Project of IISHJ

After the Colloquium – Reclaiming Jewish History

Colloquium ’97: Reclaiming Jewish History, Spring 1998

Colloquium ’97 was a stunning success. Eleven Jewish historians dealt with one of the most difficult issues in Jewish life with great skill. The audience was mesmerized by the information, dialogue, and confrontation.

The issue had never been dealt with be­fore in any public Jewish symposium. It had too much potential to upset the Jewish com­munity. Yehuda Bauer, Holocaust scholar, noted the uniqueness of the event.

The issue was provocative because it dealt with the credibility of the story of the Jewish people as it has been presented by the biblical and rabbinic traditions. This familiar story, dominated by patriarchs, prophets, miracles, and divine revelations, has entered into the core literature of Jewish and Western society. It in­cludes familiar names: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and Solomon. It has familiar dialogue between God and man. West­ern poetry, painting, and sculpture are infused with this story. The message is clear: the Jew­ish story is different from the story of any other nation, and the greatest discovery of the Jew­ish people is the discovery of the one God.

Jews are attached to this story for obvi­ous reasons. It glorifies the Jewish people and places them at the center of world history. It is wonderfully old and traditional, sur­rounded by the aura of ancestral reverence. It is shared by the Christian world and gives prestige to the Jewish people in Christian eyes. Most Jews are unwilling to give up this story for a more realistic, less flattering alternative.

In the narrow sense, mythology is the story of the gods. In that sense, traditional Jew­ish history is mythology, since tradition makes the story of the Jewish people inseparable from the story of Yahveh.

In the broad sense, mythology is legend rather than truth. In the last century, histori­ans and biblical scholars began to question the truth of the ancient story. An alternative story, without miracles and supernatural interven­tion, emerged. This story differed greatly from the traditional one. Scientific biblical criticism and archaeology challenged the reality of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the Mosaic authorship of the Torah, and the firmly held belief that monotheism goes back to Abraham. These conclusions would have been very disturbing to the lay public. The consequence was a shameful dichotomy. In the outside world, the traditional story continued to be taught, even by liberal clergy. In the inside world of schol­ars and academicians, the alternative story was circulated. But the alternative story never pen­etrated into the consciousness of the broader world. It was confined, in cowardly fashion, to a small circle of experts.

Legend and myth dominated not only ancient Jewish history, but also the history of the rabbinic and medieval periods. Pharisaic Judaism, which achieved the status of Ortho­doxy, was determined to demonstrate that its doctrines and practices could be traced all the way back to Moses. The origins of the Mishnah and the Talmud were distorted to fit the ideology of the rabbis.

The distortion is present in the emphasis placed on medieval rabbinic texts. The most important development in Jewish history in the early Middle Ages in both the Christian and Muslim worlds was the important economic role of the Jew as a mediator between two cul­tures; yet the significance of that role is lost in the pious Orthodox reflection on the commen­taries on the Bible and Talmud that were created at this time. Tradition loves the texts, but reality prefers economics. We lose perspec­tive because ideology distorts our vision.

Even in modern times, with the ready availability of scientific historiography, ideol­ogy gives us a false vision. It is hard for us to be objective about the causes of anti-Semitism because, paradoxically, we feel safe only when we see ourselves as victims. The Jew as provo­cateur is emotionally unacceptable. Nor is the Zionist enterprise any easier to deal with. We are so defensive about our relationship to the Palestinians, so needy to demonstrate our right to the land, that we cannot distinguish between history and apologetics. Mythology dominates our approach to contemporary events.

Is it possible to identify the real history of the Jews? Is it possible to penetrate the defensive cloud of ideology and encounter events as they really happened? That was the ambition of Colloquium ’97. A broad perspective on Jewish history was chosen to demonstrate that all of Jewish history is vul­nerable to mythology. Nine important periods in Jewish history in which ideology distorts the truth were identified. They provided the structure of the program. The origins of Israel, the authorship of the Bible, the diver­sity of Hellenistic Judaism, the origins of halakha, the realities of the medieval Jew, the emergence of Hasidism, the role of the En­lightenment, the causes of anti-Semitism, and the development of Zionism provided the is­sues that engaged our participating historians.

We discovered that the ancestors of Israel were most likely Canaanite hillbillies, that the authors of the Bible lived many centuries after the events they described, that “ortho­doxy” was only one of many options in the Hellenistic period, that the story of the medi­eval Jew is not only one of humiliation but also one of power, and that the causes of mod­ern anti-Semitism are still unknown.

The dialogue and confrontation among the speakers were as exciting as the presenta­tions. It was clear that the attempt to discuss the history of the Jews in this secular context was as novel for most of our speakers as it was for most of our audience.

A book called Reclaiming Jewish History is emerging out of this experience. It will be a first attempt to introduce the important issues of Jewish historical mythology to a lay public.

For us as Humanistic Jews, there is no task more important than to retrieve our history from the ideological chains of the past. But we must be cautious. We must be careful not to re-enslave it with the chains of our own ideology. We must be willing to listen to the evidence even when the evidence is not friendly to our vested interests. We must strive to avoid the pitfall of all Jewish historians who have strong Jewish commitments — turning the Jewish past into a convenient reflection of their own convictions.

The Failed Messiah of Crown Heights

What Does It Mean to be Jewish? Winter 1995

The rebbe was dead. Or was he?

Hundreds of Lubavitcher Hasidim wait­ed breathlessly for his resurrection. They could not accept his death. They still await his return.

Whoever would have imagined that the death of a Jewish cult leader would make front page news seven days in a row? But the Lubavitchers are no ordinary cult. Next to the state of Israel, they are the most successful Jew­ish organization in the world. Now 250,000 strong, they have quintupled their numbers over the past forty years and entered into the mainstream of Jewish life. In 1951, when the Rebbe took over, they were a bizarre Jewish sect that few Jews even knew about. Today their emissaries cover the globe and negotiate with the rulers of the world.

Hasidism has been around for almost three hundred years. Emerging in southeast Poland at a time of political and economic devasta­tion, it gave hope to hope-hungry Jews. God would send his Messiah to rescue his people — but only when they loved him enough. Ob­serving the commandments was not enough. Observance with heartfelt devotion was the key to salvation. Hasidism began with singing and dancing, with fervor and shaking, and ended up with miracle-working rebbes who were the dispensers of supernatural power. Devotional leaders founded devotional dynas­ties. Each dynasty turned into a cult of the personality. If the rebbe was not God, he was, at least, the deputy of God on earth. He was the very gate to heaven. Devotion went up; power came down.

Rabbi Zalman Schneur of Lubavitch was unique. While most Hasidim came from Galicia and the Ukraine, he hailed from Lithuania, the homeland of Hasidim-haters. Litvaks almost invariably denounced Hasid­ism as craziness and heresy. But Zalman the Litvak became a Hasidic rebbe. Being a Litvak, he tried to give his movement a slight in­tellectual twist. Chabad is the acronym for three Hebrew words that denote wisdom. The Lubavitchers became Hasidim with a Litvak edge.

In 1957, the Lubavitch movement was at a low point. Devastated by Communism and the Holocaust, its leadership was in exile in Brooklyn, its followers depressed, its numbers diminished. The old rebbe died that year and was succeeded by his son-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who also was descended from the original Zalman. The new rebbe was brilliant, charismatic, and creative. Familiar with the secular world as an engineer, a gradu­ate of the Sorbonne in Paris, he combined Hasidic piety, intellectual mysticism, and a missionary zeal to reach “lost” Jews. Instead of despising them, he went out to recruit them. The result: a powerful religious empire span­ning six continents and a cadre of thousands of dedicated workers who, for an economic pittance, went forth to conquer the Jewish world. In time, some of these devotees pro­claimed their rebbe the Messiah.

What is the significance of all this messi­anic fervor?

It means that these old ideas about messiahs and resurrections, which liberal Jews as­sumed were fast fading away in Jewish life, are alive and well. After four centuries of the age of science, fundamentalism is still strong, among Jews as among Christians and Muslims.

It means that the Jews for Jesus and the Lubavitchers are on the same wavelength. Both believe in salvation. Both believe in messiahs. Both believe in resurrection. In the end, whether you prefer Jesus or the rebbe, the mind-set is the same.

It means that rationality is having a hard time in Crown Heights. The smartest strategy is to keep postponing the coming of the Mes­siah. But true believers want the Messiah right now. The rub is that he may not show up. And if he doesn’t, there is always the risk of mass disillusionment. However, the history of reli­gion has demonstrated that true believers al­ways find the perfect excuse. Perhaps the rebbe did not find the world worthy of salvation.

It means that a lot of Jewish energy is be­ing devoted to harmful illusion. Believing that everybody’s life can be rescued by a single per­son is a dangerous conviction. It undermines self-reliance and turns people into childlike dependents. The resurgence of the Lubavitch­ers is no boon to the Jewish people. Jewish passion has no value if it means the abroga­tion of reason, autonomy, and self-esteem.

A movement built around a cult of per­sonality needs a personality. It may be that the dead rebbe will serve that purpose. But that has not been the Hasidic tradition. Schneerson designated no heir. Internal bickering has now resulted in major confrontations. The danger of splits is real. If no new charismatic rebbe shows up, can the movement hold together? Ironically, the strong point of the Lubavitchers, their reverence for their leader, is also their weak point.

