Hanukka – A Children’s Ceremony

Parent

Many years ago the Jews in the land of Israel were not free. They were not free to rule themselves. They were not free to live in the way their hearts and minds desired.

A foreign king made their lives miserable. He sent many soldiers to make the Jews do what he wanted them to do. He took away their Temple and gave it to their enemies. The Jews rebelled. They rose up against the king. Under their brave leader Judah Maccabee they defeated their enemies and won their freedom.

Parent or Child

The Jews decided to celebrate their victory. They set aside eight days for a special festival.

The Temple was made ready for the celebration. The lights of the Temple Menorah were kindled and gave forth a bright light.

Judah Maccabee dedicated the Temple to the service of the people. He called this special festival Hanukka.

Hanukka is a Hebrew word which means dedication.

Judah Maccabee asked the Jews to celebrate this holiday every year at the same time. He wanted them to remember this victory.

Child

The Jews of this story were our ancestors.

Our ancestors suffered the cruelty of a foreign king.

Our ancestors fought for their freedom.

Our ancestors restored the Temple in Jerusalem.

Our ancestors heard the words of Judah Maccabee when he asked them to remember their victory.

Our ancestors saw the lights of the Temple Menorah rekindled.

Let us, therefore, remember what our ancestors did.

Let us kindle the lights of our Menorah in memory of their courage.

(Children light candles after reading. Family sings.)

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-o-lam

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-a-dam

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-ha-nuk-ka

Radiant is the light of the world.

Radiant is the light of humanity.

Radiant is the light of Hanukka.

A CANDLELIGHTING SERVICE

Hanukka is the feast of light. In the winter the days are short and the nights are long. In the winter the light goes quickly and darkness lingers.

In the summer we take the light for granted. The sun is so generous. But in the winter we know how precious it is and how much we need it.

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-o-lam We value the light within the world

Hanukka is the feast of light. Not only the light without. But also the light within. Not only the light of the sun. But also the light of life which shines through every living being and which warms the darkness.

Light is power. Human light is human power. It is the power to love life, to nurture it and to make it grow. It is the power to resist evil. It is the power to be a Maccabee and to defend what is good and beautiful.

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-a-dam We value the light within every human being

Hanukka is the feast of light. Light is radiance. It is the radiance of whatever we do to make our world a better place to live.

It is the light of reason, which helps us see the difference between right and wrong.

It is the light of self-esteem which keeps us proud.

It is the light of courage which gives us the strength to stand up for what we believe in.

It is the light of freedom which reminds us to take responsibility for our own lives.

It is the light of love which enables us to care for those who suffer.

It is the light of loyalty which makes us keep our promises to those who trust us.

It is the light of generosity which encourages us to give even when we do not receive.

It is the light of hope which leads us to the vision of a better world.

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-ha-nook-ka We value the light of Hanukka

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-o-Iam. Ba-rookh ha-or ba-a-dam.

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-ha-nook-ka.

(Light Candles and All Sing)

Maccabees of old did rise

To defy the wicked king

They fought hard to help all men

And through courage freedom bring.

They brought a message cheering

That the time is nearing

Which will see all men free

Tyrants disappearing.

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.

Who is a Jew: Fundamental Issues

IFSHJ Conference Highlights: Who is a Jew  Spring 1989

Two years ago in Detroit, about 350 peo­ple gathered from ten countries around the world to establish the International Federa­tion of Secular Humanistic Jews. There was great excitement in the air, a lot of hope and anticipation of what we might be able to do together. There was the surprise of discover­ing so many people around the world who shared our ideas, a sense of solidarity, relief from the isolation that people who think that their perception of Judaism is bizarre or different or outlandish often experience.

We were an assembly with great diversi­ty. Some were from old secular, socialist, politically radical backgrounds. Some came from traditional backgrounds. They had rebelled against that tradition; they felt themselves to be very, very Jewish but had not found themselves comfortable within the framework of a traditional Judaism, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform.

There were those who were children of intermarriage, who in some way found their Jewish connection to be a very special con­nection, who wanted to be part of the Jewish people but found themselves repudi­ated by religious authorities who, ironically, claim that Judaism invented love, brother­hood, and justice.

There were those who had come from assimilated backgrounds, people who had grown up in families where Jewish identity wasn’t very important but who now wanted in some very significant way to identify with the Jewish people.

