National Liberation — The Hanukka Question

A Hanukkah Manual, Autumn 1983

What is the ethical dimension of Hanukka?

For Humanistic Jews the question is not trivial. Touting the supernatural intervention of Yahveh to make holy oil last longer hardly seems a reason for a celebration. And dramatizing the darkness of winter and the rebirth of sunlight is less compelling than it used to be, now that we live in a world of artificial lighting.

In a secular age more and more Jews want to find a moral message —with a contemporary flavor — in the saga of the Maccabees. The old rabbinic evaluation which saw in Hanukka the rightful destruction of the enemies of Yahveh is a bit embarrassing in an age of religious toleration.

Most Jewish leaders in North America now present the Hanukka story as a struggle for religious freedom — a perfectly respectable enterprise in the contemporary world.

The Greeks sought to deprive the Jews of their religious liberty. The Jews fought back and regained their freedom. The events fit into a tale which would warm the heart of any American civil libertarian. But, of course, reality intrudes. Once you move from propaganda to history the claim for religious freedom is hard to maintain.

The Maccabees were devout authoritarians and theocrats. They had no conception of a Jewish state in which a wide variety of Jewish religious opinions would thrive and flourish side by side. They had no vision of the pluralistic state in which the individual conscience would reign supreme.

The Maccabees were the children of the priests and the prophets. They believed with absolute sincerity that they were the agents of the one true God, the defenders of truth against falsehood and the enforcers of the divinely ordained way of life for all Jews. While they might be willing to tolerate the arguments between Pharisees and Sadducees, they were certainly not willing to extend any living space to Jewish pagans, skeptics or Hellenists. As devotees of the Torah, they were committed to a theocratic state run by Yahveh and his designated deputies.

In many respects the Maccabees were no different from Antiochus. Each adversary was committed to the absolute validity of his position and to the necessity of destroying all opposition. The Hellenists fared no better under the Maccabees than the pious did under Antiochus. ‘Toleration’ was not one of the bywords of that struggle. Ultimately, John Maccabee, through his conquest of Samaria and Galilee, sought to impose Jewish identity on the newly conquered. As a Jewish Antiochus he combined imperialism with religious conformity.

Interestingly, the Greek period before Antiochus was a far more liberal time than the era of Maccabean rule. Sadducees, Pharisees and Hellenists lived together in mutual hostility, but without the means to destroy each other. The government of the Greek Ptolemies was certainly committed to the spread of Greek culture. But it was less ambitious and more pragmatic than that of Antiochus.

The Hanukka story, quite obviously, does not realistically yield the ethical message of religious freedom and mutual toleration. At best it yields the moral value of national liberation.

National liberation is distinct from personal liberation and personal freedom. It is a struggle for what many perceive to be dignity — the right of ethnic groups to be governed by members of their own race. What the Maccabees achieved for the Jews was not religious freedom or personal independence. What they conferred upon the Jews was a government of Jews who were not the puppets of outside powers. The high priests in the Persian period were the agents of the Persians. But the Maccabees were their own agents. In so far as they were independent, the nation was independent.

Confusing national liberation and personal freedom is a modern problem. During the past forty years, many Third World nations have experienced the departure of their colonial masters and the establishment of native government. But national liberation has not been accompanied by civil liberties. Military dictatorships, one-party states, theocratic tyrants and self-righteous ideologues have replaced the foreign rulers. They are native born. But they are no kinder.

Gaddafi and Khomeini talk a lot about ‘liberation’. Yet they offer no personal freedom, although they may enjoy popular support. The liberty of minorities is denied, and the tyranny of public opinion and mob intimidation prevails. The people may feel that they have more dignity now that the Italians and the Americans are gone. But they are not free in any meaningful sense.

Jews generally have suffered from regimes of national liberation that deny individual liberties. Oppressed nations that win their independence usually are in no mood to tolerate differences. Poland, the Ukraine, Romania and the Arab countries did not deal kindly with non-conformist minorities. As historic aliens, Jews find it difficult to fit in when nationalism is new and aggressive.

Movements of national liberation are familiar events in human history. They are much older than liberal democracy and strike more powerful emotional chords. In modern times, they frequently use the propaganda of ‘freedom’ to camouflage despicable dictatorships.

It is, therefore, very important to point out what political freedom (which includes religious freedom) really is.

On the simplest level, freedom is the ability to do what you want to do. On a more profound political level, it is associated with certain key words and concepts.

Freedom refers to individuals. Groups cannot be free, since they do not have a single will or a single set of desires. Groups are collections of individuals. The opportunity to be governed by a member of your own group may enhance your dignity, but not necessarily your freedom.

Freedom means personal autonomy. The willingness to assume responsibility for your life and to resist the dictation of others is essential to liberty.

Freedom means diversity. In a social setting where everyone voluntarily thinks and does the same things, liberty is vacuous. Only an environment of diverse groups and diverse beliefs stimulates the individual to be free.

Freedom means creativity. A society where individuals choose only to imitate the past is no better than a mild tyranny. A significant liberty produces challenge to existing ideas and institutions. It thrives on new ideas.

Freedom means liberal democracy.

Perhaps the most insidious assault on freedom lies in the concept of democracy which many radical conservatives now use in their defense of censorship and moral conformity. If democracy means simply majority rule, then the will of the majority has the right to prevail whenever it is expressed. If a majority of the people want school prayer, book censorship and no abortion, their will should be respected. If they want to ban premarital sex, put Christian missionaries into the state schools and determine the style of local dress, their decision ought to be binding.

Majoritarian democracy gives freedom only to the majority. It claims the right to regulate all human behavior through the decision of the majority. If most of the citizens follow a single religion, then all citizens may be compelled to follow it.

The alternative democracy is called liberal democracy. The word liberal is used in the classic sense of commitment to freedom, not in the current sense of leftist views. Most moderate conservatives endorse liberal democracy.

Liberal democracy is the democracy of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who feared the tyranny of public opinion and democratic majorities. If individual freedom is to prevail, the individual must be protected from intrusive majorities. Neither science nor lifestyle creativity are possible in a society where conformity intimidates.

In a liberal democracy, there is a constitution, written or unwritten, which restricts the power of ambitious majorities. They may govern the lives of others in order to provide for community survival and for public law and order. Unpopular ideas and unpopular behavior deserve the protection of the authorities if they do not harm society. Where there is widespread disagreement about the moral value of certain behavior, it is wise for majorities to abstain from imposing their views and to allow each individual to decide his or her own action in accordance with his or her own conscience. In a liberal democracy, majority rule is a procedural regulation, not a sacred law. It is far less important than individual freedom and dignity.

Now it would be naive to expect the Maccabees to have been precursors of Jefferson and Madison or devotees of liberal democracy. The social and cultural development of the Near East in the second century B.C. had hardly produced the conditions which enable people to even think about such political possibilities, A world in which people strongly believe that the goodwill of the gods is indispensable to the survival of society is not a place in which full religious freedom can prevail.

Nevertheless, there were contemporary political models that were “freer” than the Maccabean regime. In many of the imperial cities of the Greek world — especially Alexandria — populations of diverse ethnic groups made it pragmatically necessary to tolerate religious diversity. Even discreet philosophers of atheism, like the disciples of Epicurus, could preach their word in Athens.

Pious peasant cultures are not the stuff out of which toleration and variety are made. Conformity is appropriate to the world of villages. It is a hindrance to urban development. Openness to different people from different places is essential to urban growth.

Religious freedom, as an expression of individual freedom, did not emerge in any meaningful way until the Enlightenment brought a new secular perspective. God had to become less terrifying before government would relegate religion to the marketplace of private choice.

As a vulnerable minority, the Jews of the Enlightenment embraced the concept of religious toleration, even though their traditional wing never took it very seriously. For the orthodox, religious liberty was a pragmatic strategy for Jews living in a

Gentile country. It had no relevance to a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. The modern state of Israel suffers from this old fanaticism.

National liberation is important. But, without personal freedom, it is not very significant for the contemporary Western Jew. A Jewish state governed by a fanatically religious Jewish majority would have very little real liberty, even though the government was Jewish and independent.

Strangely enough, in the modern world, many colonial people had more freedom when they had less dignity. The individual Pakistani spoke much more freely in British India than in Zia’s military dictatorship. And even French Vietnam spawned a wider diversity than what Ho Chi Minh allowed.

Hanukka is about the fight for ethnic dignity, not the fight for personal freedom. We should not confuse the issue. National liberation deserves a celebration. But freedom needs more.

Hanukka: How It Happened

A Hanukkah Manual, Autumn 1983

I. The Jews and The Greeks

When the Hebrew tribes invaded Phoenician Canaan some thirty-five hundred years ago, another invasion took place across the sea. A barbaric people who had called themselves the Hellenes (and whom their Roman enemies and admirers would call the Greeks) poured out of central Europe onto the rocky Aegean lands, establishing numberless city-states. These principalities evolved into urban centers of grace and sophistication.

