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A Humanistic Kaddish

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Wonderful is peace in the world. Let us create a peaceful world and let us establish its kingdom now and in the future. May peace come upon us to bless our lives. May we always continue to honor peace in the world even though no praise can equal the importance of its reality. May peace and life prevail for us and for all Israel. Let us work to create peace here on earth for all people, and let us say Peace.

Two Visions of America

There are two visions of America. One precedes our founding fathers and finds its roots in the harshness of our puritan past. It is very suspicious of freedom, uncomfortable with diversity, hostile to science, unfriendly to reason, contemptuous of personal autonomy. It sees America as a religious nation. It views patriotism as allegiance to God. It secretly adores coercion and conformity. Despite our constitution, despite the legacy of the Enlightenment, it appeals to millions of Americans and threatens our freedom.

The other vision finds its roots in the spirit of our founding revolution and in the leaders of this nation who embraced the age of reason. It loves freedom, encourages diversity, embraces science and affirms the dignity and rights of every individual. It sees America as a moral nation, neither completely religious nor completely secular. It defines patriotism as love of country and of the people who make it strong. It defends all citizens against unjust coercion and irrational conformity.

This second vision is our vision. It is the vision of a free society. We must be bold enough to proclaim it and strong enough to defend it against all its enemies.

The Philosophy of Humanistic Judaism: Part II Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine

The Philosophy of Humanistic Judaism: Part II Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine

Humanistic Judaism Magazine Spring 1969

Jewishness is a modern paradox. While it is easy to define Jews it is hard to define what makes them Jewish. The criteria of identity are so unconscious that few people can articulate their standards. Although they are strong and compelling, verbal description rarely does them justice. The state of being Jewish seems to r e ­ sist the conventional categories and to emerge as a unique phenomenon.

Understanding the Jewish condition is inhibited by security needs. A minority vulnerable to hostility and persecution wants to create a public image of impeccable respectability. The religious definition of the Jew, which is the official “party” line of the community establishment, has less to do with the facts than with the need to be socially conforming. In a unitary American culture, which is intolerant of perma­nent ethnic diversity, Judaism must be essentially religious or forego its normality. After proper deference is paid to the propaganda of pluralism, lasting group loyalties which require neither church nor temple still appear as mildly subversive.

If we view religion narrowly as the organized expression of a theological point of view, or more broadly as a community reflection of a unique philosophy of life, then, in neither case, is the essence of contemporary Jewish identity religious. The metaphysical and ethical beliefs of American Jewry are as diverse as those of the general population. If the Lubavitcher Hasidim and the Workmen’s Circle are part of the same group, then the group can hardly be defined by a single orientation to the cosmos. Membership in the community is pragmatically independent of either private belief or public creed.

The interfaith “what we Jews believe” syndrome is one of the more pathetic deceptions our culture provides. It hides the breadth of Jewish disagreement and obscures the real bonds of group unity.

Certainly, the racial definition of the Jew is less than appropriate. It has become almost a cliche of ADL propaganda to deny (with a host of scientific evidence) the myth of ethnic purity. Although Jews publicly resist genetic uniqueness, their private conversations about Jewish hereditary ‘genius’ reveals a viewpoint little different from the grosser racialism . Our people are ambivalent about the charge of physical identity. They like sharing the genes of Einstein as long as they can avoid any necessary connection with those of Fagin. When Kaufmann Kohler, the leader of Reform a half century ago, asserted that Jews possessed an innate gift for spiritual greatness, the Jews applauded. But Hitler and the antisemites changed the mood. Racial superiority was delightful; racial inferiority was less than tolerable.

It is undoubtedly true that, in given areas of the world, rigid inbreeding produced a regional Jewish ‘type.’ But there was no uniformity among the types. Modern Israel reveals the genetic diversity of world Jewry. The stark juxtaposing of European, Asiatic, and African Jews, so visible to the tourist eye, explodes the racial theory.

Cultural unity is no more adequate as a proper definition. Being an illusion, it survives in the dreams of secular chauvinists. Without the vehicle of a Jewish language, the behavior patterns of the Jewish citizens of Western technology tend to be indistinguishable from those of their middle-class neighbors. Israel’s cultural uniqueness lies in the revival of the Hebrew language. Lived in English, Israeli life would become standard American. If contemporary nationalists fight desperately for linguistic uniqueness, they do so because they know that, without it, assimilation to an international industrial culture is inevitable. Since Yiddish is dead and functional Hebrew is confined to a small minority of world Jewry, English speaking American Jews can share the society of their Anglo Saxon colleagues more easily than the world of either their Russian relatives or their Israeli cousins.

