One Side of Purim Is Fun and Laughter. The Other Side Is Haman

TJH march 1990, vol. XXVI, no. 8.

One side of Purim is fun and laughter. The other side is Haman.  

Haman is the arch-figure of Jew hatred, called anti-Semitism in modern times. He is the symbol of a social disease so dreadful and so powerful that it killed 6 million innocent people in this century.  

What is the future of anti-semitism?  

After World War II we hoped that it would disappear. We hoped that the trauma of the Holocaust would make it impossible for respectable people to be openly anti-Semitic in respectable society.  

Certainly, in the Western world this hope seemed to be fulfilled. Overt anti-Semitism became unpopular. Bigoted demagogues, like Coughlin & Smith, were silenced. Numberless schools, corporations and clubs open their doors to Jews who have been excluded. Jewish culture and Jewish themes made their way into the movies and television. Jewish identity took on a positive public Image. But in other parts of the world, hostility to Jews was either revived or invented. In the Soviet empire Stalinists decided to reinforce their tyrannical rule by catering to the historic bigotry of their nations. Jews were purged from government. Jewish culture was suppressed. And leaders of the Jewish community were executed. Although most Jews were allowed to retain their homes and their jobs their safety was precarious. Communist propaganda reminded them that they were aliens.  

In the Arab world, where most of the people were Semites like Jews, anti-jewish feeling emerged where it had never really existed before. The conflict in Palestine in the establishment of the state of Israel prompted a vicious anti-semitism reminiscent of Nazi assaults. Thousands of Jews fled their homes and came as refugees to the Jewish state. hostility to Jews was disguised as opposition to Zionism. But the anti-zionism of the Arab world contains the same vicious stereotypes that filled the propaganda of European fascists.  

When the recent revolutionary changes began in Eastern Europe, many observers imagined that at least one of these two centers of anti-Semitism would vanish. Official Soviet and Communist hostility would disappear with the disappearance of Communism. The emergence of popular democracy would free the Jews and end the threats to their safety. 

This expectation proved naive. The collapse of Communist power has not undermined it. It has revived it in a more virulent form than Communism ever allowed. The new freedom means freedom not only for liberal democracy but also for authoritarian fascists. End European fascism has long used anti-Semitism as an ideological strategy to mobilize the masses.  

Jew hatred and Eastern Europe has deep roots. Both Catholic and Orthodox christianity cultivated the image of the Jew as Satan incarnate. (In fact Jews were excluded from Russia until the Russian conquest of Poland.) The pre-capitalist structures of countries like Poland and Romania stimulated Envy in suspicion of urban life in urban entrepreneurs. And the Jews were overwhelmingly town and city people.  

The dismantling of the Communist power structure has terminated Communist anti-Semitism. But, in the new chaotic political environment, it has made it possible for the old bigotry to rear its ugly head. In Hungary, Romania, Latvia and Russia political parties with anti-Semitic agendas have been organized. Their program runs from the elimination of Jewish influence in public life to the expulsion of Jews. Although these parties are not large, they are growing.  

What does their presence tell us about the nature of anti-Semitism?  

Anti-semitism is a chronic disease. The historic role of the Jew to serve as a scapegoat for social ills is so deeply embedded in the European psyche that it cannot be eliminated either by education or by democracy. Since we cannot destroy it we must learn how to restrain it.  

Anti-Semitism flourishes where there is economic distress. The growing inflation, unemployment and shortages of the former socialist countries sponsor mass insecurity. The mass insecurities and helplessness motivate the people to embrace traditional and simplistic explanations for the economic crisis. The longest survival issues dominate the political scene, hostility to the Jews will continue to grow. 

 Anti-Semitism originated, to a large degree, in religious prejudice. But its present complaint about the Jews is not religious. Jews are detested for their economic role. They are seen as economic and cultural conspirators who have invented both market capitalism and Marxist socialism to exploit the masses. Jewish religious beliefs are unrelated to the fantasy. 

 Anti-Semitism is unrelated to Jewish power. In most of these countries, with the exception of the Soviet Union, there are now very few Jews. The Holocaust remove the bulk of the Jewish population. Despite that reality, the fear and hatred of Jews continue. Unlike the Jews of Western Europe in the United States who have real power, the Jews of Eastern Europe are envied for what they do not have. 

 Anti-Semitism is a strategy of both the Left and the Right. Both the Communists and the fascists have used it. Both the working class and the bourgeoisie can share its view of the world. Both sides are capable of initiating violence against the Jews. What both sides share is chauvinistic nationalism which views the Jew as an alien intruder. This reality makes the motivation for Zionism very clear. Sometimes the only effective response to Gentile nationalism is Jewish nationalism.  

