Perspective: Zionism – Peoplehood, Not Religion

Humanistic Judaism, Summer, Volume 10, No. 2, 1982

There are many Jewish roots of Jewish humanism.

As a non-establishment Jewish tradition, humanism has been embraced by many Jews throughout Jewish history. But not until the age of science and the secular state did Jewish humanists feel free to announce themselves publicly. In the last two centuries, humanism has become an open viable alternative in Jewish life.

The most successful movement of the twentieth century was a humanistic one. We call it the Zionist Movement.

In the narrow sense, Zionism is about the establishment of an independent Jewish state and the return of the Jews to Hebrew speaking Israel. But, in the broader sense, Zionism is a new way of affirming Jewish existence in the Diaspora as well.

Against the Reformers who claimed that the Jews were only a religious denomination, against the Orthodox who maintained that Jewish identity was inseparable from piety, The Zionist pioneers proclaimed loudly and clearly that the Jews were a secular people- a nation without territory, but nevertheless a nation.

Zionism is the boldest attempt in modern times to take the definition of Jewishness away from the religious establishment and to create a new sense of Jewish self-awareness. The socialist Yiddishist movement in Eastern Europe was less successful and was ultimately destroyed in the trauma of the Holocaust.

There are two kinds of Zionism. The first is ‘theoretical’ Zionism. It found no value in the Diaspora and hoped for its disappearance. The second is ‘pragmatic’ Zionism. It’s drove for the Jewish state. But it accepted the reality that most Jews, even though they valued the Israel connection, would choose to live outside of Israel. For the pragmatist of the test of Zionism is not merely aliyah but also the affirmation of Jewish nationhood and Jewish peoplehood.

A people is a disbursed nation. A nation is a community of individuals, Families, clans and tribes who share a sense of common ancestry and who feel unique because of the unique language or culture. Most nations have a territorial base which they call their homeland. Most independent states are attached to a nation. But some states, like Belgium, Canada and the Soviet Union, are collections of nations. And others, like the United States, feature ethnic loyalties in addition to the dominant Anglosaxon culture.

For a long while we Jews had no independent territorial homeland. We had no secular rulers. We gave a little attention to secular culture. The Zionist pioneers created the revolution that altered this reality. They gave us an independent territorial homeland. They trained secular rulers. They produced a secular Hebrew culture.

In order to understand that our humanistic Jewish roots we have to understand the history of Zionism, its problems, it’s achievements in its failures.


We Jews have always experienced ourselves as a nation. The authors of the Bible in the Talmud saw us that way.Our friends and enemies never doubted our ethnicity. Even our religious leaders taught us to pray for a national restoration. No force in Jewish or Gentile life before the emergence of the reform movement ever viewed the Jews as merely a religious phenomenon.

Jewish nationhood was continuous. Even when our ancestors departed the land of his real, they did not lose their sense of national identity. Their dispersed communities were ethnic enclaves. Their religious leaders were also national leaders.

Modern Zionism was the expression of the liberation and renewal of the Ashkenazic Jewish nation in Central and Eastern Europe. This Yiddish speaking people lived with Germans, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians. They shared governments with their neighbors. But they saw themselves as distinct and separate.

In the nineteenth century, in the age of the Enlightenment and secular Emancipation, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe substituted territorial nationalism for religion as their reigning passion. The Germans, Hungarians and Russians unified their peoples. The Romanians liberated part of their nation. And the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians and Lithuanians strove to expel foreign oppressors.

The Jews were also cut up in this nationalistic fervor. But they suffered a major deficiency. All the territory they inhabited was claimed by other nations. And their smaller numbers and dispersion prevented them from claiming their share of land. Had Ashkenazic Jewry been able to establish an independent European territorial center, the Zionist Movement, as we know it, would never have emerged.

But Jewish nationalism was assaulted by many hostile forces. Racial antisemitism was the worst. Unlike religious hatred it’s focused on the ethnicity of the Jew. Birth, not belief, became the criterion for identifying the enemy. The Jews became ethnic intruders who were threatening the racial integrity of their host nation by their mere presence. Antisemitism became a convenient nationalistic tool for mobilizing the masses to display the patriotic fervor.

When Theodore Herzl published The Jewish State in 1986, a territorial haven for Jews, Away from Europe, had become a necessity. Palestine was the obvious alternative.

The land needed to be found. The state needed to be created. But the nation, the Jewish nation, already existed.


Modern humanism divided early into two camps. In the first camp were the Rationalists. They valued human reason and envisioned a new social order dominated by science, emotional moderation and cosmopolitan taste. Voltaire, Paine and Comte were their heroes. In the second camp were the Romantics. They valued human will and imagined a New World of personal freedom and passionate autonomy in which creativity would replace tradition as the guide to living. Goethe and Nietzsche were their heroes.

Both Rationalists and Romantics were opposed to the old religious order. But they disliked it for different reasons. For the Rationalists it was superstitious. For the Romantics it was authoritarian.

Jewish humanists who were disciples of the Enlightenment and who emphasized the rational and the universal found both religion and nationalism boring. But Jewish humanists who admired Nietzche and his boldness of spirit found nationalism romantic. The task of rescuing oppressed people, taking charge of one’s own destiny against overwhelming odds, and creating a new state was an appealing arrogance and an exciting act of will. Micah Berdichevski, One of the first Zionist writers, articulated this mood when he proposed to reject the passivity of Diaspora history.

Romantic humanism, much more than its Rationalist counterpart, was the parent of the Zionist spirit. Zionism, as Ben Gurion pointed out, was a ‘revolution’ in Jewish attitude and Jewish emotion. It was the  herald of the ‘new Jew’ who abandoned passive piety for boldness, daring and courage and who also rejected rational arguments for caution and practicality. As Herzl implied, “If we want something hard enough, it will be no dream.”

Peoplehood and romanticism have been part of the Jewish experience for a long time. Zionism dramatized them.


From the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise Zionists disagreed one with the other. These arguments reflected the difficulty of translating the ideal of romantic peoplehood into a practical project.

If Palestine is not available as a Jewish homeland, will Uganda do? After all, the task is one of rescuing the nation, not a particular piece of sacred territory.

Does the territorial Jewish nation need to be independent? Would a secular Jewish cultural center be more feasible and less cumbersome?

