The Rabbi Writes – Intermarriage

Volume 20, No.7, February 1983

Ahashuerus was not Jewish. But Esther married him without a peep of protest from the author of the Book of Esther.

However, other Biblical writers were less approving about intermarriage – at least about intermarriage with anybody less that a king. Together with the Talmudic rabbis they made it a Jewish no-no behavior.

The reasons for the prohibition varied. Some were conscious. Others were unconscious. The conscious ones had to do with the defense of religious beliefs and practices. The unconscious ones involved the preservation of racial purity and the exclusions of ethnic enemies. It took many generations for converts and their descendants to be fully accepted.

Today all three branches of Judaism remain opposed to intermarriage. While some Reform rabbis will officiate at mixed marriages, they do so reluctantly. They deal with it as they would deal with an unavoidable misfortune.

This attitude is not trivial. Right now two out of every five Jews who chooses to marry chooses a non-Jew. Enormous numbers of children have Jewish and non-Jewish parents. Enormous numbers of parents are dealing with non-Jewish in-laws.

Intermarried couples experience a lot of rejection. Their traditions denounce their decision. Their parents feel betrayed. Their children assault them with questions of identity. And even religious conversion is viewed as a cynical convenience by relatives, friends and neighbors.

The Jewish community leaders have responded to this phenomenon with helpless hysteria. They see intermarriage undermining the survival possibilities of a small minority group. But they do not know how to prevent it. Nor do they know how to deal with the host of non-Jewish people how have now married into the Jewish fold. Most of their responses are awkward, and patronizing- expecially in a country which praises openness, love and individual freedom.

Something needs to be done in the Jewish community to provide a realistic, dignified, effective and compassionate approach to this development. We as Humanistic Jews, because of our beliefs and commitments, may be able to provide this alternative.

We can declare that love, personal compatibility and individual freedom are morally more important that group identity. Individuals do not exist to save groups. Groups exist to serve individuals.

We can acknowledge that most intermarriages do not involve real religious differences. The bride and groom usually get married because they already share a philosophy of life. What they do not share is the cultural tradition of ancestors. Beliefs and values are different from family loyalty. They are different from holidays and life-cycle ceremonies. Since most group identities are inherited, since most religious identities are a reflection of ethnic background, many people confuse cultural attachments with theological beliefs.

We can help the overwhelming number of intermarried couples whose differences are really cultural and not theological. We can help them participate in more than one culture. An Anglo-Saxon not become less-Anglo-Saxon by doing things Jewish. A Jew does not become less-Jewish by doing things Anglo-Saxon. Each of us can handle several identities, both professional and familial. A non-Jew does not have to repudiate his own cultural attachments in order to take part in Jewish life.

We can help the children of intermarried couples. We can help them understand and respect all their ancestors. We can love their Jewish past without having to give up the other side of their inheritance. Where secular goodwill prevails cultural loyalty does not have to be either-or. If Jewish identity is less exclusive, it will have a wider scope.

We can help the parents of intermarried couples. We can enable them to see that hostility is unproductive and immoral. Their first job is not to echo their ancestors – who lived in different times and in different environments – but to help their children.

Denouncing intermarriage is neither right nor effective. Using it creatively is more important.

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.

Pesakh: Which Liberation?

“Pesach: Which Liberation?” The Jewish Humanist, April 1997

Pesakh [Passover] is a Jewish holiday celebrating Jewish liberation. But which liberation?

Priestly and rabbinic authorities linked the old spring fertility festival to the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt The editors of the Torah found the meaning of Passover in the miraculous rescue of the Hebrews from the slavery of Egypt by the Hebrew God Yahveh. They saw this rescue as the primary evidence that Yahveh was indeed the most powerful of all the gods, so powerful that the other gods could not even be regarded as gods.

For the Torah editors whatever freedom there was in the story of the Exodus was the freedom to worship and serve Yahveh in the way that he designated. The covenant at Sinai was not open to discussion and amendment. Only an affirmative response was possible. A negative one would have meant abandonment and destruction.

The story has its problems from a ‘liberation’ point of view. Why did Yahveh allow the Jews to suffer in slavery for four hundred years when his earlier intervention would have prevented so much pain? Why did he harden the heart of Pharoah to resist the Hebrew demands and then punish the Pharoah and his family for a decision that was Yahveh’s responsibility? What is quite clear is that the contemporary meaning we give to the word “freedom” is not part of this story.

Rabbinic Judaism, which cultivated this story in the Haggadah, made it very clear that the freedom celebrated at the festive Seder was not the freedom of personal choice but the freedom and survival of the Jewish nation. That freedom and survival could only be maintained or—if lost—could only be achieved again through obedience to God and the rabbis. Conformity to the Halakha [religious law] was the guarantor of national survival and salvation.

Most of the rival ideologies to Rabbinic Judaism were equally authoritarian. Whether they were Samaritan or Karaite, they demanded the same conformity. If there was any freedom implicit in the Passover story it was the freedom from foreign oppressors. The freedom to deviate from the single path of salvation was not even contemplated.

Of course, throughout the centuries, there were individual Jews who rebelled against the conformity of religious authority. But their voices were rarely recorded. And they were often excommunicated from the people. As late as the middle of the seventeenth century a defiant Jew named Barukh Spinoza was condemned to excommunication for challenging official doctrine concerning the authorship of the Torah and the immortality of the soul.

Spinoza was the true founder of Jewish “liberation.” In his writings he proclaimed the revolutionary doctrine that every person was entitled to be the master of his/her life and choices—and that legitimate government derived its authority from the consent of the governed. Freedom became personal and individual. It was the source of human dignity.

These ideas were part of a new philosophic and social development which we call the Enlightenment. Spinoza was one of its first great teachers. In time the Jews of Europe were enveloped by the power of this movement. The Enlightenment led to the English and French Revolutions. The Revolutions led to Jewish emancipation—not to the emancipation of the Jewish nation, but to the emancipation of the Jewish individual. In the Jewish world a new force emerged. It was led by new scholars who were committed to both the new freedom and the openness of the new science. This initiative was called the Haskalah. Its expert proponents were called maskilim.