We all came together to form that Federa­tion. We were trying to say something to the Jewish world. The question Who Is a Jew? is very much related to that context.

We, first of all, wanted to say to the world that we as Secular Humanistic Jews were not nonbelievers, that we were believers. People often put us in the category of not believing. That isn’t true. It may be that most Secular Humanistic Jews have many more beliefs than nonsecular Jews. I always say that to people when they challenge me. I say that I have a host of beliefs, positive beliefs, about people, the world, and humanity.

We were there at that meeting to say that Judaism, the Jewish people, is more than a religion or religious denomination; that we share a common history and a common fate and a common culture. We were there to say very clearly that we speak for the history of the Jewish people, a history dramatized by the Holocaust in this century; and indeed no divine voice could easily be heard in the cruelty that was meted out by fate to the Jewish people.

We also maintained that Judaism is more than words in the Siddur, or in the Tanakh, or in the Talmud; that Judaism is the experi­ence of the Jewish people, and that experi­ence has an ethical message relevant to one of the topics of this conference. I was talk­ing recently to a very traditional Jew who spoke about how appropriate it was to expel Arabs from Israel. I told him that was in­conceivable to me, given the history of the Jewish people. You can find a lot of reac­tionary quotations in Jewish literature, but the experience of the Jewish people is dif­ferent. And the message of that experience is compassion for the suffering.

Last, and above all, we were saying by coming together that we are a legitimate op­tion in the Jewish world. We were saying that there is a fourth alternative in Jewish life, which is real and legitimate, and our coming together was intended to make that possible.

The question Who Is a Jew? is related directly to our task of creating a meaningful Secular Humanistic Judaism. The issues in­cluded in that question lay the foundation of our ideology and our commitment. If you answer the question appropriately, you deal with the whole issue of the nature of Jewish­ness. I am always assaulted by people who tell me that you can’t really be Jewish without davening, without immersing your­self in the practices of the past. Indeed, if you define a Jew as a religious person, then you have no comeback.

Many young people in North America — and it may be true in Europe — are looking for their Jewish roots. When somebody from a yeshiva tells them that their roots are tradi­tional religion, even though they may not really believe, they choose to do so because it’s the only way they know how to be Jewish. We have a different answer. If we deal with that answer, we are dealing with a funda­mental part of Secular Humanistic Judaism.

The question Who Is a Jew? also addresses the issue of how we view human beings. Are we simply creatures of God, subject to his authority and humble and obedient before the laws that are given to us? Or are we autonomous persons? Do we as human beings have the right to define the groups we will belong to? If a human being stands up and says, “I identify with the history, the fate, and the culture of the Jewish people” and expresses his or her identity through ac­tion and goodwill, that person indeed has the right to call himself or herself a Jew.

This question deals with the issue of ethics and authority. Where does authority lie? Can a group of rabbis, self-proclaimed bearers of the word of God, decide who is a Jew, even though their criteria may be a mixture of racist and religious ones that are inapplicable to what we would call rational living today? Or does authority lie some­where else?

When somebody quotes to me all the traditional passages from the Tanakh and elsewhere that forbid intermarriage and in a sense exclude the offspring of it, my answer is, “I’m sure your quotations are correct, but of what value are they? They do not con­form to the standards of human reason and human compassion, and those are the stan­dards that are to be found in many texts in Jewish history and are implied in the ex­perience of the Jewish people; and they should be the chief criteria.”

Lastly, this question addresses the issue of the survival of the Jewish people. Are we going to be this exclusive club that checks birth certificates, gloats over the fact that people are excluded from organizations they would like to join, and takes great pride in our racial purity? Or are we going to be an open people that says to anybody who wants to join us, anybody who wants to be part of this Jewish experience, “We want you; we need you; come join us”?

The fundamental issues of Secular Humanistic Judaism are contained in this question and, therefore, the resolution that we make at this conference will lay the foundation for a meaningful and significant Jewish humanism. It is not only that we are fighting the militant Orthodox. We are seek­ing to define ourselves and who we are.

The Birmingham Temple’s First Quarter-Century

Humanistic Judaism in the Next Generation – Autumn 1988

We are twenty-five years old.

This year — 1988 — is an important year for us. It is our silver anniversary celebra­tion time.

Our temple is no ordinary temple. From the very beginning, we chose to publicly embrace an ideology different from that of the Jewish establishment. From the very beginning, we were embroiled in a controversy that most budding congrega­tions do not have to confront.

