The Rabbi Writes – Birmingham Temple Anniversary

Volume 30, No. 4, November 1993

November is anniversary month for the Birmingham Temple. It was in November 1963 at 35 families decided to incorporate as a Jewish congregation.

Thirty years of the Birmingham Temple also means thirty years of Humanistic Judaism. What makes our congregation unique is that we became the first community to embrace an important new way to practice Judaism.

What is Humanistic Judaism? Explaining Humanistic Judaism clearly and simply both to oneself and to others still remains a challenge for many. But no Temple task is more important.

The easiest way to approach Humanistic Judaism is to view it as an answer to three very important questions that many Jews ask.

Where is my power?

Where is my Judaism?

Where is my religion?

Where is my power? The power question is the basic question of any practical philosophy of life. Where do I find the strength that I need to cope with the problems and challenges of life? The traditional answer was God. Divine power, made available through prayer and worship, was the major source of needed strength.

But God is only interesting if he has power. A God who creates the world but is unable to respond to human needs is irrelevant to the human agenda. The existence of God is not the issue. The power of God is very much the issue. If God has no power to give me in my hour of crisis then his existence makes no practical difference. Humanistic Judaism does not deny the existence of God. It simply denies that the power that is available to me in my moment of need is a divine supernatural power.

For Humanistic Jews the source of power and strength is human. Human power comes into forms. There is the personal power of me as a person and as an individual. There is also the collective power of friends and community who offer me their support. In the end – God or no God – that is the locus of my power. Training the power and celebrating that power is more important than prayer and worship. It is the foundation of my dignity and self-esteem. The theme song we have been singing for almost thirty years sums it up.

Where is my light?

My light is in me.

Where is my hope?

My hope is in me.

Where is my strength?

My strength is in me.

And in you.

Where is my Judaism? traditional Jews and many liberal Jews find Judaism in a book, in the famous book of the Torah. Even for most Jews who do not believe in the theology of the Torah and do not except most of the rules of the Torah, Judaism is the teaching of the Torah. There is a problem in this situation. First, there is the problem of integrity – of praising what one neither believes nor practices. Second, there is the problem of substance. If Judaism is a perfunctory allegiance to a book, then it is not very important.

For Humanistic Jews Judaism is not the celebration of a book. It is the celebration of a people. The Jewish people, and not the Torah, are at the heart of Judaism. The Jews are an extraordinary people, who, in the face of overwhelming odds and cruel fates, arranged to survive and be creative. Jewish history and Jewish culture are testimonies to that creativity. If the Jewish experience, through the centuries, is seen as the consequence of divine intervention, then the experience is less than ordinary. But if it is seen as the result of human effort and human ingenuity, then it is more than special. The meaning of Jewish history is not the wonderful justice and love of God. It is the power that human beings possess in a cruel and in different universe, to defy the “fates” and to survive. The answer to the question of power and the answer to the question of Judaism come together in an affirmation of humanism.

Just as Jesus is the central symbol of Christianity, which points to the reality of the world which Christians affirm, so is the Jewish people the central symbol of Judaism, which points to the reality which Jews affirm. Jews may disagree on the meaning of Jewish history. But they agree that Jewish history is the key to understanding the human condition.

Where is my religion? religion is usually associated with the experience of transcendence, with the experience of feeling oneself part of something greater than oneself. Traditional religion maintains that true transcendence is spiritual transcendence, a sense of feeling oneself part of God, God‘s power in God’s world.

For Humanistic Jews the experience of transcendence is very important. It is at the heart of religion. But Humanistic Jews deny that spiritual transcendence is the only kind of religious experience. They maintain that the first and primary kind of transcendence is ethical transcendence. Ethical transcendence is the experience of feeling myself part of something greater than myself – namely, my community. Without that experience of transcendence it would be difficult for me to go beyond my private agenda of personal happiness and survival to a moral agenda. My willingness to serve my community and the needs of others comes from my sense of identification with that community. It is not always the case that what is good for me is good for my community. And it is not always the case that what is morally right maximizes my own pleasure and my own dignity.

Ethical transcendence begins with infancy and childhood, when I am still very dependent on others. It continues with the experience of living in a society, cooperating with others, working together to realize a shared goal. All of the experiences of transcendence, derive from this first and basic connection. And all other “transcendent highs“ arise from the “high” of human solidarity. Very simply put, ethics is our religion.

A Humanistic Jew is a Jew who believes that the fundamental source of problem solving power is human power, that ethics is the religion that counts, that, at the heart of Judaism, lies the extraordinary history and experience of the Jewish people.