This whole fiasco underlines a dichotomy in contemporary Jewish life. Humanistic Ju­daism looks at the Jewish experience and ar­rives at totally different conclusions from those of the Lubavitchers. They see messiahs; we find the need for self-reliance. They see divine determination; we find human determination. Our style may not be as dramatic, our songs may not be as lively, but our message is a lot healthier. Messiahs always have been an enor­mous disappointment. “Jews for the Rebbe” are, after all, in the same delusionary world as Jews for Jesus.

The Outlook for Peace in the Middle East

Humanistic Judaism journal, “What Does it Mean to be Jewish” Winter 1995

Can Israel make peace with her Arab neighbors? That question has been plaguing the Jewish people and many other nations for forty-seven years, ever since the establishment of the state of Israel.

In 1967, the Egyptian ruler Gamal Abdul Nasser tried to mobilize the Arab nations to crush Israel and failed. Twelve years later the first breakthrough occurred. Egypt, under the leadership of Anwar Sadat, the successor to Nasser, made peace with Israel. But no one else did. Sadat was assassinated. Terrorism contin­ued. War followed in Lebanon. And the fanati­cism of Muslim fundamentalism invaded the Arab world with a fury far worse than any that Nasser invented.

Peace was impossible so long as the Cold War continued. So long as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for allies in the Middle East, confrontation was inevitable, and weapons poured into the region, encour­aging warlike posturing. But, to everyone’s surprise, Communism fell like a house of sticks. The Cold War ended with more of a whimper than a bang. The Arab world was left without Soviet support. Hating America became impractical. Tolerating Israel became a possibility.

The last bastion of pan-Arab nationalism was Iraq. In an action that defied reason, that nation’s leader, Saddam Hussein, attacked Kuwait, part of the oil empire of the United States. The Gulf War ensued. Iraq was crushed and humiliated. Jordan and the Palestine Lib­eration Organization (PLO), which supported Hussein, also were losers. Jordan lost its American support. The PLO lost its Arab sup­port. Both were ready for peace. The question was: Which would take the first step?

The PLO took the first step. It was bank­rupt, down and out, and bereft of real allies. It was weakened by civil war and defection. Above all, it was confronted by a formidable Palestinian opposition in the form of Hamas. Hamas was the child of Muslim fundamental­ism and the Intifada. It hated Israel. It hated America. But it hated PLO chairman Yasser Arafat with an equal passion. Suddenly the old political principle that the enemy of my en­emy is my friend worked its wonders. Arafat and Israel shared a common enemy. And so they became reluctant “friends.” In Septem­ber 1993, the famous handshake took place. Israeli doves were euphoric. Israeli hawks were depressed. Most Palestinians, desperate for good news, were happy. Fundamentalist Pal­estinians were angry.

The PLO’s action allowed Jordan to take the next step. There were too many Palestin­ians in Jordan to allow King Hussein of Jordan to do what he had wanted to do ever since he became king: to initiate peace with Israel. But now that Arafat, the official leader of the Pal­estinians, had made peace, it was easy for Hussein to shake Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s hand, too. In September 1994, peace broke out between Israel and Jordan. The fundamentalists growled again. But they were powerless to prevent the second handshake.

While many Israelis were apprehensive about making peace with Arafat, most Israelis were wildly enthusiastic about making peace with Jordan. After all, the agendas of the PLO and Jordan do not coincide. They both want the same thing. They both want the West Bank. They both want control over East Jerusalem. They both want to win the support and loy­alty of the Palestinians in Jordan. While they both share a fear of the Muslim fundamental­ists, they share very little else.

Most Israelis like King Hussein. They see him as a sincere supporter of the right of the state of Israel to exist. They see him as the long­time persecutor of the PLO, which he expelled from Jordan in 1970. They see him as a politi­cal alternative to Arafat.

Arafat is very worried. He is squeezed be­tween Israel and Jordan. He knows that Hussein hates his guts. He knows that if Israel and Hussein could get together, they would leave him and the PLO out in the cold. He knows that, in a pinch, he has very few allies in the Arab world.

But Hussein needs to move cautiously. He has thousands of fanatical fundamenta­lists in his country. His population is mainly a refugee West Bank population. He has many enemies who want to overthrow him. His throne is insecure. He relies mainly on the soldiers of his Bedouin army. A betrayal of Arafat would not win him any moderate Arab friends. His survival as the King of Jor­dan has depended on his unwillingness to take any real political risks. The one time he did, by supporting Saddam in Iraq, he suffered bit­ter consequences.

For years King Hussein worried about Syria. President Hafez al-Assad of Syria cov­eted Jordan and Lebanon. He saw himself as the ruler of a Greater Syria, which would in­clude the Palestinians. Assad won the military and political support of the Soviet Union. He offered asylum to Palestinian terrorists and aided them in their ruthless work. He defied

America and the rest of the Arab world. Jor­dan was afraid to make peace with Israel be­fore Syria did.

When the Cold War ended, Syria was left high and dry. Her chief enemy and Arab rival, Iraq, loomed as more and more menacing. Her option to play one great power against the other vanished. Her only radical support came from Shiite Iran, whose fundament­alist rulers despised the secular nationalism Assad championed.

When the Gulf War erupted, Syria repu­diated all her old propaganda by joining the Americans and Israelis as allies against Iraq. By the time the war was over, Syria was ready to talk peace with Israel. Urged on by U.S. Sec­retary of State Jim Baker, she entered into ne­gotiations. The handshake of Rabin and Arafat came as a cruel surprise. Assad wanted no Pal­estinian state. He wanted the Golan back. And he was prepared to sell out the Palestinians to achieve his goal.

Peace with Arafat made it less necessary for Israel to make peace with Syria. The hos­tility of fundamentalists in Syrian-controlled Lebanon was quite manageable so long as the Intifada was extinguished. And peace with Jordan made a rapprochement with Syria even less necessary. Israel had imagined that King Hussein was too cautious to make peace un­less the Syrians did it first. When Hussein grew tired of waiting for Syria (because he was afraid that waiting would allow Arafat to take every­thing Hussein wanted), Assad was furious. Is­rael no longer urgently needed Syrian coop­eration. Israel had Jordan and a friendly eastern border. Finding a solution to the dilemma of the Golan Heights could be shifted to the back burner.

The importance of Jordan to Israel has in­creased with the events of the past few months. The power of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank is growing. Arafat’s control of the Pales­tinians is slipping. Can Israel afford to turn over the West Bank to a Palestinian popula­tion dominated by Hamas terror? Can she leave the Jewish settlements to be protected against Hamas aggressiveness by reluctant PLO police? Most Israelis no longer believe that Arafat is either intimidating enough or necessary. The message of the Likud opposition to the Labor party’s peace policy is to suggest that Arafat be abandoned, the West Bank be retained, and the protection of Palestinian rights be shifted to Hussein. And Hussein does not seem averse to assuming that role.

Peace with Jordan has become more im­portant to Israel than peace with Arafat. It means that Syria can wait for concessions. It means that Arafat may never get what he was promised. It means that what Labor accom­plished — peace with Jordan — may work to the Likud’s advantage.

History features cruel ironies. Peace with Jordan would not have been possible without peace with Arafat first. Rabin stuck his neck out when he stuck his hand out to meet the hand of Arafat. Now he is burdened with Arafat. And Hussein can just as easily shake the hand of Likud as shake the hand of Rabin.

Tu Bi-Shevat, Earth Day, and Environmentalism

Humanistic Judaism journal, “Tu bi-Shevat” Winter 1993

Jews and Canaanites were at one time the same people. They lived in the same land. They spoke the same language. They worshiped the same gods. Even when the Jews became attached to the cult of Yahveh and abandoned all the other gods, many elements of the old religion remained.

One of the old gods was the goddess Asherah. She was a farmer’s god, a deity of fertility. She made crops grow. Her male counterpart was Baal, lord of life and rain. Baal-worship featured phallic pillars erected on high hills. Asherah-worship featured trees — sacred trees that grew in temple compounds. The chief festival of Asherah followed immediately upon the completion of the rainy season, when the sap in the trees rose to its fullness.

The festival of Asherah fell near the end of winter. When the moon calendar be­came dominant, it found its place on either the new moon or the full moon of the month of Shevat. The ritual of the day was dramatic. Sacred trees were worshiped. Sacred dances were danced around the sacred trees. Fruit and nuts, the offspring of trees, were eaten in this celebration of fertility. Apples, almonds, and carob, the gifts of the goddess, were eagerly de­voured. As a turning point in the seasonal cycle, the beginning of the dry season became a demarcation point between the old year and the new year. Like the Druids (the priestesses of the Kelts), the priest­esses of Asherah made the “fullness” of the trees an opportunity to dramatize the power of life and its divine connection.

Although the worship of Asherah disap­peared from Jewish life, the festival of Asherah has not. It survives as Tu Bi- Shevat (Hamisha Asar Bi-Shevat). Like most Jewish holidays it has a non-Yahvistic origin; and, like most Jewish holidays, it has been integrated into the Yahveh cult. I suspect that, because of its powerful con­nection to the Asherah cult, both priests and rabbis tried to eliminate it. They did succeed in reducing it to a minor holiday. But the power of folk attachment rescued it. The people were not prepared to give up what they deemed indispensable. And the authorities were forced to yield to their attachment.

