Brussels 1988 – International Federation Conference

The Jewish Humanist, November 1988

Brussels 1988. An important place and time for Humanistic Judaism.

The second biennial meeting of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews produced an important document. The question “Who is a Jew?” was answered boldly, generously and with a unique voice. Never before had any Jewish movement drawn the parameters of Jewishness so broadly. Hopefully, the issuance of this statement to the Jewish press and to the Jewish world will challenge the traditional establishment and arouse useful discussion.

The meeting in Brussels also provided for emotional highs. Two hundred people from thirteen countries, speaking Hebrew, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Yiddish, created an environment of international excitement. Some came – out of secular Yiddishist backgrounds. Some came from active Zionist organizations. Some were children of the kibbutz, imbued with the results of over seventy years of humanistic experiments. Others were members of secular Jewish schools and secular Jewish culture clubs. Still others, like us, were the products of full-fledged humanistic congregations. Even famous free-floating Jewish intellectuals, like Albert Memmi and Amos Funkenstein, added to the variety of flavors.

The- main setting for the conference was the Centre Communautaire Laic Juif, a secular Jewish community center in the heart of Brussels. Established over twenty -five years ago by a charismatic couple, Simone and David Susskind, it has emerged as the major humanistic Jewish voice on the European scene. Its programs reach thousands of Jews in Brussels. Its publications, especially its French magazine Regards are read by over ten thousand Belgian Jews. Its special conferences embrace the famous leaders and intellectuals of the Jewish world and bring them together to discuss important issues.

There were many special moments. There was the triumphant conclusion of the day-long attempt to reach consensus on the Who is a Jew? statement, with regional delegations cheering and applauding-. There was the warm and inspiring message of Albert Memmi, famous writer and the honorary president of the Federation, who challenged us to respond creatively to the real world of assimilation and intermarriage. There was the simple and compelling acceptance speech of David Susskind, who received a special award for distinguished service to the cause of Jewish humanism, and who shared with us the passion of his commitment. There was the powerful challenge of Yehoshafat Harkabi, former Director of Military Intelligence for the state of Israel, who demanded that we dismiss our destructive illusions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and called us to confront the reality of Israel’s present position and the necessity for dramatic compromise. There was, of course, the incredible sense of solidarity and closeness as we all sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs with Jews from many places and many nations.

The conference made us an aware that, despite our differences, we were part of a growing world movement and that we needed to work together to make it strong. But we also recognized that context made a difference. The problems of North America were not the same as those of Europe. And the problems of Europe were distinct from those of Israel and Latin America. We discovered that we had to listen to each other very carefully so that we could really understand from where each one of us was coming and what each one of us needed.

Out of the conference came an agenda of tasks that we needed to undertake if we were going to be successful in serving the needs of secular and humanistic Jews. We needed to provide popular essays about our philosophy – in at least four languages – so that unaware secular Jews could identify with our ideology and our movement. We needed to strengthen our Institute in Jerusalem so that trained teachers and leaders would be available to serve struggling communities all over the world. We needed to develop the aesthetic and emotional side of our humanistic commitments so that shared celebrations and shared symbols would give us a heartfelt sense of Jewish identity. We needed to reach out to the thousands of Jews who had no knowledge of us but who belonged with us, especially the cultural Jews of the Soviet Union and the unaffiliated Jews of North America and Europe. We especially needed to map out an effective strategy to counter the militancy of the new orthodoxy and to help rescue the Jewish world for sanity and openness.

We left Brussels with the determination to undertake these tasks and with the comfort of knowing that we would undertake them together.

The closing event of the meeting was held at the Holocaust Memorial in Brussels, an outdoor shrine in the heart of the old ghetto where twenty-six thousand names of Nazi victims are inscribed in bronze. We stood in silent tribute and then sang the defiant song of the Jewish partisans. We felt the sadness and despair for all that was lost. We also felt deeply our connection to the suffering and survival of the Jewish people. We knew that, ultimately, we could not rely on the kindness of God. The future of the Jewish people and of humanity lay, in some small way, in our hands.

A Humanistic Jewish Education

The Jewish Humanist, January 1977

 

‘Education’ is a sacred Jewish word. ‘Jewish education’ is a sacred Jewish phrase.

In Jewish social mythology no ethnic group values formal education more than Jews. Going to school is so universally Jewish that not going to school requires an apology.

Jewish education began with the study of the Torah and the Talmud. But it transcended that parochial beginning and moved on to physics, chemistry, psychology and the humanities. The Jews became in the twentieth century the arbiters of intellectual achievement.

The secular state school became a ‘sacred’ institution for European and American Jews. It was the most reliable road to social advancement. What Jews could not achieve through pedigree and inherited wealth they achieved through certificates of education.

