The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, September 1997, Vol. XXXIV, Number 2

Colloquium ‘97.  It will be an extraordinary event. Eleven Jewish historians of international fame are coming to the Birmingham Temple to spend the Simhat (sic) Torah weekend with us. They will speak, dialogue with each other and open our eyes to the realities of the Jewish experience. 

We Jews are an extraordinary people, with a saga that continues to fascinate even our enemies. But the story of our past has been in the hands of a religious establishment that chooses to hide or distort the truth to serve a messianic ideology. Unlike the story of most nations and civilizations Jewish history is presented as sacred history. Sacred history is no longer a tale of human striving and human ambition. It is the story of gods, supernatural miracles, divine interventions and holy missions. It is the revelation of divine reward and punishment and the rescue of chosen peoples. The normal standards of scientific inquiry are never applied. Faith and tradition are the final judges. And they are supported by centuries of propaganda. 

In such an intellectual environment the stories in the Torah , the Tanakh and the Talmud are assumed to be true even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

The legitimacy of traditional Judaism rests on the presentation of Jewish history.  If this presentation is not true – and if ‘believers’ come to believe that it is not true, the foundations of traditional Judaism will crumble.   

A credible Humanistic Judaism in the end rests on the real experience of the Jewish people.  But its perception of that experience is quite different from that of tradition.  Fortunately, modern science, archaeology, textual criticism and naturalistic approach to the human experience have produced a radically different version of the Jewish saga.  Unfortunately, most of this information is locked up in scholarly journals where it never reaches the general public.  Because of this ‘seclusion’, even the most liberal congregations continue to present the ‘old’ version of the story. 

Colloquium ‘97 will be one of the first opportunities for the general public to come face to face with the new evidence and the new story.  For those who are not familiar with the ‘discoveries’ of the last century, encountering them can be mind-boggling.  The Jewish experience takes on a radically new human dimension.  Familiar tales are no longer credible.  Familiar interpretations are no longer viable.  We are liberated to embrace a new vision of Jewish evolution. 

Our eleven historians will explore at least nine areas of Jewish development where ‘mythology’ prevails. 

  1. The origins of the Jewish people: It may be the case that the stories of the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt and the presentation of the Torah at Sinai are invented tales.  The Israelites may have been a hill-country Canaanite people who did not emerge onto the Near Eastern stage until shortly before the time of King David. 
  1. The origins of the Bible:  If God did not write the Torah who did?  Was the author Moses? Or were the Torah and Bible put together some seven or eight hundred years after the death of Moses by writers and editors who projected their contemporary issues back into ‘ancient’ times? 
  1. The Greeks and the Jews: The common vision that the Maccabees stood against Greek culture and rescued Judaism from the insidious influence of Greek paganism may be a distortion of the truth.  The Greeks profoundly altered Jewish culture, provoking an internal debate that set the defenders of reason against the devotees of faith.  The Jewish world was divided into many religions and political parties.  The roots of a humanistic Judaism can be found here. 
  1. The origins of Orthodox Judaism:  The rabbinic establishment maintained and still maintains that Orthodoxy is a reflection of a continuous tradition that can be traced back to Moses.  All other versions of Judaism are newer and, therefore, less authentic.  But it may be the case that ‘traditional’ Judaism is less traditional than it pretends to be.  The historical vision of the Talmud may not accurately reflect what really happened. 
  1. The experience of the medieval Jew:  The connection of the Jews to money, commerce and the beginnings of capitalism is often an ‘embarrassing’ subject for many contemporary Jews.  They are more comfortable viewing the Middle Ages as a time when Jews were the primary victims of religious persecution.  A large slice of the Jewish experience and of Jewish creativity may be ignored in the process. 
  1. The legacy of Hasidism:  In modern times the culture and spirituality of the Hasidic movements have been romanticized.  They are often equated with the new spiritual search of the contemporary Western world.  What is often neglected is the assaultive politics and the cruel superstitions of Hasidic daily life, which have nothing to do with either human dignity or spiritual serenity. 
  1. The significance of the Enlightenment:  In the contemporary world it has become fashionable to blame the revolutions of science and reason for the decline of Jewish identity and for destructive assimilation. Modern secular culture becomes the enemy of Jewish fulfillment. But this critique misses the positive transformation of the life of the Jew through personal freedom, female liberation, secular education and the openness of a democratic society.  
  1. The origins of modern anti-Semitism:  The terrible Holocaust has riveted Jewish attention on the phenomenon of Jew hatred.  Most commentators find its beginning in the hostility of the Christian world.  Others see the beginnings in the unique economic role which Jews assumed in the Western world.  But the truth may be different from either speculation. 
  1. The significance of Zionism:  There is no doubt that the establishment of the state of Israel is the most important Jewish achievement of the twentieth century.  The founders of the state imagined that Zionism would provide for a liberal and secular future for Jewish nationalism.  But recent developments can easily lead us to a different assessment. 

