted Suicide: Ethical Issues

Aid in Dying Autumn 1996

Do people have the right to terminate their lives in the face of painful and humiliating ill­ness? Does a victim of cancer, multiple sclero­sis, or creeping paralysis have the right to end intolerable suffering? Do they have the right to receive medical assistance to ensure that suicide is successful and relatively painless?

These issues are now absorbing the atten­tion of the Western world. Dr. Jack Kevorkian has boldly defied Michigan authorities to stop him from assisting those who ask him for help. Some people admire his intentions and his tactics. Some despise both. Some approve of assisted suicide but are wary of his tactics.

Very recently the Northern Territories in Australia authorized medically assisted sui­cide — the first political entity to do so. (Hol­land forbids it by law but allows it by refusal to enforce the law.) The first “customer” in Australia has already been served. Public opinion in most Western countries supports this development.

But is it ethical? Does Humanistic Juda­ism justify such behavior?

Suicide — any kind of suicide — is for­bidden by rabbinic Judaism. Life belongs to God. Only he can authorize killing. He has authorized the killing of enemies, infidels, and apostates; but he has not authorized kill­ing oneself.

In authoritarian systems, no reason need be provided. But priests, prophets, rabbis and theologians often feel uncomfortable with such a naked and dismissive form of author­ity. They search for reasons to justify what appears to be arbitrary. In the case of suicide they appeal to the virtue of suffering. In a sin­ful world, suffering is the perfect repentance. Since sin is unavoidable, suffering is also unavoidable. Given the almost infinite possi­bilities for sinning, there can never be too much suffering. Killing oneself does not ulti­mately end pain or anguish anyway. Beyond the grave is eternal suffering for the wicked. You might as well suffer now as suffer later.

Of course, there are circumstances under which it is mandatory to allow others to kill you — a form of passive suicide. If you are being compelled under threat of death to wor­ship gods other than Yahveh, or to commit incest, then death is preferable. But the ac­tual killing is done by your enemies, not your­self. Killing yourself to avoid pain or humiliation is not a “kosher” alternative, nor is hav­ing someone else kill you for such a reason. The martyrs of Masada, who killed themselves rather than fall into the hands of the Romans, might be construed as being avoiders of forced idolatry; and the martyrs of the Christian Middle Ages were clearly defenders of the faith. They chose to die for one of the two available legitimate reasons. Refusing to sur­render to the sinful demands of enemies was not really suicide; terminating your life as an act of kindness to yourself was.

There is no legitimate — or devious — way of extracting approval for assisted sui­cide from rabbinic Judaism. It is as futile as seeking a vague endorsement of homosexual­ity. But in an aging population beset by de­bilitating illnesses, the right to end irrevers­ible suffering is an unavoidable ethical issue. The halakhic rabbis may say no; but Human­istic Jews do not have to accept their moral judgment, especially if we have come to be­lieve that their judgment is not moral.

Humanistic Judaism does not derive its ethics from rabbinic Judaism. It derives its eth­ics from human needs bumping into the real world. Food, shelter, and sex are bodily needs. Long-run survival, happiness, and dignity are equally important. When life can offer neither dignity nor happiness, survival loses all ethi­cal meaning. To survive merely in order to sur­vive makes no humanistic sense unless there is some modicum of pleasure and dignity. Even if there is a God and he wants us to suffer for the sake of suffering, his demand is illegitimate. Humanistic Judaism does not find relentless pain either therapeutic or romantic.

Ever since the Enlightenment, the right to happiness and the value of personal au­tonomy have been celebrated in much of the Jewish world. They reflect the importance most contemporary Jews place on the ability to choose the course of one’s life. When that control vanishes, the value of life is called into question. It is simply not rational for people to endure the humiliation of helplessness when that humiliation is avoidable and when there are compassionate experts available to offer relief.

Most public opinion in North America supports assisted suicide, with appropriate safeguards, in the case of terminal illness. The appropriate safeguards are three: (1) The dy­ing person should choose assisted suicide in the presence of reputable witnesses; (2) his or her physician should verify that the patient is suffering from a terminal illness; and (3) a psychiatrist or psychologist should verify that the dying person is sane and not momentarily depressed. (Of course, being depressed when you are dying is rational!) This right, with these safeguards, should be incorporated into legislation. The rule of law should replace the rule of Kevorkian.

What about intolerable chronic illness? What about paraplegics and handicapped people, emphysemics and organ defectives, who find life not worth living? Should they have the right to assisted suicide? I think the humanistic principles of dignity and happi­ness give them that right; but it is not wise to press for it now, since public opinion does not yet widely support it. The rights of the terminally ill will be lost if we ask for too much too soon.

What about depressed people who find no meaning in existence? The humanistic answer to them is no. Although they have no happiness, as long as they are mobile and without physical restraint they retain the pos­sibility of dignity.

There is no “slippery slope” if safeguards are provided. What exists now is useless pain. It is time for reason and compassion to replace reverence for suffering. Where human dignity is at stake, old laws must yield, and new laws must be created to defend it.


Becoming Parents, Summer 1988

To circumcise or not to circumcise. That is the question. At least for a militant group of new opponents, many of them Jews.

Doubting the value of circumcision is something new in Jewish life. For most of Jewish history, such opposition would have been inconceivable. In the perspective of priestly and rabbinic Judaism, circumcision takes top billing with observing the Shabbat as one of the two most important signs of Jewish identity.

Even in modern times, Jews who have no connection with the Jewish community or with Jewish culture, who hate organized religion and all forms of conformist ritual, will still manage to have their sons circum­cised. Many are the calls I have received from peripheral Jews in out of the way places seeking some way to insure a “kosher” circumcision for their child.

Avoiding circumcision is not like eating shrimp. The emotional commitment to the brit milla is far more intense than to almost any other Jewish ritual. To announce to your fellow-Jews that you intend to remain a ham-eating atheist is far less traumatic than to declare that you intend to leave your son uncircumcised. The first provocation is by now ho-hum. The second is almost next to betrayal.

For traditional Jews, phallic circumcision is the basic initiation rite into membership in the Jewish people. Although the effect of the surgery can hardly serve as a visible public symbol of Jewish identity, like a beard or tsitsis —- except in a nudist colony — it symbolizes belonging more than any other procedure. Especially in the Christian world, where all historic nations avoided circumcision like the plague until this cen­tury, being circumcised was a unique condi­tion that defined the Jewish male.

During the past century in North America, religious circumcision received an important boost. Physicians decided that the surgery had therapeutic value. Ulti­mately, more than 85 percent of all newborn American males were circumcised for secular medical reasons. While this develop­ment certainly took away from the unique­ness of the Jewish condition and diminished the significance of circumcision as a sign of Jewish identity, it provided a rational hygienic justification for doing something that many modern people previously viewed as primitive and barbaric. What anti-trichinosis theories did for anti-pork- eaters, the new medical reasoning did for circumcision-lovers. Science had come to the rescue of religion.

But the heyday of universal circumcision is over. During the past twenty years a vocal anti-circumcision lobby has emerged in America, especially in California. In 1971 the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that there is no observable medical value to circumcision. And by 1988 five states denied financial coverage for the pro­cedure. Books and periodicals featured anti­circumcision themes. And new organiza­tions arose to lead the battle against this in­fant surgery.

The opponents of circumcision fall into three groups.

The first group find no positive health value in circumcising boys. They do not believe that it either prevents disease or pro­motes cleanliness. In fact, they claim, the surgery may have negative effects. The trauma of the pain and the risk of infection may endanger the child’s welfare. The im­plication is clear. Even circumcision for religious reasons may be harmful. Perhaps Jewish parents will have to be retrained in their religious zeal in the same way that the anti-blood transfusion Jehovah’s Witnesses need to be held back by the law for the sake of their children.

A humanistic Jewish response to circum­cision separates the therapeutic from the ceremonial issues. As a medical proce­dure, circumcision needs to be judged by medical standards.

