Tribute to Daniel Friedman

Evolution: summer 2000

Daniel Friedman is retiring as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Or in Deerfield, Illinois, having served this community for more than thirty-five years. When he first came to Beth Or, the congregation was part of the Reform movement. Within three years he transformed the congregation into a community of Human­istic Jews.

Rabbi Friedman has been a major voice in our movement. He has written philosophic essays, produced educational materials, cre­ated humanistic liturgies, and articulated the message of our philosophy of life on dozens of public platforms. The clarity of his insight has helped to define the principles and prac­tices of Humanistic Judaism.

I first met Rabbi Friedman when he was the young and brilliant assistant rabbi at the K.A.M. Temple in Chicago’s Hyde Park. He had invited me to speak about Humanistic Judaism. In our first conversation it was clear to me that the idea of creating a bold and con­sistent rational Judaism was one of his pas­sions. It was also clear to me that he possessed an enormous intellectual power and integrity.

Since that day in 1965 we have been part­ners in the development of the ideology of our movement. In 1967 he participated in the first dialogue of rabbis sympathetic to Human­istic Judaism. In 1969 he helped to establish the Society for Humanistic Judaism. He led Congregation Beth Or, through the intensity of his own conviction and courage, into the coalition of Humanistic Jews.

Rabbi Friedman has assumed a unique role in our movement. The defense of reason and individual autonomy has been his special passion. He has never deviated from his conviction that reason is a critical tool, which can be applied to all human decisions. He has maintained, with equal strength, that the heart of morality is the defense of each person’s right to be the master of his or her life. As a man of prin­ciple, he has never chosen to betray these con­victions, even when doing so would have been politically convenient.

His special power arises from his rare ability to take complex ideas and to articu­late them clearly and concisely so that even the easily confused can understand what the issues are. Time after time he has been the genius to frame the fundamental principles of our movement in such a way that the mean­ing instantly grabs the reader. This unique skill, which is a sign of intellectual brilliance, has been of overwhelming importance to Hu­manistic Judaism.

Through the past three decades I have grown to admire this special power, which is always presented in the understated style characteristic of his personality. I have also grown to admire his absolute integrity, his ability to be open and objective, his obvious sincerity, the intensity of his convictions, and the warm, intelligent sense of humor that turns his knowledge into wisdom.

My response to Dan Friedman is shared by hundreds of other people who have en­joyed him as their congregational rabbi, as their teacher, and as their friend. When the history of our movement is written by some writer, perhaps yet unborn, the name and achievements of Dan Friedman will be a prominent part of that story.

A Sample Funeral or Memorial Service

Death and Dying – Summer 1989


(Choose One)


Death is something individual. Against the collective stream of life, it seems powerless. Particular flowers fade and die, but every spring repeats them in the cycle of nature. In­dividual people are brief episodes, but humanity bears the mark of immortality, renewed in every generation by the undying spark of life. We are, each of us, greater than ourselves. We survive in the children we create. We endure in the humanity we serve.

As an individual, separate and distinct, each of us is temporary, an ephemeral chapter in the saga of the universe. As a moment in the never-ending process of life, each of us is im­mortal, an expression of the persistent thrust of vital energy. The leaves of last year’s sum­mer have died and have vanished into the treasury of mother earth, but each one lives on in the renewal of every spring. Every person dies, but humanity survives. Every living thing perishes, but life persists.


Friendship is possible when we know how to trust, when we know that others can be faithful and honest. In the earliest experiences of our childhood, in the first awakening of our infant minds, we discover the security of love. Families may scold and complain. Parents may lecture and cry. But their deeds are usually sweeter than their words. In the hour of need they do not judge. They help.

When parents die they leave us more than memory. They leave us the well-being of accep­tance, the possibility of trust, and the reassurance of unconditional love. Without their gifts we would stand alone in fear. We would not be able to reach out to other people in friendship.


Life offers the gift of many blessings. None is more precious than the love of family and friends. In the strength and compassion of parents, in the mutual devotion of husband and wife, brother and sister, we find the security of love. For the landscape of our years is peo­pled by the presence of open hearts that exact no price for the gift of themselves.

When an intimate friend dies, sadness and despair are normal responses. Two people cannot share the best and worst of life in mutual experience and find that absence is trivial. The tribute of love is the pain of separation.


Death is not always tragic.

If we have enough years to test our skills, if we can see and enjoy the results of our work, if we can nurture our family and have them near, if we can love our friends and share their pains and pleasures over many seasons, if we have the time to develop our own unique style and know that it will not easily be forgotten, if we can die quickly, without the agonies of prolonged suffering — well, then death is not tragic.

For some people, life scripts are never meaningful unless they last forever. Others derive their grace from the rhythm of growth, fulfillment, and decay. What never ends cannot be very precious. Today cannot be special if there is always a tomorrow.

In the flow of life, exits, like entrances, have their own dignity.


Death needs courage. It is so overwhelmingly final that it fills our lives with dread and anxious fear. When it arrives at the end of a long and happy life it is never welcome, yet not deeply resented. But when it comes too soon, invading young lives, disrupting hopes and dreams, it adds anger to our fear. We cry out at the injustice of destiny and wait for answers that never seem to come.

Courage is the power to confront a world that is not always fair. It is the refusal to beg for what will never be given. It is the willingness to accept what cannot be changed.

Courage is loving life even in the face of death. It is sharing our strength with others even when we feel weak. It is embracing our family and friends even when we fear to lose them. It is opening ourselves to love, even for the last time.

Courage is self-esteem. It prefers quiet determination to whining. It prefers doing to waiting. It affirms that exits, like entrances, have their own dignity.

__________ , whom   I loved very much and still do, chose to die with dignity. We shall

never forget his/her courage.


The past is unchangeable. What happened yesterday is beyond our control. We can cry and shout, we can scream and complain, but the events of just a moment ago are as far from our reach as the farthest star. Fools never forgive the past. They devote every present mo­ment to worrying about it, scolding it and wishing it were different. Wise people release the past. They do not need to assault what cannot be taken. They do not need to forgive what cannot be altered. They simply accept what they are not able to change. Since the future is open to human decision, they turn their energies forward and choose to create rather than to regret.

People of self-respect do not dwell on helplessness. They do not assault what cannot be taken. Since death is irreversible, they accept it and turn to the living.


Death is an intrusion.

Sometimes it arrives at the end of a long life when we are waiting for it. But sometimes it comes unexpectedly, interrupting young lives and wasting hopes and dreams. People we love are taken from our midst too soon, and we struggle to deal with their absence.

Destiny is often unkind. Since it is a mindless force, we cannot praise it or blame it. We simply accept what we cannot change.

But people are different from destiny. We have hearts and minds. We have hopes and dreams. We have love and loving attachments. Above all, we have the power of courage — the courage to affirm the value of life in the face of death.

The fates are beyond our control. But our response to the fates is in our hands. We do not know what will happen, but we do know that amid all the uncertainty, we have the courage to love.

Those we remember also had that courage. Love is the power that binds the living and the dead.

(A tribute [or tributes] is now offered by the leader of the service or by family and friends.)

(Choose One)


Our families and our friends are so close to us that we often take for granted what they do. What is familiar has a tendency to appear ordinary. We lose our perspective. We imagine that what is far away is superior to what is close at hand. People are only heroic when we cannot experience them.

We need to pay attention. We need to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. We need to see the special in the familiar. There are parents who give us love. There are children who give us hope. There are friends who give us courage. In their own unique way — without the privilege of spoken philosophy — they make us feel worthwhile.

In this hour of remembering, we offer them our tribute and our recognition.


The glories of our universe are never eternal. They shine for a while and are then con­sumed by the darkness. All things change. All life yields to death. If the beauties of nature en­dured forever, they would not be precious. We cannot love what we do not fear to lose.


After every spring comes the fullness of summer. After every summer comes the color of autumn. Beyond every autumn lies the serenity of winter. And beyond every winter appears the freshness of spring.

The circle of human existence reflects this return. It sweetens death with hope. Old peo­ple yield to the child. Old life is forever the prelude to the new.


Death is a reminder of human frailty. We are very vulnerable creatures. And we have so many natural enemies. Floods and earthquakes, disease and famine, heat and cold take their toll and thin our ranks. Even in the time of science, the ancient enemies of aging and decay still creep up on us uninvited and make us mortal.

In a world of peace there is still a war to be fought — not a war of people against people — but a war against death and all its friends. If we must fight, let us fight poverty. If we must enter battle, let us battle with disease. If we must assault the enemy, let us assault the poisons of our environment. There are many real foes to face.

Let our tribute to the dead be our struggle against death.


We live through hope. Where there is darkness we wait for the light. Where there is pain we anticipate pleasure. Where there is boredom we yearn for the arrival of new excitement.

Living without hope is living without dignity. It is a denial of everything vital. It is an ab­ject surrender to evil. It is a humiliating affirmation of the darkness, the pain, and the dullness of human experience. If the future holds no promise of better things to come, then the present weighs us down like an intolerable burden.

Persons of self-respect, people who esteem their own power, do not welcome despair. In the darkest hour, they resist the self-pity that paralyzes action. Even when the night seems more than eternal, they plead for the morning.


Loyalty is life. We live through the loyalty of others, not only the devotion of having family and friends but also the loyalty of the past to the future. Our ancestors worked, saved, and gave up their pleasure to provide for generations yet unborn. They pursued distant goals that they knew they would never reach so that their children and their grandchildren could ultimately achieve them. The mountain of human culture is built out of many layers of human achievement, each generation resting on the work of the one before.