Painting, music, and drama have also ceased to have clear national styles. The modern variations in artistic expression cross national boundaries and cause dissension within every country. Our present technology is molding an artistic smorgasbord which is more universal than the language compartments suggest. As one of the most ardent participants on this cosmopolitan feast, the Jew is divorced from the very parochial conditions which would make a cultural definition possible.

Nor can one honestly assert that Jews are ethically distinct. Many apologists maintain that Jews possess moral virtues that other groups do not, and that group identity is defined by a set of commonly held ethical values. When pressed to be more specific, the defenders of this thesis usually resist. If they do make citations, they invoke the family unity of the Jewish home or the pursuit of education. Since neither of these values is uniquely Jewish, the moral definition collapses before the evidence. And since the ethical behavior of Jews is not noticeably superior to that of other groups, the thesis savors of a hutspadik pretension. Active Jewish liberalism may have many individual exponents; but it hardly characterizes the vast majority of contemporary Jews.

The attempt to equate Jewishness with a set of eminently respectable social values is an act of moral boorishness. It suggests, by implication, that these values (if they are defining virtues) are absent from the behavior of nonJews. Such an act of gracelessness is typical of the self-righteous. It reveals a kind of humorless arrogance (which is not uniquely Jewish).

Scholars who are desperate may end up by relegating Jewishness to the category of “mystery ,” or by peevishly asserting that “anyone is Jewish who says he is .” But neither solution is satisfactory. The first romanticizes confusion; and the second ignores the involuntary character of Jewish identity.

An adequate definition of Jewish status must begin with an honest appraisal of how Jews identify each other. There is obviously an operative standard of inclusion and exclusion. It is neither theological nor racial nor cultural nor m oral. If we look carefully we will see that it has less to do with personal behavior than with family connection.

Jewish status, like one’s last name, is a matter of birth. As we are born into our nuclear family, so are we born into our Jewish condition. We may become theists or humanists, Zionists or anti-Zionists, Birchers or Marxists, devotees of Moses or lovers of Zen–but, as long as we and others are aw are of our family tree, our Jewishness persists. Conventional Jewish mothers do not check the ideological commitments of their prospective sons-in-law; they want to know who the parents are. An antisemitic atheist from a Jewish womb is acceptable; a circumcised Hebrew -speaking American who believes in the truth of the Bible is not.

Conversion to Judaism has been historically rare, not only because of Christian persecution, but also because missionary prospects viewed Judaism as a kind of family affair. To become a Jew was not only to accept the discipline of the halakha but also to assume the ancestry of Abraham. It was to sever one’s familial connections and to pretend to be a child of another tribe. Without a pervasive sense of common forefathers, the religious bonds would have been insufficient to insure group unit. Even the blackest of Jewish blacks in Abyssinia and the most Tartarish of Jewish Tartars in the Crimea insisted on their physical descent from the patriarchs. Without that illusion, the legitimacy of their status would have been open to question.

Rabbinic Judaism affirmed this standard by declaring that the offspring of a Jewish mother was irrevocably Jewish. No apostasy, no repudiation of hallowed beliefs, no mockery of community custom, could alter his identity. Jewishness came with the womb and expired only with death. New members might be adopted (‘conversion’ has an ideological non-Jewish overtone) into the group; but their acceptance and the acceptance of their children were never secure until the adoption was forgotten.

The outside world responded to this criterion by viewing Jewishness as an inherited condition. Disraeli may have been a devoted member of the Church of England, lauding the virtues of Protestant Christianity; but in the eyes of his public, he remained a Jew –albeit an Anglican one. Marx may have despised all forms of organized religion, branding them the opium of the people; yet, in the view of both friend and foe, he was irresistibly Jewish –even though in an atheistic way. Womb identity was not an antisemitic invention; it was a venerable Jewish tradition, which both insider and outsider applied with consistency.

Now racial and familial identity must not be confused. The first implies (if we use the precise university definition) physical uniformity. The second only demands a sense of shared ancestors. Two people, of visibly different genetic makeup, may still share a common set of grandparents–or think they do. A family that started in Jerusalem might disperse itself throughout the world, intermarrying with wide varieties of racial types, and still retain the sense of closeness that common ancestry provides. The familial feeling would lie in genealogy–and not in physiology.

Even sharp cultural differences would not inhibit group intimacy. The Rothschilds became in each of their environments, either impeccably English or impeccably French, or impeccably German, without shedding the family loyalty that went beyond financial interest. Even the Sassoons, embracing Oriental and Occidental extremes, enjoyed a world-wide family unity. Racial, linguistic, and philosophic differences often surrender to the power of the mishpokha feeling.

