Two Kinds of Religion

Is Humanistic Judaism a religion? Winter 2002

Is Humanistic Judaism a religion?

For many people, including many Hu­manistic Jews, the answer would be no. There is no God. There is no worship. There are no prayers. There is no recognition of supernatu­ral power. A philosophy of life for atheists and agnostics cannot be religion.

But this answer may be naive. It fails to understand the history and function of reli­gion — especially in the lives of people who are products of the modern secular world.

Historically, religion has its origins in two developments.

The first is the human condition. To be human is to confront continuously two persistent and unpleasant realities: suffering and death. If there were no suffering and no death, religion would not exist. The need to cope with these two unwelcome intrusions is the mother of religious belief and religious behavior.

The second development is the human imagination. It is obvious that ordinary power — human power — cannot eliminate all suf­fering and abolish all deaths. It may reduce suffering and postpone death. But it cannot defeat them in the long run. Human imagina­tion, prompted by human desperation, pro­vides an alternative power so extraordinary that it can only be called magic.

Magic power defies the limitations of ordinary experience. It transcends the restric­tions of the natural world. Being supernatu­ral, it does not need to obey the laws of nature. Being sacred, it cannot be measured and cannot be exhausted. As a mysterious and overwhelming force, it can do what ordinary power is powerless to do. It can conquer both suffering and death. Magic and religion have a common origin: the human need to tran­scend the human condition.

The belief in magic power is reinforced by the uniqueness of the human experience. When we are born, we are helpless, unable to do anything for ourselves except cry for help. When our parents respond to our cries, when they rescue us, wipe us, and feed us, our in­fant minds perceive their power to be extraor­dinary and magical. Since childhood is very long, the addiction to magic becomes a natu­ral predilection that we are never fully pre­pared to give up. Fairy tales and Harry Potter continue to charm us even when we grow up. Part of us never wants to leave childhood. Part of us never wants to surrender magic power.

But magic and religion are not identical. Magicians seek to manipulate magic power. Religion worships it. Religion emerges when our parents and our more distant ancestors achieve the power to transcend death. They do this through the human belief in spirits of the dead. Since these spirits are familial and parental, we respond to them the way we re­spond to our mother and our father — with fear and with reverence. Ultimately the spir­its of the ancestral dead turn into gods. And the gods turn into God. Worship is the con­tinuation of the awe and the reverence that our childhood connection to parental power inspires. In the end our infant cries turn into prayer. And God remains our heavenly father and mother.

The two themes of religion, then, arising from the origins of religion, are magic power and ancestral reverence. When religion be­gins, it is attached to family, clans, and tribes. It is not something chosen. It is a set of practices that are inherited, from holidays and sacred symbols to prayer and dress. In most cultures religion and patriotism cannot easily be distinguished. They have the same roots and are inspired by the same attachments. Most people end up in the religious systems they embrace, not because of conscious reflection or personal beliefs, but because they love and fear their parents and their ancestors. Where the ancestral theme is the most powerful, religion can be called ancestral religion.

Sometimes, however, the theme of magic power becomes the central focus. During the past two thousand years, as ancestral ties have been weakened by urban civilization — as individualism and individual identity have been strengthened by mobility and the power of new technology — religion was separated from patriotism and became a matter of per­sonal choice. Personal immortality and eter­nal happiness became the major rewards, both of them guaranteed by magic power. In this way an alternative to ancestral religion was born. Because of its emphasis on individual reward, it can best be called salvation reli­gion. Christianity and Islam are salvation re­ligions. Buddhism, in its popular expression, is a salvation religion. The array of modern urban cults, from Hari Krishna to Scientology, are salvation religions. Even Rabbinic Juda­ism, with its final judgment day, is a salva­tion religion.

In salvation religion, ancestors fade away and magic power comes to the fore. Rituals, magical formulas, and personal faith release the powers of “the Force.” Ethnicity and eth­nic memory become irrelevant. Attachment to roots is less important than attachment to the message. The drama of personal conversion replaces the quiet comfort of inherited status.

Of course, salvation religion, if adopted by tribes and nations, can turn into ancestral religion. What starts out as personal choice can turn into an ancestral legacy. What starts out as personal conviction becomes piety, an intense desire to imitate one’s ancestors. Most Christians today are not part of salvation religion. They are Catholic because they are Irish, Orthodox because they are Greek, Presbyterian because they are Scottish. Most Muslims today are Muslim for the same reason. Most Jews are Jewish, again for the same reason. Ancestral loyalty replaces supernatural salvation as the primary motive for connection.

Since the Enlightenment, most Jews have been ideologically divorced from the salva­tional message of traditional Rabbinic Juda­ism. They are not even aware of it. The resurrection of the dead and the final judg­ment day have no place in their world view. If they think of themselves as religious, it is not because they have firm convictions about the reality of magic power. They are Jews be­cause their ancestors were Jews or because they married Jews. Their holidays and group symbols are not matters of personal choice, but inherited gifts, warmed by childhood memories and family nurturing. They are Jews because that is where “destiny” has placed them. With Buddhist parents, they would have been Buddhist. While their rabbis struggle to offer feeble proofs for the “superi­ority” of their faith, their faith has long since vanished. But their attachment to their roots remains strong.

If Judaism is viewed as a salvation religion, then Humanistic Judaism cannot be a religion. But if it is viewed as primarily an ancestral religion, then Humanistic Judaism is comfort­ably a religion. Humanistic Jews today are Jews for the same reason that most Jews today are Jews. Their “patriotism” is their religion.

For many “ancestral” Jews, magic power remains a minor theme in their attachment. For others it has disappeared entirely. For many “ancestral” Jews, loyalty to their ances­tors is so intense that they are willing to re­peat theological formulas and prayers they no longer believe in. For others, loyalty yields to personal integrity. They are unwilling to say what they do not believe.

Humanistic Judaism is a religion, but it is “less religious” than the more intense forms of ancestral religion. It refuses magic power. And it refuses to affirm what its adherents no longer believe.

Judaism, the historic culture of the Jew­ish people, is an ongoing legacy from the an­cestral past. Our continued participation in that culture is often motivated by affection for our ancestors. Whether we personify them as “God” or view their creations as human, our sense of roots can be equally powerful.

The Latin word religio refers to the bind­ing power of ancestral connection. Humanis­tic Jews are Jews because of that cultural and religious connection.

Who is a Jew: Fundamental Issues

IFSHJ Conference Highlights: Who is a Jew  Spring 1989

Two years ago in Detroit, about 350 peo­ple gathered from ten countries around the world to establish the International Federa­tion of Secular Humanistic Jews. There was great excitement in the air, a lot of hope and anticipation of what we might be able to do together. There was the surprise of discover­ing so many people around the world who shared our ideas, a sense of solidarity, relief from the isolation that people who think that their perception of Judaism is bizarre or different or outlandish often experience.

We were an assembly with great diversi­ty. Some were from old secular, socialist, politically radical backgrounds. Some came from traditional backgrounds. They had rebelled against that tradition; they felt themselves to be very, very Jewish but had not found themselves comfortable within the framework of a traditional Judaism, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform.

There were those who were children of intermarriage, who in some way found their Jewish connection to be a very special con­nection, who wanted to be part of the Jewish people but found themselves repudi­ated by religious authorities who, ironically, claim that Judaism invented love, brother­hood, and justice.

There were those who had come from assimilated backgrounds, people who had grown up in families where Jewish identity wasn’t very important but who now wanted in some very significant way to identify with the Jewish people.

We all came together to form that Federa­tion. We were trying to say something to the Jewish world. The question Who Is a Jew? is very much related to that context.

We, first of all, wanted to say to the world that we as Secular Humanistic Jews were not nonbelievers, that we were believers. People often put us in the category of not believing. That isn’t true. It may be that most Secular Humanistic Jews have many more beliefs than nonsecular Jews. I always say that to people when they challenge me. I say that I have a host of beliefs, positive beliefs, about people, the world, and humanity.

We were there at that meeting to say that Judaism, the Jewish people, is more than a religion or religious denomination; that we share a common history and a common fate and a common culture. We were there to say very clearly that we speak for the history of the Jewish people, a history dramatized by the Holocaust in this century; and indeed no divine voice could easily be heard in the cruelty that was meted out by fate to the Jewish people.

We also maintained that Judaism is more than words in the Siddur, or in the Tanakh, or in the Talmud; that Judaism is the experi­ence of the Jewish people, and that experi­ence has an ethical message relevant to one of the topics of this conference. I was talk­ing recently to a very traditional Jew who spoke about how appropriate it was to expel Arabs from Israel. I told him that was in­conceivable to me, given the history of the Jewish people. You can find a lot of reac­tionary quotations in Jewish literature, but the experience of the Jewish people is dif­ferent. And the message of that experience is compassion for the suffering.

Last, and above all, we were saying by coming together that we are a legitimate op­tion in the Jewish world. We were saying that there is a fourth alternative in Jewish life, which is real and legitimate, and our coming together was intended to make that possible.

The question Who Is a Jew? is related directly to our task of creating a meaningful Secular Humanistic Judaism. The issues in­cluded in that question lay the foundation of our ideology and our commitment. If you answer the question appropriately, you deal with the whole issue of the nature of Jewish­ness. I am always assaulted by people who tell me that you can’t really be Jewish without davening, without immersing your­self in the practices of the past. Indeed, if you define a Jew as a religious person, then you have no comeback.

Many young people in North America — and it may be true in Europe — are looking for their Jewish roots. When somebody from a yeshiva tells them that their roots are tradi­tional religion, even though they may not really believe, they choose to do so because it’s the only way they know how to be Jewish. We have a different answer. If we deal with that answer, we are dealing with a funda­mental part of Secular Humanistic Judaism.

The question Who Is a Jew? also addresses the issue of how we view human beings. Are we simply creatures of God, subject to his authority and humble and obedient before the laws that are given to us? Or are we autonomous persons? Do we as human beings have the right to define the groups we will belong to? If a human being stands up and says, “I identify with the history, the fate, and the culture of the Jewish people” and expresses his or her identity through ac­tion and goodwill, that person indeed has the right to call himself or herself a Jew.

This question deals with the issue of ethics and authority. Where does authority lie? Can a group of rabbis, self-proclaimed bearers of the word of God, decide who is a Jew, even though their criteria may be a mixture of racist and religious ones that are inapplicable to what we would call rational living today? Or does authority lie some­where else?

When somebody quotes to me all the traditional passages from the Tanakh and elsewhere that forbid intermarriage and in a sense exclude the offspring of it, my answer is, “I’m sure your quotations are correct, but of what value are they? They do not con­form to the standards of human reason and human compassion, and those are the stan­dards that are to be found in many texts in Jewish history and are implied in the ex­perience of the Jewish people; and they should be the chief criteria.”

Lastly, this question addresses the issue of the survival of the Jewish people. Are we going to be this exclusive club that checks birth certificates, gloats over the fact that people are excluded from organizations they would like to join, and takes great pride in our racial purity? Or are we going to be an open people that says to anybody who wants to join us, anybody who wants to be part of this Jewish experience, “We want you; we need you; come join us”?

The fundamental issues of Secular Humanistic Judaism are contained in this question and, therefore, the resolution that we make at this conference will lay the foundation for a meaningful and significant Jewish humanism. It is not only that we are fighting the militant Orthodox. We are seek­ing to define ourselves and who we are.

The Birmingham Temple’s First Quarter-Century

Humanistic Judaism in the Next Generation – Autumn 1988

We are twenty-five years old.

This year — 1988 — is an important year for us. It is our silver anniversary celebra­tion time.

Our temple is no ordinary temple. From the very beginning, we chose to publicly embrace an ideology different from that of the Jewish establishment. From the very beginning, we were embroiled in a controversy that most budding congrega­tions do not have to confront.

The reason for our existence and growth was never that we were a convenient subur­ban temple, nor that we were socially chic, nor that we provided physical amenities second to none. People came to us because they believed, despite all the difficulties of public exposure, in what we taught.

In other congregations, the initial trau­mas have to do with finding a place for ser­vices, recruiting people to teach children, developing a sense of belonging and com­mitment. We had those problems too. But they were always less important than trans­lating our stated convictions into a viable congregational format. Was it possible to abolish prayer and worship and still create an institution with a clear Jewish identity?

