Tu Bi-Shevat, Earth Day, and Environmentalism

Tu bi-Shevat  – Winter 1993

Jews and Canaanites were at one time the same people. They lived in the same land. They spoke the same language. They worshiped the same gods. Even when the Jews became attached to the cult of Yahveh and abandoned all the other gods, many elements of the old religion remained.

One of the old gods was the goddess Asherah. She was a farmer’s god, a deity of fertility. She made crops grow. Her male counterpart was Baal, lord of life and rain. Baal-worship featured phallic pillars erected on high hills. Asherah-worship featured trees — sacred trees that grew in temple compounds. The chief festival of Asherah followed immediately upon the completion of the rainy season, when the sap in the trees rose to its fullness.

The festival of Asherah fell near the end of winter. When the moon calendar be­came dominant, it found its place on either the new moon or the full moon of the month of Shevat. The ritual of the day was dramatic. Sacred trees were worshiped. Sacred dances were danced around the sacred trees. Fruit and nuts, the offspring of trees, were eaten in this celebration of fertility. Apples, almonds, and carob, the gifts of the goddess, were eagerly de­voured. As a turning point in the seasonal cycle, the beginning of the dry season became a demarcation point between the old year and the new year. Like the Druids (the priestesses of the Kelts), the priest­esses of Asherah made the “fullness” of the trees an opportunity to dramatize the power of life and its divine connection.

Although the worship of Asherah disap­peared from Jewish life, the festival of Asherah has not. It survives as Tu Bi- Shevat (Hamisha Asar Bi-Shevat). Like most Jewish holidays it has a non-Yahvistic origin; and, like most Jewish holidays, it has been integrated into the Yahveh cult. I suspect that, because of its powerful con­nection to the Asherah cult, both priests and rabbis tried to eliminate it. They did succeed in reducing it to a minor holiday. But the power of folk attachment rescued it. The people were not prepared to give up what they deemed indispensable. And the authorities were forced to yield to their attachment.

In the rabbinic tradition, Tu Bi-Shevat emerged as one of four new years. Nissan 1 (April) is the new year of the counting of the months and the reigns of kings. Elul 1 (August-September) is the new year of tithing cattle. Tishri 1 (September-October) is the new year of divine judgment (Rosh Hashana). And Shevat 1 (January-February) is the new year of the trees. While Rosh Hashana is dominant, the other new years remain as minor holidays. The New Year of the Trees features the eating of fruits and nuts, the recitation of special readings from the Bible about trees and nature, and the creation of devotional poems.

The urban world of the Diaspora, far from Palestine and far from the agricultural cycle of its seasons, was hardly supportive of a nature holiday with which the rabbis were uncomfortable. But, in the twentieth century, the Zionist movement breathed new life into it. The Zionists loved a Jewish holiday that could be identified with the reclamation of the land. The land needed trees, and Tu Bi-Shevat was about trees. The holiday became a Zionist “Earth Day,“ when trees were planted as a dramatic symbol of the Zionist commitment to res­toration and rebuilding. The Jewish Na­tional Fund replaced Asherah. Little blue collection boxes reminded us of Palestine and the Zionist mission. Planting trees became a Jewish obsession. Israel and conservation made a happy marriage.

Zionism revived Tu Bi-Shevat. But its passion was divided after 1948 between this winter holiday and the more dramatic Israel Independence Day. In the end pa­rades won out over trees. As for the Diaspora, the holiday was ill-suited to Jews living intemperate climates. Planting trees in the snow seemed a bit odd. And Israel was far away.

At the end of the 1960s the true substi­tute for Asherah arrived on the scene. The environmental movement, with all its ro­mantic passion, made its debut. It was the ideal movement for the educated children of the middle class. No longer concerned with the struggle for survival, they now turned to issues of happiness and quality of life. Safe, clean, and beautiful environ­ments suited the tastes of a rising leisure class. And the rigorous demands of an environmentalist discipline, from recycling to detergent control, appealed to a permis­sive generation that could no longer find its moral structure in the old religion.

Environmentalism became a new “reli­gion” for many young people. By the 1980s it was the most important issue for the youth generation. After the demise of socialism and the New Left, it had no rivals. Nature had won out over revolu­tion. Earth Day triumphed over May Day. Pollution, rather than capitalism, became the ultimate enemy. Schmutz took on the evil face of exploitation.

With the arrival of Earth Day as an environmentalist celebration, Tu Bi-Shevat developed real possibilities for the Diaspora. A Jewish holiday attached to trees seemed a perfect connection between Judaism and youthful idealism. Gradually Tu Bi-Shevat moved out of the narrow Zionist world into the broader sphere of universal values. An ethical idealism that touched every inch of the planet embraced the holiday and gave it a powerful significance that it had not enjoyed since the heyday of Asherah.

Tu Bi-Shevat, as the Jewish Earth Day, has enormous potential. It can mobilize Jewish people to fight pollution and to resist the forces that destroy the beauty of our environment. It can also reinforce Jewish identity by marrying a Jewish holi­day to an overwhelmingly important social concern. The discipline of keeping the environment clean is almost as satisfying as kashrut, especially if it is done with Hebrew words.

But the Earth Day theme can be danger­ous, especially if environmentalism is con­fused with the currently fashionable nature mysticism. Historic environmentalism is rational. Nature mysticism is irrational.

What is nature mysticism?

It is the worship of nature, as though nature were a goddess like Asherah. Asherah’s modern name is Gaia, and Gaia-worship is growing.

Rational environmentalism does not worship nature. It seeks to control it. It strives to use human ingenuity to make the world safer, cleaner, and more beautiful for human beings. It is not the enemy of science and technology. It knows that it needs science and technology to do what it has to do. Cleaning up the environment requires more scientific know-how than making it dirty.

Rational environmentalism avoids the three irrational premises of nature mysti­cism:

“Nature is a harmonious whole.”

Nature mystics imagine that life has a single agenda. All of life is a single organic whole. It is like a single giant organism that covers the surface of the planet. The name of this giant organism is Gaia. Gaia has an unconscious intelligence or mind. This unconscious intelligence has a pur­pose. This purpose is the purpose of life.

But is it true that the fish and the fisherman have one purpose? Is it the secret dream of every little fish to end up as fried fish on a human dinner table? Is it the unconscious intention of every fisher­man to avoid catching any fish? What is their shared agenda? Gaia means coopera­tion. And very often two living species — or two living individuals — cooperate. But they also compete. A world of competition means many agendas, not one. That is the story of life’s evolution. That is the story of natural selection. There are as many Gaias as there are living creatures striving to survive. And none of them is a goddess.

The agenda of cancer cells is not the agenda of the people they invade. The agenda of viruses is not the agenda of the victims they infect. The agenda of the species may not be the agenda of the individual member of the species. The agenda of human survival may not be the agenda of human happiness. Floods may be wonderful for fish, but they tend to be disastrous for people. Disease is marvelous for population control, but it does not do very much for the quality of life. The harmony of nature is an illusion.

“Everything natural is good.”

Nature mystics maintain that whatever nature produces is good, even if we cannot figure out why it is good. If nature pro­duces a phallic foreskin, it should not be cut off. If nature’s lightning starts a forest fire, it should not be put out. If nature’s evolution produces a living species, it should not be exterminated. Nature is sacred, just as Asherah was sacred. When we interfere with nature, we incur the “wrath of the gods.”

But not everything natural is good. Moral good relates to the human agenda, to what is good for the satisfaction of human needs. Neither the evolution of the universe nor the evolution of life is concerned about human happiness. They are not even con­cerned with the pleasure and survival of other living beings. Natural selection is a blind and grim force. Most of its inventions are useless mutations. The fact that human beings did not invent them does not mean that they are good.

If we want to save baby seals, it is not because they are “good.” Human beings are “turned on” by other animals that look like them, can suffer like them, and appear beautiful in their eyes. Cockroaches do not qualify. They do not “turn us on,” and we squish them mercilessly. The choice is quite arbitrary. But I have known many cockroach squishers who are very good environmentalists.

Revering all of nature makes no more sense than worshiping Asherah or Yahveh or Gaia. Understanding nature makes a lot more sense than worshiping it.

“Everything humans make is artificial.”

Nature mystics maintain that deliberate human creations are not natural and are, therefore, inferior to what is natural. Cities are inferior to wilderness. Modern medi­cine is inferior to herbs. Living with hu­man artifacts is inferior to living with what grows. Humans are the inventors of the unnatural, alien invaders and intruders into the realm of nature.

But human beings are not outside of nature. They are part of nature’s evolution. And what they create is not outside of nature. It is an expression of natural power. Robins make nests. Beavers make dams. And people build cities. Cities are no less natural than nests or dams. They are made from the materials that nature provides. Quite simply, everything that exists is nature. And everything that happens is natural. When people farm, that is natural. When people heal, that is natural. When people erect buildings, that is natural. Sometimes cities are better for people than poisonous swamps. Sometimes medicines made from factory chemicals are better than medicines made from plant chemi­cals. Sometimes living with cats may be more dangerous than living with couches.

As you can see, nature mysticism de­tracts from a rational environmentalism. But it is not the only ideological danger. It shares this distinction with Pollyanna mysticism.

What is Pollyanna mysticism?

Pollyanna mysticism is the cult of eter­nal optimism, the worship of “progress.” It is just as irrational as nature mysticism. Here are two of its irrational premises:

“There are fewer environmental dangers than we imagine.”