We are here today because the people of the past did not forget us. Our ancestors have planted and we have reaped. Like them, we must live for more than the present. Like them, we must work for those who will follow.


Immortality is not an illusion.

The selfish kind of immortality is the vision that imagines that each of us is indestructible, exempt from the laws of nature, immune to personal death.

But there is a natural immortality. It finds its source in the two billion-year-old chain of life, in the experience of parents and children, in the sentimental power of human memory.

Each of us is an extension of the past. Each of us is an intimation of the future.

We are more than individuals. We have connections. That is how we are born. That is why we never completely die. We receive our inheritance, we leave our legacy.

__________ is part of the chain of life. It still continues.

May we regard the life of_____________ as a special link in the chain of vital existence.

May we honor him/her always with the gift of remembrance.


Death is real. In the world of changing nature it is inevitable. It may be postponed, but it cannot be avoided.

Loved ones do not pass away. They die. They do not escape the rhythm of life.

But they leave their gifts. We still bask in their love. We still use their instruction. We are still inspired by their deeds. We still linger on the memories of their style.

Immortality is very intimate. It is part of our mind. It is as close as our power to remember.

In the real world death is part of the drama of life. So is the loving tribute of remembrance.


Autumn leaves are more useful than they seem. Although in final glory they fall to the ground in a wistful descent of death, the fertile earth pays them tribute. She embraces their forms and turns their hidden energies into the evolution of new life. In the drama of human love, a similar pattern prevails. The thoughts and ideals of those we admire survive death. They fall on the fertile earth of our minds and hearts and renew our lives through inspiration.


Winter is a cruel season. It reminds us of how hostile nature can sometimes be.

It also reminds us of the power of human love and human connection.

In the winter, we become aware of how we derive our warmth from one another, of how much we depend on the loving care of parents and children and friends.

When it is cold outside, we must create our own human fires. When one flame is ex­tinguished, we must light another.

May this moment make us sensitive to our need for one another.

May the death of one we love encourage us to foster life.

May we regard the life of_____________ as_ a special link in the chain of vital existence.

May we honor him/her always with the gift of remembrance.


Memory is a precious possession. It captures the past and trains it to our need. The harsh­ness of old events is softened by vagueness and the pleasures of happy moments are shar­pened by vivid imagination. Loved ones linger on in the glory of their individual uniqueness. In life they willed to live and hewed the path of their personal difference. In death they tran­scend decay and find their niche in fond remembrance. No person is defined by the sameness of another. If it were so, memory would die from generalities.

In the particular grace of_____________ lies his/her immortality.

May the memory of___________ , whom   we loved in life and still love in death, bless our thoughts and actions. May the special grace of his/her years reach out to touch our hearts and give us hope.

Let us all rise and stand for a moment of silent tribute to the life and memory of


(Choose One)


ZAY-KHER TSA-DEEK-KEEM LEE-V-RA-KHA Let the memory of good people bless us.

May the memory of___________ , whom we loved in life and still love in death, continue to bless our thoughts and our actions.






Listen now, you lovers of love.

Hear this, you seekers of happiness.

There is no happiness without love.


Death and Dying – Summer 1989

To cremate or not to cremate. That is a controversial question in the Jewish world.

Cremation is forbidden by the rabbinic tradition. The burning of the body is viewed with horror. Burial is the only legitimate way of dealing with the corpse.

The tradition prescribes not only burial, but burial on the same day as death, burial in shrouds, burial without embalming, and burial without a coffin.

In the Bible, burning is viewed as a form of humiliation and punishment. “If a man marries a woman and her mother it is depravity; both he and they shall be put to the fire” (Leviticus 20:14). “When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father she defiles; she shall be put to the fire” (Leviticus 21:9). “He that is indicated for proscription and all that is his shall be put to the fire” (Judges 7:15).

In the Mishnah, cremation is identified as an idolatrous practice (Avoda Zara 1:3). Even the burning of sinners is discontinued, though this form of punishment is still regarded as legal.

Why is cremation forbidden?

The official reason is provided in the Shulkhan Arukh, the sixteenth century code book prepared by Joseph Caro. The prohibi­tion of cremation is justified by the resurrec­tion of the dead. Rabbinic Judaism main­tains that a final Judgment Day will take place and that the dead will rise from their graves to stand before the justice of God. No body means no resurrection. And no resur­rection means no access to Paradise.

However, this official reason seems to be a rationalization, an ideological after­thought, rather than the real historic motiva­tion. The prohibition against cremation preceded the emergence of the resurrection idea. And the assertion that no body means no resurrection seems silly when one realizes what happens to the corpse after burial, especially without embalming. Time reduces the body to a dust that is almost in­distinguishable from the ashes of burning. Moreover, if the resurrection idea were true, wicked people could avoid the punishments of Gehenna by simply choosing cremation.

Anthropologists tell us that early cultures are divided into burial groups and crema­tion groups. Both dispositions of the dead seem to be equally ancient, with their roots deep in the behaviors and beliefs of the Stone Age.

Inhumation, or burial, seems to derive from a belief that the souls of the dead con­tinue to reside in their respective bodies and cannot successfully survive without this at­tachment. The preservation of the body assists in the preservation of the soul. The embalmed Egyptian dead are an exagger­ated testimony to this belief, as are the tombs filled with material possessions for the afterlife. Cremation, on the other hand, follows from an opposing conviction that the souls of the dead do not depend on the body for their continued existence. The destruction of the body in no way adversely affects the welfare of the soul. In fact, it may be liberating.

Another motivation for cremation is the belief that corpses are a source of defile­ment and dangerous to keep, even in a buried condition. Still another belief main­tains that fire is sacred and therefore purifying.

Many famous cultures featured crema­tion. In ancient Greece and Rome, much of the aristocracy chose burning. In India, cremation became the universal ritual of death and has remained deeply identified with Hinduism. Buddhism followed suit and planted this Indian practice in In­dochina and Japan.

In the West, the triumph of Christianity and Islam, both anti-cremation religions, made cremation a ritual taboo. Burning bodies was a no-no for orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Only criminals or apos­tates deserved the indignity of immolation.

But the arrival of the Enlightenment undermined this solid front of opposition. In the age of science, believing in the resur­rection of the dead was difficult even for Christians and Jews who tried to be loyal to ancestral tradition. Reason challenged the unconscious fears of many religionists. By the nineteenth century, immortality had be­come so ethereal that bodies seemed quite irrelevant to the project of eternal life. Romantic spirituality had no need for the physical. Enlightened religion was open to alternatives to burial.

This development was reinforced by new social realities. As long as people lived on farms, burial was easy and cheap. But city life added complications. Death specialists in the form of morticians and funeral chapels now intervened. Affluence and con­spicuous consumption made rituals and ceremonies more elaborate. What was once simple and inexpensive now became com­plex and costly. Burial involved a lot of money and a lot of time.

Overcrowding and mobility added to the problems. In an uncrowded world, giving land to the dead was no imposition. But in densely populated centers, cemeteries com­peted with the demands of the living for the rational use of scarce land. In the stationary world of farm life, the graves of ancestors could be revered and cared for by genera­tions of descendants. But in the fast-moving milieu of urban displacement, people hardly stay in one place long enough even to re­member where their ancestors are buried. Within two generations, graves are abandoned.

The consequence of all these changes was the emergence of an interest in crema­tion. In the 1870s, cremation societies were established in England and North America. Although religious opposition was strong and vocal, they continued to grow and flourish. An increasingly secular society now found what was once abhorrent ra­tionally attractive. Even many “spiritual” people chose cremation as an expression of their new, free religious commitments. By the middle of the twentieth century, in­cineration had become a major choice in northern Europe and in the antireligious regimes of the Soviet Union, its satellites, and China. In both Russia and China, the reversal was dramatic and revolutionary. Both nations had been deeply involved with the sacredness of burial. But ideology and necessity combined to produce a quick transformation.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Jews in Western Europe and North America followed the new fashion. Influenced by science and secularism, they found crema­tion an appropriate choice. In North America, cremation became so popular among liberal Jews that the Reform rab­binate, defying tradition, legitimized its use. Even Modern Orthodox rabbis — Hermann Adler in England and Zadoc Kahn in France — conceded “burial” rights to the ashes of Jews in Jewish cemeteries.

The influx of Polish and Russian immi­grants into Western countries dampened the new enthusiasm. Even the radicals among them retained a traditional prefer­ence for burial. And this traditionalism was reinforced by the events of the Holocaust. Cremation became associated, in many Jewish minds, with the horrors of Nazi bestiality. Even today, among secularists in Israel, cremation is an inconceivable option for Jews.

But cremation remains an important op­tion for Jews outside of Israel. A significant and growing minority are choosing it for themselves. For humanistic Jews like me who prefer cremation, the choice is gener­ally based on the following considerations:

  1.  Death is final. No significant part of the human personality continues to reside in the remains of the body. The preservation of the body through embalming is a meaning­less expense. Without embalming, the body will disintegrate in a short while into substances equivalent to ashes. Cremation is the affirmation of human mortality.
  2.  The monies expended on burial can be used more productively for the living. The best tribute to the dead is the support of pro­grams, causes, and institutions that were important to them while they were alive.
  3.  Where reason and tradition conflict, reason has a right to override. Both laws and customs ought to be responsive to human needs and human welfare.
  4.  The Holocaust is irrelevant to this issue. The extermination campaigns of the Nazis were as much associated with mass burials as with mass cremations. In both cases cruelty and indignity accompanied dying and disposal. Where there is love and respect, cremation, like burial, provides a setting of dignity.

If you choose cremation for yourself, you will need to deal with certain problems.