Jews are no exception. As one of the oldest enduring extended families, they have spanned the world, participated in all its major cultures, savored all its vital religious ideologies, and simultaneously retained the group bond. Whether it be the pleasure of family roots or the pressure of external hostility, the cause of their togetherness has been independent of ethical value and cosmic belief.

An honest Judaism starts with this reality and builds on it. Instead of forcing Jews into ideological and cultural niches that do not fit, instead of defining Jewishness by universal moral values that most people never live up to, instead of foolishly trying to mold a people to meet the demands of a ruthless respectability, we ought to just relax with what we really are. We ought to good-humoredly confront the fact that if we insist on searching for a common set of theological notions or social values which describe all Jews, living or dead, we are condemned to futility. If we cannot accept membership in an international extended family united by feelings of shared ancestry and ties of common history, without the pretension of ethical distinction, we cannot accept our Jewishness. The propaganda of religious leaders and cultural secularists have refused to confront us with this truth.

A Jewish humanism uses this truth in assisting the modern Jew to be authentic. By affirming that Jewish identity is non-ideological and familial, it never forces the individual to compromise his integrity with the demand that he ought to believe what he doesn’t believe. By insisting that Jewishness is independent of any kind of moral supremacy, it frees the person from pretending to be what he knows he isn’t. By equating group membership with family feeling instead of cultural uniqueness, it can confront the reality of our status without refusing to accept the nature of our assimilation. Jews and Jewishness may be both pro-social and anti-social, beautiful and ugly, wise and foolish. They may display behavior patterns which are sometimes admirable and sometimes disgusting, but perfectly normal and eminently human. Like all large families, Jews have their fair share of saints and beasts as well as their fair quota of mystics and rationalists. Of course, none of these alternatives has anything to do with the state of being a Jew.

As a member of an old tribe with many memories the Jew is inevitably drawn to family anniversaries. These are called holidays and are as appropriate to the Jewish people as birthdays and wedding reminders are suitable to smaller clans. The realistic pleasures of Rosh Hashana, Hanukka, and Passover are usually familial, and have little or nothing to do with theological commitment. The old Haggada may be intellectually intolerable, but the Seder remains a vital group experience. Days of Judgment may be amusing leftovers of bygone societies, but Rosh Hashana survives as a meaningful affirmation of group identity. The fall holiday season more realistically celebrates the birth of the Jewish people than the birth of the world.

The Jewish calendar is a family calendar. While it ought to be enhanced and supplemented by celebrations that affirm our human identity, it gives us historic roots and invites us to enjoy our birthright without confusing it with questionable dogma and ludicrous pretension.

Child education for Jewish humanists has two dimensions. One is information about man and his past which will enable the child to understand his intimate connection with all men; the other is an objective and scientific understanding of his Jewish family, which will provide him with suitable insight into his involuntary status as a Jew. Since the secular schools already provide most of the “human” information, it is the primary role of the temple school to afford the Jewish data. Of course, Jewish history must always be presented within the humanist assumption that human identity is primary and that Jews are as historically guilty of resisting this commitment as any other group. Teachers who view religious education as a defense and apology for historic Jewish beliefs and behavior are responsible for the hysterical character of current curricula. Self-flattery is a symptom of self-h ate; honesty is a sign of self-esteem.

If you ask reasonably: why bother with Jewish holidays and Jewish history; why bother to perpetuate old “family” identities that have neither philosophic nor ethical uniqueness, the humanist answer emerges from unpleasant fact and realistic hope. The unpleasant fact is chronic antisemitism. It would be nice to live in a world where Jewish identity would not arouse the paranoiac fears of countless millions and would not be of great social importance to masses of people. But reality defies desire. Humanists who are Jews early discover that their humanism is of less significance to the public than their Jewishness. As long as external hostility exists (no m atter how dramatically diminished), the Jewish family will exist. The only options open to the members of that family will be relaxed acceptance or futile resistance.

The realistic hope is a practical variation on a utopian d re a m of “one world.” Since the greatest obstacle to human unity is the organized power of state nationalism , any existing group of strong internal loyalty which transcends state boundaries and unites people on an international scale is a welcome ally in a good cause. Whatever the allegiance be, class, professional, or familial, if it enables people to feel a part of a society broader than their nation, it is a step in the right direction. The Jews have been accused by their enemies of being both rootless and cosmopolitan. It is a hidden compliment that ought to be exploited.

Familial ties are never trivial. From the view of childhood conditioning, they make theological propositions and moral slogans look powerless. The question is: are they beneficial? If they become fearful obsessions with family survival, defensive apologies for group superiority, they do great harm. If, on the contrary, they sponsor a happy wedding of sentiment and individual integrity, they can be vehicles of immense social good.