These maskilim proposed nothing less than the development of Science of Judaism, a bold attempt to review the Jewish past through the eyes of reason and to reveal a new way of understanding the Jewish experience. They encouraged skepticism and challenge to established authority. They championed change and reform. They brought to Jewish life what Jews were already experiencing in the outer secular world—the pleasure and challenge of personal freedom.

One of the products of the Enlightenment and the Age of Science which followed was the emergence of a new science called Higher Biblical Criticism. That investigation by modern scholars of the stories in the Biblical texts led to conclusions that shocked the Orthodox world. It became clear that many events that pious people assumed were as real as their own bodies were either mythology or distortions of very different events. In the world of the new archaeology and the new Egyptology, very little evidence could be found for the drama of the Exodus. It may have been the case that most Israelites had never gone down to Egypt. It may have been the case that the nation of Israel had not emerged until the time of Saul and David.

But none of this discovery or doubt affects the power of Passover for us as Humanistic Jews. Passover is for us the festival of freedom—not the limited freedom of national survival, but, more importantly, the freedom of personal dignity. The most dramatic liberation of the Jews was not the presumed Exodus from Egypt. It was the power of the Enlightenment which paved the way for the most dramatic achievements of Jews in political reform, social welfare, artistic creativity and intellectual outreach. In the last two centuries the Jews have blossomed in the countries of freedom in a way that the earlier authoritarian ages never allowed. Spinoza is as important to us as Moses…..

Alternative Literature

“Alternative Literature” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)

Humanistic Jews need a literature that clearly and boldly states what they think and believe—in the same way that “Rejectionist” literature clearly and boldly presents what Rejectionists think and believe.

This literature should defend reason and dignity in a clear and open way. It should talk about human power and human freedom with the same directness that rabbinic literature talks about divine power and divine freedom. The ordinary reader, who is not familiar with clerical and legal rescue strategies, should be able to hear the message without confusion.

This literature should present Jewish history and the Jewish experience in a scientific humanistic manner. Instead of explaining how the old establishment literature failed to tell the story in the right way, it should tell the story in the right way. Instead of pretending that the roots of the modern Jewish personality lie in the belief system of the priests and the rabbis, it should describe the real roots.

This literature should be straightforward and should not have to be defended against misinterpretation. Humanism is not served well by writing that seems to say the opposite. The texts should make it easy for us to teach, not necessary for us to apologize.

If we apply these three criteria to existing literature, what passes the test?

The classics of humanism pass the test. Epicurus, Democritus, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Jean-Paul Sartre, and George Santayana speak their minds clearly and without reservation. They are not Jews. But they are articulate humanists. The literature of humanism is part of a humanistic Judaism, even more than the pious writing of pious Jews who did not defend either reason or human autonomy.

These writers did not deal with Jewish history or the Jewish experience specifically. But in their treatment of the human condition, they enable us to understand the values and ideas that make a secular Jewish identity possible. If Humanistic Judaism is a philosophy of life, it must be able to place the value of Jewish identity in a philosophic context. That context is universal and includes all humanists.

The writings of famous Jews who were humanists and who wrote about humanism pass the test. Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Walter Lippmann, Walter Kaufmann, Isaiah Berlin, and Hannah Arendt came to their humanism out of the background of their Jewish experience. Although they were not aware of their own Jewish significance, they were voices of the Jewish experience—an experience which had molded the Jewish personality but which had never been able, in the face of rabbinic suppression, to establish its own literature. The words are new. But the affirmation of the human spirit is an old Jewish response.

The literature of secular historians, sociologists, and archaeologists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who have uncovered the real history of the Jews, passes the test. Baruch Spinoza, Julius Wellhausen, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Simon Dubnow, Salo Baron, and Theodor Gaster went beyond the official story of rabbinic Judaism to reveal the events that were distorted or never noticed and the natural causes that made these events possible. It is the Jewish experience, not the classic description of that experience, that is important.

The writings of Jewish nationalists, whether Yiddishist or Zionist, whether socialist or capitalist, who rejected supernatural authority and who sought to persuade the Jews to take their own destiny into their own hands, pass the test. I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Ahad Haam, Micah Berdichevsky, Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, A. D. Gordon, Ber Borochov, Shaul Tchemikhovsky, Vladimir Jabotinsky, David Ben Gurion, and Joseph Brenner mocked the pious passivity of the old regime and sought to restore Jewish confidence in human planning and human effort. Their passion produced some of the best humanistic Jewish propaganda. Even exaggerated sentimental poetry like Tchemikhovsky’s “Ani Maamin” still hits the mark: “Laugh, laugh at all my dreams. But this I the dreamer proclaim. I still believe in man. I still believe in you.”

The affirmations of intellectual and organizational pathbreakers for a humanistic Judaism must be included. Horace Kallen, Yehuda Bauer, Haim Cohn, Albert Memmi, and Gregorio Klimovsky are important voices.

The celebration materials of secular Jewish communities qualify for admission. For seventy years, the secular kibbutzim in the land of Israel invented new humanistic ways to celebrate old holidays. Their efforts are collected in kibbutz archives, untranslated and presently unavailable to world Jewry.

The reflections of Jewish essayists and novelists who are ardent humanists and who value their Jewish identity are an important part of a humanistic Jewish literature. George Steiner, Yehuda Amichai, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and Primo Levi dramatize the human condition and the Jewish condition. Whether their perspective is cosmopolitan or nationalistic, a new approach to the significance of Jewish identity flows from their creativity.

A humanistic Jewish literature differs in many ways from the rabbinic variety.

It is new and contemporary. It lacks the advantages of antiquity and wide popular recognition. It is not embedded in the folk cultures of Western civilization. It does not conjure up the image of books that grandparents revered.

It tends to be scholarly and intellectual. Folksy legends and naive stories that appeal to children are few and far between. Not that these rabbinic styles are not possible on humanistic terms. They just have not been indulged.

Its authors tend to be far more diverse. They are less involved in professional Jewishness than the historic prophets, priests, and rabbis. They lack the professional solidarity and intensity that these old fraternities engendered.