Your family may be strongly opposed to cremation and may resist carrying out your wishes. It is very important to be very ex­plicit with your spouse, your children, and your siblings. They should know in advance how you feel. You have a right to be the master of your own death. Written state­ments entrusted to your family and to your lawyer will reinforce your spoken desire. Since your family are the legal owners of your body after your death, their coopera­tion is indispensable. Refusing to discuss the matter before you die will leave your family open to manipulation by hostile funeral directors, rabbis, and relatives. Even families open to cremation will choose burial unless you say otherwise. The inertia of tradition has power.

Getting your body to the crematorium may not be as easy as you imagine. In most states and provinces, because of the lobby­ing of funeral directors, a coffin is required for cremation. The best procedure to follow is to contact a sympathetic funeral home or memorial society before you are too ill to act. In some states, cremation societies offer cremation services at moderate costs. If a sudden catastrophe occurs, your family will have to act on your behalf. Make sure that you tell them what to do, while you are still healthy, so that they will not deviate from your desire.

Many people who choose to be cremated also choose to donate their bodies to medical research. After the body has been appropriately studied, it is usually burned. The time to make arrangements for this donation with an appropriate medical school or medical institution is while you are still able to.

Your memorial service (whether public or private, whether formal or informal) generally follows the cremation at a time convenient for your family and friends. The place can be a temple, a funeral chapel, your own home, or a setting — indoors or outdoors — significant in your life. If you have any preference, you ought to indicate it while you are still alive. If you want the service to precede the cremation, then pro­vision has to be made for the presence of the coffin.

In most states, disposing of ashes by scat­tering (the choice of most people) is illegal for obvious sanitary reasons. Despite these legal prohibitions, many families choose to scatter the ashes of loved ones clandestinely in lakes, rivers, fields, and woods. The legal options are 1) retaining them in an unburied urn, 2) placing them in a mausoleum niche, 3) burying them in a cemetery plot, or 4) burying them in a memorial garden with no distinct plots. Many liberal religious organi­zations now set aside an area on their con­gregational grounds for a memorial garden where “cremains” may be legally buried. Quite often a memorial wall accompanies the garden. Names of the dead are inscribed on the wall.

Cremation is a legitimate and appropri­ate option for humanistic Jews. Since it is nontraditional and arouses hostility among many Jews, a special effort is required by both you and your family — if cremation is your choice — to guarantee your option. Discussing death after death is a humanistic impossibility. You have to make your ar­rangements beforehand.

Building Communities for the New American Jew

Building Communities – Winter 1987

Building strong Jewish communities has never been easy. It is getting harder all the time.

Close to 40 percent of all Jews in North America are unaffiliated with any religious congregation. A high percentage of these people belong to no Jewish organization at all, secular or religious. Even Jews that do belong to conventional communities often have merely peripheral attachments and are notorious for their fickle commitments. Like many children of the consumer culture, they have difficulty relating to groups that do not provide them with an immediate and obvious benefit.

Modern America is very different from the social environment that spawned the traditional Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. In Russia and Poland, there was constant reinforcement of the tight-knit, all- encompassing character of Jewish commu­nity life. Jews saw themselves as aliens in a sea of hostile Gentiles. They were so ab­sorbed with survival that the security of group belonging far outweighed any indi­vidual indulgence they might conceive. And, of course, there were no options. You had to be religious. And you had to be Orthodox. America totally transformed the char­acter of the Jewish community. It provided a setting so different from what had ever existed before in the Jewish experience that old formats simply became obsolete.

In America, affluence replaced poverty, ambition vitiated the attractiveness of sacri­fice and obedience, and individual freedom undermined the power of conformity. State and church were separate. Religion was a private opportunity, which any citizen could embrace or resist. Many “flavors” of Judaism emerged, which received no gov­ernment support and which had to compete in the open marketplace of ideas. The secu­lar university took the place of the yeshiva, and the authority of doctors and professors became more impressive than that of rabbis.

The synagogue congregation became the standard Jewish response to the new envi­ronment. Unlike the old kehilla, with its power to intrude on every aspect of per­sonal life, the American alternative was much more like the secularized urban Prot­estant church, designed to serve the reli­gious needs of a middle-class clientele. The American synagogue was no European gemeinde. It did not seek to embrace all Jews for all of the time. It was a “part-time” institution, which competed with many other institutions to win allegiance, enthusi­asm, and money from the individual Jew. The leaders of the synagogue could no longer command. They had to persuade and cajole, with no guarantee that their efforts would be rewarded. Mandates from on high gradually yielded to a focus on the needs of prospective members. After all, if the “buyer” was not satisfied with synagogue A, he might choose synagogue B, or no syn­agogue at all.

On the whole, the American synagogue community, although radically different from any Jewish community that had pre­ceded it, proved to be quite successful. It dramatized the connection of Jews with their ancestral past. It educated the young with a smattering of ethnic culture and reli­gious ideas. It provided a setting for holi­days and rites of passage associated with family life. It gave a visible, legitimate pres­ence to Jewish identity in the general com­munity where Jews spent most of their time. It was sufficiently ambiguous so that Jews, at their convenience, could pass for either a nationality or a religious denomination.

In fact, the synagogue community proved far more viable in the American setting than the alternative Jewish organizations that emerged. The purely ethnic secular schools, whether Yiddishist or Zionist, and the home-country fraternal societies, the landsmanschaften, although strong initially, ulti­mately found oblivion. They lacked identifi­cation with a “church,” a familiar and respectable institution for most Americans trying to preserve their ethnic loyalties.

In the first phase of its development, the synagogue community relied on certain strengths inherited from the traditional communities from which its members came — props that had not yet been weakened by the transforming power of a capitalist cul­ture. The close-knit family with its high motivation to produce children, the social segregation of an immigrant community, the ethnic ghettos that did not admit strang­ers easily, the sense of duty to ensure group survival — all these transitional remnants of the old world persuaded people to join tem­ples or synagogues.

But the community of the future can no longer rely on this inherited support system. The power of an urban consumer culture has so changed the character of Jewish life in America that the old “glue” simply is no longer available. American Jews today are different from their parents and grand­parents. They have different values. They have different needs. They respond to a dif­ferent environment. If we, as Humanistic Jews, want to create strong communities to recruit unaffiliated Jews and to maintain their allegiance, we have to understand the anxieties and the needs of the people we want to mobilize. After all, in the free set­ting of a free society, they would have to choose to join our community above many other options available to them.

Most of our membership prospects no longer feel that they must join any Jewish temple or synagogue. The old sense of duty and the attendant guilt have simply van­ished. Jews today are less interested in dis­covering what they can do for the commu­nity than in learning what the community can do for them. In a society in which peo­ple are self-absorbed and see themselves as victimized by the demands of external powers, appeals to obligation tend to fall on deaf ears, especially if the institution, as with a humanistic congregation, has no tra­ditional connection.

Most of our membership prospects now come from small, dispersed families. These individuals have a need to find in a congre­gation or havurah the family feeling and family support they can no longer find in their personal settings. At a time when the old extended family is becoming mere memory, people are searching for substi­tutes. The old congregation used family loyalty to reinforce community loyalty. Now the tables are turned. The new congre­gation must provide family loyalty. For many temple members, the temple seder be­comes their family seder. Friends become more than friends.

Most of our membership prospects are professional people with advanced educa­tional degrees. They have intellectual skills that need recognition, and they enjoy partic­ipation. Repetitive rituals and passive listen­ing are less attractive to them than to their parents. They want high quality opportuni­ties for adult education in Jewish history and philosophy not readily available in the school settings they frequent. They prefer a seminar format of dialogue and interchange to didactic lecturing.

Many of our membership prospects are either single parents with grown children or young couples with no offspring on the horizon. They have very little interest in child-centered activity. Where the old con­gregation could rely on the support of unin­volved adults who were worried about the Jewish identity of their children, the new community has to develop intense pro­grams for adults themselves. Life cycle cere­monies that recognize the growth and achievements of adults become indispens­able. Reaffirmation celebrations of Jewish commitment, recognition of educational achievement at universities and profes­sional schools, acknowledgment of special birthdays and anniversaries—all these cer­emonies of passage become as important as thirteen-year-olds’ puberty rites.

Many of our prospective members are feminists. They do not want to be part of a community in which the major leadership roles are turned over to men. They do not want the “sisterhood” and “ladies auxiliary” segregation that in no way reflects the career world in which they function. They want to be part of a group in which impor­tant female leadership roles are visible and in which women work and study together with men.

Many of our prospective members are intermarried. They will not pay for toler­ance, rejection, or second-class citizenship. The old congregation was hostile to inter­marriage and had no place for non-Jews. The new congregation needs to welcome sympathetic non-Jewish humanists who are interested in Jewish culture. The former sharp distinction between Jew and Gentile is no longer as relevant as it was in a less mobile and less open society. There are many ways of expressing support for Juda­ism. Turning away prospective supporters who could help and be helped by the com­munity, simply because they do not fit into old kosher categories, is neither rational nor moral. At a time when 40 percent of all mar­riages by Jews involve non-Jewish spouses, such narrowness is also suicidal.

If we, as Humanistic Jews, want to create strong communities to recruit unaffiliated Jews and to maintain their allegiance, we have to understand the anxieties and the needs of the people we want to mobilize.

Some of our prospective members have embraced unconventional lifestyles. They may be living with lovers. They may be senior citizen couples who have chosen not to get married. They may be homosexuals. While the traditional congregation viewed these people with abhorrence, the commu­nity of the future will have to find room for them. From the humanistic point of view, their relationships, so long as they are not promiscuous, are morally valid. Their needs have seldom been acknowledged. And their talents have rarely been used.

