Jewish Survival

“Jewish Survival” from Humanistic Judaism journal, Spring/Summer 1980

Jewish survival.

It’s a magic phrase.

Most Jews feel guilty if they are not concerned with Jewish survival. Most of us feel it necessary to prove that we are.

After all, we have suffered so much persecution, we have been assaulted by so many enemies. If we consent to the disappearance of our group, we will earn the disapproval of our martyred ancestors. We will give the final laugh to our enemies. We will be accused of treason.

Because of this guilt, the issue of Jewish survival has become a Jewish obsession. All Jewish discussions ultimately lead to it. Most Jewish anxiety stems from it.

Despite the tenderness of the problem, we Humanistic Jews have to have an answer to the question of survival. If we are committed to the value of Jewish identity, we are also committed to the preservation of that identity.

But we have to be careful how we define the question.

We have to avoid regarding Jewish survival as the highest value, to which all other ideals are subordinate. Such devotion is the narrowness of community leaders who always regard social action and cultural programming as “gimmicks” for interesting Jews in Jewish institutions; or the fanaticism of Meir Kahane who justifies terrorism in the name of community survival.

We have to distinguish between the quantity of life and the quality of life.

There is no doubt that if all of us embraced the Lubavitcher ideology and life style that Jewish uniqueness would be preserved. But at what price? Is a life of compulsive ritual, male chauvinism, cultural segregation and a childlike devotion to an absolute ruler morally tolerable? And if it is morally Intolerable, it is not an appropriate demand to make on anybody.

We need to make a distinction between holocaust and assimilation. A holocaust implies the destruction of the Jew. Assimilation implies the disappearance of Jewish identity. Certainly, there an important distinction between the fascist who wishes to physically eliminate the individual Jew and the universalist who desires that the Jews and all other ethnic groups choose a “higher” human identity. Changing one’s cultural commitment is radically different from losing one’s life.

We need to be aware of the irony of antisemitism. While hatred of the Jew has destroyed many Jews, it has also brought many reluctant members back into the fold and unified the community against the enemy. Without our foes we would be hard put to stay together. Therefore, it is by no coincidence that community leaders use antisemitism as a motivation for loyalty. Just as physicians have a vested interest in disease, many avid Jews have an unconscious need to find enemies.

We have to dismiss the illusions which traditional historians have fostered. The assertion that Torah loyalty preserved Jewish identity throughout the centuries is not completely true. Religion is not the only factor in Jewish culture. Language (whether Hebrew or Yiddish) and economic specialization were of equal importance. The Christian rulers of medieval Europe did not allow our ancestors to live because of their Torah. They granted them survival because of their economic usefulness. In the end, language, religion and work were vehicles of ethnic pride.

We have to avoid blind nostalgia. It is important to remember that what worked in the past may not work in the future. A technique for group survival that was effective in the past, like ritual segregation or the refusal to marry outside the group, is useless if the vast majority of contemporary Jews are unwilling to use it. Laws that nearly everybody disobeys, subject the authority that pronounces them to ridicule. They produce self-righteousness, not survival.

. . . .

What does Humanistic Judaism have to offer to the promotion of Jewish identity that is different from the well-known approaches of Orthodoxy, Reform-Conservatism and Mystical Judaism?

We offer a positive voice about the Jewish present. We maintain that, on the whole, the quality of Jewish life in the present is superior to the quality of Jewish life in the past. The contemporary society of secular study, individual freedom and sexual equality is morally better than the societies that spawned the Torah and the Talmud. There is no need for reverent nostalgia and sentimental guilt. Our Jewish identity is not inferior to that of the past.

We offer a cultural definition of Judaism. In a world of enormous diversity in Jewish choice and practice, it is naive to confine Jewish identity to affirmations of theological belief and to religious behavior. If Judaism is primarily an ethnic culture, and not a religion, then it can embrace wide ideological differences. It can be inclusive rather than exclusive, allowing more and more people to identify themselves as Jews.

We offer the possibility of a secular religion. Such a combination is not a contradiction in terms. It simply implies that the secular Jewish activities of language, music, dance and humor are of equal or greater importance to those of religion. If religion refers to the appeasement and resignation behavior we manifest in the presence of what we do not control, then too much religion is dangerous, just as no religion is pretentious. The secular mood is the opposite to the religious feeling. In the face of situations, we have the human power to alter, it is defiant, challenging, irreverent and eager to change. In the presence of the unalterable, the secularist becomes mildly religious, shrugging his shoulders in resignation, but offering no gratitude. For those Jews who are far more secular than religious, we applaud their liberation and welcome their Jewish identity.

We offer an alternative history of the Jewish people, and an alternative view of Jewish roots. Instead of seeing Judaism as the creation of priests, prophets and rabbis, as the gift of the authors of the Bible and the Talmud, we credit its secular origins. The Jewish establishment was controlled by the clergy and distorted Jewish history to make it appear that the survival of the Jew lay in religious behavior. They consigned to oblivion the thoughts, ideas and names of countless millions of Jews who were skeptical of religious authority and who contributed their secular genius to Jewish culture. Merchants, musicians, poets, folklorists, inventors, soldiers, humorists, and the devotees of the popular language were made officially invisible, although their contribution to a Jewish sense of uniqueness and well-being was the equal to that of the clergy. The attitudes and ideas of the modern secular Jew are not alien to the Jewish past. They just never made it through the official censorship. Humanistic Jews have Jewish roots. But they need an alternative history to recover them.

We offer an openness to intermarriage. In a world of multiple identities, family identity does not have to coincide with Jewish identity. The intermarried are not pariahs who need to be excluded; nor are they erring children who need to be patronized. They are members of the Jewish people who should be welcomed into whatever community activity they wish to participate. To insist that Jewish identity has to be the primary and all-encompassing identity for all Jews is an act of ethnic suicide.

We offer the opportunity of cultural “conversion.” There are now hundreds of thousands of Gentiles who are married to Jews, or who are socially involved with Jews, who would enjoy the opportunity of identifying with the Jewish people and with Jewish culture if they did not have to make theological commitments that even most native-born Jews have behaviorally rejected. Joining a culture is much kinder, more rational and better humored than joining a religion.

We offer the endorsement of a variety of life-styles. We refuse to drown in the sentiment about the traditional Jewish family. Its patriarchal tyranny and male chauvinism are as characteristic as the security system it provided. Singlehood and individualism are not unfortunate aberrations. They are legitimate options that deserve moral recognition and discussion. The long-suffering Jewish mother needs to share the Jewish stage with Bella Abzug. Otherwise, we will save our clichés and lose our young people.

We offer a unique relationship to Zionism and the Jewish homeland. The state of Israel was not created by the devotion of the pious. The orthodox rejected political Zionism and branded it a secular heresy. The founders of the modern state were secular and humanist pioneers who desired to initiate a revolution in Jewish life and to define Jewish identity in terms of a full national culture, and not by the narrowness of religious ritual. Tel Aviv and the kibbutz are more characteristic of the new Israel than Jerusalem and the Bible. This Israeli humanism is now under severe assault by the growing power of militant orthodoxy. Its defenders need our help to protect the integrity of the pioneer vision and to create a truly secular state freed of religious coercion and open to a truly cultural definition of Jewish identity.

We offer more than a Jewish agenda. We are also humanists, eager to participate in an emerging world culture, as well us in Jewish culture. Parochialism, in an age of multiple personal identities, will drive away the ethically responsible. They will not want to participate in any cultural effort that forbids them to look beyond the boundaries of their own ethnic group. Judaism is too narrow unless it is willing to share its time with universalism.

We offer the concept of a new kind of Jewish leader. He must be able to serve as the ethical and cultural guide of Jewish groups and congregations in the same way that the historic rabbi served the community. But his training would not ape the training of the traditional rabbi, with its almost exclusive emphasis on religious texts. It would focus on the secular and humanist roots of Jewish culture and prepare him to add his own creative alternatives. (The training of Reform and Conservative rabbis today is simply a watered-down version of the training of traditional scholars.) Without this new leadership, the Jewish humanist and the Jewish secularist will gravitate to more traditional guides to serve their needs.

We offer more future and less past. In a time of rapid change, excessive nostalgia can be disastrous. What will be, becomes just as important as what was. The scientific spirit refuses to worship the past and to imagine that the greatest wisdom was uttered three thousand years ago. Nor does it need the endorsement of the past, whether Biblical or Talmudic, to make changes for the future. Given the revolution of modern life, we should be just as interested in creating new Jewish culture as in reviving old varieties. If we invent behavior to serve human needs—and do not invent human life styles to fit rigid behavior—we have no other choice.

As you can see, if we value Jewish identity there are many bold and unique actions that we can take to ensure its survival.

We Humanistic Jews are part of a “fourth alternative” in Judaism. We share this alternative with all our brothers and sisters who designate themselves as Secular, Cultural or Creative Jews. We have different labels, but essentially, one program. We need to cooperate with each other to make this program for Jewish survival a respectable reality.

The Future of American Jewry

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1994

What is the future of American Jewry? That is no idle question. Because what the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism need to do to guarantee their future depends on the character of the Jewish community they will be serving.

Profound changes are taking place. They have been going on for a long time. They are, most likely, irreversible. We are living with their consequences right now.

The first change is intermarriage. Priestly and rabbinic Judaism forbade intermarriage for both religious and racial reasons. But the modern urban world has made this ban unworkable and unenforceable. Increasing numbers of Jews choose to marry people they love, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. The endless condemnations of rabbis make absolutely no difference. In a free and open society cross-cultural unions are inevitable.

The major consequence of intermarriage is not so much that intermarrieds choose to give up their Jewish identity or to leave the Jewish community. It is the “de-ethnicization” of American Jewry. The deep ethnic roots of American Jews in the Yiddish experience of Eastern Europe are fast disappearing. The ethnic roots of increasing numbers of American Jews are as much Anglo-Saxon or Irish as they are Ashkenazic. The ethnic flavor of American Jewry will be hard to maintain in the face of Jews with multi-ethnic backgrounds.

Two forces are pulling in opposite directions in America. One force is the power of Zionism and Israel which dramatizes the ethnic dimension of Jewish identity, with its strong appeal to a national self-image, national culture and national language. Zionism has helped to re-ethnicize many Jews. The other force is the power of intermarriage which tends to universalize the Jewish community, diffusing Jewish ethnic memories in a sea of competing and complementary memories. The child with a Yiddish grandmother and an Irish grandmother may indeed be Jewish. But he is not ethnically Jewish in the same way as a child with two Yiddish grandmothers. What is happening in Israel is the opposite of what is happening in America.

The second change is the shrinking of the extended all-encompassing family and the emergence of the individual. For many American Jews permanent indissolveable relations are things of the past. More than one marriage, more than one career, more than one residence are commonplace. Mobility is the name of the game. The serenity or boredom of unchanging conditions are gone.