What shall be the language of the Jewish state? Yiddish is the living language of the living people. Hebrew is shared by the Sephardim. But it is only the language of scholars.

What shall be the economic structure of the new state? Is capitalism compatible with humanism?

Can religion be separated from Jewish peoplehood and Jewish nationhood? Is a secular state possible for Jews?

How shall Jews defend themselves against their Arab enemies? Is the development of military virtue consistent with humanistic ideals?

Do the Arabs of Palestine have a right to be a nation in their own land? Is a binational state desirable and possible in Israel?

Should a Jewish state be morally superior to other states, and ethical example to other nations? Or are the Jews entitled to normality?

The conflicting answers to these questions continue to divide the secular Zionist world. And the ultimate acceptance of the Zionist enterprise by religious and Orthodox elements has added even more controversy to the debate.

In the midst of these continuing arguments Zionism has scored some incredible success. It has reconstituted 3 million Jews as a territorial nation. It has established an independent Jewish state capable of defending its own survival. It has revived a ‘dead’ scholarly language and made Hebrew the language of the Israeli masses. It has experimented in new forms of social experimentation and has produced the only free socialist communes in the world. It has brought together the Ashkenazic and Sephardic parts of the Jewish people into a single national effort. It has made Israel the center of Jewish life in the Diaspora and the most compelling Jewish concern of the Jewish world.

But, from the humanistic point of view, it has failed in other areas. It has failed to create a secular Jewish state where religious and non-religious liberty is guaranteed.It has failed to Grant equal rights and equal privileges to the Arabs who reside within its borders. It has failed to provide peace and security for the Jews who chose to be Israelis. Above all, it has failed to define a successful relationship of equality with the Diaspora. Although Israel is the only territorial state in the world created by its own Diaspora, and although its significance derived from its connection with world Jewry, secular Israelis still regard Diaspora life as an inferior Jewish existence.


As one of the important roots of a viable Jewish humanism and in the face of all its problems, successes and failures- what is the significance of zionism to a humanistic outlook?

Zionism is the most effective expression, in modern times, that we Jews are more than a religion. We are a people and an ethnic culture.

Zionism is the most dramatic manifestation of the humanist revolution in Jewish life- the refusal of Jews to be the passive victims of fate- and the determination of Jews to take their own destiny into their own hands and to shape it to their needs.

Zionism is the most creative force in Jewish life today for the development of a secular Jewish culture. The revival of a secular Hebrew and the ceremonial life of the secular kibbutz are important alternatives to the religious ritual of establishment tradition.

Zionism is the most powerful present commitment for mobilizing the world Jewish community. Israel has become the cultural center of an international people and is the unifying focus of the Diaspora.

Humanistic Judaism and a pragmatic Zionism go hand-in-hand. Jewish humanists can help to keep Zionism secular. Zionism can help to keep a humanistic Judaism Jewish.

Humanistic Judaism – A Religion

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn/Winter, Volume 4, No. 1, 1975-76

In recent years I have encountered a persistent objection to the vocabulary of the Birmingham Temple. Many perceptive and sensitive observers have affirmed the value of the Temple philosophy and program. They readily acknowledge that the group work and fellowship are meaningful experiences. But they encounter with the objection, “How can you call your organization at Temple?“ Humanism may be a ‘great’ philosophy of life. It may even be the ideological answer to man’s twentieth century needs. Yet, if there is one thing it isn’t, it isn’t a religion. If you’re so concerned about the meticulous use of vocabulary that you abstain from God language, why then would you not be equally careful with the word ‘religion’?

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

Now to discover the authentic significance of ‘religion’ we must clarify the unique characteristics of the religious experience. It will not do to either arbitrarily pick a definition that is convenient to one’s vested interest or to cite those qualities of the experience it shares with other human possibilities. A proper definition must rely on what is peculiar to the event under analysis. Nor will selecting a vague phrase that makes ‘religion’ the sum total of everything promote understanding. To define religion as ‘the pursuit of fulfillment’ or ‘the pursuit of salvation’ or ‘the act of relating to the universe as a whole’ is to consign the term to the limbo of words that have lots of prestige but refer to nothing in particular. For after all, what human activity from psychiatry to politics is not concerned with human fulfillment? And what human procedure does not involve relating to the universe ‘as a whole’?

Initially we must do away with the verbal debris; we must clarify what religion is not. Many liberals are fond of designating the religious experience as the moral dimension of human life, as the ethical commitment of the individual. However, while it is certainly true that all historic religions have been vitally concerned with social right and wrong, it is also true that there are hosts of activities, normally designated as religious, that have nothing at all to do with ethical propriety. Lighting candles and celebrating spring festivals are part of piety and morally neutral. Moreover, large numbers of sincere and sensitive people think of themselves and are regarded by others as both ethical and nonreligious.

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

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

A proper view of religion requires an honest confrontation with certain historical realities. Too often clerical liberals choose to designate what is ‘unpleasant’ about traditional religious practice as secondary and peripheral. They refuse to confront the possibility that what they stand for may in any way be ‘less religious’ than what the traditionalists proclaim. In a culture where to be ‘more religious’ is to be more respectable, the refusal is understandable although it is hardly conducive to an objective study of religion.

What are the historical realities which our study cannot ignore? Six facts are most significant.

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

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

It is interesting to note that the origin of philosophic inquiry and metaphysics lies in the disdain for the sensible world of continual change and, any persistent love of what is eternal and beyond decay. Plato was adored by later theology ends because of his ‘religious’ temperament. He detested the world of impermanence and asserted that wisdom was only concerned with entities that never change. The chaotic world of space time events which modern science investigator was anathema to his pursuit of knowledge. If the Greeks were unable to develop the rudiments of a real empiricism, herein lay their problem. Whatever they searched for it had to be deathless and eternal.

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

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

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

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

If then the unique character of the religious experience is the active identifying with what appears to be ‘permanent’, a proper understanding of Humanism requires the following observations.

