Leadership

TJH March 1991, vo. XXV11, number 8.

“Leadership” 

Many people ask me about the future of Humanistic Judaism. What are the realistic prospects for our future? What do we need to do to spread the word, to recruit new people to our movement?  

There are many things we need to strengthen our future. We need more literature. We need more publicity. We need more money to pay for both. But, above all, we need more professional leaders.  

The heart of our movement are local communities and congregations. Without them there is no movement. Most communities begin with volunteers who have much enthusiasm but little expertise for serving the needs of their members. In time, volunteers get exhausted and, even if they are not exhausted, they are not trained to be ceremonialists, philosophic counselors and Jewish educators.  

Communities without professional leaders “plateau”. They cannot grow because they cannot serve the holiday, life-cycle and identity needs of prospective joiners, especially the needs of families with young children. Their philosophy is attractive to many. But their ability to reach out to others is limited by the absence of skilled people who are both able and willing to do what needs to be done.  

The first professional leaders of our movement have been rabbis. Both Daniel Friedman (Chicago) and I have served as the spiritual and philosophic leaders of the two largest and most important communities in our national association. Both of us have tried to pioneer the idea of a rabbi without God. Just as the Reform movement pioneered the concept of a rabbi who rejects the authority of orthodox law, so has our effort been an attempt to develop the legitimacy of a non-theistic and “secular” rabbinate. 

The rabbinate is an important profession for Humanistic Judaism and needs to be cultivated. It provides both status and legitimacy for humanistic communities seeking a link with the past. The role of the rabbi as a philosophic leader and teacher corresponds very well to the traditional role of many rabbis.  

One of our most important movement tasks is to recruit and train new rabbis for our communities, both established and emerging. Recruitment of already ordained rabbis is not easy. Both the Reform and the Reconstructionist movements have taken a turn to the right. Their younger rabbinic graduates are often more conservative than the graduates of earlier decades. They are not interested in becoming radical “renegades” or mavericks. The number of potential “defectors” is close to zero. 

Training our own rabbis is, therefore, an urgent task. For this reason a rabbinic program was recently established by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The program envisions a five year post-graduate course of study with a PhD in Judaic Studies from a secular university, courses on Humanistic Judaism with the faculty of the Institute and  an appropriate internship with a movement community. Hopefully, bright young men and women, who would never have contemplated the rabbinate because they are humanistic, will find this opportunity an attractive option. 

But rabbis are not enough to serve the leadership needs of our movement. There are small communities that cannot afford a rabbi. These are small communities that cannot afford a full-time leader. There are large communities that need assistants. There are needy communities that require professional leadership right away.  

Out of this pressing circumstance a new Jewish profession has emerged. It is called leader in English. It is called madrikh (men) or madrikha (women) in Hebrew. 

A madrikha is a professional community leader. She performs an important role somewhere between the work of the volunteer non-professional leader and the work of a rabbi. She is a ceremonialist who performs weddings and conducts funerals. She is an educator who can teach Humanistic Judaism to adults and children. She is a counselor who can offer appropriate ethical advice to people seeking her help. She is an administrator who can manage the affairs of a small community.  

A madrikha undergoes a three-year training program. This program includes training seminars, academic study and field work. Before the International Institute was established candidates received their education at the Humanist Institute in New York. Now the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism has created a complete training program for madrikhim and madrikhot. They define professional standards, arrange for continuing education, and provide certification. There are presently eleven members of the Conference.  

As you may have noticed, the programs and service of our own Birmingham Temple have been enormously enhanced by the talents and efforts of our resident madrikhot. Without the skills and dedication of Carolyn Borman, Miriam Jerris, Janis Levin-Gorelick, and Marilyn Rowens, much of the important work of the Temple would never be completed. For me, personally, they have been wonderful associates, who have assisted me in the carrying out of my own responsibilities.  

Madrikhot have become a significant part of the landscape of Humanistic Judaism. They perform an indispensable service. And they deserve our tribute and recognition. 

Please join me and the congregation on Friday evening, March 22 at 8:30 PM to celebrate their achievement and to hear their own reflections on the work they do.  

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, September 1988, Vol. XXVI, Number 2

At the end of September, during the festival of Sukkot, a special conference will be held in Brussels-which, in a very important way, is part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Birmingham Temple. 

The second biennial meeting of the new International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews is the special event.  It was founded in Detroit two years ago.  And, to a large extent, it grew out of the pioneer efforts of our own Temple to develop a humanistic alternative in Jewish life.  Today seven national organizations from America, Canada, France, Belgium, Uruguay, Argentina and Israel are joined together in a common effort to promote a secular approach to Jewish identity.  Hopefully, this international connection will provide a worldwide voice for our philosophy and for our decisions on important issues. 

One of these issues is the question of who is a Jew.  Although, on the surface, it appears to be a perfunctory issue, the answer to the question has aroused intense controversy in the Jewish world.  The persistent attempts of orthodox Jews in Israel to force the Israeli government to exclude from Jewish identity and Jewish privileges all citizens who do not conform to the orthodox vision of what a Jew is has dramatized the question. 

The orthodox criteria for Jewish identity are an odd mixture of racial and religious requirements.  All people born of Jewish mothers, regardless of their religious beliefs, loyalties or cultural attachments, are Jews.  But men and women who want to join the Jewish people must be converted by orthodox rabbis and pledge their commitment to orhodox practice.  This apparent inconsistency is defended with great passion by traditional Jews. 

The consequences of this traditional position, if it is applied uniformly throughout Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora, is the exclusion of large numbers of people who want to be Jews.  In an age of inreasing intermarriage there are thousand of Jewish children who have Jewish fathers but no Jewish mothers.  In a time of religious diversity there are thousands of potential “converts” who like Judaism but who cannot stomach orthodoxy.  In a world where millions of Jews are secular and find their Jewish identity in cultural loyalties, an identification of Jewish legitimacy with orthodox law and orthodox practice makes a majority of the Jewish people feel like second-class citizens. 

Neither conservative nor reform authorities have responded adequately to this controversy.  Conservative Jews follow the orthodox timidly, only demanding that conservative rabbis have the same privileges as the orthodox.  Reform Jews have been bolder acknowledging that Jewish fathers confer Jewish identity just as well as Jewish mothers.  But they still insist on some form of theistic conversion process for newcomers. 

What is needed is a bold repudiation of the orthodox position.  We need a definition of Jewish identity which will embrace all the people who think they are Jews, are acknowledged as Jews and who want to be Jews. 

We need a definition that will give the same rights to Jewish fathers as the orthodox give to Jewish mothers. 

We need a definition that will proclaim Judaism to be more than a religion, and Jewish identity to be far more than religious identity.  Cultural Jews are as much Jews as religious Jews. 

We need a definition that offers admission to secular people.  Secular newcomers who want to identify with Jewish history and Jewish destiny should be as welcome as the smaller minority who seek to be sincere orthodox Jews. 

We need a definition that tells the truth about the Jewish people and enables Jews to be honest about who they are and what they are. 

And once we have arrived at this definition through public discussion on an international level we need to speak loud and clear with one voice to the Jewish world.  It may be the case  that our proclamation will be welcomed by thousands of Jews who have been uncomfortable with the traditional monopoly of official definitions. 

What follows is the resolution approved by the International Executive of the Federation to be presented for discussion, amendment, and approval by the Brussels conference. 

Who is a Jew?  After more than thirty centuries Jews continue to debate this question. 

This debate is no academic exercise.  At stake is the integrity of millions of Jews who do not find their Jewish identity in religious belief or religious practice, but who discover their Jewishness in the national experience of the Jewish people.  At stake, also, is the Jewish identity of thousands of men and women, in Israel and in the Diaspora, who want to be Jewish, but who are rejected by the narrow legalism of traditional authorities. 

We, the members of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, believe that the survival of the Jewish people depends on a more generous view of Jewish identity than traditional religion allows.  We welcome into the Jewish people all men and women who sincerely desire to share the Jewish fate, regardless of their maternal ancestry and regardless of their religious beliefs.  We challenge the assumption that the Jews are primarily a religious community and that certain religious convictions and behavior are essential to full membership in the Jewish people. 

