The Torah: Its Place in Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

For most Jews, the Torah is more than a book, more than a scroll. It is the sacred symbol of the Jewish religion. They can no more imagine a Judaism without the Torah than they can imagine a Judaism without God.

While most Jews do not study the Torah, they believe that they ought to. Even if they do not understand it, they believe that it contains eternal wisdom. And even if they are not interested in eter­nal wisdom, they believe that everything valuable in Jewish identity can be traced back to the Torah.

No form of liberal Judaism has dared to dispense with it. Reform Jews praise it and provide the biggest arks for it. Recon­structionist Jews declare it to be one of the three fundamentals of their faith. Ambiva­lent Jews arrange to do Bar Mitzvahs with it. Even many secular Jews regard it as the source of their history.

The Torah is a problem for Humanistic Jews.

The Torah is a theological document. Yahveh (Elohim) is the central figure of the book. He — and not people — determines the course of human history. Without his consent, nothing happens. And without his intervention, salvation is impossible. Even Pharaoh does not “harden his heart” without Yahveh arranging for it. Jewish suffering in Egypt is no more than part of his plan to advertise his power through a dramatic rescue.

The Torah is an authoritarian docu­ment. Laws derive their ethical clout from God’s command. If Yahveh permits, the behavior is right. If Yahveh forbids, the behavior is wrong. Supernatural rewards and punishments do not give authority to the laws. They simply motivate people to do what is obviously the right thing to do. “I am Yahveh, your God,” the endless refrain of the Torah, is a dramatic version of parental intimidation. “I am your father — and I deserve your obedience.” With that kind of moral approach, reason and dignity go out the window.

The Torah is a confusing document. Scientific criticism has revealed that it is a composite of at least four separate docu­ments. Many of its stories contradict each other (Genesis 1 and 2). Many of its laws are mutually incompatible (individual and collective guilt). Many of the events it describes either never happened or never happened in the way they are described. And most of the stories were written cen­turies after the so-called events occurred.

The Torah is a reactionary document. It promotes a lifestyle that is morally offen­sive to most contemporary Jews: a world of family tyranny, female inequality, tribal exclusiveness, theocratic government, and sacrificial ritual.

The Torah is a chauvinistic document. It views the Jewish people as a “chosen” people. The descendants of Abraham are selected out for special protection and special privilege — not because of their own intrinsic merits — but because they are the children of Yahveh’s favorite. Very little attention is devoted to the role of non-Jews and to what Yahveh expects of them and will do for them. The world God behaves like a tribal God.

We should use the Torah as an important historical document, a resource book for the study of the ancient history of the Jewish people.

The Torah is a “sacred” document. It has become a book to be worshiped and defended — not a book to be enjoyed and studied critically. It is an “idol,” set aside for public reverence and held up to public adoration. The contents of the book becomes less important than the ceremon­ial marching and kissing and raising and praising. Sacred scriptures are dangerous, because so long as they are regarded as sacred, they cannot be treated as litera­ture, as the creation of fallible human beings. Because the Torah is an “idol,” many Jews feel a compulsive need to rescue it for contemporary use. The result is a fixation with a short period in Jewish history that may be insignificant to the formation of the modern Jewish personality.

Given these difficulties, what is the place of Torah in the educational and ceremonial life of the Humanistic Jew?

Our answer must be consistent with the basic affirmations of a humanistic ap­proach to Judaism — the irrelevance of God, a rational ethic that derives its authority from human need, a lifestyle consonant with reason and personal dignity, a naturalistic view of Jewish history, the refusal of all idols. It is not our job to fit these beliefs into the Torah. It is our job to fit the Torah into these commitments.

First, let us describe how not to deal with the Torah.

We do not need to rescue the Torah. We do not need to make the Torah do for us more than it can. The Torah is the supreme document of priestly Judaism. It is a skillful expression of a theocratic view of the world and society. No matter what interpretive genius we bring to the text, the Torah cannot be turned into a humanistic constitution — or even a shab­by version of one. A document, two-thirds of whose contents are humanistically em­barrassing, cannot — without dishonesty — be made to serve as the foundation code of a secular approach to Jewish identity.

We must not mock the Torah. It deserves its own dignity. It belongs to the traditional Jews who live by its prescrip­tions. Texts mean what their authors in­tended them to mean. They do not mean what desperate liberals want to make them mean. The writer of Genesis 1 believed in a flat earth and a flat heaven. He did not believe in galaxies and evolu­tion. If he had endorsed those convictions, he would have said so. The writer of Ex­odus 19 believed in supernatural intrusion and divine voice. He did not believe in Moses engaging in philosophic introspec­tion on top of a mountain. The author of Leviticus 19 believed in divine dictator­ship and priestly government. He did not embrace personal freedom and democracy. The rabbis chose to distort some of the priestly intent. The Reformers chose to distort most of it. And certain humanists would have to use every ounce of their guile to turn the texts of the Torah into a plea for an agnostic egalitarian morality.

We must not avoid the Torah. It is so easy to use the Torah as a symbol without ever paying attention to its content. Liberal rabbis love to point out that the Torah is only a sign of God’s continuous revelation, that divine wisdom is present in the best thinking of every Jewish age. But they fail to point out that the editors of the Torah deny future revelations. And the liberal rabbis never fill their arks with the other books they praise. In the end, the Torah becomes a symbol of itself. The weekly readings become perfunctory. The alternatives never get read. An empty parchment scroll with a pretty gown would do just as well.

We must not misrepresent ourselves. We must not imitate Reform Judaism and pretend that Zadokite priests were the precursors of the Enlightenment. Human­istic Judaism is not the child of the official documents of priestly and rabbinic Judaism. It is the child of Jewish ex­perience, 25 centuries of human ingenuity in the face of cruel and unkind fates. Building an ark with a Torah to represent Humanistic Judaism is false representa­tion. It obscures our real history, deceives the public, and prevents us from using the Torah the way we should.

How then should we use the Torah?

Humanistic Judaism should use the Torah as an important historical docu­ment, a resource book for the study of the ancient history of the Jewish people. Although it seems to focus on Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, it really describes the power struggles and ambi­tions of priests and Jews who lived many centuries after the death of Moses. The Torah is less a description of the life of the Hebrews in the nomadic period and more a revelation of the beliefs and anxieties of the Jews before and after the Chaldean conquest. The editors of the Torah put their sixth century laws and convictions into the mouths of the patriarchs and Moses.

