Purim and Haman Make Us Think Of Antisemitism

TJH March_April 1992, vo. XXVII, no.5.

Purim and Haman make us think of antisemitism.  

In America socially antisemitism has been on the wane over the past four decades.  More and more Americans each year indicate that they view Jews either favorably or indifferently.  More and more are willing to share clubs and work with Jews and even to vote for a Jewish president. 

 But, in the past year, political antisemitism has made a nasty reappearance.  Pat Buchanan and David Duke have entered the presidential race.  And their antipathy to Jews is quite obvious. At a time when most Americans fear for their economic future, the image of the evil Jew who manipulates the world to his parochial means is not the kind of political propaganda that makes Jews feel very comfortable. 

Antisemitism has changed in the last century and a half.  Before the French Revolution it was primarily anti-Judaism. People hated Jews because of their religious beliefs. If Jews were willing to convert to either Christianity or Islam, conversion canceled out the hate. Although there was a high price to pay, there was an escape from persecution and destruction. 

But antisemitism today is “racial”. Antisemites despise Jews because of their birth.  Jewish beliefs and behavior are irrelevant to the enemy. Conversion makes no difference. It only turns an ordinary Jew into a Christian Jew. There is no escape from Jewish identity. 

Antisemitism is also different because it has been turned into a complete philosophy of life.  The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, first published in the Russian Empire at the turn of the century, explained all the evils of the world in terms of Jewish behavior.  Earlier anti-Jewishness saw the Jew as a malign force but not as the malign force. For the modern antisemite, there is a worldwide Jewish cabal which conspires to take over the world.  The Jews have invented both Capitalism and Communism to confuse the masses and to set them up in hostile confrontation.  Gentile kills Gentile and only the Jews benefit. As Hitler said, the morally bankrupt Semitic tradition stands against the morally pure Aryan path.  Only a war to the death can resolve the issue. For the believers in this theory, persecution of the jews is never enough. Only a Holocaust will do the job that justice requires.  

For many many people antisemitism is a substitute religion. It explains all evil in a clear and simple way. It offers a clear and simple solution. Few existing political philosophies enjoy that charity. 

The emergence of David Duke to political prominence is indeed frightening. A Nazi racist and a Ku Klux Klan Grand wizard, he is the kind of political “kook” that you expect to find on the unsuccessful political fringes.  Instead he changed his label, abandoned the Nazis for the Republicans, and came within a political inch of becoming governor of Louisiana. For such a way out “bigot” to achieve the success that he did, his “defeat” was really a victory.  He is now ready to peddle his hate message in other states. Bolstered by a new face, new money and an adoring audience, he is raring to take on as many presidential primaries that he can get his hands on. 

Pat Buchanan is not the man for southern rural whites. His constituency is the reactionary right that draws its energy and inspiration  from the Irish Roman Catholic World before Vatican Council II. Both Charles Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy came out of this milieu.  book the Kennedys and the Buckley’s climbed up from its parochial depths. Anti-communism, Catholic piety and the hatred of the British with their internationalist agenda characterize this group. 

Buchanan has been an advisor and ghostwriter for both Nixon and Reagan.  An idealogue of the New Right, he never liked Bush and always suspected, quite appropriately, that he was an opportunistic traitor to conservative principles. The Gulf War was the trigger for the separation. For the old Right (as opposed to the libertarian internationalist Right)  the war against communism was justified. But a war to get rid of dictators, especially fascist dictators, is absolutely unjustified. Trying to create a new world order to ensure democracy, human rights and free trade is a violation of America’s best interest in a naive pie-in-the-sky ambition which will fail.  

For Buchanan the Gulf War with the sign that American patriots were no longer in charge of America. Jewish and Israeli interest had manipulated the Bush Administration into risking the lives of non-Jewish boys to defeat a Jewish enemy. And all of this talk was accompanied by statements about the exaggerated estimates of Holocaust victims. The inspirational leadership of Adolf Hitler and the determination to defend Catholic rights in Poland against insidious Jewish assaults. Jewish neo-conservatives like Kristol and Podhoretz have obviously repudiated Buchanan. Even Buckley chastised him at length in the pages of the National Review. But the frightening reality remains. A “respectable” Republican idealogue is sporting antisemitism and is running for president.  

What does it all mean? 

It means that a powerful political message has been tied to an antisemite.  Buchanan advocates “America first” and protective tariffs. In a nation which is rapidly de-industrialized and where hundreds of thousands of workers are losing their factory jobs, Buchanan’s message crosses the conventional boundaries between Right and Left and makes an appeal to angry union supporters. Buchanan’s chauvinism has the power to mobilize blue collar malcontents. 

It means that antisemitism is now politically “respectable” and is now an integral part of a political platform. Buchanan can disavow his Jew hatred as much as he wants, but his statements of hostility are a public record. Social antisemitism is annoying, but never dangerous. Political antisemitism is frightening. 

It means that Buchanan and Duke will be harmless if there is a fairly speedy economic recovery. There will be a peril to Jews and to democracy if this recession turns into a long- run depression. Desperate economic times sponsor desperate political alternatives. 

It means that the Democrats have a chance to win the presidency, if they can take full advantage of the present division in the Republican ranks, and if they can come up with a half-way credible candidate. Clinton’s alleged sexual escapades are not the most auspicious beginning to a serious campaign.  

Hopefully, “prosperity” is around the corner and Buchanan and Duke will fade into the woodwork. But then… 

Leadership

TJH March 1991, vo. XXV11, number 8.

