A Ninefold Path for Humanistic Jews

Humanistic Judaism in the 21st century – Autumn 2001

What would it be like to live in a world without the automobile, the airplane, the cin­ema, the telephone, television, and the com­puter — without even plumbing, electricity, and running water?

Life before the twentieth century is difficult to imagine. A world of peasants and villages, tents and nomads, barter and scar­city, animal energy and early death is so far from our experience that we can talk about the past without really understanding it. But this is the world in which Judaism arose. Struggling for existence in this milieu gener­ated the issues the prophets and the priests addressed. It was the stimulus for the beliefs of our ancestors.

The past three hundred years have dra­matically transformed the human condition. The authors of rabbinic Judaism would be traumatized by the world we live in. The lifestyles of even conservative people today would be both puzzling and outrageous. Femi­nism, science education, the consumer cul­ture, individual freedom, democratic politics, and interfaith banquets are beyond what they could have imagined or tolerated. Their Judaism does not fit the present — not only because they were naive authoritarians, but, especially, because they were addressing an audience that no longer exists.

Judaism is an evolving culture with no single philosophy of life. In every age there has been a dominant ideology, which ad­dressed the problems and traumas of that age in a way that the people of that age found con­vincing. Prophetic Judaism, with its message of an all-powerful Jewish God, was a response to the despair of a Jewish people crushed by the Assyrian conquest. Priestly Judaism, with its message of the Chosen People, provided solace to a nation that had all but lost its in­dependence. Rabbinic Judaism, with its prom­ise of salvation in the next life, provided a new structure for conceiving reward and pun­ishment in a world where suffering and death had become unbearable.

The continuity in Jewish history is not ideology. It is the ever-changing Jewish people. Neither one God nor Torah appear in all the eras of Jewish development. And, if they disappear as the central themes of Jewish belief, the Jewish people will continue. No set of convictions is intrinsic to Jewish culture. Every generation has to find its own integrity.

Humanistic Judaism is the Judaism of the twenty-first century because it embodies the wisdom and values of the principal thinkers of the contemporary world. A secular world needs a secular philosophy of life. The expe­rience of a profound dependency on an au­thoritarian God is absent from the daily life of most Jews. An egalitarian democratic world can base itself on the past only by radically distorting its message. Humanistic Judaism rests on the perspectives of the past. But it does not struggle to serve them in the way other Jewish denominations do. It seeks to make honest Jews in the present.

In a globalist secular world, Judaism be­comes the culture of the Jewish people, ethics becomes the pursuit of happiness and dignity for all men and women, power is lo­cated in human effort and human coopera­tion, and courage replaces faith as the best way to cope with daily living.

Living as a Jew in the twenty-first cen­tury means living with novelty — a set of conditions that began in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and that are new to Jewish history. Widespread intermarriage, unisex power roles, strident feminism, unlim­ited professional options, the dominance of science and technology, the emergence of lei­sure culture, physical and social mobility, group identities more important to Jews than Jewish identity, the de-ethnicization of Diaspora Jewish culture, the deghettoization of Jewish communities, a traumatic rate of change that fosters “future shock” — all of these novelties define the context of Jewish existence today.

Within the Jewish community the end of the twentieth century presented a series of challenges, which were not anticipated at the beginning. The aging of the Diaspora, the trag­edy of the Holocaust, the rise of the state of Israel to center stage, the intense militancy of a reborn ultra-Orthodoxy, the ethnic transfor­mation of the Jewish state through Oriental immigration — all of these surprises molded the shape of the new Jewish people.

How do we, as Humanistic Jews, respond to all of these novelties and surprises, which define the Jewish agenda of our new century? How can we best serve our movement and the survival of the Jewish people in this unprec­edented setting?

The following “ninefold path” seems appropriate.

