Being a Secular Humanistic Jew in the Diaspora

1992 Conference Highlights, Spring 1993

The word diaspora has a problem built into it. It implies that the Jewish people is a people whose extension flows out from the land of Israel, and in many respects historically that was true. But the reality of Jewish history in the twentieth century was not the way it is with most diasporas. Normally the homeland creates the diaspora. In this case the Diaspora created the homeland.

Israel often reminds me of America. In America we are always asking people where they come from. In Italy, people don’t go around saying, “Where do you come from?” But in Israel, people have their roots in the Diaspora, and that is an interesting sociological and historical development. So I start out with a very important premise: that we are a world people. If we don’t start out with that premise, then the communities in the Diaspora have a very inferior reality, and if we accept that self-image, we cannot grow, we cannot be what we want to be.

The French Revolution is one of those dramatic events that changed the nature of the Jewish people. The Jewish people started out as a nation in our own land, a territorial nation. And even when we were dispersed, we still viewed ourselves as one nation, though in reality we had become several. The Jews of Eastern Europe were not Polish or Russian; they belonged to the Ashkenazic Jewish nation. It had a language all its own called Yiddish. It was dispersed over a discrete territory. There were certain towns and villages and shtetls that were completely Yiddish-speaking. That language and culture, which developed in Eastern Europe, is very different from the culture that developed in Spain, from the culture that developed in the Jewish Arabic world, from the culture that developed in the Jewish Persian world. Each was built around a Jewish language. The language written in Hebrew letters in Israel is a testimony to what happens when all these people come together.

So, although in our consciousness we were one nation, in our experience there was diversity. And then came the French Revolution. Up until that time, we were aliens. But the French Revolution (and to some extent the American Revolution that preceded it) changed the situation of the Jew. Until then, Jews were a civilization that embraced several subnations: Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Judeo-Arabs, Judeo-Persians, and so on. All of a sudden Jews had to confront a new situation. Somebody said to them, we welcome you into a secular state. Secularism altered the character of the Jewish people. Religion and culture became private matters. There are certain things that you as a citizen of the state must conform to, but your roots, your culture, and your religion are private matters.

And so, the overwhelming majority of Jews in Western Europe ceased to be a nation. The sign of losing their nationhood was that they gave up their language. Now, in North America, Jews are overwhelmingly secularized. Both Conservative and Reform Judaism are attempts to find some comfort in arbitrating between the nostalgia of Orthodoxy and the secularization of the Enlightenment.

One of the realities of life in the Diaspora is that Jewish identity is not always the primary concern of Jews. They are involved in the political, social, and economic life of their countries. In our country, in the United States of America, most people are in a sense the children of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment gave us reason, it gave us secularism, it gave us a loss of interest in the supernatural (though that is reviving to some extent on a personal level), and it gave us individualism. In fact, individualism, which is so pervasive in North American life, constitutes to a large degree one of the problems we have to deal with. The other is an intermarriage rate of more than 40 percent. That means that in two generations, people who identify with Judaism — and there is a fairly high rate of retention among intermarried couples — will not have the same kinds of ethnic memories (borscht and blintzes) that many of us grew up with. We’re already encountering that problem. So we’re struggling with effective ways to express our Jewish identity. Let me mention a couple of ways in which people do it.

First, people display an increasing identification with the culture of the State of Israel. That is a perfectly appropriate thing to do; the problem is that it is a vicarious experience. When the French Revolution came, the Jewish people responded in four alternative ways. One was to reject it, and that ultimately produced the foundation of ultra-Orthodoxy. One was to say, “We’re not a nation; we’re only a religious denomination.” That was Reform. But that approach ran into a problem: most Jews are secularized, so to say that God is the central idea of the Jewish experience for Reform Jews when most Reform Jews hardly talk about God obviously is foolish. The third response with which many Jews identified was socialism, and, of course, that came tumbling down. The fourth was Zionism. Part of the problem with Zionism for the Diaspora is that Zionism does not really allow for the Diaspora. The great wish of those who are committed to the Zionist movement is that ultimately all Jews who live in the Diaspora will come to the land of Israel. That relationship, therefore, creates a certain inequality. Nevertheless, one of the ways to express a secular Jewish identity — and it is very appropriate — is to increase identification with the culture of the State of Israel.

A second way is what I call “residual ritual.” You do Hanukka, you do Purim, you do Pesakh, you may do Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur. You do a series of holidays, and people feel very Jewish around the holidays, but the holidays aren’t attached to anything. They hang in limbo. And after a while, there are so many holidays coming from elsewhere in the environment that they simply fade into other holidays.

If we are going to preserve Jewish identity in the Diaspora, if we are going to remain effectively a world people, then we have to find something very intense that we can identify with. We are not, if we are Secular Humanistic Jews, ritualistic. We can create celebrations, but celebration has to be attached to something stronger and more profound.

