Hanukka – A Children’s Ceremony

Parent

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

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

Parent or Child

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

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

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

Hanukka is a Hebrew word which means dedication.

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

Child

The Jews of this story were our ancestors.

Our ancestors suffered the cruelty of a foreign king.

Our ancestors fought for their freedom.

Our ancestors restored the Temple in Jerusalem.

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

Our ancestors saw the lights of the Temple Menorah rekindled.

Let us, therefore, remember what our ancestors did.

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

(Children light candles after reading. Family sings.)

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-o-lam

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-a-dam

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

Radiant is the light of the world.

Radiant is the light of humanity.

Radiant is the light of Hanukka.

A CANDLELIGHTING SERVICE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Light Candles and All Sing)

Maccabees of old did rise

To defy the wicked king

They fought hard to help all men

And through courage freedom bring.

They brought a message cheering

That the time is nearing

Which will see all men free

Tyrants disappearing.

A Sukkot Family Service

Sukkot, Summer 1990

OPENING SONG

Hinnay Ma Tov

How good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to celebrate together.

S ’TAV

Autumn is here. The days and nights are colder. The leaves are turning brown and gold and red. The sun spends less time with us and darkness arrives earlier than before.

Autumn is here. Everything is changing. Nothing lasts forever. What is born must also die. What is new must also grow old. Nature never stays the same. All the world is moving.

Autumn is here. Everything is beginning. School starts again. Work is renewed. Activity increases. While the life of nature ebbs, human energy grows stronger.

S ’tav is the Hebrew word for “autumn.”

SONG

Seesoo Vseem’hoo

Rejoice and be happy on this joyous holiday.

KATSEER

Autumn is harvest time. The seeds of spring have turned into the food of winter. The work of summer has brought forth the bread of life. We live with nature. It gives us grain and fruit. It yields up fish and fowl. It sends us survival.

But nature needs more than nature. Farming is far more than finding food. It takes human ingenuity to turn the earth into a field of corn. It requires human caring to change the sapling into the successful tree. The harvest does not happen all by itself.  Nature and people work together. We need each other.

Katseer is the Hebrew word for “harvest.”

SONG

Artsa Aleenoo

We have gone up to our land.

SUKKA

Autumn is harvest time in Israel. The fruit on the trees is ready for picking. The grain in the field is ready for cutting. The land is filled with joy. The winter will be secure.

In olden times, Jewish farmers stayed all day in the fields at harvest time. They were very busy and had no time to return home. In the heat of the day, they stopped work for a while and rested in special huts nearby. The huts were frail structures, decorated with the special fruits of the harvest and open to the sky. Our ancestors sang songs, they danced, they ate their midday meal and returned to work.

Sukka is the Hebrew word for “hut.”

SONG

Hava Nageela

Come and rejoice.

SUKKOT

Autumn is a special time for celebration. Like all the seasons of the year, it brings its own unique joy. Holidays are times of celebration. They make us aware of what is important in our lives. They make us notice the beauty of things and places and people.

As far back as we can remember, the Jewish people have always enjoyed a fall festival. They have taken the time to honor the autumn, to pay tribute to the harvest, to sing and to dance. There was so much to do, one day was never enough. Eight days were better. The autumn holiday needed eight days.

Sukkot is the Hebrew name for the fall festival.

SONG

Zoom Galee

Rejoice.

LULAV

Holidays need parades. Parades need special things for people to hold and wave.

Sukkot needs a parade —not an ordinary one with flags and floats but a special one with harvest grain and harvest fruit.

In the land of Israel, the date palm grows tall and straight. At harvest time its dates are sweet and nourishing, its branches are long and graceful.

The palm branch is a beautiful Sukkot banner. For many years, Jews have marched with it to celebrate the harvest and to honor the autumn season. They decorate it with the leaves of myrtle and willow. They wave it to the sound of flutes and drums. They march with it in long processions.

Lulav is the Hebrew word for “palm branch.”

SONG

Hoshana

Let us save ourselves.

ETROG

The lulav did not stand alone. Tradition found it a partner, not long and thin and green but short, round, and yellow.

There is a special fruit that grows in the land of Israel. It grows nowhere else. It looks like a wrinkled lemon, but it does not taste like a lemon. Nor does it smell like a lemon. It has a special taste all its own. It has a special fragrance that is unique. People like to smell it because it smells like perfume.

The special fruit is the partner of the lulav. They always go together. They remind us of life: Some people are tall. Some of us are short. But all of us are important.

Etrog is the Hebrew name for this fragrant fruit.

SONG

Hoshana

Let us save ourselves.

SIMHA

When holidays come we think of all the good things in life. We think of the beauties of nature, the love of family, the importance of friendship, the power of roots.

The good things in life bring us happiness. They give meaning to our existence. They offer us strength and hope.

Sukkot is a time of happiness. It is a time of joy. Just as in ages past our ancestors marched and sang and danced, so do we. We stamp our feet. We clap our hands. We proclaim our joy.

Simha is the Hebrew word for “joy.”

CLOSING SONG

Seesoo Vseem’hoo

Rejoice and be happy on this joyous holiday.

Our Dietary Laws

Sukkot, Summer 1990

Sukkot, like most Jewish holidays, is about food. The celebration of the fall harvest is marked by Sukkot, as the celebration of the spring harvest is marked by Pesakh and Shavuot. The fertility of the earth and of animals is where it all began.

Now, food is not trivial (despite the fact that highbrows deplore gastronomic Judaism). Food is even more important than sex; without nutrition, reproduction fails. Food is survival. All religions began with rituals to regulate the eating of food, whether the food was given to humans or to gods.

It is by no mere coincidence that our deepest and most profound religious attachments are to celebrations that center on eating. The seder remains the most popular Jewish event in North America. Sharing food goes back to the earliest memories of family and community.

All cultures regulate eating. Some, like the Anglo-Saxon, do so informally, without explicit legislation; Anglo-Saxons simply do not eat dogs, cats, or horses. Others, like Jews, do it formally with much fanfare and with very specific laws in sacred documents.

But why these prohibitions?

All cultures view certain foods as dangerous. The dangers may come from a variety of circumstances. The food may belong to the gods and not to humans. It may be prepared in the wrong way. It may be eaten at the wrong time. It may be restricted to social groups other than your own.

In Jewish culture, which was a meat-eating culture, the danger lay in blood. Blood was a food that belonged to Yahveh alone. To drink blood was to steal the food of God and to risk the punishment that would almost certainly ensue. Blood-eating carnivorous animals were not considered proper (kosher) for eating. Kosher vegetarian animals, like cows, sheep, and goats, had to be killed in a kosher way allowing for the maximum bleeding of the slain animal. And, as an extra precaution, the meat had to be salted to draw out the last vestiges of the blood. (Ironically, humans could eat meat or fowl, while the beasts or birds they chose to eat could not. Even pigs, which are on the edge of vegetarianism, were excluded because of their piggish habit of eating any blood-soaked refuse in sight.)

In time these dietary restrictions became an intimate part of Jewish identity. Long after most Jews had ceased to believe that blood was the food of God, long after they had stopped believing that eating blood was dangerous, they continued to obey the laws and observe the prohibitions. Eating habits begin in childhood and are reinforced by community approval and disapproval. As long as Jews lived in closed, tight-knit communities, the dietary laws retained their power. Jews obeyed them because they were Jews, and because there was some vague unconscious fear that if they failed to obey something terrible would happen.

Modern times have subverted this obedience. Political emancipation and an open society, combined with individualism and secular education, have weakened the hold of the dietary prohibitions. Most Conservative Jews and virtually all Reform and secular Jews no longer observe the traditional food laws, regarding them as alienating, inconvenient, or meaningless. Some Jews feel guilty about discarding them. Others create their own personal revisions: kosher food in the home but not outside, shrimp but not pork. Still others go on kosher binges once or twice a year, especially around Pesakh or Rosh Hashana. But, on the whole, the old discipline is confined to a small minority.

“I don’t keep kosher” is the refrain of most secular Jews. The tone implies that the speaker is now liberated from dietary laws. But is that true, or even desirable?

My observation is that many liberal Jews have substituted one set of dietary restrictions for another. And, in many cases, the new laws are more demanding than the ones they have replaced.

For many of my secular Jewish friends, dangerous foods dominate their conscious thought. Cholesterol has replaced blood as the enemy, and fat is a foe as vicious as pork. Calories are like bacon, insidious intruders into the health of the community.

In this age of scientific nutrition, laissez-faire food consumption has become about as rational as diving from an airplane without a parachute. Every day modern medicine warns us of more and more dangers to our bodies and to our survival. The most delicious pleasures of life are diminished as we surrender to the discipline of health and fitness. Giving up hot fudge for celery may be far more traumatic then giving up pork for mutton.

