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.

Humanistic Judaism: A Response to Future Shock

SHJ Conference 2004, summer 2004

Humanistic Judaism has a unique role to play in the Jewish world. That role is more than providing an ideological space or a con­gregational home for secular and nontheistic Jews. It is more than providing a cultural Ju­daism for Jews who no longer can accept a conventional religious Judaism.

This role can best be explained by remem­bering the words of the futurist Alvin Toffler. It was Toffler who invented the phrase “fu­ture shock.” Toffler used this phrase to de­scribe the mental and emotional state of mod­ern people who are overwhelmed by the accelerating rate of change. Industrialization, urbanization, capitalism, science, democracy, freedom, and the new technology have arrived in rapid succession during the past two hundred years. They have radically altered the lives of most men and women in the West­ern world. Responding to all this relentless and continuous change produces confusion and anxiety.

Toffler suggested that people have devel­oped a series of defensive strategies to cope with this anxiety. The most powerful one is denial, the refusal to accept that change has taken place. And the most popular form of denial is nostalgia, a hankering after a roman­ticized past that can never be restored. Since people cannot avoid the real world in which they work and play, they create islands of nos­talgia to which they can retreat periodically and pretend that nothing has really changed at all. The institution that lends itself most easily to this strategy is religion. Religion be­gan as the worship of ancestors. The purpose of much religion in modern society is not to help people confront the real world but to en­able them to retreat every so often into a com­fortable past world that no longer exists.

The Jewish people, the most urbanized people in the world, is in future shock. Over the past two hundred years every aspect of its life has been radically transformed. Work, education, family, sex, government, and be­liefs are no longer the same. The break with the past is so dramatic that most Jews cannot even conceive of what Jewish life in the Middle Ages was really like. But this devia­tion from the ways of our ancestors fills us with great anxiety and triggers many troubling emotions. There is the fear that our ancestors disapprove of us and will punish us. There is the guilt of having abandoned what they worked so hard to secure. There is the sad­ness that the past has died and will never re­turn. There is the anger directed to the amor­phous forces responsible for the change.

Denial and nostalgia become the chief strategies for coping with all this discomfort. Synagogues and temples become islands of nostalgia, where for short periods of time Jews can use the language and symbols of the past and pretend for a moment that nothing has changed. They can pretend that reliance on God is the comfort of their life, They can pre­tend that the Torah lifestyle remains at the center of their existence. They can pretend that the texts of the past support the dramatic changes they cannot deny. They can lift quotations out of context and imagine that the past “kosherizes” the present.

Humanistic Judaism is the only branch of Judaism that refuses to practice this denial. That is its unique role in Jewish life. For Hu­manistic Jews the changes are real and unde­niable. They stand in opposition to the pref­erences of the past. The differences are real and cannot be wished away. A good philoso­phy of life helps us to face reality and not to run away from it. Judaism is not an eternal doctrine. It is a strategy for saving the Jewish people in a sea of change.

As Humanistic Jews, our way of coping with future shock is to make five affirmations.

We let the past speak for itself. We do not do what many well-intentioned liberal Jews choose to do. We do not force the past to agree with the present. We know that Moses, Isaiah, and Hillel would not be happy with our present lifestyle. We do not distort their world in order to extract their approval. We let them say what they intend to say. We let them be what they were. We try to under­stand why they made the decisions they did, even though we would not choose to make the same decisions. We listen respectfully to the past because it is the voice of our ances­tors, and they deserve our respect. But we do not try to hide the differences. Where we agree, that is wonderful. Where we do not, that is reality.

We empower the present. Since the cre­ations of the past are human creations, just like the work of the present, they are not su­perior to what the present has to offer. The holidays, ceremonies, and values of the past that fit the realities of the present must be saved and savored. But the present has the same right to create that the past did. The vic­tories and traumas of recent times need to be celebrated and remembered. We give the present its own dignity.

We say what we believe. We can never confront reality if we use words that were in­tended to describe another world centuries ago. A good philosophy of life is more than an exercise in nostalgia. It is a path to truth and reality and must speak clearly and di­rectly to our own convictions. If we have to make a choice between continuity and integ­rity, we always choose integrity.

We find our continuity in the fewish people. It is not God or Torah that are the real foundation of Judaism; it is the Jewish people struggling to find ways to survive and pros­per in a difficult world. This affirmation lies at the heart of the writings of two great hu­manistic Jewish philosophers from Russia, Ahad Ha’am and Micah Berdichevsky. In the end, they said, beliefs, values, words, and ceremonies may change. But the Jewish people in all its diversity remains.

We love the future. It is important to respect the past and to empower the present. But it is especially important to honor the future. In a world of continuous change the future is always with us. When, in ancient times, the priests of Jerusalem allowed only one temple — and that temple had to be in Jerusalem — they failed to imagine that one day the Jewish people would be an international people. They were stuck in the past and present. We must not make the same mistake. It is difficult to imagine what life will be like in fifty years because, given the present accelerating rate of change, it will be very different from what it is now. But it is clear that a Judaism in a global world that is becom­ing one big mixed neighborhood needs more imagination than nostalgia.

As Berdichevsky said in his essay Wrecking and Building, “We can no longer solve the riddles of life in the old ways, or live and act as our an­cestors did. We are not their living monuments…. Through a basic revision of Israel’s inner and outer life, our whole consciousness will be trans­formed: and we shall live and stand fast.”

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.

Demystifying Family Values

Family Values – Winter 1994

That “family values” has become the issue of the ‘90s is very clear. Those who champion “family values” will not let go of this issue. It is going to persist. It is going to be the thing that will (ostensibly) distinguish the people who are in favor of morality from those who are opposed to morality.

Now, I do not believe that Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson embody decent family values. But neither do I want to say that those who oppose them are always right. I want to take the criteria of Humanistic Judaism and apply them to some very practical problems that need to be solved.

A couple in their seventies want me to perform a ceremony. They don’t want to get married for inheritance or tax reasons. They’re living together, and they want a celebration but not a marriage ceremony.

A woman has one child and a troubled marriage. She and her husband fight all the time, primarily over her commitment to her career. She’s debating about whether to get a divorce. It is very clear that if she chooses to get the divorce, the child will be seriously harmed. The child is deeply attached to both parents, and it is quite possible that if the divorce takes place the father will leave the area. The woman asks me, “What do you advise?”

Two men come to see me. They are homosexuals, and they have been together for six years. They want to have a celebra­tion and invite all their friends. They want to know whether I can help them, whether I do gay marriages.

A professional woman wanted to be married but didn’t find the right person. She’s now thirty-seven years old and is contemplating artificial insemination. She wants to have a baby, and she can’t allow whether or not she finds the right guy to determine whether or not she’ll be a mother. She asks me how I feel about it.

All these questions have become part of real, everyday life in middle-class America. Today, the family — Jewish or otherwise — is not what it was twenty or thirty or fifty years ago. The life that we live is not sim­ply the conventional one of husbands and wives and children and perhaps grandpar­ents living together. It’s a world of people who are divorced, and people who are sin­gle, and people who are living alone, and people who are living together without marriage, and people who are living in homosexual unions. Is our society going to the dogs? Or is what is happening a signal that it is time for us to serve people’s needs in a more effective way?

The family is not a trivial issue. It is the oldest continuing human institution in the world. It has a long history of rules and regulations. Why? Because a force as pow­erful as sex and a need as important as the appropriate rearing of children are incompatible without rules and regulations. What are those rules and regulations that developed over the past eight to ten thou­sand years?

  1. The ideal family consists of at least a mother and a father.
  2. The ideal family has many children.
  3. The ideal family is one in which the mother recognizes that her primary role is to produce and to take care of the chil­dren.
  4. The ideal family is one in which the father has authority.
  5. The ideal family is one in which men know what male roles are and women know what female roles are, and they dress accordingly.
  6. The ideal family is one in which chil­dren are reverent and obedient and do not talk back to their parents.
  7. The ideal marriage is one that is not preceded by premarital sex.
  8. The ideal marriage is one in which the two partners under no circumstances con­template divorce.
  9. The ideal marriage is one in which nei­ther partner engages in extramarital sex.
  10. The ideal marriage is one in which all the children grow up knowing that they, too, will marry.
  11. The ideal marriage is one which any thought or act of homosexuality will threaten.

A lot of that has collapsed. We now live in a world in which at least one of every two marriages ends in divorce. We now live in a world in which mothers work out­side the home. We now live in a world of unisex, in which sometimes you can’t tell from the costume or the job whether it’s a man or a woman. We now live in a world in which there is gender equality, and the chain of command is not clear, and couples spend a lot of time on negotiation. We now live in a world in which children feed on the largesse of their parents and then open their mouths and tell the parents off. We now live in a world of contraception, in which it is possible to have frequent sex without serious consequences. We now live in a world, therefore, of sexual libera­tion. We now live in a world in which homosexuality has gone public — gone public and gone political and is demand­ing equality. We now live in a world where there is hardly a family in which at least one person isn’t living with another person without marriage.

