Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1994 (vol. 22 no. 2, p32-35)
Again with you, let us go out to see the light.
— Ehud Manor
There are two Jewish traditions.
The first is the religious one. It finds supernatural power, prayer, and worship important. It believes in divine revelation, eternal laws, and sacred rituals. It sees nature as less interesting than the world beyond. In Jewish history, it found political power and became the stablishment.
The second is a secular and humanistic tradition. It affirms people, human intelligence, and human dignity. It affirms reason, science, and human community. It finds no need to look beyond the wonders of nature. In Jewish history, it never found political power. It survived in the underground of ordinary Jewish life.
The second tradition is as important as the first one. The second tradition is our tradition. We are Secular and Humanistic Jews.
I believe in man.
— Shaul Tchernikhovsky
Judaism is far more than many people allow it to be.
Some people view it very narrowly, only seeing its religious side. Others perceive it broadly, emphasizing its ethical outreach.
But Judaism is more than theology and moral rules. It is more than parochial faith and universal sentiments. It is the living culture of a living people.
Judaism is family, love, and nurturing. Judaism is memory, roots, and pride. Judaism is music, dance, and humor. Everything that Jewish people, throughout the ages, did and yearned to do is Judaism.
A song for you, my native land.
— Avraham Ben-Zvi
We did not begin as a religious denomination. We began as a nation. We began as a collection of families, clans, and tribes. We began as an ethnic group, with our own language, on our own territory.
We became a dispersed nation. We left our land. We traveled the surface of our globe. We lived among many nations. We learned many languages.
We changed into a world people. We became the citizens of many states. We recovered our homeland. It became our new center.
Each of us is part of an extended international family. Family is no trivial connection. It is our first connection. It gives us life and identity.
Am Yisrael Hie
The Jewish people lives.
— Folk Song
The power of people is the power of change. Circumstances never stay the same. People never stay the same. Culture never stays the same.
Judaism did not fall from heaven. It was invented by a divine spokesperson. It was created by the Jewish people. It was molded by Jewish experience. It was flavored by Jewish sadness and by Jewish joy.
Holidays are responses to human events. Ceremonies are celebrations of human development. Music and literature are the expressions of human needs.
Life is an evolution, a continuous flow of transformations. And so is culture. When circumstances change, people change, their laws and customs change.
A healthy people welcomes change. It understands its history. It knows its own power. It leads the past into the future.
B ’ele Hayadayim
With these hands, I have not yet built a city.
— Naomi Shemer
Human intelligence is the key to human survival. Jewish intelligence is the key to Jewish survival.
Blind faith is often so dramatic and so noisy that it diverts our attention from the quiet power of practical day-to-day decisions. Most people live by common sense. They test the truth of advice by its consequences. The ordinary people who learn to grow food, to build houses, to make friends, to fight disaster may easily be forgotten. But their undramatic efforts have more to do with human survival than priestly proclamations.
Jewish survival has a similar origin. We are so obsessed with the literature of prophets and rabbis that we ignore the unrecorded heroes of Jewish life, the people who day by day solved their problems and improved their world by adapting old advice to new situations.
Peasants and merchants, workers and bankers, doctors and engineers — all of these are heroes of the unacknowledged tradition of Jewish reason.
When, two hundred years ago, the Enlightenment officially came to Jewish life, it was not entirely new. Science is only the refinement of the practical common sense of centuries of survivors.
Who is wise?
— Sherwin T. Wine
Secular Humanistic Jews affirm the power of people. They affirm the power of common sense and human reason. But, above all, they strive for human dignity.
Pious people see themselves as weak and dependent. They see the world as a mystery too deep to fathom. They abhor change and search for everlasting guarantees. Divine power and divine guidance give them a sense of safety. For them, obedience is a small price to pay for eternal security.
People of dignity believe that they have the right to be strong and independent. They see the world as an orderly place to investigate. They welcome necessary change and are goodhumored enough to know that nothing is permanent. Human power and human guidance give them a sense of safety. But they are willing — even desire — to live with risk. They avoid childlike obedience. They cultivate respectful equality.
Human dignity is Jewish dignity. Jewish dignity is our dignity.
Where is my light? My light is in me.
— Sherwin T. Wine
Our past is a guide to our future. It is no sacred temple requiring reverence. It is no sacred book with immutable decrees. It is no sacred song with only one melody. It is a treasury of memories from which we can draw. It is a storehouse of wisdom from which we can borrow. It is a drama of endless creativity which we can imitate.
We are always the bridge between the past and the future. We are always the continuity between the old and the new. We do not betray the past by rejecting our roots. We do not betray the future by ignoring our needs. We pay tribute to both. We use the past to dream of our future.
Let there be peace.
— Siddur (adapted)
Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1994 (vol. 22 no. 2, p4-6)
Shabbat is no ordinary holiday, though some people may take it for granted. The fact that it comes once a week does not make it an ordinary holiday — it is the only holiday that is weekly.
This holyday is as old as humanity. In fact, the priestly authors of the Torah traced it back to the beginning of the world. When God created the universe, the Bible tells us, he created the Shabbat. Its observance ranks with phallic circumcision as one of the two chief signs of membership in the Jewish people and in the cult of Yahveh. Unlike any other sacred rite, it is commanded specifically in the Ten Commandments. In biblical law the person who violates the Shabbat is worthy of death.
In the early moon calendar of the shepherds, the Shabbat was identified with the day of the full moon. In the septemial calendar of the farmers (based on dividing time by the sacred number seven, it fell on the seventh day of the week. The original thrust of the Shabbat was negative. It was a day on which all activity ceased. It was a sacred day when any movement was dangerous, when the safest thing to do was to stay home and do nothing. Sacred days were danger days. Supernatural power was abroad. Like radiation, it could harm as well as heal.
In time this abstinence from movement took on the positive connotation of rest. In the Ten Commandments (created in the seventh century B.C.), the abstinence from work and movement applies to freemen, slaves, and domestic animals and is viewed as a benefit. But to describe the evolving Shabbat as a day of rest is not exactly accurate. Sitting in your house without light and without the opportunity to tend to your comfort is hardly restful, especially if it is accompanied by fear of dreadful consequences for careless indulgence in any prohibited activity.
With the fall of the royal house of David, the emergence of priestly rule, and the triumph of the Yahveh cult in Jerusalem, the seventh-day Shabbat reigned supreme. It was reinforced by mythology, by the imitatio dei, the image of the divine creator of the world resting on the seventh day after the beginning of creation. It also was reinforced by the design of an elaborate calendar, in which the seventh year and the seven-times-seventh-year-plus-one became times of abstinence, too. Above all, the Shabbat was universal, attached only to the story of Yahveh and not to any event in Jewish history.
The rabbis, who followed the priests, retained the importance of the Shabbat but softened its severity. They allowed lights to be kindled before the Shabbat to relieve the darkness; enabled Jews to leave their houses by creating the legal fiction of the eruv, which treated an entire town as a private dwelling; and provided for communal activities in the synagogue, the public reading and explanation of the Torah. But the theme of prayer and study was overridden by the theme of abstinence, the long list of prohibited activities which a stern God wanted the Jews to avoid. Even the later mystic love affair with the Shabbat as “the Sabbath bride” or “the Sabbath queen” could not resolve the uncomfortable mixture of rest, family solidarity, and fear embodied in the Shabbat.
The coming of the Enlightenment and the Emancipation of the Jews of Western Europe — and later of Eastern Europe and North America — provided a four-pronged challenge to the rabbinic Sabbath.
There was the scientific challenge. The story of divine creation was no longer believable, especially a six-day creation with a resting deity. There was the utilitarian challenge. What did all the complicated and repressive prohibitions have to do with rest? There was the intellectual challenge. Why would a universal and ethical God choose the Sabbath and phallic circumcision as his primary symbols? There was the social challenge. Jews lived in a Christian world in which Saturday was a work day and Sunday was a day of rest.
The consequence of all these challenges was the widespread abandonment of the Sabbath by Western Jews. A free and affluent environment undermined what no amount of persecution was able to destroy. While fear and guilt lingered, the lifestyle of the Jew was radically transformed. Most Western Jews worked on Saturday. And for those who did not have to work, Saturday became part of the weekend, when one could freely indulge in rest and recreation without the annoying intrusion of anxiety-producing prohibitions.
The response of the rabbis was divided. Conservative and Orthodox rabbis demanded that the traditional Sabbath be observed in the traditional way — no work, no riding, no driving, no carrying, no kindling, no gaming, no amusement. The emerging liberal rabbis tried to find a new way to preserve the Sabbath that would be consistent with the Enlightenment and the Emancipation. Some liberal rabbis invented the Friday night service, which allowed Jews who worked on Shabbat to attend a major Sabbath celebration outside of working hours. (But the Friday night service was in direct competition with the Shabbat family dinner.) Some liberals took the radical step of creating a Sunday morning service, which enabled Jews to indulge in once-a-week worship on the only day when they did not work. Still other liberals turned Friday night into family time, with gefilte fish, chicken soup, candles, and secular conversation.
However, no Reform rabbi directly confronted the fact that, for most Jews, Shabbat had ceased to be a day of Jewish rest. If there was rest, it had no Jewish content and no Jewish connection. Working Jews going to evening services and resting Jews going to the beach were not exactly what the historic rabbis and priests had imagined for Shabbat. In the vocabulary of the Reform prayer book and the Reform movement’s official pronouncements, the illusion of the day of rest was preserved, even though the small number of Reform Jews who chose to attend Shabbat worship generally worked or shopped on Saturday. Reform derives its legitimacy from the Torah, and Reform was reluctant to abandon one of the major symbols of Torah Judaism. The fact that the meaning of Shabbat was universal and not rooted in ethnicity reinforced this decision. The propaganda and the reality were miles apart.
In the face of the Enlightenment and the Emancipation and the inadequate response of Reform Judaism to the changing character of the Shabbat, what is the significance of the Sabbath to Humanistic Jews? Do we pretend that it is something it is not because we want to be connected to the legitimizing power of the Torah? Do we respect its original meaning by discarding it as no longer significant? (Many secular Jews have done exactly that. In their minds, the Shabbat is too tied up with God and worship and crazy restrictions to be redeemable. If they choose real rest and recreation, it may not be convenient to do it always on Saturday.) Or is there some creative way of preserving the Shabbat that has humanistic integrity and is faithful to its historic character?
Pretense is unethical. Rejection is premature, especially given the power of the Shabbat symbol. Creativity is in order.
A creative approach to Shabbat does not start with Torah. Shabbat existed even before the Torah was composed. A creative approach begins with the meaning of the Shabbat in the lives of liberal Jews who are drawn to it in a big or small way.
Most contemporary Jews outside of Israel are not drawn to the Shabbat as a rest day. Given the dramatic changes in work scheduling in an affluent technological culture, it is highly unlikely that a single day of rest for everybody will be very useful in the twenty-first century. Individual, rather than mass, scheduling will become increasingly popular.
Most contemporary Jews are drawn to the Shabbat because it is Jewish, because it is a frequent way to reaffirm and strengthen Jewish identity. It is the time in the week when Jews can feel most Jewish. The Shabbat did not start out with that agenda. But that is the agenda the modern Jewish experience has given it.
The Shabbat is important to us as Humanistic Jews because it is a weekly time to affirm the importance of our Jewish identity. Whether we choose to work or rest — whether we are alone, with our family, or with our Jewish community — taking time off to celebrate our Jewishness is the heart of the Shabbat day to us.
Celebrating Judaism and Jewishness can be done in many ways. We may hold a family dinner with Jewish symbols. We may participate in a Shabbat service at our community house. We may celebrate a Jewish life cycle event: birth, bar or bat mitsva, or wedding. We may read a Jewish book. We may attend a study seminar on Jewish history or Jewish culture. We may hold a discussion session with Jewish friends. No matter what Jewish activity we choose to do, we know that we are united with Jews throughout the world on this day — that we are expressing our solidarity with the Jewish people, with the Jewish past and present.
Once we recover from the necessity to pretend that the Shabbat is a rest day, once we transcend the need to preserve the irrelevant vocabulary of the Shabbat of abstinence, we become free to make it as Jewish as we want, in whatever way we want, and for however long we want. There is no joyous Jewish experience we cannot promote.
