How the Secular Revolution Divided the Jews

Humanistic Jews and Other Jews – Winter 1988

The life of reason and dignity is called humanism. It is the philosophy that flows naturally from the Secular Revolution, shifting attention from the supernatural to the natural, from the divine lo the human. Two hundred years ago, it was a startling change.

In Western Europe and North America, the Secular Revolution removed the politi­cal disabilities from which Jews suffered. Secular citizenship in a secular state was now available. If Jews no longer desired to be Jewish, they did not have to become Christian. They could be comfortably unaffiliated.

As emancipation spread, the Jews found themselves in a world they had never before experienced. Religion and ethnicity were private matters. Indulging them was a mat­ter of personal choice.

Many Jews embraced the Secular Revolu­tion. Secularists and Jews shared common enemy. the -Christian-Church. Whatever weakened the church was good for both the humanists and the Jews.

The new world of science and capitalism opened up new opportunities. Jewish talent had found its ideal environment. All the sur­vival skills the Jews had acquired for defense in an agricultural milieu were now the very stuff out of which successful enter­prise was made. Pushiness, planning, mobility, and money management were the keys to wealth and prosperity. The new sec­ular world made the individual Jew freer and more powerful than at any time in the history of the Jewish people. But for Jewish identity, the change spelled trouble.

Humanism undermined all the old rea­sons for valuing and preserving Jewish identity. God was no longer personal or in­teresting. The afterlife was questionable. Supernatural power was the embarrassing product of superstition. Chosen peoplehood was a parochial arrogance. The rabbis knew less about the world than the new scholar class of scientists and academicians. And all of the new ideas were packaged in eco­nomic advantage and political equality.

In the new world of free enterprise and consumer choice the rabbis were at a disad­vantage. They were not accustomed to selling their product. The language of persua­sion was less familiar to them than the language of command. Competition was not a familiar game. Trained to enunciate faith, they did not know how to speak with the voice of reason. Familiar with people who practiced humility, they did not know how to deal with people who insisted on dignity.

Three Jewish responses emerged in the confrontation? The first “response was rejectionist. The Rejectionists despised the Secular Revolution and its consequences. They sought to keep rabbinic Judaism intact and to protect it from intrusion. The second response was ambivalent. The Ambivalents enjoyed both the new world and the old. They were unwilling to forego either the comforts of tradition or the benefits of secu­lar achievement. The third response was enthusiastic. The Enthusiasts welcomed the changes and encouraged them.

The Rejectionists

In both the Jewish and Christian worlds, and later in the Muslim world, large num­bers of people did not like what history had dished out to them. The new industrial society, with its cities and machines, with its family decline and personal freedom, was an ugly, cruel, and immoral place in which to live. A culture that mocked tradi­tion and made ancestors obsolete seemed to threaten the stability of the social order and to promote chaos.

Religious fundamentalists are a persist­ent minority in the modern world. They are very uncomfortable in the setting of science and the consumer culture. They denounce the present and hanker after the past.

But preserving the past in the present is different from maintaining the past in the past. The existence of a new rival establish­ment culture produces a siege mentality. Secularism is a successful “devil” and has put God on the defensive. Fundamentalism is different from the old life of faith and humility. It is always defending itself and assaulting its enemies.

Rabbinic Judaism in the contemporary milieu has to be different from what it was before — simply because so much of its time is spent avoiding the temptations of the sec­ular world. It needs to be more intolerant and less generous. Otherwise it will not survive.

The very word orthodoxy is a strident challenge. It means “the right way” — as opposed to all the “wrong” ways. Before the Secular Revolution, rabbinic Judaism was so pervasive that it simply was Judaism. It needed no qualifying adjectives.

The center of Jewish resistance to the Secular Revolution was Poland. The old Polish kingdom, including Lithuania and West Russia, contained the largest Jewish community in the world. Not only was it religiously separate from the Polish Catholic population, it was also ethnically distinct. Yiddish made Ashkenazic Jews a unique nation.

The Secular Revolution took a while to get to Poland. When it did arrive, it en­countered a Jewish world of poverty and small towns where rabbinical seminaries flourished and rabbinical scholarship was the test of status. Economic survival was still too precarious for secular conversions to occur easily.

Ironically, a movement that began in southern Poland in defiance of the rabbinic establishment became the most effective defender of tradition. The Hasidim found fault with Orthodoxy, not because it had too much faith and too much humility, but because it had too little. Starting in Podolia with an illiterate miracle worker, the Hasidic resistance spread like wildfire through Poland and West Russia. It was a religious revival with many faces. Ecstatic dancing, faith healing, and a renewed inter­est in the supernatural reflected its indict­ment of the Talmudic scholar class. In their poverty, the new devotees needed a more available God than the rabbis were willing to provide.

Although the Hasidim fought the rabbis, they did not reject rabbinic Judaism. They accepted the authority of the Halakha. They dreamed of the world to come. They ex­pected the Messiah. Their holy roller fren­zies were a supplement, not a substitute. Had the secular challenge not emerged, they might have separated themselves from official Orthodoxy. But the presence of the secular foe brought the two movements to­gether again.

The Hasidic movement was what the old- time religion needed. The boring God of Maimonides, the darling of the rabbinic intellectual establishment, was turned into a passionate dabbler in supernatural power, no longer distant and aloof. Humble trust in the protection of God and the Hasidic guru produced the “born-again” Jew, a person to whom divinity was an experience, not a routine.

Hasidism created the best form of reli­gious resistance to the secular age. In a sec­ular society where old hierarchies crumble, a God who behaves like a distant king of­fends the democratic sensibilities of the ambitious masses. The people of faith and humility want a God who is intimidating enough to be interesting but who is friendly enough to make them feel important.

The Misnagdim, the opponents of the Hasidim, also denounced the Secular Revo­lution. But they lacked the supernatural fer­vor and the democratic vocabulary to be convincing. Their rabbinic leadership had already been corrupted by “rational theol­ogy,” and they would ultimately find them­selves more comfortable talking to secular intellectuals than to ecstatic faith healers. In time, most of the children of the Misnagdim drifted away from Orthodoxy to more secu­lar outlooks. The Hasidim were more successful in hanging on to their descend­ants and in recruiting new devotees.

In 1912, the return of the Hasidim to the Orthodox fold was dramatized by the orga­nization of the Agudat Yisrael in Poland. This coalition (called simply the Aguda) was created to fight the overwhelming threat of the new secularism in Jewish life. The pro­gram of the Aguda was the defense of rab­binic Judaism against the agents of secular­ism. There was to be no compromise with the secular age.

From the very beginning, the fuel of the Aguda was Hasidic fervor. When the Holo­caust destroyed the Polish center of this “Rejectionist Front,” its refugees made their way to North America and Israel, where most Jews had embraced the lifestyle of the Secular Revolution. While the Misnaged refugees created protective islands of tradi­tion, ghettos within ghettos, some of the Hasidim turned to active missionizing in “enemy” territory. The Lubavitchers (fol­lowers of the Hasidic guru dynasty from Lubavitch in West Russia], in particular, went out recruiting among the young, the malcontent misfits of the secular age. They have experienced considerable success.

The Jewish Rejectionists of today are not the old decaying Misnaged scholars of former years. They are often very young people who have repudiated the secular commitments and interests of the Jewish establishment and its ambivalent verbal attachment to “tradition.” With Hasidic fervor, they have become militant and ag­gressive. And being children of secular edu­cation and secular skills, they combine their hostility to the world of humanism with a clever use of its techniques of promotion, advertising, and democratic persuasion.

The new recruits join for many reasons, personal and ideological. One of the main motivations is the ease with which rejectionism helps them deal with their Jewish identity. Stung by anti-Semitism, they see in the old piety a clear, visible, and public way to affirm their Jewish pride.

The major problem with the Rejectionists — other than an attempt to reject a world that they cannot fully disown — is their fierce internal competition. Scholars and recruits compete with each other for the status of superpietists. The internal world of yeshiva politics is a mean world of accusa­tion and counter-accusation, constant sur­veillance, and the fear of losing religious status. Any concession [to the secular enemy] is a form of treason. And self- righteousness becomes a favorite pastime.

The Ambivalents

The Ambivalents make up the Jewish establishment in North America. They come in two main varieties, Conservative and Reform. While they endorse the Secular Revolution in most of their daily activities, they reject its implications for Jewish iden­tity. They have one foot in the world of faith and humility and one foot in the world of reason and dignity. Since the two worlds are not compatible, they have difficulty finding a secure stance. It is often more comfortable just to stand on one foot for a while and then to shift to the other.

Ambivalents seek to avoid painful con­frontations. They wish to disown neither faith nor reason. They want to have both. They want the motivation system of faith and the information system of reason. They want the humility of prayer and the dignity of personal freedom.

The dividing line between conservatives and reformers is the issue of the Halakha, the rabbinic law. Conservatives want to keep it or, at least, pretend to keep it. Re­formers are willing to dispense with it.

Conservatives are broader than the offi­cial Conservative Movement. They include (in an ascending order of deviation) the Modern Orthodox, the self-proclaimed Con­servatives, and the Reconstructionists. All three praise the Halakha and wish to pre­serve it. If they contemplate changes, they want to find halakhic reasons for making them. While their stated philosophies may be very naturalistic and very secular, their recommended behavior is very traditional. They have a great need to preserve the appearance of rabbinic Judaism if not its substance.

All three are into worship. The form and content of their prayers are virtually identi­cal with the requirements of the traditional rabbis. All three are into the rabbinic dietary laws, the behavioral restrictions of the Sab­bath and the holidays, and the historic requirements for marriage and divorce.