The reason for our existence and growth was never that we were a convenient subur­ban temple, nor that we were socially chic, nor that we provided physical amenities second to none. People came to us because they believed, despite all the difficulties of public exposure, in what we taught.

In other congregations, the initial trau­mas have to do with finding a place for ser­vices, recruiting people to teach children, developing a sense of belonging and com­mitment. We had those problems too. But they were always less important than trans­lating our stated convictions into a viable congregational format. Was it possible to abolish prayer and worship and still create an institution with a clear Jewish identity?

Out of the challenge to find an answer to this question came the Birmingham Tem­ple. And the answer that emerged still defines the reason for our existence.

We succeeded because we said certain things that had never clearly been said before in the North American Jewish community.

We said that there was no need for Jews to pretend to believe what indeed they did not believe. There was no need to recite prayers that were meaningless simply be­cause they were Jewish. There was no need to subscribe to convictions that were incred­ible simply because they were traditional. Our Jewish identity was not a function of any belief system. It was independent of any creeds. It arose out of family roots and family connection.

We said that there was no need to be kosherized by the past. Old Jewish state­ments were no more valuable than new ones simply because they were old. Ances­tors were no more authoritative than con­temporaries simply because they were an­cestors. The test of truth was not antiquity; it was reasonableness. The test of morality was not prophetic utterances; it was the promotion of human dignity. The test of Jewishness was not the Bible and the Tal­mud; it was a sense of identification with the culture and the fate of the Jewish people.

We said that there was no need to sepa­rate the secular and the religious. Congrega­tions, Shabbat meetings, and holiday cele­brations were not the sole possession of theistic people. Bar mitsvas and confirma­tions were not, of necessity, attached to prayers and Torah readings. Religion was more than the worship of God. It was, in the broadest sense, a philosophy of life turned into the morality and celebrations of an organized community. “Secular” was non- theistic, not nonreligious.

We said that there was no need to assume that nostalgia was the only warm emotion. Loyalty to the past may be just as cold as any set of prayers that are mumbled without emotion. And creativity for the future may be just as “hot” as the dancing of Hasidic devotees. The warmth of belonging and soli­darity is more likely to exist in a community where shared ideas and values bind people together than in a congregation that is a neighborhood convenience or a family inheritance.

We said that there was no need to lie to children. There was no need to assume that children required beliefs that we as adults no longer required. There was no need to teach children to believe what we knew they would ultimately reject when they grew up. The greatest gift that we can give our chil­dren is our honesty and integrity. When mouth and action come together, healthy religion begins.

We said that there was no need to be timid about necessary change. Cautious, piecemeal reform does not serve consis­tency well. Life is too short to be the prisoner of foolish contradictions. We do not exist to fit the forms of the past. The forms of the past exist to serve our needs and the needs of future generations. Sometimes only bold action will enable us to make things right.

All these things we said we are still saying. They define the reason for our existence.

A Secular Yeshiva

Humanistic Judaism in Israel – Winter 1985

A secular “yeshiva” now exists. Yes, a secular “yeshiva”!

Headquartered in Jerusalem, the Inter­national Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism is in the process of becoming a full reality. Despite the existence of a century-old tradition of secular Jewish thought, this is the first school of higher Jewish learning to be committed specifi­cally to the presentation of a humanistic perspective on Jewish identity.

How did the institute come into exist­ence? Why was it established? What will it do? Who are the people involved with it? Who will support it?

Creation

In October, 1981, a delegation of 40 North American Jews from the Society for Humanistic Judaism met with an equal number of secular Israeli leaders and intellectuals at Kibbutz Shefayim to share ideas and plan for future connections. Among those present were Shulamit Aloni, leader of the Citizens Rights Move­ment and member of the Knesset; Yehuda Sobel, well-known Israeli playwright; Meir Pail, spokesperson for the dovish Sheli party; and Uri Rapp, professor of the sociology of drama at Tel Aviv University.

A statement of principles, prepared by me, structured the agenda. Out of the two day dialogue emerged a strong awareness of the wide diversity of belief that exists within the secular Jewish world. Never­theless, a short statement about a Secular Humanistic Judaism was agreed on and signed by most of the people in atten­dance. Many of the participants expressed the hope that something more concrete and more meaningful would follow.