Jews of the past were burdened by the intensity of their connections. For many of them the demands of family and community were too oppressive, too guilt-producing, too intrusive for comfort. They often fled them to breathe the fresh air of privacy and aloneness. But, now the tables have been turned. The big anonymous city of individuals, separated from parents and children, is a cold and cruel environment. They crave connection. They search for community. In many cases they will even join communities with ideologies they do not believe in because they are desperate for connection, nurturing, and acceptance. The children of Jewish affluence are, in particular, vulnerable

The third change is the power of feminism. Society is being transformed by the entry of women into all professions and into all the chambers of political decision. The old male chauvinism of the Jewish world has collapsed, except in the Orthodox enclaves. The face of the American Jewish leadership is changing Even traditional women are choosing to do traditional things that only men did before, from wearing yarmulkes to lifting Torahs. The change is so revolutionary that it defines the boundary between the Jewish establishment – whether Reform, Conservative or Secular – and the fundamentalist dissenters who repudiate the Enlightenment. Feminism is creating this unbridgeable gap between the Jewish world that embraces female equality and the Jewish world where men still rule exclusively. It is a dichotomy that will only expand with time.

The fourth change is the “demacherization” of Jewish communities. With the arrival of capitalism and emancipation the rabbis lost their political power. They were replaced by “machers”, successful Jewish businessmen who became the new leaders of the Jewish world. “Machers” might be bossy and undemocratic; but they were generous with their time, talent, devotion and money. They had a strong sense of community commitment and responsibility.

But the last two decades have failed to produce new “machers.” The children of “machers” tend to be yuppie professionals who prefer the pursuit of personal fulfillment to community work. The “next” generation is less interested in building and strengthening community institutions. Jewish organizations all over America are worried about where the necessary army of devoted workers and leaders are going to come from. A hedonistic culture of affluence makes public work less exciting than private adventure.

The fifth change is the ideological free-for-all that an educated autonomous Jewish population inevitably creates. The world of ideas is a smorgasbord of choices, ranging from atheism to reincarnation, from rationalism to mystical spirituality. Every individual puts together his or her unique combination of choices as a personal philosophy of life. The endless variety of choices makes any set of denominational labels obsolete even before they are proclaimed Jewish diversity is like American diversity – an amorphous collection of shifting personal opinions.

How do we need to respond to all these changes and their consequences?

We need to be less ethnic and more universal. A Jewish people with diverse ethnic roots has to place less emphasis on nationalism and more emphasis on the planetary importance of Jewish identity. The Jewish strategies of North America and Israel may not always coincide.

We need to be a family to people who crave family connection and support. We must be the family of choice that works where the family of inheritance has failed. The importance of the new            groups that have emerged in our congregation will continue to grow.

We need to be open to all the possibilities of female leadership. Women rabbis will most likely be a dynamic force in the Judaism of the twenty-first century.

We need to train our young people for community service. A congregation is more than a service center. It is a place where the ethical virtues of commitment and devotion are cultivated. We need to never lose sight of our humanistic message and our ideological focus. In a world of endless diversity of beliefs it is convenient to be all things to all people. Our strength is the clarity of our philosophy of life. In the emerging Jewish world the Jewish ideological realities will correspond less to Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. It will more easily fit a loose division of fundamentalism, New Age thinking, and rational humanism. In such a world we have a good chance to embrace many new seekers of the “truth” if we have something real, consistent and significant to say.

Jewish History and the Jewish Future

“Jewish History and the Jewish Future” from A Provocative People, (2012)

From the early Semites to the global economy is a stretch of eight thousand years. From the emergence of Israel and Judah to the present, at least three thousand years intervene. The Jewish reality has been around for a long time.

Along the way the Jewish nation has acquired or created the structure and pieces of a resilient and adaptive culture. There have been many languages, many social institutions, many family practices, many rituals and celebrations, many dominant ideologies, many strategies for group survival and many historical memories interwoven into the fabric of Jewish identity. Since the Jews have never been an imperial power, their national culture reflects the diversity that conquering civilizations have left.

Along the way, the Jewish nation experienced three powerful social and economic transformations. The Jews began as herdsmen and gradually entered the agricultural world of farmers and villages. They then moved from the farmer side of the agricultural world to the emerging urban and commercial side of the same world. And finally they were swept up in the many revolutions of the urban industrial upheaval, which radically changed the material and social conditions of their historic existence. Each of these transformations produced massive internal confrontations. The conservatives who resisted change fought the liberals who welcomed it. The Protest Movement of the nostalgic prophets, the anti-Hellenist fervor of the Rabbis and the present dramatic dichotomy between the ultra-Orthodox and the secularized masses testify to the power of these changes.

Along the way, the Jewish nation experienced a dramatic shift in management and leadership. Tribal warrior chiefs were replaced by warrior kings. And, more importantly, warrior kings were replaced by the clergy. Theocracies, government by the clergy, became the norm for most of Jewish history. The replacement of the Zadokite priests by the rabbis was a significant change, but it did not alter the reality of clerical domination. Not until the nineteenth century were the rabbis deposed and turned into employees of the new secular professionals, whofollowed in the wake of the urban industrial revolution. The success of Zionism has now placed the secular leaders of the Jewish State in the role of informal spokespeople for the Jews.

Along the way the Jewish nation has hosted many powerful ideologies. There was the cultic mythology of the El, Asherah and Baal religion. There was the theology of the protest prophets and their monotheistic devotion to Yahweh. There was the ideology of the Zadokite priests that celebrated the Jews as the chosen people of God, the Jerusalem Temple as his residence on earth and the Torah as the embodiment of divine wisdom. There was the belief system of the Rabbis, which expanded divine revelation to the Tal-mud and offered the prospect of a happy individual immortality. There was the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah, shared with Eastern philosophy, which promised the ecstasy of a personal union with the Deity. There was the “rational theology” of the Hellenized philosophers like Maimonides, who exalted reason as the path to truth and an “Aristotelian God” to guarantee the order of the universe. There was the Enlightenment enthusiasm of the radical Haskalah, which championed science, humanism and a utilitarian ethics. There was the Marxist ideology of the radical socialists, which replaced religious devotion with revolutionary fervor. There was the liberal philosophy of bourgeois capitalism, which championed individual rights and consigned God to the role of ethics endorser. There was the self-affirmation of New Age religion, which rendered every introspective individual an authentic voice of spirituality. None of these ideologies was compatible with any of the others. All of them had counterparts in other cultures. All of them were Jewish—because they were embraced in time by large numbers of Jews. An ethnic culture—filled with diversity—embraced them all.

Along the way, the Jewish nation also became intensely provocative. Being Jewish was not like being Swedish. For millions of people, the Jews aroused emotions of intense fear, hatred and genocidal rage. The hostility was not only racial contempt directed toward those considered social inferiors. It was not only the exclusionary fear that was directed by most nations toward strangers. The hostility almost always acknowledged the cleverness and power of the Jews. This demonization of the Jew as the source of evil power lay in two places—the historic hostility of the Christian clergy to Rabbinic Judaism and the assumption by enterprising Jews of an economic role that was provocative. Of the two sources, the role of the Jew in the world of commerce and money was the more provocative.

Along the way, the Jews split into two main branches—an Eastern and a Western. For most of Jewish history, the Eastern Diaspora was dominant. In recent centuries, the Western Diaspora took first place. The center of the Jewish world shifted from territory to territory. Judea, Chaldea, Spain, Turkey, Poland, America and Israel have all featured major expressions of Jewish cultural vitality.

Along the way, the Jews became a small nation with extraordinary influence. The sacred scriptures of Zadokite and Rabbinic Judaism were appropriated by the imperial Christian civilization of the Greco-Roman world. Jewish merchants and bankers helped to lay the foundation of the urban industrial world. Secular Jewish intellectuals became major figures in the scientific revolution. The number of Jews who today function prominently at the top financial, cultural and intellectual institutions of the emerging international culture is out of proportion to their numbers in the world population. The Jews, in modern times, have become an ethnic and cultural phenomenon.

JEWISH SUCCESS

The traditional rabbinic view of Jewish history identified the greatest era of Jewish existence with the distant past. Since the rabbis deemed religion to be the most important achievement of the Jewish people, the age of the greatest religious teachers was the “Golden Age” of the Jews. Some-where between 1800 BCE and 500 CE, there supposedly appeared the noble prophets, the devoted priests and the wise rabbis. Inspired by God, they produced the incomparable Bible and Talmud and revealed the path to personal and national salvation. After the Enlightenment, most of the new secular and secularized scholars of the Jewish world ironically preserved this evaluation. Having transferred the Jewish genius from God to Jewish thinkers, they still persisted in maintaining that the greatest gift of the Jews to the world was monotheism and the Bible. The success of Jews, and Christianity, became proof of Jewish success, even though the old Christianity was rapidly fading away in the new secular world. For the old rabbis, Jewish life and Jewish wisdom had gone downhill after the completion of the Talmud. Modern times exemplified Jewish decadence. For the new scholars, the genius of the Jewish present was only derived from the special genius of the Jewish past.

But the opposite is actually true. The greatest era of Jewish life is the present. Despite the Holocaust, never before have the Jews, both individually and collectively, possessed more wealth, more power and more influence. The global economy, which the Jews helped to pioneer, now embraces the planet, including regional cultures that lie beyond the domains of Judaism and Christianity. The realm of science, in which Jews have ex-celled far beyond their numbers, has now replaced religious faith as the dominant source of intellectual power in the countries that possess military and economic strength. The legacy of Jewish Nobel Prize winners out-shines the prophets and sages of the religious past; it is science that now has the power to transform human existence. None of the insights of the biblical past have cured disease, lengthened life, triggered a dynamic economy or forged the technology to unite humanity. In fact, the hard core of religious fundamentalists who hate the modern world and the world of science derive their inspiration from the “wisdom” of that era. The emerging global culture, which rests on the achievements of science, has dramatically raised the standard of living for over one-half of the people on our plan-et. Most of the readers of this book would not be alive to read any book without the successes and special contributions of Jewish medical scientists.

The greatest era of Jewish history is now. Neither antisemitism nor the Holocaust can diminish the glory of the Jewish present. In fact, their virulence, including the virulence of religious fundamentalism, pays tribute to the provocative power and influence of the Jew and to the success of the Jew in a new and unsettling environment. Modern antisemites do not hate Jews because of their intense religious faith. They accuse the Jews of being the fomenters of atheism and radical change. They define them as devilish inventors of the global culture. Not even Zionism and the state of Israel have been able to undermine the image of the “International Jew” who conspires to undermine traditional values and structures of the old society. Jews are associated, in the public mind, with the destabilizing effects of money, urbanization, international trade and racial mixing. Everybody agrees that the Jews are smart. But not everybody agrees that they are good for the world.

Antisemitism and the Holocaust have made Jews uncomfortable with Jewish success. In America, the fact that it is known that Jews wield enormous power in both the Democratic and Republican parties does not stimulate Jewish pride; it stimulates Jewish fear. Jews are perfectly comfortable discussing Jewish power in private. But they are hostile to anybody who dares to discuss Jewish power in public. Jews are reluctant to display their power and their wealth, even though they have achieved the distinction of being one of the most affluent and best educated ethnic groups in the world. Jews prefer—and given their history, justifiably—to present them-selves as victims. The popularity of Holocaust centers and Holocaust studies in Jewish life is not only a protest against ruthless genocide. It is also a function of Jewish anxiety. Victimhood is a safer image than power. Jews are uncomfortable being seen at the top of the world in money and intelligence. They prefer to present themselves as the inventors and role models of humane ethics, even though the non-Jewish world does not perceive them that way.

