Humanistic Judaism – A Religion

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn/Winter, Volume 4, No. 1, 1975-76

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

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

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

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

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

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

A proper view of religion requires an honest confrontation with certain historical realities. Too often clerical liberals choose to designate what is ‘unpleasant’ about traditional religious practice as secondary and peripheral. They refuse to confront the possibility that what they stand for may in any way be ‘less religious’ than what the traditionalists proclaim. In a culture where to be ‘more religious’ is to be more respectable, the refusal is understandable although it is hardly conducive to an objective study of religion.

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

  • in almost every culture religious institutions are the most conservative. It is historically demonstrable that ecclesiastical procedures change more slowly than other social patterns. Ideas which are regarded as radical and revolutionary within the framework of church and synagogue are usually regarded as common place in other areas of human behavior. While most institutions resist change, organized religion has been the most supportive of the status quo. Intrinsic to established ‘priesthoods’ is the notion that change may be necessary but not desirable.
  • Religious teachers and prophets persistently refused to admit that their ideas are new. If they do, the indispensable sacred character of their revelations disappear. From Moses to Bahaullah the religious radical must always demonstrate that he is, in reality, the most genuine of conservatives. Moses pleaded the endorsement of Abraham; Jesus insisted that he was but the fulfiller of old prophecies. Mohammed posed as the reviver of pure monotheism; and Luther claimed that he desired only to restore the pristine and authentic Christianity. As for Confucius, he did Nied originality and attributed all his wisdom to old emperors. Even the Jewish reformers the vehemently affirmed that they were guilty of no basic novelty but were simply recapturing the true message of the true Prophets. No historic religious ‘genius’ has ever desired to claim a new idea. Change is made to appear an illusion. ‘New’ concepts are either old ones long forgotten or old ones reinterpreted. Novelty is historically irreligious.
  • In ordinary English the word ‘religious’ is usually equivalent to the Yiddish ‘frumm’. Both adjectives are tied up with the notion of ritualism. An individual is judged as ‘more religious’ or ‘less religious’ by the degree of his ritual behavior. The liberal may protest that this usage is narrow and primitive. But he still has to explain why even sophisticated speakers, then they relax with the word religious and are non-defensive, choose to associate it with repetitive ceremonies.
  • The annual cycle of seasons, as well as the lifecycle of human growth and decay are universal concerns of all organized religions. Spring and puberty may have no apparent ethical dimension but they are certainly more characteristic of historic religious interest than social action. We may deplore the religious obsession with Barmitsva. But then, after all, we have to explain it.
  • Despite Whitehead’s popular definition of religion as that, which man does with his solitude, most religious activities have to do with group action. In most cultures sacred events are not separable from either family loyalty or national patriotism. The very word ‘religio’ is a Roman term for the sum of public ceremonies that express the allegiance of the citizen to the state. Even the ancestor cult which defines the popular religion of most of the Eastern world is an act of group loyalty that diminishes the significance of the isolated individual and enhances the importance of family continuity. Historic religion started with the group and is not easily separable from it.
  • The notion of the saint or the holy man permeates most religious cultures. This revered individual achieves his status not only because of his impeccable ritual and moral behavior but also because he is able to enjoy the summit of the religious experience. To be able to transcend this messy world of space-time change and to unite mystically with what is beyond change, space and time is his special forte. The mystic experience has almost universally been regarded as the supreme religious event and the entree into the supernatural.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The religious temperament and the pursuit of knowledge through empirical procedures are incompatible. Humanism is committed to the techniques of modern science; and all proper statements within the framework are tentative, subject to the refutation of future evidence. Empiricism cannot tolerate eternal truths about man and the universe. The conditional character of all knowledge with an infinite capacity for adjustment is its special power and glory. Whenever the religious need and the pursuit of truth come together there is disaster. The Greeks prove that point magnificently: they could never end up being interested in what was tentative and conditional.
  • Humanism is a total philosophy of life, which does not allow the religious temperament to invade every area of its discipline. However, there is one aspect of living where religion is indispensable. If man has a need to transcend his temporariness and identify with something or someone more permanent than the individual ‘I’, this need cannot be ignored. Within the framework of humanism, two ways of satisfaction exist. By asserting that every man is composed of the same matter – energy – that all other events in the universe derive from, humanistic teaching affirms that each of us shares an intimate bond, a basic identity, with any conceivable happening in the universe. Stars and flowers are material brothers to our nature. And by proclaiming that before and beyond the individuality of any person, each of us shares an essential oneness with all men, humanism proclaims that all of us individually share in the immortality of mankind as a whole. In fact, the very basis of ethical behavior lies in this religious experience. If every person can only feel himself as an individual, the social character of morality is impossible. Ethical behavior is only feasible when men sense that the essential nature that binds them together is more significant than the individual differences that separate them.
  • Humanism is more than a religion. There are certain areas of its discipline which provides the religious experience. But there are many involvements where the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. In opposition to the temper of much traditional philosophy with the mood of ‘ there are certain areas of its discipline which provides the religious experience. But there are many involvement where the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. In opposition to the temper of much traditional philosophy with the mood of ‘eternity’ pervades, humanism affirms the value of conditional knowledge and change. Therefore, the humanist never guards the description ‘less religious’ as a threat. He rather views it as a compliment. He is aware of the fact that the balanced life requires much more. While he resists the invasion of all lies by the religious temperament, he, at the same time, affirms the value of the religious experience in the simple rehearsal of nature’s seasons and in the image of in mortality in mankind’s survival.