The response to all of this is threefold. There are some people who call these changes progress and want to provide the political and legal framework that will rati­fy them. Most people mumble and grumble but don’t want to do anything. They sit around at cocktail parties and moan, “The world’s falling apart! Do you see what’s happening?” The third group absolutely and totally reject the change; they find it completely intolerable. They believe that the change is responsible for crime and dis­ease. They see it as a sign that, like ancient Rome, our society is on the decline. They are abortion opponents, who burn down clinics or kill the doctor. They are funda­mentalists, who are very, very well orga­nized, and who say to the political parties, “If you do not change, we will punish you at the polls.” But the main influence they have is over the ambivalent middle group.

There are two questions here: Is what is happening good or bad? And how should we respond to it as Humanistic Jews?

We can’t avoid the issue. The Presbyterians are dealing with it, the Methodists are dealing with it, the Roman Catholics are dealing with it. In the Jewish world the Reform movement has dealt with it, the Reconstructionist movement, the Conservative movement — everybody is dealing with the issue. We as Humanistic Jews need to confront the issue and begin to explore it. This is a personal issue: we’re talking about our lives, our children, our parents, our homes, who and what we are.

Before I try to answer the two questions, let me give a little background drawn in large part from Helen Fisher’s Anatomy of Love. For most of human evolution, peo­ple lived in a hunting and gathering cul­ture. It was in that culture, which lasted for hundreds of thousands of years, that the family emerged as a unit to arrange for the rearing of children. As far as we know, monogamy generally prevailed. Men had to organize themselves into hunting parties, and if one man were to monopolize all the women, that would have been unaccept­able. In this hunting culture, there devel­oped strong male bonding but also a fair amount of gender equality, because while the men went hunting the women went gathering. Families tended to be small because food was hard to find and disease cut down the number of children.

Farming caused the big change. About ten thousand years ago, people settled down on the land, and they developed the concept of property. They began to raid each other’s property, and they developed organized war. In this culture the owners of property were men, so there was male authority. In an agricultural world, cheap labor was needed, and the cheapest way to get labor is to have babies. Thus, the func­tion of women was to produce children and more children and more children; and every child stayed and worked on the farm, and, when the parents grew old and feeble, the children took care of them. That is the world we think of as traditional. Actually, in evolutionary history, it represents only a little drop in time.

In this world, women often became the property of their husbands, and polygamy developed. If one wife couldn’t produce enough children, and if a man was rich enough, he could have more wives. And, since agriculture now produced more and more food, the population began to increase and families grew in size.

All of this was reinforced by the institu­tion of religion, which in itself is a reflection of the agricultural family. Every family has at its head the papa. Therefore the community or the nation must have at its head the papa, the king; and the universe must have at its head the papa, God. These relationships were justified by mythology. The story of Adam and Eve is very clear: Women are the source of evil. They tempt men. Therefore, they must be restrained. Woman is to obey her husband in all things.

Ultimately this agricultural world fell apart. We Jews were one of the first peoples to enter into urbanization. And out of that emerged an economic system called capital­ism, which revolutionized the structure of society. The fundamental unit of a capitalis­tic society is not the family. The fundamen­tal efficient unit of capitalistic economy is the individual who can move freely from place to place. It’s very expensive for the individual to schlep his family along. So the family interfered with mobility. Also, the role of children changed. The role of chil­dren on the farm is cheap labor. The role of children in an urban culture is that of para­sites. Children are very expensive. You invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then, when they’re eighteen, they go away to school and you’re lucky to see them again. Or they may show up when they’re thirty- two, having failed the first time and wanting to come back home for a short while. So, having children in a bourgeois culture sud­denly becomes a matter of choice.

The consequence of this change was the emergence of the nuclear family. The his­toric family was you, your mother, your father, your Aunt Sadie, your Uncle Hymie, your zayde, your bubbeh, and they all lived in a family compound. If you didn’t like your husband, that wasn’t a problem. There was always somebody else in the family you could talk to. Today, two people live alone. They have moved to San Diego. They could have moved to Detroit or Chicago. It’s the new urban world. You now have nuclear families. A nuclear fami­ly is this vulnerable couple without bubbeh, without zayde, without Aunt Sadie, without Uncle Hymie, and they’re there in the house together. And, because of medical science, they may stay together for sixty years. So you try to amuse each other, entertain each other, make yourselves interesting; but after twenty years you have to be very creative.

In addition, in an urban capitalist cul­ture, men and women no longer work together as on the farm. When the nuclear family emerged, the husband began leaving the house to go to work, and the woman was left alone with the children. And these changes were enhanced by the affluence and democracy that grew out of this new capitalistic culture. (On the other side, since everybody does not make it, is a world of poverty: families living in urban slums with no support system.)

Now we have this tremendous moral change I outlined before. How do we eval­uate it?

When we as Humanistic Jews deal with the question of family values, we do not ask, “What is it that God commands?” We try to find answers by turning to the author­ity that we recognize, the moral authority that lies within us. That authority consists of three things. First, our needs. It is legiti­mate to say that a moral enterprise should serve basic human needs; but what are our needs? A lot of people are deceived as to their needs. The second source of moral authority is reason. Reason says, “What will happen if I do this? What are the con­sequences for me and for other people?” And the third is conscience or empathy, the ability to identify with the pain and suf­fering of other people. So, referring to the moral authority embodied in human needs, reason, and conscience, I have, not ten commandments, but ten suggestions or guidelines.

Guideline 1: There are no absolute rights. Ultimately all rights are tempered by virtue of living in a community. There is a moment when the community is surround­ed by the enemy, and you have to defend it, and you say, “I don’t believe in the draft,” but you fight. There is the moment when somebody says, “I am your parent, I have an absolute right to control you,” and you say, “Not if you’re abusing me.” It’s not an absolute right. What if a community is threatened with extinction and the one per­son who can bear a child says, “I’m not in the mood”? There are strong rights, but there are no absolute rights.

Guideline 2: No choice is perfect. Life involves weighing advantages against dis­advantages. Take the woman I mentioned who is considering divorce. The advantage is that she would be free of this impossible relationship forever. The disadvantage is that her child, who is deeply attached to his father, would suffer the consequences. If you’re a realist, you recognize that all lifestyle decisions have both advantages and disadvantages. A homosexual man is trying to make a decision about going pub­lic. His parents, whom he deeply loves, know about his lifestyle, but they would be very, very embarrassed. In fact, they’re hav­ing difficulty dealing with the whole issue. So he’s debating: “Should I or shouldn’t I? On the one hand, I want to assert myself; on the other hand, I love my parents.” All of life is this way.

Guideline 3: Dignity is important. The need for dignity arises out of the need for sur­vival. A young child is totally dependent and therefore very vulnerable. As children grow up, they begin to rebel. It’s a neces­sary stage; if they don’t assert themselves, they remain vulnerable. Dignity is the need to be increasingly in control of one’s own life. A resulting value that we treasure highly in our culture is individualism. I as an individual have the right to be the mas­ter of my own life, to make my own choices. It’s a fairly new idea — only an affluent culture can produce it. I know somebody who has decided to remain sin­gle. She likes having her own space. She likes being in charge of her own life and not having to go through continuous negotia­tion, which she did for six years in a mar­riage that didn’t work because she didn’t want to compromise. This is her space, this is her life, and she likes it.

Guideline 4: There is more than one agenda. Life is always a balancing act between the personal agenda and the social agenda. Let’s take a situation in which a woman is unhap­py in her marriage. If she did not have chil­dren, she would sever the relationship. But there are children, and they might be adversely affected. So she may say to herself, “Well, I’m only moderately unhappy.” I know some people who are sexually promis­cuous. They say, “It’s my right.” And they go around dumping their garbage on other peo­ple, ignoring the social agenda.

Guideline 5: The test of moral behavior is the consequences. Recently studies have been done on the long-term consequences of divorce. The findings are that the chil­dren of divorce have less stable lives and perform less well in school, on the average, than children whose parents remain mar­ried. Of course, there are instances of suc­cess, but divorce can be a traumatic event for children, and whoever makes the deci­sion has to weigh carefully the conse­quences. What about gay parents? The test is not their right. The test is the conse­quences. What’s happening to the child? If the child’s okay, then it’s okay.

Guideline 6: Every decision has social con­sequences. If you live in society, there is nothing you do — nothing! — that does not have social consequences. Everybody who acts in a society is a role model. If you have a lot of promiscuous people in your neigh­borhood, they’re role models for the chil­dren. If you have a lot of single people, they’re role models for children. If you have a lot of gay people, they’re also role models.