Humanistic Judaism needs the Shabbat, not for the same reasons as priests and Pharisaic rabbis did, but for Jewish reasons that accompany the evolution of the holiday. To most liberal Jews today, Shabbat is a day of Jewish identity and Jewish solidarity. Moving from that reality to creative awareness is the important task before us.
Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1990 (vol. 18 no. 2 p32-38)
Last July I took my summer vacation in Latin America. I had spoken to people there who had come from South America to the first meeting of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews in Detroit in 1986, and I told them that when I came to Uruguay and Argentina I would meet with them and offer whatever assistance I could in the development of our shared movement.
My trip to the Soviet Union in October was a function of the fact that there is every year a board meeting of both the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews in Israel, and I thought it might be convenient to stop off in Moscow on the way to Jerusalem. There were people in the Soviet Union who had indicated some interest in the ideas of Secular Humanistic Judaism, and this visit would be an opportunity to talk to them.
Argentina has been going through a serious economic crisis for a long time. The person responsible for it is a man whose political party is now back in power. His name was Juan Peron. What Peron decided to do was to create a fascism based on an alliance between the military and the labor unions. The people who adored Peron were the workers. He responded by nationalizing everything, by producing a whole bevy of state-owned industries, which turned out to be enormously non-productive, and by bringing thousands and thousands of people from the countryside to work in factories, which ended up with few foreign markets. Ultimately, as imports began to exceed exports, a terrible inflation began.
The Peronist excesses and the terrible economy prompted the active intervention of the military. Since 1930 the military has been the most powerful political force. The normal political parties have not been able to function freely. Whether you were Jewish or not Jewish, you always lived with the thought of military intervention. The military intervention most vivid in the minds of people today is that which took place in 1976, when a Peronist regime was overthrown for the second time. But the military was humiliated in the Falklands War. Democracy returned in 1983; and, in 1989, free elections returned the Peronists to power in the midst of the worst financial crisis Argentina has ever known.
I arrived in Argentina in July, when the crisis was at its worst. In February you could get seventeen australes for a dollar; when I arrived it was close to eight hundred for a dollar. The inflation rate was 12,000 percent a year. No prices were posted in the stores. The price at 8:01 was different from the price at 8:02. Nobody wanted the local currency.
In the midst of this turmoil I arrived to talk about Secular Humanistic Judaism.
I arrived in a country where one of the great dreams of Jews is to leave. The middle class, the rockbed of the Jewish community, is being bankrupted. The President of the Argentinian Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism, Gregorio Klimovsky, is one of the most distinguished professors in the country, a professor of philosophy who teaches in two universities. He was on his way, when I met him, to receive an award from the International Psychoanalytic Association in Rome. He earns $150 a month.
The Jews of Argentina may at one time have numbered about 400,000, maybe 350,000, but there has been over the past twenty to thirty years a lot of emigration from Argentina.
The Jewish community came to Argentina at the end of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century. Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a Jewish millionaire, was disturbed by the accusation that Jews did not work with their hands. (Obviously he didn’t.) So he convinced Polish and Russian Jews to go to Argentina to be farmers and gauchos. What happened in Argentina is what happened in Canada. The Jewish farmers in Canada lasted in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and Alberta for only a short while, and they ultimately ended up in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Toronto. They just didn’t want to be farmers. And in Argentina the overwhelming majority ended up in Buenos Aires and other large cities.
The community from the very beginning was overwhelmingly secular, one of the most secular Jewish communities in the world. They had virtually no rabbis and very few synagogues. Their Jewish life was to a large extent built around Yiddish and ultimately around Yiddish nationalism or Zionism.
The Jewish community has been transformed during the past twenty to twenty-five years by the presence of two new groups who exercise great control. One is the Conservative. About twenty years ago or more, an American rabbi named Marshall Meyer showed up in Buenos Aires, sent by the Jewish Theological Seminary. He organized a Conservative seminary and trained rabbis to serve the Jews of Latin America, Jews who were secular but who had no consistent secular Jewish philosophy, and were, therefore, very vulnerable to conversion.
Meyer provided leaders —young, attractive, intellectual, articulate leaders, and they went out and organized congregations all over Latin America, especially in Argentina. Today in Buenos Aires there are at least three Conservative congregations. Today one of the most successful Jewish enterprises in Argentina is the Conservative movement. It is growing there as well as in other parts of Latin America.
The other group is one that previously had absolutely no power. It is the Orthodox. Over the past fifteen to twenty years there have arrived in Argentina Orthodox missionaries — Lubavitchers and others — and they have moved into a community where by the second or third generation many of the people have assimilated and do not have a real sense of what it means to be Jewish. And these missionaries now pose as the authentic Jews. At the opening meeting of the Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelites Argentinas (DAIA), the Argentinian national organization for all Jews, an Orthodox rabbi was invited to give an opening prayer. Fifteen or twenty years ago that would not have happened in Buenos Aires. All over the world aggressive Orthodoxy is moving in, and smug secularists who said it could never happen are discovering that the Orthodox are organizing schools, providing leaders, and taking over.
One of the reasons that the Orthodox are successful is that they bring in dedicated full-time leaders who are committed to their movement. The movement that has the organization and personnel ultimately wins. It is true of the Conservative movement and it is also true of the Orthodox. And when old-time secularists ask how this could happen in Argentina, my answer is that we did not do our homework.
The secular Jews who came to Argentina at the beginning of the century had a religion called socialism, which ultimately died. Then they were left with a spiritual vacuum. Secular simply meant that you did not go to shul and you did not pray.
During Peron’s era, the state schools, which had educated Jewish children, began to deteriorate. Now 65 to 70 percent of the Jewish children in Argentina go to day schools. Some of them are run by the Orthodox, some by the Conservatives, but the overwhelming majority are run by the nisht ahin, nisht aher group. They are in some way vaguely secular, but they will not say so. They allow Orthodox rabbis to come in sometimes to talk and to perform ceremonies. They will not commit themselves to secularism. The ideology of the schools is basically Zionism, with a strong emphasis on teaching the Hebrew language. I was very impressed by the quality of education. Often the schools recruit people from Israel to assist.
The major institutions for Argentinian Jews are a combination of a Jewish community center and a country club. The two largest organizations in Buenos Aires are Club Hebraica and Club Ha-Koach. Each has a large community center in the center of town near Corrientes Avenue, the old Jewish neighborhood. In their centers are libraries, classrooms, Hebrew classes, Yiddish classes, history classes, recreational facilities, the whole spectrum of social and cultural activities. Out in the suburbs they have rowing clubs. Hebraica has close to fifteen thousand members and Ha-koach has an equal number. Their ideology is a negative secularism: If you don’t want to have a bar mitsva in a shul, you can have it at the center. The people in this environment are very vulnerable to the propaganda of the Conservative and Orthodox missionaries because they have never developed a self-aware, clear, positive, Secular Humanistic Jewish philosophy.
Our fledgling group, the Argentinian Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism, has been in existence for three years. Its organizers are a group of intellectuals who came out of two camps that never talked to each other before. One camp was Bundist and Communist and Yiddishist and anti-Zionist; the other camp was zealously Zionist. Now there as been an intermarriage.
The marriage is not an easy one. But they are persisting. They have established classes for adult education. They have put out a magazine, Judaismo Laico, which is very reputable. They have recruited some of the top Jewish writers and intellectuals in Argentina to write for the magazine. They hope to turn this magazine into a Latin American publication to inform Jews in other parts of Latin America of the existence of Secular Humanistic Judaism.
The problem they confront is twofold. The tremendous economic crisis prevents people from concentrating on organizing. They are trying to stay alive. Also, many young people are thinking about leaving the country. Argentina is one of the few countries left in the world where a high percentage of Jewish young people who decide to leave go to Israel, because the day school system is highly Zionistic and many of the students are Hebrew-speaking.
I see great opportunity for us because there exists in Argentina this enormous nisht ahin, nisht aher group, which, if there were leaders who would come and teach and organize, certainly might be responsive to a Secular Humanistic message.
Uruguay is a wonderful place for secularists despite a decade of military rule. Uruguay and Holland are the two countries in the world where virtually 50 percent of the population declare themselves to be non-believers. Although Uruguay is in Catholic Latin America, it has a very strong public, secular tradition. The former president publicly admitted that he is an atheist, and there are not many countries in the world where the president has made that statement.
There are now in Uruguay some thirty thousand Jews. At one time there were fifty thousand. In Montevideo we have an extremely enthusiastic Secular Humanist Jewish group. One of their leaders is Leopoldo Mueller, a psychoanalyst, who writes Freudian interpretations of the Bible for the local Jewish press. Another is Egon Friedler, one of the leading journalists in Uruguay. They utilized my visit to educate the Uruguayan Jewish leaders and community that there was a movement called Secular Humanistic Judaism that existed beyond this small group in Montevideo.
Our group meets often as a community. They celebrate holidays. They are interested in establishing some kind of youth education. They are planning to celebrate life cycle functions. There are many enthusiastic people and quite a few young members. I was impressed by their warmth and commitment.
I have been to the Soviet Union four times: in 1970, in 1974, in 1986, and again this past year. My purpose this time was to look for Jews who might be interested in Secular Humanistic Judaism.
I arrived in the Soviet Union in the midst of a lot of turmoil. The Soviet Union, like Argentina, is suffering an economic crisis. Despite all the propaganda and the heroic poses, it remains an economically backward country. People will tell you there has been a tremendous change between what existed before the revolution and what exists now. That is not an appropriate comparison. The appropriate comparison is between what exists in the Soviet Union and what exists in other countries that were equally devastated by the war. Germany and Japan are perfect examples of countries that arose out of the ruins of devastation.
One of the museums I went to see was the Lenin Museum. One room in this museum is about the 1905 revolution. The 1905 revolution was sparked by the food lines. The photographs showed people standing in line for bread. The pictures looked like the lines I had seen outside the stores that very morning. There is nothing in the stores, and the lines seem to have grown longer. People talk a lot about the economic failure of perestroika.
The nationality problem also is producing pessimism. I met Jews who said they were not sure the Soviet Union would last even for twenty years because this problem is so intense that it may no longer be possible for the Soviet authorities to prevent the nationalities from seceding.
One of the things that glasnost has brought to the Soviet Union is what free speech brings. If you believe in free speech, you allow even the enemy to speak up. Now, not only do nice liberals like Sakharov have a chance to speak out, but also nasty anti-Semites. The Russian response to all this nationalism on the part of the people they have conquered is their own nationalism, and the argument goes like this: Russia was destroyed by the Jews —they invented communism, and once having invented communism and imposed it on us and it didn’t work, they’re fleeing like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
There was a rumor in June of an imminent pogrom, which panicked the Jewish community. A high percentage of the Jews now want to leave. Jews who, three years ago, would not have chosen to leave the Soviet Union, now, because of anti-Semitism and no faith in the future of the economy, want to leave. The question is whether in ten to twenty years there will be a significant Soviet Jewish community.
Demographers differ on the number of Jews in the Soviet Union. I was told by a Jewish demographer that realistically we are now talking about a million and a half Jews. He feels that within twenty to twenty-five years the Jewish population may sink to about five hundred thousand.
In 1986, the Gorbachev reforms really had not hit the Jewish community. This year everybody is talking politics, even out in the streets. You can stand in the middle of Kremlin Square and say Gorbachev is a jerk. When Russians meet foreigners, they want to talk politics day in and day out. In the spirit of the new freedom, a number of spontaneous Jewish organizations have developed. All over Moscow there are small groups. One has as its leader Yuri Sokol, a former colonel in the Soviet army. How does a group like Sokol’s get a place to meet? You cannot rent space unless you are licensed by the state. Where, then, do you meet? In your apartment, of course. In Sokol’s apartment there is a Holocaust museum in one room, a library in another room, and his office in the kitchen. When I was there, two Orthodox rabbis had come from Israel to missionize, and they brought with them a very sophisticated video in Russian. They spoke to the twenty-five young people gathered in the library, explaining that the only true way to be Jewish was the way they were going to show them on the video.
What is happening in the Soviet Union is a free-for-all. Soviet Jewish young people, almost all of them, have assimilated into Russian culture. Ignorant of what it means to be Jewish, but hating the regime and feeling anti-Semitism, they now want to affirm their Jewish identity and now encounter what they believe to be the authentic representatives of Jewishness, who come with sophisticated public relations material. When I landed in Moscow, five Lubavitchers got off my plane. Every Jewish organization in North America is sending its missionaries to the Soviet Union.