“Leadership” 

Many people ask me about the future of Humanistic Judaism. What are the realistic prospects for our future? What do we need to do to spread the word, to recruit new people to our movement?  

There are many things we need to strengthen our future. We need more literature. We need more publicity. We need more money to pay for both. But, above all, we need more professional leaders.  

The heart of our movement are local communities and congregations. Without them there is no movement. Most communities begin with volunteers who have much enthusiasm but little expertise for serving the needs of their members. In time, volunteers get exhausted and, even if they are not exhausted, they are not trained to be ceremonialists, philosophic counselors and Jewish educators.  

Communities without professional leaders “plateau”. They cannot grow because they cannot serve the holiday, life-cycle and identity needs of prospective joiners, especially the needs of families with young children. Their philosophy is attractive to many. But their ability to reach out to others is limited by the absence of skilled people who are both able and willing to do what needs to be done.  

The first professional leaders of our movement have been rabbis. Both Daniel Friedman (Chicago) and I have served as the spiritual and philosophic leaders of the two largest and most important communities in our national association. Both of us have tried to pioneer the idea of a rabbi without God. Just as the Reform movement pioneered the concept of a rabbi who rejects the authority of orthodox law, so has our effort been an attempt to develop the legitimacy of a non-theistic and “secular” rabbinate. 

The rabbinate is an important profession for Humanistic Judaism and needs to be cultivated. It provides both status and legitimacy for humanistic communities seeking a link with the past. The role of the rabbi as a philosophic leader and teacher corresponds very well to the traditional role of many rabbis.  

One of our most important movement tasks is to recruit and train new rabbis for our communities, both established and emerging. Recruitment of already ordained rabbis is not easy. Both the Reform and the Reconstructionist movements have taken a turn to the right. Their younger rabbinic graduates are often more conservative than the graduates of earlier decades. They are not interested in becoming radical “renegades” or mavericks. The number of potential “defectors” is close to zero. 

Training our own rabbis is, therefore, an urgent task. For this reason a rabbinic program was recently established by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The program envisions a five year post-graduate course of study with a PhD in Judaic Studies from a secular university, courses on Humanistic Judaism with the faculty of the Institute and  an appropriate internship with a movement community. Hopefully, bright young men and women, who would never have contemplated the rabbinate because they are humanistic, will find this opportunity an attractive option. 

But rabbis are not enough to serve the leadership needs of our movement. There are small communities that cannot afford a rabbi. These are small communities that cannot afford a full-time leader. There are large communities that need assistants. There are needy communities that require professional leadership right away.  

Out of this pressing circumstance a new Jewish profession has emerged. It is called leader in English. It is called madrikh (men) or madrikha (women) in Hebrew. 

A madrikha is a professional community leader. She performs an important role somewhere between the work of the volunteer non-professional leader and the work of a rabbi. She is a ceremonialist who performs weddings and conducts funerals. She is an educator who can teach Humanistic Judaism to adults and children. She is a counselor who can offer appropriate ethical advice to people seeking her help. She is an administrator who can manage the affairs of a small community.  

A madrikha undergoes a three-year training program. This program includes training seminars, academic study and field work. Before the International Institute was established candidates received their education at the Humanist Institute in New York. Now the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism has created a complete training program for madrikhim and madrikhot. They define professional standards, arrange for continuing education, and provide certification. There are presently eleven members of the Conference.  

As you may have noticed, the programs and service of our own Birmingham Temple have been enormously enhanced by the talents and efforts of our resident madrikhot. Without the skills and dedication of Carolyn Borman, Miriam Jerris, Janis Levin-Gorelick, and Marilyn Rowens, much of the important work of the Temple would never be completed. For me, personally, they have been wonderful associates, who have assisted me in the carrying out of my own responsibilities.  

Madrikhot have become a significant part of the landscape of Humanistic Judaism. They perform an indispensable service. And they deserve our tribute and recognition. 

Please join me and the congregation on Friday evening, March 22 at 8:30 PM to celebrate their achievement and to hear their own reflections on the work they do.  

The Birmingham Temple Will Be 30 Years Old

TJH January 1993, vol. XXIX, no. 6.

The Birmingham Temple will be 30 years old. 

 In August 1963 eight families and I took the plunge and organized a new temple in suburban Detroit. At the time we were unaware that, within one year, we would be espousing a new outlook on Jewish identity called Humanistic Judaism and that we would become the center of a growing religious controversy. 

Our beginnings were quite humble. There were services and the cafetorium of Eagle School. There was the office in the living room of Sue and Harry Velick. There were the late night meetings in the back room of Howard Johnson’s. There were the heated discussions in overcrowded family rooms which lasted until midnight. Even our first name, the Birmingham Temple Society, seemed transitional. (Where was the ubiquitous Beth or Bnai something or other?) 

 We tried hard to be normal.But we failed because the demands of personal integrity pushed us along a path we had not planned to follow. We were simply tired of old religious games. We were no longer prepared to say what we no longer believed. The struggle for honesty made us bolder day by day. We searched for a world that would do justice to the way we felt about life and being Jewish. Rational seemed too cold and limiting. Naturalistic seemed to abstract and philosophic. Secular sounded too negative and anti-religious. Humanistic won the day because it was “warm” and spoke to our hearts.  

The second year brought public attention to what we were doing.  Crowds of curious Jews filled the meeting hall of the Birmingham Masonic Temple to find out whether the rumors were true. Was it true that Sherwin Wine had announced that he was an atheist and that God have been abruptly fired?  On some Fridays there was standing room only. Even my mother had a hard time finding a seat. 

