Celebrating 350 Years of Jewish Life in North America

Celebrating 350 years in America: Summer 2005

This is an important year for Jews in America. Three hundred and fifty years ago, in 1654, a small, bedraggled band of Jews sailed into the harbor of Dutch New Amsterdam and sought refuge. They were the leftovers of a major exodus of Portuguese Marranos from Dutch Brazil after Brazil was retaken by the Portuguese. Most of the refugees returned to Holland. Some of the refugees disembarked in Curacao. A few chose North America as their destination. The Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, resisted the entry of the Jews. But the corporate leaders of the Dutch West India Company, including wealthy Portuguese Jews, overruled Stuyvesant’s prejudice. The first self-proclaimed Jews had arrived in North America.

North America was no ordinary desti­nation for the Jews. It was not like arriving in Iraq, Germany, or Poland. America was to become the leading nation of the ur­ban industrial revolution, the dynamo of capitalism and the money economy. Not since the invention of agriculture ten thou­sand years before had a revolution of this magnitude taken place in human develop­ment. The assault of science and technology transformed Western civilization and ulti­mately the world. Although the weary Por­tuguese Jewish refugees who arrived in New Amsterdam had no idea of what would fol­low, they had landed in the place that would change the Jews more powerfully than any other country in which they had sojourned. That change was so powerful that Jews in America today cannot even comprehend what Jewish life and Jewish belief were like three hundred years ago.

America turned into such an attractive destination for Jews that it ultimately became home to the largest Jewish community in the world. The immigration came in waves. First came the trickle of Portuguese Marranos, who settled in the coastal cities of New York, Philadelphia, Newport, and Charleston. Then came the bigger wave of German Jews, who laid the foundations of American Jewish life and institutions. After the Germans came the overwhelming numbers of Yiddish-speak­ing Eastern European Jews, who created a powerful Jewish presence in the major cities of North America. In the twentieth century refugees from Nazi and Soviet terror arrived. Even a substantial number of Israelis have established a Zionist diaspora in the United States and Canada.

The roots of American culture lie in many places. One is the incredible potential wealth of the continent we live on. Another is the Anglo-Saxon world from which the reality of a liberal democracy first emerged. Still another is radical Calvinism, which despised aristocracy and glorified human equality. Above all, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which coincided with the American Revolution, championed the powerful no­tions of science and progress. This country, like England, was an ideal place for the urban industrial revolution to begin. Prosperity and freedom were the consequences. Toleration and the separation of religion from govern­ment became the law of the land. The social reality of America was radically different from any previous environment in which Jews had found themselves. Secular education and public schools were available to everyone. No pedigreed upper class prevented social climb­ing. In one generation, money and education could lift immigrants from poverty to success. New secular professions, from accountant to psychiatrist, offered niches of influence and status. Technology and leisure lifestyles opened the worlds of the media and mass entertainment. In America, all the Jewish com­mercial skills that the peasants and warriors of Europe had despised were the very skills that every American citizen needed in order to succeed in a free-enterprise economy. No social environment had ever been as friendly to the Jews as that of America.

But the influence of America on Jewish life lies in something more powerful. Not only did American secular education un­dermine the traditional beliefs of the past, but it also transformed the value system that Jews historically had embraced. Most of the immigrants had come from families and communities that were authoritarian, male chauvinist, and archly collectivist, a milieu where reverence for the past and pes­simism about the future prevailed. America presented a radically new alternative. There was the celebration of dignity and personal freedom, the radical assertion that I have the right to choose my work, my residence, my politics, my religion – and even my marriage partner. There was empowerment, the chal­lenging claim that my role in life was not to be passively humble but to find my own strength and to forge my own destiny. There was the right to happiness, a provocative alternative to accepting suffering with faith. There was a strong shift of focus from the afterlife to the wonderful options for happiness in the secu­lar choices of a dynamic economy.

American Jews embraced these new val­ues with enthusiasm even though they were dramatically opposed to the Jewish values of the past – so much so that many Jews today believe that these values are contained in the Torah; so much so that most contemporary Jews cannot imagine an ethical world without them. If the revolution at Sinai had been a real event, it could not have been more powerful than the American experience in transforming the Jewish people.

Now, these new values can be problematic. A free, individualistic world breeds stress, self-absorption, loneliness, anonymity, and weak nuclear families. Marxism, hippieism, and religious fundamentalism have emerged as challenging alternatives. But, for the vast ma­jority of the people in the Western world, this value system, with all its problems, remains the most attractive. Even modern Israel is more American than it is traditionally Jewish.