 The belief that the Jew is both smart and evil is an old one. It will not be easily dislodged. We need to be less naive than the people who believe it.  

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, January 1983, Vol. XX, Number 6

1983. It’s our 20th anniversary year. 

In July of 1963, the idea of the Birmingham Temple was born. In September we held our first meeting. In November we were chartered. 

Some said that we would never last. But we lasted. And we grew stronger. And we helped to create sister congregations in other communities. 

What did we learn during the past twenty years? 

We discovered that we did not have to be imprisoned by the past. If neither Orthodoxy nor Conservatism nor Reform fit our beliefs, we did not have to adjust to what was unacceptable. We did not have to succumb to cynical resignation. We could pioneer an alternative that had never been tried before and make it work. 

We learned that maintaining our integrity helped us deal with hostility. The intimidation techniques of our enemies were less effective so long as we were defending what we really believed. Compromise would have undermined our self-esteem and made us vulnerable to attack. Beyond our integrity, boldness was our greatest asset. 

We discovered that we could be truly creative. Since there was no readily available working tradition for humanistic Judaism we had to make our own. We redid the holidays. We wrote new services. We transformed the Bar and Bat Mitsvah (sic) ceremony. We invented a new form of Jewish education. Our commitments forced us to do what we never planned to do. They made us see our own talents. 

We learn that we were able to serve people who had never been adequately served before by institutional life. Most of our first members were peripheral Jews who found their Jewish involvements uncomfortable and compromising. They never imagined that it was possible for them to feel at the center of Jewish commitment. But the Temple gave them a philosophic home where they never had to feel like strangers. 

We discovered that we were saying out loud what many people already believed. The Temple made no converts. It simply became a public voice for people who never had one before. The liberation of humanistic Jews is not their awakening to secular truth. It is a willingness to go public.  

We learned that we enjoyed pioneering. Starting something new was even more fun than inheriting something old. It enabled us to focus on our own present needs and not the needs of ancestors who had died a long time ago. We felt unique and useful. The pleasure of being our own person made up for any residual guilt that gave us anxiety. 

We discovered that we were continually changing. Some of our enemies claimed that we would end up as rigid and dogmatic as the people we opposed. But, very early, we experienced the frustration of trying things that didn’t work. We learned to try, to test and to choose. Our members were too good humored to let any procedure become sacred. Some of our first songs have been justifiably forgotten. And some of our best celebrations are very new. 

We learned that we could transmit our philosophy to the next generation. Many skeptics wondered whether children in a conventional religious world could embrace the humanistic alternative. But we saw our children grow up to enjoy the humanistic answers and to become articulate spokespeople for the Temple point of view. We developed a sense of continuity. 

We discovered that it is sometimes hard to be a humanistic Jew. We were denied the ease of joining just a neighborhood congregation. Joining the Birmingham Temple meant continuous training. Our friends, neighbors and associates did not regard our affiliation with indifference. We had to defend, to explain, to justify. And, in the process, we had to work hard at understanding our philosophy. Members of other congregations could hide behind the respectability. We had to prove ourselves. 

We learned, above all, that shared values and ideas help to develop a community. We started out as strangers who came together for philosophical reasons. But our common commitments made it easier for us to become friends. Our first attachments were to ideas. But they deepened into connections with people. The history of our temple is a story of friendship and community. We have always wanted to be for (sic) more than a discussion society. We have striven to become a family of choice. 

We have discovered many things in twenty years. They are part of our unique tradition.  

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, December 1988, Vol. XXVI, Number 5

Hanukkah time 1988 is crisis time for the state of Israel – and massive anxiety time for the Jews of the world who support it. 

As far as world opinion is concerned, the Jews have become the persecuting Greeks. And the Palestinian Arabs have become the Maccabees fighting for their freedom. The roles have been reversed. 

Israelis are confronted with overwhelming problems. The intifada rebellion of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza continues. The PLO has accepted UN resolution 242 (with its implicit recognition of the right of the state of Israel to exist) has renounced terrorism, has proclaimed a Palestinian state in the occupied territories, and has called for an international conference where issues can be resolved. The militant orthodox continue to grow in number and power and are threatening to “steal” the state from the secularists who established it. And world public opinion, which overwhelmingly supported Israel before 1967 is increasingly turning against the Jewish state and isolating it. 

The happy vision of the Zionist pioneers has turned into a nightmare. 

Now all these crises have been aggravated by the recent Knesset election. The dovish Labor party and its leftist allies have been defeated at the polls. The ultra-orthodox religious parties have substantially increased their representation and are energized by victory. The right-wing extremist parties (despite the taming of Meir Kahane’s Kach) have recruited more supporters and stand confident against concessions. 

