Israel Independence Day. It Came and Went.

TJH May 1977, vol. 14, no. 9.

Israel Independence Day. It came and went. 

Twenty-nine years of Jewish independence. 

How many more? 

David’s kingdom lasted for 400 years. The Maccabees’ dominion survived for 100. What about the Third State? 

I don’t know. All I know is that it is important for Israel to survive. The destruction of the Jewish state would undermine the existence of the Jewish nation as a world people. With the center dead, the periphery would be hard put to endure. 

Zionism has been the most successful Jewish response to the age of science and secularism. In an era when theological belief and ritual practice were no longer appropriate to individual survival, Zionism shifted the basis of Jewish identity from religious activity to Hebrew secular culture.  

The state of Israel is more than a refugee center for desperate Jews. It is a place where it is possible to be Jewish without being religious. The sign of Jewishness is not a set of outmoded theological statements and absurd ceremonial rites. It is the use of the Hebrew language, the celebration of national holidays, the creation of secular poetry, music and dance. Israeli culture is a viable alternative to Talmudic culture. It can be indulged full-time within Israel or part-time in the Diaspora. 

Unlike Yiddish secular culture (the national expression of Ashkenazi Jews), it has a territorial center where the national language can be used in everyday life. And unlike classical Reform Judaism it provides specific and concrete behavior-patterns instead of vague religious cliches. 

Israeli culture is not superior to other national cultures (After all, in a technological world personal lifestyles become International). But it is linguistically and aesthetically different. 

Hebrew culture is a twentieth century expression of the Jewish collective will to live. From the humanistic point of view, it adds one more ethnic style to the universal potpourri.  

But Hebrew culture will not live unless Israel lives. Israel will not live unless she makes peace with the Arabs.  

Israel has to make peace soon. The Jewishness of the Jewish state is at stake. If the present rate of Jewish emigration from Israel continues to increase because of inflation and war anxiety, and if the overwhelming numbers of Arabs in the occupied territories continue to remain within the unofficial boundaries of Israel, the Jewish state, by default, will turn into an Arab state. Like Detroit its ethnic character will be radically transformed.  

The time for making peace is now.  

Now the Arab world is deeply divided between the Arab Left and the Arab Right. The Arab Left is led by Gaddafi’s Libya, with its oil billions. The Arab Right is led by Khalid’s Saudi Arabia with its even greater wealth. Both sides despise and fear each other more than they despise and fear Israel.  

Now the Arab Left has suffered an enormous defeat. Syria has defected to the Right. the Palestine Liberation Organization was decisively defeated in Lebanon. Algeria and Iraq have suffered loss of face because of their failure to adequately support their Palestinian allies. 

Now all the Arab states on the borders of Israel belong to the Arab Right. For the first time in Israeli history, the governments of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are politically compatible and are able to act in unison.  

Now the Arab Right is willing to accept the reality of Israel and to recognize its political existence. This recognition is no Act of charity. The leaders of the Arab Right know that if they do not make peace with Israel, the continuing militancy will feed the terrorism which will enable the Left to underline the government of the Right.  

Now the Arab Right has tamed the Palestine Liberation Organization. Arafat and his allies are willing, because they have no other choice, to accept a truncated Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza federated with their old arch enemy, Hussein’s Jordan. This Jordan-Palestine state is the best ultimate deal the Israelis can achieve on their eastern frontier.  

Now Israel does not have to negotiate with the Soviet Union. The Russians hold no power base on the Israeli frontier. Syria still uses Soviet arms, but it has passed over to the American camp of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  

Now American public opinion is still strongly pro-Israel. Continued energy crises may make the American public more impatient with the Middle Eastern controversy.  

The public price of the Arab Right for peace is the return of the Israelis to the 1967 frontiers. The private price may be lower.  

The risk of peace without defensible frontiers is great. But, as Sadat appropriately point outs, the concept of defensible frontiers is Irrelevant in the age of missiles.  

The risk of continued war is even greater. If the failure of the peace initiative fails, new impetus will be given to the Arab Left. And the Arab Left is unequivocally committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.  

Israel needs courageous leadership now. The courage to make peace is sometimes more important than the courage to fight.  

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, December 1988, Vol. XXVI, Number 5

Hanukkah time 1988 is crisis time for the state of Israel – and massive anxiety time for the Jews of the world who support it. 

As far as world opinion is concerned, the Jews have become the persecuting Greeks. And the Palestinian Arabs have become the Maccabees fighting for their freedom. The roles have been reversed. 

Israelis are confronted with overwhelming problems. The intifada rebellion of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza continues. The PLO has accepted UN resolution 242 (with its implicit recognition of the right of the state of Israel to exist) has renounced terrorism, has proclaimed a Palestinian state in the occupied territories, and has called for an international conference where issues can be resolved. The militant orthodox continue to grow in number and power and are threatening to “steal” the state from the secularists who established it. And world public opinion, which overwhelmingly supported Israel before 1967 is increasingly turning against the Jewish state and isolating it. 

The happy vision of the Zionist pioneers has turned into a nightmare. 

Now all these crises have been aggravated by the recent Knesset election. The dovish Labor party and its leftist allies have been defeated at the polls. The ultra-orthodox religious parties have substantially increased their representation and are energized by victory. The right-wing extremist parties (despite the taming of Meir Kahane’s Kach) have recruited more supporters and stand confident against concessions. 

It is quite clear that any future government will have to be a coalition government, since neither of the two major parties commands a majority. If the conservative Likud unites with the religious parties, repression of the Palestinians will become more severe and Israeli Jews will be forced to endure more and more theocratic intrusion. If the Likud unites with Labor again, Labor will lose the power to push for territorial concessions and will be compromised by association. 

At this time it is very important that both Israelis and we, as American Jews, accept the realities at this crisis. American Jews need to accept the following facts. 

1. The Israel of 1988 is very different from the Israel of 1948. The secular, liberal, Ashkenazic state of David Ben Gurion is gone. It has been replaced by a nation that is gradually becoming more religious, more conservative and more Sephardic than ever before. The forces in Jewish life that had repudiated Zionism are now the arbiters of its fate. 

2. Israel public opinion is deeply divided. On both the peace and religion issues extremist opinions are on the rise. It is often difficult for Israelis to talk to each other about politics and stay cool. Each group simply withdraws into its own corner. The old centrist consensus is collapsing. 

3. The intifada is beginning to concern Israeli society. Repression tends to elevate military virtues and to lessen concerns for civil liberties. HaHate and paranoia become respectable.And a wartime survival mentality takes over public discussion and makes compromise difficult. 

