Project of IISHJ

Secular Humanism in Israel

Humanistic Judaism, Summer 1982, (vol. 10 no. 1, p43-46)

The Shefayim Conference in October, 1981 was the beginning of a long process of exploration, dialogue, and cooperation.

Secular and humanistic Jews from North America and from Israel came together to discuss what it means to be both Jews and secular humanists. This meeting was the first dialogue in Israel where the focus on a secular Jewish identity was separated from the political controversies of socialism and Zionism. In the past, secularism was identified with the program of the socialist left. Whatever bourgeois secularists were around viewed it as a logical consequence of the development of a modern Jewish nationalism. Activists opposed to religious coercion saw it as a civil liberties issue and not as the creation of an alternative philosophy of life.

The October Conference was, therefore, treading on new ground. A humanistic Judaism which did not have firm connections to political parties and which proposed to develop a clear philosophic alternative to religious Judaism was a novelty, even a luxury. The very nature of Israeli culture and problems had given this opportunity neither clarity nor urgency.

The Shefayim meeting was short, only two days. It included some people who were interested in humanism, but not Jewish identity. It excluded many secular Jewish leaders who were unknown to us (some of whom later signed the Conference statement). There were political leaders like Shulamit Aloni, the founder of the Citizens Rights Movement, Meir Pail, a spokesperson for the Sheli doves, and Mordecai Wiskurski, a parliamentary delegate from centrist Shimui. There were academicians like Gershon Weiler, author of a definitive work on the secular state, and Uri Rapp, Tel Aviv sociologist and civil libertarian. There were writers like essayist Yigal Elam, playwright Yehudah Sobel, and journalist Mendel Kohansky. There were activists from the small Israeli secular humanist movement like Yitshak Hasson and Gabriel Glaser.

Although time did not allow for a full discussion of basic philosophic issues, the brevity was desirable. The meeting was intended to be only a preliminary to a longer conference to be held in the summer of 1983. This conference enabled us to understand who needed to be involved in the forthcoming meeting and what important issues needed to be discussed.

Out of the Shefayim meeting came an Organizing Committee for a Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews and a short statement to stimulate interest in what we were striving to do. The statement (see Declaration of Principles) included affirmations of our belief in human reason, human autonomy, human dignity, the centrality of Israel and the secular state. It enabled many Jewish secularists who did not attend the Conference to sign their approval.

The Conference also permitted us North Americans to see clearly the secular scene in Israel. We discovered that many of the conditions we already suspected to be real were really real. And that many of the situations we never imagined to be true were also real.

What did we discover?


Unlike the rest of the world, organized humanistic Judaism in Israel is a rural phenomenon, built on the community life of the secular kibbutzim. With the exception of one congregation in Haifa, secular humanism as a viable movement is confined to rural settlements. The situation is a delicious irony, given the origins of our philosophy. And the question arises whether, after the urban intellectuals who founded the kibbutzim die out, the commitment to a rational Jewish identity is sustainable. Already nature mysticism and religious revivals are beginning to emerge in formerly fanatic secular settings.


The kibbutz community has been the only place where secular Jews in Israel have been free from religious coercion (except with marriage and divorce) and religious intrusion. For the past seventy years they have been involved in revising old holidays, inventing new ones and developing a humanistic life cycle ceremonial pattern. My visits to the archives at Ramat Yohanan and Beit Ha-Shitta were the highlights of my post-Conference experience in Israel. But most of this material has, unfortunately, not been made available to the Diaspora Jewish public.


Most of the Jews in Israel do not see themselves as religious in the conventional sense. But they do not have a high awareness of their being secular either. While they resent religious coercion, they find it difficult to separate religious behavior and religious leadership from Jewish identity. They become secular only when the rabbis oppress them.


Secular Jews in Israel have never experienced any kind of organizational unity. Political differences have made cooperation impossible. Secular nationalists and secular liberals dislike secular socialists. Jabotinsky, the mentor of Begin, hated Marxism more than religion. And Chaim Weizmann, the paragon of bourgeois Zionism, preferred respectable bourgeois company to authentic communists. As for the socialists, they adore division. From the very beginning the pro-Bolsheviks and the anti-Bolsheviks split the socialist camp and, even though any form of pro-Russian sentiment is now academic in the face of the obvious Soviet hostility to the Jews, a lifetime of division builds its organizational fences and emotional resentments.


It seems funny to find anti-Zionist secular Jews in Israel (the religious fanatics like the Neturei Karta have been well-publicized). But there are some. The current president of the Israeli Secular Humanist association is one of them. Although he represents a minority in his own small organization, he does articulate an existing secular alternative. The anti-Zionists are pure humanists. They believe that Israel should be a normal state for all its citizens whether of Jewish or Arab origin; and that it should cease to be a vicarious state for the Jewish Diaspora. One identity, Israeli identity, should prevail. One secular Israeli community should be developed. Religious and ethnic identities should be private matters. The state should serve all “humans” equally. Under this ideology, Jewish identity becomes Hebrew speaking Israeli identity. American Jews who are secular humanists are of no greater importance to Israeli humanists than American secular humanists who are not Jews. Zionism is passe. There should be one Israeli humanism including Arabs and Jews. Ethnic humanism is not an Israeli need.


Most secular Jews in urban settings (and most Israelis are urban) have not been motivated to defend their integrity and to create ceremonial alternatives like the kibbutzim. Since they lack community structures they yield to what is available. Circumcision, Bar Mitsva, marriage and burial are the exclusive preserve of religious functionaries. While they mock these people and express their contempt for them they use them. Even though the state only dictates marriage and divorce procedures, they conform on all ceremonial levels. What has developed is very unattractive: grumbling and surrender. Only the one congregation in Haifa is trying to provide some integrity by creating a supportive urban community.


Israeli secularism has a negative edge. It knows what it does not like. It is not quite sure what it does like. Anti clericalism has been the historic beginning of all religious movements. Resistance to religious coercion is the initial fuel. But it cannot stop there. The defense of the secular state cannot be a philosophy of life. It only has enemies, no heroes. Too many Israeli secularists survive on the philosophic stimulation of their European backgrounds and arrange to leave nothing to their children. Fighting religious intrusion into the state schools is useless unless one has a clear positive passionate philosophy to fight back with. Humanism is more than holding fundamentalists at bay. It has a literature. It has heroes. It has roots in Jewish history. It needs pizzazz and exposure.


The old nationalism, including the conservative Jabotinsky type, was anti-religious, because the orthodox rabbinate was overwhelmingly opposed to Zionism. But the new Begin type nationalism is pro-religious because the Bible and rabbinic ideology justify territorial expansion. There has been a gradual shift in the attitudes of the Israeli establishment. Even devout secularists like David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir began to change in their old age for political reasons. They saw religion as a re-enforcer of patriotism. Many young people in Israel today, who did not grow up in the cosmopolitan milieu of their parents and grandparents and who see themselves as defenders of Israeli Territorial survival are ambivalent secularists. They are drawn to what is politically useful and are seduced by it.


Many secular Jews in Israel are confused by the meaning of their Jewish identity. If it is not a religious designation, how does it differ from plain old Israeli identity? However, if Arabs can be Israelis, what do we call the other variety? If speaking Hebrew is the main sign of Jewish secular identity, how does one deal with a non-Hebrew speaking Diaspora? Confusion reigns, especially since most Jews live outside the state of Israel, and especially since Israel is the only nation in the world to have been created by its own expatriates. Replacing Jewish identity with Israeli identity is not as easy as some early Zionist secularists once thought.

These discoveries were real eye-openers. They dispelled the romantic myths so many of us Jewish humanists grew up with about the success story of secular Zionism. What we gradually came to realize was that we were both, Israelis and North Americans, struggling with the same issues and that all the good answers were on the Israeli side.

What can be done to strengthen secular Judaism in Israel – and elsewhere in the world? The mutual discovery and sharing has just begun. What can we do to create more self-awareness, more cooperation, more solidarity?

Well, we need another conference, a longer one. This conference should be a joint venture of secular and humanistic Jews in North America and elsewhere in the Diaspora, the secular kibbutz movement in Israel, and secular Zionist groups. It should include the leading spokespeople for a secular humanism with Jewish identity. It should be broad in its scope, enabling nationalists, socialists and bourgeois liberals to talk to each other about shared secular issues. Its agenda should provide in-depth discussions of the meaning of Jewish identity, the purpose of life, ethical decision making, the role of the family, responses to death, the nature of the secular state, holidays and life cycle ceremonies, and the creation of new communities. We need a new book to dramatize our Jewish alternative for the Jewish public. This book should appear in both Hebrew and English. It should have no single author. It should be a collection of essays by the leading secular Jewish thinkers and writers. It should answer the questions – what is unique about secular Judaism – what are its basic beliefs and affirmations – what is a secular Jewish life style. The book should appear before the conference and provide a basis for preparation and discussion. Hopefully, the authors would participate in the conversation on the basic issues.

We need people to read the book, attend the conference in Israel and lend their support to this new venture.

The Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews. Israel. July, 1983.

Mark it on your calendar.

Conversion in Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Spring/Summer 1980, (vol. 8 no. 1, p12-15)

‘I want to become a Jew.’

‘I want to convert to Judaism.’