It is quite clear that any future government will have to be a coalition government, since neither of the two major parties commands a majority. If the conservative Likud unites with the religious parties, repression of the Palestinians will become more severe and Israeli Jews will be forced to endure more and more theocratic intrusion. If the Likud unites with Labor again, Labor will lose the power to push for territorial concessions and will be compromised by association. 

At this time it is very important that both Israelis and we, as American Jews, accept the realities at this crisis. American Jews need to accept the following facts. 

1. The Israel of 1988 is very different from the Israel of 1948. The secular, liberal, Ashkenazic state of David Ben Gurion is gone. It has been replaced by a nation that is gradually becoming more religious, more conservative and more Sephardic than ever before. The forces in Jewish life that had repudiated Zionism are now the arbiters of its fate. 

2. Israel public opinion is deeply divided. On both the peace and religion issues extremist opinions are on the rise. It is often difficult for Israelis to talk to each other about politics and stay cool. Each group simply withdraws into its own corner. The old centrist consensus is collapsing. 

3. The intifada is beginning to concern Israeli society. Repression tends to elevate military virtues and to lessen concerns for civil liberties. HaHate and paranoia become respectable.And a wartime survival mentality takes over public discussion and makes compromise difficult. 

4. The youth of Israel is growing more conservative. Occupation duties, with his confrontation with rebels and rock-throwers, has turned young soldiers bitter and resentful. Dovish and  liberal sentiments are hard to retain when you are dealing with violent rejection and hostility. 

Israeli Jews need to face the following realities. 

1. American Jewry, the most powerful Diaspora support of the Jewish state, is finding it more and more difficult to identify with Israeli government policies. If a Likud regime yields to the Orthodox political parties and revises the Law of Return to turn over the determination of Jewish identity to Orthodox rabbis, then Israel will lose the effective support of American Jews, both (sic) Conservative, reform and secular. 

2. Israel cannot hang on to the West Bank and Gaza without destroying itself. A state that will ultimately have an Arab majority will not be a Jewish state. Nor will it be able to tolerate democracy. Nor will it be able to provide security for its Jewish citizens. A hostile population of violent Palestinians cannot be repressed without the terror that will cost Israel the support of the West. And without the support of the West she cannot survive. 

3. The only Palestinian Authority that Israel can negotiate with is the PLO. No other authority presently exists. And the PLO has won much of world public opinion by its dramatic concession. If the PLO is willing to recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist (even though it is only implicit) and to renounce terrorism, on what moral ground will the Israelis resist talking? Talking does not mean giving up Jerusalem or surrendering all of the West Bank and Gaza. After all (sic) final boundaries are a matter for negotiation. But it doe imply that Israel recognizes the right of the Palestinian people to some kind of state of their own. 

The beliefs that peace can come without territorial concessions and without talking to the PLO is a dangerous illusion. An isolated theocratic Israel, feeding on fundamentalist passions, will arrange for war and national suicide. To avoid this catastrophe requires courageous statesmen. It also requires bold public pressure by the Israeli government by Diaspora Jewry and by Western governments, to respond positively to the Palestinian initiative. 

Without peace the stranglehold of the militant Orthodox will never be broken.  

The Rabbi Writes: Sukkot

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

Sukkot begins Friday, October 8. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither situation is likely. 

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

Secular Judaism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here they are. 

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

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

Here are the reservations. 

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

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

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

Reconstructionist Judaism

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

Reconstructionist Judaism? 

How does it differ from Humanistic Judaism? 

Many people have asked this question. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————————————————————————- 

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

Polydoxy

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1978, Vol. VI, Number II

The Greeks gave us the word orthodox which means the right way (as opposed to the wrong way). 

Alvin Reines, a professor of philosophy at The Hebrew Union College has given us the word polydox which means the multiple way (as opposed to any one way). 

‘I am a Polydox Jew’ may sound a bit esoteric. But it has become the label affirmation of a small number of libera REform rabbis and laymen who believe that establishment Reform is reverting to tradition and is betraying the unique message of historic Reform. 

Time Magazine recently publicized the first national conference of Polydox Jews in St. Louis. Alvin Reines spoike. The Polydox Jewish Confederation was established and the Institute for Creative Judaism, the research arm of the movement, was funded. 

At present, there is only one official Polydox congregation (in Richmond, Virginia). Most self-aware Polydox Jews are Reform rabbis who serve regular Reform congregations and who were disciples of Alvin Reines at the Hebrew Union College. 

The ‘scripture’ of Polydoxy is the written word of Reines, who has composed a series of essays about his ideology during the past thirteen years. 

Since Polydoxy, like Humanistic Judaism, is one step ‘beyond’ Reform, we may reasonably ask the question-what is the connection between PJ and HJ? 

We shall begin the answer with the articulation of the basic principles of Reines. 