On the contrary, the Jewish people began as a nation, a nation with many diverse and opposing beliefs and personal convictions  It evolved into an international people, with a culture and civilization all its own.  Judaism, as the national culture of the Jews, is more than theological commitment.  It is language, a vast body of literature, historical memories and ethical values.  It is a treasure house of many options. 

We Jews have a moral responsibility to embrace all people who seek to identify with our culture and destiny. Will the children and spouses of intermarriage, who desire to be part of the Jewish people be cast aisde because they do not have Jewish mothers and do not wish to under conversion? 

Therefore-in response to the cruel and self-destructive definition of the Jews now proclaimed by the orthodox authorities-and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people-we affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent, or any person who declares himself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, civilization, community and fate of the Jewish people. 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, January 1983, Vol. XX, Number 6

1983. It’s our 20th anniversary year. 

In July of 1963, the idea of the Birmingham Temple was born. In September we held our first meeting. In November we were chartered. 

Some said that we would never last. But we lasted. And we grew stronger. And we helped to create sister congregations in other communities. 

What did we learn during the past twenty years? 

We discovered that we did not have to be imprisoned by the past. If neither Orthodoxy nor Conservatism nor Reform fit our beliefs, we did not have to adjust to what was unacceptable. We did not have to succumb to cynical resignation. We could pioneer an alternative that had never been tried before and make it work. 

We learned that maintaining our integrity helped us deal with hostility. The intimidation techniques of our enemies were less effective so long as we were defending what we really believed. Compromise would have undermined our self-esteem and made us vulnerable to attack. Beyond our integrity, boldness was our greatest asset. 

We discovered that we could be truly creative. Since there was no readily available working tradition for humanistic Judaism we had to make our own. We redid the holidays. We wrote new services. We transformed the Bar and Bat Mitsvah (sic) ceremony. We invented a new form of Jewish education. Our commitments forced us to do what we never planned to do. They made us see our own talents. 

We learn that we were able to serve people who had never been adequately served before by institutional life. Most of our first members were peripheral Jews who found their Jewish involvements uncomfortable and compromising. They never imagined that it was possible for them to feel at the center of Jewish commitment. But the Temple gave them a philosophic home where they never had to feel like strangers. 

We discovered that we were saying out loud what many people already believed. The Temple made no converts. It simply became a public voice for people who never had one before. The liberation of humanistic Jews is not their awakening to secular truth. It is a willingness to go public.  

We learned that we enjoyed pioneering. Starting something new was even more fun than inheriting something old. It enabled us to focus on our own present needs and not the needs of ancestors who had died a long time ago. We felt unique and useful. The pleasure of being our own person made up for any residual guilt that gave us anxiety. 

We discovered that we were continually changing. Some of our enemies claimed that we would end up as rigid and dogmatic as the people we opposed. But, very early, we experienced the frustration of trying things that didn’t work. We learned to try, to test and to choose. Our members were too good humored to let any procedure become sacred. Some of our first songs have been justifiably forgotten. And some of our best celebrations are very new. 

We learned that we could transmit our philosophy to the next generation. Many skeptics wondered whether children in a conventional religious world could embrace the humanistic alternative. But we saw our children grow up to enjoy the humanistic answers and to become articulate spokespeople for the Temple point of view. We developed a sense of continuity. 

We discovered that it is sometimes hard to be a humanistic Jew. We were denied the ease of joining just a neighborhood congregation. Joining the Birmingham Temple meant continuous training. Our friends, neighbors and associates did not regard our affiliation with indifference. We had to defend, to explain, to justify. And, in the process, we had to work hard at understanding our philosophy. Members of other congregations could hide behind the respectability. We had to prove ourselves. 

We learned, above all, that shared values and ideas help to develop a community. We started out as strangers who came together for philosophical reasons. But our common commitments made it easier for us to become friends. Our first attachments were to ideas. But they deepened into connections with people. The history of our temple is a story of friendship and community. We have always wanted to be for (sic) more than a discussion society. We have striven to become a family of choice. 

We have discovered many things in twenty years. They are part of our unique tradition.  

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, October, 1978, Vol. XVI, Number 2

The Future of The Birmingham Temple 

The Birmingham Temple is fifteen years old. 

Given the environment in which it grew up, its survival is both amazing and exciting. 

The source of its vital energy lies in two things-the determination and talents of its members-and the sense of mission which the possession of a unique philosophy bestows. 

Without Humanistic Judaism, the Temple would not have been able to recruit the members….who give it its unique character.  And without the need to justify its new philosophy, the congregation would never have been motivated to be creative. 

After fifteen years, The Birmingham Temple has achieved the edge of community respectability. 

It has a home of its own, with an attractive new addition under way.  It has a growing membership which includes some of the brightest young and old people in the community.  It has a large group of student alumni who derive a good part of their childhood memories from the Temple experience.  It has a wide audience of non-members who attend its programs.  It has spawned other congregations which rescue it from isolation and give it the image of a genuine….Jewish alternative. 

The achievements are considerable.  And remembering them for short periods of time is pleasurable and normal. 

But the very nature of Humanistic Judaism prevents us from spending too much time on nostalgia.  We are future oriented.  The accomplishment of yesterday is less important that (sic) the problem of tomorrow. 

What are the problems of tomorrow? 

What new creative answers will we have to come up with? 

There will be the need to deal realistically with the revolution in personal life style. 

The growing world of single people-divorced, widowed and deliberate-can derive no satisfaction from an ethic which finds fulfillment only in family life. 

There will be the need to deal with the aging of the Jewish community.  The decline in the bourgeois birth rate will shift a lot of attention from youth education to creative education for adults. 

There will be the need to communicate effectively with other humanists in our community so that we can cooperate against the increasing aggressiveness of fundamentalist religion. 

There will be the need to share our experience with other Jews in other places, who find Humanistic Judaism significant and want to do what we did. 

Above all, there will be the need to be present-oriented not past-oriented.  At a time when a lot of residual guilt will disappear with a generation of Jews who have no memory of traditional parents and grandparents, new ceremonies and rituals will have to be invented.  The emotional level of religious life will rise from nostalgia to aesthetic fulfillment. 

The next fifteen years will have enough problems to solve so that we will be rescued from boredom and complacency. 

The Rabbi Writes: Renewal

The Jewish Humanist, March 1993, Vol. XXIX, Number 8

Renewal.  That is the theme of our March retreat.  It is the special theme of our thirtieth anniversary celebration. 

Renewal means a strengthening of our commitment to the importance of the Birmingham Temple and of Humanistic Judaism in our lives.  It means that neither can be taken for granted, and that their welfare and survival depend on our personal efforts and involvement. 

There are many ways that we can express our commitment. 

We may choose to develop a better understanding of our Jewish and humanist roots.  The Monday evening class on Jewish history and Jewish culture and the Shabbat morning discussion group on Jewish literature await our participation. We can even call the Temple and acquire a book list of important reading that we can do all on our own.  Study can intensify our humanistic awareness of the Jewish experience and Jewish identity. 

We may choose to join a Temple committee or Temple work group.  The congregation exists because hundred (sic) of volunteers over the past thirty years have contributed their time and energy to the programs and activities of our unique community.  The Temple provides all kinds of opportunities for interesting work-intellectual, artistic, literary, social, ethical.  Along the way you meet new people and make new friends.  The bonds of friendship are the lifeblood of the congregation. 

We may choose to participate in the celebration life of the congregation  Every Shabbat evening we come together to celebrate our Jewishness and to renew our commitment to each other, to the Jewishh people and to the ethical values we strive to realize.  Being in the Temple on Friday night-all together-heightens our awareness of the community to which we belong and of the philosophy of life by which we seek to live.  Singing songs and lighting candles are not trivial when they are part of community renewal. 

We may choose to bring our Judaism into our home.  There is more to Jewish expression than Hanukka and Passover.  We may introduce a holiday we have never celebrated before.  We may read out loud the literature of Humanistic Judaism, think about it and talk about it with our partners and children.  We may even display a symbol as simple as our very own “Humanorah” to remind us of our identity and beliefs.  Even sophisticated people-although they are reluctant to admit it-may find meaning in visible symbols. 