In the rabbinic tradition, Tu Bi-Shevat emerged as one of four new years. Nissan 1 (April) is the new year of the counting of the months and the reigns of kings. Elul 1 (August-September) is the new year of tithing cattle. Tishri 1 (September-October) is the new year of divine judgment (Rosh Hashana). And Shevat 1 (January-February) is the new year of the trees. While Rosh Hashana is dominant, the other new years remain as minor holidays. The New Year of the Trees features the eating of fruits and nuts, the recitation of special readings from the Bible about trees and nature, and the creation of devotional poems.

The urban world of the Diaspora, far from Palestine and far from the agricultural cycle of its seasons, was hardly supportive of a nature holiday with which the rabbis were uncomfortable. But, in the twentieth century, the Zionist movement breathed new life into it. The Zionists loved a Jewish holiday that could be identified with the reclamation of the land. The land needed trees, and Tu Bi-Shevat was about trees. The holiday became a Zionist “Earth Day,“ when trees were planted as a dramatic symbol of the Zionist commitment to res­toration and rebuilding. The Jewish Na­tional Fund replaced Asherah. Little blue collection boxes reminded us of Palestine and the Zionist mission. Planting trees became a Jewish obsession. Israel and conservation made a happy marriage.

Zionism revived Tu Bi-Shevat. But its passion was divided after 1948 between this winter holiday and the more dramatic Israel Independence Day. In the end pa­rades won out over trees. As for the Diaspora, the holiday was ill-suited to Jews living intemperate climates. Planting trees in the snow seemed a bit odd. And Israel was far away.

At the end of the 1960s the true substi­tute for Asherah arrived on the scene. The environmental movement, with all its ro­mantic passion, made its debut. It was the ideal movement for the educated children of the middle class. No longer concerned with the struggle for survival, they now turned to issues of happiness and quality of life. Safe, clean, and beautiful environ­ments suited the tastes of a rising leisure class. And the rigorous demands of an environmentalist discipline, from recycling to detergent control, appealed to a permis­sive generation that could no longer find its moral structure in the old religion.

Environmentalism became a new “reli­gion” for many young people. By the 1980s it was the most important issue for the youth generation. After the demise of socialism and the New Left, it had no rivals. Nature had won out over revolu­tion. Earth Day triumphed over May Day. Pollution, rather than capitalism, became the ultimate enemy. Schmutz took on the evil face of exploitation.

With the arrival of Earth Day as an environmentalist celebration, Tu Bi-Shevat developed real possibilities for the Diaspora. A Jewish holiday attached to trees seemed a perfect connection between Judaism and youthful idealism. Gradually Tu Bi-Shevat moved out of the narrow Zionist world into the broader sphere of universal values. An ethical idealism that touched every inch of the planet embraced the holiday and gave it a powerful significance that it had not enjoyed since the heyday of Asherah.

Tu Bi-Shevat, as the Jewish Earth Day, has enormous potential. It can mobilize Jewish people to fight pollution and to resist the forces that destroy the beauty of our environment. It can also reinforce Jewish identity by marrying a Jewish holi­day to an overwhelmingly important social concern. The discipline of keeping the environment clean is almost as satisfying as kashrut, especially if it is done with Hebrew words.

But the Earth Day theme can be danger­ous, especially if environmentalism is con­fused with the currently fashionable nature mysticism. Historic environmentalism is rational. Nature mysticism is irrational.

What is nature mysticism?

It is the worship of nature, as though nature were a goddess like Asherah. Asherah’s modern name is Gaia, and Gaia-worship is growing.

Rational environmentalism does not worship nature. It seeks to control it. It strives to use human ingenuity to make the world safer, cleaner, and more beautiful for human beings. It is not the enemy of science and technology. It knows that it needs science and technology to do what it has to do. Cleaning up the environment requires more scientific know-how than making it dirty.

Rational environmentalism avoids the three irrational premises of nature mysti­cism:

“Nature is a harmonious whole.”

Nature mystics imagine that life has a single agenda. All of life is a single organic whole. It is like a single giant organism that covers the surface of the planet. The name of this giant organism is Gaia. Gaia has an unconscious intelligence or mind. This unconscious intelligence has a pur­pose. This purpose is the purpose of life.

But is it true that the fish and the fisherman have one purpose? Is it the secret dream of every little fish to end up as fried fish on a human dinner table? Is it the unconscious intention of every fisher­man to avoid catching any fish? What is their shared agenda? Gaia means coopera­tion. And very often two living species — or two living individuals — cooperate. But they also compete. A world of competition means many agendas, not one. That is the story of life’s evolution. That is the story of natural selection. There are as many Gaias as there are living creatures striving to survive. And none of them is a goddess.

The agenda of cancer cells is not the agenda of the people they invade. The agenda of viruses is not the agenda of the victims they infect. The agenda of the species may not be the agenda of the individual member of the species. The agenda of human survival may not be the agenda of human happiness. Floods may be wonderful for fish, but they tend to be disastrous for people. Disease is marvelous for population control, but it does not do very much for the quality of life. The harmony of nature is an illusion.

“Everything natural is good.”

Nature mystics maintain that whatever nature produces is good, even if we cannot figure out why it is good. If nature pro­duces a phallic foreskin, it should not be cut off. If nature’s lightning starts a forest fire, it should not be put out. If nature’s evolution produces a living species, it should not be exterminated. Nature is sacred, just as Asherah was sacred. When we interfere with nature, we incur the “wrath of the gods.”

But not everything natural is good. Moral good relates to the human agenda, to what is good for the satisfaction of human needs. Neither the evolution of the universe nor the evolution of life is concerned about human happiness. They are not even con­cerned with the pleasure and survival of other living beings. Natural selection is a blind and grim force. Most of its inventions are useless mutations. The fact that human beings did not invent them does not mean that they are good.

If we want to save baby seals, it is not because they are “good.” Human beings are “turned on” by other animals that look like them, can suffer like them, and appear beautiful in their eyes. Cockroaches do not qualify. They do not “turn us on,” and we squish them mercilessly. The choice is quite arbitrary. But I have known many cockroach squishers who are very good environmentalists.

Revering all of nature makes no more sense than worshiping Asherah or Yahveh or Gaia. Understanding nature makes a lot more sense than worshiping it.

“Everything humans make is artificial.”

Nature mystics maintain that deliberate human creations are not natural and are, therefore, inferior to what is natural. Cities are inferior to wilderness. Modern medi­cine is inferior to herbs. Living with hu­man artifacts is inferior to living with what grows. Humans are the inventors of the unnatural, alien invaders and intruders into the realm of nature.

But human beings are not outside of nature. They are part of nature’s evolution. And what they create is not outside of nature. It is an expression of natural power. Robins make nests. Beavers make dams. And people build cities. Cities are no less natural than nests or dams. They are made from the materials that nature provides. Quite simply, everything that exists is nature. And everything that happens is natural. When people farm, that is natural. When people heal, that is natural. When people erect buildings, that is natural. Sometimes cities are better for people than poisonous swamps. Sometimes medicines made from factory chemicals are better than medicines made from plant chemi­cals. Sometimes living with cats may be more dangerous than living with couches.

As you can see, nature mysticism de­tracts from a rational environmentalism. But it is not the only ideological danger. It shares this distinction with Pollyanna mysticism.

What is Pollyanna mysticism?

Pollyanna mysticism is the cult of eter­nal optimism, the worship of “progress.” It is just as irrational as nature mysticism. Here are two of its irrational premises:

“There are fewer environmental dangers than we imagine.”

Pollyanna mystics practice a lot of de­nial. They prefer to be optimistic. They resist voices of doom. They are suspicious of anybody who predicts natural catastro­phes. The Religious Right believes that the ozone threat is an illusion, a dangerous illusion invented by atheists to subvert American industry and the Christian work ethic. They said so at an evangelical meet­ing held just after the Republican Conven­tion in August. Pollyanna mystics believe that nuclear power is perfectly safe, that the disaster at Chernobyl has been exagger­ated. A major potential source of industrial power and human enhancement (they say) is being destroyed by environmental fanat­ics, who have become a new “clergy,” eager to regulate the lives of conscientious entrepreneurs and to undermine techno­logical and human progress. Pollyanna mystics have found their counter-scien­tists — men and women who battle with the scientific establishment and press their own counter-statistics.

But the environmental dangers they deride stare us in the face. The tobacco industry can maintain that the connection between smoking and lung cancer is still uncertain. Yet the evidence for that con­nection is overwhelming. The spray com­panies can maintain that ozone blight is an illusion. But the rise in the evidence of skin cancer has a compelling relationship to the increasing presence of harmful radiation. The nuclear power industry can maintain that the Chernobyl disaster is only a propa­ganda triumph. Yet the distressing statis­tics from the Ukraine and Belarus are stark reminders of disaster.

“Environmentalism stands in the way of human advancement.”

Pollyanna mystics believe that environ­mentalism means excessive regulation, that excessive regulation means big govern­ment, and that big government means the disappearance of ambition and invention. The government, they say, is now choos­ing to defend strange birds and even stranger fish against the legitimate demands of thousands of Americans for jobs. It stands as a barrier to economic development.