But, most important of all, it is incomplete. Rabbinic Judaism has had over two thousand years to say what it needed to say. Its view of Jewish history, its roster of heroes, its celebration formats, its sentimental symbols, its sacred scriptures, its folksy messages for the masses, are established. What remains is only repetition and reverence.

Humanistic Judaism has only begun. Most of the literature it needs, it still has to create. Two thousand years of censorship and official intimidation have put us far behind in the race. The Jewish experience is old. But having the opportunity to describe it in a humanistic way is new.

We still need a clear, popular, poetic, non-scholarly presentation of Jewish history. We still need folksy sentimental biographies of humanistic Jewish heroes. We still need vivid celebration formats that make the humanistic meaning of the holidays come alive. We still need naive didactic stories for children and inspirational anthologies for adults. We still need time for our symbols to touch the heart.

The test of a successful Humanistic Judaism will be its courage and persistent integrity. If the task of creating this new literature frightens the Jews of the Secular Revolution and freezes their talents, they will drift back to the compromises of the lackluster Ambivalents. They will strive to rescue the “scriptures” of rabbinic Judaism for their very own and fail. In the end, they will be neither here nor there—suffering the cynicism of lost integrity and deception.

But if the task inspires them with a sense of urgency and excitement, there is no doubt that the talent exists to tell the Jewish story the way it should be told.

Jewish Book Month 1987

The Jewish Humanist,  November 1987

November is Jewish Book Month, a time to honor the literary creativity of contemporary Jewish writers – or to honor the writing of talented non-Jews who choose to write about Jews.

The best way to celebrate this special month is to read Jewish books – not just any old Jewish books, but good ones. In a country like America, where the Jewish literary establishment is very powerful, where Jewish culture and Jewish identity arouse widespread positive interest, and where successful writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, vie for the attention of the large Jewish reading public, there is no shortage of appropriate books.

During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I chose readings from five new books to illustrate my presentations on ethics. Each of them is a book worth reading and discussing.

Here they are.

Power and Powerless by David Biale. Biale is a professor of Jewish history at the University of California in Berkeley. He proposes a provocative thesis that many modern Jews are not comfortable with, because it does not conform to the image of the Jew which they wish to present to the Gentile public. Jews usually see their historic experience as one of weakness and powerlessness, a continuous story of suffering and humiliation. This perception feeds into the need to appear as victims of powerful enemies and to solicit sympathy and pity. But Biale disowns this perception. He maintains that for most of Jewish history Jews were indeed powerful in the environments where they chose to live or found themselves. The power was usually not military. However, it might be economic. The history of the Jews, according to Biale, is not one long tale of woe. It is a story of the effective use of -talent and connections to make useful changes and to provide strong defenses. Although we Jews are often more comfortable with losing than with winning, we cannot understand our roots if we insist on projecting our present anxiety onto our past experience.

Out of Step by Sidney Hook. This book is the autobiography Sidney Hook, one of America most prominent humanist philosophers – and one of America’s mc controversial intellectuals. A child of Jewish New York, Hook became a Marxist radical during his student days at CCNY (the training ground of so much of the Jewish intellectual elite). In the decades that followed, as established his -credentials as philosopher and an academician, he repudiated his Marxist ideology and embraced a more moderate social democratic liberal posture. Throughout his career, given his strong Jewish attachments, he fought for the legitimacy of his Jewish atheistic position. Controversy entered his life during the Vietnam era and the radicals and championed the old liberal notion that a school of higher learning should be open to hearing all opinions, right and left – and should not become a political instrument of political radicals. Hook’s autobiography reveals that he still retains his feisty and acerbic style in his 80’s

Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies. This memoir is the story of the woman who befriended the Frank family in Amsterdam and supported them in their hiding place. An employee of Otto Frank, Miep was confronted with a terrifying moral choice. Should she risk her life and the life of her family to rescue Jewish friends? Her response was without hesitation. Even when her friends were arrested, she recklessly ran to Gestapo headquarters to appeal for their release. Her story dramatizes the moral courage of many Gentiles, who, to no personal advantage for themselves, chose to save Jews. What makes her memoir so powerful is that it is told with no self-conscious heroism.

The History of the Jews by Philip Johnson. Johnson has become a well-known popular historian, whose conservative opinions on the malaise of modern society have been enshrined in a series of successful books. Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions his style and the force of his opinions are of compelling interest. Given his ethnic background, it was surprising that he chose to devote such extensive research to the history of the Jews. But he is obviously fascinated by us and by our achievements. While his presentation of the early history of the Jews is dominated by a naive reliance on the truth of the Biblical myths, his analysis of the evolution of the Jews in the Diaspora is nothing less than brilliant. He is not troubled by the economic role of the Jew in both the Middle Ages and in the contemporary capitalist world. He finds it fascinating and deals with it realistically. This history is written by an admirer of the Jews – but not one overly sentimental or fawning.

To the Land of the Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld. Appelfeld is an Israeli who spent his youth in Bukovina in Eastern Europe. He is intimately familiar with the Holocaust and has devoted his writing career to dramatizing the devastation of his people through short somewhat surrealistic novels. Badenheim 1939 made him famous. And this novel follows in the same tradition. A Jewish woman is accompanied on her ill-omened trip to death by her adolescent son. Neither she, nor the people with her, are willing to acknowledge what is happening to them. All is denial. And this denial, in the midst of the most ominous warnings, is Appelfeld’s commentary on the Jewish response to the inconceivable horror of the Holocaust.

If you are looking for good Jewish reading, any one of the five will do.

A Humanistic Jewish Education

The Jewish Humanist, January 1977

 

‘Education’ is a sacred Jewish word. ‘Jewish education’ is a sacred Jewish phrase.

In Jewish social mythology no ethnic group values formal education more than Jews. Going to school is so universally Jewish that not going to school requires an apology.

Jewish education began with the study of the Torah and the Talmud. But it transcended that parochial beginning and moved on to physics, chemistry, psychology and the humanities. The Jews became in the twentieth century the arbiters of intellectual achievement.