The Rabbi Writes – The Israel Connection

Volume 20, No. 3, October 1982

The Israel connection.

For North American Humanistic Jews, it is very important.

This July, 300 delegates from the United States, Canada, England, France, Belgium, Argentina and Israel met in Jerusalem in the Truman Auditorium of Hebrew University to establish the Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. This school is the first institution of higher learning which has been created for the specific purpose of promoting a humanistic approach to Jewish identity and Jewish culture.

With a part-time faculty of thirty scholars, academicians and teachers, the Institute intends to publish literature in Hebrew, English and other useful “Jewish” languages – literature which can be used for educational and inspirational purposes by secular Jewish communities. It intends to train professional leaders, lectures and spokes people to provide scholarly and popular answers to important Jewish questions and to service a focal point for a federation of humanistic Jewish societies throughout the world.

Haim Cohen, The civil libertarian, legal scholar and former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Israel will serve as the Honorary President. Yehuda Bauer, The world-renowned scholar-expert on antisemitism and Holocaust studies, will serve as the president.

Also this July, 11 young people from the Birmingham Temple – ages made a summer “pilgrimage” to Israel to attend the opening seminar of the Institute and to spend six weeks in a special training program for secular humanistic youth. This trip was the first of, hopefully, many “pilgrimages“ which will be available to all 10th grade graduates who are affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism. We hope that this summer adventure will take its place alongside the Mitsva and Confirmation ceremonies as one of the rites of passage in growing up as a Humanistic Jew.

Why this special emphasis on the Israel connection?

Israel is the Drammatic embodiment of our view of Jewish identity. The Zionist state is a living testimony to the fact that the Jews are more than a religious denomination. We are a historic nation with a national culture, A culture brought enough to include both religious and secular Jews. Because of Israel it is no longer easy to pretend that the Jews are only at theological fraternity.

Israel is also a dramatic embodiment of our view of human power. Against  orthodox passivity and Messianic waiting, the Zionist pioneers proceeded to take Jewish “destiny“ into their own hands into mold the Jewish future instead of resigning themselves to it. The Zionist venture was – and still remains – a revolutionary break with the mood of the old religious tradition.

Israel is the fastest growing Jewish community in the world. The reason is not immigration; it is birth rate. Because of a declining Jewish birth rate, the Diaspora communities are shrinking. In 1985, 25% of the world Jewish population resides in Israel. Into thousand 40% of world Jewry will live in the Jewish state. Time goes on, Israel will increasingly become the center of Jewish identity.

 Israel is the only state where Jewish culture can function as a majority culture. The Jewish language is the national language. Jewish holidays are national holidays. Jewish heroes are national heroes. Therefore, the Jewish creative potential of Israel is far greater than that of Diaspora communities where an uphill battle will always be fought against the attractiveness of the dominant culture. Less effort has to be exerted in Israel to remain Jewish. More effort can be devoted to more positive enterprises.

Israel is the home of the largest body of self-proclaimed secular Jews in the world.