Ethical and Cultural Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Spring/Summer, Volume 8, 1980

Ethical culture is a humanist movement. Many, if not most, of its members, are Jews or ‘former Jews’. Its founder, Felix Adler, was the son of a rabbi and a Semitics scholar. Its programs and projects have enjoyed wide Jewish support.

But it is different from Humanistic Judaism.

Before I tell you how it differs, let me give you some background information on its origins, development, and decline.


 The roots of ethical culture lie in five conditions.

  1. Reform Judaism. The development of a liberal alternative to orthodox Judaism started in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century. Jewish immigrants from Germany brought reform to America where it flourished because the government did not interfere with any form of radical religious change and because the American environment was almost without tradition. By 1870, the American Reform movement had split into three factions – Conservative, Moderate and Radical. The conservatives ultimately withdrew to organize the Conservative movement. The Moderates and Radicals maintained an uneasy truce, trying to negotiate incompatible positions. The Radicals wanted to divest Judaism of all distinctive ritual and to emphasize the importance of what they called ‘prophetic ethics’. The Radical problem was that ‘prophetic ethics’ was universal and provided no basis for a unique Jewish identity. The first members of Ethical Culture came from this Radical Reform orientation.
  2. Free Religion. The influence of Darwin in the new science radicalized many liberal Protestant ministers in America, particularly Unitarians. They began to talk about a humanistic religion which would be ethics- centered and not God-centered. They ultimately organized the Free Religious Association. One of their most distinguished advocates was a clergyman named Frothingham, who attracted many Jews to his Sunday lectures in New York.
  3. Secularism. The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century transformed the lives of the American people. A new sense of progress and betterment through science dominated the attitudes of the ruling elite. Men of science replaced the clergy as the wise men of society. Thousands of people abandoned organized religion or remained attached in only a nominal fashion. Many preferred secular education to religious training, secular pursuits to worship and prayer. Secularized Jews were open to an ideology that did not appear genuinely religious.
  4. Bourgeoisie. The German Jews who came to America ended up in the middle class. As members of the bourgeoisie, they cherished the American middle-class values that everybody should have a religious identity. Many German Jews who were secular and universal still felt the need for some kind of ‘religious’ identity that was not really religious. Since the ethnic, linguistic and cultural aspects of Jewishness had long since been abandoned by most Germany Jews, a cultural Judaism was inconceivable to them. They much preferred to go beyond Jewish identity to a universal secular religion.
  5. Felix Adler. Ethical Culture came into existence because of the charismatic leadership of a young man whose father was the rabbi of Temple Emanuel, the leading reform temple of New York City. Sent to Berlin to train for the rabbinate as the successor to his father, Felix Adler became a disciple of Radical Reform. Unlike his colleagues, he took this position to its logical conclusion, going beyond Judaism to universal ethical religion. Influenced by the agnostic position of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, He substituted the Golden Rule for God. When he returned to America, he found that he could not to, with integrity, serve as a rabbi, even a radical one. Utilizing the new spirit of the times which afforded him a sympathetic audience in both the Jewish and Gentile world, he organized in 1876 a new religious group which he dubbed the New York Society for Ethical Culture. He chose the word ‘culture’ because he did not wish to alarm the reform movement into thinking that he was initiating a competing religion, and because he wanted atheists, agnostics and confirmed secularists not to feel estranged. His guiding genius and strong will continue to mold the movement until his death in 1933.

The development of Ethical Culture was rapid. Within twenty years branch societies were founded in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Boston – as well as overseas in London, Berlin and Vienna. And the international union was established. Leadership training for an Ethical clergy was implemented. And, most important of all, programs of social action were undertaken. In the days when government welfare was unavailable, Ethical Culture was the leading pioneer in organizing the schools, camps and settlement houses for the poor.

The decline of the movement set in after the First World War. The aging and shrinking of the German Jewish population reduced the possibilities of recruitment. Russian Jewish secularists were not sufficiently bourgeois and did not need a religious identity for respectability. they turned to socialism and Yiddish culture, preferring political and ethnic associations to religious ones. Above all, rising antisemitism and Hitler’s Holocaust drove many universalists back to Jewish identity. Both disillusionment and guilt made them alter their ideological commitments.

But the main reason for the decline of the Ethical movement was the rise of a formidable competitor. The Unitarian churches, originally Christian in their creeds, turned increasingly to the ideas of free religion. After 1925, a high percentage of them became humanistic. With superior funds, better organization, a long tradition and no taint of Jewish association, they were able to organize the Gentile world for humanism more effectively than Ethical Culture. With the death of Adler, his movement could no longer meet the competition and win. It retired to a small Jewish corner and left the field to the Unitarians.


