The Irony of Jewish Survival

Colloquium ’97: Reclaiming Jewish History, Spring 1998

When Alan Dershowitz spoke at the Bir­mingham Temple, he announced that he was a secular Jew and that Humanistic Judaism was the closest to what he felt and believed. He volunteered to help us.

The reason for his coming was a book he wrote about the future of American Judaism. He gave the book the disturbing title The Van­ishing American Jew. Dershowitz maintains that assimilation, personal freedom, and de­clining anti-Semitism have created a situation in which Jewish group survival is in danger. Jews are so fully integrated into American culture that their Jewish identity has become an adjunct to their American identity. The lib­erty and toleration of American society have made Jewishness a personal choice. Neither laws nor bigotry compel Jews to remain Jews.

But Dershowitz, unlike many Jewish com­mentators on the American Jewish future, does not recommend a return to tradition and Or­thodoxy as a counterbalance to the forces of assimilation. He does not call for a return to community segregation and a primary focus on the issue of Jewish survival. He is afraid that such a return will destroy the Jew he admires and resurrect the Jew he does not admire.

The most interesting observation in Dershowitz’s book is his contention that the greatest achievement of Jewish history is the modern secular Jew. The incredible intellec­tual and artistic achievements of Jews during the past two centuries were produced, not by traditional Jews, but by secular Jews. They are Einstein, Freud, and Durkheim. They are the Nobel Prize winners. They are the movers and shakers of social action and political revolu­tion. They are the voices for universal justice and human rights. In the eighteen centuries of Orthodox Jewish domination, none of this spirit prevailed. The parochial agenda of Orthodoxy kept Jews focused only on the Jewish world.

The implication is clear. A return to Ortho­doxy and tradition is a return to Jewish parochialism. It is a negation of everything at­tractive about Jews in the past two centuries. It is the resurrection of a narrow and fearful vi­sion that saw the Gentile world as the enemy and conformity to tradition as the only guaran­tee of Jewish salvation. Out of such a theologi­cal field, the passion for intellectual, artistic, and ethical adventure cannot grow. If you reject freedom and persuade all Jews to return to Or­thodoxy, you will “guarantee” Jewish survival; but you will have a Jew you neither want nor admire. The irony of the Jewish future is that the Jew we want to preserve cannot be separated from the personal freedom and assimilation that seem to threaten Jewish group survival.

This marvelous irony raises the question of what is necessary to create, maintain, and preserve the modern secular Jew. It is clear that Jewish tradition alone cannot produce this phenomenon. It needs a catalyst. The catalyst is the power of modern Western secular cul­ture, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, and the Greco-Roman culture of the classical world. Hellenism and Orthodoxy produced a “child” that was identical to neither of its parents.

The modem Jew is like a good salad dress­ing. The vinegar is Orthodoxy. By itself it is harsh and uninviting. The oil is Hellenism. By itself it lacks the intensity of Jewish pas­sion. Together, they are a pleasing and attractive experience. The oil of Hellenism provides the reason and openness, the love of humanness and beauty, which the life of intellectual and artistic adventure requires. Orthodoxy provides the intensity and anger that have fueled Jewish ambition and have provoked Jewish thinkers and artists to defy established norms. Reason without intensity is weak. Intensity without reason is blind. But the combination is powerful and benign.

The implications of this reality are clear.

The flowering of Jewish identity was not in the biblical and talmudic past. Neither the cult of Yahveh nor Pharisaic Judaism pro­duced the free spirit that the pursuit of truth and beauty requires. On the contrary, in many cases, it suppressed that spirit in the name of dogmatic conformity. The intensity, passion, and militancy of traditional Judaism could be attractive and productive of universal good only when they could be separated from the theology of the rabbis. In the context of rabbinic Judaism they fostered a narrow fa­naticism — a passion that ultra-Orthodox Jews all over the world still exhibit.

Returning to the traditions of the past is like returning to the vinegar without the oil. Repu­diating the open society of the modern world does not produce a wise Jew. It produces a pa­rochial Jew, whose only concern is Jewish group survival and whose chief pleasure is making invidious comparisons between Judaism and “inferior” alternatives. The resegregation of Jew­ish life is the setting for turning the modern Jew into a nostalgic sectarian.

The culture of the Greeks and the Romans, from which so much of our modern secular culture flows, is not the enemy, as traditional rabbis proposed. It is the catalyst that takes Jewish intensity and ambition and transforms it into a vehicle for intellectual achievement and moral improvement. There was a brief time in the ancient world when this combi­nation was attempted. But the wars with the Romans and the triumph of rabbinic Judaism drove Hellenistic Jews into the underground of Jewish life. From time to time a Jewish philosopher would be brave enough to resur­rect a pale reflection of that mixture, but the tyranny of the halakha ultimately prevailed.

The greatest period of Jewish history is the modern era, the time in which the “vinegar” and the “oil” came together to produce the secular Jew of the past two centuries. Within a short time, this combination produced the creative intellectual power to transform our views of people and the universe, and the en­trepreneurial power to remake the economics of the world. Never before has Jewish talent and creativity been able to reach so many so widely. As Dershowitz points out, to lose the secular Jew is to lose the Jew we admire. It is not the Jewish past we seek to preserve. It is the wonders of the Jewish present.

The Failed Messiah of Crown Heights

What Does It Mean to be Jewish? Winter 1995

The rebbe was dead. Or was he?

Hundreds of Lubavitcher Hasidim wait­ed breathlessly for his resurrection. They could not accept his death. They still await his return.

