Hanukka – A Children’s Ceremony

Parent

Many years ago the Jews in the land of Israel were not free. They were not free to rule themselves. They were not free to live in the way their hearts and minds desired.

A foreign king made their lives miserable. He sent many soldiers to make the Jews do what he wanted them to do. He took away their Temple and gave it to their enemies. The Jews rebelled. They rose up against the king. Under their brave leader Judah Maccabee they defeated their enemies and won their freedom.

Parent or Child

The Jews decided to celebrate their victory. They set aside eight days for a special festival.

The Temple was made ready for the celebration. The lights of the Temple Menorah were kindled and gave forth a bright light.

Judah Maccabee dedicated the Temple to the service of the people. He called this special festival Hanukka.

Hanukka is a Hebrew word which means dedication.

Judah Maccabee asked the Jews to celebrate this holiday every year at the same time. He wanted them to remember this victory.

Child

The Jews of this story were our ancestors.

Our ancestors suffered the cruelty of a foreign king.

Our ancestors fought for their freedom.

Our ancestors restored the Temple in Jerusalem.

Our ancestors heard the words of Judah Maccabee when he asked them to remember their victory.

Our ancestors saw the lights of the Temple Menorah rekindled.

Let us, therefore, remember what our ancestors did.

Let us kindle the lights of our Menorah in memory of their courage.

(Children light candles after reading. Family sings.)

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-o-lam

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-a-dam

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-ha-nuk-ka

Radiant is the light of the world.

Radiant is the light of humanity.

Radiant is the light of Hanukka.

A CANDLELIGHTING SERVICE

Hanukka is the feast of light. In the winter the days are short and the nights are long. In the winter the light goes quickly and darkness lingers.

In the summer we take the light for granted. The sun is so generous. But in the winter we know how precious it is and how much we need it.

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-o-lam We value the light within the world

Hanukka is the feast of light. Not only the light without. But also the light within. Not only the light of the sun. But also the light of life which shines through every living being and which warms the darkness.

Light is power. Human light is human power. It is the power to love life, to nurture it and to make it grow. It is the power to resist evil. It is the power to be a Maccabee and to defend what is good and beautiful.

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-a-dam We value the light within every human being

Hanukka is the feast of light. Light is radiance. It is the radiance of whatever we do to make our world a better place to live.

It is the light of reason, which helps us see the difference between right and wrong.

It is the light of self-esteem which keeps us proud.

It is the light of courage which gives us the strength to stand up for what we believe in.

It is the light of freedom which reminds us to take responsibility for our own lives.

It is the light of love which enables us to care for those who suffer.

It is the light of loyalty which makes us keep our promises to those who trust us.

It is the light of generosity which encourages us to give even when we do not receive.

It is the light of hope which leads us to the vision of a better world.

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-ha-nook-ka We value the light of Hanukka

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-o-Iam. Ba-rookh ha-or ba-a-dam.

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-ha-nook-ka.

(Light Candles and All Sing)

Maccabees of old did rise

To defy the wicked king

They fought hard to help all men

And through courage freedom bring.

They brought a message cheering

That the time is nearing

Which will see all men free

Tyrants disappearing.

National Liberation — The Hanukka Question

A Hanukkah Manual, Autumn 1983

What is the ethical dimension of Hanukka?

For Humanistic Jews the question is not trivial. Touting the supernatural intervention of Yahveh to make holy oil last longer hardly seems a reason for a celebration. And dramatizing the darkness of winter and the rebirth of sunlight is less compelling than it used to be, now that we live in a world of artificial lighting.

In a secular age more and more Jews want to find a moral message —with a contemporary flavor — in the saga of the Maccabees. The old rabbinic evaluation which saw in Hanukka the rightful destruction of the enemies of Yahveh is a bit embarrassing in an age of religious toleration.

Most Jewish leaders in North America now present the Hanukka story as a struggle for religious freedom — a perfectly respectable enterprise in the contemporary world.

The Greeks sought to deprive the Jews of their religious liberty. The Jews fought back and regained their freedom. The events fit into a tale which would warm the heart of any American civil libertarian. But, of course, reality intrudes. Once you move from propaganda to history the claim for religious freedom is hard to maintain.

The Maccabees were devout authoritarians and theocrats. They had no conception of a Jewish state in which a wide variety of Jewish religious opinions would thrive and flourish side by side. They had no vision of the pluralistic state in which the individual conscience would reign supreme.

The Maccabees were the children of the priests and the prophets. They believed with absolute sincerity that they were the agents of the one true God, the defenders of truth against falsehood and the enforcers of the divinely ordained way of life for all Jews. While they might be willing to tolerate the arguments between Pharisees and Sadducees, they were certainly not willing to extend any living space to Jewish pagans, skeptics or Hellenists. As devotees of the Torah, they were committed to a theocratic state run by Yahveh and his designated deputies.

In many respects the Maccabees were no different from Antiochus. Each adversary was committed to the absolute validity of his position and to the necessity of destroying all opposition. The Hellenists fared no better under the Maccabees than the pious did under Antiochus. ‘Toleration’ was not one of the bywords of that struggle. Ultimately, John Maccabee, through his conquest of Samaria and Galilee, sought to impose Jewish identity on the newly conquered. As a Jewish Antiochus he combined imperialism with religious conformity.

Interestingly, the Greek period before Antiochus was a far more liberal time than the era of Maccabean rule. Sadducees, Pharisees and Hellenists lived together in mutual hostility, but without the means to destroy each other. The government of the Greek Ptolemies was certainly committed to the spread of Greek culture. But it was less ambitious and more pragmatic than that of Antiochus.

The Hanukka story, quite obviously, does not realistically yield the ethical message of religious freedom and mutual toleration. At best it yields the moral value of national liberation.

National liberation is distinct from personal liberation and personal freedom. It is a struggle for what many perceive to be dignity — the right of ethnic groups to be governed by members of their own race. What the Maccabees achieved for the Jews was not religious freedom or personal independence. What they conferred upon the Jews was a government of Jews who were not the puppets of outside powers. The high priests in the Persian period were the agents of the Persians. But the Maccabees were their own agents. In so far as they were independent, the nation was independent.

Confusing national liberation and personal freedom is a modern problem. During the past forty years, many Third World nations have experienced the departure of their colonial masters and the establishment of native government. But national liberation has not been accompanied by civil liberties. Military dictatorships, one-party states, theocratic tyrants and self-righteous ideologues have replaced the foreign rulers. They are native born. But they are no kinder.

Gaddafi and Khomeini talk a lot about ‘liberation’. Yet they offer no personal freedom, although they may enjoy popular support. The liberty of minorities is denied, and the tyranny of public opinion and mob intimidation prevails. The people may feel that they have more dignity now that the Italians and the Americans are gone. But they are not free in any meaningful sense.

Jews generally have suffered from regimes of national liberation that deny individual liberties. Oppressed nations that win their independence usually are in no mood to tolerate differences. Poland, the Ukraine, Romania and the Arab countries did not deal kindly with non-conformist minorities. As historic aliens, Jews find it difficult to fit in when nationalism is new and aggressive.

Movements of national liberation are familiar events in human history. They are much older than liberal democracy and strike more powerful emotional chords. In modern times, they frequently use the propaganda of ‘freedom’ to camouflage despicable dictatorships.

It is, therefore, very important to point out what political freedom (which includes religious freedom) really is.

On the simplest level, freedom is the ability to do what you want to do. On a more profound political level, it is associated with certain key words and concepts.