There is some truth to this accusation. But not a lot. It may be true that trying to preserve every rare species simply kills necessary jobs and does little or nothing to preserve the beauty and health of the environment. It also may be true that mem­bers of the prosperous middle class now want the wilderness for their playground and, having “made it” themselves, do not care whether the people below them have a chance to make it too. But the most im­portant truth is that enormous progress has been made in recent years in the Western world to clean up and beautify the environ­ment. Pollution has declined. Conserva­tion has been enhanced. Personal habits and discipline have altered for the better. Lakes, rivers, and urban settings that were unusable and dangerous have been ren­dered fit for human pleasure. Many human lives have been saved. And many more will be saved. And that is progress. The pollution hell created by overzealous in­dustrialization in Eastern Europe is not human advancement. If you cannot breathe, having a job is meaningless.

Jewish Earth Day is a wonderful time to celebrate our commitment to a rational environmentalism. We do not want to be either nature mystics or Pollyanna mys­tics. We do not want to worship either nature or technological progress. We just want to celebrate the power we have to create a healthier and more beautiful world to live in.

Tu Bi-Shevat does not need either Asherah or Gaia. It has the dream of human happiness

Forty Years Later: A Retrospective

Humanistic Judaism journal, “Transforming Judaism- Winter 2004”

 

Forty years ago, in the summer of 1963, eight families and I organized a new congre­gation in suburban Detroit. The suburb was Birmingham, and so our congregation was named the Birmingham Temple. Ten months later the Temple family collectively aban­doned God-language — and Humanistic Ju­daism was born.

Until that moment most Jews who had given up on God did not organize congrega­tions, accept rabbis as their philosophic lead­ers, and turn secularism into an organization. But the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism did. Was this a ludicrous contradic­tion, or was it the beginning of a viable answer for secular Jews who wanted to remain Jewish?

Well, the Birmingham Temple and Hu­manistic Judaism are now forty years old. They have confronted the traumas of the six­ties, the compromises of the seventies, the ambivalence of the eighties and the nineties. They have witnessed the black revolution, the feminist revolution, the youth revolution, and the sex revolution. They have seen Israel wax and wane. They have lived through antisemitism diminishing and returning. They have even glimpsed the beginning of a glo­balized world.

Along the way, many formidable chal­lenges appeared. There was the challenge of intermarriage, with its painful confrontation between love and ethnic survival. There was the challenge of New Age religion, with its attractive combination of radical freedom and mystical experience. There was the challenge of creativity: inventing new formats and pro­grams for a Judaism that had never existed before. There was the challenge of liberal Jews who feared the accusation of atheism more than that of hypocrisy. There was the ongoing hostility from the general Jewish community to what was perceived as a provocation be­yond the parameters of acceptable deviation.

What have we learned over the past forty years? What has our confrontation with these challenges taught us?

  1. We have learned that it is better to be a believer than a nonbeliever. Not believ­ing in God is no guide to life. It is a nega­tive assertion that offers only the pleasure of defiance. We Humanistic Jews are be­lievers. We believe in the power of people to change the world for the better. We be­lieve in the right of every individual to be the master of his or her own life. We believe in the adventure of reason as the best way to pursue the truth. On the foun­dation of our positive beliefs, a powerful philosophy of life can be built.
  2. We learned that “telling it the way it is” is better than confusing ambiguity. Had we chosen to follow the Reconstructionist lead and redefine God as meaning what it does not mean — in order to play it safe or to preserve the illusion of ideological continuity — we would have ended up praying to unconscious powers that can­not hear our prayers. Acts of worship do not promote an awareness of what it means to be a Humanistic Jew. Only a more radical step could establish the basis for a humanistic lifestyle. Living without magic power means abandoning God-language. It means saying “human power” when you mean “human power.” Hiding behind old words only hides the message. The strength of our message lies in its boldness.
  3. We learned that it is important never to be a watered-down version of a more power­ful Judaism. When you make the Torah the center of Judaism, you hand legitimacy over to the Orthodox. Only they take the Torah and its lifestyle seriously. In contrast, Conservatism and Reform and Reconstruc­tionism — which continue to maintain the centrality of the Torah — are generally viewed as watered-down versions of the original. Humanistic Judaism does not start with the Torah. It starts with the Jewish people and their historic experience — not the mythical experience of Torah and Talmud writers but the real experience depicted by archeology and modern his­torians. The lessons of Jewish history — especially the need for self-reliance — are the foundation of Humanistic Judaism.
  4. We learned that there is no substitute for addressing the personal agenda of every individual Jew. Jews are not only Jews. They are individual human beings strug­gling to find happiness in a stressful world. The old Jewish secularism ad­dressed itself primarily to Jewish nation­alism and Jewish culture. Preserving Jewish identity and the Jewish people was its primary focus. In its revolutionary ex­pression it addressed itself to humanity as a whole but rarely to the individual as an individual. Of course, nationalism was a refreshing change from the tyranny of the old religion. But it was never enough. The strength of Humanistic Judaism is that it addresses the human condition in which all individuals find themselves. Talking about Jewish survival is important and necessary. But it needs to be balanced with a concern for personal happiness and per­sonal dignity. The life of courage is Jew­ish — and more than Jewish.
  5. We learned that, in many cases, there are no precedents from the Jewish past that can help us. Modern Europe and America have given the Jews, for the first time, the opportunities of a free and open society. Individuals are free to make their own choices about work, marriage, leisure, sex, religion, and politics. Individual freedom undermines the social solidarity that tra­ditional societies foster. The message of the past is to reject individual freedom and insist on group conformity. But, in a free world of growing intermarriage, it seems heartless to give love no place in the ethical equation. Do individuals al­ways sacrifice themselves for their ances­tral groups? Or do ancestral groups need to change and be more open? Humanis­tic Jews have chosen to answer these ques­tions differently than in the past. We are the champions of personal dignity and the open society.
  6. Finally, we have learned to be optimistic. Optimism is not a passive reflection of current conditions. It is not merely an objective assessment of the obstacles we face in life. If that is what it is, we would not have survived or grown during the past forty years. Optimism is, above all, a choice: a refusal to surrender to despair, a refusal to interpret ambiguous evidence negatively. In the face of overwhelming odds we have chosen “to preach our mes­sage” to the Jewish world. The evidence of recent surveys of the Jewish commu­nity in North America, dramatizing the existence of huge numbers of self-­identified unaffiliated secular Jews, rein­forces our choice. We have every reason to be hopeful about our future — not only because the polls are friendly but also be­cause our determination is firm.

A Humanistic View of Sukkot

Sukkot, Summer 1990

The Jewish calendar features three seasonal holidays, which are grand celebrations stretching over a week or eight days.

The autumn gives us Sukkot. The winter presents Hanukka. And the spring delivers Pesakh. Tied to the agricultural year, these are the splendid old festivals of our Hebrew roots.

Sukkot was the major celebration during the era of the royal House of David. Rosh Hashana was its climactic last day and Yom Kippur was a preceding day of preparation. Lying between the summer harvest and the rainy season, Sukkot featured both satisfaction with the past and anxiety over the future. The parade with the palm branches and citrons —with its passionate cry of “Hoshana” (“save us”) — provided the pageantry and the magic. Hopefully, Yahveh (or whatever god was in fashion) would respond to this appeal with the gift of rain.

In the priestly period — when the Torah was completed — Sukkot was transformed. Yielding to Pesakh as the chief holiday, Sukkot also developed an Exodus theme. Although it was essentially an agricultural festival, Sukkot was now tied to the legendary forty years of Jewish wandering in the desert. The decorative harvest booths (sukkot) that gave the holiday its name and that were initially used by harvesters for rest during the midday sun — were now bizarrely described as the housing of the Hebrew nomads wending their way from Egypt to Canaan.

This distortion fit into the demands of priestly theology. The Exodus story in the Torah was the ultimate tribute to Yahvistic power and divine providence. All holidays were ripped from their original contexts by the priestly editors and given an Exodus setting. If they did not commemorate any events, at least their place of origin became Mt. Sinai.

In rabbinic Judaism, Sukkot suffered from two problems. The first was the proximity of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur,

which overshadowed it. The second was the urbanization of the Jew, which diminished the importance of a rain festival.

While Sukkot remained a major holiday, it lacked its former emotional clout. Ultimately, it was rescued by tying it to the

Torah. The last day of the festival was chosen for the end and the beginning of the annual cycle of Torah readings. Renamed Simhat Torah, the celebration provided attachments more relevant than agricultural memories.

With the coming of the secular age and the Industrial Revolution, Sukkot fell on hard times. Metropolitan Jews found an

agricultural celebration to be slightly quaint. And there was no grand idea or striking historical event to give it dramatic

shape. Ultimately, only the Zionists in their new agricultural settlements in Israel were able to rescue it.

From a humanistic point of view, Sukkot has special significance. Agriculture was the beginning of human civilization,

a quantum jump in the human mastery of the environment. The emergence of farming some ten thousand years ago revolutionized human existence. Territorial settlements, cities, population growth, surplus wealth, and written language followed quite naturally from this technological success. It lay the foundation for the human self-confidence that led to the secular age.

Farming is not, as many misguided urban nature lovers imagine, a manifestation of being close to nature and loving

its generosity. It began as the painful struggle against the hostility of swampy river valleys and waterless plateaus. Human ingenuity transformed the inhospitable wilderness into the tailored countryside that we find so pleasing and that we so often call “nature.” Parks and farmland and wilderness trails are human creations that shield us from the brutal reality of our evolutionary past.