The Torah is a book of clues. If it is studied scientifically (not piously), it will lead us to real events that lie behind the mythology. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may turn out to be symbols of three Amorite invasions of Palestine. Joseph may be transformed into a Semitic inva­sion of Egypt. And Joshua may end up liv­ing 300 years before Moses. The authors of the Torah saw the past through their own political and theological convictions. Jewish history is not what the priestly writers say it was. It is a collection of events that lie behind the descriptions. And the Torah is a collection of clues that lead us to the events.

The Torah is a book about past and pre­sent beliefs. Even if many of the historical statements of the Torah are false, even if many of the laws of the Torah are ethical­ly invalid, they are still assertions that many of our ancestors fervently believed in and that guided their behavior. It may be true that the earth is not flat. But it is true that believing in a flat earth deter­mines your travel arrangements and the way you see your place in the universe. It may be true that Yahveh did not write the Torah. But it is true that believing that Yahveh did write the Torah would in­fluence the way you approached new ideas and justified new laws. Much of establishment Jewish behavior comes from ideas that are to be found in the Torah and its commentaries. The study of these ideas is part of the study of Jewish history, just as is a study of the conditions that undermined these ideas.

The Torah is a book of shared conclu­sions. The priestly writers often reached ethical conclusions that we as Humanistic Jews also have reached. They came to these moral precepts with the sanction of an authoritarian God. We come to these rules with an empirical testing of their consequences. They (the priestly writers) came to these precepts with the belief that the Torah gave them validity. We come to them with the awareness that common sense makes them worthwhile — even if the Torah did not exist. Millions of people in dozens of cultures have discovered that honoring parents and telling the truth were morally important, even though they never saw a Torah. Ethics do not come from a book. They come from human needs and human experience.

The Ten Commandments — like any historic religious code — do not complete­ly pass the test of a humanistic appeal to human dignity. Insisting that Jews remem­ber their dependence on supernatural in­tervention is hardly an invitation to self- reliance and self-esteem. Prohibiting the sculpture of the human form does not ele­vate the independence and creativity of the artist. And arbitrarily choosing one day for everybody to abstain from all sur­vival and pleasure activity has more to do with fear than with rest and recreation. Indeed, children should know about the Ten Commandments. But they should not be intimidated by their antiquity and by their authoritarian history. Rational guidelines are never inscribed in stone. They need to be continually adjusted and amended.

In a Humanistic Jewish congregation, the Torah does not belong in an ark. An ark implies that the Torah is a sacred scripture. And Humanistic Jews do not ac­cept the idea of sacred scriptures. All literature is of human creation, designed to appeal to human audiences and filled with human imperfection. Books are never holy. They may be useful and inspi­rational. But they are never all true and all perfect. And they bear no guarantee of eternal validity.

The Torah belongs in the library. As a scroll, it deserves a place of special honor in the museum of famous Jewish books. Let students study it and evaluate it. Let teachers talk about it and explain its historic power. But let no one worship it or imagine that Jewish identity and ethical living depend on it.

Jewish history — as it really happened — is the source of Jewish identity for Humanistic Jews. No single Jewish book can be an adequate symbol of the ex­perience. A new view of Jewish history cannot be seriously pursued so long as we give too much place to the symbol of the old view.

Is Humanistic Judaism A Religion?

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

In recent years, I have encountered, a persistent objection: “How can you call your organization a temple? Humanism may be a great philosophy of life. It may even be the ideological answer to man’s twentieth-century needs. Yet, if there is one thing it isn’t, it isn’t a religion.”

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

To discover the authentic significance of religion, we must clarify the unique characteristics of the religious experience. A proper definition must rely on what is peculiar to the phenomenon under analysis. To define religion as “the pursuit of fulfillment” or “the pursuit of salvation” or “the act of relating to the universe as a whole” is to consign the term to the limbo of words that have lots of prestige but refer to nothing in particu­lar. For after all, what human activity, from psychiatry to politics, is not con­cerned with human fulfillment? And what human procedure does not involve relating to the universe “as a whole”?

Initially, we must clarify what religion is not. Many liberals are fond of desig­nating the religious experience as the

moral dimension of human life, the ethical commitment of the individual. However, while it is certainly true that all historic religions have been vitally concerned with social right and wrong, it is also true that there are hosts of activities, normally des­ignated as religious, that have nothing at all to do with ethical propriety. Lighting candles and celebrating spring festivals are morally neutral. Moreover, large num­bers of sincere and sensitive people think of themselves and are regarded by others as both ethical and nonreligious.

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

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

A proper view of religion requires an honest confrontation with certain histor­ical realities:

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

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

The origin of philosophic inquiry and metaphysics lies in a disdain for the sensi­ble world of continual change and a per­sistent love of what is eternal and beyond decay. Plato was adored by later theologians because of his “religious” temperament. He detested the world of impermanence and asserted that wisdom was concerned only with entities that never change. The chaotic world of space­time events that modern science inves­tigates was anathema to his pursuit of knowledge. If the Greeks were unable to develop the rudiments of a real empiri­cism, herein lay their problem. Whatever they searched for had to be deathless and eternal. They could never end up being in­terested in what was tentative and condi­tional.

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

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

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

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

If, then, the unique character of the religious experience is the act of identify­ing with what appears to be permanent, a proper understanding of humanism re­quires the following observations:

  1.  The religious temperament and the pursuit of knowledge through empirical procedures are incompatible. Humanism is committed to the techniques of modern science; and all proper statements within that framework are tentative, subject to the refutation of future evidence. Empiri­cism cannot tolerate eternal truths about man and the universe. The conditional character of all knowledge, with an in­finite capacity for adjustment, is its spe­cial power and glory.
  2.  Humanism is a total philosophy of life, which does not allow the religious temperament to invade every area of its discipline. However, if man has a need to transcend his temporariness and identify with something or someone more perma­nent than the individual, this need cannot be ignored. Within the framework of humanism, two means of satisfaction ex­ist. By asserting that every person is com­posed of the same matter/energy from which all other phenomena derive, hu­manistic teaching affirms that each of us shares an intimate bond, a basic identity, with everything in this universe. Stars and flowers are material brothers to our na­ture. And by proclaiming that before and beyond the individuality of any person, each of us shares an essential oneness with all human beings, humanism pro­claims that all of us share in the ongoing existence of humanity as a whole. In fact, the very basis of ethical behavior lies in this religious experience. If every person can feel himself only as an individual, the social character of morality is impossible. Ethical behavior is feasible only when people sense that the essential nature that binds them together is more significant than the individual differences that sepa­rate them.