Jewish history is no fixed story which ‘tradition’ presents to us for study.  It is in the process of being re-created (sic) and re-conceived.  If you want to experience the ‘cutting edge’ of this debate do not miss Colloquium ‘97. 

October 23-26.  A unique and wonderful opportunity. 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, March 1997, Vol. XXXIII, Number 8 

A wonderful thing happened on the way to Colloquium ‘97. The Jewish Federation gave us twenty thousand dollars. 

Colloquium ‘97 is a continuation of the ‘tradition’ begun by Colloquium ‘95. That conference was a stunning intellectual and artistic event. Sponsored by The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, it brought together seventeen distinguished scholars, writers and artists from all over the Jewish World, to discuss the pressing issue of the ‘unaffiliatedJew’. Among them were demographer Egon Maywr, sociologist Bernard Reisman, philosopher Joel Feinberg, historians Norman Cantor and Yehuda Bauer, writers Anne Roiphe and Andre Aciman and Israel’s greatest living post (sic) Yehuda Amichai. Ushered in by Shoshana Cardin, a major leader in the American Jewish community, the colloquium featured three days of spirited and memorable dialogue. 

The colloquium was evidence that our movement was ‘real’ – and that it had the power to engage important Jewish thinkers in the discussion of important Jewish issues. The publicity and attention that surrounded the event raised the visibility of Secular Humanistic Judaism and reinforced our resolve to produce another significant colloquium around another significant question.  

The theme of Colloquium ‘97 is reclaiming Jewish History:  Separating fact from fiction. Eleven important Jewish historians have accepted our invitation to participate in the discussion. Each of them will present a paper on one of ten ‘problem’ areas of Jewish history – from the origins of the Jewish people and the Bible to the significance of the Enlightenment and Zionism. They include Steven Zipperstein and Aaron Rodrigue of Stanford University, Carol Meyers and Eric Meyers of Duke University, Norman Cantor of New York University, Derek Penzler of Indiana University, William Propp of the University of California / San Diego, Ada Rapaport – Albert of University College London, Yehuda Bauer of Hebrew University and Yaakov Malkin of Tel Aviv University. From October 23 to October 26 they will collectively present a new perspective on the Jewish experience. This colloquium is not only a great event for our movement. Like the last colloquium, it is also an outstanding intellectual happening for the Detroit Jewish community. That is one of the reasons why the Federation has chosen to support it.  

The decision of the Federation to help fund this meeting of scholars is significant for many reasons. 

It is the first major gift of the Federation to the work of Humanistic Judaism in this community. It is recognition of the fact that what we do benefits not only our congregation but also the Jewish community as a whole. 

It is an affirmation of the importance of pluralism in the Jewish community. In modern America diversity is the name of the Jewish reality. As Jews choosing Judaism, we are all committed to the value of Jewish identity, to the preservation and development of Jewish culture and to the survival of the Jewish people. But we share this commitment in the context of lively disagreement. There are many Jewish philosophies of life. There are many different Jewish life styles. There are many ways to interpret the Jewish experience and to celebrate Jewish identity. Pluralism means that the community accepts this diversity and grants respect and legitimacy to every Jewish choice.  Cooperation arises out of both shared commitments and a sympathetic understanding of difference.  

This gift is a resolution of whatever discomfort some of our members had with previous responses of the Federation to requests from the Birmingham Temple. It is clear from the generosity of the grant, that the Federation acknowledges our congregation and our movement as a significant part of the Jewish Community. 

I urge all of our members to respond to this decision with their full financial support for the work of the Federation. I think a milestone has been passed in our history. 

I also urge you to reserve October 23-26 on your busy calendars for the excitement of Colloquium ‘97.  

The Rabbi Writes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hebron massacre makes a strong response necessary. 

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

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

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

The Rabbi Writes: Sukkot

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

Sukkot begins Friday, October 8. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither situation is likely. 

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

The Rabbi Writes

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

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

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

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

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

Why? 

The reasons are not difficult to find. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secular Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1979, Vol. VII, Number I

The Workmen’s Circle-the Sholom Aleichem schools-the Peretz Shulen- the Jewish people’s Institute-The Farband-Kibbutz Artzi-  

These organizations have been around for a long time. Although they enjoy no formal unity, they do share an informal ideology which many call Secular Judaism. The word ‘secular’ expresses their strong resistance to all forms of organized religion. While some Secular Jews are avowed atheists and others are discreet agnostics or indifferent believers, all are united by their avoidance of prayer, worship and Rabbis. 