4. The youth of Israel is growing more conservative. Occupation duties, with his confrontation with rebels and rock-throwers, has turned young soldiers bitter and resentful. Dovish and  liberal sentiments are hard to retain when you are dealing with violent rejection and hostility. 

Israeli Jews need to face the following realities. 

1. American Jewry, the most powerful Diaspora support of the Jewish state, is finding it more and more difficult to identify with Israeli government policies. If a Likud regime yields to the Orthodox political parties and revises the Law of Return to turn over the determination of Jewish identity to Orthodox rabbis, then Israel will lose the effective support of American Jews, both (sic) Conservative, reform and secular. 

2. Israel cannot hang on to the West Bank and Gaza without destroying itself. A state that will ultimately have an Arab majority will not be a Jewish state. Nor will it be able to tolerate democracy. Nor will it be able to provide security for its Jewish citizens. A hostile population of violent Palestinians cannot be repressed without the terror that will cost Israel the support of the West. And without the support of the West she cannot survive. 

3. The only Palestinian Authority that Israel can negotiate with is the PLO. No other authority presently exists. And the PLO has won much of world public opinion by its dramatic concession. If the PLO is willing to recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist (even though it is only implicit) and to renounce terrorism, on what moral ground will the Israelis resist talking? Talking does not mean giving up Jerusalem or surrendering all of the West Bank and Gaza. After all (sic) final boundaries are a matter for negotiation. But it doe imply that Israel recognizes the right of the Palestinian people to some kind of state of their own. 

The beliefs that peace can come without territorial concessions and without talking to the PLO is a dangerous illusion. An isolated theocratic Israel, feeding on fundamentalist passions, will arrange for war and national suicide. To avoid this catastrophe requires courageous statesmen. It also requires bold public pressure by the Israeli government by Diaspora Jewry and by Western governments, to respond positively to the Palestinian initiative. 

Without peace the stranglehold of the militant Orthodox will never be broken.  

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, April 1994, Vol. XXX, Number 9

Thirty innocent victims died in a massacre.  They were not Jews.  They were Arabs killed by a Jew. 

The Hebron disaster is one of the tragic moments in the history of Zionism and the Jewish state. Banukh Goldstein, a Jewish religious fanatic and a follower of Meir Kahane, choose to shoot into a crowd of Muslim worshipers in the name of God.  In his self-righteous ardor he imagined that he was doing the will of the Lord and saving the Jewish people.  In reality he committed a moral outrage and produced irreparable damage to the Jeiwsh people and the Jewish state. 

The image of the suffering Jew, the image of Schindler’s List, has been replaced by the image of the murdering Jew.  The peace process between Istaelis and Palestinians has been halted.  The moderate leadership of the Arab world has been discredited in the eyes of many Arabs who had initially supported the Rabin-Arafat initiative.  The forces of Arab extremism have been strengthened.  A fragile optimism has been replaced by a deep gloom.  Only people who love war in the Middle East can rejoice.  

The Hebron disaster has highlighted many powerful realities.  It demonstrated the fragility of the whole peace process.  It now hangs on a thread which may break at any moment.  It exposed the vulnerability of Jewish and Arab moderates to the schemes of small numbers of extremists.  Above all, it revealed the danger of Jewish religious extremism. 

For so long, our focus was on the danger of Arab extremism and Arab fundamentalists.  Terror was something that Arabs did.  The victims were Jews, innocent men, women and children assaulted by Arab fanatics.  Ever since l967 Palestinian terrorism provided the moral justification for the Jewish resistance to making any concessions.  We had the moral high ground.  Arabs alone were murders (sic). 

But that illusion has now been shattered.  Yes, there is Arab religious extremism.  But there is also Jewish religious extremism.  And it is just as dangerous to the Jewish people. 

Jewish religious extremism is very old.  It is as old as the Messianic movements which began in Judea over two thousand years ago  The Jewish Messianists believed that they were the chosen people of God, that all other people were sinners and doomed, that the final Judgment Day was imminent, that in the final battle all the wicked would be punished, that the power of God would sustain the small band of the saved against their enemies.  Like the author of Deuteronomy 7 they envisioned a world purified of non-believers.  Only violence against the chosen people is morally wrong.  Violence against infidels is exactly what they deserve.  There are dozens of quotations from both the Bible and the Talmud, which reflect this mind-set.  They are an embarrassment to the Jews.  We generally choose to ignore them.  Christian and Muslim fanatics are  eirs to this legacy. 

While, for many Jews, Jewish persecution and suffering provided an emotional foundation for a morality of compassion and empathy with the suffering of others, for others the pain of antisemitism only reinforced hatred of the outside word, paranoia and dream of vengeance.  In the tight world of ultra Orthodoxy these dreams were strengthened by religious faith.  The one positive side to this self-righteousness was that these people were never successful, after the destruction of the Jewish state, in achieving political power. 

For most of these people, Zionism was anathema.  In their eyes the Zionists were secular Jews who had rejected divine help and divine guidance and who were seeking to establish a Jewish state without the Torah as the constitution.  Zionists were worse than Gentile non-believers because they were Jews who had abandoned the true faith and who were seeking to lure vulnerable Jews away from their ancestral faith.  Until 1967 they wanted nothing at all to do with the state of Israel or the Zionist enterprise. 

But the Six Day War changed everything.  The easy victory of the Israelis and the capture of the sacred sites of historic Judaism, from the Western Wall to the Cave of Machpelah, seemed like a divine miracle.  Many extremists made a turnaround, embraced the Jewish state, and vowed to keep its sacred soil forever in Jewish hands. 

After 1967 the “believers” of Brooklyn began to leave Mecca and to immigrate to Israel  They were entirely different from the Zionist pioneers.  They were fiercely Orthodox, Messianic in their thinking, and contemptuous of a modern liberal secular state.  They did not want to settle in secular Israel.  They wanted to settle in their own tight communities,, preferably in the West Bank where they could be near the ancient shrine of the Jewish People.  Many found their way to Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall.  Others established their home near Shekhem (Neblus) or the Cave of Machpelah (Hebron).  They were indifferent to Arab hostility.  In a short while their initiative and courage would prod God to send his Messiah  The End of Days would come and the Jewish people would be glorified. 

Fanatic leaders like Rabbi Moshe Leinnger and fanatic movements like Gash Emunim arose and captured the imagination and devotion of the “believers.”  For those who are more extreme, the fiery words of Mier Kahane, calling for the expulsion of all Arabs from the Holy Land, were ˆsicˆ)welcomed. 

