The Use and Abuse of the Holocaust

Remembering the Holocaust, spring 1991

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immigration: A New (and Not-so-new) Crisis

Immigration Spring 2007

Immigration has become one of the hot controversies in America. The flow of illegal immigrants across the Mexican border has triggered an intense backlash of protest and resentment. Some protestors are demanding deportation and a wall of separation. Others are insisting on more intense surveillance. Still others want immigrants to commit them­selves to speaking English.

Immigrants have been a controversial issue ever since the beginning of the United States of America. They were obviously useful, fill­ing up the Western lands with white settlers and providing cheap labor for burgeoning industry. But they also were a problem. The self-image of America was tied up with being a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation. Hordes of Catholics and Jews, Eastern Europeans and Southern Europeans, threatened the cultural and ethnic unity of the American people. In the middle of the nineteenth century a power­ful new political party (the American Party) emerged on the political scene to demand an end to immigration.

The issue of “foreigners” was aggravated by the presence in America of a large “unassimilable” population of African slaves. Even for millions of Americans who were opposed to slavery, the thought of a future America filled with free blacks was not an attractive vision. Many abolitionists preferred the “re­turn” of blacks to their African homeland, feeling that African-American race and culture posed a danger to a homogeneous nation. To these white Americans diversity had its limits if the nation was to continue a nation. Lincoln, early in his political career, advocated this “return” program.

The victory of the North in the Civil War subverted the power of the nativists. The Yan­kees were committed to the industrialization of America. This transformation was possible only with the availability of vast reservoirs of cheap labor. Whatever ethnic reservations the Yankee elite had about foreigners, no anxiety could effectively resist the prospect of becoming rich. America opened its doors to millions of immigrants seeking a better life. The only restriction was that immigrants had to be white. Europeans were welcomed, but Asians were discouraged – and sometimes barred from entering.

America was irreversibly changed by the massive entry of new immigrants after 1865. The first wave of Irish and Germans was fol­lowed by the second wave of Italians, Slavs, and Ashkenazic Jews. Catholics became the majority in dozens of American cities. Eth­nic ghettos transformed the urban landscape and replaced the old with a new diversity. A shrinking rural America remained the heart­land of Anglo-Saxon culture. But it was van­ishing in many places and losing political power. Public schools softened the blow of change. They turned white immigrants into English-speaking imitations of the original Anglo-Saxon American. But the imitation was never quite the same as the original.

Again the nativists rallied. After the First World War, in 1924, they closed the doors to immigration. Only a small number of north­western Europeans were allowed to enter. This xenophobia was accompanied by the absurd episode of Prohibition, a silly attempt to preserve Anglo-Saxon virtue with an attack on the “alcoholic” culture of Catholics and other immigrants. Prohibition failed. And so did the nativist campaign to keep America white and Anglo-Saxon.

The relentless demand for new cheap labor prevailed over the racism of the nativ­ists. With the end of the Depression and with the coming of the new prosperity of postwar America, immigration revived. The Cold War cut off the access to the remaining pools of poor people in Eastern Europe. Two new groups arrived on the immigration scene to replace white recruits. Asians and Hispanics constituted the majority of the new arrivals. And all this racial change was preceded by a massive internal immigration, the transfer of millions of African-Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North.

While Asians tended to enter the middle class through their educational achievement and entrepreneurial skills, Hispanics became the new menial labor of America. From cherry pickers to construction workers, they filled the vacuum left by traditional white workers climbing into the middle class. Although the label Hispanic designates their language, it fails to designate their race. Hispanics are not Spanish. They are mestizo descendants of Amerindians (Mexicans). They are mulatto offspring of Latin American blacks (Puerto Ricans). They are an assault on the white self- image of old America.

Latin American poverty and rising expec­tation triggered a mass exodus of Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorians, Nicaraguans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, Brazilians, and Do­minicans from their homelands. “Gringoland” was the place of economic opportunity. Be­cause U.S. immigration laws were unfriendly to unskilled labor, millions of Hispanics chose to cross the American border illegally. Today ten million people in the United States are illegal Hispanic immigrants.[1] While they perform useful work, they also impose heavy burdens on public education and public wel­fare. Their persistence in retaining Spanish threatens the English-speaking self-image of other Americans. And their non-white racial characteristics threaten the vision of America as a predominantly white nation. We all know that if ten million Swedes were “swimming” across the Rio Grande illegally, the nativists would not be up in arms.