Condemned to a rocky soil unsuited to farming, and urbanized by necessity, the Hellenes became international traders and adventurers. Long before the armies of Alexander crossed the Hellespont to conquer Asia, Hellenic merchants, sailors, and soldiers were scattered over the middle East, in Egypt, Persia, Sicily, Scythia and Judea.

Of all the peoples the Jews came into contact with, the Greeks were the most formidable. The power of the Hellenes did not lie in their armies, it lay in their culture. The freedom, wealth, and beauty of the Greek urban style were compelling alternatives to the dull, repetitive routines of a Semitic theocracy.

However, the Greek “danger” lay in more than attractive novelty. The urban Hellenes regarded their culture as superior to all other national lifestyles. The English word barbarian, derived from the Greek word foreigner, still carries all the contempt they bore for outsiders. Against such ego strength, the Jewish ego was less effective than against the more modest self-esteem of their Semitic and Aryan neighbors.

The Greek conquest of Judea was part of the general collapse of the Persian Empire. For two hundred years the Jews had accepted the domination of Persian kings and governors — and the control of their Jewish Zadokite collaborators. As a

minor province of the Empire, Judea had endured the predictable and picayune government of a pretentious priestly aristocracy, which earned its right to power by discouraging rebellion. When the Macedonian Alexander united the Greek cities by military force and led the Hellenic armies into Asia, the Jews did not expect his arrival. The fall of mighty Persia was inconceivable to the popular mind. The ignominious flight of the Persian king from the field of Issus was greeted by public disbelief.

By 325 B.C.E., the Persian Empire had become the Greek Empire. Alexander reigned in triumph over all the great nations of the Western world.

Jerusalem and the Jews woke up one morning to discover that their king now spoke Greek instead of Persian. Such a minor change would have meant nothing to the tranquility of their political existence if Alexander had lived. However, he inconsiderately died young and left the spoils of his conquest to no established heir. Three of his generals vied for his power and his property.

Trained to passive dependence by their priestly guides, the Jews watched the struggle of General Ptolemy and General Seleucus for Judea with the involvement of spectators at a football game.

In the end they found themselves the personal possession of General Ptolemy. This enterprising general had seized Egypt and had made new Alexandria the capital of his kingdom. Needing Judea to protect his Asiatic flank he persisted in holding her against the military power of his rival Seleucus.

For the first time in their history, the Jews were attached to Egypt. Of course, the Egypt of the Ptolemies was no Egyptian Egypt. It was a Greek Egypt. Alexandria was a sophisticated island of the Greek lifestyle in a sea of Egyptian peasants.

In this situation the incorporation of Judea into Egypt did not make the Jews more Egyptian. It simply made them more Greek, more occidental.

Greek Judea underwent the trauma of urbanization. Jerusalem was transformed from a palace storehouse for priestly treasures (as well as a walled Temple shrine) into an emporium for the goods of many nations. Stimulated by the government initiative, many Jews invested the meager surplus of their near marginal farming in trade speculation. Although the priestly authors of the

Torah had viewed the merchant profession with disdain and had condemned moneylending, the lure of profit outweighed religious considerations. Even the cautious Zadokites were too greedy to avoid dabbling.

Greek Judea promoted the rise of a new social class and a new political power. A Jewish bourgeoisie emerged in Jerusalem. The nouveaux riches Jewish merchants of this ancient city resented the snobbish standoffishness of the old priestly and landowning aristocracy. They demanded social recognition and access to positions of prestige.

Judea of the Ptolemies underwent, as a result of this new social development, what can best be described as partial secularization. Since the Zadokite priests and rulers had found their strength in a stable agricultural society, they viewed

with dismay the face of the new Jerusalem. Their Torah was ill-suited to the needs of a merchant city, and their vested interest made them fear the competition of the ambitious bourgeoisie. Although they enjoyed the monetary results of trade speculation, they feared the political and social implications. Ultimately, the Greek governor forced them to yield some of their control. Theocracy yielded to plutocracy (the rule of the rich). A boule or council, with the high priest as its president, was established to govern Jerusalem and Judea. The council featured not only Zadokites and landowners, but the leaders of the new merchant

aristocracy. The priest-dominated Judea of the Persian period was now finding room for secular machers.

Ptolemaic Judea, in particular Jerusalem, experienced a massive cultural change. Neither Zadokite nor Persian lifestyles seemed appropriate to the new urban setting of a trade emporium. The desire to become as Greek as possible pervaded the middle and upper classes. Hellenization was the inevitable result of economic change.

Secular schools were opened where the children of the bourgeoisie could study the skills they would require for both business and leisure. These schools provided a secular alternative to the Zadokite school in the Temple. The Greek admiration for the human body inspired more public exposure. Athletic games became a frequent spectacle and shocked the country peasants who

found public nudity blasphemous.

The consequence of urbanization was the emergence of Jewish intellectuals who sought to deal with their tradition and their religion in a rational way. Their overwhelming desire was to find respectable reasons for the performance of old rituals and scientific justification for the telling of old myths. In their eyes the Zadokite priests were boorish and illiterate clergymen incapable of rescuing the Torah for “modern” times.

The ambivalence of the Zadokites was the main source of their weakness. After two hundred years of strong and effective rule, they collapsed under the strains of Hellenization. Too snobbish to unite with the believing masses against the skeptical bourgeoisie, and too attracted to the material benefits of urbanization to strongly resist the encroachment of the merchants, they surrendered their power in the most humiliating fashion — with no resistance.

II. The Maccabees

Every society is dominated by those who succeed in achieving power. They are the ruling elite.

Jewish history, like the history of all nations, is the story of one power elite replacing another. Each ruling group creates laws and institutions to maintain its control. It also invents stories and ideologies to justify its domination. The royal house of David commissioned the Book of Kings and proclaimed the divine right of its family monarchy. The Zadokite priests authored the Torah and announced the divine right of their priestly dictatorship.

In the Greek period, there emerged a new competitor for power in the Jewish state. It was a family of destitute Levites from a backwater village called Modeen. Like most non-Zadokite Levites they were unemployed as priests. For generations, they had been reconciled to powerlessness and insignificance. In the year 180 B.C. they were nonentities. In the year 140 B.C. they were the masters of Judea.

The name of this family varies. They were officially called the Hasmoneans because they were descended from an obscure ancestor Hasmonai. They were popularly called the Maccabees because their most famous leader bore this surname. Consumed by ambition, they destroyed Zadokite power, drove the Greeks from Judea, established an independent Jewish state, conquered neighboring lands, and became absolute masters. of all they surveyed. In the process of achieving the ultimate power, they made many enemies. These enemies hated the Maccabees with such intensity that their anger still burned two centuries after the Hasmoneans disappeared.

What was the secret of their success? How was it possible for an obscure peasant family to reach the heights of political power within forty years?

The Maccabees succeeded because of their personal charisma. There were five Hasmonean brothers, the sons of a man called Mattathias. Three of them were men of strong ambition, courage and charm. Judah shone as a military leader, Jonathan as a political manipulator and Simon as a ruthless administrator. Without the chemistry of their personalities, power would have eluded them.

The Maccabees succeeded because the Zadokites ‘committed suicide’. Torn between their upper-class desire to be chic and Greek and their vested interest in being pious and traditional, these Jerusalem priests opted for the first alternative. Their decision was fatal. Becoming Hellenized made them more fashionable. It also made them less convincing as promoters of the Torah. Since it was the Torah that justified their power, to undermine the authority of the Torah by repudiating its lifestyle was to undermine their own authority.

The Maccabees succeeded because a new class of ‘successful people’ had emerged who found priestly rule insufferable. The wealthy merchants who made their fortunes during the budding affluence of the Greek period found the concentration of political power in priestly hands humiliating. The Zadokites were landholders and were unsympathetic to the needs of the merchant class. They resisted organizing Jerusalem as a Greek city with a municipal council of its own. They wanted to keep the upstart merchants in their own place and to prevent them from securing any position of authority. Like most feudal aristocracies, the Zadokites believed that pedigree was more important than money. The merchants disagreed with them and sought to replace them with more pliable rulers.

The Maccabees succeeded because the Zadokite rulers had alienated the peasants. The Greek habits of the upper classes made them appear as foreigners unworthy of respect and obedience. In response to this change, a lower-class rebellion emerged. The nature of this rebellion was pietistic. It was reflected in a fanatic attachment to the lifestyle of the Torah. This attachment was ironic. The Torah was originally a document of the Zadokites, by the Zadokites and for the Zadokites which they had created to impose their control upon the Jewish masses. Now the very masses who had initially resisted the demands of the Torah became its most ardent defenders, while the authors of the book betrayed their own self-interest.

The Maccabees succeeded because one set of Greek rulers were replaced by another set of Greek rulers. Judea belonged for 125 years to the Greek king of Egypt who lived in Alexandria. When his rival, the Greek king of Syria, invaded his territory and defeated him in battle, Judea passed from Egyptian control to Syrian control. The change of government was profoundly disturbing to many Jews. They had strong connections with Alexandria, to which thousands of Jews had emigrated because of overpopulation in Judea. The Syrian Greeks had severed a natural bond.