Whoever would have imagined that the death of a Jewish cult leader would make front page news seven days in a row? But the Lubavitchers are no ordinary cult. Next to the state of Israel, they are the most successful Jew­ish organization in the world. Now 250,000 strong, they have quintupled their numbers over the past forty years and entered into the mainstream of Jewish life. In 1951, when the Rebbe took over, they were a bizarre Jewish sect that few Jews even knew about. Today their emissaries cover the globe and negotiate with the rulers of the world.

Hasidism has been around for almost three hundred years. Emerging in southeast Poland at a time of political and economic devasta­tion, it gave hope to hope-hungry Jews. God would send his Messiah to rescue his people — but only when they loved him enough. Ob­serving the commandments was not enough. Observance with heartfelt devotion was the key to salvation. Hasidism began with singing and dancing, with fervor and shaking, and ended up with miracle-working rebbes who were the dispensers of supernatural power. Devotional leaders founded devotional dynas­ties. Each dynasty turned into a cult of the personality. If the rebbe was not God, he was, at least, the deputy of God on earth. He was the very gate to heaven. Devotion went up; power came down.

Rabbi Zalman Schneur of Lubavitch was unique. While most Hasidim came from Galicia and the Ukraine, he hailed from Lithuania, the homeland of Hasidim-haters. Litvaks almost invariably denounced Hasid­ism as craziness and heresy. But Zalman the Litvak became a Hasidic rebbe. Being a Litvak, he tried to give his movement a slight in­tellectual twist. Chabad is the acronym for three Hebrew words that denote wisdom. The Lubavitchers became Hasidim with a Litvak edge.

In 1957, the Lubavitch movement was at a low point. Devastated by Communism and the Holocaust, its leadership was in exile in Brooklyn, its followers depressed, its numbers diminished. The old rebbe died that year and was succeeded by his son-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who also was descended from the original Zalman. The new rebbe was brilliant, charismatic, and creative. Familiar with the secular world as an engineer, a gradu­ate of the Sorbonne in Paris, he combined Hasidic piety, intellectual mysticism, and a missionary zeal to reach “lost” Jews. Instead of despising them, he went out to recruit them. The result: a powerful religious empire span­ning six continents and a cadre of thousands of dedicated workers who, for an economic pittance, went forth to conquer the Jewish world. In time, some of these devotees pro­claimed their rebbe the Messiah.

What is the significance of all this messi­anic fervor?

It means that these old ideas about messiahs and resurrections, which liberal Jews as­sumed were fast fading away in Jewish life, are alive and well. After four centuries of the age of science, fundamentalism is still strong, among Jews as among Christians and Muslims.

It means that the Jews for Jesus and the Lubavitchers are on the same wavelength. Both believe in salvation. Both believe in messiahs. Both believe in resurrection. In the end, whether you prefer Jesus or the rebbe, the mind-set is the same.

It means that rationality is having a hard time in Crown Heights. The smartest strategy is to keep postponing the coming of the Mes­siah. But true believers want the Messiah right now. The rub is that he may not show up. And if he doesn’t, there is always the risk of mass disillusionment. However, the history of reli­gion has demonstrated that true believers al­ways find the perfect excuse. Perhaps the rebbe did not find the world worthy of salvation.

It means that a lot of Jewish energy is be­ing devoted to harmful illusion. Believing that everybody’s life can be rescued by a single per­son is a dangerous conviction. It undermines self-reliance and turns people into childlike dependents. The resurgence of the Lubavitch­ers is no boon to the Jewish people. Jewish passion has no value if it means the abroga­tion of reason, autonomy, and self-esteem.

A movement built around a cult of per­sonality needs a personality. It may be that the dead rebbe will serve that purpose. But that has not been the Hasidic tradition. Schneerson designated no heir. Internal bickering has now resulted in major confrontations. The danger of splits is real. If no new charismatic rebbe shows up, can the movement hold together? Ironically, the strong point of the Lubavitchers, their reverence for their leader, is also their weak point.

This whole fiasco underlines a dichotomy in contemporary Jewish life. Humanistic Ju­daism looks at the Jewish experience and ar­rives at totally different conclusions from those of the Lubavitchers. They see messiahs; we find the need for self-reliance. They see divine determination; we find human determination. Our style may not be as dramatic, our songs may not be as lively, but our message is a lot healthier. Messiahs always have been an enor­mous disappointment. “Jews for the Rebbe” are, after all, in the same delusionary world as Jews for Jesus.

A Scientist Embraces God: The Language of God by Francis Collins, A Review

Thinking Outside the Box- Winter 2007

Can anyone prove the existence of God? Theologians have been obsessed with this project for the past two thousand years.

When gods began, nobody had to prove their existence. People believed that the gods were as real as the land they farmed and the family that nurtured them. Proving their ex­istence would have seemed silly.

But excessive touting led some people to claim that their god was the one and only god. Even more touting led passionate devotees to claim that the one god made and managed everything. Because flattery costs nothing, the one god ended up being all-mighty, all-perfect, and all-good. An Almighty God is respon­sible for everything. And if he is all-good, he uncomfortably ends up being responsible for evil. In a polytheistic world, undeserved suf­fering can always be blamed on an enemy god. But the divine dictatorship of monotheism offers no such alternative. God needs apolo­gists to rescue his reputation and to explain away his “bad behavior.”

Now, theology starts out with a certain level of absurdity. It is the only discipline I know that needs to prove the existence of its subject matter. Ichthyologists do not spend their time proving the existence of fish. Ornithologists would feel ridiculous having to prove the ex­istence of birds. Anthropologists would laugh if asked to prove the existence of people. But theologians have no sense of humor.

Modern science has not been friendly to either God or theology. Most scientists are consistent empiricists. They require more than faith or wishing to demonstrate the existence of anything. They have discovered no substantial, or even modest, evidence to demonstrate that a Moral Creator and Man­ager of the Universe exists. Like the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1801), they find most of the traditional arguments for the existence of God to be flawed.