Out of the challenge to find an answer to this question came the Birmingham Tem­ple. And the answer that emerged still defines the reason for our existence.

We succeeded because we said certain things that had never clearly been said before in the North American Jewish community.

We said that there was no need for Jews to pretend to believe what indeed they did not believe. There was no need to recite prayers that were meaningless simply be­cause they were Jewish. There was no need to subscribe to convictions that were incred­ible simply because they were traditional. Our Jewish identity was not a function of any belief system. It was independent of any creeds. It arose out of family roots and family connection.

We said that there was no need to be kosherized by the past. Old Jewish state­ments were no more valuable than new ones simply because they were old. Ances­tors were no more authoritative than con­temporaries simply because they were an­cestors. The test of truth was not antiquity; it was reasonableness. The test of morality was not prophetic utterances; it was the promotion of human dignity. The test of Jewishness was not the Bible and the Tal­mud; it was a sense of identification with the culture and the fate of the Jewish people.

We said that there was no need to sepa­rate the secular and the religious. Congrega­tions, Shabbat meetings, and holiday cele­brations were not the sole possession of theistic people. Bar mitsvas and confirma­tions were not, of necessity, attached to prayers and Torah readings. Religion was more than the worship of God. It was, in the broadest sense, a philosophy of life turned into the morality and celebrations of an organized community. “Secular” was non- theistic, not nonreligious.

We said that there was no need to assume that nostalgia was the only warm emotion. Loyalty to the past may be just as cold as any set of prayers that are mumbled without emotion. And creativity for the future may be just as “hot” as the dancing of Hasidic devotees. The warmth of belonging and soli­darity is more likely to exist in a community where shared ideas and values bind people together than in a congregation that is a neighborhood convenience or a family inheritance.

We said that there was no need to lie to children. There was no need to assume that children required beliefs that we as adults no longer required. There was no need to teach children to believe what we knew they would ultimately reject when they grew up. The greatest gift that we can give our chil­dren is our honesty and integrity. When mouth and action come together, healthy religion begins.

We said that there was no need to be timid about necessary change. Cautious, piecemeal reform does not serve consis­tency well. Life is too short to be the prisoner of foolish contradictions. We do not exist to fit the forms of the past. The forms of the past exist to serve our needs and the needs of future generations. Sometimes only bold action will enable us to make things right.

All these things we said we are still saying. They define the reason for our existence.

A Secular Yeshiva

Humanistic Judaism in Israel – Winter 1985

A secular “yeshiva” now exists. Yes, a secular “yeshiva”!

Headquartered in Jerusalem, the Inter­national Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism is in the process of becoming a full reality. Despite the existence of a century-old tradition of secular Jewish thought, this is the first school of higher Jewish learning to be committed specifi­cally to the presentation of a humanistic perspective on Jewish identity.

How did the institute come into exist­ence? Why was it established? What will it do? Who are the people involved with it? Who will support it?


In October, 1981, a delegation of 40 North American Jews from the Society for Humanistic Judaism met with an equal number of secular Israeli leaders and intellectuals at Kibbutz Shefayim to share ideas and plan for future connections. Among those present were Shulamit Aloni, leader of the Citizens Rights Move­ment and member of the Knesset; Yehuda Sobel, well-known Israeli playwright; Meir Pail, spokesperson for the dovish Sheli party; and Uri Rapp, professor of the sociology of drama at Tel Aviv University.

A statement of principles, prepared by me, structured the agenda. Out of the two day dialogue emerged a strong awareness of the wide diversity of belief that exists within the secular Jewish world. Never­theless, a short statement about a Secular Humanistic Judaism was agreed on and signed by most of the people in atten­dance. Many of the participants expressed the hope that something more concrete and more meaningful would follow.

In July, 1983, under the stimulus of Zev Katz and Yehuda Bauer, professors at the Hebrew University, an organizing cele­bration with 200 people in attendance was held at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem to announce the establishment of the Israeli Association for Secular Humanis­tic Judaism. The Kibbutz Artzi movement, the more secular of the two kibbutz fede­rations, offered its support. Prominent academicians from the universities of Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv partici­pated in the program. Ultimately, seven small urban communities of Humanistic Jews emerged in the major cities of Israel.

In July, 1985, leaders of the Israeli association, together with leaders of the North American Society for Humanistic Judaism, the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, and Americans for a Pro­gressive Israel — as well as Jewish human­ists from England, France, and Argentina — met at the Hebrew University to estab­lish a school and research center for Secu­lar Humanistic Judaism. Excitement was high; most participants saw the new inter­national institute as a joint project to bring secular Jews all over the world into a working relationship.


Why the institute? After all, estab­lishing and maintaining a school of higher learning is no easy task. Given the effort that would be required, the mere desire to create some kind of group solidarity was not a sufficient reason. When the idea of an institute first emerged some time be­fore the 1983 meeting, certain compelling reasons presented themselves.

Most secular and humanistic Jews in the world are unaware that they are what they are. The “believers” who do know what they are often lack the knowledge or training to give depth to their convictions. Both groups need education. And effec­tive education requires the planning and the focused creativity that only a school can provide.

Secular Humanistic Judaism needs an intellectual outreach. It needs to recruit and use the enormous number of Jewish men and women in the worlds of aca­demia, writing, and the arts who see them­selves as secular Jews but who are so dis­persed that they have no opportunity for dialogue with peers who share their out­look. They often have no motivation to promote their Jewish convictions because they are unaware of any audience or com­munity structure that would give their efforts any meaning. If it were possible to recruit one-tenth of the available secular Jewish academicians for the task of ex­plaining and enriching the humanistic point of view, they would constitute a for­midable intellectual voice in the Jewish community. Especially in Israel, where the secular commitment has been intense and widespread for many years, the number of potential recruits is significant.

Humanistic Jewish creativity is more than a century old, but most of the results are unavailable to the secular public. They are hidden away in kibbutz archives, cul­ture club files, historical memoirs, and the private collections of talented individuals. No effort has ever really been made to bring them together, to select the best of the secular past so communities can draw upon it for their celebration life. It is amazing how much of the holiday and life cycle creativity of the kibbutz experience is unknown both to urban Israelis and to Diaspora Jews. Only a concerted effort by a research institute can rescue these treasures for posterity.

New literature is an urgent necessity. There are no popular history books of the Jewish people that are unashamedly secu­lar and consistently choose to view the Jewish experience through the eyes of a scientific humanism. There are few popu­lar books on philosophy, ethics, and lifestyle that articulate the secular Jewish point of view and seek to awaken human­istic self-awareness in the reading public, especially young people. There are no readily available celebration manuals for holidays and life cycle ceremonies to offer guidance to humanistically disposed Jews in how to design a satisfying humanistic Jewish ritual. The dearth of pragmatic and inspirational literature is a dramatic deficiency in the effort to create any kind of effective movement. Only a school with ideological commitments can arrange for the creation of this essential literature.

The “monuments” of tradition need attention. In Israel, where the Bible is an intrinsic part of the national conscious­ness and public education, to leave Bible instruction and Bible interpretation to traditional commentators and ambivalent liberals is to forego an opportunity for creating secular self-awareness. No con­tinuous secular humanistic commentary on the Bible now exists either in Hebrew or in English.

Such a commentary is an enormous task. But it is essential for dramatizing the secular alternative in the eyes of the Jew­ish public. It is obvious that such an effort, which requires the mobilization of the best scholars in the world of Jewish studies who share the humanistic outlook, can be undertaken only by an institution of higher learning.

Training leaders and spokespeople, both professional and nonprofessional, is essential to the progress of any organized ideology. The continuing success of the religious sector, whether conservative or liberal, is, to a large degree, due to the presence of organized communities with well-trained full-time leaders. And the persistent failure of the secular Jewish world to put its act together in any effective way is partly due to the lack of such communities and the professional leaders that make them possible. The hos­tility of classic secularists to the influence of the “clergy” — the exaggerated egalitar­ianism that saw the threat of new elites behind any designated leader — often left urban secular Jewish groups in a perpet­ual infancy. Trained leaders are neces­sary, whether they are designated rabbis or madrikhim (guides), whether they serve congregations in North America or urban fellowships in Israel. Only a college with an appropriate faculty can provide that training.

The growing threat of religious fundamentalism is a terrifying devel­opment. In Israel, in particular, the bold attempt of the orthodox to assume political power and to turn the Jewish state into a theocratic dictatorship endangers the survival of the secular Zionism that established the modern nation.

The old secular smugness has dis­appeared. There is real fear now — fear for the democratic future of the state, fear for the ideological future of coming generations. Secular Jews in Israel are aware that they often have failed to transmit their humanistic enthusiasm to their children and their grandchildren, many of whom now have embraced the fundamentalism of their parents’ oppo­nents. Secular Jews are aware that they were too passive about their secular commitments and that they have allowed orthodox militants to penetrate the school system and the army without effective resistance. What the present crisis demands is a trained cadre of humanistic speakers and teachers who would be available to familiarize students and army recruits with Jewish alternatives to orthodoxy and conventional religion. Only a secularist college of Jewish studies can train this cadre.

The institute is the most effective way to create a visible presence for the human­istic Jewish alternative.

While it would be nice to have several humanistic Jewish institutes, each situated in a major Jewish community, such a vision is out of touch with reality. We are presently too few in number to afford more than one. If each regional enclave works separately on this problem, we shall have none. But if we pool our resources and talents internationally and focus on a single school and research center, we shall be successful. The location of the administrative center of that one institute has to be Jerusalem, both because of its Jewish primacy and because the largest number of available faculty are either at the Hebrew University or nearby.

It is clear that there are many compelling reasons for this new institute to be created. As it grows and flourishes, it will serve as a focal point for secular and humanistic Jews all over the world and will rally and unite them in the further­ance of a shared dramatic project.


There are four key figures in the new institute. The honorary chairman is Haim Cohn, former chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, a fervent civil libertarian, a leading expert in traditional Jewish law, and a confirmed humanist who boldly states that “the kindest thing you can say about God after the Holocaust is that he does not exist.” The chairman is Yehuda Bauer, professor of history at the Hebrew University, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies, director of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, and a major ideologue of the Kibbutz Artzi movement. The dean is Zev Katz, also a professor of history at the Hebrew Univer­sity, an expert in Russian studies, an inter­national “missionary” for secular Jewish self-awareness, and the person whose energies and determination helped to spark the creation of the Israeli associa­tion. The administrator is Youval Tal, native Jerusalemite, public relations maven, and an ardent worker for Jewish educational causes.

Eight departments have been designed, seven for research and one for community outreach and leadership training. The research departments are: Humanism, Traditional Jewish Literature, Modern Jewish Literature, Jewish History, Jewish Holidays and Ceremonies, Law and the State, and Education. The eighth depart­ment is the Midrasha, a center for the sponsoring of adult education and train­ing seminars. The Midrasha will be re­sponsible ultimately for the preparation of professional leaders.

Each of these departments at present has an Israeli faculty, with certain additions from North America and Europe. It is hoped that, in time, the faculty will become truly international, embracing academicians, intellectuals, and artists from all over the world. It is also hoped that the programs of the insti­tute will be international seminars to be held in all the major cities where Jews live.

Two projects have been chosen for immediate pursuit. The first is the Holidays Project, a concerted effort to make available in Hebrew and in English the best of the century-old tradition of secular celebration. The second is the Bible Project, a mobilization of scholars to prepare a humanistic commentary on Bib­lical texts. Both projects, when completed, will have great pragmatic value.


The secular “yeshiva” — despite all the preliminary planning and enthusiasm — will remain only a dream unless it re­ceives the emotional and financial sup­port of the secular humanistic Jewish world. And it deserves our support be­cause it is the most effective way that has yet been devised to create a visible presence for the humanistic Jewish alter­native. This moment in history — when both positive and negative forces have transformed the face of world Jewry, and when forces hostile to humanism are so powerful — is the time to organize this institute. The genuineness of our commit­ment to the future of Humanistic Judaism will be determined by what we do to make this school a reality.