Recently, I was on a panel with an Orthodox rabbi who was overweight and a chain smoker. He spent most of his time

praising the dietary laws and how they instill a sense of discipline into the daily life of the Jew. Each statement about discipline was punctuated by a long puff of his cigarette, leading up to the finale: a racking cough.

I told him that, from my point of view, tobacco was more dangerous than shrimp and fried schmaltz was more devastating than lean pork. I also pointed out to him that, when it comes to dietary discipline, no generation of Jews since the Exodus has been more disciplined than the health-craving, weight-watching, pleasure-curtailing secular Jews of modern America.

But we refuse to give ourselves credit for what we do. We are always falling into the Orthodox trap of complaining how

discipline has fallen out of Jewish life, of how hedonism with its short-run pleasures and absence of long-run goals has

subverted the solid values of traditional Judaism. We fail to see our own stern regimen simply because nobody has bothered to turn it into a divine decree.

Of course Humanistic Jews have dietary laws. They are not the same as the Orthodox. They are not absolute: new evidence constantly forces us to review them. They are not universal; there are different formulas for different physiques. They are not cruel; excommunication or execution seems a harsh penalty for refusing to take care of one’s own health. They are not relentless; lapses are only human and moderation makes sense. But they are more than suggestions. They flow from the collective wisdom of the scientific community.

When I teach young children, I have no reluctance to tell them not to smoke tobacco. I believe the evidence is pretty

overwhelming that smoking can give them cancer. I do not threaten communal punishment or advocate that their right to smoke in private be taken away. But my responsibility is to encourage them to exercise the discipline that is necessary to their health.

Health is a Jewish value (though not an exclusively Jewish one). It is as important a value as Jewish identity. It needs both information and discipline to make it real.

We Humanistic Jews have a new and very different set of dietary laws that are an important part of our lives. As I munch on lettuce and dream of brownies, I recognize that the fates are sometimes cruel. We are designed to love what may not be good for us.

The harvest gave us blueberries and potatoes. Human ingenuity gave us blueberry pie and potato latkes. Fighting human ingenuity is not always easy.

A Humanistic View of Sukkot

Sukkot, Summer 1990

The Jewish calendar features three seasonal holidays, which are grand celebrations stretching over a week or eight days.

The autumn gives us Sukkot. The winter presents Hanukka. And the spring delivers Pesakh. Tied to the agricultural year, these are the splendid old festivals of our Hebrew roots.

Sukkot was the major celebration during the era of the royal House of David. Rosh Hashana was its climactic last day and Yom Kippur was a preceding day of preparation. Lying between the summer harvest and the rainy season, Sukkot featured both satisfaction with the past and anxiety over the future. The parade with the palm branches and citrons —with its passionate cry of “Hoshana” (“save us”) — provided the pageantry and the magic. Hopefully, Yahveh (or whatever god was in fashion) would respond to this appeal with the gift of rain.

In the priestly period — when the Torah was completed — Sukkot was transformed. Yielding to Pesakh as the chief holiday, Sukkot also developed an Exodus theme. Although it was essentially an agricultural festival, Sukkot was now tied to the legendary forty years of Jewish wandering in the desert. The decorative harvest booths (sukkot) that gave the holiday its name and that were initially used by harvesters for rest during the midday sun — were now bizarrely described as the housing of the Hebrew nomads wending their way from Egypt to Canaan.

This distortion fit into the demands of priestly theology. The Exodus story in the Torah was the ultimate tribute to Yahvistic power and divine providence. All holidays were ripped from their original contexts by the priestly editors and given an Exodus setting. If they did not commemorate any events, at least their place of origin became Mt. Sinai.

In rabbinic Judaism, Sukkot suffered from two problems. The first was the proximity of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur,

which overshadowed it. The second was the urbanization of the Jew, which diminished the importance of a rain festival.

While Sukkot remained a major holiday, it lacked its former emotional clout. Ultimately, it was rescued by tying it to the

Torah. The last day of the festival was chosen for the end and the beginning of the annual cycle of Torah readings. Renamed Simhat Torah, the celebration provided attachments more relevant than agricultural memories.

With the coming of the secular age and the Industrial Revolution, Sukkot fell on hard times. Metropolitan Jews found an

agricultural celebration to be slightly quaint. And there was no grand idea or striking historical event to give it dramatic

shape. Ultimately, only the Zionists in their new agricultural settlements in Israel were able to rescue it.

From a humanistic point of view, Sukkot has special significance. Agriculture was the beginning of human civilization,

a quantum jump in the human mastery of the environment. The emergence of farming some ten thousand years ago revolutionized human existence. Territorial settlements, cities, population growth, surplus wealth, and written language followed quite naturally from this technological success. It lay the foundation for the human self-confidence that led to the secular age.

Farming is not, as many misguided urban nature lovers imagine, a manifestation of being close to nature and loving

its generosity. It began as the painful struggle against the hostility of swampy river valleys and waterless plateaus. Human ingenuity transformed the inhospitable wilderness into the tailored countryside that we find so pleasing and that we so often call “nature.” Parks and farmland and wilderness trails are human creations that shield us from the brutal reality of our evolutionary past.

But farming is only one of many steps in the cultural unfolding of human talent. The taming of wild animals and the breeding of “meat” is another. The invention of the crafts and the manufacture of technological assistants is still another.

And the transformation of fortresses into cities of trade and production is yet another.

Theology may seek to turn Sukkot into a tribute to divine providence. But experience teaches us that if tributes are to be

paid, they should be paid to the millions of unsung experimenters and inventors who struggled to make the earth yield a

decent living.

Jewish history is a living testimony to human ingenuity in the face of overwhelming odds. The same intelligence that made agriculture possible made cities and urban living possible. City existence is not the “artificial” antithesis of “close to nature” farm life. Villages and farms are just as artificial. Neither context, fortunately, resembles the primeval muck that our hunting ancestors struggled to endure.

An imaginative and humanistic use of Sukkot would avoid making invidious comparisons between the pure and divine

harvests of agricultural life and the sullied “harvests” of manufactured goods and services that modern urban existence provides. Both farming and industrial technology are expressions of the human will to change and to improve what is

not satisfactory. The breeding of juicy oranges is no less scientific and intrusive than the invention of computers.

A humanistic Sukkot is a tribute to human culture, agricultural, pastoral, and urban. There are many “harvests,” all

human, all “artificial,” all significant. The spaceship is the natural brother of the plow.

The early entry of the Jew into urban life, as part of the Jewish survival saga, is not alien to the mood of Sukkot. It is an expression of the same human ingenuity that cultivates the lulav and the etrog.

Meditations for Sukkot

CREATIVITY

Nature has two feces. Like an indulgent mother, it may smile protectively while caressing us with warmth and light. Or, like some cruel tyrant, it may laugh at our suffering, devouring our life in devilish upheavals and tempests. Human survival is no product of a benign world. It is the perpetual struggle of humanity with a universe that is often less than friendly. If autumn, as the season of harvest, suggests the scenic beauty of the rural countryside, it also announces the triumph of human ingenuity over die rocks and swamps and the unkempt wildness of empty fields. Farming is no passive art in which pastoral angels effortlessly pluck the fruits of life. History has made it a hard and taxing profession, by which human intelligence turns disaster into hope. Without the creative planning of human decision, there would be no harvest. As the frail sukka booth defies the winds of autumn and stands firm, so do creative farmers resist nature’s hostility and, by their wits, survive.

LIFE

The spirit of Sukkot goes beyond the harvest. Wherever human beings have tamed the primitive landscape of nature’s face and turned it to the useful business of human pleasure, this holiday finds a congenial home. Wherever the creative talent of human thought has rescued the natural elements from moral indifference and put them to work to make people less afraid, this festival can be comfortably celebrated. The technical marvel of the modem city is no emotional stranger to the harvest season. It shares with the ancient farmer a persistent wish. In the golden barley fields of biblical Israel, as well as in the concrete vertical thrust of the new Manhattan, the human determination to live finds its expression.

LOVE

Thanksgiving and gratitude are natural to this season. No person alone can subdue nature to human needs. Without the bonds of human love and cooperation, intelligence is useless. Our need for other people, our leaning on the efforts of other men and women, makes the claim of total self-sufficiency a pretense. Where people will not work together, there are no harvests. Where the ordered ties of human society are absent, there are no cities. Mutual dependence demands mutual gratitude. If we know that we need each other, thankful feelings arise.

PROCESSION

Our ancestors matched the splendor of the harvest with the magnificence of their celebration. They seized the luscious fruits of their labor and paraded them in song-filled processions. Branches of the stately date palm and the fragrant citrons of perfumed orchards filled their hands. They did not hide the joy of their success behind solemn prayers but danced out the pleasure of their victory for life.

