National Liberation — The Hanukka Question

A Hanukkah Manual, Autumn 1983

What is the ethical dimension of Hanukka?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom means liberal democracy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Dietary Laws

Sukkot, Summer 1990

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

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

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

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

But why these prohibitions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty Years Later: A Retrospective

Transforming Judaism- Winter 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanistic Judaism: A Response to Future Shock

SHJ Conference 2004, summer 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage and Humanistic Judaism

Marriage Manual, Summer 1987

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RESPONSA – Conversion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Studying Judaism and Jewish history from a humanistic perspective.

 Involvement with Jewish culture and a Jewish community.

 Celebration of welcome.

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

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

Two Kinds of Religion

Is Humanistic Judaism a religion? Winter 2002

Is Humanistic Judaism a religion?

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

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

Historically, religion has its origins in two developments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Ninefold Path for Humanistic Jews

Humanistic Judaism in the 21st century – Autumn 2001

What would it be like to live in a world without the automobile, the airplane, the cin­ema, the telephone, television, and the com­puter — without even plumbing, electricity, and running water?

Life before the twentieth century is difficult to imagine. A world of peasants and villages, tents and nomads, barter and scar­city, animal energy and early death is so far from our experience that we can talk about the past without really understanding it. But this is the world in which Judaism arose. Struggling for existence in this milieu gener­ated the issues the prophets and the priests addressed. It was the stimulus for the beliefs of our ancestors.

The past three hundred years have dra­matically transformed the human condition. The authors of rabbinic Judaism would be traumatized by the world we live in. The lifestyles of even conservative people today would be both puzzling and outrageous. Femi­nism, science education, the consumer cul­ture, individual freedom, democratic politics, and interfaith banquets are beyond what they could have imagined or tolerated. Their Judaism does not fit the present — not only because they were naive authoritarians, but, especially, because they were addressing an audience that no longer exists.

Judaism is an evolving culture with no single philosophy of life. In every age there has been a dominant ideology, which ad­dressed the problems and traumas of that age in a way that the people of that age found con­vincing. Prophetic Judaism, with its message of an all-powerful Jewish God, was a response to the despair of a Jewish people crushed by the Assyrian conquest. Priestly Judaism, with its message of the Chosen People, provided solace to a nation that had all but lost its in­dependence. Rabbinic Judaism, with its prom­ise of salvation in the next life, provided a new structure for conceiving reward and pun­ishment in a world where suffering and death had become unbearable.

The continuity in Jewish history is not ideology. It is the ever-changing Jewish people. Neither one God nor Torah appear in all the eras of Jewish development. And, if they disappear as the central themes of Jewish belief, the Jewish people will continue. No set of convictions is intrinsic to Jewish culture. Every generation has to find its own integrity.

Humanistic Judaism is the Judaism of the twenty-first century because it embodies the wisdom and values of the principal thinkers of the contemporary world. A secular world needs a secular philosophy of life. The expe­rience of a profound dependency on an au­thoritarian God is absent from the daily life of most Jews. An egalitarian democratic world can base itself on the past only by radically distorting its message. Humanistic Judaism rests on the perspectives of the past. But it does not struggle to serve them in the way other Jewish denominations do. It seeks to make honest Jews in the present.

In a globalist secular world, Judaism be­comes the culture of the Jewish people, ethics becomes the pursuit of happiness and dignity for all men and women, power is lo­cated in human effort and human coopera­tion, and courage replaces faith as the best way to cope with daily living.

Living as a Jew in the twenty-first cen­tury means living with novelty — a set of conditions that began in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and that are new to Jewish history. Widespread intermarriage, unisex power roles, strident feminism, unlim­ited professional options, the dominance of science and technology, the emergence of lei­sure culture, physical and social mobility, group identities more important to Jews than Jewish identity, the de-ethnicization of Diaspora Jewish culture, the deghettoization of Jewish communities, a traumatic rate of change that fosters “future shock” — all of these novelties define the context of Jewish existence today.