Guideline 7: Parenting is primary. The pri­mary profession of a society is parenting, because without the raising of children who can function adequately in society, the society has no future. Generally, two par­ents are better than one: a man and a woman, two women, two men, whatever — but two parents. Sometimes the father is the better parent. I know two situations in which the man has decided to stay home, and the woman goes to work. It’s a very rational relationship. The roles have been reversed, and, consequentially, it works. One of the things that happens in our cul­ture is shared parenting, in which a group of people function as parents. It is true that one’s parent is the most important person in one’s life. But it is also true that children don’t spend all their time with their parents as in a farm culture; they go off to school. So when teachers say, “It’s not my job to be a parent,” it’s ridiculous. When children are with you, you are a role model; you have to perform in a parental way.

Guideline 8: What is old is not necessarily good. Let me mention some things that are traditional: Polygamy. Female subordina­tion and confinement. And male stereo­types that condemn men to macho roles whereby they cannot express themselves either in terms of their own personal hap­piness or for the social good.

Guideline 9: What is new is not necessarily good. Let me mention some things that are new: Single parents. (You may have to make the best of it, but it’s not necessarily the best of the alternatives.) Multiple part­ners. (Once I was asked to perform a mar­riage ceremony for three people. Where’s the limit? Eight? Twelve?) Then there’s sequential promiscuity. The person chooses somebody, and it lasts for three months, and then chooses somebody else, and it lasts for two months, and so on. Of course, it’s people’s right to marry whomever they choose, but what is the damage in terms of social relationships?

Guideline 10: We all need support. All of us, no matter how much dignity we have, no matter how much strength we have, need the emotional support and input of other people. Although one of the original reasons for marriage was reproduction, now an increasing reason for marriage is the need for companionship. Most people want a significant other, a partner. But there are some people who are single, whose family consists of themselves and their friends. I know a lot of people who develop very effective friendship circles. To be a friend today means more than it meant a hundred years ago because today you often can’t call up your cousin, or in some cases even your brother or your sister. The family of choice that you call upon in a moment of crisis is your family.

A family, therefore, is a partnership or a group of people that is bound together by three things: love, and by that I mean nur­turing behavior; respect, which means that I choose to protect the dignity of the other person in this relationship; and loyalty, which means that when problems occur I am willing to put forth effort to maintain a relationship in which I have invested time and energy.

What are the implications of all this for Humanistic Jews?

First, you cannot prejudge a relationship. Relationships are to be judged by their con­sequences. You can use information from the past about similar relationships to begin the evaluation. But in the end, your evaluation of the nature of the relationship has to be determined, not by old rules, but by the consequences of what that relation­ship produces.

Second, we are committed to the defense of dignity. As a Humanistic Jew, the prima­ry value I seek in terms of human relations is the opportunity to achieve my own dig­nity and to defend the dignity of others. I readily agree that there are other value choices that one might make, but for me dignity is a primary concern.

Third, there is no single lifestyle that is appropriate to all people to protect their dignity, affirm their happiness, and arrange for appropriate social consequences.

Fourth, tradition is not always bad. Nobody has yet found a desirable alterna­tive to two parents. You may have only one parent functioning, but two parents certain­ly are better.

Fifth, single life can and does work. In this country, close to 40 percent of the households consist of one person, and all of these people are not desperately unhappy. Most of them are functioning and are socially productive.

Sixth, living together can work. There are many relationships in which people live together with love, respect, and loyal­ty, relationships that promote dignity and happiness and are socially useful.

Seventh, homosexual unions can work. There are people who live together as homosexual partners, are supportive of each other, and do productive work. They are good for their society, and in some cases, if they choose, they even are able — very, very creatively — to raise children.

Eighth, divorce can work. There are many cases in which the difficult struggle of single parents to raise their children is necessary, because to maintain the mar­riage would adversely affect both the par­ents and the children. And, in some cases, even if the children would retain benefit from it, the marriage has such adverse con­sequences for the parents that their needs will be totally ignored if some change is not made.

Ninth, we have the right to make mis­takes. If we affirm personal dignity, we’re saying that people are free to make a choice. And if people are free to make choices, they make mistakes.

Finally, we have the right to be coura­geous. I say this to people who choose a new and sometimes difficult lifestyle. I say, “The advantage is that you’re now in a meaning­ful relationship, or separated from a disas­trous one. But you may be encountering public hostility.” A lot of people don’t want the hassle. They would rather go into the closet or just conform. It’s easier. But with­out courageous people, we never would have pioneers, like the first person who went into farming, or the first nuclear fami­ly. The first step is always regarded as dan­gerous, as socially disruptive.

DeWitt Parker, a philosophy teacher I had at the University of Michigan, said: “I am not completely happy with what is, but I am less happy with what was.” I recognize that there are many things from the past that we as Humanistic Jews find valuable. We want to protect the two-parent family. But there were so many other things about that society that were restrictive and had bad social consequences. So much talent, the talent of women and others, was inade­quately used. So, I am not happy with what was. I like many of the changes that have occurred. But, as a rational Humanistic Jew, I must recognize that in our society today there are problems. There are advantages and disadvantages.

One thing I can say: If we are going to begin the exploration of this issue, we can­not come into the discussion with slogans. We have to come into the discussion with evidence. We have to look at the conse­quences of behavior. And we have to go into it with open minds, because we are defend­ing the two most important things we have: our personal dignity and our society.

Evolution is Our Story

Evolution: summer 2000

Charles Darwin is not a traditional Jew­ish hero. But he is one of the great sages of Humanistic Judaism. The principles of bio­logical evolution and natural selection lie at the heart of our belief system.

Twenty-five hundred years ago some anonymous priests edited two stories about the invention of life. These stories constitute the first two chapters of the Torah. In the first story God manufactures life in three days – plants first, then animals, and then people. In the second chapter he starts with man. Adam is bored. So God creates plants and animals to amuse him. Adam is still bored. So God conjures up a woman from Adam’s rib. Adam is impressed.

These two stories provide the informa­tional and ideological foundation for tradi­tional Jewish biology. All life is simulta­neously created. All life forms have remained the same since their creation. The age of both the universe and life is somewhere around six thousand years.

In most Jewish schools today these stories are still being taught. For liberal Jews they present an enormous problem. They are in obvious contradiction to what modern sci­ence teaches. They do not bear the faintest connection with the realities of natural evo­lution. Only a tortured poetic interpretation can rescue them. They are simply embarrass­ingly inappropriate. But, since even liberal Jews, whether Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist, are stuck with the Torah, they feel compelled to present the stories.

The net result is that liberal Judaism has no strong message on cosmology or biology. No one really believes the traditional stories. But no one is prepared to draft a compelling alternative. One of the cornerstones of an ef­fective philosophy of life, a credible view of where we came from, is neglected. The fun­damental questions of the nature of life are relegated to the public school. The synagogue prefers mythology.

This deplorable situation is aggravated by the rise of fundamentalism in Jewish and Christian life. One of the “banners” of this new fanaticism is the defense of the Genesis sto­ries as basically true. Creationism has now reared its absurd head to challenge the prin­ciple of evolution. Creationists demote evo­lution to a mere “theory” despite the over­whelming evidence to support it. And they present their mythology as a theory of equal validity. While Orthodox Jews applaud this development, liberal Jews condemn it. But there is nothing in their prayer books or in their school programs that would give any substance to their resistance. Their approach is negative: “Do not take the stories literally.” “Do not put religion into the public schools.” But there is no positive and enthusiastic de­fense of evolution. In the end, the temples read the creation story on the Sabbath and teach the creation story in their Sunday schools. The Darwinian story they claim to believe in is never dramatically told.

Humanistic Jews are liberated from the “yoke” of liberal Jewish religion. They do not place the Torah and its stories at the center of their Judaism. They do not need to pay hom­age to ancient myths and to demonstrate their worth even when that worth is questionable. They are free to create an alternative story that is responsible to evidence and is flexible enough to face constant revision. If they want to, they can write it down in Hebrew and place its words on a parchment scroll, even though the truth of the story is not a function of an­tiquity. Nor are they afraid to admit that knowledge and wisdom can come from people other than Jews.

If Humanistic Judaism is to function as a complete philosophy of life, then it must pro­vide a dramatic answer to the questions about the origin and nature of life. It must articu­late that answer clearly and forcefully so that both children and adults can incorporate it into the foundations of their Judaism. The story of evolution must be a dramatic part of public celebrations, school programs, and textbooks. It must have a prominent place in the presentation of the basic ideas of the move­ment. There is no need to find a way to con­nect it to Genesis; all attempts to make that connection distort the meaning of the origi­nal myths and only sow confusion.

As a foundational story of Humanistic Judaism, evolution is a powerful saga. The drama of life continually transforming itself in a tough setting of competition and struggle is compelling. The development of life is no serene emergence, with divine decrees con­juring up living forms effortlessly and instan­taneously. It is a dangerous ascent, and only a small fraction of the organisms that attempt the climb make it to the top. The hurdle of natural selection is tough to surmount. The fit between organisms and their environment is not an easy one.

Just as the history of the Jews needs to be rescued from the absurd doctrine of the Cho­sen People, so must the story of life be saved from the destructive embrace of creationism. We need to be continually reminded of the realities of life so that we can cope with it. The message of evolution is not only infor­mational, providing the order in which liv­ing things emerged. It also is philosophic, describing a setting for life that rational people can accept and adjust to.