When socialism came to Jewish life in the aftermath of the rise of the new antisemitism, Jewish socialists were uncomfortable with the existing Jewish profile. Neither the image of the affluent Jew as a successful entrepreneur nor the image of the poor Jew as an unsuccessful entrepreneur were perceptions that Jewish socialists were comfortable with. The Jewish worker and the Jewish farmer were more desirable paradigms. With the rise of the textile industry in both Eastern Europe and North America, a Jewish working class “fortunately” emerged for a short while. Labor un-ions and strikes now placed Jews on the “right” side of the struggle. Zion-ism created the image of the Jewish farmer, strong lover of the land and manual labor. But within two generations the children of the working class and the kibbutzim abandoned their work profile and their socialism. All that remains are stories about the Jewish working class that Jews on the Left cultivate as a new nostalgia. Bobes (Grandmas) and Zeides (Grandpas) are now turned into worker heroes, while the achievements of their bourgeois grandchildren are overlooked, certainly not praised or idealized. Even the prophets of the past are turned into precursors of a radical socialism. The truly radical transformation of the Jews into a people of power and influence conveniently goes unnoticed. Individual heroes like Einstein and Freud can be honored for their success, but never the modern Jews collectively.

In the religious centers of Jewish capitalist success, the synagogues and temples of Reform and Conservative Judaism, the public presentation of contemporary Jews always hovers at the level of the interfaith banquet. Jews are either presented as the victims of antisemitism or as the inventors of utopian and Messianic visions of social reform. The intellectual contribution of the Jew to the modern world is praised, but it is always subordinated to the Jewish genius for religion. Jews are touted as the people of the Book, rather than the people of the books. What most Jews really read and value is never admitted publicly. Jews are reduced to a distortion in order to counter antisemitism. What really needs to be said—that the Jews have become the vanguard for the radical transformation of society through the power of science and its global vision—is just too provocative for Jews to handle.2

JEWISH FUTURE

The future of the Jewish ethnic nation, like that of all nations, is problematic. The urban industrial world, with its emerging international culture, is not friendly to exclusive national identities. There is too much merging, mobility and intermarriage to allow for rigid boundaries between ethnic groups and cultures. Only a deliberate effort of separation, a repudiation of the major rewards of the new system—from money to personal freedom— can enable old cultures to survive with some purity. The price of this disciplined separation is militancy, a perpetual state of war with the dominant culture.

In the new world of continuous and rapid change, with its counterpart of continuous and rapid technological innovation and obsolescence, the future becomes almost impossible to predict. But certain lasting or emerging features of Jewish life have a good chance of defining the Jewish future.

The expanding secularization of Jewish life will continue. Most Jews complain about urban and suburban life, the materialism of the consumer culture and the stress of competition. But they do not want to give up the rewards of the new world; nor does effective separation seem either attractive or feasible. The new global economic system is very powerful and seductive. Only a few “wounded” people will have the desire and will-power to separate from it. Israel is now as much a part of this system as the Diaspora.

On the whole, Jews will remain near the top of the economic hierarchy. Education is the key to success in the information age. Jews have a surfeit of it. Of course, they will not be alone. There will be the remaining European elites in Europe and North America, as well as the rising presence of East and South Asians. Jews may cease to be extraordinary. But they will still be rich in comparison to other peoples of the world. Only the unfortunate Eastern Jews of Israel—lost in the corruption and failure of Orthodoxy and the state school system—will remain on the other side of the prosperity line.

The world Jewish population will shrink. Prosperity in an urban world lowers the birthrate and ages the nation. Neither the substantial reproduction rates of both secular Israelis and Orthodox Jews will be able to compensate for the dramatic shrinkage in North America and Europe. Jewish youth will become a scarcer commodity. Programs and facilities for older Jews will achieve a greater presence. None of this means extinction, just a different balance of young and old.

The distinctions between Eastern and Western Jews will gradually fade away. Both groups have now been appropriated by the new economy and the new international culture. Intermarriage in Israel between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim will accelerate. The mix will not change the direction of things. Mizrahim may be two centuries behind the Ashkenazim in their recruitment for urban culture. But they are heading in the same direction. The rift between secularized and ultra-Orthodox Jews will widen into a major dichotomy. Not only radically different lifestyles will promote this split. Intermarriage especially will make the divide unbridgeable. The ultra-Orthodox will remain about ten percent of the Jewish population, their fabulous birthrate balanced by inevitable defections. But they will be well-organized, aggressive and demanding—and never open to compromise. They will continue to infiltrate establishment institutions with the young “cheap labor” of teachers and communal workers they will be able to pro-duce. Confrontation will be frequent. Just as the Orthodox and the Hasidim united to battle the new secularism, so will Conservative, Reform and secular Jews band together to oppose the “enemy.” Modern Orthodox Jews will be sucked into the militancy of ultra-Orthodoxy. Increasingly, in the Diaspora, the face of Judaism for non-Jews will look more and more Orthodox. However, the check on Orthodox power will be their inability to go beyond the ten percent mark. Militant segregation—the only way Orthodoxy can work in the modern world—is too high a price for most Jews to pay for Jewish survival. The Orthodox will be conspicuous, but not triumphant. Like all fundamentalism, they will be a chronic condition in Jewish general life, an annoying anachronism in the rapidly changing global civilization.

Reform and Conservative Judaism will change places in the Diaspora. Once the dominant movement of North American Jewish life, Conservatism will shrink. Jews interested in returning to tradition will be attracted to the new dynamism of militant Orthodoxy. Those interested in a conservative Reform can now find it in Reform—with less of the scolding that the ambivalent Conservative movement still provides. Reform Jews will re-main heavily secularized, with periodic indulgences in traditional behavior as a way to reinforce family connection.

Most Jews in the Diaspora will pursue the individualist agenda of the global culture. Marriage will continue to evolve into partnerships of love and personal fulfillment, with all the attendant pleasure and instability that such partnerships bring. Children will be stressful and divorce will be frequent. Family loyalty will be less significant than individual happiness. Even besieged Israel will not be immune to this development. Lonely individuals and couples will seek community with people who share their work, their leisure interests and their convictions. Others will choose non-affiliation on all levels, preferring to pay for services rather than joining communities. A large number of rabbis, ceremonialists and teachers will provide rites, classes, and inspirational weekends for Jews who seek them out. The unaffiliated, in terms of marriage, children and congregation will play an important role in Jewish life. They will radically change the institutional ways that Jews are served as Jews.

Diversity in Jewish life will increase. With so many individuals freely making individual choices, the number of Jewish religious and cultural options will grow. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform have already added Reconstructionist, Renewal and Humanistic. More Jewish choices will inevitably appear. Conventional Jewish choices will shrink in number. Un-conventional connections will increase. Individual Jews, in their search for personal fulfillment, may prefer to be eclectic, tasting a wide variety of Jewish options.

With the exception of the militant Orthodox, the boundaries between the Jewish and non-Jewish world will be less fixed, more fluid. A shared global culture and world languages will enable people from ethnic enclaves to mix freely with people from other ethnic places. This development is taking place right now. There are three manifestations of this development. The first is the emergence of a smorgasbord of literature, music, food, holidays and celebrations that is now available to any educated person. Jews choose many non-Jewish items for their intellectual, cultural and ceremonial life. Non-Jews increasingly find Jewish cultural creations as attractive options. Jewish identity is far more open and porous than conventional Jewish leaders can tolerate.

The second manifestation is growing intermarriage. Most of this marriage is not interfaith, a difference of beliefs and values. Most of this marriage is intercultural, a difference of ancestors and ceremonies. Neither scolding nor denunciation by Jewish leaders manages to change this reality. Intermarriage is the inevitable consequence of living in a mixed ethnic environment where personal freedom prevails and where the secular values of an emerging global culture dominate personal choices. While the racial profile of Israelis is getting “darker” because of intermarriage between Eastern and Western Jews, the racial profile of North American Jews is getting “lighter” because of intermarriage between Jews and Anglo-Saxons. Ultimately African, Asian and Hispanic genes will also make a dramatic appearance. Ethnic attachment and ethnic stereotypes are beginning to coincide less and less. Even Israel, with its enormous number of intermarried Russian immigrants, is confronting the same challenge. Only abolishing the new economy or militant segregation can change this reality. Many contemporary Jews have more than one ethnic connection. And future Jews will, too.

The third manifestation of an open society is that for many loyal Jews, Jewish identity and Jewish culture will not be their primary commitment. They love being Jewish and they want to participate in Jewish family life. But they have other commitments in the areas of personal relations, friend-ships, work and leisure that are more compelling. Even in Israel, many young Jews are weary of persistent appeals to nationalism and patriotism. The old, all-encompassing collectivism of family and tribe has lost its power for many Jews. Not even guilt can alter this new behavior. The Jewish world functions with increasing numbers of Jews who do not place their Jewish commitments in first place.

One of the future realities in Jewish life will be the growing importance of Israel in Jewish self-awareness. Given the military power of the Jewish state, it is highly unlikely that its enemies will be able to destroy it in the near future. Despite the shrinking of Jewish immigration to the Jewish state, within two decades the majority of the Jews in the world will be living in Israel. The new center of Jewish life may even become bigger than the dispersion. Inevitably, the external and internal problems of Israel will remain an important part of the Jewish national agenda. The culture war between the secularists and the Orthodox in Israel will feed the same war in the Diaspora. And the place of Israeli literature, music and film in Diaspora life will only increase.

Antisemitism will continue to be a significant force in Jewish life. Whatever its origins, the Jews continue to be a provocative people, demonized by both the Right and the Left. The grievances arising from life in a global economy and an emerging global culture feed the hatred of a people who are perceived as winners in the trial of global transformation. While Zionism has restored a vibrant center to the Jewish nation, it has simultaneously provoked an intense antisemitism in the Muslim world. This Jew-hatred will continue to endanger the survival of the Jewish state, even if some kind of accommodation between Israelis and Arab Palestinians is achieved. The imagined solution to antisemitism has only produced more. Of course, a continued antisemitism will continue to keep Diaspora Jews interested in preserving their Jewish identity and will contribute to Jewish group survival.

The consequence of this connection will be the movement of Jewish establishment political life to the Right. The defense of Israel and the defense of Jewish economic interests will finally coincide. The Jews, in modern times, chose the Left as the best guarantee against antisemitism. The future will feature increasing Leftist discomfort with the existence of the Jewish State. But the Right is also problematic for the Jews. Much of it is still antisemitic. And much of it is now religiously fundamentalist, an odd ally for a people that is overwhelmingly secularized or secular. This last development will keep many Jews uncomfortably on the Left. Even if a future American government forces peace by compelling the Israeli government to return to something close to the 1967 borders, persistent Muslim fundamentalism and Third World ambivalence will leave the Jews hovering between the Right and the Left.