Within the Jewish community the end of the twentieth century presented a series of challenges, which were not anticipated at the beginning. The aging of the Diaspora, the trag­edy of the Holocaust, the rise of the state of Israel to center stage, the intense militancy of a reborn ultra-Orthodoxy, the ethnic transfor­mation of the Jewish state through Oriental immigration — all of these surprises molded the shape of the new Jewish people.

How do we, as Humanistic Jews, respond to all of these novelties and surprises, which define the Jewish agenda of our new century? How can we best serve our movement and the survival of the Jewish people in this unprec­edented setting?

The following “ninefold path” seems appropriate.

  • Be a rational voice. Our role in the Jew­ish world is to be a voice of reason. The response to relentless change by millions of people is to denounce the present and to romanticize the past. While science radically transforms our environment and lengthens our life, cults of nostalgia and religious fundamentalism thrive. A hankering for the stability of the past pro­duces a permanent and chronic conser­vative militancy. In the Jewish world the new, visible ultra-Orthodoxy and the nos­talgic “return to tradition” by the Reform movement are irrational responses to stress and traumatic change. Since we cannot return to the past, romanticizing it will not help us cope effectively with the present or plan for our future. Our voice has to be a voice of sanity in a crazy world.
  • Be authentic. As tradition becomes in­creasingly less relevant to the human condition, we have to maintain an appro­priate relationship to our cultural heri­tage. We have to make sure that what we choose is consistent with what we believe and with how we choose to live. Tradi­tion is our servant — not our master. Where it fits, we use it. Where it does not fit, we feel comfortable enough to create something new. This boldness is uniquely ours. It is our special gift to the Jewish people.
  • Be open. Partnerships, families, and marriages are changing. The conventional relationships of the past are becoming un­conventional. The aging of the population is producing huge reservoirs of people in their sixties, seventies, and eighties who are searching for education and inspira­tion. Our communities need to be open to this transformation of the Jewish pub­lic. Unmarried partners, gays and lesbi­ans, senior citizens, singles with no marriage agenda — all of them need to be welcome in our communities with pro­gramming that serves their special needs. Given our philosophy, our service to these people is more than opportunistic. It flows from conviction.
  • Be imaginative. A century ago the Protes­tant model of the lecture sermon domi­nated religious services in the Western world. At one time thousands of Jews, even in the working class, would show up on any given day to listen to talks by rabbis, teachers, labor leaders, and politicians. Some of these talks were Castroesque, lasting for hours. But times have changed. Young people are less pa­tient with talk. They prefer music or dance. In the twenty-first century the for­mats of celebration will radically change. There will be more music, less talk. If we want to be successful in this new cen­tury, we will have to discover our musi­cal voice. We will have to learn how to sing Humanistic Judaism.
  • Be interesting. In a rapidly changing world most people are more engaged with the present and the future than they are with the past. There are compelling current issues that test our ethical conventions and force us to rethink what we truly be­lieve. Issues of environment, genetics, capital punishment, nationalism, and rac­ism will dominate the daily news. If we fail to address them in a public way, we will be an interesting sideshow in the Jewish world but not a significant voice.
  • Be inclusive. The phenomenon of inter­marriage will not go away. It is the prod­uct of an open, free, and egalitarian soci­ety. We have to continue to find ways to allow people of good will to participate in Jewish culture and their birth culture simultaneously. The boundaries between groups and nations will become less rigid in this century. We have to be pioneers in this world rather than reluctant partners.
  • Be flexible. We must always be open to rethinking our enthusiasms. In a century where the global economy prevails, the nation-state declines, and ethnicities mix freely, the traditional nationalism built around the territorial state may become less relevant. What will happen to the state of Israel is not clear. Will it remain exclusively Jewish? Will it become bina­tional? The present turmoil suggests significant change. The concept of the Jewish people as an international nation, first suggested by historian Simon Dubnow, may become increasingly more relevant — especially in a world where most ethnicities become international. The twentieth century was the century of Zionism. The twenty-first may be the century for embracing new options.
  • Be complete. The most profound connec­tions between people are not made at lectures, services, or parties. They are made in settings where people can live together. Increasingly people in our world are choosing camp and retreat settings for interfacing with others. One weekend together as a community may be worth a thousand services. In a more informal, egalitarian, and open world, we need to “complete” our community-building by experimenting with alternative ways to find meaningful connections.
  • Be a movement. Some Humanistic Jews think of our movement as a religion. Others view it as a secular philosophy of life. Some are enthusiastic about the word spiritual. Others are disturbed by it. Some are searching for a stronger link to the traditions of the past. Others are looking for bold creativity. In the years to come there will be many more issues that will provoke disagreement. But, if we are to be a successful movement, we have to embrace a wide diversity. We have to be able to distinguish between fundamental differences and differences of style and vocabulary. Generosity rather than nar­rowness is required. Many styles enrich us without damaging what we all basi­cally share. Distinguishing between fun­damental and trivial differences is essential to our survival and strength.