  • The religious temperament and the pursuit of knowledge through empirical procedures are incompatible. Humanism is committed to the techniques of modern science; and all proper statements within the framework are tentative, subject to the refutation of future evidence. Empiricism cannot tolerate eternal truths about man and the universe. The conditional character of all knowledge with an infinite capacity for adjustment is its special power and glory. Whenever the religious need and the pursuit of truth come together there is disaster. The Greeks prove that point magnificently: they could never end up being interested in what was tentative and conditional.
  • Humanism is a total philosophy of life, which does not allow the religious temperament to invade every area of its discipline. However, there is one aspect of living where religion is indispensable. If man has a need to transcend his temporariness and identify with something or someone more permanent than the individual ‘I’, this need cannot be ignored. Within the framework of humanism, two ways of satisfaction exist. By asserting that every man is composed of the same matter – energy – that all other events in the universe derive from, humanistic teaching affirms that each of us shares an intimate bond, a basic identity, with any conceivable happening in the universe. Stars and flowers are material brothers to our nature. And by proclaiming that before and beyond the individuality of any person, each of us shares an essential oneness with all men, humanism proclaims that all of us individually share in the immortality of mankind as a whole. In fact, the very basis of ethical behavior lies in this religious experience. If every person can only feel himself as an individual, the social character of morality is impossible. Ethical behavior is only feasible when men sense that the essential nature that binds them together is more significant than the individual differences that separate them.
  • Humanism is more than a religion. There are certain areas of its discipline which provides the religious experience. But there are many involvements where the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. In opposition to the temper of much traditional philosophy with the mood of ‘ there are certain areas of its discipline which provides the religious experience. But there are many involvement where the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. In opposition to the temper of much traditional philosophy with the mood of ‘eternity’ pervades, humanism affirms the value of conditional knowledge and change. Therefore, the humanist never guards the description ‘less religious’ as a threat. He rather views it as a compliment. He is aware of the fact that the balanced life requires much more. While he resists the invasion of all lies by the religious temperament, he, at the same time, affirms the value of the religious experience in the simple rehearsal of nature’s seasons and in the image of in mortality in mankind’s survival.

Perspective – Leadership

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn, Volume 9, No. 3, 1981

Every community needs leaders. If the leaders must possess expert knowledge they need to be trained leaders.

Humanistic Jews need leaders. They also need trained leaders.

Up until now we have not dealt directly with the problem of leaders for Humanistic Judaism. We have simply taken advantage of Reform rabbis who have been willing to change. We have no training program for Humanistic Jewish leaders. And, because of that reality, we have no clear idea of what it means to be a Humanistic rabbi. If the education of our leaders is in the hands of others, we have to take what we can get.

We have never, as yet, dealt with some important questions. What does a Humanistic Jewish leader need to know? What should he be able to do? Is the title rabbi the best designation for such a leader? If it is, how does the role of the Humanistic rabbi differ from that of a traditional or liberal rabbi? Above all, how do we provide a Humanistic Jewish leader with the best possible training for his job?

Before I can answer these questions, I need to give you some background information about the history of Jewish leadership and about the problems of using our present ‘negative’ policy of recruitment and training.


In ancient times, when the Jewish people were a territorial nation, Jewish leaders were secular leaders. Shofets and warrior kings controlled the nation. Although these rulers claimed the sanction of the gods, they were not religious professionals. Priests and guild prophets were kept in subordinate roles.

With the defeat and occupation of Israel by the Chaldeans, Persians and Greeks the secular rulers were eliminated. The conquerors elevated religious professionals to national leadership, since they assumed that they would be the least dangerous and the most compliant. Like the Irish in the polls, the Jews ended up with theocracy, government by priests. The Zadokite priests completed the Torah, the first national constitution, and gave themselves supreme power.

In time a rival group of religious professionals, the rabbis challenged the priests. Advocates of new ideas about the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead, they were supported by a powerful political party called the Pharisees. The rivalry between the priests and the rabbis was ultimately resolved with the victory of the rabbis. Under the Roman occupation, the rabbis became the leaders of the Jews. While the rabbinate had begun as an informal vocation, it became more professional with prestige academies and official ordination. Ultimately, a second national constitution, the Mishnah, was published. The Mishnah confirmed the power of the rabbis and established a permanent theocracy. Rabbinic Judaism became the foundation of the Orthodox vision of Jewish politics.

The Diaspora reinforced the power of the rabbis. Deprived of territory and political freedom, the Jews had no trains leader ship other than the rabbinate. Religious passivity became a safe alternative to political action. As the custodians of supernatural wisdom the rabbis governed the Jews in an authoritarian fashion. Only the unavoidable decentralization of Jewish life and the popular acceptance of their right to rule kept the rabbinate for being overwhelmingly tyrannical.

When the Enlightenment came to Jewish life in the nineteenth century, two hostile responses to rabbinic control emerged. The first response was the secular movement. It value Jewish culture but despised organized religion and its rabbinic representatives. In a secular age, they rejected the rabbis, turned to socialism and Zionism, and created a new informal leadership of intellectuals, culture experts and political activists. The second response was the Reform movement. Since they were hostile to Jewish nationalism and defined the Jewish people as a religious denomination, they were in need of trained religious leaders. But who?

At first, the Reform movement avoided rabbis. Rabbinic leadership was identified with rabbinic Judaism and the traditions of Orthodoxy. Early Reform was initiated by laymen. Even the Hamburg Temple, the ‘mother church’ of Reform, used academic “preachers” for their leadership and recruited no rabbis. But the ‘conversion’ of many orthodox rabbis in the 1840s to the program of reform made an alternative labor supply available.It also posed the question of whether the title rabbi, associated with the advocacy of the Talmudic lifestyle, was appropriate to a Reform leader.

In the end, Reform embraced the “rabbinic,” howbeit awkwardly. It kept the title but change the role. The judge and scholar, the expert in Talmudic law was replaced by the secularly educated preacher and congregational leader. The Protestant model of Northern Europe became the guide to a new profession with an old name. Although the traditional rabbis denied legitimacy of Reform ordination, the title gave authority and religious respectability to the role. In time the designation rabbi made reform leaders more conservative. They had to justify their use of the label.

Since the first humanistic Jewish leaders were trained as reform rabbis and were involved with congregational communities, humanistic rabbis emerged as a coincidence, rather than as a deliberate choice. While some hostile opponents were always asking “how can you call yourself a rabbi,” the use of the title seemed convenient and appropriate. Humanistic leaders were performing the same congregational philosophic and celebration functions that most rabbis were engaged in. And if Reform, in its rejection of the traditional rabbinic discipline, had made non-halakhic rabbis possible, non-theological ones were equally plausible.