— Sherwin T. Wine

(adapted from Celebrations)

Tu Bi-Shevat, Earth Day, and Environmentalism

Tu bi-Shevat  – Winter 1993

Jews and Canaanites were at one time the same people. They lived in the same land. They spoke the same language. They worshiped the same gods. Even when the Jews became attached to the cult of Yahveh and abandoned all the other gods, many elements of the old religion remained.

One of the old gods was the goddess Asherah. She was a farmer’s god, a deity of fertility. She made crops grow. Her male counterpart was Baal, lord of life and rain. Baal-worship featured phallic pillars erected on high hills. Asherah-worship featured trees — sacred trees that grew in temple compounds. The chief festival of Asherah followed immediately upon the completion of the rainy season, when the sap in the trees rose to its fullness.

The festival of Asherah fell near the end of winter. When the moon calendar be­came dominant, it found its place on either the new moon or the full moon of the month of Shevat. The ritual of the day was dramatic. Sacred trees were worshiped. Sacred dances were danced around the sacred trees. Fruit and nuts, the offspring of trees, were eaten in this celebration of fertility. Apples, almonds, and carob, the gifts of the goddess, were eagerly de­voured. As a turning point in the seasonal cycle, the beginning of the dry season became a demarcation point between the old year and the new year. Like the Druids (the priestesses of the Kelts), the priest­esses of Asherah made the “fullness” of the trees an opportunity to dramatize the power of life and its divine connection.

Although the worship of Asherah disap­peared from Jewish life, the festival of Asherah has not. It survives as Tu Bi- Shevat (Hamisha Asar Bi-Shevat). Like most Jewish holidays it has a non-Yahvistic origin; and, like most Jewish holidays, it has been integrated into the Yahveh cult. I suspect that, because of its powerful con­nection to the Asherah cult, both priests and rabbis tried to eliminate it. They did succeed in reducing it to a minor holiday. But the power of folk attachment rescued it. The people were not prepared to give up what they deemed indispensable. And the authorities were forced to yield to their attachment.

In the rabbinic tradition, Tu Bi-Shevat emerged as one of four new years. Nissan 1 (April) is the new year of the counting of the months and the reigns of kings. Elul 1 (August-September) is the new year of tithing cattle. Tishri 1 (September-October) is the new year of divine judgment (Rosh Hashana). And Shevat 1 (January-February) is the new year of the trees. While Rosh Hashana is dominant, the other new years remain as minor holidays. The New Year of the Trees features the eating of fruits and nuts, the recitation of special readings from the Bible about trees and nature, and the creation of devotional poems.

The urban world of the Diaspora, far from Palestine and far from the agricultural cycle of its seasons, was hardly supportive of a nature holiday with which the rabbis were uncomfortable. But, in the twentieth century, the Zionist movement breathed new life into it. The Zionists loved a Jewish holiday that could be identified with the reclamation of the land. The land needed trees, and Tu Bi-Shevat was about trees. The holiday became a Zionist “Earth Day,“ when trees were planted as a dramatic symbol of the Zionist commitment to res­toration and rebuilding. The Jewish Na­tional Fund replaced Asherah. Little blue collection boxes reminded us of Palestine and the Zionist mission. Planting trees became a Jewish obsession. Israel and conservation made a happy marriage.

Zionism revived Tu Bi-Shevat. But its passion was divided after 1948 between this winter holiday and the more dramatic Israel Independence Day. In the end pa­rades won out over trees. As for the Diaspora, the holiday was ill-suited to Jews living intemperate climates. Planting trees in the snow seemed a bit odd. And Israel was far away.

At the end of the 1960s the true substi­tute for Asherah arrived on the scene. The environmental movement, with all its ro­mantic passion, made its debut. It was the ideal movement for the educated children of the middle class. No longer concerned with the struggle for survival, they now turned to issues of happiness and quality of life. Safe, clean, and beautiful environ­ments suited the tastes of a rising leisure class. And the rigorous demands of an environmentalist discipline, from recycling to detergent control, appealed to a permis­sive generation that could no longer find its moral structure in the old religion.

Environmentalism became a new “reli­gion” for many young people. By the 1980s it was the most important issue for the youth generation. After the demise of socialism and the New Left, it had no rivals. Nature had won out over revolu­tion. Earth Day triumphed over May Day. Pollution, rather than capitalism, became the ultimate enemy. Schmutz took on the evil face of exploitation.

With the arrival of Earth Day as an environmentalist celebration, Tu Bi-Shevat developed real possibilities for the Diaspora. A Jewish holiday attached to trees seemed a perfect connection between Judaism and youthful idealism. Gradually Tu Bi-Shevat moved out of the narrow Zionist world into the broader sphere of universal values. An ethical idealism that touched every inch of the planet embraced the holiday and gave it a powerful significance that it had not enjoyed since the heyday of Asherah.

Tu Bi-Shevat, as the Jewish Earth Day, has enormous potential. It can mobilize Jewish people to fight pollution and to resist the forces that destroy the beauty of our environment. It can also reinforce Jewish identity by marrying a Jewish holi­day to an overwhelmingly important social concern. The discipline of keeping the environment clean is almost as satisfying as kashrut, especially if it is done with Hebrew words.

But the Earth Day theme can be danger­ous, especially if environmentalism is con­fused with the currently fashionable nature mysticism. Historic environmentalism is rational. Nature mysticism is irrational.

What is nature mysticism?

It is the worship of nature, as though nature were a goddess like Asherah. Asherah’s modern name is Gaia, and Gaia-worship is growing.

Rational environmentalism does not worship nature. It seeks to control it. It strives to use human ingenuity to make the world safer, cleaner, and more beautiful for human beings. It is not the enemy of science and technology. It knows that it needs science and technology to do what it has to do. Cleaning up the environment requires more scientific know-how than making it dirty.

Rational environmentalism avoids the three irrational premises of nature mysti­cism:

“Nature is a harmonious whole.”

Nature mystics imagine that life has a single agenda. All of life is a single organic whole. It is like a single giant organism that covers the surface of the planet. The name of this giant organism is Gaia. Gaia has an unconscious intelligence or mind. This unconscious intelligence has a pur­pose. This purpose is the purpose of life.

But is it true that the fish and the fisherman have one purpose? Is it the secret dream of every little fish to end up as fried fish on a human dinner table? Is it the unconscious intention of every fisher­man to avoid catching any fish? What is their shared agenda? Gaia means coopera­tion. And very often two living species — or two living individuals — cooperate. But they also compete. A world of competition means many agendas, not one. That is the story of life’s evolution. That is the story of natural selection. There are as many Gaias as there are living creatures striving to survive. And none of them is a goddess.

The agenda of cancer cells is not the agenda of the people they invade. The agenda of viruses is not the agenda of the victims they infect. The agenda of the species may not be the agenda of the individual member of the species. The agenda of human survival may not be the agenda of human happiness. Floods may be wonderful for fish, but they tend to be disastrous for people. Disease is marvelous for population control, but it does not do very much for the quality of life. The harmony of nature is an illusion.

“Everything natural is good.”

Nature mystics maintain that whatever nature produces is good, even if we cannot figure out why it is good. If nature pro­duces a phallic foreskin, it should not be cut off. If nature’s lightning starts a forest fire, it should not be put out. If nature’s evolution produces a living species, it should not be exterminated. Nature is sacred, just as Asherah was sacred. When we interfere with nature, we incur the “wrath of the gods.”

But not everything natural is good. Moral good relates to the human agenda, to what is good for the satisfaction of human needs. Neither the evolution of the universe nor the evolution of life is concerned about human happiness. They are not even con­cerned with the pleasure and survival of other living beings. Natural selection is a blind and grim force. Most of its inventions are useless mutations. The fact that human beings did not invent them does not mean that they are good.

If we want to save baby seals, it is not because they are “good.” Human beings are “turned on” by other animals that look like them, can suffer like them, and appear beautiful in their eyes. Cockroaches do not qualify. They do not “turn us on,” and we squish them mercilessly. The choice is quite arbitrary. But I have known many cockroach squishers who are very good environmentalists.

Revering all of nature makes no more sense than worshiping Asherah or Yahveh or Gaia. Understanding nature makes a lot more sense than worshiping it.

“Everything humans make is artificial.”

Nature mystics maintain that deliberate human creations are not natural and are, therefore, inferior to what is natural. Cities are inferior to wilderness. Modern medi­cine is inferior to herbs. Living with hu­man artifacts is inferior to living with what grows. Humans are the inventors of the unnatural, alien invaders and intruders into the realm of nature.