The Maccabees succeeded because of the poverty of the Greek king of Syria. Anxious to prosecute his war against Egypt, Antiochus required immense sums of money. Informed by Jews eager to curry his favor that the Jerusalem temple was very rich and that the religious tribute of several centuries lay stored up in its treasury, Antiochus decided to plunder it. This act of sacrilege enhanced his war budget but alienated him from the Jewish people. It was a shortsighted action which, in the long run, cost him more than he received. Even the Greek sympathizers among the Jews found his behavior offensive and became either apathetic or hostile.

The Maccabees succeeded because the Syrian Greeks were aggressive Hellenizers. The Egyptian Greeks were the masters of a compact territory which was easily controlled. Antiochus, on the other hand, was the ruler of a vast kingdom, most of whose people were not Greek. The Syrian empire was a conglomeration of Syrians, Chaldeans, Armenians, Persians, Arabs and Jews. Hellenic rule could only be maintained if Greek urban colonies could be established in every province as islands of safety, surveillance and loyalty. Antiochus chose the Jewish city of Jerusalem, among many other imperial urban centers, to be a Greek base of operation. The routine sign of the Hellenization of a city was the identification of the traditional city god with a Greek god. Assisted by a garrison of Greek mercenaries and a small band of Jewish sympathizers, the king declared Jerusalem to be fully Greek and Yahveh to be none other than Zeus Olympius. For fanatic pietists and religious patriots, Yahveh was a Jewish name and Zeus was a Greek name. Moreover, even if Zeus were the most exalted, noble and ethereal of all gods, a god who liked pork and uncircumcised males could not be a Jewish god. The argument was not theological; it was ethnic. For Jews who had been reared on large doses of Zadokite paranoia, the loss of Jerusalem was a national humiliation. The Jews were no more universal than the Greeks.

The Maccabees succeeded because Antiochus was diverted. When a small group of peasant fanatics, under Hasmonean leadership, rose up in rebellion against the Syrian Greeks and sought to seize Jerusalem, the king was unable to suppress them. Under normal circumstances, the overwhelming might of the royal armies would have successfully crushed the Jewish guerrillas. But Antiochus had no time for the Jews. A powerful enemy, the Parthians, emerged on his vulnerable eastern frontier. All the resources of the royal government had to be directed to the battle against the Parthians. The Jewish guerrillas were spared destruction. They had only a few military leftovers to contend with. Since the Parthian invasion persisted until half the empire was lost, the Jewish rebels benefited from allies they had never met.

The Maccabees succeeded because they found a strong ‘friend.’ At the time of the Hasmonean rebellion, a new power was arising in the West. The Romans swept eastward, conquering the Balkans and dominating Greece. In the East, they confronted two rivals — the Greeks of Egypt and the Greeks of Syria. The Romans cleverly decided to play one against the other. They offered themselves as the Protectors of Egypt against Syria. When the Maccabees began their rebellion, they turned to Rome for help. The threat of Roman retaliation was an effective deterrent to Syrian action.

The Maccabees succeeded because the Syrian throne itself was in perpetual turmoil. While the Syrian kingdom was threatened by Parthian invaders in the east, Jewish guerrillas in the south and Roman hostility in the west, every Syrian king had to defend himself against armed rivals. Antiochus Epiphanes, the man who had plundered the Jerusalem Temple, had himself seized the kingdom from his younger nephew. His children, in turn, were challenged by their cousins. The Jews benefited from this dynastic infighting. The Maccabees offered their assistance and support — now to one side, then to another. Skillful Jonathan Maccabee changed sides several times, taking full advantage of Syrian disunity.

The Maccabean success was no miracle. It was the result of Jewish talent and Syrian bad luck.

The Real Story of Passover

A Passover Manual

Passover and the Exodus go together.

Tradition tells us that Pesakh is the commemoration of the departure of two million Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage. Led by Moses, an adopted prince of the Egyptian royal household, the Hebrews left Egypt with the help of Yahveh, their ancestral god, and began their 40-year trek back to their ancestral home in Canaan. On the way they stopped at a mountain called Sinai where Yahveh gave them the laws of the Torah, including the regulations for Passover. In these regulations Pesakh becomes

the annual official reminder of what Yahveh did for the Jews when he rescued them from Egyptian slavery.

The embellished story of the Exodus really has eight parts.

1. The patriarch Jacob, the ancestor of the Jews, comes down to Egypt with his family to avoid the famine in Canaan.

2. For a period of time the Hebrews prosper and one of Jacob’s sons becomes the prime minister to Pharaoh, king of Egypt.

3. A new king comes to power, turns against the Jews and enslaves them. The slavery lasts for 400 years.

4. Moses, who is a Hebrew and also a prince of Egypt, is commissioned by Yahveh to rescue his people. Assisted by supernatural intervention, Moses intimidates Pharaoh into releasing the Jews from bondage.

5. At the full moon of the. Month of Nissan, the Hebrews, two million strong, leave Egypt for Canaan by

way of the Red Sea and the Sinai Desert.

6. Within 50 days, they arrive at Sinai, the mountain of Yahveh, where they receive the laws of the Torah.

7. After one year, the Jews depart Sinai and wander for 40 years in the wilderness before arriving on the east bank of the river Jordan across from Canaan.

8. Moses dies and is succeeded by Joshua. Joshua leads the Hebrews across the Jordan, invades Canaan and conquers it.

For most of Jewish history this saga was assumed to be absolutely true. Confirmed by faith and tradition, it remained unchallenged. The miraculous rescue of the Jews from their Egyptian oppressors became part of Jewish piety and Jewish patriotism.

But, in modern times, the story became less credible. Historical research, the scientific critique of the Bible, archeology, anthropology and the declining belief in the supernatural — all of these together offered a serious challenge to the tale

of the Haggadah.

Many problems emerged:

• There is no corroborating testimony from any historical document or inscription contemporary to this momentous event. Certainly, the extraordinary nature of this Exodus would have aroused the notice of neighboring nations.

• Even if we discount supernatural intervention, the possibility of two million densely packed nomads surviving in the wilderness for 40 years defies imagination.

• The idea that all the Hebrew slaves were descended from a single man called Jacob (Israel) seems as probable as the assertion that all Americans are descended from Uncle Sam.

• Passover has two names in the Torah, each name referring to a distinct holiday. Pesakh seems to be a shepherd holiday, with the sacrifice of lambs. Matsot seems to be a farmers’ holiday, with the eating of unleavened bread. It appears that one

holiday was made out of two.

• The exodus of the Jews from Egypt most likely occurred during the reign of Raamses II around 1200 B.C. but the Hebrew invasion of Canaan (dated from the fall of Jericho) occurred 300 years earlier. Joshua seems to have preceded

Moses.

In the face of these problems, scientifically-minded experts have revised the traditional story to make it conform to the facts as we now see them. Each of the eight parts of the saga has been radically changed.

Patriarchs

Neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob were real people. Each of them is a personification, a symbol of a group of Semitic tribes who lived in the Palestine area and who became the ancestors of the Jewish people. The Abraham group is associated

with Hebron, the Isaac group with Beersheba, the Jacob group with Bethel. Each of these groups went down into Egypt as conquerors, as part of a continuous Semitic invasion of that country (2000 – 1700 B.C.). The Egyptians called the invaders

the Hyksos and viewed them with fear and detestation. For several centuries the rulers of Egypt were Semites (witness the Joseph story).

The Semitic invaders belonged to the Western or Amorite branch of the Semitic people. The Amorite language

became the source of both Canaanite and Hebrew.

Egypt

The Semitic shepherd rulers of Egypt were a small minority in a sea of conquered Egyptians. Most of

them remained in northern Egypt while Egyptian patriots fled south to organize rebellion. The Semitic life style was very different from that of the Egyptians. Hairy, meat-eating and wool-wearing, the Semites rubbed against the sensibilities of the

conquered nation. A Semitic Pharaoh seemed an affront to the traditionalists among the masses.

Enslavement

Around 1500 B.C. Egyptian rebels from the south invaded the north and decisively defeated their Semitic overlords. The military leaders of this rebellion established the famous Eighteenth Dynasty, under whose guidance Egypt reached the height of

its power and glory. Four Amenhoteps and a female Pharaoh called Hatshepsut added luster to the dynastic saga. During this time most of the Semites were driven from Egypt. Some were enslaved. Many of the expelled Semites returned to Palestine and the east bank of the river Jordan, where they were reunited with their brother tribes who had never gone down to Egypt. Their

Canaanite neighbors called them Hebrews (people who live across the river).

In time the new overcrowding of the east bank, combined with drought and famine, forced the Hebrews to take drastic action. Combining the tribes into a single nation for military purposes, they prepared to invade the more fertile west bank of

the Jordan. Having called this new federation Israel (champions of the god El) they crossed the river under the leadership of Joshua, the chosen commander-in-chief of the operation. The conquest of the west bank was slow and often ineffective.