Humanistic Judaism and Tradition

Tradition and Humanistic Judaism – How Do They Mix?  Autumn 1987

For many Jews, Judaism is identified with the literature of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Siddur. This literature is often called “the tradition” and has served as the ideological basis for Orthodoxy for over fifteen hundred years.

Can these books, which are so much identified in the public mind with Jews, also serve as the ideological basis for a humanis­tic Judaism? After all, both Conservative and Reform Jews retained these documents as their official literature. Why not Human­istic Jews?

The prestige of these documents makes them almost irresistible. Even though their vocabulary is theistic, even though their style is authoritarian, even though much of their history is mythology, they are so old and so famous that it would be nice to have them on our side. They could do for us what they do for Reform. They could give us the semblance of “legitimacy.”

This issue is not trivial. If these books “belong” to us, then secular Judaism is simply one of five different interpretations of the traditional texts. If they do not, then Humanistic Judaism is a radical departure from all existing Judaisms.

In trying to determine the place of tradi­tional literature in a humanistic approach to Jewish identity, we need to affirm certain realities.

Jewish identity does not depend on using the tradition. Jewishness is an ethnic iden­tity, not an ideological one. No adherence to any ideas or documents makes a Jew a Jew. A Jew who does not believe in the value and truth of the Torah is equally as Jewish as one who does.

The endorsement of the past is unneces­sary. We do not have to agree with our an­cestors in order to have ideas that are valid and Jewishly significant. If we want to understand the literature of the past, we do not need its endorsement. Some Jews are so anxious to identify with Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah that they do not pay any attention to what these people really said. They give these heroes ideas and sentiments they never had in order to prove that the beliefs of the past are the same as the beliefs of the present. In the hands of the desperate, Moses becomes a civil libertarian and the Torah becomes a plea for democracy.

The people of the past are entitled to their integrity. The author of Genesis 1 believed in a flat earth and a flat heaven. He is mor­ally entitled to have his opinions acknowl­edged. The author of Genesis 2 believed that the first woman was created from the rib of the first man. He has a right to have his idea recognized. The literature of the past is more interesting if we allow the authors of the past to say what they think than if we force them to say what we think. An ethical approach to textual criticism allows people to mean what they say, even if their ideas are embarrassing. Male chauvinism and theocracy may be offensive to us. But they were not offensive to our ancestors. The language of tradition is not obscure. It is refreshingly plain and direct. We have a moral obligation to respect that directness.

God is not removable from traditional lit­erature. The authors of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Siddur had a deep belief in a supernatural father-figure who governs the world with justice. Modern Jews who are uncomfortable with this intense convic­tion have to face up to it when they deal with traditional texts. To the authors of the tradition, the worship of God was supreme­ly important. Failure to worship endan­gered the survival of both the individual and the community. Since group survival was at stake, worship and morality could not be separated. The distinction between ritual and ethics did not exist. Ceremony guar­anteed the life of the community.

Traditional ideas vary from period to pe­riod. The official literature of Orthodoxy includes documents from four periods in Jewish history: the tribal, the royal, the priestly, and the rabbinic. In each period, the prevailing ideas of the ruling elite were distinctly different from those that came before and after. Kings did not agree with priests; and priests did not agree with rabbis. Despite what Orthodox rabbis main­tain, there has been a continuous change of beliefs throughout Jewish history. In the royal period, intermarriage was allowed. In the priestly period, it was forbidden. In the priestly period, the resurrection of the dead was unknown. In the rabbinic period, it was the cardinal principle of the establishment. A static view of the tradition is a distortion.

We must neither revere tradition nor ignore it. We must understand it and use it carefully.

One quotation does not prove anything. We cannot understand the message of the tradition in any given period by pulling at­tractive quotations out of context. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ is set in the context of Leviticus, with its intermi­nable laws of animal sacrifice and priestly privilege. “Proclaim liberty throughout the land” is set in the context of the institution of slavery and its fifty-year durability. “Whatever is hateful to yourself do not do unto others” is found in the middle of ritual minutiae. Simply picking and choosing iso­lated statements that sound ethically attrac­tive, with no acknowledgment of the sur­rounding literary territory, distorts the tradition. Orthodox Jewish life was and is a complex whole, not a set of fashionable quo­tations suspended in mid-air.

There are many motivations for ethical behavior. The major motivation for good behavior in the Bible and the Talmud is the authority of God and the rewards and pun­ishments he administers. But that does not mean that divine favor was the only motiva­tion. After all, most ethical rules arise out of the experience of small groups in their struggle for survival. Many of the moral ideals in traditional literature, which we find ethically acceptable because they con­form to our conscience and our reason, were also reasonable when they were first enunciated. Although the traditional writers did not articulate these reasons, we can.

The people who were denounced are also part of the tradition. It is useful to remember that people condemned by traditional writers were also Jews. They were the Jews who were not lucky enough to receive the approval of the ecclesiastic authorities. Job’s wife challenged the justice of God and was silenced. The “villain” of Psalm 1 ques­tioned the existence of God and was de­clared a fool. The opponents of Jeremiah refused to resign themselves to defeat at the hands of the Chaldeans and were pro­claimed to be sinners. But they obviously had their Jewish followers who thought that they were patriotic Jews, even though they lost out in the struggle for power. The underdogs of tradition are also traditional.

What really happened is as much tradition as what the authorities of the past thought happened. The Zadokite priests and the Talmudic rabbis believed that Moses, inspired by Yahveh, wrote the Torah. We now know that Moses did not write the Torah and that it was written over a period of five hundred years. Is the illusion of the past more tradi­tional than the reality of the past? Or is the actual event also a tradition? Jewish life was molded not only by what people thought happened but also by what really happened. Living without an official Torah was an im­portant part of the ancient Jewish experi­ence and in no way diminished Jewish iden­tity. In fact, it provided for a richness of options that could never be fully sup­pressed, even after a theocratic “constitu­tion” was imposed.

What people did may be different from what people said. Many of the laws in the Torah and the Talmud were purely theoreti­cal. They never really became part of the behavior of the Jewish people. The elaborate plans for the jubilee year at the end of the book of Leviticus, with its freeing of the slaves and the restoration of property to the poor, was never implemented. Attached to some priestly fantasy, it found no respon­sive public in the pragmatic world of Jewish economics. The law said one thing; the people did another. The Jewish tradition is as much the product of the real Jewish ex­perience as of the imaginings of Jewish lawmakers.

The tradition is morally uneven. There is an enormous number of ideas and values in traditional literature, many of them incom­patible one with the other. The ideas of in­herited guilt and collective punishment do not jibe with the commitment to individual responsibility and individual dignity. Devo­tion to the sacrificial cult does not fit well with the pursuit of justice to the poor. Some traditional values are humanistic. Others are anti-humanistic. Some of the tradition is humanistically offensive. Even more of it is neither here nor there. Humanistic Jews neither love nor hate “the tradition” as a whole. They love some of it. They like some of it. They deplore some of it. And the rest they view with historic interest.

It is quite clear that, despite its fame and antiquity, the official literature of traditional Judaism cannot serve as the ideological basis of a humanistic Judaism. Only the most unfair distortions could rescue this lit­erature for that role. Humanistic Judaism is a radical departure from the procedures of Orthodoxy and its liberal alternatives. It does not seek to legitimize its norms and recommend behavior by finding proof texts in the Torah and the Talmud.

What, then, is the function of this literary portion of our tradition in the world of Hu­manistic Jews?

Its main function is historical. It tells us where we came from. It describes the be­liefs and practices of our ancestors, whether we agree with them or not. It gives us clues to the real events of Jewish history. It intro­duces us to the ideas of its opponents, some of which may be humanistically attractive. It is a treasury of quotations that fit very neatly into the ethical conclusions of a modern humanism. It helps us to define our own perspective on the Jewish experience through the challenge of a powerful alter­native.

We must neither revere it nor ignore it. We must understand it and use it carefully.

Conservative Judaism: A Humanistic Perspective

HJ’s and Other Jews – Winter 1988

I grew up as a Conservative Jew in the 1930s. My father, like many Conservative Jews, had joined a big old established Ortho­dox synagogue in Detroit, which gradually drifted into the Conservative fold. The change began with the arrival of a “modern” rabbi from the Jewish Theologi­cal Seminary and his two-decade campaign for mixed seating. By the time I appeared, the sanctuary had two options: men and women alone on the left and the right, and the “mixers” in the middle.

My father was observant but reasonable. My rabbi was intellectual and articulate. Often he waxed eloquent in a way that was incomprehensible to many of his congre­gants. But they did not seem to mind. In those social climbing days, they were proud to identify with a rabbi who was so edu­cated and so American.

There were, of course, arguments between the old-timers and the progres­sives. Should the interminable services be shortened? Should English explanations be intruded? Should the parking lot be open on Yom Kippur? Should an organ be purchased for the choir loft? But discussions rarely led to change. The mood was a cautious conser­vatism. Why offend anybody if you really didn’t have to?

My education in the synagogue School combined traditional answers with modern teaching techniques. We studied Hebrew for davening and history for a sense of Jewish suffering and achievement. We even devoted much time to loving Palestine and Zionism. But we never talked about ideo­logy. We certainly never talked about Con­servative ideology. It seemed to be enough to say that we believed in both tradition and the modern world.

My experience reveals why the Con­servative movement was so successful. It never repudiated Orthodoxy. It never em­braced Reform. It gave you enough tradition to feel traditional but not so much that you felt oppressed. It gave you enough assimila­tion to feel successful but not so much that you felt treyf. Since ideology was carefully avoided, embarrassing questions about per­sonal beliefs and integrity were never raised. You could be comfortably Jewish without having to be consistent.

The Conservative movement is now one hundred years old. It was established, for all practical purposes, in 1887, with the crea­tion of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. At the time, the overwhelming majority of United States Jewry belonged to Reform temples. A few Sephardim, rene­gade Germans, and Russian immigrants were searching for a more “conservative” solution to the problem of Jewish identity.

The roots of the Conservative movement were fourfold. The first root was the decor­ous, easy-going orthodoxy of Western Europe and North America, which evolved in response to the political emancipation of the Jews after the French Revolution. The “orthodoxy” of assimilated Jews stood in sharp contrast to the more segregated, all- encompassing orthodoxy of Eastern Europe.

The second root was the troubled and di­vided Reform movement, which had begun in Germany but found its home in the free environment of America. In 1885, the radical reformers endorsed the famous Pittsburgh Platform, which repudiated traditional observance and the ethnic character of Jewish identity. This proclama­tion drove the conservative reformers out of the Reform movement and into a less-than- compatible alliance with the “liberal” Orthodox.

The third root was the Historical School of Zacharias Frankel. This approach to Judaism, which, like Reform, had its origins in Germany, never turned into an organized movement in Europe. But it found a home base in a rabbinical college, the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau. The graduates of this seminary functioned as community rabbis in Central Europe and usually designated themselves as Liberal if they were compelled to identify themselves. (In the United States, this tendency was conservative with regard to Reform; in Ger­many, it was liberal with regard to Orthodoxy. The Historical Judaism of Frankel dissented from Reform by opposing radical change. It acknowledged the necessity for some change in Jewish life. But it pleaded for the preservation of the unity of the Jewish people, which, of course, meant unity of ritual practice. If there was to be change, it ought to be reluctant change. Only when the overwhelming majority of Jews had discarded a tradition should the discard be sanctioned. Caution and histori­cal continuity were indispensable to appro­priate reform.

The fourth root was the United States it­self. Jews had never experienced a land with so many options and with so much personal freedom. In a place where religion and government were separate and where the state refused to discipline religious behavior, it was tempting to organize ex­periments that would have been resisted in Europe. What would have appeared to be big changes in the old country were little changes in America. American traditions looked traditional only in America.

In time, a Conservative format emerged. The mikveh, segregation by sex, and distinc­tive costumes were out. Hebrew, traditional davening, kashrut, and Shabbat were in. Organ music and driving on holy days were maybes. Secular education and the secular world were accepted and cultivated. Con­gregations came together in the United Syn­agogue (1913). Rabbis came together in the Rabbinical Assembly (1928). Future leaders graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York.