We may choose to give our energy to community service.  Ethics only become real when they are turned into personal behavior.  Poor Jews need our help.  Russian families need our help.  Homeless people need our help.  The battle for abortion and life style rights is a continuous struggle against powerful opponents.  Social action can be done in many places.  But doing it through the Birmingham Temple strengthens the moral outreach of our own community. 

We may choose to discuss the Temple and Humanistic Judaism with our friends and neighbors.  Sharing ideas and convictions with others does not turn us into aggressive and overzealous missionaries.  But there may be people we know who would really enjoy the Birmingham Temple if only they fully understood our philosophy and if only they could associate Humanistic Judaism with enthusiastic people they love and trust.  New members come to us-not because they are “converts”-but because they discover, for the first time, a community where they can be both honest and comfortable.  Finding new families and singles for the Temple strengthens the congregation.  But it may also strengthen the newcomers. 

We may choose to participate in the movement of Humanistic Judaism.  The Temple is part of a national and world outreach which we helped to create.  We do not stand alone.  There are brother and sister communities in North America, Europe, Israel, Australia and Latin America who share our commitment to a cultural Judaism.  There is also the International Institute which trains our leaders and rabbis and also provides weekend seminars of adult education to help us intensify our Jewish and Humanist awareness.  Participating in the movement means meeting and working with people from all over our country and the world.  There are national conferences to attend.  There are international; meetings to enjoy.  There are annual trips to Israel to join.  There are programs, like the rabbinic program, to support.  Sharing with others in the project of making Humanistic Judaism a viable and recognized alternative in Jewish life is an exciting way to build our future. 

We may choose to be optimistic.  Hope is not a guarantee promised by destiny.  It is a determination to create what needs to be created.  Without that determination the Birmingham Temple would never have survived the assaults of her opponents and the wariness of skeptics.  Choosing hope means that we are serious about the future.  We do not accept the past unquestioningly.  We do not revere our tradition.  We are open to making changes that need to be made.  What once worked may no longer work.  As long as we remain faithful to our fundamental principles and mission, the strategies of implementing them can comfortably adjust to reality.  Creativity has to balance our nostalgia. 

I hope that the thirtieth birthday anniversary will be a time of renewal for you. 

The Spiritual Dimension

Humanistic Judaism North American Federation Conference Highlights Spring 1990 

Recently I was visiting in the hospital a woman who had just given birth to a child. She was holding her baby. Since she was a feminist and a female liberationist, she had never thought that having a child would be the greatest moment in her life. But it was. And the words she used to describe her ecstasy were that holding this child was “like a spiritual experience”. 

I know people who go up to Northern Michigan in the autumn to see the leaves changing. They walk through the woods and have extraordinary responses. And I find that more and more of them feel comfortable with saying that these experiences are spiritual happenings for them. 

I know people who for the past 20 years have been into yoga and meditation. Many of them are secular humanists. One woman said to me that she had an experience where she saw an extraordinary light. She did not think she was bumping into God (she’s not quite sure what he looks like), but she said it was an extremely intense spiritual experience for her. 

You cannot deny reality. If people who regard themselves as secular humanists are going around saying that they are having spiritual experiences, then you cannot sit around with some old secular dictionary and say the word spiritual is treyf

Given the history of secular humanism and Secular Humanistic Judaism, spirituality may seem to be something alien. The word spiritual conjures up certain non-humanist words and ideas; “supernatural”, “God”, a meaning that comes from “out there” for my life, withdrawal from everyday concerns, a sense that everything in the world constitutes some kind of harmonious whole. 

But when humanists talk about a spiritual experience, they may be talking about being at the symphony concert and hearing the Beethoven Ninth and being absolutely overwhelmed by the power, the beauty, the grandeur of the event. Or they are walking in the woods, or a child is born, or they have some special moment with a friend, or they are looking at the stars and observing the order of the universe. 

What does the secular humanistic version of spirituality have in common with the traditional kind? The experience of beauty. Both the traditionalist and the humanist acknowledge that the spiritual experience is one of intense beauty. 

Now beauty poses a problem. It is something that many people regard as trivial. It is also subjective. What one person regards this beautiful another may regard as ugly. How do you get a handle on beauty? 

Beauty is subjective but not trivial. The things that we perceive as beautiful in our lives are those things that give meaning to us, those things that are related to our survival and our happiness. What a human being would regard as beautiful would be different from what an insect would regard as beautiful if it had the power to think and feel. Since there are degrees of meaning, there are degrees of beauty. Objects, people, and events that are very meaningful and very beautiful are also very spiritual. 

One of the most beautiful things that we experience, which is part of every religion and every culture is light. Why do virtually all cultures light candles? The answer is quite clear. Without light, there is no life. When human beings first discovered fire, that discovery was the beginning of human civilization. Thus light and fire are understandably sacred and beautiful. 

Water is beautiful. Why does everyone want to live by the water? What is there about water that makes it so attractive and compelling? Well, where does life start? We start in water and some of us never want to leave! 

Vistas are beautiful. Why do people want to climb hilltops and enjoy the view? Remember, we started out as primates. For primates, the primary sense is vision. If they did not have good vision and they were jumping from one tree to the other and they missed, they were through. When they came down from the trees onto the Savannah grass and we’re looking apprehensively for danger, they needed vista and perspective. 

Symmetry is beautiful. Most people like symmetry; we ourselves are symmetrical. There are art forms that are asymmetrical, but we can get very disoriented when things are too asymmetrical. 

Order is beautiful. Why are people always turned on by the stars? I have a feeling that if you are out there next to Jupiter, it is not so orderly. But from a distance, from our perspective, it is different. Obviously, human beings cannot survive in chaos. There is something about order, predictability, that is related to our own sense of survival. 

Power is beautiful. Why are we into mountains? One of the ways to develop perspective on life is to feel insignificant. You get caught up in everyday problems and then you have what we call “experiences of something greater than yourself”, and all of a sudden the concerns that seemed so big become trivial. In fact, the sense of not feeling so important or feeling small against the universe, is an absolutely relaxing experience that enables you to prepare for the next chapter in your life. 

Grace is beautiful. Grace is doing the most difficult task with almost no apparent effort. ( there may be great effort involved, but it appears effortless. )  The most popular art form in our society is sports. For some people, watching participants in the Olympic games is like watching dancers. To them, athletic mastery is an affirmation that it is possible to establish perfect control over one’s body. It is the embodiment of an ideal. 

Solidarity is beautiful. Someone told me that the greatest spiritual experience in her life was back in the early 1960s, when she came to Washington and stood on the Mall and heard Martin Luther King Jr speak. She felt united with all those people, and for her that sense of unity was an ultimate experience. 

Even evil can be beautiful, when it imitates elements of good. One of the things that was very troublesome to many people was that Hitler understood how to integrate beauty with evil. He created torch light parades – masses of people carrying torches in the night. He knew how to exploit the power of beauty. Someone who was at Yellowstone Park during the terrible fire last year told me that the raging fire paragraph ( which certainly wasn’t productive of human good ) was in itself something beautiful 

What are the implications of what I am saying? The first is that beauty or spirituality is an act of creation. It does not exist in the object out there. It is an interplay between the object and the human being. On Sukkot I heard a performance of Yiddish music. I was in Israel, and this performance really grabbed me, to the point where I had a spiritual experience. An Irishman listening to that music would not have had a spiritual experience. Chinese people listening to that music would not have had a spiritual experience. It is not related to the affirmation of their roots. 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I performed a wedding recently in which the man was in his early eighties and the bride was seventy-nine. He was standing there holding the bride’s hand and saying, “she’s beautiful, beautiful”. The guests were puzzled because she appeared old and decrepit. But in the eyes of this man she was extremely beautiful. She was, for him, a spiritual experience. 

Not everything is beautiful. I find it annoying when people say, “All is Love”. In the middle of an earthquake, they say, “All is love”. As people are dying of cancer, they say, “All is Love”. They keep affirming that behind all this turmoil and evil there is some good force that unites all things. 

One of the most refreshing things for me, when finally I was confirmed as a secular humanist was that I could be honest, that I could call evil “evil”, rotten “rotten”, good “good”, and beautiful “beautiful”. In fact, beauty would have no meaning if everything were beautiful. The difference between a humanistic spirituality and a theistic spirituality is our assertion that ugliness is as basic as beauty. The universe does not always serve the human agenda. 