Freedom refers to individuals. Groups cannot be free, since they do not have a single will or a single set of desires. Groups are collections of individuals. The opportunity to be governed by a member of your own group may enhance your dignity, but not necessarily your freedom.

Freedom means personal autonomy. The willingness to assume responsibility for your life and to resist the dictation of others is essential to liberty.

Freedom means diversity. In a social setting where everyone voluntarily thinks and does the same things, liberty is vacuous. Only an environment of diverse groups and diverse beliefs stimulates the individual to be free.

Freedom means creativity. A society where individuals choose only to imitate the past is no better than a mild tyranny. A significant liberty produces challenge to existing ideas and institutions. It thrives on new ideas.

Freedom means liberal democracy.

Perhaps the most insidious assault on freedom lies in the concept of democracy which many radical conservatives now use in their defense of censorship and moral conformity. If democracy means simply majority rule, then the will of the majority has the right to prevail whenever it is expressed. If a majority of the people want school prayer, book censorship and no abortion, their will should be respected. If they want to ban premarital sex, put Christian missionaries into the state schools and determine the style of local dress, their decision ought to be binding.

Majoritarian democracy gives freedom only to the majority. It claims the right to regulate all human behavior through the decision of the majority. If most of the citizens follow a single religion, then all citizens may be compelled to follow it.

The alternative democracy is called liberal democracy. The word liberal is used in the classic sense of commitment to freedom, not in the current sense of leftist views. Most moderate conservatives endorse liberal democracy.

Liberal democracy is the democracy of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who feared the tyranny of public opinion and democratic majorities. If individual freedom is to prevail, the individual must be protected from intrusive majorities. Neither science nor lifestyle creativity are possible in a society where conformity intimidates.

In a liberal democracy, there is a constitution, written or unwritten, which restricts the power of ambitious majorities. They may govern the lives of others in order to provide for community survival and for public law and order. Unpopular ideas and unpopular behavior deserve the protection of the authorities if they do not harm society. Where there is widespread disagreement about the moral value of certain behavior, it is wise for majorities to abstain from imposing their views and to allow each individual to decide his or her own action in accordance with his or her own conscience. In a liberal democracy, majority rule is a procedural regulation, not a sacred law. It is far less important than individual freedom and dignity.

Now it would be naive to expect the Maccabees to have been precursors of Jefferson and Madison or devotees of liberal democracy. The social and cultural development of the Near East in the second century B.C. had hardly produced the conditions which enable people to even think about such political possibilities, A world in which people strongly believe that the goodwill of the gods is indispensable to the survival of society is not a place in which full religious freedom can prevail.

Nevertheless, there were contemporary political models that were “freer” than the Maccabean regime. In many of the imperial cities of the Greek world — especially Alexandria — populations of diverse ethnic groups made it pragmatically necessary to tolerate religious diversity. Even discreet philosophers of atheism, like the disciples of Epicurus, could preach their word in Athens.

Pious peasant cultures are not the stuff out of which toleration and variety are made. Conformity is appropriate to the world of villages. It is a hindrance to urban development. Openness to different people from different places is essential to urban growth.

Religious freedom, as an expression of individual freedom, did not emerge in any meaningful way until the Enlightenment brought a new secular perspective. God had to become less terrifying before government would relegate religion to the marketplace of private choice.

As a vulnerable minority, the Jews of the Enlightenment embraced the concept of religious toleration, even though their traditional wing never took it very seriously. For the orthodox, religious liberty was a pragmatic strategy for Jews living in a

Gentile country. It had no relevance to a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. The modern state of Israel suffers from this old fanaticism.

National liberation is important. But, without personal freedom, it is not very significant for the contemporary Western Jew. A Jewish state governed by a fanatically religious Jewish majority would have very little real liberty, even though the government was Jewish and independent.

Strangely enough, in the modern world, many colonial people had more freedom when they had less dignity. The individual Pakistani spoke much more freely in British India than in Zia’s military dictatorship. And even French Vietnam spawned a wider diversity than what Ho Chi Minh allowed.

Hanukka is about the fight for ethnic dignity, not the fight for personal freedom. We should not confuse the issue. National liberation deserves a celebration. But freedom needs more.

A Sukkot Family Service

Sukkot, Summer 1990

OPENING SONG

Hinnay Ma Tov

How good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to celebrate together.

S ’TAV

Autumn is here. The days and nights are colder. The leaves are turning brown and gold and red. The sun spends less time with us and darkness arrives earlier than before.

Autumn is here. Everything is changing. Nothing lasts forever. What is born must also die. What is new must also grow old. Nature never stays the same. All the world is moving.

Autumn is here. Everything is beginning. School starts again. Work is renewed. Activity increases. While the life of nature ebbs, human energy grows stronger.

S ’tav is the Hebrew word for “autumn.”

SONG

Seesoo Vseem’hoo

Rejoice and be happy on this joyous holiday.

KATSEER

Autumn is harvest time. The seeds of spring have turned into the food of winter. The work of summer has brought forth the bread of life. We live with nature. It gives us grain and fruit. It yields up fish and fowl. It sends us survival.

But nature needs more than nature. Farming is far more than finding food. It takes human ingenuity to turn the earth into a field of corn. It requires human caring to change the sapling into the successful tree. The harvest does not happen all by itself.  Nature and people work together. We need each other.

Katseer is the Hebrew word for “harvest.”

SONG

Artsa Aleenoo

We have gone up to our land.

SUKKA

Autumn is harvest time in Israel. The fruit on the trees is ready for picking. The grain in the field is ready for cutting. The land is filled with joy. The winter will be secure.

In olden times, Jewish farmers stayed all day in the fields at harvest time. They were very busy and had no time to return home. In the heat of the day, they stopped work for a while and rested in special huts nearby. The huts were frail structures, decorated with the special fruits of the harvest and open to the sky. Our ancestors sang songs, they danced, they ate their midday meal and returned to work.

Sukka is the Hebrew word for “hut.”

SONG

Hava Nageela

Come and rejoice.

SUKKOT

Autumn is a special time for celebration. Like all the seasons of the year, it brings its own unique joy. Holidays are times of celebration. They make us aware of what is important in our lives. They make us notice the beauty of things and places and people.

As far back as we can remember, the Jewish people have always enjoyed a fall festival. They have taken the time to honor the autumn, to pay tribute to the harvest, to sing and to dance. There was so much to do, one day was never enough. Eight days were better. The autumn holiday needed eight days.

Sukkot is the Hebrew name for the fall festival.

SONG

Zoom Galee

Rejoice.

LULAV

Holidays need parades. Parades need special things for people to hold and wave.

Sukkot needs a parade —not an ordinary one with flags and floats but a special one with harvest grain and harvest fruit.

In the land of Israel, the date palm grows tall and straight. At harvest time its dates are sweet and nourishing, its branches are long and graceful.

The palm branch is a beautiful Sukkot banner. For many years, Jews have marched with it to celebrate the harvest and to honor the autumn season. They decorate it with the leaves of myrtle and willow. They wave it to the sound of flutes and drums. They march with it in long processions.

Lulav is the Hebrew word for “palm branch.”

SONG

Hoshana

Let us save ourselves.

ETROG

The lulav did not stand alone. Tradition found it a partner, not long and thin and green but short, round, and yellow.

There is a special fruit that grows in the land of Israel. It grows nowhere else. It looks like a wrinkled lemon, but it does not taste like a lemon. Nor does it smell like a lemon. It has a special taste all its own. It has a special fragrance that is unique. People like to smell it because it smells like perfume.