But human beings are not outside of nature. They are part of nature’s evolution. And what they create is not outside of nature. It is an expression of natural power. Robins make nests. Beavers make dams. And people build cities. Cities are no less natural than nests or dams. They are made from the materials that nature provides. Quite simply, everything that exists is nature. And everything that happens is natural. When people farm, that is natural. When people heal, that is natural. When people erect buildings, that is natural. Sometimes cities are better for people than poisonous swamps. Sometimes medicines made from factory chemicals are better than medicines made from plant chemi­cals. Sometimes living with cats may be more dangerous than living with couches.

As you can see, nature mysticism de­tracts from a rational environmentalism. But it is not the only ideological danger. It shares this distinction with Pollyanna mysticism.

What is Pollyanna mysticism?

Pollyanna mysticism is the cult of eter­nal optimism, the worship of “progress.” It is just as irrational as nature mysticism. Here are two of its irrational premises:

“There are fewer environmental dangers than we imagine.”

Pollyanna mystics practice a lot of de­nial. They prefer to be optimistic. They resist voices of doom. They are suspicious of anybody who predicts natural catastro­phes. The Religious Right believes that the ozone threat is an illusion, a dangerous illusion invented by atheists to subvert American industry and the Christian work ethic. They said so at an evangelical meet­ing held just after the Republican Conven­tion in August. Pollyanna mystics believe that nuclear power is perfectly safe, that the disaster at Chernobyl has been exagger­ated. A major potential source of industrial power and human enhancement (they say) is being destroyed by environmental fanat­ics, who have become a new “clergy,” eager to regulate the lives of conscientious entrepreneurs and to undermine techno­logical and human progress. Pollyanna mystics have found their counter-scien­tists — men and women who battle with the scientific establishment and press their own counter-statistics.

But the environmental dangers they deride stare us in the face. The tobacco industry can maintain that the connection between smoking and lung cancer is still uncertain. Yet the evidence for that con­nection is overwhelming. The spray com­panies can maintain that ozone blight is an illusion. But the rise in the evidence of skin cancer has a compelling relationship to the increasing presence of harmful radiation. The nuclear power industry can maintain that the Chernobyl disaster is only a propa­ganda triumph. Yet the distressing statis­tics from the Ukraine and Belarus are stark reminders of disaster.

“Environmentalism stands in the way of human advancement.”

Pollyanna mystics believe that environ­mentalism means excessive regulation, that excessive regulation means big govern­ment, and that big government means the disappearance of ambition and invention. The government, they say, is now choos­ing to defend strange birds and even stranger fish against the legitimate demands of thousands of Americans for jobs. It stands as a barrier to economic development.

There is some truth to this accusation. But not a lot. It may be true that trying to preserve every rare species simply kills necessary jobs and does little or nothing to preserve the beauty and health of the environment. It also may be true that mem­bers of the prosperous middle class now want the wilderness for their playground and, having “made it” themselves, do not care whether the people below them have a chance to make it too. But the most im­portant truth is that enormous progress has been made in recent years in the Western world to clean up and beautify the environ­ment. Pollution has declined. Conserva­tion has been enhanced. Personal habits and discipline have altered for the better. Lakes, rivers, and urban settings that were unusable and dangerous have been ren­dered fit for human pleasure. Many human lives have been saved. And many more will be saved. And that is progress. The pollution hell created by overzealous in­dustrialization in Eastern Europe is not human advancement. If you cannot breathe, having a job is meaningless.

Jewish Earth Day is a wonderful time to celebrate our commitment to a rational environmentalism. We do not want to be either nature mystics or Pollyanna mys­tics. We do not want to worship either nature or technological progress. We just want to celebrate the power we have to create a healthier and more beautiful world to live in.

Tu Bi-Shevat does not need either Asherah or Gaia. It has the dream of human happiness

RESPONSA – Sitting Shiva

Return to Tradition – Summer 1992

Question: Should Humanistic Jewish mourners sit shiva?

Responsum: The mourning practices of rabbinic Judaism were built around a belief system that no longer generally prevails in the Jewish community. This system began with an all-powerful judgmental God who was the master of life and death. Death was ambiguous. It might be a sign of divine anger and divine punishment. God’s dis­pleasure was not trivial. It needed to be countered. The deity needed to be ap­peased. And the spirit world of the dead, including evil and malevolent spirits, needed to be avoided and even driven away.

This ideology explains the traditional practice. Only the appearance of abject suffering and misery could persuade both God and the spirit world not to strike again. The mourners — the sons, daugh­ters, fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters of the deceased — must be as pitiable as possible. They must tear their garments. They must sit on the ground or on harsh surfaces. They must not wash or dress in fine clothing. They must abstain from good food. They must not laugh or joke or participate in happy events. They must be confined to their homes during the first seven days (shiva) of mourning. If com­forters arrive, they must sit in silence until the mourners initiate conversation.

Of course, the ideological basis of tradi­tional mourning practices is unacceptable to us as Humanistic Jews. So is the notion of enforced suffering to ensure protection. Unwashed, uncomfortable, and underfed mourners are inconsistent with our view of dignified grief.

But the traditional mourning procedure had an unintended consequence. The prac­tice of staying home after the burial of loved ones to receive family and friends turned out to be therapeutic for mourners. In liberal circles, where most of the hard­ship routines were removed, being sur­rounded by caring friends became a won­derful source of human support.

Humanistic Judaism is very comfortable with a humanistic “shiva.” It does not have to last for seven days. It should last as long as the mourners want it. For some, one day may be enough; for others, eight days. Most Humanistic mourners choose three. A small minority find no need for any “shiva.”

Humanistic “shiva” is built around the notion that life and death are natural phe­nomena, with no intrusion by gods or spirits. It is based on the conviction that vulnerable mourners need as much human support as they can find. Mourners should be comfortable. Conversation should be free.

Many Humanistic Jews hold a brief commemorative celebration of the life of the deceased every evening, or one of the evenings, of the “shiva.” Family and friends sit in a circle and share stories about the life of the person who died. Prose readings and poetry selections about a humanistic response to death may be read. Inspirational songs may be sung. (Examples of these home commemoratives are avail­able from the Society for Humanistic Juda­ism.)

History is filled with ironies. What started out to serve one purpose later serves an­other.

“Shiva” has been transformed and is now ours.

The Return to Tradition

Return to Tradition, summer 1992

The return to tradition.

Everybody in the Jewish world is talking about it. Secular children have become Lubavitchers. Young, liberal couples are sending their children to day schools. Reform rabbis are donning yarmulkes and waist-length tallises. Lighting Shabbat candles with the children is becoming the rage. “Benching” is again a communal function.

There is no doubt that a significant shift has taken place in Jewish life, at least in conscious sentiment. The traditions of rab­binic Judaism, which were often mocked and discarded by the Jewish establishment and the Jewish masses in both the United States and Israel, are being treated with new reverence. Orthodoxy — once derided by reformers, liberals, and radicals as a dying superstition — has reclaimed its authority in Jewish life. Although most Jews no longer live by its precepts, they have come to believe that the “real” Juda­ism is traditional Judaism and that Ortho­doxy is the only true source of Jewish strength and survival.

Today, thousands of secular and liberal Jews give millions of dollars to the Lubavitchers. Although they are not pre­pared to change their personal lifestyle, they are prepared to support those who do. Today, feature writers about Jewish life in the Jewish and national press quote tradi­tional rabbis and religiously observant Jews in depicting what Judaism is all about. The writers have come to assume that Orthodox opinion is more authentically Jewish and, above all, more newsworthy. The Lubavitcher Rebbe and Shlomo Carlebach have become media stars. Even Reform and Conservative rabbis now praise Orthodoxy and designate the Orthodox as the hard­core saving remnant of Jewish spirituality. Liberals can afford to deviate from Ortho­doxy because the saving remnant guaran­tees the survival of the Jewish people.

The return to tradition is both nostalgic and radical. It is nostalgic because it seeks to recapture the Jewishness of the past. It is radical because it is often embraced by Jews whose families long since abandoned the religious tradition. The yarmulke as a familiar headgear on college campuses and at symphony concerts is something radi­cally new. Events and institutions created by the secular world are now deemed an appropriate setting for traditional “the­ater.”

Why this resurgence of Orthodox pres­tige and power?

The most obvious reason is concern for Jewish survival. The open society that liberal and secular Jews praised and de­fended has turned out to be a mixed bless­ing. Millions of Jews used their liberty to become educated and prosperous. They also chose to make their Jewishness a minimal commitment. While climbing the social ladder, Jews were enthusiastic about their freedom. Once they reached the top, anxiety set in. What if their incredible success in an open society should lead to assimilation and the disappearance of the Jewish people in the Diaspora? What if freedom should prove as powerful as the Holocaust in decimating the ranks of the Jewish people? The Orthodox insistence that they, and only they, can guarantee Jewish survival became a powerful appeal to guilty Jews who did not believe in Orthodoxy but who could not imagine any viable alternative.