The second group are civil libertarian. They object to non-urgent elective surgery being foisted on babies by their parents. After all, once the foreskin goes, it is not recoverable. An issue of so sensitive a nature ought to be decided by the person who has to suffer the consequences. Men should not undergo this surgery without their consent. And infants are incapable of giving their consent.

The third group are feminist. Their resistance is directed less to the surgery and more to the ceremony. The idea of using phallic circumcision as the only required initiation rite is deeply offensive to them. The celebration is only for boys. Girls have no equivalent ceremony of their own. The patriarchal and male chauvinist premise that underlies the brit milla is inconsistent with the moral premises of a democratic and egalitarian society.

How valid are these objections?

Before I answer this question, let me pro­vide a little background information.

Traditional Jews believe that circumci­sion was ordained by God. The command­ment pre-dates Moses and goes all the way back to Abraham. In Genesis 17, Yahveh is reported to have said to Abraham: “This is my covenant which you shall keep between me and you and your seed after you. Every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin. And it shall be a token of a covenant between me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circum­cised. . . and the uncircumcised male. . . shall be cut off from my people.” The penalty for the uncircumcised, then, is death or excommunication.

The Biblical commandment features some glaring omissions. No explanation is provided to clarify why foreskin removal is chosen among many other possible alter­natives as the sign of the covenant. Perhaps, in Yahveh’s mind, modesty precluded an explanation. Or, perhaps, phallic surgery was associated in his thinking with his cove­nant promise to guarantee Abraham num­berless descendants. The other omission is any justification of requiring circumcision on the eighth day. Why not the seventh day or the ninth day? Did Yahveh simply make an arbitrary choice for the sake of uniform­ity? After all, most other circumcising peo­ple impose the procedure much later. Some even wait to puberty.

From an anthropological view, Hebrew circumcision is not part of divine revela­tion. It is part of a human story that em­braces many people of the distant past. In the ancient world, fellow-Semites like the Phoenicians and Ethiopians practiced cir­cumcision. And the neighboring Hamitic Egyptians also indulged in the practice.

The real reasons for foreskin removal are lost with the reasoning processes of primitive peoples in dim antiquity. Quite certainly their motivation was hardly hygienic. Cutting away flesh with a dirty flint knife (shades of the Stone Age!) would cancel out any presumed health benefits from having a circumcised penis.

The most likely explanation is the ap­peasement of the gods in order to guarantee fertility. Part of the penis is offered to the deity in order to secure his protection of the rest. Since circumcision was originally done at puberty (the earliest known Semitic bar mitsva), it was intended to prepare the male for adulthood by guaranteeing his reproduc­tive future.

One of the grisliest stories in the Torah, an old literary fragment inserted into a more sophisticated text, suggests this motivation. In Exodus 4, this mysterious in­sert appears as Zipporah, the wife of Moses, leaves Midian with her son and her hus­band to journey to Egypt. “It happened upon the journey that Yahveh encountered him [the boy] at an inn and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Yahveh’s feet; and she said, ‘Truly you are a kinsman unto me by virtue of the blood of circumci­sion.’ Therefore, he (Yahveh) let him alone.” Yahveh in this story is appeased by the bloody foreskin and must now assume the role of a protective kinsman.

Whatever the real reason, by the time the Torah text containing the circumcision commandment was written, circumcision was so much a part of Jewish practice that no explanation for its choice as the sign of the covenant (Yahveh’s promise to protect and multiply the Jews) was required.

As for infant circumcision, the reason most likely imitates that of infant baptism. Christian baptism started out as an adult ceremony. But in time, it was moved for­ward to birth. Parents were fearful to leave their children unprotected, especially because of the threat of early death. Similar­ly, infant circumcision provided immediate protection from hostile deities. Caution turned a puberty rite into a birth ceremony.

The requirement of the eighth day simply tied the ceremony to lucky numbers. The seven-day week followed by the eighth day closing was a familiar pattern for calendar events. Both the autumn Sukkot festival and the winter Hanukka holiday followed the same format.

In time, the circumcision procedure turned into a full-fledged ceremony with fixed ritual procedures. By late rabbinic times, the ceremonial drama included six distinct parts: 1) the presentation of the child, 2) the seating of the child on the throne of Elijah, 3) the recitation by the father of the circumcision blessing (“Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has made us holy through your commandments and commanded us to initiate the covenant of Abraham our father”), 4) milla, the cut­ting and separation of the foreskin, 5) p’ria, the removal of the foreskin, 6) and mitsitsa, the stopping of the blood through oral suction.

In the beginning, the surgery was per­formed by the father of the boy. But, like most religious procedures, it was turned over to experts. The mohel, the professional ritual circumciser, made his debut. And the flint knife, reminiscent of neolithic times, finally turned into an iron blade.

It is important to point out that the Jewish identity of the male child never depended on circumcision in the way that Christian identity depended on baptism. A person born of a Jewish mother was Jewish regardless of anything he might choose to do or have done to him. An uncircumcised Jew remains a Jew, even by Orthodox standards.

Hostility to circumcision appeared early in Jewish history. The Philistines prided themselves on their foreskin retention. And the Greeks were absolutely revolted by the procedure and its effects. They regarded it as mutilation. Part of pre-Christian Greek anti-Semitism derived from this visceral response.

Of course, the objections were not hygienic. They were aesthetic, religious, and moral. To the Greeks, circumcision seemed almost as bad as castration. The human form, as intended by nature, was violated. To this day, Greeks and Latins re­tain this revulsion.

But what of the objections of our modern North American opponents? How valid are they?

The charge that circumcision is either unnecessary or harmful must confront con­temporary evidence. While the 1971 report of the American Academy of Pediatrics ruled circumcision unnecessary, it is impor­tant to note that the Academy is reviewing its earlier decision because of new evidence. Of fifty thousand known cases of penile cancer in North America only nine have occurred in circumcised males. Urinary tract infections occur less frequent­ly when the foreskin is removed. And ninety-five times as many uncircumcised males contract AIDS as do the circumcised. If all these assertions are true, then the pain and trauma, if they indeed exist, may be worth enduring.

The charge that infant circumcision, be­ing involuntary, violates the civil liberties of the child is valid only if the surgery has no therapeutic effect. The needless subjection of a child to pain without its consent is cruel. But, if there is therapeutic value, then the argument fails. It is the responsibility of the parent to protect the child from harm, whether it be through an involuntary smallpox vaccination or an involuntary tonsillectomy.

Quite frankly, the fury of many anti- circumcision militants is out of proportion to the provocation. Given the horrendous proportions of child abuse, a little foreskin removal (which may, in the end, turn out to be beneficial hardly deserves the hostility it receives.

We need a birth celebration that features at its center something Jewish, something easily given to both boys and girls…. Its main drama is the conferring of a Hebrew name on the infant.

The first two objections are directed primarily to infant circumcision itself and not to the brit milla, the religious ceremony. The third charge, the feminist complaint, denounces the ceremony, not the surgery. It maintains that the brit is inappropriate as a birth ceremony since it is designed for boys and not for girls.

There is little humanistic doubt that this complaint is valid. As the original purpose of circumcision faded from Jewish ken and the ceremony took on the significance of a birth celebration and an initiation ritual for membership in the Jewish people, the exclu­sion of female infants took on a political significance. A patriarchal society grants full membership only to men. Women are possessions and attachments who derive their identity from their connection to their fathers and husbands. No special celebra­tion is required for their arrival because they are secondary in importance. Their membership in the community derives from their membership in households of which men alone are the head. In a sense, the cir­cumcised penis protects not only the boy who possesses it but also the woman who will ultimately come to be attached to him. The brit milla, by its very nature, assigns an inferior status to girls.

A humanistic Jewish response to circum­cision separates the therapeutic from the ceremonial issues. As a medical procedure, circumcision needs to be judged by medical standards. If parents believe that it has health value — and there is much evidence to indicate that it does — then they should arrange to have their son circumcised by ap­propriate medical personnel, with all the guarantees of medical protection, at a time deemed appropriate for the child. If parents believe that it has no health value or that it is harmful, they should avoid the procedure for their son. The decision should be based on a scientific determination, just as one decides upon diet or vaccination.