The special fruit is the partner of the lulav. They always go together. They remind us of life: Some people are tall. Some of us are short. But all of us are important.

Etrog is the Hebrew name for this fragrant fruit.

SONG

Hoshana

Let us save ourselves.

SIMHA

When holidays come we think of all the good things in life. We think of the beauties of nature, the love of family, the importance of friendship, the power of roots.

The good things in life bring us happiness. They give meaning to our existence. They offer us strength and hope.

Sukkot is a time of happiness. It is a time of joy. Just as in ages past our ancestors marched and sang and danced, so do we. We stamp our feet. We clap our hands. We proclaim our joy.

Simha is the Hebrew word for “joy.”

CLOSING SONG

Seesoo Vseem’hoo

Rejoice and be happy on this joyous holiday.

Our Dietary Laws

Sukkot, Summer 1990

Sukkot, like most Jewish holidays, is about food. The celebration of the fall harvest is marked by Sukkot, as the celebration of the spring harvest is marked by Pesakh and Shavuot. The fertility of the earth and of animals is where it all began.

Now, food is not trivial (despite the fact that highbrows deplore gastronomic Judaism). Food is even more important than sex; without nutrition, reproduction fails. Food is survival. All religions began with rituals to regulate the eating of food, whether the food was given to humans or to gods.

It is by no mere coincidence that our deepest and most profound religious attachments are to celebrations that center on eating. The seder remains the most popular Jewish event in North America. Sharing food goes back to the earliest memories of family and community.

All cultures regulate eating. Some, like the Anglo-Saxon, do so informally, without explicit legislation; Anglo-Saxons simply do not eat dogs, cats, or horses. Others, like Jews, do it formally with much fanfare and with very specific laws in sacred documents.

But why these prohibitions?

All cultures view certain foods as dangerous. The dangers may come from a variety of circumstances. The food may belong to the gods and not to humans. It may be prepared in the wrong way. It may be eaten at the wrong time. It may be restricted to social groups other than your own.

In Jewish culture, which was a meat-eating culture, the danger lay in blood. Blood was a food that belonged to Yahveh alone. To drink blood was to steal the food of God and to risk the punishment that would almost certainly ensue. Blood-eating carnivorous animals were not considered proper (kosher) for eating. Kosher vegetarian animals, like cows, sheep, and goats, had to be killed in a kosher way allowing for the maximum bleeding of the slain animal. And, as an extra precaution, the meat had to be salted to draw out the last vestiges of the blood. (Ironically, humans could eat meat or fowl, while the beasts or birds they chose to eat could not. Even pigs, which are on the edge of vegetarianism, were excluded because of their piggish habit of eating any blood-soaked refuse in sight.)

In time these dietary restrictions became an intimate part of Jewish identity. Long after most Jews had ceased to believe that blood was the food of God, long after they had stopped believing that eating blood was dangerous, they continued to obey the laws and observe the prohibitions. Eating habits begin in childhood and are reinforced by community approval and disapproval. As long as Jews lived in closed, tight-knit communities, the dietary laws retained their power. Jews obeyed them because they were Jews, and because there was some vague unconscious fear that if they failed to obey something terrible would happen.

Modern times have subverted this obedience. Political emancipation and an open society, combined with individualism and secular education, have weakened the hold of the dietary prohibitions. Most Conservative Jews and virtually all Reform and secular Jews no longer observe the traditional food laws, regarding them as alienating, inconvenient, or meaningless. Some Jews feel guilty about discarding them. Others create their own personal revisions: kosher food in the home but not outside, shrimp but not pork. Still others go on kosher binges once or twice a year, especially around Pesakh or Rosh Hashana. But, on the whole, the old discipline is confined to a small minority.

“I don’t keep kosher” is the refrain of most secular Jews. The tone implies that the speaker is now liberated from dietary laws. But is that true, or even desirable?

My observation is that many liberal Jews have substituted one set of dietary restrictions for another. And, in many cases, the new laws are more demanding than the ones they have replaced.

For many of my secular Jewish friends, dangerous foods dominate their conscious thought. Cholesterol has replaced blood as the enemy, and fat is a foe as vicious as pork. Calories are like bacon, insidious intruders into the health of the community.

In this age of scientific nutrition, laissez-faire food consumption has become about as rational as diving from an airplane without a parachute. Every day modern medicine warns us of more and more dangers to our bodies and to our survival. The most delicious pleasures of life are diminished as we surrender to the discipline of health and fitness. Giving up hot fudge for celery may be far more traumatic then giving up pork for mutton.

Recently, I was on a panel with an Orthodox rabbi who was overweight and a chain smoker. He spent most of his time

praising the dietary laws and how they instill a sense of discipline into the daily life of the Jew. Each statement about discipline was punctuated by a long puff of his cigarette, leading up to the finale: a racking cough.

I told him that, from my point of view, tobacco was more dangerous than shrimp and fried schmaltz was more devastating than lean pork. I also pointed out to him that, when it comes to dietary discipline, no generation of Jews since the Exodus has been more disciplined than the health-craving, weight-watching, pleasure-curtailing secular Jews of modern America.

But we refuse to give ourselves credit for what we do. We are always falling into the Orthodox trap of complaining how

discipline has fallen out of Jewish life, of how hedonism with its short-run pleasures and absence of long-run goals has

subverted the solid values of traditional Judaism. We fail to see our own stern regimen simply because nobody has bothered to turn it into a divine decree.

Of course Humanistic Jews have dietary laws. They are not the same as the Orthodox. They are not absolute: new evidence constantly forces us to review them. They are not universal; there are different formulas for different physiques. They are not cruel; excommunication or execution seems a harsh penalty for refusing to take care of one’s own health. They are not relentless; lapses are only human and moderation makes sense. But they are more than suggestions. They flow from the collective wisdom of the scientific community.

When I teach young children, I have no reluctance to tell them not to smoke tobacco. I believe the evidence is pretty

overwhelming that smoking can give them cancer. I do not threaten communal punishment or advocate that their right to smoke in private be taken away. But my responsibility is to encourage them to exercise the discipline that is necessary to their health.

Health is a Jewish value (though not an exclusively Jewish one). It is as important a value as Jewish identity. It needs both information and discipline to make it real.

We Humanistic Jews have a new and very different set of dietary laws that are an important part of our lives. As I munch on lettuce and dream of brownies, I recognize that the fates are sometimes cruel. We are designed to love what may not be good for us.

The harvest gave us blueberries and potatoes. Human ingenuity gave us blueberry pie and potato latkes. Fighting human ingenuity is not always easy.

THE MOSCOW CONFERENCE: A Gamble That Paid Off

What Does It Mean to be Jewish, Winter 1995

Moscow was our destination. The Fifth Biennial Conference of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews was to be held there on the weekend of Sept­ember 23-25.

Eighty of us departed North America for this Russian rendezvous. Some of us were apprehensive. We had been bombarded with media propaganda on the dangers of or­ganized crime, mugging, and murder. Twenty people already had succumbed to this warn­ing and had withdrawn from the group. They were convinced that we were flying into a Mafia trap and would be destroyed. Not even the onion domes of St. Basil’s could convince them to relent.

But, for most of us, excitement overcame fear. It was not only that we would experience the wonders of the Hermitage and the Bolshoi, that we would walk the banks of the Neva and promenade under the towers of the Kremlin. It was also that Humanistic Judaism had ar­rived in Russia. A new Eurasian Association for Humanistic Judaism had been formed some two years before, and we were coming to ex­press our support for this fledgling organiza­tion and for the future of a Jewish community in all the republics of the former Soviet Union.