The Americanization of the American Jew was completed by the 1960s. No new large wave of Jewish immigration appeared. Second- and third-generation American Jews felt comfortably American, especially with the decline of anti-Semitism. They felt no need to prove their American iden­tity by discarding the embarrassing ethnic baggage of the past. The de-WASPing of America and the rise of ethnic pride move­ments made them hungry for ethnic roots. The Eastern European shtetl, which their parents and grandparents had fled, was revived in romantic fantasy. Orthodoxy, which had been intimately woven into the fabric of this village life, was equally romanticized. Hasidic rebbes and Chelm stories became the rage. In a world where acting Anglo-Saxon was now easy and ordinary, dabbling in tradition became exotic and extraordinary.

The war in Vietnam helped to usher in what many intellectuals now designate as the postmodern world. Science, reason, and optimism were out. Spirituality, intu­ition, and pessimism were in. Objective truth vanished. Subjective feelings tri­umphed. Male left-brain “rigidity” was rejected. Female right-brain creativity was applauded. Meditation and mysticism be­came daily routines for millions.

In such an environment, the old super­stition turned into the new wisdom. The Torah became a fountain of spiritual truth. The Kabbala became the secret key to the universe. Roles were reversed. The spiritu­alists were on the attack. The rationalists were on the defensive. Jewish youth were caught up in the experiments of New Age thinking. If they had any strong Jewish interest, Jewish mysticism, or an Orthodox version thereof, was there for them.

Meanwhile, stimulated by the immigra­tion of militant ultra-Orthodox Jews after the Holocaust, American Orthodoxy had changed its organizational profile. Reject­ing the old self-image of being peripheral, passive, and doomed, which characterized prewar Orthodoxy, the Lubavitchers, in particular, wedded their reactionary mes­sage to the most advanced, American-style public relations techniques. They mobi­lized an army of underpaid devotees who were eager to become “missionaries” to the Jews. Their well-funded, aggressive stance became a role model for other tradi­tional groups. When the guilt of freedom, the search for romantic roots, and the postmodern world arrived, they were ready to take advantage of these new-found op­portunities. Like the Christian fundamen­talists, their zeal, combined with their organizational talents, made them much more skillful at recruitment than the smug establishment. The advertising and fol­low-up skills that secularists had invented were now theirs.

The most powerful reason for the return to tradition lies in the very nature of the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstruc­tionist movements. All three, from the very beginning, made a crucial, perhaps fatal, decision. In their eagerness for legitimacy, they sought to “kosherize” the changes, sometimes radical changes, that they were making. The authorities they chose to sanction these changes were the very docu­ments that Orthodoxy used. Like the Or­thodox, they appealed to the Torah and to the Talmud to give them permission to do what they did. Of course, they provided a different interpretation. But the problem was that the Torah and the Talmud are basically Orthodox documents. They fit Orthodox Judaism with very little adjust­ment. They do not fit Conservatism, Re­form, and Reconstructionism. A liberal Jewish lifestyle, embracing everything from free choice to feminism, cannot be derived from these documents, unless you burst them out of their context and make them mean what they obviously do not mean.

Conservative, Reform, and Reconstruc­tionist Jews are always apologizing, al­ways trying desperately to prove that they are Torah-true. But, as any observer can readily see, only the Orthodox are really Torah- and Talmud-true. If you base your legitimacy on the Torah and Talmud, and you are not Orthodox, you lack credibility. In the end, the sham and the pretense show through. Once the drive for social accep­tance with the secular world is spent, and the drive for Jewish authenticity begins, the only “authentic” movement is Ortho­doxy. Reform and Conservatism become merely watered-down derivatives. They have no real documents of their own. Their only strategy for survival is to do more and more Orthodox things. (Maybe if Reform Jews are dunked in mikvas, they will come to see Reform as more authentic!)

What does this return to tradition mean? What significance is to be found in the new Reform davening, in the fascination with traditional ritual, in the fervor of the new ba’al teshuva (returnee).

The first item of note is how thin it is. While a small minority of young Jews have become full returnees, repudiating the secu­lar world and joining ultra-Orthodox com­munities, the overwhelming majority of returnees are only partial. They want to do traditional things only once in a while, on a marathon weekend for Pesakh, at a bar mitsva, at a wedding, on a trip to Israel. They are too secular to want to do religion often. But when they do it, they want the “real” thing.

For this reason, the Conservative move­ment is shrinking and Reform is expand­ing. Conservative Judaism is not enough for the full returnee and too much for the partial returnee. Full returnees are turned off by the moderation of the Conservatives, while partial returnees do not want to be lectured about daily observances. Reform now provides a taste of tradition without burdening the returnee with the guilt of nonconformity. You can have your hour of traditional “schmaltz” on a Friday night or a Saturday morning and renew your secular life immediately afterward. You can belong to a Reform temple, sponsor a fundraising event for the Lubavitchers, and go to the symphony with your Gentile girlfriend. Partial returnees are rarely bur­dened with demands for consistency. They can feel traditional without doing many traditional things. Tradition is a “now” experience instead of a consistent life plan.

The return to tradition means the death of ideology in Jewish life. Contemporary returnees are rarely interested in the ques­tion “Is it true?” They are much more interested in the question “Is it Jewish?” Orthodox ritual is revived because it is good for Jewish survival, not because the theological ideas that spawned it are be­lievable. Even the Lubavitchers recom­mend action over belief. Say the prayer even if you do not believe in the prayer. The act of recitation will turn you into a believer.

Everything is linked to the urgency of Jewish survival. Integrity vanishes. The ideological framework of rabbinic Judaism is torn down and replaced by a bland commitment to doing more and more Jew­ish things. Does the El Male prayer refer to an afterlife in Paradise? Who cares, it’s Jewish! Does the bedeken (veiling) cere­mony before the wedding arise out of the male chauvinist need of the groom to identify the bride he has purchased? Who cares, it’s Jewish! Does the recitation of the ten plagues at the Passover seder suggest that God is a vengeful deity who punishes the good together with the wicked? Who cares, it’s Jewish! Sincere belief goes out the window. The body of tradition is retained. But the heart of tradition, its be­lief system and world view are dead. Only the ultra-Orthodox pay any attention to the necessity of both. And then not always.

The return to tradition means the new self-confidence of the Orthodox. On the one hand, there is the creeping polariza­tion of the Jewish community between the militant ultra-Orthodox and the secular­ized Jews (whether they be formally reli­gious or openly secular). On the other hand, there is the growing intrusion of Orthodox demands on the general commu­nity through the new army of devoted missionaries, who present themselves as our teachers and serve as a wedge of indoctrination and pressure. Partial re­turnees, who are ambivalent about tradi­tional lifestyles, are like putty in the hands of these missionaries. They do not want to be Orthodox. But they feel guilty not being Orthodox. They believe that the “real” Judaism is the old religious tradition. Only the Orthodox, in their eyes, have any legitimate authority. Despite the smallness of their numbers, the Orthodox have turned non-Orthodox Jews into ideological defen­dants. The ultra-Orthodox do not wish to participate in the general Jewish commu­nity; they wish to control it through a form of spiritual intimidation.

How do we respond to the return to tradition?

We refuse to view the return to tradition as something positive. The segregated lifestyle of the full returnees is unattractive to contemporary Jews who embrace an open society. And the ambivalent stance of par­tial returnees is without integrity or prin­ciple — an effortless, nostalgic indulgence.

We refuse to give the Orthodox the authority they do not deserve. We do not play the Torah and Talmud game. Only by boldly proclaiming that our authority lies in reason, conscience, and the Jewish ex­perience will we be able to counter the new intimidation. In that respect Humanistic Judaism can play an important role. We are the only Jewish movement willing to de­clare our independence from the old losing strategy. We cannot find our legitimacy in the sacred documents of Orthodoxy. The Torah and the Talmud are historically interesting, but they are not and cannot be the constitution for dissenting Jews. Only when we have a literature that clearly expresses what we believe will we be free of the curse of apology, inferior status, and hypocrisy. If we do not need to be “kosherized” by tradition, we do not need to return to it. There are other ways to be effective Jews.

We refuse to endorse the notion that only Orthodoxy can guarantee the survival of the Jewish people. The most dramati­cally successful Jewish movement in the twentieth century was Zionism. Zionism means more than the reestablishment of an independent Jewish state. It also means the redefinition of Judaism as an ethnic cul­ture. Only a bold cultural Judaism, which is unafraid to proclaim its radical break with Orthodoxy and to live with the virtues and risks of an open society, can reach the vast majority of Jews.