The Ethical movement started out with the strong philosophical commitments of Felix Adler, who adored the writings of Immanuel Kant. As time went on, the ideology became more explicitly humanistic through the influence of new leaders and new members. Ten years ago, the name of the movement was changed from Ethical Culture to Ethical Humanism.

Certain basic ideas defined the commitment of ethical members.

  1. Agnosticism. Adler maintained the discussions about God were a waste of time because his existence could not be logically determined. Ultimately, decisions about right and wrong would have to depend on human intuition and human reasoning. While the existence of God is not denied, it is also not affirmed. It is simply regarded as irrelevant to the ethical life.
  2. Ethics. Adler maintained that the heart of a good religion was deed, not creed. Religious training was ethical training. Character building becomes the essential program of a humanistic commitment.
  3. Spirituality. The word ‘spiritual’ appears often and Adler‘s writings and in Ethical literature. It refers to a state of commitment and behavior which comes from doing what is right and not from either prayer or piety. By this definition, An atheist may be more spiritual than a fundamentalist. The word was very important to Ethical Culture because it gave it some claim to be regarded as a religion.
  4. Universalism. Adler believed that ethnic boundaries were outmoded and that the new world would see the emergence of a single human community. Since the only thing Jewish worth preserving was its prophetic tradition, Jews were expressing their loyalty to their heritage by giving up their Jewishness and following their ethical values into a broader group.
  5. ‘Liberalism’. Adler ultimately disassociated himself from the Free Religious Association because it was not interested in remedial social action. From its inception, Ethical Culture has espoused political values which are normally designated ‘liberal’. Both desegregation and internationalism, as well as government support of the poor have been goals of action program sponsored by the movement.


How should we Humanistic Jews respond to Ethical Culture? How is it related to our endeavors?

The truth is that ethical culture and Humanistic Judaism are far more alike than they are different from each other.

We share a commitment to the humanistic way of life. The original Kantian emphasis of Felix Adler has evolved into a full rational humanism.

We share the history of expressing our humanistic commitments through organizations called religious, although the activity of these organizations would normally be called secular.

We share, on the whole, a Jewish connection (even though the official literature of Ethical Humanism plays this fact down). The members of both groups are chiefly of Jewish origin and experience the social situation of being Jewish. Just as Unitarianism has a Christian overtone because of its roots, so does Ethical Culture have a Jewish association, even in the minds of Gentiles who join it. (Only the St. Louis group, with its German Rationalist background, seems to have escaped his connection).

We also share a commitment to a single human community and to an emerging world culture, recognizing that our primary identity is our human identity.

But, there are differences.

Although its members are overwhelmingly Jewish, Ethical Culture is disinterested in serving their Jewish cultural needs. One reason for its disinterest is that the movement sees a focus on Jewishness as diverting from a focus on humanness and that such parochialism will exclude humanistic Gentiles. Another reason for its indifference lies in the old German Jewish Radical Reform view of Judaism as primarily a religion and the refusal of this view to see it as a national culture. The consequence of this refusal is that Ethical Culture failed to serve the needs of many of its Jewish members and lost them while it never gained the allegiance of Gentiles who were skeptical of joining a Jewish organization.

We in Humanistic Judaism see no conflict between Jewish identity and ‘human’ identity. We regard both as cultural heritage and cultural options. All of us experience multiple identities in our daily living. Most of them do not compete with each other. They supplement each other. Being Jewish and being ‘human’ can be enjoyed together. In today’s world, because of their historic vulnerability, Humanistic and secular Jews need cultural reinforcement for their Jewish identity.

The humanistic Jewish option does not exclude organizations that desire to be concerned with only humanistic philosophy and humanistic identity.But these groups cannot start out as part of a Jewish secessionist movement. They need a broader base and less vulnerable sponsors. To pretended to be universal when one is indeed both Jewish and universal is to end up being neither successfully Jewish nor successfully universal.

Another difference between the two of us is in our view of a humanistic religion or a humanistic culture. Ethical Humanism, By virtue of its origins as a lecture society in a social action group, failed to create a strong aesthetic tradition to fit the universalist commitments it spoke of into serving as an alternative to the rituals of Jewish and Christian celebration. In an age when the lecture is a dying art form and social welfare has been assumed by the government, the absence of strong humanist celebrations makes Ethical Culture bland and sterile.