The Likud government of Menachim Begin and Yitshak Shamir paid for them to settle down in the midst of the Palestinians.  It gave them arms to defend themselves against attack and to intimidate their “enemies.”  Even though many of the leaders of the Likud were secular, they saw these religious extremists as allies in their determination to keep the West Bank. 

Secular Israelis and moderate religionists-discovered to their chagrin that there was now a determined minority of religious rightwingers who did not believe in a democratic and pluralistic state, who wanted to lead the nation into a murderous confrontation with the Palestinians.  Neither the intifada nor the possibility of a peace through compromise diminished their ardor.  All who were opposed to holding the West Bank through force were designated traitors 

In America these fanatics were supported by ambivalent American Jews, who felt guilty over their assimilation to Jewish culture and their unwillingness to immigrate to Israel.  Many American Jews who were neither religious nor Orthodox saw them as instruments of Jewish survival and determination.  The fanatics cultivated their ambivalence. 

What are we, the rational Jews who support a secular and democratic state, who embrace the historic Zionist vision, going to do about these extremists in our midst?  How are we, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people, a majority which repudiates religious fanaticism going to deal with this embarrassing internal plague?  What must the government and people of Israel do with this group of self-appointed prophets of God? 

The Hebron massacre makes a strong response necessary. 

In America we need to publicly repudiate their message and resist their entry into positions of power and authority in our community. 

In Israel our Jewish brothers and sisters need to outlaw, restrain, remove and deport all those who advocate violence against the Arabs.  At the minimum they need to disarm Jewish settlers in the West Bank.  Let the Israeli army protect both Jews and Arabs. 

The future of Israel and the Jewish people is (sic) at stake. 

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) 

The Rabbi Writes: What We Can Learn From 1984

The Jewish Humanist, January 1985, Vol. XXIIk Number 6

It’s 1985. 

It’s nice to know that the free world is still here and that Orwell’s vision of 1984 has not yet come to pass. 

What can we learn from 1984 (the real one – not the one that Orwell imagined)? What new and interesting things happened during the past year – or what old and important things happened that were reconfirmed by experience? 

In 1984 we learned – or relearned – that people prefer optimism. Political candidates who convey hope have a better chance of winning elections than political candidates who predict doom. The Mondale ‘tell-the-truth-and-face-the-problem’ approach is electorally self-destructive. The masses prefer vague messianic vocabulary to depressing news. Democrats who will run for office in 1985 or 1986 ought to remember that simple reality. 

We learned that elections are won on television. Presidential hopefuls who look bad or awkward on the ‘tube’ have little chance of winning. A crippled Roosevelt or a humorousness Hoover would have had a hard time taking the presidential sweepstakes in 1984. 

We learned that liberals have become politically inept. They have successfully alienated the historic allies that, at one time, gave them the power to win. Blue collar workers, poor whites, eastern and southern Europeans ethnics – many of them no longer feel comfortable in the Democratic party and with the designation ‘liberal.’ 

We learned that not everything Reagan does is wrong. The controversial Grenada Invasion, which overthrew a tyrannical Marxist government, has now yielded a free election and a moderate regime which enjoys public approval. Also the new tax proposals out of the Treasury Department are a commendable series of recommendations. They propose to shift some of the burden of taxation from the individual to the corporation and to eliminate many of the immoral tax loopholes the rich have exploited. For the  so-called party of the rich, the Treasury proposals are refreshingly fair.  

We learned that religion produces the worst terrorists. The suicide bombings of embassies and military installations by Shiite fanatics is a telling refutation of the fundamentalist thesis that religion improves morality. The ‘voice of Allah’ has become the voice of murder. 

We learned that, contrary to the predictions of many skeptics, democracy is not on the decline in the world. In Latin America, where, only a few years ago, right wing dictators and military juntas prevailed, the emergence of new democratic regimes is a startling transformation. Argentina, Uruguay and Panama have already made the change. Brazil and Guatemala are on the way. Perhaps military tyrannies are not the wave of the future. Perhaps there is the possibility of a democratic revival in the third-world countries that have experienced the economic failure of soldier regimes.  

We learned that, contrary to what Jeanne Kirkpatrick of UN fame said, it is possible for left-wing totalitarian regimes to reverse themselves and to become more liberal. China, the largest Communist country in the world, is now engaging in a rapid dismantling of its Maoist structures and glorifying the acquisitive behaviors of the bourgeois world. Only this past month both Marx and Lenin were summarily dismissed as being irrelevant to the problems of modern China. Will political wonders never cease?  

We learned that singers, in this age of political disillusionment, have the best chance of becoming gods. If Michael Jackson had decided to run for the presidency, he might have given Ronald Reagan a good run for his money, especially if teenagers have been enfranchised. We can expect an increasing number of movie actors, disc jockeys, television news commentators and rock vocalists will enter politics and be successful. Lawyers, beware! 

We learned that Jews can be fascists too. The over publicized victory of Meir Kahane is an embarrassing revelation that the Jewish people is ethically (sic) normal . We have our share of racist and religious bigots too. The one positive result of Kahane’s success may be that it will silence, at least for a while, the insufferable propagandists who insist that Jews are morally superior to other groups. 

We have learned that Jews, also, can prefer public welfare to self reliance. The shameful request of the Israeli government for more American money to sustain the present Israeli standard of living is an ironic proposal for a nation that prides itself on its self-reliance. Now is the time for a painful austerity. But the present Israeli government is unwilling to impose the economic diet the country needs. Short-run political advantages outweigh long-run survival strategies. 

We have even learned that the so-called resurgence of traditional Judaism may not be the whole story of what’s happening in the Jewish religious world today. The Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinic school of Conservative Judaism, which for years prided itself on its adherence to the basics of traditional law, defied the halakha and, imitating Reform, opened its doors to women students. The vision of females with tefillin may seem half-traditional (sic). But it really isn’t. 

Well, we learned many more things too. But enough is enough.  

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, August 1991, Vol. XXVIII, Number 1

The mass exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union is the major event of Jewish history in the last decades of the twentieth century.  Over 600,000 Soviet Jews (out of a potential 2 to 3 million) have already left.  Thousands more are waiting to leave. 

Up until last year the overwhelming majority of Soviet emigrants (sic) came to the United States.  But, ever since America imposed a severe quota limitation on the entry of Russian Jews, the flow of emigrants has turned to Israel. 