The Conservative movement grew very fast. By the end of the Second World War, it was the largest Jewish denomination in the United States, encompassing almost a mil­lion and a half Jews. Its phenomenal growth was due to many factors. The Reform move­ment was controlled by religious radicals and the snobbishness of German Jews. Orthodoxy was disorganized, defensive, and lacking in credible leadership. Thou­sands of Russian Jews, who had arrived on American shores, were torn between loyalty to tradition and the attractiveness of Ameri­can culture. The Conservative movement made no ideological demands, allowing prospective adherents to believe whatever they wanted so long as they evinced tradi­tional behavior. In the Conservative rabbi­nate, the devotees of John Dewey stood side by side with the lovers of Maimonides.

It was in this expanding movement that I grew up. By the end of the Second World War, the “machers” of the Conservative synagogues were sharing community lead­ership with the old “aristocracy” of the Reform temples.

Within a decade of this triumphant growth, the Conservative movement began to experience serious problems. By the 1970s, the growth pattern had stopped and intimations of decline were everywhere. Even the expansion of Conservatism to Israel and Latin America could not hide the mood of unease in the North American motherland. This mood arose from certain uncomfortable realities.

Conservative ritual observance con­tinued to decline. As the affluence and pro­fessional success of the Conservative com­munity began to equal the achievements of the old Reform aristocracy, Conservative Jews’ ritual behavior outside the synagogue often became indistinguishable from the be­havior of their Reform compatriots. With some notable exceptions, Conservative Jews “loved” tradition and then proceeded to do very little of it. The pillars of kashrut, Shabbat, and davening were being under­mined by the very people who paid to build them. The propaganda of Conservatism be­gan to sound pretentious and unreal.

The original marriage of liberal Orthodox and conservative Reform, which gave birth to the Conservative movement, was not a happy one. The price of the marriage was that no consistent ideology could be formu­lated to inspire young people who no longer suffered the guilt and anxieties of the immi­grant generation. Any attempt to deal with beliefs and motivation was bound to offend somebody. The safest tactic was to utter cliches about the unity of the Jewish people and “catholic” Israel. And, in the end, that tactic was very boring and very unfulfilling.

The Reconstructionist wing of Conserva­tism ultimately withdrew to organize its own movement. The disciples of Mordecai Kaplan had chosen to remain within the Conservative fold because of their strong connections to the Jewish Theological Semi­nary and because the ideological looseness of the Conservative milieu allowed them to talk humanism and to do traditional behav­ior simultaneously. But the departure of Kaplan from the Seminary and the hostile orthodoxy of so many of the Seminary faculty made a continuing association im­possible. The Reconstructionists, in a burst of organizational fervor, established their own seminary in Philadelphia and their own congregational fraternity. An impor­tant liberal voice and creative force in the Conservative movement had departed.

Very damaging to the Conservative future was the about-face of the Reform move­ment. One of the greatest supports of Con­servative growth was the radical format of classical Reform and its German Jewish devotees. This “Protestant” Judaism was so “way out” that even Russian Jews who were not very traditional found it offensive and joined the Conservatives. But the “Russianization” of the Reform movement after the Second World War (due to the sheer survival necessity of going beyond the declining numbers of German Jews) reversed the pos­ture of Reform with respect to tradition. For the past thirty years, Reform temples have moved consistently to the right, embracing rituals and ceremonies that would have ap­palled the authors of the Pittsburgh Plat­form. The result is that thousands of Jews who would have chosen a Conservative affiliation in the previous generation are now quite satisfied with the traditional fare of the Reform menu. In fact, they prefer it because there are fewer demands for ritual conformity outside the temple.

On the ethnic level, Reform has scored an­other victory. The early fierce anti-Zionism of Reform drove many Jews who wanted a cul­tural Judaism with a religious flavor into the arms of Conservatism, especially since the Conservatives were among the first to em­brace the agenda of the Zionist movement. But between Hitler, the Holocaust, and the establishment of the state of Israel, Reform has repudiated its old hostility and now enthusiastically promotes the aims of Zion­ism. One now can love Israel as passionately in a Reform temple as in a Conservative syn­agogue. In fact, Reform has been more suc­cessful than the Conservative movement in establishing its institutional presence in Israel and finding publicity for it.

Orthodoxy has also done Conservatism a “dirty” turn. It has re-energized itself, trained an articulate credible leadership, and established powerful new institutions that serve as the foundation of an aggressive missionary posture. The days when the Orthodox cowered in the background obse­quiously, when the Conservatives could imagine that they were the grand wave of the traditional future are over. The Lubavitchers are selling their ideological and ritual wares all over America — and raising millions of dollars at the same time. Young Jews who, as third generation Americans, no longer need to have their Judaism Ameri­canized want the feel of the “authentic” tradition, not an ambivalent, watered-down version of it. To the new, vigorous ultra- Orthodox leadership and its disciples, Con­servatism is no more than Reform in dis­guise — and worse than Reform because it pretends to be traditional.

The Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinic school and intellectual center of Conservative Judaism, turned out to be far more orthodox than its founders intended it to be. Outside of Mordecai Kaplan, the fac­ulty was dominated by ideologues like Louis Finkelstein, Louis Ginzberg, and Saul Lieberman, who were reluctant to deviate from orthodox norms, and who were reluctant to offer any real assistance or guidance to conservative reformers. The school was more traditional than the community it served. When the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly sought petty permis­sions for Shabbat driving and Shabbat elec­trical use (such trivial issues!), the faculty was resistant. The overwhelming need of the faculty — as of many of the rabbinic graduates — was to receive the approval of Orthodox authority. Meanwhile, the needs of the movement were neglected while the intellectual leadership engaged in this self-hating game of futility.

The final event that tested the survival value of Conservatism was the arrival of the feminist movement and the demand for female rabbis. Reform had led the way with its ordination of women. The Conservatives could hardly refuse to follow; the liberated social milieu of most Conservative Jews was the same as that of most Reform Jews. But the issue was no ordinary issue. It struck at the heart of the Conservative self-image. If the Conservative movement consented to ordain women, the break with orthodoxy would be complete. The Orthodox rabbinate was unalterably opposed to the idea of female rabbis. The movement split on the issue. Even many Conservatives who could tolerate female authority were reluctant to abandon the orthodox self-image.

To end up being conservative reformers — and nothing more — was almost intoler­able. So, when the Seminary finally yielded to the enormous public pressure and con­sented to ordain women, a dissenting group of “Traditional Conservatives” was organ­ized to resist the change and threatened that further radical reform would split the move­ment. Two opposing factions, with incom­patible agendas, are now precariously tied together by institutional inertia. What enables both sides to stay “united” in a single movement is the convenient absence of any meaningful ideology.

To say the least, the Conservative move­ment is not in a healthy condition. The denomination is split. The Reconsructionists have left. The Reformers have cornered the pseudo traditional market. And the Orthodox have won the hearts of the true Torah lovers.

Built into the Conservative condition is the problem of all ambivalent Jews who want to have their cake and eat it, who want to be totally traditional and totally part of the modern secular world, who desire des­perately to be accepted by the Orthodox even though they are not orthodox. Self-hat­ing reformers cannot do effective reform and cannot do justice to the needs of secu­larized Jews in a secular age.

The future will bring no dramatic changes. The dissenters will not secede. The liberals will not join the Reform move­ment. The vested interest of an established denomination will keep them bound to­gether in an unhappy marriage. Their energy will not be freed for creative work. It will be used up in the struggle between the two factions. Timidity, thy name is Con­servative Judaism.

How the Secular Revolution Divided the Jews

Humanistic Jews and Other Jews – Winter 1988

The life of reason and dignity is called humanism. It is the philosophy that flows naturally from the Secular Revolution, shifting attention from the supernatural to the natural, from the divine lo the human. Two hundred years ago, it was a startling change.

In Western Europe and North America, the Secular Revolution removed the politi­cal disabilities from which Jews suffered. Secular citizenship in a secular state was now available. If Jews no longer desired to be Jewish, they did not have to become Christian. They could be comfortably unaffiliated.

As emancipation spread, the Jews found themselves in a world they had never before experienced. Religion and ethnicity were private matters. Indulging them was a mat­ter of personal choice.

Many Jews embraced the Secular Revolu­tion. Secularists and Jews shared common enemy. the -Christian-Church. Whatever weakened the church was good for both the humanists and the Jews.

The new world of science and capitalism opened up new opportunities. Jewish talent had found its ideal environment. All the sur­vival skills the Jews had acquired for defense in an agricultural milieu were now the very stuff out of which successful enter­prise was made. Pushiness, planning, mobility, and money management were the keys to wealth and prosperity. The new sec­ular world made the individual Jew freer and more powerful than at any time in the history of the Jewish people. But for Jewish identity, the change spelled trouble.

Humanism undermined all the old rea­sons for valuing and preserving Jewish identity. God was no longer personal or in­teresting. The afterlife was questionable. Supernatural power was the embarrassing product of superstition. Chosen peoplehood was a parochial arrogance. The rabbis knew less about the world than the new scholar class of scientists and academicians. And all of the new ideas were packaged in eco­nomic advantage and political equality.

In the new world of free enterprise and consumer choice the rabbis were at a disad­vantage. They were not accustomed to selling their product. The language of persua­sion was less familiar to them than the language of command. Competition was not a familiar game. Trained to enunciate faith, they did not know how to speak with the voice of reason. Familiar with people who practiced humility, they did not know how to deal with people who insisted on dignity.

Three Jewish responses emerged in the confrontation? The first “response was rejectionist. The Rejectionists despised the Secular Revolution and its consequences. They sought to keep rabbinic Judaism intact and to protect it from intrusion. The second response was ambivalent. The Ambivalents enjoyed both the new world and the old. They were unwilling to forego either the comforts of tradition or the benefits of secu­lar achievement. The third response was enthusiastic. The Enthusiasts welcomed the changes and encouraged them.

The Rejectionists

In both the Jewish and Christian worlds, and later in the Muslim world, large num­bers of people did not like what history had dished out to them. The new industrial society, with its cities and machines, with its family decline and personal freedom, was an ugly, cruel, and immoral place in which to live. A culture that mocked tradi­tion and made ancestors obsolete seemed to threaten the stability of the social order and to promote chaos.

Religious fundamentalists are a persist­ent minority in the modern world. They are very uncomfortable in the setting of science and the consumer culture. They denounce the present and hanker after the past.

But preserving the past in the present is different from maintaining the past in the past. The existence of a new rival establish­ment culture produces a siege mentality. Secularism is a successful “devil” and has put God on the defensive. Fundamentalism is different from the old life of faith and humility. It is always defending itself and assaulting its enemies.

Rabbinic Judaism in the contemporary milieu has to be different from what it was before — simply because so much of its time is spent avoiding the temptations of the sec­ular world. It needs to be more intolerant and less generous. Otherwise it will not survive.

The very word orthodoxy is a strident challenge. It means “the right way” — as opposed to all the “wrong” ways. Before the Secular Revolution, rabbinic Judaism was so pervasive that it simply was Judaism. It needed no qualifying adjectives.

The center of Jewish resistance to the Secular Revolution was Poland. The old Polish kingdom, including Lithuania and West Russia, contained the largest Jewish community in the world. Not only was it religiously separate from the Polish Catholic population, it was also ethnically distinct. Yiddish made Ashkenazic Jews a unique nation.

The Secular Revolution took a while to get to Poland. When it did arrive, it en­countered a Jewish world of poverty and small towns where rabbinical seminaries flourished and rabbinical scholarship was the test of status. Economic survival was still too precarious for secular conversions to occur easily.

Ironically, a movement that began in southern Poland in defiance of the rabbinic establishment became the most effective defender of tradition. The Hasidim found fault with Orthodoxy, not because it had too much faith and too much humility, but because it had too little. Starting in Podolia with an illiterate miracle worker, the Hasidic resistance spread like wildfire through Poland and West Russia. It was a religious revival with many faces. Ecstatic dancing, faith healing, and a renewed inter­est in the supernatural reflected its indict­ment of the Talmudic scholar class. In their poverty, the new devotees needed a more available God than the rabbis were willing to provide.

