National Liberation — The Hanukka Question

A Hanukkah Manual, Autumn 1983

What is the ethical dimension of Hanukka?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom means liberal democracy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hanukka: How It Happened

A Hanukkah Manual, Autumn 1983

I. The Jews and The Greeks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

found public nudity blasphemous.

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

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

II. The Maccabees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Irony of Jewish Survival

Colloquium ’97: Reclaiming Jewish History, Spring 1998

When Alan Dershowitz spoke at the Bir­mingham Temple, he announced that he was a secular Jew and that Humanistic Judaism was the closest to what he felt and believed. He volunteered to help us.

The reason for his coming was a book he wrote about the future of American Judaism. He gave the book the disturbing title The Van­ishing American Jew. Dershowitz maintains that assimilation, personal freedom, and de­clining anti-Semitism have created a situation in which Jewish group survival is in danger. Jews are so fully integrated into American culture that their Jewish identity has become an adjunct to their American identity. The lib­erty and toleration of American society have made Jewishness a personal choice. Neither laws nor bigotry compel Jews to remain Jews.

But Dershowitz, unlike many Jewish com­mentators on the American Jewish future, does not recommend a return to tradition and Or­thodoxy as a counterbalance to the forces of assimilation. He does not call for a return to community segregation and a primary focus on the issue of Jewish survival. He is afraid that such a return will destroy the Jew he admires and resurrect the Jew he does not admire.

The most interesting observation in Dershowitz’s book is his contention that the greatest achievement of Jewish history is the modern secular Jew. The incredible intellec­tual and artistic achievements of Jews during the past two centuries were produced, not by traditional Jews, but by secular Jews. They are Einstein, Freud, and Durkheim. They are the Nobel Prize winners. They are the movers and shakers of social action and political revolu­tion. They are the voices for universal justice and human rights. In the eighteen centuries of Orthodox Jewish domination, none of this spirit prevailed. The parochial agenda of Orthodoxy kept Jews focused only on the Jewish world.

The implication is clear. A return to Ortho­doxy and tradition is a return to Jewish parochialism. It is a negation of everything at­tractive about Jews in the past two centuries. It is the resurrection of a narrow and fearful vi­sion that saw the Gentile world as the enemy and conformity to tradition as the only guaran­tee of Jewish salvation. Out of such a theologi­cal field, the passion for intellectual, artistic, and ethical adventure cannot grow. If you reject freedom and persuade all Jews to return to Or­thodoxy, you will “guarantee” Jewish survival; but you will have a Jew you neither want nor admire. The irony of the Jewish future is that the Jew we want to preserve cannot be separated from the personal freedom and assimilation that seem to threaten Jewish group survival.

This marvelous irony raises the question of what is necessary to create, maintain, and preserve the modern secular Jew. It is clear that Jewish tradition alone cannot produce this phenomenon. It needs a catalyst. The catalyst is the power of modern Western secular cul­ture, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, and the Greco-Roman culture of the classical world. Hellenism and Orthodoxy produced a “child” that was identical to neither of its parents.

The modem Jew is like a good salad dress­ing. The vinegar is Orthodoxy. By itself it is harsh and uninviting. The oil is Hellenism. By itself it lacks the intensity of Jewish pas­sion. Together, they are a pleasing and attractive experience. The oil of Hellenism provides the reason and openness, the love of humanness and beauty, which the life of intellectual and artistic adventure requires. Orthodoxy provides the intensity and anger that have fueled Jewish ambition and have provoked Jewish thinkers and artists to defy established norms. Reason without intensity is weak. Intensity without reason is blind. But the combination is powerful and benign.

The implications of this reality are clear.

The flowering of Jewish identity was not in the biblical and talmudic past. Neither the cult of Yahveh nor Pharisaic Judaism pro­duced the free spirit that the pursuit of truth and beauty requires. On the contrary, in many cases, it suppressed that spirit in the name of dogmatic conformity. The intensity, passion, and militancy of traditional Judaism could be attractive and productive of universal good only when they could be separated from the theology of the rabbis. In the context of rabbinic Judaism they fostered a narrow fa­naticism — a passion that ultra-Orthodox Jews all over the world still exhibit.