Modern Orthodoxy

Modern Orthodoxy is the establishment Judaism of Western Europe. It is sedate and decorous. It is traditional and secular. Its leaders receive a good secular education and train in modern seminaries. Its mem­bers participate in all the professions of an urban society. Appearance-wise, they are indistinguishable from all the other citizens of the secular state. What is unique about their behavior is mainly evident in their homes and synagogues. These institutions become the focus of their traditional attach­ments. Since most of the unique behavior patterns of the rabbinic lifestyle are incon­gruous with secular existence, they are praised but rarely observed. Female segre­gation, ritual purity, and the dress code do not find any real community support and are not enforced by public opinion.

While it is important to the Modern Orthodox to be designated “Orthodox,” they are despised and denounced by the

Rejectionists. Separate seating for the sexes in the synagogue is hardly a substitute for traditional belief. An “orthodoxy” that avoids discussing divine rewards and punishments, the salvation of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and the impor­tance of the world to come undermines the motivation of the Halakha and subverts the traditional justification for preserving Jew­ish identity. Proving that the dietary laws are good for health and hygiene {true or not) turns the argument into a rational conse­quential one and deprives the rabbinic tradi­tion of the supernatural context out of which it arose.

The Rejectionists are right. Modern Orthodoxy sometimes looks like Orthodoxy. But it tastes different. And most of its ad­herents are more comfortable spending time with their secular friends than with pious Hasidim.

Conservatism

The Conservative Movement, spawned in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century, found its most comfortable home in North America.

Initially united with the reformers in an alliance against the Rejectionists, its leaders split early from the coalition on the issue of the Halakha. They adopted a pragmatic stance: free philosophic inquiry together with moderate ritual conformity. The mind would be reasonable, but the body would be traditional. Since most people settle for appearances, it was an appealing compro­mise. Secularized Jews could feel traditional without having to be assaulted by traditional ideas.

Musical instruments might be tried for Sabbath worship. The sexes might be mixed for synagogue services. Protestant style ser­mons might be added for public edification. But little was done to shatter the “look” of tradition. And nothing was done for which a Talmudic justification was not found.

As time makes innovation seem tradi­tional, creeping change never destroys the illusion. When the Conservatives ultimately ordain their women rabbis, they will dress them up in the symbols of the old male chauvinism and find a Talmudic quotation to justify their action.

The Conservative Movement in America has been the most successful of all the modern Jewish “denominations” because it allows the Jews to have their cake and eat it simultaneously. Since it deals primarily with appearances, it has difficulty dealing with the substance of belief and integrity. It gives all moral power to the Rejectionists who, at least, believe in what they do.

Reconstructionism

Reconstructionism is the third style of the Jewish Ambivalent. It arose out of Con­servative Judaism and is emotionally allied with it.

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.

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. 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 prayer book 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 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?

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.

Reform

Reform — at least in the beginning — chose a bolder format. It broke with rab­binic Judaism and rejected the Halakha.

Living in Northern Europe, the early Reformers were influenced by Protestant culture. Some of them began to assault Orthodoxy with denunciations of Talmudic superstition and with appeals for a return to the purity of the Bible.

But the Bible, in many respects, was more “primitive” and less reasonable than the Talmud. And it was loaded with all kinds of laws about sacrifice, ritual purity, and dietary practices that the Reformers were eager to discard.

In the 1840s, there appeared a German duo of renegade rabbis, Abraham Geiger and Samuel Holdheim, who sought to find a justification for Jewish identity in the age of reason. Their new formulation took account of the consequences of the Secular Revolu­tion on Jewish life. In Western Europe, Jews had lost their national culture. Neither lan­guage nor folk customs separated them from other Europeans in their region. As for the Halakha, it had been discarded by many secularized Jews as a burdensome interfer­ence with social integration.

The Reform ideologues, for obvious rea­sons, discarded ethnicity and nationality as motivating values. They seemed to have no future. Personal Messiahs and supernatural rewards were also rejected. They offended reason. Rabbinic law was irrelevant. It rubbed against the higher values of secular existence.

The Reformers picked up on the tradi­tional idea of the Chosen People (which Kaplan was later to discard) and trans­formed it. The Jews were the divinely ap­pointed missionaries of ethical monothe­ism. The special job of the Jews was to be the role model advertisers of the one God.

Jewish history was a “progressive revela­tion” of the existence and nature of the

Supreme Being. While the Bible and Tal­mud were expressions of this revelation, they were imperfect and open to emenda­tion by future events. The age of reason was only one more step in the development of that disclosure. Ultimately, the nature of God would be totally revealed. The Messi­anic age of peace and love would follow. And the Jews could retire from their age-old job.

The Reform overhaul of the meaning and value of Jewish identity was bold and clear. Its only problem was that it was ludicrous. Why are Jewish monotheists more divinely- appointed than Muslim monotheists? How can any people designate themselves as ethical role models without ceasing to be exactly what they want to be? Self-righ­teousness is morally offensive. In what way does Jewish history reveal the existence of a nice single God? Jewish suffering suggests that he is either not so nice or that he is nice but limited. But, above all, what does ethical monotheism have to do with the age of rea­son or the Secular Revolution? Why would a bunch of Jewish “not-quite agnostics,” with a perfunctory formal belief in a perfunctory God, be chosen for such a missionary task? Yahveh must be as confused as his army of converters.

Reform Jews never took this formal ideol­ogy seriously. Like the Conservatives, they just limped along on the inertia of old iden­tities. And like the Conservatives, they pre­ferred the consolation of traditional en­dorsement.

Enter Prophetic Judaism. Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah sudden­ly emerged as Reform heroes. Since they were old, traditional, and Biblical, they were more understandable than Geiger’s “spirit of the age.” No matter that the prophets were devotees of ecstatic visions and supernatural intrusion. No matter that they were profoundly opposed to urbaniza­tion and the breakdown of the shepherd economy. No matter that their devotion to Yahveh was accompanied by a violent hos­tility to the worshipers of other gods. No matter that they were absolutely certain of the truth of their own personal revelation and intensely intolerant of disagreement. They had become the unlikely heroes of the age of reason. Yahveh would have had a fit.

The Reform Movement ended with slo­gans. Its formal ideology and its informal heroes had very little to do with Reform behavior. For a while, its Protestant format and its hostility to Jewish nationalism gave its adherents a form of social security. But they did not do very much to make Jewish identity interesting or worthwhile.

None of the Ambivalents had come up with a doctrine of Jewish identity that could match the power of the Rejectionist story. Since they sought their authority in Rejec­tionist literature and in Rejectionist heroes, they ended up with pale variations on Rejec­tionist themes.

The Ambivalents were ultimately res­cued by an experience they would have chosen to avoid and by a movement they did not invent.

A new secular anti-Semitism emerged in Europe that found less fault with Jewish belief than with Jews. The Jews were por­trayed as the “devils” of the modern world, the chosen people in reverse. Ironically, the anti-Semite found Jewish identity very sig­nificant, more significant than many Jews did.

Zionism was the movement and the ide­ology that grew up in response to anti- Semitism. Its founders were neither Rejectionists nor Ambivalents. Most of them were Enthusiasts for the secular age. Jewish secular nationalism was the child of the new world and initially aroused the hostility of all Rejectionists and many Ambivalents.

But it rescued the Ambivalents by giving them an attached fuel system for Jewish identity. All of the Ambivalents ultimately plugged into Zionist energy to keep their own sluggish enterprises going. Even Re­form, with its historic opposition to Jewish nationalism, ultimately succumbed.

The Enthusiasts

Rejectionists hated the Secular Revolu­tion. Ambivalents loved and hated it. But Enthusiasts loved it unashamedly.

Many Jewish Enthusiasts no longer found any value in Jewish identity. They just became secular. They had no reason to bother with their ethnic origins. Either the local form of nationalism or utopian universalism suited them perfectly. Most of them saw no purpose in turning Christian. Chris­tianity was as offensive to them as rabbinic Judaism. In a secular state, they could be comfortably French or German without having to pretend to be religious.

Ethical Culture

Some Enthusiasts, influenced by the Re­form Movement, came to believe that Jew­ishness was a voluntary religious identity. Since they no longer believed in the exis­tence of God or were not sure about his existence, they imagined that they were no longer Jews (even though their Gentile neighbors knew better). Eager to identify with a religion that was neither Jewish nor Christian, they were attracted to the new Ethical Culture.

The Ethical Movement does not identify itself as a Jewish movement, but many out­siders do. For many years, the overwhelm­ing majority of its members were Jews. And bourgeois Jewish secularists who were neither nationalistic nor Zionistic found a home there.

Founded in 1876 in New York City by Felix Adler, the son of a radical Reform rabbi, Ethical Culture was dominated for many years by the culture and style of the German Jewish elite. Adler maintained that Jewish identity was a religious identity dis­tinct from Ethical Culture.

Like Kant, he believed that the existence of God could be neither demonstrated nor disproved and that ethical laws did not derive from revealed religion. They came from the imperative of intuitive reason. God and prayer were excluded from his Sunday meetings. It was the kind of setting in which a secularist or an atheist would feel very comfortable.

The Ethical Movement was the result of the need of assimilated Western Jews to define themselves religiously for political safety. Cultural pluralism was anathema to the German Jewish bourgeoisie. Conversion to Christianity was intellectually unaccept­able and emotionally guilt-producing. Ethi­cal Culture was a suitable compromise, granting philosophic integrity and Jewish association. In New York City, it became an important presence in Jewish life.

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 religious iden­tity for respectability. They turned to social­ism and Yiddish culture, preferring political and ethnic associations to religious ones. Above all, rising anti-Semitism and Hitler’s Holocaust drove many universalists back to Jewish identity.

Yiddish Nationalism

Most secular Jews who did not value their Jewish identity did not bother with any religious alternative. There were enough political, cultural, and academic communi­ties around to rescue them from isolation. And if they wanted to fight anti-Semitism, they could always send money to the Anti- Defamation League — or subscribe to some revolutionary ideology that promised to get rid of it.

For Enthusiasts who valued their Jewish identity, the new passion was Jewish na­tionalism. It seemed the reasonable alterna­tive to Jewish religion, rabbinic or other­wise. It could be both intensely Jewish and intensely secular.