This new century is going to be exciting and unpredictable. Let’s make the most of it.

Humanistic Judaism and Tradition

Tradition and Humanistic Judaism – How Do They Mix?  Autumn 1987

For many Jews, Judaism is identified with the literature of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Siddur. This literature is often called “the tradition” and has served as the ideological basis for Orthodoxy for over fifteen hundred years.

Can these books, which are so much identified in the public mind with Jews, also serve as the ideological basis for a humanis­tic Judaism? After all, both Conservative and Reform Jews retained these documents as their official literature. Why not Human­istic Jews?

The prestige of these documents makes them almost irresistible. Even though their vocabulary is theistic, even though their style is authoritarian, even though much of their history is mythology, they are so old and so famous that it would be nice to have them on our side. They could do for us what they do for Reform. They could give us the semblance of “legitimacy.”

This issue is not trivial. If these books “belong” to us, then secular Judaism is simply one of five different interpretations of the traditional texts. If they do not, then Humanistic Judaism is a radical departure from all existing Judaisms.

In trying to determine the place of tradi­tional literature in a humanistic approach to Jewish identity, we need to affirm certain realities.

Jewish identity does not depend on using the tradition. Jewishness is an ethnic iden­tity, not an ideological one. No adherence to any ideas or documents makes a Jew a Jew. A Jew who does not believe in the value and truth of the Torah is equally as Jewish as one who does.

The endorsement of the past is unneces­sary. We do not have to agree with our an­cestors in order to have ideas that are valid and Jewishly significant. If we want to understand the literature of the past, we do not need its endorsement. Some Jews are so anxious to identify with Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah that they do not pay any attention to what these people really said. They give these heroes ideas and sentiments they never had in order to prove that the beliefs of the past are the same as the beliefs of the present. In the hands of the desperate, Moses becomes a civil libertarian and the Torah becomes a plea for democracy.

The people of the past are entitled to their integrity. The author of Genesis 1 believed in a flat earth and a flat heaven. He is mor­ally entitled to have his opinions acknowl­edged. The author of Genesis 2 believed that the first woman was created from the rib of the first man. He has a right to have his idea recognized. The literature of the past is more interesting if we allow the authors of the past to say what they think than if we force them to say what we think. An ethical approach to textual criticism allows people to mean what they say, even if their ideas are embarrassing. Male chauvinism and theocracy may be offensive to us. But they were not offensive to our ancestors. The language of tradition is not obscure. It is refreshingly plain and direct. We have a moral obligation to respect that directness.

God is not removable from traditional lit­erature. The authors of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Siddur had a deep belief in a supernatural father-figure who governs the world with justice. Modern Jews who are uncomfortable with this intense convic­tion have to face up to it when they deal with traditional texts. To the authors of the tradition, the worship of God was supreme­ly important. Failure to worship endan­gered the survival of both the individual and the community. Since group survival was at stake, worship and morality could not be separated. The distinction between ritual and ethics did not exist. Ceremony guar­anteed the life of the community.

Traditional ideas vary from period to pe­riod. The official literature of Orthodoxy includes documents from four periods in Jewish history: the tribal, the royal, the priestly, and the rabbinic. In each period, the prevailing ideas of the ruling elite were distinctly different from those that came before and after. Kings did not agree with priests; and priests did not agree with rabbis. Despite what Orthodox rabbis main­tain, there has been a continuous change of beliefs throughout Jewish history. In the royal period, intermarriage was allowed. In the priestly period, it was forbidden. In the priestly period, the resurrection of the dead was unknown. In the rabbinic period, it was the cardinal principle of the establishment. A static view of the tradition is a distortion.