Jewish children night complain about the boredom and tedium of public school. But they never questioned its value and its power. Only the recent glut in the market of educational degrees has aroused a new skepticism.

The emergence of secular education created a new institution called the ‘religion school’. The ‘religion school’ was a kind of academic garbage can. It taught all those peripheral and denominational subjects that the public school was unwilling or unable to teach.

To Jewish children ­ and to Jewish parents – the power distinction was very clear. Public schools had the power to make you either a social winner or a social loser. Their rewards were economically significant – and their punishments were terrifying. They had the ‘with it’ prestige of the future.

Sunday Schools had only the power of the past. They were concessions to residual guilt, fading nostalgia and the pain of persistent anti-Semitism. Their rewards were economically insignificant (except for Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation) and their punishments were ludicrous (especially with the vanishing of the afterlife.) As educational places they suffered from pleading postures, resentful students and indifferent parents.

Sunday Schools and religion schools only work when they have purposes which the society deems important to personal success – and when the parents who require their children to attend recognize this importance. If the parents do not recognize that the religion school possesses worthwhile power then the children – who generally read their parents very well – will not.

Theoretically, a humanistic Jewish School is committed to a vital training program. Ethical education is the acquisition of ethical skills which children need for personal survival and success. Cooperative, generous self-reliant and rational people are usually more successful than their opposites in fulfilling their basic needs.

The purpose of a humanistic Jewish school is to help its students become more cooperative, more generous, more self-reliant and more rational – using whatever is relevant in the Jewish experience to reinforce these values. Since it meets at odd hours – weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings – and since the parents are the most important authorities in the lives of their children, the school is viable only if the parents make it viable.

Humanistic Jewish parents – who are behaviorally sincere – act in the following way.

  1. They find out what their children are studying in the Temple school and continue the discussion at home. They inquire about specific information and specific attitudes. They never settle for meaningless vague questions like ‘Did you enjoy Sunday School?’
  2. They never settle for a babysitting service. They insist that whatever time their children invest in the Temple school (including the Mitzvah and Confirmation programs) be related to the important task of character development. They are less interested in having their children temporarily amused or entertained and more interested in seeing a long-run improvement in self-esteem and ethical behavior.
  3. They do not treat Jewish activity as only vehicles to group identity. When they celebrate holidays together with their children, they choose ceremonies, readings and statements which strengthen humanistic values.
  4. They assume responsibility for the character development of their children. They are not afraid to make demands when demands are appropriate. They know that reliability and the completion of tasks are valuable moral skills.
  5. They let their children know frequently why humanistic Judaism is important to them and why ethical training is as significant to ultimate success as secular academic work.

Parents are ethical role models. So are teachers. They have to work together.

The Message of Humanistic Judaism

The Jewish Humanist, June 1977

Humanistic Judaism is the Birmingham Temple. It is also more than the Birmingham Temple.

Humanistic Judaism is Deerfield Temple Beth Or, the Westport Congregation for Humanistic Judaism; the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Greater Los Angeles, the Toronto Jewish Humanist Congregation and dozens of individuals in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, Houston and San Francisco.

Humanistic Judaism is the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Established in 1969 by members of the Birmingham Temple, the Society serves as the link among all self-proclaimed Humanistic Jews in North America and beyond.

Our Temple is unique. It is the pioneer congregation of a new religious movement. It is the community voice for hundreds of Jews whose ideas and opinions need to be heard in the Jewish world.

Humanistic Judaism allows us to reach beyond the parochial boundaries of a single congregation and find the broader fellowship of like-minded believers.

This year Westport, Connecticut was the setting for the annual meeting of the Society. Delegates from all over North America came together to share achievements, to exchange ideas and to plan for the future.

The general consensus was that we have a distinct and unique message for world Jewry – different from the message of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Secular Judaism.

What is this different package of ideas and practices which Humanistic Judaism represents?

In order to articulate the ‘Humanistic’ answers we have to first spell out the questions we share with all other branches of Judaism.

There are six questions.

  1. How do we define the nature of Jewish identity in an age when the spectrum of Jewish belief ranges from Lubavitcher piety to Marxist atheism?
  2. How do we deal with the historic primacy of the Torah at a time when the Torah life style corresponds in no way to the behavior of most Jewish people?
  3. How do we bridge the gulf between the Jewish personality of the past – pious, faithful, reverent and traditional – with the Jewish personality of the present – challenging, rational, skeptical and creative?
  4. How do we deal with the fact that the vocabulary and world-view of contemporary science In no way corresponds to the vocabulary and world-view of historic Judaism?
  5. In an age when a God who intervenes directly in the lives of people is no longer believable, is there any part of the religious enterprise which is still valid?
  6. In a cosmopolitan world where ethnic and religious groups live intermingled how open should Jews be to the non-Jewish world?