The secular state school became a ‘sacred’ institution for European and American Jews. It was the most reliable road to social advancement. What Jews could not achieve through pedigree and inherited wealth they achieved through certificates of education.

Jewish children night complain about the boredom and tedium of public school. But they never questioned its value and its power. Only the recent glut in the market of educational degrees has aroused a new skepticism.

The emergence of secular education created a new institution called the ‘religion school’. The ‘religion school’ was a kind of academic garbage can. It taught all those peripheral and denominational subjects that the public school was unwilling or unable to teach.

To Jewish children ­ and to Jewish parents – the power distinction was very clear. Public schools had the power to make you either a social winner or a social loser. Their rewards were economically significant – and their punishments were terrifying. They had the ‘with it’ prestige of the future.

Sunday Schools had only the power of the past. They were concessions to residual guilt, fading nostalgia and the pain of persistent anti-Semitism. Their rewards were economically insignificant (except for Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation) and their punishments were ludicrous (especially with the vanishing of the afterlife.) As educational places they suffered from pleading postures, resentful students and indifferent parents.

Sunday Schools and religion schools only work when they have purposes which the society deems important to personal success – and when the parents who require their children to attend recognize this importance. If the parents do not recognize that the religion school possesses worthwhile power then the children – who generally read their parents very well – will not.

Theoretically, a humanistic Jewish School is committed to a vital training program. Ethical education is the acquisition of ethical skills which children need for personal survival and success. Cooperative, generous self-reliant and rational people are usually more successful than their opposites in fulfilling their basic needs.

The purpose of a humanistic Jewish school is to help its students become more cooperative, more generous, more self-reliant and more rational – using whatever is relevant in the Jewish experience to reinforce these values. Since it meets at odd hours – weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings – and since the parents are the most important authorities in the lives of their children, the school is viable only if the parents make it viable.

Humanistic Jewish parents – who are behaviorally sincere – act in the following way.

  1. They find out what their children are studying in the Temple school and continue the discussion at home. They inquire about specific information and specific attitudes. They never settle for meaningless vague questions like ‘Did you enjoy Sunday School?’
  2. They never settle for a babysitting service. They insist that whatever time their children invest in the Temple school (including the Mitzvah and Confirmation programs) be related to the important task of character development. They are less interested in having their children temporarily amused or entertained and more interested in seeing a long-run improvement in self-esteem and ethical behavior.
  3. They do not treat Jewish activity as only vehicles to group identity. When they celebrate holidays together with their children, they choose ceremonies, readings and statements which strengthen humanistic values.
  4. They assume responsibility for the character development of their children. They are not afraid to make demands when demands are appropriate. They know that reliability and the completion of tasks are valuable moral skills.
  5. They let their children know frequently why humanistic Judaism is important to them and why ethical training is as significant to ultimate success as secular academic work.

Parents are ethical role models. So are teachers. They have to work together.

The Philosophy of Confirmation

The Jewish Humanist, January 1982

Growing up.

It deserves a celebration.

Most cultures arrange for one. A new adult is a useful addition to a traditional family. He is a promising asset to a struggling community.

Even in a modern industrial urban society growing up is important to more than the individual. Every society needs the talents and skills of its young people. They are the promise of the future.

Judaism arranged to celebrate this experience in a ceremony called Bar Mitzvah. It was for boys alone. And it was fairly uniform. Reading from the Torah or some other book of the Bible became the ritual, since the Torah was the constitution, it represented adult responsibility.

Now we in the Birmingham Temple, as proponents of Humanistic Judaism, find growing up to be a significant experience. But we find the traditional way of celebrating it to be less than adequate.

A good Jewish ceremony should satisfy the following criteria.

It should provide for equality. It should be available to both boys and girls. Bar Mitzvah should be complemented by Bat Mitzvah. In fact, calling it simply the Mitzvah ceremony avoids the hassle. The Hebrew word mitzvah means commandment and suggests that the celebrant is now eligible to be responsible for the requirements of his own life.

It should provide integrity. The symbols and words should honestly express what the celebrant believes and what the community stands for. If the Torah is only a famous book and no longer the constitution of humanistic Jews, it should not be the central future of this important celebration. Above all, at a moment when a child is reviewing his idealism and testing his commitments, sincerity should be a minimal requirement.

A good ceremony should provide inspiration. The adolescent should be able to focus on his interests and his talents and find connection with those who share them. An arbitrary Biblical reading is too impersonal to be meaningful. Choosing a heroic figure out of the Jewish past or present who can serve as a role model to the boy or girl and who captures the enthusiasm of the student, makes a lot more sense.

A good ceremony should provide a sense of competence, a feeling of achievement. The student should believe that he is now able to do something well that adults normally do. Presenting a competent lecture to an adult audience may be only one of many options. (On the secular kibbutzim in Israel community service is stressed). But it is certainly an effective one.

A good ceremony should reinforce a sense of roots. Jewish roots from the humanistic perspective, are not only religious roots. They are secular ones also. Music, dance, humor, science and business are as much a part of Jewish culture as worship.

It is very important that the student feel that he has real roots in the Jewish past. He may not be able to identify with his grandfathers’ dietary habits. But he can identify with his love of family.

A good ceremony should allow the community to experience its own ideals and its own commitments. The celebration is not only for the child. It is especially for the assembly of adults who need periodic opportunities to affirm their own beliefs. A young adult is an important symbol to a congregation. He is an expression of hope.

A good ceremony, above all, should occur at the right age. In a modern urban culture, thirteen is hardly the entrance to adulthood. It barely makes adolescence. However, it is a time of important physical and mental changes. The most creative alternative is to have two optional ceremonies – the mitzvah thirteen to celebrate the beginning of adolescence and a mitzvah (confirmation) at a later age (16 or beyond) to mark the entrance into adulthood.

These seven criteria have guided the development of our own growing up ritual. They define our goals. In the years to come our procedures may change. But our moral requirements will continue to direct change to valid alternatives.

 

The Persians

The Jewish Humanist, March 1977

The Persians.