Francis Collins is a famous scientist. He was the chief of the Human Genome Project. But he is also a believer in God. He is a believ­er in a personal God who loves and cares for his creation. He is also a believing Christian, the child of eccentric freethinkers, a man who freely chose the Christian faith. In his latest bestseller, The Language of God (Free Press, 2006), he plays the role of a theologian.

Can a famous Christian scientist playing theologian do what Kant was unable to do? Can he prove the existence of God and simul­taneously rescue God’s moral reputation? Can he prove the existence of a God who loves all human creatures and who wants to rescue them from undeserved suffering?

Many Christians who bought Collins’ book were conservative Christians who hoped that he would place the endorsement of science on their problematic beliefs. But he is an enormous disap­pointment to the religious right. He repudiates creationism as unscientific. He endorses Darwin­ian evolution as valid, accepts the principle of natural selection, and rejects Intelligent Design. Collins endorses all of modern cosmology, with its “Big Bang” explosion and its fourteen billion- year-old universe. A scientific atheist would be very comfortable with most of his conclusions.

One would expect something fiercely original from a man of Collins’ caliber. But his presentation is disappointing. It is a rehash of familiar arguments offered by former skeptics who embraced God and Christianity. Much of his case is derived from the writings of C. S. Lewis, a clever Anglican apologist, who was the rage among sophisticated defenders of religion in the 1930s. Lewis’ audiences were people who feared Communism and who imagined that faith would provide a firm resistance.

Collins embraces all the old stale theo­logical tricks of conventional theologians. He denounces science because it cannot answer the question “Why did the universe come into being?” But this question has a premise. The hidden premise is that the universe must have a purpose. But what if the universe has no purpose? What if it was not created? What if it emerged by chance with no conscious interven­tion? What if there is no Why, only How? Sci­ence is perfectly capable of handling the How.

Collins maintains that the natural world cannot be the foundation of morality. Only God can. But ethics did not arise in a vacuum, a proclamation from a mountain top. All animals living in groups depend for their sur­vival on the survival of their group, whether they are ants, wolves, baboons, or people. To imagine that human ethics has no connection to our animal past, to assert that guilt has no genetic basis, to claim that love is not rooted in human survival but is a message from be­yond space and time is to abandon reason. The moral law is not some prescription for love and compassion floating around in some supernatural never-never land. It is one of evolution’s children in the relentless struggle for genetic survival. The love of strangers is new. It competes with the old fear and hatred of outsiders. That is why it is so difficult. But the love of family is old. It is the foundation of all other love. If God championed the moral law, he most likely learned about it from hu­mans and other animals.

Collins insists that the desire for God is evidence that He exists. It is hard to believe that Collins said this. Wishing obviously makes it so. If I want and need immortality, then I am immortal. If I want and need to be strong, then I am strong. If I want and need God then God exists. Why else would I long for him if he was not there?

Collins asserts that God cannot prevent human suffering because he gave human be­ings free will. People are responsible for what they do because they have free will. God could do nothing to prevent the Holocaust because he gave Hitler and his cohorts the wonderful gift of free will. What silliness! Intervening to prevent a person from harming others other does not deprive the criminal of his free will. It is an act of compassion. It is the moral demand that God presumably makes on all human be­ings. Why will God not do what he requires humans to do? A God who uses the excuse of human free will to stand as a spectator before human suffering lacks moral authority. Love by determinism is better than hate by free will. Collins discloses his daughter’s traumatic and tragic rape. What a horrible injustice! But no – Collins transforms tragedy into absurdity. Invoking one of the age-old apologies for God’s bad behavior; Collins justifies the event. He describes how much he learned from his daughter’s suffering. God uses his innocent daughter and her suffering to teach her father to forgive a criminal. What next? Plane crashes in which hundreds die, so that the survivors can be ennobled by their pain?

The last absurdity is the Anthropic Prin­ciple. The Anthropic Principle maintains that God created the universe in order to arrange for human intelligence. There are many mo­ments in the past fourteen billion years when a different turn of events would have precluded the appearance of our solar system, the planet Earth, and the air pocket on the surface of our planet that makes human life possible. Col­lins asserts that these amazing coincidences are not coincidences. They are the evidence of God’s deliberate plan and of God himself. But the Anthropic Principle reduces God to an incompetent bungler. If God’s intention is to create human intelligence why would he force human intelligence to undergo the ghastly process of evolution, with all its struggle, suf­fering, and enormous waste? The Anthropic Principle is like the Charles Lamb story where you arrange for roast pork by placing a pig in a house and burning the whole house down.

Collins’ book fills me with great sadness. Why would a brilliant biologist risk his intel­lectual credibility by consenting to play the part of C. S. Lewis’ parrot? That he is a nice man is clear. That Collins is a wise man is doubtful.

An Unabashed Atheist: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, A Review

Thinking Outside the Box- Winter 2007

Atheism is a dirty word in America. The hatred of atheists was aggravated by the con­nection of atheism with Marxism. Ironically, Marx made a mistake. Most people who are poor or who are in the working class are very religious. Atheism was a deterrent to Com­munism. Most atheists are the children of the middle class.

Whereas secularization in Europe has made atheism mildly respectable, secularization in America has left large pockets of deeply reli­gious people. Atheists in America are discreet. Political safety demands that they show an appropriate level of humility. Religious people can safely denounce atheism as immoral and dangerous, but atheists must “behave.” They must always express their deep respect for the religious option. They must often disguise their convictions as agnosticism, a designation that implies that theism and atheism are equally valid choices. If they are sufficiently obsequi­ous, they will agree with the opposition that science and religion are compatible and that science cannot be the foundation of ethical values. Anti-atheists do not have to be nice. But atheists must always know their place.