 One day in December 1964 the Detroit Free Press published a front-page article by Hiley Ward, its religion editor, which revealed that an ignostic rabbi I was leading an ignostic temple in the Detroit area.  The Jewish establishment was appalled. The Gentile world was puzzled. Even Time Magazine was intrigued enough to write about this “new” religion. 

By January 1965 people all over North America knew about us. Many of them wrote us letters. Some of them were filled with Jewish or Christian curses. Others were warm letters of support and congratulations. A few asked us how we could replicate ourselves in Chicago, Denver or Los Angeles? The glare of public scrutiny lasted for about two years. The attention and hostility was both exciting and exhausting. Some members left. But fresh troops always arrived to strengthen our community and to help us grow. 

 Along the way we discovered that we had begun a new movement, a movement with only one congregation. Yeah we were undaunted. We had confidence in our message and in our community. Missionaries found their way to Westport and Chicago. By 1970 we had established the Society for Humanistic Judaism. 

The first year gave us external enemies that reinforced our solidarity and loyalty. We would never give our opponents the satisfaction of expiring. We were determined to survive and succeed. We wrote services. We invented curricula. We sang and danced. We built a Temple home, horizontal enough to be humanistic and contemporary enough to be a symbol of what we believed in. 

 Are middle years were years of consolidation. We settled down to “normalcy”, fully aware that we had weathered ideological storm. We had not achieved respectability. But we were no longer pariahs. Our energies could now move from defensive strategies to more creative pursuits. We had so many more children to educate. We had so many more adults to inspire. 

 The ‘80’s arrived with new opportunities for outreach. An historic trip to Israel in 1981,  to a conference at the seaside kibbutz of Shefayim, led to the formation of the Israel Association of Secular Humanistic Judaism. In five years representatives from eight nations assembled at the Birmingham Temple to form a coalition and to make an international federation of Jewish humanists possible.  

 And, now, in our thirtieth year, the major program to guarantee the future of our temple and our movement has been initiated. Three students have enrolled in our new rabbinic program. If we will have Humanistic rabbis, we will have a Humanistic Jewish future. 

 I was 35 when the Temple began. I am now 65. What has taken place in the intervening years has convinced me that we play an important role in the Jewish world. We have refined a message that the Jewish needs to hear and that an increasing number of Jews are now prepared to receive. 

 We have taken a secular, humanistic and cultural Judaism and turned it into a living community with traditions of its own and bonds of friendship to make it strong. Ideas have turned into the flesh and blood of human connection. 

 There are many things that we have not done that we need to do. But there are many things that we have done that are uniquely significant. 

 We have every reason to celebrate.  

We Are Twenty-Five Years Old

TJH Jan. 1998, vol XXV, no 6.

We are twenty-five years old. 

 This year – 1968 –  is an important year for us. It is our silver anniversary celebration time. 

 Our Temple is no ordinary temple. From the very beginning we chose to publicly  Embrace and ideology different from that of the Jewish establishment. From the very beginning we were embroiled in a controversy that most budding congregations do not have to confront. 

 The reason for our existence and growth was never that we were a convenient suburban temple –  nor that we were socially chic –  nor that we provided physical amenities second to none. People came to us because they believed, despite all the difficulties of public exposure, in what we taught.  

 In other congregations the initial traumas have to do with finding a place for services, recruiting people to teach children, developing a sense of belonging and commitment. We had these problems too. But they were always less important than translating our stated convictions into a viable congregational format. Was it possible to abolish prayer and worship and still create an institution with a clear Jewish identity? 

Out of the challenge to find an answer to this question came the Birmingham Temple. And the answer that emerged –  even twenty-five years later –  later still defines the reason for our existence. 

 We succeeded because we said certain things that had never really been said before very clearly in the North American Jewish community. 

 We said that there was no need for Jews to pretend to believe what indeed they did not believe. There was no need to recite prayers that were meaningless simply because they were Jewish. There was no need to subscribe to convictions that were incredible simply because they were traditional. Our Jewish identity was not a function of any belief system. It was independent of any creeds. It arose out of family roots and family connection. 

 We said that there was no need to be kosherized by the past. Old Jewish statements were no more valuable than new ones simply because they were old. Ancestors were no more authoritative than contemporary simply because they were ancestors. The test of Truth was not antiquity;  it was the promotion of human dignity. The test of Jewishness was not in the Bible and the Talmud; it was a sense of identification with the culture and the fate of the Jewish people.  

We said that there was no need to separate the secular and the religious. Congregations, Shabbat meetings and holiday celebrations were not the sole possession of theistic people. Bar mitzvahs and confirmations were not, of necessity, attached to prayers and Torah readings. Religion was more than the worship of God. It was in the broadest sense, a philosophy of life turned into the morality and celebrations of an organized community. “Secular” was non-theistic, not non-religious. 

 We said that there was no need to assume that nostalgia was the only warm emotion. Loyalty to the past may be just as cold as any set of prayers that are mumbled without emotion. And creativity for the future may be just as “hot” as the dancing of Hasidic devotees. The warmth of belonging in solidarity is more likely to exist in community where shared ideas and values bind people together than in a congregation that is a neighborhood convenience or a family inheritance. 

We said that there was no need to lie to children. There was no need to assume that children required beliefs that we as adults no longer required. There was no need to teach children to believe what indeed we knew they would ultimately reject when they grew up. The hypocrisy of well-intentioned parents was unnecessary. The greatest gift that we can give our children is our honesty and integrity. When mouth and action come together than healthy religion begins. 