Hebrews and Canaanites lived side by side.

The Amorites (Hebrews) who remained in Egypt as slaves remained in the northern areas, where they worked on the construction of border fortifications. One of their tribes, the tribe of Levi, worshipped a snake god called Nahash and became famous for their supernatural powers.

Exodus

The Nineteenth Dynasty (which obviously followed the Eighteenth) continued the enslavement of the Amorites. Its most famous king, Raamses II, used them to construct fortified cities in northern Egypt as protection from eastern invaders.

At the end of his reign a slave revolt (of which there were many) enabled many of these Amorites to flee into the nearby Sinai wilderness beyond the frontier. The leader of this rebellion was Moses, a member of the tribe of Levi, who, like many of the Semitic slaves, bore an Egyptianized name. (Given the abhorrence of the Egyptians for the Semites it is highly unlikely that he was raised as an Egyptian prince. Nor was he, as Freud speculated, an Egyptian monotheist. He was most likely a Levitical priest — a devotee of the tribal snake god, whose symbol he carried around with him.)

The number of future Hebrews who departed Egypt at this time could not have exceeded ten thousand. The very nature of the Sinai wilderness would preclude the horde of slaves the Torah describes. In an almost waterless desert, survival for such a mass of people would have been impossible.

The escape from Egypt of a few thousand Semitic slaves required no miraculous intervention. It was a common occurrence.

Flight

The story of the crossing of the Red Sea is equally mythical. Only a priestly scribe interested in propagandizing the power of the Jewish god Yahveh, would have imagined such a tale. Given all the alternative routes available to the fleeing slaves,

heading for the Red Sea would have been an act of insanity.

Sinai

The Semitic refugees headed for a volcanic mountain in the territory of the Kenites, among whom Moses had once stayed and with whom he had contracted a marriage alliance. In the Torah, the mountain bears two names: Horeb and Sinai. At this mountain a federation of tribes was established under the leadership of Moses. The new nation was called Judah, after its largest tribe. Yahveh, the god of the mountain, was chosen to be the protector god of the new confederation.

Given the illiteracy of the Jews, it is highly unlikely that written laws were given to them at Sinai. Most of the legislation of the Torah, including the Ten Commandments, comes from later centuries.

Wilderness

For many decades the Jews lingered on the edges of the southern borders of Canaan. Population pressures from other Semitic groups coming from the south — Amalekites, Midranites and Edomites — made a comfortable stay around the oasis of Kadeshbarnea impossible. They had to move. And the only direction in which they could move was north into Canaan.

Invasion

Under the leadership of the Levites, the tribe of Moses, the Jews invaded southern Canaan around 1150 B.C. (some 350 years after the northern Hebrew invasion under Joshua). They conquered Hebron and Beersheba, the old shrine centers of the Abraham and Isaac groups, and gave their name (Judah) to the land which they had taken.

For many years Israelis and Jews remained distinct peoples — with different dialects of the same Amorite language — until they were united into one kingdom under the leadership of Saul a century later.

The Egyptian memories of both peoples were also distinct. The Israelis remembered conquest of Egypt. The Jews remembered slavery in Egypt.

In the long run, the Jews alone survived as an independent self-aware nation. Around the year 620

B.C. one of their kings named Josiah, having completed the conquest of northern Israel, commissioned a

“constitution” for his new “empire.” This document was the original Torah.

Seeking to unite Jews and Israelis with a common epic, Josiah’s priests attached the Exodus story to the great spring farmers’ festival of Matsot, a seven-day celebration of the harvest characterized by the eating of unleavened bread made from unfermented new grain. Seeking to affirm the patriotic roots of the Hebrew people in the nostalgia of shepherd simplicity, the priests also attached the spring fertility festival of Pesakh to Matsot. Pesakh was a shepherd holiday which celebrated the fertility of the flocks and the arrival of new lambs and kids. It featured the killing and eating of young lambs and the marking of tentposts with blood to ward off the dangerous intrusion of evil spirits.

In time the Exodus, Pesakh , and Matsot were molded into a unity. Stories evolved to explain the connection and to provide a rationale for the combined celebration. The real saga found no comfortable place in this political development.

When we, as Humanistic Jews, celebrate Passover, the traditional myths that developed over the centuries provide us with ideological problems. The real story enables the festival to become an understandable part of our life. The traditional story may be more dramatic, with its miracles and divine pizzazz. But the real adventure, being a human struggle, offers greater dignity.

Evolution is Our Story

Evolution: summer 2000

Charles Darwin is not a traditional Jew­ish hero. But he is one of the great sages of Humanistic Judaism. The principles of bio­logical evolution and natural selection lie at the heart of our belief system.

Twenty-five hundred years ago some anonymous priests edited two stories about the invention of life. These stories constitute the first two chapters of the Torah. In the first story God manufactures life in three days – plants first, then animals, and then people. In the second chapter he starts with man. Adam is bored. So God creates plants and animals to amuse him. Adam is still bored. So God conjures up a woman from Adam’s rib. Adam is impressed.

These two stories provide the informa­tional and ideological foundation for tradi­tional Jewish biology. All life is simulta­neously created. All life forms have remained the same since their creation. The age of both the universe and life is somewhere around six thousand years.

In most Jewish schools today these stories are still being taught. For liberal Jews they present an enormous problem. They are in obvious contradiction to what modern sci­ence teaches. They do not bear the faintest connection with the realities of natural evo­lution. Only a tortured poetic interpretation can rescue them. They are simply embarrass­ingly inappropriate. But, since even liberal Jews, whether Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist, are stuck with the Torah, they feel compelled to present the stories.

The net result is that liberal Judaism has no strong message on cosmology or biology. No one really believes the traditional stories. But no one is prepared to draft a compelling alternative. One of the cornerstones of an ef­fective philosophy of life, a credible view of where we came from, is neglected. The fun­damental questions of the nature of life are relegated to the public school. The synagogue prefers mythology.

This deplorable situation is aggravated by the rise of fundamentalism in Jewish and Christian life. One of the “banners” of this new fanaticism is the defense of the Genesis sto­ries as basically true. Creationism has now reared its absurd head to challenge the prin­ciple of evolution. Creationists demote evo­lution to a mere “theory” despite the over­whelming evidence to support it. And they present their mythology as a theory of equal validity. While Orthodox Jews applaud this development, liberal Jews condemn it. But there is nothing in their prayer books or in their school programs that would give any substance to their resistance. Their approach is negative: “Do not take the stories literally.” “Do not put religion into the public schools.” But there is no positive and enthusiastic de­fense of evolution. In the end, the temples read the creation story on the Sabbath and teach the creation story in their Sunday schools. The Darwinian story they claim to believe in is never dramatically told.

Humanistic Jews are liberated from the “yoke” of liberal Jewish religion. They do not place the Torah and its stories at the center of their Judaism. They do not need to pay hom­age to ancient myths and to demonstrate their worth even when that worth is questionable. They are free to create an alternative story that is responsible to evidence and is flexible enough to face constant revision. If they want to, they can write it down in Hebrew and place its words on a parchment scroll, even though the truth of the story is not a function of an­tiquity. Nor are they afraid to admit that knowledge and wisdom can come from people other than Jews.

If Humanistic Judaism is to function as a complete philosophy of life, then it must pro­vide a dramatic answer to the questions about the origin and nature of life. It must articu­late that answer clearly and forcefully so that both children and adults can incorporate it into the foundations of their Judaism. The story of evolution must be a dramatic part of public celebrations, school programs, and textbooks. It must have a prominent place in the presentation of the basic ideas of the move­ment. There is no need to find a way to con­nect it to Genesis; all attempts to make that connection distort the meaning of the origi­nal myths and only sow confusion.

As a foundational story of Humanistic Judaism, evolution is a powerful saga. The drama of life continually transforming itself in a tough setting of competition and struggle is compelling. The development of life is no serene emergence, with divine decrees con­juring up living forms effortlessly and instan­taneously. It is a dangerous ascent, and only a small fraction of the organisms that attempt the climb make it to the top. The hurdle of natural selection is tough to surmount. The fit between organisms and their environment is not an easy one.

Just as the history of the Jews needs to be rescued from the absurd doctrine of the Cho­sen People, so must the story of life be saved from the destructive embrace of creationism. We need to be continually reminded of the realities of life so that we can cope with it. The message of evolution is not only infor­mational, providing the order in which liv­ing things emerged. It also is philosophic, describing a setting for life that rational people can accept and adjust to.

What is the philosophic message of evolution?