At present, professional Humanistic Jewish leaders are Humanistic rabbis. And they get their training at reform seminaries.


This situation is less than satisfactory.

Reform seminaries are designed to train Reform rabbis. They view the rabbinate as a religious profession, and not as a cultural and philosophical one. They overemphasize the theological traditions of the Jews and underemphasize the secular and profane dimensions. Humanistic trainees need exposure to humanistic philosophy and to humanistic Jewish celebration. They need a deep grounding in the Jewish Enlightenment and in the non-religious intellectual achievement of that experience. While many aspects of the reform curriculum are relevant to their training, many others are diverting, parochial, piously inappropriate and compromising of personal integrity.

Reform seminaries are ambivalent about training Humanistic rabbis. Some of the faculty at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion are sympathetic to a humanistic approach. But others are overtly hostile. Why should the seminary ordain rabbis who will not serve the congregations that support it? And why should it train leaders who will not identify with the public ideology of the Reform movement? Given the limited number of students who can be accepted into the rabbinic program, why should precious spaces be given to students who have no commitment to the Reform enterprise? In an environment of such ambivalence we have no guarantee that the Reform seminaries will continue to serve our leadership needs.

In fact, students may not presently receive internship credit for their service to humanistic congregations.

Men and women who are training for the Humanistic rabbinate need a Humanistic Jewish community to interact with. Isolation in a Reform seminary is a non-supportive environment. Exposed humanists are always involved in debate and defense, and not in creative sharing.

Reform rabbis, as part of an establishment movement, are trained to serve established congregations. They are generally not accustomed to organizing their own. But Humanistic rabbis presently have to create the organizations they serve. They need special training in ‘missionary’ work. They need special skills in ‘starting from scratch’. The emotional standards for recruiting Reform students is different from those appropriate to Humanistic candidates. Seminary environments of high material expectations and conventional internships are counter-productive.

Training Reform rabbis means conducting Reform services. Student interns serve small Reform congregations and have to function as Reform leaders. How can Humanistic students perform this role with integrity? If one of the prime ethical values we are seeking to inculcate is honesty and an absence of hypocrisy, how can we encourage humanistic students to pretend they believe in prayer. Studying about prayer is one thing. But doing it in public as a congregational leader is another.

There are many men and women who would make excellent Humanistic Jewish leaders (if they knew the opportunity were available) and who would, for reasons of integrity, never set foot in a reform seminary. Many bright Jews with leadership ability and humanistic commitment choose careers in political science, law, social work and psychotherapy because they believe that the rabbinate and seminary training are a violation of their belief system and a waste of time. If we insist on a Reform education and provide no alternative program, we will never recruit the best and brightest for our movement. We will solicit the cautious ones, who will want to hedge their rabbinic bet with a Reform option.

The most humanistic Jews are not called humanistic Jews. They designate themselves as secular or cultural Jews. They have no historic connection with the Reform movement and no great fondness for the rabbinate. They see themselves as non-religious and are generally unorganized. If they are organized they belong to educational and cultural societies with no professional leadership. Their present malaise partly stems from the absence of dynamic spokespeople who can give them a presence in the Jewish community and who are expert enough to invent secular Jewish alternatives. For these cultural Jews recruiting leaders from a reform seminary would be an absurd act. In fact, a professional leader who bore a title other than rabbi would be more easily accepted. [Madrikh (leader) is a possible option.]

We presently do not control the training of our own leaders. We have to settle for what we can get. We are scavengers. We are “beggers.“. The net result is that we wait around for reform rabbis “to see the light“ and subject to humanistic candidates to programs we have not designed. The smallness of our number is no reason for us to consent to this humiliation. We will never really grow unless we have the self-confidence to arrange for the training of our own “missionaries.” Aggressive expert leadership is the key to our expansion. Enemies and in different friends cannot provide it for us. Nor will our own timidity give us what we need.


In the face of these problems we need to take the following actions.

We need to assume the responsibility for the training of our own leaders.

We need to draft leadership guidelines, articulating what we can conceive the leadership role to be and specifying the requirements we believe to be necessary to qualify as a Humanistic rabbi or as a professional Humanist Jewish leader. These requirements should include a training program which concentrates on a humanistic approach to Jewish history and culture and which features special training in organizing a congregation and in developing secular forms of Jewish celebration.

We need to provide options for training leaders. We need more than one training program. Being dependent completely on reform goodwill is too tenuous situation to be tolerable. Candidates for the Humanistic rabbinate or for Humanistic leadership who desire to attend a Reform seminary and to receive a Reform ordination (or to attend a Reconstructionist seminary and to receive a Reconstructionist ordination) should be encouraged to do so. But an alternative program should be created for candidates who desire a specifically Humanistic Jewish education. Since the creation of a Humanistic rabbinic seminary is financially not feasible, a rational alternative is the use of the graduate program of a major university. An institution like the University of Chicago, which trains many religious leaders, which features superb Department of philosophy, history, psychology and Semitic studies, and which is located in a big city with a big Jewish community is an ideal setting. The leadership candidate would undertake a doctoral program designed to make him an expert in both Judaism and humanism. he would also serve as an intern of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, testing his skills in the practical work of congregational life. Upon the completion of his doctoral program (an investment of time equal to that of seminary training) and his internship training, he would be eligible to be declared a rabbi and Madrikh (leader) by the Society.

We need to go out and recruit bold and adventurous young men and women to enter these programs. Humanistic Jewish congregations will be created by Humanistic rabbis. They will not develop viability and community presence from only the effort of part-time volunteers. Reform rabbis who are cautious humanists and who are looking for established congregations to serve are from our point of view, next to useless. The successful ones, at this stage of our development, will be the leaders who enjoyed being pioneers and who enjoy creating their own congregations.

Many people who want to be rabbis and who are believing humanists will not be successful humanistic rabbis or madrikhim, because they are too timid. But I am convinced that there are others, who have never considered the conventional rabbinate for ideal logical and emotional reasons, who would make superb Humanistic Jewish leaders if they were informed of the opportunity.

We need to cooperate with Secular Jews and with other organized humanists to develop our program. Secular Jews need community and professional leadership. Non-Jewish humanists also need professional leadership. They can help us develop the humanism side of leadership training.


One can already imagine some of the objections to these proposals.