The holding of a conference in Moscow was a gamble. Russia was in economic turmoil. The amenities in public institutions did not meet Western standards. The new leadership of our communities had not yet been tested.

But the experience we had turned out to be far more wonderful than anything we could have anticipated. It was not only that Moscow and St. Petersburg are filled with cultural mar­vels, or that the new capitalist energies of these two cities provided a dynamic setting of change and hope, or that all our fears of Mafia rape proved to be groundless. It was also that the experience of meeting Russian Jews who shared our aspirations and convictions and who were eager to bond with their brothers and sisters from Europe, Israel, and North America was deeply moving.

The conference was held in the original building of the University of Moscow, right across from Red Square and the imposing tow­ers of the Kremlin. The building had been quite magnificent in tsarist times. But it was now a shabby relic of its former glory, a victim of Communist mismanagement and neglect.

Holding the meeting there was important. It was the most prestigious educational insti­tution in Russia. It also had been one of the chief bastions of anti-Semitism in tsarist and Bolshevik days. Ironically, it now housed the new Jewish University. Our board meetings were held in the new Jewish library.

Two hundred fifty delegates attended the meeting. Besides the 80 of us from North America, there were 30 from France and En­gland, 10 from Israel, 2 from Latin America, and more than 125 from seven republics of the former Soviet Union. The Eurasian delegates, in many cases, traveled several days and nights by train to reach Moscow. They came, not only from Russia, but also from Belarus, Ukraine, Khazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. The Eurasian Association is a coali­tion of thirty-five small communities scattered over eight million square miles, some of them closer to China and India than Moscow.

The theme of the conference was “What Does It Mean To Be Jewish?” The question was directly related to the needs of Russian Jews. It also flowed directly from the decision made at our Brussels conference in 1988, when we had dealt with the question “Who Is A Jew?” Having declared that Jewish identity is not only an inheritance but also a choice, we were now confronted by the more important issue of Jewish living. If one is a Jew, how does one lead a Jewish life? If one is a Humanistic Jew, how does one lead a Humanistic Jewish life? Determining Jewish identity is only the pre­lude to arranging for Jewish commitment. For Russian Jews who are searching for ways to express their Jewish identity for the first time, this question is crucial, especially since they are being assaulted by aggressive Lubavitcher missionaries who claim that their way is the only true way to be Jewish.

Addressing this question was a panel of distinguished speakers. There was Yehuda Bauer, world-famous Holocaust scholar and co­chair of the International Federation. There was Yaakov Malkin, founder of the community center movement in Israel and dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Israel. There was Albert Memmi, an intellectual darling of the French literary world, a professor at the Sorbonne, and the leader of our French communities. There was Egon Friedler, well-known journalist and writer from Latin America and leader of our Uruguayan organization. There were many Russian speakers, including Semyon Avgustevich, the organizing genius of the Eura­sian Association.

There were two stellar moments at the conference. The first was the Saturday evening banquet. The Eurasian delegates sat at twenty-six tables, each of which bore the name of a city where one of our Humanistic Jewish com­munities existed. Delegates from outside Rus­sia could choose the community they wanted to connect with by simply sitting down at the appropriate table. The experiment worked wonderfully. The bonding was intense. Out of that communication came sister communities. We of the Birmingham Temple in Detroit have adopted Vitebsk in Belarus as our sister con­gregation. We will offer support, establish an ongoing dialogue, and learn from each other. By the end of the evening there was fervent conversation and spontaneous singing. The presence of distinguished guests from the Rus­sian Jewish leadership and the Russian par­liament seemed less important.

The second moment was at the end of the conference on Sunday morning. The declara­tion on how to lead a Jewish life had just been read. Delegates were standing up to articulate their response to the weekend. One of them, a representative from Kazan, whom we called Olga from the Volga but whose real name was Olga Apollonova, stood up and declared with great fervor, “We thank you for coming to Rus­sia. We have been waiting for the message of Humanistic Judaism. You do not have to break down the door. The door is open.”

What did we learn from our experience?

We learned that Russia, with all its eco­nomic and political problems, is bumbling down the capitalist road. No one has a better alternative. Even the opposition does not want to go back to the old communism. They want the freedom of capitalism with a wel­fare system.

We learned that the new free environment allows fascists and anti-Semites to sell their wares and to peddle their hate. Right outside the former Lenin Museum in Moscow, the anti- Semitic bible, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was being openly sold.

We learned that the Jewish community in Russia is struggling with the issue of whether there is any future for Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. The Israelis predict catastro­phe and want them to come to Israel. But many want to remain. Despite anti-Semitism, Russia is their home and Russian culture is their culture.

We learned that there is a real opening for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Russia. The ag­gressive message of Orthodoxy has limited appeal to a community molded by secularism and intermarriage. Our success will be deter­mined by our ability to train educators and leaders for new communities as well as by our power to produce a Humanistic Jewish litera­ture in Russian. The task is formidable. But we cannot betray this historic opportunity.

Forty Years Later: A Retrospective

Transforming Judaism- Winter 2004

Forty years ago, in the summer of 1963, eight families and I organized a new congre­gation in suburban Detroit. The suburb was Birmingham, and so our congregation was named the Birmingham Temple. Ten months later the Temple family collectively aban­doned God-language — and Humanistic Ju­daism was born.

Until that moment most Jews who had given up on God did not organize congrega­tions, accept rabbis as their philosophic lead­ers, and turn secularism into an organization. But the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism did. Was this a ludicrous contradic­tion, or was it the beginning of a viable answer for secular Jews who wanted to remain Jewish?

Well, the Birmingham Temple and Hu­manistic Judaism are now forty years old. They have confronted the traumas of the six­ties, the compromises of the seventies, the ambivalence of the eighties and the nineties. They have witnessed the black revolution, the feminist revolution, the youth revolution, and the sex revolution. They have seen Israel wax and wane. They have lived through antisemitism diminishing and returning. They have even glimpsed the beginning of a glo­balized world.

Along the way, many formidable chal­lenges appeared. There was the challenge of intermarriage, with its painful confrontation between love and ethnic survival. There was the challenge of New Age religion, with its attractive combination of radical freedom and mystical experience. There was the challenge of creativity: inventing new formats and pro­grams for a Judaism that had never existed before. There was the challenge of liberal Jews who feared the accusation of atheism more than that of hypocrisy. There was the ongoing hostility from the general Jewish community to what was perceived as a provocation be­yond the parameters of acceptable deviation.

What have we learned over the past forty years? What has our confrontation with these challenges taught us?