Thus, humanism is more than a reli­gion. While there are certain areas of its discipline that provide the religious expe­rience, there are many areas in which the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. Therefore, the humanist never regards the description “less religious” as a threat. Humanists rather view it as a compliment. They are aware of the fact that the balanced life requires much more. While they resist the invasion of all life by the religious temperament, they, at the same time, affirm the value of the religious experience in the simple rehear­sal of nature’s seasons and the image of immortality in human survival.

Believing Is Better than Non-Believing

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

It is not easy these days to be a Humanistic Jew. We live in a world in which the professed beliefs of most people — including most Jews — are either non­humanist or anti-humanist.

We live with the collective memories of nations that associate their roots and their ancestors with piety and religious devotion.

We live with the power of entrenched religious establishments that confer respectability upon those who join churches and synagogues and say they believe in God.

We live with the indoctrination of the past, which claims that atheism and morality are incompatible and that, in a time of moral decay, only a renewed faith in traditional religion will rescue society from anarchy.

We live with the shallowness of an age of science in which countless numbers of people understand the use of machines but do not understand the method of free inquiry that gave birth to them.

We live in a world of disillusionment with modern times in which many people assume that the faith of the past will be the cure for their anxiety and disappointment.

We live in a world of aggressively proselytizing fundamentalists who have branded secular humanists the enemies of civilization.

We live in a time of Orthodox revival in which religious fanaticism has replaced secular Zionism as the imagined guarantor of the Jewish future.

At the beginning of the twentieth century — when human self-confidence and optimism were stronger — the reigning intellectuals were solidly in the secular corner and put the religious on the defensive. But now the tables have been turned. We never thought 30 years ago that we would be back arguing the truth of the Biblical creation story, the merits of evolutionary theory, and the possibility of reincarnation. This new assault may be a time for humanists to reassess their survival strategy and develop a more effective response to the outside world.

Why is the opposition so successful? A realistic answer turns upon the style of presentation the fundamentalists use.

The “born-again” religionists believe that they have an important message, which the world needs to hear. They believe that this message is urgent and that terrible consequences will ensue if the warning is ignored. They believe that they are the defenders of morality and that the welfare of society depends on their missionary zeal. They believe that they are surrounded by powerful enemies who want to subvert what they work so hard to create. They believe that they have the right to intrude upon the privacy of citizens because the information they bring is a matter of life and death. Although they see themselves as a beleaguered minority, they believe that, in the end, they will win.

Humanistic Jews should be believers, en­thusiastic messengers of a positive philosophy of life.

Above all, they present themselves as “believers,” as the messengers of a positive statement about the world and its future. Their opponents (namely, we “vicious” humanists) are labeled “unbelievers,” deniers of the truth, and purveyors of negativism and nihilism. In fact, the religionists have been so suc­cessful with their propaganda that many humanists consent to their label and freely refer to themselves as “unbelievers.”

Unbelief is a loser’s style. It is a posture of inferiority, an acknowledgement that the message of your enemies is so power­ful and so positive that you must define yourself by it. While the opposition has a compelling reason to speak about its beliefs, “unbelievers” have no really significant beliefs to share. Their style is a holding operation, a defensive stance. They only want to make sure that the religious world does not intrude on their lives. They have no urgent or important message for others.

So long as we present ourselves as unbelievers — whether in the Jewish com­munity or in the broader world — we will be losers. We will be viewed as the deniers of other people’s strong convictions, not the possessors of strong convictions of our own. Especially in a free society of com­peting ideas, unbelief is a disastrously negative strategy.

So what does it take to turn a Humanistic Jew into a “believer,” an enthusiastic messenger of a positive philosophy of life?

Not very much. After all, we do have strong positive beliefs about nature, people, and morality. The problem is how we see ourselves and how we present our convictions to others.

The following ten guidelines may be helpful.

  1.  If you are a believer, you refuse to be an unbeliever.

It is very important never to allow others to define you publicly in terms of their own attachments. Humanists not only do not believe in Biblical creation; they do believe in evolution. They not only do not believe in the efficacy of prayer; they do believe in the power of human effort and responsibility. They not only do not believe in the reality of the supernatural; they do believe in the natural origin of all experiences.

  •  If you are a believer, you focus on the positive.

Believers tell people first what they believe, not what they do not believe. Effective humanists do not begin their presentation of personal conviction by announcing what they deny. They describe the things and the events in the universe that they think are really there. Agnosticism with regard to God may be the intellectual position of most humanists, but it is less important than our positive commitment to reason and scientific inquiry. Skepticism with regard to the divine origins of Jewish history may be the attitude of Humanistic Jews, but it is less important than our affirmation that Jewish culture is the creation of the Jewish people.

  •  If you are a believer, you know that the message is important.

From the fundamentalist perspective, preparing yourself for the afterlife is desperately important; from the humanist perspective, training yourself to make the most out of your life here on earth is equally important. In a world in which infantile behavior and infantile dependency are rampant, humanism has something important to say to people, whether or not they are open to hearing the message.

  •  If you are a believer, you offer positive alternatives.

Too often, humanists and Humanistic Jews assault existing institutions and practices without providing adequate substitutes. Just because traditional Jewish communities were built around prayer and God does not mean that alternative Jewish communities cannot be built around a secular Jewish culture and ethical concerns. Just because the traditional Jewish puberty rite is male chauvinist and focused on Bible readings does not preclude an alternative growing- up ceremony that is discrimination-free and celebrates the child’s connection to all of Jewish creativity.

  •  If you are a believer, you do not worry about being unfashionable.

Many people enjoy unbelief when it is chic, when it is the intellectual rage. They take pleasure in tweaking the nose of authority and announcing their liberation. But when unbelief becomes less fashionable, they find their defensive posture uncomfortable. They prefer to assault; they are uncomfortable being assaulted. But humanists who are believers are prepared for changes of fashion. Since they know what they do believe, as opposed to what they do not believe, they do not lose their intellectual security when the crowd stops applauding.