What is the philosophic message of evolution?

  1.  The forces of nature that control our uni­verse and the development of life are natural and impersonal. They have no conscious pur­pose and no moral agenda. They operate re­lentlessly, ultimately sweeping most organ­isms into the garbage can of history. Natural selection may appear to be a cruel judge. It cannot be negotiated with. And it cannot change its mind.
  2.  All life is connected. We are not special creations of God, earthly angels with souls who have no fundamental relationship to the rest of nature. We are made of the same stuff as all other living things. We share the same origins. We share many of the same needs and desires. All the parts of our body and our mind have their roots in the bodies and minds of fish and reptiles and other mammals. Fear, anger, love, and sadness are not uniquely human. They have their counterparts in our animal cousins. We did not begin as fallen gods. We began as walking apes. Feeling our basic connection to all of nature restores balance to our lives and makes us see who we really are. It also makes us more compassionate with the suffering of living beings that are not human.
  3.  There is no fundamental harmony in na­ture. The living world is filled with many competing agendas. What is survival for the hunter is death for the hunted. What is vic­tory for the invader is destruction for the in­vaded. Humans and the microbes that afflict their bodies are not in harmony. They are at war with each other. In this world of strug­gling organisms we have both friends and enemies. There is no way to make every or­ganism our friend. When we can be generous, we ought to be. When the enemy is fierce, we need human allies in the battle.
  4.  Love and ethics emerged in our struggle for survival. Some animals are loners. Oth­ers, like us, need community. Each of us is too vulnerable alone. Our evolution has turned us into social beings dependent on the kindness and help of other people. Morality did not fall from heaven. It evolved over mil­lions of years as the price we have to pay for group existence. Over time, natural selection reinforced the tendency within us to work with others and to care for them. All cultures bear the imprint of this conscience.
  5. Victory is never final. Our survival lasts only so long as we fit our environment. If we destroy the foundation of the environment in which we evolved, we also shall be destroyed. Protecting and improving the natural setting in which we live is as important as any new power we acquire. Power is useless if it blows up the foundation of our existence.

Evolution is our story. It has an impor­tant message. It needs to be proclaimed in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. It needs to be celebrated through holidays and tributes. It needs to be taught clearly and boldly to our adults and our children in the schools we cre­ate. As Humanistic Jews we have a powerful answer to the question, what is life? And our answer is not mythology. It is confirmed ev­ery day by the testimony of our experience.

The “Values” Debate: A Response to the Religious Right

Ethics for Humanistic Jews  Winter 2005

The presidential election fooled many people. Liberals imagined that the compelling issues for the voters were the economy and the war in Iraq. They were wrong. The issue that defeated John Kerry was “values.”

Morality is an obsession for many Ameri­can voters, especially the voters that constitute the amorphous Religious Right. The social conservatives in the United States see ethics going to the dogs. They are obsessed with what they perceive as the precipitous moral decline of the American people. They see themselves as victims of rapid social changes that confuse them and outrage them. From abortion free­dom to gay marriage, they are appalled by the subversion of traditional values.

Traditional morality has its roots in the agricultural worlds of the Bible and of medi­eval Europe, cultures that have been replaced in America by urban industrial civilization. In the world of farmers and herdsmen, the fundamental social institution is the extended family, a tightly knit structure of people who live together, work together, and depend on each other for survival. The fundamental ne­cessities are continuous work and continuous reproduction with clear and distinct gender roles for both men and women. The funda­mental values are loyalty and collectivism – the willingness to sacrifice your well-being for the welfare and survival of the family. With the evolution of families into clans, tribes, and nations this collectivism turned into the virtue of patriotism. Reinforced by guilt and the threat of exclusion, these “family values” were transformed by the omnipresent clergy into the commandments of God.

Although there are variations, the tradi­tional values of all civilizations – European, Muslim, Asian, and American — are essen­tially the same. The family obligations and the gender roles of Confucian society do not ap­preciably differ from the requirements of the editors of the Bible. Necessity is the mother of ethics. Families and clans that want to survive need not only loyalty but also trustworthi­ness, generosity, and sacrifice. Conformity to the ways of the ancestors provides the glue of solidarity. Morality, reverence for the past, and religion merge into a powerful amalgam of culture and community.

The world that justified these values no longer exists for most Americans. The new urban culture has undermined the extended family from which traditional ethics flowed. Collectivism has been replaced by individu­alism. The old clan has been replaced by the nuclear family. The old call of sacrificial duty has yielded to the pursuit of happiness and dignity. The basic unit of society is now the free individual who has the power to choose the agenda of his or her life – where he will live, when she will work, whom he will marry, what philosophy or religion she will embrace. Technology and international markets have produced the beginning of a global culture in which national cultures turn into a smorgas­bord of personal options.

We live in a revolutionary time in which a new ethics is being forged by a new urban world. The 1960s dramatized the assault of the new values on the old. The black revolu­tion challenged the conventional notion that pedigree and race define social status. The feminist revolution challenged the traditional premise that women were born to servitude to men. The sexual revolution assaulted the historic assumption that sex is only for re­production and that sensual pleasure is an invitation to wickedness. The youth revolu­tion defied the age-old belief that older people are smarter and wiser than their children and grandchildren. The leisure revolution resisted parental insistence that only hard work can give meaning to life. Never before had so many old values and beliefs been challenged with so much fury in such a short period of time.

The consequence for millions of people is “ethical future shock.” They are con­sumed by fear and by outrage. They see the familiar world around them collapsing into a sea of chaos and confusion. They imagine that morality is vanishing and that the cul­tural establishment is in cahoots with the fomenters of this wickedness. Religious fun­damentalism is the child of all this resent­ment. It feeds on the notion that “liberals” have repudiated ethics.

Is the accusation of the Religious Right that the new liberalism has fostered immo­rality and the abandonment of ethical living true? Is the modern world morally inferior to what preceded it? Were our ancestors and the disappearing residents of rural villages more noble and more ethical than we are in our urban affluence? Is the “secular humanist” cultural establishment the agent of Satan and a danger to the preservation of a moral society? Are the humanists, including Humanistic Jews, who advocate abortion freedom and gay rights the subverters of public order?

We humanists need to answer these questions with both boldness and empathy. We need empathy especially. The millions of people who voted for the old values have legitimate complaints. They are not simply stupid country folk and coots who cannot understand the importance of civil liberties. They are traumatized by relentless change, and they are navigating in unfamiliar waters. Their children and their friends often use the newfound freedom to make harmful choices. And some of their anxieties about pervasive pornography and violence are shared by us.

Our reply to them cannot be filled with defiant contempt or with the arrogance of new prophets of a new religion. Our response has to be filled with an awareness of what humanism really says – that all ethical rules are imperfect attempts to maximize human survival, happiness, and dignity.

Historic humanism rejects authoritarian reasoning. No “authority” – whether it be God or a famous prophet or a charismatic philosopher — can make an action right by simply declaring it to be right. If any of the Ten Commandments are ethically valid, it is not because their pronouncement was accompanied by miracles and supernatural dramatics on a mountain top. It is because living by those rules fulfills human needs and enhances human welfare. The validity of an ethical rule does not lie in the commander. It lies in the consequences.

Ethical rules are not eternal truths dis­cerned through the mediation of priests or through encounters with charismatic prophets. They are the results of human testing over long periods of time. Societies without trust or loyalty cannot survive. And people without some modicum of freedom cannot be happy. It is always in the results that moral justification lies.

Morality is continuously being revised through human experience. What worked to make people happy in light of the low expec­tations of the farm world may not accomplish the same end in the presence of the high ex­pectations of the urban world. Modern society has given women the taste of empowerment. They can no longer conceive of a meaning­ful life without the opportunity of choice. Modern society has also altered the nature of marriage. What started out as an institution for reproduction has turned into a social ar­rangement for partnership and companion­ship reinforced by love. Most heterosexual people today in North America get married, not because they want children, but because they want partners. If loving partnerships are now the primary purpose of marriage, then homosexual marriage is no moral travesty. It is the natural consequence of a society that has changed.

The problem with any ethical rule, whether traditional or innovative, is that it encourages behavior that has both good and bad consequences. Telling the truth can foster trust; it also can be cruel. Promoting human dignity can enhance self-esteem; it also can breed annoying prima donnas. Touting love may produce more caring and nurturing; it also may permit the masochism of abusive relationships. No ethical rule is perfect. It en­dures so long as its positive effects outweigh the negatives.

The new world the Religious Right fears has many problems that arise from the plea­sures of affluence and freedom. But a world in which races mix that never mixed before, a world in which women can now choose to express their creative talents, a world that is molding formerly hostile nations into a global village cannot be all bad. It may, in many ways, be superior to the world that came before.