For me spirituality is an experience of intense beauty, and beauty is no trivial value. It is not simply art it is not simply nice faces in the living room. Beauty can be part of the most profound experiences of life. 

I do not want to argue about a label. Some old-time secularists are uncomfortable with the word  spiritual. So let them simply say “beautiful” or “meaningful” or “inspiring” or whatever word they choose. But for people who are not uncomfortable with the word ( because they were less engaged in the old battle against organized religion ), experiences of intense beauty can be appropriately “spiritual”. 

The challenge to us is how to increase these experiences in our lives, especially the kinds of experiences we can share as a community: the music we use, The poetry we choose, the experiences that go beyond the intellectual. Beauty is not an explanation of what is valuable in the universe. It is the experience of what is valuable in the universe. How do we arrange this experience? 

Aesthetics is not a trivial concern for us Secular Humanistic Jews if all we can do is to articulate our ideology, we will lose. If we can create for ourselves and others experiences of intense beauty, then we will be able to reach out to the people who need us. 

The Future of Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1976, Vol. IV, Number II

What is the future of Humanistic Judaism? 

I don’t know. It’s hard for me to be objective. For me it’s such a sensible philosophy of life that I find it difficult to understand why so many seemingly rational people do not choose to identify with it. 

All that I can perceive in the American Jewish community seems to indicate that more and more Jews need to hear what we are saying. These are people who are emotionally and intellectually alienated from existing Jewish institutions but who value their Jewish identity. 

Why are they alienated? 

Many are turned off by the mumbo jumbo of theology. They come to the synagogue to receive some kind of meaningful guidance for their daily lives and find themselves involved in a world of theistic fantasy where the rules of the game have nothing at all to do with real life. Too rational to accept romantic nostalgia as an adequate substitute and too honest to stomach hypocrisy they enter the limbo of malcontents who have no Jewish alternatives. Unlike their friends who have chosen compromise, they are not burdened by family guilt or peer pressure. Unlike their friends who have chosen “to leave,” they find Unitarianism and Ethical Culture deficient in Jewishness. 

Many are repelled by the open hypocrisy. There seems to be no correlation between what Jews say they believe and what they do. The Torah is exalted as the ultimate book of wisdom and no one reads it. The Talmud is praised as a source of great ethical insight and no one consults it. Prayer is announced as an essential human discipline and everyone ignores it. Judaisms appears to be an immense pretension, a behavioral lie. For some Jews this game of illusions is necessary for Jewish survival. For others less willing to subordinate their personal integrity to a doubtful strategy, the inconsistency is insufferable. 

Many are alienated by an absence of real experiment. In the establishment institutions whether conserative, reform or reconstructionist, change has been trivial – a jazz service here, a cinema service there, but no real coming to grips with the revolution in ideas and feelings that is part of the computer age. The radical Jewish Left has pioneered the communal havurah. But the religious structure is irrelevant to the life style of the average middle-class Jew and even the most ambitious of the avant-gard (sic) Jewish activity is burdened by nostalgia. There is so much fear among th rabbinic leaders that we will lose contact with our past that little energy survives to establish some kind of meaningful contact with the future. The burden of proof is distributed irrationally. Those who wish to make changes bear the most of it, even though what they resist has long since been ignored. Jews today often try to prove their right to their identity, not by doing what they need not defend, but by defending what they do not need. 

Many are turned off by the parochialism of the Jewish community. In a mobile age when national boundaries are ceasing to be relevant and when the worlds of business and education demand social intermingling, the hysterical response of rabbinic leaders to intermarriage is deeply reactionary. The charges against the Jews of tribalism and clannishness have usually been dismissed as the rantings of antisemites. But many Jews experience these attitudes as the normal response of their family and friends. They find themselves surrounded by a fear of openness and a passion for  social isolation that belie the propaganda of liberalism which Jews associate with their image. An obsession with the question of Jewish survival dominates the work of the community and claims all energies. Jewishness becomes the ultimate criterion by which all activities are judged and by which all goals are evaluated. The result is stifling. 

Many are alienated by the appeal to antisemitism. They are resentful of an establishment that seeks to frighten them into being Jewish. Group paranoia hardly seems an acceptable base for an affirmative identity. While one may have to be Jewish for negative reasons, he does not have to build an organizational identity out of a social disease. Moreover, young Jews do not perceive the American Jewish community as a destitute, downtrodden community. Having been raised in the affluence of middle-class suburbia and have tasted every opportunity for bourgeois success, they see their people as one of the wealthiest and most influential components of the American establishment. They perceive that the intellectual and financial resources of the Jewish world are too vast for only self-pity and self-defense, and that, with proper motivation and direction, they could be used for more humanistic ends. The self-image of the Jew raised in Hitler’s era is different from the vision of his (sic?) post-war child. 

Many Jews are estranged by the vicariousness of contemporary Jewish experience. They recognize the obvious truth that the only Jewish reality that excites the majority of American Jewry is the state of Israel. In present day synagogues and community centers the programs for both youth and adults are overwhelmingly devoted to the culture and political problems of the Israeli people. While they do not deny the uniqueness and grandeur of the life style in the Jewish state, and while they are eager to work for the survival of this nation, they find the Israeli experience a second-hand adventure. For those Jews who choose to be truly Zionistic and to immigrate to the Jewish homeland, Jewishness built around the excitement of Israeli patriotism is direct and authentic. But for the vast majority of American Jews it is an exercise in futility. By labeling Diaspora-living as inferior, Zionism condemns the Jew who chooses to live in the Diaspora to be an “almost-Jew”, to be a Jew who is incapable (by his place in the world) of being fully Jewish. The world of Jewish Identity has been split in two. There are those who live Jewishness in the state of Israel, and there are those who stand on the sidelines and “kvell.” For a Jew who selects to be neither an Israeli nor a “kveller”, there are almost no options. 

Many are driven away by the excessive nationalism that permeates the community leadership. Their education and their sentiments lead them to struggle for the humanist ideal of a unified mankind. Involvement in the affairs of the Jewish community only brings them problems of conscience. Instead of encountering the tradition of international culture, which Jews helped to pioneer in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they find themselves embroiled in the internal politics and foreign relations of a small Middle Eastern state, and discover that the United Nations and American disarmament are not the enemy. The concept of the Jews as an international people, skeptical of all chauvinism, and committed by their history to world unity has become a soul without an institutional body to give it reality. 

The alienation of so many American Jews from Jewish institutions and from any kind of positive Jewish association is deplorable. Not because being Jewish is important in and of itself; and not because Jewish survival has some religious or supernatural significance which the rational person is unable to perceive. But because Jewish identity has a humanist and ethical value which mankind needs. 

To be Jewish is to be a member of an international family whose structure and whose loyalty transcend the nationalist disaster of the contemporary world. The Jews are more than Judaism. They are more than Israel and the Zionist experiment. They are more than a unique ethnic culture. They are, in experience, an ‘internationality’, a people whose worldwide extension is a harbinger of future group identity in our rapidly changing world. For the past two centuries Jews have been the initiators and developers of cosmopolitan culture in the European environment. From Ludwig Zamenof to Albert Einstein Jews have helped to pioneer the idea of a world society in which the primary social identity of each individual would be “hunman”, and in which the ultimate group loyalty would be mankind. 

If this humanistic ethic, strongly embedded in the modern experience of the Jewish people, can be divorced from the irrelevant supernatural trappings of the past, it will provide a secular Jewish alternative to both secular nationalism and to religious mysticism. A truly humanistic Judaism will create a Jewish alternative which is sorely needed and which has never been given an organized public expression. 

A Jewish humanism which is courageous enough to dispense with the hypocrisies of conventional religion must be honest enough not to be all things to all people. It cannot with integrity satisfy the ethical and Jewish needs of every alienated Jew. If it tries to be meaningful to every Jew who is estranged from exiting religious institutions, it will be meaningful to none. Some who are alienated want more religion, more supernatural experience, more mysticism. Others want more nationalism, more Zionism, more involvement with the state of Israel. To reject theology does not mean that one accepts humanism or humanistic ethics. Secular Jews can be as chauvinistic and as parochial as religious Jews. 