  •  If you are a believer, you do not resent the enthusiasm of opponents.

Many humanists decry the efforts of fundamentalist missionaries. They despise these self-appointed proselytizers who intrude on their privacy and rudely challenge their personal beliefs. But the response is inappropriate. If you are convinced that your message is essential to human survival and happiness, you have a moral obligation to intervene. Many liberals who think it perfectly appropriate to proselytize actively for nuclear freezes and abortion freedom resent the same enthusiasm when it is applied to religion. This attitude prevents us from being effective. If we, as humanists and Humanistic Jews, have something important to say about the path to self-esteem, we should be eager to share it. Our resentment of “intrusion” is merely a sign of our own discomfort with positive convictions.

  •  If you are a believer, you turn negative situations into positive ones.

In a non-humanistic world, there are many humanistically objectionable institutions and social practices that cannot be changed. Religious chaplains in the army, religious inscriptions on national monuments, invocations and benedictions at school and fraternal events — all these provocations move many unbelievers into futile resistance. But believers recognize that these practices and institutions exist because they are the only way in which many communities know how to celebrate their connection with their roots and their past. An invocation can as easily be a quotation from Thomas Jefferson as an appeal to Jesus. A “religious” lecturer to the Israeli army can as easily be a faculty member of the Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism as a Lubavitcher Hasid. Believers do not seek to destroy “misguided” institutions. They seek to use them.

  • If you are a believer, you choose to reverse roles.

Since unbelievers see themselves as outsiders in a community of believers, they make concessions more readily than do their opponents. If the Orthodox want to close down the Jewish Community Center on the Sabbath, if Conservatives want to keep humanistic literature out of the Jewish community library, unbelievers often will yield to the opposition out of a sense that their opponents feel more strongly about these issues than they, the unbelievers, do. But believers refuse to be second-class citizens. Humanistic Jews do not reject the Sabbath. They believe that the Sabbath should be a day for family celebration, personal recreation, and Jewish cultural stimulation. Humanistic Jews do not discard Jewish literature. They affirm the importance of seeing the Jewish experience through eyes that are not traditional. In most cases, their convictions are just as intense as those of their opponents. So, if the other side is always making demands, humanistic believers reverse roles. They have demands to make too.

  •  If you are a believer, you seek out other believers for mutual support.

Unbelievers are notorious non-joiners. Because they often are refugees from authoritarian institutions, the idea of belonging to a group or community that supports congregations and fellowships — of developing a working network of philosophic brothers and sisters — is anathema to them. The very smell of organization terrifies them. They prefer the safety of isolation. Even though the opposition derives its strength, power, and effectiveness from the willingness of its members to express their solidarity through group effort, unbelievers resist measures that would enable them to be equally effective. But believers know that everything the other side does is not bad. Organization is not bad if the purpose of the organization is good. Believers also know that isolation is a self-destructive strategy. It reinforces helplessness and the sense of “outsiderness” and leads to ideological impotence. A voice that cannot be heard is no voice at all.

  1.  If you are a believer, you give personal testimony all the time.

Fundamentalists are never reluctant to share their personal convictions when the opportunity arises — whether in business, in friendship, or at public celebrations. Their religious beliefs are not in some little corner of their minds, unrelated to their daily activity. In a real sense, what they are flows from what they believe. One of the reasons people are so strongly aware of their existence is that they talk about it all the time. For unbelievers, however, personal testimony is difficult. There is nothing to testify to because there is nothing positive to proclaim. Humanist believers shed such inhibitions. Even when an audience is less than friendly, they are willing to speak out. They recognize that “hiding” subverts integrity and cultivates self-hate. They want other people to know who they are and what they stand for. They want humanism and Humanistic Judaism to have a public voice. They may do no more than the Holocaust survivor who, at a community Holocaust commemoration in Detroit, shared her humanistic vision of the meaning of the horror in a moving declaration that justice must depend on human effort and human vigilance. They may do no more than the young man in my congregation who rose to explain secular humanism in his high school class when a Christian fundamentalist student denounced it. Believers give testimony when testimony is necessary.

Believing is better than not believing. It is a strategy more conducive to self­-esteem and effectiveness. If there have to be unbelievers, let those who do not believe in humanism play that role for a while.

What Does Humanistic Judaism Offer?

Humanistic Judaism — An Anthology, Spring, 1986

What does Humanistic Judaism have to offer?

We offer a positive voice about the Jewish present. We maintain that, on the whole, the quality of Jewish life in the pre­sent is superior to the quality of Jewish life in the past. The contemporary society of secular study, individual freedom, and sexual equality is morally better than the societies that spawned the Torah and the Talmud. There is no need for reverent nostalgia and sentimental guilt.

We offer a cultural definition of Judaism. In a world of enormous diversity in Jewish choice and practice, it is naive to confine Jewish identity to affirmations of theological belief and to religious behavior. If Judaism is primarily an ethnic culture, it can embrace wide ideological differences, allowing more people to iden­tify themselves as Jews.

We offer the possibility of a secular religion. If religion refers to the behavior we manifest in the presence of what we do not control, then too much religion is dangerous, just as no religion is preten­tious. In the face of situations we have the human power to alter, the secularist is de­fiant, challenging, irreverent, and eager to change. In the presence of the unalterable, secularists shrug their shoulders in resignation but offer no gratitude.

We offer an alternative history of the Jewish people. Instead of seeing Judaism as the creation of priests, prophets, and rabbis, as the gift of the authors of the Bi­ble and the Talmud, we credit its secular origins. The Jewish establishment distorted Jewish history to make it appear that the survival of the Jew lay in religious behavior. They consigned to oblivion the thoughts, ideas, and names of countless millions of Jews who were skeptical of religious authority and who contributed their secular genius to Jewish culture. The attitudes and ideas of the modern secular Jew are not alien to the Jewish past. Their roots just never made it through the of­ficial censorship. Humanistic Jews have Jewish roots. But they need an alternative history to recover them.

We offer an openness to intermarriage. In a world of multiple identities, family identity does not have to coincide with Jewish identity. The intermarried are not pariahs who need to be excluded; nor are they erring children who need to be patronized. They are members of the Jewish people who should be welcomed into whatever community activity they wish to participate in. To insist that Jewish identity has to be the primary and all-encompassing identity for all Jews is an act of ethnic suicide.