Spirituality as Empowerment

Colloquium 01 – Spring/Summer 2002

Spirituality is a controversial word in the secular world. For most “traditional” secular­ists the word is a weapon in the armory of the enemy. It conjures up the illusory world of spiritual beings — all the way from gods to spirits of the dead. People who are genuinely and consistently secular, it is said, cannot be spiritual. They can be emotional, artistic, im­passioned devotees of beauty — but they can­not be spiritual. A secular spirituality is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, very much like a square circle.

Yet for many other secularists, both old and young, the word spirituality has become a com­fortable addition to their lives, pointing to a secular reality that no other word adequately denotes. They recognize the historic use of the term for supernatural events. But for them the word easily crosses over to the world of space and time, to the realm of here and now. Many religious people are spiritual. But so are many secular people. Spirituality is an experience that can happen in both places.

If there is a real, this-worldly experience that can be designated spiritual, what is it? And what is its connection to the secular experi­ence that would justify our use of the word?

The answer to this question lies in the origins of religion. The foundation of religion is the human experience of suffering and death. If there were no suffering and no death, there would be no religion. All religions are coping strategies for dealing with these two frightening realities.

As a coping strategy, historic religion of­fered magic power. Magic power is extraordi­nary power. It can achieve what natural power never allows. Magic power that is manipulated by magicians and wizards belongs to the world of magic. Magic power that is personalized and attributed to ancestral spirits — and that be­comes the focus of acts of reverence and wor­ship — belongs to the world of religion.

Holiness and sacredness mean the pres­ence of magic power. Holy things radiate power and are often too dangerous to touch. If they are near, they can cure suffering and post­pone death. Holy spirits possess the power of immortality. They defy death and stand in contrast to the change and decay of the natu­ral world. The original spirituality was indeed access to or contact with this spirit world. It provided the serenity of eternal life, the tran­scendence of the supernatural, and the sense of power that dispels fear. In short, spiritual­ity is a form of extraordinary empowerment.

Spirituality as empowerment comes in two forms: external and internal. External spirituality is the most common form. The seeker sees himself as helpless and powerless, a childlike victim in need of rescue. Magic power is external to him, present in the god or the angel that will save him. The normal experience of prayer is an example of this unequal connection. The source of power is outside of the supplicant, beyond him. He seeks to be touched by it and transformed.

Internal spirituality is less common. The devotee feels the magic power within herself. She feels himself capable of performing miracles. A sense of extraordinary power per­vades her being. She easily turns into the prophet, the healer, the saint, the guru, the holy person. Internal spirituality is the sense of empowerment felt by charismatic and mes­sianic leaders. They may plead humility, but their followers see them as godlike. The goal of mysticism, as opposed to ordinary prayer, is to achieve this condition.

Both external spirituality and internal spirituality can be dangerous to the welfare of the individual. If one becomes addicted to prayer, he can aggravate passivity and depen­dency. If one sees himself as godlike, he can easily fall into the foolishness of pretension. Traditional spirituality, when it works well, can provide its devotees with a special em­powerment. But when it works badly, it can lead to self-destruction.

So what is the connection between spiri­tuality and anything that secular people may be comfortable with? How can one have spiri­tuality without magic power?

Secular spirituality, like traditional spiri­tuality, is the experience of extraordinary empowerment — not so extraordinary that it defies natural law, but extraordinary enough to make it special. The birth of children, the intense solidarity of determined groups, the euphoria of great achievement, the inspira­tion of beautiful nature or beautiful people — all of these experiences provide the seeker with a new sense of significant power.

Secular spirituality can be both external and internal. It is external when we feel the power coming from outside of us. When we feel insignificant in the midst of a vast and overwhelming universe but feel significant as a part of a single nature evolving through the ages; when we feel insignificant as a lonely and mortal individual but feel significant as part of a centuries-long chain of family love; when we see ourselves as powerless in fight­ing the forces of evil alone but see ourselves as powerful when joined together with oth­ers in a movement of political idealism — we experience the wonder of natural transcen­dence. For many Jews their spirituality arises from their sense of connection to generations of ancestors — a sense of solidarity with the past and with time. The pleasure of roots gives us a sense of “immortality,” of continuity be­yond our all-too-brief personal existence. Having children and grandchildren is grow­ing roots in the future.

Secular spirituality is internal when we feel the power residing within ourselves. Self- confidence and personal self-esteem are not as extraordinary as sainthood. But they fill us with an energy of hope and well-being. There are times in our lives when we feel euphori­cally that we can seize the moment and achieve goals that we once thought were un­reachable. Such moments are the stuff out of which internal spirituality is made.

Like traditional spirituality, secular spiri­tuality can be dangerous. If we never feel pow­erful within ourselves but only feel powerful when we are connected to nature and to other people, then this losing oneself in something greater than oneself is the path to passive sur­render and conformity. If we exaggerate our personal power and imagine that we can change our lives and the weather by simply wishing it, then we become the victims of megalomania and illusion.

A healthy secular spirituality is a balanc­ing act. We need to feel connected to forces beyond ourselves without ever losing our per­sonal identity. And we need to feel powerful enough within, yet never imagine that we can survive independent of the help of others.

A healthy spirituality for Humanistic Jews needs the following guidelines.

We need to distinguish between the word spirituality and the experience of extraordi­nary empowerment. Some Humanistic Jews will feel comfortable using the word spiritual to describe this experience. Others will not. As long as we understand the experience we are talking about, we can generously let the word be optional. If someone prefers to say “empowerment” or “transcendence” or “ex­altation,” that choice is legitimate. Leaving the word as an option is kind, good-humored, and pragmatic.

We need to recognize the spiritual qual­ity of many secular lives. The spiritual ideal­ism of halutsim and kibbutzniks, which defied both nature and the limits of human ingenuity to achieve almost impossible goals, has a spiritual quality that can surely equal the devotion of monks and nuns. The resistance of secular ghetto fighters who of­fered their lives to rescue the dignity of the Jewish people certainly has as much spiritu­ality as that of the religious martyrs who died for their faith. Secular scientists such as Einstein and Darwin, who brought unity out of difference, were as spiritual as the most famous theologians.

We need to distinguish between the spiritual experience and its consequences. Empowerment may make us feel energetic and ambitious, willing to confront all odds. It also may make us feel satisfied and secure, dispelling all fears. Ambition and serenity are the consequences of empowerment, not the substance.

We need to develop the ethical side of our spirituality. Transcendent experiences that focus only on nature and the universe to the exclusion of other people are morally danger­ous. A healthy spirituality is not so transcen­dent that human affairs become unimportant. Some of the most significant moments of empowerment come from working with oth­ers to alleviate suffering and to strengthen the community.

We need to develop the aesthetic side of our spirituality. Beauty is the reflection in nature and people of whatever fosters life. Romantic love and sunlight are beautiful be­cause they nurture life. In a universe where ugliness reflects all the dangers to human ex­istence and happiness — from pestilence to violence — we need to feel strengthened by everything in the universe that supports our will to live.

We need to cultivate the internal spiritu­ality that courage brings. In a world where guaranteed happy endings are illusions and magic power is the stuff of fantasy, the ulti­mate spiritual experience is not the surren­der to God. It is the sense of empowerment that refuses to surrender to adversity and insists that taking risks is as sublime as naive faith.

Meeting the Challenge of Renewal

Challenge of Jewish Renewal  – Autumn 1998

A new religious movement is emerging in the Jewish world. It has its roots in the explo­sion of interest in Eastern religion that followed the Vietnam War. Thousands of Western Jews fell in love with the mystical insights and prac­tices of Hinduism and Buddhism. Reincarnation became Jewish. So did meditation, yoga, and mind power healing. New Age religion was born, and a high percentage of its devotees were Jews.

Why did the alumni of the New Left turn in droves to transcendental meditation and Zen philosophy? Why did so many Jewish youth find a religious home with the Maharishi and the Maharashi? The transformation puzzled experts. Was there a spiritual vacuum in Jew­ish life that conventional Judaism could not fill? Was the romantic utopianism of the New Left simply a prelude to the romantic vision of a universe infused with personal immortality and angelic power?

Rabbis and Jewish community leaders became alarmed. While most New Age devo­tees did not repudiate their Jewish connection and Jewish identity, their flirtation with other religions frightened the establishment. Jewish jokes mirrored this anxiety. Jewish mothers were climbing mountains in Tibet to confront the guru and say, “Melvin, come home.”

It was only a matter of time before the Jew­ish world learned to accommodate what it could not dismiss. If New Age religion was not exactly Rabbinic Judaism, then Rabbinic Judaism could be reinterpreted to mean New Age religion. With a little creative experimen­tation, anything was possible.

The surge of Eastern mysticism coincided with a Hasidic revival. The new Hasidim also were into the wonders of spirituality. However, in Hasidism, spirituality was subordinate to is­sues of Jewish identity, Jewish survival, Jewish ritual, and Jewish segregation. The Kabbalah as a mystical, far-out interpretation of Torah text was encased in a box of Orthodox conformity.