Returning to the traditions of the past is like returning to the vinegar without the oil. Repu­diating the open society of the modern world does not produce a wise Jew. It produces a pa­rochial Jew, whose only concern is Jewish group survival and whose chief pleasure is making invidious comparisons between Judaism and “inferior” alternatives. The resegregation of Jew­ish life is the setting for turning the modern Jew into a nostalgic sectarian.

The culture of the Greeks and the Romans, from which so much of our modern secular culture flows, is not the enemy, as traditional rabbis proposed. It is the catalyst that takes Jewish intensity and ambition and transforms it into a vehicle for intellectual achievement and moral improvement. There was a brief time in the ancient world when this combi­nation was attempted. But the wars with the Romans and the triumph of rabbinic Judaism drove Hellenistic Jews into the underground of Jewish life. From time to time a Jewish philosopher would be brave enough to resur­rect a pale reflection of that mixture, but the tyranny of the halakha ultimately prevailed.

The greatest period of Jewish history is the modern era, the time in which the “vinegar” and the “oil” came together to produce the secular Jew of the past two centuries. Within a short time, this combination produced the creative intellectual power to transform our views of people and the universe, and the en­trepreneurial power to remake the economics of the world. Never before has Jewish talent and creativity been able to reach so many so widely. As Dershowitz points out, to lose the secular Jew is to lose the Jew we admire. It is not the Jewish past we seek to preserve. It is the wonders of the Jewish present.

After the Colloquium

Colloquium ’97: Reclaiming Jewish History, Spring 1998

Colloquium ’97 was a stunning success. Eleven Jewish historians dealt with one of the most difficult issues in Jewish life with great skill. The audience was mesmerized by the information, dialogue, and confrontation.

The issue had never been dealt with be­fore in any public Jewish symposium. It had too much potential to upset the Jewish com­munity. Yehuda Bauer, Holocaust scholar, noted the uniqueness of the event.

The issue was provocative because it dealt with the credibility of the story of the Jewish people as it has been presented by the biblical and rabbinic traditions. This familiar story, dominated by patriarchs, prophets, miracles, and divine revelations, has entered into the core literature of Jewish and Western society. It in­cludes familiar names: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and Solomon. It has familiar dialogue between God and man. West­ern poetry, painting, and sculpture are infused with this story. The message is clear: the Jew­ish story is different from the story of any other nation, and the greatest discovery of the Jew­ish people is the discovery of the one God.

Jews are attached to this story for obvi­ous reasons. It glorifies the Jewish people and places them at the center of world history. It is wonderfully old and traditional, sur­rounded by the aura of ancestral reverence. It is shared by the Christian world and gives prestige to the Jewish people in Christian eyes. Most Jews are unwilling to give up this story for a more realistic, less flattering alternative.

In the narrow sense, mythology is the story of the gods. In that sense, traditional Jew­ish history is mythology, since tradition makes the story of the Jewish people inseparable from the story of Yahveh.

In the broad sense, mythology is legend rather than truth. In the last century, histori­ans and biblical scholars began to question the truth of the ancient story. An alternative story, without miracles and supernatural interven­tion, emerged. This story differed greatly from the traditional one. Scientific biblical criticism and archaeology challenged the reality of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the Mosaic authorship of the Torah, and the firmly held belief that monotheism goes back to Abraham. These conclusions would have been very disturbing to the lay public. The consequence was a shameful dichotomy. In the outside world, the traditional story continued to be taught, even by liberal clergy. In the inside world of schol­ars and academicians, the alternative story was circulated. But the alternative story never pen­etrated into the consciousness of the broader world. It was confined, in cowardly fashion, to a small circle of experts.

Legend and myth dominated not only ancient Jewish history, but also the history of the rabbinic and medieval periods. Pharisaic Judaism, which achieved the status of Ortho­doxy, was determined to demonstrate that its doctrines and practices could be traced all the way back to Moses. The origins of the Mishnah and the Talmud were distorted to fit the ideology of the rabbis.

The distortion is present in the emphasis placed on medieval rabbinic texts. The most important development in Jewish history in the early Middle Ages in both the Christian and Muslim worlds was the important economic role of the Jew as a mediator between two cul­tures; yet the significance of that role is lost in the pious Orthodox reflection on the commen­taries on the Bible and Talmud that were created at this time. Tradition loves the texts, but reality prefers economics. We lose perspec­tive because ideology distorts our vision.