But whether phallic surgery should be the central feature of a Jewish birth celebra­tion is another issue. Equality between boys and girls, men and women, is also an impor­tant humanistic value. And a ceremony that subverts that value is inappropriate for Humanistic Judaism.

Introducing female circumcision — a la East African practice — would be a rather bizarre way to solve the problem. And so would including women in the traditional minyan required for the performance of the ritual.

There is no way of making a happy celebration out of the performance of bloody surgery, even if you add female pa­tients and female observers. If somehow the ceremony was not so male chauvinistic, the surgery ritual might be worth enduring for the sake of tradition and continuity, in the same way that liberal Jews continue to observe the traditional dates for most holidays even when they are inconvenient. But surgery-as-ceremony is not worth en­during if it violates values more important than tradition or continuity.

There is no doubt about it. We need a new kind of Jewish birth celebration and in­itiation rite that provides for relaxed festivi­ty and that features at its center something Jewish, something easily given to both boys and girls.

This new kind of celebration has been developing among liberal and humanistic Jews over the past thirty years. Its setting is the home, the temple, or the community center. Its main drama is the conferring of a Hebrew name on the male or female infant. Even in the traditional circumcision ritual, Hebrew names are announced.

There is no reason for tying circumcision to a humanistic Jewish birth celebration. Despite its historic importance, it is simply inappropriate in the same way that female segregation is inappropriate.

There are times to rescue the old. There are also times to invent the new. Judaism is the story of both.

Feelings – A Shabbat Celebration

Reason and Emotion for Humanistic Jews, Autumn 1986


V’-SHOOV IT-KHEM Let us be happy together.


Feelings make life worthwhile. Without needs and desires, there would be no purpose to living, no goals to strive for. Without needs and desires, there would be no meaning to existence, no passion to inspire us.

Feelings make the world a home of opportunity. There are so many things we want to touch. There are so many experiences we want to have. There are so many people we want to be near.

Feelings make the world a place of danger and dread. There are so many things we want to avoid. There are so many experiences we want to push away. There are so many perils we want to escape.

Attraction and avoidance. Running to and running away. Attachment and sepa­ration. They are the recurring themes of human existence. They fill our lives with ecstasy and despair. They infuse our spirit and make us human.



For the honey and the bee sting,

For the bitter and the sweet,

For the pleasures and the sorrows

That make life complete.


No feeling is all good or all bad. Every emotion started out as a strategy for survival. It drew us near to what was good for us. It made us move away from what was bad for us.

When anger started out, it defended our territory. It protected our family. It drove out intruders. When love began, it nurtured children. It fed the helpless. It guarded the young. When sadness appeared, it made us slow down. It gave us time to think. It allowed healing to take place. When joy made its debut, it mobilized our energies. It announced our strength. It reinforced our bond with others.

When we are defending our dignity, anger may be necessary. When we are building a community, love is essential. When we are faced with defeat, sadness is appropriate. When we are planning our future, joy is our friend.

There is a time and place for every feeling. Angry sadists do not understand. Loving masochists do not comprehend. But healthy people do.



Come and rejoice.


Most of us believe that it is easy to know what we feel. We have only to look inside our minds and hearts and discover what is there. If we are honest, if we are sin­cere, self-awareness is a simple matter.

But love and hate, anger and jealousy may be more secretive than we would prefer. Our minds are so complex that feelings wear disguises and often appear to be what they are not. Emotions can make us uncomfortable. They can tease us and embar­rass us. They can taunt us and fill us with shame. We sometimes turn our backs on them and pretend that they are not there. We sometimes look at them and do not see them. Sincerity is not enough — especially if we are not strong enough to face reality.

Self-awareness needs strength. We need to be strong enough to feel what we do not want to feel. We need to be strong enough to experience what we do not want to experience. We need to be strong enough to remove the masks that shield us from the face of our own desires.



Evening of roses.

Let us go down to the garden.

To hear a song of love.


It would be so nice if all our feelings got along with each other. It would be so nice if they were friendly to one another, if they worked together to create an internal harmony of mind and heart.

But our emotions are less cooperative than we would prefer. They rub up against each other abrasively. They compete with each other. They fight to seize the energy of our will. Oftentimes we confront the problems of the moment with two opposing feelings. We love and we hate. We want to embrace and we want to reject. We want to reach out and we want to run back. Our emotions pull us in two different directions and make it hard to make decisions. Ambivalence becomes the soul of the human condition.

Being faithful to our feelings is not easy, especially if our feelings give us no clear instruction. Many people are comfortable with this limbo of indecision. They find ambivalence charming. Others find no virtue in waiting. They know that they must go beyond their emotions and choose their life.



For the expectant is the glory.

The future is theirs.


When we are born, when we are separated from the womb, we experience a sense of aloneness that never leaves us. As we grow up, as we become more and more aware of our own uniqueness, this feeling of apartness grows stronger and fills our hearts with a need for connecting.

There are many ways to connect. There are many paths to belonging. Men and women find each other and love each other and choose the commitment of mar­riage. Strangers meet strangers and discover that they can be good friends. Parents have children and nurture them with tender care. Clans and tribes, nations and peoples, embrace their members and give them the security of identity and roots.

Belonging is an experience of transcendence, an experience of being part of some­thing greater than oneself. It starts with the human bonds of family and reaches out to wider horizons. There are times when we feel connected to all the people of the world. There are times when we feel we belong to the universe itself — to the evolu­tionary drama of life, to the very stars and beyond.



How good and how pleasant it is to celebrate together.


Some people go through life very carefully. They are afraid of their feelings. They are afraid of being swept away. They fear all intensity. Caution becomes their byword. Security becomes their dream.

But there are others who are ashamed to be timid. They know that life must be an adventure, that for each of us it happens once and must never be wasted. Boldness and courage discipline their fear. Curiosity and ambition fuel their passion. No tradition can hold them prisoner. No convention can restrain their creative power. They do not seek danger. But they will not avoid it if the moment demands it.

The human spirit is no disembodied soul. It is no quiet and demure thing that finds its home in heavenly bliss. It is the flame of our passions, the fire of our will, the intensity of our commitment to life. When it speaks, it speaks through our striving. It speaks through our deeds. It announces our vision of a better world.



Soon you will see how good it will be.


For many people, reason has a bad reputation. They see it as the party pooper of life, the enemy of passion, the foe of feeling. In their eyes, rational people are cold, austere, and distant. Only the devotees of faith and intuition know what to do with their emotions.

But this vision of reason is all distortion. It sets up straw men, only to tear them down. Feelings need reason to make life worthwhile. They need the discipline of common sense to guarantee our survival and dignity. Emotions are like children. They want what they want right away. They want what they want regardless of consequences. Love and anger are blind. They cannot see the future. They cannot even see each other. Sometimes their fires are not the fires of life. They are the fires of death and destruction.

Reason is no withdrawn logician. It is a concerned parent. It is the defender of our happiness, the protector of our fulfillment. It disciplines our fear. It manages our anger. It restrains our jealousy. It directs our love to wholesome ends.



Laugh if you will at all my dreams. I shall not change my faith in people.


To be a Jew is to feel many feelings. There is the security of roots, the pleasure of belonging, the pride of achievement, the warmth of solidarity, the joy of survival. There is the fear of rejection, the anger of victims, the sadness of separation, the loneliness of difference, and the bitterness of remembered wrongs.

Our experience has been no ordinary experience. Our history has been no com­monplace adventure. We have been visited by the best and assaulted by the worst that the world can offer. We have achieved the peaks and sunk to the depths of the human possibility. Our presence does not arouse indifference. If we have enemies, their hatred is no ordinary hatred. If we have friends, their attachment is no ordinary connection. We have lived too hard and too long to settle for the tamer emotions.

When we sing, our songs have pain and pleasure. When we laugh, our laughter has surrender and defiance. When we hope, our hope has fear and determination.



Our hope has not yet perished.





Let us make peace and friendship for all the world.