One year ago the Israelis were ecstatic.  They expected that 2 million Jewish immigrants would arrive from the Soviet Union.  The Jewish population of Israel would take a quantum jump in size.  New Ashkenazic “blood”, with Western education and secular values, would be pumped into the increasing Oriental bloodstream of the nation. The Arab Palestinians would shrink to a smaller and less dangerous percentage of the national census.  Enough Jews would now be available to hold even the West Bank and Gaza.   

Today Israelis are now less ecstatic.  Both their expectations and the expectations of the immigrants have been sobered by reality and unforeseen events.  The Soviet Jewish stream to Israel is slowing down. 


The reasons are not difficult to find. 

There are virtually no jobs in Israel for Soviet immigrants. Unlike the first wave of Russian refugees who came to America and Israel and were often “working class”, the present wave is well educated and very professional.  The new immigrants are physicians, lawyers, accounts, engineers and scientists.  In theory they are, by virtue of their skills and their training, the best immigrants that any nation could possibly want.  But Israel cannot absorb them because her economy is small and weak.  She already has too many doctors and engineers.  Unemployment is high.  The Sephardic underclass is rumbling and full of discontent.  Soviet emigrants are willing to be street cleaners and garbage collectors temporarily, but not indefinitely.  Already many of the new immigrants are seeking to emigrate.  The Soviet Jewish work profile does not match the economic realities of Israel. 

The dire predictions (me, a year ago) of rampant Soviet antisemitism and imminent pogroms have not been fulfilled.  There are undoubtedly millions of hating ahd hateful antisemites in the Soviet Union who would love to kill Jews.  There are certainly political parties (like Pamyat) whose platforms are opening anti-Jewish and who call fot the expulsion of Jews from Russian life.  But their power is either stalemated or declining  Despite the chaos, the forces of liberalism and Westernization are presently in the ascendancy.  Jews feel themselves less in danger than they did one year ago.  Giving up secure jobs and apartments, no matter how limited, seems irrational if the only reward is to travel to unemployment. 

New Soviet laws have granted the right of emigration to all Soviet citizens.  Revolution of revolutions!  It is now possible for everybody to leave the “socialist paradise” provided, of course, that you can find a place to go.  The fear of many Jews that must get out now or never get out, is, therefore, understandably relieved.  Many Jews are waiting to see what will happen to the liberalization program before they make the decision to leave.  There is now no urgency.  Alternatives can be weighed more carefully. 

New Soviet laws have also created  a dilemma for many departing Jews.  Up until recently it was possible for Soviet Jews to move to Israel and retain possession of their apartments and assets back in the Soviet Union.  No longer!  Taking out citizenship in another nation or serving in the armed forces of any foreign country is now regarded as repudiation of Soviet citizenship and punishes the “traitor” with the forfeiture of property.  Many Jews did not mind moving to Israel provided they had the theoretical security of their property back home.  But with the present threat of losing their hard earned assets, many Jews are giving second thoughts to departure. 

Fewer Jews will move to Israel.  Unless the Israelis can revise their present economic distress and create hundreds of thousands of new professional jobs, more and more Soviet Jews will be reluctant to come.  Most emigrants have minimal interest in Zionism or a religious (sic) Judaism.  They are only in Israel because they could not get into the United States.  The likely total of newcomers will be closer to 500,000 than 2 million. 

Many immigrants will use Israel as a pass-through to other “more desirable” countries.  Despite the many barriers to immigrants set up by highly developed nations in Europe and North America, ways and means will be found by desperate and ambitious Soviet Jews to enter Germany, Italy, France and England, as well as Canada and the United States.  Russian Jews will be more widely dispersed than initially imagined.  Soviet Jewish emigration from Israel will also negatively affect the attitude of Israelis to the new immigrants, and their willingness to make sacrifices for the new arrivals. 

A fairly substantial number of Jews will remain in the Soviet Union, simply because there will be no other more attractive or pragmatic alternative.  They will need to construct communal institutions of their own.  The prediction that Soviet Jewry will vanish and that we do not have to do anything about their future in the Soviet Union is simply naive.  Much work needs to be done to strengthen Jewish life in Russia.  Jews who choose to remain deserve as much consideration as Jews who choose to leave.  Since most Soviet Jews are not religious, a well-organized cultural Judaism is the waive (sic) of the future.  And cultural Judaism is Humanistic Judaism. 

The dream of many Israeli right-wingers that 2 million Russian Jews will help them hold the West Bank and Gaza is now only a dream.  Realistic numbers of Soviet immigrants do not support any argument for political intransigence.  The new immigrantion is no panacea for the ultra-nationalists.  In the end, the Palestinians will not drown in a sea of [Text Wrapping Break]Soviet militants. 

The coming years will most likely bring a new more realistic approach to the problems and needs of Soviet Jews.  The Soviet Jewish problem will shift from how to get Jews out of the Soviet Union as quickly as possible to how to develop and maintain a viable Jewish identity in the Soviet Union.  In this shift, Humanistic Judaism has an important role to play. 

Reconstructionist Judaism

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

Reconstructionist Judaism? 

How does it differ from Humanistic Judaism? 

Many people have asked this question. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1978, Vol. VI, Number II

The Greeks gave us the word orthodox which means the right way (as opposed to the wrong way). 

Alvin Reines, a professor of philosophy at The Hebrew Union College has given us the word polydox which means the multiple way (as opposed to any one way). 

‘I am a Polydox Jew’ may sound a bit esoteric. But it has become the label affirmation of a small number of libera REform rabbis and laymen who believe that establishment Reform is reverting to tradition and is betraying the unique message of historic Reform. 

Time Magazine recently publicized the first national conference of Polydox Jews in St. Louis. Alvin Reines spoike. The Polydox Jewish Confederation was established and the Institute for Creative Judaism, the research arm of the movement, was funded. 

At present, there is only one official Polydox congregation (in Richmond, Virginia). Most self-aware Polydox Jews are Reform rabbis who serve regular Reform congregations and who were disciples of Alvin Reines at the Hebrew Union College. 

The ‘scripture’ of Polydoxy is the written word of Reines, who has composed a series of essays about his ideology during the past thirteen years. 

Since Polydoxy, like Humanistic Judaism, is one step ‘beyond’ Reform, we may reasonably ask the question-what is the connection between PJ and HJ? 

We shall begin the answer with the articulation of the basic principles of Reines. 