We must neither revere tradition nor ignore it. We must understand it and use it carefully.

One quotation does not prove anything. We cannot understand the message of the tradition in any given period by pulling at­tractive quotations out of context. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ is set in the context of Leviticus, with its intermi­nable laws of animal sacrifice and priestly privilege. “Proclaim liberty throughout the land” is set in the context of the institution of slavery and its fifty-year durability. “Whatever is hateful to yourself do not do unto others” is found in the middle of ritual minutiae. Simply picking and choosing iso­lated statements that sound ethically attrac­tive, with no acknowledgment of the sur­rounding literary territory, distorts the tradition. Orthodox Jewish life was and is a complex whole, not a set of fashionable quo­tations suspended in mid-air.

There are many motivations for ethical behavior. The major motivation for good behavior in the Bible and the Talmud is the authority of God and the rewards and pun­ishments he administers. But that does not mean that divine favor was the only motiva­tion. After all, most ethical rules arise out of the experience of small groups in their struggle for survival. Many of the moral ideals in traditional literature, which we find ethically acceptable because they con­form to our conscience and our reason, were also reasonable when they were first enunciated. Although the traditional writers did not articulate these reasons, we can.

The people who were denounced are also part of the tradition. It is useful to remember that people condemned by traditional writers were also Jews. They were the Jews who were not lucky enough to receive the approval of the ecclesiastic authorities. Job’s wife challenged the justice of God and was silenced. The “villain” of Psalm 1 ques­tioned the existence of God and was de­clared a fool. The opponents of Jeremiah refused to resign themselves to defeat at the hands of the Chaldeans and were pro­claimed to be sinners. But they obviously had their Jewish followers who thought that they were patriotic Jews, even though they lost out in the struggle for power. The underdogs of tradition are also traditional.

What really happened is as much tradition as what the authorities of the past thought happened. The Zadokite priests and the Talmudic rabbis believed that Moses, inspired by Yahveh, wrote the Torah. We now know that Moses did not write the Torah and that it was written over a period of five hundred years. Is the illusion of the past more tradi­tional than the reality of the past? Or is the actual event also a tradition? Jewish life was molded not only by what people thought happened but also by what really happened. Living without an official Torah was an im­portant part of the ancient Jewish experi­ence and in no way diminished Jewish iden­tity. In fact, it provided for a richness of options that could never be fully sup­pressed, even after a theocratic “constitu­tion” was imposed.

What people did may be different from what people said. Many of the laws in the Torah and the Talmud were purely theoreti­cal. They never really became part of the behavior of the Jewish people. The elaborate plans for the jubilee year at the end of the book of Leviticus, with its freeing of the slaves and the restoration of property to the poor, was never implemented. Attached to some priestly fantasy, it found no respon­sive public in the pragmatic world of Jewish economics. The law said one thing; the people did another. The Jewish tradition is as much the product of the real Jewish ex­perience as of the imaginings of Jewish lawmakers.

The tradition is morally uneven. There is an enormous number of ideas and values in traditional literature, many of them incom­patible one with the other. The ideas of in­herited guilt and collective punishment do not jibe with the commitment to individual responsibility and individual dignity. Devo­tion to the sacrificial cult does not fit well with the pursuit of justice to the poor. Some traditional values are humanistic. Others are anti-humanistic. Some of the tradition is humanistically offensive. Even more of it is neither here nor there. Humanistic Jews neither love nor hate “the tradition” as a whole. They love some of it. They like some of it. They deplore some of it. And the rest they view with historic interest.

It is quite clear that, despite its fame and antiquity, the official literature of traditional Judaism cannot serve as the ideological basis of a humanistic Judaism. Only the most unfair distortions could rescue this lit­erature for that role. Humanistic Judaism is a radical departure from the procedures of Orthodoxy and its liberal alternatives. It does not seek to legitimize its norms and recommend behavior by finding proof texts in the Torah and the Talmud.

What, then, is the function of this literary portion of our tradition in the world of Hu­manistic Jews?