Reason and Emotion

Reason and Emotion for Humanistic Jews, Autumn 1986

Reason and emotion: Are they compati­ble? Or are they the polar opposites of the human potential?

So often humanists and Humanistic Jews are accused of being coldly rational, of denying the emotional side of the human personality. Our opponents proclaim this dichotomy between the mind and the heart, between logic and passion. Many times we accept this perception of our philosophy and come to believe that we are emotionally deficient.

However, this dichotomy is silly. We need to resist it.

The first step is to acknowledge certain truths about reason.

Reason is not the same as logic. To be reasonable is to be in touch with the facts, to be aware of reality. If you start out with a set of absurd premises, logic will lead you to a set of absurd conclusions. If you maintain that the earth is flat, you can logically con­clude that you will fall off the end of it. Rea­son is as much concerned with the premises as with the procedures for arriving at the conclusion. Logical fundamentalists are not reasonable. And logical schizophrenics are just plain crazy.

Reason is not cold. Reason is a human faculty that has evolved over millions of years. It is tied to the human struggle for survival. Reasonable people, people who stay in touch with reality, have a better chance for survival than people who choose fantasies. The will to live, the passion to sur­vive, is not cold. It provides the “heat” of human existence. Reason, as much as the emotions, is an agent of that life force. It gets its fuel from danger, crisis, and the need to make decisions.

Reason is the friend of emotion. Our desires and needs are emotional drives. But they are not always compatible. Our need for love is not always compatible with our need for dignity. Our need for safety does not always jibe with our need for adventure and change. We cannot satisfy all of our desires simultaneously. We have to choose. Reason is the human faculty that helps us decide which emotion to indulge and which desire to restrain. It makes us aware of the consequences of our behavior and places our needs in some sort of priority order. Being spontaneous is of no use if two “spon­taneities” are competing for the same time and energy.

Reason and emotion complement each other. Discovering the truth is different from responding to the truth. Rational peo­ple can get very hot when it is time to get hot. The rational medical researcher may be coldly objective in trying to discover the cause of a disease and hotly passionate in leading the battle to eliminate it. The rea­sonable social activist may be clinically proper in studying the profile of the poor and inspired in the struggle to defend them. Reasonable people do not look to their emo­tions to find the truth. They save their feeling energy to act on it.

Reason cultivates courage. Quite often, the emotion that dominates our lives is fear, especially the fear of reality. There are so many games we play to avoid confronting painful facts. And we are so skilled at weav­ing fantasies about ourselves and others to defend our self-esteem. Courageous people need reason to fight their fear and to lead them to reality. Courageous people do not wish to live in a world of fantasy — both because it offends their dignity and because they cannot effectively change what they refuse to recognize.

What are some of the realities concerning our feelings and emotions that it is important for us to recognize?

Feelings are simply there. They cannot be dismissed. They cannot be expelled. They cannot be controlled like behavior. You can command people to be loving to others; but you cannot command them to love others. You can order your family to be nice to their enemies; but you cannot order them to stop hating the foe. What we feel and what we do are two different things. An ethic, whether philosophic or religious, that insists that people change their feelings is naive and out of touch with reality. All of us, much of the time, have feelings of hate, jeal­ousy, anger, and fear. We cannot order them out of our minds. The test of our char­acter is not whether we have these emo­tions; it is what we do with them. Behavior, not feelings, determines our character.

In the long evolutionary saga of human­ity, every feeling served an important pur­pose. Our emotions are the internal reflec­tion of behavior that, at one time, was necessary for survival. Love arranged for the nurturing of children and the bonding of parents. Anger kept intruders out of our space and defended our territory. Fear made us aware of dangers we could not control and persuaded us to run away. Hate severed our connection with harmful mem­bers of our community and enabled us to expel them. Jealousy reminded us of our competitive deficiencies and motivated us to improve our skills. Guilt emphasized our dependence on others and kept us loyal. Sadness enabled us to recognize defeat and to rest before our next encounter. No feeling is without its positive side. Even in our modern urban environment, where oppor­tunities for confrontation are so frequent, this evolutionary reality holds true. Anger is still necessary to defend our dignity. Fear is still essential to keep us away from danger. Hate is still useful for resisting harmful rela­tionships. Jealousy is still important for self- improvement. Guilt is still significant for preserving community. Sadness is still a step to personal recovery. Love is still indis­pensable to guarantee our future.

Spiritual living is not the same as spirituality… .Humanists believe firm­ly in the power of the human spirit, [but] they are wary of the “spiritual.”

Every feeling can be dangerous. Despite the common religious conviction that divine providence has designed us perfectly, our feelings are not harmonious. They often show up where they do not belong and stick around long after they should have depart­ed. It is easy to see how anger, fear, hate, jealousy, guilt, and sadness can be inappro­priate and lead to self-destruction. But love receives so much hype that we are reluctant ever to denounce it. Yet, in many human relations, love is masochistic, encouraging the lover to surrender dignity and to accept humiliation. In this present decade, when intellect is discounted and emotion is valued, it is important to remember that “being emotional” may not be as praise­worthy as some people think.

Feelings love to hide. Ever since Freud, we are very much aware that what we think we feel may not be what we really feel. The mind is able to repress uncomfortable thoughts and desires and to protect us from the pain of confronting them. Our con­sciousness celebrates love; our unconscious cherishes hate. Our consciousness seeks the spiritual; our unconscious is obsessed with sex. With such self-deception, sincerity be­comes meaningless. What we honestly be­lieve that we feel may be a fantasy of avoid­ance. Outsiders, observing us and listening to us, may discern more about our real feel­ings than we do. Thus, it is a dangerous cliche to say that all people know best what they want.

There are many emotional styles. Not all emotions are hot. Some emotions are cold. Indifference and resignation are emotional states as much as love and hate. If all behav­ior is attached to feeling — and we cannot avoid behaving — then every action or state of being has emotional content. Austere, withdrawn people are just as emotional as volatile screamers. They simply have differ­ent temperaments. Future-oriented, creative people are just as emotional as past- oriented, traditional people. They just have different feeling responses to the authority of ancestors. Dependable, supportive, but undemonstrative, people are just as loving as verbal, demonstrative huggers. They merely show their love in different ways.

Behavior often can change feelings. While it is true that emotions are simply there, undismissable, it is also true that they can change over the long run. Not all emo­tions. Some responses to life are too deeply rooted ever to go away — or even to experi­ence slight alteration. But many feelings are reinforced by the behavior they inspire. We are afraid to swim and so we never try. And because we never try, our fear grows stronger. Dwelling on the fear through introspection does not drive it away; nor does understanding its causes relieve its intensity. Only when our will, in opposition to our fear, insists that we try to do what we are afraid to do — and we discover that we can do it — does our fear diminish. While behavior usually follows feelings, feelings sometimes follow behavior.

Ventilating our feelings calls for discre­tion. During the past two decades, it has become fashionable in psychotherapeutic circles to encourage people to release the feelings they are afraid to express. Holding in emotions is thought to be as dangerous as prolonged constipation. If you are angry, let other people know about your anger. If you are sad, let other people know about your sadness. The result of this fad is not a dramatic improvement in human behavior. Quite the contrary. People have simply grown accustomed to dumping their emo­tional garbage on people who are conve­niently nearby. Marriages are destroyed. Friendships are disrupted. Work environ­ments turn chaotic. An orgy of honesty trau­matizes human relations and wreaks havoc with the fragile structure of courtesy, com­passion, and discretion that makes society possible. In a world of tender egos and lim­ited patience, wise people know that “hold­ing in” can be a discipline for survival and happiness. Uncontrolled “dumping” is dan­gerous. Some thoughts should never be uttered. Some feelings should never be expressed.