  1. American Jews are in crisis because the official religion of the community-whether Orthodoxy , Conservativ or Reform, is unrelated to the private religion of its individual members. The Jewish establishment lacks integrity. 
  1. ‘Religion, in its broadest sense, includes three basic elements: an ideology of existence that responds to the ultimate problems of the human condition; a doctrine of morality; and a system of observances that expresses and celebrates peak moments and occasions in human experience.’ 
  1. Freedom is a fundamental value. ‘Every member of the Polydox Jewish Confederation pledges to affirm the religious freedom of all other members in return for their pledges to affirm his or her own. Equally binding on the members of the PJC is the corollary of the Freedom Covenant: every person’s freedom ends where the other person’s freedom begins.’ 
  1. ‘A Jew is a person who wishes to take the name Jew, and who is descended from a Jewish parent, grandparent, or ancestor; also a Jew is a person who wishes to take the name Jew and is a member of the Jewish community.’ 
  1. Jewish communal loyalty is produced by belief in the religion of Judaism of the community. Jews who do not really believe in the religion of their particular Jewish communities will themselves ultimately abandon membership in those communities, or their children or grandchildren will. Compared to shared religion, the shared elements of ethnicity are derivative and trivial, and call for no special loyalty. To deny one’s real religion is to deny one’s own true self; to deny ethnicity is to deny non-essential patterns of behavior. 
  1. The Polydox Jew has the right to set the times of festivals according to rhythms that he or she finds most meaningful. These rhythms may be natural, such as solstice and seasons; economic; cultural; or personal. An instance of rhythmic harmonization is changing the Hanukka celebration to eight days beginning at the winter solstice December 21-22, rather than at Kislev 25. This change of date brings the Hanukka celebration into harmony with the great, natural economic and social rhythms of the real world in which the American Jew actually lives. 

These six principles summarize the basic tenets of Reines. 

I would like to reply to them one by one. 

  1. Crisis. What Reines says is true. American Judaism suffers from advanced hypocrisy. The declarations of organizational Judaism do not coincide with the real religion of most American Jews. However, the crisis is even deeper. Private Jews, speaking privately, often say they believe what they, in fact, do not believe. Many individual Jews are self-declared. It is not their stated beliefs which are in conflict with the voice of the establishment. It is their behavior. The major task of an honest Judaism is not to challenge the establishment for their hypocrisy. In many cases, they are just echoing what many individual Jews claim they believe. It is to challenge the hypocrisy of the individual Jew whose behavior does not reflect any of the reverence for God and Torah he claims to have. 
  1. Religion. What Reines affirms is generally valid. Religion begins with the fear of death, or of the dead. It proceeds to use the reverence for the dead to enforce certain moral standards and it celebrates this reverence through community celebrations. The moral and community dimension is only one of two major aspects of the religious enterprise. The other is the fascination with supernatural power (the power possessed by the dead)-how to appease it and how to use it. 
  1. Freedom. The Polydox concept of freedom is the most difficult concept to understand. It suffers from the same negativism that plagues Unitarianism. It starts out with the claim that no person has the right to tell anyone else what he or she should believe. No individual can play the ultimate authority to any other. 

As a general political principle, radical freedom is workable and appropriate. Each individual, whether he is Jewish or non-Jewish has the right to practice whatever religion he wants to so long as he does not interfere with the equal freedom of others to do the same. We simply agree to disagree. We do not use state power to enforce religious conformity. But as a principle for organizing religious communities, it is neither workable nor appropriate. Resistance to authoritarianism is purely negative. It has no positive glue to bind a community together. 

Unitarians suffer from this malaise. Since they despise any official creeds and proclaim radical freedom, they often recruit congregants whose primary emotion is anger at the authoritarian religions of their childhood from which they have escaped. These congregants know what they don’t want out of religion. But they are never quite sure what they do want. 

Their essential thrust is liberty not co-operation (sic). Mystics and rationalists end up in the same congregation united only by their hostility to traditional religion. Since the group has such a wide diversity of religious beliefs, any of them often incompatible one with the other (sic), the congregation spends enormous amounts of time negotiating compromise. The result is no bold creativity but timid progress. Since every person’s belief must be respected, decision making suffers paralysis. Moreover, the educational system becomes vacuous, because no indoctrination is allowed. A thin smorgasbord of world religious options is presented, while the children are told to simply choose what is meaningful to them. No choice is better or worse than any other. Hare Krishna is as good as Bertrand Russell. The Lubavitcher Rebbe is as desirable as John Dewey. The greatest ‘sin’ is to tell children that some choices are better than others. The commonsensical boldness would smack of indoctrination. 