Driving out ten million illegal Hispanics is not politically possible. Big business and small business need their cheap labor. And legal Hispanics are a large minority with formidable voting power, especially in states like Texas and California. The Republican Party, the historic home of nativist sentiment, is hope­lessly divided on this issue. The economic conservatives want to legalize the illegals and to provide for the entry of thousands of guest workers. The social conservatives want to drive out the illegals and to preserve the his­torical culture and racial character of America, no matter what the economic consequences. President George W. Bush has sided with the economic conservatives. But his Religious Right allies oppose him on this issue.

What is going to happen? Will the contro­versy irreparably harm the Republican Party? Will Hispanics be deported? Will a wall of ex­clusion be built along the Mexican border?

Realism provides the answers. The Ameri­can economy needs cheap menial labor. The Hispanics remain the only available labor pool to service this need. A Republican determina­tion to hold back the Hispanic tide will drive the Hispanics completely into the Democratic camp. The prevailing birth rates indicate that within fifty years the majority of Americans will not be white. While English will remain the world language, English in America will increasingly share space with Spanish. (In a global world, bilingualism is an asset, not a catastrophe.) America, like all the other countries in the developed world, is becoming a multicultural state. Anglo-Saxon America is fading away. Asians and Hispanics are on the rise.

Realism dictates that we make it easy for Hispanics to enter the United States. We need menial workers as well as well-educated immi­grants. The present illegals should be legalized. Future illegals should be punished. The flow of temporary and permanent Hispanic residents needs an open door, not a closed one.


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.

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.

Cremation

Death and Dying – Summer 1989

To cremate or not to cremate. That is a controversial question in the Jewish world.

Cremation is forbidden by the rabbinic tradition. The burning of the body is viewed with horror. Burial is the only legitimate way of dealing with the corpse.

The tradition prescribes not only burial, but burial on the same day as death, burial in shrouds, burial without embalming, and burial without a coffin.

In the Bible, burning is viewed as a form of humiliation and punishment. “If a man marries a woman and her mother it is depravity; both he and they shall be put to the fire” (Leviticus 20:14). “When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father she defiles; she shall be put to the fire” (Leviticus 21:9). “He that is indicated for proscription and all that is his shall be put to the fire” (Judges 7:15).

In the Mishnah, cremation is identified as an idolatrous practice (Avoda Zara 1:3). Even the burning of sinners is discontinued, though this form of punishment is still regarded as legal.

Why is cremation forbidden?

The official reason is provided in the Shulkhan Arukh, the sixteenth century code book prepared by Joseph Caro. The prohibi­tion of cremation is justified by the resurrec­tion of the dead. Rabbinic Judaism main­tains that a final Judgment Day will take place and that the dead will rise from their graves to stand before the justice of God. No body means no resurrection. And no resur­rection means no access to Paradise.

However, this official reason seems to be a rationalization, an ideological after­thought, rather than the real historic motiva­tion. The prohibition against cremation preceded the emergence of the resurrection idea. And the assertion that no body means no resurrection seems silly when one realizes what happens to the corpse after burial, especially without embalming. Time reduces the body to a dust that is almost in­distinguishable from the ashes of burning. Moreover, if the resurrection idea were true, wicked people could avoid the punishments of Gehenna by simply choosing cremation.

Anthropologists tell us that early cultures are divided into burial groups and crema­tion groups. Both dispositions of the dead seem to be equally ancient, with their roots deep in the behaviors and beliefs of the Stone Age.

Inhumation, or burial, seems to derive from a belief that the souls of the dead con­tinue to reside in their respective bodies and cannot successfully survive without this at­tachment. The preservation of the body assists in the preservation of the soul. The embalmed Egyptian dead are an exagger­ated testimony to this belief, as are the tombs filled with material possessions for the afterlife. Cremation, on the other hand, follows from an opposing conviction that the souls of the dead do not depend on the body for their continued existence. The destruction of the body in no way adversely affects the welfare of the soul. In fact, it may be liberating.

Another motivation for cremation is the belief that corpses are a source of defile­ment and dangerous to keep, even in a buried condition. Still another belief main­tains that fire is sacred and therefore purifying.

Many famous cultures featured crema­tion. In ancient Greece and Rome, much of the aristocracy chose burning. In India, cremation became the universal ritual of death and has remained deeply identified with Hinduism. Buddhism followed suit and planted this Indian practice in In­dochina and Japan.