We offer the opportunity of cultural “conversion.” There are now hundreds of thousands of Gentiles who are married to Jews or who are socially involved with Jews who would enjoy the opportunity of identifying with the Jewish people and with Jewish culture if they did not have to make theological commitments that even most native-born Jews have behaviorally rejected.

We offer the endorsement of a variety of lifestyles. We refuse to drown in senti­ment about the traditional Jewish family, with its patriarchal tyranny and male chauvinism. Singlehood and in­dividualism are not unfortunate aberra­tions. They are legitimate options that deserve moral recognition and discussion. The long-suffering Jewish mother needs to share the Jewish stage with Gloria Steinem. Otherwise, we will save our cliches and lose our young people.

We offer a unique relationship to Zionism and the Jewish homeland. The state of Israel was not created by the devo­tion of the pious. The Orthodox rejected political Zionism and branded it a secular heresy. The founders of the modern state were secular and humanist pioneers who desired to initiate a revolution in Jewish life and to define Jewish identity in terms of a full national culture, not by the nar­rowness of religious ritual. This Israeli humanism is now under severe assault by the growing power of militant Orthodoxy. Its defenders need our help to protect the integrity of the pioneer vision and to create a truly secular state free of religious coercion and open to a truly cultural definition of Jewish identity.

We offer more than a Jewish agenda. As humanists, we are eager to participate in an emerging world culture, as well as in Jewish culture. Parochialism, in an age of multiple personal identities, will drive away the ethically responsible. They will not want to participate in any cultural ef­fort that forbids them to look beyond the boundaries of their own ethnic group.

We offer more future and less past. In a time of rapid change, excessive nostalgia can be disastrous. The scientific spirit refuses to worship the past and to imagine that the greatest wisdom was uttered 3,000 years ago. Nor does it need the en­dorsement of the past, whether Biblical or Talmudic, to make changes for the future. Given the revolutions of modern life, we should be just as interested in creating new Jewish culture as in reviving the old. We must invent behavior to serve human needs — not make human lifestyles fit rigid, outdated behavior.

What Makes Humanistic Judaism Jewish?

1992 Conference Highlights, Spring 1993

I have been following with great expectation the coming of the Messiah. He is, apparently, in Crown Heights.  He made the cover of The New York Times Magazine. He is called the Lubavitcher rebbe.

Many of my friends who are very, very liberal, mock the Lubavitchers. I never do. I don’t agree with  their ideology. It’s not my Jewish cup of tea, but, I do not mock people who have become the most successful Jewish organization in North America. They are the most successful fundraisers in almost all North American communities, except for the Jewish Welfare Federation. In my own city, they are planning to build a college campus; and to their annual benefit come hundreds, if not thousands of people — most of them non-Orthodox, many of them secular — to give the Lubavitchers thousands and thousands of dollars. Why would I mock such a successful organization?

I recently asked a friend (who is not a member of the Birmingham Temple or a humanistic or secular group but is obviously a secularist) why he gives so much money to the Lubavitchers, and his answer was, “Well, you see, they’re really Jewish.” I thought that was an interesting remark because many people who give their money to the Lubavitchers believe that. They may not articulate it in that way, but they believe in the recesses of their hearts, deep down, deep within, that ultimately, when it comes to the test, the people who are “ really Jewish” are the people who are really Orthodox — who preserve the tradition and who are willing, at great risk, in a society that is hostile to their lifestyle, to maintain it in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Now, we are not simply humanists. We are Humanistic Jews. We see ourselves as part of Judaism, and therefore we have to deal with a very important question, which is implicit in the answer the secularist gave me. He is not prepared to be a Lubavitcher Jew. He will not lead his life that way. But if ever he should need religion, he will go to the “real thing.” It might be only one time in his life. It might be a wedding, it might be a funeral, it might be a bar mitsva. Whatever it is, he’s not interested on a daily basis; but if he wants contact with the “really Jewish” thing, that’s where he will go. One of the major problems we have with Israel is that we often assume that the land is loaded with secularists. In a sense it is, but they are negative secularists. Negative secularists are people who hate organized religion. But if they should need it, they want the “real thing” and not the watered down thing.

It is very important for us to clarify for ourselves how and in what way Humanistic Judaism is really Jewish so that somebody who is a Humanistic Jew can stand up and say, “This is really Jewish.” All kinds of people throw accusations at us: How can a group that doesn’t believe in God be really Jewish? How can a group that doesn’t place Torah at the center of its life be really Jewish? How can a group that doesn’t accept the discipline of halakha be really Jewish? How can a group that doesn’t say the Sh’ma and pray be really Jewish?

So I want to answer the question as competently as I can: What makes Humanistic Judaism Jewish?

All the alternatives to Orthodoxy came about because of certain traumatic changes that occurred during the past four hundred years, starting in Western Europe and spreading all over the world. First, the trauma of science, which provided a new method for the discovery of truth and challenged the traditional statements of faith concerning God, the creation of the universe, the origins of people, and the nature of history. The revolution of technology, which has radically altered our lives to the point where we no longer see ourselves merely as helpless victims of our environment; rather, in some cases, technology provides us with power almost equal to the power attributed to the gods of old. Capitalism — the industrial, free enterprise economy — which has radically altered the lifestyle of almost everybody in the Western world and is now rapidly beginning to alter the lifestyle of people all over the world. Individualism, which flowed from these economic changes: the revolutionary idea that I am more than a member of a family, a clan, or a tribe — I have an identity, I have a right to happiness. Democracy, which said that authority does not flow from God through kings or priests down to the people but that authority starts from the people, and those in charge are responsible to that authority. Feminism, which says that the male chauvinist dictates that have come out of virtually all cultures are invalid and need to be replaced by ideologies of gender equality.

Within Judaism, there have been various responses to these revolutions. The first and most dramatic one, which occurred in the nineteenth century, was the Reform movement. The Reform movement arose almost simultaneously in Germany, Great Britain, and North America. Ultimately the Reform movement split into conservative Reform and radical Reform. Conservative Reform took the name Conservative. (It’s conservative only by comparison with radical Reform; the real conservative movement is Orthodox.) And radical Reform retained the name Reform.

From the beginning, the Reform movement, whether conservative or radical, had a series of problems. The first and major problem was the issue of legitimacy. By what right do you make these changes?  God issued his laws, and who are you? Who gave you the authority to say, “I will not do this” or “I will not obey that”? What is the source of your legitimacy?