Many Secular Jews have joined humanistic congregations. Others have been hostile because they cannot comprehend how humanism and religion can be brought together. Still others have been ambivalent, availing themselves of the services of Humanistic rabbis without being able to fit them into their ideology. 

Secular Judaism used to be stronger than it is now. In the heyday of Yiddish culture it flourished among the Jewish young. Today it is an aging movement, sabotaged by the Holocaust and affluence and surviving on the fading memories of old revolutionary causes. Nevertheless, it remains an important force in the Jewish community which the Jewish establishment continues to ignore. While it is certainly as old as the Conservative movement and was at one time just as widespread, it has never conformed to the public relations (we love the Bible) image that the rulers of the Jews have wished to convey in America. 

Given the obvious humanist thrust of Secular Judaism, it is appropriate to ask the question: what is the connection of Humanistic Judaism to Secular Judaism? 

In order to answer the question, let me first describe the origins and principles of the Secular movement. There are six main sources of the Secular ideology. 

The first is the ethnic experience of the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. The Jews began as a nation and until the French Revolution always conceived of themselves as a nation. Even in the Diaspora their fondest dream was the vision of national restoration in the land of Israel. Reinforced by distinct languages, unique work and religious segregation, the Jewish national experience persisted until modern times. While in Western Europe small numbers, linguistic assimilation, integration and formal citizenship persuaded many Jews to define themselves safely as only a religious group. In Eastern Europe the congestion of Jews in the settlements of Poland and Lithuania, where the economy was underdeveloped and the antisemitism was overt, the national experience persisted with great strength. In that environment atheistic Jews never doubted that they were Jewish. Nor did their Orthodox relatives ever question their Jewish identity. 

The second source of Secularism was the ethnic power of the Yiddish language. Before the French Revolution, Yiddish was the universal language of Ashkenazic Jewry. From the Rhine to the Dnieper, from Riga to Trieste, Yiddish was the linguistic bond that tied together most of the Jews of Europe. It was the most distinctive sign of their unique nationality and separation. In the nineteenth century, the new strength of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian nationalism with their strong anti-semitic edges made Yiddish the vehicle for Jewish self-assertion. The folk language despised by the rabbis was elevated into the vehicle for a new popular culture. Novels, drama and even science found their home in Yiddish. Eastern European Jews who despised the yoke of traditional Judaism could drop every traditional ritual and remain intensely Jewish by doing their secular things in Yiddish. To The commonsensical observer the Yiddish speaking atheist from Warsaw was far more Jewish than the god-loving Reform Jew from Berlin.  

The third source of secular Judaism was the Enlightenment. The fashion of science and reason which began in Western Europe and spread eastward profoundly affected the Jewish communities. Jews and rationalists shared a common enemy- the Christian establishment. The clerical power had to fall before the Jews would be free to participate in a scientific capitalistic culture. In general circles, the Enlightenment fostered secularism, a belief that a modern state did not need the assistance of supernatural powers or the clergy in order to serve its citizens. In Jewish circles the Enlightenment became the Haskalah, a movement which promoted scientific attitudes, secular studies, professional advancement and hostility to the Orthodox rabbinate. Secular Jews came to believe that organized religion, with its anti-scientific bias, was the enemy of human advancement and Jewish progress. 

The fourth source of Jewish Secularism was the message of Marxism. While the successful Jewish bourgeoisie of Western Europe were embarrassed by the revolutionary ideology of Karl Marx, many Jews in Eastern Europe, angered by poverty, antisemitism, underemployment of their intellectual skills and the passivity of their rabbinic leaders turned to Marxism. Regarding religion as the tool of the bourgeois establishment to justify the oppression of the working class, Jewish Marxists were militantly atheistic. Ironically, however, their provocative Yom Kippur eve dances and feasts, with their rich Yiddish intellectual debates, seemed more Jewish than the decorous Protestant style religious services of classical Reform. 

The fifth source of Secular Judaism was antisemitism itself. Although Marx proclaimed the international solidarity of the working class and implied that a Jewish proletarian was closer to a Russian worker than to his obvious Jewish relatives who ran businesses and spoke Yiddish, Jews found that Russian workers were as antisemitic as the Russian bourgeoisie. Stunned by this rejection but unwilling to abandon Marxism, thousands of Russian Jews reluctantly discovered that they were only comfortable doing their Marxism with other Jews. 