Although the Hasidim fought the rabbis, they did not reject rabbinic Judaism. They accepted the authority of the Halakha. They dreamed of the world to come. They ex­pected the Messiah. Their holy roller fren­zies were a supplement, not a substitute. Had the secular challenge not emerged, they might have separated themselves from official Orthodoxy. But the presence of the secular foe brought the two movements to­gether again.

The Hasidic movement was what the old- time religion needed. The boring God of Maimonides, the darling of the rabbinic intellectual establishment, was turned into a passionate dabbler in supernatural power, no longer distant and aloof. Humble trust in the protection of God and the Hasidic guru produced the “born-again” Jew, a person to whom divinity was an experience, not a routine.

Hasidism created the best form of reli­gious resistance to the secular age. In a sec­ular society where old hierarchies crumble, a God who behaves like a distant king of­fends the democratic sensibilities of the ambitious masses. The people of faith and humility want a God who is intimidating enough to be interesting but who is friendly enough to make them feel important.

The Misnagdim, the opponents of the Hasidim, also denounced the Secular Revo­lution. But they lacked the supernatural fer­vor and the democratic vocabulary to be convincing. Their rabbinic leadership had already been corrupted by “rational theol­ogy,” and they would ultimately find them­selves more comfortable talking to secular intellectuals than to ecstatic faith healers. In time, most of the children of the Misnagdim drifted away from Orthodoxy to more secu­lar outlooks. The Hasidim were more successful in hanging on to their descend­ants and in recruiting new devotees.

In 1912, the return of the Hasidim to the Orthodox fold was dramatized by the orga­nization of the Agudat Yisrael in Poland. This coalition (called simply the Aguda) was created to fight the overwhelming threat of the new secularism in Jewish life. The pro­gram of the Aguda was the defense of rab­binic Judaism against the agents of secular­ism. There was to be no compromise with the secular age.

From the very beginning, the fuel of the Aguda was Hasidic fervor. When the Holo­caust destroyed the Polish center of this “Rejectionist Front,” its refugees made their way to North America and Israel, where most Jews had embraced the lifestyle of the Secular Revolution. While the Misnaged refugees created protective islands of tradi­tion, ghettos within ghettos, some of the Hasidim turned to active missionizing in “enemy” territory. The Lubavitchers (fol­lowers of the Hasidic guru dynasty from Lubavitch in West Russia], in particular, went out recruiting among the young, the malcontent misfits of the secular age. They have experienced considerable success.

The Jewish Rejectionists of today are not the old decaying Misnaged scholars of former years. They are often very young people who have repudiated the secular commitments and interests of the Jewish establishment and its ambivalent verbal attachment to “tradition.” With Hasidic fervor, they have become militant and ag­gressive. And being children of secular edu­cation and secular skills, they combine their hostility to the world of humanism with a clever use of its techniques of promotion, advertising, and democratic persuasion.

The new recruits join for many reasons, personal and ideological. One of the main motivations is the ease with which rejectionism helps them deal with their Jewish identity. Stung by anti-Semitism, they see in the old piety a clear, visible, and public way to affirm their Jewish pride.

The major problem with the Rejectionists — other than an attempt to reject a world that they cannot fully disown — is their fierce internal competition. Scholars and recruits compete with each other for the status of superpietists. The internal world of yeshiva politics is a mean world of accusa­tion and counter-accusation, constant sur­veillance, and the fear of losing religious status. Any concession [to the secular enemy] is a form of treason. And self- righteousness becomes a favorite pastime.

The Ambivalents

The Ambivalents make up the Jewish establishment in North America. They come in two main varieties, Conservative and Reform. While they endorse the Secular Revolution in most of their daily activities, they reject its implications for Jewish iden­tity. They have one foot in the world of faith and humility and one foot in the world of reason and dignity. Since the two worlds are not compatible, they have difficulty finding a secure stance. It is often more comfortable just to stand on one foot for a while and then to shift to the other.

Ambivalents seek to avoid painful con­frontations. They wish to disown neither faith nor reason. They want to have both. They want the motivation system of faith and the information system of reason. They want the humility of prayer and the dignity of personal freedom.

The dividing line between conservatives and reformers is the issue of the Halakha, the rabbinic law. Conservatives want to keep it or, at least, pretend to keep it. Re­formers are willing to dispense with it.

Conservatives are broader than the offi­cial Conservative Movement. They include (in an ascending order of deviation) the Modern Orthodox, the self-proclaimed Con­servatives, and the Reconstructionists. All three praise the Halakha and wish to pre­serve it. If they contemplate changes, they want to find halakhic reasons for making them. While their stated philosophies may be very naturalistic and very secular, their recommended behavior is very traditional. They have a great need to preserve the appearance of rabbinic Judaism if not its substance.

All three are into worship. The form and content of their prayers are virtually identi­cal with the requirements of the traditional rabbis. All three are into the rabbinic dietary laws, the behavioral restrictions of the Sab­bath and the holidays, and the historic requirements for marriage and divorce.

Modern Orthodoxy

Modern Orthodoxy is the establishment Judaism of Western Europe. It is sedate and decorous. It is traditional and secular. Its leaders receive a good secular education and train in modern seminaries. Its mem­bers participate in all the professions of an urban society. Appearance-wise, they are indistinguishable from all the other citizens of the secular state. What is unique about their behavior is mainly evident in their homes and synagogues. These institutions become the focus of their traditional attach­ments. Since most of the unique behavior patterns of the rabbinic lifestyle are incon­gruous with secular existence, they are praised but rarely observed. Female segre­gation, ritual purity, and the dress code do not find any real community support and are not enforced by public opinion.

While it is important to the Modern Orthodox to be designated “Orthodox,” they are despised and denounced by the

Rejectionists. Separate seating for the sexes in the synagogue is hardly a substitute for traditional belief. An “orthodoxy” that avoids discussing divine rewards and punishments, the salvation of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and the impor­tance of the world to come undermines the motivation of the Halakha and subverts the traditional justification for preserving Jew­ish identity. Proving that the dietary laws are good for health and hygiene {true or not) turns the argument into a rational conse­quential one and deprives the rabbinic tradi­tion of the supernatural context out of which it arose.

The Rejectionists are right. Modern Orthodoxy sometimes looks like Orthodoxy. But it tastes different. And most of its ad­herents are more comfortable spending time with their secular friends than with pious Hasidim.


The Conservative Movement, spawned in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century, found its most comfortable home in North America.

Initially united with the reformers in an alliance against the Rejectionists, its leaders split early from the coalition on the issue of the Halakha. They adopted a pragmatic stance: free philosophic inquiry together with moderate ritual conformity. The mind would be reasonable, but the body would be traditional. Since most people settle for appearances, it was an appealing compro­mise. Secularized Jews could feel traditional without having to be assaulted by traditional ideas.

Musical instruments might be tried for Sabbath worship. The sexes might be mixed for synagogue services. Protestant style ser­mons might be added for public edification. But little was done to shatter the “look” of tradition. And nothing was done for which a Talmudic justification was not found.

As time makes innovation seem tradi­tional, creeping change never destroys the illusion. When the Conservatives ultimately ordain their women rabbis, they will dress them up in the symbols of the old male chauvinism and find a Talmudic quotation to justify their action.

The Conservative Movement in America has been the most successful of all the modern Jewish “denominations” because it allows the Jews to have their cake and eat it simultaneously. Since it deals primarily with appearances, it has difficulty dealing with the substance of belief and integrity. It gives all moral power to the Rejectionists who, at least, believe in what they do.


Reconstructionism is the third style of the Jewish Ambivalent. It arose out of Con­servative Judaism and is emotionally allied with it.

Mordecai Kaplan, who was the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement and its reigning guru, was a graduate and teacher of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the New York school for Conservative Judaism.

Kaplan tried to wed humanism and Halakha. He claimed that Judaism was not a specific combination of theological beliefs. It was a religious civilization and could accommodate many different systems of thought. He claimed that God could be rede­fined as the creative energy of the universe that enables individuals and communities to survive. And salvation was fulfillment in the here and now. Above all, he pleaded for the reconstruction of the Jewish community to allow for diversity in unity.

The unity for Kaplan was the folk, the Jewish people. And the sign of that unity was an adherence to the three folk sancta: God, Israel, and Torah — in other words, the Halakha, or a slightly amended reason­able facsimile of it. In the end, it was the same old Conservative package: act tradi­tional and think humanist; use all the words of faith and humility and make them mean reason and dignity. The official Reconstruc­tionist prayer book is hardly distinguishable from the Conservative one.

Reconstructionism differs from Conserv­atism in its refusal to endorse the idea of the Chosen People. For Kaplan, this concept was a violation of the humanistic respect for the value of all cultures and civilizations. But why bother to change one little item in the service when the whole concept of a worship experience where people talk to God for three hours is inconsistent with an impersonal deity? How can any reasonable person talk to creative energy?

If you want to combine Halakha and humanism, do not be fastidious. Nothing really fits anyway. In that respect, conven­tional Conservatism is superior to Recon­structionism. It never tried to be profound. It lets the absurdity stand because it is emo­tionally satisfying. Ambivalence should never insist on consistency.

Modern Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reconstructionism are best described by the Yiddish phrase: nisht a hin, nisht a her — neither here nor there. They may work for some people. But they do not take reason and dignity seriously enough. A humanism that is dressed up to look like rabbinic Juda­ism is ashamed of what it is.


Reform — at least in the beginning — chose a bolder format. It broke with rab­binic Judaism and rejected the Halakha.

Living in Northern Europe, the early Reformers were influenced by Protestant culture. Some of them began to assault Orthodoxy with denunciations of Talmudic superstition and with appeals for a return to the purity of the Bible.

But the Bible, in many respects, was more “primitive” and less reasonable than the Talmud. And it was loaded with all kinds of laws about sacrifice, ritual purity, and dietary practices that the Reformers were eager to discard.

In the 1840s, there appeared a German duo of renegade rabbis, Abraham Geiger and Samuel Holdheim, who sought to find a justification for Jewish identity in the age of reason. Their new formulation took account of the consequences of the Secular Revolu­tion on Jewish life. In Western Europe, Jews had lost their national culture. Neither lan­guage nor folk customs separated them from other Europeans in their region. As for the Halakha, it had been discarded by many secularized Jews as a burdensome interfer­ence with social integration.

The Reform ideologues, for obvious rea­sons, discarded ethnicity and nationality as motivating values. They seemed to have no future. Personal Messiahs and supernatural rewards were also rejected. They offended reason. Rabbinic law was irrelevant. It rubbed against the higher values of secular existence.

The Reformers picked up on the tradi­tional idea of the Chosen People (which Kaplan was later to discard) and trans­formed it. The Jews were the divinely ap­pointed missionaries of ethical monothe­ism. The special job of the Jews was to be the role model advertisers of the one God.

Jewish history was a “progressive revela­tion” of the existence and nature of the

Supreme Being. While the Bible and Tal­mud were expressions of this revelation, they were imperfect and open to emenda­tion by future events. The age of reason was only one more step in the development of that disclosure. Ultimately, the nature of God would be totally revealed. The Messi­anic age of peace and love would follow. And the Jews could retire from their age-old job.

The Reform overhaul of the meaning and value of Jewish identity was bold and clear. Its only problem was that it was ludicrous. Why are Jewish monotheists more divinely- appointed than Muslim monotheists? How can any people designate themselves as ethical role models without ceasing to be exactly what they want to be? Self-righ­teousness is morally offensive. In what way does Jewish history reveal the existence of a nice single God? Jewish suffering suggests that he is either not so nice or that he is nice but limited. But, above all, what does ethical monotheism have to do with the age of rea­son or the Secular Revolution? Why would a bunch of Jewish “not-quite agnostics,” with a perfunctory formal belief in a perfunctory God, be chosen for such a missionary task? Yahveh must be as confused as his army of converters.

Reform Jews never took this formal ideol­ogy seriously. Like the Conservatives, they just limped along on the inertia of old iden­tities. And like the Conservatives, they pre­ferred the consolation of traditional en­dorsement.

Enter Prophetic Judaism. Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah sudden­ly emerged as Reform heroes. Since they were old, traditional, and Biblical, they were more understandable than Geiger’s “spirit of the age.” No matter that the prophets were devotees of ecstatic visions and supernatural intrusion. No matter that they were profoundly opposed to urbaniza­tion and the breakdown of the shepherd economy. No matter that their devotion to Yahveh was accompanied by a violent hos­tility to the worshipers of other gods. No matter that they were absolutely certain of the truth of their own personal revelation and intensely intolerant of disagreement. They had become the unlikely heroes of the age of reason. Yahveh would have had a fit.