How should Humanistic Judaism deal with these requests?

More conventional branches of Judaism – the Orthodox, the Conservatives and the Reformers – have developed procedures of formal admission to the Jewish people. The English word ‘conversion’ is now generally used to describe this acceptance.

The Orthodox and Conservative converters tend to downplay affirmations of belief and to ‘upplay’ non-verbal initiation behaviors like circumcision or ritual dunking. They also tend to discourage conversion and to emphasize the hardships of Jewish identity.

Reformers, on the other hand, place great emphasis on verbal behavior, especially declarations of theological belief in

the presence of witnesses. They also encourage conversion. In fact, their national leader, Alexander Schindler, frightened by the declining Jewish birthrate, has proposed that Reform Jews actively missionize the American Gentile population.

Humanistic Jews and Humanistic rabbis have, so far, articulated no clear stand of their own. The openness of our congregations to anyone who wishes to join, and the general willingness to allow anybody to be Jewish who thinks that he is Jewish has provided an informal operating procedure. However, some humanistic choosers of Jewish identity want community recognition of their new status They want some form of initiation ritual. But in a movement that has long since given up ceremonial circumcision, ritual dunking and public declarations of theological conviction, what does one do?

Before we can answer this question, there are certain facts, certain social realities, we have to acknowledge.

Most potential converts to Judaism do not seek Jewish identity because they have suddenly seen the ‘light.’ In the end, most theologies are busy work for clergymen and are of no interest to lay people. The petitioners arrive because they are involved in intermarriage and want to remove a barrier to family acceptance and to the labeling of future children. Most conversions throughout history have had very little to do with internal belief. They arise out of the necessity of changing membership from one group to another, either because of marriage or because of government decree.

Among the potential converts who are not involved in an intermarriage, most of them are attracted to Jews and to Jewish culture, and not to a list of official theological statements. They like Jewish people and want to be associated with them. Oddly enough, it is the intellectual power and secular achievements of the modern Jew that make Jewish identity attractive to many people.

Jewish identity is an ethnic identity. The Jewish people antedates any system of theological belief. Even Orthodoxy recognizes that Jews are normally Jews because they are born of Jewish mothers. Even Gentiles (meaning other nations) usually identify people as Jews by checking their parents or their last names. In neither case does anyone assume that theological belief or ritual practice is essential to Jewishness. Like the authors of the Bible who identified the Hebrews as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, most of the people of the world, including traditional authorities, view Jewish identity as an ethnic reality.

Christian identity is similar to but also different from Jewish identity. It is similar because most people derive their Christian label through birth and not through choice. The overwhelming majority of Christians are attached to their religion through ancestral loyalty and have very little awareness of theological distinctions. Traditional ritual, the ways of the fathers, defines the behavior of membership. Christianity is different from Judaism because it is an imperial religion and not a national religion. As the patriotic religion of the Roman Empire, it became a way of binding many nations together into a larger political structure. An imperial trans-national religion is more than ethnic but less than universal. Christianity is the ancestral attachment of those who identify with European culture and its historic memories. To become a Christian is to go beyond national patriotism to imperial patriotism. Although history has divided the church along ethnic lines – Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox for examples – the division still plays on a single broader cultural theme.

Religion and patriotism, whether national or imperial, go hand in hand. Religions do not begin with people who want to promote theological ideas. They begin with tribes, nations and empires who use religion as the ritual of patriotic celebration. Mystical groups who lack historic roots and ancestral approval are only cults. When they receive political recognition and are identified with the welfare of the political order, they become religions. Only in modern times, when the reactionary clergy were overthrown by the science oriented bourgeoisie, did the secular notion of the separation of church and state, of the distinction between religious and national identities, ever arise. Judaism and Christianity represent old political and cultural loyalties that antedate the founding of the United States of America and of most modern states.

The word conversion is inappropriate to becoming a Jew, because it implies a change in belief. Since we cannot choose to change our beliefs (in the same way that we choose to change our behavior) the cause of the transformation has to be some external compelling force such as ‘divine grace.’ Conversion is a word that fits the reality of cults, not the reality of religions. Naturalization, affiliation or adoption are more accurate terms. Changing religions has more to do with changing family relations and cultural aspirations than with experiencing fundamental alterations of belief. Normal, stable people do not experience such quick massive breaks with their past views of life. If they move from religion to religion, they do so for reasons other than theological.

All national and religious communities have initiation ceremonies. The purpose of the ritual is clear. It allows the adoptee to receive what the native-born has already received in his childhood ceremony of naming, circumcision or baptism, the personal recognition of his membership by the members of his new community. Joining a group without the consent of the group is an act of insanity. If nobody wants you, unilateral decisions are silly. Religious adoption is a group affair. One cannot have the adopted unless there are adopters. Even where there exists no formal ceremony, the group informally offers its acceptance by allowing the person to participate in the work of the group.

Since the Jewish community is presently divided and has no central authority to determine ‘naturalization’, the decision making has to be congregational. Since taxing and conscription are no longer Jewish community issues outside of Israel, this decentralization is harmless. If orthodox Jews do not wish to recognize Reform and Humanistic ‘joiners’ as Jews, the rejected ‘can care less.’ They are not excommunicates. They have their own congregations who accept them and give them a sense of belonging. Only in Israel is this arrangement insufficient.

Since Jewish identity involves political responsibilities and political privileges, the state must provide some uniform test. Turning the power to naturalize over to orthodox rabbis deprives the state of many potential good citizens who will not subject themselves to the humiliation of orthodox testing.

If religion is derived from ethnic and cultural loyalties, and not from dogmatic convictions, then one can enjoy more than one religious identity. One can be a Jew, an American and a Humanist simultaneously. If one is the child of a Jewish and Scottish intermarriage, one can be both Jewish and Scottish. There is no reason for either – or. Each of us is capable of participating in more than one cultural tradition. The limits are defined by the amount of time each person wants to devote to group celebration and by the numbers of religious groups who are willing to treat religion as a matter of culture and not as a matter of belief. For most of us, one or two ethnic attachments are all we have time for, if we are not going to be shallow dilettantes.

Because Jewish identity is ethnic, national and cultural, active solicitation of non-Jews is inappropriate. We already share a human identity with all of them and a growing universal secular world culture. Becoming Jewish is not urgent in the way that becoming a Christian is urgent to fundamentalists. They see religion in cultic terms. Liberal Christians who view their religion as a cultural inheritance are far less pushy. Since we Jews are a bright and interesting group, we should be open to anyone who wants; to join us. Either marriage or cultural admiration are legitimate reasons. Our presence should be well-known and well-publicized. Cultural missionaries – yes! But cultic missionaries – never!

Paying attention to the realities which have just been noted, we, as Humanist Jews should provide the following opportunities to potential ‘converts’

  1. We should openly announce that we welcome non-Jews to join Our community.
  1. We should provide opportunities for those who are interested in joining us to receive information about Jewish history, Jewish celebration and humanistic philosophy. At the Birmingham Temple, we use the weekly class on Humanistic Judaism for this purpose. The class follows an annual cycle and allows both ‘natives’ and ‘joiners’ to share study and discussion.
  1. We should allow congregational membership to constitute ‘adoption’ or ‘conversion’. Since we do not require the uninformed native-born to take a course in Humanistic Judaism before he joins, we should not impose this requirement on those who come from the outside. Philosophic and cultural education should be recommended to all members.
  1. We should provide an initiation ceremony, a joining ritual, for those who want it. Some non-Jewish members will be satisfied with just being Humanists. Others, will choose to call themselves Jews, but will find a formal ceremony either unnecessary or too contrived. But many will want some public recognition of their new status.
  1. We should use the confirmation ceremony as the model for the ‘adoption’ ritual. Just as the native-born confirm their membership in the community in late adolescence or in adulthood, so can newcomers do the same. The ceremony does not ‘magically’ turn the non-Jew into a Jew. It simply allows the community to celebrate a decision already made. The ceremony can be either group or individual, active or passive, depending on the desire of the joiner.
  1. We should provide a certificate of adoption to those who want it. The certificate should be modeled after both the confirmation and naming documents. It should allow the ‘convert’ to choose a Hebrew name (if he desires it) as a sign of his new ethnic attachment.
  1. We should develop procedures for ‘conversion’ which can serve as guides to congregations and interested individuals. The Society for Humanistic Judaism should begin this task immediately.

In a heterogeneous culture like America, where intermarriage increases unavoidably and where individual mobility exposes each of us to greater and greater numbers of options, the old procedures for joining the Jewish people are obsolete. Checking on Jewish mothers, arranging for ceremonies of eternal commitment, insisting on dogmatic conformity are both unrealistic and insulting. No ethnic group can be a fortress anymore, with forbidding walls to scale. It has to be an open house, with easy entry – and with an eagerness to share its family treasures.

High Holidays for Humanists – Yom Kippur Excerpts


Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1979, (vol. 7 no. 3, p42-44)


Happiness is not a need. It is a consequence. When our basic needs are satisfied, we feel the pleasure of fulfilment. Knowing our needs is very important. Without that understanding we may pursue what we do not really want. But it is so easy to be deceived! When one desire finds no satisfaction, it seizes the center stage of our attention and pretends to be the most important one of all. When we are hungry, food is an obsession. When we enjoy no sensual pleasure, sexual desire becomes an inner beast. When we receive no love or recognition, loneliness and indifference make all other problems seem trivial. At the moment we imagine that what we want is our first and fundamental need.