The return to tradition is a powerful challenge to Secular Humanistic Jews. It is also an opportunity to make our unique message heard.

Purim

Purim, Winter 1992

In rabbinic Judaism, Purim is less major than Sukkot and less minor than Tu Bi-Shevat. Like Hanukka, it enjoys a not too solemn middle status.

Purim has a built-in ambivalence. On the one hand, it features masks and plays and Mardi Gras type fun. On the other hand, it insists on reading a serious story about a Persian anti-Semite who plots to destroy all the Jews and is, in turn, de­stroyed with all his cohorts. Anti-Semitism and Carnival, on the surface at least, do not seem to mix very easily.

This odd combination is due to Purim’s history.

The original Purim may have been cel­ebrated on the full moon of Adar (some­where around March 1). Like Tu Bi-Shevat, it was one of several “welcome to spring’’ fertility festivals that were available for public use. Yahveh was not in its original cast of characters. Rival deities who had their origins in Babylonia held center stage. Marduk (Mordecai) was the god of the heavens. Ishtar (Esther) was the goddess of the fertile earth. Haman was an under­world devil with pretensions. Zeus, Demeter, and Hades would be comparable stars in a Greek setting. Ishtar and Haman, the forces of life and death, vie with each other. Ishtar triumphs. And so, of course, does the spring.

Like the Mardi Gras festival, the day was filled with dramatic reenactments of the story and sexual liaisons to promote fertil­ity. Ishtar was served by impersonation, masks, and disguise. Fun was inevitable.

The name Purim is obscure. And the place of origin is also not clear. Was it a native Palestinian holiday dressed up in Babylonian clothing? Or was it a Babylonian import adopted by a growing community of Babylonian Jews? No one is sure.

What is sure is that the priests and rabbis cleaned up the holiday for official Jewish use. Marduk and Ishtar could not remain in the story as gods. They reemerged as two nice Persian Jews (the Persians had re­placed the Chaldean Babylonians as the conquerors of the Jews) who were now being persecuted by a Persian devil called Haman. The Book of Esther is the result of these revisions.

If there is no reference to Yahveh in this entire story, it is only because Yahveh was not part of the original story. The authors simply turned the pagan gods into people.

However, the rabbis never really trusted Purim. It was not pure enough for their taste.[1] Only political controversy rescued the holiday. Rabbinic hostility to the Maccabees gave Purim a chance to suc­ceed. The major celebration of the Maccabean victories was not Hanukka but Nicanor’s Day, which fell on the thirteenth of Adar. (Nicanor was a Greek general whom the Maccabees had defeated in a fierce battle.) Simply abolishing Nicanor’s Day would not work. Substituting another holiday for it, on the very next day, would divert public attention with alternative activity. Purim was ready and available for this new role. The people fell in love with it.

Some humorless modernists have diffi­culty with Purim. They deplore the venge­ful treatment of Haman. And they are wary of celebrating a holiday about people who never really existed.

But Humanistic Jews are reluctant to discard a fun-filled holiday with as much potential as Purim, especially one that ironically gave up its theology for theologi­cal reasons. While the story of Mordecai and Esther is indeed mythical, it can be treated as a legend. A charming tale that demonstrates how human ingenuity and human courage prevail is much more hu­manistic than pious truths about pious rabbis.

Since dressing up as a Purim character is part of the traditional celebration, why not expand the idea to include all the heroes of Jewish history? We need a “hero day” to honor the humanistic role models of our past and present. In this way, the legendary story becomes the setting for honors to real people.

      Heroes are important. They are the embodiment of our ideals. Even when we exaggerate their virtues, honoring them is preferable to not having them at all.

      We need two kinds of ancestral roots. We need folk roots, the memories of persons and places that describe our begin­nings and development. We also need ethical roots, role models of behavior from our family tree. After all, the gods of traditional religion started out as revered ancestors.

Traditional Jews already have their hu­man pantheon. Most of it is ancient and, therefore, open to mystery and myth. Abraham, Moses, David, Ezra, Hillel, Akiba, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are the major stars. And there are dozens of minor ethical performers who people the pages of the Torah and the Talmud.

Humanistic Jews are still in the process of assembling their hero list. While most of the traditional heroes are appropriate memo­ries for our folk roots, many of them are inappropriate as moral guides, as ethical role models. Some of them adored the supernatural and deplored any reliance on human effort. Others were militantly paro­chial, viewing any social connection with Gentiles as defiling and abhorrent.

We cannot simply borrow the tradi­tional list and doctor it up a bit. We have to create our own list. It will include not only ancient luminaries, but also modern sages; not only those who stayed within the framework of organized religion, but also those who denounced it. Our list of heroes will include fewer people who can hide behind the myths of an unknown past and more people who are forced to face the scientific scrutiny of the present.

But how do we choose?

      What are the criteria for a Humanistic Jewish hero?

      If we expand Purim to Hero Day —retaining all the fun and using Mordecai and Esther as legendary models — we will have a guide.

      Humanistic Jewish heroes have to be famous. They have to distinguish them­selves in some field of human endeavor so that their names are widely known. The heroes must be identifiable, not only to their friends, but also to their enemies. A model figure whom nobody knows is hardly the stuff from which heroes are made.

They have to enjoy their Jewishness. Humanist heroes of Jewish origin who have no positive interest in their Jewish identity can hardly be models for those who choose this value.

They have to make decisions in a ratio­nal way. If they were always talking about faith and sacred authority, they would be an embarrassment to recommend to hu­manistic youth. This criterion does not mean that they must be explicit devotees of empiricism and the scientific method. Our heroes simply may be commonsensical people open to changing their opinion on the basis of new evidence and able to live with uncertainty and the unknown.

They have to be people of action. In times of crisis, they must avoid passive waiting and use their human skills to solve their problems. The childish posture that places responsibility for action on outside protective powers is not morally accept­able. Prayer is harmful when it is a substi­tute for real action. Waiting for the messiah does not qualify someone as a humanist hero.

They have to be bold. They must be willing to publicly challenge old ideas that do not conform to the evidence of experi­ence and to defy old institutions that no longer serve human needs. They are not afraid to be innovators.

They have to be caring persons. They must be able to transcend themselves to serve the needs of others. They must be sensitive not only to the desires of those who are familiar but also to the desires of strangers. Rational people who use their reason against the welfare of the commu­nity may be smart, but they are hardly humanist heroes.

Who, in Jewish history, fits these crite­ria? Many come to mind: David, Elisha ben Abuya (the radical rabbi of the ancient world], Baruch Spinoza, Theodore Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Woody Allen, Sholem Aleichem.

These people are humanistic Jewish philosophy translated into the flesh. They are easier to understand and to imitate than are abstract principles.

The Purim play needs more characters. We start with Mordecai and Esther. But we do not have to stop with them.

Marriage and Humanistic Judaism

Marriage Manual, Summer 1987

When marriage began, there was very little talk about romantic love, friendship, and personal growth. Marriage was soci­ety’s way of licensing reproduction and providing a structure for the rearing of chil­dren. In some parts of the world, this view of the relationship between husband and wife still prevails.

Bonding between men and women is very old, certainly prehistoric. For the woman, the initial motivation was protec­tion for herself and her children. For the man, the initial purpose was sexual. After men discovered the connection between sexual intercourse and reproduction, the appeal of owning and controlling women and children became a second motivation.

In the Semitic world, from which Jews emerged, marriage became a patriarchal institution. It was designed by vested inter­est and folk custom to enhance masculine power. Women were purchased from their fathers and became the property of their husbands. Virginity was demanded of brides but not of grooms. Chastity was required of wives but not of husbands. Men, if they could afford it, could enjoy more than one wife. Women were stuck with one husband — and often many rivals. Men could divorce their wives with little provo­cation. But women, as the possessions of their husbands, had to endure what is unen­durable in our eyes.

In the traditional Semitic world, mar­riage was obligatory for all males and females — a sign of their commitment to the survival of their families, clans, and tribes. Since reproduction was the primary pur­pose of marriage, older men married younger women. Seldom did younger men marry older women. Romantic love was rare because it diverted from the central theme of survival and status. Friendship between husband and wife was difficult because men and women were not equal and spent very little social time together. If anything, poverty enhanced the condition of women by forcing men to use their labor in the fields. The wives of rich men suffered exclusion and isolation.

Of course, as the patriarchal legends of the Bible indicate, the landscape was not entirely bleak. Most men practiced monog­amy. Many husbands and wives were joined together by loyalty and mutual respect through years of marriage. Many women enjoyed the task of mothering. They also enjoyed great power over their sons, espe­cially after their husbands died. And clever women often exercised enormous power over their husbands, even though they were careful to preserve the outer signs of male domination.