Just as Reform was the dominant ideology of the nineteenth century founders of the American Jewish community – making it, In the American context, older and more prestigious than Orthodoxy – so what is humanism the dominant belief of the Zionist founders of the Jewish state. From the labor movement to the kibbutzim, From the universities to the newspapers, the secular point of view prevailed. In the same sense as in America, Orthodoxy is “newer“ than secularism. It’s recent victories are in assault on the “establishment“.

Israel is the home of the largest body of scholars, academicians and teachers who identify themselves as secular and Humanistic Jews. No where else is it possible to assemble a working faculty for an institute of Humanistic Judaism. While the new school will be international, with branch offices in North America and western Europe, the center must remain in Jerusalem where the intellectual resources are more available.

The Israel connection is indeed very important. In an age of technological revolutions where traveling from Detroit to Jerusalem is far easier now than moving from Detroit to Toledo was 150 years ago, maintaining the is real connection may become a far simpler project than we imagine.

The Rabbi Writes – Birmingham Temple Anniversary

Volume 30, No. 4, November 1993

November is anniversary month for the Birmingham Temple. It was in November 1963 at 35 families decided to incorporate as a Jewish congregation.

Thirty years of the Birmingham Temple also means thirty years of Humanistic Judaism. What makes our congregation unique is that we became the first community to embrace an important new way to practice Judaism.

What is Humanistic Judaism? Explaining Humanistic Judaism clearly and simply both to oneself and to others still remains a challenge for many. But no Temple task is more important.

The easiest way to approach Humanistic Judaism is to view it as an answer to three very important questions that many Jews ask.

Where is my power?

Where is my Judaism?

Where is my religion?

Where is my power? The power question is the basic question of any practical philosophy of life. Where do I find the strength that I need to cope with the problems and challenges of life? The traditional answer was God. Divine power, made available through prayer and worship, was the major source of needed strength.

But God is only interesting if he has power. A God who creates the world but is unable to respond to human needs is irrelevant to the human agenda. The existence of God is not the issue. The power of God is very much the issue. If God has no power to give me in my hour of crisis then his existence makes no practical difference. Humanistic Judaism does not deny the existence of God. It simply denies that the power that is available to me in my moment of need is a divine supernatural power.

For Humanistic Jews the source of power and strength is human. Human power comes into forms. There is the personal power of me as a person and as an individual. There is also the collective power of friends and community who offer me their support. In the end – God or no God – that is the locus of my power. Training the power and celebrating that power is more important than prayer and worship. It is the foundation of my dignity and self-esteem. The theme song we have been singing for almost thirty years sums it up.

Where is my light?

My light is in me.

Where is my hope?

My hope is in me.

Where is my strength?

My strength is in me.

And in you.

Where is my Judaism? traditional Jews and many liberal Jews find Judaism in a book, in the famous book of the Torah. Even for most Jews who do not believe in the theology of the Torah and do not except most of the rules of the Torah, Judaism is the teaching of the Torah. There is a problem in this situation. First, there is the problem of integrity – of praising what one neither believes nor practices. Second, there is the problem of substance. If Judaism is a perfunctory allegiance to a book, then it is not very important.

For Humanistic Jews Judaism is not the celebration of a book. It is the celebration of a people. The Jewish people, and not the Torah, are at the heart of Judaism. The Jews are an extraordinary people, who, in the face of overwhelming odds and cruel fates, arranged to survive and be creative. Jewish history and Jewish culture are testimonies to that creativity. If the Jewish experience, through the centuries, is seen as the consequence of divine intervention, then the experience is less than ordinary. But if it is seen as the result of human effort and human ingenuity, then it is more than special. The meaning of Jewish history is not the wonderful justice and love of God. It is the power that human beings possess in a cruel and in different universe, to defy the “fates” and to survive. The answer to the question of power and the answer to the question of Judaism come together in an affirmation of humanism.

Just as Jesus is the central symbol of Christianity, which points to the reality of the world which Christians affirm, so is the Jewish people the central symbol of Judaism, which points to the reality which Jews affirm. Jews may disagree on the meaning of Jewish history. But they agree that Jewish history is the key to understanding the human condition.

Where is my religion? religion is usually associated with the experience of transcendence, with the experience of feeling oneself part of something greater than oneself. Traditional religion maintains that true transcendence is spiritual transcendence, a sense of feeling oneself part of God, God‘s power in God’s world.