Most of our prospective members are overscheduled and overcommitted. They no longer have the time or the energy to be per­manent volunteers. The army of gracious women who used to pour their energy into community work is disappearing. Unless professional leaders are hired, much of the essential labor will never be done. After the euphoria of pioneering is past, volunteers are hard to replace, especially if there is no professional help or direction. Humanistic Jewish congregations need access to a trained professional corps of guides and experts, whether these mobilizers are called rabbis, leaders, or teachers.

Most of our prospective members have multiple identities. As achieving individ­uals, they belong to a variety of career and friendship associations that have nothing to do with the Jewish community. They no longer function in the world of social segre­gation their parents enjoyed, and they no longer have the intense sense of Jewishness that flowed from this segregation. They want more from a Jewish congregation than Jewishness alone. Inevitably encountering in their daily experience ethical dilemmas and personal crises that require the help of a coherent view of human existence and human values, they want more from a con­gregation than Jewish culture and Jewish roots. They want a philosophy of life that can reinforce their self-esteem and give them the strength and insight to make wise decisions. Communities need to appeal to the search for personal happiness as well as to the traditional push for group survival.

Of course, the successful congregation of the future will still have to do many of the things that assured success in the past. Sabbath meetings, youth education and youth groups, holiday celebrations and life cycle events — all these tried and true formats of the past will continue to have their place. But they will have to be sup­plemented by a new openness to deal with new developments.

In many ways, Humanistic Jewish com­munities are better able to take this neces­sary plunge into the present and the future than our Conservative counterparts. Opportunity knocks. It is up to us to open the door.

Going Mainstream: The Fifth Branch

Building Bridges to a Wider Jewish Community: Autumn 00/ Winter 01

What is the place of Humanistic Judaism in the Jewish world? Is it on the inside or on the outside? Is it rooted in the beliefs and be­havior of contemporary Jews? Or is it a pe­ripheral and bizarre phenomenon, a passing wave of Jewish heresy?

The enemies of Humanistic Judaism see it as alien and peripheral and seek to ex­clude it from membership in the established Jewish community. Some secular and human­istic Jews consent to this exclusion and reluctantly accept being on the outside. They see themselves as beyond the pale, a strug­gling minority of defiant Jews. But others find this exclusion humiliating and unacceptable. They see their philosophy as representative of the feelings and beliefs of a large segment of the Jewish people who deserve community recognition and power.

The test of our self-esteem as Humanistic Jews is that we reject exclusion. Secular con­victions and secular behavior are an important part of contemporary Jewish life. In Israel, Europe, North America, and South America, the Jewish world has been transformed by the gradual secularization of public and private behavior. Denying this reality and pretending that all conventional Jews are religious is an abuse of the rights and dignity of hundreds of thousand of Jews. Fighting for recognition of Humanistic Judaism within the framework of the Jewish community is more than a political struggle. It is a moral demand to define the Jew­ish reality as history has made it.

The traditional Jewish community was the child of the age of religion. It was the creation of religious orthodoxy and authori­tarian governments. The rabbis, like the Christian and Muslim rulers, did not believe in democracy, personal freedom, or pluralism. They assumed that there was one true path to salvation and that all members of the com­munity should conform to it. They viewed all dissent as heresy, worthy of excommunica­tion. Unity meant conformity. Deviation was a sin. The benefits of community — social acceptance, protection, and welfare — were purchased at the price of conformity.

In the past three hundred years, Jewish communities have changed. The rapid spread of liberal democracy throughout the Western world and the triumphant political and economic power of Western nations have radically altered the political structures of the Jewish world. Large numbers of Jews have be­come Reform and Conservative. The practice of toleration and the acceptance of diversity have, through necessity and conviction, be­come standard operating procedures of Jew­ish politics. The separation of religion and government has rendered Jewish communities autonomous and Jewish identity voluntary. Taxation has turned into fundraising. And the fundraising institutions have become the most important institutions of Diaspora Jewish life. Secular leaders and philanthropists have re­placed the rabbi as the ruling powers.

Diaspora Jewish communities are no longer institutions of compulsory uniformity. They are coalitions of autonomous congrega­tions and institutions, which are self-govern­ing and which join together to pursue shared goals. These shared goals include social wel­fare, cultural programming, and the fight against anti-Semitism. During the past fifty years, support for the Jewish state has been the most compelling force for unified action. In North America, where Orthodoxy is weak, Reform and Conservative Jews have domi­nated Jewish community life.

In Israel, of course, Jewish life is no longer a matter of minority politics. The state and the government are Jewish. But while the founders of Zionism were secular and liberal, they were not able to produce an impeccable liberal de­mocracy. In contemporary Israel, secular and non-Orthodox Jews enjoy personal and politi­cal freedom, but they suffer the humiliation of Orthodox power over many areas of their personal and public lives. Marriage, divorce, inheritance, burial, food, and Sabbath obser­vances are subject to Orthodox tyranny. Even Jewish identity lies in the hands of Orthodox rabbis and Orthodox courts. A large secular Jewish population cries out for political relief.

In the Diaspora, secular and humanistic Jews enjoy the freedom that Western govern­ments and constitutions have conferred on them. But, within Jewish communities, both local and national, they have suffered from exclusion. And, ironically, this exclusion has been inflicted on them by Reform and Con­servative Jews, who have been victims of exclusion in other places.

There are two reasons for this rejection in a seemingly pluralistic Jewish world. In Diaspora environments Jews have preferred to define themselves solely as a religious group. By this definition, to be Jewish is to be religious. Nonreligious Jews represent some kind of internal contradiction or lapse in Jew­ish identity. This absurd restrictiveness is re­inforced by the discomfort that many Jews have with Jewish atheism. In America espe­cially, religious belief has been identified with both respectability and morality. Many secu­lar Jews are uncomfortable to identify them­selves as secular. They fear adverse public opinion in the non-Jewish world.

The second reason for exclusion is that secular Jews have been largely disorganized. They have functioned as alienated people without congregations or communities. Or they have participated in Jewish organizations that do not have a religious agenda, but that include Jews from many denominations. Hadassah, ORT, and B’nai Brith are not actu­ally religious. Their programs are secular. But the majority of their members are not.

Humanistic Judaism, when it was estab­lished thirty-seven years ago, was a deliber­ate attempt to give organizational reality to the secular Jewish world. Orthodox, Conser­vative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Juda­ism presented themselves as branches of Judaism with congregations, trained leaders, and federations of communities. The failure of secular Jews to conceive of themselves as a fifth branch of Judaism and their hostility to congregational structures and professional leadership made it easy for their enemies to keep them on the outside. Reading circles and schools, however reinforced by ethnic and national sentiment, were not enough to break through the barriers. Secular Humanistic Judaism had to be reconceived as a Jewish de­nomination, standing side by side with the four religious denominations. The negative appellation non-religious had to be replaced by the positive humanistic.

During the past ten years the Jewish es­tablishment in North America has become more receptive to recognizing Humanistic Judaism as a legitimate fifth alternative. Many developments are responsible for this change. The increasing freedom of Jews to choose not to be Jewish in a society of declining anti- Semitism; the growing anxiety over the sur­vival of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, triggered by the rising rate of intermarriage; the increasing secularization of Jewish life through prosperity and family decline; the increasing diversity of lifestyles in the Jew­ish melieu; the decline in synagogue affilia­tion in a world where old formulas no longer fit new needs; a greater openness to choices that at one time were viewed as being on the fringe — all of these factors form the context for change.

One manifestation of change is the delib­erate attempt to recruit openly declared Secular Humanistic Jews for leadership roles in Jewish community federations, Jewish community councils, and Jewish community centers. Another is the admission of Humanistic rabbis to local boards of rabbis and their active participation in the work of these associations.

The most dramatic development occurred in Atlanta in November, 1999. At that time United Jewish Communities (UJC), the new “congress” of all the Jewish communities in North America, held its first continental as­sembly. The Society for Humanistic Judaism was invited to present a session at that con­ference. In November 2000 in Chicago, the leaders of our movement presented, together with their Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist compatriots, a Shabbat service and a study session. The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism hosted a booth to advertise the programs of the Institute to train rabbis and madrikhim. Our presence at the UJC General Assembly and our participation in its programs is a quantum leap in community recognition and acceptance. We hope that this precedent will provide a stimulus to similar developments in Europe, Latin America, and Israel.

Conceiving of ourselves as part of the mainstream and not as part of the fringe is a radical departure from our traditional self-im­age. But reality justifies our new approach. A large percentage of the Jewish people are secu­lar in conviction and behavior. They are often at the center of Jewish community life. The time may have arrived when their presence and true identity will finally be recognized.

Building Secular Humanistic Judaism – The Tasks of the Federation

Building a Strong Secular Humanistic Judaism: Spring 1988

The founding of the International Feder­ation of Secular Humanistic Jews in Detroit in 1986 was a very important event. The philosophy of a secular Judaism was turned into a world movement.

Our movement has a unique role to play in the world Jewish community. We have a unique message to proclaim. We have a unique approach to the purpose of life and the source of ethical commitment. We have a unique view of the nature of Jewish identity and the meaning of Jewish history. We have a unique connection to the revolu­tionary developments in Jewish life during the past two hundred years.

The establishment of the North Ameri­can section of the Federation this weekend is an attempt to bring this unique message to more and more Jews on this continent.