The Philosophy of Humanistic Judaism: Part I

The Philosophy of Humanistic Judaism: Part I Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine – Summer 1968

The first need of American Jewry is survival; it is honesty. Before we can plan what we should be, we have to know what we are. Before we can discuss the conditions of group endurance, we have to confront the reality that endures. Pious state­ments of non-existent belief will do us no good. It is ludicrous to praise bibles we don’t read and gods we don’t worship. It is futile to announce commitments we have long since abandoned and attachments we have clearly discarded. Self-deception is a common human art, which finds its most comfortable home in modern religious institutions.

Most definitions of contemporary Judaism are the product of academic fantasies. Scholars and clergymen imagine what they would like Jews to believe and they proceed to equate that desire with what Jews believe. There are countless books available for popular reading which propose to reveal the commitments of modern Jewry. Waxing eloquent on matters theological, their authors discuss the deep God devotion and intense worship practices of the American Jewish community. The naive Gentile reader would assume that his local Jews were “chips off the Old Testament,” pious Bible lovers who can hardly wait for their next installment of Midrashic commentary. Long discourses on the covenant between God and Israel are followed by impassioned references to the centrality of Torah in Jewish life. Modern Jewry turns out to be only an adjusted extension of good old Hillel and Akiba. Having carefully studied these documents of illusions, the realistic observer can only ask, “If there are so many Jews like the ones described, where are they?”

But the illusion is understandable. It is difficult for most people to confront what they really are and what they really believe. There are many factors, psychic and social, which inhibit our insight and prevent us from seeing the obvious. If intellectual integrity were the only human need, honesty would be easy.

In fact, we tend to determine what we believe by what we say rather than by what we do. Imprinted from childhood with certain ritual phrases of belief, we repeat them endlessly as a convenient way of describing what we have never bothered to investigate. Too often so -called sociological surveys of Jewish belief depend on the direct questioning of individuals who lack any form of self-insight. The people interviewed parrot back phrases learned in Sunday School which bear absolutely no relationship to their behavior. After all, what a man is truly committed to, he is willing to act on. If a person claims to love prayer, but rarely prays; if an individual lauds the meaningfulness of God, but never invokes God for the solution of his daily problems; if a man describes the Torah as the greatest of all possible books, but never reads it: he is either lying or self-deceived. For what a man does is the only adequate test of a man’s beliefs.

The pressure of society is another inhibiting cause of honesty. We live in a culture where theological belief is respectable. In modern suburbia, belonging to a church or synagogue and sending the children to Sunday School are more than fashionable, they are social requirements. Affiliation with a religious institution never has to be justified; non-affiliation always has to be explained. As long as one is willing to say that he believes in God (in some way or other), he is socially safe and free from, the pain of neighborly disapproval. For Jews, who are a vulnerable ethnic minority addicted to rapid social climbing and who bear the neurotic scars of two thousand years of relentless persecution, caution is preferable to honesty. After fear has dictated our conformity, we rationalize our action by imagining that we believe what our behavior denies.

And then there is guilt. No cause of self-deception is more powerful. Since our religion is inextricably bound up with the family into which we are born, we cannot easily separate our religious practices from our family loyalties. To attempt to make this distinction is to expose ourselves to the painful disapproval of those we love. Intellectual honesty appears, in the moment of stress, a trivial obstacle to parental pressure. The challenge need not be overt. We have only to imagine the pleading faces of our venerable ancestors, who sacrificed their lives to defend what we no longer believe. It is psychically necessary for many to think that what they are saying and doing meets the expectations of their forefathers. The desperate attempt of the Reform movement to demonstrate some vital connection between its modern rationalism and the fanatic temperament of the ancient prophets is a case in point. Only guilt would have the power to drive men to such an absurd conclusion.

In order to understand the realities of what we believe we have to pay serious attention to what we do or don’t do. We have to observe what really excites Jews as opposed to what they say excites them. In other words, sociologists can give us better insight into the nature of Judaism than theologians.

For example. Although the synagogue is often hailed as the Jewish house of learning, it can more accurately be described in America as a permanent shelter for puberty rites. Without Bar mitsva and confirmation its school system would lose its very reason for existence and would abandon the temple to the dreary function of remembering the dead. Not that Jews have given up learning. In fact, Jew s today constitute a major part of our domestic intellectual elite. They are even accused of controlling American letters and exercising massive control over academic studies. If they are better educated than ever before, it is hardly because of the synagogue. The secular university has become the new shrine for Jewish studies. Its disciplines of psychology, sociology, medicine, and law have long ago replaced the study of the Bible and rendered Talmud learning exotic even for Jews. If an objective observer desires to understand the motivating beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Jews under forty, he should devote his time to analyzing the fundamental principles of scientific and university inquiry. An intimate reading of Rabbi Akiba will do him no good. It may, at best turn out to be a delightful exploration of what Jews used to believe.