  1. American Jews are in crisis because the official religion of the community-whether Orthodoxy , Conservativ or Reform, is unrelated to the private religion of its individual members. The Jewish establishment lacks integrity. 
  1. ‘Religion, in its broadest sense, includes three basic elements: an ideology of existence that responds to the ultimate problems of the human condition; a doctrine of morality; and a system of observances that expresses and celebrates peak moments and occasions in human experience.’ 
  1. Freedom is a fundamental value. ‘Every member of the Polydox Jewish Confederation pledges to affirm the religious freedom of all other members in return for their pledges to affirm his or her own. Equally binding on the members of the PJC is the corollary of the Freedom Covenant: every person’s freedom ends where the other person’s freedom begins.’ 
  1. ‘A Jew is a person who wishes to take the name Jew, and who is descended from a Jewish parent, grandparent, or ancestor; also a Jew is a person who wishes to take the name Jew and is a member of the Jewish community.’ 
  1. Jewish communal loyalty is produced by belief in the religion of Judaism of the community. Jews who do not really believe in the religion of their particular Jewish communities will themselves ultimately abandon membership in those communities, or their children or grandchildren will. Compared to shared religion, the shared elements of ethnicity are derivative and trivial, and call for no special loyalty. To deny one’s real religion is to deny one’s own true self; to deny ethnicity is to deny non-essential patterns of behavior. 
  1. The Polydox Jew has the right to set the times of festivals according to rhythms that he or she finds most meaningful. These rhythms may be natural, such as solstice and seasons; economic; cultural; or personal. An instance of rhythmic harmonization is changing the Hanukka celebration to eight days beginning at the winter solstice December 21-22, rather than at Kislev 25. This change of date brings the Hanukka celebration into harmony with the great, natural economic and social rhythms of the real world in which the American Jew actually lives. 

These six principles summarize the basic tenets of Reines. 

I would like to reply to them one by one. 

  1. Crisis. What Reines says is true. American Judaism suffers from advanced hypocrisy. The declarations of organizational Judaism do not coincide with the real religion of most American Jews. However, the crisis is even deeper. Private Jews, speaking privately, often say they believe what they, in fact, do not believe. Many individual Jews are self-declared. It is not their stated beliefs which are in conflict with the voice of the establishment. It is their behavior. The major task of an honest Judaism is not to challenge the establishment for their hypocrisy. In many cases, they are just echoing what many individual Jews claim they believe. It is to challenge the hypocrisy of the individual Jew whose behavior does not reflect any of the reverence for God and Torah he claims to have. 
  1. Religion. What Reines affirms is generally valid. Religion begins with the fear of death, or of the dead. It proceeds to use the reverence for the dead to enforce certain moral standards and it celebrates this reverence through community celebrations. The moral and community dimension is only one of two major aspects of the religious enterprise. The other is the fascination with supernatural power (the power possessed by the dead)-how to appease it and how to use it. 
  1. Freedom. The Polydox concept of freedom is the most difficult concept to understand. It suffers from the same negativism that plagues Unitarianism. It starts out with the claim that no person has the right to tell anyone else what he or she should believe. No individual can play the ultimate authority to any other. 

As a general political principle, radical freedom is workable and appropriate. Each individual, whether he is Jewish or non-Jewish has the right to practice whatever religion he wants to so long as he does not interfere with the equal freedom of others to do the same. We simply agree to disagree. We do not use state power to enforce religious conformity. But as a principle for organizing religious communities, it is neither workable nor appropriate. Resistance to authoritarianism is purely negative. It has no positive glue to bind a community together. 

Unitarians suffer from this malaise. Since they despise any official creeds and proclaim radical freedom, they often recruit congregants whose primary emotion is anger at the authoritarian religions of their childhood from which they have escaped. These congregants know what they don’t want out of religion. But they are never quite sure what they do want. 

Their essential thrust is liberty not co-operation (sic). Mystics and rationalists end up in the same congregation united only by their hostility to traditional religion. Since the group has such a wide diversity of religious beliefs, any of them often incompatible one with the other (sic), the congregation spends enormous amounts of time negotiating compromise. The result is no bold creativity but timid progress. Since every person’s belief must be respected, decision making suffers paralysis. Moreover, the educational system becomes vacuous, because no indoctrination is allowed. A thin smorgasbord of world religious options is presented, while the children are told to simply choose what is meaningful to them. No choice is better or worse than any other. Hare Krishna is as good as Bertrand Russell. The Lubavitcher Rebbe is as desirable as John Dewey. The greatest ‘sin’ is to tell children that some choices are better than others. The commonsensical boldness would smack of indoctrination. 

How, indeed, do you organize a congregation or a religious community when the only unifying principle is the agreement to disagree. How do you create a public service that both a humanist and a supernatural mystic would be able to share and find mutually inspiring? At best, what you would have is a convential (sic) Jewish Community Center where a series of religiously incompatible groups share the facility. 

All that Polydoxy seems to arrange for is a situation where flexible humanistic Jews are compelled to spend their time negotiating a joint service with less flexible, more traditional Jews. The result is a timid cautious presentation pleasing to neither side. 

What I say to Polydoxy Jews is what I have said to so many Unitarians. Since most of you are humanists, anyway, why torture yourself? Be bold. Announce your humanism and allow your paralyzing minority to find their religious satisfaction elsewhere. An institution which seeks to accommodate all opinions provides none. 

Does Polydox promote no ethical value other than freedom? Are cooperation, generosity, compassion and rationality to be only personal options? Will four hundred individual definitions of the word ‘God’ improve communication within a congregation and enhance the religious experience? 

Standing against authoritarian religion is commendable. But it is never enough for organizing a community-if indeed you want a community. 

  1. Jewishness. Reines’ definition of a Jew is a generous commonsensical explanation, which is re-enforced (sic) by the way people normally use the word. The defining character of the Jewish community is shared descent. One may enter this ‘family’ either by birth or by ‘adoption’. 
  1. Ethnicity. Because of Reines’ definition of a Jew, his objection to ethnicity as a survival glue seems difficult to understand. If, indeed, Jewishness begins with ancestry (which after all is ethnic) and if indeed there is no shared community religion other than a belief in the validity of radical freedom, how can ‘religion’ be the survival factor? If the power of family is ignored, what compelling uniting ideological substance remains? 

Reines provides no raison d’ etre for Jewish survival. If Jewish ethnic identity is trivial, if Jewish family loyalty is secondary, why bother to combine radical freedom with Jewishness? After all, it is presumptuous to preempt radical freedom as a uniquely Jewish concept. For those who want it the Unitarians are already there. 