It is appropriate this year that we take the time to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Jewish arrival in America and to reflect on the revolution that America has provoked in Jewish life. Humanistic Judaism is the child of America.

Ten Truths about Our Jewish Roots

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

Traditional Judaism depends on an ac­ceptance of the stories in the Torah. The Jewish religion began with God, who transmitted his commands to Abraham and Moses. Abraham’s grandson, Israel, had twelve sons, each of whom became the ancestor of a tribe. Ultimately all twelve tribes went to live in Egypt, where they were enslaved by the Pharaohs. After their liberation from bondage, their new leader, Moses, led them to Mt. Sinai. At this mountain, they received the full doc­trine of the Torah and pledged themselves and their children to fulfill the command­ments.

By this official story, the Bible came first. The religious regimen of Jewish life came second.

Non-traditional Judaism, including Reform, justifies its label by establishing its adherence to the Torah. The Torah is the peg on which all “real” Judaism sup­posedly hangs. The holidays and other ceremonies derive their “kosher” charac­ter from their presence in the Bible.

Humanistic Judaism, on the other hand, denies that the holiday and life-cycle ceremonies, which express the rhythm of Judaism, are the result of the Torah. It denies that the origin of Judaism lies in the Bible and in the historic events described in the Bible.

Using the scientific discoveries of ar­chaeology and higher Biblical criticism, a humanistic Judaism presents a counter­story to the story of the Torah.

Humanistic Judaism affirms ten histori­cal observations, which are in conflict with traditional claims:

  1.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never existed; they are mythical figures.

In ancient Palestine, there were three Semitic peoples who spoke the same lang­uage. There were the Canaanites (also called Phoenicians), the Amorites, and the Hebrews. Their difference was not racial but occupational. The Canaanites were city-dwellers, the Amorites hill-country farmers, and the Hebrews wandering herdsmen and shepherds. The Hebrews conquered the Amorite hill-country in successive small invasions lasting more than a thousand years. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are personifications of three important invasions. Although the authors of the Torah try hard to deny the ethnic and cultural connection between the Hebrews and the Canaanites, objec­tive research proves them wrong.

  •  Most Hebrews never went down into Egypt.

The Exodus story is a myth. There is no historical evidence to substantiate a mas­sive Hebrew departure from the land of the Pharaohs. As far as we can surmise, the Hebrew occupation of the hill-country on both sides of the Jordan was continu­ous. The twelve tribes (Joseph considered as two) never left their ancestral land, never endured 400 years of slavery, and never wandered the Sinai desert. The origin of their customs and ceremonies had nothing to do with an Egyptian expe­rience.

  •  Moses was never the leader of the Hebrews.

One Semitic tribe called Levi did spend time in Egypt. They may even have been slaves. However by 1200 B.C., long after the Hebrews had been settled in Palestine, this tribe was wandering the Sinai desert. Their leader and shaman was a man called Moses (an Egyptian name), and their chief god was either a snake god called Nehushtan or a wind god called Yahveh. Under the leadership of Moses, they infiltrated the Hebrew land of Judah. (The south of the Hebrew territory was called Judah and the north was called Israel.) Famous for their magical powers, they were invited by the people of Judah (the Jews) to become their priests. After Moses died, his descendants, in particu­lar, were in demand as priests. In time, the Levites, like the Magi of Persia, special­ized in soothsaying and in the conducting of religious ceremonies. While the Levites remembered their leader Moses, the Jews had, for obvious reasons, no historic mem­ory of his leadership.

  •  The Jewish religion was old before the Bible was written.

Long before the Levites ever set foot in Palestine, long before the story of the Torah was written, the Hebrews had an ancient religion and an ancient set of reli­gious ceremonies. The Torah was not even written by Moses (who was most likely illiterate). It was written by a group of Levitical priests 700 years after Moses had died and centuries after the basic reli­gious calendar of Judaism had evolved.

  •  Sukkot, Hanukka, and Passover were established holidays long before the Torah was dreamed of.

In ancient Palestine, three moments of the seasonal year were suspenseful. The first was the fall equinox, when the rainy season was scheduled to begin. The second was the winter solstice, when the dying light of the sun was scheduled to renew itself. And the third was the spring, when the herds and the flocks regularly conceived. The failure of either the rain, the sun, or animal fertility to fulfill its promise spelled disaster. Therefore, our Hebrew ancestors set aside a week of celebration at each of these annual crises to ensure success. They danced and sang and sought to urge on the natural forces through imitation. They poured water on Sukkot, lit lights on Hanukka, and ate eggs on Passover to urge the rhythm of nature to assert itself. The Levitical authors of the Torah sought to deny the nature origins of these festivals and to attach them (with the exception of Hanukka) to a historic desert experience the Hebrews never knew. But modern research gives the lie to this tam­pering.