The two requirements for a nation are language and territory. Before the Secular Revolution, Jews had defined themselves as a nation in exile. And their view of them­selves was reenforced by segregation and social ostracism. But secular emancipation provided them with the opportunity to be­come citizens of other nations. How could one be a loyal member of two nations at the same time? Being nationalistically German and religiously Jewish seemed feasible. But being nationalistically German and nation­alistically Jewish seemed to be an impossi­bility. The Reformers had gone to great pains to redefine the Jews as a religious denomination. And the Western Jews, them­selves, had abandoned their Yiddish linguis­tic uniqueness.

In Eastern Europe, where Jewish emanci­pation was retarded, Jews were a linguistic nation. But they were dispersed among the Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians. They had no territory of their own.

The Secular Revolution opened up secu­lar studies to the Jews. And secular studies made them more universalistic and cosmo­politan. But the new racial anti-Semitism [threw them back on] their Jewish identity. They had become universalists by training and ethnics by bigotry. They had to be Jew­ish whether they wanted to or not. Either they could bemoan their Jewish fate and devote their lives to regret, or they could choose to value their Jewish identity in a positive way. But in their new intellectual posture, they had difficulty finding univer­sal reasons for remaining particular.

Despite its many problems, Jewish na­tionalism took center stage in the secular Jewish world. There simply was no other alternative. Only the nation and the socialist revolution could arouse the same passions that God used to arouse. And the revolution was not that easy to arrange.

From the very beginning, Jewish nation­alists had difficulty staying together. While they all agreed that Jewish identity was a national identity (not a religious one), they did not agree on the recipe for nationhood.

Secular Jewish nationalists often had very little time to fight the old-time religion because they spent so much time fighting each other. Bourgeois Yiddishists hated Bundists. Bundists hated Zionists. And Zionists had no use for minority culture- niks. The nationalist disputes rivaled the arguments of the old fanatical religious sects. The vocabulary changed. But the self- righteousness remained.

The Yiddishists seemed to have the edge at the start. Although they excluded the Sephardic and Oriental Jewish world from their nation, although they were not com­pactly settled on a given piece of territory, although they were divided between capital­ists and socialists, secularists and tradition­alists, they represented a real living nation of six million Yiddish-speaking people. When Hebrew as a national language was a fantasy in the minds of a few idealists, Yiddish was the mother tongue of the Euro­pean Jewish masses. From Metz to Minsk, it gave a linguistic unity to the Ashkenazic Jewish world. Much more than Messianic fantasies, it gave national self-awareness. Obscured by religious ritual and religious segregation, it was revealed in its full glory when religion became less important.

Many secular Jews despised it. To social- climbers, it suggested centuries of degradation.

But the socialist devotees of the common man loved Yiddish — precisely because it was the language of the common man. They used it for books and newspapers. They refined it for prose and poetry. They even tried to make it a language of science.

Yiddish blossomed with popular fiction and poetry — the kind of literature with which the masses could identity. Writers, like Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, rescued Yiddish from anonymous folk tales and gave it the prestige of literary heroes.

The Yiddish diasporas in North America and Argentina became creative outposts of the motherland. Minority nationhood thrived in the streets of New York and Buenos Aires.

The major reason for the fall of Yiddish was Adolf Hitler. The Holocaust wiped out the “motherland.” The home base of secular Yiddish nationalism, with its schools, its theaters, and its political parties, ceased to exist. There was no vital population of Yid­dish speakers. Ironically, Yiddish survives most intensely, in both America and Israel, among the Orthodox enemies of the Secular Revolution who cultivate it as an expression of their hostility to secular Hebrew and Zionism.

Zionism

Modern Hebrew is an extraordinary achievement. It is no slowly evolving folk language that was elevated by scholars. It is a national speech that was invented by scholars and given to the masses.

When the revival of Hebrew as the popu­lar language began, there existed no com­munity of Hebrew speakers and no special territory where they lived. There were no intimate memories of parents and grand­parents speaking it. As the language of prayer and religious study, it had no secular roots that anybody could remember.

From the start, the Hebrew revival was an attempt to separate Jews from their Diaspora past. The odor of degradation and humiliation did not penetrate it. If anything, it smelled of Biblical victories and ancient independence. Its prestige in the Christian world increased its stature. And the fact that Sephardic Jews loved it too made it seem more universal than Yiddish.

The Hebrew revival is part of the most successful expression of secular Jewish nationalism. Zionism provided an indepen­dent national territory and a viable national language. Today, three million Jews speak Hebrew in a Jewish state.

Zionism was an expression of the Secular Revolution. The founders of Zionism were estranged from rabbinic Judaism, and they found little meaning in its liberal variations. They viewed their work as part of a Jewish revolution. Jews must repudiate the reli­gious notion that their fate is in the hands of God and that they must wait for salvation. The new Jews, the revolutionary Jews, must take their fate into their own hands and do what destiny has failed to do. The Jew of humility and humiliation must be replaced by the Jew of action and dignity.

The modern movement to establish an independent Jewish homeland has been the most successful Jewish enterprise in the twentieth century. The state of Israel has become the single most important institu­tion in Jewish life, uniting divided commu­nities and giving passion to Jewish identity.

The overwhelming majority of the orga­nizers of political Zionism were secular Jews who believed that the homeless condi­tion of the Jewish masses could only be alleviated by the establishment of a secular culture in a secular state. They found in Zionism an alternative to religion.

Most kibbutzim rejected religious behav­ior and religious authority. They sought to secularize Jewish holidays and life cycle ceremonies. Because they were self-con­tained communities united by a strong ide­ology, they succeeded in fashioning a secu­lar ceremonial alternative to traditional ritual. They stood in sharp contrast to urban humanists who were never really able to go beyond the negative rejection of religion to a positive secular identity.

Zionism, as a secular movement, ran into trouble. Many Ambivalents found much of it attractive. Anti-Semitism and the nostal­gia for Palestine made them overlook the non-religious thrust of its founders. Modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews, in par­ticular, liked its ethnic affirmation and be­gan to join it. After Hitler, even the Reform Jews repented their old hostility and swelled the ranks. God — without the Messiah — now became the engineer of Zionist redemption.

After the state of Israel was established, Oriental Jews, who had never really been exposed to the assault of the Secular Revolu­tion, poured into the country and changed its cultural complexion. The idea of Jewish identity without God — or any identity with­out God — was simply inconceivable. The government of a Jewish state could not be separated from rabbinic Judaism.

Ultimately, even the Rejectionists had to come to terms with the Jewish state. Al­though they despised a secular Jewish gov­ernment, they willingly accepted its finan­cial and political gifts. Rejectionist rabbis and their institutions received state aid. Marriage, divorce, and Jewish identity were put into the hands of clergymen who, fifty years before, would have been anti-Zionist.

As the Zionist state became less secular, the internal problems of a secular Jewish nationalism also began to surface. If Jewish identity is tied to language and territory, what is the status of secular Jews who do not speak Hebrew and who do not live in Israel? Radical Zionists, like Ben Gurion, maintained that Jewish existence was im­possible in the Diaspora. The logic of Jewish nationalism demanded that its adherents immigrate to Israel.

Diaspora nationalism had initially been sustained by Yiddish solidarity in the Ashkenazic world. In Israel, Yiddish was replaced by Hebrew. But in North America, Yiddish was replaced by English. Culturally and linguistically, North American Jews be­came part of the Anglo-Saxon world.

Another internal problem for secular Jews was the historical identification of Jew­ish secular commitment with socialism. Of course, there is no necessary connection between secularism and socialism. Non- theistic philosophies of life range from the arch-capitalism of Ayn Rand to the radical anarchism of Emma Goldman.

But for many Jews, secularism was an aspect of their socialist commitment. Dis­missing God went hand in hand with ele­vating the proletariat. Atheistic fervor was tied to revolutionary passion.

Jewish socialists were divided by many controversies. The policies of the Soviet government sparked an endless debate. The rise of Zionism posed the question of where the socialist paradise should be created. And chronic anti-Semitism undermined the ritual hope that proletarian self-awareness would replace Jewish identity.

Zionist socialism is the only surviving Jewish socialism with any constituency. But secularism and humanism have become less important themes for many of its adherents. Hostility to religion is less meaningful in an environment where religion is no longer hostile to either Zionism or socialism.

However, the identification remains. Many secular Jews shy away from secular connections because they see the bogeyman of Marxism behind them. In North Amer­ica, hosts of humanistic Jews are tied to con­ventional institutions of religion that are meaningless to them because they associate religion with capitalist respectability.

The most important internal problem secular Zionists face is the limitation of any nationalism. Once the language and the state are firmly established, they run by themselves. For the Zionist pioneers, Jewish nationalism was a “religion.” But for their children, it is a normal part of the local propaganda.

Some Zionists sought to give the Jewish state an ethical mission that transcended mere national survival. Instead of being monotheistic missionaries proclaiming the one God (a la the Reformers), the citizens of the Jewish state would be moral role models, teaching the rest of the world the basics of egalitarian behavior. Herzl envi­sioned the future state as a social utopia. Asher Ginsberg (Ahad Haam), the Russian Jewish intellectual who was opposed to political Zionism, spoke of ethical values that a Jewish cultural homeland would ex­press. The notion of the “Chosen People” seemed to be revived in secular clothing.

The problem with national missions is the number of competitors. The British, the French, the Russians, and the Americans have all dabbled, for a time, in special his­toric “assignments.” The “white man’s burden,” “manifest destiny,” and the “revo­lutionary homeland” were, and still are, popular slogans in the repertory of modern nationalism. Elevating one nation demotes all the others. It is an embarrassing parochi­alism — all in the name of universalism.

The second problem is behavior. It is easy to sign up for a mission. It is harder to carry it out. While some Israelis (like some English and some French) are worthy of imitation, others are quite ordinary. What intrigues the world about the Jewish state is not its ethical behavior. The military power of so small a nation fascinates the public.