Perhaps the most astounding development of the Jewish future will be the relevance of the Jewish Diaspora model to all nations. With national populations shifting and changing, especially in the First World of Europe and North America, the United States, Britain, France and Germany are turning into multi-national states in which racial and ethnic homogeneity has vanished. African, Asian and Mestizo populations are becoming local majorities in many western venues. Aging white populations are importing thousands of necessary young non-whites to sustain their economies. In America, the notion of a multi-cultural society is taking hold. In a time when technology can connect us instantly to any place in the world, dispersed communities can be tied together by the bonds of new communication and transportation which defy distance. Nothing is far away any more —neither South Africa, Japan nor Israel.

Even Israel is changing. The size of the population of Israeli Arabs and foreign workers is growing. The Jewish state is going through the same trauma as Europe and North America. It, too, is part of the dynamic First World. It, too, is experiencing itself as a multi-cultural or multi-national society. The future will only aggravate this development. Perhaps the age of the ethnically pure state is ending. Nations and states no longer coincide. States are territorial units accommodating people of a wide variety of national identities. Perhaps, in such a global society, state citizenship will be separated from national identity. The Chinese in America can be Chinese by nationality and American by citizenship. They can be loyal to the historic family to which they belong and loyal to the state that is their home. They can speak both Chinese and English and feel no discomfort in a multilingual global society. If it is possible for the Chinese, it is also possible for the Jews. As for the Jewish State, it will be like every other First World state, a mixture of several nations. In a global economy, Israelis will produce their own Diaspora, and necessary foreign workers will find their way to Israel. In a mobile world, forcing immigrants to conform to a single territorial model will no longer work. Israel will remain the center of the Jewish world. But it will never become a fully Jewish state.

It is quite possible that territorial nationalism, which is still very strong, will be undermined by the very economic and technological development that territorial nations embrace. By the end of the twenty-first century, the mixing of people will be so universal that old nations will turn into world-wide dispersions. When that happens, not Zionism, but the old Jewish ethnic model of a dispersed people will again become relevant.

Very early in their history, the Jews tasted the possibility of becoming a world people. This development may be their most enduring contribution to the world. Many historians will still maintain that monotheism and a compassionate ethics were the major contributions of the Jews. But monotheism is an increasingly problematic ideology in a secular world, and philosophic monotheism has its roots in many cultures. As for compassionate ethics, it is neither ethical nor empirically responsible for any nation to designate itself the inventor of ethics.

Given their history and influence, the Jews have been and remain a provocative and extraordinary people, the unwitting precursors of a global world they helped to invent.

Creation of the Bible and Mishnah

“Creation of Bible and Mishnah” from A Provocative People, (2012)

By the end of the second century CE the Jewish population of the Roman Empire and the Western Diaspora, despite all the setbacks, stood at seven million.* In the eyes of the Romans, the Jews were still annoying troublemakers; but they were still too numerous to destroy. Hadrian’s successors would have to find a new way to control them.

In the second century, the Empire was at the peak of its power, with the best system of imperial management that had yet been devised. The Flavian dynasty of Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian, yielded to a stronger alternative—succession by merit. Three emperors in a row chose successors who were not members of their family, but military men who commanded the respect of the army and the administration. Trajan chose Hadrian, Hadrian chose Antoninus Pius; and Antoninus Pius chose Marcus Aurelius (98-161 CE). All three emperors wanted to solve the Jewish problem.

After their second defeat by the Romans, the Jews (for all practical purposes) had ceased to be a territorial nation. They were still a nation, both in their own view and in the eyes of their neighbors—but a dispersed nation. This nation lived in two empires which were hostile to each other. Most lived in the Western Diaspora, under Roman control. Many lived in the Eastern Empire, which was under Parthian control. Western Jews lived with the challenge of the Greek world and the attractiveness of the Hellenistic option. Eastern Jews experienced a world where the old authoritarianism of the Semitic and Persian worlds prevailed. In the Jewish mind the Jews, wherever they lived, were one and the same people. But time and distance would aggravate the differences between East and West.

The Romans were confronted with the problem of taming the Jews. Forced Hellenization was no longer a feasible alternative. The only credible leadership group that survived the two messianic wars was the rabbis. There was nobody else left, not even a few Alexandria Jewish philosophers. And the leader of the rabbis was a presumed descendant of Hillel, a famous Pharisaic scholar whofounded a dynasty of rabbis, many of whom became the chiefs of the Sanhedrin. His name was Judah (170-220 CE).

In the middle of the second century, the presidency of the rabbinic Sanhedrin was permanently assumed by the House of Hillel. What David was to the monarchy, what Zadok was to the High Priesthood, so was Hillel to the “chief rabbinate.” Until 429 CE every “chief rabbi” was a descendant of Hillel.

Judah was the great-grandson of Gamaliel II. He had grown up in the turmoil of the Second Jewish War. He had witnessed the failure of the Akiba administration. He saw the devastation and demoralization of the Jews. He knew that the stability of Jewish life was only possible through an effective central control and through a long-run accommodation with the Romans.

The Romans wanted law and order from the Jews. They wanted centralized control with effective management. What was needed was a Jewish “emperor” who would tame Jews in the West and who would be directly responsible to Roman authority. A new job gradually emerged called the Nasi (Prince). The Nasi might have a Sanhedrin to whom he would defer. But from the Roman perspective, the ultimate authority would not be the council; it would be the Nasi.

The Nasi became the effective king of all the Western Jews. He became responsible for their good behavior. He became responsible for their payment of the special “Jew tax.” The Jew tax was the price that Jews paid to receive exemption from the impossible requirement of emperor worship. A king and pope wrapped into one, the Nasi was a royal personage, belonging to the “royal” family of Hillel, which now joined the house of David and the house of Zadok as an ultimate Jewish pedigree. It was rumored that Hillel himself was descended from David.

From the Roman perspective, the role of the Nasi was to check messianism. The rabbis were to return to their former Pharisee carefulness—a Messiah yes, but not for a long time. The Jews must remain a well-behaved minority nation under the control of their clergy. The Persians had authorized the Zadokite theocracy. The Romans now authorized the rabbinic theocracy, or government by the rabbis. The Nasi established rabbinic courts and ordained rabbis to serve in them. The certification of rabbis was now formalized (semikha). All legitimacy now depended on the Nasi.

The residence of the Nasi was in Galilee, the surviving center of Jewish life in Roman Palestine. The Nasi first resided in the Western Galilee in Beth Shearim, not toofar from the big city of Sepphoris. Later on the court of the Nasi moved to Tiberias in the Eastern Galilee. For two centuries Tiberias was the capital of the Jewish world. There the Nasi held court. There he lived in splendor. There he revived the politically obedient posture of the former Zadokite High Priests. But his jurisdiction was no longer little Judea. It was the boundaries of the Roman world.

The power and prestige of the Nasi did not emerge immediately. It took over two centuries to perfect them. First, the Romans had to recover from their anger. Then the rabbis had to reorganize themselves in Galilee. And then the Nasi had to create the institutions that would give reality to this power. The most important institution would be the yeshiva (Torah academy). At the heart of the yeshiva would be a new document, a Second Torah, which the Nasi himself would create.

The Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple had rendered useless the old Zadokite clergy. They had been the masters of the Temple. They had been hoisted on their own petard. The Torah which they had championed did not allow them to build a Yahweh temple in any place but the sacred hill of Jerusalem. They had foolishly arranged for their own demise. The new clergy, the rabbis, cleverly attached themselves to a portable symbol of God’s presence, the Torah book itself. They were the masters of the book. This book, which their Zadokite competitors had created, was tied to no single place. It praised and exalted Jerusalem, but it did not need it. The rabbis sincerely mourned the loss of Jerusalem. Yet, ironically, the loss of Jerusalem eliminated their competition and gave them undisputed power. The book was the very voice of God, and the rabbis were now the only people who understood what this voice was saying.

If the challenge of a temple religion is to determine which temples are “kosher,” then the challenge of a book religion is to determine which books are “kosher.” A kosher book is a book which is clearly the work of God. Human books have human authors. Divine books have divine authors. In Zadokite times, nine books had already been acknowledged as sacred— Torah, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve. By dividing the Torah intofive books, the Greek Jews had already made it thirteen. But the Hellenistic centuries had produced a whole series of new books that their devotees also claimed were divine, each of them attributed to a prophet who served as the secretary of Yahweh. There were the songs used by the Levites in the Jerusalem Temple (Psalms). There were Hellenistic books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Ben Sira. There were anti-Hellenistic books like Daniel and Jubilees. There were Zadokite histories like Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. There were anti-Zadokite books like Ruth and Job. There were pro-Maccabee books like Maccabees I, II and III. There were anti-Maccabee books like Esther. There were even leftover Asherah books like the Song of Songs.

The Zadokite priests had been reluctant to add books to the Torah. But the rabbis, with their messianic and Davidic agenda, had been eager to do so. The collapse of the temple regime gave them the freedom to do what-ever they wanted. What they wanted was to impose their own ideology on Jewish life in the same way that the Zadokites had done in their time. The rabbis were still eager to add books if they fit the Pharisee belief system. But they were also now eager to ban books which they saw as doctrinally dangerous. Books were instruments not only of devotion but also of instruction.

The selection process for the Bible took place at one of the most catastrophic times for the Jews. The Temple had just been destroyed and the rabbinate was rallying to assert its control over Jewish life in Yavneh. The symbol of their new power was a council of rabbis in Yavneh (90 CE), which fixed for all time the “word of God.” There were dozens of competing books to choose from. A set of stated and unstated criteria guided their decision making. The first was that all prophecy had ended. Malachi (c. 515 BCE) was the last prophet. Any legitimate book needed an author who lived before Malachi. The rabbis, like the Zadokite priests, wanted no new prophets to challenge their authority, especially at a time when hundreds of men were running around claiming to be prophets and claiming to be better messianists that the rabbis were. Of course, at one time there had been prophets. But now there were only rabbis to interpret their words. In other words, anybody claiming to be a new prophet was a false prophet. And whatever Yahweh had wanted to say to the Jews he had already said. The rabbis were now, as the official interpreters of the Divine Book of the Divine Word, the sole spokesmen for God.

The second criterion was that every book must have a legitimate prophet as its “secretary.” Since most of the books had been written long after Malachi, finding suitable transmitters provided an ideological strain. Two ancient warrior kings (who were certainly illiterate)—David and Solomon—were now turned intofamous authors, composing everything from songs to sex poetry to Hellenistic proverbs and philosophy. The age of illiteracy was transformed by the rabbis into the age of literary giants. But, of course, that made no difference. The only author was God himself.

The third criterion was that texts must be Messiah friendly. But that was not enough. They must also never suggest that a Messiah other than the one from the house of David was legitimate. Messianic texts that celebrated a Zadokite or priestly Messiah were not kosher.