Pollyanna mystics practice a lot of de­nial. They prefer to be optimistic. They resist voices of doom. They are suspicious of anybody who predicts natural catastro­phes. The Religious Right believes that the ozone threat is an illusion, a dangerous illusion invented by atheists to subvert American industry and the Christian work ethic. They said so at an evangelical meet­ing held just after the Republican Conven­tion in August. Pollyanna mystics believe that nuclear power is perfectly safe, that the disaster at Chernobyl has been exagger­ated. A major potential source of industrial power and human enhancement (they say) is being destroyed by environmental fanat­ics, who have become a new “clergy,” eager to regulate the lives of conscientious entrepreneurs and to undermine techno­logical and human progress. Pollyanna mystics have found their counter-scien­tists — men and women who battle with the scientific establishment and press their own counter-statistics.

But the environmental dangers they deride stare us in the face. The tobacco industry can maintain that the connection between smoking and lung cancer is still uncertain. Yet the evidence for that con­nection is overwhelming. The spray com­panies can maintain that ozone blight is an illusion. But the rise in the evidence of skin cancer has a compelling relationship to the increasing presence of harmful radiation. The nuclear power industry can maintain that the Chernobyl disaster is only a propa­ganda triumph. Yet the distressing statis­tics from the Ukraine and Belarus are stark reminders of disaster.

“Environmentalism stands in the way of human advancement.”

Pollyanna mystics believe that environ­mentalism means excessive regulation, that excessive regulation means big govern­ment, and that big government means the disappearance of ambition and invention. The government, they say, is now choos­ing to defend strange birds and even stranger fish against the legitimate demands of thousands of Americans for jobs. It stands as a barrier to economic development.

There is some truth to this accusation. But not a lot. It may be true that trying to preserve every rare species simply kills necessary jobs and does little or nothing to preserve the beauty and health of the environment. It also may be true that mem­bers of the prosperous middle class now want the wilderness for their playground and, having “made it” themselves, do not care whether the people below them have a chance to make it too. But the most im­portant truth is that enormous progress has been made in recent years in the Western world to clean up and beautify the environ­ment. Pollution has declined. Conserva­tion has been enhanced. Personal habits and discipline have altered for the better. Lakes, rivers, and urban settings that were unusable and dangerous have been ren­dered fit for human pleasure. Many human lives have been saved. And many more will be saved. And that is progress. The pollution hell created by overzealous in­dustrialization in Eastern Europe is not human advancement. If you cannot breathe, having a job is meaningless.

Jewish Earth Day is a wonderful time to celebrate our commitment to a rational environmentalism. We do not want to be either nature mystics or Pollyanna mys­tics. We do not want to worship either nature or technological progress. We just want to celebrate the power we have to create a healthier and more beautiful world to live in.

Tu Bi-Shevat does not need either Asherah or Gaia. It has the dream of human happiness

How Antisemitism Was Transformed

Rise of Antisemitism, Winter 2003

Antisemitism is alive and well, but it has undergone some interesting transformations.

When antisemitism began, it was Euro­pean. Its historic roots lay in the anti-Juda­ism of early Christianity and the Middle Ages. Its trigger lay in the traumatic world of early capitalism.

In 1873 a major economic depression sent millions of Europeans into panic. The collapse of once-powerful banks, the wiping out of the savings of once-powerful people, the specter of unemployment — all combined to raise the question, “Why?” Antisemitism was a pow­erful and convincingly simple answer to this complex question. It thrived on the well- known connection of Jews with money. It won the hearts of both aristocrats and peasants who despised the leaders of the money economy.

While anti-Judaism was directed to the re­ligion of the Jew, antisemitism was focused on the “race” or ethnicity of the Jew. For the “anti- Judaites” the solution to the Jewish problem was the conversion of the Jew. For the antisemite the solution to the Jewish problem was the elimination of the Jew. Most antisemites were not interested in the religion of the Jew. They were absorbed in the social, economic, and po­litical roles that Jews played. For them conver­sion was irrelevant. It could not change the fundamentally evil nature of the Jew. Anti- Judaism imagined that the Jew was salvageable. Antisemitism knew that he was not.

In the end, if the Jew is the devil, if he has invented the evils of both capitalism and socialism, he is intolerable. Extermination flows logically from the premises of anti-semitic ideology. Expulsion and persecution are insufficient to eradicate the social evil that the Jew represents. For the arch-antisemite the Jew is the incarnation of evil. And evil has no right to exist.

The consequence of European anti­semitism was the Nazi debacle and the Holo­caust. So important was the Jewish enemy that his elimination took priority over competing items on the Nazi agenda. Even at the end of the war, when Nazi resources were exhausted, soldiers and trains were made available to execute the Final Solution.

After the Second World War, it seemed inconceivable that antisemitism would find defenders. The horror of the Shoah was so great that Western European governments outlawed antisemitic propaganda and anti-semitic political parties. Nazi symbolswere banned. Public hostility to the Jews achieved the status of a crime. Even the Ger­mans began the long repentance of repara­tions. The revival of antisemitism in Europe seemed unlikely.

Then, only three years after the war, Stalin turned his political power against the Jews of the Soviet Union. Jewish writers were elimi­nated. Jewish Communist leaders were ex­ecuted. Antisemitism shifted its European center from Western Europe to Eastern Eu­rope. If Stalin had not died in 1953, most of the Jews of Russia would have been deported to the gulags of Siberia. After his death antisemitism persisted, but it fizzled down to policies of persecution, all of it rendered lu­dicrous by the official protest that anti­semitism could not possibly exist in the Communist motherland.

Recent developments have shifted the center of antisemitism and antisemitic pro­paganda out of Europe. The reason is ironic. Jew-hatred in Europe triggered the rise of Zi­onism. And the leaders of Zionism claimed that the establishment of a Jewish state would cure antisemitism. Yet, as we know, the es­tablishment of the state of Israel provided a major provocation to the Arab and Muslim worlds. The consequence of this development was the emergence in the Muslim world of a rabid antisemitism. While many Arab anti- Zionists directed their hostility to the Israelis alone, most Arab anti-Zionists made no dis­tinction between Israelis and Jews.

After 1967, the concepts of European antisemitism and its propaganda were adopted by Arabs to explain how it was pos­sible for little Israel to defeat the combined armies of the Arab world. The answer was simple: Israel is the creation of America. And America is controlled by the Jews. American power is Jewish power. The demon of the money economy had now used its enormous political, economic, and military power to enslave the Muslim world and to corrupt its historic culture with the Jewish values of the American consumer society. For most Mus­lim fundamentalists, as well as many “Mus­lim Marxists,” Jews and America go together. And so does their evil.

Today in Cairo and Damascus, Baghdad and Karachi, the assault on the Jews is relent­less. European antisemitism has been dressed up in Muslim clothing, but the heart of the message is the same. The Jews stand at the center of human history as an evil force. Only their elimination, together with their puppets America and Israel, will save Islam and the world. Zionism has managed to generate a hatred in the Muslim world equal in inten­sity to the hatred in Europe that brought it into existence.

The September 11 scenario revealed this obsession. New York was chosen as the main target of the Muslim fundamentalist terrorists because it was viewed as the true capital of Jewish power. The World Trade Center was the temple of money and of the global economy, which represented the corrupt na­ture of Jewish power.

The return of virulent antisemitism to Europe arrived with the Muslim immigrants who are now pouring into Europe. The popu­lations of England, France, and Germany have already been radically altered by this migra­tion. Since the birthrates of native Europeans are low and the reproduction rate of Muslim immigrants is high, the future is clear. Europe will become increasingly more Muslim.

The centers of antisemitism in Europe no longer lie in the aristocracy or in the army or among the intellectuals. In the social sphere Jews are now able to achieve the summits of power and fame. On the contrary, the centers of antisemitism now lie among the poor Mus­lim immigrants and among the Europeans on the left who champion their cause. Anti­semitism has always been as much a disease of the poor as of the rich. For the economic losers of the global economy, antisemitism provides a simple and “credible” answer. The antisemitic violence that took place last April in France was the product of the inflamma­tory antisemitic propaganda that now floats around the Muslim world.

The shift of antisemitism from the Chris­tian to the Muslim world has produced ironic political consequences. The forces in West­ern Europe that hated Jews now also hate Muslims. But they generally hate the Jews less than they hate the Muslims. After all, Euro­pean Jews are committed to European culture. The Muslims represent a darker anti- European force. Plus — using the political principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend — the Jews suddenly emerge as useful allies of the anti-Muslim right. Even Monsieur LePen of the racist National Front has said as much. History does have the power to pro­duce absurdities.

It is certainly true that arranging for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians will re­duce the hostility of many Arabs and many Muslims toward Jews. But it is also true that for diehard Muslim fundamentalists the war against Western culture is also the war against the Jews and their American “puppets.” While Europe still harbors many antisemites on both the right and the left, the center of Jew-hatred now lies in the Semitic world and in the Mus­lim culture that the Arabs pioneered.

RESPONSA – Sitting Shiva

Return to Tradition – Summer 1992

Question: Should Humanistic Jewish mourners sit shiva?