Jews don’t have very strong feelings about Persians. Their name doesn’t conjure up any images of holocausts or pogroms. Unlike Germans and Arabs we seem to have no good reason to hate them – or to love them.

If it weren’t for Purim, we most likely would choose to ignore them.

But they deserve our attention. In fact, for that very reason, Purim is important.

As a story, the book of Esther is only a delightful myth. Neither Ahasuerus, Esther, Mordecai nor Haman ever existed. No Jewish queen ever graced the royal court of Susa. No wicked Persian prime minister ever plotted the genocide of the Jews.

The Esther story is a Mardi Gras myth dramatizing the victory of spring over winter, of life over death. Esther is the barely disguised Ishtar, goddess of fertility. Mordecai is none other than Marduk, guardian chief of the gods and the fatherly enemy of evil. The tale, in its origin, is Semitic and Babylonian.

The story of Esther was long resisted by the priests and rabbis because its thinly covered polytheism. Yahweh allowed no rivals. However, historical luck rescued it from oblivion. When the rabbis turned against the Maccabee kings of Judea because they had dared to call themselves kings, they abandoned all the holidays honoring that warrior family. Hanukkah was discarded and ignored for centuries. Nicanor’s day was also abandoned.

What is Nicanor’s Day?

It was a holiday, falling on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar (March), and commemorating a Maccabee victory over the Greek general Nicanor. In the days of the Second Commonwealth, it was more important than Hanukkah.

The rabbis pushed Purim, because Purim fell on the same day and because it would allow the people to keep their festival without having to pay honor to the Maccabees. Although it violated their theological purity, the changed the name of Nicanor’s Day to Purim and kosherized the book of Esther to justify the change.

Purim, n some strange historical way, is connected with Hanukkah and the Maccabees. Hanukkah (as well as Nicanor’s Day) was the holiday of those who loved the Maccabees. Purim (despite its Persian setting) was the holiday of those who hated the Maccabees and who wished to erase their memory.

Nevertheless, modern Purim has forgotten this old political controversy. It retains its importance for two reasons.

The first reason is fun. Purim is nothing less than the Jewish Mardi Gras. Even if it were called Nicanor’s Day the laughter would be the same.

The second reason is history. By the coincidence of the myth’s national setting, Jews are forced to pay attention to their Persian connection.

The Persian Connection?

The Persian Connection is that set of ideas, books and institutions which the Persian conquest of the Jews brought to Judaism. Around 530 B.C. Cyrus, the young and bold king of Persia, set out to create an empire through the conquest of foreign countries. When he was finished, Egypt, Phoenecia, Syria, Armenia, Assyria, Chaldea, Media, Parthia, West India and Judea were his possessions. The Persian Empire was the first true world empire. Cyrus was no longer merely king. He became the king of kings.

What did the Persian Connection mean for the Jews?

The PC gave us monotheism. Theological ideas do not arise in a vacuum. They reflect the political and social realities of their day. A world god is merely the image of a world king projected into the sky. The first real world king was Cyrus, ruler of the Persians. The first real world god was Mazda, the chief god of the Persians. If Yahweh, the god of the Jews, was to survive his competition, his devotees would have to make him Mazda’s equal. In the end the Bible, Yahweh’s professional portfolio did exactly that. The priests of Jerusalem, who did most of their editing of sacred texts in the Persian period, elevated Yahweh to universal rule – and claimed, with enormous chutzpa, that Yahweh was simply using the Persians Or any nation for that matter, as a way to reward or punish the Jews. In order to survive the Jews had to imagine themselves more important than the Persians and their god more significant than Mazda.

The PC gave us the Torah. The Torah, as the political constitution of the Jewish state, is a document which gives supreme power to the Jerusalem priests. These priests were called Zadokites. They were the editors and completers of the Torah. Under the leadership of Ezra, they came home from Chaldean exile with Persian permission. They ruled the Jews in the name of the Persian king. They were favored by the Persian court because they were clergymen who would be incapable of leading a military rebellion. Needing to justify their right to rule the Jews (as opposed to the non-traditional royal house of David) they completed the Torah and used the Torah to enforce their authority. A peaceful theocracy, diverted by ritual excess from armed revolt, was convenient for the Persians. The Jews were now too priestly to fight.

The PC gave us the Diaspora. In the Persian period for the first time in their history, the Jews found themselves part of a world empire. National boundaries were now irrelevant. People of different nations could now move freely from country to country. Living in a small mountainous country, bad for agriculture and harsh for survival, many Jews decided to emigrate for economic reasons. Some became merchants and settled in the cities of the Empire. Some signed up as mercenaries in the Persian army and went as far as southern Egypt to patrol the boundaries. Others wandered, without fixed skills, to more fertile places. An international empire spawned an international people.

Today the Persian Connection is less dramatic. The modern Persian calls his country Iran and himself Iranian (a pretentious title linking the Persians to the ancient Aryans). He has exchanged Allah for Mazda and given up the conquest of land for oil (a more lucrative substitute). The king still calls himself King of Kings, Shah in Shah, but he is hardly made of the stuff of Cyrus. The Rothschilds would be better models. Although Muslim, modern Persians hate the Arabs, as cultural rivals and former conquerors. They discreetly supply the oil’ needs of Israel and treat their local Jews as well as any Muslim country can.

Modern Persia is not terribly important for Jews.

Ancient Persia was.

Purim reminds us of this Persian Connection.

 

Jews and Christmas

The Jewish Humanist, December 1976

A local Reform rabbi recently described to me his act of heroism and integrity. Invited last December to a family dinner at the home of a wealthy temple member, he was astounded to find, in the middle of the den, a small Christmas tree festively decorated. Although, as he clearly pointed out, his host was a large contributor to the building fund, m former vice-president of his congregation, and a Jewish community leader of immense power, the rabbi refused the holiday egg-nog and, in the presence of amazed witnesses, proceeded to denounce “this tasteless sham.” He reminded his host that fawning assimilation was no vehicle to Jewish self-esteem and excoriated him for having- failed to set a proper example as a leader. The next day his embarrassed member indignantly resigned and withdrew his financial support. Despite congregational pressure to make the rabbi recant and apologize my friend bravely refused to comply. “I will not sell my integrity for money,” he announced.