Even in modern times, with the ready availability of scientific historiography, ideol­ogy gives us a false vision. It is hard for us to be objective about the causes of anti-Semitism because, paradoxically, we feel safe only when we see ourselves as victims. The Jew as provo­cateur is emotionally unacceptable. Nor is the Zionist enterprise any easier to deal with. We are so defensive about our relationship to the Palestinians, so needy to demonstrate our right to the land, that we cannot distinguish between history and apologetics. Mythology dominates our approach to contemporary events.

Is it possible to identify the real history of the Jews? Is it possible to penetrate the defensive cloud of ideology and encounter events as they really happened? That was the ambition of Colloquium ’97. A broad perspective on Jewish history was chosen to demonstrate that all of Jewish history is vul­nerable to mythology. Nine important periods in Jewish history in which ideology distorts the truth were identified. They provided the structure of the program. The origins of Israel, the authorship of the Bible, the diver­sity of Hellenistic Judaism, the origins of halakha, the realities of the medieval Jew, the emergence of Hasidism, the role of the En­lightenment, the causes of anti-Semitism, and the development of Zionism provided the is­sues that engaged our participating historians.

We discovered that the ancestors of Israel were most likely Canaanite hillbillies, that the authors of the Bible lived many centuries after the events they described, that “ortho­doxy” was only one of many options in the Hellenistic period, that the story of the medi­eval Jew is not only one of humiliation but also one of power, and that the causes of mod­ern anti-Semitism are still unknown.

The dialogue and confrontation among the speakers were as exciting as the presenta­tions. It was clear that the attempt to discuss the history of the Jews in this secular context was as novel for most of our speakers as it was for most of our audience.

A book called Reclaiming Jewish History is emerging out of this experience. It will be a first attempt to introduce the important issues of Jewish historical mythology to a lay public.

For us as Humanistic Jews, there is no task more important than to retrieve our history from the ideological chains of the past. But we must be cautious. We must be careful not to re-enslave it with the chains of our own ideology. We must be willing to listen to the evidence even when the evidence is not friendly to our vested interests. We must strive to avoid the pitfall of all Jewish historians who have strong Jewish commitments — turning the Jewish past into a convenient reflection of their own convictions.

The Real Story of Passover

A Passover Manual

Passover and the Exodus go together.

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

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

The embellished story of the Exodus really has eight parts.

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

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

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

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

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

way of the Red Sea and the Sinai Desert.

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

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

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

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

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

of the Haggadah.

Many problems emerged:

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

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

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

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

holiday was made out of two.

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

Moses.

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

Patriarchs

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

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

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

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

became the source of both Canaanite and Hebrew.

Egypt

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

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

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

Enslavement

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

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

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

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

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

Hebrews and Canaanites lived side by side.

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

Exodus

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

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

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

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

Flight

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

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

Sinai

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

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

Wilderness

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

Invasion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Failed Messiah of Crown Heights

What Does It Mean to be Jewish? Winter 1995

The rebbe was dead. Or was he?

Hundreds of Lubavitcher Hasidim wait­ed breathlessly for his resurrection. They could not accept his death. They still await his return.

Whoever would have imagined that the death of a Jewish cult leader would make front page news seven days in a row? But the Lubavitchers are no ordinary cult. Next to the state of Israel, they are the most successful Jew­ish organization in the world. Now 250,000 strong, they have quintupled their numbers over the past forty years and entered into the mainstream of Jewish life. In 1951, when the Rebbe took over, they were a bizarre Jewish sect that few Jews even knew about. Today their emissaries cover the globe and negotiate with the rulers of the world.

Hasidism has been around for almost three hundred years. Emerging in southeast Poland at a time of political and economic devasta­tion, it gave hope to hope-hungry Jews. God would send his Messiah to rescue his people — but only when they loved him enough. Ob­serving the commandments was not enough. Observance with heartfelt devotion was the key to salvation. Hasidism began with singing and dancing, with fervor and shaking, and ended up with miracle-working rebbes who were the dispensers of supernatural power. Devotional leaders founded devotional dynas­ties. Each dynasty turned into a cult of the personality. If the rebbe was not God, he was, at least, the deputy of God on earth. He was the very gate to heaven. Devotion went up; power came down.