One of the most famous self-proclaimed atheists in the world is Richard Dawkins. He is an Oxford professor and one of the most articulate defenders of Darwinian evolution. In his latest best seller, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), he refuses to be “ap­propriately humble.” He refuses to cater to the power of religion in America. He refuses to be deferent. He behaves as though atheism were as respectable as religion. Given the normal public discourse between theists and atheists, he is outrageous. He refuses to be patronized. The mere privilege of freely expressing his convictions is not enough.

Dawkins maintains that statements about God are no different from statements about the weather. They are statements about reality. They are statements open to scientific investi­gation. Science is not a procedure confined to the events of the “natural world.” It is a method for the discovery of truth that relies on hu­man observation and controlled investigation. Supernatural events, if they exist, are open to human observation. Certainly the biblical au­thors thought so. Believers always appealed to human experience to demonstrate the existence and goodness of God. If God is real, then faith is not enough. Faith is the hypothesis. Faith without evidence is wishful thinking.

Dawkins addresses all the available proofs for the existence of God and finds them want­ing. Part of the problem is that the God who is the conscious creator and manager of the uni­verse vanishes into philosophic abstraction. He becomes very much like the emperor’s clothing. You are never quite sure what you are looking for. And you are never quite sure why one god is better than several. The flesh and blood gods of mythology have turned into the verbal toys of theologians.

Dawkins asserts that ethics does not need God to be valid. The authority behind moral commands does not lie in the commander. It lies in the consequences of behavior. Ethics begins with genes struggling to reproduce themselves. It continues with individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their offspring. It moves on to groups that make it possible for individuals and their offspring to survive. It completes itself with a global world of strangers where the instincts of group living reach out beyond the family and the tribe to embrace others. Morality does not emerge from the drama of divine revela­tion. It is the child of evolution, negotiating the demands of selfish genes with the agenda of group survival. Along the way people put their convictions into the mouths of the gods. The authority of God ultimately rests on the authority of ancestors who struggled for life and happiness.

Dawkins does not stand in awe of reli­gious literature. He does not play the part of the humble atheist who pays tribute to the greatness of the Bible and the Koran even though he does not believe in the reality of their central character. He finds no moral greatness in the angry and vengeful Yahveh of the Old Testament. He discovers no great truth in the absurdities of New Testament theology. The roots of humanism do not lie here. They lie in the work of those who resisted the mes­sage of this literature.

Finally, Dawkins does not regard the ubiquity of religious conviction and religious behavior as evidence of their value. In the course of evolution genes “misfire.” They undergo mutations that are harmful, not use­ful. Religion, like the fear of strangers, may be an evolutionary aberration that may inhibit the struggle for human happiness rather than enhance it. The “God delusion” is not the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom emerges only when you fully recover from it.

For people who tolerate atheists and expect them to “know their place,” Dawkins is infuriat­ing. But for those who want to confront the alter­native to religion as a clear and self-respecting option, the honesty of Dawkins is refreshing.

The Lesson of Evita, a Review

Homosexual Rights – Spring 1997

I loved Evita. I loved the musical. I loved the movie. And, I thought that Madonna was an extraordinary Eva Peron.

But seeing Evita made me reflect on the politics of the modern world. After all, the fas­cism of the Perons was a unique fascism, an alliance between the army and the labor unions. Historically, in most conservative countries, the army allies itself with the clergy and the upper classes. But not in Argentina under Peron. As we can tell from the frustrated “oligarchy” in the Webber musical, singing in their upper-class accents, the old ruling class were not happy with the Perons. Eva hated them. She was happiest when she was mesmerizing the descamisados, her shirtless workers.

Fascism is on the Right. But it is not conservative. It is a radical response to the traumas of modern capitalism. Unlike com­munism, which glorifies the industrial worker and the international working class, fascism glorifies the peasant, the soldier, and the pa­triot. The soldier, in particular, is the hero of fascist intellectuals. (The soldier is also peas­ant and patriot.) In a capitalistic world he is seen as the victim of the masters of money, the corrupt politicians of democracy, and the effete and indifferent upper classes. His res­cue can be effected only by a leader who em­bodies the will of the people, a hero who will turn the whole nation into an army of virtue and mutual support.

Both Hitler and Mussolini hated the up­per classes. They played to the lower classes, to their sense of victimization in a cruel capitalistic world, to their hatred of urban life, to their fear of foreigners, to their yearning for self-esteem through military glory. Both Hitler and Mussolini were veterans of the First World War. Their first followers were lower- class unemployed veterans, filled with hatred of the rich and the privileged, and open to any conspiracy theory that featured foreign­ers and Jews. The gauleiters of the Nazi Party were not aristocrats. They despised aristo­crats. They preferred German leaders who talked like Huey Long, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan. Unlike the old conservative ideologies of pedigree and property, fascism had the power to mobilize the masses.

But neither Hitler nor Mussolini suc­ceeded in winning over the leaders of indus­trial labor. The urban workers voted against fascism. In the end, both dictators were forced to make alliances with the aristocrats they despised. It was the Perons, in the very hour when the forces of fascism experienced their terrible defeat in both Europe and Asia, who succeeded in making an alliance between the army and the labor unions. Behind the songs and biography of Evita lies an extraordinary and frightening political development.

Argentina had become a rich country by the beginning of the twentieth century. Brit­ish investment, the invention of refrigeration and the European demand for Argentine beef and wheat produced enormous wealth. But this wealth was very unevenly distributed.