 We said that there was no need to be timid about necessary change. Cautious, piecemeal reform does not serve consistency well. Life is too short to be the prisoner of foolish contradictions. We do not exist to fit the forms of the past. The forms of the past exist to serve our needs and the needs of future generations. Sometimes only bold action will enable us to make things right. 

 All these things we said we are still saying. They define the reason for our existence. 

Sherwin Wine 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, September 1997, Vol. XXXIV, Number 2

Colloquium ‘97.  It will be an extraordinary event. Eleven Jewish historians of international fame are coming to the Birmingham Temple to spend the Simhat (sic) Torah weekend with us. They will speak, dialogue with each other and open our eyes to the realities of the Jewish experience. 

We Jews are an extraordinary people, with a saga that continues to fascinate even our enemies. But the story of our past has been in the hands of a religious establishment that chooses to hide or distort the truth to serve a messianic ideology. Unlike the story of most nations and civilizations Jewish history is presented as sacred history. Sacred history is no longer a tale of human striving and human ambition. It is the story of gods, supernatural miracles, divine interventions and holy missions. It is the revelation of divine reward and punishment and the rescue of chosen peoples. The normal standards of scientific inquiry are never applied. Faith and tradition are the final judges. And they are supported by centuries of propaganda. 

In such an intellectual environment the stories in the Torah , the Tanakh and the Talmud are assumed to be true even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

The legitimacy of traditional Judaism rests on the presentation of Jewish history.  If this presentation is not true – and if ‘believers’ come to believe that it is not true, the foundations of traditional Judaism will crumble.   

A credible Humanistic Judaism in the end rests on the real experience of the Jewish people.  But its perception of that experience is quite different from that of tradition.  Fortunately, modern science, archaeology, textual criticism and naturalistic approach to the human experience have produced a radically different version of the Jewish saga.  Unfortunately, most of this information is locked up in scholarly journals where it never reaches the general public.  Because of this ‘seclusion’, even the most liberal congregations continue to present the ‘old’ version of the story. 

Colloquium ‘97 will be one of the first opportunities for the general public to come face to face with the new evidence and the new story.  For those who are not familiar with the ‘discoveries’ of the last century, encountering them can be mind-boggling.  The Jewish experience takes on a radically new human dimension.  Familiar tales are no longer credible.  Familiar interpretations are no longer viable.  We are liberated to embrace a new vision of Jewish evolution. 

Our eleven historians will explore at least nine areas of Jewish development where ‘mythology’ prevails. 

  1. The origins of the Jewish people: It may be the case that the stories of the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt and the presentation of the Torah at Sinai are invented tales.  The Israelites may have been a hill-country Canaanite people who did not emerge onto the Near Eastern stage until shortly before the time of King David. 
  1. The origins of the Bible:  If God did not write the Torah who did?  Was the author Moses? Or were the Torah and Bible put together some seven or eight hundred years after the death of Moses by writers and editors who projected their contemporary issues back into ‘ancient’ times? 
  1. The Greeks and the Jews: The common vision that the Maccabees stood against Greek culture and rescued Judaism from the insidious influence of Greek paganism may be a distortion of the truth.  The Greeks profoundly altered Jewish culture, provoking an internal debate that set the defenders of reason against the devotees of faith.  The Jewish world was divided into many religions and political parties.  The roots of a humanistic Judaism can be found here. 
  1. The origins of Orthodox Judaism:  The rabbinic establishment maintained and still maintains that Orthodoxy is a reflection of a continuous tradition that can be traced back to Moses.  All other versions of Judaism are newer and, therefore, less authentic.  But it may be the case that ‘traditional’ Judaism is less traditional than it pretends to be.  The historical vision of the Talmud may not accurately reflect what really happened. 
  1. The experience of the medieval Jew:  The connection of the Jews to money, commerce and the beginnings of capitalism is often an ‘embarrassing’ subject for many contemporary Jews.  They are more comfortable viewing the Middle Ages as a time when Jews were the primary victims of religious persecution.  A large slice of the Jewish experience and of Jewish creativity may be ignored in the process. 
  1. The legacy of Hasidism:  In modern times the culture and spirituality of the Hasidic movements have been romanticized.  They are often equated with the new spiritual search of the contemporary Western world.  What is often neglected is the assaultive politics and the cruel superstitions of Hasidic daily life, which have nothing to do with either human dignity or spiritual serenity. 
  1. The significance of the Enlightenment:  In the contemporary world it has become fashionable to blame the revolutions of science and reason for the decline of Jewish identity and for destructive assimilation. Modern secular culture becomes the enemy of Jewish fulfillment. But this critique misses the positive transformation of the life of the Jew through personal freedom, female liberation, secular education and the openness of a democratic society.  
  1. The origins of modern anti-Semitism:  The terrible Holocaust has riveted Jewish attention on the phenomenon of Jew hatred.  Most commentators find its beginning in the hostility of the Christian world.  Others see the beginnings in the unique economic role which Jews assumed in the Western world.  But the truth may be different from either speculation. 
  1. The significance of Zionism:  There is no doubt that the establishment of the state of Israel is the most important Jewish achievement of the twentieth century.  The founders of the state imagined that Zionism would provide for a liberal and secular future for Jewish nationalism.  But recent developments can easily lead us to a different assessment. 

Jewish history is no fixed story which ‘tradition’ presents to us for study.  It is in the process of being re-created (sic) and re-conceived.  If you want to experience the ‘cutting edge’ of this debate do not miss Colloquium ‘97. 

October 23-26.  A unique and wonderful opportunity. 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, September 1988, Vol. XXVI, Number 2

At the end of September, during the festival of Sukkot, a special conference will be held in Brussels-which, in a very important way, is part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Birmingham Temple. 