Jewish New Age religion was as comfort­able with Buddhist sutras as it was with kabbalistic numerology. It was an open and free exploration by Jews who wanted to be open and free. The authoritarianism of Hasidism was repugnant to these searchers for spiritual mean­ing. The New Age style was individualistic and egalitarian. Every devotee had to discover his or her own truth. The philosophic mantra of the new spirituality was the inner wisdom that lay within every human being. Each New Ager picked from the mystic smorgasbord what was to her or his taste. Out of such beginnings it was not easy to organize a movement.

During the past ten years, Jewish Renewal has arisen from this chaos of personal explora­tion, and charismatic leaders such as Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Arthur Waskow, and Michael Lerner have given it a Jewish focus. Communities of Jews eager for spiritual re­newal, such as P’nai Or in Philadelphia, emerged from the amorphous mass of seekers. Lerner’s journal Tikkun became the voice of the new movement. Schachter-Shalomi and others created a seminary to train rabbis for Renewal groups. Dozens of rabbis in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements offered their sup­port and enthusiasm to these organizing efforts. Renewal congregations with Renewal rabbis began popping up all over North America. Even the Reconstructionist seminary, at one time a bastion of Kaplanian rationality, succumbed to the invasion of Renewal ideology.

The most interesting phenomenon is occur­ring in Israel. Hundreds of secular Israelis, turned off by Orthodoxy, bored by Conserva­tism and Reform, and finding no personal mean­ing in Zionist nationalism, have been making pilgrimages to India. In love with gurus and ashrams, they have returned to Israel to orga­nize spirituality centers and communities that do Eastern religion in Hebrew. The major rival to Orthodoxy in Israel today is neither Reform nor Conservatism (which are viewed as bland North America imports); it is “Israeli Renewal.”

What does this all mean?

It means that there are large numbers of Jews who are attracted to Eastern religion and who, for reasons of either guilt or ethnic at­tachment, want to clothe these ideas and experiences in Jewish symbols.

It means that the quest for magic power is a strong human need, especially for people who feel overwhelmed by the stresses of modern urban society.

It means that the liberal Jewish establish­ment, whether Reform or Reconstructionist, will try to appropriate the new spiritual fer­vor for its own movements, especially because their philosophic messages provide very little magic power.

It means that there are now two rival radical “religions” in the Jewish world, one mystical and the other rational. Both oppose authoritarianism. But their messages are not the same.

It means that Humanistic Judaism not only confronts the traditional opposition of the old Orthodoxy and its pale reflections in Conservatism and Reform. It especially confronts the rising tide of freewheeling spiri­tuality in the Renewal movement.

How do we respond?

We are not opportunists. We do not appro­priate popular ideas we do not believe in because they are marketable and temporarily attractive.

We make a distinction between natural­istic spirituality, which celebrates the beau­ties of life, and mystical spirituality, which yearns for the magic power of instant healing and eternal bliss.

We recognize that reincarnation, angels, and numerology are just as irrational as the resurrection of the dead.

We refuse to accept the accusation that rationality is cold and unromantic. Facing the world realistically requires passion and de­termination. It also makes us romantic about beauty in a world where so much ugliness prevails. Love and friendship are beautiful and magical, but they do not confer magic power. They are rooted in the natural power of the human condition.

We acknowledge that we have a unique role to play in a Jewish world consumed by irrationality. The life of courage is a powerful Jewish message for those who are strong enough to accept it.

In the years to come, Jewish Renewal will be an important force in the Jewish world for us to dialogue with. We have to enter into the conversation with a clear sense of who we are.

Atheism in the Soviet Union

Building Communities  – Winter 1987

Atheism in the Soviet Union. It seemed an irresistible thing to investigate en route to Oslo for a world meeting of humanists. Twenty-five of us from the North American Committee for Humanism, leaders from six major humanist organizations, arrived in Leningrad on Friday, July 25, 1986. Victor Garadzha, director of the Moscow-based In­stitute for Scientific Atheism, a research center for the study of religion and anti- religion, had invited us to visit and learn after a letter of inquiry sent by me. Our stay in the Soviet Union was to be for eight days.

As naturalistic, nontheistic humanists, many of us perfectly willing to identify ourselves as atheists, we were curious about what the establishment of atheism as the of­ficial “religion” of the Soviet Union (replac­ing Russian Orthodoxy) meant. How perva­sive was atheist belief? How were school­children indoctrinated? What were the ceremonies of birth, puberty, marriage, and death that had been substituted for the old Christian rites? How were the sick and the dying counseled and consoled?

We knew that between the two world wars, atheism was militant. The govern­ment closed down churches, synagogues, and mosques, forbade all religious teaching, banned religious books, and interfered massively with religious activity. Many churches were turned into community cen­ters, schools, and even stables. The clergy were portrayed as agents of reaction. Dur­ing World War II, Stalin softened his anti- religious policies because he wished to mobilize all parts of the population to resistance against the Germans and desired to revive the old Russian nationalism for political purposes. After the war, the anti-religious militancy never returned.

We knew that no religious propaganda was allowed. Many of the churches, now restored to their former glory, are either purely ceremonial centers or museums. We knew that being religious publicly in the Soviet Union was a disadvantage in the pur­suit of work, power, and prestige — in the same way that being an atheist is in North America.

Our meetings were held in the House of Atheism in Moscow, an old pre-Revolutionary mansion that had been transformed into a local center for the dissemination of atheist propaganda. Located in the eastern Taganka district, this center was one of 53 such centers in major cities throughout the Soviet Union. Its exterior retained some of the elegance of czarist times. Its interior was more pedestrian, with offices, study rooms, lecture halls, and a row of photo­graphs of atheist heroes.

Present at the meetings was an array of atheist officials from many organizations connected with education, ceremonial life, publications, and research. Feodor Timo­feev, vice-director of the Institute for Scien­tific Atheism, chaired the gathering, which included Igor Romanov, leader of the Mos­cow Central House of Scientific Atheism, Yevgenia Osipova, professor of atheism and philosophy at the Moscow State Institute of Culture, and Boris Maryanov, co-editor of the main atheist journal, Science and Religion.

Our discussions, which lasted for two mornings and an afternoon, ranged over a wide variety of topics. We carefully avoided certain subjects, since we did not want to spend our precious time on political cliches. We had no intention of arguing about the virtues or vices of Marxism and the Soviet political system, since that conversation would have ended up with useless confron­tation and no information concerning the subjects we were interested in. We mainly directed our questions to atheist education, life cycle ceremonies, and personal counsel­ing — aspects of Soviet daily life that were less visible to Western eyes than the blustery Marxist propaganda we were accustomed to reading and hearing.

There are no special atheist communities in Russia comparable to humanist or reli­gious communities in the Western world. Atheism is simply an integral part of the of­ficial “religion” of Leninism and is express­ed through all the agencies of the state and, especially, through the multitude of com­munal organizations — social, military, in­tellectual, and athletic — that claim the time and allegiance of Soviet citizens. The “god” of the Soviet Union is Lenin. His face and figure are everywhere. Since he was an atheist, atheism is part of Soviet doctrine.

Atheist indoctrination is handled by six different agencies and institutions: 1. The Ministries of Education are in charge of the school system and the molding of young Russian minds. All teachers in the Soviet Union are trained to present the atheist point of view to their students, whether in study or play. 2. The Ministries of Culture are responsible for many intellectual and ar­tistic activities, including state-managed life cycle ceremonies. 3. Faculties of atheism and philosophy, in all major schools of higher learning, provide compulsory courses in atheism for all university students, regardless of their specialties.

  • The many houses of atheism in the major cities, such as the one we visited in Moscow, are propaganda centers where the history of religion is presented from an atheistic point of view and where lecturers, voluntary or paid, are trained as atheist “missionaries” to the general public. 5. The Institute for Scientific Atheism, head­quartered in Moscow, has a faculty of some 40 scholars who research the history of religion and atheistic thought and publish scholarly papers. 6. Science and Religion, a popular journal with a circulation of 400,000, seeks to expose the evils of religion to the Soviet people and to demonstrate the incompatibility of religion with a modern scientific outlook.

None of these six agencies really coor­dinates its atheist activities with the other five. Informal ties exist, but they do not con­stitute an efficient central control.

Soviet authorities have developed alter­native ceremonies, however pedestrian, to those of the old religion. The first Bolshe­viks were so hostile to organized religion that they avoided any kind of celebration that could be remotely connected with the traditional ceremonies of the church. Mar­riages were conducted in registry offices, and babies received no ceremonial wel­come. But, after a while, the authorities came to realize that even atheists needed a ceremonial life with some kind of aesthetic dimension. The result was the gradual development of a series of state-sponsored institutions and celebrations to serve as an integral part of the developing cult of Leninism.

Now citizens of the Soviet Union have options. If they are secularists who hate cer­emonies, they can avoid them, except for a perfunctory procedure at the marriage registry office. But if they want something more “poetic” at special life cycle moments, the system has arranged for this need. There are baby-naming palaces and wedding pal­aces and ceremonial houses at cemeteries.