A small number of landed aristocrats con­trolled most of it. They indulged themselves with excessive luxury and monopolized all positions of political power. Needing work­ers for their economic empire, they imported large numbers of Spanish and Italian immi­grants, who transformed the port city of Buenos Aires into one of the great metropoli­tan centers of the world. Many of these immi­grants created a new middle class that struggled with the aristocrats for political con­trol. For a short time in the 1920s the middle class prevailed. But most of the peasants and urban workers remained excluded, oppressed, and ignored. They were the “losers” of an emerging modern economy.

The key to the success of Juan and Eva was that they spoke to the “losers” in a lan­guage that the lower classes could understand — a language of paternal and maternal love, a language of patriotism and lower-class resent­ment. The turn-off language of intellectual socialism and sophisticated atheism never burdened their communication. The lower classes did not want democracy. They wanted jobs, recognition, and revenge. Eva under­stood them. That is why in poor neighbor­hoods in Argentina she is still remembered as “Santa Evita.”

In time, without Eva, the Peron regime collapsed from its own economic mismanage­ment. The upper and middle classes rejoiced. The army returned to its traditional alliance with the rich and the clergy. But the new gov­ernment, including the present one (which is ironically Peronist without any of the pro­grams of PeronJ has not found the solution to the problem of the unhappy “losers,” the work­ers that modern capitalism so easily displaces.

Evita makes you think. In an America where so many workers are discovering that their standard of living is falling, that their jobs are disappearing to automation or to for­eign competition, where foreigners abound in ethnically mixed cities, and where the sepa­ration between the “winners” and “losers” is growing wider, is it possible that disgruntled labor could make an alliance with undemo­cratic politicians and soldiers in an outburst of impulsive resentment? I think not. But Evita makes me think of the danger of a world where the “winners” indulge their right to self-absorption and where the “losers” are cast aside, alienated from the economic game, and consumed by envy and anger. The problem of Evita will not go away.

Tribute to Daniel Friedman

Evolution: summer 2000

Daniel Friedman is retiring as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Or in Deerfield, Illinois, having served this community for more than thirty-five years. When he first came to Beth Or, the congregation was part of the Reform movement. Within three years he transformed the congregation into a community of Human­istic Jews.

Rabbi Friedman has been a major voice in our movement. He has written philosophic essays, produced educational materials, cre­ated humanistic liturgies, and articulated the message of our philosophy of life on dozens of public platforms. The clarity of his insight has helped to define the principles and prac­tices of Humanistic Judaism.

I first met Rabbi Friedman when he was the young and brilliant assistant rabbi at the K.A.M. Temple in Chicago’s Hyde Park. He had invited me to speak about Humanistic Judaism. In our first conversation it was clear to me that the idea of creating a bold and con­sistent rational Judaism was one of his pas­sions. It was also clear to me that he possessed an enormous intellectual power and integrity.

Since that day in 1965 we have been part­ners in the development of the ideology of our movement. In 1967 he participated in the first dialogue of rabbis sympathetic to Human­istic Judaism. In 1969 he helped to establish the Society for Humanistic Judaism. He led Congregation Beth Or, through the intensity of his own conviction and courage, into the coalition of Humanistic Jews.

Rabbi Friedman has assumed a unique role in our movement. The defense of reason and individual autonomy has been his special passion. He has never deviated from his conviction that reason is a critical tool, which can be applied to all human decisions. He has maintained, with equal strength, that the heart of morality is the defense of each person’s right to be the master of his or her life. As a man of prin­ciple, he has never chosen to betray these con­victions, even when doing so would have been politically convenient.

His special power arises from his rare ability to take complex ideas and to articu­late them clearly and concisely so that even the easily confused can understand what the issues are. Time after time he has been the genius to frame the fundamental principles of our movement in such a way that the mean­ing instantly grabs the reader. This unique skill, which is a sign of intellectual brilliance, has been of overwhelming importance to Hu­manistic Judaism.

Through the past three decades I have grown to admire this special power, which is always presented in the understated style characteristic of his personality. I have also grown to admire his absolute integrity, his ability to be open and objective, his obvious sincerity, the intensity of his convictions, and the warm, intelligent sense of humor that turns his knowledge into wisdom.

My response to Dan Friedman is shared by hundreds of other people who have en­joyed him as their congregational rabbi, as their teacher, and as their friend. When the history of our movement is written by some writer, perhaps yet unborn, the name and achievements of Dan Friedman will be a prominent part of that story.

Gibson’s Bad News for the Jews: The Passion of the Christ a film by Mel Gibson, Review

Colloquium 2003: Spring 2004

The most famous Jew who ever lived is a problem for Jews. His name was Jesus, and he became the central figure of the world’s most successful religion. Today more than two billion people — one-third of the human race — proclaim themselves to be Christians.

The Christian Church persecuted Jews for more than fifteen centuries. Christian leaders accused Jews of being Christ-killers. They slaughtered them in pogroms. In the Jewish mind, Jesus and antisemitism go together. We cannot even talk about him in our services and Sunday Schools. He belongs to the “en­emy.” For a Jew to become a Christian is an act of treason.

The only ancient stories we have about Jesus are Christian stories. There are no reports from contemporary Greek or Roman histories. The official Christian story of his life and death dates from the fourth century C.E., when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This official story is contained in four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and in two creeds, Athanasian and Nicene. In this narrative there are five major events: Jesus’ virgin birth during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, his four-year preaching career, his passion and crucifixion at the age of thirty-three, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension to heaven after forty days on earth. This official story was re­inforced by punishment for those who devi­ated from it.

Throughout the ensuing centuries, the Western Church (the Roman Catholic Church), in particular, focused on the details of the Crucifixion and demonized Jews as Christ- killers. In the Middle Ages, passion plays were created, which retold the New Testament story with gory embellishments and depicted the Jew as the agent of the Devil.

