Alternative Literature

“Alternative Literature” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)

Humanistic Jews need a literature that clearly and boldly states what they think and believe—in the same way that “Rejectionist” literature clearly and boldly presents what Rejectionists think and believe.

This literature should defend reason and dignity in a clear and open way. It should talk about human power and human freedom with the same directness that rabbinic literature talks about divine power and divine freedom. The ordinary reader, who is not familiar with clerical and legal rescue strategies, should be able to hear the message without confusion.

This literature should present Jewish history and the Jewish experience in a scientific humanistic manner. Instead of explaining how the old establishment literature failed to tell the story in the right way, it should tell the story in the right way. Instead of pretending that the roots of the modern Jewish personality lie in the belief system of the priests and the rabbis, it should describe the real roots.

This literature should be straightforward and should not have to be defended against misinterpretation. Humanism is not served well by writing that seems to say the opposite. The texts should make it easy for us to teach, not necessary for us to apologize.

If we apply these three criteria to existing literature, what passes the test?

The classics of humanism pass the test. Epicurus, Democritus, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Jean-Paul Sartre, and George Santayana speak their minds clearly and without reservation. They are not Jews. But they are articulate humanists. The literature of humanism is part of a humanistic Judaism, even more than the pious writing of pious Jews who did not defend either reason or human autonomy.

These writers did not deal with Jewish history or the Jewish experience specifically. But in their treatment of the human condition, they enable us to understand the values and ideas that make a secular Jewish identity possible. If Humanistic Judaism is a philosophy of life, it must be able to place the value of Jewish identity in a philosophic context. That context is universal and includes all humanists.

The writings of famous Jews who were humanists and who wrote about humanism pass the test. Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Walter Lippmann, Walter Kaufmann, Isaiah Berlin, and Hannah Arendt came to their humanism out of the background of their Jewish experience. Although they were not aware of their own Jewish significance, they were voices of the Jewish experience—an experience which had molded the Jewish personality but which had never been able, in the face of rabbinic suppression, to establish its own literature. The words are new. But the affirmation of the human spirit is an old Jewish response.

The literature of secular historians, sociologists, and archaeologists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who have uncovered the real history of the Jews, passes the test. Baruch Spinoza, Julius Wellhausen, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Simon Dubnow, Salo Baron, and Theodor Gaster went beyond the official story of rabbinic Judaism to reveal the events that were distorted or never noticed and the natural causes that made these events possible. It is the Jewish experience, not the classic description of that experience, that is important.

The writings of Jewish nationalists, whether Yiddishist or Zionist, whether socialist or capitalist, who rejected supernatural authority and who sought to persuade the Jews to take their own destiny into their own hands, pass the test. I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Ahad Haam, Micah Berdichevsky, Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, A. D. Gordon, Ber Borochov, Shaul Tchemikhovsky, Vladimir Jabotinsky, David Ben Gurion, and Joseph Brenner mocked the pious passivity of the old regime and sought to restore Jewish confidence in human planning and human effort. Their passion produced some of the best humanistic Jewish propaganda. Even exaggerated sentimental poetry like Tchemikhovsky’s “Ani Maamin” still hits the mark: “Laugh, laugh at all my dreams. But this I the dreamer proclaim. I still believe in man. I still believe in you.”

The affirmations of intellectual and organizational pathbreakers for a humanistic Judaism must be included. Horace Kallen, Yehuda Bauer, Haim Cohn, Albert Memmi, and Gregorio Klimovsky are important voices.

The celebration materials of secular Jewish communities qualify for admission. For seventy years, the secular kibbutzim in the land of Israel invented new humanistic ways to celebrate old holidays. Their efforts are collected in kibbutz archives, untranslated and presently unavailable to world Jewry.

The reflections of Jewish essayists and novelists who are ardent humanists and who value their Jewish identity are an important part of a humanistic Jewish literature. George Steiner, Yehuda Amichai, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and Primo Levi dramatize the human condition and the Jewish condition. Whether their perspective is cosmopolitan or nationalistic, a new approach to the significance of Jewish identity flows from their creativity.

A humanistic Jewish literature differs in many ways from the rabbinic variety.

It is new and contemporary. It lacks the advantages of antiquity and wide popular recognition. It is not embedded in the folk cultures of Western civilization. It does not conjure up the image of books that grandparents revered.

It tends to be scholarly and intellectual. Folksy legends and naive stories that appeal to children are few and far between. Not that these rabbinic styles are not possible on humanistic terms. They just have not been indulged.

Its authors tend to be far more diverse. They are less involved in professional Jewishness than the historic prophets, priests, and rabbis. They lack the professional solidarity and intensity that these old fraternities engendered.

But, most important of all, it is incomplete. Rabbinic Judaism has had over two thousand years to say what it needed to say. Its view of Jewish history, its roster of heroes, its celebration formats, its sentimental symbols, its sacred scriptures, its folksy messages for the masses, are established. What remains is only repetition and reverence.

Humanistic Judaism has only begun. Most of the literature it needs, it still has to create. Two thousand years of censorship and official intimidation have put us far behind in the race. The Jewish experience is old. But having the opportunity to describe it in a humanistic way is new.

We still need a clear, popular, poetic, non-scholarly presentation of Jewish history. We still need folksy sentimental biographies of humanistic Jewish heroes. We still need vivid celebration formats that make the humanistic meaning of the holidays come alive. We still need naive didactic stories for children and inspirational anthologies for adults. We still need time for our symbols to touch the heart.

The test of a successful Humanistic Judaism will be its courage and persistent integrity. If the task of creating this new literature frightens the Jews of the Secular Revolution and freezes their talents, they will drift back to the compromises of the lackluster Ambivalents. They will strive to rescue the “scriptures” of rabbinic Judaism for their very own and fail. In the end, they will be neither here nor there—suffering the cynicism of lost integrity and deception.

But if the task inspires them with a sense of urgency and excitement, there is no doubt that the talent exists to tell the Jewish story the way it should be told.