But farming is only one of many steps in the cultural unfolding of human talent. The taming of wild animals and the breeding of “meat” is another. The invention of the crafts and the manufacture of technological assistants is still another.

And the transformation of fortresses into cities of trade and production is yet another.

Theology may seek to turn Sukkot into a tribute to divine providence. But experience teaches us that if tributes are to be

paid, they should be paid to the millions of unsung experimenters and inventors who struggled to make the earth yield a

decent living.

Jewish history is a living testimony to human ingenuity in the face of overwhelming odds. The same intelligence that made agriculture possible made cities and urban living possible. City existence is not the “artificial” antithesis of “close to nature” farm life. Villages and farms are just as artificial. Neither context, fortunately, resembles the primeval muck that our hunting ancestors struggled to endure.

An imaginative and humanistic use of Sukkot would avoid making invidious comparisons between the pure and divine

harvests of agricultural life and the sullied “harvests” of manufactured goods and services that modern urban existence provides. Both farming and industrial technology are expressions of the human will to change and to improve what is

not satisfactory. The breeding of juicy oranges is no less scientific and intrusive than the invention of computers.

A humanistic Sukkot is a tribute to human culture, agricultural, pastoral, and urban. There are many “harvests,” all

human, all “artificial,” all significant. The spaceship is the natural brother of the plow.

The early entry of the Jew into urban life, as part of the Jewish survival saga, is not alien to the mood of Sukkot. It is an expression of the same human ingenuity that cultivates the lulav and the etrog.

Meditations for Sukkot

CREATIVITY

Nature has two feces. Like an indulgent mother, it may smile protectively while caressing us with warmth and light. Or, like some cruel tyrant, it may laugh at our suffering, devouring our life in devilish upheavals and tempests. Human survival is no product of a benign world. It is the perpetual struggle of humanity with a universe that is often less than friendly. If autumn, as the season of harvest, suggests the scenic beauty of the rural countryside, it also announces the triumph of human ingenuity over die rocks and swamps and the unkempt wildness of empty fields. Farming is no passive art in which pastoral angels effortlessly pluck the fruits of life. History has made it a hard and taxing profession, by which human intelligence turns disaster into hope. Without the creative planning of human decision, there would be no harvest. As the frail sukka booth defies the winds of autumn and stands firm, so do creative farmers resist nature’s hostility and, by their wits, survive.

LIFE

The spirit of Sukkot goes beyond the harvest. Wherever human beings have tamed the primitive landscape of nature’s face and turned it to the useful business of human pleasure, this holiday finds a congenial home. Wherever the creative talent of human thought has rescued the natural elements from moral indifference and put them to work to make people less afraid, this festival can be comfortably celebrated. The technical marvel of the modem city is no emotional stranger to the harvest season. It shares with the ancient farmer a persistent wish. In the golden barley fields of biblical Israel, as well as in the concrete vertical thrust of the new Manhattan, the human determination to live finds its expression.

LOVE

Thanksgiving and gratitude are natural to this season. No person alone can subdue nature to human needs. Without the bonds of human love and cooperation, intelligence is useless. Our need for other people, our leaning on the efforts of other men and women, makes the claim of total self-sufficiency a pretense. Where people will not work together, there are no harvests. Where the ordered ties of human society are absent, there are no cities. Mutual dependence demands mutual gratitude. If we know that we need each other, thankful feelings arise.

PROCESSION

Our ancestors matched the splendor of the harvest with the magnificence of their celebration. They seized the luscious fruits of their labor and paraded them in song-filled processions. Branches of the stately date palm and the fragrant citrons of perfumed orchards filled their hands. They did not hide the joy of their success behind solemn prayers but danced out the pleasure of their victory for life.

— Sherwin T. Wine

(adapted from Celebrations)

The Real Story of Passover

A Passover Manual

Passover and the Exodus go together.

Tradition tells us that Pesakh is the commemoration of the departure of two million Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage. Led by Moses, an adopted prince of the Egyptian royal household, the Hebrews left Egypt with the help of Yahveh, their ancestral god, and began their 40-year trek back to their ancestral home in Canaan. On the way they stopped at a mountain called Sinai where Yahveh gave them the laws of the Torah, including the regulations for Passover. In these regulations Pesakh becomes the annual official reminder of what Yahveh did for the Jews when he rescued them from Egyptian slavery.

The embellished story of the Exodus really has eight parts.

1. The patriarch Jacob, the ancestor of the Jews, comes down to Egypt with his family to avoid the famine in Canaan.

2. For a period of time the Hebrews prosper and one of Jacob’s sons becomes the prime minister to Pharaoh, king of Egypt.

3. A new king comes to power, turns against the Jews and enslaves them. The slavery lasts for 400 years.

4. Moses, who is a Hebrew and also a prince of Egypt, is commissioned by Yahveh to rescue his people. Assisted by supernatural intervention, Moses intimidates Pharaoh into releasing the Jews from bondage.

5. At the full moon of the month of Nissan, the Hebrews, two million strong, leave Egypt for Canaan by way of the Red Sea and the Sinai Desert.

6. Within 50 days, they arrive at Sinai, the mountain of Yahveh, where they receive the laws of the Torah.

7. After one year, the Jews depart Sinai and wander for 40 years in the wilderness before arriving on the east bank of the river Jordan across from Canaan.

8. Moses dies and is succeeded by Joshua. Joshua leads the Hebrews across the Jordan, invades Canaan and conquers it.

For most of Jewish history this saga was assumed to be absolutely true. Confirmed by faith and tradition, it remained unchallenged. The miraculous rescue of the Jews from their Egyptian oppressors became part of Jewish piety and Jewish patriotism.

But, in modern times, the story became less credible. Historical research, the scientific critique of the Bible, archeology, anthropology and the declining belief in the supernatural — all of these together offered a serious challenge to the tale of the Haggadah.

Many problems emerged:

• There is no corroborating testimony from any historical document or inscription contemporary to this momentous event. Certainly, the extraordinary nature of this Exodus would have aroused the notice of neighboring nations.

• Even if we discount supernatural intervention, the possibility of two million densely packed nomads surviving in the wilderness for 40 years defies imagination.

• The idea that all the Hebrew slaves were descended from a single man called Jacob (Israel) seems as probable as the assertion that all Americans are descended from Uncle Sam.

• Passover has two names in the Torah, each name referring to a distinct holiday. Pesakh seems to be a shepherd holiday, with the sacrifice of lambs. Matsot seems to be a farmers’ holiday, with the eating of unleavened bread. It appears that one holiday was made out of two.

• The exodus of the Jews from Egypt most likely occurred during the reign of Raamses II around 1200 B.C. but the Hebrew invasion of Canaan (dated from the fall of Jericho) occurred 300 years earlier. Joshua seems to have preceded Moses.

In the face of these problems, scientifically-minded experts have revised the traditional story to make it conform to the facts as we now see them. Each of the eight parts of the saga has been radically changed.

Patriarchs

Neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob were real people. Each of them is a personification, a symbol of a group of Semitic tribes who lived in the Palestine area and who became the ancestors of the Jewish people. The Abraham group is associated with Hebron, the Isaac group with Beersheba, the Jacob group with Bethel. Each of these groups went down into Egypt as conquerors, as part of a continuous Semitic invasion of that country (2000 – 1700 B.C.). The Egyptians called the invaders the Hyksos and viewed them with fear and detestation. For several centuries the rulers of Egypt were Semites (witness the Joseph story).

The Semitic invaders belonged to the Western or Amorite branch of the Semitic people. The Amorite language became the source of both Canaanite and Hebrew.

Egypt

The Semitic shepherd rulers of Egypt were a small minority in a sea of conquered Egyptians. Most of them remained in northern Egypt while Egyptian patriots fled south to organize rebellion. The Semitic life style was very different from that of the Egyptians. Hairy, meat-eating and wool-wearing, the Semites rubbed against the sensibilities of the conquered nation. A Semitic Pharaoh seemed an affront to the traditionalists among the masses.

Enslavement

Around 1500 B.C. Egyptian rebels from the south invaded the north and decisively defeated their Semitic overlords. The military leaders of this rebellion established the famous Eighteenth Dynasty, under whose guidance Egypt reached the height of its power and glory. Four Amenhoteps and a female Pharaoh called Hatshepsut added luster to the dynastic saga. During this time most of the Semites were driven from Egypt. Some were enslaved. Many of the expelled Semites returned to Palestine and the east bank of the river Jordan, where they were reunited with their brother tribes who had never gone down to Egypt. Their Canaanite neighbors called them Hebrews (people who live across the river).

In time the new overcrowding of the east bank, combined with drought and famine, forced the Hebrews to take drastic action. Combining the tribes into a single nation for military purposes, they prepared to invade the more fertile west bank of the Jordan. Having called this new federation Israel (champions of the god El) they crossed the river under the leadership of Joshua, the chosen commander-in-chief of the operation. The conquest of the west bank was slow and often ineffective.

Hebrews and Canaanites lived side by side.

The Amorites (Hebrews) who remained in Egypt as slaves remained in the northern areas, where they worked on the construction of border fortifications. One of their tribes, the tribe of Levi, worshipped a snake god called Nahash and became famous for their supernatural powers.