  1.  The forces of nature that control our uni­verse and the development of life are natural and impersonal. They have no conscious pur­pose and no moral agenda. They operate re­lentlessly, ultimately sweeping most organ­isms into the garbage can of history. Natural selection may appear to be a cruel judge. It cannot be negotiated with. And it cannot change its mind.
  2.  All life is connected. We are not special creations of God, earthly angels with souls who have no fundamental relationship to the rest of nature. We are made of the same stuff as all other living things. We share the same origins. We share many of the same needs and desires. All the parts of our body and our mind have their roots in the bodies and minds of fish and reptiles and other mammals. Fear, anger, love, and sadness are not uniquely human. They have their counterparts in our animal cousins. We did not begin as fallen gods. We began as walking apes. Feeling our basic connection to all of nature restores balance to our lives and makes us see who we really are. It also makes us more compassionate with the suffering of living beings that are not human.
  3.  There is no fundamental harmony in na­ture. The living world is filled with many competing agendas. What is survival for the hunter is death for the hunted. What is vic­tory for the invader is destruction for the in­vaded. Humans and the microbes that afflict their bodies are not in harmony. They are at war with each other. In this world of strug­gling organisms we have both friends and enemies. There is no way to make every or­ganism our friend. When we can be generous, we ought to be. When the enemy is fierce, we need human allies in the battle.
  4.  Love and ethics emerged in our struggle for survival. Some animals are loners. Oth­ers, like us, need community. Each of us is too vulnerable alone. Our evolution has turned us into social beings dependent on the kindness and help of other people. Morality did not fall from heaven. It evolved over mil­lions of years as the price we have to pay for group existence. Over time, natural selection reinforced the tendency within us to work with others and to care for them. All cultures bear the imprint of this conscience.
  5. Victory is never final. Our survival lasts only so long as we fit our environment. If we destroy the foundation of the environment in which we evolved, we also shall be destroyed. Protecting and improving the natural setting in which we live is as important as any new power we acquire. Power is useless if it blows up the foundation of our existence.

Evolution is our story. It has an impor­tant message. It needs to be proclaimed in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. It needs to be celebrated through holidays and tributes. It needs to be taught clearly and boldly to our adults and our children in the schools we cre­ate. As Humanistic Jews we have a powerful answer to the question, what is life? And our answer is not mythology. It is confirmed ev­ery day by the testimony of our experience.

Gibson’s Bad News for the Jews: The Passion of the Christ a film by Mel Gibson, Review

Colloquium 2003: Spring 2004

The most famous Jew who ever lived is a problem for Jews. His name was Jesus, and he became the central figure of the world’s most successful religion. Today more than two billion people — one-third of the human race — proclaim themselves to be Christians.

The Christian Church persecuted Jews for more than fifteen centuries. Christian leaders accused Jews of being Christ-killers. They slaughtered them in pogroms. In the Jewish mind, Jesus and antisemitism go together. We cannot even talk about him in our services and Sunday Schools. He belongs to the “en­emy.” For a Jew to become a Christian is an act of treason.

The only ancient stories we have about Jesus are Christian stories. There are no reports from contemporary Greek or Roman histories. The official Christian story of his life and death dates from the fourth century C.E., when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This official story is contained in four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and in two creeds, Athanasian and Nicene. In this narrative there are five major events: Jesus’ virgin birth during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, his four-year preaching career, his passion and crucifixion at the age of thirty-three, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension to heaven after forty days on earth. This official story was re­inforced by punishment for those who devi­ated from it.

Throughout the ensuing centuries, the Western Church (the Roman Catholic Church), in particular, focused on the details of the Crucifixion and demonized Jews as Christ- killers. In the Middle Ages, passion plays were created, which retold the New Testament story with gory embellishments and depicted the Jew as the agent of the Devil.

The antisemitism of the Catholic Church was alleviated in the past three centuries by the arrival of the secular revolutions that transformed modern society: capitalism, sci­ence, and democracy. The Church was de­prived of its temporal power. Modern schol­ars wrote new versions of the Jesus epic, in which the role of the Jews was downplayed and the message of love became the central theme. When antisemitism reasserted itself in the twentieth century, the guilt engendered by the Holocaust produced the apologies of the Church after Vatican Council II.

When the cinema arrived on the scene, with all its power to influence public opin­ion, film versions of the story of Jesus, from De Mille’s King of Kings to George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told, were relatively benign. In later years, Jewish Hollywood reversed the roles. The “crucifixion” of the Jews, as embodied in the Holocaust, now became a continual theme. Jews were the victims; Chris­tians were the cruel murderers.

Mel Gibson’s new movie about Jesus de­fies all this “positive” development. It is an old-time Catholic passion play on film, with its gory sadism and its powerful antisemitism. It is as though Gibson wanted to cancel out the “Holocaust syndrome” and to restore the time when Christians felt perfectly free to portray Jews as villains, without guilt. After all, Gibson and his father belong to a seces­sionist group of Catholics who disapprove of the liberal reforms of Vatican II and wish to restore Catholicism to its former orthodoxy. Some of these secessionists, including Gibson’s father, deny the Holocaust.

The film is a powerful cinema experience. Jews cannot appreciate it because they are turned off by its obvious antisemitism. Liberals cannot appreciate it because they cannot identify with the virtue of suffering. All they can talk about is the excessive and intolerable gore. Liberal Christians cannot appreciate it because they have “converted” to the Jesus of the Enlightenment, whose main achievement is not the atonement for sin or the conquest of death but the message of love.

But for conservative Christians this film is a triumph. It recaptures the central message of traditional Christianity: Jesus Christ suffered and died for our sins. His chief enemy is the Devil, who seduces humanity to defy God. Two powerful emotions are aroused by this movie. The first is guilt — the guilt the believer feels for his own sins and for the suffering of Jesus, who takes on himself the punishment that the believer deserves. The second is rage — rage against the cruelty of the Devil and against the sinners who embraced his cause. All their noses are crooked and Semitic. Only one Jew­ish nose in the film is straight.

The film is bad news for the Jews. Although inspired by Catholic fervor, it will become a cult film with the Protestant Religious Right, the lovers of Sharon’s Israel. (Will wonders never cease!) It will be embraced by enthusi­asts in Europe and by the anti-Jewish public of the Muslim world (even though official Islam does not accept the crucifixion of Jesus).

The good news is that Western Europe is so secularized that Disney is doing better than Gibson. And, in North America, skepticism and nonconformity are so widespread that The Da Vinci Code remains a bestseller — a book with the thesis that Jesus may never have been crucified, but instead got married and had a child. An America that is willing to entertain such an idea is very far from the mindset of The Passion of the Christ.

The Torah: Its Place in Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

For most Jews, the Torah is more than a book, more than a scroll. It is the sacred symbol of the Jewish religion. They can no more imagine a Judaism without the Torah than they can imagine a Judaism without God.

While most Jews do not study the Torah, they believe that they ought to. Even if they do not understand it, they believe that it contains eternal wisdom. And even if they are not interested in eter­nal wisdom, they believe that everything valuable in Jewish identity can be traced back to the Torah.

No form of liberal Judaism has dared to dispense with it. Reform Jews praise it and provide the biggest arks for it. Recon­structionist Jews declare it to be one of the three fundamentals of their faith. Ambiva­lent Jews arrange to do Bar Mitzvahs with it. Even many secular Jews regard it as the source of their history.

The Torah is a problem for Humanistic Jews.

The Torah is a theological document. Yahveh (Elohim) is the central figure of the book. He — and not people — determines the course of human history. Without his consent, nothing happens. And without his intervention, salvation is impossible. Even Pharaoh does not “harden his heart” without Yahveh arranging for it. Jewish suffering in Egypt is no more than part of his plan to advertise his power through a dramatic rescue.

The Torah is an authoritarian docu­ment. Laws derive their ethical clout from God’s command. If Yahveh permits, the behavior is right. If Yahveh forbids, the behavior is wrong. Supernatural rewards and punishments do not give authority to the laws. They simply motivate people to do what is obviously the right thing to do. “I am Yahveh, your God,” the endless refrain of the Torah, is a dramatic version of parental intimidation. “I am your father — and I deserve your obedience.” With that kind of moral approach, reason and dignity go out the window.

The Torah is a confusing document. Scientific criticism has revealed that it is a composite of at least four separate docu­ments. Many of its stories contradict each other (Genesis 1 and 2). Many of its laws are mutually incompatible (individual and collective guilt). Many of the events it describes either never happened or never happened in the way they are described. And most of the stories were written cen­turies after the so-called events occurred.

The Torah is a reactionary document. It promotes a lifestyle that is morally offen­sive to most contemporary Jews: a world of family tyranny, female inequality, tribal exclusiveness, theocratic government, and sacrificial ritual.

The Torah is a chauvinistic document. It views the Jewish people as a “chosen” people. The descendants of Abraham are selected out for special protection and special privilege — not because of their own intrinsic merits — but because they are the children of Yahveh’s favorite. Very little attention is devoted to the role of non-Jews and to what Yahveh expects of them and will do for them. The world God behaves like a tribal God.

We should use the Torah as an important historical document, a resource book for the study of the ancient history of the Jewish people.