The fourth criterion was that nothing positive about the Maccabees must be included. The less said about the Maccabees the better. The rabbis detested the Hellenizing Maccabees with great passion. The two great holidays celebrating Maccabee victories, Hanukka (Kislev 25) and Nicanor’s Day (Adar 13), were anathema to them. The story of Hanukka in the Books of the Maccabees was excluded. And the more important Nicanor’s Day, the celebration of the victory of Judah Maccabee over a mighty Greek army, was cleverly replaced by the Fast of Esther and Purim. The story of Purim in the Book of Esther was declared divine, even though the book was very problematic, with no mention of Yahweh and with two chief characters who have the names of Babylonian gods: Marduk (Mordecai) and Ishtar (Esther). On its own it would never have been included in the rabbinic Bible. But the rabbis hated the Maccabees. The chief holiday of the Maccabees was Nicanor’s Day (Adar 13). Purim was Adar 14. The rabbis adopted Purim and the Book of Esther and turned Nicanor’s Day, the day before Purim, into a preparatory fast day called the Fast of Esther. Purim and the Book of Esther were the gifts of the Maccabee-hating rabbis. Of course, the rabbis were already covered by their principle that all prophecy had ended with Malachi, 350 years before the Maccabees appeared. No story about the Maccabees could, therefore, be divine.

By the time the selection process was over, only eleven new books passed muster—Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The rest were consigned to destruction. What emerged was a collection of twenty-four books which we call the Hebrew Bible. For the rabbis they were the revelation of Yahweh to the Jews and the world. Nothing might be subtracted. Nothing might be added. Whatever Yahweh had wanted to say he had said in these books. And their true meaning and their true implications were in the hands of the rabbis. The books without the rabbis—and the rabbis without the books—were incomplete.

The Bible began with the Protest Movement and was refined by the Zadokites. But in its final form, it was a rabbinic document. We know it to be a human document with serious problems—historical inaccuracies, contradictions, anachronisms and a parochial ethics and world view. But for the rabbis, it was perfection, superior to all other literature, the presence of God on earth and the message of God to the Jews and the world. Although the Temple had been destroyed, the rabbis had fashioned a document that would replace the Temple. The study of Torah and its nineteen supplementary books would be, like the Sabbath, an alternative sacrifice to meat and incense, a sacrifice of time and devotion.

Yet the completion of the Bible did not provide the rabbis with the constitution that they needed. There was no clear and explicit articulation of rabbinic ideology. The Torah was overwhelmingly a Zadokite document. And while the prophets of the supplementary books were often deliciously anti-priestly, they never spoke about rabbis and synagogues and yeshivas. The heart of rabbinic Yahvism did not comfortably lie there. The Bible as a codebook was an inadequate foundation for a new rabbinic theocracy.

An alternative to the Bible already existed. It was the 250 years of legal decisions which the rabbis had issued both as teachers and as judges. Sometimes these decisions cited support from the Bible; sometimes they did not. There was a defiant rabbinic strain that was trans-biblical. It was the doctrine of the “Second Torah,” the bold claim that most of the decisions of the rabbis did not derive their authority from the Bible. They came directly from God, Moses and Mount Sinai. The rabbis needed their own Torah, especially now when their supremacy had been achieved.

The rabbis enhanced the mystery of this Torah by keeping it “oral.” It existed only in the memory of the rabbis who transmitted it from teacher to disciple. No lay person had access to it unless he/she consulted the rabbis. The advantage of the system was that it conveyed an ancient pre-writing authenticity to the statements. The disadvantage of the system was the bur-den of memorizing.

There is no doubt that some of the teachings of this “Second Torah” had their origins in ancient stories and practices that the Zadokites priests and even the Protest Movement prophets had excluded in their zeal. There was a folk anti-elitist edge to some of it. But most of it was comparatively recent, a vast collection of teachings derived from the schools of many rabbinic masters. The language of this transmission was Hebrew, even though the common language of the Jews was Aramaic—but not the Hebrew of the Bible; a more elegant and flexible Hebrew that had evolved in the rabbinic academies. Pharisaic ideology forbade these teachers from calling themselves prophets. But they were inventors of a new lifestyle, a pious lifestyle that was trying to adapt the severe message of a shepherd Protest Movement to the demands of an urban Hellenistic world.

Out of this struggle came the foundations of the traditional Judaism with which we are familiar. The Torah lifestyle was modified tofit the world of craftsmen and merchants, as well as farmers and herdsmen—the world of bourgeois families as well as peasants in huts and shepherds in tents—the world of literacy as well as the world of trances and ecstasies. Sabbath lights and synagogue prayers, Passover seders and commercial transactions—all take their place on the Jewish stage as though they were perfectly traditional. And the rabbis make it all kosher with their wonderful oral transmissions.

The great rabbinic masters, the founders of important schools, were called tannaim (repeaters), and their teachings or repetitions were called mishnayot (mishnah in the singular form). By the time of Judah the Prince, there were thousands of these transmissions floating around the rabbinic world. If they could only be collected, if they could only be written down, they would become an effective “second constitution” for the new rabbinic establishment.

Attempts had been made to relieve the burden of memorization by writing down the teachings to facilitate study and judicial decision making. But there was strong resistance from conservatives who feared innovation and who also feared that it would undermine rabbinic authority. In the second century, before the Bar Kochba rebellion (and even after), famous rabbis like Akiba and Meir encouraged the recording out of fear that the destruction of the rabbis through Roman persecution would lead to the loss of the transmitted teachings.

Judah the Prince bit the bullet. As the first Nasi of a new Jewish regime, as a new High Priest without the Temple, he saw the necessity of the “Second Torah,” a visible constitution for the new Jewish government. The Bible held a primary place of honor but was too disconnected from the behavior and lifestyle of the evolving rabbinic world to be useful. Having just been finalized, it was already obsolete, even for the pious. Something in the language and style of the rabbis was required.

The monumental task of collecting and editing the mishnayot began. It was fed by the energy of the Jewish government, by the victory of propagandists who warned that the legacy would otherwise be lost and by the excitement of finally transcending the disasters of the recent past. By 200 CE it was complete. Once completed, it would become the major document of Jewish life until modern times. The Bible, like the Aaronide priests, would always be granted first honors. But the stuff out of which government and scholarship emerged was to be found in the new constitution.

The name conferred on the document was Mishnah. It turned out to be an anthology of sixty-three books organized into six sections. Each section dealt with a different area of Jewish concern—farming, holidays, family, crime, worship and purity. The organization of the Mishnah was different from that of the Bible. At the heart of the Bible was a rambling narrative with laws inserted. The Mishnah was a law book with stories inserted. The Mishnah, although its spirit was anti-Hellenistic, reflected the Hellenistic penchant for order and classification. It was sometimes more Greek that it wanted to be.*

In many cases, where rabbinic masters disagreed, the Mishnah cited both the majority and dissenting opinions, but, in general, the prevailing law was stated simply and clearly without the frills of biblical Hebrew. The anthology was all-encompassing. It recognized no boundary between state and religion. Religion was not a department of state as it was in the Greek and Roman world. The state was a department of religion, as it was in the mentality of salvation religion. Since the Jews at this time were a dispersed minority, a nation without territory, the Mishnah focused more on family, work and worship than on political administration. The Temple had its own section, a powerful reminder of its continuing hold on Jewish imagination and patriotism. But it remained the most neglected part of the Mishnah.

Of course, there were defects. Many teachings of many masters were excluded either deliberately or because they were not available. Hasty collecting was bound to leave out many candidates. Where there was no controversy, laws were frequently not included. Underlying the document was the existence of a world of shared culture and general consensus where everything did not need to be spelled out for the reader. The order was often less than Greeks would demand. It would require future code breakers to make the information in the Mishnah consumer accessible. But it was, in many respects, a workable compromise between Hellenistic reason and Semitic problem solving.

The Mishnah had one book devoted to ideology. It was called Avot (rabbinic Fathers) and clearly articulated the philosophy of salvation so dear to the hearts of the Messianists and Pharisees. This world was but an antechamber to the next. Every deed was observed and recorded. The final Judgment Day hovered over all reality. Justice would prevail. The ultimate reward was the presence of God. The taste of that presence on earth was the study of Torah (read Mishnah). The opening of the Book of Avot is the most important ideological statement in the entire Mishnah—that God di-vided the Torah into a written and oral one; the first he gave to the Zadokite priests. The second he gave to Moses and Joshua, who ultimately transmitted it to the rabbis.* Loud and clear!

The Mishnah became the foundation of the new Jewish government. It transformed the Jewish culture of the Western Diaspora, and ultimately that of the Eastern Diaspora as well. It became the foundation of the new rabbinic academies in the Galilee. Mastering the Mishnah was the avenue to ordination to the rabbinate. The rabbinate became the most prestigious Jewish profession. Rabbinic appointees and missionaries were placed all over the Roman world, enhancing the prestige and power of the Nasi. As the Hellenistic Jewish world retreated, it was embraced by this new Jewish authority. Government by the clergy returned to Jewish life.

In the third century, the Roman government dramatically underwent an ethnic transformation. Greek shared with Latin an equal authority. The merit system for the emperors broke down. Ambitious soldiers, chiefly of non-Roman origin, seized power. One of them was the child of a Syrian Baal priestess. Ultimately all the inhabitants of the Empire, including the Jews, received citizenship (212 CE). In a less Roman and more oriental empire, the Jews felt perfectly comfortable, even though Greek antisemitism would not go away. Citizenship arrived just as the economy began to decline from too much taxation and too much disorder. Salvation cults from the East poured in, catering to imperial citizens who were withdrawing from public life and turning to personal salvation. The messianic idea of impending catastrophe and rescue grew in popularity. The Jews found themselves in an ideological world where the Mishnah message was not so strange. The trauma of the last century faded away. The power and prestige of the Nasi increased. Like multicultural America with a problematic economy of self-absorbed consumers, Jews in the Roman world achieved the security of becoming a multicultural option.

In the rabbinic academies of Galilee, the Mishnah became the focal point of discussion and judicial debate. A new set of Mishnah masters appeared. They were the Amoraim. In typical religious and ancestral worship fashion, they viewed themselves as inferior to the Tannaim who preceded them. They were simply scholars, not transmitters. Questions from the Diaspora were referred to their academies. Disputes over the meaning of the texts then ensued. Disciples recorded the discussions of their masters. Succeeding generations referred to them and added their own commentary.

From time to time, challengers wanted to know whether the laws of the Second Torah could be found in the first one. There was a continuous insecurity in the Mishnah world over the equality of the Mishnah with the Bible. Much time was spent pursuing this search for “appropriate” Bible quotations. Along the way, much of the dialogue was recorded. After one hundred years, most mishnayot in the Mishnah had footnotes ten times as long as the original text. In the world of the rabbinic academies, nothing could stop this endless digression. What began as a pragmatic search for practical answers was now turned into a stream-of-consciousness doctoral dissertation.

At the beginning of the third century, an important event occurred. A Galilean master by the name of Rav (c. 220 CE) crossed over the eastern border of the Roman Empire to Parthian Chaldea and brought the Mishnah yeshiva with him. Rav was one of the most important teachers in the rabbinic world of his day, which was centered in Galilee. But the Jews of the Eastern Diaspora in Chaldea, who were numerous and populous, lacked the institutions and scholarship of Galilee. Rav’s decision to move to Chaldea was not the result of persecution or the anticipated collapse of the Roman Empire. It was an opportunity to incorporate the Eastern world (Jews of the Parthian Empire) more tightly into the rabbinic system.