“Training Humanistic rabbis in Reform seminaries is a good thing. It exposes them to other points of you and rescues them from professional isolation.“

“No one will accept a rabbinic ordination issued by the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The idea is pretentious.”

“Why are we bothering to train rabbis to be leaders of secular and humanistic Jews? If we simply called them madrikhim we wouldn’t have any problems.”

Answers are necessary.

Exposure to other points of you is important for rabbis and for all Jews. But it is not the first requirement. Of what value is understanding Reform Judaism for a Humanistic candidate, if he has no opportunity to fully understand Humanistic Judaism. Given the limited amount of time he has to master his profession, and given his need to go out and motivate others, the Humanistic rabbi needs a good grounding first in his own chosen approach. Spending his time arguing with Reform students at a Reform seminary will not rescue him from professional isolation. It will be a needless indulgence in alienation. Humanistic candidates who want ordination from an established rabbinic seminary should not be deceived about the nature of their experience. The reward exacts a high price. And those candidates who do not want to pay that price should not be rejected. They should have an option.

As for the credibility of ordination by the Society, three considerations should be kept in mind. (1) Humanistic rabbis who choose the optional program will also have the title doctor from a major university. (2) In the organizing phases of a movement the label of the leader is less important than his personal authority and charisma. (3) The conventional alternative still exists for those who want it. The other alternative is a risk-taking venture for the bold. And what we need are bold and creative leaders.

As for the title rabbi, the use of it is optional. Leaders who want to call themselves doctor (if they’ve earned it) or madrikh can do so. But, for most Humanistic leaders and laypeople the word rabbi will continue to be important. As a label it suggests authority, expert Ness and Judaism and Jewish leadership. All three conditions are necessary and appropriate for those who want to guide the community. In a world where rabbi is no longer identified with halakha (orthodox law) and where Judaism is increasingly viewed as a culture, a secular rabbi is a natural development.


The future of Humanistic Judaism will depend it to a large degree on the quality, self image and training of Humanistic rabbis. It is time for us to accept this fact and to proceed with integrity.

Humanism and Reform

Humanistic Judaism, Summer/Autumn 1977

This issue is about Congregation Beth Or. Congregation Beth Or was a reform congregation. It is now a humanistic one.

Beth Or is humanistic-because of the special power and integrity of its rabbi, Daniel Friedman-And also because of the unique courage and hutspa of its own members.

Beth or is also humanistic because reform Judaism is less than it should be.

The Jewish Reformers of the 19th century prided themselves on being the avant-garde of religious innovation-the rescuers of Jewish identity for the age of science. They saw themselves as bold and radical-eager to remodel the structure of Jewish authority.

The Jewish performers of the late 20th century are tired and cautious. They pride themselves on their return to tradition. Preferring nostalgia to creativity, they have become the promoters of Halachic antiquities. Fearful of Orthodox and Conservative disapproval, they label every surrender to old authority as a concession to the unity of the Jewish people. All the hutspa is gone. All the radical passion is absent. Pleading for the approval of the past, they have no energies to deal with the future.

What happened?

Not really very much.

In the very beginning the radical image of Reform was more glitter than substance. Using a Protestant model, the early reformers tried to demonstrate that Orthodox Judaism had betrayed the real Jewish past. Reform Judaism was not new at all. It was simply the revival of the original teachings of the great Jewish prophets.

From the very beginning Reform presented itself is ultimately traditional.

And that was silly.

Reform Jewish behavior, as any mildly retarded observer wouldn’t have noticed, had nothing at all to do with the tradition. Not only would the Talmudic rabbi have found it offensive, the Biblical prophets would have preferred Astarte worship to Abraham Geiger.

The early reformers were forced to distort the story of the Jewish past in order to kosherize the Jewish present. It never occurred to them that kosherizing was unnecessary. Admitting innovation has greater dignity than depriving heroic figures of the past their real thoughts and feelings.

If the Talmud was essentially irrelevant to the western urban lifestyle, then the Torah was even worse. Protestant Biblical piety is a joke amongst people who want to be winners in a secular world.

In the end, Reform- and most of all classical Reform chose the Bible is the ultimate sacred Jewish symbol. The religious energies could no longer be directed to real creativity. It had to be wasted proving the unprovable- demonstrating that the sprit of the Torah was essentially the same as the spirit of humanistic science.

Reform Judaism left courage. And the desperate effort of social climbing, the classical reform tried to please the protestant establishment. And that guilty response to this desperate effort, the new were firm tries to please additional geez.

The net result is humiliation and fiasco. Because, quite frankly, nobody can do Protestantism better than Protestants. And nobody can do traditional Judaism better than traditional Jews.

In both cases, Reform started out as the victim of other people’s initiative – a second-rate imitation of what the imitators could do better. Behind the radical mouth lay the obsequious need to please. Reform sought out its own oppressors.

When the Protestant bourgeoisie lost their clout, Conservative Judaism moved in to terrorize. Once the enormous social snobbery of German Jews was overwhelmed by Russian Jewish success, the social barriers that made reform seem boldly anti-traditional broke down. Reform Judaism was then able to show its true colors.

It is not the way many latter relics of the old classical Reform have maintained, that the old Reform was truly radical before it was destroyed by the new Reform. The need to apologize is intrinsic to both varieties.

The greatest ‘crime’ of both old and new Reformers is that, in the name of serving tradition, they distort it. Unable to stand up courageously to the hostility of their ancestors, they preferred to do cheap psychotherapy. The search for ‘roots’ became the search for approval.

Humanistic Judaism is an attempt to do what Reform Judaism should have done. Its main concern is not with the past. It looks to the future. Whether the past loves us or hates us is irrelevant to our long-run welfare is. Whether the future consequences of our present behavior love or hate us does make a difference.

We ought to understand our past without needing it. To feel that insight is true liberation.

The Rabbi Writes – The Return to Tradition

Volume 13, No.6, February 1976

Are Jews returning to tradition?

Is orthodoxy on the upswing?

Is humanism passe?

Some say yes. They cite the following evidence.

The Lubavitcher Hasidim are popular, militant and growing in number. The public display of the yarmulka is increasing. Reform Temples have embraced Hebrew, Barmitsvas and prayer shawls. Parochial schools are getting bigger and bigger. Rabbinic students at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary are doing more and more ritual.