In the West, the triumph of Christianity and Islam, both anti-cremation religions, made cremation a ritual taboo. Burning bodies was a no-no for orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Only criminals or apos­tates deserved the indignity of immolation.

But the arrival of the Enlightenment undermined this solid front of opposition. In the age of science, believing in the resur­rection of the dead was difficult even for Christians and Jews who tried to be loyal to ancestral tradition. Reason challenged the unconscious fears of many religionists. By the nineteenth century, immortality had be­come so ethereal that bodies seemed quite irrelevant to the project of eternal life. Romantic spirituality had no need for the physical. Enlightened religion was open to alternatives to burial.

This development was reinforced by new social realities. As long as people lived on farms, burial was easy and cheap. But city life added complications. Death specialists in the form of morticians and funeral chapels now intervened. Affluence and con­spicuous consumption made rituals and ceremonies more elaborate. What was once simple and inexpensive now became com­plex and costly. Burial involved a lot of money and a lot of time.

Overcrowding and mobility added to the problems. In an uncrowded world, giving land to the dead was no imposition. But in densely populated centers, cemeteries com­peted with the demands of the living for the rational use of scarce land. In the stationary world of farm life, the graves of ancestors could be revered and cared for by genera­tions of descendants. But in the fast-moving milieu of urban displacement, people hardly stay in one place long enough even to re­member where their ancestors are buried. Within two generations, graves are abandoned.

The consequence of all these changes was the emergence of an interest in crema­tion. In the 1870s, cremation societies were established in England and North America. Although religious opposition was strong and vocal, they continued to grow and flourish. An increasingly secular society now found what was once abhorrent ra­tionally attractive. Even many “spiritual” people chose cremation as an expression of their new, free religious commitments. By the middle of the twentieth century, in­cineration had become a major choice in northern Europe and in the antireligious regimes of the Soviet Union, its satellites, and China. In both Russia and China, the reversal was dramatic and revolutionary. Both nations had been deeply involved with the sacredness of burial. But ideology and necessity combined to produce a quick transformation.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Jews in Western Europe and North America followed the new fashion. Influenced by science and secularism, they found crema­tion an appropriate choice. In North America, cremation became so popular among liberal Jews that the Reform rab­binate, defying tradition, legitimized its use. Even Modern Orthodox rabbis — Hermann Adler in England and Zadoc Kahn in France — conceded “burial” rights to the ashes of Jews in Jewish cemeteries.

The influx of Polish and Russian immi­grants into Western countries dampened the new enthusiasm. Even the radicals among them retained a traditional prefer­ence for burial. And this traditionalism was reinforced by the events of the Holocaust. Cremation became associated, in many Jewish minds, with the horrors of Nazi bestiality. Even today, among secularists in Israel, cremation is an inconceivable option for Jews.

But cremation remains an important op­tion for Jews outside of Israel. A significant and growing minority are choosing it for themselves. For humanistic Jews like me who prefer cremation, the choice is gener­ally based on the following considerations:

  1.  Death is final. No significant part of the human personality continues to reside in the remains of the body. The preservation of the body through embalming is a meaning­less expense. Without embalming, the body will disintegrate in a short while into substances equivalent to ashes. Cremation is the affirmation of human mortality.
  2.  The monies expended on burial can be used more productively for the living. The best tribute to the dead is the support of pro­grams, causes, and institutions that were important to them while they were alive.
  3.  Where reason and tradition conflict, reason has a right to override. Both laws and customs ought to be responsive to human needs and human welfare.
  4.  The Holocaust is irrelevant to this issue. The extermination campaigns of the Nazis were as much associated with mass burials as with mass cremations. In both cases cruelty and indignity accompanied dying and disposal. Where there is love and respect, cremation, like burial, provides a setting of dignity.

If you choose cremation for yourself, you will need to deal with certain problems.

Your family may be strongly opposed to cremation and may resist carrying out your wishes. It is very important to be very ex­plicit with your spouse, your children, and your siblings. They should know in advance how you feel. You have a right to be the master of your own death. Written state­ments entrusted to your family and to your lawyer will reinforce your spoken desire. Since your family are the legal owners of your body after your death, their coopera­tion is indispensable. Refusing to discuss the matter before you die will leave your family open to manipulation by hostile funeral directors, rabbis, and relatives. Even families open to cremation will choose burial unless you say otherwise. The inertia of tradition has power.