It has been said that it is impossible to relate Jewish history without religion. Part of the problem — and certainly Zionism has added to that problem because of its great attachment to the Tanakh — is that we cannot distinguish between the story of the Jewish experience and the Jewish experience. The events that occurred from the beginning of our people’s history until now constitute the Jewish experience, and it can be empirically discovered. But the first place we normally go to find out about it is to people who had a vested interest in looking at that experience; and they wrote about it from the point of view that without the cooperation and intervention of God, nothing would have happened.

I believe that the only way we can create any kind of intense commitment or intense feeling about being Jewish in the Diaspora is for people to feel they are part of an exciting world people. In fact, the reason Jews are interesting is that we are a world people. We are an interesting world people with an interesting history, and if you are going to be a Secular Humanistic Jew, you need to master the alternative history. You have to master the history of the Jewish people and of the Jewish experience from a secular humanistic point of view. Then you can tack holidays onto that if you want to.

I deliberately use the words “tack on” because people often ask me how do I do Hanukka, how do I do Pesakh, and it is not attached to anything substantial. With Orthodoxy, it is attached to a faith, and then it is an expression of that faith. For us, if it only floats with how we invent this little ceremony or that little ceremony, it won’t last. I feel very intensely Jewish because I identify with the world Jewish experience, and I try to transmit that intensity to other people. When I celebrate a holiday, it is because it expresses some aspect of that Jewish experience.

In order for Jewish identity to last, people have to feel that being Jewish is significant, and the only way they can feel that being Jewish is significant is if they feel that being part of the Jewish people is significant. And the only way they can feel that being part of the Jewish people is significant is to feel identified with Jewish history and informed of that history.

But the official history we now have is absolutely inadequate, and using the documents that are the foundation of that history is inadequate. One of the reasons why Reform Judaism has a hard time fighting Orthodoxy in North America is that the sacred documents of Reform are the same as the sacred documents of Orthodoxy. And since the documents are closer to the ideology of Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy always wins out because Reform Jews are always apologizing, explaining why they don’t do this and why they don’t believe that. They are always in a negative position.

If we told the alternative story of the Jewish experience, if we created it so it doesn’t appear only in scholarly journals, somebody who was a teacher in a school in the Diaspora or even in Israel could pick it up, and there would be the story told from the other point of view. Our story would say that being a world people is significant. If Judaism is identified only with the state of Israel and its concerns and culture, then there is no reason to make a distinction between Judaism and Israelism. Judaism means that the people of the State of Israel who are Jews wish to identify with the civilization that embraces this world people.

Our alternative history would pay tribute to all the people the old history doesn’t. I was raised in a city, on streets with sidewalks, and was told all my life that my heroes were shepherds. For two thousand years we have been an urban, bourgeois people, and we are embarrassed about it; in fact, many of the early writers of the Zionist movement were embarrassed about the bourgeois character of the Jewish people. I do not mind being bourgeois. That’s what I am. My parents were bourgeois, my relatives are bourgeois, and I do not feel that the bourgeoisie are a harmful element in world civilization.

Our problem is our self-hate. We can’t write about our history because the things we did for the past two thousand years are things we are embarrassed about. What we can write about are people milking cows on kibbutzim. Just show a Jew handling soil, and all of a sudden he is real, he’s useful. All the Jews I know, the psychiatrists, the accountants, everybody, they are not real. They’re not part of Jewish history. If we wrote that alternative history, we wouldn’t be trapped by the literature of the past. As secular Jews in the Diaspora, we live (as Mordecai Kaplan said) in two civilizations. We have the American civilization and we have the Jewish civilization. My heroes consist of two sets of people. The only way we will ever give Jews in the Diaspora a sense of strong Jewish identity is if they become masters of Jewish history; but if they become masters of the old history, they will either reject it or they will not want to be secular Jews. So we have to write a new history, and all the heroes of that history are my heroes. Those heroes include Baruch Spinoza, Albert Einstein, Theodor Herzl, and David Ben-Gurion. They include the vast spectrum of people, modern, medieval, or ancient, that are part of this tradition.

Finally, we need to make a connection between humanism and Judaism. There is a universal humanism, and I subscribe to its wisdom, but my humanism is reinforced by my identification with the Jewish experience. The meaning of Jewish history is not that we are in the hands of a loving and just Providence. The meaning of Jewish history is humanism. The meaning of Jewish history, certainly during the past two thousand years, is that we live in a world in which nobody out there gives a damn whether we live or die. The meaning of it is that we have to rely on ourselves. For me, Jewish ethics does not come from somebody coming down on a mountain. I don’t care how many thunderbolts he has — that’s not authority. Ultimately the authority for ethics lies in the Jewish experience. For me, it is inconceivable that we should oppress other peoples given the history of our people, given all that we have suffered and endured.

So, we have to find a way of connecting to Jewish history that’s very intense. We have to be the masters of a second Jewish history, and then we can attach whatever cultural items we want to that. Then we can live in a world that is multilingual and multinational as a world Jewish people. Unless we can achieve that, we in the Diaspora will not survive; if we do, then we will.