How, indeed, do you organize a congregation or a religious community when the only unifying principle is the agreement to disagree. How do you create a public service that both a humanist and a supernatural mystic would be able to share and find mutually inspiring? At best, what you would have is a convential (sic) Jewish Community Center where a series of religiously incompatible groups share the facility. 

All that Polydoxy seems to arrange for is a situation where flexible humanistic Jews are compelled to spend their time negotiating a joint service with less flexible, more traditional Jews. The result is a timid cautious presentation pleasing to neither side. 

What I say to Polydoxy Jews is what I have said to so many Unitarians. Since most of you are humanists, anyway, why torture yourself? Be bold. Announce your humanism and allow your paralyzing minority to find their religious satisfaction elsewhere. An institution which seeks to accommodate all opinions provides none. 

Does Polydox promote no ethical value other than freedom? Are cooperation, generosity, compassion and rationality to be only personal options? Will four hundred individual definitions of the word ‘God’ improve communication within a congregation and enhance the religious experience? 

Standing against authoritarian religion is commendable. But it is never enough for organizing a community-if indeed you want a community. 

  1. Jewishness. Reines’ definition of a Jew is a generous commonsensical explanation, which is re-enforced (sic) by the way people normally use the word. The defining character of the Jewish community is shared descent. One may enter this ‘family’ either by birth or by ‘adoption’. 
  1. Ethnicity. Because of Reines’ definition of a Jew, his objection to ethnicity as a survival glue seems difficult to understand. If, indeed, Jewishness begins with ancestry (which after all is ethnic) and if indeed there is no shared community religion other than a belief in the validity of radical freedom, how can ‘religion’ be the survival factor? If the power of family is ignored, what compelling uniting ideological substance remains? 

Reines provides no raison d’ etre for Jewish survival. If Jewish ethnic identity is trivial, if Jewish family loyalty is secondary, why bother to combine radical freedom with Jewishness? After all, it is presumptuous to preempt radical freedom as a uniquely Jewish concept. For those who want it the Unitarians are already there. 

  1. Holidays. Moving holidays to serve individual desire has a slightly self-destructive thrust. Festivals are community celebrations. If every Jew celebrates Hanukka when he wants to, then Hanukka is useless. 

If Polydoxy as a movement, wants to move Hanukka to the winter solstice, that strategy has some semblance of rationality. As a community action, it might be persuasive to other liberal Jews. (Although the winter solstice seems a silly criterion in an urban culture. Making it coincide with Christmas would make more sense.) 

But Polydoxy is sabotaged by its own principle. In any congregation individual members are encouraged to celebrate Hanukka on whatever date they choose. The Polydoxy community cannot be effective because it cannot take a strong community stand against the pressure of the overwhelming majority of Jews to conform to the traditional date. 

Reines is trapped by incompatible objectives. He wants radical individual freedom and bold community innovation simultaneously. 

I think that Reines really wants to be part of bold community innovation. But he has chosen to promote a tired and increasingly ineffective old Unitarian principle instead. 

The strategy of the Freedom Covenant is to allow Polydoxy to function as an alternative Reform Judaism. It allows Polydox rabbis to do humanistic things in Reform Temples without alienating the established membership. Given its political context it will have to proceed slowly. 

As Humanistic Jews, we’re glad the Polydoxy is around. We regard it as the first step on the way from Reform to Humanistic Judaism. 

Humanistic Judaism Answers Some Questions about Death and Mourning

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

Responses by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine 

Interview by Jacqueline Zigman 

MEDITATIONS AND PHILOSOPHY 

Q. Since Humanistic Jews would find the traditional mourning services inappropriate, what meditations might they find useful? 

  1. We as Humanistic Jews ought to articulate our philosophy of life at the crisis of death. Meditations, both public and private, can be used for this purpose. These meditations are alternatives to the recitation of the traditional Kaddish. Many Humanistic Jews are uncomfortable with the Kaddish because it is fundamentally a praise of God. In the situation where a deceased relative or friend had requested the Kaddish, the Humanistic Jew obliges by finding a substitute who truly believes in saying this prayer. Humanistic Jews promote their integrity by saying publicly only what is consistent with their convictions. 

Suggested Meditations: 

Death is something individual. Against the collective stream of life it seems powerless. Particular flowers fade and die; but every spring repeats them in the cycle of nature. Individual man is a brief episode and is devoured by death; but mankind bears the marks of immortality, renewed in every generation by the undying spark of life. We are, each of us, greater than ourselves. We survive in the children we create; we endure in the humanity we serve. 

As an individual, separate and distinct, each of us is temporary, a short chapter in the story of the universe. As a part of the neverending process of life, each of us is immortal, a wave in the eternal flow of vital energy. The leaves of last year’s summer have died and vanished into the soil of mother earth. But, in a special sense, each lives on in the revival of every spring. Every man dies, but mankind survives. Every living thing perishes, but life persists. 