  1. We have learned that it is better to be a believer than a nonbeliever. Not believ­ing in God is no guide to life. It is a nega­tive assertion that offers only the pleasure of defiance. We Humanistic Jews are be­lievers. We believe in the power of people to change the world for the better. We be­lieve in the right of every individual to be the master of his or her own life. We believe in the adventure of reason as the best way to pursue the truth. On the foun­dation of our positive beliefs, a powerful philosophy of life can be built.
  2. We learned that “telling it the way it is” is better than confusing ambiguity. Had we chosen to follow the Reconstructionist lead and redefine God as meaning what it does not mean — in order to play it safe or to preserve the illusion of ideological continuity — we would have ended up praying to unconscious powers that can­not hear our prayers. Acts of worship do not promote an awareness of what it means to be a Humanistic Jew. Only a more radical step could establish the basis for a humanistic lifestyle. Living without magic power means abandoning God-language. It means saying “human power” when you mean “human power.” Hiding behind old words only hides the message. The strength of our message lies in its boldness.
  3. We learned that it is important never to be a watered-down version of a more power­ful Judaism. When you make the Torah the center of Judaism, you hand legitimacy over to the Orthodox. Only they take the Torah and its lifestyle seriously. In contrast, Conservatism and Reform and Reconstruc­tionism — which continue to maintain the centrality of the Torah — are generally viewed as watered-down versions of the original. Humanistic Judaism does not start with the Torah. It starts with the Jewish people and their historic experience — not the mythical experience of Torah and Talmud writers but the real experience depicted by archeology and modern his­torians. The lessons of Jewish history — especially the need for self-reliance — are the foundation of Humanistic Judaism.
  4. We learned that there is no substitute for addressing the personal agenda of every individual Jew. Jews are not only Jews. They are individual human beings strug­gling to find happiness in a stressful world. The old Jewish secularism ad­dressed itself primarily to Jewish nation­alism and Jewish culture. Preserving Jewish identity and the Jewish people was its primary focus. In its revolutionary ex­pression it addressed itself to humanity as a whole but rarely to the individual as an individual. Of course, nationalism was a refreshing change from the tyranny of the old religion. But it was never enough. The strength of Humanistic Judaism is that it addresses the human condition in which all individuals find themselves. Talking about Jewish survival is important and necessary. But it needs to be balanced with a concern for personal happiness and per­sonal dignity. The life of courage is Jew­ish — and more than Jewish.
  5. We learned that, in many cases, there are no precedents from the Jewish past that can help us. Modern Europe and America have given the Jews, for the first time, the opportunities of a free and open society. Individuals are free to make their own choices about work, marriage, leisure, sex, religion, and politics. Individual freedom undermines the social solidarity that tra­ditional societies foster. The message of the past is to reject individual freedom and insist on group conformity. But, in a free world of growing intermarriage, it seems heartless to give love no place in the ethical equation. Do individuals al­ways sacrifice themselves for their ances­tral groups? Or do ancestral groups need to change and be more open? Humanis­tic Jews have chosen to answer these ques­tions differently than in the past. We are the champions of personal dignity and the open society.
  6. Finally, we have learned to be optimistic. Optimism is not a passive reflection of current conditions. It is not merely an objective assessment of the obstacles we face in life. If that is what it is, we would not have survived or grown during the past forty years. Optimism is, above all, a choice: a refusal to surrender to despair, a refusal to interpret ambiguous evidence negatively. In the face of overwhelming odds we have chosen “to preach our mes­sage” to the Jewish world. The evidence of recent surveys of the Jewish commu­nity in North America, dramatizing the existence of huge numbers of self-­identified unaffiliated secular Jews, rein­forces our choice. We have every reason to be hopeful about our future — not only because the polls are friendly but also be­cause our determination is firm.

Humanistic Judaism: A Response to Future Shock

SHJ Conference 2004, summer 2004

Humanistic Judaism has a unique role to play in the Jewish world. That role is more than providing an ideological space or a con­gregational home for secular and nontheistic Jews. It is more than providing a cultural Ju­daism for Jews who no longer can accept a conventional religious Judaism.

This role can best be explained by remem­bering the words of the futurist Alvin Toffler. It was Toffler who invented the phrase “fu­ture shock.” Toffler used this phrase to de­scribe the mental and emotional state of mod­ern people who are overwhelmed by the accelerating rate of change. Industrialization, urbanization, capitalism, science, democracy, freedom, and the new technology have arrived in rapid succession during the past two hundred years. They have radically altered the lives of most men and women in the West­ern world. Responding to all this relentless and continuous change produces confusion and anxiety.

Toffler suggested that people have devel­oped a series of defensive strategies to cope with this anxiety. The most powerful one is denial, the refusal to accept that change has taken place. And the most popular form of denial is nostalgia, a hankering after a roman­ticized past that can never be restored. Since people cannot avoid the real world in which they work and play, they create islands of nos­talgia to which they can retreat periodically and pretend that nothing has really changed at all. The institution that lends itself most easily to this strategy is religion. Religion be­gan as the worship of ancestors. The purpose of much religion in modern society is not to help people confront the real world but to en­able them to retreat every so often into a com­fortable past world that no longer exists.

The Jewish people, the most urbanized people in the world, is in future shock. Over the past two hundred years every aspect of its life has been radically transformed. Work, education, family, sex, government, and be­liefs are no longer the same. The break with the past is so dramatic that most Jews cannot even conceive of what Jewish life in the Middle Ages was really like. But this devia­tion from the ways of our ancestors fills us with great anxiety and triggers many troubling emotions. There is the fear that our ancestors disapprove of us and will punish us. There is the guilt of having abandoned what they worked so hard to secure. There is the sad­ness that the past has died and will never re­turn. There is the anger directed to the amor­phous forces responsible for the change.

Denial and nostalgia become the chief strategies for coping with all this discomfort. Synagogues and temples become islands of nostalgia, where for short periods of time Jews can use the language and symbols of the past and pretend for a moment that nothing has changed. They can pretend that reliance on God is the comfort of their life, They can pre­tend that the Torah lifestyle remains at the center of their existence. They can pretend that the texts of the past support the dramatic changes they cannot deny. They can lift quotations out of context and imagine that the past “kosherizes” the present.

Humanistic Judaism is the only branch of Judaism that refuses to practice this denial. That is its unique role in Jewish life. For Hu­manistic Jews the changes are real and unde­niable. They stand in opposition to the pref­erences of the past. The differences are real and cannot be wished away. A good philoso­phy of life helps us to face reality and not to run away from it. Judaism is not an eternal doctrine. It is a strategy for saving the Jewish people in a sea of change.

As Humanistic Jews, our way of coping with future shock is to make five affirmations.

We let the past speak for itself. We do not do what many well-intentioned liberal Jews choose to do. We do not force the past to agree with the present. We know that Moses, Isaiah, and Hillel would not be happy with our present lifestyle. We do not distort their world in order to extract their approval. We let them say what they intend to say. We let them be what they were. We try to under­stand why they made the decisions they did, even though we would not choose to make the same decisions. We listen respectfully to the past because it is the voice of our ances­tors, and they deserve our respect. But we do not try to hide the differences. Where we agree, that is wonderful. Where we do not, that is reality.

We empower the present. Since the cre­ations of the past are human creations, just like the work of the present, they are not su­perior to what the present has to offer. The holidays, ceremonies, and values of the past that fit the realities of the present must be saved and savored. But the present has the same right to create that the past did. The vic­tories and traumas of recent times need to be celebrated and remembered. We give the present its own dignity.

We say what we believe. We can never confront reality if we use words that were in­tended to describe another world centuries ago. A good philosophy of life is more than an exercise in nostalgia. It is a path to truth and reality and must speak clearly and di­rectly to our own convictions. If we have to make a choice between continuity and integ­rity, we always choose integrity.

We find our continuity in the fewish people. It is not God or Torah that are the real foundation of Judaism; it is the Jewish people struggling to find ways to survive and pros­per in a difficult world. This affirmation lies at the heart of the writings of two great hu­manistic Jewish philosophers from Russia, Ahad Ha’am and Micah Berdichevsky. In the end, they said, beliefs, values, words, and ceremonies may change. But the Jewish people in all its diversity remains.