The six answers which follow are the ‘quickie’ summary of Humanistic Judaism.

Jewish identity. A Jewish identity which can embrace both Lubavitcher piety and Marxist atheism cannot be a religious identity. Neither a set of religious beliefs nor a single life style can define Jewishness. The only category which is broad enough is ethnic and familial. To be Jewish is to be a member of an international ‘nation’. This ‘nation’ has its center presently in the state of Israel. But Its members are citizens of many countries, speak many languages, embrace many political opinions and indulge a wide variety of cultural styles. The very nature of Jewish identity forces Jews to work for a world community. Because only a world community can give official sanction to the international character of Jewish identity.

Life Style. Unlike all the other liberal branches of Judaism Humanistic Judaism does not seek to save the words of the Torah while rejecting its substance. It boldly admits that the Torah is historically interesting but intellectually irrelevant. In an age when information about people and the world continuously changes, no sacred book is appropriate, even as a symbol. Wisdom comes from the testing and insight of contemporary science, which allows no absolute truth. New rules have to be invented for new situations all the time.

Jewish Present. Humanistic Jews find the Jewish present just as interesting as the Jewish past. The secular world of science and technology has given the Jew more education, power and intellectual clout than he has ever enjoyed before. By virtue of their unprecedented affluence and freedom, contemporary Jews are, at least, the equals of their desert ancestors. An appropriate Jewish history gives as much time to Einstein as to Moses.

World View. The ‘God’ vocabulary of historic Judaism cannot fit the naturalistic view of contemporary science. Saving theology is a waste of time. The language of prayer and worship is so inappropriate that it cannot be rescued. A successful Judaism seeks to use the language that the modern Jew uses in his daily life.

Religion. Much of the old religious enterprise is useless to Humanistic Jews. Contacting supernatural power is an act of futility. Character building and ethical training are the aspects of historic religion which are still appealing. The religious community is an extended family with shared values. The congregation translates these values into practical behavior. Rationality, trust, cooperation and generosity become skills for learning.

Openness. Humanistic Jews start with Jewish literature but do not stop there. They are open to receiving wisdom about solving problems from any ethnic source. The affirmation of human power, human reason and human happiness is-more than Jewish. It is also universal. Humanistic Jews find their ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’not only among other Jews. They find them also among other humanists.

These six brief answers are a unique combination. They are the missionary message of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. They unite us with hundreds of Jews outside the Birmingham Temple.

The Society needs your support to spread the ‘word’.

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.

 

The Humanist Institute

The Jewish Humanist, February 1985

On February 15 we shall be honoring the four members of our congregation who are students of the Humanist Institute.

The Humanist Institute is a new development in the humanistic world which is very important to the welfare and future of the Birmingham Temple.

The Institute is a graduate school for the training of humanist leaders which was established by the North American Committee for Humanism in 1982. The Committee is an international conference of humanist leaders who firmly believe that the growth and development of a humanist constituency in the United States and Canada depends on the training of competent and dynamic spokespeople who will go forth to proclaim the humanist message and to organize humanist communities.

There are seven important humanist organizations in North America today – the American Ethical Union, the American Humanist Association, the American Rationalist Association, the Bertrand Russell Society, the Council for a Democratic and Secular Humanism, the Fellowship of Religious Humanists (Unitarian), and the Society for Humanistic Judaism. None of them is strong enough or rich enough to organize a leadership school of its own. Only if they pool their energies and resources is a working school possible.

That cooperation is exactly what began in 1982. Frightened by the assaults of the religious right, the leaders of these seven groups came together in Chicago to establish an institution of higher learning which would provide visibility and training for the humanist world.

Important progress has taken place since then. A home was found for the Institute in the prestigious building of the New ‘fork Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan. A distinguished educator, Howard Radest, was chosen as Dean. Our most energetic humanist missionary, Roger Greeley of Kalamazoo, was appointed the Associate Dean in charge of student recruitment, and student placement. Twenty-five students, from different humanist backgrounds and from different parts of the country, were selected to be the first class of the Institute. A graduate curriculum of 90 credits (three full-time years of study) was designed to provide high-quality professional training for the leadership candidates. A part-time faculty of well-known academicians from Columbia, Harvard, State University of New York, University of Michigan and the University of Southern California were recruited as teachers. And a nation-wide fundraising effort was launched to secure the funds that the Institute requires for survival and growth.

Among the 25, students of the first class are four Humanistic Jewish candidates, who want to pursue careers in the world of Humanistic Judaism and who want special training and certification for their future roles as educators and community leaders.

Why is the Institute important to us in the Birmingham Temple?

The Institute is important to us because the ‘future of Humanistic Judaism demands well-trained rabbis, educators and administrators to lead congregations and communities. Without such leaders ‘established congregations cannot be maintained and new communities cannot be created.