The antisemitism of the Catholic Church was alleviated in the past three centuries by the arrival of the secular revolutions that transformed modern society: capitalism, sci­ence, and democracy. The Church was de­prived of its temporal power. Modern schol­ars wrote new versions of the Jesus epic, in which the role of the Jews was downplayed and the message of love became the central theme. When antisemitism reasserted itself in the twentieth century, the guilt engendered by the Holocaust produced the apologies of the Church after Vatican Council II.

When the cinema arrived on the scene, with all its power to influence public opin­ion, film versions of the story of Jesus, from De Mille’s King of Kings to George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told, were relatively benign. In later years, Jewish Hollywood reversed the roles. The “crucifixion” of the Jews, as embodied in the Holocaust, now became a continual theme. Jews were the victims; Chris­tians were the cruel murderers.

Mel Gibson’s new movie about Jesus de­fies all this “positive” development. It is an old-time Catholic passion play on film, with its gory sadism and its powerful antisemitism. It is as though Gibson wanted to cancel out the “Holocaust syndrome” and to restore the time when Christians felt perfectly free to portray Jews as villains, without guilt. After all, Gibson and his father belong to a seces­sionist group of Catholics who disapprove of the liberal reforms of Vatican II and wish to restore Catholicism to its former orthodoxy. Some of these secessionists, including Gibson’s father, deny the Holocaust.

The film is a powerful cinema experience. Jews cannot appreciate it because they are turned off by its obvious antisemitism. Liberals cannot appreciate it because they cannot identify with the virtue of suffering. All they can talk about is the excessive and intolerable gore. Liberal Christians cannot appreciate it because they have “converted” to the Jesus of the Enlightenment, whose main achievement is not the atonement for sin or the conquest of death but the message of love.

But for conservative Christians this film is a triumph. It recaptures the central message of traditional Christianity: Jesus Christ suffered and died for our sins. His chief enemy is the Devil, who seduces humanity to defy God. Two powerful emotions are aroused by this movie. The first is guilt — the guilt the believer feels for his own sins and for the suffering of Jesus, who takes on himself the punishment that the believer deserves. The second is rage — rage against the cruelty of the Devil and against the sinners who embraced his cause. All their noses are crooked and Semitic. Only one Jew­ish nose in the film is straight.

The film is bad news for the Jews. Although inspired by Catholic fervor, it will become a cult film with the Protestant Religious Right, the lovers of Sharon’s Israel. (Will wonders never cease!) It will be embraced by enthusi­asts in Europe and by the anti-Jewish public of the Muslim world (even though official Islam does not accept the crucifixion of Jesus).

The good news is that Western Europe is so secularized that Disney is doing better than Gibson. And, in North America, skepticism and nonconformity are so widespread that The Da Vinci Code remains a bestseller — a book with the thesis that Jesus may never have been crucified, but instead got married and had a child. An America that is willing to entertain such an idea is very far from the mindset of The Passion of the Christ.

A New Strategy for Global Prosperity: The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs, Review

Celebrating 350 Years in America: Summer 2005

Who is Jeffrey Sachs? He is a Detroiter who became the world’s most famous living economist. He was one of the intellectual stars at Harvard University. He was chosen to be­come the first director of the new prestigious Earth Institute at Columbia University. Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, appointed him the coordinator of the Millennium Project, an ambitious attempt to rescue our planet from extreme poverty. Time magazine chose to place his latest book, The End of Poverty, on the cover of its journal.

Sachs is the son of one of America’s most respected labor lawyers, the late Ted Sachs. He has been the leading economic adviser to doz­ens of nations. He has transformed the econo­mies of countries as diverse as Bolivia, Poland, Russia, and India. His specialty has been the challenge of taking malfunctioning economies and making them work. Some of his advice and decisions provoked intense controversy.

Sachs now proposes to tackle the most difficult problem of our global economy, the problem of world poverty. One out of every six people on this planet lives in extreme depri­vation. One out of every three people suffers the humiliation of insufficient food, shelter, health care, and education. The dichotomy between the resources of the affluent in the First World and the resources of the poor in the Third World often reaches the ratio of twenty to one. Millions of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America endure daily suf­fering that we can barely imagine. And their misfortune is aggravated by disease, pollu­tion, and isolation. Although some of their difficulties are the result of bad government, most of their problems cannot be solved by eliminating corruption. Most of these nations are in economic, social, and environmental pits from which they cannot escape through their own efforts alone.

Why should we devote our time, energy, talent, and wealth to a problem that has defied solution until now? Obviously, there are ethical and compassionate reasons. But “spinning your wheels while staying in one place” may salve personal conscience; it does not have much moral value. Without a combination of vision and realism, all noble plans end up mired in fantasy. Jeffrey Sachs claims that he has a real­istic plan. And many expert critics, both liberal and conservative, agree that he has.

Sachs denounces the proposal offered by many economic conservatives (formerly classical liberals) and libertarians to open poor countries to the open competition of the free global market and to the opportunities of foreign markets, foreign investment, and foreign borrowing. This strategy has been recommended by both the International Mon­etary Fund and the World Bank. Taking this advice has yielded disaster. Foreign markets are not readily available for cheap agricultural produce. Foreign investment is scarce because the native infrastructure and judicial systems are inadequate. Foreign borrowing takes place and produces huge debts from which poor nations can never liberate themselves. Mired in loans they cannot repay, they discover that their meager national income is now con­sumed by relentless interest payments. What is a winning strategy for developed nations is a disaster for struggling nations.