A cousin of mine confided in me last year that her neighbor, whom she had always regarded as intelligent and sensitive, had sent her a Christmas card. Although the card contained only some, innocuous poetry about the winter season, my cousin was deeply troubled by this religious boorishness. After all, Hanukkah greetings are easily available. It would have been so nice to have her Jewishness acknowledged in the same way that she took great pains to respect the “Christian” character of her neighbor’s home. (Of course, her neighbors never went to church and despised all of organized religion. But Christmas as Christmas is not Hanukkah.)

Several winters ago one of my Sunday School teachers chastised me for having referred to the annual winter recess in the presence of the children, as Christmas vacation. She protested that Jewish students are always assaulted by the barrage of Christian propaganda through the mass media and the programs of the public school. – The Temple, of all places, should be the one haven where the individuality of their own tradition is affirmed. “Christian vocabulary,” she asserted, “has no place in a Jewish school. We ought to make our children proud of their own holidays.”

These three incidents reveal a fundamental sociological truth. Christmas is a problem for most American Jews. In a culture where Jews are rapidly becoming an assimilated minority, this holiday season is never for us what it is for our Gentile friends – a time of family reunion and community goodwill. It is usually a season of guilty anxiety when our Jewish loyalty and commitment are publicly tested. Christmas decorations confront the Jewish parent, not as objects of beauty, but as devilish enticements, too seductive for the Jewish good. If only Christmas carols were not such lovely musical threats. If only Christmas trees could be uglier. It takes immense strength to resist such pleasant temptations, and we are bound to resent what is so delectable but forbidden.

Rabbis used to express their ritual concerns by denouncing violations of dietary laws and Sabbath rest. But in a milieu where dietary laws are for caterers and Sabbath observance is an activity of grandparents, the Christmas tree is the new -bite noir. Reform rabbis who have long since abandoned any form of Jewish ritual discipline and who eloquently announced the priority of ethics over ceremonial trivia, reveal a righteous indignation about the Jewish observance of Christmas that even civil rights, Vietnam, and a nuclear holocaust could never evoke. The Christian “enemy” must be resisted at all costs, even at the price of glorifying the ordinary. The deification of Hanukkah is a tribute to our fears. A minor winter festival, with its roots in a pagan fascination with lights and with its historical justification tied to a shabby battle between two kinds of religious fanatics, has been elevated in America to the highest of ritual heights. Yom Kippur pales before its current splendor – Passover cannot touch its expenditures. As the Jewish answer to Christmas in a child-centered culture, it has wildly succeeded. It has become the annual badge of identity.

My rabbi friend, who preferred integrity to money, revealed in a recent temple bulletin the reasons why Jews should have nothing at all to do with Christmas. It is clear, he says, that Christmas is a Christian holiday, intimately tied to the story of Jesus’ virgin birth and ‘inevitably bound to the dogmatic beliefs of the historic Church. To celebrate Christmas is to symbolically affirm one’s identity with this tradition, as well as one’s agreement with its principles Christ is not separable from Christmas. In fact, Protestant and Catholic clergymen are valiantly resisting the efforts of the religiously indifferent and the crassly commercial to turn the occasion into a mere secular holiday of goodwill, devoid of any theological meaning. They want to “put Christ back into Christmas.” And we as Jews ought to respect their effort. We ought to help them in their struggle for religious purity by keeping our “unbelieving Jewish hands” off their sacred festival. We have our own holiday. We don’t need theirs.

In fact, the rabbi says, Jewish observance of Christmas only excites Christian contempt. Many obsequious early Reformers imagined that, if they imitated their Gentile neighbors and pretended to be less conspicuously Jewish, they would more readily win the social approval they desired. But just the opposite occurred. The more they imitated, the more they tried to affirm their identity with the majority culture, the less they achieved the respect and admiration they craved. Without authenticity they were contemptible beggars of community acceptance. The authentic Jew, who proudly affirmed his difference, was much more likely to be successful at finding approval.

The classic Reform indulgence of a Jewish Christmas, our bulletin writer suggests, was an expression of the immense self-hate that pervaded the psyche of an insecure and vulnerable minority. Self-respecting people are not afraid of difference and are not obsessed by the need for community acceptance. Christmas decorations in a Jewish home are pitiful, not so much because they violate religious requirements, but especially because they reveal the fear and self-contempt of their owners. Jewish dignity is always expressed in the willingness to assert Jewish identity under all conditions. Proud people do not hide behind, another person’s inheritance. They use their own.

It is certainly true, the rabbi maintains, that there are major religious differences between Judaism and Christianity. For Jews to celebrate Christian holidays, or for Christians to observe Jewish festivals, is to ignore these historic distinctions` and to treat religion lightly. The Jewish refusal to observe Christmas is an expression of, an ideological reality. To pretend to agree when .there is no agreement, to express unity when there is no unity, is to indulge futile gestures that feebly hide the truth. Honesty requires us to subscribe to no false brotherhood.’ We are honor bound to affirm our difference and the symbols of our difference.

Nor can we forget, the writer continues, the immense suffering our people have endured at the hands of official Christianity. Peace and goodwill may be the propaganda of Christmas; but they have nothing at all to do with the reality of Christian behavior toward Jews. The holidays of the Christian calendar are too intimately identified with the blood of our martyrs for us to practice them without guilt and hostility. We cannot erase the memories of two thousand years and reverse our conditioning. If we are sometimes angrily parochial, we are amply justified.

Perhaps. Yet the answers of our bulletin writer rest on a false assumption. It is assumed throughout his discussion that Jews have an option that they are free not to celebrate Christmas. But no option exists. All Jews in America must celebrate Christmas in some fashion or other. Since our whole American culture makes of this holiday a national festival, more Jews abstain from work on Christmas (through no choice of their own) than stay home for Rosh Hashana. All work stops; all business closes. Even Jewish families are forced to be together and to eat together. Some of our people celebrate the day with uncomfortable hostility, wasting its potential. Others relax in the pleasures of family reunion and hospitality, savoring its secular opportunities. Like the Sabbath in Israel, even nonbelievers have to observe it as a day of rest. If we are honest about the holiday question, we never ask: should American Jews celebrate Christmas. We rather inquire: how should American Jews celebrate Christmas (even if it means spending the whole day making invidious comparisons with Hanukkah or self-pityingly denouncing anti-Semitism).