The Reform Movement ended with slo­gans. Its formal ideology and its informal heroes had very little to do with Reform behavior. For a while, its Protestant format and its hostility to Jewish nationalism gave its adherents a form of social security. But they did not do very much to make Jewish identity interesting or worthwhile.

None of the Ambivalents had come up with a doctrine of Jewish identity that could match the power of the Rejectionist story. Since they sought their authority in Rejec­tionist literature and in Rejectionist heroes, they ended up with pale variations on Rejec­tionist themes.

The Ambivalents were ultimately res­cued by an experience they would have chosen to avoid and by a movement they did not invent.

A new secular anti-Semitism emerged in Europe that found less fault with Jewish belief than with Jews. The Jews were por­trayed as the “devils” of the modern world, the chosen people in reverse. Ironically, the anti-Semite found Jewish identity very sig­nificant, more significant than many Jews did.

Zionism was the movement and the ide­ology that grew up in response to anti- Semitism. Its founders were neither Rejectionists nor Ambivalents. Most of them were Enthusiasts for the secular age. Jewish secular nationalism was the child of the new world and initially aroused the hostility of all Rejectionists and many Ambivalents.

But it rescued the Ambivalents by giving them an attached fuel system for Jewish identity. All of the Ambivalents ultimately plugged into Zionist energy to keep their own sluggish enterprises going. Even Re­form, with its historic opposition to Jewish nationalism, ultimately succumbed.

The Enthusiasts

Rejectionists hated the Secular Revolu­tion. Ambivalents loved and hated it. But Enthusiasts loved it unashamedly.

Many Jewish Enthusiasts no longer found any value in Jewish identity. They just became secular. They had no reason to bother with their ethnic origins. Either the local form of nationalism or utopian universalism suited them perfectly. Most of them saw no purpose in turning Christian. Chris­tianity was as offensive to them as rabbinic Judaism. In a secular state, they could be comfortably French or German without having to pretend to be religious.

Ethical Culture

Some Enthusiasts, influenced by the Re­form Movement, came to believe that Jew­ishness was a voluntary religious identity. Since they no longer believed in the exis­tence of God or were not sure about his existence, they imagined that they were no longer Jews (even though their Gentile neighbors knew better). Eager to identify with a religion that was neither Jewish nor Christian, they were attracted to the new Ethical Culture.

The Ethical Movement does not identify itself as a Jewish movement, but many out­siders do. For many years, the overwhelm­ing majority of its members were Jews. And bourgeois Jewish secularists who were neither nationalistic nor Zionistic found a home there.

Founded in 1876 in New York City by Felix Adler, the son of a radical Reform rabbi, Ethical Culture was dominated for many years by the culture and style of the German Jewish elite. Adler maintained that Jewish identity was a religious identity dis­tinct from Ethical Culture.

Like Kant, he believed that the existence of God could be neither demonstrated nor disproved and that ethical laws did not derive from revealed religion. They came from the imperative of intuitive reason. God and prayer were excluded from his Sunday meetings. It was the kind of setting in which a secularist or an atheist would feel very comfortable.

The Ethical Movement was the result of the need of assimilated Western Jews to define themselves religiously for political safety. Cultural pluralism was anathema to the German Jewish bourgeoisie. Conversion to Christianity was intellectually unaccept­able and emotionally guilt-producing. Ethi­cal Culture was a suitable compromise, granting philosophic integrity and Jewish association. In New York City, it became an important presence in Jewish life.

The decline of the movement set in after the First World War. The aging and shrink­ing of the German Jewish population re­duced the possibilities of recruitment. Rus­sian Jewish secularists were not sufficiently bourgeois and did not need religious iden­tity for respectability. They turned to social­ism and Yiddish culture, preferring political and ethnic associations to religious ones. Above all, rising anti-Semitism and Hitler’s Holocaust drove many universalists back to Jewish identity.

Yiddish Nationalism

Most secular Jews who did not value their Jewish identity did not bother with any religious alternative. There were enough political, cultural, and academic communi­ties around to rescue them from isolation. And if they wanted to fight anti-Semitism, they could always send money to the Anti- Defamation League — or subscribe to some revolutionary ideology that promised to get rid of it.

For Enthusiasts who valued their Jewish identity, the new passion was Jewish na­tionalism. It seemed the reasonable alterna­tive to Jewish religion, rabbinic or other­wise. It could be both intensely Jewish and intensely secular.

The two requirements for a nation are language and territory. Before the Secular Revolution, Jews had defined themselves as a nation in exile. And their view of them­selves was reenforced by segregation and social ostracism. But secular emancipation provided them with the opportunity to be­come citizens of other nations. How could one be a loyal member of two nations at the same time? Being nationalistically German and religiously Jewish seemed feasible. But being nationalistically German and nation­alistically Jewish seemed to be an impossi­bility. The Reformers had gone to great pains to redefine the Jews as a religious denomination. And the Western Jews, them­selves, had abandoned their Yiddish linguis­tic uniqueness.

In Eastern Europe, where Jewish emanci­pation was retarded, Jews were a linguistic nation. But they were dispersed among the Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians. They had no territory of their own.

The Secular Revolution opened up secu­lar studies to the Jews. And secular studies made them more universalistic and cosmo­politan. But the new racial anti-Semitism [threw them back on] their Jewish identity. They had become universalists by training and ethnics by bigotry. They had to be Jew­ish whether they wanted to or not. Either they could bemoan their Jewish fate and devote their lives to regret, or they could choose to value their Jewish identity in a positive way. But in their new intellectual posture, they had difficulty finding univer­sal reasons for remaining particular.

Despite its many problems, Jewish na­tionalism took center stage in the secular Jewish world. There simply was no other alternative. Only the nation and the socialist revolution could arouse the same passions that God used to arouse. And the revolution was not that easy to arrange.

From the very beginning, Jewish nation­alists had difficulty staying together. While they all agreed that Jewish identity was a national identity (not a religious one), they did not agree on the recipe for nationhood.

Secular Jewish nationalists often had very little time to fight the old-time religion because they spent so much time fighting each other. Bourgeois Yiddishists hated Bundists. Bundists hated Zionists. And Zionists had no use for minority culture- niks. The nationalist disputes rivaled the arguments of the old fanatical religious sects. The vocabulary changed. But the self- righteousness remained.

The Yiddishists seemed to have the edge at the start. Although they excluded the Sephardic and Oriental Jewish world from their nation, although they were not com­pactly settled on a given piece of territory, although they were divided between capital­ists and socialists, secularists and tradition­alists, they represented a real living nation of six million Yiddish-speaking people. When Hebrew as a national language was a fantasy in the minds of a few idealists, Yiddish was the mother tongue of the Euro­pean Jewish masses. From Metz to Minsk, it gave a linguistic unity to the Ashkenazic Jewish world. Much more than Messianic fantasies, it gave national self-awareness. Obscured by religious ritual and religious segregation, it was revealed in its full glory when religion became less important.

Many secular Jews despised it. To social- climbers, it suggested centuries of degradation.

But the socialist devotees of the common man loved Yiddish — precisely because it was the language of the common man. They used it for books and newspapers. They refined it for prose and poetry. They even tried to make it a language of science.

Yiddish blossomed with popular fiction and poetry — the kind of literature with which the masses could identity. Writers, like Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, rescued Yiddish from anonymous folk tales and gave it the prestige of literary heroes.

The Yiddish diasporas in North America and Argentina became creative outposts of the motherland. Minority nationhood thrived in the streets of New York and Buenos Aires.

The major reason for the fall of Yiddish was Adolf Hitler. The Holocaust wiped out the “motherland.” The home base of secular Yiddish nationalism, with its schools, its theaters, and its political parties, ceased to exist. There was no vital population of Yid­dish speakers. Ironically, Yiddish survives most intensely, in both America and Israel, among the Orthodox enemies of the Secular Revolution who cultivate it as an expression of their hostility to secular Hebrew and Zionism.


Modern Hebrew is an extraordinary achievement. It is no slowly evolving folk language that was elevated by scholars. It is a national speech that was invented by scholars and given to the masses.

When the revival of Hebrew as the popu­lar language began, there existed no com­munity of Hebrew speakers and no special territory where they lived. There were no intimate memories of parents and grand­parents speaking it. As the language of prayer and religious study, it had no secular roots that anybody could remember.

From the start, the Hebrew revival was an attempt to separate Jews from their Diaspora past. The odor of degradation and humiliation did not penetrate it. If anything, it smelled of Biblical victories and ancient independence. Its prestige in the Christian world increased its stature. And the fact that Sephardic Jews loved it too made it seem more universal than Yiddish.

The Hebrew revival is part of the most successful expression of secular Jewish nationalism. Zionism provided an indepen­dent national territory and a viable national language. Today, three million Jews speak Hebrew in a Jewish state.

Zionism was an expression of the Secular Revolution. The founders of Zionism were estranged from rabbinic Judaism, and they found little meaning in its liberal variations. They viewed their work as part of a Jewish revolution. Jews must repudiate the reli­gious notion that their fate is in the hands of God and that they must wait for salvation. The new Jews, the revolutionary Jews, must take their fate into their own hands and do what destiny has failed to do. The Jew of humility and humiliation must be replaced by the Jew of action and dignity.

The modern movement to establish an independent Jewish homeland has been the most successful Jewish enterprise in the twentieth century. The state of Israel has become the single most important institu­tion in Jewish life, uniting divided commu­nities and giving passion to Jewish identity.

The overwhelming majority of the orga­nizers of political Zionism were secular Jews who believed that the homeless condi­tion of the Jewish masses could only be alleviated by the establishment of a secular culture in a secular state. They found in Zionism an alternative to religion.

Most kibbutzim rejected religious behav­ior and religious authority. They sought to secularize Jewish holidays and life cycle ceremonies. Because they were self-con­tained communities united by a strong ide­ology, they succeeded in fashioning a secu­lar ceremonial alternative to traditional ritual. They stood in sharp contrast to urban humanists who were never really able to go beyond the negative rejection of religion to a positive secular identity.

Zionism, as a secular movement, ran into trouble. Many Ambivalents found much of it attractive. Anti-Semitism and the nostal­gia for Palestine made them overlook the non-religious thrust of its founders. Modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews, in par­ticular, liked its ethnic affirmation and be­gan to join it. After Hitler, even the Reform Jews repented their old hostility and swelled the ranks. God — without the Messiah — now became the engineer of Zionist redemption.

After the state of Israel was established, Oriental Jews, who had never really been exposed to the assault of the Secular Revolu­tion, poured into the country and changed its cultural complexion. The idea of Jewish identity without God — or any identity with­out God — was simply inconceivable. The government of a Jewish state could not be separated from rabbinic Judaism.

Ultimately, even the Rejectionists had to come to terms with the Jewish state. Al­though they despised a secular Jewish gov­ernment, they willingly accepted its finan­cial and political gifts. Rejectionist rabbis and their institutions received state aid. Marriage, divorce, and Jewish identity were put into the hands of clergymen who, fifty years before, would have been anti-Zionist.

As the Zionist state became less secular, the internal problems of a secular Jewish nationalism also began to surface. If Jewish identity is tied to language and territory, what is the status of secular Jews who do not speak Hebrew and who do not live in Israel? Radical Zionists, like Ben Gurion, maintained that Jewish existence was im­possible in the Diaspora. The logic of Jewish nationalism demanded that its adherents immigrate to Israel.

Diaspora nationalism had initially been sustained by Yiddish solidarity in the Ashkenazic world. In Israel, Yiddish was replaced by Hebrew. But in North America, Yiddish was replaced by English. Culturally and linguistically, North American Jews be­came part of the Anglo-Saxon world.

Another internal problem for secular Jews was the historical identification of Jew­ish secular commitment with socialism. Of course, there is no necessary connection between secularism and socialism. Non- theistic philosophies of life range from the arch-capitalism of Ayn Rand to the radical anarchism of Emma Goldman.