  1. Holidays. Moving holidays to serve individual desire has a slightly self-destructive thrust. Festivals are community celebrations. If every Jew celebrates Hanukka when he wants to, then Hanukka is useless. 

If Polydoxy as a movement, wants to move Hanukka to the winter solstice, that strategy has some semblance of rationality. As a community action, it might be persuasive to other liberal Jews. (Although the winter solstice seems a silly criterion in an urban culture. Making it coincide with Christmas would make more sense.) 

But Polydoxy is sabotaged by its own principle. In any congregation individual members are encouraged to celebrate Hanukka on whatever date they choose. The Polydoxy community cannot be effective because it cannot take a strong community stand against the pressure of the overwhelming majority of Jews to conform to the traditional date. 

Reines is trapped by incompatible objectives. He wants radical individual freedom and bold community innovation simultaneously. 

I think that Reines really wants to be part of bold community innovation. But he has chosen to promote a tired and increasingly ineffective old Unitarian principle instead. 

The strategy of the Freedom Covenant is to allow Polydoxy to function as an alternative Reform Judaism. It allows Polydox rabbis to do humanistic things in Reform Temples without alienating the established membership. Given its political context it will have to proceed slowly. 

As Humanistic Jews, we’re glad the Polydoxy is around. We regard it as the first step on the way from Reform to Humanistic Judaism. 

Humanistic Judaism Answers Some Questions about Death and Mourning

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

Responses by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine 

Interview by Jacqueline Zigman 


Q. Since Humanistic Jews would find the traditional mourning services inappropriate, what meditations might they find useful? 

  1. We as Humanistic Jews ought to articulate our philosophy of life at the crisis of death. Meditations, both public and private, can be used for this purpose. These meditations are alternatives to the recitation of the traditional Kaddish. Many Humanistic Jews are uncomfortable with the Kaddish because it is fundamentally a praise of God. In the situation where a deceased relative or friend had requested the Kaddish, the Humanistic Jew obliges by finding a substitute who truly believes in saying this prayer. Humanistic Jews promote their integrity by saying publicly only what is consistent with their convictions. 

Suggested Meditations: 

Death is something individual. Against the collective stream of life it seems powerless. Particular flowers fade and die; but every spring repeats them in the cycle of nature. Individual man is a brief episode and is devoured by death; but mankind bears the marks of immortality, renewed in every generation by the undying spark of life. We are, each of us, greater than ourselves. We survive in the children we create; we endure in the humanity we serve. 

As an individual, separate and distinct, each of us is temporary, a short chapter in the story of the universe. As a part of the neverending process of life, each of us is immortal, a wave in the eternal flow of vital energy. The leaves of last year’s summer have died and vanished into the soil of mother earth. But, in a special sense, each lives on in the revival of every spring. Every man dies, but mankind survives. Every living thing perishes, but life persists. 

The past is unchangeable. What happened yesterday is beyond our control. We can cry and shout. We can scream and complain. But the events of just a moment ago are as far from our reach as the farthest star. The fool never forgives the past. He devotes every present moment to worrying about it, scolding it, and wishing it were different. 

Memory is a precious possession. It captures the past and trains it to our needs. The harshness of old events is softened by vagueness and the pleasure of happy moments sharpened by vivid imagination. Loved ones linger on in the glory of their individual uniqueness. In life they willed to live and hewed the path of their personal difference. In death they transcend decay and find their niche in fond remembrance. No man is defined by the sameness of another; if it were so, memory would die from generalities. 

Death hovers over every deed of man, over every action he performs. For some men death is an obsession, destroying their pleasure and filling their soul with anxious fears. For others death is a challenge prompting them to enjoy life while they live and urging them to taste their talents while they can. These men are men of dignity who respond to death with courage and to life with zest. 

The glories of our universe are never eternal. They shine for a while and are then consumed by the darkness. All things change. All life yields to death. If the beauties of nature endured forever, they would not be precious. We cannot love what we do not fear to lose. 

Freedom is the power to release the past. It is the good humor (sic) to give up what cannot be altered-the easiness to surrender what cannot be changed. Countless men and women live in the prison of their past. They are the tortured victims of their memories. They are the martyr slaves of their regrets. The present and the future hold no special challenge to them. They are merely opportune moments to reflect on old pleasure and an old pain. What might have been is an obsession. What could be is scarcely a thought. 

The free man learns from the past. But he does not live there. He does not seek to recapture old pain. He works to achieve new pleasures. He does not need to survive on the faded memories of faded happiness. He strives to create new joy. He uses the past to fashion a more interesting future. 

We often run away from life. We think of death and are obsessed by it. The threat of aging fills us with dread and casts a shadow over all our youthful pleasures. The end of our story ruins the middle and sours the taste of our happiness. Why bother to pursue what must pass away? Why bother to value what must cease to be? 


Q. Since humanists affirm responsibility for their lives, it would seem fitting that they should make their own death arrangements. What pre-death arrangements can humanists make? 

  1. EUTHANASIA-We as Humanistic Jews do not believe the purpose of life is mere survival. We  believe the purpose of life is survival with dignity. When survival with dignity is no longer possible, we affirm our right to choose to die. Euthanasia is an appropriate alternative to involuntary death when there is terminal illness and physical humiliation. If we can not arrange in advance to guarantee our right to dignity we shall, like most people, become victims of guilty relatives and timid physicians. Legally our moral right to euthanasia has not yet been granted, but we can apply moral pressure on our surivvors by signing a document called The Living Will. Copies of The Living Will may be obtained from Euthanasia Educational Council, 250 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019. A tax-deductible contribution is appropriate when sending for copies. 

PARTIAL DONATION-The organs are removed from the body to be used for transplants or research programs. Both of these processes aid in improving the quality of life. The following organization have a desperate need for organs: 

Deafness Research Foundation, 366 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10617 

Michigan Eye Bank-Wayne State University, 540 East Canfield Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48201 (Note: each state has its own eye bank) 

Human Growth Inc. (Pituitary Gland), 307 Fifth Avenue, new York, New York 10016 

Kidney Foundation of Michigan, 3378 Washtenaw Avenue, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48014 (Note: each state has its own Kidney Foundation) 

Whole donation-Whole body donation allows you to contribute to the advancement of medical knowledge. This new knowledge is used to benefit those people in need of medical care. The entire body must be donated with no organs removed except the eyes. Also, there is no expense to the daily for transportation, casket or disposal of the body. Inquiries should be made of medical schools in your area. 