  •  Judaism began as a series of nature experiences.

Judaism is as old as the Jewish people. It began with the nature experiences of the Hebrew people in their own land. It began with the Jewish response to the seasonal crises of autumn, winter, and spring, as well as to the individual crises of birth, puberty, marriage, and death. What the Bible denies, the evidence of his­tory affirms. Although the Orthodox leadership, both historical and rabbinical, sought to turn the attention of the Jews from nature to their god Yahveh, it could not erase the nature experience. Even when officially demoted to insignificance, it persisted as the major motivation for celebration.

  • The Torah is an attempt to explain the already established Jewish calendar.

After the destruction of the northern Hebrews (Israel) by the Assyrians and the defeat of the southern Hebrews (the Jews) by the Chaldeans, a power vacuum existed. Since the Chaldeans and their successors, the Persians, did not wish to restore the military leadership of Judah out of fear that revolt would be encour­aged, they removed the royal House of David and replaced it with a group of harmless collaborators. These collabora­tors were the Levitical priests, who were eager for power.

The Levites had a problem. In the eyes of the people, they were usurpers, oppor­tunistic replacements of the legitimate House of David. They therefore had to prove their right to rule.

The Torah is a deliberate attempt by the Levites to prove that Moses and his relatives (as contrasted to David and his descendants) are the rightful rulers of the Jews. A fictional Moses is created who becomes the leader of all the Hebrews and the star of a supernatural spectacular at Sinai.

In order to reinforce the authority of Moses, the Levites deliberately associated all holidays with Moses and with Yahveh, the god of Moses. Passover emerged as the anniversary of the mythical Exodus. Sukkot emerged as a commemoration of the never-never 40 years of wandering in the desert. And the rest day, sacred to Saturn, the god of Jerusalem, was justified as the Sabbath through a childish story of creation. When the Levites got through with their book, the history of Judaism was totally distorted. A non-hero called Moses arose as the savior of Israel, and the ancient Jewish calendar with all its pagan gaiety was reduced to a solemn desert travesty.

  •  The Biblical point of view is the Levitical point of view.

The Bible is a series of 24 books either written by or edited by the Levites. It is an attempt to explain ancient Judaism through the vested interest of a priestly clan. If read uncritically, it distorts the truth and makes the origins of Judaism ap­pear as they weren’t. The Torah is not the source of Judaism. It is a clever and suc­cessful attempt to rationalize Judaism for the benefit of a small power elite.

  •  The Jewish religious experience preceded the articulated beliefs about the gods or God.

The religious experience in all cultures is the attempt to celebrate the unchanging rhythm of life, whether seasonal or per­sonal. Before there was any Moses or Levites, before there was any formal theology of Yahveh, there existed an an­cient Hebrew calendar of life. The dramatic experiences of this calendar, with their sense of identity with the events of nature, were independent of any theological explanation. Only later, when the caretakers of religion tried to ar­ticulate the significance of these ex­periences, did they conjure up fantasies about the gods. Judaism preceded the gods and will survive them.

  1.  Historic Judaism is not the Bible. It is the celebration of life through the seasonal and personal calendars of Jewish ex­perience.

An authentic Judaism seeks to go behind the official theological rationaliza­tions. It seeks to articulate the human ex­perience that makes Sukkot, Hanukka, Passover, and the other celebrations significant. It finds the ethical values of these holidays not in a mythical story but in the human response to the seasons. Reflection is natural to the autumn, hope is essential to the winter, and freedom is the imitation of spring.

And so, there they are.

Ten historical assertions. Ten humanistic interpretations of Jewish history.

Just as the modern Jew is utterly distinct from the man the official theology describes, so was the ancient Jew vastly different from the pious image the Bible prefers.

The Rabbi Writes – Colloquium ‘97

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 – Colloquium ’97

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.  

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.  

Antisemitism

Humanistic Judaism, Summer 1974

Jewish Book Month has always meant an attempt to read books by Jewish writers and Jewish themes. But I must confess that having pursued the current annual output of chauvinistic ego therapy, I much prefer books by anti-Jewish writers on Jewish themes. Not that these enemy authors accurately describe the behavior patterns of living Jews or correctly assess the present state of Hebrew culture. It is just that their vision of the Jew is so much more appealing to the reality. If only we could live up to their expectations!