Getting your body to the crematorium may not be as easy as you imagine. In most states and provinces, because of the lobby­ing of funeral directors, a coffin is required for cremation. The best procedure to follow is to contact a sympathetic funeral home or memorial society before you are too ill to act. In some states, cremation societies offer cremation services at moderate costs. If a sudden catastrophe occurs, your family will have to act on your behalf. Make sure that you tell them what to do, while you are still healthy, so that they will not deviate from your desire.

Many people who choose to be cremated also choose to donate their bodies to medical research. After the body has been appropriately studied, it is usually burned. The time to make arrangements for this donation with an appropriate medical school or medical institution is while you are still able to.

Your memorial service (whether public or private, whether formal or informal) generally follows the cremation at a time convenient for your family and friends. The place can be a temple, a funeral chapel, your own home, or a setting — indoors or outdoors — significant in your life. If you have any preference, you ought to indicate it while you are still alive. If you want the service to precede the cremation, then pro­vision has to be made for the presence of the coffin.

In most states, disposing of ashes by scat­tering (the choice of most people) is illegal for obvious sanitary reasons. Despite these legal prohibitions, many families choose to scatter the ashes of loved ones clandestinely in lakes, rivers, fields, and woods. The legal options are 1) retaining them in an unburied urn, 2) placing them in a mausoleum niche, 3) burying them in a cemetery plot, or 4) burying them in a memorial garden with no distinct plots. Many liberal religious organi­zations now set aside an area on their con­gregational grounds for a memorial garden where “cremains” may be legally buried. Quite often a memorial wall accompanies the garden. Names of the dead are inscribed on the wall.

Cremation is a legitimate and appropri­ate option for humanistic Jews. Since it is nontraditional and arouses hostility among many Jews, a special effort is required by both you and your family — if cremation is your choice — to guarantee your option. Discussing death after death is a humanistic impossibility. You have to make your ar­rangements beforehand.

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.

Assisted Suicide: Ethical Issues

Aid in Dying Autumn 1996

Do people have the right to terminate their lives in the face of painful and humiliating ill­ness? Does a victim of cancer, multiple sclero­sis, or creeping paralysis have the right to end intolerable suffering? Do they have the right to receive medical assistance to ensure that suicide is successful and relatively painless?

These issues are now absorbing the atten­tion of the Western world. Dr. Jack Kevorkian has boldly defied Michigan authorities to stop him from assisting those who ask him for help. Some people admire his intentions and his tactics. Some despise both. Some approve of assisted suicide but are wary of his tactics.

Very recently the Northern Territories in Australia authorized medically assisted sui­cide — the first political entity to do so. (Hol­land forbids it by law but allows it by refusal to enforce the law.) The first “customer” in Australia has already been served. Public opinion in most Western countries supports this development.

But is it ethical? Does Humanistic Juda­ism justify such behavior?

Suicide — any kind of suicide — is for­bidden by rabbinic Judaism. Life belongs to God. Only he can authorize killing. He has authorized the killing of enemies, infidels, and apostates; but he has not authorized kill­ing oneself.

In authoritarian systems, no reason need be provided. But priests, prophets, rabbis and theologians often feel uncomfortable with such a naked and dismissive form of author­ity. They search for reasons to justify what appears to be arbitrary. In the case of suicide they appeal to the virtue of suffering. In a sin­ful world, suffering is the perfect repentance. Since sin is unavoidable, suffering is also unavoidable. Given the almost infinite possi­bilities for sinning, there can never be too much suffering. Killing oneself does not ulti­mately end pain or anguish anyway. Beyond the grave is eternal suffering for the wicked. You might as well suffer now as suffer later.

Of course, there are circumstances under which it is mandatory to allow others to kill you — a form of passive suicide. If you are being compelled under threat of death to wor­ship gods other than Yahveh, or to commit incest, then death is preferable. But the ac­tual killing is done by your enemies, not your­self. Killing yourself to avoid pain or humiliation is not a “kosher” alternative, nor is hav­ing someone else kill you for such a reason. The martyrs of Masada, who killed themselves rather than fall into the hands of the Romans, might be construed as being avoiders of forced idolatry; and the martyrs of the Christian Middle Ages were clearly defenders of the faith. They chose to die for one of the two available legitimate reasons. Refusing to sur­render to the sinful demands of enemies was not really suicide; terminating your life as an act of kindness to yourself was.