Its main function is historical. It tells us where we came from. It describes the be­liefs and practices of our ancestors, whether we agree with them or not. It gives us clues to the real events of Jewish history. It intro­duces us to the ideas of its opponents, some of which may be humanistically attractive. It is a treasury of quotations that fit very neatly into the ethical conclusions of a modern humanism. It helps us to define our own perspective on the Jewish experience through the challenge of a powerful alter­native.

We must neither revere it nor ignore it. We must understand it and use it carefully.

Conservative Judaism: A Humanistic Perspective

HJ’s and Other Jews – Winter 1988

I grew up as a Conservative Jew in the 1930s. My father, like many Conservative Jews, had joined a big old established Ortho­dox synagogue in Detroit, which gradually drifted into the Conservative fold. The change began with the arrival of a “modern” rabbi from the Jewish Theologi­cal Seminary and his two-decade campaign for mixed seating. By the time I appeared, the sanctuary had two options: men and women alone on the left and the right, and the “mixers” in the middle.

My father was observant but reasonable. My rabbi was intellectual and articulate. Often he waxed eloquent in a way that was incomprehensible to many of his congre­gants. But they did not seem to mind. In those social climbing days, they were proud to identify with a rabbi who was so edu­cated and so American.

There were, of course, arguments between the old-timers and the progres­sives. Should the interminable services be shortened? Should English explanations be intruded? Should the parking lot be open on Yom Kippur? Should an organ be purchased for the choir loft? But discussions rarely led to change. The mood was a cautious conser­vatism. Why offend anybody if you really didn’t have to?

My education in the synagogue School combined traditional answers with modern teaching techniques. We studied Hebrew for davening and history for a sense of Jewish suffering and achievement. We even devoted much time to loving Palestine and Zionism. But we never talked about ideo­logy. We certainly never talked about Con­servative ideology. It seemed to be enough to say that we believed in both tradition and the modern world.

My experience reveals why the Con­servative movement was so successful. It never repudiated Orthodoxy. It never em­braced Reform. It gave you enough tradition to feel traditional but not so much that you felt oppressed. It gave you enough assimila­tion to feel successful but not so much that you felt treyf. Since ideology was carefully avoided, embarrassing questions about per­sonal beliefs and integrity were never raised. You could be comfortably Jewish without having to be consistent.

The Conservative movement is now one hundred years old. It was established, for all practical purposes, in 1887, with the crea­tion of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. At the time, the overwhelming majority of United States Jewry belonged to Reform temples. A few Sephardim, rene­gade Germans, and Russian immigrants were searching for a more “conservative” solution to the problem of Jewish identity.

The roots of the Conservative movement were fourfold. The first root was the decor­ous, easy-going orthodoxy of Western Europe and North America, which evolved in response to the political emancipation of the Jews after the French Revolution. The “orthodoxy” of assimilated Jews stood in sharp contrast to the more segregated, all- encompassing orthodoxy of Eastern Europe.

The second root was the troubled and di­vided Reform movement, which had begun in Germany but found its home in the free environment of America. In 1885, the radical reformers endorsed the famous Pittsburgh Platform, which repudiated traditional observance and the ethnic character of Jewish identity. This proclama­tion drove the conservative reformers out of the Reform movement and into a less-than- compatible alliance with the “liberal” Orthodox.

The third root was the Historical School of Zacharias Frankel. This approach to Judaism, which, like Reform, had its origins in Germany, never turned into an organized movement in Europe. But it found a home base in a rabbinical college, the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau. The graduates of this seminary functioned as community rabbis in Central Europe and usually designated themselves as Liberal if they were compelled to identify themselves. (In the United States, this tendency was conservative with regard to Reform; in Ger­many, it was liberal with regard to Orthodoxy. The Historical Judaism of Frankel dissented from Reform by opposing radical change. It acknowledged the necessity for some change in Jewish life. But it pleaded for the preservation of the unity of the Jewish people, which, of course, meant unity of ritual practice. If there was to be change, it ought to be reluctant change. Only when the overwhelming majority of Jews had discarded a tradition should the discard be sanctioned. Caution and histori­cal continuity were indispensable to appro­priate reform.