Exodus

The Nineteenth Dynasty (which obviously followed the Eighteenth) continued the enslavement of the Amorites. Its most famous king, Raamses II, used them to construct fortified cities in northern Egypt as protection from eastern invaders.

At the end of his reign a slave revolt (of which there were many) enabled many of these Amorites to flee into the nearby Sinai wilderness beyond the frontier. The leader of this rebellion was Moses, a member of the tribe of Levi, who, like many of the Semitic slaves, bore an Egyptianized name. (Given the abhorrence of the Egyptians for the Semites it is highly unlikely that he was raised as an Egyptian prince. Nor was he, as Freud speculated, an Egyptian monotheist. He was most likely a Levitical priest — a devotee of the tribal snake god, whose symbol he carried around with him.)

The number of future Hebrews who departed Egypt at this time could not have exceeded ten thousand. The very nature of the Sinai wilderness would preclude the horde of slaves the Torah describes. In an almost waterless desert, survival for such a mass of people would have been impossible.

The escape from Egypt of a few thousand Semitic slaves required no miraculous intervention. It was a common occurrence.

Flight

The story of the crossing of the Red Sea is equally mythical. Only a priestly scribe interested in propagandizing the power of the Jewish god Yahveh, would have imagined such a tale. Given all the alternative routes available to the fleeing slaves, heading for the Red Sea would have been an act of insanity.

Sinai

The Semitic refugees headed for a volcanic mountain in the territory of the Kenites, among whom Moses had once stayed and with whom he had contracted a marriage alliance. In the Torah, the mountain bears two names: Horeb and Sinai. At this mountain a federation of tribes was established under the leadership of Moses. The new nation was called Judah, after its largest tribe. Yahveh, the god of the mountain, was chosen to be the protector god of the new confederation.

Given the illiteracy of the Jews, it is highly unlikely that written laws were given to them at Sinai. Most of the legislation of the Torah, including the Ten Commandments, comes from later centuries.

Wilderness

For many decades the Jews lingered on the edges of the southern borders of Canaan. Population pressures from other Semitic groups coming from the south — Amalekites, Midranites and Edomites — made a comfortable stay around the oasis of Kadeshbarnea impossible. They had to move. And the only direction in which they could move was north into Canaan.

Invasion

Under the leadership of the Levites, the tribe of Moses, the Jews invaded southern Canaan around 1150 B.C. (some 350 years after the northern Hebrew invasion under Joshua). They conquered Hebron and Beersheba, the old shrine centers of the Abraham and Isaac groups, and gave their name (Judah) to the land which they had taken.

For many years Israelis and Jews remained distinct peoples — with different dialects of the same Amorite language — until they were united into one kingdom under the leadership of Saul a century later.

The Egyptian memories of both peoples were also distinct. The Israelis remembered conquest of Egypt. The Jews remembered slavery in Egypt.

In the long run, the Jews alone survived as an independent self-aware nation. Around the year 620 B.C. one of their kings named Josiah, having completed the conquest of northern Israel, commissioned a “constitution” for his new “empire.” This document was the original Torah.

Seeking to unite Jews and Israelis with a common epic, Josiah’s priests attached the Exodus story to the great spring farmers’ festival of Matsot, a seven-day celebration of the harvest characterized by the eating of unleavened bread made from unfermented new grain. Seeking to affirm the patriotic roots of the Hebrew people in the nostalgia of shepherd simplicity, the priests also attached the spring fertility festival of Pesakh to Matsot. Pesakh was a shepherd holiday which celebrated the fertility of the flocks and the arrival of new lambs and kids. It featured the killing and eating of young lambs and the marking of tentposts with blood to ward off the dangerous intrusion of evil spirits.

In time the Exodus, Pesakh , and Matsot were molded into a unity. Stories evolved to explain the connection and to provide a rationale for the combined celebration. The real saga found no comfortable place in this political development.

When we, as Humanistic Jews, celebrate Passover, the traditional myths that developed over the centuries provide us with ideological problems. The real story enables the festival to become an understandable part of our life. The traditional story may be more dramatic, with its miracles and divine pizzazz. But the real adventure, being a human struggle, offers greater dignity.

RESPONSA – Sitting Shiva

Humanistic Judaism journal, “Return to Tradition” Summer 1992

Question: Should Humanistic Jewish mourners sit shiva?

Responsum: The mourning practices of rabbinic Judaism were built around a belief system that no longer generally prevails in the Jewish community. This system began with an all-powerful judgmental God who was the master of life and death. Death was ambiguous. It might be a sign of divine anger and divine punishment. God’s dis­pleasure was not trivial. It needed to be countered. The deity needed to be ap­peased. And the spirit world of the dead, including evil and malevolent spirits, needed to be avoided and even driven away.

This ideology explains the traditional practice. Only the appearance of abject suffering and misery could persuade both God and the spirit world not to strike again. The mourners — the sons, daugh­ters, fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters of the deceased — must be as pitiable as possible. They must tear their garments. They must sit on the ground or on harsh surfaces. They must not wash or dress in fine clothing. They must abstain from good food. They must not laugh or joke or participate in happy events. They must be confined to their homes during the first seven days (shiva) of mourning. If com­forters arrive, they must sit in silence until the mourners initiate conversation.

Of course, the ideological basis of tradi­tional mourning practices is unacceptable to us as Humanistic Jews. So is the notion of enforced suffering to ensure protection. Unwashed, uncomfortable, and underfed mourners are inconsistent with our view of dignified grief.

But the traditional mourning procedure had an unintended consequence. The prac­tice of staying home after the burial of loved ones to receive family and friends turned out to be therapeutic for mourners. In liberal circles, where most of the hard­ship routines were removed, being sur­rounded by caring friends became a won­derful source of human support.

Humanistic Judaism is very comfortable with a humanistic “shiva.” It does not have to last for seven days. It should last as long as the mourners want it. For some, one day may be enough; for others, eight days. Most Humanistic mourners choose three. A small minority find no need for any “shiva.”

Humanistic “shiva” is built around the notion that life and death are natural phe­nomena, with no intrusion by gods or spirits. It is based on the conviction that vulnerable mourners need as much human support as they can find. Mourners should be comfortable. Conversation should be free.

Many Humanistic Jews hold a brief commemorative celebration of the life of the deceased every evening, or one of the evenings, of the “shiva.” Family and friends sit in a circle and share stories about the life of the person who died. Prose readings and poetry selections about a humanistic response to death may be read. Inspirational songs may be sung. (Examples of these home commemoratives are avail­able from the Society for Humanistic Juda­ism.)

History is filled with ironies. What started out to serve one purpose later serves an­other.

“Shiva” has been transformed and is now ours.

How Antisemitism Was Transformed

Humanistic Judaism journal, “Rise of Antisemitism” Winter 2003

Antisemitism is alive and well, but it has undergone some interesting transformations.

When antisemitism began, it was Euro­pean. Its historic roots lay in the anti-Juda­ism of early Christianity and the Middle Ages. Its trigger lay in the traumatic world of early capitalism.

In 1873 a major economic depression sent millions of Europeans into panic. The collapse of once-powerful banks, the wiping out of the savings of once-powerful people, the specter of unemployment — all combined to raise the question, “Why?” Antisemitism was a pow­erful and convincingly simple answer to this complex question. It thrived on the well- known connection of Jews with money. It won the hearts of both aristocrats and peasants who despised the leaders of the money economy.

While anti-Judaism was directed to the re­ligion of the Jew, antisemitism was focused on the “race” or ethnicity of the Jew. For the “anti- Judaites” the solution to the Jewish problem was the conversion of the Jew. For the antisemite the solution to the Jewish problem was the elimination of the Jew. Most antisemites were not interested in the religion of the Jew. They were absorbed in the social, economic, and po­litical roles that Jews played. For them conver­sion was irrelevant. It could not change the fundamentally evil nature of the Jew. Anti- Judaism imagined that the Jew was salvageable. Antisemitism knew that he was not.

In the end, if the Jew is the devil, if he has invented the evils of both capitalism and socialism, he is intolerable. Extermination flows logically from the premises of anti-semitic ideology. Expulsion and persecution are insufficient to eradicate the social evil that the Jew represents. For the arch-antisemite the Jew is the incarnation of evil. And evil has no right to exist.

The consequence of European anti­semitism was the Nazi debacle and the Holo­caust. So important was the Jewish enemy that his elimination took priority over competing items on the Nazi agenda. Even at the end of the war, when Nazi resources were exhausted, soldiers and trains were made available to execute the Final Solution.

After the Second World War, it seemed inconceivable that antisemitism would find defenders. The horror of the Shoah was so great that Western European governments outlawed antisemitic propaganda and anti-semitic political parties. Nazi symbolswere banned. Public hostility to the Jews achieved the status of a crime. Even the Ger­mans began the long repentance of repara­tions. The revival of antisemitism in Europe seemed unlikely.

Then, only three years after the war, Stalin turned his political power against the Jews of the Soviet Union. Jewish writers were elimi­nated. Jewish Communist leaders were ex­ecuted. Antisemitism shifted its European center from Western Europe to Eastern Eu­rope. If Stalin had not died in 1953, most of the Jews of Russia would have been deported to the gulags of Siberia. After his death antisemitism persisted, but it fizzled down to policies of persecution, all of it rendered lu­dicrous by the official protest that anti­semitism could not possibly exist in the Communist motherland.

