Humanistic Judaism – A Religion

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn/Winter, Volume 4, No. 1, 1975-76

In recent years I have encountered a persistent objection to the vocabulary of the Birmingham Temple. Many perceptive and sensitive observers have affirmed the value of the Temple philosophy and program. They readily acknowledge that the group work and fellowship are meaningful experiences. But they encounter with the objection, “How can you call your organization at Temple?“ Humanism may be a ‘great’ philosophy of life. It may even be the ideological answer to man’s twentieth century needs. Yet, if there is one thing it isn’t, it isn’t a religion. If you’re so concerned about the meticulous use of vocabulary that you abstain from God language, why then would you not be equally careful with the word ‘religion’?

The question is a significant one. If we are going to designate our philosophy and institution as religious, then we must be as precise and accurate with the phrases we employ as we expect the theologian to be with the word he uses. After all, there is something called the ethics of words. One has a moral obligation to be faithful to the historic meaning of ordinary words.

Now to discover the authentic significance of ‘religion’ we must clarify the unique characteristics of the religious experience. It will not do to either arbitrarily pick a definition that is convenient to one’s vested interest or to cite those qualities of the experience it shares with other human possibilities. A proper definition must rely on what is peculiar to the event under analysis. Nor will selecting a vague phrase that makes ‘religion’ the sum total of everything promote understanding. To define religion as ‘the pursuit of fulfillment’ or ‘the pursuit of salvation’ or ‘the act of relating to the universe as a whole’ is to consign the term to the limbo of words that have lots of prestige but refer to nothing in particular. For after all, what human activity from psychiatry to politics is not concerned with human fulfillment? And what human procedure does not involve relating to the universe ‘as a whole’?

Initially we must do away with the verbal debris; we must clarify what religion is not. Many liberals are fond of designating the religious experience as the moral dimension of human life, as the ethical commitment of the individual. However, while it is certainly true that all historic religions have been vitally concerned with social right and wrong, it is also true that there are hosts of activities, normally designated as religious, that have nothing at all to do with ethical propriety. Lighting candles and celebrating spring festivals are part of piety and morally neutral. Moreover, large numbers of sincere and sensitive people think of themselves and are regarded by others as both ethical and nonreligious.

Many popular definers prefer to associate religion with the act of faith as opposed to the procedures of empirical reasoning. Religion is viewed as a unique approach to questions of truth. While this definition may be attractive by its simplicity, it will not “hold water“. Certainly the act of reasoning through observable evidence is common to parts of all sacred scriptures; and the procedure of intuitive trust in the truthfulness of self-proclaimed authorities is as common to the daily procedures of politics and business as it is to those endeavors that are normally regarded as religious.

As for the persistent attempts to identify religion with the worship of God, they may be appropriate within the narrow framework of Western culture but invalid universally. The Confucian ethical tradition and the Buddhist Nirvana are religiously as significant as God and yet are quite distinct from the normal notion of deity. Nor will the Julian Huxley definition of the religious experience as the apprehension of the sacred quite do. To simply describe the secret as that which is able to arouse awe, wonder, and reverence is to identify its consequences but not to clarify the nature of its constituent parts. Without analysis the definition simply substitute one mystery for another.

A proper view of religion requires an honest confrontation with certain historical realities. Too often clerical liberals choose to designate what is ‘unpleasant’ about traditional religious practice as secondary and peripheral. They refuse to confront the possibility that what they stand for may in any way be ‘less religious’ than what the traditionalists proclaim. In a culture where to be ‘more religious’ is to be more respectable, the refusal is understandable although it is hardly conducive to an objective study of religion.

What are the historical realities which our study cannot ignore? Six facts are most significant.

  • in almost every culture religious institutions are the most conservative. It is historically demonstrable that ecclesiastical procedures change more slowly than other social patterns. Ideas which are regarded as radical and revolutionary within the framework of church and synagogue are usually regarded as common place in other areas of human behavior. While most institutions resist change, organized religion has been the most supportive of the status quo. Intrinsic to established ‘priesthoods’ is the notion that change may be necessary but not desirable.
  • Religious teachers and prophets persistently refused to admit that their ideas are new. If they do, the indispensable sacred character of their revelations disappear. From Moses to Bahaullah the religious radical must always demonstrate that he is, in reality, the most genuine of conservatives. Moses pleaded the endorsement of Abraham; Jesus insisted that he was but the fulfiller of old prophecies. Mohammed posed as the reviver of pure monotheism; and Luther claimed that he desired only to restore the pristine and authentic Christianity. As for Confucius, he did Nied originality and attributed all his wisdom to old emperors. Even the Jewish reformers the vehemently affirmed that they were guilty of no basic novelty but were simply recapturing the true message of the true Prophets. No historic religious ‘genius’ has ever desired to claim a new idea. Change is made to appear an illusion. ‘New’ concepts are either old ones long forgotten or old ones reinterpreted. Novelty is historically irreligious.
  • In ordinary English the word ‘religious’ is usually equivalent to the Yiddish ‘frumm’. Both adjectives are tied up with the notion of ritualism. An individual is judged as ‘more religious’ or ‘less religious’ by the degree of his ritual behavior. The liberal may protest that this usage is narrow and primitive. But he still has to explain why even sophisticated speakers, then they relax with the word religious and are non-defensive, choose to associate it with repetitive ceremonies.
  • The annual cycle of seasons, as well as the lifecycle of human growth and decay are universal concerns of all organized religions. Spring and puberty may have no apparent ethical dimension but they are certainly more characteristic of historic religious interest than social action. We may deplore the religious obsession with Barmitsva. But then, after all, we have to explain it.
  • Despite Whitehead’s popular definition of religion as that, which man does with his solitude, most religious activities have to do with group action. In most cultures sacred events are not separable from either family loyalty or national patriotism. The very word ‘religio’ is a Roman term for the sum of public ceremonies that express the allegiance of the citizen to the state. Even the ancestor cult which defines the popular religion of most of the Eastern world is an act of group loyalty that diminishes the significance of the isolated individual and enhances the importance of family continuity. Historic religion started with the group and is not easily separable from it.
  • The notion of the saint or the holy man permeates most religious cultures. This revered individual achieves his status not only because of his impeccable ritual and moral behavior but also because he is able to enjoy the summit of the religious experience. To be able to transcend this messy world of space-time change and to unite mystically with what is beyond change, space and time is his special forte. The mystic experience has almost universally been regarded as the supreme religious event and the entree into the supernatural.

Any adequate theory about the nature of the religious experience and its unique characteristics must be able to explain these six facts. It must find the common cord that binds these disparate events together. While many factors can account for some of them, only one theory is inseparable from the initial concern of historic philosophy.

It is interesting to note that the origin of philosophic inquiry and metaphysics lies in the disdain for the sensible world of continual change and, any persistent love of what is eternal and beyond decay. Plato was adored by later theology ends because of his ‘religious’ temperament. He detested the world of impermanence and asserted that wisdom was only concerned with entities that never change. The chaotic world of space time events which modern science investigator was anathema to his pursuit of knowledge. If the Greeks were unable to develop the rudiments of a real empiricism, herein lay their problem. Whatever they searched for it had to be deathless and eternal.

In fact, the search for the deathless is the psychic origin of the religious experience. The human individual is a unique animal. He alone is fully aware of his personal separate this from other members of his species and countries of the temporary nature of his own existence. He fears death and needs to believe that dying is an illusion. In his anxiety he probes the world for persons and forces which enjoy the blessing of immortality. With these he seeks to identify and find the thrill of being part of something ‘bigger than me’. The religious experience is universally an act of feeling ‘at one with’ what seems to possess the aura of eternity.

If we take this definition, and test it by the evidence, it works superbly. It explains the essentially conservative nature of historic religion. Change, experiment, and mirror opinion are in spirit nonreligious. Only eternal truths will do. All seeming change is pure illusion; and even the most radical steps must be covered up by the cloak of ‘reinterpretation’. The definition also clarifies why all new truths must be labeled as old. The religious temperament requires the solace of age, and venerability. Even if the good word is humanly new, it turns out to be ‘divinely old.’

The theory explains the religious power of ritual. Traditional ceremony is not significant because of its ethical symbolism; that excuse is a sop for the modern intellect. Ritual ask derive their psychic punch from the fact that they are meticulously identical and repetitive. In a world of continual and frightening change they give to human behavior the feeling of eternity. Their power is not symbolic; it is intrinsic to the ceremony itself. New observances that are labeled as new may be aesthetically charming, but they lack the religious dimension. As for the seasons and life-cycle events, what greater evidence is required to substantiate the thesis? Societies may undergo revolutions and violence social upheaval; they may experience the overthrow of every existing value and idea. But the explosion is powerless to alter the relentless sequence of spring, summer, fall, winter – birth, puberty, maturity, and death. Nothing is more ‘eternal’ than the seasons. Their continual repetition is an ultimate ‘security’.

Moreover, the group character of the most religious observance reflects the human desire for permanence. The family and the nation have always been inseparable from the major religious experiences of any culture, simply because they suggest the immortality the individual does not. And the mystic experience is equally explained by this need to defeat change and death. The ecstasy of the ‘saint’ is rationalized as an encounter with the changeless. To ‘transcend’ the world of space and time may be informationally absurd; but as an explanation of victory over the fear of death it has emotional significance.

If then the unique character of the religious experience is the active identifying with what appears to be ‘permanent’, a proper understanding of Humanism requires the following observations.