The truth is otherwise. We humans share a host of inner demands. Some are more important than others. But none is primary. People will even forego food and sex to attain other more compelling ends. The wise person does not narrow human nature. He does not restrict happiness to what his culture either allows or forbids. He does not confine fulfilment to what his experience makes scarce. True happiness rests on the harmony of many satisfactions. Love, recognition and usefulness are universal needs which transcend any particular culture. They are our needs. They are a bond we share with all other people. If we know this truth no local obsession, no private compulsion can deceive us.


The spiritual option is not confined to those who spend their time with imaginary spirits. It has nothing at all to do with people who avoid sensual pleasure and who turn their mind to meditation. The spiritual condition is the special radiance we perceive in noble people. Nobility starts with the strength of reason. It grows with self-reliance and the sensitive awareness of the human condition. It expands the human spirit and allows it to cross the barriers of ethnic pride and parochial vision to encompass humanity. The noble person avoids tolerance and patronizing niceness. He is humane because he allows himself to feel the common fate we all share. He knows that, in some fundamental way, the stranger is a member of his own family.

True nobility rests on no social gift. Neither pedigree nor wealth can guarantee it. Neither humiliation nor poverty can prevent it. The noble person is the member of no special class and no special race. He is an aristocrat of the spirit whose style is an enormous compassion and whose wisdom is an extraordinary empathy. His generosity and openness make him radiant. He shines with the special power that kindness brings when it can flow freely. The spiritual option is our option. Let those who wish to meddle with mysterious spirits do so. We shall train the spirit of our own humanity.


We are humanists. We believe in the power and beauty of the human potential. We believe in the necessity of human reason. We believe in the human right to satisfy human needs. We believe in the human ideal of human unity. Cynics may mock our commitment. They will give examples of human weakness and ugliness. They will testify to the irrational decisions of countless men and women. They will decry the pettiness of so much human desire they will point triumphantly to the scourge of hate and war. But they will not prevail. They confuse our present limitation with our future possibility.

We do not praise what we are. We praise what it is possible for us to become. If human history has featured the base, it has also presented the noble. If the human saga has revealed the terror of irrational destruction, it has also delivered the marvel of rational survivals. If human nature has chosen its moments of petty selfishness, it has also found its seasons of grand compassion. If nations have killed and slaughtered, they have also made peace. They have exchanged ideas and useful work. They have fostered a new world society where no great nation is any longer independent and where no little people is unknown. For many timid spirits cynicism is more comfortable than hope. It justifies inaction. But we will not be seduced by this fatal reward. We shall strive to be what we believe we can become. To do less is to betray our potential and to become the victims of our own fear.


Yom Kippur is a day of reason. It is a day when no single feeling may prevail, no lone emotion may control. Reason is not the absence of emotion, a cold rejection of warm responses. It is the power to relate our action to our needs. It is the ability to relate our behavior to our survival and to the survival of the human world we live in. Without the heat of our own desire the search for truth would Perish from its own uselessness. Reason gives this search the strength of patience, the honesty of doubt, the fire of surprise and the vision of all that we need. If we are obsessed with nostalgia, we will forget our creative drive. If we are consumed by fear, we will no longer remember the thrills of risk. If we only have time to hate our enemies, we will never find time to love our friends.

We resolve this day to serve the reason within us. We will resist the madness of hate without love. We will defy the threat of fear without hope. We will fight against the terror of feeling without vision. We will affirm the richness of our desires and needs. We will open our hearts to useful change. We will strive to be more patient, more honest and more open to surprise than we have been before. We know that the human possibility is greater than what our present fears will admit. We need our reason to keep us sane.


Yom Kippur is a day of transcendence. We reach out beyond ourselves to embrace all our connections. We affirm our wider attachments and know that we belong. Our friends touch us and reassure us. The Jewish people gives us shelter and caresses our identity. The world of humanity beckons to us and promises the excitement of a universal family. We know that each of us is more than an individual. We know that life offers more than self-absorption. If we reach out no farther than friends, our thrust will be timid. If we extend ourselves only to the boundaries of the Jewish people, our openness will be closed in by the fear of strangers. But if we push ourselves dangerously into the realm of the human connection, our transcendence will have the boldness our future deserves.

We resolve this day to be truly human. We will not allow old fears and old paranoia to keep us from the world beyond. We will not allow old propaganda and old history to hide from us the unity of human nature. We will not allow old customs and old laws to shield us from the wisdom and insight of other peoples and other nations. We need to expand the frontiers of our family. We need to feel that goodness and beauty exist beyond the narrow confines of those we understand. We need to go beyond our comfortable attachments to a greater bond of human concern. In a world where we will soon be able to control our own evolution, the commitment to one humanity if not a desirable option. It is a necessity.



Life is struggle. It is the solving of problems. It is the mastering of skills. Our brains are so complex, that unlike lower forms of life, we do not have a single response to a single stimulus. An infinite number of options greets us with each new intrusion of reality. Exploring and testing begin as childish games. They stay with us to become the special strength of maturity. We try and blunder. We try and succeed. Error and accuracy are the polar ends of our learning experience. Pursuing knowledge makes us awkward. We fall and stumble so often along wisdom’s way that we are embarrassed by our graceless action. We sometimes wish that we enjoyed the programmed ease of birds and cats. But we possess a freedom that they will never know. We can change what no longer works. We can alter what no longer pleases. We can transmit to future generations the fruits of our awkward struggle.

Memory is the storehouse of practical wisdom. The defeats of the past need not be preserved if we are willing to listen to its victories. The blunders of the past need not be repeated if we are willing to imitate its successes. Progress is the freedom to avoid doing what the past has already done. We stand on the building blocks of memory to reach higher and higher. The tower of human knowledge rises to heaven and allows us to visit the secrets of human existence that tradition forbade us to explore. Sometimes when we look up to confront the vast open spaces we have not yet attained, we despair. We forget how high we have already climbed.

Unitarians and Humanistic Jews

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1979, (vol. 7 no. 3, p5-8)


How are we the same? How are we different?

Many people ask me whether Humanistic Jews are nothing more than Unitarians who like Jewish holidays.

The question is not totally absurd. After all, Humanistic Jews and Unitarians get along very well together. They share many causes. They are comfortable at each other’s services. Some Humanistic Jews are even members of Unitarian fellowships.

However, there are important distinctions. In order for me to explain them, I will have to give you some background in Unitarian history and Unitarian doctrine.

The following events have contributed to Unitarian existence.

The Christ controversy. Many early Christians believed that Christ was a lesser god than Yahveh and did not deserve equal honor. They were named after a Greek heretic and were called Arians. In later years many nations rebelling against Roman rule adopted their cause to justify rebellion. In time the Arians were defeated. But their ideology lingered in the theological underground.

The Protestant Reformation. In Hungary and Poland the Protestant Reformers were more radical than anywhere else. Since their rulers were diverted by the threat of Turkish invasion, they found unusual freedom in these backward nations. Many of them, in their zeal to live by the Bible alone went farther than the Arians and refused to regard Christ as divine. They declared him human and denied him worship. Because they now denounced the idea of the Trinity, three gods united as one, they called themselves Unitarians. Still regarding Jesus as their chief prophet, they saw themselves as devout Christians. Ultimately, because of government persecution, they were confined to Dracula country, the mountains of Hungarian Transylvania.

The Anglosaxon Enlightenment. In the eighteenth century the progress of reason and science produced a dissenting minority among English Protestants. Turning from faith to reason, they found evangelical Christianity as distasteful as ritualistic Catholicism. In an environment of new civil liberties, many Presbyterians turned their churches into Unitarian chapels. Their connection with their Hungarian comrades was in name alone. English Unitarians tended to downplay Jesus and to emphasize their universal beliefs, which were rational and more than Christian. Their ideas spread abroad to the English colonies in North America primarily Massachusetts. In New England many Puritan churches, their old faith subverted by the Enlightenment, turned themselves into Unitarian churches. The Arian heresy in America became a discreet rational faith with a perfunctory God and with a diminishing interest in Jesus. William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson became the heroes of this new approach.

Freethinking and rationalism. By the middle of the nineteenth century rational philosophy yielded the freethinker, who was committed wholeheartedly to the scientific method and who dismissed the idea of God as either useless or superstitious. Starting in the 1800’s many Unitarian clergymen were seduced by freethinking. Inspired by the Ethical Culture of Felix Adler who preferred morality without God and by the bold ideas of the scientific revolution, they gradually shifted the religious discussion from Christian theism to rational humanism. With the decline of the Ethical Culture movement, many Unitarian ministers openly courted the humanist market. Dietrich of Minneapolis and Reece of Des Moines were pioneers in this movement. The traditional Unitarians were so weak and demoralized that they were unable to expel these rebels from their movement. The church that had been established to defend the pure divinity of God had now become the home for avowed atheists and agnostics.