The Institute is important to us because, until the Institute came into existence, there was no place where Humanistic rabbis and Jewish educators could be trained. Existing Humanistic rabbis are ‘refugees’ from the Reform movement and the Hebrew Union College. Given its commitment to a theistic Judaism, the Hebrew Union College is unwilling to train openly humanistic Jewish leaders who will not provide their talents and energies for Reform enterprises.

The Institute is important to us because it is the first step in providing us with the leadership training we need.

Right now the course work is concerned with general humanism. In the near future a Jewish curriculum will be added to serve the Jewish students. This curriculum will be designed in cooperation with the new Israel Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Jerusalem and with Judaic Studies departments in major secular universities.

The Institute is important to us because we will be able to help design the program we need together with a sympathetic school administration, instead of being the victim of hostile institutions who are indifferent to our welfare and our future.

The Institute is important to us because it will become a visible public academic center where Humanistic Jewish scholars in North America can be motivated to dialogue and to create new essential literature.

The Institute is important to us because now we can recruit young talented people to train for leadership careers in Humanistic Judaism. We no longer have to wait passively for the ‘refugees’ trained by other movements to choose us. We can choose and train our own leaders.

Masters of the Enlightenment: Precursors of Humanistic Judaism

“Masters of the Enlightenment: Precursors of Humanistic Judaism” From – Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1989, vol. XVII no. 1,

Humanistic Judaism is a new alternative in Jewish life. Self-aware secular and humanistic Jews have been around for less than a century. But their roots are deeper and older than their self-awareness. They have strong connections with important events that preceded their public debut.

While the Orthodox rabbinic tradition with its trinity of Bible, Talmud, and Siddur contains isolated statements of humanistic value, the premises of this tradition are hostile to humanism. They cannot serve as the basis for a humanistic Jewish outlook. On the contrary, the assault on this tradition is the root of secular Judaism.

Two major historic forces have assaulted the tradition. The first was subtle, unconscious, and nondeliberate. It was the experience of the Jewish people through centuries of undeserved suffering and oppression. The inconsistency of that experience with the official ideology of divine justice laid the emotional foundation for Jewish skepticism. The second force was overt, conscious, and deliberate. It was the impact of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, on the belief system of traditional Jews. The leaders of the Haskala were the precursors of Humanistic Judaism. Their writings became the intellectual groundwork for a secular approach to Jewish identity.

The Jewish Enlightenment was part of a wider movement that radically transformed the world view of the European intellectual elite. The original Enlightenment did not begin with the Jews. It began with non-Jewish philosophers and scientists who lived in Holland and England in the middle of the seventeenth century. Later it was embraced by Jewish enthusiasts who used its energies to refashion Judaism.

The European Enlightenment

The European Enlightenment was the intellectual expression of profound social and economic changes that were taking place in the countries of northwestern Europe. City life was replacing village life. Manufacturing was becoming the rival of agriculture. Affluence was softening the struggle for survival. Revolutionary new ideas were a reflection of revolutionary new styles of living. At a time when human beings were increasingly experiencing their own power, philosophy had to follow suit.

The Enlightenment was reinforced by religious developments in Western Europe. In the Germanic countries of the north, the Protestant Reformation succeeded in sweeping away the priestly structures of the Roman Catholic Church. Although the ideas of the Reformers were hardly consistent with those of the Enlightenment philosophers, the Protestant emphasis on literacy and individual conscience provided the soil in which more radical belief systems could grow. While the Catholic Counter Reformation held southern Europe in the thrall of censorship and physical intimidation, the Protestant ideology mobilized the northern bourgeoisie for secular success.

Holland and England were two strongly Protestant countries that became “homelands” of the Enlightenment. Amsterdam and London sent their merchant fleets to the four corners of the earth and became the financial centers of the world. Money and investment rivaled the Bible as consuming passions. The new capitalism proved a stimulus to science. And the new affluence made people less desperate for the rewards of the afterlife and more eager for the pleasures of this world.

In this energized environment of trade and exploration, with its bizarre mixture of Biblical fundamentalism and secular science, a radical new world view emerged. The people who hated its ideas called it the work of Satan. The people who embraced it called it the Enlightenment.

The intellectuals, both professional and non-professional, who articulated the ideas of the Enlightenment were not organized in some militant fraternity. They were solo scientists and philosophers with unique personal styles, who made their attacks on the enemy with very little awareness that they were part of an ideological movement. Later on, when the Enlightenment reached France in the eighteenth century, an authoritarian state and church aroused more solidarity and more militancy.