  • The religious temperament and the pursuit of knowledge through empirical procedures are incompatible. Humanism is committed to the techniques of modern science; and all proper statements within the framework are tentative, subject to the refutation of future evidence. Empiricism cannot tolerate eternal truths about man and the universe. The conditional character of all knowledge with an infinite capacity for adjustment is its special power and glory. Whenever the religious need and the pursuit of truth come together there is disaster. The Greeks prove that point magnificently: they could never end up being interested in what was tentative and conditional.
  • Humanism is a total philosophy of life, which does not allow the religious temperament to invade every area of its discipline. However, there is one aspect of living where religion is indispensable. If man has a need to transcend his temporariness and identify with something or someone more permanent than the individual ‘I’, this need cannot be ignored. Within the framework of humanism, two ways of satisfaction exist. By asserting that every man is composed of the same matter – energy – that all other events in the universe derive from, humanistic teaching affirms that each of us shares an intimate bond, a basic identity, with any conceivable happening in the universe. Stars and flowers are material brothers to our nature. And by proclaiming that before and beyond the individuality of any person, each of us shares an essential oneness with all men, humanism proclaims that all of us individually share in the immortality of mankind as a whole. In fact, the very basis of ethical behavior lies in this religious experience. If every person can only feel himself as an individual, the social character of morality is impossible. Ethical behavior is only feasible when men sense that the essential nature that binds them together is more significant than the individual differences that separate them.
  • Humanism is more than a religion. There are certain areas of its discipline which provides the religious experience. But there are many involvements where the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. In opposition to the temper of much traditional philosophy with the mood of ‘ there are certain areas of its discipline which provides the religious experience. But there are many involvement where the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. In opposition to the temper of much traditional philosophy with the mood of ‘eternity’ pervades, humanism affirms the value of conditional knowledge and change. Therefore, the humanist never guards the description ‘less religious’ as a threat. He rather views it as a compliment. He is aware of the fact that the balanced life requires much more. While he resists the invasion of all lies by the religious temperament, he, at the same time, affirms the value of the religious experience in the simple rehearsal of nature’s seasons and in the image of in mortality in mankind’s survival.

Humanism and Reform

Humanistic Judaism, Summer/Autumn 1977

This issue is about Congregation Beth Or. Congregation Beth Or was a reform congregation. It is now a humanistic one.

Beth Or is humanistic-because of the special power and integrity of its rabbi, Daniel Friedman-And also because of the unique courage and hutspa of its own members.

Beth or is also humanistic because reform Judaism is less than it should be.

The Jewish Reformers of the 19th century prided themselves on being the avant-garde of religious innovation-the rescuers of Jewish identity for the age of science. They saw themselves as bold and radical-eager to remodel the structure of Jewish authority.

The Jewish performers of the late 20th century are tired and cautious. They pride themselves on their return to tradition. Preferring nostalgia to creativity, they have become the promoters of Halachic antiquities. Fearful of Orthodox and Conservative disapproval, they label every surrender to old authority as a concession to the unity of the Jewish people. All the hutspa is gone. All the radical passion is absent. Pleading for the approval of the past, they have no energies to deal with the future.

What happened?

Not really very much.

In the very beginning the radical image of Reform was more glitter than substance. Using a Protestant model, the early reformers tried to demonstrate that Orthodox Judaism had betrayed the real Jewish past. Reform Judaism was not new at all. It was simply the revival of the original teachings of the great Jewish prophets.

From the very beginning Reform presented itself is ultimately traditional.

And that was silly.

Reform Jewish behavior, as any mildly retarded observer wouldn’t have noticed, had nothing at all to do with the tradition. Not only would the Talmudic rabbi have found it offensive, the Biblical prophets would have preferred Astarte worship to Abraham Geiger.

The early reformers were forced to distort the story of the Jewish past in order to kosherize the Jewish present. It never occurred to them that kosherizing was unnecessary. Admitting innovation has greater dignity than depriving heroic figures of the past their real thoughts and feelings.

If the Talmud was essentially irrelevant to the western urban lifestyle, then the Torah was even worse. Protestant Biblical piety is a joke amongst people who want to be winners in a secular world.

In the end, Reform- and most of all classical Reform chose the Bible is the ultimate sacred Jewish symbol. The religious energies could no longer be directed to real creativity. It had to be wasted proving the unprovable- demonstrating that the sprit of the Torah was essentially the same as the spirit of humanistic science.

Reform Judaism left courage. And the desperate effort of social climbing, the classical reform tried to please the protestant establishment. And that guilty response to this desperate effort, the new were firm tries to please additional geez.

The net result is humiliation and fiasco. Because, quite frankly, nobody can do Protestantism better than Protestants. And nobody can do traditional Judaism better than traditional Jews.

In both cases, Reform started out as the victim of other people’s initiative – a second-rate imitation of what the imitators could do better. Behind the radical mouth lay the obsequious need to please. Reform sought out its own oppressors.

When the Protestant bourgeoisie lost their clout, Conservative Judaism moved in to terrorize. Once the enormous social snobbery of German Jews was overwhelmed by Russian Jewish success, the social barriers that made reform seem boldly anti-traditional broke down. Reform Judaism was then able to show its true colors.

It is not the way many latter relics of the old classical Reform have maintained, that the old Reform was truly radical before it was destroyed by the new Reform. The need to apologize is intrinsic to both varieties.

The greatest ‘crime’ of both old and new Reformers is that, in the name of serving tradition, they distort it. Unable to stand up courageously to the hostility of their ancestors, they preferred to do cheap psychotherapy. The search for ‘roots’ became the search for approval.

Humanistic Judaism is an attempt to do what Reform Judaism should have done. Its main concern is not with the past. It looks to the future. Whether the past loves us or hates us is irrelevant to our long-run welfare is. Whether the future consequences of our present behavior love or hate us does make a difference.

We ought to understand our past without needing it. To feel that insight is true liberation.

The Rabbi Writes – The Return to Tradition

Volume 13, No.6, February 1976

Are Jews returning to tradition?

Is orthodoxy on the upswing?

Is humanism passe?

Some say yes. They cite the following evidence.

The Lubavitcher Hasidim are popular, militant and growing in number. The public display of the yarmulka is increasing. Reform Temples have embraced Hebrew, Barmitsvas and prayer shawls. Parochial schools are getting bigger and bigger. Rabbinic students at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary are doing more and more ritual.

Denunciations of intermarriage are getting louder and louder. More and more Jews are wearing mezuzas around their necks. More and more Jewish students have signed up for courses about Jewish tradition at secular universities throughout America.

Etc. etc….

What does it all mean? Have secularized Jews seen the theological light? Has the recession exposed the futility of material pursuits and revived an interest in old-time spiritual values? Have young Jews discovered that the new American life style is vacuous and now yearn for the meaningful discipline of the old halakha?

Before we answer the questions, a few facts are appropriate.

1 There is no evidence that the behavior of Jews outside the synagogue has changed. Pre-marital sex, frequent divorce, intermarriage and female equality are on the increase. The pursuit of leisure, pleasure and individual happiness is absorbing not only the young but also the middle- aged and the old. The life styles of most contemporary Jews, even those who profess a love of tradition, is in total opposition to the decrees of both the Bible and the Talmud. A nude bathing pre-medical student who lives with her boyfriend in Ann Arbor, who refuses to eat pork as an affirmation of her Jewish identity is hardly a return to a tradition. Even without pork she would give Hillel a heart attack.

2. Orthodox Judaism has become Americanized. At one time the leadership of traditional Jewry was foreign and Yiddish speaking. It was unable to compete with the assimilated graces of Reform rabbis. It lacked the skills for successful social exposure. This past reality is not the present one. What we are now experiencing is the new-found articulation of people who could never before claim the public forum. Orthodox Jews today are as well-educated and as Americanized as their liberal opposition. Their new-found aggressiveness is a sign of their new security in the American environment. It is not a sign that they are holding or recruiting large numbers of American Jews to traditional life. Christian fundamentalism is more vocal and more conspicuous in urban America – not because thousands of new recruits are flocking to its standards but because the lower- class Appalachian refugee has now come into his own power and affluence in Northern cities.

3. Jewish ethnicity has lost its major expression in America. The Yiddish language is, for all practical purposes, dead. A non-observant Yiddish speaking atheist had no trouble identifying himself as a Jew or being identified as a Jew. But secularized Jews who have lost their linguistic uniqueness are now struggling to find other unique forms of Jewish behavior. In the absence of secular Jewish creativity, they are forced to turn to the one remaining behavior pattern which is uniquely Jewish – traditional religious ritual. Since they have no serious intent to adopt a traditional life style, and since they are totally divorced from the cultural context in which these rituals had meaning, they dabble in Jewish exotica. Mezuzas which are intended for doorposts are hung around necks. Avoiding pork becomes a dramatic gesture in seafood tasty Chinese restaurants. The kiddush becomes the family introduction to the busiest day of the week. Nostalgia in bad taste is hardly a return to tradition. It is simply a sign of secular laziness.

Is there a return to orthodoxy?

Not really.

In an age of life-style transition Jews who want to be Jewish are looking for unique ways to identify themselves to others.

Nostalgia most likely won’t work for long.

The only solution is to create new Jewish rituals that really fit our new life-style.

After all, celebrating Einstein’s birthday may have a lot more contemporary meaning than crying over the tallis you never use.

The Rabbi Writes – Dignity and Self-Esteem

Volume 20, No. 2, September 1982

The Jewish New Year is it time for reflection on what we want out of life.

Present hard times make us aware of our need to choose among alternatives, since we cannot have everything we want. Economic restrictions often force us to consider all the other limitations on the satisfaction of our desires. They also enable us to focus on those areas of our lives where we still enjoy freedom and power.

What are the goals which a good humanist strives to achieve?