The Torah is a “sacred” document. It has become a book to be worshiped and defended — not a book to be enjoyed and studied critically. It is an “idol,” set aside for public reverence and held up to public adoration. The contents of the book becomes less important than the ceremon­ial marching and kissing and raising and praising. Sacred scriptures are dangerous, because so long as they are regarded as sacred, they cannot be treated as litera­ture, as the creation of fallible human beings. Because the Torah is an “idol,” many Jews feel a compulsive need to rescue it for contemporary use. The result is a fixation with a short period in Jewish history that may be insignificant to the formation of the modern Jewish personality.

Given these difficulties, what is the place of Torah in the educational and ceremonial life of the Humanistic Jew?

Our answer must be consistent with the basic affirmations of a humanistic ap­proach to Judaism — the irrelevance of God, a rational ethic that derives its authority from human need, a lifestyle consonant with reason and personal dignity, a naturalistic view of Jewish history, the refusal of all idols. It is not our job to fit these beliefs into the Torah. It is our job to fit the Torah into these commitments.

First, let us describe how not to deal with the Torah.

We do not need to rescue the Torah. We do not need to make the Torah do for us more than it can. The Torah is the supreme document of priestly Judaism. It is a skillful expression of a theocratic view of the world and society. No matter what interpretive genius we bring to the text, the Torah cannot be turned into a humanistic constitution — or even a shab­by version of one. A document, two-thirds of whose contents are humanistically em­barrassing, cannot — without dishonesty — be made to serve as the foundation code of a secular approach to Jewish identity.

We must not mock the Torah. It deserves its own dignity. It belongs to the traditional Jews who live by its prescrip­tions. Texts mean what their authors in­tended them to mean. They do not mean what desperate liberals want to make them mean. The writer of Genesis 1 believed in a flat earth and a flat heaven. He did not believe in galaxies and evolu­tion. If he had endorsed those convictions, he would have said so. The writer of Ex­odus 19 believed in supernatural intrusion and divine voice. He did not believe in Moses engaging in philosophic introspec­tion on top of a mountain. The author of Leviticus 19 believed in divine dictator­ship and priestly government. He did not embrace personal freedom and democracy. The rabbis chose to distort some of the priestly intent. The Reformers chose to distort most of it. And certain humanists would have to use every ounce of their guile to turn the texts of the Torah into a plea for an agnostic egalitarian morality.

We must not avoid the Torah. It is so easy to use the Torah as a symbol without ever paying attention to its content. Liberal rabbis love to point out that the Torah is only a sign of God’s continuous revelation, that divine wisdom is present in the best thinking of every Jewish age. But they fail to point out that the editors of the Torah deny future revelations. And the liberal rabbis never fill their arks with the other books they praise. In the end, the Torah becomes a symbol of itself. The weekly readings become perfunctory. The alternatives never get read. An empty parchment scroll with a pretty gown would do just as well.

We must not misrepresent ourselves. We must not imitate Reform Judaism and pretend that Zadokite priests were the precursors of the Enlightenment. Human­istic Judaism is not the child of the official documents of priestly and rabbinic Judaism. It is the child of Jewish ex­perience, 25 centuries of human ingenuity in the face of cruel and unkind fates. Building an ark with a Torah to represent Humanistic Judaism is false representa­tion. It obscures our real history, deceives the public, and prevents us from using the Torah the way we should.

How then should we use the Torah?

Humanistic Judaism should use the Torah as an important historical docu­ment, a resource book for the study of the ancient history of the Jewish people. Although it seems to focus on Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, it really describes the power struggles and ambi­tions of priests and Jews who lived many centuries after the death of Moses. The Torah is less a description of the life of the Hebrews in the nomadic period and more a revelation of the beliefs and anxieties of the Jews before and after the Chaldean conquest. The editors of the Torah put their sixth century laws and convictions into the mouths of the patriarchs and Moses.

The Torah is a book of clues. If it is studied scientifically (not piously), it will lead us to real events that lie behind the mythology. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may turn out to be symbols of three Amorite invasions of Palestine. Joseph may be transformed into a Semitic inva­sion of Egypt. And Joshua may end up liv­ing 300 years before Moses. The authors of the Torah saw the past through their own political and theological convictions. Jewish history is not what the priestly writers say it was. It is a collection of events that lie behind the descriptions. And the Torah is a collection of clues that lead us to the events.

The Torah is a book about past and pre­sent beliefs. Even if many of the historical statements of the Torah are false, even if many of the laws of the Torah are ethical­ly invalid, they are still assertions that many of our ancestors fervently believed in and that guided their behavior. It may be true that the earth is not flat. But it is true that believing in a flat earth deter­mines your travel arrangements and the way you see your place in the universe. It may be true that Yahveh did not write the Torah. But it is true that believing that Yahveh did write the Torah would in­fluence the way you approached new ideas and justified new laws. Much of establishment Jewish behavior comes from ideas that are to be found in the Torah and its commentaries. The study of these ideas is part of the study of Jewish history, just as is a study of the conditions that undermined these ideas.

The Torah is a book of shared conclu­sions. The priestly writers often reached ethical conclusions that we as Humanistic Jews also have reached. They came to these moral precepts with the sanction of an authoritarian God. We come to these rules with an empirical testing of their consequences. They (the priestly writers) came to these precepts with the belief that the Torah gave them validity. We come to them with the awareness that common sense makes them worthwhile — even if the Torah did not exist. Millions of people in dozens of cultures have discovered that honoring parents and telling the truth were morally important, even though they never saw a Torah. Ethics do not come from a book. They come from human needs and human experience.

The Ten Commandments — like any historic religious code — do not complete­ly pass the test of a humanistic appeal to human dignity. Insisting that Jews remem­ber their dependence on supernatural in­tervention is hardly an invitation to self- reliance and self-esteem. Prohibiting the sculpture of the human form does not ele­vate the independence and creativity of the artist. And arbitrarily choosing one day for everybody to abstain from all sur­vival and pleasure activity has more to do with fear than with rest and recreation. Indeed, children should know about the Ten Commandments. But they should not be intimidated by their antiquity and by their authoritarian history. Rational guidelines are never inscribed in stone. They need to be continually adjusted and amended.

In a Humanistic Jewish congregation, the Torah does not belong in an ark. An ark implies that the Torah is a sacred scripture. And Humanistic Jews do not ac­cept the idea of sacred scriptures. All literature is of human creation, designed to appeal to human audiences and filled with human imperfection. Books are never holy. They may be useful and inspi­rational. But they are never all true and all perfect. And they bear no guarantee of eternal validity.

The Torah belongs in the library. As a scroll, it deserves a place of special honor in the museum of famous Jewish books. Let students study it and evaluate it. Let teachers talk about it and explain its historic power. But let no one worship it or imagine that Jewish identity and ethical living depend on it.

Jewish history — as it really happened — is the source of Jewish identity for Humanistic Jews. No single Jewish book can be an adequate symbol of the ex­perience. A new view of Jewish history cannot be seriously pursued so long as we give too much place to the symbol of the old view.

The Rabbi Writes: Sukkot

The Jewish Humanist, October 1976, Vol. 14, Number 2

Sukkot begins Friday, October 8. 

Sukkot is a harvest festival, a farmers’ holiday.  It celebrates an experience which our ancestors tasted annually when they lived as a nation in ancient Palestine.   

Today Sukkot is a vicarious experience for the vast majority of Jews.  It celebrates what urban Jews no longer taste.  The harvest is something we understand and value.  But it is not a primary event in our life cycle. 

For the contemporary Jew Sukkot is an expression of our attachment to our roots.  It is an expression of our nostalgic attachment to the land where we began.  The fruit harvest of Israel is important to us because Israel is important to us. 

Modern Israel, however, is radically different from ancient Israel.  The secular founders of the Jewish state not only ignored Yahveh.  They also ignored all other gods.  Although they succeeded in bringing large numbers of Jews back to the land, they also created an industrial state where the overwhelming majority of Israelis are urban and capitalist consumers. 

In one respect modern Israel is like ancient Palestine.  The Hebrews who invaded the land found a nation already living there.  That nation was the people of Canaan.  The Canaanites were West Semitic brothers of the Hebrews who had lived in Palestine long before the Hebrew federation had come into being. 

Even though the pious and fanatic editors of the Bible resisted the truth, the fact is that the Hebrews were unable to subdue and destroy all the Canaanites.  They lived side by side with them for many centuries and shared the land.  The prophets found this association offensive because they thought it was subversive of the purity of the Yahvistic religion.  Many political leaders found this connection disgusting because they preferred the military strength of a homogeneous population.  But they were forced to accept reality.  Extermination of the natives was both unmoral (sic) and dangerous.  The danger lay in the fact that the Canaanites had relatives living outside of Israel who would have been provoked by such action.  These relatives were called Phoenicians by the Greeks. 

Modern Israel also shares the land with another nation, which has powerful relatives outside its borders.  The Arabs are the modern Canaanites.  Although Jews and Arabs hate each other they are forced to live together on the same piece of real estate. 

In Greater Israel (post 1967 Israel) almost 40% of the population is Arab.  Most of these Arabs are without political and civil rights.  Four hundred thousand Arabs are Israeli citizens, residents of the old Israel.  One million Arabs are without citizenship, residents of Gaza, Judea and Samaria. 