Hostility to established denominations. The dogmatism of established religions, both Protestant and Catholic, produced a stream of refugees. Some of them became professional anticlericals and turned away from organized religion. Others yearned for some kind of religious connection that would involve no outer creedal commitment. The Unitarian church became the ideal home for the second kind of refugee. Because it was trying to arbitrate between Christian theists and scientific humanists, the leadership found it convenient to avoid stated beliefs and to emphasize the principle of individual freedom of choice. Those fleeing clerical oppression found that principle attractive.

Intermarriage. Since most religious groups disapproved of intermarriage, intermarried couples found themselves ostracized from organized religion. Conversion to one side or the other seemed arbitrary and without dignity. Since the Unitarians had a Christian history but no visible Christian symbols or creeds, they became especially convenient for Jewish-Christian unions.

Christian nostalgia. Since religion grows out of ethnic and family loyalty, Anglosaxon Christians who could no longer accept the formulations of their parent churches still yearned for some way to celebrate Christmas and Easter and for some procedure to put their children in touch with Christian mythology. The Unitarian experience allowed them this indulgence without requiring them to forego their integrity. Many churches have touches of universalism by giving equal time to Confucius Buddha and Mohammed.

The historic roots of Unitarianism have produced a religion with a unique flavor. The taste of the Unitarian experience involves a mixture of the following.

Residual Christianity. The ethnic ambience of Unitarianism is still overwhelmingly Anglosaxon. Its ethnic nostalgia is best expressed around Christmas and Easter. Many churches in New England and all of the churches in England and Transylvania still profess attachments to God, Jesus and the Bible.

An alliance of convenience. Theists and humanists survive in the same denomination. Their separation would be too traumatic for existing congregations. They obviously stick together because their major agenda is not ideological. Like most religious organizations, it has become social and nostalgic.

Disguised humanism. Although the overwhelming majority of American Unitarians are humanists, they choose to call themselves Unitarians. Since the merger with the old Universalist Church which had gradually become a duplicate of the Unitarians they now have the burdensome title Unitarian-Universalist. The name no longer accurately describes those who bear it.

Liberalism. The members of Unitarian churches tend to be leftist in their politics and in their personal orientation.

Although they are recruited from the affluence of the educated managerial class, they tend to endorse personal freedom in life style and more power for oppressed minority groups. Female liberation and Black liberation have been important Unitarian concerns. Since their fervor cannot be directed to prayer and worship, it is often redirected to either social action or group therapy.

As a Humanistic Jew, I find many aspects of Unitarianism attractive.

Its hospitality to humanists, atheists, agnostics and secularists.

Its general indifference to theology and its resistance to theological tyranny.

Its creativity, which has often substituted group celebration and discussion for formal worship.

Its attempt to reconcile the spirit of rational philosophy with the tradition of organized religion.

However, as a Humanistic Jew, I find certain aspects of the Unitarian experience frustrating.

The name is annoying. The label Unitarian-Universalist describes a theological controversy about the nature of God which few Unitarians are interested in. The Unity of God is as meaningless as the Trinity of God. Names are not trivial. They are the bearers of history. Given the present state of the denomination, radical Hungarian Protestants are less the ancestors of the Unitarians than the philosophers and scientists of the last three centuries. The name makes them officially Protestant instead of humanist. The ideological difference is vast.

The principle of affirming no creed is cowardly. Agreeing to disagree is an appropriate principle for society as a whole. It is inappropriate for a religious denomination committed to community celebration and community action. Groups that stand for everything stand for nothing. Or else they deceive. It is quite obvious that devout theists and charismatic mystics would be uncomfortable in a Unitarian setting. They are obviously excluded by an unspoken ideology that prefers rational and humanistic approaches. Denying that one has a creed when indeed one has a functioning system of belief is neither brave nor effective. The Unitarians suffer from the same reluctance that Polydox Jews express. They refuse to openly admit who they are.

The alliance between residual Christians and avowed humanists is inhibiting. Neither side can behave boldly or creatively out of fear of offending the other. The net result for non-theists is a timid humanism that spends more time negotiating with the conservatives than inventing for the liberals. A hymnbook for both Protestants and atheists is not a miracle. It is a disaster.

The Christian nostalgia is inappropriate. If the church wishes to celebrate the ethnic roots of American Anglosaxons, it should do so boldly and more broadly than Protestant models allow. If, however, it desires to be universal, it should strive to develop a format of community celebration that is more than a potpourri of Christian holidays with dabbles of Passover and Buddha’s birthday. It should have its own purely humanist holidays.

On the whole, the positive side of Unitarianism outweighs the negative. As Humanistic Jew, we cannot share our Judaism with Unitarians, because they have no desire to celebrate their ethnic connection with the Jewish community.

But we can share our humanism. We can share our humanistic ideology, our humanistic holidays and celebrations, and our humanistic concerns.

Humanism as a religion transcends Jewish loyalty or Anglosaxon loyalty. It is the way we affirm our membership in the human race. The development of that religion should be a cooperative venture between Humanistic Jews and Unitarians, and among all religious humanists.

The Humanist Haggadah – Excerpt

Humanistic Judaism, Spring/Summer 1979, (vol. 7 no. 2, p13-15)


Passover is the celebration of life. The story of life is a long story. It is an epic tale of over two billion years. We have deep roots and many memories. We have lived in the sea and flown through the air. We have faced many enemies and survived many struggles. We have learned to endure. We are proud survivors. We are human.

Passover is the celebration of life. The story of the Jewish people is the victory of life. Against the fury of destiny, against the odds of history, the Jewish people has survived. We are an old people, tested by the cruelty of circumstance. From the birth of our nation to the very present, death has pursued us with relentless fury. But we have chosen to live. Neither Pharaoh nor Caesar nor Hitler can destroy our will to survive. The memories of destruction are matched by the experience of a good world. We have endured slavery and humiliation. We have also enjoyed freedom and power. Our ancestors traveled the planet in search of safety and liberty. We are here today because they never lost hope.


Are there any questions?



(The Four Questions Follow in the Text)

Why is this night different from all other nights?

On all other nights, we eat either bread or matsa. Why, on this night, do we eat only matsa?

On all other nights, we eat ordinary greens. Why, on this night, do we eat bitter herbs?

On all other nights, we do not dip food in any condiment. Why, on this night, do we dip food twice?

On all other nights, we do not hold a special feast. Why, on this night, do we hold a special celebration?


MAGGID (Story)

These questions are important questions. But before I answer them, let me tell you the story of Jewish hope.

Our forefathers lived in the land of Israel. But their children have wandered the earth to look for freedom and dignity. Our roots are in Israel. But our branches travel the surface of the globe.

Some of our ancestors traveled to Egypt. It was a time of famine and they were hungry. The king of Egypt welcomed them and gave them food and shelter. In later years, an unfriendly king became the Pharaoh of Egypt. He made them slaves and burdened them with heavy work. But they resisted despair choosing hope, they fled from Egypt. They returned to Israel and created a free nation. Passover celebrates their will to live.

 Our forebears also traveled to America. The rulers of Europe were often cruel and hateful to the Jews.

They drove them from land to land and filled their lives with terror. Our fathers and mothers did not despair. Having heard of a free land across the sea, they pursued their dream. They endured the danger of long voyages and unknown places before they reached their destination. Their exodus from persecution, was an epic drama. Never before in the history of our people had so many traveled so far to find their liberty. Because of their foresight, we are here tonight to celebrate our freedom in a free land.

We cannot forget the bold rebirth of the state of Israel. What began as a vision of dreamers became a reality of practical men and women. Some came to avoid hatred. Others came to build love and unity. They traveled from the four corners of the earth seeking what no other land could give them; the power of roots and the dignity of belonging.

The search for freedom is also the will to live. The exodus from Egypt is one of many victories. In every century we have chosen to survive. Passover celebrates this undying resolution which unites our past with our present, and our present with our future.


AKHAVA (Second Cup of Wine)

The fate of every person is bound up with the fate of the Jewish people. And the destiny of the Jewish people cannot be separated from the destiny of all humanity. We are a world people, living in many lands and among many nations. The power of science has shrunk our planet and has made all of us the children of one human family. Since no one of us can survive alone, we must all learn to live together. Brotherhood is born of shared need and shared danger. Passover celebrates this human will to live. We can no longer be fully Jewish unless we recognize that we are also fully human.


We seek freedom for Israel.

We seek freedom for all nations.

We seek freedom for all the world.





(All present raise their goblets and drink the second cup of wine.)


AYLEEYAHOO (Cup of Elijah)

Life is hope. Without the vision of better things, we suffer from boredom and despair.

Throughout the history of our people the name Elijah has been the sound of hope. Elijah was a leader and prophet in ancient Israel who led a people’s rebellion against a wicked government. Tradition says that he never died and that he will return some day to announce freedom for all the people of the world.

The cup of Elijah is the special cup of hope. It reminds us that hope is something we have with us here and now. Hope is not a feeling we wait for. It is a commitment to the future we help to create.

The song of Elijah is the song of hope. As we sing it, let us open the door of our house and invite Elijah to enter.


We welcome Elijah.

Elijah is our name for hope.

We welcome hope.


(The door is opened.)






(The door is closed. All present raise their goblet and drink the fourth and last cup of wine.)