The last source of Jewish Secularism was Zionism. Responding to the emergence of the new antisemitism in Eastern and Western Europe, Zionism sought to solve the Jewish problem by making the Jews normal again, by turning them back into a territorial nation. The new antisemitism did not despise Jews because of their religion. It despised Jews because they were viewed as economic parasites and rootless intellectuals. Many Jewish secularists were drawn to Zionism because they were the victims of antisemitism also, and because they saw Palestine as a place where Jews could become a ‘normal’ nation rooted and close to the land. 

They did not wish to restore the old Israel. They wanted to create the new Israel, which would be a shining socialist beacon to the world. Most of the founders of the agricultural settlements in Palestine were fanatic secularists who wanted nothing at all to do with organized religion, but who wanted to express their Jewishness through Hebrew culture and Jewish nationality. 

Many of the immigrants who came to America after the Russian pogroms were not Orthodox (as their grandchildren often imagine). They were secular intellectuals, secular radicals and secular Zionists. They became the most creative element in American Yiddih culture. From the Jewish Daily Forward to the Second Avenue theaters they spawned a cultural life that required neither synagogues nor rabbis to make it Jewish. In fact, the passive traditional community fed off the enthusiasm they engendered. Secular achievement, much more than the Torah lifestyle, produced New York Judaism, the power of which radiated all over the world. The American Jewish Secular experience was reinforced by the vitality of Jewish Secular life in Poland, Russia and Palestine. The ideas of Ahad Haam, Simon Dubnow, Haim Zhetlovsky, Ber Borochov, Sholom Aleichem and dozens of others became the prestigious voice of this aggressive movement. Divided on a thousand issues, it was still able to challenge the traditional forces with a dynamic Jewish alternative. 

The principles of this challenge were never clearly articulated as a consistent shared ideology. But they were always implied in Secular behavior. 

Here they are. 

  1. The Jews are not a religious community. They are a nation. 
  1. The chief manifestation of Jewish nationality is a unique language. Left-wing Marxists claimed that it was Yiddish and Yiddish alone. Zionists (because they did not wish to exclude Oriental Jews and because they wished to affirm their connection with the ancient Jewish past) claimed that it was Yiddish temporarily but Hebrew ultimately. 
  1. Religion, which is the worship of God with all its attendant traditional rituals, is superstitious and harmful. Synagogues and rabbis keep Jews from devoting their energies to practical matters. 
  1. The Jewish tradition consists of both theology and ethics. While the theology is useless, many of the ethical values are still valid. They arise out of the Jewish experience. Although values like peace and justice are universal, Jews can best understand them by relating them to their own historic experience. 
  1. Jewish holidays did not start out as commands of God. They started out as nature festivals and community celebrations which were intended to bind the Jewish people together and to give them a sense of unity. They are not religious holidays. They are folk festivals. They can easily be reinterpreted to emphasize the importance of the Jewish people as opposed to the importance of God. 
  1. The Jewish people should be preserved and Jewish identity should be promoted because cultural diversity is better than world uniformity. 

These six principles are ideas which Humanistic Jews would be comfortable with-with a few reservations. 

Here are the reservations. 

  1. The Jews are indeed an international recognition. With the destruction of Eastern European Jewry, the drive of secular Jews to achieve this recognition was subverted. What remained was a regretful nostalgia for a world that no longer existed. Neither proletarian solidarity nor Yiddish sentimentalism are appropriate to the affluent Jewish bourgeoisie who are part of the managerial class. 
  1. Yiddish has died and Hebrew is the language of only one-fifth of the Jewish people. English is spoken by more Jews than any other language. While language is still an important sign of Jewish identity, it cannot be the most important sign. The celebration of national holidays and cooperation for mutual defense now replace them. 
  1. Religion is not essentially the worship of God. It is the way (as the Jewish sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out) tribes and nations celebrate their immortality. The Jewish community transcends the life of any individual Jew and gives him continuity. A secular religion is not a contradiction in terms. It is (as the French humanist August Comte implied) simply describing in natural terms what tradition described in supernatural terms (by turning the community and its ancestors into God). 
  1. Jewish ethics require Jewish teachers. Secular Jews always relied on Yiddish linguists, renegade scholars and practical leaders to serve the teaching function Since they associated rabbis with religion, they could never conceive of a secular rabbi. This limitation has left them without professional leadership. The old informal ethical leadership has disappeared. And no real provision was made for the training of secular professionals who would serve as ethical guides, cultural scholars, creators of new materials, philosophical counselors and community leaders. Secular Judaism has to rely on inadequately trained leadership, which receives neither (sic) recognition from its own community, the Jewish community or the general public.  They need secular rabbis. 
  1. Since the Marxist debacle, secular Jews have lost their sense of being more than Jews, of belonging to a larger human community. Humanism is the religious celebration of the unity of the world community. Jewish holidays are necessary. But they are not enough. Secular Judaism has become parochial. It has lost the transcendent and universal thrust that the old May Day celebration had. As bourgeois and managerials Jews, Secular Jews have not yet figured out how to integrate their Jewishness with their humanistic loyalties. 
  1. Cultural diversity is important. But in the ‘global village’ national cultures tend to become less different and to conform to an emerging world culture of shared technology. Strident affirmations of national difference are less realistic than viewing national culture as an aesthetic option in certain areas of our lives. Otherwise our behavior will never fit our propaganda. 