No sooner have Jews found freedom than there are internal fights in the Jewish community. One struggle is between those who are Orthodox and those who are not. The Orthodox already have a yeshiva, which is registered under the Soviet Academy of Science. Many Orthodox Jewish groups meet in apartments throughout Moscow. Those who are not Orthodox are less well organized. I was told that seven years ago there was an attempt to organize a Conservative synagogue, which failed. Today a subgroup of the Jewish Cultural Association is organizing itself as a Reform congregation. Those who are secular have no strong sense of what it means to be secular. Their ideology is somewhat vacuous, a kind of negative secularism.
Another conflict in the community revolves around the issue of willingness to be licensed and controlled by the Soviet government. Since the government controls all significant plans for assembly and the distribution of paper for publication, refusing to deal with the government, because you hate communism, can have dire consequences. Yuri Sokol has received approval for his group from the Moscow Soviet. Already some Jews are saying that he is nothing more than an agent of the Russian government. A man named Gorodetsky, who is the head of the Igud Ha-Morim, the Union of Hebrew Teachers, is an ultra-Orthodox Jew who will have no truck at all with the Soviet government. The Jewish Cultural Association, led by Mikhail Chlenov, says, “We do not want the approval of the Moscow Soviet. However, we will seek licensing, because if we get licensing, at least we will have access to a meeting place and will be able to negotiate with the Soviet authorities.” Then there is Tankred Golenpol’sku who runs a newspaper that is obviously paid for by the Soviet government and appears on the newsstands. Many Jews in Moscow are saying he must be a Soviet agent, because where else could he get the money and the paper for publishing it?
I arrived in the midst of all this turmoil— the economic crisis, the crisis of pessimism, the crisis of anti-Semitism, and a divided Jewish community. Would these people be interested in Secular Humanistic Judaism? I had some names to contact.
I spent an exciting time with Mikhail Chlenov, who is basically a secular Jew. He is one of the old-time refuseniks who decided not to leave. He is one of Russia’s leading ethnographers; it was he who, in 1981, started the Jewish Ethnographic Society, which is intended to provide accurate information about the Jews of the Soviet Union. Now he has organized the Jewish Cultural Association.
He is interested in Secular Humanistic Judaism. But in the Soviet Union, atheism and secularism are identified with communism. Most of the Jews in the Soviet Union hate communism. Therefore,the word secular, instead of having a positive overtone, often has a negative overtone. In fact, although most of the Jews indeed are secular, convincing them that secularism is an authentic expression of Judaism and Jewish identity is difficult.
Chlenov does not think that recruitment is impossible, but he believes that it is more difficult than one would imagine.
Aaron Vergelis is editor of Sovietish Heimland, a Jewish publication that has been around for a long time. He was, most likely, an agent of the Soviet government, but he produces a very creditable Yiddish publication, which is now filled with the work of many young authors who have been finding their Jewish identity in their tongue. I met two of those who write for the magazine. Vergelis is not liked by most of the Jews of Moscow. They regard him as somewhat treasonous.
A possible spokesperson for our cause is Igor Krupnik, who works with Mikhail Chlenov as an ethnographer. A brilliant intellectual, he wants to establish an institute for the scientific study of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. He is interested in the ideas of Secular Humanistic Judaism. Krupnik pointed out that we need a group of people to translate our literature into Russian and then circulate that literature to Russian Jewry to give them some idea of what a positive philosophy of Secular Humanistic Judaism is. I met some Soviet Jewish intellectuals who might translate and publish this literature. We also have in Israel a group of Russian emigres attached to the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, who may work with the people in the Soviet Union to produce this literature. With persistence and cautious optimism, we can reach out to Soviet Jews.
I went from Moscow to Jerusalem, and I arrived in time for a Sukkot seminar sponsored by the Israel Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Almost two hundred people attended: young people, old people, an interesting mix of Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The topic was the Palestinian issue, and they had a series of very brilliant speakers. The high point of the seminar weekend for me was the opportunity to make them aware that they are part of a world movement. It is very important for people in Israel who are oppressed by the Orthodox to know that there are Secular Humanistic Jews elsewhere.
During the past year the Israel Association has taken a quantum jump. It acquired one part-time and one full-time staff person. It organized seminars throughout the country. It is sending lecturers into the army and the schools. It has received a lot of press attention. It is now organizing young people’s groups in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The organization is blossoming.
In October, at the third biennial meeting of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews in Chicago, I hope that there will be a significant delegation from Latin America —that we will have an opportunity to meet with them, to talk with them, to share ideas with them, and to provide them with new energy for their struggle as they bring their own energies to support us.
We hope, too, that one or more of the Russian Jewish intellectuals with whom I made contact will be able to come. It will be an opportunity to meet people who are exploring Secular Humanistic Judaism and who can become effective voices for transmitting our ideas to Soviet Jewry. Also coming to that meeting will be the leadership of the Israel Association and perhaps some of the young people.
The topic of the conference is “The Future of the Jewish People.” What is our image of the Jewish people in the future? How do we see it, whether we are Russian Jews, Israeli Jews, Latin American Jews, or North American Jews? One of the arguments I frequently encounter is: “I agree with your ideas, but I don’t think that my grandchildren, if they are secular, will still be Jewish.” We need to counter the argument of the Lubavitchers, who receive enormous amounts of money because they have created the image that they are the only guarantee for Jewish survival.
In Chicago in October, as at the previous international meetings in Brussels and Detroit, we will experience solidarity, a sense that we are part of a single movement. Our brothers and sisters outside North America need our help, and we need the inspiration of their struggle. Together we will create a vital and significant Secular Humanistic Judaism.
Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1990 (vol. 18 no. 4 p35-39)
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference in the way we lead our lives as Jews and as human beings.
The advanced workshop was an attempt to explore the meaning of this statement. Our task was threefold. We wanted to articulate a coherent philosophy that would accommodate our Jewish and humanist commitments. We wanted to become more familiar with the leading philosophers, both ancient and modern, who gave substance to our ideology — Maimonides, Spinoza, Herzl, Pinsker, Berdichevsky, Einstein, Freud, Hook, Fromm, Maslow, and Ahad Ha-am, as well as many other precursors and articulators of Humanistic Judaism. Above all, we wanted to deepen our understanding of basic principles of Humanistic Judaism so that they could more effectively motivate our behavior.
In our two sessions, we dealt with five basic questions:
- What is Judaism?
- What is the fundamental connection between our Jewish experience and our humanism? Or, put in another way, what are the Jewish roots of our humanism?
- What is our world view? That is, what are the outlines of reality we need to acknowledge before we make decisions?
- What are the values that should motivate our behavior?
- What is our relationship to the legacies of the rabbinic tradition?
Here are some of the answers that were presented for discussion and for personal reflection.
While Judaism can be viewed as the culture of the Jewish people, this definition is limiting. Many Jews who identify strongly as Jews participate only peripherally in Jewish culture. Judaism can better be viewed as an ideology about the positive significance of Jewish identity.
Three positive views presently prevail. The traditional outlook maintains that the Jewish people are a chosen people, chosen by God either for privilege or for noble suffering. The “racial” view contends that the Jews are a “superior” race, gifted either intellectually or spiritually or both. The humanistic view maintains that Jewish history and the Jewish experience are testimonies to the absence of a just and loving God in the universe. The meaning of Jewish history is that people must rely on their own efforts and that love and justice come only from human behavior.
Jewish memories and an objective understanding of the Jewish experience are positive reinforcements for a humanistic approach to life. After the Holocaust, humanism.
Jewish Roots of Humanism
Judaism and humanism are vitally connected because of the consequences of the Jewish experience on the Jewish personality.
The rabbinic tradition did not value either skepticism or personal independence. But Jewish history made the Jews a marginal pariah people, deeply suspicious of external authority. This experience helped to direct the Jewish personality into creative assaults on establishment beliefs. When the Enlightenment brought freedom and civil emancipation to the Jews, this “underground tradition” burst forth to sweep the Jews into the center of modern intellectual development.
Many Jews are humanists, not because of exposure to an abstract philosophy, but because of their Jewish experience.
The world view of Humanistic Judaism is identical with that of other forms of humanism.
In a world of many dangers and many threats to personal survival, the overwhelming human concern is where to find the power and the strength to cope with these provocations. The traditional response is to find the power in an external, divine source. The humanistic response is to find the power within oneself and in other people. Humanism and naturalism go together.
While humanism affirms human power, it does not — certainly after the horrors of the twentieth century — maintain that human beings are basically good. We are ambivalent creatures, sometimes prosocial, sometimes antisocial. We can choose to use our power for either good or evil.
Humanistic Jewish values come from two sources: the Jewish experience and the wider human experience.
The human experience teaches us that personal happiness and social welfare often go together. A society in which individuals are autonomous and free is likely to be more productive than a society in which individuals are imprisoned by conformity. Human experience also teaches us that freedom is not enough — that human dignity requires the discipline to keep promises, both implicit and explicit. Trust is essential to the survival of every individual and to the society on which he or she depends.
The Jewish experience teaches us that a world without compassion or equal opportunity produces intolerable suffering. If accompanied by the intensity of chauvinistic nationalism, it will explode into the horrors of holocaust. We need to be compassionate, just, and universalistic because we have been the victims of those who chose not to be.
A humanistic approach to Jewish tradition is respectful but not worshipful. Respect means four things: 1) We acknowledge that the rabbinic tradition was a human creation, neither infallible nor eternal. 2) We recognize that many protohumanists lived in the Jewish past and that they were compelled to articulate their humanism obscurely and discreetly. 3) We choose the right to be selective with the “treasures” of the past, using what we need and discarding what is unacceptable. 4) Above all, we choose the right to invent new traditions in the same way that the authors of “tradition” did.
Sometimes we even reverse the heroes and villains of traditional stories. Job’s wife and the snake in the Garden of Eden have a humanistic hutspa the rabbis did not admire, but we do.
These answers to our five questions demonstrate that Humanistic Judaism is different and does make a difference.
Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1990 (vol. 18 no. 4, p13-19)
Twenty years ago, the Society for Humanistic Judaism held its first meeting. The Birmingham Temple was about seven years old and there were two other congregations, Congregation Beth Or of Chicago and the Westport Congregation of Fairfield County, Connecticut. We weren’t quite sure what would happen. We didn’t know that there would be many more congregations and groups, that ultimately an International Federation of Secular Humanistic Judaism would emerge. What we did know was the excitement of being together, of discovering the solidarity that came from saying we have a task and we have a message.
Now twenty years have passed, and a lot of things have happened. But the thing that brought us together twenty years ago was the firm belief that Humanistic Judaism makes a difference. We felt that what we would be saying and teaching, or sharing and acting out, would not only benefit ourselves but would be good for the Jewish world.
What does it mean to make a difference? A Jewish philosophy of life that makes a difference provides meaning and structure for our lives as Jews. It helps us understand who we are; it helps us distinguish between reality and fantasy; it helps us clarify our moral values; it motivates us to act on what we believe; it satisfies our spiritual needs. It helps us integrate our Jewish identities; it does not stand separate from what we believe or think or feel, but helps us say what we honestly believe. And above all, if it is meaningful, if it makes a difference, if it gives structure to our lives, it gives us a community in which we can find support and solidarity.
Humanistic Judaism has many roots. It has its roots in the national experience of the Jewish people, because before anybody imagined that the Jews were a religious denomination, the Jews were a nation with a language and culture of their own.
It has its roots in the great teachers of the past, prophets and rabbis, who spoke out against oppressive establishments.
It has its roots in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and in the scientific tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth century with which many famous Jews were identified. Jews like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, who felt totally alienated from the religious establishment, but whom we now are proud to call part of the Jewish world and Jewish history.
It has its roots in the struggle of Jews for emancipation, working toward a secular society in which individuals have personal rights and the opportunity to determine the course of their lives and to act on the values they choose.
It has its roots in Yiddish nationalism, that powerful force built around the existence of an Ashkenazic Jewish nation in eastern Europe with its rich culture and voices like Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and Simon Dubnow.