Denunciations of intermarriage are getting louder and louder. More and more Jews are wearing mezuzas around their necks. More and more Jewish students have signed up for courses about Jewish tradition at secular universities throughout America.

Etc. etc….

What does it all mean? Have secularized Jews seen the theological light? Has the recession exposed the futility of material pursuits and revived an interest in old-time spiritual values? Have young Jews discovered that the new American life style is vacuous and now yearn for the meaningful discipline of the old halakha?

Before we answer the questions, a few facts are appropriate.

1 There is no evidence that the behavior of Jews outside the synagogue has changed. Pre-marital sex, frequent divorce, intermarriage and female equality are on the increase. The pursuit of leisure, pleasure and individual happiness is absorbing not only the young but also the middle- aged and the old. The life styles of most contemporary Jews, even those who profess a love of tradition, is in total opposition to the decrees of both the Bible and the Talmud. A nude bathing pre-medical student who lives with her boyfriend in Ann Arbor, who refuses to eat pork as an affirmation of her Jewish identity is hardly a return to a tradition. Even without pork she would give Hillel a heart attack.

2. Orthodox Judaism has become Americanized. At one time the leadership of traditional Jewry was foreign and Yiddish speaking. It was unable to compete with the assimilated graces of Reform rabbis. It lacked the skills for successful social exposure. This past reality is not the present one. What we are now experiencing is the new-found articulation of people who could never before claim the public forum. Orthodox Jews today are as well-educated and as Americanized as their liberal opposition. Their new-found aggressiveness is a sign of their new security in the American environment. It is not a sign that they are holding or recruiting large numbers of American Jews to traditional life. Christian fundamentalism is more vocal and more conspicuous in urban America – not because thousands of new recruits are flocking to its standards but because the lower- class Appalachian refugee has now come into his own power and affluence in Northern cities.

3. Jewish ethnicity has lost its major expression in America. The Yiddish language is, for all practical purposes, dead. A non-observant Yiddish speaking atheist had no trouble identifying himself as a Jew or being identified as a Jew. But secularized Jews who have lost their linguistic uniqueness are now struggling to find other unique forms of Jewish behavior. In the absence of secular Jewish creativity, they are forced to turn to the one remaining behavior pattern which is uniquely Jewish – traditional religious ritual. Since they have no serious intent to adopt a traditional life style, and since they are totally divorced from the cultural context in which these rituals had meaning, they dabble in Jewish exotica. Mezuzas which are intended for doorposts are hung around necks. Avoiding pork becomes a dramatic gesture in seafood tasty Chinese restaurants. The kiddush becomes the family introduction to the busiest day of the week. Nostalgia in bad taste is hardly a return to tradition. It is simply a sign of secular laziness.

Is there a return to orthodoxy?

Not really.

In an age of life-style transition Jews who want to be Jewish are looking for unique ways to identify themselves to others.

Nostalgia most likely won’t work for long.

The only solution is to create new Jewish rituals that really fit our new life-style.

After all, celebrating Einstein’s birthday may have a lot more contemporary meaning than crying over the tallis you never use.

The Rabbi Writes – The Israel Connection

Volume 20, No. 3, October 1982

The Israel connection.

For North American Humanistic Jews, it is very important.

This July, 300 delegates from the United States, Canada, England, France, Belgium, Argentina and Israel met in Jerusalem in the Truman Auditorium of Hebrew University to establish the Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. This school is the first institution of higher learning which has been created for the specific purpose of promoting a humanistic approach to Jewish identity and Jewish culture.

With a part-time faculty of thirty scholars, academicians and teachers, the Institute intends to publish literature in Hebrew, English and other useful “Jewish” languages – literature which can be used for educational and inspirational purposes by secular Jewish communities. It intends to train professional leaders, lectures and spokes people to provide scholarly and popular answers to important Jewish questions and to service a focal point for a federation of humanistic Jewish societies throughout the world.

Haim Cohen, The civil libertarian, legal scholar and former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Israel will serve as the Honorary President. Yehuda Bauer, The world-renowned scholar-expert on antisemitism and Holocaust studies, will serve as the president.

Also this July, 11 young people from the Birmingham Temple – ages made a summer “pilgrimage” to Israel to attend the opening seminar of the Institute and to spend six weeks in a special training program for secular humanistic youth. This trip was the first of, hopefully, many “pilgrimages“ which will be available to all 10th grade graduates who are affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism. We hope that this summer adventure will take its place alongside the Mitsva and Confirmation ceremonies as one of the rites of passage in growing up as a Humanistic Jew.

Why this special emphasis on the Israel connection?

Israel is the Drammatic embodiment of our view of Jewish identity. The Zionist state is a living testimony to the fact that the Jews are more than a religious denomination. We are a historic nation with a national culture, A culture brought enough to include both religious and secular Jews. Because of Israel it is no longer easy to pretend that the Jews are only at theological fraternity.

Israel is also a dramatic embodiment of our view of human power. Against  orthodox passivity and Messianic waiting, the Zionist pioneers proceeded to take Jewish “destiny“ into their own hands into mold the Jewish future instead of resigning themselves to it. The Zionist venture was – and still remains – a revolutionary break with the mood of the old religious tradition.

Israel is the fastest growing Jewish community in the world. The reason is not immigration; it is birth rate. Because of a declining Jewish birth rate, the Diaspora communities are shrinking. In 1985, 25% of the world Jewish population resides in Israel. Into thousand 40% of world Jewry will live in the Jewish state. Time goes on, Israel will increasingly become the center of Jewish identity.

 Israel is the only state where Jewish culture can function as a majority culture. The Jewish language is the national language. Jewish holidays are national holidays. Jewish heroes are national heroes. Therefore, the Jewish creative potential of Israel is far greater than that of Diaspora communities where an uphill battle will always be fought against the attractiveness of the dominant culture. Less effort has to be exerted in Israel to remain Jewish. More effort can be devoted to more positive enterprises.

Israel is the home of the largest body of self-proclaimed secular Jews in the world.

Just as Reform was the dominant ideology of the nineteenth century founders of the American Jewish community – making it, In the American context, older and more prestigious than Orthodoxy – so what is humanism the dominant belief of the Zionist founders of the Jewish state. From the labor movement to the kibbutzim, From the universities to the newspapers, the secular point of view prevailed. In the same sense as in America, Orthodoxy is “newer“ than secularism. It’s recent victories are in assault on the “establishment“.