Strength – A Meditation Service

Humanistic Judaism, Summer/Autumn 1977, (vol. 5 no. 2, p42-44)

Opening Song

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.







Where is my light? My light is in me.

Each of us is two people. Each of us is two realities. We are what we do. We are also what we could do. If we are weak now, we have the possibility of being strong. If we are lonely now, we have the power to reach out to others in friendship. If we are bored, we have the imagination to create new excitement.

The light that dispels the darkness is not only external. It is also Internal. There is an inner sun which shines, even though we often deny its radiance. There is an inner fire which burns, even though we often resist its power.

Life can be more than regret and resignation. If we can confront the light of our own potential, life can be the surprise of fulfillment.








Where is my hope? My hope is in me.

Many of us find the meaning of our life in the past. We search for our roots and we revel in every famous ancestor. The dead fill our memories, granting us the pleasure of approval with the terror of guilt. Wisdom from the past grows wiser with age and takes on the mystery of holiness. Old teachers become more profound than new ones. Old rituals become more important than our own inventions. If there is a golden age, it happened a long time ago. The world is getting worse and worse.

Many of us find the meaning of our life in the future. We search for our needs and we revel in every thrust to satisfaction. Visions of new worlds fill our thoughts, granting us the expectation of success with the fear of failure.

Wisdom from the present displays its youth and prefers good humor to reverence. New teachers often seem as profound as old ones. New rituals become the friends of our creativity. If there is a golden age, it is yet to come. Because we live with hope, we will make the world better and better.






Where is my strength? My strength is in me.

Our lifestyle is determined by the way we see our strength. If we see ourselves as weak and powerless, if we feel ourselves empty of will and wisdom, we will choose the style of self-pity. Many of us do self-pity very well. We know how to appease. We are experts in humility. We cry with charm and confess our ills apologetically. We never provoke the strong and we strike back at those we sincerely believe are weaker than we are. Since we are afraid, we thank the fates for our misery and stand in awe of what we do not know.

Our lifestyle is determined by the ‘jay we see our strength. If we see ourselves as strong and powerful, if we feel ourselves full of will and knowledge, we will choose the style of self-esteem. Many of us do self-esteem very well. We enjoy integrity and do not avoid hostility when we need to defend our dignity. We do not revere authority, but we respect it when it is competent. We do not deny our limitations, but we prefer to think about our power. The greatest humiliation is the surrender to fear. Even when we are afraid, we listen to new ideas. Even when we are afraid, we try new adventures. We neither bully nor worship. We enjoy the pleasure of our boldness.









Where is my strength? My strength is in me. And in you.

Humorless people think that they are self-sufficient.

Humorless people think that they are gods. If they feel in need of other people, if they feel lonely and cold, if they crave the presence of good friends, they view their desires as temporary. Self-discipline will yield them the pleasure of needing nobody.

Good-humored people know that they are strong but never strong enough. They know that neither nature nor introspection are substitutes for people. They understand that neither meditation nor self=insight are as delicious as a good friend.

If we are good-humored we know that we grow by growing with others. We can only truly laugh by laughing with others. We can only truly live by living with others. Intimacy is when my own inner radiance is discovered in the face of my friend.



No man is an island

No man stands alone

Each man’s joy is joy to me

Each man’s grief is my own.


We need one another

And so I will defend

Each man as my brother

Each man as my friend.


Silent Meditation







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.


Memorial Meditation

The value of life does not lie in mere survival. Lasting eternally is never enough. The value of life lies in personal dignity. Self-esteem, however brief, gives human existence its meaning.

The long life of cautious boredom is inferior to the short life of bold adventure. Many of us who believe ourselves to be living are already dead. And many who have died live on in the memory of their courage.




The memory of good people blesses us.

Humanism and Reform

Humanistic Judaism, Summer/Autumn 1977, (vol. 5 no. 2, p11-12)

This issue is about Congregation Beth Or. Congregation Beth Or was a Reform Congregation. It is now a humanistic one.

Beth Or is humanistic – because of the special power and integrity of its rabbi, Daniel Friedman – and also because of the unique courage and hutspa of its own members.

Beth Or is also humanistic because Reform Judaism is less than it should be.

The Jewish Reformers of the nineteenth century prided themselves on being the Avant Garde of religious innovation – the rescuers of Jewish identity for the age of science. They saw themselves as bold and radical – eager to remodel the structure of Jewish authority.

The Jewish Reformers of the late twentieth century are tired and cautious. They pride themselves on their return to tradition. Preferring nostalgia to creativity, they have become the promoters of Halachic antiquities. Fearful of Orthodox and Conservative disapproval, they label every surrender to old authority as a concession to the unity of the Jewish people. All the hutspa is gone. All the radical passion is absent. Pleading for the approval of the past, they have no energies left to deal with the future.

What happened?

Not really very much.

From the very beginning the radical image of Reform was more glitter than substance. Using a Protestant model, the early reformers tried to demonstrate that Orthodox Judaism had betrayed the real Jewish past. Reform Judaism was not new at all. It was simply the revival of the original teachings of the great Jewish prophets.

From the very beginning Reform presented itself as ultimately traditional.

And that was silly.

Reform Jewish behavior, as any mildly retarded observer would have noticed, had nothing at all to do with the tradition. Not only would the Talmudic rabbi have found it offensive, the Biblical prophets would have preferred Astarte worship to Abraham Geiger.

The early Reformers were forced to distort the story of the Jewish past in order to kosherize the Jewish present. It never occurred to them that kosherizing was unnecessary. Admitting innovation has greater dignity than depriving heroic figures of the past their real thoughts and feelings.

If the Talmud was essentially irrelevant to the Western urban life-style, then the Torah was even worse. Protestant Biblical piety is a joke among people who want to be winners in a secular world.

In the end, Reform – and, most of all, classical Reform chose the Bible as the ultimate sacred Jewish symbol. The religious energies could no longer be directed to real creativity. It had to be wasted proving the unprovable • demonstrating that the spirit of the Torah was essentially the same as the spirit of humanistic science.

Reform Judaism lacked courage. In the desperate effort of social climbing, classical Reform tried to please the Protestant Establishment. In the guilty response to this desperate effort, the new Reform tries to please traditional Jews.

The net result is humiliation and fiasco. Because, quite frankly, nobody can do Protestantism better than Protestants. And nobody can do traditional Judaism better than traditional Jews.

In both cases, Reform started out as the victim of other people’s initiative — a second-rate imitation of what the imitators could do better. Behind the radical mouth lay the obsequious need to please. Reform sought out its own oppressors.

When the Protestant bourgeoisie lost their clout, Conservative Judaism moved in to terrorize. Once the enormous social snobbery of German Jews was overwhelmed by Russian Jewish success, the social barriers that made Reform seem boldly anti-traditional broke down. Reform Judaism was then able to show its true colors.

It is not true as many latter relics of the old classical Reform have maintained, that the old Reform was truly radical before it was destroyed by the new Reform. The need to apologize is intrinsic to both varieties.

The greatest ‘crime’ of both old and new Reformers is that, in the name of serving tradition, they distort it. Unable to stand up courageously to the hostility of their ancestors, they preferred to do cheap psychotherapy. The search for ‘roots’ became the search for approval.

Humanistic Judaism is an attempt to do what Reform Judaism should have done. Its main concern is not with the past. It looks to the future. Whether the past loves us or hates us is irrelevant to our long-run welfare. Whether the future consequences of our present behavior love or hate us does make a difference.

We ought to understand our past without needing it. To feel that insight is true liberation.

Freedom Service

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn/Winter 1975/6, pages 18-21



Let the freedom of peace fill the world.



Freedom is power.

The power to know oneself.

The power to understand others.

The power to control fear.

The power to pursue life.



Freedom is a magical word… Most people like the sound of the word. Most people say they want to be free.

Can a man be free if he is a prisoner?

Can a prisoner of ignorance be free?

Can a prisoner of fear be free?

Can a prisoner of other men’s opinions be free?

Can a man without power be free?

Freedom is the power to know oneself. Without self-insight there is no liberty. To be out of contact with one’s inner feelings and thoughts is to live in the jail of one’s own ignorance. No man can be free if he is the puppet of wants and desires he cannot control. Liberty is an illusion when men do not know why they are driven to do what they do. Lust, hate and envy are human and normal. But they love to hide behind respectable excuses. Freedom is the power to know them intimately, so that they become our servants – and not our masters.





Let the beauty of free people shine upon us.



Freedom is the power to understand others. We live in a world of spoken goodwill. Parents, friends, teachers and public leaders – all inform us that our welfare is their special concern, our happiness their special desire. If we are naive, we become the victims of propaganda. We become the prisoners of speech. Genuine goodwill can be easily distinguished from false affection. It passes from the tongue to the hands and feet. It becomes action and behavior. Freedom is the ability to tell the difference between those who really care and those who pretend to. Liberty is the power to see the hate through loving words, the wisdom to see the love shining through dark anger.

Freedom is the power to control fear. When our fears and anxieties overwhelm us, they paralyze our will. We cannot choose between alternatives. We cannot make decisions. As weak and dependent children we seek the protection of a strong father who will assume the burden of our will, who will tell us what to do. Many people crave obedience and slavery. It makes everything more secure, more predictable. Gods and dictators may indeed be bossy. They may be pushy and oppressive. But they love to take responsibility. Rational fear is the fear of losing control. Irrational fear is the fear of being in control. No man can be free who refuses his own power.