There is, in my mind, a personal and social need for an “ethical” institution which carries on the historic moral role of the conventional religious congregation, without the supernatural sanctions which a belief in God provided. Since there are many possible secular moral systems, there are many possible “ethical” congregations. A humanistic Jewish temple is one that trains its members in a humanistic morality and in the humanistic value of Jewish identity. 

I believe that there are thousands of Jews in America who would find such an institution emotionally and intellectually satisfying. Whether we, as pioneer groups, have the power to reach them, will depend on the strength of our desire and our will. 

************************************************************************ 

Rabbi Sherwin T. wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism, is the leader of the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan 

The Controversial Rabbi Sherwin Wine” by Henry Kingswell II

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1976, Vol. IV, Number II

Mr. Kingswell was the interviewer for DETROIT magazine. 

“I am an atheist…school discrimination on the basis of philosophy, talent and sex should be allowed…Israel has made the Jew insular and chauvinistic…When people tell me their identity is in being a woman, Polish, a Black Muslim or a Ku Klux Klansmna, I don’t believe them…” 

Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine is not one to mince words. His shoot-from-the-hip style has on numerous occasions drawn the ire of the nation’s Jewish orthodox community which has publicly denounced Detroit’s “Godless Rabbi.” Undaunted, the 47 year old maverick is located with his loyal followers in Farmington Hills. Today, capacity crowds flock wherever he speaks. 

As a 17 year-old Central High School senior. Wine was to display the brilliant intellect and sarcastic wit that would be his trademark when he was honored as the nation’s top student in American History in the annual Hearst Newspapers Awards. 

Picking up his formal and street education in the Dexter-Davison area, Wine studied philosophy at U-M and went on to graduate from Cincinnati’s Hebrew College in 1956. He then served two years as an Army chaplain in Korea. The dapperly dressed Wine is a confirmed bachelor and founder of the Society of Humanistic Judaism, which serves people in six U.S. cities. 

Wine holds that “What a man does is the only adequate tst of man’s belief.” He believes synagogues are a permanent shelter for puberty, and that urban people have very little need for God. In an urban environment people worry about human power; both the good and evil of our city, says Wine, are the creation of man. 

Humanistic Judaism has no religious restrictions. Included in the Temple Birmingham (sic) congregation are several gentiles and many young people who believe they have responded to the secular revolution of the “New Jew” who is mobile, intellectual, science-oriented, skeptical, innovative, a money expert, atheistic and aggressive. 

Detractors call Rabbi Wine’s flock “Super Jews.” 

The followers of Humanistic Judaism couldn’t agree more. Freelance writer Henry Kingswell II found Rabbi Wine in his office at the Birmingham Temple. 

DETROIT: How does an ordained rabbi, a spiritual leader of the Jewish community with a new temple and a congregation of over 300 families explain to his religious members that there is no God? 

WINE: That’s gutless and unimaginative, but a question I’ve heard a thousand times before. It’s not that I have a non-belief in God, but that I’ve chosen not to use the word. I regard the word ‘God’ as troublesome because it keeps people from dealing with their own problems effectively and leads them to do things that are totally irrelevant…like prayers and worship. Believing in God is simply irrelevant to solving human problems. It is delegating one’s own power and resources to some sort of authoritarian father figure…My decision has been to stop using the word God and instead to talk about brotherhood, love, justice…The word God is just dragging in a word that is confusing to contemporary, urban lifestyles and carries an historical meaning that, in the long run, has always proved negative and unproductive…The issue of God is an absence of imagination. There are other words, other concepts, much more creative and efficient for describing reality. We shouldn’t turn any word or person into an idol. To be totally creative is to say ‘Kiddo…I’m never trapped.’ My congregation is composed mostly of well-educated, professional and business people. Not all are Jewish, but all share a common belief in Humanistic Judaism. The only real world to us is the natural world not the supernatural…If God wants the supernatural world to play with, be my guest. 

DETROIT: What about the Bible? 

WINE: The Bible–and other traditional religious books, do not answer the questions raised by modern man. As documents for a modern technological, urban society, the Bible, Koran, Torah and other sacred scriptures defy the principal of reason. Humanism holds that truth does not belong in a book because all books have mistakes..all books have authors..Moses, Einstein, Jesus, Philip Roth or what-have-you. Tomorrow a new piece of evidence could possibly turn up that would prove a book mistake and change your mind. There are much more satisfying, informative and entertaining books to read than those written 2,500 years ago. The problem with religious texts like the Bible is that their intellectual framework is authoritarian…it was written for a society that believed in an authoritarian God. Almost everyone in the Bible was a shepherd, fisherman, farmer or some sort of king. Nobody lived in the city, the settings were usually rural. You can’t take shepherds and farmers and the problems that grew out of a pastoral, arcadian society and make them models for people who live in big cities…The modern, urban, technological man can learn a hell of a lot more from Bertrand Russell and Erich Fromm than he can from Moses and Jesus. 

DETROIT: Can Detroit’s problems be solved? 

WINE: Certainly. But first what has to be done is to eliminate all the nostalgic, good-old-days concepts adn to initiate some rational, radical concepts. The city government is going to have to understand that they are going to have to renovate. 

DETROIT: Which means? 

WINE: The future of Detroit will ultimately be as an apartment city. Much of the housing that exists now will have to be torn down…I see Detroit as a city of high rises and shopping centers. You can’t restore downtown Detroit, downtowns are out. The future is going to be very different from the past, but most people are nostalgic and live in a fantasy world. The future frightens them. They don’t want to create or build, they want to restore the old. ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if downtown were alive again–nice trees, beautiful, clean streets.’ Such mentalities are very harmful if Detroit is to survive. The Detroit of the future must be a city where the contrasts between the rich and poor will have to change, where large spaces occupied by few people will have to go, a city where private auto transportation will not be the major means of getting around town. Detroit should be a planned city of a dozen major shopping centers and community districts, as opposed to a downtown centralization, which is irrational. 

DETROIT: Is it irrational to say that you don’t live or work in the city and therefore Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine’s views are not coming from Detroit, but from suburbia? 

WINE: Hardly. For one thing the very nature of our urban civilization is evolving into one city, one world city, from Hong Kong to London, from Toronto to Buenos Aires–and surely from Bloomfield to Detroit. Suburban spread, as we know it, will ultimately be restricted because of economics–the expensive costs of fuel, food and transportation will necessitate building apartment cities. But I’m not so naive as to not know that many of Detroit’s problems stem from poor race relations. That will only end when white people learn to accept black people as power figures. Once they (white people) grow accustomed and accept blacks as equals–in some cases as superiors and authority figures–they will stop running…Whites run from blacks because they put them in a lower class image, but that is changing…Realistically, they (the blacks) will have to be accepted as power figures who will make mistakes, be S.O.B.’s and everything that white people do and are…I’m optimistic that in the future Detroit will master its environment and problems. 

DETROIT: Is there any evidence that the church–organized religion–will help bring people together? 

WINE: Well, let’s say that a young Catholic priest today has a lot more in common with a young rabbi or a young reverend than during any time in history…Modern religions are more and more humanistic in their lifestyles and approach to problems, and less and less theistic. Idealistically, they are much closer and share many of the same humanistic, revolutionary concepts. Western culture has permeated and influenced almost all the world churches. For instance, at one time nearly all religions were deeply concerned with life after death but one rarely hears that kind of thing coming from a pulpit nowadays. People care about what is going on today–how can they better their position in life–and could care less for having lectures in ancient Latin or Hebrew and all the patented promises to heaven or hell…Today a minister, priest, rabbi and what-have-you must service the audience. People want to be inspired, and that’s a revolutionary change. Entire congregations are crying out that they want to be changed in one way or another. They want variety, in some cases it’s outright entertainment and the churches are changing their emphasis from one of prayer and worship to that of fellowship and counseling. If that means more guitars, poetry, clinics and X-rated films…well, that’s how the churches are going to hold people’s attention and fulfill peoples’ needs. Ultimately the religions that survive will be those which accept humanistic goals and transcend themselves, teaching that it’s not how people relate to God, but how people related to themselves and other human beings. 