In the main wedding palace in Moscow, the marble interior is both spartan and grand. Sophia Bulayeva, its manager and director, invited us to witness a marriage ceremony.

On a typical busy day, couples and their families wait in the large reception halls to be summoned to their respective ceremo­nies. Grooms dress conventionally, but brides wear some shortened facsimile of a wedding gown and headdress. The celebra­tion is held in an impressive room with a dramatic rug, desk, and governmental seal. A female wedding professional, assisted by a female representative of the Moscow city government, conducts the ceremony. The shy couple stand by themselves in the mid­dle of the room with family and spectators along the walls. A three-piece orchestra, engaged for four rubles, introduces the celebration with a very short section of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. The of­ficiant, dressed in a severely tailored blue ceremonial suit, instructs the couple on their obligations as husband and wife and as good Soviet citizens. The bride and groom walk forward to sign the marriage docu­ments. Witnesses follow. Rings are ex­changed. More exhortation is offered. Wed­ding chimes are heard. Family and friends rush forward to embrace the couple. But the bride and groom never kiss each other. After the ceremony, the couple, like most Soviet newlyweds, may go off to one of the public statues of Soviet heroes, especially Lenin, to offer their tribute of flowers.

Weddings, babynamings, and funerals are increasingly being conducted by a new breed of professionals, trained by the Ministries of Culture, who function as a secular “clergy.” They are full-time workers with special ceremonial costumes and ritual formats. Almost all of them are women. When Bulayeva was asked why, she replied with the surprisingly traditional response that women are more appropriate than men because they are more nurturing.

The most developed and successful athe­ist ceremonies are the growing-up rites that are provided for children in the schools. Throughout their school careers, Russian children participate in group celebrations of high emotion, which mark important steps in their development as Soviet citizens. There are ceremonies when school begins, when school ends, when important achieve­ments are made. And the school ceremonies are supplemented by dramatic celebrations in the youth groups, especially the Pioneers, which almost all Soviet children join. Rus­sian youths are more innocent and less jaded than Western children and do not pos­sess the cynicism of affluence that affected so many American young people in the six­ties and seventies, when graduation cere­monies were often avoided.

The counseling of the sick and the dying is much more traditional than parallel pro­cedures in the West. In America, in recent years, serious efforts have been made to protect the dignity of the patient by enabling him to confront the truth of his condition, even when it is fatal; in Russia, fantasies of hope are preferred. Pessimism of any kind is regarded as subversive. The vision of a world that is getting better and better is part of Soviet triumphalism. The real human condition, with all its disappointments, disillusionments, and frustrations, is never allowed to surface — especially on an offi­cial level.

Philosophically, Soviet atheism is nega­tive in content. It devotes most of its time to denouncing religion and old superstitions. It spends very little time articulating the positive humanistic side of atheism. What­ever positive elements exist are tied up with the cliches of a traditional Marxism that very few young people really believe in pas­sionately anymore.

We visited the famous Museum of Athe­ism in Leningrad, ironically and deliciously the former great cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. When I was there sixteen years ago, its magnificent classical and baroque in­terior was filled with an appallingly tasteless anti-religious exhibit. Today, the assaultive elements have been subdued, and a more objective history of religion is pre­sented. Still, the emphasis is on what atheists do not believe — very little on what they do believe. Even the magazine Science and Religion and the scholarly work of the Institute are negative in tone, always find­ing fault and rarely stating a positive, per­sonal alternative to the old religion.

At the same time, nostalgia for the art and artifacts of the old religion is growing. It is now fashionable among the young to collect icons and religious pictures, to “ooh” and “aah” over old religious architec­ture, and to choose a church wedding. While most people in the Soviet Union have become overwhelmingly secular after 70 years of atheist power, many of them find Soviet life boring and search for romantic roots in the past. This nostalgia becomes a safe rebellion against a regime of tired pro­gressive slogans.

One afternoon, one of the voluntary guides at the House of Atheism took us on an “atheist” tour of Moscow. All the sites we visited were religious buildings, old churches that had been restored. When our guide talked about these structures, tied so intimately with the history of Moscow and Russia, his presentation was positive and sentimental.

Although our stay was too short for com­prehensive analysis, it was a marvelous learning experience — although quite depressing at times.

From a North American humanist per­spective, Soviet atheism is disappointing:

  •  It is intimately tied to the “religion” of Leninism, which possesses all the dogma­tism, worship, and naivete of the Orthodox Russian religion that preceded it.
  •  It has succeeded in producing a nation of secularists but not a nation of humanists. Most Soviet citizens do not find aesthetic and personal satisfaction in the doctrines of the regime.
  •  It is managed by nice but innocuous bur­eaucrats, whether academic or administra­tive, who are incapable of building any pas­sionate belief out of all the state power they possess and who, despite this power, have never recruited the finest writers and artists to offer their skills to the development of an effective atheism.
  •  Its brightest side is the ceremonial life it has created for the young, with the help of unsung legions of teachers and youth leaders.

The best thing to come out of our trip was the contact we made with some of the lead­ers of Soviet atheism. Despite our political, social, and economic differences, we share a commitment to a nontheistic philosophy of life. We hope to stay in touch. Perhaps, if a more liberal Russian regime ultimately emerges, with less of an investment in the cult of Leninism, a more meaningful dia­logue can take place.

Circumcision

Becoming Parents, Summer 1988

To circumcise or not to circumcise. That is the question. At least for a militant group of new opponents, many of them Jews.

Doubting the value of circumcision is something new in Jewish life. For most of Jewish history, such opposition would have been inconceivable. In the perspective of priestly and rabbinic Judaism, circumcision takes top billing with observing the Shabbat as one of the two most important signs of Jewish identity.

Even in modern times, Jews who have no connection with the Jewish community or with Jewish culture, who hate organized religion and all forms of conformist ritual, will still manage to have their sons circum­cised. Many are the calls I have received from peripheral Jews in out of the way places seeking some way to insure a “kosher” circumcision for their child.

Avoiding circumcision is not like eating shrimp. The emotional commitment to the brit milla is far more intense than to almost any other Jewish ritual. To announce to your fellow-Jews that you intend to remain a ham-eating atheist is far less traumatic than to declare that you intend to leave your son uncircumcised. The first provocation is by now ho-hum. The second is almost next to betrayal.

For traditional Jews, phallic circumcision is the basic initiation rite into membership in the Jewish people. Although the effect of the surgery can hardly serve as a visible public symbol of Jewish identity, like a beard or tsitsis —- except in a nudist colony — it symbolizes belonging more than any other procedure. Especially in the Christian world, where all historic nations avoided circumcision like the plague until this cen­tury, being circumcised was a unique condi­tion that defined the Jewish male.

During the past century in North America, religious circumcision received an important boost. Physicians decided that the surgery had therapeutic value. Ulti­mately, more than 85 percent of all newborn American males were circumcised for secular medical reasons. While this develop­ment certainly took away from the unique­ness of the Jewish condition and diminished the significance of circumcision as a sign of Jewish identity, it provided a rational hygienic justification for doing something that many modern people previously viewed as primitive and barbaric. What anti-trichinosis theories did for anti-pork- eaters, the new medical reasoning did for circumcision-lovers. Science had come to the rescue of religion.

But the heyday of universal circumcision is over. During the past twenty years a vocal anti-circumcision lobby has emerged in America, especially in California. In 1971 the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that there is no observable medical value to circumcision. And by 1988 five states denied financial coverage for the pro­cedure. Books and periodicals featured anti­circumcision themes. And new organiza­tions arose to lead the battle against this in­fant surgery.

The opponents of circumcision fall into three groups.

The first group find no positive health value in circumcising boys. They do not believe that it either prevents disease or pro­motes cleanliness. In fact, they claim, the surgery may have negative effects. The trauma of the pain and the risk of infection may endanger the child’s welfare. The im­plication is clear. Even circumcision for religious reasons may be harmful. Perhaps Jewish parents will have to be retrained in their religious zeal in the same way that the anti-blood transfusion Jehovah’s Witnesses need to be held back by the law for the sake of their children.

A humanistic Jewish response to circum­cision separates the therapeutic from the ceremonial issues. As a medical proce­dure, circumcision needs to be judged by medical standards.

The second group are civil libertarian. They object to non-urgent elective surgery being foisted on babies by their parents. After all, once the foreskin goes, it is not recoverable. An issue of so sensitive a nature ought to be decided by the person who has to suffer the consequences. Men should not undergo this surgery without their consent. And infants are incapable of giving their consent.

The third group are feminist. Their resistance is directed less to the surgery and more to the ceremony. The idea of using phallic circumcision as the only required initiation rite is deeply offensive to them. The celebration is only for boys. Girls have no equivalent ceremony of their own. The patriarchal and male chauvinist premise that underlies the brit milla is inconsistent with the moral premises of a democratic and egalitarian society.