 

Jewish Identity Through Jewish History

“Jewish Identity Through Jewish History” from Judaism Beyond God, (1985)

Before we explore the value of Jewish identity in a secular age, we need to clarify what Jewish identity is.

We need to evaluate certain words that people use to describe Jews. Religious, racial, cultural, national are common designations. They have been used frequently by both friends and enemies.

What friends and enemies think is not irrelevant. Useful labels are public creations. They belong to a world of shared meaning. Groups have boundaries. What those boundaries are for Jews is determined not only by Jews but also by those who stand on the other side of the boundary. We are not only what we say we are. We are also what others say we are.

Sometimes what we think about ourselves and what others think about us is not part of our awareness. It is unconscious and can only be detected through behavior. Our actions are always more interesting than our words. They reveal what we really believe about ourselves. If we want to understand the nature of Jewish identity, we have to watch how Jews behave, not just how they choose to present themselves to others.

Are the Jews a religious group?

Certainly, in the countries of the Western world, that designation is the most convenient. It avoids the accusation of dual nationality and identifies Jews with a community activity that is viewed as positive. In Eastern Europe, it is less convenient. Seventy-five years of Communism secularized most Jews. In Israel, a definition of the Jews as a religious denomination would subvert the reason for a Jewish state. Theological fraternities do not need countries of their own.

The truth of the matter is that while many Jews do religion, many do not. No common set of theological beliefs unites all Jews. Many have no theological beliefs. Many openly denounce religion. Many espouse atheism. But their Jewish identity remains intact. Jews are proud to claim both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as members of the tribe.

The Reformers’ attempt to define the Jews as a religious denomination—and nothing more—failed. It excluded too many people who were obviously Jews. A definition that cannot accommodate Theodor Herzl and Golda Meir is less than convincing. Even the Rejectionists, who defend rabbinic Judaism, live by the criterion that the children of a Jewish mother are Jewish and remain Jewish, no matter what they believe or do.

When the Israeli Supreme Court denied Jewish status to Brother Daniel, a bom-Jew who had become a Catholic monk, they did not behave appropriately.1 They had no difficulty giving Jewish Marxists what they had denied to him. Was the fact that Brother Daniel had suffered as a Jew in wartime Poland, despite his religious beliefs, irrelevant?

In fact, anti-Semites always ignore Jewish religious behavior. Conversions to Catholicism meant nothing to the persecutors of the Marranos. And the Nazi bullies never believed in “former” Jews. In their eyes, credal statements could neither make nor unmake a Jew.

It is quite clear that the Jewish status of a Mr. Cohen is usually determined long before anybody bothers to ask him what his religion is. In the secular age, as a Jew, he has many options—both religious and secular.

Are the Jews a racial group?

Ever since Hitler, Jews have avoided this designation. It reeks of persecution and concentration camps. Jews go to great length to prove the diversity of physical form that exists among Jews. The differences between Western and Oriental Jews, so apparent in Israel, are obvious examples.

But it is quite clear that the Jews, at the very beginning of their history, enjoyed some form of racial conformity. They were a collection of Semitic tribes. They were part of the gene pools of Western Asia. They viewed themselves as the descendants of a single ancestor called Abraham.

In the nineteenth century, the word race was loosely used to describe a group of people who shared a common origin and who behaved as a nation. But in the twentieth century, the word has been given a more precise scientific meaning. Physical characteristics, more than pedigree, are the criteria.

After twenty centuries of breeding with slaves, converts, and outsiders, the original Semitic mix has been diluted. And the new rage for intermarriage in Europe and North America will make any racial classification more difficult.

Oddly enough—or not so oddly—Rejectionists, like the Lubav- itchers, retain the racial outlook of the biblical editors who view outbreeding as religiously dangerous. They maintain that Jews have an inherited disposition to spirituality. Even if well-intentioned Gentiles want to become Jewish, their desire is a hopeless one. They lack the genetic equipment to become what they want to be. Racial theories are not confined to Nazis.

Are the Jews a national group?

The Zionists think so. The authors of the Bible think so. And the rabbinic fathers concur.

A nation, in ancient times, was a confederation of tribes who shared a common language and a common territory. Outside Judea, rabbinic Jews believed that they were in exile, that they were not part of the nations among whom they lived, and that they would return someday to their territorial homeland. Their hostile hosts agreed with them and gave them the status of aliens.

But very early, the dispersion of the Jews created subnations. Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic faded away. New territorial enclaves with unique Jewish languages emerged. Northern Europe produced Yiddish. Spain invented Ladino. Jewish Arabic united the Jews of the Near East. And Jewish Persian became the mother tongue of Jewish Central Asia.

Were the speakers of Yiddish and Jewish Arabic one nation because the Bible said so and because they shared Hebrew as their devotional language? Or were they separate nations, distinct from their neighbors and distinct from each other? The coming together of Western and Oriental Jews in modem Israel is similar to the experience of Anglo-Saxon and Italian ethnics on the streets of Boston. If there is an Israeli nation today, it is being molded by secular Hebrew, Arab hostility, and “intermarriage.”

The Jews were a single nation. They divided up into several smaller nations. And now some of them are creating a new Hebrew-speaking nation. But the majority of the Jews of the world have abandoned unique Jewish speech to adopt the language of their local environment. In America, Jews are pragmatically identified with the white subnation, those Americans who share American English and who are visibly neither black nor Chicano.

For most of their history, Jews were part of unique Jewish nations because they spoke unique Jewish languages, even though they did not possess territory of their own. Today, linguistic assimilation has undermined Jewish nationality in most parts of the world. If many Israelis did not speak English, American Jewish tourists would feel less sentimental about Israel.

Nations without territory are possible. (Look at the Yiddish nation.) But nations without either language or territory are illusions. Communities of Hebrew-speaking Jews form the only viable Jewish nation today. Israel is a Jewish nation. But not all Jews are part of that nation.

Israel is a unique phenomenon. Its roots lie in the Diaspora. It is the creation of the Diaspora. Other diasporas are the creation of their homeland. They have their roots there. They have their linguistic memories there. Israelis have to deal with their past in the same way that most Americans do. They have to think about Europe, Asia, and Africa. They have to deal with the fact that their families are recent arrivals. They have to confront the fact that their grandparents speak Hebrew less fluently than they do.

Italian-Americans look back to their homeland. Israeli Jews look back to their Diaspora. The importance of the Bible in Israel is related to this strange reversal. By emphasizing the Bible, the early Zionists wanted to negate the two thousand years of the dispersion. They wanted to create the illusion that the roots of modern Israel are in the ancient kingdom of David and Solomon. But the connection is tenuous. The real connection is with that disturbing Diaspora that refuses to disappear or to come home. Jewish identity in Israel can never be “normal” in the same way that English identity is taken for granted in England because the creation of Israel was abnormal. No invading illiterate barbarian tribes invented it. Israel was the planned project of urban sophisticates with long written memories. Some Jews today are part of a Jewish nation. But it is highly unlikely that most of them ever will be.

Are the Jews a cultural group?

Many secular Jews like to refer to themselves as cultural Jews. By that description, they mean to suggest that while they no longer have any attachment to rabbinic theology, they do have a sentimental connection with Jewish holidays, Jewish music, Jewish food, and Jewish symbols. They may even enjoy Jewish literature and dance Jewish dances. They may even dabble in Jewish languages.

Cultural attachments are what survive when linguistic and religious behavior disappear. They survive on pick and choose. They can often be done in translation.

But cultural attachments are different from living cultures. Vital cultures are the merging of language with lifestyle and daily activity. They require their own unique space and exclude others. Hasidic Jews and Shiite Persians understand that reality. American Jews who eat matsa and dance the hora have Jewish cultural attachments. But they do not live in Jewish culture.

In the perspective of Jewish history, Judaism can be viewed as a civilization. There was no single Jewish national culture. There was Ashkenazic Jewish culture. There was Sephardic Jewish culture. Each culture was defined by a unique Jewish language written in Hebrew letters. A civilization is a collection of nations united by symbols and lifestyle. In that sense, Hellenism, Christianity, Islam, and Confucianism were also civilizations—but on a much grander scale. Yet all of these civilizations are now yielding to a new one, the emerging new civilization of western capitalism. And the urban Jew is at the center of this development.

The culture of most Jews today is Western European secular culture, which has been refined by North America and which is spreading all over the world. Modem technology and modem architecture have no real nationality. They are international in the same way that science is. World languages like English, French, and Spanish unite the educated elites of all participating nations. Even the insular Japanese patronize symphony orchestras and collect Renoirs.

Modem Israel is nationally distinct. But it is not really culturally distinct from North America. A world of shared artifacts and shared education does not breed separate cultures. Tourists today are getting less for their money. They are finding it harder to visit quaint nations and to view charming local customs. Even the natives find it demeaning to be quaint, and they are cynical enough to turn local customs into tourist traps. Jewish visitors to Israel prefer Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. But Tel Aviv is where the action is.

Some Jews, Rejectionist Jews who live behind the walls of segregation, have their own culture. But most Jews, including Israeli Jews, have become part of a culture that is not uniquely Jewish. Western culture, as a consumer culture with many options, allows for cultural attachments. American Jews can choose Passover and Hebrew classes. But they can also choose Chinese food, karate, and French lessons.

Some people may deplore the disappearance of grand old cultures and the emergence of an international style with cultural options. But the old cultures will survive only as segregated islands. The wonders of the new culture are too attractive.

As for many Jews, they do not choose to indulge any of the Jewish cultural options that are available. But they still are Jews. And some of them value their Jewish identity.

Kinship

It is quite obvious that Jewish identity includes religious, racial, national, and cultural behavior. But it cannot be adequately defined by any one of them. A broader and more inclusive concept is required.

What realities should this concept embrace? What are the parameters that surround all Jews, whether they choose to engage in uniquely Jewish activity or do not choose to do so, whether they value their Jewish identity or do not value it?

Jewish identity, first of all, means a sense of shared ancestry. The Jews began as a nation, an ethnic federation of tribes. Their epic literature, which has become part of the sacred scriptures of the Christian world, speaks of their common ancestors. Whether Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob were real personalities or personifications of tribal invasions is irrelevant to the issue. The Jews saw themselves (and their neighbors saw them) as a true nation, a people united by “blood” ties and family loyalty. Even in talmudic times, joining the Jews was never a mere religious conversion. It was an “adoption.” New Jews severed all connections with their old families and adopted the ancestry of Abraham and Sarah.3

The Jewish people was dispersed from its homeland and became a family of new nations. But Jews never lost their sense of kinship. No matter where they lived, no matter what language they spoke, no matter what culture they adopted, no matter what racial elements they incorporated—they believed (and their neighbors believed) that they were united by a bond of “blood.” Nineteenth century writers would not have hesitated to use the word race to describe this awareness—even the most pro-Semitic. But the dangers of that word in the twentieth century forbid its use. The more benign word kinship may be more discreet. Or the phrase family sense.