Modern Judaism has much more to do with the methods of the secular university than with the techniques of the Talmudic rabbis. Empiricism, pragmatism, and free inquiry are far more characteristic of the truth procedures of contemporary Jews than attachment to prophetic revelation . One may approve or deplore this situation, but neither sentiment will reverse the change. One may summon all Jews back from their “sinful heresies,” denounce their disloyalty, invoke the suffering faces of ancient martyrs, and bemoan the changes with tired contempt; but the new reality will not be altered. An ironic transformation has come to pass. Orthodoxy, by virtue of the secular revolution, has ceased to be Jewish, Like the Sabbath day in America, it is something for Seventh Day Adventists–and not for Jews.

Nor will the Bible game survive much scrutiny. Reform rabbis may arrange countless interfaith banquets where the Torah devotion of their congregants is announced and applauded. They may do dramatic readings of the psalms and clever reinterpretations of Bible verses. They may even expose the world to the unknown Talmudic wonders of Jewish history. But to no avail. An objective survey of present Jewish reading reveals that most Jews rarely open the Bible and never study the Talmud. Despite the nostalgic novels of Potok, Agnon, and Singer, the Jews have found new and more exciting study materials. After they have paid their customary tribute to the glories of ancient Jewish literature, they read something else.

As for the life of prayer and worship, it functions as a very dim memory in the psyche of the suburban Jew. While it is periodically indulged at Bar mitzvas and Yahrzeits, it is a somewhat vicarious experience, in which the rabbi, cantor, or choir perform for a passive audience. The reason for this laxity is clear. To the skeptical, analytic, and humorful mind, worship is difficult; and to the devotee who has redefined God as a natural impersonal force, prayer is silly. Without the imagined presence of an awesome, all-powerful father figure the whole structure of Jewish worship collapses. The recent Reform proposals to revise the Union Prayer Book seem a bit anachronistic. Why bother to improve prayers for people who don’t want to pray? Perhaps more drastic alternatives are needed.

If one objectively surveys the Jewish activity of adult Jews in an America metropolitan community, he immediately notices that most of this activity has nothing whatever to do with what is usually called religious practice. Outside ghetto socializing, the only uniquely Jewish cause which excites Jews is uninvolved with either theology or worship. This cause is the state of Israel. The June war revealed to many blasé sophisticates the reality of their Jewish involvement. Their excitement sometimes puzzled and disturbed them — but it was real and could not be denied. The Israeli attachment is the very reverse of the theological commitment. In America we tend, for reasons of social safety, to overstate the genuineness of a theological conviction we have gradually abandoned and to understate the depth of an ethnic attachment our behavior clearly reveals.

The reality of what Jews actually do is the best evidence of the character of modern Judaism. Existing Jewish practice gives no indication that there persists in the American community the kind of religious conviction that motivates people to live by the classic standards of either the Bible or the Talmud. Contemporary Jewish culture is university oriented and scientifically indoctrinated. Present day middleclass Jews have found ways other than theology to deal with their anxieties. The rabbis may cleverly poke fun at the reigning psychiatrist; but they still have to come up with a more effective alternative. Preferring Moses to Freud is irrelevant in an environment where nobody reads Moses.

An honest Judaism does not describe what Jews used to believe; it clarifies and articulates what Jews do believe. Since Jewish identity is defined by society (and even by Orthodoxy) as an ethnic identity, Judaism changes from century to century. In Solomon’s day it was polytheistic; in Hillel’s day it was monotheistic; in our time it has, by any behavior standard, become humanistic. As long as a Jewish people persists, whatever beliefs the overwhelming majority of that people subscribes to is justifiably called Judaism. Our task is, therefore, to discard pretense, to check our actions, and to discover what we truly believe. Without honest self-insight, we are condemned to the futile task of improving illusions.

Can There Be a Religion in Which the Concept of God is Irrelevant?

Can There Be a Religion in Which the Concept of God is Irrelevant?



Humanistic Judaism Magazine June 1967

The crisis of religion today is a crisis of belief. In a scientific age when the empirical method dominates the pursuit of truth, the be­lief frame works that sustained conventional religious activity have col­lapsed. What a man believes about himself, and his universe determines how he behaves; and, therefore, a change in belief is no trivial matter.

The decline of prayer and worship among thousands of the edu­cated middle class (who, unlike the urban proletariat, have no economic ax to grind with church hierarchy) is a direct consequence of altered belief. No man can be motivated to pray when he has lost the possibility of a personal God; and no individual can be persuaded to worship when he views all persons, objects, feelings, and forces as ideal items for analysis and measurement. If, indeed, religion is dependent on the no­tions of a personal deity and sacred mystery, then it will be sustained in twentieth-century America not by individual conviction, but by social inertia.