The historic source of legitimacy for Jewish authority lay in certain sacred texts. The three basic ones were, first, the Bible (which includes the Torah), second, the Talmud, and third (and very important, because everybody used it every day, and although he or she might not understand the words, they were a part of his or her life), the Siddur, the prayerbook. Ultimately you legitimized yourself by appealing to those texts; and if you didn’t appeal to those texts, you had no legitimacy.

Very early, the Reform movement, both conservative and radical, chose a strategy for legitimacy, and that strategy was called reinterpretation. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue, and I was ordained as a Reform rabbi, so I am very familiar with the procedure. The procedure is, for example, to start off with Genesis I, a story about the creation of the world in six days and God resting on the seventh. You start off by saying, ”On the surface it appears that this is an unbelievable story; but if you understand the real meaning, the secret meaning, the meaning that I will give to you now, then you will realize that the text has a tremendous spiritual significance.” And so, that became the procedure. People praised the Torah as the constitution of the Jewish people, even in the most radical Reform temples, praised the wisdom of the Talmud, praised the wisdom of the Siddur, even though revisions were made in it. And the consequences are very important.

The first consequence of this procedure is apology. The Lubavitchers don’t have to apologize for their position. The texts, the sacred texts fit their lifestyle. But liberal Jews who choose this strategy always have to apologize: ‘‘On the surface it appears to be this, but it really is this; let me give you the secret meaning.” ‘‘No, no, we don’t do three-fourths of the things in the book, but we really respect it.” Over and over, draying and twisting in order to establish their legitimacy in the text.

The second consequence is hypocrisy, which is what drove me from the Reform movement. I didn’t believe that the people sitting in the congregation were hypocrites. Many of them were very accomplished, well-educated people. They did good things for their families and their communities, and I respected them. What I couldn’t abide was the charade. The ark was opened, and this document was taken out, and it was raised up and kissed. And generally (this is my observation) the less significance the Torah is given, the bigger the ark. The ark is bigger in Reform temples — the ark is enormous. I looked out at the audience. I know what that Torah says, I understand the historic circumstances that produced it. I understand the people who seek to live consistent with its precepts. But there was no connection, other than historic, between that document and the lifestyle of the people who were sitting out there in the audience. And that to me was the charade. Why would intelligent people, committed to integrity, engage in this charade? I understood why. That scroll kosherized them. That ceremony said, ‘‘Even though you may not abide by most of the principles in that document, its very presence — the fact that we raise it up and praise it and claim that it is the source of Jewish wisdom — gives you legitimacy.”

The third consequence is guilt. If, indeed, that document represents the lifestyle that I ought to be following, and I am not following it, then the people who are really Jewish are the people who are following it. I have a document that legitimizes the lifestyle of people who are not in my congregation. This is what I found so self-destructive, and I see it now in the ‘‘return to tradition” movement in Reform and Conservatism, which is so confused. The reason is that people are craving legitimacy, they’re craving some way to deal with the gnawing accusation that their symbols and their behavior do not match. I have spoken with large numbers of Reform and Conservative rabbis who look with great respect, nostalgia, and deference toward the Orthodox rebbes. They complain about their hostility, their rigidity. But in the end they regard them as the authentic bearers of the tradition, willing to do what they themselves no longer are willing to do. It’s unavoidable, because if you use that criterion for legitimacy, then that’s what follows.

Along came a movement, in the 1920s and 1930s, called Reconstructionism. It was a bold movement. Mordecai Kaplan was a disciple of John Dewey; Kaplan’s ideas, other than his ideas about Jewishness, are Dewey’s ideas. John Dewey was a full-fledged humanist. And so, Mordecai Kaplan ended up a humanist but with a deep and abiding attachment to many of the symbols of the past and a great concern about legitimacy, His answer to the latter question was the same, basically, as that of Conservatism and Reform. He chose the same strategy, the strategy that the sacred texts count. We have no right to reject them. If we reject them, we lose our legitimacy as Jews. Therefore, we must use the prayerbook, even though we may change it a little bit, because otherwise we have no legitimacy; and therefore we have to reinterpret all the old words. Kaplan redefined the word God to mean (and this is Deweyism) the power that exists in the world as salvation. Why you would talk to such a power or pray to it is not comprehensible, but that’s how he defined it. So when he said, “Barukh atta adonai eloheno melekh ha’olam, Praised art thou, O Lord, our God, king of the universe,” he didn’t mean what the Lubavitcher rebbe means, he meant what John Dewey meant. But the words weren’t drafted by John Dewey; John Dewey wouldn’t have drafted those words. They don’t say what John Dewey was saying. They say what a person who lived a long time ago, in 100 or 200 B.C., believed consistent with his passion, his understanding of the world.

Humanistic Judaism is fully and completely Jewish, but it is a radical break with the strategy of Reform, Conservatism, and Reconstructionism. It is not simply part of a continuum. It says, ‘‘We are sick and tired of trying to legitimize ourselves with something that doesn’t represent who and what we are. It is deeply humiliating, it is a violation of our integrity, it is a waste of our energy to try to do this. All we do is to play into the hands of the Orthodox, because they are the ones who created the texts, they are the ones the texts fit. That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate these texts as literature, it doesn’t mean we can’t find a quotation here or there. But if that’s what kosherizes us, we’re through. Then let me go to a Lubavitcher banquet and give them my money, because they represent what is really Jewish.”

What’s the alternative? Unless one understands that, I don’t think one can effectively comprehend what Humanistic Judaism is all about. What Humanistic Judaism says is that the kosherizer of Judaism is not a sacred text. It is the experience of the Jewish people. The ultimate court, the ultimate appeal is not a quotation in a book. It is not a document, no matter when written, no matter how sacred in the eyes of many people. We live in the age of science, and the ultimate appeal is to experience, the perceived experience of the Jewish people. Before books came the Jewish people. And if you don’t appeal to the experience of the Jewish people, if all you’re doing is running to a book, all you are is a quotation hunter and it’s meaningless.