Of course, we have many problems. Most Jews who are secular and humanistic do not know that they are. Many self-aware humanistic Jews are able to articulate what they do not believe and to express their hos­tility to organized religion; but they are not able to present what they do believe in a positive and constructive fashion. The visi­bility of our movement is very low. For most Jews and non-Jews, there are only three “flavors” of Judaism — Orthodox, Con­servative, and Reform.

There is also the problem of an aggres­sive Orthodoxy. At one time most Jews as­sumed that religious fanatics were vanish­ing and that they would ultimately be con­signed to the oblivion of history. But, despite the predictions, they are a vital and growing segment of the Jewish people. And they have mastered all the techniques of public relations. Because of them and their reac­tionary definitions of Jewish identity, thou­sands of people who want to identify as Jews find themselves excluded from the Jewish people.

Especially important is the problem of the young. The secular community, like the liberal community, is an aging group. Most young adults who are unaffiliated are secu­lar, but they see no reason to do anything about their Jewishness. They are estranged from the formats and propaganda of the old secular world, with its emphasis on Yiddish culture and group survival. They want something more personal, more attuned to the contemporary concern for “meaning in life” and personal fulfillment. How do we respond to these problems?

We need more than meetings where we get to know each other. We need projects that we share.

The first project is solidarity and visibility.

In Jerusalem, at the last meeting of the International Executive of the Federation, a statement was drafted in response to the question “Who is a Jew?” That question is a major controversial issue in the Jewish world today. Orthodox Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora have sought to impose their answer on all the citizens of Israel, most of whom are secular, and on the Jewish institu­tions of other countries. In an age when the trend toward intermarriage is overwhelm­ing and when most Jews have repudiated the authority of tradition, the Orthodox want to restrict Jewish identity to persons having Jewish mothers or undergoing Orthodox conversion. Even the Reform movement, which now says that Jewish fathers will do also, maintains that to be fully Jewish is to be religious.

What the Jewish world needs to hear and has not heard in any dramatic way is a gen­erous statement that does not keep Jews out of the Jewish community and that does not reject individuals who genuinely want to be part of the Jewish people, even though they do not want to be Orthodox or religious. We need a statement that openly declares that we Jews are more than a religious denomi­nation, that we are a historic nation and an international people.

The Federation declares in its proposal: “Therefore, in response to the cruel and self-destructive definition of the Jew now proclaimed by the Orthodox authorities, and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people, we affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent, or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, civiliza­tion, community, and fate of the Jewish people.”

This statement will be submitted to all the constituent members of the Federation for discussion and debate. During the coming year, all members — the Society for Human­istic Judaism, the Congress of Secular Jew­ish Organizations, the Israelis, French, Bel­gians, British, Argentines, and Uruguayans — will have the opportunity to discuss this statement, involve their people in the resolu­tion of this issue, and offer their recom­mendations.

When we all come to Brussels for the second congress of the Federation, we will continue the discussion and arrive at a con­sensus statement. This proclamation will then be publicized to the Jewish and general worlds. A dramatic declaration on an im­portant issue in Jewish life will give us a public voice, make us visible to the people we want to reach, and enhance a sense of solidarity among our own adherents. It is about time that the reactionary boldness of Orthodoxy and the timid voice of liberal religion be matched by a courageous and ethically sound alternative.

The second project is literature.

Where is the history book that articulates our point of view? Abba Eban, in his popu­lar television series, said that the greatest gift of the Jews to the world was the idea of monotheism. If, indeed, the greatest gift of the Jews to the world is monotheism, and if the meaning of Jewish history is the banner of monotheism, then we, as secular Jews, are illegitimate.

Almost every available story of the Jew­ish people champions that point of view.

The alternative view, the idea that the signif­icance of Jewish history lies in the abandon­ment of the Jewish people by an “unjust” destiny and the emergence of a skeptical self-reliance, exists in no history book avail­able to the public.

Who is going to be responsible for cre­ating this book? We need to find the best his­torians of the secular humanistic Jewish world and commission them to produce such a work.

We also need an anthology of basic humanistic Jewish thought, a basic reader that can serve as our “Bible.” If somebody asked me today to put in his hands a book containing the fundamental statements of a secular Judaism by our leading intellectuals, I would not be able to do it. These state­ments are dispersed in a vast literature cre­ated throughout the past two hundred years and unavailable to popular use. Without that anthology we have no real intellectual and ideological visibility.

Fortunately, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Jeru­salem, established by the Federation to be our intellectual center, has undertaken to create this reader within the next two years. When the anthology becomes available, we will have an important educational and inspirational tool for popular outreach.

The third project is trained leadership.

The success of the opposition depends on the existence and enthusiasm of full-time professional people who have a vested inter­est in the growth of their movement and who devote enormous time to preaching the word and spreading the message. If we do not have a cadre of men and women of equal commitment and better training, we will never be able to do what we need to do.

In response to this need, the Institute in Jerusalem has begun to develop a training program for professional leaders to serve in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. And the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews in North America has initiated the certification of qualified profes­sionals as leaders for secular Jewish com­munities, with the privilege to serve all the life cycle needs of humanistic Jews, includ­ing marriage.

In time, we hope that a substantial num­ber of idealistic young secular Jews will choose to pursue doctoral studies in Juda­ism and humanism and will emerge as a trained intellectual leadership for our cause and as an effective alternative to the tradi­tional rabbinate.

The fourth project is ethical idealism.

At one time most secular Jews had a “religion.” It was utopian socialism. One of the reasons why their Jewishness had tarn was that they went beyond self-absorption with Jewish survival to more inspiring causes. They used their Jewishness for moral purposes.

In an age when the glories of socialism have, to a large degree, faded, we need to ask ourselves: What are the ethical enter­prises we should be engaged in that flow from our humanistic commitments?

There is one ethical enterprise that is ger­mane to the very survival of a free society. It is our response to the assault of the religious fundamentalists on the intrinsic character of a constitutional and liberal democracy, whether in North America or in Israel. The issue is more than the separation of church and state. It is the defense of the Enlighten­ment, of modern learning and science. It is the defense of the importance of openness and creative change. The battle for reason and against obscurantism, the battle for individual rights and against religious con­formity can provide some of the idealism we need for an enthusiastic Judaism.

The fifth project is the articulation of a personal philosophy of life.

I recently met a young man who grew up in a secular Jewish family in Detroit and who is now living on the West Coast. When I asked him whether he was still involved with secular Judaism, he replied no. He ex­plained that he still saw himself as a secular Jew but that he had become a member of a liberal church movement in Southern Cali­fornia. Although he did not agree with some of the theistic teaching in his new group, he enjoyed the fact that they dealt with ques­tions that his own secular Jewish training never bothered to respond to. What is the purpose of life? How do I deal with my daily anger and frustration? How can I become a happier and more fulfilled human being? He claimed that Jewishness was important to him but that it was only part of his own philosophy of life.

We, as humanists, as secular Jews, have answers to the questions he was asking. But we get so absorbed with the promotion of Jewish identity that we fail to realize that we need to appeal to the whole person and not simply to part of him. We need to do what traditional religion and traditional philoso­phy do, but in a secular way.

Young people want more from Secular Humanistic Judaism than a meaningful Jew­ish identity. They also want a meaningful life. We cannot present the one without the other.

Our ability to undertake and complete these projects will be a test of whether we are able to deal effectively with the prob­lems we confront and of whether we can turn a present aspiration into a significant movement in the world Jewish community.


Becoming Parents, Summer 1988

To circumcise or not to circumcise. That is the question. At least for a militant group of new opponents, many of them Jews.

Doubting the value of circumcision is something new in Jewish life. For most of Jewish history, such opposition would have been inconceivable. In the perspective of priestly and rabbinic Judaism, circumcision takes top billing with observing the Shabbat as one of the two most important signs of Jewish identity.

Even in modern times, Jews who have no connection with the Jewish community or with Jewish culture, who hate organized religion and all forms of conformist ritual, will still manage to have their sons circum­cised. Many are the calls I have received from peripheral Jews in out of the way places seeking some way to insure a “kosher” circumcision for their child.

Avoiding circumcision is not like eating shrimp. The emotional commitment to the brit milla is far more intense than to almost any other Jewish ritual. To announce to your fellow-Jews that you intend to remain a ham-eating atheist is far less traumatic than to declare that you intend to leave your son uncircumcised. The first provocation is by now ho-hum. The second is almost next to betrayal.

For traditional Jews, phallic circumcision is the basic initiation rite into membership in the Jewish people. Although the effect of the surgery can hardly serve as a visible public symbol of Jewish identity, like a beard or tsitsis —- except in a nudist colony — it symbolizes belonging more than any other procedure. Especially in the Christian world, where all historic nations avoided circumcision like the plague until this cen­tury, being circumcised was a unique condi­tion that defined the Jewish male.

During the past century in North America, religious circumcision received an important boost. Physicians decided that the surgery had therapeutic value. Ulti­mately, more than 85 percent of all newborn American males were circumcised for secular medical reasons. While this develop­ment certainly took away from the unique­ness of the Jewish condition and diminished the significance of circumcision as a sign of Jewish identity, it provided a rational hygienic justification for doing something that many modern people previously viewed as primitive and barbaric. What anti-trichinosis theories did for anti-pork- eaters, the new medical reasoning did for circumcision-lovers. Science had come to the rescue of religion.

But the heyday of universal circumcision is over. During the past twenty years a vocal anti-circumcision lobby has emerged in America, especially in California. In 1971 the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that there is no observable medical value to circumcision. And by 1988 five states denied financial coverage for the pro­cedure. Books and periodicals featured anti­circumcision themes. And new organiza­tions arose to lead the battle against this in­fant surgery.

The opponents of circumcision fall into three groups.