Responsum: The mourning practices of rabbinic Judaism were built around a belief system that no longer generally prevails in the Jewish community. This system began with an all-powerful judgmental God who was the master of life and death. Death was ambiguous. It might be a sign of divine anger and divine punishment. God’s dis­pleasure was not trivial. It needed to be countered. The deity needed to be ap­peased. And the spirit world of the dead, including evil and malevolent spirits, needed to be avoided and even driven away.

This ideology explains the traditional practice. Only the appearance of abject suffering and misery could persuade both God and the spirit world not to strike again. The mourners — the sons, daugh­ters, fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters of the deceased — must be as pitiable as possible. They must tear their garments. They must sit on the ground or on harsh surfaces. They must not wash or dress in fine clothing. They must abstain from good food. They must not laugh or joke or participate in happy events. They must be confined to their homes during the first seven days (shiva) of mourning. If com­forters arrive, they must sit in silence until the mourners initiate conversation.

Of course, the ideological basis of tradi­tional mourning practices is unacceptable to us as Humanistic Jews. So is the notion of enforced suffering to ensure protection. Unwashed, uncomfortable, and underfed mourners are inconsistent with our view of dignified grief.

But the traditional mourning procedure had an unintended consequence. The prac­tice of staying home after the burial of loved ones to receive family and friends turned out to be therapeutic for mourners. In liberal circles, where most of the hard­ship routines were removed, being sur­rounded by caring friends became a won­derful source of human support.

Humanistic Judaism is very comfortable with a humanistic “shiva.” It does not have to last for seven days. It should last as long as the mourners want it. For some, one day may be enough; for others, eight days. Most Humanistic mourners choose three. A small minority find no need for any “shiva.”

Humanistic “shiva” is built around the notion that life and death are natural phe­nomena, with no intrusion by gods or spirits. It is based on the conviction that vulnerable mourners need as much human support as they can find. Mourners should be comfortable. Conversation should be free.

Many Humanistic Jews hold a brief commemorative celebration of the life of the deceased every evening, or one of the evenings, of the “shiva.” Family and friends sit in a circle and share stories about the life of the person who died. Prose readings and poetry selections about a humanistic response to death may be read. Inspirational songs may be sung. (Examples of these home commemoratives are avail­able from the Society for Humanistic Juda­ism.)

History is filled with ironies. What started out to serve one purpose later serves an­other.

“Shiva” has been transformed and is now ours.

The Return to Tradition

Return to Tradition, summer 1992

The return to tradition.

Everybody in the Jewish world is talking about it. Secular children have become Lubavitchers. Young, liberal couples are sending their children to day schools. Reform rabbis are donning yarmulkes and waist-length tallises. Lighting Shabbat candles with the children is becoming the rage. “Benching” is again a communal function.

There is no doubt that a significant shift has taken place in Jewish life, at least in conscious sentiment. The traditions of rab­binic Judaism, which were often mocked and discarded by the Jewish establishment and the Jewish masses in both the United States and Israel, are being treated with new reverence. Orthodoxy — once derided by reformers, liberals, and radicals as a dying superstition — has reclaimed its authority in Jewish life. Although most Jews no longer live by its precepts, they have come to believe that the “real” Juda­ism is traditional Judaism and that Ortho­doxy is the only true source of Jewish strength and survival.

Today, thousands of secular and liberal Jews give millions of dollars to the Lubavitchers. Although they are not pre­pared to change their personal lifestyle, they are prepared to support those who do. Today, feature writers about Jewish life in the Jewish and national press quote tradi­tional rabbis and religiously observant Jews in depicting what Judaism is all about. The writers have come to assume that Orthodox opinion is more authentically Jewish and, above all, more newsworthy. The Lubavitcher Rebbe and Shlomo Carlebach have become media stars. Even Reform and Conservative rabbis now praise Orthodoxy and designate the Orthodox as the hard­core saving remnant of Jewish spirituality. Liberals can afford to deviate from Ortho­doxy because the saving remnant guaran­tees the survival of the Jewish people.

The return to tradition is both nostalgic and radical. It is nostalgic because it seeks to recapture the Jewishness of the past. It is radical because it is often embraced by Jews whose families long since abandoned the religious tradition. The yarmulke as a familiar headgear on college campuses and at symphony concerts is something radi­cally new. Events and institutions created by the secular world are now deemed an appropriate setting for traditional “the­ater.”

Why this resurgence of Orthodox pres­tige and power?

The most obvious reason is concern for Jewish survival. The open society that liberal and secular Jews praised and de­fended has turned out to be a mixed bless­ing. Millions of Jews used their liberty to become educated and prosperous. They also chose to make their Jewishness a minimal commitment. While climbing the social ladder, Jews were enthusiastic about their freedom. Once they reached the top, anxiety set in. What if their incredible success in an open society should lead to assimilation and the disappearance of the Jewish people in the Diaspora? What if freedom should prove as powerful as the Holocaust in decimating the ranks of the Jewish people? The Orthodox insistence that they, and only they, can guarantee Jewish survival became a powerful appeal to guilty Jews who did not believe in Orthodoxy but who could not imagine any viable alternative.

The Americanization of the American Jew was completed by the 1960s. No new large wave of Jewish immigration appeared. Second- and third-generation American Jews felt comfortably American, especially with the decline of anti-Semitism. They felt no need to prove their American iden­tity by discarding the embarrassing ethnic baggage of the past. The de-WASPing of America and the rise of ethnic pride move­ments made them hungry for ethnic roots. The Eastern European shtetl, which their parents and grandparents had fled, was revived in romantic fantasy. Orthodoxy, which had been intimately woven into the fabric of this village life, was equally romanticized. Hasidic rebbes and Chelm stories became the rage. In a world where acting Anglo-Saxon was now easy and ordinary, dabbling in tradition became exotic and extraordinary.

The war in Vietnam helped to usher in what many intellectuals now designate as the postmodern world. Science, reason, and optimism were out. Spirituality, intu­ition, and pessimism were in. Objective truth vanished. Subjective feelings tri­umphed. Male left-brain “rigidity” was rejected. Female right-brain creativity was applauded. Meditation and mysticism be­came daily routines for millions.

In such an environment, the old super­stition turned into the new wisdom. The Torah became a fountain of spiritual truth. The Kabbala became the secret key to the universe. Roles were reversed. The spiritu­alists were on the attack. The rationalists were on the defensive. Jewish youth were caught up in the experiments of New Age thinking. If they had any strong Jewish interest, Jewish mysticism, or an Orthodox version thereof, was there for them.

Meanwhile, stimulated by the immigra­tion of militant ultra-Orthodox Jews after the Holocaust, American Orthodoxy had changed its organizational profile. Reject­ing the old self-image of being peripheral, passive, and doomed, which characterized prewar Orthodoxy, the Lubavitchers, in particular, wedded their reactionary mes­sage to the most advanced, American-style public relations techniques. They mobi­lized an army of underpaid devotees who were eager to become “missionaries” to the Jews. Their well-funded, aggressive stance became a role model for other tradi­tional groups. When the guilt of freedom, the search for romantic roots, and the postmodern world arrived, they were ready to take advantage of these new-found op­portunities. Like the Christian fundamen­talists, their zeal, combined with their organizational talents, made them much more skillful at recruitment than the smug establishment. The advertising and fol­low-up skills that secularists had invented were now theirs.

The most powerful reason for the return to tradition lies in the very nature of the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstruc­tionist movements. All three, from the very beginning, made a crucial, perhaps fatal, decision. In their eagerness for legitimacy, they sought to “kosherize” the changes, sometimes radical changes, that they were making. The authorities they chose to sanction these changes were the very docu­ments that Orthodoxy used. Like the Or­thodox, they appealed to the Torah and to the Talmud to give them permission to do what they did. Of course, they provided a different interpretation. But the problem was that the Torah and the Talmud are basically Orthodox documents. They fit Orthodox Judaism with very little adjust­ment. They do not fit Conservatism, Re­form, and Reconstructionism. A liberal Jewish lifestyle, embracing everything from free choice to feminism, cannot be derived from these documents, unless you burst them out of their context and make them mean what they obviously do not mean.

Conservative, Reform, and Reconstruc­tionist Jews are always apologizing, al­ways trying desperately to prove that they are Torah-true. But, as any observer can readily see, only the Orthodox are really Torah- and Talmud-true. If you base your legitimacy on the Torah and Talmud, and you are not Orthodox, you lack credibility. In the end, the sham and the pretense show through. Once the drive for social accep­tance with the secular world is spent, and the drive for Jewish authenticity begins, the only “authentic” movement is Ortho­doxy. Reform and Conservatism become merely watered-down derivatives. They have no real documents of their own. Their only strategy for survival is to do more and more Orthodox things. (Maybe if Reform Jews are dunked in mikvas, they will come to see Reform as more authentic!)

What does this return to tradition mean? What significance is to be found in the new Reform davening, in the fascination with traditional ritual, in the fervor of the new ba’al teshuva (returnee).

The first item of note is how thin it is. While a small minority of young Jews have become full returnees, repudiating the secu­lar world and joining ultra-Orthodox com­munities, the overwhelming majority of returnees are only partial. They want to do traditional things only once in a while, on a marathon weekend for Pesakh, at a bar mitsva, at a wedding, on a trip to Israel. They are too secular to want to do religion often. But when they do it, they want the “real” thing.