Despite these reservations, Humanistic Judaism and Secular Judaism share unities that are far stronger than differences. 

We have every reason to cooperate and to help each other. 

Reconstructionist Judaism

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

Reconstructionist Judaism? 

How does it differ from Humanistic Judaism? 

Many people have asked this question. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————————————————————————- 

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

A Historic Event

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 34, No 4, Autumn 2006_ Vol 35 No 1 Winter 2007

The date is Friday, December 22. The time is 2:00 in the afternoon. The setting is the western hills of Jerusalem. The place is the famous Israel Museum, perched on top of Israel’s cultural and Parliamentary “mountain,” a secular “temple” to the message of Zionism. The event is the first ordination of Secular Humanistic Rabbis in Jerusalem. It is an historic moment. 

The path to this moment has been long and circuitous. First came the movement of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, organized by secular Jews in response to antisemitism and in rebellion against the religious passivity of traditional Judaism. Second came the dramatic attempts by secular Jews to organize secular Jewish communities in Palestine that would celebrate Judaism as a culture, and not as a religion. The kibbutz was the most viable result of this effort. Third came the establishment of the Jewish state and the emergence of a new national Jewish culture expressed in the renaissance of the Hebrew language. Fourth came the cultural and political crisis, embodied in the growing power of militant Orthodoxy, the decline of socialism and the kibbutz movement, and the increasing search by young secular Israelis for philosophic and spiritual answers that secular nationalism could not provide. And last, the arrival in Israel of the ideology of Humanistic Judaism, with its marriage between Jewish culture and a humanistic philosophy of life – and with its special creation, the profession of a “secular rabbi.” 

Secular Judaism in Israel suffered from two problems during its impressive history. The first was that secularism and humanism played second fiddle to two more powerful movements to which they were attached. Nationalism and socialism were both secular. But they had other more compelling agendas that were competitive with humanism and that inhibited the development of a positive personal philosophy of life capable of transcending political boundaries. The second was the profound hostility of most of the Zionist pioneers to organized religion and its manifestation in a militant political Orthodoxy. Much of secularism in Israel was negative, a continuing battle against the hated religious establishment. There was no energy left for fashioning the institution of a positive secularism, which could embrace a clear alternative to the life of faith. Secular Israelis lived the life of courage. But they did not know how to translate this experience into an inspiring message for young people struggling to find hope and meaning in a dangerous world. 

When North American Humanistic Judaism first arrived in Israel, old-time secularists were comfortable with its message. But they were not comfortable with the idea of a secular rabbi. Although they had not trained any philosophic and ceremonial leaders to serve the philosophic and ceremonial needs of their families and communities, they were hostile to the word rabbi, with all its connotations of traditional religion. In many cases – whether a wedding, a funeral, or a bar mitzvah ceremony – they often used the services of traditional rabbis. But they were reluctant to create a secular version of a rabbi to serve their needs with integrity and dignity. It was ironic that the people who were bold enough to create a Jewish state against overwhelming odds and to invent a new Hebrew culture were paralyzed by this provocation. 

But their grandchildren do not suffer the same ambivalence. They are the generation of Israelis who are openly searching for personal answers beyond nationalism and socialism. Some of them make the now familiar pilgrimage to India after their army experience, exploring the mysticism of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. Some of them are captured by the aggressive missionaries of the Lubavitchers. But most of them are open to a powerful humanistic message from empowering humanistic teachers. They have no difficulty with the concept of a secular rabbi. They have no difficulty with the idea of a secular clergy. While they oppose the ambitions of the militant Orthodox, they are open to positive teachers with positive messages. Jewish culture can be meaningful for them only if it touches their desire for happiness, personal fulfillment, and moral idealism.  

The audience of 300 at the ordination in the Israel Museum were mainly young. Interspersed among them were political leaders, writers, journalists, academicians, and representatives from liberal religious movements. The audience was a sign of hope for our movement in Israel. Their enthusiasm, excitement, and joy were a mirror to the thousands of Israelis outside the museum who would welcome secular rabbis and the positive message of Secular Humanistic Judaism. 