Israel is the home of the largest body of scholars, academicians and teachers who identify themselves as secular and Humanistic Jews. No where else is it possible to assemble a working faculty for an institute of Humanistic Judaism. While the new school will be international, with branch offices in North America and western Europe, the center must remain in Jerusalem where the intellectual resources are more available.

The Israel connection is indeed very important. In an age of technological revolutions where traveling from Detroit to Jerusalem is far easier now than moving from Detroit to Toledo was 150 years ago, maintaining the is real connection may become a far simpler project than we imagine.

The Rabbi Writes – Jerusalem, October 1992

Volume 29, No. 5, December 1992

The Fourth Biennial Conference of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews

It was a memorable event. Delegates from nine countries assembled in the Khan theater to proclaim the commitment to a cultural Judaism without God. It was obvious that progress had been made during the last six years, ever since our first meeting in Detroit in 1986. We had increased in number. We had defined our ideology. We had elevated our visibility in the Jewish world. We had created an international Institute to train the leaders and educators we so desperately needed.

“On the way“ to Jerusalem we had met in Brussels in 1988 and in Chicago in 1990. At each of these events we sought to reinforce the purpose of the Federation. We wanted to bring together all the secular and humanistic Jews in the world and make them part of one movement. We wanted our voice and our presence to be recognized and acknowledged. We wanted to do together what we would not be able to do alone.

There were many highlights of the conference.

There was the Khan Theater, a Jerusalem landmark, Filled with people, many of them young, eager to identify with the cause of a cultural Judaism.

There was the babble of tongues – Hebrew, English, Russian, French and Italian – that made you feel the truly international character of our movement and gave the moment the excitement of diversity.

There was Naomi Hazzan, Member of Parliament, friend of Shulamit Aloni, fiery defender of the separation of religion and government, calling for the end to the wicked regime of Orthodox control over Israeli life.

There was Yizhar Smilansky, Famous poet and writer, tall, white- haired and charismatic delivering his impassioned denunciation of racism and militarism by rewriting the book of Joshua and reciting the text in staccato and relentless outbursts.

There was Haim Cohn, former senior judge of the Israeli Supreme Court, revered jurist and civil libertarian, Honorary president of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, receiving his award as our role model Humanistic Jew and offering a clear and unequivocal call for rational enlightenment in Jewish life.

There was the arrival of the delegates from the former Soviet Union, pioneers of Humanistic Judaism in the secular Jewish world of Eurasia, sharing with the crowd at the incredible success of their efforts in towns and cities of Russia and the Ukraine, speaking of the amazing possibilities for our movement in these newly opened lands.

There was the meeting with the Russian immigrants who have come to Israel, hundreds of them, who have found an intellectual and spiritual home and Humanistic Judaism, Who were filled with endless questions about what we do in North America.

There was Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yekutieli, descendent of a prominent Iraqi family and militant secularist, who told us about his victories against Orthodox intimidation in his city of yeshivas and about how it was possible for determined humanists to mobilize their followers successfully in defence of their civil rights.

There was Danny Garbarz of Paris, university student and leader of the French youth movement for Humanistic Judaism, Energetic and brilliant, who shared with us his plans to mobilize Jewish young people all over the world for a secular commitment to Jewish identity.

There was Meron Benvenisti, Controversial writer, intellectual and former political leader, who boldly proclaimed at a celebration luncheon for the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem that there was nothing to celebrate, that Jerusalem remained hopelessly divided between Jews and Arabs and that only a piece which involved ethnic equality, mutual respect and the sharing of land would really work.

There was the intimate closing session when we explored together the texts of the new Secular Humanistic Anthology, tasting the words of Spinoza, Einstein and Tchersiklovsky and experiencing the excitement of finding our place and the tradition of Jewish inspiration.

There was the special moment in the kibbutz library of Aryeh Ben Gurion, Nephew of the first prime minister of the Jewish state, all of us standing before the documents and books which represented eighty years of secular Jewish celebration in the world of kibbutz life, And realizing the vast wealth of Jewish creativity that lay at the foundation of our movement.

There were too many high points to record. But all of them were part of a significant series of events that made up this conference.

For the first time Secular Humanistic Judaism received considerable attention from the Israeli press and media. The visibility of the movement took a quantum jump before the eyes of the Israeli public.

For the first time the vast region of Eurasia entered our movement. The Jews of the former Soviet Union, by virtue of 75 years of secular education, are an enormous pool of potential members and workers for our movement. Many Jews will leave the area. But most will stay. And if they want to be Jewish, Humanistic Judaism is the best and most honest way for them to express their Jewish identity. The Federation published a statement to that effect.

For the first time the Federation held a meeting in an Israel which was no longer under the control of a government beholden to the orthodox fundamentalists. Rabin is in power. And two of the founding members of the Israeli Humanistic Jewish movement, Shulamit Aloni and Yair Tsaban now hold important posts in the government. Their enemies have made an issue of their secularism. But they are determined to use their influence to resist the forces of religious reaction and self-ghettoization in the Jewish state.

We have every reason to feel optimistic about our movement, despite the power and determination of our opposition. Hopefully, the Spirit of the Jerusalem conference will serve to make us bolder and more assertive. WE have an important message for the Jewish world. Our solidarity with Humanistic Jews around the world will make it louder and clearer.

The Rabbi Writes – Birmingham Temple Anniversary

Volume 30, No. 4, November 1993

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

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

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

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

Where is my power?

Where is my Judaism?

Where is my religion?

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

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

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

Where is my light?

My light is in me.

Where is my hope?

My hope is in me.

Where is my strength?

My strength is in me.

And in you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jewish Family

Winter-Spring 1977

The Jewish family is famous. Everyone touts their marvelous sense of family. Even Jews praise themselves publicly for having invented such an institution.

But the historical Jewish family is about as real as the temple in Jerusalem.

Not the Jews are unique. Every year they have here been nation is experiencing the death of the old family.

The rate of divorce keeps climbing. What was scandalous 20 years ago is now commonplace. In some areas of the United States one out of every two marriages end in divorce.