For Humanistic Jews the experience of transcendence is very important. It is at the heart of religion. But Humanistic Jews deny that spiritual transcendence is the only kind of religious experience. They maintain that the first and primary kind of transcendence is ethical transcendence. Ethical transcendence is the experience of feeling myself part of something greater than myself – namely, my community. Without that experience of transcendence it would be difficult for me to go beyond my private agenda of personal happiness and survival to a moral agenda. My willingness to serve my community and the needs of others comes from my sense of identification with that community. It is not always the case that what is good for me is good for my community. And it is not always the case that what is morally right maximizes my own pleasure and my own dignity.

Ethical transcendence begins with infancy and childhood, when I am still very dependent on others. It continues with the experience of living in a society, cooperating with others, working together to realize a shared goal. All of the experiences of transcendence, derive from this first and basic connection. And all other “transcendent highs“ arise from the “high” of human solidarity. Very simply put, ethics is our religion.

A Humanistic Jew is a Jew who believes that the fundamental source of problem solving power is human power, that ethics is the religion that counts, that, at the heart of Judaism, lies the extraordinary history and experience of the Jewish people.

The Philosophy of Confirmation

The Jewish Humanist, January 1982

Growing up.

It deserves a celebration.

Most cultures arrange for one. A new adult is a useful addition to a traditional family. He is a promising asset to a struggling community.

Even in a modern industrial urban society growing up is important to more than the individual. Every society needs the talents and skills of its young people. They are the promise of the future.

Judaism arranged to celebrate this experience in a ceremony called Bar Mitzvah. It was for boys alone. And it was fairly uniform. Reading from the Torah or some other book of the Bible became the ritual, since the Torah was the constitution, it represented adult responsibility.

Now we in the Birmingham Temple, as proponents of Humanistic Judaism, find growing up to be a significant experience. But we find the traditional way of celebrating it to be less than adequate.

A good Jewish ceremony should satisfy the following criteria.

It should provide for equality. It should be available to both boys and girls. Bar Mitzvah should be complemented by Bat Mitzvah. In fact, calling it simply the Mitzvah ceremony avoids the hassle. The Hebrew word mitzvah means commandment and suggests that the celebrant is now eligible to be responsible for the requirements of his own life.

It should provide integrity. The symbols and words should honestly express what the celebrant believes and what the community stands for. If the Torah is only a famous book and no longer the constitution of humanistic Jews, it should not be the central future of this important celebration. Above all, at a moment when a child is reviewing his idealism and testing his commitments, sincerity should be a minimal requirement.

A good ceremony should provide inspiration. The adolescent should be able to focus on his interests and his talents and find connection with those who share them. An arbitrary Biblical reading is too impersonal to be meaningful. Choosing a heroic figure out of the Jewish past or present who can serve as a role model to the boy or girl and who captures the enthusiasm of the student, makes a lot more sense.

A good ceremony should provide a sense of competence, a feeling of achievement. The student should believe that he is now able to do something well that adults normally do. Presenting a competent lecture to an adult audience may be only one of many options. (On the secular kibbutzim in Israel community service is stressed). But it is certainly an effective one.

A good ceremony should reinforce a sense of roots. Jewish roots from the humanistic perspective, are not only religious roots. They are secular ones also. Music, dance, humor, science and business are as much a part of Jewish culture as worship.

It is very important that the student feel that he has real roots in the Jewish past. He may not be able to identify with his grandfathers’ dietary habits. But he can identify with his love of family.

A good ceremony should allow the community to experience its own ideals and its own commitments. The celebration is not only for the child. It is especially for the assembly of adults who need periodic opportunities to affirm their own beliefs. A young adult is an important symbol to a congregation. He is an expression of hope.

A good ceremony, above all, should occur at the right age. In a modern urban culture, thirteen is hardly the entrance to adulthood. It barely makes adolescence. However, it is a time of important physical and mental changes. The most creative alternative is to have two optional ceremonies – the mitzvah thirteen to celebrate the beginning of adolescence and a mitzvah (confirmation) at a later age (16 or beyond) to mark the entrance into adulthood.

These seven criteria have guided the development of our own growing up ritual. They define our goals. In the years to come our procedures may change. But our moral requirements will continue to direct change to valid alternatives.