North America was represented by me, by Rabbi Adam Chalom, by Rabbi Greg Epstein, and by movement leaders including Michael Egren, Ron Milan, Phillip Gould, and Marvin Rosenblum. 

The program featured the participation of some very important leaders. A.B. Yehoshua, Israel’s most famous writer and an impassioned secularist, opened the event with a profound analysis of the permanent connection of Israel and the Diaspora. Yehuda Bauer, Israel’s most distinguished Holocaust scholar and the first president of the International Federation, celebrated the importance of this historic event. Above all the team of father and daughter, Yaakov Martin and Rabbi Sivan Maas, who together created the International Institute program for the training of Secular Humanistic rabbis and leaders in Israel, articulated their vision. Sivan Maas  was ordained as a rabbi in Detroit during the Colloquium of 2003. Her charisma, wisdom, and determination are largely responsible for the dramatic new success of our movement in Israel. 

Seven rabbis were ordained. They had visited the United States in 2005 when they were graduated as madrikhim. They are quite extraordinary. Each of them is the recipient of many graduate degrees. Each of them possesses a unique charisma. Each of them is an articulate exponent of the philosophy of Secular Humanistic Judaism. Each of them is creating an important niche in Israeli life as community leaders, teachers, ceremonialists, and counselors. Each of them spoke so eloquently that the audience rose to cheer them. 

The ordination received strong coverage in the press and on the radio and television. Almost all interviewers were friendly and excited. We extend special thanks to Yona Metzger, the Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Israel, who denounced the ordination and petitioned the Attorney-General to close the event down. Nothing happened – except that he managed to raise our visibility.  

Everybody who was present felt that they were present at a historic moment in the evolution of Secular Humanistic Judaism, a turning point for our movement. 

The best news is that more Israeli secular rabbis are waiting in the wings to be ordained. 

The Millennium: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

HJ Vol 27 No 4 Autumn 1999

Millennium fever is abroad. Some people are expecting the end of the world. Others are preparing for computer catastrophes. Still others are planning parties. Since socialism died, secular utopian visions for the next thousand years are hard to find. Of course, all of this anxiety is technically inappropriate. Since Jesus was most likely born in 4 B.C.E., the beginning of the millennium (as dated from his presumed birth) happened three years ago! 

Millennium time is an obvious time for prophecy. Secular prophets can be excused if they turn out to be fallible. There are so many variables to tangle with. The way to begin the process is to look at the amazing transformations of the past millennium. 

One thousand years ago, most of the planet’s people were subsistence farmers living in villages. The muslim world was at the peak of its power. Christian Europe was an economic backwater. Human minds and lives were centered on religion. Governments were princely and authoritarian. 

One thousand years later, the Muslim world is economically primitive. European culture dominates the world. Most people live in cities, not villages. The lifestyles of urban people are overwhelmingly secular. The political environment of most powerful nations is one of democracy and personal freedom. Our millennium has been unique. There is a radical discontinuity between its beginning and its end. 

For the Jews of the world, the past millennium has brought an equally radical transformation. One thousand years ago, most of the Jewish people lived in Muslim countries. Their lives were controlled by religious ritual and religious authority. External and internal governments were authoritarian and oppressive. One thousand years later, most Jews reside in nations of predominantly European culture, including a Jewish state. Their lifestyle has more to do with consumer choices than with divine commandments. Their political and economic environments offer emancipation, freedom, and prosperity. Their connection to their historic past is minimal. 

Never before in Jewish history has change been so dramatic. In the last two hundred years of this millennium, the interests and behavior of Jews have completely diverged from the traditions of the past. Synagogues and temples have become haves of nostalgia, where Jews can pretend to be traditional and to dent that they have radically changed. But the reality is too powerful to sustain the denial. A secular environment of personal freedom has no precedent in human history. At the end of this millennium has no precedent in human history. 

A free society, the gift of Anglo-Saxon Protestant politics, has undermined the walls of Jewish conformity. Today Jewish diversity is expanding. No single Jewish authority has the power to regulate Jewish life. Every Jew enjoys the privilege of choice. And the “menu” is almost infinite. Moses and Marx, Jeremiah and Freud, Akiba and Camus, gefilte fish and bacon, all are possible combinations on the buffet of freedom. Many Jews don yarmulkes at intermarriages. Some choices are rational and in good taste. Some choices are irrational and in bad taste. But no one seems to have the power to stop choosing. Of course, all this rapid change has produced high levels of guilt and anxiety. Many Jews are traumatized by freedom. Many want to go forward and backward at the same time. The rise of a militant Jewish fundamentalism is not a sign that change is reversing. It is a tribute to its success.  