The second biennial meeting of the new International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews is the special event.  It was founded in Detroit two years ago.  And, to a large extent, it grew out of the pioneer efforts of our own Temple to develop a humanistic alternative in Jewish life.  Today seven national organizations from America, Canada, France, Belgium, Uruguay, Argentina and Israel are joined together in a common effort to promote a secular approach to Jewish identity.  Hopefully, this international connection will provide a worldwide voice for our philosophy and for our decisions on important issues. 

One of these issues is the question of who is a Jew.  Although, on the surface, it appears to be a perfunctory issue, the answer to the question has aroused intense controversy in the Jewish world.  The persistent attempts of orthodox Jews in Israel to force the Israeli government to exclude from Jewish identity and Jewish privileges all citizens who do not conform to the orthodox vision of what a Jew is has dramatized the question. 

The orthodox criteria for Jewish identity are an odd mixture of racial and religious requirements.  All people born of Jewish mothers, regardless of their religious beliefs, loyalties or cultural attachments, are Jews.  But men and women who want to join the Jewish people must be converted by orthodox rabbis and pledge their commitment to orhodox practice.  This apparent inconsistency is defended with great passion by traditional Jews. 

The consequences of this traditional position, if it is applied uniformly throughout Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora, is the exclusion of large numbers of people who want to be Jews.  In an age of inreasing intermarriage there are thousand of Jewish children who have Jewish fathers but no Jewish mothers.  In a time of religious diversity there are thousands of potential “converts” who like Judaism but who cannot stomach orthodoxy.  In a world where millions of Jews are secular and find their Jewish identity in cultural loyalties, an identification of Jewish legitimacy with orthodox law and orthodox practice makes a majority of the Jewish people feel like second-class citizens. 

Neither conservative nor reform authorities have responded adequately to this controversy.  Conservative Jews follow the orthodox timidly, only demanding that conservative rabbis have the same privileges as the orthodox.  Reform Jews have been bolder acknowledging that Jewish fathers confer Jewish identity just as well as Jewish mothers.  But they still insist on some form of theistic conversion process for newcomers. 

What is needed is a bold repudiation of the orthodox position.  We need a definition of Jewish identity which will embrace all the people who think they are Jews, are acknowledged as Jews and who want to be Jews. 

We need a definition that will give the same rights to Jewish fathers as the orthodox give to Jewish mothers. 

We need a definition that will proclaim Judaism to be more than a religion, and Jewish identity to be far more than religious identity.  Cultural Jews are as much Jews as religious Jews. 

We need a definition that offers admission to secular people.  Secular newcomers who want to identify with Jewish history and Jewish destiny should be as welcome as the smaller minority who seek to be sincere orthodox Jews. 

We need a definition that tells the truth about the Jewish people and enables Jews to be honest about who they are and what they are. 

And once we have arrived at this definition through public discussion on an international level we need to speak loud and clear with one voice to the Jewish world.  It may be the case  that our proclamation will be welcomed by thousands of Jews who have been uncomfortable with the traditional monopoly of official definitions. 

What follows is the resolution approved by the International Executive of the Federation to be presented for discussion, amendment, and approval by the Brussels conference. 

Who is a Jew?  After more than thirty centuries Jews continue to debate this question. 

This debate is no academic exercise.  At stake is the integrity of millions of Jews who do not find their Jewish identity in religious belief or religious practice, but who discover their Jewishness in the national experience of the Jewish people.  At stake, also, is the Jewish identity of thousands of men and women, in Israel and in the Diaspora, who want to be Jewish, but who are rejected by the narrow legalism of traditional authorities. 

We, the members of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, believe that the survival of the Jewish people depends on a more generous view of Jewish identity than traditional religion allows.  We welcome into the Jewish people all men and women who sincerely desire to share the Jewish fate, regardless of their maternal ancestry and regardless of their religious beliefs.  We challenge the assumption that the Jews are primarily a religious community and that certain religious convictions and behavior are essential to full membership in the Jewish people. 

On the contrary, the Jewish people began as a nation, a nation with many diverse and opposing beliefs and personal convictions  It evolved into an international people, with a culture and civilization all its own.  Judaism, as the national culture of the Jews, is more than theological commitment.  It is language, a vast body of literature, historical memories and ethical values.  It is a treasure house of many options. 

We Jews have a moral responsibility to embrace all people who seek to identify with our culture and destiny. Will the children and spouses of intermarriage, who desire to be part of the Jewish people be cast aisde because they do not have Jewish mothers and do not wish to under conversion? 

Therefore-in response to the cruel and self-destructive definition of the Jews 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 to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, civilization, community and fate of the Jewish people. 

The Rabbi Writes: Shula is Coming

The Jewish Humanist, November 1996, Vol. XXXIII, Number 4

Shula is coming. 

Shula is the famous Shulamit Aloni, the fiery Shulamit Aloni, who transformed the politics of Israel. Founder of the Ratz party, she was the first champion of individual freedom and women’s rights in the Knesset arena. Her courageous voice rallied thousands of Israelis to push for separation of religion and government and to demand the civil liberties that we as Americans take for granted. 

When the Labor government under Yitshak Rabin took power in Israel four years ago, she was appointed Minister of Education. Her predecessors for fifteen years had been the tools of Ultra- Orthodox Rabbis and the “yeshiva” lobby, funneling millions of shekels into the hands of religious fanatics. Her attempt to reverse the process was met with fierce opposition. Her bold articulation of a secular vision for Israel was labeled ” blasphemous”. In the end, Rabin was forced by panicky Laborites to shift her to the less controversial Ministry of culture. Even members of her own party turned on her for her “indiscretions” island sought to find more timid leadership. But the nature of Shula is to speak honestly and never to be intimidated. 

