Sherwin Wine’s ‘Humanistic Judaism’ – A Book Review by Rami Shapiro

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

“The most interesting Jews of the last hundred years never joined a synagogue. They never prayed. They were disinterested in God, They paid no attention to the Torah lifestyle. They found bourgeois Reform as parochial as traditional Orthodoxy. They preferred writing new books to worrying about the meaning of old books. They had names like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Theodore Herzl.” 

And, though Sherwin T. Wine never explicitly says so in this introduction to his first book, Humanistic Judaism (Prometheus Books), we Jews have more in common with these Jews than we will ever have with Jews like Jeremiah, Rashi, and the Baal Shem Tov. 

Initially, one balks at the idea. Why can’t I retain and strengthen my ties to such ancestors?  And who is Wine to say that the chain of tradition suddenly kinks, cracks and crumbles with the advent of quantum mechanics and the post industrial world? What is the Humanist movement to suggest that my claim to carrying on the spirit (if not the letter) of the law and the prophets is just so much intramural politicking and bogus prooftexting (sic)? 

Rabbi Wine’s response is simple and direct: It isn’t he or Humanistic Judaism which is severing our links to tradition: It is ourselves and our behavior. No philosophical premise bars us from copying the lifestyle of Rambam or the Besht, rather it is our own behavior patterns that put the lie to such nostalgic desires. It isn’t theology so much that separates us from our ancestors. It is honesty. 

And honesty is just what Rabbi Wine’s book is all about. He demands it of his readers, and he wields it like a bludgeon. This is nowhere more evident than in his assessment of contemporary definitions of Judaism. Such definitions are, for the most part, academic fantasies in which the writer imagines the “ideal Jew”, and substitutes his imaginings for reality. As Rabbi Wine puts it, the Jews appear as “pious Bible lovers who can hardly wait for their next installment of Midrashic commentary.” Books on Jewish life in America deal in depth with the covenant between God and Israel and the centrality of Torah in Jewish life. Yet honesty demands a revision of these nostalgic musings. 

“If a person claims to love prayer but rarely prays, if an individual lauds the meaningfulness of God but never invokes God for the solution of his daily problems, if a man describes Torah as the greatest of all possible books but never reads it, he is either lying or self-deceived.” (Wine, p.18). 

Rabbi Wine believes it is self-deception that leads to this hiatus between espoused belief and exposed behavior; and self-deception is the most difficult deception to correct. If one believes the world is flat, only not falling off its edge will prove otherwise. 

In the case of Humanistic Judaism, however, Rabbi Wine is more apt to push one over the edge than to ask one to make that step on one’s own. With a combination of gestalt reality punching and fluid style, Wine pushes the reader to look objectively at his or her beliefs, and compare them to his or her behavior. If they are not consistent, one of them must go. And in a toss-up between belief and behavior, belief is usually the loser. 

“The lifestyles of most contemporary Jews, even those who profess a love of tradition, are in total opposition to the decrees of both the Bible and the Talmud. A nude bathing pre-medical student who lives with her boyfriend and refuses to eat pork as an affirmation of her Jewish identity is hardly a return to tradition. Even without pork she would give Hillel a heart  

attack.” (p. 4) 

The actual behavior of the Jews is a more accurate measure of our mores and beliefs than our rote mouthing of pious platitudes, and present Jewish practice does not point to a community motivated by the standards of the past. Despite wishful thinking to the contrary, “preferring Moses to Freud is irrelevant in an environment where nobody reads Moses.“ (p. 10). 

The point, then, is not very esoteric: our behavior suggests, or rather heralds, a break with the past. The mores and styles of medieval Jewry no longer apply to our lifestyle. And why should they? The rabbis never tried to mold their post-Biblical world to fit the Bible’s environs of priest and prophet. Quite the opposite: they created the talmudic dialectic in order to metamorphose pastoral patriarchs into urban savants. No Jewish society felt so bound to tradition that they refused to alter it to suit their own ends. It is only in the 20th century that we Jews have deified our heroes, and built a fence of guilt around our tradition; a fence which corrals fewer and fewer Jews, leaving those within comfortable and self-righteous, while the escapees flounder about seeking a cogent alternative to help them coordinate and articulate their break with tradition and their coming to grips with reality. 