Emotional experiences need character to tie them together. In our advanced con­sumer culture, clever manufacturers sell ex­periences as well as things. They stage an event and promise an “emotional high.” A rock concert, a religious revival, a weekend of meditation, a Hasidic farbrengen, a mara­thon of self-discovery — all are available to the general public for the picking. No train­ing is required. No ideological commitment is solicited beforehand. No demands on future behavior are seriously made. Each event stands by itself as a fondly remem­bered experience. The “with-it” Jew can do Oriental mysticism, gestalt, Hasidism, Zen, and EST with little concern for their incom­patibility. Since the only thing that counts is the emotional high of the experience itself, consistency is irrelevant. Of course, what is absent is something called character, that strong cord of consistent beliefs and values that gives substance to individuals and makes them more than a collection of in­credible happenings. People with character are not searching for emotional highs. They derive their feeling of satisfaction from lead­ing their lives in accordance with long-run principles and convictions.

Spirited living is not the same as spiri­tuality. Humanists who have rich emotional lives understand that prose is often inade­quate to express feelings of joy, wonder, exultation, and human solidarity. They sur­round themselves with the poetry of the arts, the beauty of music, painting, dance, theater, and the splendors of nature. Some­times they are participants. But, in all cases, they affirm the value and glory of this natural world of life and death. While they believe firmly in the power of the human spirit, they are wary of the “spiritual.” This word has a specific meaning in Western culture. It is connected with the super­natural, the realms of deathless souls, divine intelligence, and “superior” worlds that transcend the “inferior” offerings of mate­rial existence. It is associated with men and women who have forgone the pleasures of the material world in order to serve the cause of a transcendent power. Many spiri­tual people are not very spirited. They pre­fer passive waiting to action, asceticism to joy, surrender to conflict.

Reasonable people know that the human spirit does not grow through pious rever­ence. It grows through struggle and defi­ance. The spirituality of the Baal Shem Tov may be impressive. But it cannot compare in emotional power to the heroic spirit of Prometheus and the secular defenders of the Warsaw ghetto.

In a time when the religious opposition is growing strong, we humanists are tempted to steal the vocabulary of the competition. In the end, such desperation will only make us look foolish. We will talk a lot about spir­ituality. But we will never really be able to do it with conviction.

If what we want is more poetry, then in­deed let us create more poetry and call it that. If what we want is more hugging and dancing, then let us have more hugging and dancing and call it that. If what we want is a stronger sense of community that tran­scends our individual existence and binds us together in solidarity, then let us work on the bonds of community and call it that. But let us not confuse the development of the human spirit with the experience of peace and serenity that comes from believing that there is a profound harmony between human need and the forces that guide the universe. Our beliefs as humanists and as Humanistic Jews are in strong conflict with this premise of historic spirituality. The pain and suffering of existence cannot be trivialized by claiming that they are simply part of some greater positive whole. And if the universe, with all its vast influence, does not give us peace and serenity but makes us a little bit nervous, that response is very appropriate and very Jewish.

Bar and Bat Mitzvah, The Humanistic Way

Coming of Age Manual

Why bar mitzvahs?

Why do humanistic Jews have bar mitzvahs?

After all, the traditional bar mitzvah ceremony celebrates the arrival of a young man to Jewish adulthood at the age of thirteen and his eligibility to abide by all the commandments of the Torah.

Of what significance can a ceremony have which violates three fundamental principles of a reason­able and humanistic commitment?

We obviously reject, on the basis of present childhood development, the age of thirteen as the time when boys become men.

We also reject any celebration which derives from male chauvinism and which denies girls equal honor to that of boys.

We certainly accept the Torah as important Jewish literature. But we reject the validity of its worldview and the binding character of its laws.

Even classical Reform, which sub­scribed to only two. of these objections, dispensed with the bar mitzvah ceremony altogether and replaced it with a class confirmation.

So why?

There are several reasons why.

The bar mitzvah ceremony is an old ceremony. As in all ancient cul­tures, the celebration of puberty is an ancient practice. Throughout the centuries it has gone through many changes and has not remained the same for long. The first bar mitzvah ceremony had nothing at all to do with the reading from the Torah (since the Torah did not even exist at that time). It was a circumcision rite, which offered the foreskin as an appeasement to the gods, tested the boy’s ability to endure pain and pre­pared him for sexual activity as an adult male. The practice of calling bar mitzvah boys to do the final reading of the Sabbath Torah portion is comparatively recent. It goes back to the beginning of the fourteenth century, and started only as a local custom.

The essence of the historic bar mitzvah ceremony is not allegiance to the Torah. It is the celebration of the arrival of puberty. When the cir­cumcision ceremony was moved to birth, a long period of no celebration intervened before alternatives emerged.

Thirteen is an important age for both boys and girls in our culture. It no longer marks the advent of adult­hood. But it does indicate the arrival of adolescence. Adolescence is a recent development. In a modern industrial society, children are not able to enter the work force at thirteen. They require more training for the jobs they will choose. Adoles­cence is that difficult teenage period between childhood and maturity when the preparation for adult life continues. Entering the teenage years is an important turning point in a child’s life. His/her body changes. His/her school changes. His/her needs change. Reassurance from his/her community that he/she is competent and recognition from his/her family that he/she is important are psychic boosts along the way. Thirteen is a perfect time for a public ceremony — not to celebrate the approach of adulthood, but to mark the reality of adolescence.

For humanistic Jews, with a com­mitment to the philosophy of secular humanism, religion is not a matter of gods and worship. It is essentially the celebration of community and community bonds. Connecting with people in shared beliefs, shared emotions and shared celebrations is our religious experience. Holidays which honor ancestors and which commemorate group events are, therefore, important. Life cycle cere­monies, where significant changes in the lives of individual members are acknowledged by the community and related to the survival of the group, are also basic to fellowship. Celebrating the growth of a child is celebrating the continuity of the congregation. It is as important to the group as it is to the child.

The ceremony does not have to be male chauvinist. Both the Recon­structionists and the Reformers have been doing Bat Mitzvah for many years. It is just a matter of having the girls do what boys do. While it is difficult to turn the ceremony of phallic circumcision into a girl’s ceremony, it is easy to adjust a talking experience to accommodate female needs. In fact, there is no need to designate the celebration Bar Mitzvah (Bat Mitzvah), where women always end up inside the parentheses. One can simply name it the Mitzvah Ceremony. If you want to ‘Bar’ it, you can ‘Bar’ it. If you want to ‘Bat’ it, you can ‘Bat’ it. After all, in popular Hebrew and Yiddish, the word mitzvah means more than ‘commandment’. It also means ‘good deed’. And the ceremony is indeed a good deed for the child and the community.

Since the historic mitzvah ceremony has been changing throughout Jewish history, another radical change is not inappropriate. Obviously, a required reading from the Torah and from other parts of the Bible is inconsistent with a human­istic approach to Judaism. First of all, the Bible is essentially a theistic document. And, secondly, given the range of Jewish experience and literature, it is too narrow in its focus. Of course, there is no dearth of effective alternatives. Selecting a hero or role model from the Jewish past, researching his/her life and shar­ing that research with the community is one alternative. Presenting an answer to an important ethical or historic question of Jewish interest is another. Sharing a progress report on some activity of community service is still another. Whatever project is chosen should be more than nostalgia. It should celebrate the emerging talents and skills of the young adolescent. And it will provide families and humanistic congregations with bonding experi­ences that are more than nostalgia.

There is no reason why a developing child should have only one development ceremony. While the mitzvah celebration marks the entry into adolescence, another cele­bration should be available to mark the beginning of adulthood (the origi­nal purpose of the bar mitzvah festivity). In many respects, the Con­firmation ceremony developed by the Reform movement is a precedent for such an event. During the past fifty years, the age of Confirmation has been moved forward to fourteen, fifteen and sixteen. The drawback of the arrangement has been the exclusive use of class graduations, and the avoidance of individual celebrations. As a result, Confir­mation has never been able to equal the power of the bar/bat mitzvah event. A group ceremony cannot provide the ego satisfaction that an individual celebration confers.

As an experiment, the original Confirmation was a creative alternative. But it needs considerable reshaping. It needs to be an indi­vidual ceremony. It needs to be identified with a personal birthday. It needs to be linked directly with adulthood. Given our present culture and legal system, the eighteenth birthday anniversary seems an appropriate time. However, it is tied up with departure from high school and entry into college. There are too many distractions to allow the student to prepare properly for a sig­nificant celebration. Sixteen is less ‘adultish’. But it is an age which popular culture has associated with growing up parties and the right to drive. It is also the beginning of the child’s emergence from adolescence.