Because of our experience in Jewish celebration, we Humanistic Jews understand the importance of Humanist holidays and Humanist ceremonies. The development of World Day and People Day as part of our celebration calendar is an expression of our awareness of this humanist need. While nothing in the philosophy of Ethical Culture prevents them from creating this alternative calendar, their historic rebellion against all forms of ritual has pragmatically inhibited their creativity.


Despite the differences, the similarities between Ethical Culture and Humanistic Judaism is so great that we have to regard ourselves as part of the same religious and – philosophic commitment.

In fact, because of our common Jewish origins, we are also part of the same Jewish orientation which we have designated as The Fourth Alternative. (The other three are Orthodox, Reform-Conservative, and Mystical).

The Fourth Alternative includes all the Jews within the humanistic spectrum, Whether they are called Humanistic Jews, Secular Jews, Creative Jews, Cultural Jews or Ethical Jews – and whether they are actively or passively involved with Jewish identity.

It is my hope that Ethical Humanism will ultimately recognize the importance of dealing with the Jewish cultural needs of its Jewish members and will seek to cooperate with other Jewish humanists in the development of a viable Fourth Alternative in Judaism.

We, avowed Jewish humanists, are too few in number not to recognize our connection. We need to work together so that we can be more effective and fulfilling our own needs and in resisting the assaults of our well-organized opposition.

Anti-Semitism and Jewish Humanism

Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1983, Volume 9, No. 1

Saying something positive about anti-Semitism hardly seems rational. In the century of the Holocaust, such a statement seems an insult to the innocent martyrs to Nazi evil.

What could possibly be positive about the hateful force that has killed millions of Jews, humiliated thousands of others and filled our lives with fear and anxiety?

We all know that many Jews are masochists and that they thrive on suffering and persecution. The thought of happiness and pleasure fills them with dread. But do we want to praise masochism? Are there no more creative ways of serving their needs than finding them anti-Semites?

We all know that many Jews fear that Jewish identity in the Diaspora will fade away in a friendly environment and that anti-Semitism is necessary to motivate most Jews to remain Jews. (Look at the Jewish awakening in the Soviet Union.) but why turn the society into a virtue? How valuable is an identity that only persecution can sustain?

We all know that the state of Israel was made possible by the Holocaust. Without Nazi hostility, the Zionists would never have motivated a sufficient number of Jews to choose Palestine. Nor would the desire for a Jewish state have become so intense among the Jewish masses. Nor would American Jews, motivated by guilt and anger, have pressured their own government so relentlessly. But is any Jewish state worth the price of six million dead? Would we not forego the state of Israel if they could be restored to life?

So, of course, we start out our analysis by clearly stating that if we had our “druthers”, we would choose a Jewish history without anti-Semitism. But since we are not in control of the social forces that determine human events and since anti-Semitism has, indeed, been an integral part of the Jewish experience, we can seriously ask — have there been any useful consequences of this terrible assault?

For Jewish humanists who value their Jewish identity, the truth of the matter is that the parts of the Jewish personalities that are humanistically most interesting were produced by anti-Semitism.

Let me explain.

The Jew of ancient times was a pious peasant. He was a more likely candidate for the moral majority in the A.C.L.U. Attached to his family, clan, tribe and ancestors, he revered them all. Like most village people, he believed in the rightness of his own ways and was hostile to aliens.

In the Christian world, Jews became bourgeois pariahs, tolerated because they were economically necessary. Once their economic usefulness was threatened by competitors, they became “devils,” conspirators of evil who are worthy of death and destruction.

After the Enlightenment secularized a good part of the Christian world, the Jewish “devil“ became a secular “devil.” Instead of the old accusations of ritual murder in the stabbing of wafer hosts, the image of the world conspirator emerged. No longer viewed is only a religious enemy, the Jew became the racial foe, the atheistic planner of both materialistic capitalism and immoral communism. Since he invented both sides of a quarrel, he kept the Gentile world in social turmoil.

The danger of secular anti-Semitism was its exportability. A Christian setting was no longer necessary. Even Arabs (who were Semites) could enjoy it.

“The parts of the Jewish personality that are humanistically most interesting were produced by anti-Semitism.”

The Christian personality was not altered by anti-Semitism. Hostility to Jews flowed quite naturally from its dogma, its intensity, and its fanatic piety. Since the Christian world experienced power and success and kept Jews in a lowly position, fact and faith coincided. Experience and propaganda did not seem too far apart. The world had the semblance of order and justice.