I believe with all my hope in the ultimate triumph of freedom.



Freedom is the power to love oneself when others don’t. As little children we need the approval of our community – we crave the acceptance of our parents and teachers. As little children we need to please – in order to survive – in order to achieve our self-respect. We cannot love ourselves unless other people love us first.

Many men and women are physical adults. But they remain spiritual children. They possess an insatiable need to please – a fearful desire to win the approval of others – an eternal wish to conform to the expectations of their peers and superiors. They are prisoners of their childhood. Hostility and disapproval terrorize them. Public opinion fills them with dread. Self-respect eludes them. They become the perennial followers – who never create • who never resist. In their drive to win the love of others, they come to hate themselves. They despise their weakness and bear contempt for their continuing surrender. No laws and no police restrict their activity. But they are not free.

Genuine liberty is the careful strength to say no when others say yes – to say yes when others say no.





Let the beauty of free people shine upon us.



Freedom is the power to release the past. It is the good humor to give up what cannot be altered – the easiness to surrender what cannot be changed. Countless men and women live in the prison of their past. They are the tortured victims of their memories. They are the martyr slaves of their regrets. The present and the future hold no special challenge to them. They are merely opportune moments to reflect on old pleasure and on old pain. What might have been is an obsession. What could be is scarcely a thought.

The free man learns from the past. But he does not live there. He does not seek to recapture old pain. He works to achieve new pleasure. He does not need to survive on the faded memories of faded happiness. He strives to create new joy. He uses the past to fashion a more interesting future.





Let peace, love and true freedom pervade our lives.



(Barmitsva, Confirmation, Naming)




Freedom is power

The power to know oneself

The power to understand others

The power to control fear

The power to pursue life.


Freedom is light.

The light to see the reality of oneself

The light to see the reality of others

The light to dispel the darkness of fear

The light to reveal the path of life.







Radiant is the light of the world

Radiant is the light of man.

Radiant is the light of freedom.



Humanistic Judaism – A Religion


Humanistic Judaism, Autumn/Winter 1975-6, (vol. 4 no. 1, p13-17)

In recent years I have encountered a persistent objection to the vocabulary of the Birmingham Temple. Many perceptive and sensitive observers have affirmed the value of the Temple philosophy and program. They readily acknowledge that the group work and fellowship are meaningful experiences. But they counter with the objection, “How can you call your organization a Temple?” Humanism may be a ‘great’ philosophy of life. It may even be the ideological answer to man’s twentieth century needs. Yet, if there is one thing it isn’t, it isn’t a religion. If you’re so concerned about the meticulous use of vocabulary that you abstain from God-language, why then would you not be equally careful with the word ‘religion’?

The question is a significant one. If we are going to designate our philosophy and institution as religious, then we must be as precise and accurate with the phrases we employ as we expect the theologian to be with the words he uses. After all, there is something called the ethics of words. One has a moral obligation to be faithful to the historic meaning of ordinary words.

Now to discover the authentic significance of ‘religion’ we must clarify the unique characteristics of the religious experience. It will not do to either arbitrarily pick a definition that is convenient to one’s vested interest or to cite those qualities of the experience that it shares with other human possibilities. A proper definition must rely on what is peculiar to the event under analysis. Nor will selecting a vague phrase that makes ‘religion’ the sura total of everything promote understanding. To define religion as ‘the pursuit of fulfillment’ or ‘the pursuit of salvation’ or ‘the act of relating to the universe as a whole’ is to consign the term to the limbo of words that have lots of prestige but refer to nothing in particular. For after all, what human activity from psychiatry to politics is not concerned with human fulfillment? And what human procedure does not involve relating to the universe ‘as a whole’?

Initially we must do away with the verbal debris; we must clarify what religion is not. Many liberals are fond of designating the religious experience as the moral dimension of human life, as the ethical commitment of the individual. However, while it is certainly true that all historic religions have been vitally concerned with social right and wrong, it is also true that there are hosts of activities, normally designated as religious, that have nothing at all to do with ethical propriety. Lighting candles and celebrating spring festivals are part of piety and morally neutral. Moreover, large numbers of sincere and sensitive people think of themselves and are regarded by others as both ethical and nonreligious.

Many popular definers prefer to associate religion with the act of faith as opposed to the procedures of empirical reasoning. Religion is viewed as a unique approach to questions of truth. While this definition may be attractive by its simplicity, it will not “hold water”. Certainly the act of reasoning through observable evidence is common to parts of all sacred scriptures; and the procedure of intuitive trust in the truthfulness of self-proclaimed authorities is as common to the daily procedures of politics and business as it is to those endeavors that are normally regarded as religious.

As for the persistent attempts to identify religion with the worship of God, they may be appropriate within the narrow framework of Western culture but invalid universally. The Confucian ethical tradition and the Buddhist Nirvana are religiously as significant as God and yet are quite distinct from the normal notion of deity. Nor will the Julian Huxley definition of the religious experience as the apprehension of the sacred quite do. To simply describe the sacred as that which is able to arouse awe, wonder, and reverence is to identify its consequences but not to clarify the nature of its constituent parts. Without analysis the definition simply substitutes one mystery for another.

A proper view of religion requires an honest confrontation with certain historical realities. Too often clerical liberals choose to designate what is ’unpleasant’ about traditional religious practice as secondary and peripheral. They refuse to confront the possibility that what they stand for may in any way be ‘less religious’ than what the traditionalists proclaim.

In a culture where to be ‘more religious’ is to be more respectable, the refusal is understandable although it is hardly conducive to an objective study of religion.

What are the historical realities which our study cannot ignore? Six facts are most significant.

(1) In almost every culture religious institutions are the most conservative. It is historically demonstrable that ecclesiastical procedures change more slowly than other social patterns. Ideas which are regarded as radical and revolutionary within the framework of church and synagogue are usually regarded as commonplace in other areas of human behavior. While most institutions resist change, organized religion has been the most supportive of the status quo. Intrinsic to established ‘priesthoods’ is the notion that change may be necessary but not desirable.

(2) Religious teachers and prophets persistently refuse to admit that their ideas are new. If they do, the indispensable sacred character of their revelations disappear. From Moses to Bahaullah the religious radical must always demonstrate that he is, in reality, the most genuine of conservatives. Moses pleaded the endorsement of Abraham; Jesus insisted that he was but the fulfiller of old prophecies. Mohammed posed as the reviver of pure monotheism; and Luther claimed that he desired only to restore the pristine and authentic Christianity. As for Confucius, he denied originality and attributed all his wisdom to old emperors. Even the Jewish Reformers vehemently affirmed that they were guilty of no basic novelty but were simply recapturing the true message of the true Prophets. No historic religious ‘genius’ has ever desired to claim a new idea. Change is made to appear an illusion. ‘New’ concepts are either old ones long forgotten or old ones reinterpreted. Novelty is historically irreligious.

(3) In ordinary English the word ‘religious’ is usually equivalent to the Yiddish ‘frumm’. Both adjectives are tied up with the notion of ritualism. An individual is judged as ‘more religious’ or ‘less religious’ by the degree of his ritual behavior. The liberal may protest that this usage is narrow and primitive. But he still has to explain why even sophisticated speakers? then they relax with the word ‘religious’ and are non-defensive, choose to associate it with repetitive ceremonies.

(4) The annual cycle of seasons, as well as the life cycle of human growth and decay are universal concerns of all organized religions. Spring and puberty may have no apparent ethical dimension but they are certainly more characteristic of historic religious interest than social action. We may deplore the religious obsession with Barmitsva. But then, after all, we have to explain it.

(5) Despite Whitehead’s popular definition of religion as that, which man does with his solitude, most religious activities have to do with group action. In most cultures sacred events are not separable from either family loyalty or national patriotism. The very word ‘religio’ is a Roman term for the sum of public ceremonies that express the allegiance of the citizen to the state. Even the ancestor cult which defines the popular religion of most of the Eastern world is an act of group loyalty that diminishes the significance of the isolated individual and enhances the importance of family continuity. Historic religion started with the group and is not easily separable from it.

(6) The notion of the saint or the holy man permeates most religious cultures. This revered individual achieves his status not only because of his impeccable ritual and moral behavior but also because he is able to enjoy the summit of the religious experience. To be able to transcend this messy world of space-time change and to unite mystically with what is beyond change, space and time is his special forte. The mystic experience has almost universally been regarded as the supreme religious event and the entree into the supernatural.

Any adequate theory about the nature of the religious experience and its unique characteristics must be able to explain these six facts. It must find the common cord that binds these disparate events together. While many factors can account for some of them, only one theory takes care of all of them. And this theory is inseparable from the initial concern of historic philosophy.

It is interesting to note that the origin of philosophic inquiry and metaphysics lies in a disdain for the sensible world of continual change and, in a persistent love of what is eternal and beyond decay. Plato was adored by later theologians because of his ‘religious’ temperament. He detested the world of impermanence and asserted that wisdom was only concerned with entities that never change. The chaotic world of space-time events which modern science investigates was anathema to his pursuit of knowledge. If the Greeks were unable to develop the rudiments of a real empiricism, herein lay their problem. Whatever they searched for had to be deathless and eternal.