These Arabs will not go away.  They can no longer be expelled.  Even if all Palestinian refugees are forbidden to return, they will remain a large minority of the Israeli population.  If their birth rate persists, they will eventually become the majority. 

Only two situations can reverse this reality.  (1) Israel returns Judea, Samaria and Gaza to their former Arab owners.  (2) Thousands of European and American Jews immigrate to Israel. 

Neither situation is likely. 

The Israeli government cannot return the occupied territories to Jordan or Egypt.  To do so would be to re-create (sic) the old indefensible boundaries of….    (pages 3-4 missing from journal) 

Reconstructionist Judaism

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

Reconstructionist Judaism? 

How does it differ from Humanistic Judaism? 

Many people have asked this question. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————————————————————————- 

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

Antisemitism

Humanistic Judaism, Summer 1974

Jewish Book Month has always meant an attempt to read books by Jewish writers and Jewish themes. But I must confess that having pursued the current annual output of chauvinistic ego therapy, I much prefer books by anti-Jewish writers on Jewish themes. Not that these enemy authors accurately describe the behavior patterns of living Jews or correctly assess the present state of Hebrew culture. It is just that their vision of the Jew is so much more appealing to the reality. If only we could live up to their expectations!

If one reads the antisemitic classic by Hillary Belloc and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the imaginary Jew they assault is the extremely attractive figure. Rootless, cosmopolitan, and without patriotism, he embodies all the humanistic virtues. He is a projection of all the values that threaten the tribal mind, the nemesis of clan loyalty and irrational feeling. As a wanderer and international vagrant, the Jew is the enemy of stability, permanence, and landed property. Revolution, change, and fluid money are the signs of his subversion and the expressions of his degeneracy. Condemned to belong nowhere and to live everywhere, he is a perennial outsider, a predator of those who are emotionally involved in a manipulator of those who have intense commitment. The disease of cold objectivity provides his mind and he views all the world with a sardonic smile.

The “villain” of modern sophisticated antisemitic lore has a variety of personal voices, ranging from dirt to sexual incontinence. But the list of his social deficiencies is more intriguing. It reveals the Jew we aren’t but could be. Having responded to the antisemite by adopting his fears and values, the Jew rejects the bigot’s image and strives to prove that he is with the bigot says he isn’t. Instead of greeting the hatred of the enemy as an honor, he desperately wants to be loved by the message and to be heroic in the eyes of the common man.

The recent charges against the Jew in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia illustrate this reality. The party bureaucrats have chosen the Jew as a scapegoat for their frustration. They accuse him of the dread sin of “cosmopolitanism” and imply that he is incapable of Polish, Czech, or Soviet patriotism. To be a cosmopolitan is to be, and their eyes, an international adventure, a sophisticate devoid of those simple communal attachment which makes a socialism of scarcity possible. Land is to be loved, not merely lived on; it is to be revered, not nearly rented. If there’s a difference between Jew and Arab, it is that the Jew is a craft imperialist invader and the Arab is the land-loving peasant saint.

The irony of this left is the accusation is that it is a word for word repetition of the fantastic right-wing assault. From the Wagnerians through the anti-Dreyfusards to Adolf Hitler, the principal change against the Jew was his psychic inability to abide by patriotic reasoning. It was not that he betrayed one country for the sake of another. That deception would be forgivable since it at least revealed a passion for some nation or other. It was his being above such feelings they made his presence both intolerable and insidious.

To imagine that the Jew would receive this complaint with ardent applause and pleasure is to give to do as much credit for wisdom as the anti-Semite does. It would imply that our people view Ludwig Zamenhog with his utopian Esperanto invention as more heroic than Moshe Dayan. How far from the truth such an implication would be! For the historic Jewish entry to the cosmopolitan charge was to deny its validity. It was to plead the normalcy of the Jew and the ardor of his patriotic sentiments. Zionists defended their people by pointing out (quite correctly) that, given his own historic soil, the Jew could be as competent a nationalist as the member of any ethnic group. In fact, he could be more devout and more loyal than any other patriot because he had suffered land deprivation for nearly 2000 years and could appreciate the recovery of his homeland all the more. Even the Bible and the Prayerbook reflected the intense commitment of the Jews to Palestine so that every waking Fantasy was attached to the idea of messianic restoration.

The anti-Zionist defended the popular honor by demonstrating that Jews were such gung-ho Americans that the thought of any foreign national agent was alien to both their religion and their sentiments. They assaulted one kind of chauvinism by affirming another. The ideology of the American Council for Judaism is in reality, an inverted form of Zionism. It is never been a cosmopolitan critique of nationalism. It has never questioned the virtue of patriotism. It had only argued about which patriotism.

If we turned to the classic antisemitic charge that the Jews are by nature so rootless that they have conjured up the present monster of a mobile technological society, we find the same differences. The anti-Semite finds a virtue on the farm; he sees an ability in the man of the soil. Those who are rooted in fixed places and pursue simple occupations are morally preferable to international financial speculators and the creators of complex capital wealth. Manure is ethically sounder than money. Jesus is preferable to the Rothschilds. The antisemitic utopia has always been a nation of peasant warriors were bound together by personal friendship and simple trust. It is the futile dream of the village mentality which cannot part with the technological wonders.

The conventional Jewish response to this recurrent charge has been nothing short of ludicrous. Instead of greeting the assault with gratitude and with a site “that it should only be true,” the apologists resist the claim with all their might. Brainwashed by the pervasive propaganda over conservative morality, they plead the agricultural virtues of the Jews. Fearful of the label of the “city slicker,” the apologist is eager to explain that Jews ceased to be farmers because they were forced up the land by Gentile prejudice (as though ceasing to be farmers was some sort of hideous social crime would require justification, rather than a magnificent liberation from Village conformity).

The founders of modern Israel carried this apology to absurd lengths. They took highly sophisticated professionals, physicians, lawyers, and scientific intellectuals, and turned them into orange growers on the pretext that the return to the soil was necessary for Jewish redemption. Stung by the accusation of domestic anti-Semites, Baron de Hirsch, subsidized the shipment of thousands of Eastern Jews to the pampas of Argentina and cold planes of Saskatchewan. That the majority of the settlers deserted their Homestead and preferred the life of one of Buenos Aires and Winnipeg was a continual source of embarrassment to the Jewish establishment. After all, a nation of only merchants and intellectuals seem to grossly abnormal. The romance of the Kibbutz, which exalts the simple virtues of communal agricultural living, is a function of this discomfort. Jews are unwilling to be the avant-garde of the total urbanism and are unwilling to find it pleasurable. Although we are in the oldest continuous bourgeoisie in the Western world, we deplore our situation and prefer pastoral dreams.

Even the charge of Jewish secularism is regarded as a threat and insult. Instead of congratulating ourselves on our mass abandonment of worship and prayer with its complementary preference for science and analysis, our conventional defenders plead our piety and our ancestral connection with religious devotion. The modern Jew was embarrassed by his incipient humanism. He feels that Jews are to be devout and is willing to support institutions to make it appear as though we are. Within the framework of this concession, the rabbi becomes a substitute bigot. His role is to chastise Jews for what the anti-Semite deplores in them-namely, their skeptical reason. Our people annually subject themselves to high holidays denunciations of their loss of faith, which echo the bigots’ accusation and endorse its validity. The prospect of finding skepticism attractive and virtuous is beyond the vision of the average Jew. He prefers to defend his nonexistent piety against all assault, or at least to apologize for his absence.

As to the assertion that Jews undermine stable societies by their over-reliance on intellect and reason, the Jewish apologist resists its claim. He counters the charge by maintaining (quite accurately) that Jews can be as irrational as anybody else. After all, only a very sentimental people would have preserved the religious tradition over 3000 years without the need to admit change. Even reform denies that it is new and amusingly suggests that is nothing more than the revival of prophetic thought. The Jew was presented, and the official propaganda of television and newspaper, as much more the descendants of Abraham than the brother of Einstein and Marx. While Jewish middle-class children plant relevant attacks on the bastions of the establishment, their parents plead their respectability. While hordes of Jewish university students question the rationality of war, military conscription, and national boundaries, their fathers finance historical studies to demonstrate that Jews are as American as apple pie. The latter often perverse enough to praise the Bible they never read and old virtues they never practice.

If the modern anti-Semite turns conventional and hurls the old epithet of “Christian killer,”  few Jews have the courage to say “Why not?” Most of our people either become obnoxiously innocent, shifting all the blame, in scapegoat fashion, and to the shoulder of dead Romans who can no longer defend themselves, or, with understandable self-pity, irrelevantly describe the crucifixion of the Jew by the Christian world. The heart of the matter, the personality, and teachings of Jesus is too sacred to assault and remains beyond reproach. In fact, in Jewish propaganda, official Christianity is always safely distinguished from the real doctrines of the saint, while the Jewishness of Jesus is repetitively affirmed.