How valid are these objections?

Before I answer this question, let me pro­vide a little background information.

Traditional Jews believe that circumci­sion was ordained by God. The command­ment pre-dates Moses and goes all the way back to Abraham. In Genesis 17, Yahveh is reported to have said to Abraham: “This is my covenant which you shall keep between me and you and your seed after you. Every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin. And it shall be a token of a covenant between me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circum­cised. . . and the uncircumcised male. . . shall be cut off from my people.” The penalty for the uncircumcised, then, is death or excommunication.

The Biblical commandment features some glaring omissions. No explanation is provided to clarify why foreskin removal is chosen among many other possible alter­natives as the sign of the covenant. Perhaps, in Yahveh’s mind, modesty precluded an explanation. Or, perhaps, phallic surgery was associated in his thinking with his cove­nant promise to guarantee Abraham num­berless descendants. The other omission is any justification of requiring circumcision on the eighth day. Why not the seventh day or the ninth day? Did Yahveh simply make an arbitrary choice for the sake of uniform­ity? After all, most other circumcising peo­ple impose the procedure much later. Some even wait to puberty.

From an anthropological view, Hebrew circumcision is not part of divine revela­tion. It is part of a human story that em­braces many people of the distant past. In the ancient world, fellow-Semites like the Phoenicians and Ethiopians practiced cir­cumcision. And the neighboring Hamitic Egyptians also indulged in the practice.

The real reasons for foreskin removal are lost with the reasoning processes of primitive peoples in dim antiquity. Quite certainly their motivation was hardly hygienic. Cutting away flesh with a dirty flint knife (shades of the Stone Age!) would cancel out any presumed health benefits from having a circumcised penis.

The most likely explanation is the ap­peasement of the gods in order to guarantee fertility. Part of the penis is offered to the deity in order to secure his protection of the rest. Since circumcision was originally done at puberty (the earliest known Semitic bar mitsva), it was intended to prepare the male for adulthood by guaranteeing his reproduc­tive future.

One of the grisliest stories in the Torah, an old literary fragment inserted into a more sophisticated text, suggests this motivation. In Exodus 4, this mysterious in­sert appears as Zipporah, the wife of Moses, leaves Midian with her son and her hus­band to journey to Egypt. “It happened upon the journey that Yahveh encountered him [the boy] at an inn and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Yahveh’s feet; and she said, ‘Truly you are a kinsman unto me by virtue of the blood of circumci­sion.’ Therefore, he (Yahveh) let him alone.” Yahveh in this story is appeased by the bloody foreskin and must now assume the role of a protective kinsman.

Whatever the real reason, by the time the Torah text containing the circumcision commandment was written, circumcision was so much a part of Jewish practice that no explanation for its choice as the sign of the covenant (Yahveh’s promise to protect and multiply the Jews) was required.

As for infant circumcision, the reason most likely imitates that of infant baptism. Christian baptism started out as an adult ceremony. But in time, it was moved for­ward to birth. Parents were fearful to leave their children unprotected, especially because of the threat of early death. Similar­ly, infant circumcision provided immediate protection from hostile deities. Caution turned a puberty rite into a birth ceremony.

The requirement of the eighth day simply tied the ceremony to lucky numbers. The seven-day week followed by the eighth day closing was a familiar pattern for calendar events. Both the autumn Sukkot festival and the winter Hanukka holiday followed the same format.

In time, the circumcision procedure turned into a full-fledged ceremony with fixed ritual procedures. By late rabbinic times, the ceremonial drama included six distinct parts: 1) the presentation of the child, 2) the seating of the child on the throne of Elijah, 3) the recitation by the father of the circumcision blessing (“Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has made us holy through your commandments and commanded us to initiate the covenant of Abraham our father”), 4) milla, the cut­ting and separation of the foreskin, 5) p’ria, the removal of the foreskin, 6) and mitsitsa, the stopping of the blood through oral suction.

In the beginning, the surgery was per­formed by the father of the boy. But, like most religious procedures, it was turned over to experts. The mohel, the professional ritual circumciser, made his debut. And the flint knife, reminiscent of neolithic times, finally turned into an iron blade.

It is important to point out that the Jewish identity of the male child never depended on circumcision in the way that Christian identity depended on baptism. A person born of a Jewish mother was Jewish regardless of anything he might choose to do or have done to him. An uncircumcised Jew remains a Jew, even by Orthodox standards.

Hostility to circumcision appeared early in Jewish history. The Philistines prided themselves on their foreskin retention. And the Greeks were absolutely revolted by the procedure and its effects. They regarded it as mutilation. Part of pre-Christian Greek anti-Semitism derived from this visceral response.

Of course, the objections were not hygienic. They were aesthetic, religious, and moral. To the Greeks, circumcision seemed almost as bad as castration. The human form, as intended by nature, was violated. To this day, Greeks and Latins re­tain this revulsion.

But what of the objections of our modern North American opponents? How valid are they?

The charge that circumcision is either unnecessary or harmful must confront con­temporary evidence. While the 1971 report of the American Academy of Pediatrics ruled circumcision unnecessary, it is impor­tant to note that the Academy is reviewing its earlier decision because of new evidence. Of fifty thousand known cases of penile cancer in North America only nine have occurred in circumcised males. Urinary tract infections occur less frequent­ly when the foreskin is removed. And ninety-five times as many uncircumcised males contract AIDS as do the circumcised. If all these assertions are true, then the pain and trauma, if they indeed exist, may be worth enduring.

The charge that infant circumcision, be­ing involuntary, violates the civil liberties of the child is valid only if the surgery has no therapeutic effect. The needless subjection of a child to pain without its consent is cruel. But, if there is therapeutic value, then the argument fails. It is the responsibility of the parent to protect the child from harm, whether it be through an involuntary smallpox vaccination or an involuntary tonsillectomy.

Quite frankly, the fury of many anti- circumcision militants is out of proportion to the provocation. Given the horrendous proportions of child abuse, a little foreskin removal (which may, in the end, turn out to be beneficial hardly deserves the hostility it receives.

We need a birth celebration that features at its center something Jewish, something easily given to both boys and girls…. Its main drama is the conferring of a Hebrew name on the infant.

The first two objections are directed primarily to infant circumcision itself and not to the brit milla, the religious ceremony. The third charge, the feminist complaint, denounces the ceremony, not the surgery. It maintains that the brit is inappropriate as a birth ceremony since it is designed for boys and not for girls.

There is little humanistic doubt that this complaint is valid. As the original purpose of circumcision faded from Jewish ken and the ceremony took on the significance of a birth celebration and an initiation ritual for membership in the Jewish people, the exclu­sion of female infants took on a political significance. A patriarchal society grants full membership only to men. Women are possessions and attachments who derive their identity from their connection to their fathers and husbands. No special celebra­tion is required for their arrival because they are secondary in importance. Their membership in the community derives from their membership in households of which men alone are the head. In a sense, the cir­cumcised penis protects not only the boy who possesses it but also the woman who will ultimately come to be attached to him. The brit milla, by its very nature, assigns an inferior status to girls.

A humanistic Jewish response to circum­cision separates the therapeutic from the ceremonial issues. As a medical procedure, circumcision needs to be judged by medical standards. If parents believe that it has health value — and there is much evidence to indicate that it does — then they should arrange to have their son circumcised by ap­propriate medical personnel, with all the guarantees of medical protection, at a time deemed appropriate for the child. If parents believe that it has no health value or that it is harmful, they should avoid the procedure for their son. The decision should be based on a scientific determination, just as one decides upon diet or vaccination.

But whether phallic surgery should be the central feature of a Jewish birth celebra­tion is another issue. Equality between boys and girls, men and women, is also an impor­tant humanistic value. And a ceremony that subverts that value is inappropriate for Humanistic Judaism.

Introducing female circumcision — a la East African practice — would be a rather bizarre way to solve the problem. And so would including women in the traditional minyan required for the performance of the ritual.

There is no way of making a happy celebration out of the performance of bloody surgery, even if you add female pa­tients and female observers. If somehow the ceremony was not so male chauvinistic, the surgery ritual might be worth enduring for the sake of tradition and continuity, in the same way that liberal Jews continue to observe the traditional dates for most holidays even when they are inconvenient. But surgery-as-ceremony is not worth en­during if it violates values more important than tradition or continuity.

There is no doubt about it. We need a new kind of Jewish birth celebration and in­itiation rite that provides for relaxed festivi­ty and that features at its center something Jewish, something easily given to both boys and girls.

This new kind of celebration has been developing among liberal and humanistic Jews over the past thirty years. Its setting is the home, the temple, or the community center. Its main drama is the conferring of a Hebrew name on the male or female infant. Even in the traditional circumcision ritual, Hebrew names are announced.

There is no reason for tying circumcision to a humanistic Jewish birth celebration. Despite its historic importance, it is simply inappropriate in the same way that female segregation is inappropriate.

There are times to rescue the old. There are also times to invent the new. Judaism is the story of both.