There are three general values which reflect our basic human needs. The first is security, a desire for safety and freedom from want and danger. The second is pleasure, the positive pursuit of sensual gratification. The third is dignity and self-esteem, the experience of inner mastery and control.

These three values are not always mutually compatible. If security is uppermost in our mind we may forego both pleasure and dignity. If pleasure is primary, we may sacrifice safety and self-esteem. and if dignity is first, we may risk our lives and endure pain.

Human philosophers, on the whole, preferred dignity as their first value. Much of modern existentialism is an explanation of this choice.

What is dignity?

Self-esteem is both an inner and an outer experience. As an inner experience, it is a sense of being in charge of one’s own life. As an outer behavior, it is the refusal to allow other people to treat ‘me’ as a child, A servant, or a defective. Or, to put it more positively, ‘I’ discover that others regard ‘me’ as perfectly capable of making my own choices and allow me to do so.

A person who has dignity is willing to do the following things.

He is willing to assume responsibility for all his actions, Even when he feels victimized or abused. He refuses all excuses.

He avoids complaining about situations that cannot be changed. People who engage in useless complaining or seeking appeasement rather than self-esteem. They want to arouse pity and to avert anger. Since we learn appeasement as children, it is more familiar to us than dignity.

He is willing to take risks. Self-esteem is incompatible with total security. Meeting new friends, training for new jobs, investing in new businesses – all of these ventures reinforce dignity. Insisting on guarantees of success is in bad taste, a sign of paralyzing fear. Adventure and mastery go together.

He is generous. Stingy people are obsessed with their weakness and vulnerability. They imagine that every gift diminishes them. Self-esteeming people feel stronger because they’re able to share. They feel more powerful because they’re able to give, without asking for something in return.

He enjoys privacy. He sees himself as a distinct individual with his own space. While he needs other people, he does not need them all the time. He is willing to confront uninvited intruders.

He is concerned about the consequences of his actions. He does not dump his ‘garbage’ and expect other people to pick it up.

He makes a distinction between pleasure and happiness. He knows that, even when there is long-run pain, A striving for independence is more satisfying than momentary gratification.

He chooses to be hopeful. Pessimism is the privilege of servants. Leaders – especially masters of their own lives – need to mobilize their energies. They recognize that optimism is a style, not a view of the future.

It’s not run away from reality. If death is real, he will except it and defy it. The quality of life will always be more important than its quantity.

In hard times, it may be difficult to guarantee security or to find pleasure. But it is always possible to strive for dignity and self-esteem.

Humanism Variety

Humanistic Judaism, Fall, Winter 1974-75

An enthusiastic modernist asked me recently if I thought that the advance of science and empirical procedures would usher in the possibility of a world religion. If, with the exposure of the masses to secular education, acceptance of humanist message becomes fairly universal, then the basis of a genuine unity exists. While traditional religions with their closed methodologies of faith created exclusive cultural enclaves, the new humanism, characterized by an anti-dogmatic and responsible openness, would enable men of radically different backgrounds to hurtle their home barriers and merge into the religion of mankind.

The heady optimism that characterizes this question was not unique to my questioner. Over a century ago the naive exponents of free-thinking imagine that the use of reason, once widely spread, would prove the key to a universal ideology in which all men would participate. However, they cannot be too severely condemned, for, after all, naïveté was the mood of the era. Even a contemporary Rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise, was proclaiming, in all seriousness, that by the beginning of the 20th century Reform Judaism and a purified Hebrew monotheism would have won the world.

The problem is that the question I received contained a hidden promise. The asker assumes that scientific humanism is one religion. He assumed that, if all men embrace the empirical approach, all meaningful controversy would be ultimately resolvable. While men may disagree about conclusions when evidence is meager, the responsibility to public experience will enable men to agree when evidence becomes overwhelming. (After Magellan’s crew sailed around the planet, it was pretty impossible to maintain that the earth was flat.) Thus, disagreement is theoretically only temporary. Time and patience will heal all arguments and reduce men to increasing unanimity of opinion. Controversy will never cease, but each disagreement is conceivably “settleable” by a set of imagined experiences. The logical possibility of a single conclusion makes unity possible.

If religion were concerned with information about man in the universe alone, then one would have to assert that empiricism provides the basis for a universal religion. But, of course, it’s primary concern transcends information and reaches out to evaluation. Religion has historically, although not uniquely, been concerned with the question of meaning in life; and meaning, or purpose, is a function of ultimate values and final goals. The discovery of an achievement of those value and has been a persistent driving traditional religion and secular philosophy.

Now, certainly, most of our values can be empirically determined. Because the vast majority of our ethical judgment or involved with means and not ends, they are extrinsic. An activity that had extrinsic value is never good in itself; it is good for achieving some other action or experience that is “self-validating:” that needs no justification beyond itself. Science can conceivably answer all questions of extrinsic value. If the empiricist knows the goal, and if he has available the relevant data, he can determine what procedures are necessary to achieve the goal. But he could not demonstrate that any end is worth pursuing, simply for its own sake. While he may lead his student to experiences he personally finds intrinsically meaningful, and teach him how to achieve them, he cannot prove their value from his own perception of the student himself.

Intrinsic or ultimate value is not a proper subject for scientific demonstration. Science may do a statistical survey on what ultimate values people do have. They cannot, however, make a list of ultimate values people ought to have. Science may open up a host of new activities which individuals may find meaningful and self-justifying; it cannot, however, demonstrate their meaningfulness. Final values are the result of personal intuition. To talk about them is to talk about a personal situation, not a universal one. Each individual, through his own experience, finds those actions and passions he wishes to repeat.

It is, therefore, obvious that all humanists, no matter how united on a method for the discovery of informational truth, will not find the same “meaning” in life. Unless we assume against the personal testimony we daily encounter, that all men share the same ultimate values, you will have to conclude that among humanists a variety of different “religions” may exist, each religion a function of a unique set of values.

Of course, it is possible for two people to share the same ideas about the intrinsic merits of certain experience and still not share the same religion. The difference lies in the ordering. Even if both individuals find ultimate meaning in the act of compassion and in the act of intellectual discovery, one person may regard compassion as the more significant while the other may view intellectual discovery as qualitatively superior. There are degrees of intrinsic value; and the discernment of degrees is again both personal and intuitive. One humanist, on the basis of his value order, may prefer to devote the major part of his life to the cause of social justice, and only a small part to academic pursuits, while another may prefer the thrill of pure your research and indulge asocial crusade now and then. Neither humanist is expressing the humanistic value order. Each of them simply reflects a different temperament.

Even if all men become humanists (which is highly unlikely) organized religion would still reflect these differences of “temperament”. Even if all humanists came to endorse the same side of ultimate values, the religious expression would still have to deal with the fact that the same values may be ordered differently. Some congregations would be primarily devoted to you in the mystic experience; others to the thrill of understanding the operation of the universe. Some would prefer to build their program around the kinesthetic pleasure of song and dance; others to emphasizing help for the underprivileged. Available religious society would be committed to do more than the empirical method; it would be billed on a sense of shared meaning, a set of final values that call into a certain order of emphasis. The personality of a congregation like that of an individual is determined by its value structure; and this structure provides a basis for organized activity.

Value imperialism of the disease that good humanists resist. To assume that the welfare of mankind requires a single set of moral ends which the young must be educated to accept is to cultivate self-righteousness and to frustrate the creation of a workable society. It might be eco-satisfying to know that “my” values are the values; but it breeds the danger that “I” will treat contemptuously alternative moral choices. To assume, as many modern Christian humanists do, that all men ought to accept a radical and suffering love as their primary ethic is to project the personal side of ultimates onto the universal scene and violate the obvious uniqueness of individual taste and temperament. Love as a secondary motif might give life a different meaning from love is a primary motive (and, therefore, provide a different religion); it but it is consistent with an empirical outlook.

Thus, world united by its commitment to the scientific method and its rejection of intuition as a valid means to information truth will still spawn and sustain a variety of religions, each religion a derivative of how individuals and groups perceive the character and order of their values.

In fact, the variety may be further increased by another factor, the factor of aesthetics. Two humanists may share the same life goals and therefore share the same religion and yet choose to symbolize and dramatize their commitment to different poetries. The consistent Christian humanist may fully acknowledge that the validity of the values Jesus proclaimed are independent of the fact that he proclaimed them and may further admit that many other historic figures preached pretty much the same message, and still choose to use the figure of Jesus as the personal symbol of his ethical commitment. Alternative symbols are possible, but none is as compelling for him.

The Jewish humanist will readily admit that his value system does not depend on prophetic or Talmudic endorsement for its validity, and yet he will choose to use certain events in Jewish history as dramatizing of these commitments. Alternative poetry is certainly available, but for him no other possibility has the same emotional impact. He certainly has no objection to using items in other poetic traditions. It’s just that, since he desired to devote only a limited amount of time to symbolism in ceremony, he would prefer to use one set of related symbols well, rather than a variety of culturally unrelated symbols superficially.

One can conceive of a host of different poetic styles to express a given side of religious values. On a theoretical value, that difference in aesthetics would not make a difference in religion; but, on the practical, or organized level, it would provide an emotional basis for separate development. Aesthetic modes are not easily merged, because they are so tied up with the pleasures of what is visible and audible. Moreover, certain options may possess a kind of intrinsic value for those to use them.

This observation confirms the “problem” our optimistic questioner faces. While the world of the future may, therefore, see the continuing advance of science and empirical thinking; and while it may witness a general disintegration of the theoretically oriented religious denominations, the emergence of one system of value meaning is highly unlikely. In fact, technological this already, with its opportunities for leisure and study will hide in the sense of individuality and provide within the framework of a comment with method, a wide variety of ethical and aesthetic alternatives.