With the arrival of Netanyahu, Shula became part of the opposition.  She understands that there are two urgent causes for those who are concerned about the survival of Israel.  The first is the development of a strong secular humanistic movement in Israel, which will offer effective resistance to Orthodox demands and which will provide a positive Jewish alternative.  Shula was instrumental in helping to launch Secular Humanistic Judaism in Israel after her 1979 visit to the Birmingham Temple.  The second is the defense of the peace process which Rabin and Peres initiated and which Netanyahu is in the process of destroying. 

The threat to the security and survival of Israel provided by the intransigence of Netanyahu is enormous. Bibi talks peace but he is unwilling to make any concessions which will make peace between Jew and Arab possible. This inflexibility flows both from personal conviction and political necessity. He is totally dependent on the votes of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset to guarantee the viability of his government. 

The consequences of his intransigence are frightening. Credibility and authority of the government will collapse. Chaos among the Palestinians will ensue. Some Palestinians will renew the Intifada. Many Palestinians will turn to the fundamentalist Hamas as an alternative leadership. The moderate Arab regimes of Mubarak in Egypt and Hussein in Jordan, which committed their prestige to the peace process, will be in danger. The Israeli army, prodded by the insecurities of Orthodox settlers, will engage in a campaign of repression which will alienate American and world opinion. Israel will be isolated, surrounded by fierce and fanatic enemies, fighting a war that cannot be won. The conflict will stimulate fear and chauvinism in the Israeli public and make them prone to increasing Orthodox control. The vision of a free secular democratic Jewish state will die. 

The peace process was intended to initiate a different scenario. The Israelis would evacuate Gaza and the West Bank, including Hebron. A Palestinian state would emerge next to the Jewish state. Peace would strengthen Mubarak and Hussein in Egypt and Jordan, who would offer their support to guarantee that Arafat behaved and that the fundamentalist were restrained. The reality of Peace would persuade other Arab and Muslim states to abandon their hostility and to enter into a friendly relationship with Israel. The intransigent government of Gadhafi in Libya, Bashir in the Sudan (sic) and Assad in Syria would be isolated. In time the Arab and Muslim worlds would open up to Israeli know how and technological skills. Israel would function as a high-tech Hong Kong or Singapore in a Middle Eastern Muslim sea. The secular forces in the Arab world would be encouraged by these transformations to resist their fundamentalist enemies. Israel would be smaller but safer, a partner in projects of economic cooperation. Hate and distrust would continue. But they would be controlled by the growing possibility of mutual respect and mutual dependence.  

The dream of this second scenario cannot be allowed to die.  Israelis who supported the peace process and who suffered the cruel disappointment of losing the May election need to know that there are thousands of Jews in the Diaspora who support their cause and who are prepared to act on behalf of the vision of Rabin and Peres.  Many of these Jews are in America the nation that has the power and vested interest to pressure the Israeli government to change its course. 

On Monday evening November 18 at 8:30PM Shula will be in the Birmingham Temple to speak to us about Israel and peace.  This meeting will be a Rally for Peace.  All members of the Birmingham Temple-all members of the Jewish community-all concerned citizens who believe that the peace process must not be allowed to die and that Netanyahu must be persuaded to reverse his course of self-destruction are urged to attend. 

We must join Shula in offering resistance to this act of national suicide.  Those in power, in both Israel and the United States must hear our voice.  Silence and resignation are ethically unacceptable. 

Rabin died because he would not surrender to the demands of inflexible nationalism.  Today his assassin, Yigal Amir, is being honored by Orthodox fan clubs who celebrate his act of “patriotism”.  If we are appalled by this indecency, if we do not believe that these demonstrators speak on behalf of most of the Jewish people.  If we are passionate about the long-run survival of the Jewish people, then we will make it our business to attend the rally on November 18 to hear Shula and to offer our support to the struggle for peace. 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, November 1989, Vol. XXVI, Number 4

My Trip to South America, Part II 

Humanistic Judaism is now part of the South American Jewish scene.  Two small national organizations exist-one in Argentina and one in Uruguay. Both of them sent representatives to the first meeting of the International Federation in Detroit. 

Although the Argentine and Uruguayan associations did not appear until 1986, a secular approach to Jewish identity has deep roots in Latin America. The first immigration to Argentina in the early part of the twentieth century included many radical idealists who had rebelled against orthodox dictation and who sought to transform Jewish life by returning to the land and creating secular Jewish communes. The children of these pioneers ultimately ended up in Buenos Aires and the other big cities of Argentina.  For many of these radicals their Jewishness was expressed in a passionate commitment to Yiddish as the language of the Jewish working class. 

In Uruguay the very nature of the country encouraged secularism.  Little Uruguay was the first Latin American country to establish a radical separation of church and state.  Strongly influenced by European liberal ideals, the ruling elite of Uruguay developed one of the most secular countries in the world.  Only in Uruguay could an avowed atheist become the president of the nation.  Today almost half the population declares itself to be “non-believers”.  Even Scandinavia and Holland can hardly match that percentage. 

In such an environment the Jewish milieu mirrored the Gentile precedent.  Reinforced by some of the same radicals who made their way to Argentina, the Montevideo community initially featured a Jewishness that was more cultural than religious. 