DETROIT: How important is money? 

WINE: Personally, I am non-accumulative. I earn enough to have the things I want, but I have no concept of saving…I find it very tragic that people find identity with the things they own…I do not wish to own anything I cannot use…that’s my personal style. I like generous people who are not uptight about money. I like people who live in small rooms with very sparse settings so that when you walk into their homes they become the center of attention, not some expensive antique. 

DETROIT: Tradition does not seem to turn you on. 

WINE: Not in any form…and that includes “Fiddler on the Roof.” In a world of continual change, tradition is devastating. People must find new answers to problems as they emerge. A successful society requires a lot of people who concentrate on the future. Far too many people talk about something that cannot be changed–about going back to the land–which is just another way of not finding a creative alternative. It’s similar to the numbers of people who work at a place like the GM Tech Center, where they are involved in exciting work making decisions, blueprinting new designs. But then they go home and choke themselves off from the creative world…they become very conservative, unresponsive, lack imagination, become traditionalists. They are locked in a strict routine, a rut, while all the time they could be planning new, exciting adventures. Tradition can easily wind up causing self-hate and retardation of personal growth. 

DETROIT: Would this be the same kind of self-hate that you have written about Zionism and the State of Israel? 

WINE: My feelings about that are public record. I believe Israel has a right to exist and I will do what I can to see that it does. However, I do not view Israel the way other people–especially the Zionists–do, namely, that it is the center of Jewish life. To me, the center of Jewish life is where most Jews live. I don’t believe people have to go there to reconstitute a Jewish nation…Today Detroit has giben much more to Tel Aviv than Te Aviv has to Detroit…As for Zionism, it is a direct response to anti-Semitism. And anti-Semitism says that the most important thing about Sherwin Wine is that he is Jewish. Hogwash! I’m proud of being Jewish but I will not be brainwashed. Basically, Zionism has built into it the same premise of anti-Semitism…I will deal with the enemy on humanistic terms, as an individual. 

DETROIT: Your comments after returning from Israel met with much controversy. Would you care to reiterate or modify any of those statements. 

WINE: Why? I’m not afraid or embarrassed. Israel was founded to a large degree by Zionists who said the Jews are a nation and that they ought to return to their own land. From my view, Jews have stopped being a nation and have become a world people. Israel is simply not the most important aspect of Jewish life. For the most part Israel serves as a refuge for people who have nowhere to go…My problem with Israel is the same as my problem with the United States–I do not like nationalism. I am an internationalist. As a humanist I look forward to breaking down all national barriers. Indeed, the goal of religious teaching should not be to train good Israelis or good Americans but to teach people to be good world citizens. We live in an international, urban, world culture–more and more so–and we can only solve our problems if we learn to become international, world citizens…We must train Israelis not to think that Israel is the be-all-to-end-all. We must teach Americans that maybe it’s all right to give up some sovereignty to something greater and bigger… 

DETROIT: Do you believe in the international Jewish conspiracy theory that some people claim exists? 

WINE: Jews are by nature of their 2,000 year urban tradition very good with words. Their best skills are verbal. Therefore, they are bound to shine intellectually in any country they live. There is a large percentage of writers above and beyond the normal ethnic percentage. In countries like France, England, Canada…you can’t talk about literature without talking about Jewish participation. 

DETROIT: As well as the U.S,? 

WINE: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Leon Uris, Saul Bellow, Malcolm, Malamud and quite a few others have certainly left their mark on contemporary American literature. But when the overwhelming majority write about Jewish life they write about pious, religious, bible-reading people who aren’t in any way, shape or form like any Jewish people I know. 

DETROIT: What about the way catholicism was presented in “The Exorcist?” 

WINE: Undoubtedly “The Exorcist” was the funniest film I’ve ever seen. First of all the little girl–the little goody-goody, cutesy-wootsy kid that gets possessed–she deserved it. And those two priests! I could ot wait for them to go at the end.They were bad news. One was a self-pitying intellectual, the other was a mumbler. The most attractive person in that whole film was the devil…He had the best lines, the best style…I really liked him. 

DETROIT: Exactly how do other religious clergy members react to  your dialogue? 

WINE: What I do is say out loud what many of them already know and think. My role: I make it easier for them to come out of the closet, because I’ve let it all hang out. Basically, I’m good for ministers, priests and rabbis. They don’t hate me, because they know that the things I say paraphrase many of their own thoughts and beliefs…Another of my roles is to articulate those things that might appear very frightening to the religious community. 

DETROIT: What is the greatest frustration you find in your work? 

WINE: The absence of laughter in religion I find that the healthiest emotion is laughter. Laughter is necessary for seeing alternatives. When people can’t find alternatives they feel trapped, they can’t relax. I like people who look at life with imagination (sic) and enthusiasm of Zorba the Greek.If something collapses…you go on and build another. If that collapses, you have a rousing laugh and start all over again. Far too many people feel that if they lose that one special person , that one book, that one house, that they are gone…The key is being able to imagine alternatives. People who can laugh a lot, generally can cope. 

DETROIT: If you would, give an instant analysis of the following persons or situation…Busing. 

WINE: To me, busing would only be a very expensive procedure with very minimal results…It’s an old liberal cliche used by an unimaginative government bureaucracy and will not produce an integrated society. 

DETROIT: Rabbi Korf? (The self-appointed legal fundraiser for Richard Nixon.) 

WINE: That’s easy. The man is either an opportunist or insane…or both. 

DETROIT: Public financing of private schools? 

WINE: Money should be allotted to individuals to use as they choose…to provide as much educational variety as possible…Discrimination on the basis of philososphy, talent and sex should be allowed… 

DETROIT: Are you ready for hell? 

WINE: Sure, why not? Besides, I’m not sure I would want to be in heaven anyway. Before I would be interested in heaven I would need more information about the place and what they do there. I don’t want to go to some eternal spot before I know what the programs and activities are. I might find heaven a bore…and I’m not too sure I would like God. Hell might be just the right spot—valhalla! For me, physical death is mental death: when the body decays the central nervous system goes. Life after death hardly seems practical, either in heaven or hell. It exhausts me just thinking about the subject. I mean you’re speaking of eternity and like I say, I’m afraid that heaven is not all it’s cracked up to be and God may be an absolutely dull and boring person…Who wants to spend time trapped in space with a dull, boring person? I don’t. 

DETROIT: That is exactly the kind of dialogue that your detractors find indignant and sacrilegious. They say you should cool it. How do you deal with their anger? 

WINE: Well, I don’t mind dealing with hostility if it’s over important matters. I enjoy the whole process of convincing, persuading, talking, arguing—I enjoy it. Some people get very uptight, I don’t. Controversy has never been burdensome to me, it has never been traumatic or terrible. Well, it’s fun. Even obscene letters, they don’t upset me. I realize that there’s a lot of sick people out there, but as a human being, a Humanistic Jew, I can’t preoccupy myself with thoughts of what others think of me. I must get on with my work. 

Sherwin Wine’s ‘Humanistic Judaism’ – A Book Review by Rami Shapiro

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1978, Vol. VI, Number II

“The most interesting Jews of the last hundred years never joined a synagogue. They never prayed. They were disinterested in God, They paid no attention to the Torah lifestyle. They found bourgeois Reform as parochial as traditional Orthodoxy. They preferred writing new books to worrying about the meaning of old books. They had names like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Theodore Herzl.” 

And, though Sherwin T. Wine never explicitly says so in this introduction to his first book, Humanistic Judaism (Prometheus Books), we Jews have more in common with these Jews than we will ever have with Jews like Jeremiah, Rashi, and the Baal Shem Tov. 

Initially, one balks at the idea. Why can’t I retain and strengthen my ties to such ancestors?  And who is Wine to say that the chain of tradition suddenly kinks, cracks and crumbles with the advent of quantum mechanics and the post industrial world? What is the Humanist movement to suggest that my claim to carrying on the spirit (if not the letter) of the law and the prophets is just so much intramural politicking and bogus prooftexting (sic)? 