An established nation does not need to value its national identity. It is simply there. The question is not: Why preserve it? The question is: How do we use it?

The Jewish Enthusiasts of the Secular Revolution who live in the Diaspora and who feel a need to work at their Jewish identity end up with the same frustration as the Ambivalents. Choosing to remain Jew­ish and choosing to become Jewish requires an approach to Jewishness that goes beyond a pale imitation of rabbinic Judaism and fantasies about Israel.

A Short Humanistic History of the High Holidays

High Holidays – Summer 1986

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are more than Jewish holidays. For many Jews, they are the only expression of Jewish identity. The High Holidays are the two times during the year when these Jews feel compelled to do something Jewish. Countless synagogues and temples would fail without Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Hordes of rabbis would lose contact with their membership if these holidays were abolished. There is something about them that is compelling for Jews.

This prominence is historically puzzling. While the Torah cites the first day of the seventh month as a holy day and a time for blowing the shofar, it makes no reference to the name Rosh Hashana. In fact, the use of the number seven indicates that the new year began sometime in the spring, just before Passover. And while the Torah prescribes an elaborate ritual of community repentance for the tenth day of the seventh month, it restricts the ritual to priests and makes no provision for popular participation.

The Torah requires fasting on Yom Kip­pur. But it knows nothing of synagogues, all­day services, Kol Nidre, swinging “scape chickens” over the head in the ritual of Kapparot, or emptying pockets at riverside in the ceremony of Tashlikh. If the Torah suggests any holiday as number one, it most likely is Pesakh, the commemoration of the Exodus.

Secular Jews had trouble with the High Holidays from the beginning. As festivals of national liberation, Passover and Hanukka easily could be purified of supernatural con­nections. As nature holidays, Sukkot and Shavuot could, with little effort, be con­nected to the seasons and to all the secular responses they aroused. But Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as they had evolved in the Judaism of the rabbis, seemed inseparable from the supernaturalist tradition that secularists rejected. There was no event in Jewish history that these holidays com­memorated. There was no seasonal happen­ing they pointed to. Both holidays were fraught with ideas of divine power and judg­ment, sin and repentance.

Early Jewish secularists discarded the High Holidays as hard-core traditionalism. They found them irrelevant to the new secular nationalism and made no effort to rescue them for humanistic use. Some secularists developed a strong hostility to these holidays because they seemed to sym­bolize the “enemy” and all that had gone wrong with Jewish life. Many radical socialist groups held Kol Nidre night af tsu loches (for spite) dances to provoke the Or­thodox. I still remember street battles be­tween offended traditionalists on their way back from shul and these brash provocateurs.

In Israel, the kibbutzim, driven by socialist and secular fervor, ignored the High Holidays entirely. In time, they found some minor use for Rosh Hashana as the marker of the new year. But Yom Kippur re­mained an uncomfortable gap in the calen­dar, a day off in the national yearly cycle that other Jews used for religious purposes.

Today, many humanistic Jews have rein­corporated the High Holidays into their Jewish observance, recognizing that their continuing hold is too strong to be ignored. But many are not fully aware of why these holidays remain so compelling for Jewish humanists. Perhaps a historical survey of their beginnings and evolution would help.

Beginnings

The beginnings of most Jewish holidays are hard to find. Unlike the traditional history, which claims that the major festivals were proclaimed at Mt. Sinai, a scientific history has to settle for the murkiness of dim antiquity. New year celebrations in Semitic Western Asia were popular events as far back as historical records can take us. Babylonians and Canaanites loved them long before the Jews emerged as a political reality.

After all, the idea of dividing time into years is a necessary development of an ex­panding agricultural society. The year is a cycle of seasons, which controls the work of plowing, sowing, reaping, and picking. In the beginning, the priests of early cultures were barely aware of the connection be­tween the seasonal year and the “movements” of the sun. As calendars became more sophisticated, the emergence of the solar year, which defined the cycle of change with its solstices and equinoxes, im­proved with predictability.

In these Near Eastern farm cultures, the time of the “new year” coincided with dramatic beginnings. The beginning of the grain harvest or the beginning of the rainy season were sufficiently important to justify ending one year and starting another. In Syria and Palestine, the grain harvests belonged to the spring and the rainy season to the fall-winter. Either event was impor­tant enough to separate two years. However, the rainy season, which followed the sum­mer fruit harvest, generally won out.

If the rain determined the food of the future, then life and death were in the hands of the rain. And if the rain was in the hands of the gods, then the gods must be made hap­py to insure the rain. The rituals of the new year celebration were designed to achieve this goal, to please the gods and insure the survival of the people.

The original Rosh Hashana (it was not yet called by that name) was a fearful day of judgment. Dramatic questions hovered over the event. Would the gods send the rain and let the people live? Or would they deny the rain and let the people die? What determines the decision of the gods? What needs to be done to guarantee a positive verdict? What needs to be done to reverse a negative one?

Within the popular belief system, many things could be done to avoid death. Gifts could be given to the gods, especially the meats and incense they adored. Loud public flattery of their power and might could be orchestrated. Confessions of regret for past injury to divine interests could be offered. Fasting and self-degradation could be practiced as signs that the guilty already had been chastened and needed no more punishment.

Kings and Priests

When the Jewish nation, with its devotion to the cult of the god Yahveh and his central shrine in the city of Jerusalem, emerged as a united political state in the tenth century B.C., the ritual grew more elaborate. Less and less was done by the ordinary people. More and more was done by professional kings and priests. While the royal house of David was in power, the king was, most likely, the leader of the appeasement rituals in the Jerusalem Temple. After the conquest of the Jews by the Chaldeans in 586 B.C. and the destruction of the royal family, the high priest of the house of Moses became the leader of the nation and the leader of the new year ceremonies.

During this historical period, two dif­ferent time structures for the new year festival competed with each other.

The first was a function of a seasonal calendar based on the number seven (a sacred number because of the seven visible “heavenly bodies” that determined the fate of humanity). Time was divided into units of seven days (weeks). Seven weeks plus a clos­ing day (atseret) formed a “season” of 50 days. Seven “seasons” made a year of 350 days. The difference of fifteen days between 350 and the 365 days of the solar year was divided into two holidays of seven days — Matsot for the spring and Katsir for the fall — and one day for the new year festival. This festival was tacked on to the end of Katsir, just before the rainy season.

The second time structure was a function of the moon calendar that the Hebrew nomads and shepherds brought with them from their early wanderings. It was pre-agricultural and based on the phases of the moon. The natural month of 29 or 30 days was its basic unit. Twelve natural months constituted 354 or 355 days and fell at least 10 days short of a solar or seasonal year. The difference was turned into a ten-day period of new year celebration and repentance, which was assigned to the advent of the rainy season.

By the time the Torah was edited by the Levitical priests, somewhere around 500 B.C., the second system had won out. The first system still has powerful relics: the Sab­bath, Shavuot, the seven-day spring Pesakh, and the eight-day fall Sukkot. Even the eighth day of Sukkot, Shemini Atseret (the old new year), retains some of the solemnity and ritual of the original Rosh Hashana, especially its concern for rain.

Although the second system won the competition, it was modified to accom­modate the priestly elite who edited the Torah. These Mosaic priests were influ­enced by Chaldea, where they had spent many years in captivity and political exile. They borrowed the moon calendar of the Chaldeans, whose new year celebration was assigned to the spring and who made up the differences with the solar calendar through periodic leap years. In the end, the first month of the Torah year was moved to Nissan in the spring and the ten-day festival of judgment was placed in the first ten days of the seventh month in the fall. Because of its connection to the rainy season, the judg­ment holiday could not be moved to the spring. But the Torah writers no longer designated it the new year festival, although popular custom continued to do so.

Under four centuries of priestly rule, the judgment festival rivaled Pesakh for first place among the holidays. It began with the solemn day of Yom Teruah, the day of the blowing of the shofar, and ended with Yom Kippur, the final day of ritual appeasement. The setting of the ceremonies was the se­cond Jerusalem Temple. The performers were the High Priest and his attendants. The awe-struck audience was the observing masses. The shofar was blown to attract the attention of Yahveh and to warn the people of impending danger. A scapegoat was chosen to receive the sins of the people and was sent into the desert to be thrown over a cliff as an appeasement offering to Azazel, the king of the evil spirits. And the High Priest, on Yom Kippur, entered the throne room of Yahveh in the Temple behind a pro­tective screen of incense smoke to plead for the people. The day was filled with wailing, fasting, splendor, and suspense.

The Rabbis

The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans transformed the judgment festival. With the elimination of the sacrificial ritual, the heart of the old ceremony was excised. And with the removal of the priests, the central per­formers of the traditional service vanished into oblivion.

Of course, the decline of priestly power had begun more than a century before. The popular political party, the Pharisees, under the leadership of the rabbis, assumed control and imposed their vision of Jewish history and Jewish tradition on the people. The rab­bis brought with them the folk traditions of their Oral Law, a Messianic vision of the final judgment day, an anti-priestly bias, and the institution of the synagogue meeting house.

The rise of the rabbis to power was ac­companied by a massive emigration of Jews from Judea. By the first century A.D., the Jewish population outside Judea was greater than that within. Most of the Jews of the Diaspora had nothing at all to do with farm­ing and rainy seasons and were heavily ur­banized. Agricultural suspense was no longer part of their experience.

The consequence of these changes was a second transformation of the judgment holi­day. In the Talmud, the written version of the Oral Law, the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim) took on their familiar “Orthodox” character. The Biblical Yom Teruah became the Talmudic Rosh Hashana, with a full acknowledgment that it was indeed the new year festival. And the Temple ritual was replaced by private rituals and public synagogue services.