For this reason, the Conservative move­ment is shrinking and Reform is expand­ing. Conservative Judaism is not enough for the full returnee and too much for the partial returnee. Full returnees are turned off by the moderation of the Conservatives, while partial returnees do not want to be lectured about daily observances. Reform now provides a taste of tradition without burdening the returnee with the guilt of nonconformity. You can have your hour of traditional “schmaltz” on a Friday night or a Saturday morning and renew your secular life immediately afterward. You can belong to a Reform temple, sponsor a fundraising event for the Lubavitchers, and go to the symphony with your Gentile girlfriend. Partial returnees are rarely bur­dened with demands for consistency. They can feel traditional without doing many traditional things. Tradition is a “now” experience instead of a consistent life plan.

The return to tradition means the death of ideology in Jewish life. Contemporary returnees are rarely interested in the ques­tion “Is it true?” They are much more interested in the question “Is it Jewish?” Orthodox ritual is revived because it is good for Jewish survival, not because the theological ideas that spawned it are be­lievable. Even the Lubavitchers recom­mend action over belief. Say the prayer even if you do not believe in the prayer. The act of recitation will turn you into a believer.

Everything is linked to the urgency of Jewish survival. Integrity vanishes. The ideological framework of rabbinic Judaism is torn down and replaced by a bland commitment to doing more and more Jew­ish things. Does the El Male prayer refer to an afterlife in Paradise? Who cares, it’s Jewish! Does the bedeken (veiling) cere­mony before the wedding arise out of the male chauvinist need of the groom to identify the bride he has purchased? Who cares, it’s Jewish! Does the recitation of the ten plagues at the Passover seder suggest that God is a vengeful deity who punishes the good together with the wicked? Who cares, it’s Jewish! Sincere belief goes out the window. The body of tradition is retained. But the heart of tradition, its be­lief system and world view are dead. Only the ultra-Orthodox pay any attention to the necessity of both. And then not always.

The return to tradition means the new self-confidence of the Orthodox. On the one hand, there is the creeping polariza­tion of the Jewish community between the militant ultra-Orthodox and the secular­ized Jews (whether they be formally reli­gious or openly secular). On the other hand, there is the growing intrusion of Orthodox demands on the general commu­nity through the new army of devoted missionaries, who present themselves as our teachers and serve as a wedge of indoctrination and pressure. Partial re­turnees, who are ambivalent about tradi­tional lifestyles, are like putty in the hands of these missionaries. They do not want to be Orthodox. But they feel guilty not being Orthodox. They believe that the “real” Judaism is the old religious tradition. Only the Orthodox, in their eyes, have any legitimate authority. Despite the smallness of their numbers, the Orthodox have turned non-Orthodox Jews into ideological defen­dants. The ultra-Orthodox do not wish to participate in the general Jewish commu­nity; they wish to control it through a form of spiritual intimidation.

How do we respond to the return to tradition?

We refuse to view the return to tradition as something positive. The segregated lifestyle of the full returnees is unattractive to contemporary Jews who embrace an open society. And the ambivalent stance of par­tial returnees is without integrity or prin­ciple — an effortless, nostalgic indulgence.

We refuse to give the Orthodox the authority they do not deserve. We do not play the Torah and Talmud game. Only by boldly proclaiming that our authority lies in reason, conscience, and the Jewish ex­perience will we be able to counter the new intimidation. In that respect Humanistic Judaism can play an important role. We are the only Jewish movement willing to de­clare our independence from the old losing strategy. We cannot find our legitimacy in the sacred documents of Orthodoxy. The Torah and the Talmud are historically interesting, but they are not and cannot be the constitution for dissenting Jews. Only when we have a literature that clearly expresses what we believe will we be free of the curse of apology, inferior status, and hypocrisy. If we do not need to be “kosherized” by tradition, we do not need to return to it. There are other ways to be effective Jews.

We refuse to endorse the notion that only Orthodoxy can guarantee the survival of the Jewish people. The most dramati­cally successful Jewish movement in the twentieth century was Zionism. Zionism means more than the reestablishment of an independent Jewish state. It also means the redefinition of Judaism as an ethnic cul­ture. Only a bold cultural Judaism, which is unafraid to proclaim its radical break with Orthodoxy and to live with the virtues and risks of an open society, can reach the vast majority of Jews.

The return to tradition is a powerful challenge to Secular Humanistic Jews. It is also an opportunity to make our unique message heard.

The Use and Abuse of the Holocaust

Remembering the Holocaust, spring 1991

The Holocaust is not easy to write about. The planned genocide of the Jewish people is a horror so terrible that words cannot fully describe it. The events can be de­scribed, but not the revulsion and the sorrow that we feel. They lie beyond vo­cabulary. The memory of the six million martyrs has turned the Holocaust into a sacred symbol. Like all sacred symbols, it has enormous power. Like all sacred symbols, its power can be exploited, both for good and not-so-good.

During the past twenty years, the Holo­caust has emerged as the most important event in modern Jewish history. It over­shadows the establishment of the state of Israel as the focal happening of the contem­porary Jewish experience. In the Diaspora, it is the event that Jewish teachers, leaders, and clergy are most likely to invoke when they wish to mobilize a Jewish audience or to influence a Gentile one. Even in Israel, politicians use it to justify state policy and to promote political programs.

The power of the Holocaust symbol can be used for good. It can be used to fight racism and to remind people of the horrors of genocide. It can be used to promote Jewish identity and Jewish survival. It can be used to arouse sympathy for the victims of oppression. It can be used to remind us of the human potential for cruelty and depravity. It can be used, as we Humanis­tic Jews use it, for a philosophic purpose, for the Holocaust is painful evidence that we live in an indifferent and morally ab­surd universe without a loving and just God — without any external moral power to relieve human beings of their full re­sponsibility to make this world a better world.

The dramatic increase in Holocaust conversation, Holocaust studies, and Holo­caust media programs during the past two decades has been a salutary trend, reinforc­ing all the positive purposes for which the Holocaust symbol can be employed. But the Holocaust symbol can be exploited for less than good, even when the intentions of the exploiter are good. And the power of the symbol is so great that it is an attractive icon for people with questionable moral agendas.

Here are some of the abuses I resent: I resent the attempt to win the “contest” of victimization. Some Jews seem to have a need to prove that they are the most abused victims in human history, that no one else has suffered as much as they have. Now, indeed, we Jews may be the worst- abused people in the annals of the human race, and our genocide may be the most terrifying genocide that ever occurred. But this reality serves no good purpose when it justifies our treating other people’s suffer­ing with invidious contempt, negating the significance of their pain because it does not seem to be as deep or as extensive as our own.

When Israeli politicians use the Holo­caust to justify the oppression of the Pales­tinians, the symbol is abused. To assert, as Meir Kahane did, that the suffering of the Jewish people frees them from the moral constraints imposed upon others is the same invalid argument that some radical black leaders in the United States invoked to justify black violence. Pain, no matter how intense, cannot justify inflicting pain upon others. Jewish suffering cannot take away the significance of Palestinian suffer­ing.

The proposed Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., offends me. To erect a monument to the evil of genocide that commemorates only the genocide of Jews is a cruel and ungenerous response to the tragedies that are part of the history of other American minorities. Should an American monument in the center of the American capital acknowledge only the suffering of the Jews because the Holocaust was more terrible than the massacres of Armenians, Afro-Americans, and North American Indians?

I resent the substitution of Holocaust history for Jewish history. So much em­phasis is now placed on acquainting both Jews and Gentiles with Jewish suffering that too little precious time is devoted to announcing Jewish success and Jewish achievement. To present the Jews as essen­tially the eternal victim is a dangerous educational approach. It cultivates pity and self-pity more than it encourages es­teem and self-esteem.

The sudden blossoming of Holocaust museums all over the country disturbs me. In my city, Detroit, there is a Holocaust museum, but there is no general Jewish museum. Jews and Gentiles have the opportunity to experience the horrors of the Hitler era, but they have no opportunity to experience the breadth and power of the rest of Jewish history. In community after community, this same situation is repeated. It seems to me that if a Jewish community can afford only one museum, that museum should be devoted to all of Jewish culture. A Jewish museum with a room dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust makes more sense than a Holocaust museum that makes Auschwitz the symbol of Jewish identity.

Our use of the Holocaust symbol needs ethical guidelines. The symbol must respect the evil of all genocidal oppression and must rescue Jews from playing the role of the “chosen people” of suffering. It must take its rightful place in the story of the Jewish people. It cannot become a substitute for Jewish history and the prime focus of Jewish identity.

The Holocaust symbol, at its ethical best, is a cry against racial arrogance. It would be sadly ironic if it came to be used to sustain a new and different arrogance.

Purim

Purim, Winter 1992

In rabbinic Judaism, Purim is less major than Sukkot and less minor than Tu Bi-Shevat. Like Hanukka, it enjoys a not too solemn middle status.

Purim has a built-in ambivalence. On the one hand, it features masks and plays and Mardi Gras type fun. On the other hand, it insists on reading a serious story about a Persian anti-Semite who plots to destroy all the Jews and is, in turn, de­stroyed with all his cohorts. Anti-Semitism and Carnival, on the surface at least, do not seem to mix very easily.

This odd combination is due to Purim’s history.