The structures of the old Semitic family prevailed through most of Jewish history until the advent of the secular age. While the urbanization of Jews radically altered their economic life, it did not change the basic concept of marriage, which was contained in the rules and regulations of the Torah and the Talmud. In fact, bourgeois life often aggravated the work distinctions between husband and wife by separating the workplace from the home. Men spent less time as fathers. Women spent more time as mothers.

The traditional Jewish marriage was hardly the stuff out of which humanist dreams are made. Male chauvinism, the focus on reproductive purposes, and the confinement of women to narrowly defined tasks violate our ideals and commitments. In fact, it is hard to imagine that they ex­isted, especially after the dramatic changes of the past two hundred years.

Capitalism, science, and democracy ren­dered traditional marriage obsolete. City life provided jobs for women outside the home and gave them independent economic power. Children became more expensive and less useful. The technology of birth con­trol emerged with the motivation to use it. Old patriarchal political structures declined, yielding to popular elections. Land, ances­tors, and tradition became less important and a new competitive environment of new options took their place.

The results are dramatic. Men are less sure of themselves. Women are more confi­dent. More women are having fewer chil­dren. More people are choosing to remain single. Premarital sex is popular. Divorce is a freely used option for both men and women. Extended families have disap­peared. More and more nuclear families have two breadwinners. And modern psy­chology has elevated love and friendship to requirements for a good marriage.

Despite this social revolution, marriage remains very popular. The overwhelming majority of men and women in North America still choose to marry, even though they may do it more than once. Of course, there are many variations. Some couples prefer to have no children. Some live to­gether for short or long periods of time before they seek the formal sanction of society through civil or religious cere­monies. Some dispense with the old work distinctions of husband and wife, sharing the traditional female tasks of housekeeping and parenting.

How do we as humanistic Jews respond to all this change? While we must certainly be pleased about the overthrow of patri­archal marriage, we may not be equally enthusiastic about all the developments that followed. While the tyranny of folk custom may limit human potential, a free society may produce consequences that are not conducive to healthy marriage. Frequent divorce, extramarital sex, frivolous motiva­tion, sado-masochistic unions, and an ab­sence of commitment would not receive humanistic endorsement, even though they are new and chic in certain circles.

So, what are the moral and psychological criteria that we would use to determine the value of a marriage? First of all, it is impor­tant to emphasize that marriage is valuable. Bonding between men and women serves a deep human need. Social experiments that have sought to dispense with marriage in some kind of sexual free-for-all have not succeeded. But marriage is more than a pri­vate arrangement. It deserves and needs the recognition of society because it is the major support system both for adult individuals and for children in our culture. Promises are made that need the authority of the com­munity to apply pressure for their fulfill­ment. Today, too many people abandon worthwhile relationships because they are unable to sustain any form of short-run pain and frustration.

A humanistic Jewish marriage may have children as a primary motivation. But it need not. Couples who love and respect each other and choose to have no children have a morally valid reason for getting mar­ried. There is no single ethically valid pur­pose for matrimony.

A humanistic Jewish marriage insists on equality, an equal sharing of power in deci­sion making. Of course, this condition is more easily advocated than arranged for. Talent, persuasive powers, and unconscious intimidation skills are not equally distrib­uted. Pragmatic equality means that major decisions are arrived at through negotiation and consultation, not unilaterally. Good- humored couples often divide up major responsibilities between husband and wife to save time. Menial work is always the rub. The emerging pattern when wives work outside the home is that men are mastering housekeeping skills, which many of them already have acquired in single life.

A humanistic Jewish marriage demands love. Love is more than a feeling. It is a nur­turing behavior derived from our childhood experience with parents. Romantic feelings come and go. Sexual desire comes and goes. Since neither is open to human control, they can be praised. They cannot be demanded. Love, on the other hand, is a caring behav­ior. It reinforces self-esteem. It relieves pain. It shares pleasure. It offers support. It is a moral obligation, whether one is in the mood or not.

A humanistic Jewish marriage involves friendship. In traditional societies, men had male friends and women had female friends. But in a society of equality, more and more husbands and wives are discovering that they are best friends to each other. In fact, they frequently become friends first, even before any romantic interest develops. Friendship means intimacy, the willingness to share thoughts and feelings, the willing­ness to be vulnerable. It also means honesty, the ability to stop pretending, the freedom to let others know what we really are. People are willing to confide only when they trust one another. And trust derives from the chemistry of a relationship, the sense that the other person really understands and really cares.

A humanistic Jewish marriage is based on a commitment to exclusive sexual rela­tions. It does not separate love, friendship, and sexual intimacy. In the early days of sexual liberation, open marriage was advo­cated as a legitimate option. Since then, most of its advocates have retracted their endorsement. One has to be emotionally naive about the evolution of human desire to imagine that, if you can only dispense with irrational guilt, having sex is no more significant than eating candy. And one has to be naive about self-esteem to believe that choosing alternative sexual partners is not viewed as an act of rejection by either hus­band or wife. Jealousy is a real human emo­tion, which so-called liberated hedonists love to deny or dismiss as childish, but which defines the limits of sexual freedom. Only cruel spouses arrange for sexual games that undermine trust, love, and friendship. The commitment of marriage is a sexual discipline that subordinates phys­ical intimacy to the project of bonding. People who want to be promiscuous should not marry.

A humanistic Jewish marriage involves increasing levels of commitment. Verbal pledges cannot produce what only experi­ence can create. One of the ironies of mar­riage is that we usually have the biggest celebration at the beginning, when the bonds still may be thin. Perhaps we should reverse the procedure. Perhaps couples should live together for a period of time to explore their compatibility in an exclusive relationship before they seek the sanction of the state and the religious community. Per­haps the marriage ceremony should be a modest one, appropriate to the level of their love and friendship. Perhaps, in five or ten years, when they have demonstrated the viability of their choice, they can turn to more splendid celebrations. In any case, the now common practice of living together before marriage for a trial period may be morally more desirable than most tradition­alists allow.

A humanistic Jewish marriage is not a prison. All decisions are risks. They may lead to what we want. They may not. To insist on preserving what is not worthy of preservation is irrational. There is no value to eternity for eternity’s sake. Divorce is the right to correct mistakes, to terminate suf­fering, to try again. Divorce is not a sign that the marriage was rotten. In many cases, it worked quite well for a short or long period of time. People change. Needs change. Both husbands and wives have the right to end their marriage if love, friendship, and trust are gone.

A humanistic Jewish marriage learns from Jewish history. The Jewish experience speaks a humanistic message, the message that we cannot rely on the kindness of des­tiny, that we must assume the responsibility for our own fate. In the end, the success of a marriage does not depend on “good luck.” It depends on the commitment of husband and wife to make their relationship work. Commitment is an act of will, a willingness to endure temporary pain in order to achieve some future pleasure. Without that deter­mination it is highly unlikely, in this age of personal liberation, that any marriage will last for long. People without the power of commitment are condemned to live in the desperate world of immediate gratification.

One of the reasons why personal commit­ment is so difficult is that social pressures to get married and to stay married are fast disappearing. It is not true that people in the past were more committed to relationships than people are today. It is just that the out­side support system has fallen away. In a real sense, commitment today is far more genuine than it was in the past. It is now an unforced personal decision in a sea of social indifference. We have to choose commit­ment. It is no longer coerced.

The sign of commitment is that we develop realistic expectations of a marriage relationship, that we do not seek to sabotage the bonding with inappropriate fantasy. We do not expect our marriage partner always to be available to us at our beck and call. We do not expect him or her to be a substitute for our father or mother. We do not expect that marriage will banish boredom and tedium. We do not expect that loving some­one is the same as falling in love.

In our consumer culture, expectation levels are so high that they condemn mil­lions of people to disappointment who otherwise would be happy. And growing up takes so long that we often feel needy and victimized, unaware that we have the power to help ourselves and others.

Despite all our present problems, it is dangerous to wax nostalgic, to over-romanticize the family of the traditional past. The movements of modern liberation have pro­duced more good than evil. They have en­abled the citizens of the modern world, men and women, to expand the possibilities of marriage.

Humanistic Jewish marriage, although it has its roots in traditional marriage, rests on radically different premises. It recognizes the right of men and women to freely choose their marriage partners. It affirms the equality of husbands and wives. It recognizes love and friendship to be legiti­mate reasons for bonding. It sanctions sin­gleness as a moral alternative. The test of its validity will be the happiness and dignity that will be found by the men and women who live within its framework.

New Ethnic Realities and the Jewish Future

Judaism Beyond Ethnicity, Summer 1997

Two forces are shaping North American Jewry and making it radically different from the Jewish population of Israel. One is assimi­lation; the other is intermarriage.