In our contemporary culture the institutions that most effectively “imitate” the historic functions of organized religion are no longer the churches and synagogues. In the areas of pageantry, pilgrimage, and wisdom prestige, the secular schools and universities have become our modern shrines. While the clergy of urban America are peripheral powers, (whose weakness is hidden by immense respectability), the academic leadership in the social, physical, and biological sciences has become the new priesthood (whose strength is disguised by the novelty of power). Much of the social reverence that used to be directed toward priestly hierarchies and church establishments is now directed toward academic institutions. The major reason for this significant shift of respect is the new belief that the university, and not the church, is the source of extraordinary power in our present society.

In fact, the issue of “extraordinary power” is the issue of re­ligion; for all historic religions have been structured attempts to deal with those powers and forces that contemporary wisdom viewed as sig­nificant. Whatever persons or things, celestial or earthly, possessed an immense potential to implement or frustrate human happiness and survival have been of religious interest. The emotions of adoration and awesome fear are normal human reactions to confrontation with great power. Gods are not religiously interesting because they are gods; they are religiously interesting because they are powerful. Both the Epi­cureans and the primitive Buddhists believed in the existence of gods; and both found divinities religiously irrelevant, since the deities they believed in were helpless to influence human salvation.

Modern man is still concerned with the age-old religious ques­tion; “How do I discover and use the extraordinary powers of my universe in order to achieve my happiness?” The programs of salvation outlined by Jews, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Confucianists, and hosts of other groups normally identified as religious, are all related to this question. It is false to assert that historic religion has been God-centered in terms of goal; it has always been man-centered and a function of human need and desire (for how else would you moti­vate man to follow the program?) From the point of view of most historic religions, God is a means to an end. He is overwhelmingly sig­nificant not because he is God, but because it is believed that his power and presence are indis­pensable to human happiness. If, on the con­trary, one believes that God is powerless to in­fluence human welfare, he is justifiably ignored as religiously irrelevant.

Moreover, the meaninglessness of life does not arise out of man’s lack of purpose or goal. All men consciously desire happiness (a favorable balance of satisfaction over frustra­tion). The meaninglessness of life arises out of the belief that in this universe happiness is not achievable, that man’s “destiny” is frustration. Religion has historically been identified with the quest for meaning, not because it has pro­vided man with the goal of life, but because it has affirmed that the established goal was achievable and outlined the procedures neces­sary for such achievement.

A viable modern religion must enable man to understand and use the significant forces within and without him that make life meaningful. The decline of traditional religion is due to the ever-increasing belief that the old religion is unrelated to the social and physical forces that count. An effective contemporary viewpoint must acknowledge this problem and must clearly direct human attention to those forces that do count. A useful religion is always open to new information and revises its sched­ule of significant powers on the basis of new evidence.

Under these circumstances, it is obvious that theology, as a source of information about available powers, is an anachronism. In the middle ages theology was the “queen of the sciences”; no other discipline was more im­portant. It was universally believed that without proper knowledge of God’s desire and God’s power human salvation was not possible. There­fore, any disclosure about God was crucial. To ignore theology would be to ignore happiness; it would be a deliberate act of masochism.

But the modern world has effected a dramatic change. The contemporary university, the center of wisdom authority, is devoid of theological interest. Hosts of students pass through its discipline, vitally absorbed with the powers that influence and control their destiny, and yet with total indifference to the issue of God. Theology has become an academic irrele­vance. In the practical religion of faculty and students, God has ceased to be a significant pow­er and is, therefore, “religiously” uninterest­ing. He survives in most intellectual circles as a nostalgic word and as a nod to social re­spectability.

The “death” of theology is not something to be deplored; it was inevitable in an age which applauds the procedures of science. What is deplorable is the inability of organized religion to dispense with a study which inhibits its re­ligious effectiveness. The repeated theological furors of the post-war years are no sign of re­newed vitality; they are the noisy friction be­tween religious vested interests and the uni­versity culture which resists them.

There are four good reasons why theology stands in the way of an effective religion.

(1) Religion should be identified with the most effective procedure for the achievement of informational truth available today. That procedure is the empirical or scientific method. The virtue of this method is that it is responsi­ble to the structured evidence of public experi­ence and not to the whim of personal feeling and intuition. Its additional virtue is that it is self- correcting. Since truth is a function of the evi­dence of sense-experience, and new experience is always forthcoming, there can be no fixed statements about the world. How man views the power structure of the universe is continually alterable. Specific conclusions can be revised without the necessity of rejecting the method that sponsored them.