  • Be a rational voice. Our role in the Jew­ish world is to be a voice of reason. The response to relentless change by millions of people is to denounce the present and to romanticize the past. While science radically transforms our environment and lengthens our life, cults of nostalgia and religious fundamentalism thrive. A hankering for the stability of the past pro­duces a permanent and chronic conser­vative militancy. In the Jewish world the new, visible ultra-Orthodoxy and the nos­talgic “return to tradition” by the Reform movement are irrational responses to stress and traumatic change. Since we cannot return to the past, romanticizing it will not help us cope effectively with the present or plan for our future. Our voice has to be a voice of sanity in a crazy world.
  • Be authentic. As tradition becomes in­creasingly less relevant to the human condition, we have to maintain an appro­priate relationship to our cultural heri­tage. We have to make sure that what we choose is consistent with what we believe and with how we choose to live. Tradi­tion is our servant — not our master. Where it fits, we use it. Where it does not fit, we feel comfortable enough to create something new. This boldness is uniquely ours. It is our special gift to the Jewish people.
  • Be open. Partnerships, families, and marriages are changing. The conventional relationships of the past are becoming un­conventional. The aging of the population is producing huge reservoirs of people in their sixties, seventies, and eighties who are searching for education and inspira­tion. Our communities need to be open to this transformation of the Jewish pub­lic. Unmarried partners, gays and lesbi­ans, senior citizens, singles with no marriage agenda — all of them need to be welcome in our communities with pro­gramming that serves their special needs. Given our philosophy, our service to these people is more than opportunistic. It flows from conviction.
  • Be imaginative. A century ago the Protes­tant model of the lecture sermon domi­nated religious services in the Western world. At one time thousands of Jews, even in the working class, would show up on any given day to listen to talks by rabbis, teachers, labor leaders, and politicians. Some of these talks were Castroesque, lasting for hours. But times have changed. Young people are less pa­tient with talk. They prefer music or dance. In the twenty-first century the for­mats of celebration will radically change. There will be more music, less talk. If we want to be successful in this new cen­tury, we will have to discover our musi­cal voice. We will have to learn how to sing Humanistic Judaism.
  • Be interesting. In a rapidly changing world most people are more engaged with the present and the future than they are with the past. There are compelling current issues that test our ethical conventions and force us to rethink what we truly be­lieve. Issues of environment, genetics, capital punishment, nationalism, and rac­ism will dominate the daily news. If we fail to address them in a public way, we will be an interesting sideshow in the Jewish world but not a significant voice.
  • Be inclusive. The phenomenon of inter­marriage will not go away. It is the prod­uct of an open, free, and egalitarian soci­ety. We have to continue to find ways to allow people of good will to participate in Jewish culture and their birth culture simultaneously. The boundaries between groups and nations will become less rigid in this century. We have to be pioneers in this world rather than reluctant partners.
  • Be flexible. We must always be open to rethinking our enthusiasms. In a century where the global economy prevails, the nation-state declines, and ethnicities mix freely, the traditional nationalism built around the territorial state may become less relevant. What will happen to the state of Israel is not clear. Will it remain exclusively Jewish? Will it become bina­tional? The present turmoil suggests significant change. The concept of the Jewish people as an international nation, first suggested by historian Simon Dubnow, may become increasingly more relevant — especially in a world where most ethnicities become international. The twentieth century was the century of Zionism. The twenty-first may be the century for embracing new options.
  • Be complete. The most profound connec­tions between people are not made at lectures, services, or parties. They are made in settings where people can live together. Increasingly people in our world are choosing camp and retreat settings for interfacing with others. One weekend together as a community may be worth a thousand services. In a more informal, egalitarian, and open world, we need to “complete” our community-building by experimenting with alternative ways to find meaningful connections.
  • Be a movement. Some Humanistic Jews think of our movement as a religion. Others view it as a secular philosophy of life. Some are enthusiastic about the word spiritual. Others are disturbed by it. Some are searching for a stronger link to the traditions of the past. Others are looking for bold creativity. In the years to come there will be many more issues that will provoke disagreement. But, if we are to be a successful movement, we have to embrace a wide diversity. We have to be able to distinguish between fundamental differences and differences of style and vocabulary. Generosity rather than nar­rowness is required. Many styles enrich us without damaging what we all basi­cally share. Distinguishing between fun­damental and trivial differences is essential to our survival and strength.

This new century is going to be exciting and unpredictable. Let’s make the most of it.