It is Rabbi Wine’s hope that Humanistic Judaism will meet the need of these refugees by affirming a dynamic and creative alternative to tradition bound Judaism. Whether Humanistic Judaism will succeed in uniting these people is questionable. No inkling of success or failure can be garnished from Rabbi Wine’s book. Yet there is a precedent for this attempt to make Jews honestly confront the split between their actions and their words. This precedent is Reconstructionism, and it is a precedent which failed. 

Reconstructionism strove to articulate in a consistent philosophic framework the functions and needs of the folk. It, like Humanistic Judaism, is an elucidation of Jewish folk religion: what the Jews do religiously as opposed to what they say they are doing. Yet folk religion is by its very nature comprised of inconsistencies in practice, principles and beliefs. Kaplan and Wine are uncomfortable with inconsistencies, however, and hence a little uncomfortable with the folk as well. 

What makes the situation all the more fascinating is that both Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism claim to support the folk and their behavior. Their only desire is to consciously guide the development of that behavior in order to achieve swiftly and more efficiently the very goals for which religion unconsciously strives; the establishment of a society in which the individual can achieve happiness, balance, and self-actualization. Yet it is this conscious elitist ideological formulation of folkr practice that causes the folk to reject the elitists. 

Elitist religions like Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism are expressed in terms of ideology. Folk religion is expressed in terms of everyday behavior, customs and rituals. In fact the beliefs underlying the behavior of the people may well be incompatible with each other, and Even incompatible with the higher rationalism of the individual doing the action, yet this is never a problem until someone insists on formulating folk religion philosophically. 

Once such formulations are made, the contradictions become obvious, and then the ideologue seeks to adjust the behavior and beliefs to fit a more philosophically consistent system. This is done by establishing the primacy of ideology over behavior, which by definition does violence to the folk religion the ideologist sought  to help. 

In other words, Wine’s reliance on the people’s behavior to put the lie to the people’s espoused beliefs may very well backfire (as it did with Reconstructionism), leaving him with a small nucleus of ideology conscious Jews who cannot relate to the rest of us no matter how violently we transgress our pious mouthings. Nobody wants to be shown how inconsistent she or he is, and she or he will reject any attempt to do so. Being stripped of one’s inconsistencies may be ideologically necessary, but it isn’t very comfortable. Stripped of the theologically meaningless, yet psychologically comforting language of classical faith one is confronted with the awesome task of creating one’s own meaning in the world. Such a task may well prove to foreboding and harsh light of Humanistic Judaism which illuminates this very area may be too stark to capture the hearts as well as the minds of the Jewish people, even those who have left traditional modes behind. In a word, then, if one were to critique Humanistic Judaism as a religion, one could attack it for being so very elitist and so very discomforting. 

But then one has to choose. Which will it be: to etch out our own self-actualization and meaning in the uncarved block of the Real, or to lay back on the soft cushions of tradition and medieval godspeak, mouthing one thing while practicing another, and taking care to avoid noticing the contradictions? I, for one, prefer reality to illusion, and hence welcome Rabbi Wine and his challenging call for honesty.  

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Rami Shapiro is a third year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

The Real Story of the Bible: Richard Friedman’s Hidden Book

Recorded February 1999 by the Center for New Thinking.

Richard Elliott Friedman, the author of Who Wrote the Bible?,  wrote another challenging book, The Hidden Book in the BibleFriedman claims to have uncovered the text of the document which is the oldest part of the Bible.  Standing alone it is very different from the  Bible as a whole.  It forces us to rethink Biblical history.  It is certainly  an exciting new way to view the messages of the Bible.

 

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

The God Delusion: Richard Dawkins and Militant Atheism

Recorded 2006 by the Center for New Thinking.

A preeminent scientist – and the world’s most prominent atheist – asserts that a belief in God is irrational and that religion is harmful. Richard Dawkins eviscerates the major arguments for religion and demonstrates the supreme improbability of a supreme being. He maintains that religion fuels war, ferments bigotry and abuses children. He also asserts that atheism is superior to religion, providing a clearer truer appreciation of the universe’s wonders than any faith could ever muster.