In July, 1983, under the stimulus of Zev Katz and Yehuda Bauer, professors at the Hebrew University, an organizing cele­bration with 200 people in attendance was held at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem to announce the establishment of the Israeli Association for Secular Humanis­tic Judaism. The Kibbutz Artzi movement, the more secular of the two kibbutz fede­rations, offered its support. Prominent academicians from the universities of Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv partici­pated in the program. Ultimately, seven small urban communities of Humanistic Jews emerged in the major cities of Israel.

In July, 1985, leaders of the Israeli association, together with leaders of the North American Society for Humanistic Judaism, the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, and Americans for a Pro­gressive Israel — as well as Jewish human­ists from England, France, and Argentina — met at the Hebrew University to estab­lish a school and research center for Secu­lar Humanistic Judaism. Excitement was high; most participants saw the new inter­national institute as a joint project to bring secular Jews all over the world into a working relationship.

Why?

Why the institute? After all, estab­lishing and maintaining a school of higher learning is no easy task. Given the effort that would be required, the mere desire to create some kind of group solidarity was not a sufficient reason. When the idea of an institute first emerged some time be­fore the 1983 meeting, certain compelling reasons presented themselves.

Most secular and humanistic Jews in the world are unaware that they are what they are. The “believers” who do know what they are often lack the knowledge or training to give depth to their convictions. Both groups need education. And effec­tive education requires the planning and the focused creativity that only a school can provide.

Secular Humanistic Judaism needs an intellectual outreach. It needs to recruit and use the enormous number of Jewish men and women in the worlds of aca­demia, writing, and the arts who see them­selves as secular Jews but who are so dis­persed that they have no opportunity for dialogue with peers who share their out­look. They often have no motivation to promote their Jewish convictions because they are unaware of any audience or com­munity structure that would give their efforts any meaning. If it were possible to recruit one-tenth of the available secular Jewish academicians for the task of ex­plaining and enriching the humanistic point of view, they would constitute a for­midable intellectual voice in the Jewish community. Especially in Israel, where the secular commitment has been intense and widespread for many years, the number of potential recruits is significant.

Humanistic Jewish creativity is more than a century old, but most of the results are unavailable to the secular public. They are hidden away in kibbutz archives, cul­ture club files, historical memoirs, and the private collections of talented individuals. No effort has ever really been made to bring them together, to select the best of the secular past so communities can draw upon it for their celebration life. It is amazing how much of the holiday and life cycle creativity of the kibbutz experience is unknown both to urban Israelis and to Diaspora Jews. Only a concerted effort by a research institute can rescue these treasures for posterity.

New literature is an urgent necessity. There are no popular history books of the Jewish people that are unashamedly secu­lar and consistently choose to view the Jewish experience through the eyes of a scientific humanism. There are few popu­lar books on philosophy, ethics, and lifestyle that articulate the secular Jewish point of view and seek to awaken human­istic self-awareness in the reading public, especially young people. There are no readily available celebration manuals for holidays and life cycle ceremonies to offer guidance to humanistically disposed Jews in how to design a satisfying humanistic Jewish ritual. The dearth of pragmatic and inspirational literature is a dramatic deficiency in the effort to create any kind of effective movement. Only a school with ideological commitments can arrange for the creation of this essential literature.

The “monuments” of tradition need attention. In Israel, where the Bible is an intrinsic part of the national conscious­ness and public education, to leave Bible instruction and Bible interpretation to traditional commentators and ambivalent liberals is to forego an opportunity for creating secular self-awareness. No con­tinuous secular humanistic commentary on the Bible now exists either in Hebrew or in English.

Such a commentary is an enormous task. But it is essential for dramatizing the secular alternative in the eyes of the Jew­ish public. It is obvious that such an effort, which requires the mobilization of the best scholars in the world of Jewish studies who share the humanistic outlook, can be undertaken only by an institution of higher learning.

Training leaders and spokespeople, both professional and nonprofessional, is essential to the progress of any organized ideology. The continuing success of the religious sector, whether conservative or liberal, is, to a large degree, due to the presence of organized communities with well-trained full-time leaders. And the persistent failure of the secular Jewish world to put its act together in any effective way is partly due to the lack of such communities and the professional leaders that make them possible. The hos­tility of classic secularists to the influence of the “clergy” — the exaggerated egalitar­ianism that saw the threat of new elites behind any designated leader — often left urban secular Jewish groups in a perpet­ual infancy. Trained leaders are neces­sary, whether they are designated rabbis or madrikhim (guides), whether they serve congregations in North America or urban fellowships in Israel. Only a college with an appropriate faculty can provide that training.