Given the fact that Christmas is a holiday for Western Jews, however imposed, rabbis cannot close their eyes to its presence. Even Reconstructionists wax eloquent with programs for Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving. But Christmas as a national day of leisure is conspicuously ignored. It is as though the experience is too painful to acknowledge or too embarrassing to admit. After all the protestations about the virtues of Hanukkah, no one takes off for Hanukkah, but Christmas ends up as our day of rest. Even the dullest child can see the power of that difference. One fact is clear. Hanukkah is no substitute for Christmas. First of all, it rarely ever falls on Christmas Day. And secondly, after one has finished with eight days of candles, dreidels, gifts, potato pancakes, and holiday-streamers, Hanukkah is a second-rate aesthetic experience next to its rival. As a winter festival for northern climates, Christmas with all its greenery, lights, and snowy songs is incomparable. Not even Judah Maccabee and his brave brothers can change that reality. (If only they had been a ski patrol and worshiped evergreens)

As long as we Jews have to celebrate Christmas, we might as well enjoy it. Instead of moping around with useless guilt and sour-grapes jealousy, we ought to make Christmas as comfortable for Jews as possible. In this regard the “religiously indifferent” and the “crass commercialists” are our allies. It is absolutely ludicrous and masochistic for Jews to attempt to reverse historical evolution and to “put Christ back into Christmas.” Why should we want to encourage a parochial mythology at the expense of a universal ethical message? Why should we allow stuffy and irrelevant clergymen to wreck Christmas? Is it not enough that the historic Church took-a perfectly charming Roman festival of the winter solstice and ruined it by identifying it with a myth about gods and mangers that had to be taken literally? Are we then to regret the death of the story? Ought we not to rejoice that young American children (despite their priests’ and ministers) prefer Jingle Bells to crèches? Japan has evolved a Christless Christmas which has become one of the major festivals of its calendar year. The Japanese have made of the holiday what they wanted to make of it – to serve their needs – without guilt or anguish.

Just as Christianity took the Roman “Christmas” and transformed-it to serve Christian needs; so can modern secularists use it to express humanistic needs. With millions of non-Christian Christmas observers in Russia, Japan and in Western Europe, and with the inevitable assault of the scientific age on all mythologies, our winter festival ought to inevitably evolve into an aesthetically charming holiday of international goodwill devoid of any serious theological implications. Of course, the Christian legend will linger indefinitely. But it will be on the defensive. A delicious irony will have evolved. Like Chinese food, the holiday will become more pleasurable for the tourists than for the natives. If such a procedure hardly seems “cricket”, the Christian traditionalists, given their past record of sympathy for others, richly deserve it.

Nor can the argument of Christian contempt be a telling one. Jews who observe a secular Christmas are no more contemptible to the hordes of Gentiles who are equally secular than Jews who •indulge Halloween, Valentine’s Day, or Thanksgiving. Christmas trees are no more religiously compromising than painted eggs for Easter. The charge of self-hate is equally absurd. On the contrary, the desperate attempt to avoid “contamination” with Christian symbols is the sign of self-doubt. It is no affirmation of self-esteem. Unwilling to forego the pleasures of assimilation, Jewish parents feebly protest their tribal loyalty every Hanukkah by the vehemence with which they resist Christmas. A self-confident Jew has no fear that a secular Christmas will destroy his identity. He is terrified by no ceremonial trivia and is afraid of no cosmopolitan experiment. As a Jewish humanist, free to demythologize whatever is aesthetically indispensable, he feels no need to be restrictive. He can celebrate and enjoy both Hanukkah and Christmas.

The either-or alternatives of distinct ideologies are quite irrelevant to the realities of contemporary religious belief. Educated Jews and Christians are much closer to each other in their humanistic dispositions than they are to the more traditional uneducated members of their respective denominations. Jewish and Christian belief on the university level are not very distinct. Hanukkah and Christmas emerge only as aesthetic options identified with childhood memory and family loyalty. To convert them into irreconcilable symbols is to distort the truth. It is to turn ideological molehills into ceremonial mountains.

Nor is Christian persecution a sufficient reason for the rejection of Christmas. If the holiday season had retained its historic theological significance, the reaction would be appropriate. But as the official winter festival of a secular Western culture, it survives primarily as a ceremonial opportunity for cozy goodwill. Despite the pleas of a vocal pious minority, its humanistic evolution is inevitable in the end it will turn out to be a repudiation of the very myth that sponsored it. It will slowly transfer its attention from the vocabulary of divine-grace to the reality of human love.

The Jewish hang-upon Christmas is a function of Jewish guilt. Ambivalent about assimilation and yet committed by his ambition to total integration, the modern American Jew finds it difficult to mediate between his past and future. His aggressiveness for Hanukkah and against Christmas is an expression of self-delusion. It helps sustain the fantasy that he has preserved the religious uniqueness he has long since abandoned. It makes him feel terribly Jewish without any real effort – and without any real insight.

A rational Jew accepts the fact that he celebrates Christmas. Since this ceremonial truth neither disturbs him nor frightens him, he desires to evaluate it fairly. He knows that, as a universal holiday Christmas has no peers. It transcends all national boundaries and unites millions of Christians and non-Christians in a worldwide celebration of goodwill. As a humanist, he is delighted by this development and works to make Christmas less Christian. As a Jew, he also celebrates and enjoys Hanukkah, but is wise enough to realize that it is no adequate substitute for its sister holiday. He does not view these festivals as mutually exclusive but sees then as complementary companions. If he is a parent, he will not deny his child either opportunity and has no objection to the celebration of a secular Christmas within the framework of his Sunday School, temple, or public school. He even welcomes humanistic procedures for Christmas as he welcomes then for Thanksgiving. In short, he is aware that he is more than Jewish, and accepting that “more” makes him feel a more effective and more understanding person.