The first group find no positive health value in circumcising boys. They do not believe that it either prevents disease or pro­motes cleanliness. In fact, they claim, the surgery may have negative effects. The trauma of the pain and the risk of infection may endanger the child’s welfare. The im­plication is clear. Even circumcision for religious reasons may be harmful. Perhaps Jewish parents will have to be retrained in their religious zeal in the same way that the anti-blood transfusion Jehovah’s Witnesses need to be held back by the law for the sake of their children.

A humanistic Jewish response to circum­cision separates the therapeutic from the ceremonial issues. As a medical proce­dure, circumcision needs to be judged by medical standards.

The second group are civil libertarian. They object to non-urgent elective surgery being foisted on babies by their parents. After all, once the foreskin goes, it is not recoverable. An issue of so sensitive a nature ought to be decided by the person who has to suffer the consequences. Men should not undergo this surgery without their consent. And infants are incapable of giving their consent.

The third group are feminist. Their resistance is directed less to the surgery and more to the ceremony. The idea of using phallic circumcision as the only required initiation rite is deeply offensive to them. The celebration is only for boys. Girls have no equivalent ceremony of their own. The patriarchal and male chauvinist premise that underlies the brit milla is inconsistent with the moral premises of a democratic and egalitarian society.

How valid are these objections?

Before I answer this question, let me pro­vide a little background information.

Traditional Jews believe that circumci­sion was ordained by God. The command­ment pre-dates Moses and goes all the way back to Abraham. In Genesis 17, Yahveh is reported to have said to Abraham: “This is my covenant which you shall keep between me and you and your seed after you. Every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin. And it shall be a token of a covenant between me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circum­cised. . . and the uncircumcised male. . . shall be cut off from my people.” The penalty for the uncircumcised, then, is death or excommunication.

The Biblical commandment features some glaring omissions. No explanation is provided to clarify why foreskin removal is chosen among many other possible alter­natives as the sign of the covenant. Perhaps, in Yahveh’s mind, modesty precluded an explanation. Or, perhaps, phallic surgery was associated in his thinking with his cove­nant promise to guarantee Abraham num­berless descendants. The other omission is any justification of requiring circumcision on the eighth day. Why not the seventh day or the ninth day? Did Yahveh simply make an arbitrary choice for the sake of uniform­ity? After all, most other circumcising peo­ple impose the procedure much later. Some even wait to puberty.

From an anthropological view, Hebrew circumcision is not part of divine revela­tion. It is part of a human story that em­braces many people of the distant past. In the ancient world, fellow-Semites like the Phoenicians and Ethiopians practiced cir­cumcision. And the neighboring Hamitic Egyptians also indulged in the practice.

The real reasons for foreskin removal are lost with the reasoning processes of primitive peoples in dim antiquity. Quite certainly their motivation was hardly hygienic. Cutting away flesh with a dirty flint knife (shades of the Stone Age!) would cancel out any presumed health benefits from having a circumcised penis.

The most likely explanation is the ap­peasement of the gods in order to guarantee fertility. Part of the penis is offered to the deity in order to secure his protection of the rest. Since circumcision was originally done at puberty (the earliest known Semitic bar mitsva), it was intended to prepare the male for adulthood by guaranteeing his reproduc­tive future.

One of the grisliest stories in the Torah, an old literary fragment inserted into a more sophisticated text, suggests this motivation. In Exodus 4, this mysterious in­sert appears as Zipporah, the wife of Moses, leaves Midian with her son and her hus­band to journey to Egypt. “It happened upon the journey that Yahveh encountered him [the boy] at an inn and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Yahveh’s feet; and she said, ‘Truly you are a kinsman unto me by virtue of the blood of circumci­sion.’ Therefore, he (Yahveh) let him alone.” Yahveh in this story is appeased by the bloody foreskin and must now assume the role of a protective kinsman.

Whatever the real reason, by the time the Torah text containing the circumcision commandment was written, circumcision was so much a part of Jewish practice that no explanation for its choice as the sign of the covenant (Yahveh’s promise to protect and multiply the Jews) was required.

As for infant circumcision, the reason most likely imitates that of infant baptism. Christian baptism started out as an adult ceremony. But in time, it was moved for­ward to birth. Parents were fearful to leave their children unprotected, especially because of the threat of early death. Similar­ly, infant circumcision provided immediate protection from hostile deities. Caution turned a puberty rite into a birth ceremony.

The requirement of the eighth day simply tied the ceremony to lucky numbers. The seven-day week followed by the eighth day closing was a familiar pattern for calendar events. Both the autumn Sukkot festival and the winter Hanukka holiday followed the same format.

In time, the circumcision procedure turned into a full-fledged ceremony with fixed ritual procedures. By late rabbinic times, the ceremonial drama included six distinct parts: 1) the presentation of the child, 2) the seating of the child on the throne of Elijah, 3) the recitation by the father of the circumcision blessing (“Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has made us holy through your commandments and commanded us to initiate the covenant of Abraham our father”), 4) milla, the cut­ting and separation of the foreskin, 5) p’ria, the removal of the foreskin, 6) and mitsitsa, the stopping of the blood through oral suction.

In the beginning, the surgery was per­formed by the father of the boy. But, like most religious procedures, it was turned over to experts. The mohel, the professional ritual circumciser, made his debut. And the flint knife, reminiscent of neolithic times, finally turned into an iron blade.

It is important to point out that the Jewish identity of the male child never depended on circumcision in the way that Christian identity depended on baptism. A person born of a Jewish mother was Jewish regardless of anything he might choose to do or have done to him. An uncircumcised Jew remains a Jew, even by Orthodox standards.

Hostility to circumcision appeared early in Jewish history. The Philistines prided themselves on their foreskin retention. And the Greeks were absolutely revolted by the procedure and its effects. They regarded it as mutilation. Part of pre-Christian Greek anti-Semitism derived from this visceral response.

Of course, the objections were not hygienic. They were aesthetic, religious, and moral. To the Greeks, circumcision seemed almost as bad as castration. The human form, as intended by nature, was violated. To this day, Greeks and Latins re­tain this revulsion.

But what of the objections of our modern North American opponents? How valid are they?

The charge that circumcision is either unnecessary or harmful must confront con­temporary evidence. While the 1971 report of the American Academy of Pediatrics ruled circumcision unnecessary, it is impor­tant to note that the Academy is reviewing its earlier decision because of new evidence. Of fifty thousand known cases of penile cancer in North America only nine have occurred in circumcised males. Urinary tract infections occur less frequent­ly when the foreskin is removed. And ninety-five times as many uncircumcised males contract AIDS as do the circumcised. If all these assertions are true, then the pain and trauma, if they indeed exist, may be worth enduring.

The charge that infant circumcision, be­ing involuntary, violates the civil liberties of the child is valid only if the surgery has no therapeutic effect. The needless subjection of a child to pain without its consent is cruel. But, if there is therapeutic value, then the argument fails. It is the responsibility of the parent to protect the child from harm, whether it be through an involuntary smallpox vaccination or an involuntary tonsillectomy.

Quite frankly, the fury of many anti- circumcision militants is out of proportion to the provocation. Given the horrendous proportions of child abuse, a little foreskin removal (which may, in the end, turn out to be beneficial hardly deserves the hostility it receives.

We need a birth celebration that features at its center something Jewish, something easily given to both boys and girls…. Its main drama is the conferring of a Hebrew name on the infant.

The first two objections are directed primarily to infant circumcision itself and not to the brit milla, the religious ceremony. The third charge, the feminist complaint, denounces the ceremony, not the surgery. It maintains that the brit is inappropriate as a birth ceremony since it is designed for boys and not for girls.

There is little humanistic doubt that this complaint is valid. As the original purpose of circumcision faded from Jewish ken and the ceremony took on the significance of a birth celebration and an initiation ritual for membership in the Jewish people, the exclu­sion of female infants took on a political significance. A patriarchal society grants full membership only to men. Women are possessions and attachments who derive their identity from their connection to their fathers and husbands. No special celebra­tion is required for their arrival because they are secondary in importance. Their membership in the community derives from their membership in households of which men alone are the head. In a sense, the cir­cumcised penis protects not only the boy who possesses it but also the woman who will ultimately come to be attached to him. The brit milla, by its very nature, assigns an inferior status to girls.

A humanistic Jewish response to circum­cision separates the therapeutic from the ceremonial issues. As a medical procedure, circumcision needs to be judged by medical standards. If parents believe that it has health value — and there is much evidence to indicate that it does — then they should arrange to have their son circumcised by ap­propriate medical personnel, with all the guarantees of medical protection, at a time deemed appropriate for the child. If parents believe that it has no health value or that it is harmful, they should avoid the procedure for their son. The decision should be based on a scientific determination, just as one decides upon diet or vaccination.

But whether phallic surgery should be the central feature of a Jewish birth celebra­tion is another issue. Equality between boys and girls, men and women, is also an impor­tant humanistic value. And a ceremony that subverts that value is inappropriate for Humanistic Judaism.

Introducing female circumcision — a la East African practice — would be a rather bizarre way to solve the problem. And so would including women in the traditional minyan required for the performance of the ritual.

There is no way of making a happy celebration out of the performance of bloody surgery, even if you add female pa­tients and female observers. If somehow the ceremony was not so male chauvinistic, the surgery ritual might be worth enduring for the sake of tradition and continuity, in the same way that liberal Jews continue to observe the traditional dates for most holidays even when they are inconvenient. But surgery-as-ceremony is not worth en­during if it violates values more important than tradition or continuity.

There is no doubt about it. We need a new kind of Jewish birth celebration and in­itiation rite that provides for relaxed festivi­ty and that features at its center something Jewish, something easily given to both boys and girls.