Confirmation (and the word, bor­rowed from the Lutherans, may not be the best word we can use), is for us an entrance into adulthood cere­mony. It is individual. It occurs near the student’s sixteenth birthday. It allows the student to demonstrate his intellectual and emotional skills as an emerging adult by encouraging him to present his research to the community on a subject of historic or ethical concern. It is distinct from the mitzvah celebration and requires different preparation.

Mitzvah and Confirmation do for us what the old bar mitzvah tried to do for our ancestors. In an age that invented adolescence, we need more than one ceremony.

The danger is that many human­istic Jews will assume that the mitzvah experience means more than it does — that it pretentiously suggests manhood and womanhood. Therefore, it is important to remember that Mitzvah without Confirmation is incomplete — and that, of the two ceremonies, Confirmation is obviously the more important.

A good Jewish growing up cere­mony should satisfy the following criteria.

It should provide for equality. It should be available to both boys and girls. Bar mitzvah should be comple­mented by bat mitzvah. In fact, calling it simply the mitzvah cere­mony avoids the hassle. The Hebrew word mitzvah means ‘command­ment’ and suggests that the celebrant is now eligible to be responsible for the requirements of his own life.

It should provide integrity. The symbols and words should honestly express what the celebrant believes and what the community stands for. If the Torah is only a famous book and no longer the constitution of humanistic Jews, it should not be the central feature of this important cele­bration. Above all, at a moment when a child is reviewing his/her idealism and testing his/her com­mitments, sincerity should be a minimal requirement.

A good ceremony should provide inspiration. The adolescent should be able to focus on his/her interests and his/her talents and find connection with those who share them. An arbitrary Biblical reading is too impersonal to be meaningful. Choosing a ‘heroic’ figure out of the Jewish past or present who can serve as a role model to the boy or girl and who captures the enthusiasm of the student, makes a lot more sense.

A good ceremony should provide a sense of competence, a feeling of achievement. The student should believe that he/she is now able to do something well that adults normally do. Presenting a competent lecture to an adult audience may be only one of many options. (On the secular kibbutzim in Israel, community service is stressed.) But it is certainly an effective one.

A good ceremony should reinforce a sense of roots. Jewish roots from the humanistic per­spective, are not only religious roots. They are secular ones also. Music, dance, humor, science and business are as much a part of Jewish culture as worship.

It is very important that the student feel that he/she has real roots in the Jewish past. He/she may not be able to identify with his/her grand­parents’ dietary habits. But he/she can identify with their love of family.

A good ceremony should allow the community to experience its own ideals and its own commit­ments. The celebration is not only for the child. It is especially for the assembly of adults who need peri­odic opportunities to affirm their own beliefs. A young adult is an important symbol to a congregation. He/she is an expression of hope.

A good ceremony, above all, should occur at the right age. In a modern urban culture, thirteen is hardly the entrance to adulthood. It barely makes adolescence. However, it is a time of important physical and mental changes. The most creative alternative is to have two optional ceremonies — the mitzvah at thirteen to celebrate the beginning of adoles­cence and a mitzvah (confirmation) at a later age (16 or beyond) to mark the entrance into adulthood.

Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation ceremonies are special opportunities to reinforce Jewish identity, humanistic behavior and community solidarity. We need them — and we need to mold them to our integrity.

The Rational Life

The Rational Life, Autumn 1982

The rational life. At one time, in the heyday of the Enlightenment, it was the ideal. The spokespersons of reason domi­nated the intellectual world and imagined that the life of reason would become the modus vivendi for all of humanity.

The early rationalists saw the life of reason in opposition to the life of faith. The life of faith, in their eyes, was dominated by the superstitions of traditional religion. It cultivated blind obedience and a self- destructive humility that denied men and women the power to be the masters of their own lives. It downplayed happiness here on earth and promised an illusory immor­tality of eternal bliss.

The men of reason believed that the life of reason would dispel superstition and would provide “salvation” through the truths of the new science. Made aware of its own power, humanity would seize the opportunity to transform the human condi­tion and to pursue human happiness in the only life that was ours to live.

The men of reason were naive. But were they wrong?

Many modern thinkers think so. Or, rather, we should say “postmodern think­ers,” since they associate modernity with the life of reason, which they claim is now passe. Postmodern thinkers hold reason responsible for the horrors and the disillu­sionment of the twentieth century. While not wanting to return to the life of faith, they often find it less objectionable than the life of reason. They accuse the rational­ists of fostering a narrow and elitist path to truth, which, in the end, produces a tyr­anny and emptiness worse than the life of religion.

Their chief accusations go something like this:

  •  Reason is cold and unemotional. It ig­nores the feeling side of human exist­ence. It does not pay attention to the parts of the human psyche that provide warmth and meaning to human life.
  •  Reason is wary of the power of intu­ition, which also may stand in opposi­tion to traditional faith and which also is the source of important truths. The truly free spirit cannot be limited by the pedestrian restrictions of the scientific method. It needs to use the power and the wisdom of the whole mind.
  •  Reason looks at the world through ana­lytic eyes. It cuts reality into pieces, labels them, and connects them with the categories of cause and effect. But it is incapable of synthetic truth. It cannot experience the world as a whole. And the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The analytic power of the left brain needs to be supplemented by the synthetic power of the right brain.
  • Reason leads to moral chaos. Without God and religion, everything is permit­ted. Reason can tell us how to do things, but it cannot tell us why we should do what we ought to do. Without some authority that lies beyond reason, fas­cism is just as reasonable as democracy. The terrible anarchy of modern urban life comes from the personal moral au­tonomy that reason grants.
  •  Reason fosters tyranny. The worst tyr­anny of modern times was the Marxist dictatorship of the communist empire. The leaders of that empire spoke in the name of secularism and reason and justified their actions on rational grounds. Their revolution elevated a new “clergy” of intellectuals who were more dogmatic, more arrogant, and more repressive than the clergy they sought to replace.
  •  Reason rests on the elitist notion of an objective truth, to which only the ex­perts of science have access. It fails to acknowledge the more democratic real­ity that truth is essentially subjective and that there are as many truths as there are people who experience the world.

I believe that this assault on reason is invalid. The postmodern critique is a dis­tortion of the truth and is, in a very real sense, responsible for the very danger it complains about.

Reason is not cold. Nor is it hot. It is a method for the discovery of truth, which can be used by either cold people or hot people. Most of the time it is attached to the heat of passionate desires. Desire moti­vates people to use reason. People want to survive and be happy. Reason helps them understand the reality they are dealing with. It helps them satisfy their desires by being responsible to the facts. It helps them tame their desires by reminding them of both their limitations and opportunities. Emotion and reason are not enemies. They go hand in hand.

Reason is not contemptuous of intu­ition. All great discoveries begin with intuition. The scientific method begins with a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a hunch or intuition. Without brilliant hunches and intuitions, science would be powerless. But, while intuition is valuable, it is not enough. It has to be tested by the evidence of human experience. There are crazy in­tuitions as well as profound ones. There has to be some way of telling the difference between them. That is what science is all about.

Reason is not only analytic. It also entails synthesis. It deals with the macro­scopic picture as well as the microscopic picture. The theory of evolution is not about small facts. It ties them all together into a big whole. The “big bang” theory is not about a teeny event. It is about the whole universe. It synthesizes billions of events and makes them fit one into the other. Holistic insights are as integral to science as they are to art. But synthesis is not just the sudden flash of insight. It also depends upon the hard work of making sure that brilliant flashes of insight are what they claim to be.