Rabbi Zalman Schneur of Lubavitch was unique. While most Hasidim came from Galicia and the Ukraine, he hailed from Lithuania, the homeland of Hasidim-haters. Litvaks almost invariably denounced Hasid­ism as craziness and heresy. But Zalman the Litvak became a Hasidic rebbe. Being a Litvak, he tried to give his movement a slight in­tellectual twist. Chabad is the acronym for three Hebrew words that denote wisdom. The Lubavitchers became Hasidim with a Litvak edge.

In 1957, the Lubavitch movement was at a low point. Devastated by Communism and the Holocaust, its leadership was in exile in Brooklyn, its followers depressed, its numbers diminished. The old rebbe died that year and was succeeded by his son-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who also was descended from the original Zalman. The new rebbe was brilliant, charismatic, and creative. Familiar with the secular world as an engineer, a gradu­ate of the Sorbonne in Paris, he combined Hasidic piety, intellectual mysticism, and a missionary zeal to reach “lost” Jews. Instead of despising them, he went out to recruit them. The result: a powerful religious empire span­ning six continents and a cadre of thousands of dedicated workers who, for an economic pittance, went forth to conquer the Jewish world. In time, some of these devotees pro­claimed their rebbe the Messiah.

What is the significance of all this messi­anic fervor?

It means that these old ideas about messiahs and resurrections, which liberal Jews as­sumed were fast fading away in Jewish life, are alive and well. After four centuries of the age of science, fundamentalism is still strong, among Jews as among Christians and Muslims.

It means that the Jews for Jesus and the Lubavitchers are on the same wavelength. Both believe in salvation. Both believe in messiahs. Both believe in resurrection. In the end, whether you prefer Jesus or the rebbe, the mind-set is the same.

It means that rationality is having a hard time in Crown Heights. The smartest strategy is to keep postponing the coming of the Mes­siah. But true believers want the Messiah right now. The rub is that he may not show up. And if he doesn’t, there is always the risk of mass disillusionment. However, the history of reli­gion has demonstrated that true believers al­ways find the perfect excuse. Perhaps the rebbe did not find the world worthy of salvation.

It means that a lot of Jewish energy is be­ing devoted to harmful illusion. Believing that everybody’s life can be rescued by a single per­son is a dangerous conviction. It undermines self-reliance and turns people into childlike dependents. The resurgence of the Lubavitch­ers is no boon to the Jewish people. Jewish passion has no value if it means the abroga­tion of reason, autonomy, and self-esteem.

A movement built around a cult of per­sonality needs a personality. It may be that the dead rebbe will serve that purpose. But that has not been the Hasidic tradition. Schneerson designated no heir. Internal bickering has now resulted in major confrontations. The danger of splits is real. If no new charismatic rebbe shows up, can the movement hold together? Ironically, the strong point of the Lubavitchers, their reverence for their leader, is also their weak point.

This whole fiasco underlines a dichotomy in contemporary Jewish life. Humanistic Ju­daism looks at the Jewish experience and ar­rives at totally different conclusions from those of the Lubavitchers. They see messiahs; we find the need for self-reliance. They see divine determination; we find human determination. Our style may not be as dramatic, our songs may not be as lively, but our message is a lot healthier. Messiahs always have been an enor­mous disappointment. “Jews for the Rebbe” are, after all, in the same delusionary world as Jews for Jesus.

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

Forty Years Later: A Retrospective

Transforming Judaism- Winter 2004

Forty years ago, in the summer of 1963, eight families and I organized a new congre­gation in suburban Detroit. The suburb was Birmingham, and so our congregation was named the Birmingham Temple. Ten months later the Temple family collectively aban­doned God-language — and Humanistic Ju­daism was born.

Until that moment most Jews who had given up on God did not organize congrega­tions, accept rabbis as their philosophic lead­ers, and turn secularism into an organization. But the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism did. Was this a ludicrous contradic­tion, or was it the beginning of a viable answer for secular Jews who wanted to remain Jewish?

Well, the Birmingham Temple and Hu­manistic Judaism are now forty years old. They have confronted the traumas of the six­ties, the compromises of the seventies, the ambivalence of the eighties and the nineties. They have witnessed the black revolution, the feminist revolution, the youth revolution, and the sex revolution. They have seen Israel wax and wane. They have lived through antisemitism diminishing and returning. They have even glimpsed the beginning of a glo­balized world.