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

Jewish Book Month 1987

The Jewish Humanist,  November 1987

November is Jewish Book Month, a time to honor the literary creativity of contemporary Jewish writers – or to honor the writing of talented non-Jews who choose to write about Jews.

The best way to celebrate this special month is to read Jewish books – not just any old Jewish books, but good ones. In a country like America, where the Jewish literary establishment is very powerful, where Jewish culture and Jewish identity arouse widespread positive interest, and where successful writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, vie for the attention of the large Jewish reading public, there is no shortage of appropriate books.

During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I chose readings from five new books to illustrate my presentations on ethics. Each of them is a book worth reading and discussing.

Here they are.

Power and Powerless by David Biale. Biale is a professor of Jewish history at the University of California in Berkeley. He proposes a provocative thesis that many modern Jews are not comfortable with, because it does not conform to the image of the Jew which they wish to present to the Gentile public. Jews usually see their historic experience as one of weakness and powerlessness, a continuous story of suffering and humiliation. This perception feeds into the need to appear as victims of powerful enemies and to solicit sympathy and pity. But Biale disowns this perception. He maintains that for most of Jewish history Jews were indeed powerful in the environments where they chose to live or found themselves. The power was usually not military. However, it might be economic. The history of the Jews, according to Biale, is not one long tale of woe. It is a story of the effective use of -talent and connections to make useful changes and to provide strong defenses. Although we Jews are often more comfortable with losing than with winning, we cannot understand our roots if we insist on projecting our present anxiety onto our past experience.

Out of Step by Sidney Hook. This book is the autobiography Sidney Hook, one of America most prominent humanist philosophers – and one of America’s mc controversial intellectuals. A child of Jewish New York, Hook became a Marxist radical during his student days at CCNY (the training ground of so much of the Jewish intellectual elite). In the decades that followed, as established his -credentials as philosopher and an academician, he repudiated his Marxist ideology and embraced a more moderate social democratic liberal posture. Throughout his career, given his strong Jewish attachments, he fought for the legitimacy of his Jewish atheistic position. Controversy entered his life during the Vietnam era and the radicals and championed the old liberal notion that a school of higher learning should be open to hearing all opinions, right and left – and should not become a political instrument of political radicals. Hook’s autobiography reveals that he still retains his feisty and acerbic style in his 80’s

Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies. This memoir is the story of the woman who befriended the Frank family in Amsterdam and supported them in their hiding place. An employee of Otto Frank, Miep was confronted with a terrifying moral choice. Should she risk her life and the life of her family to rescue Jewish friends? Her response was without hesitation. Even when her friends were arrested, she recklessly ran to Gestapo headquarters to appeal for their release. Her story dramatizes the moral courage of many Gentiles, who, to no personal advantage for themselves, chose to save Jews. What makes her memoir so powerful is that it is told with no self-conscious heroism.

The History of the Jews by Philip Johnson. Johnson has become a well-known popular historian, whose conservative opinions on the malaise of modern society have been enshrined in a series of successful books. Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions his style and the force of his opinions are of compelling interest. Given his ethnic background, it was surprising that he chose to devote such extensive research to the history of the Jews. But he is obviously fascinated by us and by our achievements. While his presentation of the early history of the Jews is dominated by a naive reliance on the truth of the Biblical myths, his analysis of the evolution of the Jews in the Diaspora is nothing less than brilliant. He is not troubled by the economic role of the Jew in both the Middle Ages and in the contemporary capitalist world. He finds it fascinating and deals with it realistically. This history is written by an admirer of the Jews – but not one overly sentimental or fawning.

To the Land of the Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld. Appelfeld is an Israeli who spent his youth in Bukovina in Eastern Europe. He is intimately familiar with the Holocaust and has devoted his writing career to dramatizing the devastation of his people through short somewhat surrealistic novels. Badenheim 1939 made him famous. And this novel follows in the same tradition. A Jewish woman is accompanied on her ill-omened trip to death by her adolescent son. Neither she, nor the people with her, are willing to acknowledge what is happening to them. All is denial. And this denial, in the midst of the most ominous warnings, is Appelfeld’s commentary on the Jewish response to the inconceivable horror of the Holocaust.