Reason does not lead to moral chaos. God is no guarantee of moral order, simply because no one can agree on what God wants us to do. God is not available to be interviewed. Every religion can put words into his mouth, and does. The history of humanity is the story of religious people killing each other over disagreements about God’s commands. And faith is truly cha­otic because it provides no way of peace­fully arbitrating disagreement. Reason is less arbitrary. It requires that all moral commands or recommendations be tested by the consequences of choosing to act on them. Universal ethical rules are the result of common sense based on long-run hu­man experience. Failure to act on them threatens survival and happiness, both personal and collective. Reason is the only method for the discovery and justification of moral values that does not rely on arbitrary faith and intuition. The anarchy in our society is not caused by people who are rational. It is caused by postmodern hardline subjectivists who believe that truth and ethics are simply a function of what­ever their inner voices announce. Freedom that is not subject to the test of conse­quences is not rational and is dangerous indeed.

Reason does not foster tyranny. As both Baruch Spinoza and John Stuart Mill pointed out, reason cannot survive where there is no freedom. Without the give and take of a free society, conclusions freeze into dogma. Tentative answers turn into absolute proclamations. The Marxists of the Communist empire claimed the author­ity of reason, but they were much more comfortable with the style of the religion they insisted they hated. All forms of dogma are inimical to reason, whether they be Jewish, Christian, or Marxist. And all forms of dictatorship are subversive of the integrity of reason. Tyranny flows quite naturally from absolute certainty, the vulnerable need to be protected from error. When the boundary between truth and error is unclear, only freedom suffices.

Reason is elitist in one sense but egali­tarian in another. The one person with evidence to support a stand does win out over the masses who have not done their empirical homework. But this one person can come from any class, ethnic, or educa­tional background. The peasant or the plumber with the evidence wins out over the king with none. On the other hand, an egalitarianism that claims that all opinions are subjective and, therefore, of equal value is opposed to reason. Reality is not the creation of our minds. It is not invented; it is discovered. Equating ignorance with knowledge may be democratic. But, in the end, it is foolish and dangerous. Reason does not imagine that truth comes from an act of will. It is the product of training, discipline, and hard work, Rational free spirits pay attention to outer evidence. Crazy free spirits listen only to inner voices.

The rational life may not be as euphoric as the early Enlightenment philosophers imagined. But it is the best alternative available. To live the life of reason is to be able to do the following:

Face the Facts

Rational people can respect themselves only if they are strong enough to face reality. Painful truth is more desirable than painless illusion. You cannot take control of your life if you are dancing with fanta­sies. Rational people do not believe be­cause they want to believe or need to believe. They believe because the evidence provides them with no other alternative.

Live with Uncertainty

For many questions there are presently no clear answers. Evidence is too slim or ambiguous. The best you can say is “I don’t know.” Some people find uncer­tainty unbearable. They prefer any answer, however absurd, to no answer at all. Ratio­nal people do not like uncertainty. But they are strong enough to live with it. They do not insist on an answer when none is really available. They do not admire in­tense faith. They are afraid of it. Where evidence exists, strong convictions are appropriate. But waiting for the evidence can take equal strength.

Live with Ambiguity

There are no absolutely right or wrong decisions. All decisions have good and bad consequences. Recognizing ambiguity is part of being rational. When we make decisions, we may choose the alternative with the least number of disadvantages or the greatest number of advantages, but we can never escape mixing the two. Rational people are never self-righteous. They never claim moral purity. They are too practical and good-humored for that.

Dismiss the Past

The past is unreachable and unchange­able. No magic can transform it. Learning from the past is rational. Worrying about the past and wishing it were different are a waste of time. Rational people turn their energies to what they can change and improve. They do not cultivate full-time regret. For them, being sorry does not last forever. It turns into constructive action. Guilt is not a profession. It is the rational prelude to making actions produce better consequences.

Resist Resignation

There are many things we cannot change, including the law of gravity. But there are many things we can change. No matter what happens no sacred or holy power has ordained it. It happened because — like a hurricane — blind, unconscious, and un­caring forces made it happen. Or it hap­pened because — like cruel violence — people made it happen. If something is bad, we may not have to accept it. And if we can change it, we do not have to pretend that it is besherrt (destined). Pas­sivity in the face of our power to make a positive difference is not rational.

Pursue Happiness

Suffering may be unavoidable, but it is not a rational goal. Rational people may suffer because they cannot avoid suffering or because they cannot achieve what they want without pain. But they do not choose to suffer because of a belief that suffering is ultimately good. Happiness is the satisfac­tion of basic human needs and desires, including the desire for community. Happy people know that their happiness is inter­twined with the happiness of others. We are social beings who thrive on the help and approval of our peers.

Direct Our Emotions

Emotions are facts. Denying them when they are uncomfortable does not make them go away. They simply go into hiding and cause more trouble than before. Nor do our emotions exist in perfect harmony, each complementing and cooperating with the others. Fear, anger, hate, and love compete for our energy. If left to their own devices, they produce emotional chaos. We end up indulging the wrong feeling at the wrong time. Rational people never deny their feelings. They try to become more and more aware of them. But they do not surrender to them. They control them. They respond with fear when fear is appro­priate. They offer love when love can be nurturing. Reason does not stand above emotion. It is the managing director, mak­ing sure that our emotional energies work for our happiness and the happiness of others.

Acknowledge Our Power

It is dangerous to imagine that we can do what we are not able to do. But it is equally dangerous to imagine that we cannot do what we are able to do and need to do. Too much humility provides a rationalization for cowardice and makes us wary of useful action. Reasonable people do not claim powers that reason denies. But they do not hide behind the excuses of convenient modesty. Most of us have the power to do more than we give ourselves credit for. Self-esteem is owning up to our own power, especially in a world where religion gives the credit for everything to outside powers.

The rational life is a fulfilling life be­cause it negotiates between what we want and what is possible. That balancing act needs the discipline and good humor of reason.

A Margin of Hope by Irving Howe A Review

Being Jewish Today, Spring 1984

Irving Howe is no ordinary Jewish intellectual. He is a famous one. Not only because of what he has written, but especially because of his poli­tical consistency. He is one of the few former reigning Jewish social­ists who has not fled to the Right, who has not turned into a neo­conservative. Howe remains a believing socialist — even though a chastened one.

As the creator and editor of a moderately leftist journal called Dissent, he is one of the major liberal voices for social democracy in America. Together with Michael Harrington and his Democratic Social­ists, he preaches a non-dogmatic, non-revolutionary egalitarianism. He resists the elitism that many of his former colleagues now find so attractive.

As the author of the enormously popular World of Our Fathers, he has assumed a special place in the Jewish community. The socialist visionary has become the major presenter of Yiddish nostalgia to the English-speaking world. Ameri­can Jewish roots have become his specialty. For a one-time universalist who found no important value in Jewish identity, his second career has a touch of irony.

Howe’s book A Margin of Hope is an autobiography. Like Making It by Norman Podhoretz (who defected to the Right), it is a confession of an American Jewish intellectual. But, unlike Podhoretz’s statement, it is refreshingly free of ideological repentance.

Howe had all the qualifications to become an American Jewish intellec­tual. New York City. Immigrant parents. East Bronx. Depression hard­ship. City College. Partisan Review. All the informal credentials for radical commitment. In addition, he had a perceptive mind and a talent for writing.

Dozens of other Jewish intellec­tuals form the setting for his radical activity. Max Shachtman, Morris Cohen, Isaac Rosenfeld, Philip Rahv, Clement Greenberg and Saul Bellow were among his conversational circle. How ironic that so much universalism was confined to a few Jews!

The autobiography is a marvelous introduction to the political and intellectual controversies of the last five decades. Howe was in the middle of most of them, agonizing over which decision to make, which side to choose.

There was Roosevelt and the New Deal. Should a Norman Thomas socialist support this wishy-washy compromise of the Democrats just because the Democrats had a chance to win? There was Stalin and the purges. Should a defender of the Left give comfort to the Right by condemning the rulers of the Marxist motherland? There was Trotsky and the revolution. Was bold radical thought still preferable to the peace­ful pleas of the social democrats? There was the war in Europe. Could an opponent of capitalism support a capitalistic war, even when the enemy was a fascist anti-Semite? There was the anti-Communism of the early fifties. Could a confirmed anti-Stalinist of the Left join forces with the rabid anti-Communists of the Right? There was the emergence of the Vietnam struggle and the New Left. Were the radicals of the sixties an undisciplined rabble of anarchists who would subvert the ideals of the Left? There was the rise of neo-conservatism. Had socialism turned out to be a dead-end path of betrayal and failure?