But for many Jews, secularism was an aspect of their socialist commitment. Dis­missing God went hand in hand with ele­vating the proletariat. Atheistic fervor was tied to revolutionary passion.

Jewish socialists were divided by many controversies. The policies of the Soviet government sparked an endless debate. The rise of Zionism posed the question of where the socialist paradise should be created. And chronic anti-Semitism undermined the ritual hope that proletarian self-awareness would replace Jewish identity.

Zionist socialism is the only surviving Jewish socialism with any constituency. But secularism and humanism have become less important themes for many of its adherents. Hostility to religion is less meaningful in an environment where religion is no longer hostile to either Zionism or socialism.

However, the identification remains. Many secular Jews shy away from secular connections because they see the bogeyman of Marxism behind them. In North Amer­ica, hosts of humanistic Jews are tied to con­ventional institutions of religion that are meaningless to them because they associate religion with capitalist respectability.

The most important internal problem secular Zionists face is the limitation of any nationalism. Once the language and the state are firmly established, they run by themselves. For the Zionist pioneers, Jewish nationalism was a “religion.” But for their children, it is a normal part of the local propaganda.

Some Zionists sought to give the Jewish state an ethical mission that transcended mere national survival. Instead of being monotheistic missionaries proclaiming the one God (a la the Reformers), the citizens of the Jewish state would be moral role models, teaching the rest of the world the basics of egalitarian behavior. Herzl envi­sioned the future state as a social utopia. Asher Ginsberg (Ahad Haam), the Russian Jewish intellectual who was opposed to political Zionism, spoke of ethical values that a Jewish cultural homeland would ex­press. The notion of the “Chosen People” seemed to be revived in secular clothing.

The problem with national missions is the number of competitors. The British, the French, the Russians, and the Americans have all dabbled, for a time, in special his­toric “assignments.” The “white man’s burden,” “manifest destiny,” and the “revo­lutionary homeland” were, and still are, popular slogans in the repertory of modern nationalism. Elevating one nation demotes all the others. It is an embarrassing parochi­alism — all in the name of universalism.

The second problem is behavior. It is easy to sign up for a mission. It is harder to carry it out. While some Israelis (like some English and some French) are worthy of imitation, others are quite ordinary. What intrigues the world about the Jewish state is not its ethical behavior. The military power of so small a nation fascinates the public.

An established nation does not need to value its national identity. It is simply there. The question is not: Why preserve it? The question is: How do we use it?

The Jewish Enthusiasts of the Secular Revolution who live in the Diaspora and who feel a need to work at their Jewish identity end up with the same frustration as the Ambivalents. Choosing to remain Jew­ish and choosing to become Jewish requires an approach to Jewishness that goes beyond a pale imitation of rabbinic Judaism and fantasies about Israel.

The New Humanism: What Is It?

Humanistic Judaism: Beyond God, Beyond No God – Summer/Autumn 2007

Is there any connection between Salman Rushdie and Humanistic Judaism? Now there is.

During the weekend of April 20-22, 2007 Rushdie was at Harvard, together with hundreds of hu­manists from North America and Europe. The occasion was the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. The mobilizer of the event was Rabbi Greg Epstein, a recent graduate of our Interna­tional Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and the current Harvard Humanist Chaplain.

Rushdie is an atheist and a humanist. He is also the man the Ayatollah condemned to death in 1989 for writing the book Satanic Verses. Born into an Indian Muslim family in Bombay and educated in England, Rushdie had already achieved fame as a novelist and commentator on Indian life. His surrealistic style of writing celebrated the absurdity of the human condition. Only laughter could do justice to the internal contradictions of Indian and Muslim life.

Condemned to assassination, Rushdie went into hiding for many years. Any public appear­ance was fraught with danger. Rushdie’s plight was testimony to the frightening terrorism of fundamentalist Islam. Rebelling against the life of recluse, Rushdie defied his enemies and be­gan to speak in public. Nothing has happened. But the decree of death has never been fully withdrawn. Courage now needs to be added to brilliance as one of his virtues. Rushdie’s ap­pearance at Harvard for a humanist conference was certainly an act of courage.

The theme of the celebration was the New Humanism. What is the difference between the “new humanism” and the “old human­ism”? The difference lies in the rejection or acceptance of the cultures of the past.

Humanism arose out of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an eighteenth-century European intellectual movement that ushered in the Age of Science. It championed reason as the best method for the discovery of truth. It identified the consequences of human behav­ior as the best criterion for the determination of moral behavior. It celebrated human empower­ment and human dignity. It was this-worldly and optimistic, promising the improvement of the human condition here on earth.

The chief enemy of the Enlightenment was organized religion, especially organized Christianity. The war between reason and faith turned into an intense hostility between the two sides. The clergy saw secular human­ism as the ultimate foe. Secular humanists saw organized religion as the chief barrier to emancipation. The events of the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution gave testimony to the intensity of this battle.

When humanism was first turned into an organized movement in North America and Europe, humanists insisted on a clean break with the religious past. To be humanists was not to be a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or even a Jew. Humanists must organize themselves in opposition to traditional religious systems. This decision produced the “old humanism,” a movement profoundly hostile to churches, synagogues, and clergy.

But the old humanism was unable to mobilize most of the people who had become secular in the Age of Science. It cut people off from their cultural roots. It severed their con­nection to holidays and ceremonies, family memories and customs that possessed great cultural power. Whatever new celebrations were invented were sterile, lacking emotional and cultural depth. Humanist societies were small collections of intellectuals who felt especially wounded by dogmatic and fanatic clergy. The secularized masses that bore no conscious hostility to their roots were turned off by the perceived negativity of the old hu­manism, by the continuous denunciations of the religious enemy.

The dilemma lay in the word religion. Most secularized humanists resisted being called religious, even though they felt strong emotional connections to their religious past. Perhaps Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were more than religions. Perhaps they were cul­tural systems as well as religious systems. If you imagined that each religion was attached to a unique ideology, then such an assertion was invalid. But if it was the case that each religious system ultimately embraced many philosophies of life – some of them contradic­tory one to the other and all of them united by a single international culture – then the assertion corresponded to reality.

In every great world religion you can in­deed find many philosophies of life. That is how they became world religions. In Judaism you have Maimonides and the Kabbala. In Islam you have Osama bin Laden and Omar Khayyam. In Christianity you have Paul of Tarsus and Harry Emerson Fosdick. All that unites these dichotomies is a shared cultural system of family memories, holidays, cer­emonies, and literature. Philosophy is one thing. Organized religion is another, a cultural system that connects us to our ancestors.

Cultural religions were created by either conquest or dispersion. Christianity and Islam started with conquest. Judaism began through dispersion. World religions embrace many national traditions. Christians include Greeks, Romans, Germans, and Russians. Muslims include Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Jews embrace Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and the new mixed gene pool of Israelis.

Humanistic Judaism is part of the New Humanism. It does not protect the culture of the past. It does not repudiate ancestral roots. It embraces them and makes them a home for humanistic convictions and hu­manistic integrity.

At the Harvard conference, a Unitarian leader identified Unitarians as a version of Hu­manistic Confucianism and a Hindu scholar saw Hinduism as a cultural system that could offer hospitality to a Humanistic Hinduism. In all cases, the accommodation to roots is a bal­ancing act between continuity and integrity.

Can there be a Humanistic Islam? Given the prominence of fundamentalist Islam today, many people claim that such a designation is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. But Salman Rushdie, the man who was condemned to death by fundamentalist Islam, disagreed. He recalled his own childhood of secularized Muslims, of pious Muslims who preached toleration, of Muslim teachers who were more comfortable with the natural world than with the supernatural world. He saw himself as a secular Muslim, a secularist by conviction, a Muslim by culture. He saw value in presenting the connection with the past as a way of reach­ing millions of secular Muslims who could not be reached by rejectionist Humanism.

My dialogue with Salman Rushdie was one of the high points of my life: It confirmed my commitment to Humanistic Judaism and to the New Humanism.

A Short Humanistic History of the High Holidays

High Holidays – Summer 1986

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are more than Jewish holidays. For many Jews, they are the only expression of Jewish identity. The High Holidays are the two times during the year when these Jews feel compelled to do something Jewish. Countless synagogues and temples would fail without Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Hordes of rabbis would lose contact with their membership if these holidays were abolished. There is something about them that is compelling for Jews.

This prominence is historically puzzling. While the Torah cites the first day of the seventh month as a holy day and a time for blowing the shofar, it makes no reference to the name Rosh Hashana. In fact, the use of the number seven indicates that the new year began sometime in the spring, just before Passover. And while the Torah prescribes an elaborate ritual of community repentance for the tenth day of the seventh month, it restricts the ritual to priests and makes no provision for popular participation.

The Torah requires fasting on Yom Kip­pur. But it knows nothing of synagogues, all­day services, Kol Nidre, swinging “scape chickens” over the head in the ritual of Kapparot, or emptying pockets at riverside in the ceremony of Tashlikh. If the Torah suggests any holiday as number one, it most likely is Pesakh, the commemoration of the Exodus.

Secular Jews had trouble with the High Holidays from the beginning. As festivals of national liberation, Passover and Hanukka easily could be purified of supernatural con­nections. As nature holidays, Sukkot and Shavuot could, with little effort, be con­nected to the seasons and to all the secular responses they aroused. But Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as they had evolved in the Judaism of the rabbis, seemed inseparable from the supernaturalist tradition that secularists rejected. There was no event in Jewish history that these holidays com­memorated. There was no seasonal happen­ing they pointed to. Both holidays were fraught with ideas of divine power and judg­ment, sin and repentance.

Early Jewish secularists discarded the High Holidays as hard-core traditionalism. They found them irrelevant to the new secular nationalism and made no effort to rescue them for humanistic use. Some secularists developed a strong hostility to these holidays because they seemed to sym­bolize the “enemy” and all that had gone wrong with Jewish life. Many radical socialist groups held Kol Nidre night af tsu loches (for spite) dances to provoke the Or­thodox. I still remember street battles be­tween offended traditionalists on their way back from shul and these brash provocateurs.

In Israel, the kibbutzim, driven by socialist and secular fervor, ignored the High Holidays entirely. In time, they found some minor use for Rosh Hashana as the marker of the new year. But Yom Kippur re­mained an uncomfortable gap in the calen­dar, a day off in the national yearly cycle that other Jews used for religious purposes.

Today, many humanistic Jews have rein­corporated the High Holidays into their Jewish observance, recognizing that their continuing hold is too strong to be ignored. But many are not fully aware of why these holidays remain so compelling for Jewish humanists. Perhaps a historical survey of their beginnings and evolution would help.


The beginnings of most Jewish holidays are hard to find. Unlike the traditional history, which claims that the major festivals were proclaimed at Mt. Sinai, a scientific history has to settle for the murkiness of dim antiquity. New year celebrations in Semitic Western Asia were popular events as far back as historical records can take us. Babylonians and Canaanites loved them long before the Jews emerged as a political reality.

After all, the idea of dividing time into years is a necessary development of an ex­panding agricultural society. The year is a cycle of seasons, which controls the work of plowing, sowing, reaping, and picking. In the beginning, the priests of early cultures were barely aware of the connection be­tween the seasonal year and the “movements” of the sun. As calendars became more sophisticated, the emergence of the solar year, which defined the cycle of change with its solstices and equinoxes, im­proved with predictability.

In these Near Eastern farm cultures, the time of the “new year” coincided with dramatic beginnings. The beginning of the grain harvest or the beginning of the rainy season were sufficiently important to justify ending one year and starting another. In Syria and Palestine, the grain harvests belonged to the spring and the rainy season to the fall-winter. Either event was impor­tant enough to separate two years. However, the rainy season, which followed the sum­mer fruit harvest, generally won out.

If the rain determined the food of the future, then life and death were in the hands of the rain. And if the rain was in the hands of the gods, then the gods must be made hap­py to insure the rain. The rituals of the new year celebration were designed to achieve this goal, to please the gods and insure the survival of the people.

The original Rosh Hashana (it was not yet called by that name) was a fearful day of judgment. Dramatic questions hovered over the event. Would the gods send the rain and let the people live? Or would they deny the rain and let the people die? What determines the decision of the gods? What needs to be done to guarantee a positive verdict? What needs to be done to reverse a negative one?