About twenty years ago, I attended the funeral of a woman who was a survivor of Auschwitz and who had been severely harmed by her experience. Her health had been damaged, and one of the reasons she died fairly young was that she never had recovered. Her daughter belonged to a Conservative congregation, and the rabbi got up and started reading the twenty-third Psalm: ‘‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The Lord is my shepherd? What did that statement have to do with the dead woman’s experience? I shall not want? Whenever I need something, he shows up and takes care of me? It was at that moment that it struck me, so power­fully, that these conventional passages we read have nothing to do with the Jewish experience. This was a quotation from a book. What did it have to do with her life, her pain, her suffering, her tragedy? Who­ever stood up at her funeral should have been screaming at the heavens, not prais­ing the Lord. So there is a dichotomy between experience and the sacred text. You find the sacred word that kosherizes the event and never talk about the experi­ence, never deal with reality.

If the Jewish experience, not sacred texts, is the criterion of Jewishness, what follows is that humanism is Jewish. The sacred texts say that we are the chosen people, that we have received from God a special position in the world, that all of human history revolves around us. When we misbehave, God will bring a nation to come and punish us; but in the end (as he promised our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) we are chosen for glory. But those statements do not in any way con­form to the Jewish experience. The Jewish experience is an experience of absurdity. I do not experience in the world some kind of moral order whereby good is rewarded and evil is punished, and I refuse to roman­ticize the Holocaust by finding some mys­terious meaning behind it. I let Jewish experience speak for itself; and the only answer that comes from that experience is that we live in a world in which, if there is anybody in charge, he doesn’t give a damn what happens to us. There may be nobody in charge, and therefore, in the end, we have to assume the responsibility for our lives. That is the message of Jewish history and that is humanism.

The people who have done the greatest disservice to the sacred texts are liberals, because of their incessant need to be kosherized. They cannot allow a text to say what it says. They have a compulsive need to steal the text and force into it a meaning it does not mean. If I use experience as the criterion, then democracy is Jewish. If I go to the sacred text, there is no democracy. In the Exodus story, the Jews are let out of Egypt by miracles. As they wait at Mount Sinai, their leader goes up and gets the message, then comes down and announces it, and the people have two options: either accept it or refuse it and be destroyed. With freedom like that, you don’t need tyranny. It says very clearly in the Torah that the ultimate authority lies with the kohen gadol, the high priest, and he or she who defies his authority shall be put to death.

Why would a people raised on such theocratic texts have taken so completely to the freedom of America? When those texts started out, we were shepherds and farmers, and the texts fit that kind of culture. Then, two thousand years ago, we entered the bourgeoisie. The nature of our culture changed. We became a city people. We were instrumental in the early develop­ment of the capitalist system. Ultimately, when the political system no longer fit the new economy, it crumbled; and what flowed from all that change was liberal democracy. Because we have two thou­sand years of urban, bourgeois experience, when we came to America we fit right in. None of that experience is glorified, dis­cussed, praised, or analyzed in the sacred texts, but it is part of the Jewish experi­ence.

If we use experience as the criterion, then skepticism is Jewish. In the sacred text the hero is the person of faith. Today we have people of faith; they are the Gush Emunim in Israel, who say, “If we are willing to hold on to the West Bank and Gaza, even if all the nations of the world come up against us, God will interfere.” Faith is the ideology of the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, the people of the Qumran community who waited, puri­fying themselves, for the Messiah who would rescue them. There are rumblings of skepticism in the sacred text, in the book of Job. Somebody, says, “Enough is enough;” but after forty chapters of complaining, Job still is unwilling to take the final step. The Jewish people, however, responded to all their disappointment and disillusionment, and out of it came Jewish humor: shrug­ging the shoulders and saying, “If this is paradise, we don’t need hell. “How do you explain the splendid intellectual achieve­ments of Jews in the nineteenth and twen­tieth centuries, people who had no connec­tion to the ideologies of the sacred texts but who had a fundamental connection to the evolution of a skeptical tradition within the experience of the Jewish people?

If experience is the criterion, then Zion­ism is Jewish. The old belief was that we would return to the land of Israel only when the Messiah came. There was a picture in the newspaper of a man from Mea Shearim in Jerusalem who calls him­self a Palestinian because he will not rec­ognize the legitimacy of the government of the State of Israel, established by tray/Jews for tray/purposes. What was revolutionary about Zionism was to say, “we’re sick and tired of waiting; we don’t care how many sacred texts promise us that we will be restored. Our experience tells us that wait­ing only produces more waiting and more suffering. So we shall take our fate in our own hands. We may not succeed, it’s only a dream, but we will do something.’’

If experience is our criterion, then com­passion is Jewish. You can go to the sacred texts and find compassion (“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”). But you also can find Ezra, who, upon returning from Babylonia, says to the Jewish people, “If you are married to non-Jewish women, send them away; you are violating the commandment of God, and therefore they shall be sent away no matter how much you love them.” So, if I want to, I can go to the sacred texts and I can justify chau­vinism or I can justify compassion. But, if I want to legitimize the idea that we ought to respect the national aspirations of all people in a world in which everybody has to get together — black and white, Israeli and Palestinian — then all I have to do is appeal to the Jewish experience. If you look at the experience of the Jewish people and how this people has been abused, it is inconceivable that such a people would choose to oppress anybody.

If experience is the criterion, then the Bible is Jewish. Orthodox Jews believe that the Bible, the Tanakh, was not written by Jews; it was written by God. God is not a Jew. We were just the passive recipients, the lucky receivers. He found certain people called prophets to whom he dictated the texts, and they were the chosen secretaries who recorded the documents. So the Bible isn’t Jewish, the Bible is divine. Then along came a man in the seventeenth century, a Jewish philosopher, a child of humanism, named Baruch Spinoza. He dared to suggest that the Torah text was not even written by Moses but was written or edited by Ezra many centuries later — with the implication that we must deal with the Bible as regular literature. If the Bible isn’t a divine text, if the Bible is literature, then it is Jewish. It was written by Jews who were fallible human beings, who were products of the age in which they lived, and who wrote certain things that are terrific and certain things that are rotten and certain things that are mediocre, and they’re all there together.

If you believe that experience is the criterion, then the present is as Jewish as the past. According to tradition, there was a period in ancient times when God spoke to the Jewish people. It’s called the period of revelation. It was somewhere between 1200 B.C. and 200 B.C. When he had said everything he wanted to say, he stopped. So people who lived during that period, who communicated with God, or who were closest to that time, were wiser than anybody who lives today; and therefore, the past is more legitimate than the present. But I say unashamedly that I believe the past two centuries have been the most creative period of Jewish history. For the first time Jews lived in an atmosphere of freedom in which people, no matter what their ideas, could write, publish, and share them. It produced an intellectual feast from Einstein to Freud to Fromm to Rosenzweig to Buber, a feast of choice such as never existed before.