If you are looking for good Jewish reading, any one of the five will do.

Jewish Book Month 1986

The Jewish Humanist, November 1986

November is the month when we think about books we should be reading, especially books about Jewish history and Jewish culture, philosophy and ethics.

During the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services I either used or made reference to books which many people subsequently wanted to read. In response to their request I am presenting the following recommended reading list. Some of the books are easy to read. Others are painful. All are important.

Shcharansky by Martin Gilbert – This is a powerful biography of one of the genuine Jewish heroes of this century. As the son of a devoted communist, Shcharansky repudiated the life of comfortable conformity and became one of the Soviet Union’s most famous dissidents. Fearlessly challenging the Soviet government on human rights issues and demanding the right of emigration for himself and all Russian Jews who wanted to leave. Shcharansky was ultimately imprisoned and subjected to torture and humiliation. The story of his personal resistance – with its extraordinary courage and with its intensification of his Jewish identity is inspirational reading. Gilbert, the historian of the Holocaust, relied heavily for his information on the letters Shcharansky wrote to his wife Avital while in jail.

The Affair by Jean-Marie Brevin – Brevin is a successful French lawyer who is fascinated with the famous Dreyfus Affair and the political drama which surrounded it. When an obscure Jewish officer is convicted in 1894 of giving military secrets to the German enemy, France explodes into a mighty confrontation between those who think him innocent and those who think him guilty. The Anti -Dreyfusards want to use his conviction and the anti-Semitism which accompanies it to overthrow the fragile Third Republic and replace it with the elitist rule of monarchy, army and church. The Pro-Dreyfusards, like Emile Zola, want to use the case to promote a secular democratic state. The details of the story are so compelling that you cannot put the book down once you start reading it.

Shoah, a documentary with Claude Lanzman – No film has more devastatingly revealed the horror of the Holocaust than this production by this eccentric French Jewish director. Using none of the usual “body scenes” of most Holocaust presentations, Lanzmann relies only on the verbal testimony of victims and observers. The imagination of the viewer takes over from there. The most powerful scene – recorded in this book version of the movie script – is the interview with the barber from Czestochowa who is spared at Treblinka to cut the hair of other victims before gassing. The Jews were turned into the executioners of their own people.

Arab and Jew by David Shipler – Few books have revealed the di lemma of modern Israel more than this powerful commentary by the former New York Times reporter in Jerusalem. Two nations – Arab and Jew – live within the boundaries of the Jewish state. How do they see each other? How strong is their mutual fear and anger? What are the possibilities for mutual understanding and reconciliation? Shipler attempts to answer these questions through his assessment of dozens of Jews and Arabs from every walk of life and from every political and religious persuasion. The revelations are startling and frightening. The most pathetic story is the tale of love between a Palestinian radical woman and a Jewish right-wing Likudnik who discover that there is too much hate to allow for their love. No book has presented the problem of mutual intolerance more vividly and more dramatically.

Falling in Love by Francesco Alberoni – This Italian classic, recently translated into English, allows sociologist Alberoni to explore the meaning of love. He makes a very sharp distinction between falling in love with all its anguish and euphoria and love itself. Falling in love he regards as a disease. It happens to people who are experiencing strong senses of personal inadequacy and who project unrealistically on to the beloved what they themselves do not think they have but want for themselves. The result is that most romantic- love, like most revolutionary fervor, ends in disappointment. Or it may resolve itself into something healthier and realistic, which he calls love. Alberoni’s exploration is a unique assessment of an important emotion.

World’s Fair by E. L. Doctorow – A novel by Doctorow is always a treat, especially when it is a nostalgia trip. A Jewish boy in New York in 1939 (most likely Doctorow himself) is taken to that wondrous vision of the future called the World’s Fair. The naive excitement of an enthusiastic child allows the wonder and innocence of the reader himself to reawaken.

Happy reading!