It has its roots in the Zionist movement, which in the twentieth century proclaimed that we Jews are not merely a religious denomination — that is an answer made up by frightened nineteenth century Jews to deal with the presumed hostility of their Gentile neighbors — but that we Jews are by history and ethnicity a nation, open to those who would join us. It has its roots in the feminist movement, which says that we will not tolerate in Jewish life discrimination against women and inequality in their relationship to men.
It has its roots in the experience of the Jewish people during the Holocaust and the terrible questions that came out of that Holocaust with regard to who was guiding the destiny of the Jewish people.
Finally, it has its roots in the underground culture that produced Jewish skepticism and Jewish humor. While the establishment culture was insisting that we live in a world guided by love and justice, the underground culture said, “What?” And out of that underground culture came the character of the Jewish personality, which is never recognized at an interfaith dinner.
Why does Humanistic Judaism make a difference? First of all, because it affirms that we Jews are a people. A woman came to see me at the Birmingham Temple. She was a social worker, a non-Jewish woman who had lived in Israel for about five years and spent time on a kibbutz, had come to love Jewish culture, and had returned to the Detroit area to practice her profession. She said, “I’m an agnostic, I’m not sure there is any God, but I want to be part of the Jewish people. I’ve gone to a lot of rabbis. They have ceremonies in which I would have to say things I don’t believe, and they tell me that if I can’t affirm those beliefs I can’t be Jewish. Yet I feel Jewish, I feel myself identified with Jewish history and Jewish culture.” And I said, “You’ve come to the right place.”
In Humanistic Judaism, we don’t force people to make affirmations of faith that may or may not have any relationship to their beliefs. We don’t do what now happens in the State of Israel, where only Orthodox conversions are recognized and people often —for the sake of gaining a Jewish identity —get up and say things they don’t believe.
We don’t believe, really, in conversion. We believe the Jewish people are a large, extended international family. You can join the mishpokha by saying you want to become part of the family. When you join a family, you don’t have to stand up and say, “I believe this, I believe that.” You simply say, “I love the family,” and the family says, “Welcome into our family.” So Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because we have a special message about Jewish identity. And it has always disturbed me that the secular Jews of Israel, who were the majority, never stood up to confront the Orthodox establishment and say, “We will not take this nonsense any more.”
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it insists on the value of truth. I recently met a man in Detroit who identified himself as a member of the American Humanist Association and as a Jew. I invited him to join the Birmingham Temple, and he told me that he couldn’t do that because he was a member of an Orthodox shul. I said to him, “I don’t understand. How can you go to an Orthodox shul and do all that davening when nothing that is said there is what you believe?” “Believe, shmelieve,” he said. “Who cares about that? It’s Jewish, I feel Jewish.”
Before the Enlightenment, Jewish people davened because they believed in the power of God, they believed in the power of prayer, they believed in the supernatural transformation of things. Nobody ever said, “I’m doing it because it’s Jewish.” Their philosophy of life, their personal convictions were tied up with what they did. Now there is a separation, a dichotomy. Most Jews no longer believe what the prayers say. Even Lubavitcher missionaries come up to you and say, “It doesn’t make any difference whether you believe. Just say it, it’s Jewish.” And that is the bankruptcy of what is happening in Jewish life — personal belief, personal philosophy, is now separated from Jewishness.
Humanistic Judaism says the question of truth is just as important as the question of Jewishness. I will not get up and say what I do not believe. That is my integrity; I will not be this dichotomous person, split in two, my personal philosophy of life unrelated to the words I recite.
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it does not depend on quotations. A young member of my congregation, a very sensitive young man, has been troubled by the intifada in the West Bank and Gaza and some of the responses of Israeli extremists toward the rights and dignity of Palestinians. He recently went to a service at one of the Conservative synagogues in our town. The rabbi gave an impassioned defense of the right of the Jews to the West Bank and Gaza, and he then proceeded to cite some quotations from the Bible.
I said to this young man that in Jewish life you always can find the quotation you need. I can find quotations too: “You must love your neighbor as yourself,” “Remember that you were strangers in the land.” There is no single Jewish point of view, and there never has been.
And he said to me, “So where do we get our Jewish values?” And I said, “Jewish values do not come from Jewish quotations. Jewish values come from the Jewish experience. The reason it is wrong to oppress Palestinians and to deny them the right to self-determination is because of Jewish history. It is inconceivable that a Jewish people that has endured discrimination and suffering all these years could in turn not be sensitive to the needs and rights of other people.
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it makes the present as important as the past. A member of my congregation, who died about two years ago, was a very, very consistent Humanistic Jew. He would not say what he did not believe. He loved some of the poetry that we use in our services, particularly a poem by David Rokeach. And so he made a specific request that at his funeral service, he did not want the Kaddish recited, he wanted that poem read. And when I read, at the end of the service, this passionate poem by David Rokeach, it was very meaningful for me because I realized how much the words had meant to him: “Whoever stands against the mountain without recoil, [whoever faces life with courage, even though they die] shall ascend its summit.”
After the service was over, somebody came up to me and said, “Why didn’t you recite the Kaddish?” And I said, “I didn’t recite the Kaddish because the man who died didn’t believe in praising God at the time of death, but rather he believed in human courage in the face of death. And he also believed that words written only a few years ago could be of equal value to words written two thousand years ago.”
Humanistic Judaism says we are not interested in whether something is merely old. We are interested in whether something for us is true and has high quality. Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it allows the creativity of the Jewish present to have equal status with the creativity of the past.
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it uses the tradition creatively. There was an article by Woody Allen in Tikkun, in which he talked about his favorite biblical character who came out of the book of Job. Was it Job, struggling with the agonies of “why is this happening to me, why is this happening to me, why is this happening to me,” forty chapters of it? No, his favorite character in the whole Bible was Job’s wife, because, as she is moaning and groaning, having been tested by God, she says to him, “Come on, Job, where’s your dignity? Why don’t you just stand up, curse God, and die! Just stand up and say, ‘Stop fooling around with me.’” Now, some people thought that remark was terribly blasphemous. But, if you use the tradition creatively, you don’t have to pick all the heroes that the establishment does. You may decide that Job’s wife is more interesting than Job. You may decide that Saul is more interesting than David.
Several years ago I was talking with a couple about the wedding ceremony they wanted, and the woman said to me, “Why does he break a glass and I don’t?” I said, “I don’t know. Do you want to break a glass?” She said, “Yes.” So, at the wedding, a celebration of their equality, there were two glasses broken and the audience broke into a cheer. Just because the tradition says one glass, why must we use only one glass? The tradition is there for us to use to express what is important to us. We don’t exist for the tradition; the tradition exists to enrich our lives, to enrich our imagination.
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it is responsible to the facts. I recently had the opportunity to critique a group of papers prepared by people training in the madrikh program of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. One woman had written that Judaism is superior to Christianity because while Christianity emphasized the afterlife, Jews were always emphasizing this life.
So I said to her, “Making unfair comparisons is not a way to be a good Jew. One of the most important ideas in rabbinic Judaism is the resurrection of the dead and the preparation for the world to come. My grandfather believed in it fervently. There are wonderfully good things about the Jewish tradition. We don’t have to deny things that we don’t like or don’t agree with. We can look at themand say they are facts in our history.”
In so many parts of the Jewish world, people find it necessary to be kosherized by the past, to prove that somehow their ideas are really the Jewish ideas that were there in the past. If you’re a good Humanistic
Jew, you do not need to do that. The validity of the ideas does not depend on whether people agreed with you in the past. The way to treat the past is with respect, to acknowledge what people indeed believed. To look at the history and say, these are the facts, I can deal with it, I can live with it, I don’t have to distort it, I can be comfortable being realistic and honest.
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it insists on human autonomy. About six months ago somebody who had heard about Humanistic Judaism came to see me, and he said, “Please show me the service book of Humanistic Judaism.” And I said, “We have celebrations here in our congregation. They are created by me, by the ceremonial director, and by other members of the congregation. But we have no official book, no Siddur, because that would be inconsistent with our ideology.” In Humanistic Judaism, each community has to decide what is comfortable for it. If, in Northern California, they want to use particular texts and readings for their celebration, that’s their choice. There is no fixed format that comes out of the past that dictates with authority what we need to do.
Just before April 20, in a class I was teaching, one of the boys said, “Why don’t we make Earth Day a Jewish holiday?” And one of the other kids said, “You can’t make Earth Day a Jewish holiday— it’s not a Jewish holiday.” And I said, “You can make a holiday a Jewish holiday, because that’s what they’ve done throughout Jewish history. They did that to Pesakh, they did that to Purim. If, two thousand years ago, a group of people chose a holiday and said it was Jewish, why do they have the right and we don’t?”
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it puts Jewishness and philosophy together. Last October I was in Moscow. It was a time of high excitement because of the tremendous changes, and high anxiety because of the great fear that was now pervading the Soviet Jewish community. I met a distinguished professor of ethnography who was involved in the dissident movement and who was a confirmed Humanistic Jew. I asked where his convictions as a Humanistic Jew came from. From his philosophic ideas? From the secular environment of the Soviet Union? And he said, “I am a Humanistic Jew because of my Jewish experience.
My father and mother were Holocaust survivors. I lived my early years with the impact of that experience. And therefore I am a Humanistic Jew, questioning whether we live in a universe guided by love and justice. I am a Humanistic Jew, realizing that ultimately we human beings have to be responsible for our fate because there is no force out there that is going to take care of us.”
Humanistic Judaism says that if you look at Jewish history, if you really feel it, if you really understand what has happened to Jews during the past two thousand years, if you understand our fate and destiny, then your humanism doesn’t come from some philosophic textbook. It comes from the Jewish experience. Your philosophy of life and your Jewish experience go together.
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it returns the spiritual to where it belongs. There is a person I’ve known for many, many years who always has said he is not going to join the Birmingham Temple because Humanistic Judaism is not spiritual enough. I never could get him to define the word spiritual. It was like something floating up there somewhere — something ethereal, indescribable. Recently I was at a party with this person, and we got to talking about the Holocaust center in Washington, D.C., and that led me to bring up something that had been very disturbing to me. Recently the Israeli government cancelled a television program about the Armenian holocaust because of fear that the Turkish government, which is semi-friendly to the State of Israel, would object to the program and it would sour relations. My acquaintance said that was a wise decision. And I said to him, “I don’t know what you mean by the word spiritual, but to me, as a Humanistic Jew, it means that I have some connection with something greater than myself, and it’s not the whole universe to start off with — it’s the rest of the human race. When you feel that you’re part of something greater than yourself, the initial experience is with humanity. And if you can’t as a human being be outraged that the suffering of other people is not recognized, that somebody else’s holocaust is not recognized, then what does the word spiritual mean?”
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it recognizes that people are people, not labels. I was called by a hysterical mother. Her daughter wanted to marry a non-Jewish man, and none of the rabbis in town would respond to them in a positive way. So I said, “Please send them to see me.”
They were two environmental lawyers, totally compatible, both basically humanists. And I said to them, “What’s the problem?” He said, “No one ever deals with me as a person. They always deal with me as a label. I’m a Gentile, and the most important thing about us is that she’s Jewish and I’m not.” And then she said, “My parents always said that we Jews believed in brotherhood and justice and love. And now I’ve got a hysterical liberal mother who can only deal with this man I love as a label.”
“I understand your grievance,” I said. “First of all, I want to congratulate you because you love each other, because I think love is wonderful. I want to congratulate you because you have all these values that you share. I want you to know that I will help you. And,” I said to the non-Jewish man, “if you want to study and learn more about Jewish culture, I will be glad to spend time with you. But I want you to know that the two of you are first and above all, in my eyes, not labels. That would be inconsistent with my moral view of the world as a Humanistic Jew. You are persons, unique and special, each with his own or her own power and the right to be treated as persons, not as labels.”
Finally, Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it is more than a collection of individuals. I received a letter from a member of the Israel Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and she told me about something that was happening in Israel. Members of the Israel Association, overwhelmed by the agreements that were being made by both the Labor Party and the Likud with the Orthodox, had held a demonstration protesting the attitude of the Orthodox toward the State of Israel and the rights of Secular and Humanistic and Reform and Conservative Jews. She said, “It got on television, and it was wonderful because for so long we Secular Humanistic Jews in Israel have been disorganized, and now we’re organizing. We are going to affirm our human rights. We have discovered that we are not alone, each individual alone, but that we have a voice. And that voice is possible only if we come together.”