The fourth root was the United States it­self. Jews had never experienced a land with so many options and with so much personal freedom. In a place where religion and government were separate and where the state refused to discipline religious behavior, it was tempting to organize ex­periments that would have been resisted in Europe. What would have appeared to be big changes in the old country were little changes in America. American traditions looked traditional only in America.

In time, a Conservative format emerged. The mikveh, segregation by sex, and distinc­tive costumes were out. Hebrew, traditional davening, kashrut, and Shabbat were in. Organ music and driving on holy days were maybes. Secular education and the secular world were accepted and cultivated. Con­gregations came together in the United Syn­agogue (1913). Rabbis came together in the Rabbinical Assembly (1928). Future leaders graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York.

The Conservative movement grew very fast. By the end of the Second World War, it was the largest Jewish denomination in the United States, encompassing almost a mil­lion and a half Jews. Its phenomenal growth was due to many factors. The Reform move­ment was controlled by religious radicals and the snobbishness of German Jews. Orthodoxy was disorganized, defensive, and lacking in credible leadership. Thou­sands of Russian Jews, who had arrived on American shores, were torn between loyalty to tradition and the attractiveness of Ameri­can culture. The Conservative movement made no ideological demands, allowing prospective adherents to believe whatever they wanted so long as they evinced tradi­tional behavior. In the Conservative rabbi­nate, the devotees of John Dewey stood side by side with the lovers of Maimonides.

It was in this expanding movement that I grew up. By the end of the Second World War, the “machers” of the Conservative synagogues were sharing community lead­ership with the old “aristocracy” of the Reform temples.

Within a decade of this triumphant growth, the Conservative movement began to experience serious problems. By the 1970s, the growth pattern had stopped and intimations of decline were everywhere. Even the expansion of Conservatism to Israel and Latin America could not hide the mood of unease in the North American motherland. This mood arose from certain uncomfortable realities.

Conservative ritual observance con­tinued to decline. As the affluence and pro­fessional success of the Conservative com­munity began to equal the achievements of the old Reform aristocracy, Conservative Jews’ ritual behavior outside the synagogue often became indistinguishable from the be­havior of their Reform compatriots. With some notable exceptions, Conservative Jews “loved” tradition and then proceeded to do very little of it. The pillars of kashrut, Shabbat, and davening were being under­mined by the very people who paid to build them. The propaganda of Conservatism be­gan to sound pretentious and unreal.

The original marriage of liberal Orthodox and conservative Reform, which gave birth to the Conservative movement, was not a happy one. The price of the marriage was that no consistent ideology could be formu­lated to inspire young people who no longer suffered the guilt and anxieties of the immi­grant generation. Any attempt to deal with beliefs and motivation was bound to offend somebody. The safest tactic was to utter cliches about the unity of the Jewish people and “catholic” Israel. And, in the end, that tactic was very boring and very unfulfilling.

The Reconstructionist wing of Conserva­tism ultimately withdrew to organize its own movement. The disciples of Mordecai Kaplan had chosen to remain within the Conservative fold because of their strong connections to the Jewish Theological Semi­nary and because the ideological looseness of the Conservative milieu allowed them to talk humanism and to do traditional behav­ior simultaneously. But the departure of Kaplan from the Seminary and the hostile orthodoxy of so many of the Seminary faculty made a continuing association im­possible. The Reconstructionists, in a burst of organizational fervor, established their own seminary in Philadelphia and their own congregational fraternity. An impor­tant liberal voice and creative force in the Conservative movement had departed.

Very damaging to the Conservative future was the about-face of the Reform move­ment. One of the greatest supports of Con­servative growth was the radical format of classical Reform and its German Jewish devotees. This “Protestant” Judaism was so “way out” that even Russian Jews who were not very traditional found it offensive and joined the Conservatives. But the “Russianization” of the Reform movement after the Second World War (due to the sheer survival necessity of going beyond the declining numbers of German Jews) reversed the pos­ture of Reform with respect to tradition. For the past thirty years, Reform temples have moved consistently to the right, embracing rituals and ceremonies that would have ap­palled the authors of the Pittsburgh Plat­form. The result is that thousands of Jews who would have chosen a Conservative affiliation in the previous generation are now quite satisfied with the traditional fare of the Reform menu. In fact, they prefer it because there are fewer demands for ritual conformity outside the temple.