Hindsight has recruited many “soloists” for the work of the Enlightenment. Spinoza, Grotius, and Descartes worked in Holland. Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Shaftesbury, Butler, Johnson, and Hume graced the British scene. Voltaire, Diderot, de Condorcet, d’Holbach, and Rousseau were the “stars” of the French campaign. Germany featured Leibniz, Kant, and Lessing. Although there were many disagreements among these ideologues, certain central ideas were common to all of them. These ideas are the message of the Enlightenment.

Most of these thinkers were committed to a method for the discovery of truth, which they called reason. Reason meant different things to different philosophers. But on the whole, there was a shared meaning, which included the autonomy of the human mind, skepticism with regard to faith and tradition, attention to the evidence of human experience, and a preference for consistency. Although the inductive reasoning of John Locke and the deductive reasoning of Rene Descartes may seem worlds apart, they were united in the new affirmation of the power of the human mind.

Most of these thinkers believed in the essential goodness of humanity. Rejecting the thesis of Christianity that people were inherently sinful and anti-social, they argued that ignorance, not defectiveness, was the cause of immorality, and that the proper cure was education, not repentance and grace—which, in fact, now seemed quite irrelevant.

Most of these thinkers firmly believed in human progress and imagined that the age of reason was the prelude to the redemption of humanity. The age of religion that preceded was viewed as a time of primitive superstition. And the age of science that would follow was anticipated as a time of utopian happiness. While the philosophers of the Enlightenment did inherit the nostalgic Renaissance fondness for the cultures of Greece and Rome, they really believed that the present was better than the past and that the future would be better than the present.

The message of the Enlightenment was no idle intellectual exercise. It was used for practical political purposes to assault existing institutions and to reform society.

The first victim was traditional religion. Although most of the early Enlightenment thinkers were deists (like Newton and Voltaire), they despised orthodox Christianity and the priesthood that sustained it. They sought to remove education from the hands of the clergy and to separate religion from government. Anti-clericalism was a major theme of the political Enlightenment. When the French revolutionaries disestablished the church and secularized the state, they were carrying out the dictates of their Enlightenment mentors.

The second victim was the feudal system of hierarchy and privilege. While many of the new thinkers identified very strongly with a Whiggish aristocracy, they undermined the stability of the very system they enjoyed by destroying the credibility of traditional authority. In the end, kings were no better than bishops. Their divine certificates were equally invalid. Unwitting liberal aristocrats, who loved the world of elitist salons, laid the foundations for democratic revolutions. They could not mock their own peers without, in turn, subverting their own privileges.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, the leaders of the Enlightenment were cautious religionists and timid reformers. By the end of the eighteenth century, many of them had become devout atheists and democratic revolutionaries.

The Jewish Enlightenment

The Jews of Western Europe—although few in number—could not escape the Enlightenment. Their bourgeois affinities and their political vested interests drew them irresistibly into the controversy.

Some Jews were attracted to the ideas of the Enlightenment because of self-interest. Even if they were personally traditional, they were oppressed by the same Christian authorities that were threatened by the new ideology. Conservative Jews and radical humanists shared the same political enemies and, therefore, the same political agenda. While Torah Judaism maintained the unity of religion and government, its devotees, as a vulnerable minority in Gentile countries, found no immediate value in theocracy. Secular governments were better for Jews—even religious Jews—than Christian ones.

Some Jews were attracted to the ideas of the Enlightenment because their involvement in the capitalist revolution made them open to a rational critique of traditional religion. Eager for secular education and impatient with their own reactionary rabbinic authorities, they were drawn to an ideology that promised liberation from the tyranny of tradition. These Jews became the forerunners of humanism in Jewish life.

It took more than a century for a full-fledged humanism to emerge in the European Enlightenment. The same is true of the Jewish Enlightenment. Starting in the middle of the eighteenth century, the Jewish devotees of reason needed more than a hundred years to produce an unashamed secular point of view.

The first Jewish responses were ambivalent. Centered in Germany, where the only substantial Jewish community in Western Europe resided, the Haskala (as the Jewish Enlightenment was known in Hebrew) was a fairly timid venture. Its chief ideologue was Moses Mendelssohn, the darling of the liberal German intelligentsia. Mendelssohn claimed to be both a rationalist and a traditional Jew. Making an arbitrary distinction between philosophy and religious practice, he assigned the first to reason and the second to divine revelation. The first was discussable; the second was not.

Out of this ideological mish-mash came a strategy for modernizing the Jews. Mendelssohn was assisted by an ardent reformer named Naphtale Herz Wessely. The strategy included the following projects: the establishment of free secular schools with secular studies for Jewish youth, the training of Jewish teachers in secular seminaries, and the revival of the Hebrew language as a secular language for literary inspiration. Later, after Mendelssohn’s death, the commitment to traditional religious practice was abandoned and conscious attempts to reform Judaism in the spirit of the Enlightenment were undertaken.