We love the future. It is important to respect the past and to empower the present. But it is especially important to honor the future. In a world of continuous change the future is always with us. When, in ancient times, the priests of Jerusalem allowed only one temple — and that temple had to be in Jerusalem — they failed to imagine that one day the Jewish people would be an international people. They were stuck in the past and present. We must not make the same mistake. It is difficult to imagine what life will be like in fifty years because, given the present accelerating rate of change, it will be very different from what it is now. But it is clear that a Judaism in a global world that is becom­ing one big mixed neighborhood needs more imagination than nostalgia.

As Berdichevsky said in his essay Wrecking and Building, “We can no longer solve the riddles of life in the old ways, or live and act as our an­cestors did. We are not their living monuments…. Through a basic revision of Israel’s inner and outer life, our whole consciousness will be trans­formed: and we shall live and stand fast.”

Marriage and Humanistic Judaism

Marriage Manual, Summer 1987

When marriage began, there was very little talk about romantic love, friendship, and personal growth. Marriage was soci­ety’s way of licensing reproduction and providing a structure for the rearing of chil­dren. In some parts of the world, this view of the relationship between husband and wife still prevails.

Bonding between men and women is very old, certainly prehistoric. For the woman, the initial motivation was protec­tion for herself and her children. For the man, the initial purpose was sexual. After men discovered the connection between sexual intercourse and reproduction, the appeal of owning and controlling women and children became a second motivation.

In the Semitic world, from which Jews emerged, marriage became a patriarchal institution. It was designed by vested inter­est and folk custom to enhance masculine power. Women were purchased from their fathers and became the property of their husbands. Virginity was demanded of brides but not of grooms. Chastity was required of wives but not of husbands. Men, if they could afford it, could enjoy more than one wife. Women were stuck with one husband — and often many rivals. Men could divorce their wives with little provo­cation. But women, as the possessions of their husbands, had to endure what is unen­durable in our eyes.

In the traditional Semitic world, mar­riage was obligatory for all males and females — a sign of their commitment to the survival of their families, clans, and tribes. Since reproduction was the primary pur­pose of marriage, older men married younger women. Seldom did younger men marry older women. Romantic love was rare because it diverted from the central theme of survival and status. Friendship between husband and wife was difficult because men and women were not equal and spent very little social time together. If anything, poverty enhanced the condition of women by forcing men to use their labor in the fields. The wives of rich men suffered exclusion and isolation.

Of course, as the patriarchal legends of the Bible indicate, the landscape was not entirely bleak. Most men practiced monog­amy. Many husbands and wives were joined together by loyalty and mutual respect through years of marriage. Many women enjoyed the task of mothering. They also enjoyed great power over their sons, espe­cially after their husbands died. And clever women often exercised enormous power over their husbands, even though they were careful to preserve the outer signs of male domination.

The structures of the old Semitic family prevailed through most of Jewish history until the advent of the secular age. While the urbanization of Jews radically altered their economic life, it did not change the basic concept of marriage, which was contained in the rules and regulations of the Torah and the Talmud. In fact, bourgeois life often aggravated the work distinctions between husband and wife by separating the workplace from the home. Men spent less time as fathers. Women spent more time as mothers.

The traditional Jewish marriage was hardly the stuff out of which humanist dreams are made. Male chauvinism, the focus on reproductive purposes, and the confinement of women to narrowly defined tasks violate our ideals and commitments. In fact, it is hard to imagine that they ex­isted, especially after the dramatic changes of the past two hundred years.

Capitalism, science, and democracy ren­dered traditional marriage obsolete. City life provided jobs for women outside the home and gave them independent economic power. Children became more expensive and less useful. The technology of birth con­trol emerged with the motivation to use it. Old patriarchal political structures declined, yielding to popular elections. Land, ances­tors, and tradition became less important and a new competitive environment of new options took their place.

The results are dramatic. Men are less sure of themselves. Women are more confi­dent. More women are having fewer chil­dren. More people are choosing to remain single. Premarital sex is popular. Divorce is a freely used option for both men and women. Extended families have disap­peared. More and more nuclear families have two breadwinners. And modern psy­chology has elevated love and friendship to requirements for a good marriage.

Despite this social revolution, marriage remains very popular. The overwhelming majority of men and women in North America still choose to marry, even though they may do it more than once. Of course, there are many variations. Some couples prefer to have no children. Some live to­gether for short or long periods of time before they seek the formal sanction of society through civil or religious cere­monies. Some dispense with the old work distinctions of husband and wife, sharing the traditional female tasks of housekeeping and parenting.

How do we as humanistic Jews respond to all this change? While we must certainly be pleased about the overthrow of patri­archal marriage, we may not be equally enthusiastic about all the developments that followed. While the tyranny of folk custom may limit human potential, a free society may produce consequences that are not conducive to healthy marriage. Frequent divorce, extramarital sex, frivolous motiva­tion, sado-masochistic unions, and an ab­sence of commitment would not receive humanistic endorsement, even though they are new and chic in certain circles.

So, what are the moral and psychological criteria that we would use to determine the value of a marriage? First of all, it is impor­tant to emphasize that marriage is valuable. Bonding between men and women serves a deep human need. Social experiments that have sought to dispense with marriage in some kind of sexual free-for-all have not succeeded. But marriage is more than a pri­vate arrangement. It deserves and needs the recognition of society because it is the major support system both for adult individuals and for children in our culture. Promises are made that need the authority of the com­munity to apply pressure for their fulfill­ment. Today, too many people abandon worthwhile relationships because they are unable to sustain any form of short-run pain and frustration.

A humanistic Jewish marriage may have children as a primary motivation. But it need not. Couples who love and respect each other and choose to have no children have a morally valid reason for getting mar­ried. There is no single ethically valid pur­pose for matrimony.

A humanistic Jewish marriage insists on equality, an equal sharing of power in deci­sion making. Of course, this condition is more easily advocated than arranged for. Talent, persuasive powers, and unconscious intimidation skills are not equally distrib­uted. Pragmatic equality means that major decisions are arrived at through negotiation and consultation, not unilaterally. Good- humored couples often divide up major responsibilities between husband and wife to save time. Menial work is always the rub. The emerging pattern when wives work outside the home is that men are mastering housekeeping skills, which many of them already have acquired in single life.

A humanistic Jewish marriage demands love. Love is more than a feeling. It is a nur­turing behavior derived from our childhood experience with parents. Romantic feelings come and go. Sexual desire comes and goes. Since neither is open to human control, they can be praised. They cannot be demanded. Love, on the other hand, is a caring behav­ior. It reinforces self-esteem. It relieves pain. It shares pleasure. It offers support. It is a moral obligation, whether one is in the mood or not.

A humanistic Jewish marriage involves friendship. In traditional societies, men had male friends and women had female friends. But in a society of equality, more and more husbands and wives are discovering that they are best friends to each other. In fact, they frequently become friends first, even before any romantic interest develops. Friendship means intimacy, the willingness to share thoughts and feelings, the willing­ness to be vulnerable. It also means honesty, the ability to stop pretending, the freedom to let others know what we really are. People are willing to confide only when they trust one another. And trust derives from the chemistry of a relationship, the sense that the other person really understands and really cares.