Wine’s Rabbinic Thesis (1956)

TRADITIONS CONCERNING THE EARLY RELATIONSHIP OF JAHWEH AND ISRAEL IN DATEABLE PROPHETIC WRITINGS

 

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Hebrew Letters Degree and Ordination. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cinctnnati, Ohio. February, 1956

Referee: Dr. Sheldon H. Blank

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SUMMARY

The purpose of the following investigation is to discover those traditions concerning the relationship of Jahweh and Israel in the days preceding the initial Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan, which are reflected in the writings of the prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Deutero-lsaiah.

There are three aspects to the early relationship of Jahweh and Israel under which these traditions are arranged: (1) divine election; (2) divine providence; and (3) divine legislation. To each of these aspects a chapter was devoted.

In the first chapter concerning divine election the following three questions are answered, wherever possible: (1) Did each of the prophets under consideration believe that at some time in the past Jahweh adopted Israel as his people, as the special object of his providence? (2) If so, did he believe that Israel, in turn, had adopted Jahweh as its God, as the exclusive object of its devotion and obedience? (3) If he acknowledged the divine election of Israel, at what time and place did he believe that event to have occurred?

In the second chapter concerning divine providence the following two questions are answered, wherever possible: (1) What pledges or promises did each of the prophets under consideration believe that Jahweh made during the period of Israel’s early history, to provide and care for the nation? (2) What providential acts did he believe that Jahweh performed in fulfillment of these promises?

In the third chapter concerning divine legislation, the following two questions are answered, wherever possible: (1) What demands, if any, did each of the prophets under consideration believe that Jahweh made upon the people of Israel in pre-Conquest days? (2) When and where did he believe that such demands, if any, had been delivered?

In all three chapters, not only the traditions which each of the prophets accepted, but also those traditions possessed by his contemporaries, which he may have rejected, are noted.

In the final conclusion, all of the relevant traditions or beliefs discovered are arranged chronologically in order to indicate the temporal terminus ad quem for the emergence of each of them.

 

INTRODUCTION

The history of the relationship of Jahweh to the children of Israel in the days prior to the final conquest of the land of Canaan is described in detail in the various narratives of the Hexateuch, These accounts, whether J,E,D, or P, are characterized by both a prose style and a chronologically ordered presentation. Although they are not always mutually consistent, since many of the historical assertions of each narrative contradict, either explicitly or implicitly, those or another, they concern themselves, generally, with the same major personalities and events. Unfortunately, however, their respective authors are presently anonymous, with the consequence that the date and setting of their composition are often difficult to ascertain.

Another source of historical opinion concerning God’s early relationship with Israel is the statements of the literary prophets, whether oracular or otherwise, which are recorded in the four books of the Latter Prophets. Although these prophetic writings are neither historical narratives nor generally prosaic, they do contain references, however rare and haphazardly dispersed, to the association of certain personalities, events, and laws with the pre-Conquest encounters of Jahweh with Israel. Moreover, these scattered references, unlike the Hexateuchal accounts, are usually not anonymous. Since most of their authors are both known by name and dateable, the time and setting of their utterances can be approximately determined, with the happy result that certain historical opinions can be associated with certain specific periods of time in Israel’s history. Thus, where the evidence permits, a development of historical opinions and beliefs can be noted.

In view of this advantage, we, therefore, propose to study in the succeeding chapters the beliefs and opinions concerning the early relationship of Jahweh to Israel which are reflected in the writings of those literary prophets who are clearly dateable and whose extant oracles are sufficiently ample to provide fruitful investigation. The prophets whose statements will be considered are the following (n the order of their appearance in history): Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Deutero-Isaiah.1 Any assertion made by these individuals which is recorded in the books of the Latter Prophets and which concerns the relationship of God to Israel in the period of historical time covered by the Hexateuchal narratives, will be regarded as relevant to our study.

The purpose of or investigation is twofold. First, it is our intention to ascertain, to the degree that the evidence allows, the beliefs concerning Jahweh’s early association with Israel to whose contemporary existence each of the prophets under consideration alluded, either by acceptance or rejection. And second, it is our intention to contrast these beliefs of each prophet with the relevant allusions of the other five prophets under study in order to discover similarities and differences. The discovery of these similarities and differences may enable us to trace the development of certain historical traditions concerning God and Israel, which occurred during the eighth, seventh and sixth centuries.

Our procedure in the following Investigation will be to study the appropriate historical references of our six prophets under three categories. These categories are suggested by the three major functions ascribed to Jahweh in his relationship to Israel by all the Hexateuchal writers. They may be designated as divine election, divine providence, and divine law-giving. One chapter will be devoted to each of these aspects of Jahweh’s relationship to Israel in the period preceding the final Conquest of Canaan. Moreover, each chapter will contain an Introduction of appropriate Hexateuchal illustrations in order that we may more readily notice relevant statements in the prophetic writings under Investigation.

 

CONCLUSION

In concluding our investigation, we shall attempt to provide a comprehensive view of all the development in the traditions concerning the early relationship of Jawheh and Israel, which have been indicated in the conclusions of the three preceding chapters.

The following the traditions arose no later than the middle of the eighth century.

  • The tradition that at some time before the Conquest Jahweh chose Israel to be his people, and Israel in turn chose Jawheh to be its God.
  • The tradition that God had brought Israel out of the land of Egypt.
  • The tradition that Jahweh first established intimate relations with Israel at the time of the Exodus from Egypt.
  • The tradition that Jahweh had provided for Israel during a pre-Conquest wilderness sojourn.
  • The tradition that sacrificial worship in the form of animal and cereal offerings had been ordained by Jahweh in pre-Conquest days.

The following tradition possibly arose no later than the middle of the eighth century.

  • The tradition that certain official holy days, including, perhaps, the pilgrim festivals, the Sabbath, and the new moons, had been ordained by Jahweh in pre-Conquest days.

The following possibly arose at some time between the end of the eighth and the end of the seventh centuries.

  • The tradition that the Exodus from Egypt had been a redemption from bondage.

The following tradition possibly arose at some time between the end of the eighth and the beginning or middle of the sixth centuries.

  • The tradition that Jahweh had first established intimate relations with Israel, not at the time of the Exodus, but at the time of Abraham.
  • The tradition that Jahweh had promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and Jacob.

The following traditions arose no later than the beginning of the sixth century.

  • The tradition that Jahweh had promulgated at the time of the Exodus covenant a specific legal code, containing, at the least, a provision for the manumission of both male and female Hebrew slaves after six years of bondage, and, perhaps including, prohibitions against the worship of other gods, adultery, murder, stealing, false swearing, and the return of a twice divorced woman to her first husband.
  • The tradition that Jahweh had promulgated in the wilderness at the time of the Exodus a specific legal code of statutes and ordinances perhaps written, which included as one of its most important provisions the ordaining of the Sabbath, and which, perhaps contained laws banning incest and the oppression of the underprivileged.

The following tradition possibly arose between the beginning and the end Exilic period.

  • The tradition that Jahweh, at the time of Abraham, had commissioned, perhaps only implicitly, the Patriarch and his descendants-to-be for a mission of salvation to all the peoples of the world.

The following tradition arose no later than the late Exilic period.

  • The tradition that Jahweh had performed in the wilderness such “miracles” as dividing the waters of the Red Sea and cleaving a rock to bring forth water.

It is our sincere hope that some of the conclusions which we have listed may be employed to advantage in the dating of anonymous passages in Scripture.

 

EVALUATION

Cincinnati. March 7, 1956
Report on Thesis by Sherwin T. Wine entitled “Traditions Concerning the Early Relationship of Jahweh and Israel in Dateable Prophetic Writings”

In a lucid “Introduction” the author further defines the terms which he employs in the title, “Early” means the period covered by the Hexateuch, i.e., until the final conquest of Canaan. The “traditions concerning the … relationship of Jahweh and Israel” are the traditions which might be designated “divine election, divine providence, and divine lawgiving.” “Dateable prophetic writings” include “the writings of those literary prophets who are clearly dateable and whose extant oracles are sufficiently ample to provide fruitful investigation,” specifically the writings of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Deutero-Isaiah. Excluded are the anonymous and therefore mostly undateable verses and chapters within the writings of these five prophets. (The author usually adopts the referee’s opinion as to the extent of the anonymous material.) He includes Deutero-Isaiah because, although anonymous, the author of Isaiah 40 to 55 appears to be a single dateable personality.

The author lists and examines, within these limits, the allusions, direct or indirect, to the traditions concerning the relationship of Jahweh and Israel the traditions concerning promises to the Patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, the law-giving at Sinai, Jahweh’s care for Israel in the wilderness, his giving of the land – whatever relevant Hexateuchal traditions the dateable prophets know or seem to know. With meticulous logic the author carefully distinguishes between explicit and implicit allusions to the traditions and admits no references to the list without sufficient evidence.

In his final chapter he lists his findings as to the earliest appearance in this prophetic literature of the various themes and the form in which they first appear. According to his findings, if the argument from silence is admissible, some of these themes are not older than the seventh or sixth centuries, despite their common occurrence in the undated documents which make up the Hexateuch.

The interpretation of the Exodus from Egypt as a redemption from, bondage may not be older than the seventh century, and the tradition that Jahweh first established intimate relations with Israel at the time of Abraham could be as late as the sixth century as against an eighth century tradition that this occurred first at the time of the Exodus, to cite only two of a number of examples. The author hopes that his conclusions “may be employed to advantage in the dating of anonymous passages in Scripture.”

This compact (98 page) study is excellently done. It is very well organized, thought through, and it is presented with admirable clarity. No word is wasted. Its single defect is its almost total disregard of current literature on the subject. But better an original study of the sources, even exclusively, than too much reliance upon secondary literature. Nevertheless, before he publishes the thesis, and the thesis is worthy of publication, the author should take cognizance of the current literature.