If one reads the antisemitic classic by Hillary Belloc and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the imaginary Jew they assault is the extremely attractive figure. Rootless, cosmopolitan, and without patriotism, he embodies all the humanistic virtues. He is a projection of all the values that threaten the tribal mind, the nemesis of clan loyalty and irrational feeling. As a wanderer and international vagrant, the Jew is the enemy of stability, permanence, and landed property. Revolution, change, and fluid money are the signs of his subversion and the expressions of his degeneracy. Condemned to belong nowhere and to live everywhere, he is a perennial outsider, a predator of those who are emotionally involved in a manipulator of those who have intense commitment. The disease of cold objectivity provides his mind and he views all the world with a sardonic smile.

The “villain” of modern sophisticated antisemitic lore has a variety of personal voices, ranging from dirt to sexual incontinence. But the list of his social deficiencies is more intriguing. It reveals the Jew we aren’t but could be. Having responded to the antisemite by adopting his fears and values, the Jew rejects the bigot’s image and strives to prove that he is with the bigot says he isn’t. Instead of greeting the hatred of the enemy as an honor, he desperately wants to be loved by the message and to be heroic in the eyes of the common man.

The recent charges against the Jew in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia illustrate this reality. The party bureaucrats have chosen the Jew as a scapegoat for their frustration. They accuse him of the dread sin of “cosmopolitanism” and imply that he is incapable of Polish, Czech, or Soviet patriotism. To be a cosmopolitan is to be, and their eyes, an international adventure, a sophisticate devoid of those simple communal attachment which makes a socialism of scarcity possible. Land is to be loved, not merely lived on; it is to be revered, not nearly rented. If there’s a difference between Jew and Arab, it is that the Jew is a craft imperialist invader and the Arab is the land-loving peasant saint.

The irony of this left is the accusation is that it is a word for word repetition of the fantastic right-wing assault. From the Wagnerians through the anti-Dreyfusards to Adolf Hitler, the principal change against the Jew was his psychic inability to abide by patriotic reasoning. It was not that he betrayed one country for the sake of another. That deception would be forgivable since it at least revealed a passion for some nation or other. It was his being above such feelings they made his presence both intolerable and insidious.

To imagine that the Jew would receive this complaint with ardent applause and pleasure is to give to do as much credit for wisdom as the anti-Semite does. It would imply that our people view Ludwig Zamenhog with his utopian Esperanto invention as more heroic than Moshe Dayan. How far from the truth such an implication would be! For the historic Jewish entry to the cosmopolitan charge was to deny its validity. It was to plead the normalcy of the Jew and the ardor of his patriotic sentiments. Zionists defended their people by pointing out (quite correctly) that, given his own historic soil, the Jew could be as competent a nationalist as the member of any ethnic group. In fact, he could be more devout and more loyal than any other patriot because he had suffered land deprivation for nearly 2000 years and could appreciate the recovery of his homeland all the more. Even the Bible and the Prayerbook reflected the intense commitment of the Jews to Palestine so that every waking Fantasy was attached to the idea of messianic restoration.

The anti-Zionist defended the popular honor by demonstrating that Jews were such gung-ho Americans that the thought of any foreign national agent was alien to both their religion and their sentiments. They assaulted one kind of chauvinism by affirming another. The ideology of the American Council for Judaism is in reality, an inverted form of Zionism. It is never been a cosmopolitan critique of nationalism. It has never questioned the virtue of patriotism. It had only argued about which patriotism.

If we turned to the classic antisemitic charge that the Jews are by nature so rootless that they have conjured up the present monster of a mobile technological society, we find the same differences. The anti-Semite finds a virtue on the farm; he sees an ability in the man of the soil. Those who are rooted in fixed places and pursue simple occupations are morally preferable to international financial speculators and the creators of complex capital wealth. Manure is ethically sounder than money. Jesus is preferable to the Rothschilds. The antisemitic utopia has always been a nation of peasant warriors were bound together by personal friendship and simple trust. It is the futile dream of the village mentality which cannot part with the technological wonders.