To read Howe’s story is to relive the drama of the arguments which dominated Jewish intellectual con­versations. The Bolshevik Revolu­tion and its aftermath was a focal point of discussion. So much hope had been invested in the success of that upheaval that the subsequent failure was almost too much to bear. The crumbling utopia forced the socialist faithful to undergo painful changes. For the emotionally in­tense, it was easy to go from loving Russia to hating it. For many others, it took a long time to wake up to the truth. There was an understandable reluctance to be on the same side as the anti-Soviet fascists. Anti- Stalinists on the Left were torn between their socialist purity and the allies that awaited them.

Howe was consistently anti- Stalinist. But he does admit to a certain utopian naivete. There was too much faith in slogans and in the moral difference between workers and rulers. In the end, the Marxist sureness disappears. Socialism be­comes an egalitarian wish with no guarantees of success. A pious dream replaces the forces of history.

As his socialist ardor was tamed, and as the fury of Hitler made his Jewish identity more important, Howe returned to the culture of his childhood. Unable by conviction to carry out religious observances, he found his Jewish niche in the Yid­dish speech of his ancestors. He began to translate modern Yiddish stories and to discover the richness of that literature. In time he became a self-proclaimed secular Jew. Jewishness was no longer a reaction­ary parochialism.

Howe’s story has a certain sad­ness. His socialist dream loses its innocence in America. And his Jewish identity is attached to a dying linguistic culture. Nostalgia replaces optimism.

The secular Jewish radical ironi­cally looks to the past rather than to the future. The “world of our fathers” becomes safer to talk about than the “world of our children.”

The autobiography is a good intro­duction to what went wrong with the secular faith of the first secular Jews.

Ethical Guidelines

Humanistic Judaism Anthology – Spring, 1986

An adequate philosophy of life provides two guides. The first is a description of reality. The second is a prescription for how to respond to reality. The first con­cerns itself with what is. The second con­cerns itself with what ought to be. The first is called metaphysics. The second is called ethics.

Ethics is concerned with human be­havior. Applying moral judgments to the actions of animal behavior is inappropri­ate. Where self-awareness is absent, the only value judgment that is fitting is aesthetic.

Although metaphysics covers a much wider area of reality than ethics, it is not as compelling. Being human, we see things from the human perspective. And from the human perspective, nothing is more important than making decisions about our behavior.

If I am a humanist, I make ethical deci­sions in the context of the following restrictions and acknowledgments.

I refuse to accept the legitimacy of au­thoritarian demands. No behavior is right simply because some important person says that it is right. Neither God nor Moses can make an action ethical by his endorsement. Right and wrong do not derive from the authors of rules. They are a function of the consequences of behavior. Right behavior produces good consequences. Wrong behavior produces bad consequences.

I relate good and bad to basic human needs. Right action satisfies human needs. Wrong action frustrates human needs in some fundamental way. A morality that is indifferent to human survival, human pleasure, and human dignity is no morali­ty at all. It is a morality without human motivation and, therefore, irrelevant.

I acknowledge that human needs are not always compatible. We cannot always pursue our survival needs, our pleasure needs, and our dignity needs simultan­eously. Eating sweets to my heart’s content may enhance my pleasure. But it may destroy my life. Betraying my friends to the enemy may spare my life. But it will compromise my dignity. This “dishar­mony” is intrinsic to the human condition and defines the agony of moral decisions.

I recognize that, because of this dishar­mony of needs, there is also a disharmony of ethical demands. Morality is not a neat and orderly set of rules that fit comfor­tably one into the other. If I choose dignity as my primary need and my primary value, as I believe most humanists do, I do so with the full awareness that survival and pleasure are also morally compelling. Since dignity is related to our vision of the ideal ruler, and self-rule is an axiom of hu­manism, it seems to have the edge. But the edge, as we know from experience, is not always wide and secure.

I am good-humored enough to admit that ethical rules are not absolute guide­lines dropped to earth by some infallible heavenly commander. They are useful summaries of past wisdom. If I wish to teach people (especially children) how to defend their dignity and the dignity of others, I need to convey the experience of the past in the easiest possible way. Rules, or operating principles, serve that pur­pose. Since they are too brief to be all- inclusive, they are bound to have excep­tions. Telling all the truth to a dumb and ugly person may not be the best way to protect his dignity.

I acknowledge that it is impossible to motivate people to satisfy needs that are not their own. Parents nurture children and friends help friends because they un­consciously do not distinguish between their own needs and the needs of their families and loved ones. Human drives are individual. And so are satisfactions. Phrases like “the general will” or “the general welfare” conjure up social monsters that do not really exist. An effec­tive ethic is able to motivate the individual to serve the needs of others as though they were his very own.

I recognize that there are few actions in which an individual may choose to in­dulge that do not affect the lives of others. The famous liberal prescription that grants the individual the right to be the total master of his life in those areas of his existence that do not touch the interests of others sounds good on paper. But it does not work very well in reality. In an over­crowded world, almost every personal ac­tivity involves somebody else. Sex, the col­or of one’s house, smoking, and the noise level of one’s stereo are “private” activi­ties that have social consequences. Even the failure to take care of one’s own health may create an intolerable social burden.

I refuse to make behavioral demands on myself and other people that we are, by nature, unable to fulfill. Asking people to dismiss all anger, hate, and jealousy — dis­positions intrinsic to human nature — is an exercise in futility. There is a human nature. The human potential is not unlim­ited. Nor is the human personality infi­nitely malleable. To dismiss what is not dismissable is to program human beings for failure. Morality is not always easy. But it is attached to realizable goals. A ra­tional ethic may tame anger, hate, and jealousy in the same way that it tames love. However, it does not seek to arrange what reality cannot arrange.

For most humanists, the criterion of dignity becomes the ultimate arbiter in moral decision making.

I make a distinction between behavior and motivation. Some people are devotees of the cult of intentions. They are always concerned with why people do what they do. They are absorbed with inner thoughts and feelings over which the individual has absolutely no control. If love is primarily a feeling, it is absurd to demand it. If love is a behavior, it is something we can choose to do, even if we do not feel like it. Most ethical people have large amounts of anti­social thoughts and feelings. For that reason, morality requires a great deal of discipline. In the end, from the ethical point of view, people are their behavior.

I recognize that moral intuition (or con­science) is, in reality, a form of uncon­scious reasoning in which the conse­quences of my behavior are tested by memory. I may tell the truth because my conscience tells me to. But what appears on the surface to be a dogmatic rule may not be dogmatic at all. It may be derived from human experience. A society in which people cannot trust each other to tell the truth will not long endure.

I am fully aware that there is no such thing as Jewish ethics. As an ethnic group, Jews have exhibited a wide variety of moral attitudes. The Jewish Defense League can find as many Biblical and Talmudic quotations to support its posi­tion as can Peace Now. Since a Jewish humanist has to be selective about which historic Jewish advice to accept, there must be a higher, more universal criterion by which he renders judgment. A Jewish humanist and a Gentile humanist have more in common ethically than a Jewish humanist and a Hasid. What binds all Jews together is a shared ethnic and na­tional experience.

Humanistic Jews view this history differently from traditional Jews. Traditional Jews look at Jewish history and find support for the virtue of trusting in God. Humanistic Jews look at Jewish history and find (especially after the Holocaust and despite all the contrary Biblical and Talmudic quotations] the moral necessity for human self-reliance.

A personal ethics for Jewish humanists requires just as much self-discipline (if not more) than traditional morality. The vi­sion of a strong, self-reliant, trustworthy, generous person, who strives to remain consistent in the face of an absurd universe, is quite different from the ideal of a humble, obedient servant who relies on the justice of destiny. That vision is the ultimate guideline for humanist decision making.

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.