A new ideology pervaded the mood of the season and the words of the synagogue prayers. The annual judgment day of Rosh Hashana became an anticipation of the final judgment day ushered in by the Messiah. The fear of drought vanished. And the danger of eternal punishment now became the threat of divine retaliation. The ten days took on the mood of a trial. Rosh Hashana became the day of justice, when we all are rightly condemned for our sins. Yom Kippur became the day of mercy, when we are par­doned for our sins (even though we have not earned the pardon) and granted the gift of life. The High Holidays remained unique, a personal and universal religious event, not commemorative of any national victories or defeats.

As the centuries passed, the High Holidays became associated with certain special rituals:

The Shofar was blown three times on Rosh Hashana and once on Yom Kippur, its sounds conjuring up images of dread and hope.

Piyyutim, special poems of praise, were added to the service. The most famous of these is the Untaneh Tokef announcement, when the ark of the Torah is opened and the proclamation of divine judgment is made.

Kol Nidre was attached to the beginning of the Yom Kippur evening ritual. A legal for­mula absolving its subscribers from the fulfillment of frivolous vows, this pedestrian Aramaic declaration is of dubious moral value. The rabbinic leaders of Chaldea, where it was first composed, condemned its inclusion but were ultimately powerless to prevent its use. The Jewish public won out. In the European Askhenazic world, the “legalese” was attached to a haunting melody, which made it famous. In the Sephardic world, the words never found a memorable tune and remained comparatively unimportant.

Fasting became the vogue. Pious people abstained from food and water, not only on Yom Kippur, but also in spurts throughout the ten days. The mood of the holiday was hardly joyous. Fear and self-inflicted suffer­ing were pervasive: flogging, breast-beating, wearing the clothing of destitution, and abstinence from bathing.

In the European milieu, folk customs that never received official sanction achieved a semi-legal status. The symbolic emptying of pockets by a flowing streamside to allow the water to carry away the impurity of sin became the Tashlikh ceremony of the first day of Rosh Hashana. The slaughter of chickens to receive the guilt of their owners became the Kapparot ritual of the day before Yom Kippur.

Reform

The Enlightenment and Emancipation undermined the old belief framework of the High Holidays and removed some of the dread. Divine record-keeping, supernatural rewards and punishments, and the value of appeasement ceremonies seemed less credi­ble than before. Many Jews saw Tashlikh and Kapparot as primitive and superstitious and unworthy of repetition. Kol Nidre, with its dismissal of the binding character of pro­mises, became a moral problem. Long confes­sions and breast-beating appeared unseemly. Even fasting developed a bad reputation, of­fending “rational” people who found no ethical value in self-inflicted suffering.

Nevertheless, radical Reform in America found an enormous importance in the High Holidays because the reformers had defined the Jews as a religious denomination, and these solemn celebrations were supremely religious. But the Reform movement had lost its belief in a personal, punishing God, which had made the days so awesome. In the end, a decorous prayer service emerged, with little of the passion of the old days of judgment.

Humanistic

Throughout traditional observance of the Days of Awe, despite the heavy emphasis on divine justice and divine mercy, humanistic dimensions appear. Guilt leads to self- reflection and self-evaluation. Resolutions to improve behavior in the coming year are made. People seek out friends and neighbors to ask for forgiveness for past wrongdoings and to effect reconciliation.

Still, many secular Jews found Rosh Ha­shana and Yom Kippur too religious for their tastes. They saw no way of transforming them into secular national holidays.

But they failed to realize that the High Holidays, precisely because they are per­sonal rather than national, have a special significance for Humanistic Jews. If human judgment replaces divine judg­ment, and if human power becomes the alternative to divine power, then Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur become perfect vehicles for celebrating a humanistic phil­osophy of life. It is appropriate for Jews at the time of the Jewish New Year to reflect on the moral quality of their behavior and to make decisions to improve it. Intro­spection and goal setting are traditional. They are also humanistic.

Building Communities for the New American Jew

Building Communities – Winter 1987

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Secular Humanistic Judaism – The Tasks of the Federation

Building a Strong Secular Humanistic Judaism: Spring 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first project is solidarity and visibility.

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

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

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

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

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

The second project is literature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The third project is trained leadership.

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

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

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

The fourth project is ethical idealism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Truths about Our Jewish Roots

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

Traditional Judaism depends on an ac­ceptance of the stories in the Torah. The Jewish religion began with God, who transmitted his commands to Abraham and Moses. Abraham’s grandson, Israel, had twelve sons, each of whom became the ancestor of a tribe. Ultimately all twelve tribes went to live in Egypt, where they were enslaved by the Pharaohs. After their liberation from bondage, their new leader, Moses, led them to Mt. Sinai. At this mountain, they received the full doc­trine of the Torah and pledged themselves and their children to fulfill the command­ments.

By this official story, the Bible came first. The religious regimen of Jewish life came second.

Non-traditional Judaism, including Reform, justifies its label by establishing its adherence to the Torah. The Torah is the peg on which all “real” Judaism sup­posedly hangs. The holidays and other ceremonies derive their “kosher” charac­ter from their presence in the Bible.

Humanistic Judaism, on the other hand, denies that the holiday and life-cycle ceremonies, which express the rhythm of Judaism, are the result of the Torah. It denies that the origin of Judaism lies in the Bible and in the historic events described in the Bible.

Using the scientific discoveries of ar­chaeology and higher Biblical criticism, a humanistic Judaism presents a counter­story to the story of the Torah.

Humanistic Judaism affirms ten histori­cal observations, which are in conflict with traditional claims:

  1.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never existed; they are mythical figures.

In ancient Palestine, there were three Semitic peoples who spoke the same lang­uage. There were the Canaanites (also called Phoenicians), the Amorites, and the Hebrews. Their difference was not racial but occupational. The Canaanites were city-dwellers, the Amorites hill-country farmers, and the Hebrews wandering herdsmen and shepherds. The Hebrews conquered the Amorite hill-country in successive small invasions lasting more than a thousand years. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are personifications of three important invasions. Although the authors of the Torah try hard to deny the ethnic and cultural connection between the Hebrews and the Canaanites, objec­tive research proves them wrong.

  •  Most Hebrews never went down into Egypt.

The Exodus story is a myth. There is no historical evidence to substantiate a mas­sive Hebrew departure from the land of the Pharaohs. As far as we can surmise, the Hebrew occupation of the hill-country on both sides of the Jordan was continu­ous. The twelve tribes (Joseph considered as two) never left their ancestral land, never endured 400 years of slavery, and never wandered the Sinai desert. The origin of their customs and ceremonies had nothing to do with an Egyptian expe­rience.

  •  Moses was never the leader of the Hebrews.

One Semitic tribe called Levi did spend time in Egypt. They may even have been slaves. However by 1200 B.C., long after the Hebrews had been settled in Palestine, this tribe was wandering the Sinai desert. Their leader and shaman was a man called Moses (an Egyptian name), and their chief god was either a snake god called Nehushtan or a wind god called Yahveh. Under the leadership of Moses, they infiltrated the Hebrew land of Judah. (The south of the Hebrew territory was called Judah and the north was called Israel.) Famous for their magical powers, they were invited by the people of Judah (the Jews) to become their priests. After Moses died, his descendants, in particu­lar, were in demand as priests. In time, the Levites, like the Magi of Persia, special­ized in soothsaying and in the conducting of religious ceremonies. While the Levites remembered their leader Moses, the Jews had, for obvious reasons, no historic mem­ory of his leadership.

  •  The Jewish religion was old before the Bible was written.

Long before the Levites ever set foot in Palestine, long before the story of the Torah was written, the Hebrews had an ancient religion and an ancient set of reli­gious ceremonies. The Torah was not even written by Moses (who was most likely illiterate). It was written by a group of Levitical priests 700 years after Moses had died and centuries after the basic reli­gious calendar of Judaism had evolved.

  •  Sukkot, Hanukka, and Passover were established holidays long before the Torah was dreamed of.

In ancient Palestine, three moments of the seasonal year were suspenseful. The first was the fall equinox, when the rainy season was scheduled to begin. The second was the winter solstice, when the dying light of the sun was scheduled to renew itself. And the third was the spring, when the herds and the flocks regularly conceived. The failure of either the rain, the sun, or animal fertility to fulfill its promise spelled disaster. Therefore, our Hebrew ancestors set aside a week of celebration at each of these annual crises to ensure success. They danced and sang and sought to urge on the natural forces through imitation. They poured water on Sukkot, lit lights on Hanukka, and ate eggs on Passover to urge the rhythm of nature to assert itself. The Levitical authors of the Torah sought to deny the nature origins of these festivals and to attach them (with the exception of Hanukka) to a historic desert experience the Hebrews never knew. But modern research gives the lie to this tam­pering.

  •  Judaism began as a series of nature experiences.

Judaism is as old as the Jewish people. It began with the nature experiences of the Hebrew people in their own land. It began with the Jewish response to the seasonal crises of autumn, winter, and spring, as well as to the individual crises of birth, puberty, marriage, and death. What the Bible denies, the evidence of his­tory affirms. Although the Orthodox leadership, both historical and rabbinical, sought to turn the attention of the Jews from nature to their god Yahveh, it could not erase the nature experience. Even when officially demoted to insignificance, it persisted as the major motivation for celebration.

  • The Torah is an attempt to explain the already established Jewish calendar.

After the destruction of the northern Hebrews (Israel) by the Assyrians and the defeat of the southern Hebrews (the Jews) by the Chaldeans, a power vacuum existed. Since the Chaldeans and their successors, the Persians, did not wish to restore the military leadership of Judah out of fear that revolt would be encour­aged, they removed the royal House of David and replaced it with a group of harmless collaborators. These collabora­tors were the Levitical priests, who were eager for power.

The Levites had a problem. In the eyes of the people, they were usurpers, oppor­tunistic replacements of the legitimate House of David. They therefore had to prove their right to rule.

The Torah is a deliberate attempt by the Levites to prove that Moses and his relatives (as contrasted to David and his descendants) are the rightful rulers of the Jews. A fictional Moses is created who becomes the leader of all the Hebrews and the star of a supernatural spectacular at Sinai.