While Biblical theology relied on a naive empiricism , citing unusual events, voices, ap­paritions, and personal conversations with God as evidence for divine reality, the classical theology that emerged in the middle ages denied the relevance of sense-experience to the demon­stration of theological truth. Since God was metaphysical (beyond space-time), observable events in space-time could neither demonstrate nor refute the nature or power of God. Personal intuition and inner certainty became the sophis­ticated alternatives to testing by experience; and no real discussion or revision of beliefs was possible in an age when acts of faith were elevated to absolute truth.  Fixed conclusions turned disagreement into heresy.

Mere freedom of expression is no cor­rective to the abuses of the past, because free­dom without responsibility is a waste of time. Since even modern, “sophisticated”, liberal theologians resist the idea that the existence, nature, and power of God are empirical ques­tions, theology is profitably dispensed with. A “science” that has no adequate technique for distinguishing between reality and creative fic­tion beyond the presence of inner certainty may provide short-run therapy but hardly long-run usefulness.

(2) The derivative powers of modern ed­ucation are the result of intellectual fearless­ness. Jewish anti-idolatry carried to its logical conclusion means that there is no word, idea, hypothesis, or value which a man should be afraid to reject. It also means that there is no person, place, thing, or force which a man should be afraid to investigate or measure.

However, traditional religion thrived on the category of sacredness. Sacred persons, objects, or ideas are “taboo,” dangerous to in­vestigate and absolutely non-rejectable. The appropriate response to sacredness is not measured probing; it is the act of worship. Worship is an awesome adoration which pre­cludes sober investigation. When a worshipper lacks information about the object of his rever­ence, he generally replies, “It’s a mystery,” (with all its implications of the dangerous un­known). When a scientist lacks information about the object of his research, he usually re ­plies, “I don’t know,” (with all its aura of pedestrian sobriety).

In an age when man has replaced worship with the techniques of analysis and free inquiry, the category of the sacred is inappropriate. Scientific man, on the basis of research, may respect persons, values, and ideas, but he can­not adore them.

The problem with theology and the whole notion of God is that the object of investigation is simultaneously an object of worship. How can one ever secure accurate and useful infor­mation about man’s relationship to a supposed deity if the object of study requires the mood of reverence and the attitude of “ga-ga.” Theology, by its very nature, violates the conditions under which investigation is valid. “God” as a kind of personified sacredness is not divorceable from worship. It, therefore, reveals no information about the power structure of the universe; it merely inhibits proper inquiry and rom anticizes ignorance.

(3) One of the many justifications pro­posed for a theistic religion is that without God as the authority source of m orality, there can be no valid or effective basis for traditional so­cial ethics. If kindness, truth-telling, loyalty, and love are only cultural conventions or human options, then, in the absence of state coercion, what possible motivation exists for the compell­ing nature of m oral behavior. Without God to lend sanction to ethical precepts, there can be neither ethics nor precepts.

The fallacy in this reasoning is obvious. Firstly, it is an “odd” sociological fact that the “divine” commandments of a culture seem to correspond to the prevailing m oral standards and alter as the culture alters. If divine sanc­tion has been attached to what we presently regard as m orally commendable, it has more frequently been attached to what is morally reprehensible. The problem with so much his­toric antisemitism , race hatred, blood warfare, and deprivation of liberty is that it has been tied up with “God’s will.” Divine sanction, as a m orals enforcer, has historically caused as much social harm as social good, and aggra­vated the problem by making objectionable be­havior sacred. The enemies of the prophets, as well as the prophets, loved to cite the untestable approval of the Deity.

Secondly, the ethical “authority” of God derived from his supposed power and intention. To assert that God commands a particular be­havioral procedure is in itself to provide no motivation for doing the action. For one may reasonably ask, “Why ought I to obey God?” The traditional reply was twofold; God rewards obedience and punishes disobedience; and God is both supremely wise and benevolent. The form er reply finds its ultimate authority in man’s desire for happiness and the consequent wish to avoid punishment; the second reply as­sumes that if the observer is able to describe God as desiring good, he already knows what “good” is before he so describes God. If, in a rational age, it is no longer possible to believe in a celestial policeman, the “ethical” authority of God is nil.

And, thirdly, what is conducive to human happiness is not a function of cultural whim and human option. It is an empirical question that depends on the accurate observation of human nature and environment. The correctness of an ethical procedure is testable by its consequence on human satisfaction and frustration. If the psychological and social sciences have been morally weak guides up to now, it is largely due to the prevailing “religious” myth that values are distinct from the informational sciences. Too many people confuse the difficulty of em­pirically handling value questions with the im­possibility of doing so.