The reason that we have the Society for Humanistic Judaism is that we are not an abstraction. We’re not just an abstract philosophy floating in the air. We’re not simply a collection of isolated individuals. We are a community. We want to be a stronger voice, and we want to experience the pleasure and the thrill of struggling together and working together and speaking together because we believe that we have a message. Because we believe that Humanistic Judaism makes a difference.
Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1989, (vol. 17 no. 4, p45-48)
Fundamentalism is not the major religious challenge to humanism and to Humanistic Judaism. The premises of this faith are so far removed from the thinking patterns of most Jewish humanists that they are unlikely to be seduced by it.
The real challenge comes from closer to home — from the success story of a new liberal religion.
The now deceased “giver” of this new liberal religion is Joseph Campbell, who achieved national fame through his television interview with Bill Moyers. This interview, turned into a best-selling book called The Power of Myth, popularized the religious ideas of this long-time professor of mythology at Sarah Lawrence College.
Campbell has taken the ideas of the New Age mysticism and synthesized them into a new, powerful, attractive spiritual alternative. This New Age mysticism has been around in popular form for more than twenty years. But Campbell has effectively dramatized its answers for a wider public than its usual devotees.
New Age mysticism has its roots in many places: in the theology and practices of Eastern religions, in the psychological views of Carl Gustav Jung, disciple and rival of Freud, and in the self-esteem movements of modern psychotherapy. The trigger for its growth was the deep disillusionment with the moral authority of America and the Western world during the troubled times of the Vietnam War. This despair was reinforced by the romantic idealism of the political New Left and the rising skepticism about the value of science, reason, and technology in an age of nuclear weapons.
Spirituality replaced intellectuality as the dominant need of the new generation of “seekers.” Gurus and ashrams multiplied. Meditation and yoga became popular exercises. Mind power and holistic healing seized center stage. New sects and spiritual centers sprang up in profusion. The Age of Aquarius was born.
Joseph Campbell is the voice of this new religion, which is radically different from the equally successful fundamentalist religion that confronts it. What does he teach?
Seven basic principles of the new religion are articulated in The Power of Myth.
- The Judeo-Christian tradition, in its institutional form, is a dogmatic, self-righteous tradition. It is officially blind to the splendors of other great world religions, which have much more spiritual truth to offer.
- True reason is not science. It is a powerful intuition that enables us to discern the spiritual reality that infuses the material world.
- Behind the seeming disorder and chaos of worldly events lies a spirit of harmony and love. From the perspective of eternity, what appears to be evil through parochial eyes fits in with an ultimate universal good. The face of God is sometimes cruel and ugly. But, in the end, it is awesomely beautiful.
- The goal of life is an inner acceptance and serenity, which comes from the realization that divinity is not far away but within oneself, within one’s mind, heart, and soul. Looking inward becomes the comforting alternative to the frantic extroversion of modern society.
- Every spiritual search is individual and personal. Any attempt to create dogmatically a single path to God is a violation of human dignity. Each person must find his/her own way. The true spiritual leader is a guide, not a dictator.
- All mythologies are symbolic reflections of our spiritual quest. Since they are symbols, they must not be taken literally. Nor is one mythology superior to another. All of them are feeble attempts to describe a reality, an overarching unity of all things, which even the word God is inadequate to denote.
- God infuses nature in the same way that he infuses humanity. The love of nature and of other people are reflections of the love that pervades the universe. A new mythology is needed to fully express the new awareness of the unity of our planet with all life and with all people.
From a humanistic perspective, many aspects of this new religion are very attractive.
It is anti-dogmatic, chastising all traditional Western religions for their parochial exclusiveness and their dogmatic claims to absolute truth. It is individualistic, affirming the right of individuals to be the masters of their hearts, minds, and behavior and acknowledging that no institutional pronouncement stands higher than the individual conscience. It is liberal and open, denying that there are any final answers to religious questions and welcoming truth from wherever it may come. It is people-centered, emphasizing that divine power does not rest in some distant supernatural realm but is pantheistically present in each and every human being. It is dignity-affirming, claiming that the individual human mind is capable of extraordinary powers, which can be utilized for empathetic understanding and self-healing.
It is environmental, denouncing the notion that humanity bears some kind of divine mandate to do with our planet as it wishes and emphasizing the evolutionary connection of the human race with all life. It is one-worldly, condemning archaic nationalism and advocating the concept of world citizenship. It is this-worldly, finding spiritual significance in the here and now and exulting in the possibilities of everyday living.
These humanistic elements make this new religion far more attractive than the old theistic religions. Liberals can easily identify with the nondogmatic, democratic, and individualistic character of this spiritual message. But, despite its humanistic aura, it is not humanism.
There are certain major differences between the New Age mysticism and the humanism of Humanistic Judaism.
Reason is not intuition. Intuition is the beginning of knowledge. But reason is the sober judge that distinguishes between realistic intuitions and crazy ones. Feeling that something is real is no indication that it is. Where public evidence is absent, we remain appropriately agnostic. Not knowing is better than pretending to know.
Autonomy is not truth. Dogmatic religion makes tradition the arbiter of truth. But the polar opposite is equally invalid.
Leaving the truth up to each individual conscience makes it hopelessly subjective. Individuals can be as crazy and out of touch with reality as can institutional traditions. The truth is not democratic. The person with the evidence outvotes the masses with none. One ought to be free to run one’s life in accordance with one’s wishes. But one is not free to remake the universe. Reality is not something to be invented. It is something to be discovered. And no individual conscience can make it other than it is.
Emotions are in human beings. Love is marvelous. But it is not floating in the outer reaches of outer space. It is a function of a human nervous system and does not exist independent of the physical reality that makes it possible. The attraction of atom for atom is not love. The balance of nature is not love. And to call it love is to deprive the word of any concrete meaning. The universe is not emotional. We are.
The unspeakable is unspeakable. It is amazing how much space in mysticism is devoted to describing what is indescribable. Mythological symbols are useless if what they are pointing to is, in the end, inconceivable. (The incomprehensible is, by its very nature, “the emperor’s clothing,” an informational zero.) In their mysterious ability to mean anything we can think of, these symbols can provide no guide to life. Reverence is more appropriately directed to what makes human survival possible. Human solidarity appears more suitable than spiritual vagueness. The so-called spiritual awareness of the mystical experience may indeed be euphoria, but euphoria without knowledge.
One is not better than two. The monotheistic notion that unity is better than diversity in not borne out by reality. Indeed, there may be some single conscious force that underlies the whole universe. But why is that better than having two conscious forces or no conscious direction at all? By implication, if a single conscious force governs the world, then a single conscious force should govern the state, the family, the individual. And if this single divinity speaks with contradictory voices through a billion different individual consciences, of what significance is its unity?
Harmony is an illusion. There is order in the universe. But there is not compulsory moral order, as far as we can see. The law of gravity is as happy to cooperate with the criminal as with the saint. The evidence of our experience does not support the notion that some kind of fundamental harmony pervades nature. Chicken dinner fits harmoniously into the agenda of people. But it is not quite so wonderful for chickens. Confrontation is as intrinsic to the universe as harmony.
Evil is evil. Attempts to rescue the reputation of God by making the bad appear to be good are contrived. Some suffering may lead to character improvement. But some suffering is intrinsically evil. One would be hard put to find the mysterious good in the Holocaust. Would we want to say that those who died had simply been expiating the sins of previous lives in accordance with the decrees of karma? The most dignified thing to do with evil is to let evil be evil. In that way, what is good and wonderful has some real significance. Life is no less meaningful because there is no ultimate justice in the universe. The meaning of life comes from the possibility of satisfying human desires — not from a perfect universe.
Comfort is not dignity. Serenity is an inappropriate ambition. In a world of danger and frustration, to be on the alert is a more realistic goal. Given the Jewish experience, nervousness is a more appropriate response to reality than is serene faith. Alertness needs rest and relaxation to sustain it. Meditation for relaxation is a welcome addition to the human possibility. But meditation to produce fearlessness and the illusion that all is ultimately well is self-destructive. Human dignity is the willingness to confront the world on its realistic face, even when it frightens us. Only then can we be motivated to change it for the better.
There are many kinds of spirituality. The spiritual experience is an experience of transcendence, the experience of feeling part of something greater than ourselves. Our first spiritual experience is the connection we feel as infants with our mother and father. Later on it expands to include our family, our community, our planet, and our universe. Spiritual experiences, if not carried to the excess where individual identity is lost, are important inspirational opportunities. But they are perfectly natural. They do not need a supernatural explanation. They do not need to be overromanticized so that the nonspiritual events of life appear insignificant. They are an important part of life. But they do not define the meaning of life, which exists in a variety of different experiences. Being spiritual all the time is as boring as being competitive all the time. In the end, spiritual events should lead us outward to our connections with other people and nature — not inward into self-absorption.
A humanistic Jewish response to the New Age mysticism is friendly but cautious. It applauds the humanistic dimension but notes the same avoidance of reality that characterized the religions that preceded it. One of the great challenges to the integrity of humanism in this age of free creativity is that frequently the old religion is dressed up in more attractive, humanistic clothing. But it is still basically the old religion.
Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1985, (vol. 13 no.3, p49-53)
HIN-NAY MA TOV
How good and how pleasant it is to live in unity.
The Jewish people is an old people, older than most nations. We began so long ago that it is very hard to know when the Jewish adventure really started. In some dim antiquity, obscured by myth and legend, our Hebrew ancestors made their debut and stepped onto the stage of history.
Our national drama has featured many achievements. Famous books were written. Famous battles were won. Famous ideas were shared. It has also provided many frustrations. Too many enemies assaulted us. Too many martyrs died. Too many hopes were dashed.
Jewish history is the four thousand years of this Jewish experience. It is the sum total of all the pleasure and pain, triumphs and defeats, fulfilled dreams and disappointments which have entered into our memories through centuries of struggle and striving.
We are the children of that Jewish experience.
We are the children of the Jewish experience.
AM YIS-RA-EL HIE.
The Jewish people lives.
The Jewish experience is a national experience.
We Jews did not begin as a religious denomination. We did not start out as a theological fraternity. We began our adventure as a nation, as a federation of clans and tribes. Language, life style, the ties of family loyalty, and the sentimental memories of shared ancestors bound us together.
No single set of religious ideas defined our character. No single system of ethical commitments embraced our personal ambitions. From the very beginning Jewish identity was a matter of birth and not a matter of belief. More important than theological convictions were the mothers and fathers, the matriarchs and patriarchs, who gave us entry into the Jewish nation.
To be a Jew is to feel the national roots, to affirm the ancestral pasts, to experience the family connections. We have many opinions. But destiny has made us one people.
We are one people. We feel our national roots. We feel our ancestral past. We experience our family connection.
Our hope has not yet perished.
The Jewish experience is an international experience.
Two thousand years ago our ancestors left the land of Israel. There were many reasons for leaving. The land was too crowded. Foreign conquerors were oppressive. Hostile invaders settled down.
The dispersion posed a threat to Jewish survival. A homeland without a Diaspora was normal. But a Diaspora without a homeland seemed a historical impossibility — like limbs without a body, like trees without their roots. Was it possible for a nation without a country of its own to remain a nation? Was it possible to cut out the ancient heart of a people and to keep it alive?
In the Galut, we Jews achieved a new self-image. We became an international people. While we still loved our native land, we also grew attached to the places where we lived. As members of a world family, no land could fully claim us. We carried our holidays, our memories, our language with us wherever we went. Hebrew was still Hebrew, even in Timbuktu.
We are a universal family. We are an international people. Israel is our homeland. But the world is our home.
Let us make peace and friendship for all the world.
The Jewish experience is the experience of change.
The power of people is the power of change. Circumstances never stay the same. People never stay the same. Culture never stays the same.
Judaism did not fall from heaven. It was not invented by a divine spokesman. It was created by the Jewish people. It was molded by Jewish experience. It was flavored by Jewish sadness and Jewish joy.
Holidays are responses to human events. Ceremonies are celebrations of human development. Music and literature are the expressions of human needs.
Life is an evolution, a continuous flow of transformation. And so is culture. When circumstances change, people change. When people change, their laws and customs change.
A healthy people welcomes change. It understands its history. It knows its own power. It leads the past into the future.
We welcome change. We understand our own history.
We know our own power. We seek to lead the past into the future.
Soon you will see how good it will be.
The Jewish experience is an experience of human ingenuity.
