Forty Years Later: A Retrospective

Transforming Judaism- Winter 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Kinds of Religion

Is Humanistic Judaism a religion? Winter 2002

Is Humanistic Judaism a religion?

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

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

Historically, religion has its origins in two developments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Ninefold Path for Humanistic Jews

Humanistic Judaism in the 21st century – Autumn 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following “ninefold path” seems appropriate.

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

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

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.


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 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 — 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.


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.

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.

Going Mainstream: The Fifth Branch

Building Bridges to a Wider Jewish Community: Autumn 00/ Winter 01

What is the place of Humanistic Judaism in the Jewish world? Is it on the inside or on the outside? Is it rooted in the beliefs and be­havior of contemporary Jews? Or is it a pe­ripheral and bizarre phenomenon, a passing wave of Jewish heresy?

The enemies of Humanistic Judaism see it as alien and peripheral and seek to ex­clude it from membership in the established Jewish community. Some secular and human­istic Jews consent to this exclusion and reluctantly accept being on the outside. They see themselves as beyond the pale, a strug­gling minority of defiant Jews. But others find this exclusion humiliating and unacceptable. They see their philosophy as representative of the feelings and beliefs of a large segment of the Jewish people who deserve community recognition and power.

The test of our self-esteem as Humanistic Jews is that we reject exclusion. Secular con­victions and secular behavior are an important part of contemporary Jewish life. In Israel, Europe, North America, and South America, the Jewish world has been transformed by the gradual secularization of public and private behavior. Denying this reality and pretending that all conventional Jews are religious is an abuse of the rights and dignity of hundreds of thousand of Jews. Fighting for recognition of Humanistic Judaism within the framework of the Jewish community is more than a political struggle. It is a moral demand to define the Jew­ish reality as history has made it.

The traditional Jewish community was the child of the age of religion. It was the creation of religious orthodoxy and authori­tarian governments. The rabbis, like the Christian and Muslim rulers, did not believe in democracy, personal freedom, or pluralism. They assumed that there was one true path to salvation and that all members of the com­munity should conform to it. They viewed all dissent as heresy, worthy of excommunica­tion. Unity meant conformity. Deviation was a sin. The benefits of community — social acceptance, protection, and welfare — were purchased at the price of conformity.

In the past three hundred years, Jewish communities have changed. The rapid spread of liberal democracy throughout the Western world and the triumphant political and economic power of Western nations have radically altered the political structures of the Jewish world. Large numbers of Jews have be­come Reform and Conservative. The practice of toleration and the acceptance of diversity have, through necessity and conviction, be­come standard operating procedures of Jew­ish politics. The separation of religion and government has rendered Jewish communities autonomous and Jewish identity voluntary. Taxation has turned into fundraising. And the fundraising institutions have become the most important institutions of Diaspora Jewish life. Secular leaders and philanthropists have re­placed the rabbi as the ruling powers.

Diaspora Jewish communities are no longer institutions of compulsory uniformity. They are coalitions of autonomous congrega­tions and institutions, which are self-govern­ing and which join together to pursue shared goals. These shared goals include social wel­fare, cultural programming, and the fight against anti-Semitism. During the past fifty years, support for the Jewish state has been the most compelling force for unified action. In North America, where Orthodoxy is weak, Reform and Conservative Jews have domi­nated Jewish community life.

In Israel, of course, Jewish life is no longer a matter of minority politics. The state and the government are Jewish. But while the founders of Zionism were secular and liberal, they were not able to produce an impeccable liberal de­mocracy. In contemporary Israel, secular and non-Orthodox Jews enjoy personal and politi­cal freedom, but they suffer the humiliation of Orthodox power over many areas of their personal and public lives. Marriage, divorce, inheritance, burial, food, and Sabbath obser­vances are subject to Orthodox tyranny. Even Jewish identity lies in the hands of Orthodox rabbis and Orthodox courts. A large secular Jewish population cries out for political relief.