Rabbi Wine’s response is simple and direct: It isn’t he or Humanistic Judaism which is severing our links to tradition: It is ourselves and our behavior. No philosophical premise bars us from copying the lifestyle of Rambam or the Besht, rather it is our own behavior patterns that put the lie to such nostalgic desires. It isn’t theology so much that separates us from our ancestors. It is honesty. 

And honesty is just what Rabbi Wine’s book is all about. He demands it of his readers, and he wields it like a bludgeon. This is nowhere more evident than in his assessment of contemporary definitions of Judaism. Such definitions are, for the most part, academic fantasies in which the writer imagines the “ideal Jew”, and substitutes his imaginings for reality. As Rabbi Wine puts it, the Jews appear as “pious Bible lovers who can hardly wait for their next installment of Midrashic commentary.” Books on Jewish life in America deal in depth with the covenant between God and Israel and the centrality of Torah in Jewish life. Yet honesty demands a revision of these nostalgic musings. 

“If a person claims to love prayer but rarely prays, if an individual lauds the meaningfulness of God but never invokes God for the solution of his daily problems, if a man describes Torah as the greatest of all possible books but never reads it, he is either lying or self-deceived.” (Wine, p.18). 

Rabbi Wine believes it is self-deception that leads to this hiatus between espoused belief and exposed behavior; and self-deception is the most difficult deception to correct. If one believes the world is flat, only not falling off its edge will prove otherwise. 

In the case of Humanistic Judaism, however, Rabbi Wine is more apt to push one over the edge than to ask one to make that step on one’s own. With a combination of gestalt reality punching and fluid style, Wine pushes the reader to look objectively at his or her beliefs, and compare them to his or her behavior. If they are not consistent, one of them must go. And in a toss-up between belief and behavior, belief is usually the loser. 

“The lifestyles of most contemporary Jews, even those who profess a love of tradition, are in total opposition to the decrees of both the Bible and the Talmud. A nude bathing pre-medical student who lives with her boyfriend and refuses to eat pork as an affirmation of her Jewish identity is hardly a return to tradition. Even without pork she would give Hillel a heart  

attack.” (p. 4) 

The actual behavior of the Jews is a more accurate measure of our mores and beliefs than our rote mouthing of pious platitudes, and present Jewish practice does not point to a community motivated by the standards of the past. Despite wishful thinking to the contrary, “preferring Moses to Freud is irrelevant in an environment where nobody reads Moses.“ (p. 10). 

The point, then, is not very esoteric: our behavior suggests, or rather heralds, a break with the past. The mores and styles of medieval Jewry no longer apply to our lifestyle. And why should they? The rabbis never tried to mold their post-Biblical world to fit the Bible’s environs of priest and prophet. Quite the opposite: they created the talmudic dialectic in order to metamorphose pastoral patriarchs into urban savants. No Jewish society felt so bound to tradition that they refused to alter it to suit their own ends. It is only in the 20th century that we Jews have deified our heroes, and built a fence of guilt around our tradition; a fence which corrals fewer and fewer Jews, leaving those within comfortable and self-righteous, while the escapees flounder about seeking a cogent alternative to help them coordinate and articulate their break with tradition and their coming to grips with reality. 

It is Rabbi Wine’s hope that Humanistic Judaism will meet the need of these refugees by affirming a dynamic and creative alternative to tradition bound Judaism. Whether Humanistic Judaism will succeed in uniting these people is questionable. No inkling of success or failure can be garnished from Rabbi Wine’s book. Yet there is a precedent for this attempt to make Jews honestly confront the split between their actions and their words. This precedent is Reconstructionism, and it is a precedent which failed. 

Reconstructionism strove to articulate in a consistent philosophic framework the functions and needs of the folk. It, like Humanistic Judaism, is an elucidation of Jewish folk religion: what the Jews do religiously as opposed to what they say they are doing. Yet folk religion is by its very nature comprised of inconsistencies in practice, principles and beliefs. Kaplan and Wine are uncomfortable with inconsistencies, however, and hence a little uncomfortable with the folk as well. 

What makes the situation all the more fascinating is that both Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism claim to support the folk and their behavior. Their only desire is to consciously guide the development of that behavior in order to achieve swiftly and more efficiently the very goals for which religion unconsciously strives; the establishment of a society in which the individual can achieve happiness, balance, and self-actualization. Yet it is this conscious elitist ideological formulation of folkr practice that causes the folk to reject the elitists. 

Elitist religions like Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism are expressed in terms of ideology. Folk religion is expressed in terms of everyday behavior, customs and rituals. In fact the beliefs underlying the behavior of the people may well be incompatible with each other, and Even incompatible with the higher rationalism of the individual doing the action, yet this is never a problem until someone insists on formulating folk religion philosophically. 

Once such formulations are made, the contradictions become obvious, and then the ideologue seeks to adjust the behavior and beliefs to fit a more philosophically consistent system. This is done by establishing the primacy of ideology over behavior, which by definition does violence to the folk religion the ideologist sought  to help. 

In other words, Wine’s reliance on the people’s behavior to put the lie to the people’s espoused beliefs may very well backfire (as it did with Reconstructionism), leaving him with a small nucleus of ideology conscious Jews who cannot relate to the rest of us no matter how violently we transgress our pious mouthings. Nobody wants to be shown how inconsistent she or he is, and she or he will reject any attempt to do so. Being stripped of one’s inconsistencies may be ideologically necessary, but it isn’t very comfortable. Stripped of the theologically meaningless, yet psychologically comforting language of classical faith one is confronted with the awesome task of creating one’s own meaning in the world. Such a task may well prove to foreboding and harsh light of Humanistic Judaism which illuminates this very area may be too stark to capture the hearts as well as the minds of the Jewish people, even those who have left traditional modes behind. In a word, then, if one were to critique Humanistic Judaism as a religion, one could attack it for being so very elitist and so very discomforting. 

But then one has to choose. Which will it be: to etch out our own self-actualization and meaning in the uncarved block of the Real, or to lay back on the soft cushions of tradition and medieval godspeak, mouthing one thing while practicing another, and taking care to avoid noticing the contradictions? I, for one, prefer reality to illusion, and hence welcome Rabbi Wine and his challenging call for honesty.  

————————————————————————— 

Rami Shapiro is a third year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Secular Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1979, Vol. VII, Number I

The Workmen’s Circle-the Sholom Aleichem schools-the Peretz Shulen- the Jewish people’s Institute-The Farband-Kibbutz Artzi-  

These organizations have been around for a long time. Although they enjoy no formal unity, they do share an informal ideology which many call Secular Judaism. The word ‘secular’ expresses their strong resistance to all forms of organized religion. While some Secular Jews are avowed atheists and others are discreet agnostics or indifferent believers, all are united by their avoidance of prayer, worship and Rabbis. 

Many Secular Jews have joined humanistic congregations. Others have been hostile because they cannot comprehend how humanism and religion can be brought together. Still others have been ambivalent, availing themselves of the services of Humanistic rabbis without being able to fit them into their ideology. 

Secular Judaism used to be stronger than it is now. In the heyday of Yiddish culture it flourished among the Jewish young. Today it is an aging movement, sabotaged by the Holocaust and affluence and surviving on the fading memories of old revolutionary causes. Nevertheless, it remains an important force in the Jewish community which the Jewish establishment continues to ignore. While it is certainly as old as the Conservative movement and was at one time just as widespread, it has never conformed to the public relations (we love the Bible) image that the rulers of the Jews have wished to convey in America. 

Given the obvious humanist thrust of Secular Judaism, it is appropriate to ask the question: what is the connection of Humanistic Judaism to Secular Judaism? 

In order to answer the question, let me first describe the origins and principles of the Secular movement. There are six main sources of the Secular ideology. 

The first is the ethnic experience of the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. The Jews began as a nation and until the French Revolution always conceived of themselves as a nation. Even in the Diaspora their fondest dream was the vision of national restoration in the land of Israel. Reinforced by distinct languages, unique work and religious segregation, the Jewish national experience persisted until modern times. While in Western Europe small numbers, linguistic assimilation, integration and formal citizenship persuaded many Jews to define themselves safely as only a religious group. In Eastern Europe the congestion of Jews in the settlements of Poland and Lithuania, where the economy was underdeveloped and the antisemitism was overt, the national experience persisted with great strength. In that environment atheistic Jews never doubted that they were Jewish. Nor did their Orthodox relatives ever question their Jewish identity. 