Within the popular belief system, many things could be done to avoid death. Gifts could be given to the gods, especially the meats and incense they adored. Loud public flattery of their power and might could be orchestrated. Confessions of regret for past injury to divine interests could be offered. Fasting and self-degradation could be practiced as signs that the guilty already had been chastened and needed no more punishment.

Kings and Priests

When the Jewish nation, with its devotion to the cult of the god Yahveh and his central shrine in the city of Jerusalem, emerged as a united political state in the tenth century B.C., the ritual grew more elaborate. Less and less was done by the ordinary people. More and more was done by professional kings and priests. While the royal house of David was in power, the king was, most likely, the leader of the appeasement rituals in the Jerusalem Temple. After the conquest of the Jews by the Chaldeans in 586 B.C. and the destruction of the royal family, the high priest of the house of Moses became the leader of the nation and the leader of the new year ceremonies.

During this historical period, two dif­ferent time structures for the new year festival competed with each other.

The first was a function of a seasonal calendar based on the number seven (a sacred number because of the seven visible “heavenly bodies” that determined the fate of humanity). Time was divided into units of seven days (weeks). Seven weeks plus a clos­ing day (atseret) formed a “season” of 50 days. Seven “seasons” made a year of 350 days. The difference of fifteen days between 350 and the 365 days of the solar year was divided into two holidays of seven days — Matsot for the spring and Katsir for the fall — and one day for the new year festival. This festival was tacked on to the end of Katsir, just before the rainy season.

The second time structure was a function of the moon calendar that the Hebrew nomads and shepherds brought with them from their early wanderings. It was pre-agricultural and based on the phases of the moon. The natural month of 29 or 30 days was its basic unit. Twelve natural months constituted 354 or 355 days and fell at least 10 days short of a solar or seasonal year. The difference was turned into a ten-day period of new year celebration and repentance, which was assigned to the advent of the rainy season.

By the time the Torah was edited by the Levitical priests, somewhere around 500 B.C., the second system had won out. The first system still has powerful relics: the Sab­bath, Shavuot, the seven-day spring Pesakh, and the eight-day fall Sukkot. Even the eighth day of Sukkot, Shemini Atseret (the old new year), retains some of the solemnity and ritual of the original Rosh Hashana, especially its concern for rain.

Although the second system won the competition, it was modified to accom­modate the priestly elite who edited the Torah. These Mosaic priests were influ­enced by Chaldea, where they had spent many years in captivity and political exile. They borrowed the moon calendar of the Chaldeans, whose new year celebration was assigned to the spring and who made up the differences with the solar calendar through periodic leap years. In the end, the first month of the Torah year was moved to Nissan in the spring and the ten-day festival of judgment was placed in the first ten days of the seventh month in the fall. Because of its connection to the rainy season, the judg­ment holiday could not be moved to the spring. But the Torah writers no longer designated it the new year festival, although popular custom continued to do so.

Under four centuries of priestly rule, the judgment festival rivaled Pesakh for first place among the holidays. It began with the solemn day of Yom Teruah, the day of the blowing of the shofar, and ended with Yom Kippur, the final day of ritual appeasement. The setting of the ceremonies was the se­cond Jerusalem Temple. The performers were the High Priest and his attendants. The awe-struck audience was the observing masses. The shofar was blown to attract the attention of Yahveh and to warn the people of impending danger. A scapegoat was chosen to receive the sins of the people and was sent into the desert to be thrown over a cliff as an appeasement offering to Azazel, the king of the evil spirits. And the High Priest, on Yom Kippur, entered the throne room of Yahveh in the Temple behind a pro­tective screen of incense smoke to plead for the people. The day was filled with wailing, fasting, splendor, and suspense.

The Rabbis

The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans transformed the judgment festival. With the elimination of the sacrificial ritual, the heart of the old ceremony was excised. And with the removal of the priests, the central per­formers of the traditional service vanished into oblivion.

Of course, the decline of priestly power had begun more than a century before. The popular political party, the Pharisees, under the leadership of the rabbis, assumed control and imposed their vision of Jewish history and Jewish tradition on the people. The rab­bis brought with them the folk traditions of their Oral Law, a Messianic vision of the final judgment day, an anti-priestly bias, and the institution of the synagogue meeting house.

The rise of the rabbis to power was ac­companied by a massive emigration of Jews from Judea. By the first century A.D., the Jewish population outside Judea was greater than that within. Most of the Jews of the Diaspora had nothing at all to do with farm­ing and rainy seasons and were heavily ur­banized. Agricultural suspense was no longer part of their experience.

The consequence of these changes was a second transformation of the judgment holi­day. In the Talmud, the written version of the Oral Law, the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim) took on their familiar “Orthodox” character. The Biblical Yom Teruah became the Talmudic Rosh Hashana, with a full acknowledgment that it was indeed the new year festival. And the Temple ritual was replaced by private rituals and public synagogue services.

A new ideology pervaded the mood of the season and the words of the synagogue prayers. The annual judgment day of Rosh Hashana became an anticipation of the final judgment day ushered in by the Messiah. The fear of drought vanished. And the danger of eternal punishment now became the threat of divine retaliation. The ten days took on the mood of a trial. Rosh Hashana became the day of justice, when we all are rightly condemned for our sins. Yom Kippur became the day of mercy, when we are par­doned for our sins (even though we have not earned the pardon) and granted the gift of life. The High Holidays remained unique, a personal and universal religious event, not commemorative of any national victories or defeats.

As the centuries passed, the High Holidays became associated with certain special rituals:

The Shofar was blown three times on Rosh Hashana and once on Yom Kippur, its sounds conjuring up images of dread and hope.

Piyyutim, special poems of praise, were added to the service. The most famous of these is the Untaneh Tokef announcement, when the ark of the Torah is opened and the proclamation of divine judgment is made.

Kol Nidre was attached to the beginning of the Yom Kippur evening ritual. A legal for­mula absolving its subscribers from the fulfillment of frivolous vows, this pedestrian Aramaic declaration is of dubious moral value. The rabbinic leaders of Chaldea, where it was first composed, condemned its inclusion but were ultimately powerless to prevent its use. The Jewish public won out. In the European Askhenazic world, the “legalese” was attached to a haunting melody, which made it famous. In the Sephardic world, the words never found a memorable tune and remained comparatively unimportant.

Fasting became the vogue. Pious people abstained from food and water, not only on Yom Kippur, but also in spurts throughout the ten days. The mood of the holiday was hardly joyous. Fear and self-inflicted suffer­ing were pervasive: flogging, breast-beating, wearing the clothing of destitution, and abstinence from bathing.

In the European milieu, folk customs that never received official sanction achieved a semi-legal status. The symbolic emptying of pockets by a flowing streamside to allow the water to carry away the impurity of sin became the Tashlikh ceremony of the first day of Rosh Hashana. The slaughter of chickens to receive the guilt of their owners became the Kapparot ritual of the day before Yom Kippur.


The Enlightenment and Emancipation undermined the old belief framework of the High Holidays and removed some of the dread. Divine record-keeping, supernatural rewards and punishments, and the value of appeasement ceremonies seemed less credi­ble than before. Many Jews saw Tashlikh and Kapparot as primitive and superstitious and unworthy of repetition. Kol Nidre, with its dismissal of the binding character of pro­mises, became a moral problem. Long confes­sions and breast-beating appeared unseemly. Even fasting developed a bad reputation, of­fending “rational” people who found no ethical value in self-inflicted suffering.

Nevertheless, radical Reform in America found an enormous importance in the High Holidays because the reformers had defined the Jews as a religious denomination, and these solemn celebrations were supremely religious. But the Reform movement had lost its belief in a personal, punishing God, which had made the days so awesome. In the end, a decorous prayer service emerged, with little of the passion of the old days of judgment.


Throughout traditional observance of the Days of Awe, despite the heavy emphasis on divine justice and divine mercy, humanistic dimensions appear. Guilt leads to self- reflection and self-evaluation. Resolutions to improve behavior in the coming year are made. People seek out friends and neighbors to ask for forgiveness for past wrongdoings and to effect reconciliation.

Still, many secular Jews found Rosh Ha­shana and Yom Kippur too religious for their tastes. They saw no way of transforming them into secular national holidays.

But they failed to realize that the High Holidays, precisely because they are per­sonal rather than national, have a special significance for Humanistic Jews. If human judgment replaces divine judg­ment, and if human power becomes the alternative to divine power, then Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur become perfect vehicles for celebrating a humanistic phil­osophy of life. It is appropriate for Jews at the time of the Jewish New Year to reflect on the moral quality of their behavior and to make decisions to improve it. Intro­spection and goal setting are traditional. They are also humanistic.

RESPONSA – Hebrew Names

Family Values – Winter 1994

Question: Should Humanistic Jewish chil­dren be given Hebrew names?

Responsum: Giving names to babies is as old as human speech. Giving Hebrew names to Jewish babies is as old as the Jewish people and the Hebrew language.

Personal names, unlike family names or clan names, designate unique individuals. But, since they are usually limited in num­ber, they need to be reinforced by family names or clan names or even nicknames, in order to provide a unique identification. One name, like Yohanan, is insufficient. It is personal, but not unique. It needs surnames to make it more specific — a patronymic like Yohanan ben Ezra (Yohanan, bom of Ezra) or a place name like Yohanan Yerushalami (Yohanan of Jerusalem).

Historically, personal names often reflected the religious commitments and aspirations of the parents who conferred them. The name Eliyahu (Elijah) means “labored is my god.” The name Yehezkel (Ezekiel) means “God is strong.” Children were walking advertisements of cultic attachments.

Personal names also reflected the hopes of the parents. David means “beloved”; Etan means “mighty.” The chosen name pointed to some ideal characteristic the parent wanted the child to embody. The right name, it was hoped, would help to produce the right result.

In time two changes occurred. As Jews ceased to live in Hebrew-speaking envi­ronments, non-Hebrew names became more popular. In the Oriental world, non- Hebrew names simply replaced the Hebrew ones. In the Ashkenazic world, Jewish boys — and sometimes girls — received two names: a non-Hebrew name used for secular purposes, and a Hebrew name used for ceremonial purposes.

The second change was the tendency to give children the Hebrew names of ances­tors as a way of conferring immortality on the departed. Babies were named after deceased grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Ashkenazim refused to name children after living relatives out of fear that “stealing” a name would endanger the life of its owner. Sephardic and Oriental Jews, however, often named chil­dren after living family members. Today, in the Diaspora, most Hebrew names are sec­ondary and are derived from ancestral names. Hebrew naming is a way of honor­ing the family’s past.

In modern Israel, Hebrew names have become primary again; the secular name and the ceremonial name are one and the same. For secular Israelis, personal names and the new surnames some have adopted have less to do with ancestors than with the sound and meaning of the name. When David Green of Poland became David Ben Gurion of Palestine, the new surname was not cho­sen because it was ancestral. The meaning, “young lion,” was attractive and evocative of positive feeling.

For Humanistic Jews in the Diaspora, Hebrew names generally are secondary and ceremonial. But they are important. Since Hebrew is uniquely Jewish, a Hebrew name reinforces Jewish identity.

Humanistic parents have several options if they want their child to have a Hebrew ceremonial name. They can choose the Hebrew name of a deceased or living rela­tive as a way of honoring the dead or the living. Or they can choose a Hebrew name that reflects their hopes for the child, like Haim (life) or Aliza (joy). This second option is becoming increasingly popular. A third option that has become quite common is to use a biblical Hebrew name, such as Adam or Miriam, as the primary secular name.

Humanistic Jews are guided by the past but are not bound by the past. Folk super­stitions, like not naming children after liv­ing relatives, are no longer relevant. And to feel compelled to find a Hebrew ceremoni­al name that sounds like the secular name is absurd. If names are significant, it is better to give a girl called Lynne the Hebrew name of Ahava (love) than to choose Lenh (ewe lamb) simply because it begins with the let­ter L.

In an assimilated secular world, Hebrew names help to remind us of our Jewish identity. It would be wonderful if their meaning also would help to reinforce our commitment to humanistic values and ideals.