This new kind of celebration has been developing among liberal and humanistic Jews over the past thirty years. Its setting is the home, the temple, or the community center. Its main drama is the conferring of a Hebrew name on the male or female infant. Even in the traditional circumcision ritual, Hebrew names are announced.

There is no reason for tying circumcision to a humanistic Jewish birth celebration. Despite its historic importance, it is simply inappropriate in the same way that female segregation is inappropriate.

There are times to rescue the old. There are also times to invent the new. Judaism is the story of both.

Assisted Suicide: Ethical Issues

Aid in Dying Autumn 1996

Do people have the right to terminate their lives in the face of painful and humiliating ill­ness? Does a victim of cancer, multiple sclero­sis, or creeping paralysis have the right to end intolerable suffering? Do they have the right to receive medical assistance to ensure that suicide is successful and relatively painless?

These issues are now absorbing the atten­tion of the Western world. Dr. Jack Kevorkian has boldly defied Michigan authorities to stop him from assisting those who ask him for help. Some people admire his intentions and his tactics. Some despise both. Some approve of assisted suicide but are wary of his tactics.

Very recently the Northern Territories in Australia authorized medically assisted sui­cide — the first political entity to do so. (Hol­land forbids it by law but allows it by refusal to enforce the law.) The first “customer” in Australia has already been served. Public opinion in most Western countries supports this development.

But is it ethical? Does Humanistic Juda­ism justify such behavior?

Suicide — any kind of suicide — is for­bidden by rabbinic Judaism. Life belongs to God. Only he can authorize killing. He has authorized the killing of enemies, infidels, and apostates; but he has not authorized kill­ing oneself.

In authoritarian systems, no reason need be provided. But priests, prophets, rabbis and theologians often feel uncomfortable with such a naked and dismissive form of author­ity. They search for reasons to justify what appears to be arbitrary. In the case of suicide they appeal to the virtue of suffering. In a sin­ful world, suffering is the perfect repentance. Since sin is unavoidable, suffering is also unavoidable. Given the almost infinite possi­bilities for sinning, there can never be too much suffering. Killing oneself does not ulti­mately end pain or anguish anyway. Beyond the grave is eternal suffering for the wicked. You might as well suffer now as suffer later.

Of course, there are circumstances under which it is mandatory to allow others to kill you — a form of passive suicide. If you are being compelled under threat of death to wor­ship gods other than Yahveh, or to commit incest, then death is preferable. But the ac­tual killing is done by your enemies, not your­self. Killing yourself to avoid pain or humiliation is not a “kosher” alternative, nor is hav­ing someone else kill you for such a reason. The martyrs of Masada, who killed themselves rather than fall into the hands of the Romans, might be construed as being avoiders of forced idolatry; and the martyrs of the Christian Middle Ages were clearly defenders of the faith. They chose to die for one of the two available legitimate reasons. Refusing to sur­render to the sinful demands of enemies was not really suicide; terminating your life as an act of kindness to yourself was.

There is no legitimate — or devious — way of extracting approval for assisted sui­cide from rabbinic Judaism. It is as futile as seeking a vague endorsement of homosexual­ity. But in an aging population beset by de­bilitating illnesses, the right to end irrevers­ible suffering is an unavoidable ethical issue. The halakhic rabbis may say no; but Human­istic Jews do not have to accept their moral judgment, especially if we have come to be­lieve that their judgment is not moral.

Humanistic Judaism does not derive its ethics from rabbinic Judaism. It derives its eth­ics from human needs bumping into the real world. Food, shelter, and sex are bodily needs. Long-run survival, happiness, and dignity are equally important. When life can offer neither dignity nor happiness, survival loses all ethi­cal meaning. To survive merely in order to sur­vive makes no humanistic sense unless there is some modicum of pleasure and dignity. Even if there is a God and he wants us to suffer for the sake of suffering, his demand is illegitimate. Humanistic Judaism does not find relentless pain either therapeutic or romantic.

Ever since the Enlightenment, the right to happiness and the value of personal au­tonomy have been celebrated in much of the Jewish world. They reflect the importance most contemporary Jews place on the ability to choose the course of one’s life. When that control vanishes, the value of life is called into question. It is simply not rational for people to endure the humiliation of helplessness when that humiliation is avoidable and when there are compassionate experts available to offer relief.

Most public opinion in North America supports assisted suicide, with appropriate safeguards, in the case of terminal illness. The appropriate safeguards are three: (1) The dy­ing person should choose assisted suicide in the presence of reputable witnesses; (2) his or her physician should verify that the patient is suffering from a terminal illness; and (3) a psychiatrist or psychologist should verify that the dying person is sane and not momentarily depressed. (Of course, being depressed when you are dying is rational!) This right, with these safeguards, should be incorporated into legislation. The rule of law should replace the rule of Kevorkian.

What about intolerable chronic illness? What about paraplegics and handicapped people, emphysemics and organ defectives, who find life not worth living? Should they have the right to assisted suicide? I think the humanistic principles of dignity and happi­ness give them that right; but it is not wise to press for it now, since public opinion does not yet widely support it. The rights of the terminally ill will be lost if we ask for too much too soon.

What about depressed people who find no meaning in existence? The humanistic answer to them is no. Although they have no happiness, as long as they are mobile and without physical restraint they retain the pos­sibility of dignity.

There is no “slippery slope” if safeguards are provided. What exists now is useless pain. It is time for reason and compassion to replace reverence for suffering. Where human dignity is at stake, old laws must yield, and new laws must be created to defend it.

Feelings – A Shabbat Celebration

Reason and Emotion for Humanistic Jews, Autumn 1986


V’-SHOOV IT-KHEM Let us be happy together.


Feelings make life worthwhile. Without needs and desires, there would be no purpose to living, no goals to strive for. Without needs and desires, there would be no meaning to existence, no passion to inspire us.

Feelings make the world a home of opportunity. There are so many things we want to touch. There are so many experiences we want to have. There are so many people we want to be near.

Feelings make the world a place of danger and dread. There are so many things we want to avoid. There are so many experiences we want to push away. There are so many perils we want to escape.

Attraction and avoidance. Running to and running away. Attachment and sepa­ration. They are the recurring themes of human existence. They fill our lives with ecstasy and despair. They infuse our spirit and make us human.



For the honey and the bee sting,

For the bitter and the sweet,

For the pleasures and the sorrows

That make life complete.


No feeling is all good or all bad. Every emotion started out as a strategy for survival. It drew us near to what was good for us. It made us move away from what was bad for us.

When anger started out, it defended our territory. It protected our family. It drove out intruders. When love began, it nurtured children. It fed the helpless. It guarded the young. When sadness appeared, it made us slow down. It gave us time to think. It allowed healing to take place. When joy made its debut, it mobilized our energies. It announced our strength. It reinforced our bond with others.

When we are defending our dignity, anger may be necessary. When we are building a community, love is essential. When we are faced with defeat, sadness is appropriate. When we are planning our future, joy is our friend.

There is a time and place for every feeling. Angry sadists do not understand. Loving masochists do not comprehend. But healthy people do.



Come and rejoice.


Most of us believe that it is easy to know what we feel. We have only to look inside our minds and hearts and discover what is there. If we are honest, if we are sin­cere, self-awareness is a simple matter.

But love and hate, anger and jealousy may be more secretive than we would prefer. Our minds are so complex that feelings wear disguises and often appear to be what they are not. Emotions can make us uncomfortable. They can tease us and embar­rass us. They can taunt us and fill us with shame. We sometimes turn our backs on them and pretend that they are not there. We sometimes look at them and do not see them. Sincerity is not enough — especially if we are not strong enough to face reality.

Self-awareness needs strength. We need to be strong enough to feel what we do not want to feel. We need to be strong enough to experience what we do not want to experience. We need to be strong enough to remove the masks that shield us from the face of our own desires.



Evening of roses.

Let us go down to the garden.

To hear a song of love.


It would be so nice if all our feelings got along with each other. It would be so nice if they were friendly to one another, if they worked together to create an internal harmony of mind and heart.

But our emotions are less cooperative than we would prefer. They rub up against each other abrasively. They compete with each other. They fight to seize the energy of our will. Oftentimes we confront the problems of the moment with two opposing feelings. We love and we hate. We want to embrace and we want to reject. We want to reach out and we want to run back. Our emotions pull us in two different directions and make it hard to make decisions. Ambivalence becomes the soul of the human condition.

Being faithful to our feelings is not easy, especially if our feelings give us no clear instruction. Many people are comfortable with this limbo of indecision. They find ambivalence charming. Others find no virtue in waiting. They know that they must go beyond their emotions and choose their life.



For the expectant is the glory.

The future is theirs.


When we are born, when we are separated from the womb, we experience a sense of aloneness that never leaves us. As we grow up, as we become more and more aware of our own uniqueness, this feeling of apartness grows stronger and fills our hearts with a need for connecting.

There are many ways to connect. There are many paths to belonging. Men and women find each other and love each other and choose the commitment of mar­riage. Strangers meet strangers and discover that they can be good friends. Parents have children and nurture them with tender care. Clans and tribes, nations and peoples, embrace their members and give them the security of identity and roots.

Belonging is an experience of transcendence, an experience of being part of some­thing greater than oneself. It starts with the human bonds of family and reaches out to wider horizons. There are times when we feel connected to all the people of the world. There are times when we feel we belong to the universe itself — to the evolu­tionary drama of life, to the very stars and beyond.



How good and how pleasant it is to celebrate together.