Blind faith is often so dramatic and so noisy that it diverts our attention from the quiet power of practical day to day decisions. Most people live by common sense. They test the truth of ideas by their consequences. The ordinary people
who learn to grow food, to build houses, to make friends, to fight disaster may easily be forgotten. But their undramatic efforts have more to do with human survival than priestly proclamations.
Jewish survival has a similar origin. We are sometimes so obsessed with the literature of prophets and rabbis that we ignore the unrecorded heroes of Jewish life — the people who, day by day, solved their problems and improved their world by adapting old advice to new situations. Peasants and merchants, workers and bankers, doctors and engineers — all of these are heroes of the unacknowledged tradition of Jewish reason.
When, two hundred years ago, the Enlightenment officially came to Jewish life, it was not entirely new. Science is only the refinement of the practical common sense of centuries of survivors.
We pay our tribute to the unknown heroes of Jewish ingenuity.
Rock, roar with laughter! I shall not change my faith in people. Mock me? Still I believe in you.
The Jewish experience is the experience of danger.
Jewish identity is no casual connection. It is no matter-of-fact involvement. In a world of Jew hatred, it is often dangerous to be Jewish.
We Jews have had many enemies. Some of them despised our religious ideas. Some of them coveted our possessions. Some of them envied our skills. Some of them were threatened by our success. But all of them made our humiliation an important part of their lives.
Coping with hostility is never easy. A vulnerable minority cannot fall back on the strength of numbers. Nor can it claim for itself the privileges of the native-born. It has to be much more inventive.
In the face of hatred, our ancestors learned many new skills. They learned to be cautious. They learned to be protective of one another. They learned to be ambitious, striving for the security of money and power. They learned to be strong, doing much and expecting little. They even learned to laugh at the absurdity of their own suffering.
Out of this confrontation emerged the Jewish personality, a figure too proud to surrender, too wise to rely on the promises of enemies, too determined to give up hope.
We are too proud to surrender, too wise to rely on the promises of enemies, too determined to give up hope.
ZOG NIT KEYNMOL
Never say that you are on the final road.
The Jewish experience is the experience of humanism.
Through the eyes of tradition, through the vision of priests, prophets, and rabbis, Jewish history is a testimony to the power and justice of a loving God. The Jewish people is a chosen people, chosen for special duties, special suffering, and special rewards. All that happens to the Jewish nation is part of a noble divine plan, even though we humans, like poor Job, have difficulty understanding its nobility.
But the real history of the Jews has a meaning different from what the authors of tradition wanted it to be. No historic belief system can hide the undeserved suffering of the Jewish past. No age-old ideology can hide the cruelty of fate. In the century of the Holocaust, the illusions of the past insult the memories of our martyrs.
If Jewish history has any message, it is the demand for human self-reliance. In an indifferent universe, there is no help from destiny. Either we assume responsibility for our fate or no one will. A world without divine guarantees and divine justice is a little bit frightening. But it is also the source of human freedom and human dignity.
We stand alone, and yet together, to create the world we want.
Where is my light?
Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1985, (vol. 13 no.1, p7-11)
In the century of the Holocaust, it would seem both insensitive and malicious to say anything positive about anti-Semitism. How can a social force which has mercilessly destroyed so many millions of people for so many hundreds of years be designated as anything but evil?
But a moral evil such as anti-Semitism may have consequences that its perpetrators never intended. While it may destroy some of its victims, it also may motivate the survivors to affirm a stronger group identity.
This observation has nothing to do with the proponents of the “suffering is good for you” ideology, who are always able to find something positive in pain and humiliation. Nor is this observation connected with the “evil is often a necessary prelude to good” theme. Some Jewish commentators have pointed out that, without the terrible devastation of Hitler’s war, the state of Israel would never have come into existence. These boors are reminiscent of the Chinese in the Charles Lamb short story who accidentally discovered roast pork when a house with a pig in it burned down and who then deliberately repeated the incident every time they wanted to savor crackling.
The observation is more reflective of Arnold Toynbee’s thesis that the skills of great civilizations never emerged in tranquil, protective environments. They developed in response to harsh challenges which forced people to mobilize their talents and energies to find solutions. The flooded Nile and infertile Greece, not the tropical paradise of the South Sea islands, were the setting for quantum jumps in human advancement.
The observation also reflects the insights of Konrad Lorenz and Arthur Koestler, both of whom maintained that external hostility reinforces internal bonds. The stronger the hate from without, the stronger the love from within. Hatred, if it is not totally lethal, can stimulate survival responses.
Of course, many nations throughout history were destroyed by the hostility of their neighbors. Especially if they were enslaved and thus had no control over their own institutions, they could be overwhelmed by terror. But pariah people, such as the Jews, who were outcasts rather than servants, generally fared better, developing the convenient skills of
outsiders. The difference in the success of blacks and Jews in America is a testimony to the validity of this distinction.
Positive Survival Skills
Anti-Semitism , whatever its source — whether pagan, Christian or Muslim — stimulated among Jews a series of survival responses which would never have come into existence without it. These responses became so important that they ultimately defined the self-image of the Jew. Some of these skills have positive value from a humanistic point of view. Some of them have negative value.
Six positive skills come to mind.
Insecurity is one of the best stimuli for ambition. Safety and contentment produce satisfaction with the status quo and reluctance to make changes. But hatred and threats drive pariahs to strive for the security of money, fame or power.
In the post-Enlightenment society of the West, where anti-Semitism did not significantly interfere with educational and entrepreneurial opportunity, Jewish anxiety produced a swift success unequalled by any other ethnic group. The army of Jewish physicians, lawyers, and other professionals who emerged from deprived economic backgrounds make the Jewish community in North America a powerful political and social force.
The hostility of enemies and the inability of Jews to rely on the goodwill of the outside world forced them to organize an internal defense structure. The more burdensome the external pressure, the more intense the community effort to protect and sustain itself.
The willingness of American Jews to impose upon themselves a form of internal taxation unparalleled in any other established community is directly attributable to the legacy of anti-Semitism. The well-organized power of Jewish Welfare Federations and United Jewish Appeals to recruit Jews for charity would never have emerged without Hitler and earlier oppressors.
Although the rabbinic tradition is an authoritarian one, most modern Jews are devotees of a liberal democratic political philosophy. Outside of Israel, even the Orthodox are wary of autocracy.
The affinity for liberal democracy did not occur because the Jewish masses became avid readers of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill. The devotion of the Jews to the liberal parties of Western Europe and North America was the result of two motivations: liberal parties were ardent champions of capitalism and individual enterprise; these parties embraced anti-clericalism and championed the separation of church from state.
Even when liberal parties switched from free enterprise to state welfare, Jews, in large part, stuck with them because of the second issue. The Jewish vote for Mondale in the 1984 presidential election was not stimulated by economic concerns but by the blatant influence of the Religious Right in the Reagan camp.
Where Jews are a vulnerable minority, they support liberal democratic regimes as a safety measure, even though they may accept different behavior in the Jewish state.
Alliances with vulnerable minority groups
While the persecuted throughout history have displayed more self-pity than sympathy for other sufferers, self-interest often dictates alliances with groups who endure similar persecution.
Jews and blacks share few cultural or economic interests. But the people who dislike Jews also tend to dislike blacks. The result is that, while Jews and blacks in America at times have incompatible agendas, they end up in political alliance with each other. The alternative of separation gives too much power to their shared foes.
It must, however, be pointed out that, for reasons of security, Jews often have identified with ruling ethnic groups against oppressed majorities. The alliance with the Germans and Hungarians in the Austrian Empire, the connection with the British in Quebec, and the attachment to the Turks in Greece and the Near East are examples of this identification. Sometimes the ruling power seems to offer more safety and opportunity than the downtrodden masses.
The established ideology of the Jewish people extols faith, humility and obedience. Yet the modern Jew seems to reflect these presumed virtues far less than members of other ethnic groups.
This dichotomy flows naturally from the experience of the Jewish people. While their literature promised divine protection, success, and victory, the Jews were victims of unending disaster. Although it was dangerous to publicly challenge the goodness of God, the average Jew ultimately internalized the challenge. Skepticism became part of the Jewish personality.
This skepticism could be safely directed to secular objects: authorities, governments, rosy predictions about the future and assumptions about human nature. Shrugging the shoulders was the Jewish answer to naive faith.
When the secular age arrived, this personality trait served the Jews well. As skeptical outsiders who had no vested interest in preserving the old order, they could be boldly creative in ways their contemporaries could not. Marx, Freud and Einstein — with the freedom that “outsiderness” brings — were the products of this Jewish condition.
The essence of a sense of humor is the awareness that the world is crazy. People who recognize the absurdity of the universe, who notice that the fates are unconcerned with the human agenda, tend to laugh more easily than those who imagine that an important purpose lurks behind every event.
Anti-Semitism is the major contributor to the Jewish sense of the absurd — and, consequently, to the famous Jewish sense of humor. Jewish piety found relief in Jewish laughter. In the face of a destiny which no longer responded to Jewish crying and wailing, humor became the only decent alternative. Besides, laughter can have a slightly hostile edge — a comforting outlet for a people compelled by tradition to praise the ultimate author of their misfortune.
Without the Jewish sense of the absurd, both the Jewish people and modern culture would be seriously diminished.
Negative Survival Skills
While many of the survival responses provoked by anti-Semitism are humanistically positive, others are humanistically negative. Humanistic Jews must both live with them and resist them.
Hostility to the outside world
Despising your enemies is an age old group preservative. Jews often responded to the hostility of their neighbors by returning the hatred. The more they were despised, the more they came to despise. In time, contempt became a formidable barrier that prevented Jews from friendly and empathic intercourse with their Gentile neighbors even after the legal restrictions faded away.
In Jewish folk culture the goy, the shegets, the shiksa became intruders or strangers to be mocked and excluded.
Claims of superiority
It is normal for people who are labeled inferior to respond with apologetic claims of superiority. Just as Russians have a need to prove that everything important was invented by Russians, just as blacks have a need to demonstrate that they are more compassionate and more caring than whites, so do Jews have a need to prove that they possess a unique edge.
The claimed advantage frequently is the mirror image of the accusation the enemies hurl. Since Jews often are accused of shady dealings, the apologist maintains that Jews invented morality and ethics. Since Jews are often denounced for clannishness, the defender asserts that they were the first to conceive of brotherhood and the Messianic age. Since Jews are often blamed for arid intellectuality, the apologist claims that they are a God-intoxicated people.
The defenses are familiar. They are the historic menu of interfaith banquets and the copy for antidefamation literature. They are embarrassing ego props for people who really do not need them, since our real achievements speak for themselves.
In the era of the modern nation-state, dual loyalty is a secular sin. Until the recent emergence of “ethnic power” in America and other Western countries, minorities were afraid to be too ethnic lest they be accused of greater loyalty to their homeland than to their host country.
In response to this threat, many Jews in the nineteenth century began to deny the national character of Jewish identity. They felt safer advertising themselves as a religious denomination. “Germans of the Mosaic Faith,” “Americans of the Jewish persuasion” — these were familiar inventions of frightened assimilationists who believed they could deceive their enemies by pretending to be what indeed they were not.
In America, even today, many Jews whose Jewish attachments are primarily ethnic and cultural have difficulty fitting into the Jewish community because the powers that be maintain that being Jewish is tied up with believing certain things about God.
Making survival the ultimate value
Historically speaking, group self-awareness preceded individual self-awareness. Until modern times, most people believed that group survival — whether that group be a family, clan or tribe — was more important than individual fulfillment.
In our modern urban culture, where affluence and opportunity have reduced group tyranny over the life of the individual, some nations have come to acknowledge the primacy of the person through the creation of political regimes that maximize individual choice and self-reliance. Jews have been pioneers of such systems.
But anti-Semitism has made Jews ambivalent. On the one hand, they value their newfound freedom. On the other hand, they are consumed by fear that the Jewish people, in this age of intermarriage and life style options, will not survive as a people unless they subordinate their individual welfare to group demands. They are reluctant to give their enemies the satisfaction of voluntary disappearance.
Persecuted minorities often survive by making group survival the ultimate value. But in so doing, they undermine the quality of individual life which makes the group worth preserving. Judaism no longer exists for Jews. Jews exist for Judaism.