There is no legitimate — or devious — way of extracting approval for assisted sui­cide from rabbinic Judaism. It is as futile as seeking a vague endorsement of homosexual­ity. But in an aging population beset by de­bilitating illnesses, the right to end irrevers­ible suffering is an unavoidable ethical issue. The halakhic rabbis may say no; but Human­istic Jews do not have to accept their moral judgment, especially if we have come to be­lieve that their judgment is not moral.

Humanistic Judaism does not derive its ethics from rabbinic Judaism. It derives its eth­ics from human needs bumping into the real world. Food, shelter, and sex are bodily needs. Long-run survival, happiness, and dignity are equally important. When life can offer neither dignity nor happiness, survival loses all ethi­cal meaning. To survive merely in order to sur­vive makes no humanistic sense unless there is some modicum of pleasure and dignity. Even if there is a God and he wants us to suffer for the sake of suffering, his demand is illegitimate. Humanistic Judaism does not find relentless pain either therapeutic or romantic.

Ever since the Enlightenment, the right to happiness and the value of personal au­tonomy have been celebrated in much of the Jewish world. They reflect the importance most contemporary Jews place on the ability to choose the course of one’s life. When that control vanishes, the value of life is called into question. It is simply not rational for people to endure the humiliation of helplessness when that humiliation is avoidable and when there are compassionate experts available to offer relief.

Most public opinion in North America supports assisted suicide, with appropriate safeguards, in the case of terminal illness. The appropriate safeguards are three: (1) The dy­ing person should choose assisted suicide in the presence of reputable witnesses; (2) his or her physician should verify that the patient is suffering from a terminal illness; and (3) a psychiatrist or psychologist should verify that the dying person is sane and not momentarily depressed. (Of course, being depressed when you are dying is rational!) This right, with these safeguards, should be incorporated into legislation. The rule of law should replace the rule of Kevorkian.

What about intolerable chronic illness? What about paraplegics and handicapped people, emphysemics and organ defectives, who find life not worth living? Should they have the right to assisted suicide? I think the humanistic principles of dignity and happi­ness give them that right; but it is not wise to press for it now, since public opinion does not yet widely support it. The rights of the terminally ill will be lost if we ask for too much too soon.

What about depressed people who find no meaning in existence? The humanistic answer to them is no. Although they have no happiness, as long as they are mobile and without physical restraint they retain the pos­sibility of dignity.

There is no “slippery slope” if safeguards are provided. What exists now is useless pain. It is time for reason and compassion to replace reverence for suffering. Where human dignity is at stake, old laws must yield, and new laws must be created to defend it.

Ethical Guidelines

Humanistic Judaism Anthology – Spring, 1986

An adequate philosophy of life provides two guides. The first is a description of reality. The second is a prescription for how to respond to reality. The first con­cerns itself with what is. The second con­cerns itself with what ought to be. The first is called metaphysics. The second is called ethics.

Ethics is concerned with human be­havior. Applying moral judgments to the actions of animal behavior is inappropri­ate. Where self-awareness is absent, the only value judgment that is fitting is aesthetic.

Although metaphysics covers a much wider area of reality than ethics, it is not as compelling. Being human, we see things from the human perspective. And from the human perspective, nothing is more important than making decisions about our behavior.

If I am a humanist, I make ethical deci­sions in the context of the following restrictions and acknowledgments.

I refuse to accept the legitimacy of au­thoritarian demands. No behavior is right simply because some important person says that it is right. Neither God nor Moses can make an action ethical by his endorsement. Right and wrong do not derive from the authors of rules. They are a function of the consequences of behavior. Right behavior produces good consequences. Wrong behavior produces bad consequences.

I relate good and bad to basic human needs. Right action satisfies human needs. Wrong action frustrates human needs in some fundamental way. A morality that is indifferent to human survival, human pleasure, and human dignity is no morali­ty at all. It is a morality without human motivation and, therefore, irrelevant.

I acknowledge that human needs are not always compatible. We cannot always pursue our survival needs, our pleasure needs, and our dignity needs simultan­eously. Eating sweets to my heart’s content may enhance my pleasure. But it may destroy my life. Betraying my friends to the enemy may spare my life. But it will compromise my dignity. This “dishar­mony” is intrinsic to the human condition and defines the agony of moral decisions.