The past is unchangeable. What happened yesterday is beyond our control. We can cry and shout. We can scream and complain. But the events of just a moment ago are as far from our reach as the farthest star. The fool never forgives the past. He devotes every present moment to worrying about it, scolding it, and wishing it were different. 

Memory is a precious possession. It captures the past and trains it to our needs. The harshness of old events is softened by vagueness and the pleasure of happy moments sharpened by vivid imagination. Loved ones linger on in the glory of their individual uniqueness. In life they willed to live and hewed the path of their personal difference. In death they transcend decay and find their niche in fond remembrance. No man is defined by the sameness of another; if it were so, memory would die from generalities. 

Death hovers over every deed of man, over every action he performs. For some men death is an obsession, destroying their pleasure and filling their soul with anxious fears. For others death is a challenge prompting them to enjoy life while they live and urging them to taste their talents while they can. These men are men of dignity who respond to death with courage and to life with zest. 

The glories of our universe are never eternal. They shine for a while and are then consumed by the darkness. All things change. All life yields to death. If the beauties of nature endured forever, they would not be precious. We cannot love what we do not fear to lose. 

Freedom is the power to release the past. It is the good humor (sic) to give up what cannot be altered-the easiness to surrender what cannot be changed. Countless men and women live in the prison of their past. They are the tortured victims of their memories. They are the martyr slaves of their regrets. The present and the future hold no special challenge to them. They are merely opportune moments to reflect on old pleasure and an old pain. What might have been is an obsession. What could be is scarcely a thought. 

The free man learns from the past. But he does not live there. He does not seek to recapture old pain. He works to achieve new pleasures. He does not need to survive on the faded memories of faded happiness. He strives to create new joy. He uses the past to fashion a more interesting future. 

We often run away from life. We think of death and are obsessed by it. The threat of aging fills us with dread and casts a shadow over all our youthful pleasures. The end of our story ruins the middle and sours the taste of our happiness. Why bother to pursue what must pass away? Why bother to value what must cease to be? 

PRE-DEATH ARRANGEMENTS 

Q. Since humanists affirm responsibility for their lives, it would seem fitting that they should make their own death arrangements. What pre-death arrangements can humanists make? 

  1. EUTHANASIA-We as Humanistic Jews do not believe the purpose of life is mere survival. We  believe the purpose of life is survival with dignity. When survival with dignity is no longer possible, we affirm our right to choose to die. Euthanasia is an appropriate alternative to involuntary death when there is terminal illness and physical humiliation. If we can not arrange in advance to guarantee our right to dignity we shall, like most people, become victims of guilty relatives and timid physicians. Legally our moral right to euthanasia has not yet been granted, but we can apply moral pressure on our surivvors by signing a document called The Living Will. Copies of The Living Will may be obtained from Euthanasia Educational Council, 250 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019. A tax-deductible contribution is appropriate when sending for copies. 

PARTIAL DONATION-The organs are removed from the body to be used for transplants or research programs. Both of these processes aid in improving the quality of life. The following organization have a desperate need for organs: 

Deafness Research Foundation, 366 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10617 

Michigan Eye Bank-Wayne State University, 540 East Canfield Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48201 (Note: each state has its own eye bank) 

Human Growth Inc. (Pituitary Gland), 307 Fifth Avenue, new York, New York 10016 

Kidney Foundation of Michigan, 3378 Washtenaw Avenue, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48014 (Note: each state has its own Kidney Foundation) 

Whole donation-Whole body donation allows you to contribute to the advancement of medical knowledge. This new knowledge is used to benefit those people in need of medical care. The entire body must be donated with no organs removed except the eyes. Also, there is no expense to the daily for transportation, casket or disposal of the body. Inquiries should be made of medical schools in your area. 

CREMATION-Most Humanistic Jews prefer cremation to burial. This preference is defined in three ways: 

  1. Historically, burial was performed because of the traditional belief in the resurrection of the dead. Therefore the function of burial is negated by its contradiction to reality. 
  1. In an overpopulated world with limited space, cremation is the more reasonable method of disposal. 
  1. The quick finality of cremation has more aesthetic appeal then the traditional custom of dumping remains to rot. 

MEMORIAL SERVICES 

Q. What are appropriate settings for a Humanistic Jewish memorial service? 

  1. TEMPLE-Our Temple is our family home and we feel it should be used for sad as well as happy occasions. Therefore, we feel it appropriate to have the memorial service at the Birmingham Temple. It is not necessary to the body present, arrangements can be made with the funeral director. 

           HOME-Another available option for the Humanistic Jew is for the memorial 

           service to be performed in a home. The body need not be present. 

FUNERAL CHAPEL-Another alternative. 