The original Purim may have been cel­ebrated on the full moon of Adar (some­where around March 1). Like Tu Bi-Shevat, it was one of several “welcome to spring’’ fertility festivals that were available for public use. Yahveh was not in its original cast of characters. Rival deities who had their origins in Babylonia held center stage. Marduk (Mordecai) was the god of the heavens. Ishtar (Esther) was the goddess of the fertile earth. Haman was an under­world devil with pretensions. Zeus, Demeter, and Hades would be comparable stars in a Greek setting. Ishtar and Haman, the forces of life and death, vie with each other. Ishtar triumphs. And so, of course, does the spring.

Like the Mardi Gras festival, the day was filled with dramatic reenactments of the story and sexual liaisons to promote fertil­ity. Ishtar was served by impersonation, masks, and disguise. Fun was inevitable.

The name Purim is obscure. And the place of origin is also not clear. Was it a native Palestinian holiday dressed up in Babylonian clothing? Or was it a Babylonian import adopted by a growing community of Babylonian Jews? No one is sure.

What is sure is that the priests and rabbis cleaned up the holiday for official Jewish use. Marduk and Ishtar could not remain in the story as gods. They reemerged as two nice Persian Jews (the Persians had re­placed the Chaldean Babylonians as the conquerors of the Jews) who were now being persecuted by a Persian devil called Haman. The Book of Esther is the result of these revisions.

If there is no reference to Yahveh in this entire story, it is only because Yahveh was not part of the original story. The authors simply turned the pagan gods into people.

However, the rabbis never really trusted Purim. It was not pure enough for their taste.[1] Only political controversy rescued the holiday. Rabbinic hostility to the Maccabees gave Purim a chance to suc­ceed. The major celebration of the Maccabean victories was not Hanukka but Nicanor’s Day, which fell on the thirteenth of Adar. (Nicanor was a Greek general whom the Maccabees had defeated in a fierce battle.) Simply abolishing Nicanor’s Day would not work. Substituting another holiday for it, on the very next day, would divert public attention with alternative activity. Purim was ready and available for this new role. The people fell in love with it.

Some humorless modernists have diffi­culty with Purim. They deplore the venge­ful treatment of Haman. And they are wary of celebrating a holiday about people who never really existed.

But Humanistic Jews are reluctant to discard a fun-filled holiday with as much potential as Purim, especially one that ironically gave up its theology for theologi­cal reasons. While the story of Mordecai and Esther is indeed mythical, it can be treated as a legend. A charming tale that demonstrates how human ingenuity and human courage prevail is much more hu­manistic than pious truths about pious rabbis.

Since dressing up as a Purim character is part of the traditional celebration, why not expand the idea to include all the heroes of Jewish history? We need a “hero day” to honor the humanistic role models of our past and present. In this way, the legendary story becomes the setting for honors to real people.

      Heroes are important. They are the embodiment of our ideals. Even when we exaggerate their virtues, honoring them is preferable to not having them at all.

      We need two kinds of ancestral roots. We need folk roots, the memories of persons and places that describe our begin­nings and development. We also need ethical roots, role models of behavior from our family tree. After all, the gods of traditional religion started out as revered ancestors.

Traditional Jews already have their hu­man pantheon. Most of it is ancient and, therefore, open to mystery and myth. Abraham, Moses, David, Ezra, Hillel, Akiba, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are the major stars. And there are dozens of minor ethical performers who people the pages of the Torah and the Talmud.

Humanistic Jews are still in the process of assembling their hero list. While most of the traditional heroes are appropriate memo­ries for our folk roots, many of them are inappropriate as moral guides, as ethical role models. Some of them adored the supernatural and deplored any reliance on human effort. Others were militantly paro­chial, viewing any social connection with Gentiles as defiling and abhorrent.

We cannot simply borrow the tradi­tional list and doctor it up a bit. We have to create our own list. It will include not only ancient luminaries, but also modern sages; not only those who stayed within the framework of organized religion, but also those who denounced it. Our list of heroes will include fewer people who can hide behind the myths of an unknown past and more people who are forced to face the scientific scrutiny of the present.

But how do we choose?

      What are the criteria for a Humanistic Jewish hero?

      If we expand Purim to Hero Day —retaining all the fun and using Mordecai and Esther as legendary models — we will have a guide.

      Humanistic Jewish heroes have to be famous. They have to distinguish them­selves in some field of human endeavor so that their names are widely known. The heroes must be identifiable, not only to their friends, but also to their enemies. A model figure whom nobody knows is hardly the stuff from which heroes are made.

They have to enjoy their Jewishness. Humanist heroes of Jewish origin who have no positive interest in their Jewish identity can hardly be models for those who choose this value.

They have to make decisions in a ratio­nal way. If they were always talking about faith and sacred authority, they would be an embarrassment to recommend to hu­manistic youth. This criterion does not mean that they must be explicit devotees of empiricism and the scientific method. Our heroes simply may be commonsensical people open to changing their opinion on the basis of new evidence and able to live with uncertainty and the unknown.

They have to be people of action. In times of crisis, they must avoid passive waiting and use their human skills to solve their problems. The childish posture that places responsibility for action on outside protective powers is not morally accept­able. Prayer is harmful when it is a substi­tute for real action. Waiting for the messiah does not qualify someone as a humanist hero.

They have to be bold. They must be willing to publicly challenge old ideas that do not conform to the evidence of experi­ence and to defy old institutions that no longer serve human needs. They are not afraid to be innovators.

They have to be caring persons. They must be able to transcend themselves to serve the needs of others. They must be sensitive not only to the desires of those who are familiar but also to the desires of strangers. Rational people who use their reason against the welfare of the commu­nity may be smart, but they are hardly humanist heroes.

Who, in Jewish history, fits these crite­ria? Many come to mind: David, Elisha ben Abuya (the radical rabbi of the ancient world], Baruch Spinoza, Theodore Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Woody Allen, Sholem Aleichem.

These people are humanistic Jewish philosophy translated into the flesh. They are easier to understand and to imitate than are abstract principles.

The Purim play needs more characters. We start with Mordecai and Esther. But we do not have to stop with them.

Marriage and Humanistic Judaism

Marriage Manual, Summer 1987

When marriage began, there was very little talk about romantic love, friendship, and personal growth. Marriage was soci­ety’s way of licensing reproduction and providing a structure for the rearing of chil­dren. In some parts of the world, this view of the relationship between husband and wife still prevails.

Bonding between men and women is very old, certainly prehistoric. For the woman, the initial motivation was protec­tion for herself and her children. For the man, the initial purpose was sexual. After men discovered the connection between sexual intercourse and reproduction, the appeal of owning and controlling women and children became a second motivation.

In the Semitic world, from which Jews emerged, marriage became a patriarchal institution. It was designed by vested inter­est and folk custom to enhance masculine power. Women were purchased from their fathers and became the property of their husbands. Virginity was demanded of brides but not of grooms. Chastity was required of wives but not of husbands. Men, if they could afford it, could enjoy more than one wife. Women were stuck with one husband — and often many rivals. Men could divorce their wives with little provo­cation. But women, as the possessions of their husbands, had to endure what is unen­durable in our eyes.

In the traditional Semitic world, mar­riage was obligatory for all males and females — a sign of their commitment to the survival of their families, clans, and tribes. Since reproduction was the primary pur­pose of marriage, older men married younger women. Seldom did younger men marry older women. Romantic love was rare because it diverted from the central theme of survival and status. Friendship between husband and wife was difficult because men and women were not equal and spent very little social time together. If anything, poverty enhanced the condition of women by forcing men to use their labor in the fields. The wives of rich men suffered exclusion and isolation.

Of course, as the patriarchal legends of the Bible indicate, the landscape was not entirely bleak. Most men practiced monog­amy. Many husbands and wives were joined together by loyalty and mutual respect through years of marriage. Many women enjoyed the task of mothering. They also enjoyed great power over their sons, espe­cially after their husbands died. And clever women often exercised enormous power over their husbands, even though they were careful to preserve the outer signs of male domination.

The structures of the old Semitic family prevailed through most of Jewish history until the advent of the secular age. While the urbanization of Jews radically altered their economic life, it did not change the basic concept of marriage, which was contained in the rules and regulations of the Torah and the Talmud. In fact, bourgeois life often aggravated the work distinctions between husband and wife by separating the workplace from the home. Men spent less time as fathers. Women spent more time as mothers.

The traditional Jewish marriage was hardly the stuff out of which humanist dreams are made. Male chauvinism, the focus on reproductive purposes, and the confinement of women to narrowly defined tasks violate our ideals and commitments. In fact, it is hard to imagine that they ex­isted, especially after the dramatic changes of the past two hundred years.

Capitalism, science, and democracy ren­dered traditional marriage obsolete. City life provided jobs for women outside the home and gave them independent economic power. Children became more expensive and less useful. The technology of birth con­trol emerged with the motivation to use it. Old patriarchal political structures declined, yielding to popular elections. Land, ances­tors, and tradition became less important and a new competitive environment of new options took their place.

The results are dramatic. Men are less sure of themselves. Women are more confi­dent. More women are having fewer chil­dren. More people are choosing to remain single. Premarital sex is popular. Divorce is a freely used option for both men and women. Extended families have disap­peared. More and more nuclear families have two breadwinners. And modern psy­chology has elevated love and friendship to requirements for a good marriage.