It would be inconceivable for the modern Jewish apologized to denounce the teachings of Jesus as a harmful religion. To assert that the romance of poverty, the view of virtue as simple, the glorification of good intentions above competence, and the preference of intuitive faith over intellect are doctrines designed to maximize fantasy, childish dependency, and low-self-esteem is totally unacceptable as a contemporary Jewish answer. Such current religious here as it is the Baal Shem Tov and Hasidism might even get caught by the same accusation. And, while interfaith dialogueniks are willing to discuss the sins of Christians, they are not willing to discuss the mental deficiencies of Jesus.

Unfortunately, do you do not live up to the expectations of anti-Semites? We are not as cosmopolitan, as urbanized, as skeptical, as intellectual, and as bold as they imagined us to be. If only we could achieve this status. If only we could be as dangerous and is threatening other enemies insist we are. We would then be the vanguard of a liberal society and the pioneers of a new and more meaningful ethic.

Judaism the Old and the New

Humanistic Judaism, Spring/Summer, 1975

How can you call it Judaism if you don’t believe in God?

The eternal question.

A tiresome question.

But valid. If religion is identified with a set of theological beliefs, it is the ultimate logical challenge.

If Judaism is identified with the implicit creed of the Biblical and Talmudic authors, is the most rational of responses. The humanist cannot ignore the question. Not only because of the badgering of people in his environment. But also because he cannot, in good conscious, my call his religion Judaism if it is unrelated to the essentials of the Jewish religious experience.

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

Traditional Judaism depends on an acceptance of the stories and the Torah. The Jewish religion begin with God who transmitted his commands to Abraham and Moses. Abraham’s son Israel had 12 sons each of who became the ancestor of a tribe. Ultimately all 12 tribes want to live in Egypt where they were enslaved by the pharaohs. After their liberation from bondage, the new leader Moses led them to Mount Sinai. At this mountain they receive the full doctrine of the Torah and pledged themselves and their children to fulfill the commitment.

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

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

Using the result of a scientific survey of the Jewish past, a humanistic Judaism presents the counter-story to the story of the Torah. In the discoveries of archaeology and of the higher Bible criticism lie its scriptures.

Humanistic Judaism affirms 10 historical observations which are in conflict with traditional claims.

Here they are.

  1. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never existed; they are mythical figures. In ancient Palestine there were three somatic peoples who spoke the same language. There were the Canaanites (also called Phoenicians), the Amorites, and the Hebrews. Their difference was not racial, but occupational. The Canaanites were city-dwellers, the Amorites hill-country farmers, and the Hebrews wandering herdsman and shepherds. The Hebrews conquered the Amorite Hill-country in successive small invasions lasting over 1000 years. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are personifications of three important invasions. Although the authors of the Torah try hard to deny the ethnic and cultural connection between the Hebrews and the Canaanites, objective research proves them wrong.
  2. Most Hebrews never went down into Egypt. The exit is a story is a myth. There is no historical evidence the subs tonight a massive Hebrew departure from the land of the pharaohs. As far as we can surmise, the Hebrew occupation of the hill-country on both sides of the Jordan was continuous. The 12 tribes Joseph considered us to never left their ancestral land, never under 400 years of slavery, and never wonder the Sinai desert. The origin of their custom ceremonies had nothing to do with an Egyptian experience.
  3. Moses was never the leader of the Hebrews. One Semitic tribe called Levi did spend time in Egypt. They may have even been slaves. However by 1200 B.C., long after the Hebrews had been settled in Palestine, this tribe was wondering the Sinai desert. Their leader and shaman was a man called Moses (an Egyptian name) and their chief god was either a snake god called Nehushtan or a wind god called Yahveh. Under the leadership of Moses they infiltrated the Hebrew land of Judah (the south of the Hebrew territory was called Judah and the north is called Israel). Famous for their magical powers they were invited by the people of Judah (the Jews) to become their priests. After Moses died, his descendants, in particular, were in demand as priests. In time, the Levites, like the Magi in Persia, specialized in soothsaying and in the conducting of religious ceremonies. All the Levites remembered their leader Moses, the Jews had, for obvious reasons, no historic memory of his leadership.
  4. The Jewish religion was old before the Bible was written. Long before the Levites ever set foot in Palestine, long before the story of the Torah was written, the Hebrews had an ancient religion and an ancient set of religious ceremonies. The Torah was not even written by Moses (who is most likely illiterate). It’s written by a group of Levitical priests 700 years after Moses had died and centuries after the basic religious calendar of Judaism had evolved.
  5. Sukkoth, Hanukkah, and Passover were established holidays long for the Torah was dreamed of. In ancient Palestine there were three moments of the seasonal year which were suspenseful. The first was at the fall equinox when the rainy season was scheduled to begin. The second was at the winter solstice when the dying light of the sun was scheduled to renew itself. And the third was in the spring when the herds and the flocks regularly conceived. The failure of either the rain or, or the sun, or animal fertility to fulfill its promise spelled disaster. Therefore our Hebrew ancestors set aside a week of celebration at each of these annual crises to ensure success. They danced and they sang and sought to urge the natural forces on through imitation. They poured water on Sukkot, light candles on Hanukkah, and ate eggs on Passover to urge the rhythm of nature to assert herself. The Levitical authors of the Torah sought to deny the natural origins of these festivals and to attach them (with the exception of Hanukkah) to historic desert experience of the Hebrews never knew. But modern research gives the lie to the tampering.
  6. Judaism began as a series of nature experiences. Judaism is as old as the Jewish people. It began with the natural experiences of the Hebrew people in their own land. It began with a Jewish response to the season crises of autumn, winter, and spring as well as to the individual crises of birth, puberty, marriage, death. What the Bible denies, the evidence of history affirms. Although the orthodox leadership, both historical and rabbinical, sought to turn the attention of the Jews from nature to their god Yahveh, it could not erase the nature experience. Even when officially demoted to insignificance, it persisted as the major motivation for celebration.
  7. The Torah is an attempt to explain the already established Jewish calendar. After the destruction of the northern Hebrew (Israel) by the Assyrians and the defeat of the northern Hebrew (the Jews) by the Chaldeans, a power vacuum existed. Since the Chaldeans and their successors the Persians did not wish to restore the military leadership of Judah out of fear that revolt would be encouraged, they removed the royal house of David and replaced them with a group of harmless collaborators. This collaborators were the Levitical priests who were hungry for power. (We forgive their modern descendants, the Levines and the Cohens).
  8. The Levites had a problem. In the eyes of the people they were usurpers, opportunistic replacements of the legitimate house of David. They therefore had to prove the right to rule.
  1. The Torah is a deliberate attempt by the Levites to prove that Moses and his relatives (as contrasted to David and his descendants) are the rightful rulers of the Jews. A fictional Moses was created to become the leader of all the Hebrews and the start of a supernatural spectacular at Sinai.
  1. In order to re-enforce the authority of Moses the Levites deliberately associated all holidays with Moses and with Yahveh, the god of Moses. Passover emerges as the anniversary of the mythical Exodus. Sukkoth emerges as a commemoration of the never-never 40 years wandering in the desert. And the rest day, sacred to Saturn, the God of Jerusalem, is justified as the Sabbath through a childish story of creation. When the Levites get through with their book, but the history of Judaism is totally distorted. A non-hero called Modes arises as the savior of Israel, and the ancient Jewish calendar with all its pagan gaiety is reduced to a solemn desert travesty.
  2. The Biblical point of view is the Levitical point of view. The Bible is a series of 24 bucks either written by or edited by the Levites. It is an attempt to explain ancient Judaism through the vested interest of the priestly clan. If read uncritically, it distorts the truth and makes the origins of Judaism to appear as they weren’t. The Torah is not the source of Judaism. It is a clever and successful attempt to rationalize Judaism for the benefit of a small power elite.
  3. The Jewish religious experience precedes the articulated belief about the gods or God.The religious experience in all cultures is the attempt to celebrate the unchanging rhythm of life, whether seasonal or personal. Before there was a Moses or Levites, before there was any formal theology, there existed an ancient Hebrew calendar of life. The dramatic experience of this calendar, with all their sense of identity with the events of nature, were independent of any theological explanation. Only later when the caretakers of religion tried to articulate the significance of these experiences that they conjure up fantasies about the gods. Judaism preceded the gods and will survive them.
  4. Historic Judaism is not the Bible. It is the celebration of life through the seasonal and personal calendars of Jewish experience. An authentic Judaism seeks to go behind the official theological rationalizations. It seeks to articulate the human experience which makes Sukkot, Hanukkah, Passover, and the other celebrations significant. It finds the ethical values of these holidays and no mythical story but in the human response to this season. Reflection is natural to the autumn, hope is essential to the winter, and freedom is the imitation of spring.

And so, there they are. 10 historical assertions. 10 humanistic interpretations of Jewish history. Just as the modern Jew is utterly distinct from the man official theology described, so was the ancient Jew vastly different from the pious image the Bible prefers.