CREMATION-Most Humanistic Jews prefer cremation to burial. This preference is defined in three ways: 

  1. Historically, burial was performed because of the traditional belief in the resurrection of the dead. Therefore the function of burial is negated by its contradiction to reality. 
  1. In an overpopulated world with limited space, cremation is the more reasonable method of disposal. 
  1. The quick finality of cremation has more aesthetic appeal then the traditional custom of dumping remains to rot. 


Q. What are appropriate settings for a Humanistic Jewish memorial service? 

  1. TEMPLE-Our Temple is our family home and we feel it should be used for sad as well as happy occasions. Therefore, we feel it appropriate to have the memorial service at the Birmingham Temple. It is not necessary to the body present, arrangements can be made with the funeral director. 

           HOME-Another available option for the Humanistic Jew is for the memorial 

           service to be performed in a home. The body need not be present. 

FUNERAL CHAPEL-Another alternative. 

See MEDITATIONS AND PHILOSOPHY at the beginning of this interview for suggested readings at the memorial service. 


Q. What mourning procedures can Humanist Jews follow comfortably? 

  1. Most Humanistic Jews need the support and understanding of a loving community. There are various ways in which family, friends and the congregation may help. 

RECEIVING VISITORS-traditional mourning required a seven day period of fasting, abstinence and immobility after death. The purpose of this shiva (7 days) was to divert the anger of God. For Humanistic Jews such activity is inappropriate. However, the custom of visiting mourners is still very appropriate. Most people enjoy the empathy and understanding of their family and friends during the crisis of death. We as Humanistic Jews can choose to remain home to receive visitors after the memorial service. If we do so, the number of days that we remain at home is up to our own personal feelings. Such a response is equally valid. If visiting is desired, there is no reason why sadness and solemnity should prevail. We can best honor the dead by affirming their joy and not by dramatizing their sadness. 

YAHRZEIT-The word Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word meaning anniversary. It refers to the traditional custom of remembering the dead on the anniversary of their death. It is traditional on the yahrzeit day to kindle a light which burns all day in memory of the loved one. It is also customary in many Conservative and Reform congregations to read the name of the loved one on the Sabbath preceding the yahrzeit. It would therefore be appropriate to kindle such a light. We also find meaning in the public recitation of the name of our loved one, since we can then share their memory with the congregational family. However, many of us need no ceremony to remember. Some HumanisticJ ews may regard both candles and public announcements as irrelevant and intrusive. We respect their rights to remember privately. Tradition determines the yahrzeit date fby the use of the Hebrew lunar calendar. Since no Jew in his daily life uses this calendar, calculation is awkward and makes anniversary (sic) hard to determine. Common sense indicates that we use the universal Roman calendar to determine this date, since this calendar has become the effective way of counting time for all Jews. 

YIZKOR-Yizkor is a Hebrew word meaning memorial. It refers to a public memorial service which is held traditionally 4 times a year–Passover, Shavuot, Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret. We as Humanistic Jews believe that a public memorial service during which the entire Temple family can share the experience with mutual support is useful and desirable. However, repetition within a short period of time usually dulls the effect of most important events. We therefore regard it as appropriate to hold such a memorial service on Yom Kippur afternoon. 

MEMORIAL STONES-Markers are appropriate to burial sites since Humanistic Jews believe in both discretion and simplicity as aesthetic virtues. Markers should be small and fairly inconspicuous. Large and ostentatious memorial stones are inappropriate. The most desirable kind of marker would be a small stone or metal marker parallel to the ground. 

UNVEILINGS-Ceremonies of unveilings are neither traditional nor psychologically desirable. They are American inventions which have no deep roots in Jewish history. Unveiling ceremonies tend to be unnecessary second funerals. They needlessly awake old grief. The proper memorial is either the yahrzeit or yizkor ceremonies. 

The Unaffiliated Jew

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 24, No 1-2, Winter_Spring 1996

The unaffiliated Jew — a “floating” Jew, unconnected with any formal Jewish community — is a modern phenomenon. Throughout most of Jewish history, membership in a religious community was a political and social requirement. Society consisted of rival religious groups. The only alternative was excommunication. 

The contemporary world features a historical novelty: the individual citizen, endowed with a large degree of freedom and autonomy and able to make affiliation a personal choice. Furthermore, the choice need not be permanent. Temporary affiliation is common, as is membership in more than one community. Competing groups vie for allegiance. Family and work connections are primary; leisure, ethnic, and religious connections are generally secondary. Some people prefer to be serviced by communities to which they do not belong. In a mobile, consumer economy, why bother to join a synagogue or church? Just use the rabbi or minister as the need arises. In most Western countries, the number of religiously unaffiliated people equals or exceeds the number who are affiliated. There are no precedents to guide us in coping with a situation in which religion is merely one of many alternative activities. Both Jewish and Christian institutions are entrepreneurial endeavors that must prove their value in the marketplace. The powerful clergy has been replaced by the fickle customer. 

In this free marketplace, new phenomena have emerged: people who choose to remain single, people who intermarry, homosexual unions, feminist assertiveness, sequential careers, leisure identity — all legitimate and popular options within a powerful culture based on rapidly changing technology and secular education. Assimilation to this culture is unavoidable except for a minority who choose to withdraw to islands of segregation. For most Jews in America, assimilation has already taken place. 

The profile of the unaffiliated Jew is not one of defiant rejection. It is one of a free citizen with a priority list that often changes daily. Most unaffiliated Jews enjoy being Jewish at some time or other. It is just that they have so many other, more important things they want to do.  

Jews have been ambivalent about the wonders of a free and secular society. On the one hand, capitalism, urbanization, and the disestablishment of the Christian religion have provided the Jew with unprecedented opportunities for economic power and social advancement. On the other hand, those same opportunities have wrought havoc with the tightly knit conformist Jewish communities of the past. The fading away of overt anti-Semitism in the upper classes has removed one of the sustaining forces for an intense Jewish identity, especially at a time when secular beliefs and secular views dominate the daily lives of individual Jews. Most Jews want to have their cake and eat it too. They want all the advantages of a free capitalist society without giving up the survival value of the old community structures — which, of course, cannot exist in a free environment. When nostalgia for the past bumps into vested interests of the present, almost invariably the present wins out, though guilt and regret may conceal what has happened. 