In fact, the search for the deathless is the psychic origin of the religious experience. The human individual is a unique animal. He alone is fully aware of his personal separateness from other members of his species and conscious of the temporary nature of his own existence. He fears death and needs to believe that dying is an illusion. In his anxiety he probes the world for persons and forces which enjoy the blessing of immortality. With these he seeks to identify and find the thrill of being part of something ‘bigger than me.’ The religious experience is universally an act of feeling ‘at one with’ what seems to possess the aura of eternity.

If we take this definition, and test it by the evidence, it works superbly. It explains the essentially conservative nature of historic religion. Change, experiment, and mere opinion are in spirit nonreligious. Only eternal truths will do. All seeming change is pure illusion; and even the most radical steps must be covered up by the cloak of ‘reinterpretation.’ The definition also clarifies why all new truths must be labelled as old. The religious temperament requires the solace of age, and venerability. Even if the good word is humanly new, it turns out to be ‘divinely old.

The theory explains the religious power of ritual. Traditional ceremony is not significant because of its ethical symbolism; that excuse is a sop for the modern intellect. Ritual acts derive their psychic punch from the fact that they are meticulously identical and repetitive. In a world of continual and frightening change they give to human behavior the feeling of eternity. Their power is not symbolic; it is intrinsic to the ceremony itself. New observances that are labelled as new may be aesthetically charming, but they lack the religious dimension. As for the seasons and life-cycle events, what greater evidence is required to substantiate the thesis? Societies may undergo revolutions and violent social upheaval; they may experience the overthrow of every existing value and idea. But the explosion is powerless to alter the relentless sequence of spring, summer, fall, winter – birth, puberty, maturity, and death. Nothing is more ‘eternal’ than the seasons. Their continual repetition is an ultimate ‘security’.

Moreover, the group character of most religious observance reflects the human desire for permanence. The family and the nation have always been inseparable from the major religious experiences of any culture, simply because they suggest the immortality the individual does not. And the mystic experience is equally explained by this need to defeat change and death. The ecstasy of the ‘saint’ is rationalized as an encounter with the changeless. To ‘transcend’ the world of space and time may be informationally absurd; but as an exclamation of victory over the fear of death it has emotional significance.

If then the unique character of the religious experience is the act of identifying with what appears to be ‘permanent’, a proper understanding of humanism requires the following observations.

(1) The religious temperament and the pursuit of knowledge through empirical procedures are incompatible. Humanism is committed to the techniques of modern science; and all proper statements within the framework are tentative, subject to the refutation of future evidence. Empiricism cannot tolerate eternal truths about man and the universe. The conditional character of all knowledge with an infinite capacity for adjustment is its special power and glory. Whenever the religious need and the pursuit of truth come together there is disaster. The Greeks prove that point magnificently: they could never end up being interested in what was tentative and conditional.

(2) Humanism is a total philosophy of life, which does not allow the religious temperament to invade every area of its discipline. However, there is one aspect of living where religion is indispensable. If man has a need to transcend his temporariness and identify with something or someone more permanent than the individual ‘I’, this need cannot be ignored. Within the framework of humanism, two ways of satisfaction exist. By asserting that every man is composed of the same matter – energy – that all other events in the universe derive from, humanistic teaching affirms that each of us shares an intimate bond, a basic identity, with any conceivable happening in this universe. Stars and flowers are material brothers to our nature. And by proclaiming that before and beyond the individuality of any person, each of us shares an essential oneness with all men, humanism proclaims that all of us individually share in the immortality of mankind as a whole. In fact, the very basis of ethical behavior lies in this religious experience. If every person can only feel himself as an individual, the social character of morality is impossible. Ethical behavior is only feasible when men sense that the essential nature that binds them together is more significant than the individual differences that separate them.

(3) Humanism is more than a religion. There are certain areas of its discipline which provide the religious experience. But there are many involvements where the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. In opposition to the temper of much traditional philosophy where the mood of ‘eternity’ pervades, humanism affirms the value of conditional knowledge and change. Therefore, the humanist never regards the description ‘less religious’ as a threat. He rather views it as a compliment. He is aware of the fact that the balanced life requires much more. While he resists the invasion of all life by the religious temperament, he, at the same time, affirms the value of the religious experience in the simple rehearsal of nature’s seasons and in the image of immortality in mankind’s survival.




Humanistic Judaism, Winter/Spring 1974, pages 4-7

A former humanist confided to me that he had repented. Most of his life he had believed that the best way to handle human problems was through the use of rational thinking. He had frowned on all forms of emotionalism and preferred to confront the realities of the world with cold objectivity. Mind over heart had been his credo and he pursued it relentlessly. The result of such consistency, he confessed, was a dramatic absence of any sense of personal fulfillment. Since the most important things in life cannot be trapped by logic, the purely rational approach to the solution of problems had proved a fiasco. He regretted that he had not seen the light sooner.

The accusation of this new “penitent” has become a familiar assault. A recent letter from a troubled rabbi denounces the pretensions of scientific humanists. The age of science, he asserts, has sponsored the two most devastating wars in human history as well as Auschwitz. If rational thinking can produce results no better than these horrors, it has abdicated the right to be the arbiter of human decision. Perhaps the simple and intuitive commitment is morally superior to the sophisticated emptiness of logical solutions. The world may need less faith in reason and more faith in love.

A local Christian cleric pleaded that a philosophy of life that starts from a dispassionate view of people and nature can only produce human automatons, insensitive to emotional reality. Feeling, not logic, gives meaning to existence. The coldness of rational thinkers chills the operations of human society, and substitutes the superficial for the profound. Reason places a premium on the trivial events that can easily be described over those profound realities which can only be felt, but never described.

A university psychiatrist, who provided an able challenge at a recent debate, contended that most human reasoning is a defensive game. Rationality does not determine our decisions; it simply finds respectable excuses for the devious tyranny of certain feelings and desires we are afraid to re v e a l. Under the cool exterior of impeccable human logic lurk the irrational thoughts and visions of our childhood fears and fantasies. Most rationality is only rationalization. The social role of reason has rarely been the pursuit of truth. While reason pretends to reveal reality, it usually only succeeds in hiding it.

A writer of science textbooks, who lives in the Ann Arbor area, mocked the value of reason for answering ultimate human questions. He pointed out that an empirical psychology can reveal the life goals that people do have; it cannot disclose the goals they should have. Rationality only measures efficiency. If one chooses to exterminate Jews, there is a reasonable way to go about doing it. And if one chooses to suffer, there is a rational program for effective masochism. Reason is morally neutral.

Even two businessmen who are well known in the Detroit commercial world for their unfailing success, pooh-poohed the relevance of reason. Most decisions in life, they disclosed, preclude rational investigation. There isn’t enough time in any given day to adequately research the basic facts which are relevant to the most trivial of decisions. Most individuals who claim to be reasonable, actually determine their actions by personal hunches, sudden intuitions, and a quick perusal of limited evidence. Life is too short for rationality. The pressure of decisions makes a mockery out of any extended claim to patient objectivity.

While the roster of objectors and objections to rationality continues indefinitely (for there is nothing more fashionable in the current religious and literary circles than to denounce the adequacy of reason) it may be wise to pause and evaluate the familiar criticism we have just recalled.

The “Auschwitz argument”, in particular, is one of the oldest and most durable in the antirationalist arsenal. Among Jews it carries an emotional charge which no other assault can equal. Rabbis galore always thrust the challenge of the concentration camps into the face of the humanists with a fanfare denunciation of the sins of science. ” If a people as scientific as the Germans have succumbed to such barbarism, then how can one praise the supreme value of empirical thinking? ” The implication of the complaint is that in the twentieth century, whether we speak of Germany or America, we are living in the age of science.

But no view of the twentieth century is farther from reality. While it is true that empirical thinking dominates our research in the areas of physics and chemistry, it is false to assert that this procedure characterizes the ordinary approach to the study of human motivation and social behavior. The most sophisticated aeronautical engineer who can describe in detail the intricate operations of the jet plane motor, has only the most primitive conception of the nature of the human brain and nervous system. The most talented physicist whose discoveries have revolutionized our notions of interstellar space, has only the vaguest conception of the social causes of war, economic depression, and bigotry. The reasons for these deficiencies do not lie in their unwillingness to receive available information. The difficulty arises from the fact that very little scientific information is really available.

One may plead that human society does not easily lend itself to the controlled experiments which empiricism demands. But this observation only begs the question. It still remains a fact, that in the areas most intimately concerned with the values and behavior of men, scientific information has never replaced the inherited prejudices, intuitions, and tribal myths which control contemporary political behavior. In the crucial disciplines which purport to explain human nature, no age of science can even be detected. To combine a barely liberated empirical physics with a primitive sociology and to label this bizarre mixture as the natural expression of a scientific world is to win arguments by inventing straw men.