In time the Haskala recruited thousands of Jews and produced a vast body of literature. Its scholars were called maskilim, and they presented themselves to their respective communities as the vanguard of the Enlightenment and the enemies of superstition.

The primary achievement of the maskilim was the creation and development of what Leopold Zunz called the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Science of Judaism. This bold project was an attempt to provide a substitute for the naive traditional-supernatural presentation of Jewish history. In its place emerged a secular, naturalistic view of the Jewish past, appropriate to the new historical style inspired by the Enlightenment.

The new history had very clear secular and humanistic implications. Once you remove divine intervention from Jewish history you are left with Judaism as a human creation. But most of the maskilim were not prepared to affirm these implications. Most of them were fairly traditional. Their ideas were more radical than their personal lifestyles.

Some of them preserved the dichotomy of Mendelssohn, attempting to separate their historical research from their religious commitments. They remained religiously observant and religiously conservative.

Some of them tried to redefine God in naturalistic terms. Like [early Reform rabbi] Abraham Geiger, they now saw the hand of God in the natural development of the Jewish people. This accommodation gave rise to the Reform movement.

Some of them tried to remain scholars alone, making no connection between their research and the struggle of the Jewish people to deal with the new ideas of the Enlightenment and the traumatic effects of political emancipation.

A few of them followed reason to its inevitable end. If the history of the Jews that tradition had presented was no longer valid, then the religious ideas that flowed from it were no longer valid.

Not all the new historians, then, were consistently naturalistic. Neither Graetz nor Frankel nor Geiger nor Krochmal was able to fully divorce his religion from his research. But their achievements were significant. A new way of looking at Jewish history had been born, which turned the legendary story of Judaism into a this-worldly saga. Facts, rather than faith, became the arbiter of our roots. The myth of the superior past and the inferior present was replaced by a more reasoned, realistic view of Jewish progress.

The secular and humanistic Jewish thinkers, Yiddishist and Zionist, who emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and who boldly and explicitly voiced their humanistic beliefs, were the heirs of this Jewish Enlightenment. Both the timid and the more radical maskilim laid the foundation for their humanism. These thinkers were “step two” to the Haskala’s “step one.”

Conclusion

As humanistic Jews, we are the “descendants” of the Enlightenment. Without it we would never have been able to see the Jewish experience in a humanistic way.

It is true that some of the Enlightenment ideology was naive. Experience has taught us that wickedness is not simply the child of ignorance and that human progress may not be quite so inevitable. But we cannot even reach these conclusions without the realistic tool of reason. And reason, in all its glory, is the special legacy of the Enlightenment.

The Meaning of Jewish History

“The Meaning of Jewish History”  From Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1986.

For the Jewish people, Jewish history has been more than a history. It has also been a course in philosophy.

For more than three thousand years, priests, prophets, poets, rabbis, and scholars have used the Jewish experience to “prove” their vision of the world. The events of the Jewish saga became “evidence” for certain beliefs about the nature of God and the universe. The exodus from Egypt was more than an exodus. In priestly and rabbinic hands, it became the demonstration of divine power and divine justice.

The meaning of Jewish history is the set of answers to important questions about God, the world, and people, which observers derive from the Jewish experience. Four questions, in particular, became the dominant themes of this evaluation. What does Jewish history demonstrate about:

The nature of the universe?

The power of human beings?

The evolution of human experience?

The essence of Jewish identity?

Rabbinic Judaism, which was the establishment ideology of the Jewish people for more than two thousand years, used the events of the Jewish story to answer these four questions. The answers of the rabbis became the “official” meaning of the Jewish experience. Rabbinic literature derived its character from this unique perspective.

What were the answers of the rabbis?

From the rabbinic point of view, the existence, experiences, and survival of the Jewish people demonstrated the presence in the universe of an all-powerful, loving, and just God, who punished the wicked and rewarded the good, and who was attentive to the hopes and aspirations of all humanity. The world was a well ordered place in which a divine intelligence was actively concerned with the moral agenda of human beings. Therefore, whatever happened in the world—no matter how seemingly unjust— happened for the good. In the end, even the suffering of the innocent would be vindicated by divine rewards.

Jewish history, according to the rabbis, demonstrated that human power was extremely limited; that human beings, relying on their own power alone, could accomplish very little. Time after time, according to the Bible and the Talmud, the Jewish people were rescued from disaster and from the embarrassment of their own inadequacy by divine intervention. The message of the priests and the prophets was that reliance on human effort and on human ingenuity was as effective as leaning on a “weak reed.” The wise man recognized that human happiness was possible only with supernatural help.