Recent developments have shifted the center of antisemitism and antisemitic pro­paganda out of Europe. The reason is ironic. Jew-hatred in Europe triggered the rise of Zi­onism. And the leaders of Zionism claimed that the establishment of a Jewish state would cure antisemitism. Yet, as we know, the es­tablishment of the state of Israel provided a major provocation to the Arab and Muslim worlds. The consequence of this development was the emergence in the Muslim world of a rabid antisemitism. While many Arab anti- Zionists directed their hostility to the Israelis alone, most Arab anti-Zionists made no dis­tinction between Israelis and Jews.

After 1967, the concepts of European antisemitism and its propaganda were adopted by Arabs to explain how it was pos­sible for little Israel to defeat the combined armies of the Arab world. The answer was simple: Israel is the creation of America. And America is controlled by the Jews. American power is Jewish power. The demon of the money economy had now used its enormous political, economic, and military power to enslave the Muslim world and to corrupt its historic culture with the Jewish values of the American consumer society. For most Mus­lim fundamentalists, as well as many “Mus­lim Marxists,” Jews and America go together. And so does their evil.

Today in Cairo and Damascus, Baghdad and Karachi, the assault on the Jews is relent­less. European antisemitism has been dressed up in Muslim clothing, but the heart of the message is the same. The Jews stand at the center of human history as an evil force. Only their elimination, together with their puppets America and Israel, will save Islam and the world. Zionism has managed to generate a hatred in the Muslim world equal in inten­sity to the hatred in Europe that brought it into existence.

The September 11 scenario revealed this obsession. New York was chosen as the main target of the Muslim fundamentalist terrorists because it was viewed as the true capital of Jewish power. The World Trade Center was the temple of money and of the global economy, which represented the corrupt na­ture of Jewish power.

The return of virulent antisemitism to Europe arrived with the Muslim immigrants who are now pouring into Europe. The popu­lations of England, France, and Germany have already been radically altered by this migra­tion. Since the birthrates of native Europeans are low and the reproduction rate of Muslim immigrants is high, the future is clear. Europe will become increasingly more Muslim.

The centers of antisemitism in Europe no longer lie in the aristocracy or in the army or among the intellectuals. In the social sphere Jews are now able to achieve the summits of power and fame. On the contrary, the centers of antisemitism now lie among the poor Mus­lim immigrants and among the Europeans on the left who champion their cause. Anti­semitism has always been as much a disease of the poor as of the rich. For the economic losers of the global economy, antisemitism provides a simple and “credible” answer. The antisemitic violence that took place last April in France was the product of the inflamma­tory antisemitic propaganda that now floats around the Muslim world.

The shift of antisemitism from the Chris­tian to the Muslim world has produced ironic political consequences. The forces in West­ern Europe that hated Jews now also hate Muslims. But they generally hate the Jews less than they hate the Muslims. After all, Euro­pean Jews are committed to European culture. The Muslims represent a darker anti- European force. Plus — using the political principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend — the Jews suddenly emerge as useful allies of the anti-Muslim right. Even Monsieur LePen of the racist National Front has said as much. History does have the power to pro­duce absurdities.

It is certainly true that arranging for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians will re­duce the hostility of many Arabs and many Muslims toward Jews. But it is also true that for diehard Muslim fundamentalists the war against Western culture is also the war against the Jews and their American “puppets.” While Europe still harbors many antisemites on both the right and the left, the center of Jew-hatred now lies in the Semitic world and in the Mus­lim culture that the Arabs pioneered.

An Unabashed Atheist: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, A Review

Humanistic Judaism journal, “Thinking Outside the Box” Winter 2007

Atheism is a dirty word in America. The hatred of atheists was aggravated by the con­nection of atheism with Marxism. Ironically, Marx made a mistake. Most people who are poor or who are in the working class are very religious. Atheism was a deterrent to Com­munism. Most atheists are the children of the middle class.

Whereas secularization in Europe has made atheism mildly respectable, secularization in America has left large pockets of deeply reli­gious people. Atheists in America are discreet. Political safety demands that they show an appropriate level of humility. Religious people can safely denounce atheism as immoral and dangerous, but atheists must “behave.” They must always express their deep respect for the religious option. They must often disguise their convictions as agnosticism, a designation that implies that theism and atheism are equally valid choices. If they are sufficiently obsequi­ous, they will agree with the opposition that science and religion are compatible and that science cannot be the foundation of ethical values. Anti-atheists do not have to be nice. But atheists must always know their place.

One of the most famous self-proclaimed atheists in the world is Richard Dawkins. He is an Oxford professor and one of the most articulate defenders of Darwinian evolution. In his latest best seller, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), he refuses to be “ap­propriately humble.” He refuses to cater to the power of religion in America. He refuses to be deferent. He behaves as though atheism were as respectable as religion. Given the normal public discourse between theists and atheists, he is outrageous. He refuses to be patronized. The mere privilege of freely expressing his convictions is not enough.

Dawkins maintains that statements about God are no different from statements about the weather. They are statements about reality. They are statements open to scientific investi­gation. Science is not a procedure confined to the events of the “natural world.” It is a method for the discovery of truth that relies on hu­man observation and controlled investigation. Supernatural events, if they exist, are open to human observation. Certainly the biblical au­thors thought so. Believers always appealed to human experience to demonstrate the existence and goodness of God. If God is real, then faith is not enough. Faith is the hypothesis. Faith without evidence is wishful thinking.

Dawkins addresses all the available proofs for the existence of God and finds them want­ing. Part of the problem is that the God who is the conscious creator and manager of the uni­verse vanishes into philosophic abstraction. He becomes very much like the emperor’s clothing. You are never quite sure what you are looking for. And you are never quite sure why one god is better than several. The flesh and blood gods of mythology have turned into the verbal toys of theologians.

Dawkins asserts that ethics does not need God to be valid. The authority behind moral commands does not lie in the commander. It lies in the consequences of behavior. Ethics begins with genes struggling to reproduce themselves. It continues with individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their offspring. It moves on to groups that make it possible for individuals and their offspring to survive. It completes itself with a global world of strangers where the instincts of group living reach out beyond the family and the tribe to embrace others. Morality does not emerge from the drama of divine revela­tion. It is the child of evolution, negotiating the demands of selfish genes with the agenda of group survival. Along the way people put their convictions into the mouths of the gods. The authority of God ultimately rests on the authority of ancestors who struggled for life and happiness.

Dawkins does not stand in awe of reli­gious literature. He does not play the part of the humble atheist who pays tribute to the greatness of the Bible and the Koran even though he does not believe in the reality of their central character. He finds no moral greatness in the angry and vengeful Yahveh of the Old Testament. He discovers no great truth in the absurdities of New Testament theology. The roots of humanism do not lie here. They lie in the work of those who resisted the mes­sage of this literature.

Finally, Dawkins does not regard the ubiquity of religious conviction and religious behavior as evidence of their value. In the course of evolution genes “misfire.” They undergo mutations that are harmful, not use­ful. Religion, like the fear of strangers, may be an evolutionary aberration that may inhibit the struggle for human happiness rather than enhance it. The “God delusion” is not the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom emerges only when you fully recover from it.

For people who tolerate atheists and expect them to “know their place,” Dawkins is infuriat­ing. But for those who want to confront the alter­native to religion as a clear and self-respecting option, the honesty of Dawkins is refreshing.

A Scientist Embraces God: The Language of God by Francis Collins, A Review

Humanistic Judaism journal, “Thinking Outside the Box” Winter 2007

Can anyone prove the existence of God? Theologians have been obsessed with this project for the past two thousand years.

When gods began, nobody had to prove their existence. People believed that the gods were as real as the land they farmed and the family that nurtured them. Proving their ex­istence would have seemed silly.

But excessive touting led some people to claim that their god was the one and only god. Even more touting led passionate devotees to claim that the one god made and managed everything. Because flattery costs nothing, the one god ended up being all-mighty, all-perfect, and all-good. An Almighty God is respon­sible for everything. And if he is all-good, he uncomfortably ends up being responsible for evil. In a polytheistic world, undeserved suf­fering can always be blamed on an enemy god. But the divine dictatorship of monotheism offers no such alternative. God needs apolo­gists to rescue his reputation and to explain away his “bad behavior.”

Now, theology starts out with a certain level of absurdity. It is the only discipline I know that needs to prove the existence of its subject matter. Ichthyologists do not spend their time proving the existence of fish. Ornithologists would feel ridiculous having to prove the ex­istence of birds. Anthropologists would laugh if asked to prove the existence of people. But theologians have no sense of humor.

Modern science has not been friendly to either God or theology. Most scientists are consistent empiricists. They require more than faith or wishing to demonstrate the existence of anything. They have discovered no substantial, or even modest, evidence to demonstrate that a Moral Creator and Man­ager of the Universe exists. Like the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1801), they find most of the traditional arguments for the existence of God to be flawed.

Francis Collins is a famous scientist. He was the chief of the Human Genome Project. But he is also a believer in God. He is a believ­er in a personal God who loves and cares for his creation. He is also a believing Christian, the child of eccentric freethinkers, a man who freely chose the Christian faith. In his latest bestseller, The Language of God (Free Press, 2006), he plays the role of a theologian.