Despite this social revolution, marriage remains very popular. The overwhelming majority of men and women in North America still choose to marry, even though they may do it more than once. Of course, there are many variations. Some couples prefer to have no children. Some live to­gether for short or long periods of time before they seek the formal sanction of society through civil or religious cere­monies. Some dispense with the old work distinctions of husband and wife, sharing the traditional female tasks of housekeeping and parenting.

How do we as humanistic Jews respond to all this change? While we must certainly be pleased about the overthrow of patri­archal marriage, we may not be equally enthusiastic about all the developments that followed. While the tyranny of folk custom may limit human potential, a free society may produce consequences that are not conducive to healthy marriage. Frequent divorce, extramarital sex, frivolous motiva­tion, sado-masochistic unions, and an ab­sence of commitment would not receive humanistic endorsement, even though they are new and chic in certain circles.

So, what are the moral and psychological criteria that we would use to determine the value of a marriage? First of all, it is impor­tant to emphasize that marriage is valuable. Bonding between men and women serves a deep human need. Social experiments that have sought to dispense with marriage in some kind of sexual free-for-all have not succeeded. But marriage is more than a pri­vate arrangement. It deserves and needs the recognition of society because it is the major support system both for adult individuals and for children in our culture. Promises are made that need the authority of the com­munity to apply pressure for their fulfill­ment. Today, too many people abandon worthwhile relationships because they are unable to sustain any form of short-run pain and frustration.

A humanistic Jewish marriage may have children as a primary motivation. But it need not. Couples who love and respect each other and choose to have no children have a morally valid reason for getting mar­ried. There is no single ethically valid pur­pose for matrimony.

A humanistic Jewish marriage insists on equality, an equal sharing of power in deci­sion making. Of course, this condition is more easily advocated than arranged for. Talent, persuasive powers, and unconscious intimidation skills are not equally distrib­uted. Pragmatic equality means that major decisions are arrived at through negotiation and consultation, not unilaterally. Good- humored couples often divide up major responsibilities between husband and wife to save time. Menial work is always the rub. The emerging pattern when wives work outside the home is that men are mastering housekeeping skills, which many of them already have acquired in single life.

A humanistic Jewish marriage demands love. Love is more than a feeling. It is a nur­turing behavior derived from our childhood experience with parents. Romantic feelings come and go. Sexual desire comes and goes. Since neither is open to human control, they can be praised. They cannot be demanded. Love, on the other hand, is a caring behav­ior. It reinforces self-esteem. It relieves pain. It shares pleasure. It offers support. It is a moral obligation, whether one is in the mood or not.

A humanistic Jewish marriage involves friendship. In traditional societies, men had male friends and women had female friends. But in a society of equality, more and more husbands and wives are discovering that they are best friends to each other. In fact, they frequently become friends first, even before any romantic interest develops. Friendship means intimacy, the willingness to share thoughts and feelings, the willing­ness to be vulnerable. It also means honesty, the ability to stop pretending, the freedom to let others know what we really are. People are willing to confide only when they trust one another. And trust derives from the chemistry of a relationship, the sense that the other person really understands and really cares.

A humanistic Jewish marriage is based on a commitment to exclusive sexual rela­tions. It does not separate love, friendship, and sexual intimacy. In the early days of sexual liberation, open marriage was advo­cated as a legitimate option. Since then, most of its advocates have retracted their endorsement. One has to be emotionally naive about the evolution of human desire to imagine that, if you can only dispense with irrational guilt, having sex is no more significant than eating candy. And one has to be naive about self-esteem to believe that choosing alternative sexual partners is not viewed as an act of rejection by either hus­band or wife. Jealousy is a real human emo­tion, which so-called liberated hedonists love to deny or dismiss as childish, but which defines the limits of sexual freedom. Only cruel spouses arrange for sexual games that undermine trust, love, and friendship. The commitment of marriage is a sexual discipline that subordinates phys­ical intimacy to the project of bonding. People who want to be promiscuous should not marry.

A humanistic Jewish marriage involves increasing levels of commitment. Verbal pledges cannot produce what only experi­ence can create. One of the ironies of mar­riage is that we usually have the biggest celebration at the beginning, when the bonds still may be thin. Perhaps we should reverse the procedure. Perhaps couples should live together for a period of time to explore their compatibility in an exclusive relationship before they seek the sanction of the state and the religious community. Per­haps the marriage ceremony should be a modest one, appropriate to the level of their love and friendship. Perhaps, in five or ten years, when they have demonstrated the viability of their choice, they can turn to more splendid celebrations. In any case, the now common practice of living together before marriage for a trial period may be morally more desirable than most tradition­alists allow.

A humanistic Jewish marriage is not a prison. All decisions are risks. They may lead to what we want. They may not. To insist on preserving what is not worthy of preservation is irrational. There is no value to eternity for eternity’s sake. Divorce is the right to correct mistakes, to terminate suf­fering, to try again. Divorce is not a sign that the marriage was rotten. In many cases, it worked quite well for a short or long period of time. People change. Needs change. Both husbands and wives have the right to end their marriage if love, friendship, and trust are gone.

A humanistic Jewish marriage learns from Jewish history. The Jewish experience speaks a humanistic message, the message that we cannot rely on the kindness of des­tiny, that we must assume the responsibility for our own fate. In the end, the success of a marriage does not depend on “good luck.” It depends on the commitment of husband and wife to make their relationship work. Commitment is an act of will, a willingness to endure temporary pain in order to achieve some future pleasure. Without that deter­mination it is highly unlikely, in this age of personal liberation, that any marriage will last for long. People without the power of commitment are condemned to live in the desperate world of immediate gratification.

One of the reasons why personal commit­ment is so difficult is that social pressures to get married and to stay married are fast disappearing. It is not true that people in the past were more committed to relationships than people are today. It is just that the out­side support system has fallen away. In a real sense, commitment today is far more genuine than it was in the past. It is now an unforced personal decision in a sea of social indifference. We have to choose commit­ment. It is no longer coerced.

The sign of commitment is that we develop realistic expectations of a marriage relationship, that we do not seek to sabotage the bonding with inappropriate fantasy. We do not expect our marriage partner always to be available to us at our beck and call. We do not expect him or her to be a substitute for our father or mother. We do not expect that marriage will banish boredom and tedium. We do not expect that loving some­one is the same as falling in love.

In our consumer culture, expectation levels are so high that they condemn mil­lions of people to disappointment who otherwise would be happy. And growing up takes so long that we often feel needy and victimized, unaware that we have the power to help ourselves and others.

Despite all our present problems, it is dangerous to wax nostalgic, to over-romanticize the family of the traditional past. The movements of modern liberation have pro­duced more good than evil. They have en­abled the citizens of the modern world, men and women, to expand the possibilities of marriage.

Humanistic Jewish marriage, although it has its roots in traditional marriage, rests on radically different premises. It recognizes the right of men and women to freely choose their marriage partners. It affirms the equality of husbands and wives. It recognizes love and friendship to be legiti­mate reasons for bonding. It sanctions sin­gleness as a moral alternative. The test of its validity will be the happiness and dignity that will be found by the men and women who live within its framework.

New Ethnic Realities and the Jewish Future

Judaism Beyond Ethnicity, Summer 1997

Two forces are shaping North American Jewry and making it radically different from the Jewish population of Israel. One is assimi­lation; the other is intermarriage.

In Israel a new Jewish ethnicity is emerging. Despite the initial problems of in­tegration, Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Maghrebi, Yemenite, Oriental, and Ethiopian Jews are merging through intermarriage. In fifty to one hundred years a new gene pool defined by this melting pot will be firmly established. You can already see the racial mixture: not as white as European Jewry, not as dark as the Yemenite complexion.

A new culture is also emerging — a mix of Ashkenazic European ambition and the more family-oriented loyalties of the Near Eastern world. Israel will not be a liberal Anglo-Saxon democracy. Nor will it be a pa­triarchal Oriental despotism. It will be an interesting mixture of the two. The binding force of this combination is the Hebrew lan­guage, which serves as its linguistic glue. In time a Hebrew-speaking ethnic group, neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic, will take its place among the family of nations.

For the predominantly Ashkenazic Jews of North America, however, a different future is in store. While Israelis are being re-ethnicized, American Jews are being de-ethnicized. Due to assimilation and intermarriage with the Christian majority, the ethnic profile of North American Jewry is radically changing.

At one time the overwhelming majority of American Jewry came out of the Ashkenazic centers of Eastern Europe. There, Jews were a distinct nation, with a distinct language and national culture of their own. Yiddish vocabu­lary, Yiddish food, Yiddish humor, Yiddish music, and Yiddish anxiety all combined to pro­duce the self-image we identify as Yiddishkeit. As a national identity, it transcended religion and flavored every aspect of Jewish cultural ex­istence. For many Jews the nostalgia and roots of the Jewish experience lay with chicken soup and gefilte fish as much as with any theological doctrine. In America, Jewish identity hovered somewhere between the nationality-based iden­tities of the Irish and Italians and the religion- based identities of Protestants and Catholics.

But American culture is overwhelming in its power. The American way of life dissolves all competing ethnicities. Only where there is racial distinction, as in the case of African Ameri­cans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans, does ethnic distinction survive. In the world of white America, assimilation and intermarriage have produced a new white gene pool, a union of WASP, Irish, Italian, Polish, German, and doz­ens of other European contributors. The typical white American is now “one-quarter this” and “one-quarter that.” A new American white ethnicity is emerging, in the same way as a new ethnic blend is emerging in Israel.