The birth rate continues to fall. Jews are aging. Jewish infants are becoming rare. Religion school enrollments falling- not through lack of interest-but through the lack of recruitable children. Childless marriages abound.

The historic family of mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, son, daughter, aunts, uncles-all living together as one unit-has vanished. It has become replaced by an ‘itsy-bitsy’ imitation of the original, in which husband and wife are condemned to eternal togetherness.

The single person is now fashionable. He is no longer a social aberration. Armies of Jewish people live by themselves-swingers, divorces, widows and widowers. When you find roommates in lovers, who may be less demeaning and less expensive than husbands and wives.

The Jewish family is still around. But like all over and families, it is beginning to fall apart.


The answer lies in the following realities.

The family is no longer an economic unit in the traditional sense. The shetl family involved a shared project. Parents and children worked together to ensure survival. They spent all their time together. Parents were the primary teachers of work skills for the children. The urban family is a ‘dormitory’ unit. Individuals with different jobs in different places-even children go off to school-come together for short periods of time to eat and to exchange money.

The family is too small to be effective. The nuclear family is no substitute for the extended family. If you are dependent on to fuel. What a man and grow the results.

Public welfare has replaced the traditional support extended by families. People do not need their families in the way they need them before. In the age of Social Security pensions and unemployment compensation, the goodwill of parents and children becomes less necessary. Indifference and abandonment are less threatening.

The most efficient labor unit of a capitalistic society is the mobile individual. Families are converse eight attachments, expensive for corporation to transport and diverting by their eternal demands.

Children are now parasitic. They no longer work for the family enterprise. They are non-productive for many years, requiring long years of education and large outlays of money. In a mobile society they may move away after high school and never return. In a welfare society they are no longer needed to care for their parents in their old age. They generally take -without giving. Unless they are both attractive and loving, they become wearisome projects which guilt never allows you to abandon.

Woman to have the opportunity to be economically independent. They do not have to be mothers if they do not want to be. They do not even have to be wives if they find wife hood uninteresting. The stability of the old family lay in the patriarchal authority and financial power of the husband. The new independence of woman gives the wife the freedom to resistant and demand equal authority and equal power. An institution with two bosses-even if they sleep together-is inherently unstable.

The age of affluence allows people to think about more than group survival. And allows individuals to turn their attention-without guilt-to their personal happiness. The historic family endured because countless men and women found sacrifice and suffering ethically appropriate. The spirit of 1976 define sacrifice as masochism and suffering as self-destruction

Love is not fashionable. Husband-and-wife snuff want to marriage to be a source of intimate friendship. And a time when children are secondary, the family unity depends on the spiritual quality of the Ryan Laois and ship between the man and the woman. Let me know no longer willing to settle for the opportunity of motherhood. When I woke no longer willing to work for the privilege of fatherhood.. It’s very hot and cold natured the demand for love makes any relationship unstable.

Contraception has separated sex from reproduction. Premarital license and extra-marital affair are now possible without the embarrassing risk of children. Sex for the middle class is no longer a family affair.

The consequence of all these new realities is a revolution in personal lifestyle. The revolution seems irreversible.

Here are its manifestations.

The revolution means that-from now on, very gradually-individual identity would replace family identity as the primary self-image of the person. In a mobile changing society for a family membership maybe both temporary and tenuous, urban survival dictates that individuals be able to see themselves as real. Marriage may come and go-children may come and go-but the continuing threat of each person’s life will be his personal identity.

The revolution means that divorce will be a regular and frequent experience in our society. If the criterion for a successful marriage is a successful friendship, the marriage will become a more fragile institution. Without the glue of mutual massages them, people will terminate what is intolerable for happiness.

The revolution means serial marriage (an Alvin Toffler phrase). More people will be married more than once. As an answer to loneliness and insecurity and as friendship as an opportunity for intimate friendship, your to continue to be popular with the majority of people. But it will be less than eternal for increasing numbers.

The revolution means more intense marriages. If people get married for friendship and not for children the relationship, while it lasts(and it might last for a lifetime)will be more exciting. And the age of female liberation women have become more interesting and men have become less rigid. While the possibilities of intersex competition have increased, the opportunities for intimacy and vulnerability also been enhanced.

The revolution means that there will be many childless marriages. Some career woman, after feeling to find meaningful work outside the home, may turn to children as creative projects. But many couples would prefer the freedom of no children. Despite predictions of future fertility fads, the Jewish birth rate will continue to fall.

The revolution means that there will be many single parent families. Because of divorce many women and some men-will have to function as both mother and father to their children. The role of stepparent will also become more prevalent.

The manifestations of this revolution are with us right now. They cannot be wished away by pious appeals to nostalgia. In fact, in terms of the individual fulfillment of adults, and maybe undesirable to wash them away. From a humanistic point of view, the new freedom, with all traumas may be superior to what it has replaced.

The ethical question is not-how do we change people back (that is futile)- how do you cope with the change? What new skills do we need to live more successfully in a new world?

These skills are skills that have no real analogies in the past. They are not traditional skills. They are new, because the urban world we live in is absolutely new.

Humanistic Jews-like all urban people-will need to be able to deal with the following situations well. These adaptations will be essential for successful living in happiness. They are the replacements for all family skills.

We will need to find value in temporary-less than eternal- relationships.

We will need to function as an individual, never identifying completely with any family connection that we cannot imagine ourselves as separate from it.

We will need to find intimate friendships outside of marriage to supplement our primary relationship. Otherwise, in the age of the nuclear family, good marriages will be destroyed by the excessive demands of husbands and wives on each other.

We will need to find appropriate ways to deal with divorced parents and with stepchildren. At present, these skills are both primitive and rare.

We will need to know how to be both maternal and paternal. Men will have to develop historic mother skills. And woman will have to develop historic father skills.

We will, above all, need to find a primary meaning in work and friendship. Investing this meaning in our children will only work( in an age when children move away)if we see child-wearing as our career.

The Jewish Family-like all urban families-is experiencing trauma.

The ethical task of Humanistic Judaism is to provide practical advice for turning this trauma into an opportunity for happiness.

Ethical and Cultural Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Spring/Summer, Volume 8, 1980

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

But it is different from Humanistic Judaism.

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


 The roots of ethical culture lie in five conditions.

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

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

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

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


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

Certain basic ideas defined the commitment of ethical members.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

But, there are differences.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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