The result of this survival response is that any strategy becomes palatable, so long as it promises Jewish survival. Segregation, the suppression of religious diversity, restrictions on the right of Jews to marry whom they choose — even the expulsion of Arabs from the Jewish state — become justified when no value transcends group preservation.
Anti-Semitism continues to have a powerful influence on the survival responses of the Jewish people. It is our moral obligation as Humanistic Jews to deal with these effects selectively, resisting the negative and encouraging the positive.
Humanistic Judaism, Summer 1982, (vol. 10 no. 1, p43-46)
The Shefayim Conference in October, 1981 was the beginning of a long process of exploration, dialogue, and cooperation.
Secular and humanistic Jews from North America and from Israel came together to discuss what it means to be both Jews and secular humanists. This meeting was the first dialogue in Israel where the focus on a secular Jewish identity was separated from the political controversies of socialism and Zionism. In the past, secularism was identified with the program of the socialist left. Whatever bourgeois secularists were around viewed it as a logical consequence of the development of a modern Jewish nationalism. Activists opposed to religious coercion saw it as a civil liberties issue and not as the creation of an alternative philosophy of life.
The October Conference was, therefore, treading on new ground. A humanistic Judaism which did not have firm connections to political parties and which proposed to develop a clear philosophic alternative to religious Judaism was a novelty, even a luxury. The very nature of Israeli culture and problems had given this opportunity neither clarity nor urgency.
The Shefayim meeting was short, only two days. It included some people who were interested in humanism, but not Jewish identity. It excluded many secular Jewish leaders who were unknown to us (some of whom later signed the Conference statement). There were political leaders like Shulamit Aloni, the founder of the Citizens Rights Movement, Meir Pail, a spokesperson for the Sheli doves, and Mordecai Wiskurski, a parliamentary delegate from centrist Shimui. There were academicians like Gershon Weiler, author of a definitive work on the secular state, and Uri Rapp, Tel Aviv sociologist and civil libertarian. There were writers like essayist Yigal Elam, playwright Yehudah Sobel, and journalist Mendel Kohansky. There were activists from the small Israeli secular humanist movement like Yitshak Hasson and Gabriel Glaser.
Although time did not allow for a full discussion of basic philosophic issues, the brevity was desirable. The meeting was intended to be only a preliminary to a longer conference to be held in the summer of 1983. This conference enabled us to understand who needed to be involved in the forthcoming meeting and what important issues needed to be discussed.
Out of the Shefayim meeting came an Organizing Committee for a Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews and a short statement to stimulate interest in what we were striving to do. The statement (see Declaration of Principles) included affirmations of our belief in human reason, human autonomy, human dignity, the centrality of Israel and the secular state. It enabled many Jewish secularists who did not attend the Conference to sign their approval.
The Conference also permitted us North Americans to see clearly the secular scene in Israel. We discovered that many of the conditions we already suspected to be real were really real. And that many of the situations we never imagined to be true were also real.
What did we discover?
Unlike the rest of the world, organized humanistic Judaism in Israel is a rural phenomenon, built on the community life of the secular kibbutzim. With the exception of one congregation in Haifa, secular humanism as a viable movement is confined to rural settlements. The situation is a delicious irony, given the origins of our philosophy. And the question arises whether, after the urban intellectuals who founded the kibbutzim die out, the commitment to a rational Jewish identity is sustainable. Already nature mysticism and religious revivals are beginning to emerge in formerly fanatic secular settings.
The kibbutz community has been the only place where secular Jews in Israel have been free from religious coercion (except with marriage and divorce) and religious intrusion. For the past seventy years they have been involved in revising old holidays, inventing new ones and developing a humanistic life cycle ceremonial pattern. My visits to the archives at Ramat Yohanan and Beit Ha-Shitta were the highlights of my post-Conference experience in Israel. But most of this material has, unfortunately, not been made available to the Diaspora Jewish public.
Most of the Jews in Israel do not see themselves as religious in the conventional sense. But they do not have a high awareness of their being secular either. While they resent religious coercion, they find it difficult to separate religious behavior and religious leadership from Jewish identity. They become secular only when the rabbis oppress them.
Secular Jews in Israel have never experienced any kind of organizational unity. Political differences have made cooperation impossible. Secular nationalists and secular liberals dislike secular socialists. Jabotinsky, the mentor of Begin, hated Marxism more than religion. And Chaim Weizmann, the paragon of bourgeois Zionism, preferred respectable bourgeois company to authentic communists. As for the socialists, they adore division. From the very beginning the pro-Bolsheviks and the anti-Bolsheviks split the socialist camp and, even though any form of pro-Russian sentiment is now academic in the face of the obvious Soviet hostility to the Jews, a lifetime of division builds its organizational fences and emotional resentments.
It seems funny to find anti-Zionist secular Jews in Israel (the religious fanatics like the Neturei Karta have been well-publicized). But there are some. The current president of the Israeli Secular Humanist association is one of them. Although he represents a minority in his own small organization, he does articulate an existing secular alternative. The anti-Zionists are pure humanists. They believe that Israel should be a normal state for all its citizens whether of Jewish or Arab origin; and that it should cease to be a vicarious state for the Jewish Diaspora. One identity, Israeli identity, should prevail. One secular Israeli community should be developed. Religious and ethnic identities should be private matters. The state should serve all “humans” equally. Under this ideology, Jewish identity becomes Hebrew speaking Israeli identity. American Jews who are secular humanists are of no greater importance to Israeli humanists than American secular humanists who are not Jews. Zionism is passe. There should be one Israeli humanism including Arabs and Jews. Ethnic humanism is not an Israeli need.
Most secular Jews in urban settings (and most Israelis are urban) have not been motivated to defend their integrity and to create ceremonial alternatives like the kibbutzim. Since they lack community structures they yield to what is available. Circumcision, Bar Mitsva, marriage and burial are the exclusive preserve of religious functionaries. While they mock these people and express their contempt for them they use them. Even though the state only dictates marriage and divorce procedures, they conform on all ceremonial levels. What has developed is very unattractive: grumbling and surrender. Only the one congregation in Haifa is trying to provide some integrity by creating a supportive urban community.
Israeli secularism has a negative edge. It knows what it does not like. It is not quite sure what it does like. Anti clericalism has been the historic beginning of all religious movements. Resistance to religious coercion is the initial fuel. But it cannot stop there. The defense of the secular state cannot be a philosophy of life. It only has enemies, no heroes. Too many Israeli secularists survive on the philosophic stimulation of their European backgrounds and arrange to leave nothing to their children. Fighting religious intrusion into the state schools is useless unless one has a clear positive passionate philosophy to fight back with. Humanism is more than holding fundamentalists at bay. It has a literature. It has heroes. It has roots in Jewish history. It needs pizzazz and exposure.
The old nationalism, including the conservative Jabotinsky type, was anti-religious, because the orthodox rabbinate was overwhelmingly opposed to Zionism. But the new Begin type nationalism is pro-religious because the Bible and rabbinic ideology justify territorial expansion. There has been a gradual shift in the attitudes of the Israeli establishment. Even devout secularists like David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir began to change in their old age for political reasons. They saw religion as a re-enforcer of patriotism. Many young people in Israel today, who did not grow up in the cosmopolitan milieu of their parents and grandparents and who see themselves as defenders of Israeli Territorial survival are ambivalent secularists. They are drawn to what is politically useful and are seduced by it.
Many secular Jews in Israel are confused by the meaning of their Jewish identity. If it is not a religious designation, how does it differ from plain old Israeli identity? However, if Arabs can be Israelis, what do we call the other variety? If speaking Hebrew is the main sign of Jewish secular identity, how does one deal with a non-Hebrew speaking Diaspora? Confusion reigns, especially since most Jews live outside the state of Israel, and especially since Israel is the only nation in the world to have been created by its own expatriates. Replacing Jewish identity with Israeli identity is not as easy as some early Zionist secularists once thought.
These discoveries were real eye-openers. They dispelled the romantic myths so many of us Jewish humanists grew up with about the success story of secular Zionism. What we gradually came to realize was that we were both, Israelis and North Americans, struggling with the same issues and that all the good answers were on the Israeli side.
What can be done to strengthen secular Judaism in Israel – and elsewhere in the world? The mutual discovery and sharing has just begun. What can we do to create more self-awareness, more cooperation, more solidarity?
Well, we need another conference, a longer one. This conference should be a joint venture of secular and humanistic Jews in North America and elsewhere in the Diaspora, the secular kibbutz movement in Israel, and secular Zionist groups. It should include the leading spokespeople for a secular humanism with Jewish identity. It should be broad in its scope, enabling nationalists, socialists and bourgeois liberals to talk to each other about shared secular issues. Its agenda should provide in-depth discussions of the meaning of Jewish identity, the purpose of life, ethical decision making, the role of the family, responses to death, the nature of the secular state, holidays and life cycle ceremonies, and the creation of new communities. We need a new book to dramatize our Jewish alternative for the Jewish public. This book should appear in both Hebrew and English. It should have no single author. It should be a collection of essays by the leading secular Jewish thinkers and writers. It should answer the questions – what is unique about secular Judaism – what are its basic beliefs and affirmations – what is a secular Jewish life style. The book should appear before the conference and provide a basis for preparation and discussion. Hopefully, the authors would participate in the conversation on the basic issues.
We need people to read the book, attend the conference in Israel and lend their support to this new venture.
The Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews. Israel. July, 1983.
Mark it on your calendar.
Humanistic Judaism, Spring/Summer 1980, (vol. 8 no. 1, p12-15)
‘I want to become a Jew.’
‘I want to convert to Judaism.’
How should Humanistic Judaism deal with these requests?
More conventional branches of Judaism – the Orthodox, the Conservatives and the Reformers – have developed procedures of formal admission to the Jewish people. The English word ‘conversion’ is now generally used to describe this acceptance.
The Orthodox and Conservative converters tend to downplay affirmations of belief and to ‘upplay’ non-verbal initiation behaviors like circumcision or ritual dunking. They also tend to discourage conversion and to emphasize the hardships of Jewish identity.
Reformers, on the other hand, place great emphasis on verbal behavior, especially declarations of theological belief in
the presence of witnesses. They also encourage conversion. In fact, their national leader, Alexander Schindler, frightened by the declining Jewish birthrate, has proposed that Reform Jews actively missionize the American Gentile population.
Humanistic Jews and Humanistic rabbis have, so far, articulated no clear stand of their own. The openness of our congregations to anyone who wishes to join, and the general willingness to allow anybody to be Jewish who thinks that he is Jewish has provided an informal operating procedure. However, some humanistic choosers of Jewish identity want community recognition of their new status They want some form of initiation ritual. But in a movement that has long since given up ceremonial circumcision, ritual dunking and public declarations of theological conviction, what does one do?
Before we can answer this question, there are certain facts, certain social realities, we have to acknowledge.
Most potential converts to Judaism do not seek Jewish identity because they have suddenly seen the ‘light.’ In the end, most theologies are busy work for clergymen and are of no interest to lay people. The petitioners arrive because they are involved in intermarriage and want to remove a barrier to family acceptance and to the labeling of future children. Most conversions throughout history have had very little to do with internal belief. They arise out of the necessity of changing membership from one group to another, either because of marriage or because of government decree.
Among the potential converts who are not involved in an intermarriage, most of them are attracted to Jews and to Jewish culture, and not to a list of official theological statements. They like Jewish people and want to be associated with them. Oddly enough, it is the intellectual power and secular achievements of the modern Jew that make Jewish identity attractive to many people.
Jewish identity is an ethnic identity. The Jewish people antedates any system of theological belief. Even Orthodoxy recognizes that Jews are normally Jews because they are born of Jewish mothers. Even Gentiles (meaning other nations) usually identify people as Jews by checking their parents or their last names. In neither case does anyone assume that theological belief or ritual practice is essential to Jewishness. Like the authors of the Bible who identified the Hebrews as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, most of the people of the world, including traditional authorities, view Jewish identity as an ethnic reality.
Christian identity is similar to but also different from Jewish identity. It is similar because most people derive their Christian label through birth and not through choice. The overwhelming majority of Christians are attached to their religion through ancestral loyalty and have very little awareness of theological distinctions. Traditional ritual, the ways of the fathers, defines the behavior of membership. Christianity is different from Judaism because it is an imperial religion and not a national religion. As the patriotic religion of the Roman Empire, it became a way of binding many nations together into a larger political structure. An imperial trans-national religion is more than ethnic but less than universal. Christianity is the ancestral attachment of those who identify with European culture and its historic memories. To become a Christian is to go beyond national patriotism to imperial patriotism. Although history has divided the church along ethnic lines – Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox for examples – the division still plays on a single broader cultural theme.