The growing threat of religious fundamentalism is a terrifying devel­opment. In Israel, in particular, the bold attempt of the orthodox to assume political power and to turn the Jewish state into a theocratic dictatorship endangers the survival of the secular Zionism that established the modern nation.

The old secular smugness has dis­appeared. There is real fear now — fear for the democratic future of the state, fear for the ideological future of coming generations. Secular Jews in Israel are aware that they often have failed to transmit their humanistic enthusiasm to their children and their grandchildren, many of whom now have embraced the fundamentalism of their parents’ oppo­nents. Secular Jews are aware that they were too passive about their secular commitments and that they have allowed orthodox militants to penetrate the school system and the army without effective resistance. What the present crisis demands is a trained cadre of humanistic speakers and teachers who would be available to familiarize students and army recruits with Jewish alternatives to orthodoxy and conventional religion. Only a secularist college of Jewish studies can train this cadre.

The institute is the most effective way to create a visible presence for the human­istic Jewish alternative.

While it would be nice to have several humanistic Jewish institutes, each situated in a major Jewish community, such a vision is out of touch with reality. We are presently too few in number to afford more than one. If each regional enclave works separately on this problem, we shall have none. But if we pool our resources and talents internationally and focus on a single school and research center, we shall be successful. The location of the administrative center of that one institute has to be Jerusalem, both because of its Jewish primacy and because the largest number of available faculty are either at the Hebrew University or nearby.

It is clear that there are many compelling reasons for this new institute to be created. As it grows and flourishes, it will serve as a focal point for secular and humanistic Jews all over the world and will rally and unite them in the further­ance of a shared dramatic project.

Structure

There are four key figures in the new institute. The honorary chairman is Haim Cohn, former chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, a fervent civil libertarian, a leading expert in traditional Jewish law, and a confirmed humanist who boldly states that “the kindest thing you can say about God after the Holocaust is that he does not exist.” The chairman is Yehuda Bauer, professor of history at the Hebrew University, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies, director of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, and a major ideologue of the Kibbutz Artzi movement. The dean is Zev Katz, also a professor of history at the Hebrew Univer­sity, an expert in Russian studies, an inter­national “missionary” for secular Jewish self-awareness, and the person whose energies and determination helped to spark the creation of the Israeli associa­tion. The administrator is Youval Tal, native Jerusalemite, public relations maven, and an ardent worker for Jewish educational causes.

Eight departments have been designed, seven for research and one for community outreach and leadership training. The research departments are: Humanism, Traditional Jewish Literature, Modern Jewish Literature, Jewish History, Jewish Holidays and Ceremonies, Law and the State, and Education. The eighth depart­ment is the Midrasha, a center for the sponsoring of adult education and train­ing seminars. The Midrasha will be re­sponsible ultimately for the preparation of professional leaders.

Each of these departments at present has an Israeli faculty, with certain additions from North America and Europe. It is hoped that, in time, the faculty will become truly international, embracing academicians, intellectuals, and artists from all over the world. It is also hoped that the programs of the insti­tute will be international seminars to be held in all the major cities where Jews live.

Two projects have been chosen for immediate pursuit. The first is the Holidays Project, a concerted effort to make available in Hebrew and in English the best of the century-old tradition of secular celebration. The second is the Bible Project, a mobilization of scholars to prepare a humanistic commentary on Bib­lical texts. Both projects, when completed, will have great pragmatic value.

Support

The secular “yeshiva” — despite all the preliminary planning and enthusiasm — will remain only a dream unless it re­ceives the emotional and financial sup­port of the secular humanistic Jewish world. And it deserves our support be­cause it is the most effective way that has yet been devised to create a visible presence for the humanistic Jewish alter­native. This moment in history — when both positive and negative forces have transformed the face of world Jewry, and when forces hostile to humanism are so powerful — is the time to organize this institute. The genuineness of our commit­ment to the future of Humanistic Judaism will be determined by what we do to make this school a reality.

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.

Humanistic Judaism and Tradition

Tradition and Humanistic Judaism – How Do They Mix?  Autumn 1987

For many Jews, Judaism is identified with the literature of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Siddur. This literature is often called “the tradition” and has served as the ideological basis for Orthodoxy for over fifteen hundred years.