On the ethnic level, Reform has scored an­other victory. The early fierce anti-Zionism of Reform drove many Jews who wanted a cul­tural Judaism with a religious flavor into the arms of Conservatism, especially since the Conservatives were among the first to em­brace the agenda of the Zionist movement. But between Hitler, the Holocaust, and the establishment of the state of Israel, Reform has repudiated its old hostility and now enthusiastically promotes the aims of Zion­ism. One now can love Israel as passionately in a Reform temple as in a Conservative syn­agogue. In fact, Reform has been more suc­cessful than the Conservative movement in establishing its institutional presence in Israel and finding publicity for it.

Orthodoxy has also done Conservatism a “dirty” turn. It has re-energized itself, trained an articulate credible leadership, and established powerful new institutions that serve as the foundation of an aggressive missionary posture. The days when the Orthodox cowered in the background obse­quiously, when the Conservatives could imagine that they were the grand wave of the traditional future are over. The Lubavitchers are selling their ideological and ritual wares all over America — and raising millions of dollars at the same time. Young Jews who, as third generation Americans, no longer need to have their Judaism Ameri­canized want the feel of the “authentic” tradition, not an ambivalent, watered-down version of it. To the new, vigorous ultra- Orthodox leadership and its disciples, Con­servatism is no more than Reform in dis­guise — and worse than Reform because it pretends to be traditional.

The Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinic school and intellectual center of Conservative Judaism, turned out to be far more orthodox than its founders intended it to be. Outside of Mordecai Kaplan, the fac­ulty was dominated by ideologues like Louis Finkelstein, Louis Ginzberg, and Saul Lieberman, who were reluctant to deviate from orthodox norms, and who were reluctant to offer any real assistance or guidance to conservative reformers. The school was more traditional than the community it served. When the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly sought petty permis­sions for Shabbat driving and Shabbat elec­trical use (such trivial issues!), the faculty was resistant. The overwhelming need of the faculty — as of many of the rabbinic graduates — was to receive the approval of Orthodox authority. Meanwhile, the needs of the movement were neglected while the intellectual leadership engaged in this self-hating game of futility.

The final event that tested the survival value of Conservatism was the arrival of the feminist movement and the demand for female rabbis. Reform had led the way with its ordination of women. The Conservatives could hardly refuse to follow; the liberated social milieu of most Conservative Jews was the same as that of most Reform Jews. But the issue was no ordinary issue. It struck at the heart of the Conservative self-image. If the Conservative movement consented to ordain women, the break with orthodoxy would be complete. The Orthodox rabbinate was unalterably opposed to the idea of female rabbis. The movement split on the issue. Even many Conservatives who could tolerate female authority were reluctant to abandon the orthodox self-image.

To end up being conservative reformers — and nothing more — was almost intoler­able. So, when the Seminary finally yielded to the enormous public pressure and con­sented to ordain women, a dissenting group of “Traditional Conservatives” was organ­ized to resist the change and threatened that further radical reform would split the move­ment. Two opposing factions, with incom­patible agendas, are now precariously tied together by institutional inertia. What enables both sides to stay “united” in a single movement is the convenient absence of any meaningful ideology.

To say the least, the Conservative move­ment is not in a healthy condition. The denomination is split. The Reconsructionists have left. The Reformers have cornered the pseudo traditional market. And the Orthodox have won the hearts of the true Torah lovers.

Built into the Conservative condition is the problem of all ambivalent Jews who want to have their cake and eat it, who want to be totally traditional and totally part of the modern secular world, who desire des­perately to be accepted by the Orthodox even though they are not orthodox. Self-hat­ing reformers cannot do effective reform and cannot do justice to the needs of secu­larized Jews in a secular age.

The future will bring no dramatic changes. The dissenters will not secede. The liberals will not join the Reform move­ment. The vested interest of an established denomination will keep them bound to­gether in an unhappy marriage. Their energy will not be freed for creative work. It will be used up in the struggle between the two factions. Timidity, thy name is Con­servative Judaism.