See MEDITATIONS AND PHILOSOPHY at the beginning of this interview for suggested readings at the memorial service. 

MOURNING 

Q. What mourning procedures can Humanist Jews follow comfortably? 

  1. Most Humanistic Jews need the support and understanding of a loving community. There are various ways in which family, friends and the congregation may help. 

RECEIVING VISITORS-traditional mourning required a seven day period of fasting, abstinence and immobility after death. The purpose of this shiva (7 days) was to divert the anger of God. For Humanistic Jews such activity is inappropriate. However, the custom of visiting mourners is still very appropriate. Most people enjoy the empathy and understanding of their family and friends during the crisis of death. We as Humanistic Jews can choose to remain home to receive visitors after the memorial service. If we do so, the number of days that we remain at home is up to our own personal feelings. Such a response is equally valid. If visiting is desired, there is no reason why sadness and solemnity should prevail. We can best honor the dead by affirming their joy and not by dramatizing their sadness. 

YAHRZEIT-The word Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word meaning anniversary. It refers to the traditional custom of remembering the dead on the anniversary of their death. It is traditional on the yahrzeit day to kindle a light which burns all day in memory of the loved one. It is also customary in many Conservative and Reform congregations to read the name of the loved one on the Sabbath preceding the yahrzeit. It would therefore be appropriate to kindle such a light. We also find meaning in the public recitation of the name of our loved one, since we can then share their memory with the congregational family. However, many of us need no ceremony to remember. Some HumanisticJ ews may regard both candles and public announcements as irrelevant and intrusive. We respect their rights to remember privately. Tradition determines the yahrzeit date fby the use of the Hebrew lunar calendar. Since no Jew in his daily life uses this calendar, calculation is awkward and makes anniversary (sic) hard to determine. Common sense indicates that we use the universal Roman calendar to determine this date, since this calendar has become the effective way of counting time for all Jews. 

YIZKOR-Yizkor is a Hebrew word meaning memorial. It refers to a public memorial service which is held traditionally 4 times a year–Passover, Shavuot, Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret. We as Humanistic Jews believe that a public memorial service during which the entire Temple family can share the experience with mutual support is useful and desirable. However, repetition within a short period of time usually dulls the effect of most important events. We therefore regard it as appropriate to hold such a memorial service on Yom Kippur afternoon. 

MEMORIAL STONES-Markers are appropriate to burial sites since Humanistic Jews believe in both discretion and simplicity as aesthetic virtues. Markers should be small and fairly inconspicuous. Large and ostentatious memorial stones are inappropriate. The most desirable kind of marker would be a small stone or metal marker parallel to the ground. 

UNVEILINGS-Ceremonies of unveilings are neither traditional nor psychologically desirable. They are American inventions which have no deep roots in Jewish history. Unveiling ceremonies tend to be unnecessary second funerals. They needlessly awake old grief. The proper memorial is either the yahrzeit or yizkor ceremonies. 

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

HJ Vol 27 No 4 Autumn 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we expect? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rethinking Shavuot

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 23, No 2 Spring 1995

In priestly and rabbinic Judaism, holidays were celebrations of divine power and divine “history.” They recalled and dramatized the intervention of God in human and Jewish affairs. One of the most spectacular of such events was the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, especially the giving of the Ten Commandments, when Moses was believed to have spoken face to face with God. For the rabbis, Shavuot commemorated this awesome moment. 

Reform Judaism built on this rabbinic model. Although more skeptical than the traditional rabbis, the reformers found divine reasons for Jewish holidays. Since Shavuot was the day that celebrated the covenant between God and the Jewish people, many Reform congregations chose that day to celebrate the confirmation of teenagers. There was an obvious connection between the covenant idea and pledging allegiance to Judaism and the Jewish people. 

Secular Jews had a hard time with Shavuot. Divine revelation and divine covenants were not their cup of tea. Furthermore, modern biblical criticism separated the Ten Commandments from Moses and Mount Sinai, assigning their origin to historical events that took place some six centuries later. As for the Commandments themselves, the first four are hopelessly theistic. Amon secularists, only the Zionists were comfortable with Shavuot. As farmers of the land, secular kibbutzniks restored the old agricultural significance of the holiday as the closing day of the spring harvest. Yet, even for Zionists, Shavuot was problematic, since most “yishuvniks” were confirmed urban dwellers. 

Very little secular effort went into saving Shavuot. Pesakh and Hanukka were the dramatic symbols of Jewish loyalty. The fortunes of Shavuot had sunk all over the Jewish world. It came at the wrong time of the year. It featured no compelling home rituals. There was no need to deal with a holiday that Jewry in general ignored. 