In the Diaspora, secular and humanistic Jews enjoy the freedom that Western govern­ments and constitutions have conferred on them. But, within Jewish communities, both local and national, they have suffered from exclusion. And, ironically, this exclusion has been inflicted on them by Reform and Con­servative Jews, who have been victims of exclusion in other places.

There are two reasons for this rejection in a seemingly pluralistic Jewish world. In Diaspora environments Jews have preferred to define themselves solely as a religious group. By this definition, to be Jewish is to be religious. Nonreligious Jews represent some kind of internal contradiction or lapse in Jew­ish identity. This absurd restrictiveness is re­inforced by the discomfort that many Jews have with Jewish atheism. In America espe­cially, religious belief has been identified with both respectability and morality. Many secu­lar Jews are uncomfortable to identify them­selves as secular. They fear adverse public opinion in the non-Jewish world.

The second reason for exclusion is that secular Jews have been largely disorganized. They have functioned as alienated people without congregations or communities. Or they have participated in Jewish organizations that do not have a religious agenda, but that include Jews from many denominations. Hadassah, ORT, and B’nai Brith are not actu­ally religious. Their programs are secular. But the majority of their members are not.

Humanistic Judaism, when it was estab­lished thirty-seven years ago, was a deliber­ate attempt to give organizational reality to the secular Jewish world. Orthodox, Conser­vative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Juda­ism presented themselves as branches of Judaism with congregations, trained leaders, and federations of communities. The failure of secular Jews to conceive of themselves as a fifth branch of Judaism and their hostility to congregational structures and professional leadership made it easy for their enemies to keep them on the outside. Reading circles and schools, however reinforced by ethnic and national sentiment, were not enough to break through the barriers. Secular Humanistic Judaism had to be reconceived as a Jewish de­nomination, standing side by side with the four religious denominations. The negative appellation non-religious had to be replaced by the positive humanistic.

During the past ten years the Jewish es­tablishment in North America has become more receptive to recognizing Humanistic Judaism as a legitimate fifth alternative. Many developments are responsible for this change. The increasing freedom of Jews to choose not to be Jewish in a society of declining anti- Semitism; the growing anxiety over the sur­vival of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, triggered by the rising rate of intermarriage; the increasing secularization of Jewish life through prosperity and family decline; the increasing diversity of lifestyles in the Jew­ish melieu; the decline in synagogue affilia­tion in a world where old formulas no longer fit new needs; a greater openness to choices that at one time were viewed as being on the fringe — all of these factors form the context for change.

One manifestation of change is the delib­erate attempt to recruit openly declared Secular Humanistic Jews for leadership roles in Jewish community federations, Jewish community councils, and Jewish community centers. Another is the admission of Humanistic rabbis to local boards of rabbis and their active participation in the work of these associations.

The most dramatic development occurred in Atlanta in November, 1999. At that time United Jewish Communities (UJC), the new “congress” of all the Jewish communities in North America, held its first continental as­sembly. The Society for Humanistic Judaism was invited to present a session at that con­ference. In November 2000 in Chicago, the leaders of our movement presented, together with their Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist compatriots, a Shabbat service and a study session. The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism hosted a booth to advertise the programs of the Institute to train rabbis and madrikhim. Our presence at the UJC General Assembly and our participation in its programs is a quantum leap in community recognition and acceptance. We hope that this precedent will provide a stimulus to similar developments in Europe, Latin America, and Israel.

Conceiving of ourselves as part of the mainstream and not as part of the fringe is a radical departure from our traditional self-im­age. But reality justifies our new approach. A large percentage of the Jewish people are secu­lar in conviction and behavior. They are often at the center of Jewish community life. The time may have arrived when their presence and true identity will finally be recognized.

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.

What Does Humanistic Judaism Offer?

Humanistic Judaism — An Anthology, Spring, 1986

What does Humanistic Judaism have to offer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Makes Humanistic Judaism Jewish?

1992 Conference Highlights, Spring 1993

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am a Jew of experience.