Perhaps our problem does not even start with the difficulty of investigating human behavior. Perhaps, it begins with the terrified reluctance that most people express when someone sets out to probe and analyze their inmost thoughts and feelings. No one is emotionally threatened when the researcher intends to study the electrical operation of a computer. But when the investigator seeks to correlate the e le critical system of the human brain with the emergence of certain ideas and feelings, he is accused of demeaning man. It is wiser to leave that realm of darkness in darkness, where ignorance can poetically be disguised by the clever brandying about of such informative terms as “soul”, “personhood”, and ” I-Thou”.

Auschwitz is no more an expression of the age of science than Albert Einstein is an expression of Jewish piety. Aggressive tribal nationalism is not the result of an insightful and sober analysis of the human psyche through empirical responsibility, it most likely is a self-righteous and self-pity in attempt to keep the reality of one’s weakness and fears from conscious confrontation. Hitlerite hysteria, not a scientific psychology, produced it.

If the nature of science has been misconstrued, so has the role of feeling. The contention that the most important things in life are both indescribable and detected only through emotion leads only to confusion. Man’s strongest feelings are not aroused by vague and nebulous notions which defy conception. Hostility, anger, and love are not responses to emptiness. If the object of their intensity cannot be described, it is hardly because it is indescribable. It is more likely because its concept is too frightening, too threatening, or socially too embarrassing to verbalize. A perfect parallel presents itself in ancient Jewish practice. Graven images of Yahweh were not prohibited because Yahweh had no face. They were forbidden because the face of Yahweh was so terrifyingly radiant that to gaze on it was to die.

The human unconscious is filled with all kinds of objects like the imagined faces of Yahweh. They are scarily specific or benevolently detailed, and like father and mother awaken the strongest emotions. On the conscious level we feel the pleasure or pain of the feeling but have conveniently forgotten the object. In fact, we prefer only dim recollections. The less specific and the less describable we pretend the source of our feelings to be, the less likely will we have to truly confront it. And then we crown our deception by pleading mystery.

There are presently many events in the universe which defy easy description. Their status is not due to some inherent inconceivability; it is rather due to the primitive character of our language, which is not sufficiently precise. The task of the sensible philosopher is not to plead an incurable verbal helplessness (a rationalization for fear), but to improve and refine our language by the creation of new words. To substitute worship for analysis is to inhibit self-insight.

The university psychiatrist is correct in his assertion that most “rationality” is only rationalization. While the fantasy ideas and opinions that populate our subconscious actually control our emotional responses and determine our personal behavior, we exhaust ourselves with naive self-deception, in justifying their consequences. Intellectual conversation so often turns sour and meaningless, simply because it is the most guilty of this pretension.

But to assert that human behavior is chiefly under the control of irrational ideas, and that most so-called rational conversation is pure sham, in no way invalidates the value of reason. It only implies that it is harder to be reasonable than we imagined. Logic without self-insight is a child’s game that condemns us to repeat the suffering of the past – and rational thinking means, first of all, self-insight. Unless we are aware of the true nature of our subconscious visions, we cannot change them. The goal of life is not to wallow in self-pity and meekly accept the tyranny of irrational ideas. It is to risk their discovery, and, if possible, transform them.

The rational goal of life is happiness, the science writer from Ann Arbor notwithstanding. While it is possible to plan a world in which pain will be maximized and pleasure will be minimized, the reverse seems more reasonable, given the ordinary meaning of the word. To pursue pain and self-destruction with logical efficiency may be rational in the narrow sense of effectiveness. It is irrational in the broader sense of conforming to universal desires. Although the rational categories of truth and falsity apply only to ideas and cannot be attached to desires, the pursuit of suffering for the sake of suffering is unreasonable by association. It defies what rational thinking has historically been used to achieve.

However, the need to be reasonable is an aspiration, not a reality. It is not only challenged by fantasies deep-rooted in the human psyche: it is also frustrated by the urgent demands of time. If daily decisions must be made quickly, as our businessmen confirm, life is too short for rationality. Intuitive hunches and risky plunges are far more characteristic of the chaos of normal living.

Up to a point. For many intuitions are often more than they seem. They may be the inarticulate common-sensical observations of years of practical experience (e.g., quick-thinking successful entrepreneurs with no formal education) or they may be sensible evaluations, the evidence for which has long since been forgotten. They do not defy rational thinking; they are simply primitive expressions of it.

Sometimes, doing lengthy, detailed and painstaking research is a sign of being irrational. If the purpose of study is to control action, study which prevents action is absurd. When our happiness at a given moment depends upon our willingness to make quick and risky decisions, delay, for the sake of analysis, is unreasonable. Rationality does not imply an exhaustive survey of all facts relevant to a particular problem. (If we had to do that, we would never take any action.) It rather implies the desire to confront as much of the available evidence in the time limits of a given situation. Only the gods claimed to be omniscient; human beings have to settle for intelligence.

The sensitive rational humanist sticks to reason, not because he is a ga-ga gung-ho devotee of logical order. He just isn’t aware of any alternative procedure that is better suited to reduce human suffering and enhance human pleasure. He does not presume, in some pollyannish fashion that it is easy to be reasonable. He understands the perils of self-deception and arid justifying, while affirming the riskiness of all decisions. Although he knows that he does not yet live in an age of science, he hopes that man’s self-understanding will grow. If he rejects the notion that he must choose between being either “cold” or “warm”, he does so with the knowledge that passion and objectivity are not mutually exclusive. They are indispensable partners in the work of human happiness.

Once Upon a Time 

Humanistic Judaism, Fall 1973, pages 5-6

 A brother dies. A child is traumatized. 

 What do you say? How do you explain death? Do you tell the child that death is unreal – that somewhere up in the sky her brother lives with lonely angels – that God, for some mysterious reason known only to God, has taken him away to live in a better world, free of care and pain? 

 Or do you tell the child that death is real – that her brother is now only a corpse in the ground – that he lives and breathes no more – and that she will never see him again? 

 The answer is quite simple. You tell her the truth. 

 The truth is that her brother is dead. 

 Now don’t get me wrong. I do not wish to affirm that telling the truth is some kind of absolute ethical principle which you never violate – regardless of consequences. A rational moral system is always based on the consequences of action. If, in the long run, lying to the child would make her a happier more fulfilled human being, would enable her to deal more effectively with the problems of life, I would recommend lying. 

 But fantasies about the afterlife do not help the child cope with the reality and meaning of her brother’s absence. 

 They do not help her cope with her own anger and her own sense of loss. Why would a good God, if there is one, take her brother away to live with angels when she needed him? 

 They do not help her cope with her own fear of dying. Going to Heaven to stay with God is a cold comfort if it means leaving behind the security of your home and your family. 

 They do not help her deal with her own sense of guilt. Why should her brother, who was such a good person, die while she survives? 

 They do not help her cope with her growing sense of the truth. Even little children – in a scientific age – know that the earth is not flat, that there is no Heaven up there. That plants and animals live, die and disintegrate. Even in a child’s mind the discrepancy is apparent and the answer unconvincing. 

 Children know what dying is. They see it around themselves all the time – even in the truncated nature of our urban environment. They do not need to be told that what they perceive is a fantasy. They need the reassurance that what they perceive is not horrible. 

 An obvious truth has to be proclaimed. 

 The quality of an answer does not depend on what you say. It depends on how you say it. 

 Most parents, when they discuss death are so up-tight, uncomfortable and unaccepting of reality, that no matter what they say, they end up doing the wrong thing. 

 When we speak our message it is not only with words. It is primarily our face and our body. Children learn more from our eyes than from our mouth. If they see fear in our eyes when we discuss death, they will assume that death is a fearful thing – no matter what ideology we proclaim. If they see serenity in our eyes, they will receive the communication that death is a natural and normal event. 

 Parents cannot help children accept death unless they themselves have first accepted death. 

 Very often the fantasies that parents sing for children are not intended to help children. They are intended to help the parents – who are too embarrassed to admit that the bobe miese is for them. 

 How then, should humanist parents answer the questions of children who have lost brothers and sisters? 

 They must first confront their own feelings about the loss of their own child. They cannot expect their other child to accept its reality if they don’t. They can only communicate what they truly feel. The eyes always betray the mouth. 

 They must tell the truth. Fantasies about the afterlife are, in the long run, neither helpful nor believable. 

 They must avoid pseudo-humanist answers. Telling a child that death is like sleep is dangerous. The child will imagine her brother trapped in a box under the earth. What if he should wake up? 

 They must inform their child (what their child already knows) that life comes to an end. Death is the absence of life. There is no sleeping, feeling, pain or pleasure. Her brother’s body, which has either been buried or burned, is not her brother anymore. Her brother ceased to exist when he died. He does not survive, in some crippled way, in a cemetery or in some urn of ashes. 

 They must assure her that she is healthy and that most young people do not die. 

 They must assure her that they are healthy and that they will not leave her. They must tell her that she is a good girl and that they are happy that she is well and alive. 

 Knowing the right things to say to humanist children will cease to be a problem when humanist parents deal with the child’s fears – without exclusively dealing with their own. 


Celebration (1988) 

We have two kinds of memories. We have memories of people who always demanded and never gave, who complained and never achieved, who chose to be known by who they were and not by what they did, who preferred pity to respect. We also have memories of people who trained their talents and shared them, who took the blame and worked to change the world, who presented their deeds first and their needs second, who chose to defy destiny and to pursue dignity. These people did the hard work of justice. We honor them.

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.