I recognize that, because of this dishar­mony of needs, there is also a disharmony of ethical demands. Morality is not a neat and orderly set of rules that fit comfor­tably one into the other. If I choose dignity as my primary need and my primary value, as I believe most humanists do, I do so with the full awareness that survival and pleasure are also morally compelling. Since dignity is related to our vision of the ideal ruler, and self-rule is an axiom of hu­manism, it seems to have the edge. But the edge, as we know from experience, is not always wide and secure.

I am good-humored enough to admit that ethical rules are not absolute guide­lines dropped to earth by some infallible heavenly commander. They are useful summaries of past wisdom. If I wish to teach people (especially children) how to defend their dignity and the dignity of others, I need to convey the experience of the past in the easiest possible way. Rules, or operating principles, serve that pur­pose. Since they are too brief to be all- inclusive, they are bound to have excep­tions. Telling all the truth to a dumb and ugly person may not be the best way to protect his dignity.

I acknowledge that it is impossible to motivate people to satisfy needs that are not their own. Parents nurture children and friends help friends because they un­consciously do not distinguish between their own needs and the needs of their families and loved ones. Human drives are individual. And so are satisfactions. Phrases like “the general will” or “the general welfare” conjure up social monsters that do not really exist. An effec­tive ethic is able to motivate the individual to serve the needs of others as though they were his very own.

I recognize that there are few actions in which an individual may choose to in­dulge that do not affect the lives of others. The famous liberal prescription that grants the individual the right to be the total master of his life in those areas of his existence that do not touch the interests of others sounds good on paper. But it does not work very well in reality. In an over­crowded world, almost every personal ac­tivity involves somebody else. Sex, the col­or of one’s house, smoking, and the noise level of one’s stereo are “private” activi­ties that have social consequences. Even the failure to take care of one’s own health may create an intolerable social burden.

I refuse to make behavioral demands on myself and other people that we are, by nature, unable to fulfill. Asking people to dismiss all anger, hate, and jealousy — dis­positions intrinsic to human nature — is an exercise in futility. There is a human nature. The human potential is not unlim­ited. Nor is the human personality infi­nitely malleable. To dismiss what is not dismissable is to program human beings for failure. Morality is not always easy. But it is attached to realizable goals. A ra­tional ethic may tame anger, hate, and jealousy in the same way that it tames love. However, it does not seek to arrange what reality cannot arrange.

For most humanists, the criterion of dignity becomes the ultimate arbiter in moral decision making.

I make a distinction between behavior and motivation. Some people are devotees of the cult of intentions. They are always concerned with why people do what they do. They are absorbed with inner thoughts and feelings over which the individual has absolutely no control. If love is primarily a feeling, it is absurd to demand it. If love is a behavior, it is something we can choose to do, even if we do not feel like it. Most ethical people have large amounts of anti­social thoughts and feelings. For that reason, morality requires a great deal of discipline. In the end, from the ethical point of view, people are their behavior.

I recognize that moral intuition (or con­science) is, in reality, a form of uncon­scious reasoning in which the conse­quences of my behavior are tested by memory. I may tell the truth because my conscience tells me to. But what appears on the surface to be a dogmatic rule may not be dogmatic at all. It may be derived from human experience. A society in which people cannot trust each other to tell the truth will not long endure.

I am fully aware that there is no such thing as Jewish ethics. As an ethnic group, Jews have exhibited a wide variety of moral attitudes. The Jewish Defense League can find as many Biblical and Talmudic quotations to support its posi­tion as can Peace Now. Since a Jewish humanist has to be selective about which historic Jewish advice to accept, there must be a higher, more universal criterion by which he renders judgment. A Jewish humanist and a Gentile humanist have more in common ethically than a Jewish humanist and a Hasid. What binds all Jews together is a shared ethnic and na­tional experience.

Humanistic Jews view this history differently from traditional Jews. Traditional Jews look at Jewish history and find support for the virtue of trusting in God. Humanistic Jews look at Jewish history and find (especially after the Holocaust and despite all the contrary Biblical and Talmudic quotations] the moral necessity for human self-reliance.

A personal ethics for Jewish humanists requires just as much self-discipline (if not more) than traditional morality. The vi­sion of a strong, self-reliant, trustworthy, generous person, who strives to remain consistent in the face of an absurd universe, is quite different from the ideal of a humble, obedient servant who relies on the justice of destiny. That vision is the ultimate guideline for humanist decision making.