Sachs maintains that any successful ac­tion needs the combination of personal deter­mination, state help, and foreign donors. No single factor can rescue poor nations. China and India are perfect examples of the suc­cess that follows this necessary cooperation. There is enough state management to protect a vulnerable economy. And there is enough freedom in the private sector to allow for cre­ativity and to encourage investment. Above all, poor nations need international allies that prevent them from accumulating debts that guarantee failure.

Poor nations that suffer from the mas­sive presence of AIDS and malaria are too depressed and demoralized to sustain any decent level of economic activity. Poor na­tions that are cut off from the global economy because there are no roads, no ports, and no airports cannot join the global world even if they want to. Poor nations that lack any con­sistent system of education for young people are separated from the world of science and technological information, the power base of the modern economy.

“Clinical economics” is the recommended strategy of Jeffrey Sachs. We have to start on the lowest level of economic survival – not cor­rupt governments but poverty-stricken villages. We have to teach the residents how to fertilize their fields, how to provide for sanitary living, how to manage the distribution and sales of their local products. We have to persuade all developed nations to take only 0.7 percent of their gross national product and “invest” it in this noble project. With this minimal and feasible gift, the problem of extreme poverty can be alleviated within twenty years.

Poor nations are a continuous provoca­tion to world stability and world peace. Poor people in poor nations are easily swept away by extremist movements and religious funda­mentalism. Rich nations have a choice. They can cynically hang on to their possessions without sharing and simultaneously endure the misfortunes of hatred and terrorism. Or they can offer consistent and modest help and discover, to their surprise, that they have created wonderful new markets and shrunk violence by providing hope.

The power of Sachs’ message can be ex­perienced only by reading his book, You will be excited by his realism and his optimism.

A Margin of Hope by Irving Howe A Review

Being Jewish Today, Spring 1984

Irving Howe is no ordinary Jewish intellectual. He is a famous one. Not only because of what he has written, but especially because of his poli­tical consistency. He is one of the few former reigning Jewish social­ists who has not fled to the Right, who has not turned into a neo­conservative. Howe remains a believing socialist — even though a chastened one.

As the creator and editor of a moderately leftist journal called Dissent, he is one of the major liberal voices for social democracy in America. Together with Michael Harrington and his Democratic Social­ists, he preaches a non-dogmatic, non-revolutionary egalitarianism. He resists the elitism that many of his former colleagues now find so attractive.

As the author of the enormously popular World of Our Fathers, he has assumed a special place in the Jewish community. The socialist visionary has become the major presenter of Yiddish nostalgia to the English-speaking world. Ameri­can Jewish roots have become his specialty. For a one-time universalist who found no important value in Jewish identity, his second career has a touch of irony.

Howe’s book A Margin of Hope is an autobiography. Like Making It by Norman Podhoretz (who defected to the Right), it is a confession of an American Jewish intellectual. But, unlike Podhoretz’s statement, it is refreshingly free of ideological repentance.

Howe had all the qualifications to become an American Jewish intellec­tual. New York City. Immigrant parents. East Bronx. Depression hard­ship. City College. Partisan Review. All the informal credentials for radical commitment. In addition, he had a perceptive mind and a talent for writing.

Dozens of other Jewish intellec­tuals form the setting for his radical activity. Max Shachtman, Morris Cohen, Isaac Rosenfeld, Philip Rahv, Clement Greenberg and Saul Bellow were among his conversational circle. How ironic that so much universalism was confined to a few Jews!

The autobiography is a marvelous introduction to the political and intellectual controversies of the last five decades. Howe was in the middle of most of them, agonizing over which decision to make, which side to choose.

There was Roosevelt and the New Deal. Should a Norman Thomas socialist support this wishy-washy compromise of the Democrats just because the Democrats had a chance to win? There was Stalin and the purges. Should a defender of the Left give comfort to the Right by condemning the rulers of the Marxist motherland? There was Trotsky and the revolution. Was bold radical thought still preferable to the peace­ful pleas of the social democrats? There was the war in Europe. Could an opponent of capitalism support a capitalistic war, even when the enemy was a fascist anti-Semite? There was the anti-Communism of the early fifties. Could a confirmed anti-Stalinist of the Left join forces with the rabid anti-Communists of the Right? There was the emergence of the Vietnam struggle and the New Left. Were the radicals of the sixties an undisciplined rabble of anarchists who would subvert the ideals of the Left? There was the rise of neo-conservatism. Had socialism turned out to be a dead-end path of betrayal and failure?

To read Howe’s story is to relive the drama of the arguments which dominated Jewish intellectual con­versations. The Bolshevik Revolu­tion and its aftermath was a focal point of discussion. So much hope had been invested in the success of that upheaval that the subsequent failure was almost too much to bear. The crumbling utopia forced the socialist faithful to undergo painful changes. For the emotionally in­tense, it was easy to go from loving Russia to hating it. For many others, it took a long time to wake up to the truth. There was an understandable reluctance to be on the same side as the anti-Soviet fascists. Anti- Stalinists on the Left were torn between their socialist purity and the allies that awaited them.

Howe was consistently anti- Stalinist. But he does admit to a certain utopian naivete. There was too much faith in slogans and in the moral difference between workers and rulers. In the end, the Marxist sureness disappears. Socialism be­comes an egalitarian wish with no guarantees of success. A pious dream replaces the forces of history.

As his socialist ardor was tamed, and as the fury of Hitler made his Jewish identity more important, Howe returned to the culture of his childhood. Unable by conviction to carry out religious observances, he found his Jewish niche in the Yid­dish speech of his ancestors. He began to translate modern Yiddish stories and to discover the richness of that literature. In time he became a self-proclaimed secular Jew. Jewishness was no longer a reaction­ary parochialism.

Howe’s story has a certain sad­ness. His socialist dream loses its innocence in America. And his Jewish identity is attached to a dying linguistic culture. Nostalgia replaces optimism.