In order to reinforce the authority of Moses, the Levites deliberately associated all holidays with Moses and with Yahveh, the god of Moses. Passover emerged as the anniversary of the mythical Exodus. Sukkot emerged as a commemoration of the never-never 40 years of wandering in the desert. And the rest day, sacred to Saturn, the god of Jerusalem, was justified as the Sabbath through a childish story of creation. When the Levites got through with their book, the history of Judaism was totally distorted. A non-hero called Moses arose as the savior of Israel, and the ancient Jewish calendar with all its pagan gaiety was reduced to a solemn desert travesty.

  •  The Biblical point of view is the Levitical point of view.

The Bible is a series of 24 books either written by or edited by the Levites. It is an attempt to explain ancient Judaism through the vested interest of a priestly clan. If read uncritically, it distorts the truth and makes the origins of Judaism ap­pear as they weren’t. The Torah is not the source of Judaism. It is a clever and suc­cessful attempt to rationalize Judaism for the benefit of a small power elite.

  •  The Jewish religious experience preceded the articulated beliefs about the gods or God.

The religious experience in all cultures is the attempt to celebrate the unchanging rhythm of life, whether seasonal or per­sonal. Before there was any Moses or Levites, before there was any formal theology of Yahveh, there existed an an­cient Hebrew calendar of life. The dramatic experiences of this calendar, with their sense of identity with the events of nature, were independent of any theological explanation. Only later, when the caretakers of religion tried to ar­ticulate the significance of these ex­periences, did they conjure up fantasies about the gods. Judaism preceded the gods and will survive them.

  1.  Historic Judaism is not the Bible. It is the celebration of life through the seasonal and personal calendars of Jewish ex­perience.

An authentic Judaism seeks to go behind the official theological rationaliza­tions. It seeks to articulate the human ex­perience that makes Sukkot, Hanukka, Passover, and the other celebrations significant. It finds the ethical values of these holidays not in a mythical story but in the human response to the seasons. Reflection is natural to the autumn, hope is essential to the winter, and freedom is the imitation of spring.

And so, there they are.

Ten historical assertions. Ten humanistic interpretations of Jewish history.

Just as the modern Jew is utterly distinct from the man the official theology describes, so was the ancient Jew vastly different from the pious image the Bible prefers.

The Rabbi Writes – The History of the Birmingham Temple

The Jewish Humanist, February 1988, Vol. XXV, Number 7

The history of the Birmingham Temple is the history of Humanistic Judaism. The two go together. Without the Birmingham Temple Humanistic Judaism would not have come into existence. Without Humanistic Judaism the temple would have no reason to exist. 

Our congregation did not emerge as a local convenience. It did not grow because it served the conventional needs of conventional religionists. From the very beginning it was the center of a new approach to Jewish identity, the home of a new philosophy in Jewish life. The men and women who joined the Temple family did not join perfunctorily. They joined with the strong awareness that they now belonged to a unique community of “believers” with a unique message to the Jewish Community. 

Out of the Birmingham Temple came new organizations. Although they were theoretically separate and distinct, in reality, they were not. Their agenda was the same as that of the Temple, the expression and promotion of Humanistic Judaism. 

Many Jews throughout North America were inspired by the example of our congregation. They proceeded to organize, in their own cities, communities just like ours. In one case a Reform temple turned humanistic. In another, former members of the Temple wanted a congregation similar to the one that found so meaningful. In still another, enthusiastic young people, who had read about us in the local press, recruited their equally enthusiastic friends to establish a Humanistic Jewish Community. 

The society for Humanistic Judaism is a child of the Birmingham Temple. Organized in 1969, it held its first meeting in Detroit in the spring of 1970, even before the Temple building was completed. The  establishment of the Society was a major achievement. It turned a philosophy into a movement. It gave national reality to what began as a local phenomenon. 

The International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews is also a child of the Birmingham Temple. Established in 1986, its delegates met for the first time in Farmington Hills in our Temple home. Secular Jews from ten countries and five continents, including South America and Australia, came together to issue their manifesto of belief and to proclaim their solidarity. The ideas that were discussed in the intimacy of private homes in Birmingham in 1963 were now the shared commitment of an international community. 

As we celebrate the anniversary of our congregation. It is very important to remember these connections. An enthusiastic nostalgia may encourage us to remember all the wonderful experiences that we, as a Temple family, shared during the past twenty-five years – all the intimate moments of fun, friendship and challenge that made our association with each other so worthwhile. But it may also, inadvertently, make us parochial, dwelling only on personal memories and local events. We may forget the larger context which gives us meaning and significance. 

The Society and the Federation are not separate from the Temple. They are, part (sic) and parcel of everything we are. When we celebrate our survival and achievement we also celebrate theirs. Our fates are intertwined. 

The future of the Birmingham Temple depends on our connection with our “children.” (sic) 

For our future we will need leaders and rabbis. The new Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, which was established by the Federation in Jerusalem, will be the school where these leaders and rabbis will be trained. 

For our future we will need literature. Books and teaching materials which will explain the ideas and practice of Humanistic Judaism are indispensable to our survival and growth. They will be published by the Society and the Institute. 

For our future we will need allies. The congregations and communities, all over the world, who are part of our Federation, will give the support, depth and credibility we need. They will make it possible for our children to be Humanistic Jews outside the Detroit area. 

It is, therefore, appropriate that we celebrate these connections in this our anniversary year. In April we shall be host to the 18th annual conference of the Society. And this February 19 we shall welcome the distinguished president of the Federation – and the world leader of Humanistic Judaism – Yehuda Bauer. 

His presence will help us affirm the importance of our outreach.  

Secular Judaism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here they are. 

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

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

Here are the reservations. 

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

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

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

Reconstructionist Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1978, Vol. VI, Number I

Reconstructionist Judaism? 

How does it differ from Humanistic Judaism? 

Many people have asked this question. 

After all, Reconstructionism has always identified itself as a form of religious humanism. Mordecai Kaplan, the founding father of the movement, was a signer of The Humanist Manifesto and an ardent disciple of John Dewey. 

If Reconstructionism is humanistic and Humanistic Judaism is humanistic then why are there two movements? Redundant denominations are legion. Judaism doesn’t need one more. 

In a recent article which appeared in The Reconstructionist, Harold Morris suggested that the difference between the two movements was that Reconstructionism was a moderate humanism while Humanistic Judaism was a radical humanism. He even proposed that Reconstructionism abandon the humanistic label because it is now identified with the extreme positions of atheism and secularism. 

Morris’ designation is hardly accurate. To declare that Reconstructionism is moderate is to avoid the more realistic label-namely that Reconstructionism is ‘chicken’. ‘Chicken’ humanism is a humanism which looks, sounds and smells like theism but which claims to be different on the inside. 

Before the contention that Reconstructionism is a form of ‘chicken’ humanism can be demonstrated we must first define Reconstructionism.  

The “Bible” of the Reconstructionist movement is a book called Judaism as a Civilization. It was written by Mordecai Kaplan and published in the 1930’s. It is now a Jewish classic, with enormous influence on Conservative and Reform rabbis who would choose to avoid the label Reconstructionist. 

Mordecai Kaplan, was born in Lithuania, about 100 years ago, came to America at an early age, attended and graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and remained to teach at the school. 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. As more rabbis and laymen subscribed to his ideas, new groups arose in other cities. In time, the organizational structure of a new denomination distinct from the Conservative movement, which had fathered Kaplan, began to emerge. A magazine called The Reconstructionist was published. The traditional prayer book was revised to suit Reconstructionist conviction. An association of congregations, fellowships and communes was established. A rabbinical seminary was opened in Philadelphia which functioned as an adjunct to the graduate school of Temple University. Despite the smallness of the movement (some 3,000 identified families) the structure was impressive. 

Kaplan was the emotional child of Europe and the traditional lifestyle of the Litvak Jew.  But he was the intellectual child of two ideologies who were the ‘rage’ at the beginning of the twentieth century. One was John Dewey. The other was Emile Durkheim. 

John Dewey, together with William James, was the father of American pragmatism. He maintained that the truth of a statement is a function of its usefulness in the struggle for survival. Salvation is successful survival in the here and how. There is no long-run ultimate goal to human existence. There are only a continuous series of day to day problems in which the latter may be no more significant than the earlier. Statements about the after-life, which have occupied the minds of so many for so long, are diversionary and irrelevant to the day to day struggle. Religion, if it can have humanistic meaning, is the celebration of those powers in the universe which help us stay alive and find our happiness. God, if the word has any humanistic meaning, is the symbol of that power. 

Emile Durkheim was a French social scientist of Jewish origin who is often referred to as one of the ‘papas’ of the discipline of sociology. He was curious about religion and disdained the conventional descriptions of the religious experience which always made it personal and private. For Durkheim, religion was a social enterprise, a ritual glue which kept everybody together. The heart of religion was sacred behavior. The untouchable and unchangeable set of actions by which the group affirmed its unity with the past, the present and the future. Religion was never personal. It was always social. That was why it was so hard to change. It was the sanctification of group survival. 

If one takes Dewey and Durkheim, mixes them up, and adds a large dose of Litvak loyalty, one gets Mordeai Kaplan. Kaplan’s ideas are Reconstructionism. Two principles articulate them. 

1. Judaism is a religious civilization. Judaism is more than a religion in the formal sense. It is more than a set of theological statements. It is more than a set of personal rituals. Judaism is the historic culture of the Jewish nation, just as Hellenism is the historic culture of the Greek nation. Religion is that aspect of the culture which sanctifies group unity and group survival. Of course, there is more to Judaism than just religion. There is music, dance, poetry, crafts and science. Christianity is a contemporary deception. At one time it was the religious enterprise of the Greco-Roman empire. Today it is the name of a series of religions each one a function of a living ethnicity. Without the group, without the nation, there can be no true religion. The so-called religion of the individual is religion in decay. 