Can a famous Christian scientist playing theologian do what Kant was unable to do? Can he prove the existence of God and simul­taneously rescue God’s moral reputation? Can he prove the existence of a God who loves all human creatures and who wants to rescue them from undeserved suffering?

Many Christians who bought Collins’ book were conservative Christians who hoped that he would place the endorsement of science on their problematic beliefs. But he is an enormous disap­pointment to the religious right. He repudiates creationism as unscientific. He endorses Darwin­ian evolution as valid, accepts the principle of natural selection, and rejects Intelligent Design. Collins endorses all of modern cosmology, with its “Big Bang” explosion and its fourteen billion- year-old universe. A scientific atheist would be very comfortable with most of his conclusions.

One would expect something fiercely original from a man of Collins’ caliber. But his presentation is disappointing. It is a rehash of familiar arguments offered by former skeptics who embraced God and Christianity. Much of his case is derived from the writings of C. S. Lewis, a clever Anglican apologist, who was the rage among sophisticated defenders of religion in the 1930s. Lewis’ audiences were people who feared Communism and who imagined that faith would provide a firm resistance.

Collins embraces all the old stale theo­logical tricks of conventional theologians. He denounces science because it cannot answer the question “Why did the universe come into being?” But this question has a premise. The hidden premise is that the universe must have a purpose. But what if the universe has no purpose? What if it was not created? What if it emerged by chance with no conscious interven­tion? What if there is no Why, only How? Sci­ence is perfectly capable of handling the How.

Collins maintains that the natural world cannot be the foundation of morality. Only God can. But ethics did not arise in a vacuum, a proclamation from a mountain top. All animals living in groups depend for their sur­vival on the survival of their group, whether they are ants, wolves, baboons, or people. To imagine that human ethics has no connection to our animal past, to assert that guilt has no genetic basis, to claim that love is not rooted in human survival but is a message from be­yond space and time is to abandon reason. The moral law is not some prescription for love and compassion floating around in some supernatural never-never land. It is one of evolution’s children in the relentless struggle for genetic survival. The love of strangers is new. It competes with the old fear and hatred of outsiders. That is why it is so difficult. But the love of family is old. It is the foundation of all other love. If God championed the moral law, he most likely learned about it from hu­mans and other animals.

Collins insists that the desire for God is evidence that He exists. It is hard to believe that Collins said this. Wishing obviously makes it so. If I want and need immortality, then I am immortal. If I want and need to be strong, then I am strong. If I want and need God then God exists. Why else would I long for him if he was not there?

Collins asserts that God cannot prevent human suffering because he gave human be­ings free will. People are responsible for what they do because they have free will. God could do nothing to prevent the Holocaust because he gave Hitler and his cohorts the wonderful gift of free will. What silliness! Intervening to prevent a person from harming others other does not deprive the criminal of his free will. It is an act of compassion. It is the moral demand that God presumably makes on all human be­ings. Why will God not do what he requires humans to do? A God who uses the excuse of human free will to stand as a spectator before human suffering lacks moral authority. Love by determinism is better than hate by free will. Collins discloses his daughter’s traumatic and tragic rape. What a horrible injustice! But no – Collins transforms tragedy into absurdity. Invoking one of the age-old apologies for God’s bad behavior; Collins justifies the event. He describes how much he learned from his daughter’s suffering. God uses his innocent daughter and her suffering to teach her father to forgive a criminal. What next? Plane crashes in which hundreds die, so that the survivors can be ennobled by their pain?

The last absurdity is the Anthropic Prin­ciple. The Anthropic Principle maintains that God created the universe in order to arrange for human intelligence. There are many mo­ments in the past fourteen billion years when a different turn of events would have precluded the appearance of our solar system, the planet Earth, and the air pocket on the surface of our planet that makes human life possible. Col­lins asserts that these amazing coincidences are not coincidences. They are the evidence of God’s deliberate plan and of God himself. But the Anthropic Principle reduces God to an incompetent bungler. If God’s intention is to create human intelligence why would he force human intelligence to undergo the ghastly process of evolution, with all its struggle, suf­fering, and enormous waste? The Anthropic Principle is like the Charles Lamb story where you arrange for roast pork by placing a pig in a house and burning the whole house down.

Collins’ book fills me with great sadness. Why would a brilliant biologist risk his intel­lectual credibility by consenting to play the part of C. S. Lewis’ parrot? That he is a nice man is clear. That Collins is a wise man is doubtful.

RESPONSA – Conversion

Question: Does Humanistic Judaism provide for conversion? If Judaism is viewed primarily as a culture, what does conver­sion mean?

Responsum: Conversion is a Christian term. It refers to the dramatic transforma­tion of the individual who “sees the light” and is saved. This transforming or “born again” experience is not only the result of personal choice but also of divine grace and intervention. In the broader sense conversion refers to any act of becoming a Christian, whether that transforming expe­rience occurs or not. In both cases there is a theistic component. If the conversion is sincere, the convert comes to believe cer­tain things about God that he or she did not believe before. The sign of conversion is baptism.

Becoming a Jew has been an entirely different experience. First of all, we Jews started out as a nation, not a theological fraternity. Joining a nation is different from joining a religious denomination.

In biblical times, Jewish identity was not tied to the affirmation of any theologi­cal principles. Until the imposition of priestly tyranny around 450 B.C., there was no enforced religious conformity. Both monotheism and polytheism were Jewish. In the absence of formal naturalization, becoming a Jew meant that you were adopted into a Jewish family or married to a Jewish man (since women were the possessions of their husbands).

In the priestly period (450-165 B.C.), great emphasis was placed on racial pu­rity. Non-Jews were discouraged from join­ing the Jewish nation, by intermarriage or otherwise. Male circumcision became a sign of Jewish identity. If a non-Jewish man wanted to become a Jew and was not circumcised, he had to undergo this pain­ful surgery.

The Book of Ruth, which was written during the priestly period but set in an earlier time, was most likely a protest against the racial policies of the priests. Ruth, a Moabite, became a Jew by marrying a Jew. When her husband died, she had to choose between returning to her family and staying with her husband’s family. By choosing to follow her mother-in-law (an interesting development, to say the least), she remained a Jew.

In the rabbinic period (100 B.C.-500 C.E.), very clear procedures for becoming a Jew were defined. Jews had come to equate national identity with religious conformity, especially the conformity prescribed by the rabbis. Moreover, be­cause rabbinic ideology was Salvationist and promised life after death (very much like Christianity, which ultimately imi­tated it), many people were choosing to become Jews for religious reasons and not for national or marriage reasons.

Rabbinic Judaism is what today is called Orthodoxy. Despite the large influx of non- Jews into the Jewish nation for religious reasons, the Orthodox procedure for be­coming a Jew remained profoundly racial. An invidious distinction was made be­tween born Jews and entering Jews. Jews born of a Jewish mother were Jewish for­ever. Even if they repudiated God and the rabbinic religion, they remained Jews. No religious criterion could alter their right to be called Jews. Their tribal and national origin was sufficient. Entering male Jews, on the other hand, confronted three tests. The first was the repudiation of their for­mer religious practices and the adoption of the halakhic lifestyle. The second was circumcision. The third was ritual purifi­cation in a ritual pool (mikvah). Entering women were spared circumcision and now could join in their own right and not merely as attachments to their husbands.

During the Middle Ages, becoming a Jew was not an important issue because both Christian and Muslim governments forbade Jews to accept “converts.” But the emancipation period, with its open society and increasing intermarriage, made “con­version” an important issue in Jewish life.

Conservative Judaism maintained the Orthodox provisions. Reform Judaism, in its most radical expansion, abandoned all three rabbinic criteria and simply required an affirmation of faith (Christian style). But, in recent years, many Reform rabbis have returned to traditional procedures.

Humanistic Judaism welcomes every­body who wants to be Jewish. The process of becoming a Jew rests on premises quite different from traditional assumptions.

 Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people. And Jewish identity is a cultural identity.

 Any person who wishes to identify with the culture, history and fate of the Jew­ish people is eligible for membership.

 There are no ideological or theological requirements for membership. However, Humanistic Jews can, with integrity, welcome only other humanists.

 There is no necessity for the potential “convert” to repudiate his or her beliefs or lifestyle. We are wary of people who “suddenly see the light” or who reject the commitments of a lifetime. Loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people is a cultural addition, not a personal trans­formation.

 Entering the Jewish people is not a religious conversion. It is more like being adopted by a family. Perhaps adoption would be a good humanistic substitute for the word conversion.

 Acceptance should be mutual. An indi­vidual cannot unilaterally decide to join the Jewish people. An existing Jewish community must extend the invitation.

Every Humanistic Jewish community is free to establish procedures for adoption. The procedures that now exist usually involve the following activities:

 Studying Judaism and Jewish history from a humanistic perspective.

 Involvement with Jewish culture and a Jewish community.

 Celebration of welcome.

Receiving a Hebrew name as a sign of membership in the Jewish people.

Humanistic Judaism recognizes that the motivation to become Jewish is rarely ideological. People want to become Jews because they are married to Jews, because they are comfortable with Jewish culture, because they like their association with Jewish people. The adoption process ought to reflect these realities.

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.