I heartily recommend the acceptance of this thesis.

Sheldon H. Blank, Referee

The Humanistic Alternative

Rabbi Sherwin Wine concludes Colloquium 1999 – “Beyond Tradition: The Search for a New Jewish Identity” with a brilliant address on the need for a Humanistic alternative in Jewish life that can build on the strengths of previous attempts to create a sustainable non-traditional Jewish identity. For more on this Colloquium, including links to publications of selected proceedings, visit https://www.iishj.org/colloquium-99.html.

Who is a Jew?

“Who is a Jew?” The Jewish Humanist, August 1988

The “Who Is A Jew” question is a critical issue in Jewish life today. Orthodox authorities in Israel and in the Diaspora are seeking to achieve the power to force all Jews to accept their definition of Jewish identity. Reform and Conservative leaders, eager to appease the Orthodox, are not anxious to recognize a purely secular definition of the Jew. And secular Jews, especially young ones, are now beginning to succumb to the new assaultive fundamentalist propaganda that theistic religion is the only way in which Jewish identity can be maintained and preserved. “No davening [praying], no Jews,” it says.

Growing intermarriage among Diaspora Jews also makes this question critical. The Jewish status of countless thousands of sons and daughters of Jewish fathers is now in question. If they love the Jewish people, but do not want a religious conversion because they are not religious, they will be excluded. Plus, there is the humiliation of Jews, who know themselves to be Jews, having to undergo a ritual test they do not believe in in order to become what they already are.

All these people need our help. If the orthodox and conservative authorities have their way, the Jewish people will continue to shrink into a hard core of religious fanatics. A bold generous counter-statement is necessary to prevent this tragedy.

The Jewish world is confused on this issue.

Religious authorities have for so long been in charge of Jewish life that even many non-religious Jews think that they have the right to determine the criteria of Jewish identity. An inappropriate nostalgia prevents them from dealing with this question with integrity.

In Western Europe and North America, the prevailing definition of the Jews as a member of a religious denomination and nothing more makes it difficult for many Western Jews to understand how one can be Jewish and not be a “believer.” Even secular Jews pretend to be religious in order to conform to the social expectation of what it means to be Jewish. The history of this definition—the fearful attempt of emancipated Jews to deny their national identity lest they be accused of dual loyalty—is largely forgotten. And we are all victims of this cowardly compromise.

Zionism has also provided some mischief. While, to its credit, it has emphasized the national and ethnic character of the Jewish people, it has tended to stress the incompleteness of Jewish identity outside of life in the state of Israel. Diaspora Jews, if they are not religious, end up being shadow figures of ethnicity.

Liberalism has also provided its trouble. Given the history of racial and religious prejudice, most liberals hate all forms of involuntary identity. As a result, they want Jewish identity to be a purely voluntary act. If you want to be Jewish, you are. If you do not want to be Jewish, you are not. However, commonsense indicates that there are many, many Jews who despise being Jewish who indeed are. Excluding them from Jewish identity does not do justice to who they are. Ethnic identity is generally an involuntary identity. Pretending for the sake of some illusory self-mastery that Jewish identity can be discarded when it is inherited is foolish. Neither conscience nor residual antisemitism will allow it.

Our resentment of our historic enemies also poses a problem. On the whole, liberal Jews will allow deviations from the traditional theistic norms provided that the deviant does not join the “enemy.” Atheists and practitioners of transcendental meditation can stay in the fold, But Jews who become Christians or Muslims cannot. Now this distinction is irrational; if Jewish identity is a religious identity it does not make sense. When the Supreme Court of Israel excluded Brother Daniel, a Catholic monk from Jewish identity, they even went beyond Orthodox rejection. His parents were Jewish. He had suffered persecution during the Holocaust period. He had left Poland to live in Israel because he identified with Jewish nationality. He simply saw himself as a national Jew with a different “religion.” But he foolishly expected consistency from liberals and secularists who viewed him as a traitor.

Internal racism is another source of difficulty. Jewish social practice belies official propaganda. While many Jews publicly applaud the religious definition of the Jew, they privately make insidious distinctions between born Jews and Jews by choice. They regard the former as being more authentically Jewish. A thoroughly assimilated Montana rancher with a Jewish mother is “more Jewish” than the Dutch humanist immigrant to Israel who identifies with the Jewish people, masters Hebrew and immerses herself in Jewish culture, Even if she hypocritically chose a religious conversion—which many Gentile kibbutzniks do—it would make no difference. Conservative Jews have responded timidly to the issue and to this confusion. They accept the right of rabbis to determine Jewish identity. They simply want Conservative rabbis to have the right to be considered kosher authorities.

Reform—especially American Reform—has responded more boldly. In recent years [1983] they have championed the cause of paternal descent. They want children of Jewish fathers to be given equal status to the children of Jewish mothers. But they still adhere to the supremacy of religious arbiters. In the end, non-Jews who want to broaden the list of kosher authorities to include Reform rabbis.

At the other extreme we have the proposal of certain secularists like Haim Cohen, the former chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, who want to make Jewish identity purely voluntary, an act of personal will and decision. Jews who do not want to be Jews are not Jews. And individuals who want to be Jews, who regard all other Jews as illegitimate—like the Black Hebrews—are also Jews. Neither history, culture nor social context are relevant.

It seems to be that an appropriate answer to the question “Who Is A Jew?” must fulfill the following criteria.

It must recognize that for most Jews, Jewish identity is involuntary. We are born into the Jewish people. We do not choose to be Jews. We discover that we are Jews. Hopefully we will enjoy what we are. But there is no guarantee. Choosing to be Anglo-Saxon or Chinese is not an option.

It must include people with two Jewish parents or with only one. A father is just as good as a mother. After all, he most likely gives you your last name.

It must make no ideological criterion for Jewishness. There are Jewish theists and Jewish atheists. There are Jewish communists and Jewish fascists. There are rabbinic Jews and Christian Jews. There are Jews we are proud of and Jews we are ashamed of. If we are a normal ethnic group we cannot pretend to be what we are not.

It must provide for some identification with the historic Jewish people. “Bizarre” people who deny that Jews who are normally regarded as Jews are really Jewish and who affirm that they alone are Jewish—like certain Black religious sects in America—cannot be taken seriously. There has to be some identification with the history and fate of the acknowledged Jewish people.

It must allow all men and women of goodwill to join the Jewish people, whether they be religious or secular, theistic or humanistic. No formal ceremony or certificate is required. The informal acceptance of the Jewish community which the individual wants to join—whether it be the synagogue or the kibbutz—is sufficient.

Jewish Identity in the Contemporary World

“Jewish Identity in the Contemporary World” Humanistic Judaism journal, Spring 1987

What I’d like to do first is to test your limits with regard to what is a meaningful Jewish identity.

You are the son of a survivor. You have no religious inclinations of any kind; in fact, the Holocaust has turned you off completely. When people ask you about your Jewish identity, you tell them you don’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shavuot—that you don’t care about the holidays. However, you say your Jewish identity is very important to you because Jewish history for you is connected to your own philosophy of life. Your own philosophy of life is secular and humanistic. You believe you are in charge of your destiny. You believe that the message of Jewish history is precisely that.

You are an Israeli, and if there is one thing you hate, it’s religion. You were born in Poland. Religion was stuffed down your throat. You came to Israel. Now you love to go to the beach on Rosh Hashanah. If somebody asked you about your Jewish identity, you’d say, “I don’t have to worry about it. I speak Hebrew all day.”

You are an Anglo-Saxon atheist. You grew up in the Bronx. Most of the people in your neighborhood were Jews. You went to a predominantly Jewish high school. You come to a college where 50 percent of the students are Jewish and as time goes on you recognize that most of your life is spent with Jews. Then one day you decide that you’d like to be Jewish. You identify with the history and the fate of the Jewish people. Most of your friends are Jews. You start telling people you are Jewish.

You are an attorney. You have very little interest in formal religious activity, but you went to Israel in 1968 and you were turned on. Every year when the United Jewish Appeal comes around, you are involved. You feel very, very Jewish, but most of your Jewish activity is raising money for Israel.

You are a parent. You are a secular Jew, and the one thing you hate to do is to light candles. However, you’d like to do something for the Shabbat. You decide to choose some of your favorite Jewish poetry and, just before the meal begins, to read a poem or two to your family.

You are a graduate student. You become very much involved with Zen Buddhism. But you love your Jewish identity. You say to yourself: My philosophy of life is Zen, but my culture is Jewish. I’ll learn Yiddish, I’ll learn Hebrew—I’ll do Zen in Hebrew.

You are a yored, one of those people who leave Israel and come to live in Detroit to make money. People write you letters from back home, and you always write back that you are just here temporarily and you intend to go back. You have no religious inclinations whatsoever. You feel guilty about the fact that you have left the land of Israel, but when people ask you about your Jewish identity you say, “I fly to Israel twice a year. I have that connection. I live in a world where in thirteen hours I can get there.”

You are an attractive woman, and your parents have been waiting for a long time for you to marry a Jewish man. At the University of Michigan, you meet a man who is not Jewish but whom you love intensely. You are a secular Jew, he is a secular Anglo-Saxon, and you ask yourself: Can this marriage work? Your parents say it can’t, and they add, “If people like you do that, what is going to happen to the survival of the Jewish people?” You are torn between your own needs and the guilt that you feel. You say to yourself: I love my Jewish identity. I have a good strong cultural identity and that’s all I need. I can love somebody from another people. After all, I’m a humanist.