Can these books, which are so much identified in the public mind with Jews, also serve as the ideological basis for a humanis­tic Judaism? After all, both Conservative and Reform Jews retained these documents as their official literature. Why not Human­istic Jews?

The prestige of these documents makes them almost irresistible. Even though their vocabulary is theistic, even though their style is authoritarian, even though much of their history is mythology, they are so old and so famous that it would be nice to have them on our side. They could do for us what they do for Reform. They could give us the semblance of “legitimacy.”

This issue is not trivial. If these books “belong” to us, then secular Judaism is simply one of five different interpretations of the traditional texts. If they do not, then Humanistic Judaism is a radical departure from all existing Judaisms.

In trying to determine the place of tradi­tional literature in a humanistic approach to Jewish identity, we need to affirm certain realities.

Jewish identity does not depend on using the tradition. Jewishness is an ethnic iden­tity, not an ideological one. No adherence to any ideas or documents makes a Jew a Jew. A Jew who does not believe in the value and truth of the Torah is equally as Jewish as one who does.

The endorsement of the past is unneces­sary. We do not have to agree with our an­cestors in order to have ideas that are valid and Jewishly significant. If we want to understand the literature of the past, we do not need its endorsement. Some Jews are so anxious to identify with Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah that they do not pay any attention to what these people really said. They give these heroes ideas and sentiments they never had in order to prove that the beliefs of the past are the same as the beliefs of the present. In the hands of the desperate, Moses becomes a civil libertarian and the Torah becomes a plea for democracy.

The people of the past are entitled to their integrity. The author of Genesis 1 believed in a flat earth and a flat heaven. He is mor­ally entitled to have his opinions acknowl­edged. The author of Genesis 2 believed that the first woman was created from the rib of the first man. He has a right to have his idea recognized. The literature of the past is more interesting if we allow the authors of the past to say what they think than if we force them to say what we think. An ethical approach to textual criticism allows people to mean what they say, even if their ideas are embarrassing. Male chauvinism and theocracy may be offensive to us. But they were not offensive to our ancestors. The language of tradition is not obscure. It is refreshingly plain and direct. We have a moral obligation to respect that directness.

God is not removable from traditional lit­erature. The authors of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Siddur had a deep belief in a supernatural father-figure who governs the world with justice. Modern Jews who are uncomfortable with this intense convic­tion have to face up to it when they deal with traditional texts. To the authors of the tradition, the worship of God was supreme­ly important. Failure to worship endan­gered the survival of both the individual and the community. Since group survival was at stake, worship and morality could not be separated. The distinction between ritual and ethics did not exist. Ceremony guar­anteed the life of the community.

Traditional ideas vary from period to pe­riod. The official literature of Orthodoxy includes documents from four periods in Jewish history: the tribal, the royal, the priestly, and the rabbinic. In each period, the prevailing ideas of the ruling elite were distinctly different from those that came before and after. Kings did not agree with priests; and priests did not agree with rabbis. Despite what Orthodox rabbis main­tain, there has been a continuous change of beliefs throughout Jewish history. In the royal period, intermarriage was allowed. In the priestly period, it was forbidden. In the priestly period, the resurrection of the dead was unknown. In the rabbinic period, it was the cardinal principle of the establishment. A static view of the tradition is a distortion.

We must neither revere tradition nor ignore it. We must understand it and use it carefully.

One quotation does not prove anything. We cannot understand the message of the tradition in any given period by pulling at­tractive quotations out of context. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ is set in the context of Leviticus, with its intermi­nable laws of animal sacrifice and priestly privilege. “Proclaim liberty throughout the land” is set in the context of the institution of slavery and its fifty-year durability. “Whatever is hateful to yourself do not do unto others” is found in the middle of ritual minutiae. Simply picking and choosing iso­lated statements that sound ethically attrac­tive, with no acknowledgment of the sur­rounding literary territory, distorts the tradition. Orthodox Jewish life was and is a complex whole, not a set of fashionable quo­tations suspended in mid-air.

There are many motivations for ethical behavior. The major motivation for good behavior in the Bible and the Talmud is the authority of God and the rewards and pun­ishments he administers. But that does not mean that divine favor was the only motiva­tion. After all, most ethical rules arise out of the experience of small groups in their struggle for survival. Many of the moral ideals in traditional literature, which we find ethically acceptable because they con­form to our conscience and our reason, were also reasonable when they were first enunciated. Although the traditional writers did not articulate these reasons, we can.