American Jews are increasingly becom­ing part of this new white ethnicity — in language and culture, for sure, In fact, the new white American culture has already incorpo­rated many aspects of Ashkenazic culture, from Yiddish words and the bagel to a fond­ness for Hanukka and Passover. Hundreds of Christian groups are now celebrating Passover seders all over America.

As for the genetic profile of American Jewry, intermarriage is making it blonder and blonder while Israelis are getting darker and darker. Last names are no longer a clue to Jew­ish identity. Even in Jewish parochial schools today, the student population is less ethni­cally identified than the population of public schools in Jewish ghetto neighborhoods fifty years ago. In many respects, then, American Jews are becoming part of the new ethnic re­ality called American whites.

What all this means is that North Ameri­can and Israeli strategies for Jewish survival cannot be the same. The Israeli strategy is na­tionalistic and linguistic, a powerful blending of Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultures within a shared territory and shared economy. The North American strategy is religious and cultural, blending Ashkenazic memory with the over­whelming presence of the American milieu. The only way to avoid this experience is to repudi­ate the blending process and to recreate segregation, as the ultra-Orthodox, like fundamentalist Muslims, have sought to do. Both groups repudiate American culture in their dress and in the roles they assign to women.

For the overwhelming majority of Ameri­can Jews, though, Judaism no longer exists in the context of Ashkenazic culture. It functions in the context of American white culture, a setting quite different from that of Israel. In such a context, Jewish identity will be less a matter of birth than a matter of choice. It will be less a matter of roots than a matter of a convincing personal philosophy of life. Jews who choose to be active Jews will need more than shtetl nostalgia, Holocaust-inspired alienation, and the Israeli connection. They will have to believe that the historic Jewish experience speaks to the human condition.

It may be that Israel will continue, for a while, to provide some support for Jewish ethnicity in America. But the self-image of American Jews and that of Israeli Jews no longer coincides. As a new “white melting pot” emerges in North America, the diver­gence will increase.

The Jewish future in North America will be the story of a people physically quite dis­tinct from the immigrant Jewish population of a century ago. This people will create its practices and beliefs in a setting of fierce com­petition, a free marketplace of appeals to the hearts and minds of the American public.

These new realities present a fundamen­tal challenge to secular Jews. It is important to remember that the first powerful expres­sion of a secular Judaism in the nineteenth and twentieth century was nationalism. Nationalism was built around the powerful bonds of Ashkenazic culture, Yiddish lan­guage and literature, and racial anti-Semitism. The Zionist movement substituted Hebrew for Yiddish, but it maintained with great fervor that Jewish identity was a national identity. Nationalism was a convincing and strong alternative to religious identity. In many respects it was stronger. Language and patrio­tism are even more time-consuming than religious ritual. Segregation and inmarriage were as natural to a community that was linguistically segregated as to one that was culturally isolated.

But while in Eastern Europe and Pales­tine a full-scale nationalism could be maintained, in assimilated Western Europe and North America nationalism degenerated into mere ethnicity. Initially, immigrant groups such as Ashkenazic Jews maintained linguistic segregation in ethnic ghettos, but public schools and linguistic conformity to the majority culture in a free society based on personal opportunity undermined linguis­tic uniqueness. Ethnicity came to mean a sense of common descent, with such cultural artifacts as ethnic food, ethnic music, and ethnic anxiety providing additional flavor. But ethnicity is not nationalism, and Yiddish culture in English is not exactly Yiddish culture. It is a variation on Anglo- Saxon American culture.

Ethnicity was a pale imitation of the original secular Jewish program. In an assimilationist environment with a dominant linguistic culture, ethnic uniqueness could not last. Like the smile of the vanishing Cheshire cat, it had very little substance. With the arrival of intermarriage it had very little future. Without racial distinction, ethnicity was hard to hang on to.

To base a secular Judaism on ethnic awareness is to set it up on a flimsy foundation. For fourth-generation assimi­lated American Jews, Yiddish culture is, at most, something to be studied and valued. But in the absence of Yiddish neighbor­hoods where Yiddish is spoken, it can no longer be experienced. Jewish separation can no longer be maintained by ethnicity; it can be maintained only by religion. The revival of a militant Orthodoxy is a response to this reality. Indeed, some ethnically minded Jews have chosen religion for themselves and their children, even though they do not believe in its theological premises, because they see religion as the only way to preserve a Jewish presence in an assimilationist society.

The challenge is clear. If a secular Juda­ism is to be viable in North America it can no longer rely on the national or ethnic strategy.

Humanistic Judaism, in contrast to the secular Judaism that preceded it, did not start out with the ethnic model. It started out with communities that were primarily philo­sophic in orientation and that connected a humanistic approach to life with the his­tory and experience of the Jewish people. The humanistic message was not uniquely Jewish, but it was powerfully tied to the skepticism, humor, and ambition that flow from the Jewish experience.

The project of Humanistic Judaism for the twenty-first century is to develop a secular Judaism without nationalism or ethnicity as its primary foundation. In order to do this, we need to develop two vital parts of our message.

We need to emphasize that our movement is more than an indulgence in ethnic nostal­gia. We have a message about human power, human dignity, and human responsibility that can help to transform daily living in a posi­tive and significant way, and this message, for both adults and children, can best be experi­enced and integrated within the framework of community.

We also need to become “historical” Jews. An identification with Jewish history is dif­ferent from an identification with Ashkenazic ethnicity. Jewish history features many ethnicities, from Ashkenazic and Sephardic to Oriental and Falasha. Jewish history also carries a clear humanistic message: in the face of overwhelming odds, survival and dignity can be achieved only through human effort. This modern, humanistic interpretation more accurately describes the meaning of Jewish history than did the establishment rabbis of earlier times.

Jewish history is attached to an interna­tional culture that unites its many ethnicities in the same way that a Christian culture unites the many nations that embraced Christianity. This international Jewish culture includes the Hebrew language, seasonal holidays, litera­ture and music from several ethnic sources, and an attachment to the national homeland from which this international culture sprang.

Humanistic Judaism cannot provide the intense group identity that the isolation of ultra-Orthodox Judaism provides. Nor does it want to. In an open and free society, such seg­regation undermines human potential. What Humanistic Judaism does provide is a “cultural religion” with a powerful philosophy of life and a powerful aesthetics drawn from the intense struggle for survival of an extraordinary people.

For many Jews with Ashkenazic nostal­gia, as well as for many Jews with no ethnic sentiment, this combination in an attractive community setting can enhance the meaning of life.

RESPONSA – Conversion

Question: Does Humanistic Judaism provide for conversion? If Judaism is viewed primarily as a culture, what does conver­sion mean?

Responsum: Conversion is a Christian term. It refers to the dramatic transforma­tion of the individual who “sees the light” and is saved. This transforming or “born again” experience is not only the result of personal choice but also of divine grace and intervention. In the broader sense conversion refers to any act of becoming a Christian, whether that transforming expe­rience occurs or not. In both cases there is a theistic component. If the conversion is sincere, the convert comes to believe cer­tain things about God that he or she did not believe before. The sign of conversion is baptism.

Becoming a Jew has been an entirely different experience. First of all, we Jews started out as a nation, not a theological fraternity. Joining a nation is different from joining a religious denomination.

In biblical times, Jewish identity was not tied to the affirmation of any theologi­cal principles. Until the imposition of priestly tyranny around 450 B.C., there was no enforced religious conformity. Both monotheism and polytheism were Jewish. In the absence of formal naturalization, becoming a Jew meant that you were adopted into a Jewish family or married to a Jewish man (since women were the possessions of their husbands).

In the priestly period (450-165 B.C.), great emphasis was placed on racial pu­rity. Non-Jews were discouraged from join­ing the Jewish nation, by intermarriage or otherwise. Male circumcision became a sign of Jewish identity. If a non-Jewish man wanted to become a Jew and was not circumcised, he had to undergo this pain­ful surgery.

The Book of Ruth, which was written during the priestly period but set in an earlier time, was most likely a protest against the racial policies of the priests. Ruth, a Moabite, became a Jew by marrying a Jew. When her husband died, she had to choose between returning to her family and staying with her husband’s family. By choosing to follow her mother-in-law (an interesting development, to say the least), she remained a Jew.

In the rabbinic period (100 B.C.-500 C.E.), very clear procedures for becoming a Jew were defined. Jews had come to equate national identity with religious conformity, especially the conformity prescribed by the rabbis. Moreover, be­cause rabbinic ideology was Salvationist and promised life after death (very much like Christianity, which ultimately imi­tated it), many people were choosing to become Jews for religious reasons and not for national or marriage reasons.

Rabbinic Judaism is what today is called Orthodoxy. Despite the large influx of non- Jews into the Jewish nation for religious reasons, the Orthodox procedure for be­coming a Jew remained profoundly racial. An invidious distinction was made be­tween born Jews and entering Jews. Jews born of a Jewish mother were Jewish for­ever. Even if they repudiated God and the rabbinic religion, they remained Jews. No religious criterion could alter their right to be called Jews. Their tribal and national origin was sufficient. Entering male Jews, on the other hand, confronted three tests. The first was the repudiation of their for­mer religious practices and the adoption of the halakhic lifestyle. The second was circumcision. The third was ritual purifi­cation in a ritual pool (mikvah). Entering women were spared circumcision and now could join in their own right and not merely as attachments to their husbands.