Ultimately Jewish organizational identity in both Argentina and Uruguay was chiefly expressed in institutions other than synagogues.  Jewish schools (both part-time and full-time), Jewish community centers Yiddishist cultural associations and Zionist societies became the foundatons of Jewish communal life.  Jews were secular without being fully aware that secularism or humanism were alternatives to the old religious ideology. 

Ever since the 1950’s important changes have occurred in both communities.  The continuous political and economic turmoil-especially in Argentina-stimulated emigration to either Israel or North America.  (Argentina’s Jewish population declined from 400,000 to 300,000; Uruguay’s from 50,000 to 30,000).  The attempt by the American Conservative movement to establish a sister movement in Latin America proved very successful.  A Conservative seminary was created in Buenos Aires; and its graduates have become religious pioneers in a secular world.  The success of the Conservatives is due to their ability to mix Zionism and bourgeois respectability in a nice delicate balance-and, above all, to the quality of their trained leaders.  Disorganized secularism could not compete against such competence. 

Also the emergence of the ultra-Orthodox missionaries and zealots has made an important impact.  Posing as the defenders of Jewish identity in a world of assimilation, they have invaded Jewish communal structures, demanding subsidies and offering their services for Jewish education.  Many secularists are bewildered about how to confront such passionate determination. 

Today the Jewish communities of Argentina and Uruguay remain different from those in North America in very distinct ways.  Although many Jewish families go back through four generations of local residence, most Jews are of more recent vintage-post World War I and World War II.  Being newer they are less assimilated than their American counterparts. 

Religious organizations, while stronger than they were before, are still weaker than their secular counterparts-schools, clubs and centers.  And the intensity of Zionism is far stronger than its American counterpart.  In the states, Zionism is primarily a financial commitment.  In Buenos Aires and Uruguay it is a cultural, linguistic and aliya commitment.  In fact, many of the educational institutions receive financial support from the Jewish Agency in Israel. 

The new secular humanistic Jewish associations that have emerged are a reflection of this nationalistic commitment.  In the face of growing Orthodoxy and Conservatism, many secularists now want to develop a much more self-aware ideology, with the ceremonial and communal supports that make it real.  Their humanistic Judaism is cosmopolitan, but it is also very Zionistic-with many of its members speaking Hebrew.  Some remnants of anti-Zionist Yiddishist socialist nationalism survive.  But they are dying out. 

Stimulated by their awareness of the establishment of Humanist (sic) Judaism in North America and Israel local leaders organized communities in Montevideo and Buenos Aires three years ago.  The leadership in Argentina consisted of academicians like Gregorio Klimovsky, Yiddishists like Gregorio Lerner and Eliyahu Toker, and Zionists like Paul Warshawsky and Daniel Colodenco.  The leadership in Uruguay featured two devoted and talented men-psychoanalyst Leopoldo Mueller and the journalist Egon Friedler. 

Both associations are in early stages of development.  And, like all other Jews, they are contending with the recurring political and economic woes that plague the area. But there is a strong determination to reach out to the largely secularized Jewish communities to mobilize more people. 

Right now their strategy for survival and growth include four priorities: 

1.The publication of a semi-annual or quarterly journal called Judaismo Laico, which can be used to diffuse humanistic Jewish ideas through Latin America. 

2. The development of ceremonial materials in Spanish and Hebrew to provide for personal and communal celebrations of holidays and life-cycle events in a secular way. 

3. Recruiting one or two qualified people who can be trained as madrikhim (teacher leaders) by the International Institute in Jerusalem to serve the education, counseling and ceremonial needs of the members of the associations. 

4. Organizing a Latin American regional association-including the two communities of Argentina and Uruguay-which could reach out to sympathetic people in other Latin American countries. Initially the journal would serve as its major vehicle for outreach. 

The future of Humanistic Judaism in Latin America will depend on many factors, some unpredictable. But if the enthusiasm of its founders is significant, its survival and growth are off to a good start.  

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, May_June 1997, Vol. XXXIII, Number 10

Andre Aciman.  Norman Cantor.  Sonya Friedman. 

Three good reasons for coming to the first Birmingham Temple Book Fair.  They will be speaking.   

A new special weekend experience is on the Temple and community calendar.  A spring book fair will debut in the very same place where our quite wonderful autumn art show takes place. 

Why a book fair? 

Why not?  Celebrating Jewish literature and humanistic literature is a natural for Humanistic Jews, especially in the spring when we honor all forms of creativity. Our book fair will have a unique edge.  It will feature new books on Jewish themes.  But it will also display books on ethical, social and philosophic (sic) issues that make our Jewish connection more open and more connected to the outside world.  In the broader sense, health (ˆsicˆ) happiness and social justice are also Jewish themes  We want a Jewish book fair that speaks to the world. 

The Temple Book Fair will coincide with the climax of the Humanist Forum, three Mondays in May devoted to the discussion of important personal and ethical issues confronting our present society.  On May 5, John O’Hair, the courageous prosecuting attorney of Wayne County, will openly discuss his support for assisted suicide.  On May 12, Irving Bluestone, a former vice-president of the UAW, and Robert Hunter, a conservative Reagan appointee to the National Labor Relations Board, will debate the future of the labor movement.  On May 19 the Book Fair will present Sony Friedman, nationally famous psychologist and television commentator, who will discuss the impact of stress on health. 

One of our Book Fair speakers has been made possible by generous grants from generous patrons.  The Sonya Friedman talk will be the first Esther and Harol Luria Lecture.  Esther Luria died recently.  Both Harol and she devoted a large part of their time and energy to the promotion of holistic health. 

You will find many wonderful things when you come to the Fair. 