Jewish history also revealed that the quality of human life was gradually declining. The present was inferior to the past, and the future would be inferior to the present. Similarly, the teachers of the present were inferior to the teachers of the past, and the teachers of the future would be inferior to the teachers of the present. The patriarchs, the prophets, and the rabbinic fathers were wiser, more saintly, and more inspired than any sages that would follow. Modern-day saints and scholars would be mental and spiritual pygmies in comparison with their ancient predecessors. God’s conversations with humanity, and the time of divine revelation, had come to an end with the prophet Malachi. The world would sink into corruption and violence until only the messianic intervention of God would rescue humankind.

As to the nature and character of the Jewish people, the rabbis were very definite in their answer. The Jewish people was inseparable from the Torah and the religion it embodied. Without the Torah, the Jewish people would lose its essence and its unique personality. Without the Torah, the Jewish people would lose its motivation to survive as a distinct nation and would quickly be absorbed by the Gentile world. The Jews and rabbinic Judaism were pragmatically one.

The Humanist Critique

The meaning of Jewish history, as it was conceived by the rabbis, presents many problems for Humanistic Jews.

Supernatural guidance of natural events is not a credible idea for rational secularists. The assumption that what happens in this world is caused by decisions made in another is without valid evidence. If there are natural events, they have natural causes.

The discoveries of the past are important. But there is no evidence that the experts of the present are inferior to the experts of the past. In the world of science and technology, the information of the present is far superior to that of the past. There is no reason to assume that the development of religions and philosophic truths has been any different.

Religious personalities have been important in Jewish history. But to maintain that priests, prophets, and rabbis were the chief actors in the Jewish drama is to ignore the secular dimension of the Jewish experience. The authors of the Bible and the Talmud may not have chosen to record the achievements of the merchants, bankers, and artisans. Yet these achievements, economic and cultural, may have been just as influential in molding the Jewish character.

Traditional scholars make no distinction between the experience of the Jewish people and the descriptions of that experience that appear in the official texts of sacred literature. They simply assume that what the Bible and the Talmud claim to have happened did happen. If the Book of Exodus maintains that the Red Sea split before the fleeing Hebrews, then there was a split. If the anonymous Talmudic storyteller declares that a one-day supply of holy oil lasted for eight days, then this extraordinary event was real. There is no awareness of the fact, so amply confirmed by modem scientific criticism, that the real history of the Jews is vastly different from the saga presented by the rabbinic tradition.

In the light of these objections to the rabbinic approach to Jewish history, Humanistic Jews provide different answers to the four questions.

A Humanistic Perspective: World View

From a humanistic perspective, the existence, experience, and survival of the Jewish people hardly demonstrate the existence of a loving, just God who is compassionately involved with the moral agenda of human beings. On the contrary, the very opposite is indicated. In the century of the Holocaust, after twenty centuries of continuous, unprovoked Jew hatred, the experience of the Jewish people points to the absence of God.

A humanistic Judaism finds a totally different meaning in Jewish history from that proposed by traditional Judaism. A believer in future supernatural rewards and punishments would be hard put to justify the scenarios of Jewish sorrow and suffering from a morally divine perspective. No good God would arrange or allow a Holocaust of six million innocent victims. A thousand glorious resurrections would never provide moral compensation.

If Jewish history has any message abut the nature of the universe, it is that the universe is indifferent to our suffering or happiness, that it cares nothing about the moral concerns of the human struggle. The Jewish experience points to the absurdity of the world. Events happen in accordance with physical laws, not in accordance with ethical ones. Earthquakes and wars cannot defy the law of gravity; they can easily defy the Golden Rule.

The cosmic implication of Jewish history is that you cannot rely on the kindness of the universe. In the end, if human beings want justice, they will have to arrange for it. If they want happiness and dignity, they will have to arrange for them, too. And there is no messianic guarantee that we will achieve what we strive to achieve. Uncertainty is the stuff of an absurd universe.

In the light of four thousand years of continuous reproduction, Jewish survival is not so dramatic. Look at the Chinese, the Hindus, and the Greeks, who are equally ancient. Look at the Arabs, our Semitic rivals. Whatever gods took care of them did a far better job than Yahveh.

A Humanistic Perspective: Human Power

The rabbinic answer to the question of human power is inadequate and contrived. To assume that every human failure is due to human weakness and that every human success is due to divine assistance is to build the desired conclusion into the premise. From a naturalistic point of view, human success is the result of human effort and human ingenuity. If the achievement occasionally seems “divine,” that is a tribute to human potential. Sometimes adversity evokes extraordinary results.

The Exodus from Egypt (if it is indeed a historical event) was a human happening that used human power to arrange for human freedom. The resistance of the Maccabees was a “human” rebellion that used human ingenuity to defeat the Greeks.