The second source of Secularism was the ethnic power of the Yiddish language. Before the French Revolution, Yiddish was the universal language of Ashkenazic Jewry. From the Rhine to the Dnieper, from Riga to Trieste, Yiddish was the linguistic bond that tied together most of the Jews of Europe. It was the most distinctive sign of their unique nationality and separation. In the nineteenth century, the new strength of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian nationalism with their strong anti-semitic edges made Yiddish the vehicle for Jewish self-assertion. The folk language despised by the rabbis was elevated into the vehicle for a new popular culture. Novels, drama and even science found their home in Yiddish. Eastern European Jews who despised the yoke of traditional Judaism could drop every traditional ritual and remain intensely Jewish by doing their secular things in Yiddish. To The commonsensical observer the Yiddish speaking atheist from Warsaw was far more Jewish than the god-loving Reform Jew from Berlin.  

The third source of secular Judaism was the Enlightenment. The fashion of science and reason which began in Western Europe and spread eastward profoundly affected the Jewish communities. Jews and rationalists shared a common enemy- the Christian establishment. The clerical power had to fall before the Jews would be free to participate in a scientific capitalistic culture. In general circles, the Enlightenment fostered secularism, a belief that a modern state did not need the assistance of supernatural powers or the clergy in order to serve its citizens. In Jewish circles the Enlightenment became the Haskalah, a movement which promoted scientific attitudes, secular studies, professional advancement and hostility to the Orthodox rabbinate. Secular Jews came to believe that organized religion, with its anti-scientific bias, was the enemy of human advancement and Jewish progress. 

The fourth source of Jewish Secularism was the message of Marxism. While the successful Jewish bourgeoisie of Western Europe were embarrassed by the revolutionary ideology of Karl Marx, many Jews in Eastern Europe, angered by poverty, antisemitism, underemployment of their intellectual skills and the passivity of their rabbinic leaders turned to Marxism. Regarding religion as the tool of the bourgeois establishment to justify the oppression of the working class, Jewish Marxists were militantly atheistic. Ironically, however, their provocative Yom Kippur eve dances and feasts, with their rich Yiddish intellectual debates, seemed more Jewish than the decorous Protestant style religious services of classical Reform. 

The fifth source of Secular Judaism was antisemitism itself. Although Marx proclaimed the international solidarity of the working class and implied that a Jewish proletarian was closer to a Russian worker than to his obvious Jewish relatives who ran businesses and spoke Yiddish, Jews found that Russian workers were as antisemitic as the Russian bourgeoisie. Stunned by this rejection but unwilling to abandon Marxism, thousands of Russian Jews reluctantly discovered that they were only comfortable doing their Marxism with other Jews. 

The last source of Jewish Secularism was Zionism. Responding to the emergence of the new antisemitism in Eastern and Western Europe, Zionism sought to solve the Jewish problem by making the Jews normal again, by turning them back into a territorial nation. The new antisemitism did not despise Jews because of their religion. It despised Jews because they were viewed as economic parasites and rootless intellectuals. Many Jewish secularists were drawn to Zionism because they were the victims of antisemitism also, and because they saw Palestine as a place where Jews could become a ‘normal’ nation rooted and close to the land. 

They did not wish to restore the old Israel. They wanted to create the new Israel, which would be a shining socialist beacon to the world. Most of the founders of the agricultural settlements in Palestine were fanatic secularists who wanted nothing at all to do with organized religion, but who wanted to express their Jewishness through Hebrew culture and Jewish nationality. 

Many of the immigrants who came to America after the Russian pogroms were not Orthodox (as their grandchildren often imagine). They were secular intellectuals, secular radicals and secular Zionists. They became the most creative element in American Yiddih culture. From the Jewish Daily Forward to the Second Avenue theaters they spawned a cultural life that required neither synagogues nor rabbis to make it Jewish. In fact, the passive traditional community fed off the enthusiasm they engendered. Secular achievement, much more than the Torah lifestyle, produced New York Judaism, the power of which radiated all over the world. The American Jewish Secular experience was reinforced by the vitality of Jewish Secular life in Poland, Russia and Palestine. The ideas of Ahad Haam, Simon Dubnow, Haim Zhetlovsky, Ber Borochov, Sholom Aleichem and dozens of others became the prestigious voice of this aggressive movement. Divided on a thousand issues, it was still able to challenge the traditional forces with a dynamic Jewish alternative. 

The principles of this challenge were never clearly articulated as a consistent shared ideology. But they were always implied in Secular behavior. 

Here they are. 

  1. The Jews are not a religious community. They are a nation. 
  1. The chief manifestation of Jewish nationality is a unique language. Left-wing Marxists claimed that it was Yiddish and Yiddish alone. Zionists (because they did not wish to exclude Oriental Jews and because they wished to affirm their connection with the ancient Jewish past) claimed that it was Yiddish temporarily but Hebrew ultimately. 
  1. Religion, which is the worship of God with all its attendant traditional rituals, is superstitious and harmful. Synagogues and rabbis keep Jews from devoting their energies to practical matters. 
  1. The Jewish tradition consists of both theology and ethics. While the theology is useless, many of the ethical values are still valid. They arise out of the Jewish experience. Although values like peace and justice are universal, Jews can best understand them by relating them to their own historic experience. 
  1. Jewish holidays did not start out as commands of God. They started out as nature festivals and community celebrations which were intended to bind the Jewish people together and to give them a sense of unity. They are not religious holidays. They are folk festivals. They can easily be reinterpreted to emphasize the importance of the Jewish people as opposed to the importance of God. 
  1. The Jewish people should be preserved and Jewish identity should be promoted because cultural diversity is better than world uniformity. 

These six principles are ideas which Humanistic Jews would be comfortable with-with a few reservations. 

Here are the reservations. 

  1. The Jews are indeed an international recognition. With the destruction of Eastern European Jewry, the drive of secular Jews to achieve this recognition was subverted. What remained was a regretful nostalgia for a world that no longer existed. Neither proletarian solidarity nor Yiddish sentimentalism are appropriate to the affluent Jewish bourgeoisie who are part of the managerial class. 
  1. Yiddish has died and Hebrew is the language of only one-fifth of the Jewish people. English is spoken by more Jews than any other language. While language is still an important sign of Jewish identity, it cannot be the most important sign. The celebration of national holidays and cooperation for mutual defense now replace them. 
  1. Religion is not essentially the worship of God. It is the way (as the Jewish sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out) tribes and nations celebrate their immortality. The Jewish community transcends the life of any individual Jew and gives him continuity. A secular religion is not a contradiction in terms. It is (as the French humanist August Comte implied) simply describing in natural terms what tradition described in supernatural terms (by turning the community and its ancestors into God). 
  1. Jewish ethics require Jewish teachers. Secular Jews always relied on Yiddish linguists, renegade scholars and practical leaders to serve the teaching function Since they associated rabbis with religion, they could never conceive of a secular rabbi. This limitation has left them without professional leadership. The old informal ethical leadership has disappeared. And no real provision was made for the training of secular professionals who would serve as ethical guides, cultural scholars, creators of new materials, philosophical counselors and community leaders. Secular Judaism has to rely on inadequately trained leadership, which receives neither (sic) recognition from its own community, the Jewish community or the general public.  They need secular rabbis. 
  1. Since the Marxist debacle, secular Jews have lost their sense of being more than Jews, of belonging to a larger human community. Humanism is the religious celebration of the unity of the world community. Jewish holidays are necessary. But they are not enough. Secular Judaism has become parochial. It has lost the transcendent and universal thrust that the old May Day celebration had. As bourgeois and managerials Jews, Secular Jews have not yet figured out how to integrate their Jewishness with their humanistic loyalties. 
  1. Cultural diversity is important. But in the ‘global village’ national cultures tend to become less different and to conform to an emerging world culture of shared technology. Strident affirmations of national difference are less realistic than viewing national culture as an aesthetic option in certain areas of our lives. Otherwise our behavior will never fit our propaganda. 

Despite these reservations, Humanistic Judaism and Secular Judaism share unities that are far stronger than differences. 

We have every reason to cooperate and to help each other.