In Israel a new Jewish ethnicity is emerging. Despite the initial problems of in­tegration, Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Maghrebi, Yemenite, Oriental, and Ethiopian Jews are merging through intermarriage. In fifty to one hundred years a new gene pool defined by this melting pot will be firmly established. You can already see the racial mixture: not as white as European Jewry, not as dark as the Yemenite complexion.

A new culture is also emerging — a mix of Ashkenazic European ambition and the more family-oriented loyalties of the Near Eastern world. Israel will not be a liberal Anglo-Saxon democracy. Nor will it be a pa­triarchal Oriental despotism. It will be an interesting mixture of the two. The binding force of this combination is the Hebrew lan­guage, which serves as its linguistic glue. In time a Hebrew-speaking ethnic group, neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic, will take its place among the family of nations.

For the predominantly Ashkenazic Jews of North America, however, a different future is in store. While Israelis are being re-ethnicized, American Jews are being de-ethnicized. Due to assimilation and intermarriage with the Christian majority, the ethnic profile of North American Jewry is radically changing.

At one time the overwhelming majority of American Jewry came out of the Ashkenazic centers of Eastern Europe. There, Jews were a distinct nation, with a distinct language and national culture of their own. Yiddish vocabu­lary, Yiddish food, Yiddish humor, Yiddish music, and Yiddish anxiety all combined to pro­duce the self-image we identify as Yiddishkeit. As a national identity, it transcended religion and flavored every aspect of Jewish cultural ex­istence. For many Jews the nostalgia and roots of the Jewish experience lay with chicken soup and gefilte fish as much as with any theological doctrine. In America, Jewish identity hovered somewhere between the nationality-based iden­tities of the Irish and Italians and the religion- based identities of Protestants and Catholics.

But American culture is overwhelming in its power. The American way of life dissolves all competing ethnicities. Only where there is racial distinction, as in the case of African Ameri­cans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans, does ethnic distinction survive. In the world of white America, assimilation and intermarriage have produced a new white gene pool, a union of WASP, Irish, Italian, Polish, German, and doz­ens of other European contributors. The typical white American is now “one-quarter this” and “one-quarter that.” A new American white ethnicity is emerging, in the same way as a new ethnic blend is emerging in Israel.

American Jews are increasingly becom­ing part of this new white ethnicity — in language and culture, for sure, In fact, the new white American culture has already incorpo­rated many aspects of Ashkenazic culture, from Yiddish words and the bagel to a fond­ness for Hanukka and Passover. Hundreds of Christian groups are now celebrating Passover seders all over America.

As for the genetic profile of American Jewry, intermarriage is making it blonder and blonder while Israelis are getting darker and darker. Last names are no longer a clue to Jew­ish identity. Even in Jewish parochial schools today, the student population is less ethni­cally identified than the population of public schools in Jewish ghetto neighborhoods fifty years ago. In many respects, then, American Jews are becoming part of the new ethnic re­ality called American whites.

What all this means is that North Ameri­can and Israeli strategies for Jewish survival cannot be the same. The Israeli strategy is na­tionalistic and linguistic, a powerful blending of Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultures within a shared territory and shared economy. The North American strategy is religious and cultural, blending Ashkenazic memory with the over­whelming presence of the American milieu. The only way to avoid this experience is to repudi­ate the blending process and to recreate segregation, as the ultra-Orthodox, like fundamentalist Muslims, have sought to do. Both groups repudiate American culture in their dress and in the roles they assign to women.

For the overwhelming majority of Ameri­can Jews, though, Judaism no longer exists in the context of Ashkenazic culture. It functions in the context of American white culture, a setting quite different from that of Israel. In such a context, Jewish identity will be less a matter of birth than a matter of choice. It will be less a matter of roots than a matter of a convincing personal philosophy of life. Jews who choose to be active Jews will need more than shtetl nostalgia, Holocaust-inspired alienation, and the Israeli connection. They will have to believe that the historic Jewish experience speaks to the human condition.

It may be that Israel will continue, for a while, to provide some support for Jewish ethnicity in America. But the self-image of American Jews and that of Israeli Jews no longer coincides. As a new “white melting pot” emerges in North America, the diver­gence will increase.

The Jewish future in North America will be the story of a people physically quite dis­tinct from the immigrant Jewish population of a century ago. This people will create its practices and beliefs in a setting of fierce com­petition, a free marketplace of appeals to the hearts and minds of the American public.

These new realities present a fundamen­tal challenge to secular Jews. It is important to remember that the first powerful expres­sion of a secular Judaism in the nineteenth and twentieth century was nationalism. Nationalism was built around the powerful bonds of Ashkenazic culture, Yiddish lan­guage and literature, and racial anti-Semitism. The Zionist movement substituted Hebrew for Yiddish, but it maintained with great fervor that Jewish identity was a national identity. Nationalism was a convincing and strong alternative to religious identity. In many respects it was stronger. Language and patrio­tism are even more time-consuming than religious ritual. Segregation and inmarriage were as natural to a community that was linguistically segregated as to one that was culturally isolated.

But while in Eastern Europe and Pales­tine a full-scale nationalism could be maintained, in assimilated Western Europe and North America nationalism degenerated into mere ethnicity. Initially, immigrant groups such as Ashkenazic Jews maintained linguistic segregation in ethnic ghettos, but public schools and linguistic conformity to the majority culture in a free society based on personal opportunity undermined linguis­tic uniqueness. Ethnicity came to mean a sense of common descent, with such cultural artifacts as ethnic food, ethnic music, and ethnic anxiety providing additional flavor. But ethnicity is not nationalism, and Yiddish culture in English is not exactly Yiddish culture. It is a variation on Anglo- Saxon American culture.

Ethnicity was a pale imitation of the original secular Jewish program. In an assimilationist environment with a dominant linguistic culture, ethnic uniqueness could not last. Like the smile of the vanishing Cheshire cat, it had very little substance. With the arrival of intermarriage it had very little future. Without racial distinction, ethnicity was hard to hang on to.

To base a secular Judaism on ethnic awareness is to set it up on a flimsy foundation. For fourth-generation assimi­lated American Jews, Yiddish culture is, at most, something to be studied and valued. But in the absence of Yiddish neighbor­hoods where Yiddish is spoken, it can no longer be experienced. Jewish separation can no longer be maintained by ethnicity; it can be maintained only by religion. The revival of a militant Orthodoxy is a response to this reality. Indeed, some ethnically minded Jews have chosen religion for themselves and their children, even though they do not believe in its theological premises, because they see religion as the only way to preserve a Jewish presence in an assimilationist society.

The challenge is clear. If a secular Juda­ism is to be viable in North America it can no longer rely on the national or ethnic strategy.

Humanistic Judaism, in contrast to the secular Judaism that preceded it, did not start out with the ethnic model. It started out with communities that were primarily philo­sophic in orientation and that connected a humanistic approach to life with the his­tory and experience of the Jewish people. The humanistic message was not uniquely Jewish, but it was powerfully tied to the skepticism, humor, and ambition that flow from the Jewish experience.

The project of Humanistic Judaism for the twenty-first century is to develop a secular Judaism without nationalism or ethnicity as its primary foundation. In order to do this, we need to develop two vital parts of our message.

We need to emphasize that our movement is more than an indulgence in ethnic nostal­gia. We have a message about human power, human dignity, and human responsibility that can help to transform daily living in a posi­tive and significant way, and this message, for both adults and children, can best be experi­enced and integrated within the framework of community.

We also need to become “historical” Jews. An identification with Jewish history is dif­ferent from an identification with Ashkenazic ethnicity. Jewish history features many ethnicities, from Ashkenazic and Sephardic to Oriental and Falasha. Jewish history also carries a clear humanistic message: in the face of overwhelming odds, survival and dignity can be achieved only through human effort. This modern, humanistic interpretation more accurately describes the meaning of Jewish history than did the establishment rabbis of earlier times.

Jewish history is attached to an interna­tional culture that unites its many ethnicities in the same way that a Christian culture unites the many nations that embraced Christianity. This international Jewish culture includes the Hebrew language, seasonal holidays, litera­ture and music from several ethnic sources, and an attachment to the national homeland from which this international culture sprang.

Humanistic Judaism cannot provide the intense group identity that the isolation of ultra-Orthodox Judaism provides. Nor does it want to. In an open and free society, such seg­regation undermines human potential. What Humanistic Judaism does provide is a “cultural religion” with a powerful philosophy of life and a powerful aesthetics drawn from the intense struggle for survival of an extraordinary people.

For many Jews with Ashkenazic nostal­gia, as well as for many Jews with no ethnic sentiment, this combination in an attractive community setting can enhance the meaning of life.