Humanistic Judaism inherited the Shavuot malaise. What should be done with this anachronism? Is it as useless as Tisha b’Av? Or is it worth rescuing? 

Ironically, the rabbinic model provides the key to the secular rescue of Shavuot. By designating Shavuot z’man mattan toratenu (the season of the giving of our Torah), the rabbis connected the festival with the literature of the Jewish people. Jewish literature is the most important Jewish cultural creation. For a verbal people with very little historic attachment to the visual arts, writing and books have been the central focus of Jewry’s cultural life and religious worship. 

Shavuot as a holiday to celebrate Jewish books and Jewish literature can be both useful and exciting. The major harvest of the Jewish people throughout the past two hundred years has not been wheat. It has been the written word. From the secular perspective, that “harvest” is not the creation of God. It is the creation of the Jewish people. It is a tribute to human ingenuity and human effort. Celebrating Jewish literature is a way to celebrate the creative energies of the Jewish people. 

Celebrating Jewish literature is quite different for Secular and Humanistic Jews from what it is for Orthodox Jews. For Orthodox Jews, there are two kinds of Jewish books: books written by God and books written by people. Of the two categories, the first obviously is more important. The Torah is the center of literary attention because it is sacred, primary, and superior. All other books are insignificant by comparison. For humanistic Jews, all authors are human. All books are human creations. The Torah is simply one of them. As a human creation, the Torah is a work of mixed value. Some parts of it are wonderful; other parts are mediocre. Its importance lies in the fact that it is the beginning of a long process of Jewish literary achievement. The continuation of the process is just as important as the launching. The present is just as significant as the past. 

That perspective is central to a secular rethinking of Shavuot. Simply knowing the Torah and the Ten Commandments is a pale imitation of the rabbinic process. The Torah and the Ten Commandments — no matter what interpretive permutations we invent — cannot take the center stage of humanistic allegiance. Our holidays must express our unique approach to Jewish history and Jewish identity. They must avoid the often justified accusation that what we choose to do with the tradition is to use it, only less. 

A humanistic Shavuot must not be “less.” It must be different. It must be based not only on the Torah, but on the whole spectrum of Jewish literary activity. Worthy of honor are dozens of books and dozens of authors. Worthy of honor is all the prose that motivated Jewish ethical activity and all the poetry that celebrated beauties of this world. 

The heart of our celebration of Shavuot should be the reading of the literature, whether old or new, that gives expression to our beliefs and commitments as Humanistic Jews. Since all this prose and poetry cannot be read at one celebration, the criteria for selection becomes all-important. Three formats are possible. 

The first format would be to select five or six readings that summarize the basic ideas of Humanistic Judaism. This summary could be repeated every year as a core statement of belief. The advantage of this format is that the community would have a brief literary presentation that identified its convictions both to itself and to others. The annual celebration of this creed would reinforce group identity and tie the literature to personal conviction.  

The second format would be to select five or six readings that change from year to year. The advantage of this format is that Shavuot would become an educational opportunity to experience more and more the humanistic dimension of Jewish literature. Instead of the traditional comfort of hearing the same readings repeated every year, there would be the excitement and freshness of new materials. In time the assembled collection of readings would become the community’s “Shavuot Book.” 

The third format would be to honor a Jewish thinker whose ideas and writings are at the foundation of Secular and Humanistic Judaism. Biographical and literary materials could be assembled into an appropriate tribute. Over a period of years the community would be exposed to the words of the historic founders and pathbreakers of our movement.\ 

In order to develop any of these three formats, there has to be a strong awareness of the full extent of Jewish literature: biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and modern; Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Oriental; philosophic, ethical, and historic. Most early Jewish writing is anonymous. But most later and contemporary Jewish writing is attached to interesting and sometimes provocative personalities. Secular Humanistic Jews study the Bible and the Talmud. But they also study and admire Moses Maimonides, Barukh Spinoza, Shaul Tchernikovsky, Joseph Brenner, Haim Zhitlovsky, Avraham Shlonsky, and Yehuda Amichai. The forthcoming anthology of Secular Humanistic Judaism, which contains excerpts from the works of important thinkers such as these, will be an invaluable resource for developers of a new Shavuot. 

Shavuot, as a day to dramatize and reaffirm our Humanistic Jewish convictions through Jewish literature, provides many additional opportunities. It is an ideal time to sell, or to encourage the purchase of, Jewish books. It is a perfect occasion to celebrate the completion of a course of Jewish studies by members of the community. It is an appropriate time at the end of the school year to honor students who have studied and mastered some of the literature in the “Shavuot Book.” 

What began as an agricultural festival to celebrate the end of the spring harvest and was transformed into a tribute to divine revelation now can become the occasion to honor the meaningful words of a verbal people. 

Our Shavuot has roots. But it also has a harvest that never ends.