These are not idle stories. They are stories of people I have encountered. Maybe you have encountered some of them, too. They are people we bump into in North America, but I don’t think they’re confined to North America. I think these problems occur all over the Jewish world.

Today we have lots of people who claim to be Jewish in ways that are unacceptable to the tradition. I don’t mean whether the person is officially a Jew. According to Orthodox law, if you’re born of a Jewish mother and you run around doing Tibetan mantras, it’s all right; if you want to dress up as a Catholic priest, fine—your Jewish identity is secure.

I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the “good Jew.” What are the parameters of a meaningful Jewish identity? At one time that was easy to answer because the rabbis were in charge, and it simply meant reverence for ancestors and obedience to Halacha [Jewish law]. Now that’s gone.

In the past two centuries, three options emerged.

The first was Reform, which responded to the tremendous changes that Jews were undergoing in the nineteenth century. Reform responded to Jewish needs by defining Jewish identity as a religious identity. We were a religious denomination, and in that way Jews would be able to live acceptably in this modern, open world that had been created by the Enlightenment and the Age of Science. But Reform ideology has collapsed. For one thing, many Reformers, although they talked a lot about God, were basically closet humanists. Secondly, when racial anti-Semitism grew at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, the idea of a purely religious Jewish identity collapsed. Today the Reform movement certainly is strong, but its ideology is pasted together. The heart of the old ideology is gone.

Then there was Yiddish nationalism. What a powerful movement that was, based on a living people in Eastern Europe. But then that was tested by the Holocaust.

And, last, there is Zionism. The most successful modern Jewish response to the issue of a meaningful Jewish identity, an alternative to tradition, has been the Zionist movement. Israel’s coming into existence, its perseverance and its centrality in Jewish life have certainly demonstrated that Zionism is a viable alternative. But Zionism also has been tested. One of the things that Zionism was to do was to get rid of the galut, the Diaspora, and to “normalize” the Jewish people. But the Diaspora embarrassingly remains and most likely will continue to remain—which makes the Jews still abnormal and Israel part of a world Jewish people.

Zionism was supposed to provide a place where Jews would have their own land, and that has presented a problem. If you live in Israel today, you are very much aware of the fact that of the five million people who live within the present boundaries of Israel, including the occupied territories, close to two million are Arabs. You can’t live in Israel without being aware of the fact that you’re living, like the English in Canada, in a binational state.

It’s very difficult to talk about contemporary Jewish identity for a variety of reasons. First of all, each of us has a vested interest. If you’re Zionists, you want to imagine that ultimately all Jews will choose to come to Israel or—and you hear this all the time—that the galut will fade away. If you’re socialist, you still dream that somehow or other those collectivist impulses of the masses will come back together.

One of the problems we have in dealing with the present is that we never have experienced anything like it before in Jewish history. We make decisions that may be morally appropriate, but our ancestors wouldn’t approve so we feel guilty. One of the reasons we have difficulty is that the primary question on any Jewish program, even secular programs, is: What is going to happen to the Jewish people? What can we do to ensure Jewish survival?

That question prevents us from dealing with the basic issue. The best method I know of for ensuring Jewish survival is the Lubavitcher method. If your primary value is Jewish survival, then integrity is not the issue. What you will do is join the group that will provide maximum survival. You don’t believe, true, but you will join the group and dress up like a Lubavitcher, behave like a Lubavitcher, say you believe all the things Lubavitchers are supposed to believe because your primary value is Jewish survival.

It’s very dangerous for humanists to go around saying that the preservation of the Jewish people is the first value of Jewish life. There have to be other values. But generally when people talk, survival is what comes up. That’s the anxiety.

People say, “What we need is more education,” or “What we need is more services,” or “What we need is more Yiddish culture.” But what we demand of people, if it’s going to be effective, has to be related to what they feel they need.

So if we’re going to be able to do something for Jewish identity today as Secular Humanistic Jews, then we have to be aware of the nature and needs of the Jew today. What are the changes that have transformed Jewish life? What are the implications of these changes? How ought we to deal with them?

Let me list the changes that have taken place over the past two centuries. There has been a belief revolution—the Age of Science—that has undermined the old faith-belief system.

There has been a history revolution. You can no longer read the Bible and take it literally. We’re not even sure that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were real people. We’re not even sure that most of the stories told about Moses are the real stories. We’re not even sure any more about the actual origins of the Jewish people.

There has been a secular revolution. Today most Jews do not go to Jewish institutions for their education. Even Jewish institutions in the Jewish state in many ways are replicas of what we call secular education. Today Jewish children do not spend most of their time worrying about Torah and Talmud. They’re dealing with physics, chemistry, and so on.

We’ve been changed by affluence. In a subsistence culture, the basic question is group survival. Today I find that most Jewish young people in North America are unconcerned with that—and I’m not sure it’s that different in Buenos Aires or even in Tel Aviv, and I know the kibbutzim are experiencing the problem. At one time you could say to someone, “What have you done lately for the group?” Now people ask, “What do I need for my happiness? Don’t tell me what the group needs. What is the group going to do for me?”

We’ve been transformed by technology. The contemporary Jew lives in a global village. It’s easier to go from Chicago to Tel Aviv than it was a century ago to go from Chicago to Milwaukee. You just dial and you get South Africa, Zanzibar, or Brazil; you can talk to somebody in a moment.

We’ve been transformed by urbanization. Even in Israel, most of the people live in Haifa, Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem. Most Jews live in centers of culture and power.

We’ve been transformed by intermarriage. In North America, close to 40 percent of Jews marry non-Jews. It is not true that most of those people seek to leave the Jewish people. They simply live in an open society, where they fall in love with people who are not members of their own group. They have children, many of whom have Jewish last names and live in a world in which their identity sometimes is held suspect by Jews who are very much into policing Jewish identity.

We’ve been transformed by utopianism. There are many people in this room who remember the ’20s, the ’30s, or the ’40s, when many people believed that a socialist revolution would change the world. We’ve lived through a lot of revolutions, Bolshevik and fascist, and now even some of the most ardent people on the left have discovered that maybe we have to reevaluate where that’s going. If you look at the temper of young people today, in North America at least, their political affiliations certainly don’t coincide with what they were back in the ’60s or back in the ’30s.

We’ve been transformed by anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, which destroyed one-third of our people.

The most dramatic event transforming Jewish life is what I call the Zionization of the Jewish people, the establishment of Israel, and the emergence of Israel as the focal point of Jewish life.

Last, we have what I call the Anglo-Saxonization of Jewish life. When you watch the behavior of young people in Tel Aviv, or even middle-aged people, you find that they are part of the consumer culture that was developed here in the United States. The consumer culture is exportable. It’s going everywhere in the world.

Today, after the Holocaust, the largest Jewish community in the world, more than six million, resides in North America, and the power and influence of that community, certainly with regard to Israel, is enormous.

What are the implications of all this? The contemporary Jew lives in unique circumstances. People will say, “We’ve had anti-Semitism before and we’ve had changes before,” But I don’t know of any other society where the rate of change has been what it is in our society. We are assaulted by so much change that we suffer from future shock. We’re living in the present and future all the time.

One of the reasons why it often is very difficult to use traditional texts, unless you simply lift a quotation out of context, is that all these marvelous people were answering anxieties that came out of a more agrarian culture. Some of our anxieties today are the same, but many are not.

One of the anxieties that I encounter all the time among people whom I counsel is the inability to handle all the things that are changing in their lives. Their careers change, their marriages break up, the neighborhood doesn’t work and they’re forced to move, their skills become obsolete.

The contemporary Jew generally knows what he does not believe, but he hasn’t yet figured out what he does believe. People haven’t figured out what they do believe because things change so fast.

The contemporary Jew has to try very hard to believe traditionally. The fundamentalists that I encounter are, in many respects, different from the pious people of the past. When you live in an environment in which it is very hard to believe what you’re supposed to believe, you develop a desperate posture. At one time the stories in the Bible were believable. People believed in that kind of a world. It was easy because everybody did. Now, if you want to believe in the miracles of the Bible, you have to make an effort. You have to apologize, defend, explain; and what it produces is this enormous militancy.

The contemporary Jew has higher expectations. When I was a child, people were accustomed to suffering. What else was there to life? You suffered. Now people want happiness and fulfillment, and when they come to the temple or synagogue, they want magnificent aesthetic experiences. I remember people sitting in shul [synagogue] and being bored for hour after hour after hour. I can’t imagine my father using the phrase “aesthetic experience.”

The contemporary Jew knows that survival is not enough. Secular Humanistic Judaism will never get off the ground if its only focus is on what we can do to insure Jewish survival because Jewish survival is not the primary agenda of most Jews today, not even in Israel. The primary agenda of most people has to do with their own personal needs, and unless you have something to say philosophically, poetically, or whatever, to their human condition—not just to their Jewish condition—how will you ever reach them?

The contemporary Jew lives with everybody, and this relates to Israel as well as the rest of the world. There was a time when Anglo-Saxons imagined that the United States could be an Anglo-Saxon country. But immigrants came—Polish, Italians, Jews, Russians, and the rest. Even Anglo-Saxons are now regarded in America as an ethnic group. The reality in Israel too is that Jews live with Arabs. They may not want to. They may feel like the whites in my neighborhood who don’t want to live with blacks just a few miles away. Go find a place in the world today where Jews will not have to relate in some way, either friendly or hostile, to others and to share space.

The contemporary Jew lives in a world culture. If I were a tourist in Japan a century ago, I would not have known how to relate to it. Nobody would have spoken English. I wouldn’t have understood the artifacts. What is happening in the world today is that there is a kind of universal culture created by modern science and technology.