So what are the prospects for the next millennium? Will the technological transformation of the industrial world render nationalism obsolete and break down the ethnic and religious barriers that have divided humanity? Will communication and transportation be so swift that the “global village” becomes real? Under today’s circumstances it is difficult to predict events beyond the next one hundred years. Empirical prophets are restrained by insufficient evidence. Nevertheless, it is clear that the beginning of the next millennium will continue the radical transformation of the Jew.  

What can we expect? 

Prosperity, leisure, and secular education will continue to make the Jew more secular. The secular goods of the market economy and the consumer culture have become more attractive than the offerings of traditional religion. 

Israel will continue to exist. A global economy will utilize its buying power and make it prosperous. The gradual secularization of the Arab and Muslim worlds will enable Israel to find allies, if not friends, in the Near East. 

Jewish life will grow more chaotic through diversity. Atheists, mystics, and Jesus-freaks all will be a part of it. In Israel, peace will bestow new power on the secular minority. New Age religion will share the marketplace with Orthodoxy. 

The dichotomy between ultra-Orthodox and secularized Jews will grow wider. As a protest against the modern world, ultra-Orthodoxy will continue to recruit many Jews who find the stresses of contemporary urban society intolerable. Living in their islands of segregation, traditional Jews will feel increasingly alienated from the rest of the Jewish community. 

Intermarriage will remain a significant part of Jewish life. Even in Israel, marriages between Jews and Arabs will flow from the freedom of an open society. Anti-Semitism will persist as a chronic annoyance. Since its foundations lie in the discomfort of millions of people with the stresses of a modern capitalist and urban culture and the perceived dominant role of Jews in that culture, its locus will continue to lie chiefly among the poor and lower classes. 

In the Diaspora, assimilation and intermarriage will de-ethnicize the Jewish people. After several generations, the stereotypes of Ashkenazic Jews will vanish. Jewish identity will be primarily a matter of choice. In the Jewish state, a new ethnicity will emerge out of the mixing of Ashkenazic and Eastern Jews. In both places the Jewish profile will become radically different. 

Higher birthrates in Israel will reverse the current population edge of the Diaspora. By 2050 the Zionist dream will be realized: the majority of the Jews in the world will reside in Israel. Israel will continue to play a greater and greater role in Jewish life, even for the de-ethnicized Jews of the Diaspora. 

American Jewry will shrink in size through low birth rates and attrition. But many non-Jews will choose a version of Jewish identity. A fascination with the achievements of Jews will continue to recruit adherents from the middle and upper classes. 

Humanistic Judaism will continue to grow and to become more respectable. Secular Jews will be attracted to Humanistic Judaism if the movement is both strong and visible. Reform and Conservative Jews will keep shifting between traditional and liberal initiatives in order to deal with their diverse and amorphous constituencies. Internal disputes may fragment both movements. 

Relentless change will be the order of the day. The technology of the next millennium will continue to generate both power and anxiety. More than theology, it will determine the future of Jewish life and of Judaism. 

Our French Heritage

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 25, No 1-2 Winter_Spring 1997

We are here in Paris. And for us, as Humanistic Jews, Paris has a special significance. 

First of all, Paris is the most beautiful city in the world. Other cities have more imposing natural settings. But no other urban center possesses to the same degree the wonders of human creation. We Jews have been an urban people for more than two thousand years. Paris epitomizes the urban setting that has been our home for such a long time. 

More importantly, Paris was the setting for a series of political events that transformed the Jewish people. We call them the French revolution. It was in Paris that Jewish emancipation began in Europe. It was in Paris that an elected government first proclaimed religious toleration. It was in Paris that the Declaration of the Rights of Man was conceived and proclaimed. The secular revolution fought by French rebels against the old regime brought freedom to Jewish life, a freedom not only to taste the opportunities of the outside world, but also to defy the tyranny of tradition in the inner world of Jewish community life. That freedom brought positive energy to the Jewish world. 

The foundation of the French Revolution was an intellectual movement called the Enlightenment. The devotees of the Enlightenment celebrated the life of reason. They imagined that it was possible to create a new social order that was both compassionate and rational, a political and economic system that would promote dignity and happiness. Religion and tradition were viewed as obstacles to the achievement of these goals. Creative alternatives replaced the veneration of the past. 

Before the Revolution, the primary vision of social order was the family model. This model derived from the historic role of the family in an agricultural world. Loving the land and producing more and more children was what the farming life needed and demanded. The family ethos provided for both. It also provided authoritarian parents who offered protection and acceptance at the price of obedience. All larger units of social organization were modeled on the family. Clans had elders. Tribes had chiefs. Nations had kings. And the universe had God. Until modern times, people were viewed as subjects of higher authority in the same way as children were the subjects, and even servants, of their parents. 