Some people go through life very carefully. They are afraid of their feelings. They are afraid of being swept away. They fear all intensity. Caution becomes their byword. Security becomes their dream.

But there are others who are ashamed to be timid. They know that life must be an adventure, that for each of us it happens once and must never be wasted. Boldness and courage discipline their fear. Curiosity and ambition fuel their passion. No tradition can hold them prisoner. No convention can restrain their creative power. They do not seek danger. But they will not avoid it if the moment demands it.

The human spirit is no disembodied soul. It is no quiet and demure thing that finds its home in heavenly bliss. It is the flame of our passions, the fire of our will, the intensity of our commitment to life. When it speaks, it speaks through our striving. It speaks through our deeds. It announces our vision of a better world.



Soon you will see how good it will be.


For many people, reason has a bad reputation. They see it as the party pooper of life, the enemy of passion, the foe of feeling. In their eyes, rational people are cold, austere, and distant. Only the devotees of faith and intuition know what to do with their emotions.

But this vision of reason is all distortion. It sets up straw men, only to tear them down. Feelings need reason to make life worthwhile. They need the discipline of common sense to guarantee our survival and dignity. Emotions are like children. They want what they want right away. They want what they want regardless of consequences. Love and anger are blind. They cannot see the future. They cannot even see each other. Sometimes their fires are not the fires of life. They are the fires of death and destruction.

Reason is no withdrawn logician. It is a concerned parent. It is the defender of our happiness, the protector of our fulfillment. It disciplines our fear. It manages our anger. It restrains our jealousy. It directs our love to wholesome ends.



Laugh if you will at all my dreams. I shall not change my faith in people.


To be a Jew is to feel many feelings. There is the security of roots, the pleasure of belonging, the pride of achievement, the warmth of solidarity, the joy of survival. There is the fear of rejection, the anger of victims, the sadness of separation, the loneliness of difference, and the bitterness of remembered wrongs.

Our experience has been no ordinary experience. Our history has been no com­monplace adventure. We have been visited by the best and assaulted by the worst that the world can offer. We have achieved the peaks and sunk to the depths of the human possibility. Our presence does not arouse indifference. If we have enemies, their hatred is no ordinary hatred. If we have friends, their attachment is no ordinary connection. We have lived too hard and too long to settle for the tamer emotions.

When we sing, our songs have pain and pleasure. When we laugh, our laughter has surrender and defiance. When we hope, our hope has fear and determination.



Our hope has not yet perished.





Let us make peace and friendship for all the world.

Bar and Bat Mitzvah, The Humanistic Way

Coming of Age Manual

Why bar mitzvahs?

Why do humanistic Jews have bar mitzvahs?

After all, the traditional bar mitzvah ceremony celebrates the arrival of a young man to Jewish adulthood at the age of thirteen and his eligibility to abide by all the commandments of the Torah.

Of what significance can a ceremony have which violates three fundamental principles of a reason­able and humanistic commitment?

We obviously reject, on the basis of present childhood development, the age of thirteen as the time when boys become men.

We also reject any celebration which derives from male chauvinism and which denies girls equal honor to that of boys.

We certainly accept the Torah as important Jewish literature. But we reject the validity of its worldview and the binding character of its laws.

Even classical Reform, which sub­scribed to only two. of these objections, dispensed with the bar mitzvah ceremony altogether and replaced it with a class confirmation.

So why?

There are several reasons why.

The bar mitzvah ceremony is an old ceremony. As in all ancient cul­tures, the celebration of puberty is an ancient practice. Throughout the centuries it has gone through many changes and has not remained the same for long. The first bar mitzvah ceremony had nothing at all to do with the reading from the Torah (since the Torah did not even exist at that time). It was a circumcision rite, which offered the foreskin as an appeasement to the gods, tested the boy’s ability to endure pain and pre­pared him for sexual activity as an adult male. The practice of calling bar mitzvah boys to do the final reading of the Sabbath Torah portion is comparatively recent. It goes back to the beginning of the fourteenth century, and started only as a local custom.

The essence of the historic bar mitzvah ceremony is not allegiance to the Torah. It is the celebration of the arrival of puberty. When the cir­cumcision ceremony was moved to birth, a long period of no celebration intervened before alternatives emerged.

Thirteen is an important age for both boys and girls in our culture. It no longer marks the advent of adult­hood. But it does indicate the arrival of adolescence. Adolescence is a recent development. In a modern industrial society, children are not able to enter the work force at thirteen. They require more training for the jobs they will choose. Adoles­cence is that difficult teenage period between childhood and maturity when the preparation for adult life continues. Entering the teenage years is an important turning point in a child’s life. His/her body changes. His/her school changes. His/her needs change. Reassurance from his/her community that he/she is competent and recognition from his/her family that he/she is important are psychic boosts along the way. Thirteen is a perfect time for a public ceremony — not to celebrate the approach of adulthood, but to mark the reality of adolescence.

For humanistic Jews, with a com­mitment to the philosophy of secular humanism, religion is not a matter of gods and worship. It is essentially the celebration of community and community bonds. Connecting with people in shared beliefs, shared emotions and shared celebrations is our religious experience. Holidays which honor ancestors and which commemorate group events are, therefore, important. Life cycle cere­monies, where significant changes in the lives of individual members are acknowledged by the community and related to the survival of the group, are also basic to fellowship. Celebrating the growth of a child is celebrating the continuity of the congregation. It is as important to the group as it is to the child.

The ceremony does not have to be male chauvinist. Both the Recon­structionists and the Reformers have been doing Bat Mitzvah for many years. It is just a matter of having the girls do what boys do. While it is difficult to turn the ceremony of phallic circumcision into a girl’s ceremony, it is easy to adjust a talking experience to accommodate female needs. In fact, there is no need to designate the celebration Bar Mitzvah (Bat Mitzvah), where women always end up inside the parentheses. One can simply name it the Mitzvah Ceremony. If you want to ‘Bar’ it, you can ‘Bar’ it. If you want to ‘Bat’ it, you can ‘Bat’ it. After all, in popular Hebrew and Yiddish, the word mitzvah means more than ‘commandment’. It also means ‘good deed’. And the ceremony is indeed a good deed for the child and the community.

Since the historic mitzvah ceremony has been changing throughout Jewish history, another radical change is not inappropriate. Obviously, a required reading from the Torah and from other parts of the Bible is inconsistent with a human­istic approach to Judaism. First of all, the Bible is essentially a theistic document. And, secondly, given the range of Jewish experience and literature, it is too narrow in its focus. Of course, there is no dearth of effective alternatives. Selecting a hero or role model from the Jewish past, researching his/her life and shar­ing that research with the community is one alternative. Presenting an answer to an important ethical or historic question of Jewish interest is another. Sharing a progress report on some activity of community service is still another. Whatever project is chosen should be more than nostalgia. It should celebrate the emerging talents and skills of the young adolescent. And it will provide families and humanistic congregations with bonding experi­ences that are more than nostalgia.

There is no reason why a developing child should have only one development ceremony. While the mitzvah celebration marks the entry into adolescence, another cele­bration should be available to mark the beginning of adulthood (the origi­nal purpose of the bar mitzvah festivity). In many respects, the Con­firmation ceremony developed by the Reform movement is a precedent for such an event. During the past fifty years, the age of Confirmation has been moved forward to fourteen, fifteen and sixteen. The drawback of the arrangement has been the exclusive use of class graduations, and the avoidance of individual celebrations. As a result, Confir­mation has never been able to equal the power of the bar/bat mitzvah event. A group ceremony cannot provide the ego satisfaction that an individual celebration confers.

As an experiment, the original Confirmation was a creative alternative. But it needs considerable reshaping. It needs to be an indi­vidual ceremony. It needs to be identified with a personal birthday. It needs to be linked directly with adulthood. Given our present culture and legal system, the eighteenth birthday anniversary seems an appropriate time. However, it is tied up with departure from high school and entry into college. There are too many distractions to allow the student to prepare properly for a sig­nificant celebration. Sixteen is less ‘adultish’. But it is an age which popular culture has associated with growing up parties and the right to drive. It is also the beginning of the child’s emergence from adolescence.

Confirmation (and the word, bor­rowed from the Lutherans, may not be the best word we can use), is for us an entrance into adulthood cere­mony. It is individual. It occurs near the student’s sixteenth birthday. It allows the student to demonstrate his intellectual and emotional skills as an emerging adult by encouraging him to present his research to the community on a subject of historic or ethical concern. It is distinct from the mitzvah celebration and requires different preparation.

Mitzvah and Confirmation do for us what the old bar mitzvah tried to do for our ancestors. In an age that invented adolescence, we need more than one ceremony.

The danger is that many human­istic Jews will assume that the mitzvah experience means more than it does — that it pretentiously suggests manhood and womanhood. Therefore, it is important to remember that Mitzvah without Confirmation is incomplete — and that, of the two ceremonies, Confirmation is obviously the more important.

A good Jewish growing up 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 feature of this important cele­bration. Above all, at a moment when a child is reviewing his/her idealism and testing his/her com­mitments, sincerity should be a minimal requirement.

A good ceremony should provide inspiration. The adolescent should be able to focus on his/her interests and his/her 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/she 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/she has real roots in the Jewish past. He/she may not be able to identify with his/her grand­parents’ dietary habits. But he/she can identify with their 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/she 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 at thirteen to celebrate the beginning of adoles­cence and a mitzvah (confirmation) at a later age (16 or beyond) to mark the entrance into adulthood.

Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation ceremonies are special opportunities to reinforce Jewish identity, humanistic behavior and community solidarity. We need them — and we need to mold them to our integrity.