During the Middle Ages, becoming a Jew was not an important issue because both Christian and Muslim governments forbade Jews to accept “converts.” But the emancipation period, with its open society and increasing intermarriage, made “con­version” an important issue in Jewish life.

Conservative Judaism maintained the Orthodox provisions. Reform Judaism, in its most radical expansion, abandoned all three rabbinic criteria and simply required an affirmation of faith (Christian style). But, in recent years, many Reform rabbis have returned to traditional procedures.

Humanistic Judaism welcomes every­body who wants to be Jewish. The process of becoming a Jew rests on premises quite different from traditional assumptions.

 Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people. And Jewish identity is a cultural identity.

 Any person who wishes to identify with the culture, history and fate of the Jew­ish people is eligible for membership.

 There are no ideological or theological requirements for membership. However, Humanistic Jews can, with integrity, welcome only other humanists.

 There is no necessity for the potential “convert” to repudiate his or her beliefs or lifestyle. We are wary of people who “suddenly see the light” or who reject the commitments of a lifetime. Loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people is a cultural addition, not a personal trans­formation.

 Entering the Jewish people is not a religious conversion. It is more like being adopted by a family. Perhaps adoption would be a good humanistic substitute for the word conversion.

 Acceptance should be mutual. An indi­vidual cannot unilaterally decide to join the Jewish people. An existing Jewish community must extend the invitation.

Every Humanistic Jewish community is free to establish procedures for adoption. The procedures that now exist usually involve the following activities:

 Studying Judaism and Jewish history from a humanistic perspective.

 Involvement with Jewish culture and a Jewish community.

 Celebration of welcome.

Receiving a Hebrew name as a sign of membership in the Jewish people.

Humanistic Judaism recognizes that the motivation to become Jewish is rarely ideological. People want to become Jews because they are married to Jews, because they are comfortable with Jewish culture, because they like their association with Jewish people. The adoption process ought to reflect these realities.

What Could Be More Humanistic Than Jewish Humor?

Jewish Humor – Summer 1991

Jewish humor. Most everybody admits that it exists. But not everybody agrees on what it means. Is it simply ordinary humor with a slightly distinct ethnic touch? Or is it more significant — a folk culture assault on the establishment ideology of rabbinic Judaism?

For most secularized Jews in North America, Jewish humor is a more impor­tant part of their lives than the Torah. It speaks more powerfully to them than the priestly piety of the Pentateuch. Long after traditional religion virtually vanished from the lives of many Western Jews, Jewish jokes remain a standard part of Jewish conversation.

Despite its universal presence, Jewish humor is rarely taken seriously. To the scholars of Judaism, Jewish belief and conviction lie in the texts of the rabbis, the Talmud, and the Siddur. Religion is a very serious business. What most people believe is what official texts tell them they believe. Since almost none of these texts is very funny, humorous observations about the human condition do not play a part in any elementary discussion of basic Judaism.

Traditional religion and humor are opposite ways of responding to the human condition. The heart of religion is worship, a recurrent surrender to the will of God. Worship rests on the profound conviction that all is well with the world even though the world appears to be sick. God is loving, just, and orderly even though we do not seem to be experiencing a lot of love, justice, and moral order. From the human perspective, life is crazy. From the divine perspective, the world, with all its super­natural rewards and punishments, is a wonderful place.

Philosophic humor starts with the ab­surdity of life. The world is not fair. The good are punished more than they ought to be. The wicked are rewarded more than they ought to be. Kindness gets you bubkes. Cruelty gets you power. The nicest thing you can say about God, if you believe that he exists, is what Woody Allen said: “God is an underachiever.” (Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist move­ment, and Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, really say the same thing as Allen. But they are so caught up in the worship mentality that they don’t understand how funny they are.]

Humor, unlike worship, is neither friendly nor reverent. It is usually hostile. In human evolutionary history (as Desmond Morris suggested in Manwatching], laugh­ter did not begin as a friendly gesture. Displaying teeth was generally the prelude to biting, not caressing. In philosophic humor, our words do what our teeth are no longer permitted to do.

A simple story by Sholem Aleichem from Tevyeh the Milkman will illustrate my point. Tevyeh is talking to God. “Pull, miserable monster! Drag, you wretched beast in the likeness of a horse! You’re no better than I am! If it’s your destiny to be Tevyeh’s horse, then suffer like Tevyeh, and learn like Tevyeh and his family to die of hunger seven times in the day and then go to bed supperless. Is it not written in the Holy Book that the same fate shall befall man and beast? . . . No! That is not true. Here I am at least talking, while you are dumb and cannot ease your pain with words. My case is better than yours. For I am human, and a Jew, and I know what you do not know. I know that we have a great and good God in heaven, who governs the world in wisdom and mercy and loving kindness, feeding the hungry and raising the fallen and showing grace to all living things. I can talk my heart out to Him, while your jaws are locked, poor thing. However, I must admit that a wise word is no substitute for a piece of herring or a bag of oats ….

“Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house (Good! But I take it, O Lord, that Thy house is somewhat more spacious than my hovel!)…. I will extol Thee, my God, O King (What good would it do me if I didn’t?)…. Every day I will bless thee (on an empty stomach, too) …. The Lord is good to all (And suppose He forgets some­body now and again, good Lord, hasn’t He enough on His mind?)…. The Lord up- holdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all that are bowed down (Father in Heaven, loving Father, surely it’s my turn now, I can’t fall any lower)…. Thou openest Thy hand and satisfiest every living thing (So You do, Father in Heaven, You give with an open hand — one gets a box on the ear, and another roast chicken, and neither my wife nor I nor my daughters have even smelt a roast chicken since the days of creation)…. He will fulfill the desire of them that fear Him; He will also hear their cry and will save them. (But when, O Lord? When?.. .)”

With worship like that you don’t need blasphemy. And with theology like that you don’t need religion. Like Woody Allen, Sholem Aleichem is a folk philosopher. He says more in ten lines than most formal philosophers say in volumes. What he says, although formally couched in reverence, is profoundly irreverent.

Tevyeh is the voice of the counter­establishment in Jewish life. While the rabbis and the pietists weave tales of divine love and divine justice, the folk culture is more honest. After two thousand years of undeserved persecution and murder, the appropriate response to all this misery is not “thank you.” It is “oy gevalt!” The rabbinic establishment preached denial and came up with faith. The folk culture paid attention to experience and came up with skepticism.

The skepticism was never openly pro­claimed. To do so would have filled the ambivalent souls of the common people with guilt. It also would have been very risky, inviting repression and excommuni­cation. Skepticism generally was dressed up in tradition and piety. But the tongue was in the cheek.

Both prophetic and rabbinic Judaism are filled with a powerful sense of divine justice. In the end goodness will triumph and evil will be defeated. It is this convic­tion that made them such powerful ideolo­gies, able to win the allegiance of the Jewish people. But they run counter to the experience of everyday life, especially the experience of oppressed people.

The ideological enemy of these humor­less ideologies is Jewish humor, which is actually philosophy, albeit folk philoso­phy. Jokes may not be considered a respectable way to communicate philosophy, but they are usually more effective than tedious theological prose. Woody Allen and Sholem Aleichem are part of a long, largely unpublished, skeptical tradition, a tradition filled with anger and a sense of outrage.

Jewish humor is the chief “traditional” voice of this skepticism. It is distinct from humor not specific to the Jewish condition, which is the common possession of both Jews and non-Jews. Conventional humor rests on the absurdity of surprise. It ranges from slipping on banana peels to taboo sex. It makes you laugh because you are caught unaware.

Jewish humor has the element of sur­prise. But it has more: a philosophic bitter­ness that ranges in degree from the safe commentary of Sam Levenson to the cru­elty of Lenny Bruce.

Jewish humor is more than the humor of an oppressed people. African-American humor is the humor of an oppressed people. But it is the humor of an oppressed servile people. Slave peoples mock themselves and their masters. They do not mock their religion. Jews are an oppressed pariah people. They were persecuted and rejected. But even though they were social outcasts, they retained their own community struc­tures. Slaves are integrated into the lives of their masters. Pariahs are marginal, exist­ing on the fringes of established society. They have enough distance to develop a healthy skepticism toward all authority, even divine authority.

There are two characteristics of tradi­tional Jewish humor. Both are present in the words of Tevyeh. Both reflect the ne­cessity to speak skepticism in a world that was officially pious. There is a false rever­ence, a false deference to authority. Tevyeh pretends to be pious, but his words are taunting. There is also deliberate denial. Disasters are called successes; defeats are labeled victories; absurdity is called jus­tice. The implication is clear: “With friends like this, you do not need enemies.”

Jewish humor was just as important as Jewish piety in preserving the Jewish people. Without the catharsis of laughter, the Jews would have choked on their own rage. The philosophy of Jewish humor was an antidote to the philosophy of faith, with all its passive acceptance and passive waiting. The Jewish personality that emerged out of the Jewish experience re­lied heavily on Jewish skepticism. Jewish ambition and self-reliance did not come from piety. They arose out of the deep-felt conviction that the fates were not as reli­able as the rabbis made them out to be.

The nervous, ambitious, skeptical, good- humored Jew has always been the Jew that appealed to me. Laughing has always seemed to me more Jewish than praying.