You will find books on Jewish history that will introduce you to the discoveries of archaeology and scientific criticism.  Jewish history is more fascinating and more intriguing when the fictions of the past are corrected by the research of the present.   

You will find the books on Jewish culture that will take you beyond the narrow confines of Ashekznazic culture to the beautiful creations of the Sephardic and Oriental Jewish world.  There will be Yiddish writers.  But there will also be Ladino poets. 

You will find books for children – books which celebrate Jewish identity – books which embody humanistic Jewish values.  All of them will make superb gifts for the Jewish holidays and life-cycle ceremonies. 

You will find books on secular humanism.  Most of the great thinkers and philosophers in the last two centuries were secular humanists.  Many of their important writings will be there for you to buy and enjoy. 

You will find books on important ethical and social issues.  From aobrtion and assisted suicide to environmental protection and the fight against the Religious Right, famous writers and writers who deserve to be famous will intrigue you with new information and new ways to confront the enemies of liberty. 

All of this intellectual and emotional feast of books will be the setting for a spectacular array of prominent writers with provocative books. 

Norman Cantor will speak.  His new anthology, with commentary of the best Jewish writers and thinkers has some wonderful surprises.  A leading historian of the medieval experience, he launched his career as a Jewish historian with the provocative The Sacred Chain.  His most recent book The American Century is an exciting new way of looking at the incredible victory of American culture.  As we know from Colloquium ‘95 there is never a dull moment with Norman Cantor. 

Andre Aciman will speak.  His memoir Out of Egypt about the Jewish experience in Alexandria, the city of his youth continues to win prizes and praise throughout the world.  No better and more intimate introduction into the upper-crust society of the Near East has been written.  Aciman will continue to explore the question which obsesses him.  Does Jewish identity always imply some level of alienation and separation from the world around?  Is to be a Jew always to be in exile? 

Sonya Friedman will speak.  Author of many books on feminism and a rational approach to living, Friedman continues to inspire audiences with the freshness of her ideas and the charisma of her personality.  She is very much concerned with the destructive effects of stress in our modern society and with the most effective ways to make life less stressful. 

Three other writers will speak.  Barry Rudner, well known composer of books for Jewish children – Audrey Kron, member of the Birmingham Temple and nationally recognized counselor to the chronically ill and yours truly, Sherwin Wine. 

Do four things right now: 

  1. Mark your calendar.  The Book Fair begins Friday evening, May 16, and continues through Monday evening, May 19. 
  1. Save your money to buy books. 
  1. Begin to draft your gift list for Jewish holidays and special celebrations of family and friends. 
  1. Start thinking – with great anticipation – of the first Birmingham Temple Book Fair. 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, May_June 1992, Vol. XXVIII, Number 6

A wonderful thing has happened on the way to our thirtieth Temple anniversary. A member of our congregation has offered $250,000 for the construction of an educational Center for Humanistic Judaism in Michigan. This Center would be an extension of our present Temple building. And this gift would be contingent on our raising matching funds. 

For the past twenty years we have dreamed of building our own school. Ever since the first part of the present Temple was completed in 1971, it was clear that our home was incomplete. We needed a family room for social events, and we needed classrooms for our children and adults. Ten years ago we celebrated the construction of our family room. The addition gave us the opportunity to expand our activities and serve many of the social and cultural needs we never were able to serve before. It is hard to imagine how we would cope with our present Temple schedule without this extension. From the mundane requirement of kitchen, storage and offices to the more romantic celebrations of weddings and holidays, the “new room” has made an enormous difference. 

An educational wing would have the same impact on the congregation. It would rescue us from the high rentals and reluctant hospitality of the public schools. It would give our children and our Sunday School parents an appropriate setting for a Humanistic Jewish education experience. It would provide the possibility of nursery school, through which young children and their parents could be recruited for Temple membership. It would offer an adequate space and intimate ambience for the teaching of our midweek programs and for the activities of our high school and youth group. In an age of life after retirement, it would provide a wonderful environment to run adult education classes during the day and in the evening. Above all it could serve as an educational and cultural center for an expanding presence of Humanistic Judaism in our community.  

The Center for Humanistic Judaism would also be more than the educational wing of the Temple.  It would be the home of the national office of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which represents our special outreach to the Jews of North America.  It would also be the home to the growing educational programs of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism which now trains future leaders for our movement through intensive weekend seminars.  The Center would function to enrich our fruitful connection to Humanistic Jews in other communities and in other places. 

The benefits of such a Center are clear.  But how we would raise the matching funds and maintain the building may not be so clear.  Especially in a time of economic recession and Temple deficits and especially when we are concerned with the arrangements for my successor. 

‘We cannot afford to refuse an offer so generous that it may never be repeated again in Temple history.  But we cannot afford to impose burdens that will be unsustainable and counterproductive.  The initial proposal of the Temple Board to the membership is simply to approve the idea of such a Center and to authorize the Executive Committee to go ahead with the task of coming up with a workable plan. It is very clear that such a plan would have to include the following “ingredients”: 

There would be no general assessment on the membership.  All matching funds would be solicited from voluntary donors. 

Donations and support would be solicited from friends and supporters of Humanistic Judaism throughout North America. 

A separate maintenance fund would have to be established for the Center.  The principal would have to be sufficiently large so that the interest on the principal would cover the costs of maintenance. 

I believe that a workable plan can be devised.  I believe that this proposed Center, if constructed, will make an enormous positive difference for the future of the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism.  I believe that the Center will consolidate the gains we have already made and will help us attract and sustain the kind of rabbinic leadership we need for the future. 

We are being challenged to enter a new exciting chapter of our history.  We cannot refuse the challenge.