Building a Strong Secular Humanistic Judaism: Spring 1988
The founding of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews in Detroit in 1986 was a very important event. The philosophy of a secular Judaism was turned into a world movement.
Our movement has a unique role to play in the world Jewish community. We have a unique message to proclaim. We have a unique approach to the purpose of life and the source of ethical commitment. We have a unique view of the nature of Jewish identity and the meaning of Jewish history. We have a unique connection to the revolutionary developments in Jewish life during the past two hundred years.
The establishment of the North American section of the Federation this weekend is an attempt to bring this unique message to more and more Jews on this continent.
Of course, we have many problems. Most Jews who are secular and humanistic do not know that they are. Many self-aware humanistic Jews are able to articulate what they do not believe and to express their hostility to organized religion; but they are not able to present what they do believe in a positive and constructive fashion. The visibility of our movement is very low. For most Jews and non-Jews, there are only three “flavors” of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.
There is also the problem of an aggressive Orthodoxy. At one time most Jews assumed that religious fanatics were vanishing and that they would ultimately be consigned to the oblivion of history. But, despite the predictions, they are a vital and growing segment of the Jewish people. And they have mastered all the techniques of public relations. Because of them and their reactionary definitions of Jewish identity, thousands of people who want to identify as Jews find themselves excluded from the Jewish people.
Especially important is the problem of the young. The secular community, like the liberal community, is an aging group. Most young adults who are unaffiliated are secular, but they see no reason to do anything about their Jewishness. They are estranged from the formats and propaganda of the old secular world, with its emphasis on Yiddish culture and group survival. They want something more personal, more attuned to the contemporary concern for “meaning in life” and personal fulfillment. How do we respond to these problems?
We need more than meetings where we get to know each other. We need projects that we share.
The first project is solidarity and visibility.
In Jerusalem, at the last meeting of the International Executive of the Federation, a statement was drafted in response to the question “Who is a Jew?” That question is a major controversial issue in the Jewish world today. Orthodox Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora have sought to impose their answer on all the citizens of Israel, most of whom are secular, and on the Jewish institutions of other countries. In an age when the trend toward intermarriage is overwhelming and when most Jews have repudiated the authority of tradition, the Orthodox want to restrict Jewish identity to persons having Jewish mothers or undergoing Orthodox conversion. Even the Reform movement, which now says that Jewish fathers will do also, maintains that to be fully Jewish is to be religious.
What the Jewish world needs to hear and has not heard in any dramatic way is a generous statement that does not keep Jews out of the Jewish community and that does not reject individuals who genuinely want to be part of the Jewish people, even though they do not want to be Orthodox or religious. We need a statement that openly declares that we Jews are more than a religious denomination, that we are a historic nation and an international people.
The Federation declares in its proposal: “Therefore, in response to the cruel and self-destructive definition of the Jew now proclaimed by the Orthodox authorities, and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people, we affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent, or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.”
This statement will be submitted to all the constituent members of the Federation for discussion and debate. During the coming year, all members — the Society for Humanistic Judaism, the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, the Israelis, French, Belgians, British, Argentines, and Uruguayans — will have the opportunity to discuss this statement, involve their people in the resolution of this issue, and offer their recommendations.
When we all come to Brussels for the second congress of the Federation, we will continue the discussion and arrive at a consensus statement. This proclamation will then be publicized to the Jewish and general worlds. A dramatic declaration on an important issue in Jewish life will give us a public voice, make us visible to the people we want to reach, and enhance a sense of solidarity among our own adherents. It is about time that the reactionary boldness of Orthodoxy and the timid voice of liberal religion be matched by a courageous and ethically sound alternative.
The second project is literature.
Where is the history book that articulates our point of view? Abba Eban, in his popular television series, said that the greatest gift of the Jews to the world was the idea of monotheism. If, indeed, the greatest gift of the Jews to the world is monotheism, and if the meaning of Jewish history is the banner of monotheism, then we, as secular Jews, are illegitimate.
Almost every available story of the Jewish people champions that point of view.
The alternative view, the idea that the significance of Jewish history lies in the abandonment of the Jewish people by an “unjust” destiny and the emergence of a skeptical self-reliance, exists in no history book available to the public.
Who is going to be responsible for creating this book? We need to find the best historians of the secular humanistic Jewish world and commission them to produce such a work.
We also need an anthology of basic humanistic Jewish thought, a basic reader that can serve as our “Bible.” If somebody asked me today to put in his hands a book containing the fundamental statements of a secular Judaism by our leading intellectuals, I would not be able to do it. These statements are dispersed in a vast literature created throughout the past two hundred years and unavailable to popular use. Without that anthology we have no real intellectual and ideological visibility.
Fortunately, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Jerusalem, established by the Federation to be our intellectual center, has undertaken to create this reader within the next two years. When the anthology becomes available, we will have an important educational and inspirational tool for popular outreach.
The third project is trained leadership.
The success of the opposition depends on the existence and enthusiasm of full-time professional people who have a vested interest in the growth of their movement and who devote enormous time to preaching the word and spreading the message. If we do not have a cadre of men and women of equal commitment and better training, we will never be able to do what we need to do.
In response to this need, the Institute in Jerusalem has begun to develop a training program for professional leaders to serve in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. And the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews in North America has initiated the certification of qualified professionals as leaders for secular Jewish communities, with the privilege to serve all the life cycle needs of humanistic Jews, including marriage.
In time, we hope that a substantial number of idealistic young secular Jews will choose to pursue doctoral studies in Judaism and humanism and will emerge as a trained intellectual leadership for our cause and as an effective alternative to the traditional rabbinate.
The fourth project is ethical idealism.
At one time most secular Jews had a “religion.” It was utopian socialism. One of the reasons why their Jewishness had tarn was that they went beyond self-absorption with Jewish survival to more inspiring causes. They used their Jewishness for moral purposes.
In an age when the glories of socialism have, to a large degree, faded, we need to ask ourselves: What are the ethical enterprises we should be engaged in that flow from our humanistic commitments?
There is one ethical enterprise that is germane to the very survival of a free society. It is our response to the assault of the religious fundamentalists on the intrinsic character of a constitutional and liberal democracy, whether in North America or in Israel. The issue is more than the separation of church and state. It is the defense of the Enlightenment, of modern learning and science. It is the defense of the importance of openness and creative change. The battle for reason and against obscurantism, the battle for individual rights and against religious conformity can provide some of the idealism we need for an enthusiastic Judaism.
The fifth project is the articulation of a personal philosophy of life.
I recently met a young man who grew up in a secular Jewish family in Detroit and who is now living on the West Coast. When I asked him whether he was still involved with secular Judaism, he replied no. He explained that he still saw himself as a secular Jew but that he had become a member of a liberal church movement in Southern California. Although he did not agree with some of the theistic teaching in his new group, he enjoyed the fact that they dealt with questions that his own secular Jewish training never bothered to respond to. What is the purpose of life? How do I deal with my daily anger and frustration? How can I become a happier and more fulfilled human being? He claimed that Jewishness was important to him but that it was only part of his own philosophy of life.
We, as humanists, as secular Jews, have answers to the questions he was asking. But we get so absorbed with the promotion of Jewish identity that we fail to realize that we need to appeal to the whole person and not simply to part of him. We need to do what traditional religion and traditional philosophy do, but in a secular way.
Young people want more from Secular Humanistic Judaism than a meaningful Jewish identity. They also want a meaningful life. We cannot present the one without the other.
Our ability to undertake and complete these projects will be a test of whether we are able to deal effectively with the problems we confront and of whether we can turn a present aspiration into a significant movement in the world Jewish community.