Political Antisemitism

TJH May_June 1996, vo. XXX11, number 10.

“Political Antisemitism” 

Holocaust Day has a special significance in this election year. Political antisemitism is abroad in the Republican Party.  

Modern anti-Semitism is different from traditional anti-Judaism. Traditional hostility to the Jews is primarily directed to the religion of the Jews. Economic and racial themes are secondary. Modern antisemitism is primarily directed to the “race” and economic role of the Jews. Religious ideas are secondary. Neither Hitler nor Coughlin was interested in Judaism. They were obsessed by Jews. 

Capitalism is the most popular of available economic systems. It is responsible for wealth, technological development and rising standards of living. But it also produces decaying families, violent cities and unemployment. Relentless competition produces both winners and losers. For the winners the system is the best of all possible worlds. For the losers the system appears uncaring and heartless. It takes only a little paranoia to turn that accusation into antisemitism. The world of money becomes the world of the Jews and the world of money is the evil oppressor of the innocent patriot. 

Hitler did not invent modern antisemitism. The change, uncertainty, expectations and trauma of capitalism did. The very system that fostered the prosperity and the liberation of the Jews also spawned their most vicious enemy.  

Antisemitism will not go away so long as economic anxiety remains. It is a chronic disease of an urban, anonymous, detribalized, and money-centered world. When the economy is strong it is tolerable. When the economy goes bad it becomes intolerable. Right now technology, automation and thinking machines are wreaking havoc with the lives and employment of millions of workers and middle-class people. Most young people are pessimistic not optimistic about their economic future. Industrial workers, blacks and Hispanics, are feeling abandoned and resentful. Jews become the personification of all the forces they fear and do not control.  

Modern anti-Semitism comes in two forms. The mild form is social antisemitism. This hostility excludes Jews from social intercourse with non-Jews, especially the power elite. While social antisemitism is morally deplorable, it is easily handled. Jews simply create and perpetuate the familiar institutions which enable them to socialize with each other.  

The virulent form is political antisemitism. This antagonism seeks to seize political power and to use that power to deprive Jews of their status, property and lives. Political antisemitism is what the deadly virus of European Jew-hatred was all about. From Dreyfus to the Holocaust it was driven by a vision of the “Jewish Peril” that justified expulsion and extermination. Often political antisemitism starts off with mild rebukes and develops, through economic turmoil, to broad programs of oppression.  

Political antisemitism features political leaders, politicians eager to use hostility to Jews as a vehicle to power.  

Many European leaders chose this path. In America, there was very little political antisemitism until the First World War. 

In the Twenties Henry Ford publicized the vicious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the Depression Thirties, Charles Coughlin preached a message of hate for capitalism, communism and Jews. The Second World War and economic prosperity terminated this threat. 

But, of course, the troubled Nineties has revived it. Pat Buchanan has arrived on the Republican stage to denounce Wall Street, the brokers of the money world, foreign exploiters, corporate greed and the inordinate power of Israel and the Jews over American life.  

Of course, his voice is a minority voice. Of course he will not be the Republican nominee. But it is also true that the Republican leadership has not openly repudiated him for his public hostility to Jewish influence. His position is very much the same as that of Louis Farrakhan in the Black world. He disparages the Jews. He courts racist supporters. And he knows that he is immune to expulsion. He has too many powerful devotees. Pleasing the Jews is less important than hanging on to any potential voter.  

I do not imagine that the economic future of America will allow the triumph of either fascism or political antisemitism. I do not believe that either Dole or the mainstream leaders of the Republican party or anything but embarrassed by the public rantings of Pat Buchanan. But I will not support a political party whose leadership refuses to condemn this voice of hatred.  

(Just as I will not condone the authority of Black leadership that fears to confront Farrakhan.) 

The poor, the oppressed and economic “losers” of the world deserve our sympathy and help. But they are not necessarily the moral voices of humanity. If sufficiently provoked, they will embrace ideologies that will produce political repression. America and the world of economic change are vulnerable to self-destructive voices. Right now, Buchanan, despite Dole’s victory, is a dangerous voice of the evil.  

Jewish votes should not support any political party that does not condemned the purveyors of antisemitism in its midst 

Purim and Haman Make Us Think Of Antisemitism

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

Purim and Haman make us think of antisemitism.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does it all mean? 

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

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

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

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

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