The people who were denounced are also part of the tradition. It is useful to remember that people condemned by traditional writers were also Jews. They were the Jews who were not lucky enough to receive the approval of the ecclesiastic authorities. Job’s wife challenged the justice of God and was silenced. The “villain” of Psalm 1 ques­tioned the existence of God and was de­clared a fool. The opponents of Jeremiah refused to resign themselves to defeat at the hands of the Chaldeans and were pro­claimed to be sinners. But they obviously had their Jewish followers who thought that they were patriotic Jews, even though they lost out in the struggle for power. The underdogs of tradition are also traditional.

What really happened is as much tradition as what the authorities of the past thought happened. The Zadokite priests and the Talmudic rabbis believed that Moses, inspired by Yahveh, wrote the Torah. We now know that Moses did not write the Torah and that it was written over a period of five hundred years. Is the illusion of the past more tradi­tional than the reality of the past? Or is the actual event also a tradition? Jewish life was molded not only by what people thought happened but also by what really happened. Living without an official Torah was an im­portant part of the ancient Jewish experi­ence and in no way diminished Jewish iden­tity. In fact, it provided for a richness of options that could never be fully sup­pressed, even after a theocratic “constitu­tion” was imposed.

What people did may be different from what people said. Many of the laws in the Torah and the Talmud were purely theoreti­cal. They never really became part of the behavior of the Jewish people. The elaborate plans for the jubilee year at the end of the book of Leviticus, with its freeing of the slaves and the restoration of property to the poor, was never implemented. Attached to some priestly fantasy, it found no respon­sive public in the pragmatic world of Jewish economics. The law said one thing; the people did another. The Jewish tradition is as much the product of the real Jewish ex­perience as of the imaginings of Jewish lawmakers.

The tradition is morally uneven. There is an enormous number of ideas and values in traditional literature, many of them incom­patible one with the other. The ideas of in­herited guilt and collective punishment do not jibe with the commitment to individual responsibility and individual dignity. Devo­tion to the sacrificial cult does not fit well with the pursuit of justice to the poor. Some traditional values are humanistic. Others are anti-humanistic. Some of the tradition is humanistically offensive. Even more of it is neither here nor there. Humanistic Jews neither love nor hate “the tradition” as a whole. They love some of it. They like some of it. They deplore some of it. And the rest they view with historic interest.

It is quite clear that, despite its fame and antiquity, the official literature of traditional Judaism cannot serve as the ideological basis of a humanistic Judaism. Only the most unfair distortions could rescue this lit­erature for that role. Humanistic Judaism is a radical departure from the procedures of Orthodoxy and its liberal alternatives. It does not seek to legitimize its norms and recommend behavior by finding proof texts in the Torah and the Talmud.

What, then, is the function of this literary portion of our tradition in the world of Hu­manistic Jews?

Its main function is historical. It tells us where we came from. It describes the be­liefs and practices of our ancestors, whether we agree with them or not. It gives us clues to the real events of Jewish history. It intro­duces us to the ideas of its opponents, some of which may be humanistically attractive. It is a treasury of quotations that fit very neatly into the ethical conclusions of a modern humanism. It helps us to define our own perspective on the Jewish experience through the challenge of a powerful alter­native.

We must neither revere it nor ignore it. We must understand it and use it carefully.

How the Secular Revolution Divided the Jews

Humanistic Jews and Other Jews – Winter 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rejectionists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ambivalents

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

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

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

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

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

Modern Orthodoxy

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

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

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

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

Conservatism

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

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

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

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

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

Reconstructionism

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

Mordecai Kaplan, who was the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement and its reigning guru, was a graduate and teacher of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the New York school for Conservative Judaism.

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

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

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

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

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

Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Enthusiasts

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

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

Ethical Culture

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

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

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

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

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

The decline of the movement set in after the First World War. The aging and shrink­ing of the German Jewish population re­duced the possibilities of recruitment. Rus­sian Jewish secularists were not sufficiently bourgeois and did not need religious iden­tity for respectability. They turned to social­ism and Yiddish culture, preferring political and ethnic associations to religious ones. Above all, rising anti-Semitism and Hitler’s Holocaust drove many universalists back to Jewish identity.

Yiddish Nationalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zionism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Humanistic History of the High Holidays

High Holidays – Summer 1986

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kings and Priests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rabbis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reform

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

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

Humanistic

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

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

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