The family model explains traditional religion and traditional ethics, with their emphasis on faith, reverence of the past, unconditional obedience, and hostility to outsiders. Traditional religion and paternalism went hand in hand. The alliance of the aristocracy with the church was as much a matter of vested interest as it was of belief. 

Capitalism and urbanization undermined the traditional family and the traditional social order. They produced mobility, ambition, and mixing — which, in turn, produced such new values as individualism, skepticism, and personal freedom. A world of free and ambitious individuals found tradition confining and authoritarian parents intolerable. In time, skepticism and free exploration produced the wonders of science. Evidence, not ancestors, now became the arbiter of truth. 

The French Revolution embraced a new social order, which we call democracy. It affirmed the right of human beings, using human reason, to rearrange the political landscape in the name of human happiness. It spoke of equality and fraternity. It honored personal autonomy. It rejected the paternalism of kings and bishops and encouraged the elevation of the lower classes through education. The authoritarian state was consigned to the dustbin of history. Even revolutionary dictators had to clothe their pronouncements in the language of freedom. 

The verbal flag of the Revolution was the word citoyen. No longer would people be the subjects of kings. They would be citizens, brothers and sisters in equality. A radical new social order was proposed. Instead of the authoritarian family-nation, there would be a community of autonomous individuals, bound together by patriotism and mutual interest, who would jointly promote the public welfare. Furthermore, the “public welfare” was no single goal determined by a supreme ruler. It was a multiplicity of individual agendas seeking some kind of workable harmony. 

Secular Humanistic Judaism is the child of Paris, as much as of Jerusalem. It is the offspring of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It is the son and daughter of the two thousand years of Jewish urban existence, which is one of the sources of modern capitalism and science. It rejects authoritarian government and embraces the ideal of the citoyen

What does this social ideal mean for us as Jews? 

Citoyen means that the old family model will not work either for ethics or for governance. The test of right and wrong does not lie in the will of our ancestors or in the will of God. It lies in the connection between our behavior and the satisfaction of the basic needs of ourselves and of others. People are not the servants of government, whether divine or human. Governments are the servants of people. 

Citoyen means that love is not enough. In an urban world of strangers, justice cannot depend on love. Feelings of love are appropriate to the intimate world of family and friends. They cannot guide us in the anonymous outside world. Ethical behavior toward outsiders, moral concern for the welfare of people we do not know, derives from urban anxiety — from the deep-seated awareness that we, too, depend on the kindness of strangers. A particular stranger may not be able to help us, but every stranger is a symbol for all. Compassionate and respectful social behavior arises out of the knowledge that failure to respond to the needs of others will justify others in returning our indifference. Duty has foundations in both empathy and self-interest. Guilt is connected to the discomfort we feel when we receive more than we give. 

Citoyen means that democracy is a convenience. Societies in which permanent majorities oppress permanent minorities are not just. No individual outside the family model can be expected to be loyal to a social system from which he or she derives no benefit. Individual rights restrict the power of the majority and force it to become more sensitive and more rational. A just society may not necessarily arrange for equal rewards for equal talent and equal effort, but it enables every citizen to feel that he or she is included. 

Citoyen means that there is an inevitable tension between my needs and the needs of others. Family survival is no longer the only agenda. Personal happiness is also compelling and morally justified. Justice is a balancing act between the individual and the group. One extreme is masochism, the sacrifice of the individual for the group. The other extreme is an atomistic selfishness, the rejection of the group in favor of self-assertion. A meaningful life lies somewhere in the middle. Individual Jews do not exist only to promote Jewish survival. Personal identity and personal needs are also important. A compassionate and rational Judaism must be able to address not only the survival needs of the Jewish people and the ethical responsibilities of being a world citizen, but also the happiness of the individual Jew. 

Citoyen means that there are no utpisas. Messianic visions are tied to authoritarian thinking. They are the expectations that native  and dependent children have of “omnipotent” parents. Many followers of the French Revolution betrayed their new adulthood and indulged in childish expectations of the future. A world of competing personal agendas is not easy to harmonize. We will never stop bumping into each other. Frustration will not go away. Life will continue to be unfair. But the reward of personal dignity, plus the awareness that we can arrange for more happiness and more justice than we presently have, provides the basis for a meaningful life. 

We are individuals. We are Jews. We are humanists. All of these realities are important. No one of them is more important than the others. We are also citoyens, heirs of the French Revolution. We cannot go back to the family model. History will not allow that. Nor would we choose to return. Our balancing act is hard; but, if we value it, it will make us strong.