A humanistic Jewish marriage is based on a commitment to exclusive sexual rela­tions. It does not separate love, friendship, and sexual intimacy. In the early days of sexual liberation, open marriage was advo­cated as a legitimate option. Since then, most of its advocates have retracted their endorsement. One has to be emotionally naive about the evolution of human desire to imagine that, if you can only dispense with irrational guilt, having sex is no more significant than eating candy. And one has to be naive about self-esteem to believe that choosing alternative sexual partners is not viewed as an act of rejection by either hus­band or wife. Jealousy is a real human emo­tion, which so-called liberated hedonists love to deny or dismiss as childish, but which defines the limits of sexual freedom. Only cruel spouses arrange for sexual games that undermine trust, love, and friendship. The commitment of marriage is a sexual discipline that subordinates phys­ical intimacy to the project of bonding. People who want to be promiscuous should not marry.

A humanistic Jewish marriage involves increasing levels of commitment. Verbal pledges cannot produce what only experi­ence can create. One of the ironies of mar­riage is that we usually have the biggest celebration at the beginning, when the bonds still may be thin. Perhaps we should reverse the procedure. Perhaps couples should live together for a period of time to explore their compatibility in an exclusive relationship before they seek the sanction of the state and the religious community. Per­haps the marriage ceremony should be a modest one, appropriate to the level of their love and friendship. Perhaps, in five or ten years, when they have demonstrated the viability of their choice, they can turn to more splendid celebrations. In any case, the now common practice of living together before marriage for a trial period may be morally more desirable than most tradition­alists allow.

A humanistic Jewish marriage is not a prison. All decisions are risks. They may lead to what we want. They may not. To insist on preserving what is not worthy of preservation is irrational. There is no value to eternity for eternity’s sake. Divorce is the right to correct mistakes, to terminate suf­fering, to try again. Divorce is not a sign that the marriage was rotten. In many cases, it worked quite well for a short or long period of time. People change. Needs change. Both husbands and wives have the right to end their marriage if love, friendship, and trust are gone.

A humanistic Jewish marriage learns from Jewish history. The Jewish experience speaks a humanistic message, the message that we cannot rely on the kindness of des­tiny, that we must assume the responsibility for our own fate. In the end, the success of a marriage does not depend on “good luck.” It depends on the commitment of husband and wife to make their relationship work. Commitment is an act of will, a willingness to endure temporary pain in order to achieve some future pleasure. Without that deter­mination it is highly unlikely, in this age of personal liberation, that any marriage will last for long. People without the power of commitment are condemned to live in the desperate world of immediate gratification.

One of the reasons why personal commit­ment is so difficult is that social pressures to get married and to stay married are fast disappearing. It is not true that people in the past were more committed to relationships than people are today. It is just that the out­side support system has fallen away. In a real sense, commitment today is far more genuine than it was in the past. It is now an unforced personal decision in a sea of social indifference. We have to choose commit­ment. It is no longer coerced.

The sign of commitment is that we develop realistic expectations of a marriage relationship, that we do not seek to sabotage the bonding with inappropriate fantasy. We do not expect our marriage partner always to be available to us at our beck and call. We do not expect him or her to be a substitute for our father or mother. We do not expect that marriage will banish boredom and tedium. We do not expect that loving some­one is the same as falling in love.

In our consumer culture, expectation levels are so high that they condemn mil­lions of people to disappointment who otherwise would be happy. And growing up takes so long that we often feel needy and victimized, unaware that we have the power to help ourselves and others.

Despite all our present problems, it is dangerous to wax nostalgic, to over-romanticize the family of the traditional past. The movements of modern liberation have pro­duced more good than evil. They have en­abled the citizens of the modern world, men and women, to expand the possibilities of marriage.

Humanistic Jewish marriage, although it has its roots in traditional marriage, rests on radically different premises. It recognizes the right of men and women to freely choose their marriage partners. It affirms the equality of husbands and wives. It recognizes love and friendship to be legiti­mate reasons for bonding. It sanctions sin­gleness as a moral alternative. The test of its validity will be the happiness and dignity that will be found by the men and women who live within its framework.

RESPONSA – Conversion

Question: Does Humanistic Judaism provide for conversion? If Judaism is viewed primarily as a culture, what does conver­sion mean?

Responsum: Conversion is a Christian term. It refers to the dramatic transforma­tion of the individual who “sees the light” and is saved. This transforming or “born again” experience is not only the result of personal choice but also of divine grace and intervention. In the broader sense conversion refers to any act of becoming a Christian, whether that transforming expe­rience occurs or not. In both cases there is a theistic component. If the conversion is sincere, the convert comes to believe cer­tain things about God that he or she did not believe before. The sign of conversion is baptism.

Becoming a Jew has been an entirely different experience. First of all, we Jews started out as a nation, not a theological fraternity. Joining a nation is different from joining a religious denomination.

In biblical times, Jewish identity was not tied to the affirmation of any theologi­cal principles. Until the imposition of priestly tyranny around 450 B.C., there was no enforced religious conformity. Both monotheism and polytheism were Jewish. In the absence of formal naturalization, becoming a Jew meant that you were adopted into a Jewish family or married to a Jewish man (since women were the possessions of their husbands).

In the priestly period (450-165 B.C.), great emphasis was placed on racial pu­rity. Non-Jews were discouraged from join­ing the Jewish nation, by intermarriage or otherwise. Male circumcision became a sign of Jewish identity. If a non-Jewish man wanted to become a Jew and was not circumcised, he had to undergo this pain­ful surgery.

The Book of Ruth, which was written during the priestly period but set in an earlier time, was most likely a protest against the racial policies of the priests. Ruth, a Moabite, became a Jew by marrying a Jew. When her husband died, she had to choose between returning to her family and staying with her husband’s family. By choosing to follow her mother-in-law (an interesting development, to say the least), she remained a Jew.

In the rabbinic period (100 B.C.-500 C.E.), very clear procedures for becoming a Jew were defined. Jews had come to equate national identity with religious conformity, especially the conformity prescribed by the rabbis. Moreover, be­cause rabbinic ideology was Salvationist and promised life after death (very much like Christianity, which ultimately imi­tated it), many people were choosing to become Jews for religious reasons and not for national or marriage reasons.

Rabbinic Judaism is what today is called Orthodoxy. Despite the large influx of non- Jews into the Jewish nation for religious reasons, the Orthodox procedure for be­coming a Jew remained profoundly racial. An invidious distinction was made be­tween born Jews and entering Jews. Jews born of a Jewish mother were Jewish for­ever. Even if they repudiated God and the rabbinic religion, they remained Jews. No religious criterion could alter their right to be called Jews. Their tribal and national origin was sufficient. Entering male Jews, on the other hand, confronted three tests. The first was the repudiation of their for­mer religious practices and the adoption of the halakhic lifestyle. The second was circumcision. The third was ritual purifi­cation in a ritual pool (mikvah). Entering women were spared circumcision and now could join in their own right and not merely as attachments to their husbands.

During the Middle Ages, becoming a Jew was not an important issue because both Christian and Muslim governments forbade Jews to accept “converts.” But the emancipation period, with its open society and increasing intermarriage, made “con­version” an important issue in Jewish life.

Conservative Judaism maintained the Orthodox provisions. Reform Judaism, in its most radical expansion, abandoned all three rabbinic criteria and simply required an affirmation of faith (Christian style). But, in recent years, many Reform rabbis have returned to traditional procedures.

Humanistic Judaism welcomes every­body who wants to be Jewish. The process of becoming a Jew rests on premises quite different from traditional assumptions.

 Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people. And Jewish identity is a cultural identity.

 Any person who wishes to identify with the culture, history and fate of the Jew­ish people is eligible for membership.