(4) The prevailing attitude in educated circles toward matters theological is vast in­difference. The mystic fondness and the atheist hatred are absent; an “I could care less” reac­tion dominates. While many people are aroused by the “God is Dead” controversy, they are more attracted by the social non-conformity than the theological shock. If we assume that this indifference is the result of spiritual in­sensitivity to vital information, we will mis­understand. The truth of the matter is that the indifferent are not quite sure that theologians are giving them any information at all.

This problem highlights the whole ques­tion of truth. Before a statement can be evalu­ated as true or false, the assertion must be meaningful; it must make sense. If I utter, “Scubbish-mubbish,” and ask you to tell me whether it is true or false, you would reply, “Impossible, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Now most ordinary conversations about “God” are meaningful. They concern a heavenly father-figure with a distinct personality who is capable of the full range of human sensation and emotion and who possesses immense power to execute his desire. While one may not present­ly be able to directly verify his existence, one can imagine the conditions (in this life or the next) under which such an encounter would be possible. Although a rational age has made such a God an impossible attachment to admit to, the assertion of his existence has at least one virtue – it may be false, but at least it is meaning­ful. The fundamentalist may utter naive absurdities, yet he never suffers from the “sophisticated” disease of preferring vagueness to clarity. An anthropomorphic God has the de­lightful advantage over most other varieties of simply being conceivable.

In an age when all scientific disciplines from physics to psychology seek to make their concepts and language more precise, the theo­logian alone reverses the procedure. While in Biblical times statements about God were fairly clear and specific, today analytic precision in theological matters is regarded as childish. While all other sources of useful power are subjected to increasing human measurement, divine power recedes into a protective realm “beyond space and time” where mortal hands can never defile it. In classical theology the most profound concepts are always the most nebulous and vague; to have any specific image of God is to hold a primitive notion.

Medieval and modern “liberal” theolo­gians are the most guilty of providing non­information.  To define God as “ultimate reality,” “necessary existence,” or “ground of being” is to utter pretty phrases but to do no more than that. In order for a statement to be meaningful, one must be able to conceive the evidence which would prove it true and the evi­dence which would prove it false. If it is not possible to imagine any situation which would prove it false (i.e., if it is protected by defini­tion from all possible refutation) it is either trivial or nonsensical. The three definitions cited above exemplify this fault; they border on “Scubbish-mubbish.”

For those theologians who discard the ordinary meaning of the word “God” and identi­fy it with some natural object, feeling, or value, their problem is providing pseudo-information about the world. Certainly “God is Love” pro­vides no more information than “Love is Love”; nor does “God is Nature” say any more than “Nature is Nature.” To equate an historic person-word with perfectly adequate thing-words is to abuse language and invite confusion.

All that the theological naturalist ends up doing is absurdly talking to “Love” and talking to “Nature.” These awkward definitions prompt a question: Why should perfectly rational hu­man beings, who have at their disposal a host of English words more adequate than “God” to describe the natural events they are interested in, feel emotionally compelled to rip a three- letter word out of its historic context in order to save it for their belief vocabulary?

The reality of the theological situation for hosts of com m on-sensical people is that God “died” a long time ago. It is the word “God” with all its overtones of social respectability and ancestral approval that survives for grad­uates of the “university religion.

If, then, man is to appropriately answer the age-old religious question: “How do I ade­quately relate to the extraordinary powers of the universe in order to achieve my salvation?”, he must discard the colossal wasteland of the­ology and turn to a study of those realistic powers that most dramatically affect his future. It seem s to me that the most significant reli­gious discipline of modern times would be an­thropology, the study of man in his totality. For it is empirically obvious that the most effective and available powers for human happiness are man’s reason and man’s love. To understand their origin, nature, and possibility is the pri­mary task of modern religion.


Ayfo Oree

Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism (1976)

Ayfo Oree lyrics





Where is my light? My light is in me.

Where is my hope? My hope is in me.

Where is my strength? My strength is in me.

And in you.

Secular Humanistic Judaism Shabbat Service


Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1994 (vol. 22 no. 2, p32-35)


V’shuv Itkhem

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.



Zemer Lakh

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.



Mi Hakham

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.



Ayfo Ori?

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.



Y’hi Shalom

Let there be peace.

— Siddur (adapted)

The Significance of Shabbat: Past and Present

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.



Secular Humanistic Judaism Abroad: Latin America, Moscow, Israel


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.

Soviet Union

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.

International Conference

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.



Exploring HJ for Old-Timers


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.

World View

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 Makes 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.

Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
All texts, photos, audio and video are © by the Literary Estate of Sherwin Wine, whose custodian is the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism – North American Section. All rights reserved.