There is no single kind of unaffiliated Jew in North America. Some unaffiliated Jews are “believers” but find Jewish communities too expensive. Some regard the family as a sufficient venue for their Jewish activity and see no advantage to belonging to a larger group. Some are intermarried and do not find synagogues or temples comfortable places with which to connect. Some are in search of spiritual and philosophic answers that Jewish institutions do not provide. Some are absorbed with personal and family problems that are far more important to them than the issue of Jewish survival. Some acknowledge that they are Jewish but do not want to do anything about it. Still others see Jewishness as part of the smorgasbord life, choosing to taste it when it strikes their fancy. A substantial number would choose a Jewish community if it made them feel good about being secular and free. 

Being simultaneously Jewish and secular was, at one time, easier than it is now. Seventy years ago the overwhelming majority of Jews in North America lived in the ethnic culture of Ashkenazic Eastern Europe, dominated by the living presence of the Yiddish language. To be secular was to be ethnic. To be secular was to use and value Yiddish. A unique language is as powerful a preservative as a unique set of religious practices or a unique set of religious beliefs. 

But Jewish ethnicity, like other European ethnicities, is not sustainable in North America. In the end, all Europeans give up their native languages, use English, and meld into the category designated as “white.” Only African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians remain ethnically intact because they are visibly distinct. North American Jewry is becoming de-ethnicized. Especially given the increasing rate of intermarriage, its discrete character is fast disappearing. 

What is happening in North America is in direct contrast to what is happening in Israel, where the dominant culture is also secular. There Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Oriental Jews are thrown into a melting pot and emerge as a new ethnic group with Hebrew as its defining language. In North America, ethnicity is no longer an effective way of mobilizing unaffiliated Jews. Unless there is some inspirational, ideological element, Jewsih identity, like Italian identity, will be absorbed into the new white world. 

In recent years ideology has been the weak point of North American Jewry. In an age in which traditional belief is no longer possible for them, many committed Jews separate their personal belief systems from their Jewishness. Prayer is seen as unconnected with what they really believe. It is simply a traditional vehicle to do something Jewish. The words become more important than the ideas.The danger in this dichotomy is that time will weaken the need to imitate the past. Either the Jewish experience provides an important message and a guide for living, or Judaism turns into a cultural potpourri of form without substance. In the absence of conviction, Jewish identity will collapse before rival ideologies that address the daily problems of assimilated Jews with conviction and integrity. 

Unfortunately, the North American Jewish establishment, as represented by the new alliance of Reform and Conservative Jewry, avoids dealing with this issue and with the implications of mobilizing the free Jew in a free society for Jewish community life. A return to “tradition” means nothing if there is no return to traditional conviction. 

A truly effective campaign to recruit unaffiliated Jews for a significant community connection must start with two premises. The first is that a free society is a good society. Both the Enlightenment and the Emancipation were positive developments for the Jewish people. A false nostalgia for the past will only undermine the credibility of the recruiters. The second premise is that Jewish identity is important, that it is worth an investment of time, energy, and money. 

An effective campaign must be guided by the following realities: 

  1. Guilt-language is proving less and less effective. Fear of betraying roots and ancestors is no longer a powerful mobilizer. Contemporary Jews see themselves as consumers. They want to know what benefits they will personally receive from joining a community. Their sense of obligation to the past is weak. Collective appeals based on the sacrifices of the past are not working. In a time of rapid change, the question is “How will Jewishness improve my future?” 
  1. There are many kinds of Jewish communities for unaffiliated Jews to join. Some are formal; some are informal. Conventional synagogues and temples do not exhaust the possibilities. Some Jews want friendship and intimacy. Some want intellectual stimulation and social action. Some want spirituality and New Age mysticism. Some want large communities with many opportunities for education and friendship. Others want a quiet refuge from the stress of daily existence. No single community structure or strategy can, with integrity, serve all these needs. 
  1. There are many Jewish lifestyles. The conventional nuclear family no longer characterizes Jewish urban existence. There are armies of Jewish singles, both men and women. Many of them have chosen a solo lifestyle because they value work and leisure more than family. There are significant numbers of Jewish homosexuals who do not want segregated gay synagogoues. There are legions of Jewish feminists who want a more balanced view of the Jewish experience than patriarchal histories allow. Special events such as weekend seminars may be more attractive to a mobile, adult-oriented constituency than long-term membership in a congregation. Being unaffiliated need not be counterproductive to Jewish survival if it means continuous involvement in Jewish events. 
  1. Jews are more than Jews. They are husbands and wives. They are fathers and mothers. They are workers and professionals. Most of their anxieties do not deal with Jewish identity and Jewish survival Community programming has to embrace the whole person. Support groups for men and women, for children and senior citizens, for the sick and the emotionally wounded, are the lifeblood of successful communities through which a sense of Jewishness can course. Agendas of relentlessly Jewish content serve only a small minority. 
  1. Jewish identity must be viewed as a personal choice rather than an ethnic inheritance. In a time of intermarriage, international culture, and competing ideologies, Judaism must be seen as a philosophy of life, with roots in the historic experience of the Jewish people but with universal application. Non-Jewish partners cannot be attracted to Jewish identity if they see Jewishness as an exclusive and unachievable ethnicity. Jewish communities need to be less nostalgic and less parochial. 
  1. The culture and civilization of the Jews must be tied to the experience of the Jewish people, and that experience must yield some profound message. Unless Jewishness is bound to a compelling philosophic conviction, it will die of insignificance. The traditional perspective of the Jews as the Chosen People, the witnesses of God, is finding a declining audience. An alternative, secular message is that Jewish history testifies to a world in which the only power that guarantees life and justice is human power. But for Jewish history to become the foundation of a humanistic perspective, the traditional presentation of Jewish history needs to be revised. A new, more realistic story needs to be created. The themes of self-reliance and human cooperation, rather than piety, can offer an important message for the twenty-first century — a conviction with which young, well educated Jews can identify. 
  1. Successful experiments to meet the needs of unaffiliated Jews will not come from committees of the Jewish establishment. The most effective outreach will come from entrepreneurial individuals and groups outside the establishment, who are willing to take boldly creative leaps. A secular synagogue and secular rabbis would never have emerged from the deliberations of the cautious. The Jewish future will belong to those who refuse to wait for consensus. 

To serve the needs of the unaffiliated Jew is to recognize the wonderful pluralism of the Jewsih world, especially in North America. The old united, uniform Jewish community has vanished, never to be revived. The ability to live positively with openness, diversity, and change is the first step toward an effective strategy. 

Jewishness and Judaism are becoming choices. Adjusting to that new reality will be the key to Jewish survival in the Diaspora.