The survival of the Jews through fifteen centuries of unremitting persecution is no testimony to divine benevolence. It is a witness to the continuous ability of the Jews to invent new reasons for their enemies to let them live. If their religious ideas were offensive, their economic skills remained indispensable. The Zionist enter-prise was a determined effort on the part of secular Jews to reject the historic passivity of the pious, with all its messianic waiting, and to assume conscious responsibility for the Jewish fate.

Jewish history testifies to the power of human ingenuity to cope with the cruelty of destiny. While Jewish suffering was more destructive than helpful, it did hone Jewish survival skills and stimulated the development of group solidarity and ambition.

A Humanistic Perspective: Progress

The rabbinic vision of human development, its answer to the question of human progress, is a distortion of reality. The belief that the best, the smartest, and the most charismatic lived long ago and that succeeding generations of religious experts and moralists can only manage to be less brilliant and less inspiring would be a charming myth if it did not have such harmful consequences.

The helplessness of modem Orthodoxy to find legal and moral relief for its overburdened adherents is the result of this doctrine. If contemporary scholars are overwhelmingly inferior to Moses and

Jeremiah, Hillel and Akiba, they have no moral authority to change what the superior ones have sanctioned. If divine revelation is con-fined to the distant past, nothing in the present can override its commands. Religion is reduced to the worship of the past.

Even modem liberal expressions of rabbinic Judaism such as Conservatism, Reform, and Reconstructionism, which accept some form of contemporary revelation, suffer from this view. They still vigorously seek to find sanction in the Bible and the Talmud for the changes they institute. Without the “kosherizing” of the past, present decisions lack validity.

Nostalgia for the pious past pervades the historic perspective of contemporary Jewish leaders. Most of these commentators on the Jewish scene see modem Western urban Jewry as less “Jewish” and less exciting than the pietists of earlier generations. They imagine that the age of the Secular Revolution has devastated the Jewish people through skepticism, assimilation, and intermarriage.

For Humanistic Jews, this nostalgia is deplorable. From our perspective, the Secular Revolution was the best thing that ever happened to the Jewish people. It removed the tyrannical religious monopoly of the traditional rabbis. It opened the Jewish mind to scientific inquiry and naturalism. It provided Jews with a more realistic understanding of the Jewish past and the evolution of Jewish culture. It introduced Jews to secular studies and to the intellectual pursuits that enabled them to make their mark on the revolutionary rethinking of the human condition. It provided them with a free economy and a democratic political structure that enabled them to reach unprecedented heights of prosperity and community involvement. It rescued them from religious passivity and gave them the confidence to assume responsibility for the Jewish fate.

Despite wars and massacres, the human condition and the Jewish condition have vastly improved. Few contemporary Jews, if offered the option, would volunteer to return to the Age of the Patriarchs.

Jewish wisdom and creativity in the twentieth century does not have to take a back seat to the legacy of the distant past. The Jews of this century are, probably, the most interesting, the most challenging, and the most creative generations of Jews that ever lived. Einstein was not inferior to Moses. And Freud did not have to offer reverence to Isaiah. Bialik and Tchernikhovsky are the equals of the psalmists. Herzl and Nordau are more relevant than Leviticus.

None of us need the sanction of the Torah or of the rabbis to be Jewishly valid. The worship of the past is replaced by respectful listening.

A Humanistic Perspective: Jewish Identity

The rabbinic answer to the question of Jewish identity is simply untrue. Jewish identity and Torah allegiance are not wed to one another. As the Zionist ideologue Ahad Ha’am pointed out, the Jewish people existed before Judaism, and the ethnic will to live preceded any theological formulations that justified it.

From the humanistic point of view, rabbinic Judaism did not create the national determination to survive. It provided a respectable public justification of it. In modem times, secular Zionism is an equally successful expression of the same ethnic drive.

The constant in Jewish identity is not theological conviction or Torah allegiance but Jewish peoplehood. In every age, the urge to survive—universal among nations—motivated Jews to find appropriate ways to satisfy it. In a religious age, they found religious strategies. In a secular age, they have found secular strategies.

The experience of Jewish ethnicity is the heart of Jewish identity. Even today, returnees to traditional Judaism do not first come to it out of theological conviction but out of a profound (if misleading) conviction that it is the best means of guaranteeing Jewish ethnic survival.

Conclusion

The meaning of Jewish history is radically different for Humanistic Jews from what it is for traditional or even liberal Jews.

The moral universe of the rabbis dissolves into the indifferent universe of the post-Holocaust era. The depreciation of human power and ingenuity is replaced by an appropriate tribute to the surprise of the human potential. The gloomy vision of a world declining in wisdom yields to a reassuring recognition of human progress. The rigid equating of Jewishness with religiosity gives way to recognition of the creative power of the Jewish will to live.

This new meaning is an important message we must share with the Jewish world.