The contemporary Jew has the freedom to make his own options. Even in dictatorships or juntas, as long as you don’t assault the authorities, they don’t care whether you observe Shabbat but not Sukkot, observe Sukkot but not Shabbat, eat pork but not shrimp, eat shrimp but not pork. What happens now in the world is that each Jew develops his own private Jewishness. I know somebody who will eat ham, but not with milk.

The contemporary Jew lives with chronic anti-Semitism. It is quite true that in the Soviet Union, were it not for chronic anti-Semitism, a lot of the people who are now proclaiming their Jewishness would not have done so. One of the major preservatives of Jewish identity—certainly in modern times—is the sense of guilt that people who are members of a vulnerable group feel. The removal of anti-Semitism won’t happen and for a very simple reason. We Jews by our lifestyle—this over-urbanized people of professional education—represent an adaptation to the modern world that other people do not have. Anti-Semitism in the twentieth century was never directed primarily toward the beliefs of the Jewish people: it was directed toward the image of the Jew, the city slicker, the person who was difficult to comprehend and who was envied and feared.

The contemporary Jew experiences Israel as the most dramatic event, the most dramatic aspect of Jewish identity today. The one thing that is the big turn-on for Jewish identity is the connection that people have to Israel. There may be people who have objections to some of its policies, but the reality is that over the years, some of the most militant anti-Zionist groups dramatically modified their positions. Because in the end, you’re not going to be able to look at Israel and say, “You’re insignificant.”

Last and most important of all: In order to understand what Jewish identity means, we have to understand that we are an international people. In this city of Detroit [in the 1920s], Henry Ford published and circulated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the most vicious anti-Semitic writings of the twentieth century. We were called “the international Jew.” We were called that also by Father Charles Coughlin, who at one time had aspirations to be President of the United States of America. The assault bears some truth. One of the reasons why people have difficulty digesting us is that indeed we are a nation that became an international nation. No matter what people do to normalize us, that’s what we remain. In the age of modern technology, when it’s easy to fly back and forth, and there is economic stress and people look for a place where there are suitable outlets for their career skills, Israelis and Diaspora Jews keep moving back and forth. It is highly unlikely, given the technology of 60 to 100 years from now, that national boundaries will be of enormous significance. They will be there, obviously, and nationalism will certainly be strong, but an international people may indeed be the wave of the future.

How do you cope with all these changes? One way is denial. This is something you hear frequently: “Do you know what is great about the Jewish people? The Jewish family.” In Oakland County, Jews have a 50 percent divorce rate. What are they talking about? Denial means unpleasant facts are forgotten, and what we have is a cliché that comes out of the past.

Then there is rejection: people who say, “I don’t like the modern world. I don’t like what’s happening.” We have fundamentalists in the Jewish world, as well as in the Muslim world and the Christian world.

The third way is guilt. Guilt is when you say “Maybe I can have it both ways. Maybe I can change and not change at the same time. What I’ll do is go to Yom Kippur services and fast, and then I’ll break the fast with shrimp and scallops.” The texts of the past may not necessarily say what I believe, and what I could do with integrity is to allow them to say what they say because the authors of those texts are entitled to their integrity, and I want to hear what they have to say. I don’t need them to “kosherize” me. But if I’m ambivalent and feel a little guilty, I say “I’ve changed, but if my ancestors were living here today, they’d say ‘Good boy, Sherwin.’”

The fourth way is called avoidance: “I want Jewishness for music, a little dance, a little song. That’s all. If I want a philosophy of life, I’ll go elsewhere.” The power of historic Judaism lay in the fact that it incorporated both a culture and a philosophy of life, Now for a lot of people it’s just cultural tidbits.

Let me conclude with what I consider to be the pattern of integrity. The pattern of integrity responds to the realities by taking them seriously, and, if we take them seriously, six propositions follow:

If we are going to be effective as Secular Humanistic Jews in the twenty-first century, the first thing we have to do is relate to the needs that people have as human beings, to their human condition, and not always talk only about a Jewish culture but also talk about a philosophy of life. I believe that unless we have a secular humanistic answer to the questions, “What do I do with my emotions?” and “What do I do with my life?”—unless we spend time on these questions within the framework of Secular Humanistic Jewish groups, we’re not going to hold anybody. You can’t build on cultural tidbits.

The way of integrity means that you tie the Jewish experience to that philosophy. I am a secular humanistic Jew not only because I was born of a Jewish family. I came to my secular humanism through my Jewish experience. I feel that Jewish history is not an expression of the presence of a loving and just God, but of the indifference of the universe to the human moral agenda; and if that’s the case, the meaning is that we human beings must assume responsibility for our fates. My Jewish experience is tied to my philosophy.

The third proposition is that we must innovate. The most successful Jewish enterprise in the twentieth century was not just the creation of Israel; it was the revival of modern Hebrew. What we Secular Humanistic Jews have to do is to invent alternative ways of doing all kinds of things. We’ve been doing it for a long time—Shabbat, Pesach, bar and bat mitzvah. It’s not simply a matter of rescuing the old; it’s a matter also of inventing the new. We may even invent new holidays.

The way of integrity means that we live with openness. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who wants to be Jewish can identify with the fate of the Jewish people—to that person, we should say, “Welcome.” Does an Anglo-Saxon atheist from the Bronx want to be Jewish? Terrific. Why not? Does somebody want to be Jewish simply by participating in social and political action? Fine. Let each person choose what is meaningful. Our message to people is, “We do not oppose your right to develop your agenda. If you want to put Jewish identity at the top, that’s fine. If you want to make it fourth and you feel you have other concerns in your life that are more important, we’re not going to assault you with a lecture.”

If we have integrity, we reject messianic utopianism. By the end of the twentieth century, we’ve had enough preachers of utopia. We need people who are neither too pessimistic or excessively optimistic, but people who are realistic. I never say to people, “We Jews believe that ultimately peace will reign throughout the world.” I say, “From Jewish experience, it’s very iffy. We’d better do something about it. That’s the message of Jewish history.”

Perhaps most important of all, we have to accept that we are a world people. That’s what the International Federation [of Secular Humanistic Jews] is about. It means that people in the Diaspora recognize that Israel is, for all practical purposes, the center of the Jewish people and that Israelis recognize, without contempt, that the Diaspora is here to stay. And the only reason why Israel is significant is because it is attached to something called the Jewish people, which is a world people.

A good philosophy of life teaches people to face reality and to be strong enough to deal with that reality. The reason I regard myself as a Secular Humanistic Jew is that we affirm human dignity, which means we are not afraid to face the truth, both pleasant and unpleasant. That is our pride both as Jews and as human beings.

Secular Humanistic Jewish Ideology

“Secular Humanistic Jewish Ideology” from Humanistic Judaism journal, Winter 1991. Also published in Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought.

There were times when ideology was very important in Jewish life, when a set of compelling ideas seized the minds and hearts of Jewish men and women and mobilized them to make dramatic changes in religion and culture.

The prophetic ideology of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah turned defeat into victory. Yahveh, the national God of the Jews, who was unable to crush the superior power of the Assyrians and their natural allies, became a world God of infinite power, who was using the Assyrians to punish his chosen people for their sins. Yahvism, rescued by prophetic ingenuity, became the foundation of a new and powerful religion. The Jewish people was thrust into the center of a divine drama of cosmic proportions.

The ideology of the Pharisees and their rabbinic leaders provided a response to the suffering and humiliation of the Jews and to the seeming injustice of God. A final judgment day would mark the end of this world and usher in the Kingdom of God. The dead would rise from their graves, stand before the seat of justice, and receive either eternal reward or eternal punishment. The powerful appeal of this scenario transformed Jewish life. Thousands of Jews flocked to the standard of the Pharisees. The rabbis assumed power. Rabbinic Judaism became official Judaism.

Other compelling ideologies have entered Jewish life from time to time, causing radical changes in Jewish behavior. A compelling ideology embraces all of life: the personal and the communal, the spiritual and the corporal. It addresses anxieties people have. It answers the questions people are asking. It is enhanced by charismatic leaders and dramatic symbols. Above all, it defines the goals of personal and social existence and identifies the source from which the power to achieve them will come.

In modern times, both Marxism and Zionism have won passionate adherents. Both have mobilized millions of people. But with these two exceptions, the past two hundred years have witnessed a decline in Jewish ideology. Fewer and fewer Jews connect their Jewishness with powerful and mind-grabbing ideas. Being Jewish and being ideological because one is Jewish no longer equate with the same intensity that they did in prophetic and rabbinic times. Most Jewish ideology today is about as passionate as the courteous statements made at interfaith banquets.

Why has this change occurred?

The old ideology, whether prophetic or rabbinic, is no longer credible. In an age of reason, science, and comparative religion, divinely chosen nations and resurrections are hardly the theological stuff of which conviction is made. What used to seem possible and real no longer seems possible or real. Political emancipation and secular education have made it difficult to believe what used to be easy to believe.

The new twentieth-century ideologies have failed to produce their promised utopias. This failure has provoked a pervasive disillusionment and cynicism. Scholars are now suspect. Rational thinking is condemned as shallow. Intuition and mystic insights are exalted. Listening to one’s heart is preferred to listening to one’s mind. New Age philosophy thrives on anti-intellectualism. Inconsistency becomes a virtue in an environment in which following one’s feelings is accepted advice even in educated circles. Impulse rather than ideology becomes the sign of the free spirit. It is also an excuse to avoid establishing any real control of one’s life.

Most modern Jews separate their Jewishness from their personal philosophy of life. The first is a cultural and nostalgic experience. The second is a private commitment—or a commitment exercised in a group other than a Jewish one. Jews daven [pray] and do transcendental meditation. They chant traditional blessings on Jewish holidays and oppose the encroachments of organized religion on public life. Jewishness and ideology function in separate compartments of people’s lives. One has nothing to do with the other.