The secular Jewish radical ironi­cally looks to the past rather than to the future. The “world of our fathers” becomes safer to talk about than the “world of our children.”

The autobiography is a good intro­duction to what went wrong with the secular faith of the first secular Jews.

Purim and Haman Make Us Think Of Antisemitism

TJH March_April 1992, vo. XXVII, no.5.

Purim and Haman make us think of antisemitism.  

In America socially antisemitism has been on the wane over the past four decades.  More and more Americans each year indicate that they view Jews either favorably or indifferently.  More and more are willing to share clubs and work with Jews and even to vote for a Jewish president. 

 But, in the past year, political antisemitism has made a nasty reappearance.  Pat Buchanan and David Duke have entered the presidential race.  And their antipathy to Jews is quite obvious. At a time when most Americans fear for their economic future, the image of the evil Jew who manipulates the world to his parochial means is not the kind of political propaganda that makes Jews feel very comfortable. 

Antisemitism has changed in the last century and a half.  Before the French Revolution it was primarily anti-Judaism. People hated Jews because of their religious beliefs. If Jews were willing to convert to either Christianity or Islam, conversion canceled out the hate. Although there was a high price to pay, there was an escape from persecution and destruction. 

But antisemitism today is “racial”. Antisemites despise Jews because of their birth.  Jewish beliefs and behavior are irrelevant to the enemy. Conversion makes no difference. It only turns an ordinary Jew into a Christian Jew. There is no escape from Jewish identity. 

Antisemitism is also different because it has been turned into a complete philosophy of life.  The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, first published in the Russian Empire at the turn of the century, explained all the evils of the world in terms of Jewish behavior.  Earlier anti-Jewishness saw the Jew as a malign force but not as the malign force. For the modern antisemite, there is a worldwide Jewish cabal which conspires to take over the world.  The Jews have invented both Capitalism and Communism to confuse the masses and to set them up in hostile confrontation.  Gentile kills Gentile and only the Jews benefit. As Hitler said, the morally bankrupt Semitic tradition stands against the morally pure Aryan path.  Only a war to the death can resolve the issue. For the believers in this theory, persecution of the jews is never enough. Only a Holocaust will do the job that justice requires.  

For many many people antisemitism is a substitute religion. It explains all evil in a clear and simple way. It offers a clear and simple solution. Few existing political philosophies enjoy that charity. 

The emergence of David Duke to political prominence is indeed frightening. A Nazi racist and a Ku Klux Klan Grand wizard, he is the kind of political “kook” that you expect to find on the unsuccessful political fringes.  Instead he changed his label, abandoned the Nazis for the Republicans, and came within a political inch of becoming governor of Louisiana. For such a way out “bigot” to achieve the success that he did, his “defeat” was really a victory.  He is now ready to peddle his hate message in other states. Bolstered by a new face, new money and an adoring audience, he is raring to take on as many presidential primaries that he can get his hands on. 

Pat Buchanan is not the man for southern rural whites. His constituency is the reactionary right that draws its energy and inspiration  from the Irish Roman Catholic World before Vatican Council II. Both Charles Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy came out of this milieu.  book the Kennedys and the Buckley’s climbed up from its parochial depths. Anti-communism, Catholic piety and the hatred of the British with their internationalist agenda characterize this group. 

Buchanan has been an advisor and ghostwriter for both Nixon and Reagan.  An idealogue of the New Right, he never liked Bush and always suspected, quite appropriately, that he was an opportunistic traitor to conservative principles. The Gulf War was the trigger for the separation. For the old Right (as opposed to the libertarian internationalist Right)  the war against communism was justified. But a war to get rid of dictators, especially fascist dictators, is absolutely unjustified. Trying to create a new world order to ensure democracy, human rights and free trade is a violation of America’s best interest in a naive pie-in-the-sky ambition which will fail.  

For Buchanan the Gulf War with the sign that American patriots were no longer in charge of America. Jewish and Israeli interest had manipulated the Bush Administration into risking the lives of non-Jewish boys to defeat a Jewish enemy. And all of this talk was accompanied by statements about the exaggerated estimates of Holocaust victims. The inspirational leadership of Adolf Hitler and the determination to defend Catholic rights in Poland against insidious Jewish assaults. Jewish neo-conservatives like Kristol and Podhoretz have obviously repudiated Buchanan. Even Buckley chastised him at length in the pages of the National Review. But the frightening reality remains. A “respectable” Republican idealogue is sporting antisemitism and is running for president.  

What does it all mean? 

It means that a powerful political message has been tied to an antisemite.  Buchanan advocates “America first” and protective tariffs. In a nation which is rapidly de-industrialized and where hundreds of thousands of workers are losing their factory jobs, Buchanan’s message crosses the conventional boundaries between Right and Left and makes an appeal to angry union supporters. Buchanan’s chauvinism has the power to mobilize blue collar malcontents. 

It means that antisemitism is now politically “respectable” and is now an integral part of a political platform. Buchanan can disavow his Jew hatred as much as he wants, but his statements of hostility are a public record. Social antisemitism is annoying, but never dangerous. Political antisemitism is frightening. 

It means that Buchanan and Duke will be harmless if there is a fairly speedy economic recovery. There will be a peril to Jews and to democracy if this recession turns into a long- run depression. Desperate economic times sponsor desperate political alternatives. 

It means that the Democrats have a chance to win the presidency, if they can take full advantage of the present division in the Republican ranks, and if they can come up with a half-way credible candidate. Clinton’s alleged sexual escapades are not the most auspicious beginning to a serious campaign.  

Hopefully, “prosperity” is around the corner and Buchanan and Duke will fade into the woodwork. But then…