But anti-Semitism had the opposite effect on the Jewish personality. Anti-Semitism separated fact from faith, experience from propaganda. The suffering of the Jews hardly seemed consistent with divine justice and love, especially for the favorites of God. Rabbinic Judaism might promise happiness in the future. But the rabbis found it difficult to explain the fury of the present.

Some Jews responded to the onslaught with guilt. They assumed that their suffering was due to their bad behavior and not to God’s injustice. They became even more pious, even more faithful. Some Jews discovered that resignation and appeasement were comfortable postures. They felt safer as pitiable creatures than as powerful ones.

But many Jews responded with anger. Since the religious establishment would never allow such an unworthy feeling to be openly expressed to God, it was redirected. Hostility to Gentiles was a safe alternative, so long as it was verbalized within the group.

Ultimately, the anger manifested itself in three behaviors and attitudes which became an important part of the Jewish personality in modern times, especially the European Ashkenazic one. These responses were attempts to preserve Jewish dignity, sins anger, as a positive emotion, is an expression of defiance, a defense of one’s own space against intruders.

The Humanistic Alternative

Rabbi Sherwin Wine concludes Colloquium 1999 – “Beyond Tradition: The Search for a New Jewish Identity” with a brilliant address on the need for a Humanistic alternative in Jewish life that can build on the strengths of previous attempts to create a sustainable non-traditional Jewish identity. For more on this Colloquium, including links to publications of selected proceedings, visit

Reconstructionist Judaism

“Reconstructionist Judaism” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)

Reconstructionism is the third style of the Jewish Ambivalent. It arose out of Conservative Judaism and is emotionally allied with it. In fact, Reconstructionism fits very neatly into its pragmatic operating procedure—free philosophic inquiry and halakhic behavior.

Mordecai Kaplan, who was the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement and its reigning guru, was a graduate and teacher of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the New York school for Conservative Judaism. He was born in Lithuania over a hundred years ago and came to America at an early age. He organized his own congregation on the west side of Manhattan, which he called the Society for the Advancement of Judaism and which became the pioneer congregation of his new movement.

Kaplan was the emotional child of Europe and of the traditional lifestyle of the Litvak Jew. But he was the intellectual child of two secular humanists, John Dewey and Emile Durkheim. Dewey, the philosopher, maintained that religion could have a humanistic meaning. It was the celebration of all those powers in the universe that help us stay alive and solve our problems. “God” is the symbol of that power. Durkheim, the sociologist, maintained that religion was a social enterprise, a ritual glue that kept everybody together. The heart of religion was sacred behavior, the untouchable and unchangeable set of actions by which any group affirmed its unity. If one takes Dewey and Durkheim, mixes them up, and adds a large dose of Litvak loyalty, one gets Reconstructionism.

Kaplan tried to wed humanism and halakha. He claimed that Judaism was not a specific combination of theological beliefs. It was a religious civilization and could accommodate many different systems of thought. He claimed that God could be redefined as the creative energy of the universe that enables individuals and communities to survive. And salvation was fulfillment in the here and now. Above all, he pleaded for the reconstruction of the Jewish community to allow for diversity in unity.

The unity for Kaplan was the folk, the Jewish people. And the sign of that unity was an adherence to the three folk sancta: God, Israel, and Torah—in other words, the halakha, or a slightly amended reasonable facsimile of it designated folk-religion. In the end, it was the same old Conservative package: act traditional and think humanist; use all the words of faith and humility and make them mean reason and dignity. The official Reconstructionist prayerbook is hardly distinguishable from the Conservative one.

Reconstructionism differs from Conservatism in its refusal to endorse the idea of the Chosen People. For Kaplan, this concept was a violation of the humanistic respect for the value of all cultures and civilizations. But its removal from the vocabulary of the prayerbook (which was a small change) seemed bizarre. Why bother to change one little item in the service when the whole concept of a worship experience where people talk to God for three hours is inconsistent with an impersonal deity? How can any reasonable person talk to creative energy?

There is a humorless edge to Kaplan. If you want to combine halakha and humanism, do not be fastidious. Nothing really fits anyway. In that respect, conventional Conservatism is superior to Reconstructionism. It never tried to be profound. It lets the absurdity stand because it is emotionally satisfying. Ambivalence should never insist on consistency.

Modern Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reconstructionism are best described by the Yiddish phrase: nisht a hin, nisht a her—neither here nor there. They may work for some people. But they do not take reason and dignity seriously enough. A humanism that is dressed up to look like rabbinic Judaism is ashamed of what it is.

Masters of the Enlightenment: Precursors of Humanistic Judaism

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

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

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

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

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

The European Enlightenment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jewish Enlightenment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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