Capitalism and the Jews

“Capitalism and the Jews”  from The Jewish Humanist March-April 1976

Hester Street. Eighty years ago.

They came by the thousands. The greatest mass migration in the history of the Jewish people.

They came from Minsk and Pinsk. They came from Zhitomir and Berdichev. They came from Lodz and Bialystok.

Most of them were pious and Orthodox, obsessed by the rituals of shtetl life. Many of them were secular and socialist, impatient with poverty and dreamers of the proletarian revolution.

Eastern Europe was the homeland of the Ashkenazic Jew. Eighty percent of world Jewry was squeezed into the ghetto of Western Russia, Galicia, Slovakia and Transylvania.

By 1945 the “homeland” was ten thousand miles away. Emigration and holocaust were the movers. America became the new center of Ashkenazic life. English replaced Yiddish as the major language of Western Jews. Six million Americans represented half of world Jewry.

Collins Avenue. The faded focus of a new migration. An internal migration.

They came from New York and Pittsburgh. They go to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. They come from Detroit and Chicago. They go to Los Angeles and San Diego. Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cleveland are old Jewish words. Houston, Phoenix and Aspen are new Jewish words.

The second migration is different from the first one. The Jews are different. In a short span of eighty years the Western Jew was transformed by the most dramatic revolution in Jewish history. Never before had any Jew been changed so much so quickly.

Secular capitalism did it. It undermined traditional Christianity. It undermined the Jewish life style. It “destroyed” —not by being mean. It subverted—by being so very nice.

All the characteristics of the historic Jew, which feudal society deplored and condemned, applauded and rewarded.

Jews had a head start for survival in a capitalistic society. They had skills that other people lacked.

Capitalism sponsors a mobile society. Rooted peasant people find moving traumatic. Jews are addicted to wandering. Because of antisemitism, they had to defend themselves against a heavy emotional investment in any place (except the fantasy land of Israel). Long before the bourgeoisie made a distinction between ancestral land and real estate, the Jews had experienced the difference. Feudal society condemned them for their rootlessness. The industrial world rewards their mobile skills with wealth.

Capitalism admires verbal abilities. Language is the intellectual vehicle for science and technology. Language is the way you educate workers in schools for new professions and jobs. Language is the tool of salesmanship—the art of convincing consumers to consume. If Jews are anything, they are verbal. They had to be. Deprived of all physical means of self-defense, they had, to train their mouth to do what weapons do for most people. The Jewish mouth became a formidable instrument of war and protection. Hostile, non-verbal peasants find this characteristic frightening and unattractive. The\urban bourgeoisie pay a lot of money to acquire it. Lawyers, writers and academicians become the conspicuous edge of an industrial culture. Jews take to these professions like birds to air.

Capitalism adores aggressiveness. How else can you sell? How else can you promote new ideas and sponsor new products? Peasants and feudal lords hate pushiness. It is so inconsistent with the tranquil and stable life of village and manor. But urban survival demands aggressiveness. The passive waiter is a winner in the eternal scheme of the feudal world. He is a guaranteed loser in the urban scene. Jews are pushy because they were never able to relax. Antisemitism produced a continuous state of alert. Jews were never safe enough to be less than nervous. Now nervous pushiness may not be the most attractive aggressive style. But, in a capitalistic world, it is better than dull passivity.

Capitalism was the first environment to reward the very Jewish characteristics which the feudal antisemite found intolerable.

No Jewish community, in the long history of the Jewish people, has been as wealthy, educated and politically powerful as the American Jewish community.

The radical changes in contemporary Judaism, whether conservative, liberal or humanistic—which make it a distinct religion from traditional Judaism—are the results of a revolutionary adjustment. Secular capitalism has created a new Jewish religion. What is it? What is it becoming?

Judaism in America.

It is unlike any Judaism that ever came before

It is a radical break with the past and with the life style of the Jewish tradition.

It is a product of western capitalism and the urban industrial society which capitalism spawned.

Western capitalism presented the Jew with social realities that violated the essence of Jewish piety.

It sponsored female liberation. An expanding industrial economy provided women with options other than motherhood and wifehood. Female freedom is the consequence of money power and financial alternatives

Western capitalism sponsored secularism. The industrial state was built on the premise that the most readily available power for economic expansion was natural— not supernatural. Divine power was so secondary that it could be relegated to private choice. The state could not be bothered with religious controversy because no essential power was being provided anymore by religious institutions and by clerical professionals.

Western capitalism sponsored the right to happiness. Divine justice had decreed that, given Jewish behavior and Jewish disobedience, suffering and death were deserved. If the Messiah came, it would be an act of divine mercy, a gracious Yom Kippur style act of a sentimental deity. But the capitalist consumer culture cannot be built on the right to suffer.

The growing industrial state needs the citizen conviction that pleasure is appropriate and that happiness is deserved. The early stages of development can use masochistic thrift. But the later stages require massive spending.

Western capitalism sponsored individualism. The traditional family unit makes sense in an agrarian environment where children are free labor and protectors of the aged. In an urban culture the most efficient labor unit is the mobile individual. Individualism is the social product of this economic reality.

Judaism in America cannot survive unless it affirms these four realities of an industrial economy. It does not have the power to repudiate the social reality.

It must reject male chauvinism and affirm female liberation.

It must reject the primary significance of supernatural power and affirm that the essential available energies are secular, human and natural.

It must reject the ethics of sacrifice and suffering and affirm the right of men and women to personal fulfillment now.

It must reject the primacy of the family unit and affirm the significance of individual identity in all relationships—whether marriage or work. The revolutionary consequence is the endorsement of temporary relations as kosher.

The life style of this new Judaism is not a gradual evolution of the old life style. It is a radical and traumatic break with the past.

When the majority of American Jews will be able to accept this reality, official Judaism will stop playing around with the nostalgia and will be able to use its creative energies to celebrate the new life style.