If experience is the criterion, then our culture is Jewish. The traditional view is that the most important element in Jewish life is religion. But while all those texts were being written by priests and, later, by rabbis, Jews were singing songs (some of them secular), they were doing dances (many of them secular), they were eating food, they were laughing, they were living a whole life, they were producing a folk culture that never found expression in those official texts. And in modern times, when they no longer could believe in the validity of the texts, those Jews who weren’t busy trying to kosherize themselves with those texts developed a whole new litera­ture in Yiddish and in Hebrew, virtually all of it secular: the literatures of Yiddish nationalism and Zionism. And that litera­ture is Jewish. So Judaism is not only religion, Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people.

Yehuda Amichai, Shaul Tchernikovsky, Haim Nachman Bialik, Max Nordau, Theodore Herzl, ChaimZhitlowsky, Simon Dubnow — all of these people are Jewish, as Jewish as Moses, because they write from the Jewish experience and appeal to it. So we have two choices: we can try to fit the Jewish experience into sacred texts and lose our self-respect because the squeeze doesn’t fit; or we can try to find the texts that fit our experience. For me, the great moment of liberation was when I no longer felt oppressed by the texts, when I could say, “That’s a nice text, I like it; this one is interesting, I’ll use this, I’ll use that — but they are not my tyrant, and I don’t have to be kosherized by them.” That is our choice.

Humanistic Judaism is really Jewish. It is really Jewish because it flows from the experience of the Jewish people. That, in the end, is the criterion of legitimacy.

Let me conclude with a quotation from Max Nordau, a Zionist intellectual and a very ardent humanist, who lived in France at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries: “My memories as a Jew do not fit the sacred texts they give to me. I am not a Jew of faith. I am a Jew of experience.”

I cannot speak for you; I can speak for me. I, as a Humanistic Jew, am not a Jew of faith.

I am a Jew of experience.


TJH March 1991, vo. XXV11, number 8.


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 – 2nd Bienniel Meeting of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews

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 Birmingham Temple 20th Anniversary

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 Future of the Birmingham Temple (1996)

The Jewish Humanist, August 1996, Vol. XXXIII, Number 1

Challenge is what makes life exciting.  Every human being, every human community, grow (sic) stronger confronting difficult challenges optimistically and discovering their own power and talent. 

In the next five years, the Temple will be passing through an important transition.   A new rabbi will become your leader.  Over the last 33 years I have worked, together with you, to create the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism.  What we achieved is not trivial.  We turned a set of shared personal connections into a living community and vital movement.  A new and important Jewish voice is heard in Detroit and in other places throughout the world. 

Over the last three decades we have faced many formidable challenges.  Creating a movement from scratch is not easy, especially when there is strong hostility from the outside world  But we were determined.  We recruited members.  We invented celebrations.  We educated children and adults, we turned our ethics into social action.  We built our Temple home.  We created brother and sister communities all over North America. 

Along the way we made profound friendships and supported each other through both pain and pleasure.  The voice of Humanistic Judaism in Detroit comes out of a body of vital and intense human connections. 

The Jewish world of 1996 is different from that of 1963.  The Jewish community is aging.  The priorities of Jewish young people in a mobile age are different from the needs of traditional families.  Intermarriage is creating a Jewish milieu with fuzzier boundaries and with less attachment to ethnic memories.  The rising power of the new Militant Orthodoxy is providing a dangerous well-organized and aggressive assault on the secular and humanistic values of a free society. 

In the new context we have to recruit new members.  We have to pay for the basic needs of our community.  We have to invest in the future of our Temple family.  We have to mobilize the talents and resources of our members to deal with the changing world.  We have to clarify our vision.  We have to choose a new rabbi  And we need to do all of this with a strong sense of community solidarity. 

The best way to guarantee our future is to take action.  Whatever action we take should be part of a long-run vision and an intense personal commitment.  We have to see ourselves leading our congregation into the twenty-first century.  We  need a “Five Year Plan” that will give us a dramatic push forward. 

Such a “Five Year Plan” will require us to take the following bold actions. 

We need to mobilize as many members as possible to make a special five-year money contribution to pay for all the initiatives we need to undertake.  Already generous people  have pledged to cover whatever deficits will occur during this transition period and to finance the search for a new rabbi and the creation of new programs. 

We  need to find new and better ways to publicize and “market” the wonderful programs we presently have.  Many people who are potential members and supporters of the Birmingham Temple do not know who we are and what we do. We need to increase our visibility by targeting special audiences.  Already an enthusiastic new marketing committee has been established.  With proper funding it should be able to make a significant difference. 

We  need to “pursue” potential new members more aggressively and more creatively.  We need to identify the different needs of different people which we are able to serve and to let them know the benefits that they will receive by joining our community.  We need to persuade the “children” of our congregation who are now adults and who identify with the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism to become dues-paying members.  We need to solicit the financial support of the hundreds of people who attend our programs and use our services but who have not expressed their appreciation in a financial way. 

We need to brainstorm new ways to freshen and improve our celebration of life so that Shabbat and the holidays will offer opportunities not only of intellectual stimulation, but also emotional intensity and aesthetic satisfaction.  The celebration needs of the next generation may be different from those of their parents and grandparents,  The service has to provide the Jewish environment that no longer exists in the outside world. 

We need to establish an effective way to identify my successor.  A search committee has already been created.  We need to remember that the International Institute is presently involved in training able men and women to become Humanistic rabbis. 

We need to involve as many people as possible in the process of creative thinking.  Every member should have the opportunity to make his or her own personal five-year commitment. 

I am optimistic about the future of the Birmingham Temple. 

We have a (sic) unique and important Jewish message.  We have a membership with enormous talents and strong commitment.  We have a vital community bound together by friendship and mutual support.  We have a movement to give our Temple philosophy a place in the Jewish universe.  We have a Jewish world that needs an imaginative secular option. We have a Temple tradition of courageous and creative responses to challenge.   

I have made my commitment to the “Five Year Plan”.  We need yours too. 

The Rabbi Writes – The Future of the Birmingham Temple (1978)

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.