 There are no ideological or theological requirements for membership. However, Humanistic Jews can, with integrity, welcome only other humanists.

 There is no necessity for the potential “convert” to repudiate his or her beliefs or lifestyle. We are wary of people who “suddenly see the light” or who reject the commitments of a lifetime. Loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people is a cultural addition, not a personal trans­formation.

 Entering the Jewish people is not a religious conversion. It is more like being adopted by a family. Perhaps adoption would be a good humanistic substitute for the word conversion.

 Acceptance should be mutual. An indi­vidual cannot unilaterally decide to join the Jewish people. An existing Jewish community must extend the invitation.

Every Humanistic Jewish community is free to establish procedures for adoption. The procedures that now exist usually involve the following activities:

 Studying Judaism and Jewish history from a humanistic perspective.

 Involvement with Jewish culture and a Jewish community.

 Celebration of welcome.

Receiving a Hebrew name as a sign of membership in the Jewish people.

Humanistic Judaism recognizes that the motivation to become Jewish is rarely ideological. People want to become Jews because they are married to Jews, because they are comfortable with Jewish culture, because they like their association with Jewish people. The adoption process ought to reflect these realities.

Two Kinds of Religion

Is Humanistic Judaism a religion? Winter 2002

Is Humanistic Judaism a religion?

For many people, including many Hu­manistic Jews, the answer would be no. There is no God. There is no worship. There are no prayers. There is no recognition of supernatu­ral power. A philosophy of life for atheists and agnostics cannot be religion.

But this answer may be naive. It fails to understand the history and function of reli­gion — especially in the lives of people who are products of the modern secular world.

Historically, religion has its origins in two developments.

The first is the human condition. To be human is to confront continuously two persistent and unpleasant realities: suffering and death. If there were no suffering and no death, religion would not exist. The need to cope with these two unwelcome intrusions is the mother of religious belief and religious behavior.

The second development is the human imagination. It is obvious that ordinary power — human power — cannot eliminate all suf­fering and abolish all deaths. It may reduce suffering and postpone death. But it cannot defeat them in the long run. Human imagina­tion, prompted by human desperation, pro­vides an alternative power so extraordinary that it can only be called magic.

Magic power defies the limitations of ordinary experience. It transcends the restric­tions of the natural world. Being supernatu­ral, it does not need to obey the laws of nature. Being sacred, it cannot be measured and cannot be exhausted. As a mysterious and overwhelming force, it can do what ordinary power is powerless to do. It can conquer both suffering and death. Magic and religion have a common origin: the human need to tran­scend the human condition.

The belief in magic power is reinforced by the uniqueness of the human experience. When we are born, we are helpless, unable to do anything for ourselves except cry for help. When our parents respond to our cries, when they rescue us, wipe us, and feed us, our in­fant minds perceive their power to be extraor­dinary and magical. Since childhood is very long, the addiction to magic becomes a natu­ral predilection that we are never fully pre­pared to give up. Fairy tales and Harry Potter continue to charm us even when we grow up. Part of us never wants to leave childhood. Part of us never wants to surrender magic power.

But magic and religion are not identical. Magicians seek to manipulate magic power. Religion worships it. Religion emerges when our parents and our more distant ancestors achieve the power to transcend death. They do this through the human belief in spirits of the dead. Since these spirits are familial and parental, we respond to them the way we re­spond to our mother and our father — with fear and with reverence. Ultimately the spir­its of the ancestral dead turn into gods. And the gods turn into God. Worship is the con­tinuation of the awe and the reverence that our childhood connection to parental power inspires. In the end our infant cries turn into prayer. And God remains our heavenly father and mother.

The two themes of religion, then, arising from the origins of religion, are magic power and ancestral reverence. When religion be­gins, it is attached to family, clans, and tribes. It is not something chosen. It is a set of practices that are inherited, from holidays and sacred symbols to prayer and dress. In most cultures religion and patriotism cannot easily be distinguished. They have the same roots and are inspired by the same attachments. Most people end up in the religious systems they embrace, not because of conscious reflection or personal beliefs, but because they love and fear their parents and their ancestors. Where the ancestral theme is the most powerful, religion can be called ancestral religion.

Sometimes, however, the theme of magic power becomes the central focus. During the past two thousand years, as ancestral ties have been weakened by urban civilization — as individualism and individual identity have been strengthened by mobility and the power of new technology — religion was separated from patriotism and became a matter of per­sonal choice. Personal immortality and eter­nal happiness became the major rewards, both of them guaranteed by magic power. In this way an alternative to ancestral religion was born. Because of its emphasis on individual reward, it can best be called salvation reli­gion. Christianity and Islam are salvation re­ligions. Buddhism, in its popular expression, is a salvation religion. The array of modern urban cults, from Hari Krishna to Scientology, are salvation religions. Even Rabbinic Juda­ism, with its final judgment day, is a salva­tion religion.

In salvation religion, ancestors fade away and magic power comes to the fore. Rituals, magical formulas, and personal faith release the powers of “the Force.” Ethnicity and eth­nic memory become irrelevant. Attachment to roots is less important than attachment to the message. The drama of personal conversion replaces the quiet comfort of inherited status.

Of course, salvation religion, if adopted by tribes and nations, can turn into ancestral religion. What starts out as personal choice can turn into an ancestral legacy. What starts out as personal conviction becomes piety, an intense desire to imitate one’s ancestors. Most Christians today are not part of salvation religion. They are Catholic because they are Irish, Orthodox because they are Greek, Presbyterian because they are Scottish. Most Muslims today are Muslim for the same reason. Most Jews are Jewish, again for the same reason. Ancestral loyalty replaces supernatural salvation as the primary motive for connection.

Since the Enlightenment, most Jews have been ideologically divorced from the salva­tional message of traditional Rabbinic Juda­ism. They are not even aware of it. The resurrection of the dead and the final judg­ment day have no place in their world view. If they think of themselves as religious, it is not because they have firm convictions about the reality of magic power. They are Jews be­cause their ancestors were Jews or because they married Jews. Their holidays and group symbols are not matters of personal choice, but inherited gifts, warmed by childhood memories and family nurturing. They are Jews because that is where “destiny” has placed them. With Buddhist parents, they would have been Buddhist. While their rabbis struggle to offer feeble proofs for the “superi­ority” of their faith, their faith has long since vanished. But their attachment to their roots remains strong.

If Judaism is viewed as a salvation religion, then Humanistic Judaism cannot be a religion. But if it is viewed as primarily an ancestral religion, then Humanistic Judaism is comfort­ably a religion. Humanistic Jews today are Jews for the same reason that most Jews today are Jews. Their “patriotism” is their religion.

For many “ancestral” Jews, magic power remains a minor theme in their attachment. For others it has disappeared entirely. For many “ancestral” Jews, loyalty to their ances­tors is so intense that they are willing to re­peat theological formulas and prayers they no longer believe in. For others, loyalty yields to personal integrity. They are unwilling to say what they do not believe.

Humanistic Judaism is a religion, but it is “less religious” than the more intense forms of ancestral religion. It refuses magic power. And it refuses to affirm what its adherents no longer believe.

Judaism, the historic culture of the Jew­ish people, is an ongoing legacy from the an­cestral past. Our continued participation in that culture is often motivated by affection for our ancestors. Whether we personify them as “God” or view their creations as human, our sense of roots can be equally powerful.

The Latin word religio refers to the bind­ing power of ancestral connection. Humanis­tic Jews are Jews because of that cultural and religious connection.