All Jews—even those who hate being Jewish—have this awareness of other Jews being their “relatives.” New Jews, those who choose to become Jewish, also sense that they are joining a family fraternity where enthusiasm may confer fewer privileges than birth. Outsiders, too, both the pros and the antis, have this view of tribal connection. The phrase member of the tribe, although offensive to some, captures the awareness of a condition that is less than national but more than ideological.

The second parameter of Jewish identity is shared memories. Kinship means family roots and family history. The story of the Jews, whether positive or negative, fills the popular culture in the Western world. Christians give the Jews center stage in their drama. Muslims assign them a more peripheral role. But both traditions force Jews—even Jews who want to run away from their history or who are indifferent to or ignorant of it—to confront their past. The Jews have a secure place in the popular memory. Announcing that you are a Jew is different from announcing that you are a Swedenborgian. Receivers of the news can fit you into their cultural memory Even the peasant folk who have “never met a Jew before” know that Jews are not novelties. Even Jews who claim that they “know nothing about Judaism” know that they have a secure place in the history of any Western culture.

The third parameter of Jewish identity is shared danger. Jews are a vulnerable family. For whatever historical reasons, we are surrounded by hostility. The potential of anti-Semitism is part of the self-awareness of all Jews. It is also part of the awareness of Gentiles who deal with Jews. The events of the twentieth century have reinforced this apprehension. The Holocaust has tied Jewish identity to such fundamental emotions as fear, anger, loyalty, and pride. Frequently, Jews and Jewish leaders complain about the overemphasis on the negative side of Jewish existence. But Jewish anxiety and Jewish behavior do not pay any attention to this warning. Most parents who seek a Jewish education for their children want their sons and daughters to feel “proud” of their Jewish connection. They are obviously afraid that someone will make them feel less than proud. Being defensive is part of the Jewish condition.

Vulnerable kinship is an imperfect classification of Jewish identity. But it is more accurate than the words religion, race, nation, or culture. The word people is a convenient designation. Yet its usefulness is its vagueness. You can make it mean whatever you want it to mean. The word is part of public relations, not clarification. If a people can be a vulnerable international family—then fine.

Jewish identity is not an enigma. It is not a mystery. Vulnerable kinships exist elsewhere. Gypsies are an example. They are lower in the social scale than we would prefer as a parallel. But they are less than a nation and more than an economic function. And they know that when they announce themselves, they are in danger.

Apprehensive international families can provide many positive benefits. Danger—if it is not physical—can be an exciting condition. It keeps you on the alert and forces you to be very aware of your environment. It trains you in the survival skills of flight, appeasement, and confrontation. It persuades you to try cooperation and group solidarity. It makes you always envision alternatives to what you are doing presently. If anti-Semitism is not overt, Jews have one of the best training programs for survival in the modem urban world.

The Meaning of Jewish History

“The Meaning of Jewish History”  From Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1986.

For the Jewish people, Jewish history has been more than a history. It has also been a course in philosophy.

For more than three thousand years, priests, prophets, poets, rabbis, and scholars have used the Jewish experience to “prove” their vision of the world. The events of the Jewish saga became “evidence” for certain beliefs about the nature of God and the universe. The exodus from Egypt was more than an exodus. In priestly and rabbinic hands, it became the demonstration of divine power and divine justice.

The meaning of Jewish history is the set of answers to important questions about God, the world, and people, which observers derive from the Jewish experience. Four questions, in particular, became the dominant themes of this evaluation. What does Jewish history demonstrate about:

The nature of the universe?

The power of human beings?

The evolution of human experience?

The essence of Jewish identity?

Rabbinic Judaism, which was the establishment ideology of the Jewish people for more than two thousand years, used the events of the Jewish story to answer these four questions. The answers of the rabbis became the “official” meaning of the Jewish experience. Rabbinic literature derived its character from this unique perspective.

What were the answers of the rabbis?

From the rabbinic point of view, the existence, experiences, and survival of the Jewish people demonstrated the presence in the universe of an all-powerful, loving, and just God, who punished the wicked and rewarded the good, and who was attentive to the hopes and aspirations of all humanity. The world was a well ordered place in which a divine intelligence was actively concerned with the moral agenda of human beings. Therefore, whatever happened in the world—no matter how seemingly unjust— happened for the good. In the end, even the suffering of the innocent would be vindicated by divine rewards.

Jewish history, according to the rabbis, demonstrated that human power was extremely limited; that human beings, relying on their own power alone, could accomplish very little. Time after time, according to the Bible and the Talmud, the Jewish people were rescued from disaster and from the embarrassment of their own inadequacy by divine intervention. The message of the priests and the prophets was that reliance on human effort and on human ingenuity was as effective as leaning on a “weak reed.” The wise man recognized that human happiness was possible only with supernatural help.

Jewish history also revealed that the quality of human life was gradually declining. The present was inferior to the past, and the future would be inferior to the present. Similarly, the teachers of the present were inferior to the teachers of the past, and the teachers of the future would be inferior to the teachers of the present. The patriarchs, the prophets, and the rabbinic fathers were wiser, more saintly, and more inspired than any sages that would follow. Modern-day saints and scholars would be mental and spiritual pygmies in comparison with their ancient predecessors. God’s conversations with humanity, and the time of divine revelation, had come to an end with the prophet Malachi. The world would sink into corruption and violence until only the messianic intervention of God would rescue humankind.

As to the nature and character of the Jewish people, the rabbis were very definite in their answer. The Jewish people was inseparable from the Torah and the religion it embodied. Without the Torah, the Jewish people would lose its essence and its unique personality. Without the Torah, the Jewish people would lose its motivation to survive as a distinct nation and would quickly be absorbed by the Gentile world. The Jews and rabbinic Judaism were pragmatically one.

The Humanist Critique

The meaning of Jewish history, as it was conceived by the rabbis, presents many problems for Humanistic Jews.

Supernatural guidance of natural events is not a credible idea for rational secularists. The assumption that what happens in this world is caused by decisions made in another is without valid evidence. If there are natural events, they have natural causes.

The discoveries of the past are important. But there is no evidence that the experts of the present are inferior to the experts of the past. In the world of science and technology, the information of the present is far superior to that of the past. There is no reason to assume that the development of religions and philosophic truths has been any different.

Religious personalities have been important in Jewish history. But to maintain that priests, prophets, and rabbis were the chief actors in the Jewish drama is to ignore the secular dimension of the Jewish experience. The authors of the Bible and the Talmud may not have chosen to record the achievements of the merchants, bankers, and artisans. Yet these achievements, economic and cultural, may have been just as influential in molding the Jewish character.

Traditional scholars make no distinction between the experience of the Jewish people and the descriptions of that experience that appear in the official texts of sacred literature. They simply assume that what the Bible and the Talmud claim to have happened did happen. If the Book of Exodus maintains that the Red Sea split before the fleeing Hebrews, then there was a split. If the anonymous Talmudic storyteller declares that a one-day supply of holy oil lasted for eight days, then this extraordinary event was real. There is no awareness of the fact, so amply confirmed by modem scientific criticism, that the real history of the Jews is vastly different from the saga presented by the rabbinic tradition.

In the light of these objections to the rabbinic approach to Jewish history, Humanistic Jews provide different answers to the four questions.

A Humanistic Perspective: World View

From a humanistic perspective, the existence, experience, and survival of the Jewish people hardly demonstrate the existence of a loving, just God who is compassionately involved with the moral agenda of human beings. On the contrary, the very opposite is indicated. In the century of the Holocaust, after twenty centuries of continuous, unprovoked Jew hatred, the experience of the Jewish people points to the absence of God.

A humanistic Judaism finds a totally different meaning in Jewish history from that proposed by traditional Judaism. A believer in future supernatural rewards and punishments would be hard put to justify the scenarios of Jewish sorrow and suffering from a morally divine perspective. No good God would arrange or allow a Holocaust of six million innocent victims. A thousand glorious resurrections would never provide moral compensation.

If Jewish history has any message abut the nature of the universe, it is that the universe is indifferent to our suffering or happiness, that it cares nothing about the moral concerns of the human struggle. The Jewish experience points to the absurdity of the world. Events happen in accordance with physical laws, not in accordance with ethical ones. Earthquakes and wars cannot defy the law of gravity; they can easily defy the Golden Rule.

The cosmic implication of Jewish history is that you cannot rely on the kindness of the universe. In the end, if human beings want justice, they will have to arrange for it. If they want happiness and dignity, they will have to arrange for them, too. And there is no messianic guarantee that we will achieve what we strive to achieve. Uncertainty is the stuff of an absurd universe.

In the light of four thousand years of continuous reproduction, Jewish survival is not so dramatic. Look at the Chinese, the Hindus, and the Greeks, who are equally ancient. Look at the Arabs, our Semitic rivals. Whatever gods took care of them did a far better job than Yahveh.

A Humanistic Perspective: Human Power

The rabbinic answer to the question of human power is inadequate and contrived. To assume that every human failure is due to human weakness and that every human success is due to divine assistance is to build the desired conclusion into the premise. From a naturalistic point of view, human success is the result of human effort and human ingenuity. If the achievement occasionally seems “divine,” that is a tribute to human potential. Sometimes adversity evokes extraordinary results.

The Exodus from Egypt (if it is indeed a historical event) was a human happening that used human power to arrange for human freedom. The resistance of the Maccabees was a “human” rebellion that used human ingenuity to defeat the Greeks.

The survival of the Jews through fifteen centuries of unremitting persecution is no testimony to divine benevolence. It is a witness to the continuous ability of the Jews to invent new reasons for their enemies to let them live. If their religious ideas were offensive, their economic skills remained indispensable. The Zionist enter-prise was a determined effort on the part of secular Jews to reject the historic passivity of the pious, with all its messianic waiting, and to assume conscious responsibility for the Jewish fate.

Jewish history testifies to the power of human ingenuity to cope with the cruelty of destiny. While Jewish suffering was more destructive than helpful, it did hone Jewish survival skills and stimulated the development of group solidarity and ambition.

A Humanistic Perspective: Progress

The rabbinic vision of human development, its answer to the question of human progress, is a distortion of reality. The belief that the best, the smartest, and the most charismatic lived long ago and that succeeding generations of religious experts and moralists can only manage to be less brilliant and less inspiring would be a charming myth if it did not have such harmful consequences.

The helplessness of modem Orthodoxy to find legal and moral relief for its overburdened adherents is the result of this doctrine. If contemporary scholars are overwhelmingly inferior to Moses and

Jeremiah, Hillel and Akiba, they have no moral authority to change what the superior ones have sanctioned. If divine revelation is con-fined to the distant past, nothing in the present can override its commands. Religion is reduced to the worship of the past.

Even modem liberal expressions of rabbinic Judaism such as Conservatism, Reform, and Reconstructionism, which accept some form of contemporary revelation, suffer from this view. They still vigorously seek to find sanction in the Bible and the Talmud for the changes they institute. Without the “kosherizing” of the past, present decisions lack validity.

Nostalgia for the pious past pervades the historic perspective of contemporary Jewish leaders. Most of these commentators on the Jewish scene see modem Western urban Jewry as less “Jewish” and less exciting than the pietists of earlier generations. They imagine that the age of the Secular Revolution has devastated the Jewish people through skepticism, assimilation, and intermarriage.