The conventional Jewish response to this recurrent charge has been nothing short of ludicrous. Instead of greeting the assault with gratitude and with a site “that it should only be true,” the apologists resist the claim with all their might. Brainwashed by the pervasive propaganda over conservative morality, they plead the agricultural virtues of the Jews. Fearful of the label of the “city slicker,” the apologist is eager to explain that Jews ceased to be farmers because they were forced up the land by Gentile prejudice (as though ceasing to be farmers was some sort of hideous social crime would require justification, rather than a magnificent liberation from Village conformity).

The founders of modern Israel carried this apology to absurd lengths. They took highly sophisticated professionals, physicians, lawyers, and scientific intellectuals, and turned them into orange growers on the pretext that the return to the soil was necessary for Jewish redemption. Stung by the accusation of domestic anti-Semites, Baron de Hirsch, subsidized the shipment of thousands of Eastern Jews to the pampas of Argentina and cold planes of Saskatchewan. That the majority of the settlers deserted their Homestead and preferred the life of one of Buenos Aires and Winnipeg was a continual source of embarrassment to the Jewish establishment. After all, a nation of only merchants and intellectuals seem to grossly abnormal. The romance of the Kibbutz, which exalts the simple virtues of communal agricultural living, is a function of this discomfort. Jews are unwilling to be the avant-garde of the total urbanism and are unwilling to find it pleasurable. Although we are in the oldest continuous bourgeoisie in the Western world, we deplore our situation and prefer pastoral dreams.

Even the charge of Jewish secularism is regarded as a threat and insult. Instead of congratulating ourselves on our mass abandonment of worship and prayer with its complementary preference for science and analysis, our conventional defenders plead our piety and our ancestral connection with religious devotion. The modern Jew was embarrassed by his incipient humanism. He feels that Jews are to be devout and is willing to support institutions to make it appear as though we are. Within the framework of this concession, the rabbi becomes a substitute bigot. His role is to chastise Jews for what the anti-Semite deplores in them-namely, their skeptical reason. Our people annually subject themselves to high holidays denunciations of their loss of faith, which echo the bigots’ accusation and endorse its validity. The prospect of finding skepticism attractive and virtuous is beyond the vision of the average Jew. He prefers to defend his nonexistent piety against all assault, or at least to apologize for his absence.

As to the assertion that Jews undermine stable societies by their over-reliance on intellect and reason, the Jewish apologist resists its claim. He counters the charge by maintaining (quite accurately) that Jews can be as irrational as anybody else. After all, only a very sentimental people would have preserved the religious tradition over 3000 years without the need to admit change. Even reform denies that it is new and amusingly suggests that is nothing more than the revival of prophetic thought. The Jew was presented, and the official propaganda of television and newspaper, as much more the descendants of Abraham than the brother of Einstein and Marx. While Jewish middle-class children plant relevant attacks on the bastions of the establishment, their parents plead their respectability. While hordes of Jewish university students question the rationality of war, military conscription, and national boundaries, their fathers finance historical studies to demonstrate that Jews are as American as apple pie. The latter often perverse enough to praise the Bible they never read and old virtues they never practice.

If the modern anti-Semite turns conventional and hurls the old epithet of “Christian killer,”  few Jews have the courage to say “Why not?” Most of our people either become obnoxiously innocent, shifting all the blame, in scapegoat fashion, and to the shoulder of dead Romans who can no longer defend themselves, or, with understandable self-pity, irrelevantly describe the crucifixion of the Jew by the Christian world. The heart of the matter, the personality, and teachings of Jesus is too sacred to assault and remains beyond reproach. In fact, in Jewish propaganda, official Christianity is always safely distinguished from the real doctrines of the saint, while the Jewishness of Jesus is repetitively affirmed.

It would be inconceivable for the modern Jewish apologized to denounce the teachings of Jesus as a harmful religion. To assert that the romance of poverty, the view of virtue as simple, the glorification of good intentions above competence, and the preference of intuitive faith over intellect are doctrines designed to maximize fantasy, childish dependency, and low-self-esteem is totally unacceptable as a contemporary Jewish answer. Such current religious here as it is the Baal Shem Tov and Hasidism might even get caught by the same accusation. And, while interfaith dialogueniks are willing to discuss the sins of Christians, they are not willing to discuss the mental deficiencies of Jesus.

Unfortunately, do you do not live up to the expectations of anti-Semites? We are not as cosmopolitan, as urbanized, as skeptical, as intellectual, and as bold as they imagined us to be. If only we could achieve this status. If only we could be as dangerous and is threatening other enemies insist we are. We would then be the vanguard of a liberal society and the pioneers of a new and more meaningful ethic.