The power of traditional religious literature—the Bible, the Talmud, the Siddur—makes it difficult to dispense with them, especially in the absence of other Jewish writings of equal prestige. Being Jewish means using “the sources” even if you do not believe in most of what they say. The Kaddish is no longer a rabbinic tribute to a powerful and just God; it is a collection of Jewish sounds stripped of conceptual meaning.

In the century of racial anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the survival of the Jewish people is an obsessive issue. Jewish survival demands Jewish activity. Prayer and worship are the most familiar Jewish activities, especially in the Diaspora, where Jewish languages have all but disappeared. Parents hire religious teachers to teach their children to recite religious words they do not believe in, because they imagine that Jewish prayer is a guarantee of Jewish identity—and Jewish identity is a guarantee of Jewish survival. For a nonideological Judaism, any synagogue will do.

Modern Jewish ideological secularism is often a sham. Most “secular” Jews define their secularism by their hostility to organized religion and the traditional rabbinate. Their secularism is not a positive philosophy of life, a new compelling vision of the world and of Jewishness. While these negative secularists resent the burden of traditional law and traditional authority, they do not mind playing traditional when it is convenient. A funeral or bar mitsva becomes an opportunity to dress up in the costumes of Orthodoxy and pretend for a moment that one is identifying with one’s ancestors. People who grumble about the oppressiveness of religion, who choose to spend Rosh Hashana on a Tel Aviv beach, are often the same people who insist that all the halakhic details of shiva [mourning] be observed when their parents die. In their minds religion is irrelevant or worse—but: if you do it, you might as well do it “right.”

Jewish nationalism—whether Yiddishist or Zionist—began with secularists. But its success brought antisecularists into the fold. Today a majority of the supporters of Zionism are followers of conventional religion. Public Zionism, therefore, has to be circumspect. It can no longer afford to offend the religious. The old secularist fervor would undermine Jewish unity, successful political campaigning, and fundraising. Public Zionism has become a set of safe nationalist clichés that offer no real guidance to Jews seeking a meaningful personal philosophy of life. A nationalism that seeks to mobilize large numbers of people of diverse opinions needs a safe ideology—which, for practical purposes, means no ideology.

The decline of ideology is manifest everywhere in Jewish life. Jewish feminists don the symbols of the halakhic system that rejects them. The Reform movement seeks to be emotionally kosherized by a return to tradition. The Conservative movement has given up trying to explain why it is neither Orthodox nor liberal and instead justifies itself by the meaningless plea of moderation. Even bold stands on female rabbis and homosexual rabbis are comfortably combined with ritual praise of the ethical traditions of the Jewish past.

Philosophical talk has been replaced by survival talk. Whatever seems to enhance Jewish survival, regardless of its effect on the quality of Jewish life, is good. Secularists give money to the Lubavitchers because Orthodox Jews stay Jewish. Reform rabbis sponsor Orthodox conversions because Jewish unity strengthens the Jewish people. Welfare federations provide support to Orthodox yeshivas—the more tradition, the more survival. At one time in the Jewish world, in the days of the prophets and the rabbis, the primary question of Judaism was, “Is it true?” Today, in a survival-obsessed Jewish society, the question of truth has vanished. The only question that remains is, “Is it Jewish?”

As we contemplate the future of the Jewish people and the future of Secular Humanistic Judaism, we need to deal with the decline of ideology.

One option is to play down ideology—to become merely a potpourri of people who have either vague or vivid grievances against organized religion. The danger in this approach is that we will give up our substance in order to improve the packaging; and the new packaging will not work in the end. Negative secularists are not the stuff of which to build a strong movement. They share no positive agenda. They are easily seduced by Orthodox tidbits when they want to feel Jewish. They can be satisfied by Reform or Conservative nostalgia as well as by secular nostalgia.

The other option is to be clearly ideological in a Jewish world that avoids ideology. The opportunity in this approach is that we can recruit people who share our positive agenda, who value our willingness to deal with ideas and with personal integrity in Jewish life. The danger is that we will turn off negative secularists who find no value in philosophy or in consistency.

Given the advantages and disadvantages of both options, I would choose the path of ideology. We are a movement committed to a radical reinterpretation of the Jewish experience. We are not a movement equipped to benefit from impulsive nostalgia. In the long run, we will serve individual Jews and the Jewish people more effectively if we enable them to link their personal beliefs with their Jewish identity. We will serve our movement more effectively if we give it a unique function in Jewish life.

What do we need to do to make our ideology a strong ideology?

We need to insist that the question “Is it true” is more important the question “Is it Jewish?” The Sh’ma [prayer affirming God] is Jewish, but it is not, from our perspective, true. The Kaddish is Jewish, but it is not consistent with what we believe. A strong ideology insists that when we celebrate who we are, we speak with conviction. New words that express our convictions are preferable to old words that do not. Nostalgia is valuable, but it is not primary.

We need to reduce our basic beliefs to four or five simple, dramatic statements—statements that address Jewish anxieties and concerns. A powerful message is a brief message. Overlong academic formulations are useless.

If I were to choose five basic statements, they would be the following:

  • Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people, which includes many religious and secular traditions.
  • A Jew is any person who chooses to identify with the fate and culture of the Jewish people.
  • After the Holocaust, it is clear that the meaning of Jewish history is that Jews must be responsible for their own fate.
  • Every person is entitled to be the master of his or her own life, subject to the final authority of his or her own conscience.
  • The power to achieve human survival, happiness, and dignity is a human power.

We need to be what we are and not try to be what we are not. We have deep roots in the Jewish experience. But we represent a radical break with the rabbinic tradition. We can use the literature of the past when it expresses humanistic sentiments. But we do not need to be kosherized by it. Quotations will not make us more legitimate. The ultimate vulnerability of the Reform and Conservative movement is the need to find authority in the literature of rabbinic Judaism. Orthodox clothing does not fit non-Orthodox people.

We need to take seriously our commitment to reason. Old liberal beliefs that no longer conform to the evidence should be discarded. Unyielding loyalty to a humanistic tradition can be as reactionary as unyielding loyalty to the halakhic tradition. We should not burden ourselves with embarrassing falsehoods. Old humanistic clichés like “All people are basically good,” or “Human ethical progress is constant and inevitable,” or old Marxist slogans like “The laws of history dictate ultimate human liberation” are, in the light of the twentieth century experience, simply silly. They are about as credible as the Lubavitcher messiah or the Reform vision of the messianic age.

We need to answer questions that Jewish people are asking. The power of the prophetic and rabbinic traditions lay in their responsiveness to deep concerns. The quest for spiritual experience is a Jewish quest. It demands an answer—and not the dismissive answer of the old secular tradition, which was deeply suspicious of the very word spirituality. Today many Jews who seek a spiritual dimension in their lives are fully humanistic. But they have no vocabulary to describe what they want and need. A Secular Humanistic Judaism that lacks a strong, clear, and positive answer to the question of spirituality will not be effective.

We need to reconnect Jewish identity with a strong personal philosophy of life, a philosophy that enables people to cope more adequately with the adversities and opportunities of individual existence. Jews are more than Jews. They are human beings, with all the fears and anxieties of the human condition. Prophetic and rabbinic Judaism addressed the human condition as well as the question of Jewish survival. Modern Judaism, by and large, does not. Jews do their Judaism in the synagogue and their personal philosophy of life in universities, friendship circles, professional work, private readings, marathon weekends, or psychotherapy. They do not expect the message of the synagogue to be a personal guide for effective living. They expect it only to reinforce their Jewish identity. An effective ideology addresses Jewish issues in the context of broader human issues: How are Jewish identity and self-esteem related? What does Secular Humanistic Judaism have to say about the search for personal dignity and fulfillment? In what way is Jewish liberation connected to general human liberation?

We need to speak in a language that people understand. Intellectual formulations appeal to some people, but others can better understand principles embodied concretely in the lives of real people. Biography becomes philosophy. Heroes become role models. All successful ideologies have vivid personalities who serve as living examples of appropriate behavior; even children can comprehend the values they represent. Who are our unique heroes? What literature do we have to tell their stories to adults and children? There are many biographies of Spinoza and Einstein. But we do not have a biographic literature written from a Secular Humanistic Jewish point of view.

We need appealing symbols. The most effective ideology is never found in dry formulations. It is expressed in songs, holiday celebrations, and body decorations. The ideology of halakhic Judaism is better expressed by the Siddur than by the Maimonidean creed. The principles of Jewish Marxism were better dramatized by May Day and the Yiddish “Internationale” than by public readings of Das Kapital. What are the songs of our movement? What are the unique celebration formats we all share? What are the symbols of our commitment that we would choose to wear? It is not enough that each community is creative. There has to be a set of shared symbols, songs, and formats that uniquely dramatize the ideology and membership of our movement. At some time or other we all need to sing the same song and know that other Secular Humanistic Jews are singing it too.

We need to be pluralistic with conviction. A successful Judaism needs to be a pluralistic Judaism, in which all Jewish options have their place. But it does not need to be a mushy pluralism that seeks to avoid confrontation and gloss over differences. Ideological competition is real—and it is good for Judaism. No single ideology, or lack of ideology, can possibly serve the needs and temperaments of all Jews. Only the give and take of competing views of Jewish identity can produce the vitality and variety that a healthy Judaism requires. Strong convictions, strongly expressed, are essential to meaningful internal debate. As long as they do not degenerate into absolute and self-righteous convictions, they give substance to Jewish commitment. A strong ideology needs to find the balance between offending nobody and rejecting everybody else.