Along the way, many formidable chal­lenges appeared. There was the challenge of intermarriage, with its painful confrontation between love and ethnic survival. There was the challenge of New Age religion, with its attractive combination of radical freedom and mystical experience. There was the challenge of creativity: inventing new formats and pro­grams for a Judaism that had never existed before. There was the challenge of liberal Jews who feared the accusation of atheism more than that of hypocrisy. There was the ongoing hostility from the general Jewish community to what was perceived as a provocation be­yond the parameters of acceptable deviation.

What have we learned over the past forty years? What has our confrontation with these challenges taught us?

  1. We have learned that it is better to be a believer than a nonbeliever. Not believ­ing in God is no guide to life. It is a nega­tive assertion that offers only the pleasure of defiance. We Humanistic Jews are be­lievers. We believe in the power of people to change the world for the better. We be­lieve in the right of every individual to be the master of his or her own life. We believe in the adventure of reason as the best way to pursue the truth. On the foun­dation of our positive beliefs, a powerful philosophy of life can be built.
  2. We learned that “telling it the way it is” is better than confusing ambiguity. Had we chosen to follow the Reconstructionist lead and redefine God as meaning what it does not mean — in order to play it safe or to preserve the illusion of ideological continuity — we would have ended up praying to unconscious powers that can­not hear our prayers. Acts of worship do not promote an awareness of what it means to be a Humanistic Jew. Only a more radical step could establish the basis for a humanistic lifestyle. Living without magic power means abandoning God-language. It means saying “human power” when you mean “human power.” Hiding behind old words only hides the message. The strength of our message lies in its boldness.
  3. We learned that it is important never to be a watered-down version of a more power­ful Judaism. When you make the Torah the center of Judaism, you hand legitimacy over to the Orthodox. Only they take the Torah and its lifestyle seriously. In contrast, Conservatism and Reform and Reconstruc­tionism — which continue to maintain the centrality of the Torah — are generally viewed as watered-down versions of the original. Humanistic Judaism does not start with the Torah. It starts with the Jewish people and their historic experience — not the mythical experience of Torah and Talmud writers but the real experience depicted by archeology and modern his­torians. The lessons of Jewish history — especially the need for self-reliance — are the foundation of Humanistic Judaism.
  4. We learned that there is no substitute for addressing the personal agenda of every individual Jew. Jews are not only Jews. They are individual human beings strug­gling to find happiness in a stressful world. The old Jewish secularism ad­dressed itself primarily to Jewish nation­alism and Jewish culture. Preserving Jewish identity and the Jewish people was its primary focus. In its revolutionary ex­pression it addressed itself to humanity as a whole but rarely to the individual as an individual. Of course, nationalism was a refreshing change from the tyranny of the old religion. But it was never enough. The strength of Humanistic Judaism is that it addresses the human condition in which all individuals find themselves. Talking about Jewish survival is important and necessary. But it needs to be balanced with a concern for personal happiness and per­sonal dignity. The life of courage is Jew­ish — and more than Jewish.
  5. We learned that, in many cases, there are no precedents from the Jewish past that can help us. Modern Europe and America have given the Jews, for the first time, the opportunities of a free and open society. Individuals are free to make their own choices about work, marriage, leisure, sex, religion, and politics. Individual freedom undermines the social solidarity that tra­ditional societies foster. The message of the past is to reject individual freedom and insist on group conformity. But, in a free world of growing intermarriage, it seems heartless to give love no place in the ethical equation. Do individuals al­ways sacrifice themselves for their ances­tral groups? Or do ancestral groups need to change and be more open? Humanis­tic Jews have chosen to answer these ques­tions differently than in the past. We are the champions of personal dignity and the open society.
  6. Finally, we have learned to be optimistic. Optimism is not a passive reflection of current conditions. It is not merely an objective assessment of the obstacles we face in life. If that is what it is, we would not have survived or grown during the past forty years. Optimism is, above all, a choice: a refusal to surrender to despair, a refusal to interpret ambiguous evidence negatively. In the face of overwhelming odds we have chosen “to preach our mes­sage” to the Jewish world. The evidence of recent surveys of the Jewish commu­nity in North America, dramatizing the existence of huge numbers of self-­identified unaffiliated secular Jews, rein­forces our choice. We have every reason to be hopeful about our future — not only because the polls are friendly but also be­cause our determination is firm.