2. Salvation is the survival of the individual in his community. Salvation is not some far-off distant event in the ‘world to come’. It is on this earth here and now. Wisdom is not the warning of the fantasy tales of traditional theology. Wisdom is pragmatic. 

3. God is the power in the universe which makes for salvation. Since the supernatural is a useless fantasy, the word God can only be rescued if it is ‘naturalized’. A la Dewey. Kaplan redefines the word as the creative energy of the universe which keeps us going. God is a sum word. It is the sum total of all the forces in the world which enable us to preserve community and the individual who depends on community. 

4. Judaism needs the reconstruction of the Jewish nation. Contemporary Judaism is sick because the Jewish people is sick. Western secular culture has undermined the communal institutions of the Jewish people. The Diaspora has distributed the Jews over the face of the earth, depriving them of linguistic unity and a territorial center. The result of these traumas is either frozen Orthodoxy, with its clinging to what the nation used to be or silly Reform, with its contention that the Jews are not a nation at all, that they are simply Americans and Germans of Mosaic persuasion. Reconstruction means reconstructing the Jewish people so that a vital religious civilization can continue to flourish. Reconstruction means (1) the creation of a Jewish territorial center in Palestine, a Jewish homeland where Judaism is the primary civilization (2) the revival of Hebrew as the linguistic glue of the nation (3) the recognition that Jews, no matter where they live, are members of the Jewish nation (Ahad Haam and Simon Dubnow were Jewish intellectuals who preceded Kaplan with this idea) and (4) the rebuilding of Jewish communal structures in the Diaspora so that religion, education, the arts and the sense of peoplehood could all come together in one institution (the Jewish Community Center is the child of Kaplan). 

5. Religion reinforces group unity through sacred symbols called sancta. The history of a people produces certain symbols which are invested with the meaning of group survival. By their association with epic events they go beyond their origins to embody the hope of the culture for its own continuity. They also enable individual members of the group to identify with the group, no matter where they live, no matter what they personally believe and to share a single experience. God and Torah are the most powerful sancta of Judaism. They cannot be abandoned without disrupting the unity and continuity of the Jewish people. 

These five principles are hardly exhaustive in the Reconstructionist position. But they are the essence. 

How does  Humanistic Jew deal with them? We’ll take them one by one. 

  1. Kaplan’s observation that Judaism is more than a theology is perceptive and right. But to call it a civilization is pretentious. Culture would be a more modest and accurate word. But even culture misses the defining character of Jewishness in modern times. While some Jews share in the historic culture, large numbers do not and still preserve the Jewish identity. The relationship of one Jew to another has become primarily familial whether through a sense of shared ancestors, shared history or shared danger. Judaism is the behavior of a large International family called the Jewish people. It has radically altered in the past one hundred years just as Jewish behavior has radically altered.  
  1. The word salvation is an old religious word which is best discarded because it implies exactly what any good-humored pragmatists would avoid, the suggestion of overwhelmingly dramatic trouble in an equally overwhelming solution. However, the substance is appropriate. Finding survival and happiness in the hearing now is certainly humanistic. 
  1. Kaplan’s rescue of the word God is no rescue at all. He has invented the dreariest duty ever.  In saying the word he has killed God. A God who is nothing more than the sum total of every helpful force in the universe, from electricity to gravity is not somebody you would want to spend three hours on Saturday morning talking to.  

And what is ‘creative energy’ ‘the power that makes for salvation’ (sic). Yahweh at least had a distinct personality you could sink your devotion in. The so-called humanist alternatives are like the ‘emperor’s clothing’ – nothing. When atheists are afraid to admit that they are atheists they invent gods that nobody wants. The word God, because of its historic associations, cannot be radically redefined by fiat. Kaplan ought to know that, since he is always so interested in the importance of social meanings and gradual change. 

  1. The Reconstruction of the Jewish Community is an admirable goal. Part of that reconstruction already exists in the success of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel. But to force the Humanistic and Orthodox Jews into community structures where they will have to negotiate religious change together is to have a strong love for suffering. The Jewish Welfare Federation, which raises money for common causes and to fight common enemies, is the only feasible communal structure. Otherwise, we shall be devoting our Jewish energies to continuous infighting. In an age when all other religious communities are experiencing the painful disintegration of their outmoded bureaucratic structures, we cannot reverse the procedure. We ought not to. The Jewish community does not have to imitate the U.S. government in order to be effective. On the contrary, it should maximize individual freedom so that new bold and ‘saving’ ideas can easily emerge.  We need more excitement in Jewish life, not more meetings. 
  1. Sancta like God and Torah are no longer effective as agents of communal unity. In reality, they are divisive. Overwhelming numbers of Jews today are thoroughly secular whether in Israel or in America. Moreover, the fact that both these symbols are associated with a vast literature of law and liturgy which is supernaturally oriented means that those who insist on using them must devote enormous amounts of time to reinterpreting old texts. Reinterpretation generally involves proving that what appears to be unacceptable really isn’t. It’s the work of clever lawyers but not good-humored Jews who want to use their time profitably. Reconstructionists on a Sabbath morning, because they insist on keeping God and Torah, are forced to study the sacrificial laws of Leviticus, when, quite frankly, if they weren’t so nostalgic, Einstein and Bialik would be so much more enjoyable. 

In the end, a Reconstructionist life style Is hardly distinguishable from a Conservative one. If people are their behavior, and not their reinterpretations, then Reconstructionism is hardly humanism. 

If one’s major task is to reconstruct the unity of the Jewish people, he cannot be an effective Jewish humanist. He will always be the victim of nostalgia and the continuous veto of his unrelenting ancestors. 

And effective Jewish humanism cannot be the community conciliator. It has to be true to its nature. It has to be bold, creative, provocative and daring. It has to be the cutting edge of change. If already it is going to receive the hostility of the traditionalists (as Kaplan did) it should receive it for good reason (sic). 

A futile pursuit of Jewish unity leads to ‘chicken’ humanism and the loss of Integrity. 

Humanistic Judaism believes that we must first deal with the problem of Integrity – making the symbols of religion truly fit what we are and do. 

———————————————————————————- 

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

Humanistic Judaism and the Birmingham Temple-A History by David C. Kreger

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

The Birmingham Temple is celebrating its thirteenth, its baritzvah birthday. This means that the Humanistic Jewish movement also has attained the age of 13. In its short but luminous history, the Birmingham Temple family has evolved from a small committed pioneer group with a different Jewish philosophy, into a strongly-based, maturing congregation which has established a firm identity in the community. It is a good time for us as members of the Society for Humanistic Judaism to pause and to recognize the Temple’s historical contributions to the development of this major Jewish alternative. 

The Birmingham Temple began in mid-1963, when a group of eight young couples gathered and decided to form a new kind of Jewish congregation with the leadership of Rabbi Sherwin Wine. Their needs for an ethical framework for modern day living just were not being met by the religious practices of the Jewish temples in the Detroit area. The group and its rabbi were eager to develop a unified humanistic school of thought, which would place people solely in charge of their own destinies, without the need for control by supernatural forces supported by traditional forms of worship. In the early service the Union Prayer Book was used, as was the Torah (wheeled into the gymnasium of a suburban school dutifully by an “ark committee”). The rabbi wore the traditional black robes. Sherwin Wine presented electrifying sermons on human topics and crowds of people would attend. By November, 1963, thirty-five couples signed the articles of incorporation to become Charter Members of the Temple. 

A ritual committee began to examine whether the traditional rituals were consistent with the evolving humanistic philosophy. New services substituted meditations for prayers. More importantly in the mid-1960’s the contents of the services changed from an emphasis on biblical teachings and history to an illumination of humanistic principles. These principles related to such concepts as: self-respect, Jewish cultural and ethical identity, and humanism. 

Gradually some of the traditional symbols were re-interpreted. The Torah became an important historical and philosophical book, but it lost its “sacred” stature. Readings during services were drawn from many authors who presented interesting ideologies or perspectives. In October, 1964, the congregation ceased to intone the Shema, which until that time had served as the pivotal statement of Jewish creed. The Union Prayer Book was eliminated in favor of a book of services and meditations constructed by Sherwin Wine. On a hot summer night the Rabbi removed the robes-permanently. 

In 1965, when the Birmingham Temple had grown to 140 member families, what had been local controversy in the Detroit area about the Temple’s Rabbi and its humanistic viewpoint, became a source of national publicity and discussion. Time and Newsweek published articles about “The Atheist Rabbi”. Time reported that God had been removed from the Birmingham Temple’s services, and that Sherwin Wine had said “man’s destiny and fulfillment are more important than the idea of a deity”. The Time article also reported that the congregation generally found “Wine’s godless approach meaningful and inspiring.” 

The Detroit News and Free Press reported in 1965 that the President of the Michigan Association of Reform Rabbis had determined Sherwin Wine was an “atheist who teaches atheism”. He wailed that the Birmingham “group aimed at losing all Jewish identity and was instead becoming a sort of cult of self-improvement”. Stating that the group had no interest in Jeiwsh culture, art and literature (and in the survival of Jewish thought), he called for national sanctions by the Central Conference of American Rabbis to discipline Sherwin Wine and to remove his Rabbinical designation. He cried that the congregation should not be permitted to continue under the label of a Reform Temple.  Rabbi Leon Fram was not successful-the Central Conference had no provision in its by-laws to defrock a rabbi. 

Rabbi Morris B. Margolies of Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City wrote in the National Jewish Monthly of May, 1965 that anyone has the right to be an atheist, but not a Rabbi. He ended a calamitous editorial by saying, “It is tragic to realize that man’s intoxication with atomic energy is draining awa his reservoirs of spiritual energy; these are the days of Wine and roses-with falling and malodorous petals.” 

Notwithstanding their intentions, the Rabbis Fram, Margolies, et al unwittingly helped to coalesce a Humanistic Jewish identity. The congregation had maintained its respect for Reform Judaism; but it was now clear that Humanistic Judaism was a distinct Jewish alternative and not a modern Reform spin-off. 