Religion and patriotism, whether national or imperial, go hand in hand. Religions do not begin with people who want to promote theological ideas. They begin with tribes, nations and empires who use religion as the ritual of patriotic celebration. Mystical groups who lack historic roots and ancestral approval are only cults. When they receive political recognition and are identified with the welfare of the political order, they become religions. Only in modern times, when the reactionary clergy were overthrown by the science oriented bourgeoisie, did the secular notion of the separation of church and state, of the distinction between religious and national identities, ever arise. Judaism and Christianity represent old political and cultural loyalties that antedate the founding of the United States of America and of most modern states.
The word conversion is inappropriate to becoming a Jew, because it implies a change in belief. Since we cannot choose to change our beliefs (in the same way that we choose to change our behavior) the cause of the transformation has to be some external compelling force such as ‘divine grace.’ Conversion is a word that fits the reality of cults, not the reality of religions. Naturalization, affiliation or adoption are more accurate terms. Changing religions has more to do with changing family relations and cultural aspirations than with experiencing fundamental alterations of belief. Normal, stable people do not experience such quick massive breaks with their past views of life. If they move from religion to religion, they do so for reasons other than theological.
All national and religious communities have initiation ceremonies. The purpose of the ritual is clear. It allows the adoptee to receive what the native-born has already received in his childhood ceremony of naming, circumcision or baptism, the personal recognition of his membership by the members of his new community. Joining a group without the consent of the group is an act of insanity. If nobody wants you, unilateral decisions are silly. Religious adoption is a group affair. One cannot have the adopted unless there are adopters. Even where there exists no formal ceremony, the group informally offers its acceptance by allowing the person to participate in the work of the group.
Since the Jewish community is presently divided and has no central authority to determine ‘naturalization’, the decision making has to be congregational. Since taxing and conscription are no longer Jewish community issues outside of Israel, this decentralization is harmless. If orthodox Jews do not wish to recognize Reform and Humanistic ‘joiners’ as Jews, the rejected ‘can care less.’ They are not excommunicates. They have their own congregations who accept them and give them a sense of belonging. Only in Israel is this arrangement insufficient.
Since Jewish identity involves political responsibilities and political privileges, the state must provide some uniform test. Turning the power to naturalize over to orthodox rabbis deprives the state of many potential good citizens who will not subject themselves to the humiliation of orthodox testing.
If religion is derived from ethnic and cultural loyalties, and not from dogmatic convictions, then one can enjoy more than one religious identity. One can be a Jew, an American and a Humanist simultaneously. If one is the child of a Jewish and Scottish intermarriage, one can be both Jewish and Scottish. There is no reason for either – or. Each of us is capable of participating in more than one cultural tradition. The limits are defined by the amount of time each person wants to devote to group celebration and by the numbers of religious groups who are willing to treat religion as a matter of culture and not as a matter of belief. For most of us, one or two ethnic attachments are all we have time for, if we are not going to be shallow dilettantes.
Because Jewish identity is ethnic, national and cultural, active solicitation of non-Jews is inappropriate. We already share a human identity with all of them and a growing universal secular world culture. Becoming Jewish is not urgent in the way that becoming a Christian is urgent to fundamentalists. They see religion in cultic terms. Liberal Christians who view their religion as a cultural inheritance are far less pushy. Since we Jews are a bright and interesting group, we should be open to anyone who wants; to join us. Either marriage or cultural admiration are legitimate reasons. Our presence should be well-known and well-publicized. Cultural missionaries – yes! But cultic missionaries – never!
Paying attention to the realities which have just been noted, we, as Humanist Jews should provide the following opportunities to potential ‘converts’
- We should openly announce that we welcome non-Jews to join Our community.
- We should provide opportunities for those who are interested in joining us to receive information about Jewish history, Jewish celebration and humanistic philosophy. At the Birmingham Temple, we use the weekly class on Humanistic Judaism for this purpose. The class follows an annual cycle and allows both ‘natives’ and ‘joiners’ to share study and discussion.
- We should allow congregational membership to constitute ‘adoption’ or ‘conversion’. Since we do not require the uninformed native-born to take a course in Humanistic Judaism before he joins, we should not impose this requirement on those who come from the outside. Philosophic and cultural education should be recommended to all members.
- We should provide an initiation ceremony, a joining ritual, for those who want it. Some non-Jewish members will be satisfied with just being Humanists. Others, will choose to call themselves Jews, but will find a formal ceremony either unnecessary or too contrived. But many will want some public recognition of their new status.
- We should use the confirmation ceremony as the model for the ‘adoption’ ritual. Just as the native-born confirm their membership in the community in late adolescence or in adulthood, so can newcomers do the same. The ceremony does not ‘magically’ turn the non-Jew into a Jew. It simply allows the community to celebrate a decision already made. The ceremony can be either group or individual, active or passive, depending on the desire of the joiner.
- We should provide a certificate of adoption to those who want it. The certificate should be modeled after both the confirmation and naming documents. It should allow the ‘convert’ to choose a Hebrew name (if he desires it) as a sign of his new ethnic attachment.
- We should develop procedures for ‘conversion’ which can serve as guides to congregations and interested individuals. The Society for Humanistic Judaism should begin this task immediately.
In a heterogeneous culture like America, where intermarriage increases unavoidably and where individual mobility exposes each of us to greater and greater numbers of options, the old procedures for joining the Jewish people are obsolete. Checking on Jewish mothers, arranging for ceremonies of eternal commitment, insisting on dogmatic conformity are both unrealistic and insulting. No ethnic group can be a fortress anymore, with forbidding walls to scale. It has to be an open house, with easy entry – and with an eagerness to share its family treasures.
Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1979, (vol. 7 no. 3, p42-44)
Happiness is not a need. It is a consequence. When our basic needs are satisfied, we feel the pleasure of fulfilment. Knowing our needs is very important. Without that understanding we may pursue what we do not really want. But it is so easy to be deceived! When one desire finds no satisfaction, it seizes the center stage of our attention and pretends to be the most important one of all. When we are hungry, food is an obsession. When we enjoy no sensual pleasure, sexual desire becomes an inner beast. When we receive no love or recognition, loneliness and indifference make all other problems seem trivial. At the moment we imagine that what we want is our first and fundamental need.
The truth is otherwise. We humans share a host of inner demands. Some are more important than others. But none is primary. People will even forego food and sex to attain other more compelling ends. The wise person does not narrow human nature. He does not restrict happiness to what his culture either allows or forbids. He does not confine fulfilment to what his experience makes scarce. True happiness rests on the harmony of many satisfactions. Love, recognition and usefulness are universal needs which transcend any particular culture. They are our needs. They are a bond we share with all other people. If we know this truth no local obsession, no private compulsion can deceive us.
The spiritual option is not confined to those who spend their time with imaginary spirits. It has nothing at all to do with people who avoid sensual pleasure and who turn their mind to meditation. The spiritual condition is the special radiance we perceive in noble people. Nobility starts with the strength of reason. It grows with self-reliance and the sensitive awareness of the human condition. It expands the human spirit and allows it to cross the barriers of ethnic pride and parochial vision to encompass humanity. The noble person avoids tolerance and patronizing niceness. He is humane because he allows himself to feel the common fate we all share. He knows that, in some fundamental way, the stranger is a member of his own family.
True nobility rests on no social gift. Neither pedigree nor wealth can guarantee it. Neither humiliation nor poverty can prevent it. The noble person is the member of no special class and no special race. He is an aristocrat of the spirit whose style is an enormous compassion and whose wisdom is an extraordinary empathy. His generosity and openness make him radiant. He shines with the special power that kindness brings when it can flow freely. The spiritual option is our option. Let those who wish to meddle with mysterious spirits do so. We shall train the spirit of our own humanity.
We are humanists. We believe in the power and beauty of the human potential. We believe in the necessity of human reason. We believe in the human right to satisfy human needs. We believe in the human ideal of human unity. Cynics may mock our commitment. They will give examples of human weakness and ugliness. They will testify to the irrational decisions of countless men and women. They will decry the pettiness of so much human desire they will point triumphantly to the scourge of hate and war. But they will not prevail. They confuse our present limitation with our future possibility.
We do not praise what we are. We praise what it is possible for us to become. If human history has featured the base, it has also presented the noble. If the human saga has revealed the terror of irrational destruction, it has also delivered the marvel of rational survivals. If human nature has chosen its moments of petty selfishness, it has also found its seasons of grand compassion. If nations have killed and slaughtered, they have also made peace. They have exchanged ideas and useful work. They have fostered a new world society where no great nation is any longer independent and where no little people is unknown. For many timid spirits cynicism is more comfortable than hope. It justifies inaction. But we will not be seduced by this fatal reward. We shall strive to be what we believe we can become. To do less is to betray our potential and to become the victims of our own fear.
Yom Kippur is a day of reason. It is a day when no single feeling may prevail, no lone emotion may control. Reason is not the absence of emotion, a cold rejection of warm responses. It is the power to relate our action to our needs. It is the ability to relate our behavior to our survival and to the survival of the human world we live in. Without the heat of our own desire the search for truth would Perish from its own uselessness. Reason gives this search the strength of patience, the honesty of doubt, the fire of surprise and the vision of all that we need. If we are obsessed with nostalgia, we will forget our creative drive. If we are consumed by fear, we will no longer remember the thrills of risk. If we only have time to hate our enemies, we will never find time to love our friends.
We resolve this day to serve the reason within us. We will resist the madness of hate without love. We will defy the threat of fear without hope. We will fight against the terror of feeling without vision. We will affirm the richness of our desires and needs. We will open our hearts to useful change. We will strive to be more patient, more honest and more open to surprise than we have been before. We know that the human possibility is greater than what our present fears will admit. We need our reason to keep us sane.
Yom Kippur is a day of transcendence. We reach out beyond ourselves to embrace all our connections. We affirm our wider attachments and know that we belong. Our friends touch us and reassure us. The Jewish people gives us shelter and caresses our identity. The world of humanity beckons to us and promises the excitement of a universal family. We know that each of us is more than an individual. We know that life offers more than self-absorption. If we reach out no farther than friends, our thrust will be timid. If we extend ourselves only to the boundaries of the Jewish people, our openness will be closed in by the fear of strangers. But if we push ourselves dangerously into the realm of the human connection, our transcendence will have the boldness our future deserves.
We resolve this day to be truly human. We will not allow old fears and old paranoia to keep us from the world beyond. We will not allow old propaganda and old history to hide from us the unity of human nature. We will not allow old customs and old laws to shield us from the wisdom and insight of other peoples and other nations. We need to expand the frontiers of our family. We need to feel that goodness and beauty exist beyond the narrow confines of those we understand. We need to go beyond our comfortable attachments to a greater bond of human concern. In a world where we will soon be able to control our own evolution, the commitment to one humanity if not a desirable option. It is a necessity.
Life is struggle. It is the solving of problems. It is the mastering of skills. Our brains are so complex, that unlike lower forms of life, we do not have a single response to a single stimulus. An infinite number of options greets us with each new intrusion of reality. Exploring and testing begin as childish games. They stay with us to become the special strength of maturity. We try and blunder. We try and succeed. Error and accuracy are the polar ends of our learning experience. Pursuing knowledge makes us awkward. We fall and stumble so often along wisdom’s way that we are embarrassed by our graceless action. We sometimes wish that we enjoyed the programmed ease of birds and cats. But we possess a freedom that they will never know. We can change what no longer works. We can alter what no longer pleases. We can transmit to future generations the fruits of our awkward struggle.
Memory is the storehouse of practical wisdom. The defeats of the past need not be preserved if we are willing to listen to its victories. The blunders of the past need not be repeated if we are willing to imitate its successes. Progress is the freedom to avoid doing what the past has already done. We stand on the building blocks of memory to reach higher and higher. The tower of human knowledge rises to heaven and allows us to visit the secrets of human existence that tradition forbade us to explore. Sometimes when we look up to confront the vast open spaces we have not yet attained, we despair. We forget how high we have already climbed.