For Humanistic Jews, this nostalgia is deplorable. From our perspective, the Secular Revolution was the best thing that ever happened to the Jewish people. It removed the tyrannical religious monopoly of the traditional rabbis. It opened the Jewish mind to scientific inquiry and naturalism. It provided Jews with a more realistic understanding of the Jewish past and the evolution of Jewish culture. It introduced Jews to secular studies and to the intellectual pursuits that enabled them to make their mark on the revolutionary rethinking of the human condition. It provided them with a free economy and a democratic political structure that enabled them to reach unprecedented heights of prosperity and community involvement. It rescued them from religious passivity and gave them the confidence to assume responsibility for the Jewish fate.

Despite wars and massacres, the human condition and the Jewish condition have vastly improved. Few contemporary Jews, if offered the option, would volunteer to return to the Age of the Patriarchs.

Jewish wisdom and creativity in the twentieth century does not have to take a back seat to the legacy of the distant past. The Jews of this century are, probably, the most interesting, the most challenging, and the most creative generations of Jews that ever lived. Einstein was not inferior to Moses. And Freud did not have to offer reverence to Isaiah. Bialik and Tchernikhovsky are the equals of the psalmists. Herzl and Nordau are more relevant than Leviticus.

None of us need the sanction of the Torah or of the rabbis to be Jewishly valid. The worship of the past is replaced by respectful listening.

A Humanistic Perspective: Jewish Identity

The rabbinic answer to the question of Jewish identity is simply untrue. Jewish identity and Torah allegiance are not wed to one another. As the Zionist ideologue Ahad Ha’am pointed out, the Jewish people existed before Judaism, and the ethnic will to live preceded any theological formulations that justified it.

From the humanistic point of view, rabbinic Judaism did not create the national determination to survive. It provided a respectable public justification of it. In modem times, secular Zionism is an equally successful expression of the same ethnic drive.

The constant in Jewish identity is not theological conviction or Torah allegiance but Jewish peoplehood. In every age, the urge to survive—universal among nations—motivated Jews to find appropriate ways to satisfy it. In a religious age, they found religious strategies. In a secular age, they have found secular strategies.

The experience of Jewish ethnicity is the heart of Jewish identity. Even today, returnees to traditional Judaism do not first come to it out of theological conviction but out of a profound (if misleading) conviction that it is the best means of guaranteeing Jewish ethnic survival.

Conclusion

The meaning of Jewish history is radically different for Humanistic Jews from what it is for traditional or even liberal Jews.

The moral universe of the rabbis dissolves into the indifferent universe of the post-Holocaust era. The depreciation of human power and ingenuity is replaced by an appropriate tribute to the surprise of the human potential. The gloomy vision of a world declining in wisdom yields to a reassuring recognition of human progress. The rigid equating of Jewishness with religiosity gives way to recognition of the creative power of the Jewish will to live.

This new meaning is an important message we must share with the Jewish world.

 

The New Jewish History

“The New Jewish History” From A Provocative People, (2012)

Once upon a time there was a man called Abraham. He lived in Chaldea near the city of Ur. One day a god called Yahweh came to him and told him to leave. Abraham listened to Yahweh and left. He moved to Haran in Mesopotamia and from there to the land of the Canaanites. Being a rich shepherd, he traveled with many servants. In Canaan, Yahweh promised the land to him and to his descendants. Abraham promised to obey Yahweh in all things. When his wife, Sarah, bore him a son, Isaac, at the age of ninety, Abraham was very happy. Isaac in turn fathered Esau and Jacob. With the double name of Jacob and Israel, Jacob in turn fathered twelve sons. From these twelve sons came the entire people of Israel, also known as the Hebrews.

Jacob and his twelve sons went down into Egypt. In time they were enslaved by a wicked king. After four hundred years Yahweh decided to rescue them. He chose a Hebrew named Moses to lead them back to Canaan. Two million strong, the Hebrews departed Egypt to march to the Promised Land. Along the way they stopped at Yahweh’s mountain, Mount Sinai. There Yahweh gave them rules and regulations to live by. After forty years they reached Canaan. Moses died. His successor, Joshua, led the Hebrews across the Jordan River and conquered the land in one fell swoop. The Hebrews settled down on the land and began to worship the gods of Canaan. An angry Yahweh punished them with disunity and enemies. The worst enemy was the Philistines. In time, the Hebrews united under the shepherd king David, defeated the Philistines and became an independent nation.

This is the biblical story of the origins of the Jewish people. Wherever Jews and Christians are to be found, this story is popular and familiar. It is so popular and so familiar that it has been incorporated into the patriotism and the holidays of the Jewish and Christian worlds.

While the story may be familiar, charming and even inspirational, it suffers from a major problem. It is simply not true. There is no evidence— beyond the text of the Bible—that most of these events took place, or that most of these people really existed.

If I tell you a story about a man named Uncle Sam who had fifty children named Massachusetts, Virginia, Missouri, California… you would laugh at the absurdity of the tale. But when a similar story appears in the Bible about Abraham, who is described as the ancestor of many nations, millions of people abandon their reason and embrace its credibility. Biblical tales are not so much descriptions of real events as they are propaganda for political and religious arguments which took place many centuries after the presumed events took place. If they have historical value, it is because they are clues to what was going on in Jewish life at the time the author of the story lived. The story of Abraham has less to do with 1800 BCE, when Abraham presumably lived, than with 700 BCE when his story was created.

Biblical mythology revolves around the central figure of Yahweh, a god whose devotees claim that he is the only God worthy of the name. In the biblical narrative, Yahweh precedes the Jewish people and is responsible for their formation through his covenant treaty with Abraham. He continues to manage the Jewish experience through thick and thin. Even when the Jews misbehave, he does not abandon them. According to the biblical writers, Yahweh and the Jewish people have been together from the beginning of Jewish history.

But, in reality, Yahweh, as a popular God, did not show up until much later. Even when Moses and David appeared, it seems that they spent much of their religious time with many gods other than Yahweh. The same is true of their Israelite contemporaries. The early history of Israel is a time of comfortable polytheism in which the life of the Hebrew shepherd and farmer was tied up with the gods of the Canaanites and other Semitic neighbors. Yahweh was around, but he was competing with other members of the pantheon for Jewish attention. The Hebrews were as yet unaware of an exclusive intimacy.

For almost five hundred years, the Jews grew up as a nation without Yahweh at the center. More important to their early story was the place where they lived, the neighbors they had and their own struggle for survival. The Jews, like all other people, have a human context for their birth.

Mythology is the story of the gods. If you believe that the gods intervene actively in human affairs, then mixing mythology with history is a valid enterprise. But if you do not, the mixing becomes an obstacle to the discovery of truth.

What would Jewish history be like if the mythology were fully dis-missed? Over the last two hundred years many scholars have attempted to deal with the Jews as a natural phenomenon.1 Some of them were Bible critics, some of them were secular historians, some of them were archeologists—all of them were united by their commitment to science as the best method for the discovery of the truth. Science simply means responsibility to the evidence of controlled investigation. Supernatural powers, supernatural beings and supernatural purposes have no place in the scientific perspective.

Over the last two centuries a great deal of evidence has been accumulated to create an alternative Jewish story. The origins of the Jewish people, the origins of the Bible, the evolution of priestly Judaism, the development of Talmudic Judaism, the realities of Hellenistic Jews, the emergence of antisemitism, the adaptation of the Jews to the Christian and Muslim worlds—all of these important chapters in Jewish history which have been distorted by the lenses of mythology and theological apologetics—now have alternative stories. In some ways the new alternatives are less roman-tic because the gods have been reduced to ideas in human minds and their passionate and whimsical agendas are absent from the tale. In other ways the new stories are more interesting and exciting because they are not merely the repetition of familiar religious doctrine. Flesh and blood people of the narrative are no longer the passive victims of divine manipulation, but rather the authors and creators of the events themselves.

It is not true that the real history of the Jews has been around for a long time and has been available to anyone who wants to study it. The real story of the Jews is only now emerging and confronts resistance from the de-fenders of the tradition. Since so many traditional stories have been woven into the fabric of Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays, literature and symbols, many people who are open to scientific change in less emotionally charged areas of their lives offer stiff opposition to this new telling of the Jewish experience.

The new history is full of surprises. It may be the case that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are purely legendary. It may be the case that the Exodus from Egypt is a theological fabrication. It may be the case that the fundamental cultural influence on early Jewish life was not monotheistic and Mosaic but polytheistic and Canaanite. It may also be the case that the biblical prophets recommended a life style that was profoundly at odds with the economic and social direction of Jewish history. In fact, the sacred literature of the Jews was unsympathetic, from the beginning, to the mercantile role of the Jews in Western history.

Jewish history is tied up with the theology of three very powerful religious systems. Judaism and Christianity, and Islam to a lesser degree, can-not separate their sacred events from Jewish events. The Jews, as the Chosen People, are beyond the normal patterns of human development. Jewish experience, as a theological lesson, is a witness to supernatural power and divine intervention. In the religious context, Jews become more than Jews. They become agents of God, sustained by mysterious forces that can neither be described nor scrutinized. For millions of believers, Jewish history is more than history. It is divine revelation.

Many historians have difficulty dealing with the Jews as a normal people who function in the natural world in which most other nations seem to exist. Because the mythology of the Bible is so familiar to the reading public, mythical figures like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are simply accepted as real. If the mythology were Chinese, an objective and skeptical approach would be more easily accepted. There is a tendency in the Jewish and Christian worlds to defend the indefensible because the indefensible is our very own.

Traditional history may be a denial of what the Jews really were and are. Monotheism and the Chosen People idea may not be the most important beliefs that defined Jewish power and suffering. Ideology and faith may not be the major reasons why Jews were assaulted and persecuted. The Jews have been, and continue to be, a “provocative” people. Jewish apologetics is comfortable attributing that provocation to “superior” religious and ethical ideas. But modern antisemitism has given the lie to this interpretation. The economic role of the Jew may have been more important than the theological one. The patriarchal, priestly and prophetic periods of Jewish history may not be the “Golden Age” of Jewish achievement. The present age may be an alternative candidate.

The contemporary Jew-hater is not provoked by Jewish monotheism and Jewish ethics. He is provoked by the economic power which he attributes to the Jews and by the modernist ideas (atheism, secularism and Communism) which he accuses the Jews of fostering.

The economic role of the Jews in Western history is not a role that makes Jews comfortable, especially because the power of the Jews has been exaggerated. Jews are more comfortable with shepherd ancestors like Abraham and Isaac than with craftsmen, merchants and moneylenders. But shepherds had very little to do with most of Jewish history—and merchants and money were omnipresent. It may be the case that the Jews, as the pre-cursors of capitalism and an urban society, may be more important than the Jews as the inventors of a new theology. If we shift our focus, then, the ancient period of Jewish history may turn out to be the prelude to more dramatic accomplishments. Modern times, with all of its problematic antisemitism, may emerge as the heyday of Jewish significance.