The Temple family went through paroxysms of self-examination for a year or so. Creative activity gave way to unremitting debate. Dissatisfied members resented being labeled atheists by outsiders, and were indignant when they were coldly informed that they “weren’t Jews.” Parents and relatives begged members to resign from the Birmingham Temple to avoid community ostracism. These tempestuous times did not last long but they did serve to test the survival strength of Humanistic Judaism. 

By May 1967 the Ritual Committee resumed its important task of developing services and rituals. Rabbi Wine wrote a Passover Haggadah. A special book of ten holiday services was published. In the introduction, Rabbi Wine said that the content of the services attempted to ”…wed intellectual honesty and Jewish identity with man’s perennial response to the cycle of the seasons.”  

The Adult Education program flourished. Sherwin Wine initiated his Monday evening series of courses on intellectual, historic, and philosophical trends. Guest humanists appeared as lecturers. The Sunday School curriculum took on an even more sophisticated mold, with heavy doses of Humanistic Jewish content. Non-members would audit the weekly services in great numbers; some nodding their heads, others gnashing their teeth. 

Humanistic Judaism did not flourish solely in Detroit during the late 1960’s. Rabbi Wine was increasingly in demand to give lectures everywhere. Word of the growth of the movement circulated throughout the United States. Temple members were continually quizzed about the Birmingham Temple by their friends and relatives in other communities. Temple Beth Or in Deerfield, Illinois and the Westport Congregation in Westport, Connecticut emerged as Humanistic Jewish congregations. 

In late 1968 the Birmingham Temple family began debating the possibility of constructing a Temple building. The congregation voted to proceed. In an impressive dedication service in June 1971, 160 member families moved into an aesthetically pleasing, but only modestly costly Temple home. Rather than a loftey synagogue of soaring heights, reaching for God, it was a compact, warmly intimate structure in which those seated in the meeting room were facing each other. The building proved to be a central focus for Temple activity increasing the sense of family experienced by the congregation. Within five years it would host 325 Temple families. 

Another milestone was achieved by the calling of the first annual meeting of the Society of Humanistic Judaism. It took place June 26, 1970 at the Northland Inn in Southfield, Michigan. Representatives of Temple Beth Or and of Westport Congregation joined the Birmingham clan and the Society for Humanistic Judaism was formed. 

This first meeting of the Society was a unique opportunity for Jewish Humanists to exchange ideas about: involvement of members, uniqueness of congregations, goals, ethical behavior, religious education, holiday observances, content of services and publications. Congregants from all three temples became better acquainted. 

Through annual meetings of (sic) the ensuing years, acquaintanceships have led to friendships. Our sense of mishpaha has become intracongregational. The Society for Humanistic Judaism has grown to include: 

Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan—Leader: Sherwin T. Wine. 

Congregation Beth Or in Deerfield, Illinois—Leader: Rabbi Daniel Friedman. 

Westport Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Westport, 

 Connecticut—Leader:Rabbi Phillip e. Schechter. 

Toronto Jewish Humanist Congregation in Toronto, Ontario, Canada—Assisted by  

Mr. Richard Neff. 

Adat Haverim in Los Angeles, California—Leader: Rabbi Leslie Freund 

And there are Chapters of the Society for Humanistic Judaism in: 

Boston 

Los Angeles 

Miami 

Philadelphia 

Houston 

And we have individual Society members from all over the world. 

In the thirteenth year, the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism are welded into an ascending course. There is a sense of high optimism that the movement is here to stay. It is due for a period of maturing (sic) and proliferation, limited only by the imagination and the potential of the movement’s great human reserve. 

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

David C. Kreger is a member of the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan 

Our French Heritage

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 25, No 1-2 Winter_Spring 1997

We are here in Paris. And for us, as Humanistic Jews, Paris has a special significance. 

First of all, Paris is the most beautiful city in the world. Other cities have more imposing natural settings. But no other urban center possesses to the same degree the wonders of human creation. We Jews have been an urban people for more than two thousand years. Paris epitomizes the urban setting that has been our home for such a long time. 

More importantly, Paris was the setting for a series of political events that transformed the Jewish people. We call them the French revolution. It was in Paris that Jewish emancipation began in Europe. It was in Paris that an elected government first proclaimed religious toleration. It was in Paris that the Declaration of the Rights of Man was conceived and proclaimed. The secular revolution fought by French rebels against the old regime brought freedom to Jewish life, a freedom not only to taste the opportunities of the outside world, but also to defy the tyranny of tradition in the inner world of Jewish community life. That freedom brought positive energy to the Jewish world. 

The foundation of the French Revolution was an intellectual movement called the Enlightenment. The devotees of the Enlightenment celebrated the life of reason. They imagined that it was possible to create a new social order that was both compassionate and rational, a political and economic system that would promote dignity and happiness. Religion and tradition were viewed as obstacles to the achievement of these goals. Creative alternatives replaced the veneration of the past. 

Before the Revolution, the primary vision of social order was the family model. This model derived from the historic role of the family in an agricultural world. Loving the land and producing more and more children was what the farming life needed and demanded. The family ethos provided for both. It also provided authoritarian parents who offered protection and acceptance at the price of obedience. All larger units of social organization were modeled on the family. Clans had elders. Tribes had chiefs. Nations had kings. And the universe had God. Until modern times, people were viewed as subjects of higher authority in the same way as children were the subjects, and even servants, of their parents. 

The family model explains traditional religion and traditional ethics, with their emphasis on faith, reverence of the past, unconditional obedience, and hostility to outsiders. Traditional religion and paternalism went hand in hand. The alliance of the aristocracy with the church was as much a matter of vested interest as it was of belief. 

Capitalism and urbanization undermined the traditional family and the traditional social order. They produced mobility, ambition, and mixing — which, in turn, produced such new values as individualism, skepticism, and personal freedom. A world of free and ambitious individuals found tradition confining and authoritarian parents intolerable. In time, skepticism and free exploration produced the wonders of science. Evidence, not ancestors, now became the arbiter of truth. 

The French Revolution embraced a new social order, which we call democracy. It affirmed the right of human beings, using human reason, to rearrange the political landscape in the name of human happiness. It spoke of equality and fraternity. It honored personal autonomy. It rejected the paternalism of kings and bishops and encouraged the elevation of the lower classes through education. The authoritarian state was consigned to the dustbin of history. Even revolutionary dictators had to clothe their pronouncements in the language of freedom. 

The verbal flag of the Revolution was the word citoyen. No longer would people be the subjects of kings. They would be citizens, brothers and sisters in equality. A radical new social order was proposed. Instead of the authoritarian family-nation, there would be a community of autonomous individuals, bound together by patriotism and mutual interest, who would jointly promote the public welfare. Furthermore, the “public welfare” was no single goal determined by a supreme ruler. It was a multiplicity of individual agendas seeking some kind of workable harmony. 

Secular Humanistic Judaism is the child of Paris, as much as of Jerusalem. It is the offspring of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It is the son and daughter of the two thousand years of Jewish urban existence, which is one of the sources of modern capitalism and science. It rejects authoritarian government and embraces the ideal of the citoyen

What does this social ideal mean for us as Jews? 

Citoyen means that the old family model will not work either for ethics or for governance. The test of right and wrong does not lie in the will of our ancestors or in the will of God. It lies in the connection between our behavior and the satisfaction of the basic needs of ourselves and of others. People are not the servants of government, whether divine or human. Governments are the servants of people. 

Citoyen means that love is not enough. In an urban world of strangers, justice cannot depend on love. Feelings of love are appropriate to the intimate world of family and friends. They cannot guide us in the anonymous outside world. Ethical behavior toward outsiders, moral concern for the welfare of people we do not know, derives from urban anxiety — from the deep-seated awareness that we, too, depend on the kindness of strangers. A particular stranger may not be able to help us, but every stranger is a symbol for all. Compassionate and respectful social behavior arises out of the knowledge that failure to respond to the needs of others will justify others in returning our indifference. Duty has foundations in both empathy and self-interest. Guilt is connected to the discomfort we feel when we receive more than we give. 

Citoyen means that democracy is a convenience. Societies in which permanent majorities oppress permanent minorities are not just. No individual outside the family model can be expected to be loyal to a social system from which he or she derives no benefit. Individual rights restrict the power of the majority and force it to become more sensitive and more rational. A just society may not necessarily arrange for equal rewards for equal talent and equal effort, but it enables every citizen to feel that he or she is included. 

Citoyen means that there is an inevitable tension between my needs and the needs of others. Family survival is no longer the only agenda. Personal happiness is also compelling and morally justified. Justice is a balancing act between the individual and the group. One extreme is masochism, the sacrifice of the individual for the group. The other extreme is an atomistic selfishness, the rejection of the group in favor of self-assertion. A meaningful life lies somewhere in the middle. Individual Jews do not exist only to promote Jewish survival. Personal identity and personal needs are also important. A compassionate and rational Judaism must be able to address not only the survival needs of the Jewish people and the ethical responsibilities of being a world citizen, but also the happiness of the individual Jew. 

Citoyen means that there are no utpisas. Messianic visions are tied to authoritarian thinking. They are the expectations that native  and dependent children have of “omnipotent” parents. Many followers of the French Revolution betrayed their new adulthood and indulged in childish expectations of the future. A world of competing personal agendas is not easy to harmonize. We will never stop bumping into each other. Frustration will not go away. Life will continue to be unfair. But the reward of personal dignity, plus the awareness that we can arrange for more happiness and more justice than we presently have, provides the basis for a meaningful life. 

We are individuals. We are Jews. We are humanists. All of these realities are important. No one of them is more important than the others. We are also citoyens, heirs of the French Revolution. We cannot go back to the family model. History will not allow that. Nor would we choose to return. Our balancing act is hard; but, if we value it, it will make us strong.