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.

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.

The Rabbi Writes – An Excerpt from “Staying Sane in a Crazy World”

The Jewish Humanist, March 1996, Vol. XXXII, Number 8

A crazy world is a world without a moral order.  A moral order is different from a physical order. Laws of nature are part of the physical order. But the laws of nature have no moral agenda. The law of gravity is as willing to cooperate with good people as with bad people. It will allow food supplies to be dropped to needy refugees. It will, just as easily, permit evil men to throw innocent victims off of parapets. 

A meaningful world is more than an orderly world. The universe of modern science is an orderly universe. But its order grinds on with no apparent concern for the victims of its relentless march. Earthquakes rumble, volcanoes erupt, floods pour over their riverbanks, all them sweeping their human debris into the path of destruction. This reoccuring Holocaust is the result of a natural order which has natural and irresistible causes with natural, irresistible and inevitable consequences. But it lacks the kind of order that gives the universe meaning.  

Sadists are orderly. But a sadistic universe is not the kind of world we want to live in. We want to live in a world governed by moral law, a world in which everything that happens, happens for the good.  We want to live in a universe in which the powers that govern and control our destiny are neither malicious nor cruel. Simply knowing that they are orderly is little comfort at all.  

Geologists can demonstrate that the eruption of Pinatubo in the Philippines was inevitable and unavoidable. But what comfort is that to the young mother of four children who lost them in all the deadly ash.  Meteorologists can explain why the expansion of the Sahara is the natural consequence of predictable climate change. But what consolation is that to a hardworking farmer and family member who has lost his only means of substance because of the drought? Air traffic controllers can estimate that there will be a certain percentage of fatal airplane crashes during a given year. But what kind of answer to a grieving mother who has lost her only child in a freak air disaster? Kismet only works if Allah has some good moral reason for doing to you what he does. 

Understanding why something terrible happens does not make what happens morally more tolerable. Knowing that Hitler was an abused child and that abused children can turn into murderers does not make the Holocaust less horrible. Becoming aware that criminally assaulted males may suffer from some malformations of the genes does not make their crimes against innocent victims morally more acceptable. Excusing them does not excuse the universe. A just universe would not allow such things to happen. It either would never have arranged to produce such aggressors, or it would have arranged to separate them from their victims. From a moral perspective, the order of the universe can definitely be improved. 

As long as we experience the world as unfair, and most of us do at some time or other, we also experience the world as “crazy.”  

CRUELTY 

A crazy world is a world that “teases.” It fills us with very intense desires and never allows us to fully satisfy them.  

The strongest human desire is the desire to live. The struggle for survival, whether our own personal one or that of the people we love is often relentless and sometimes bitter.  Around every corner we are confronted by the eternal enemy, the specter of death. There is a fundamental cruelty in a universe that fills us with the passion for life and simultaneously endows us with the inevitability of dying.  Contrary to the cliches, death does not become easier and less frightening with age.. It is often more painful because we are filled with regret for all that we failed to do and for all that we failed to see.  When there is no longer any hope of recouping our losses, expiring is no great comfort. Certainly, desiring death as an alternative to excruciating pain or to humiliating feebleness is little consolation. The universe could have arranged for no death at all or for dying to be easier. 

There’s so many things you want to do and experience. And there is never enough time to satisfy our desires. By the time we understand our mistakes it is often too late to correct them. By the time we are wise enough to appreciate the good things in life, we are too old to take advantage of them. By the time we discover who we really are, we begin to fall apart. It is true that youth is wasted on the young. But that truth precisely dramatizes the cruelty of the world. Reality does not fit our desires. Death mocs our passions. A crazy world is a world where desire is too strong, time is too short, aging is too relentless and death is too eager.  Sometimes the universe appears to be a bad joke. 

DISAPPOINTMENT 

A crazy world is a world where the best laid plans come to naught, where the finest of our labors turns out to be disappointingly different from what we imagined it would be.  After all, the good life is anticipation, looking forward to good things.  We love surprises, especially when they relieve the routine of daily living.  But we do not love surprises when they shatter dreams and hopes, when they turn the fragile order of our existence into chaos. 

What we want most out of life is to have a sense of control over what happens to us.  We want to feel that the world we live in is not chaotic, that the future is predictable, that there are certain guarantees which support our right to happiness.  No feeling is worse than feeling totally out of control, the victim of the passing whims of the world.  Pursuing success is too hard to have it summarily dismissed by a careless universe.  So much of our early childhood is devoted to convincing us that effort and determination are worthwhile, that they produce positive results, that they are justified by the success they bring. 

Losing control may make us feel crazy.  It can also make us feel that the world is crazy.  Unexpected surprises undermine our sense of security and order.  Indeed, the universe may be governed by laws that determine every event that happens, even the smallest and most insignificant event. 

Indeed, some complex underlying order may account for the trauma we are presently experiencing.  But that order is not something we can feel.  All we know is that the order which we sought to bring to our lives has collapsed, and the world seems chaotic and crazy.  We have lost control of our lives.  And for us that is disorder. 

Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, echoing the German philosopher Leibniz, maintained that this world was the best of all possible words.  Even the Lisbon earthquake could not shake his faith.  For him the human condition was a joint condition and this universe a just universe. 

But what if we cannot believe that?  What if we experience the world as not the best of all possible worlds?  What if we experience the universe as a slightly or extravagantly “crazy” place?  How do we cope? 

An excerpt from the new book by Sherwin Wine, Staying Sane in a Crazy World

The New Egalitarianism and the Death of Deference

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1984, Vol. XII, Number III

The family isn’t what it used to be. Almost every social commentator has noticed that fact. 

The traditional family was a survival and reproduction unit. It provided food, shelter and protection to every individual member. It also demanded work, cooperation and loyalty. Virtually all important social activities were encompassed by it. Education, entertainment, friendship, and religion were usually conducted within its walls. 

The structure of the traditional family was authoritarian; the male chauvinist father was the ruler and demanded obedience. If wives and children exercised power, they did so deviously, never openly admitting to the privileges they enjoyed. 

As a social reality, the family was universal. From England to China, from Norway to Timbuktu, in a world of pastoral nomads in agricultural villages, the family dominated. Outside the family, the individual had no real opportunities for survival and safety. 

Urban industrial society has changed all that. And it continues to undermine the foundations on which the traditional family rests. 

The urban environment deprives the family of its major functions. Work, leisure, education and entertainment all take place outside the home. The most efficient unit of labor in the industrial world is no longer the cumbersome extended family. It is the mobile individual free of ties to spouse and children. 

The urban environment also provides alternatives to family protection. The emergence of the welfare state, with its myriad agencies and clinics offers another way to deal with poverty and disease. When the family cannot or will not help, the government will. 

In the urban world, children have a negative economic value. Unlike farm children, who provide free labor to their parents (as well as old age security), city children are parasitic and costly. When they grow up, they leave home and are not readily available to take care of their aging parents. Instead of being a workplace and social center, the urban home is a dormitory, and disappointed parents discover that they are merely caretakers. 

In the urban world, education is no longer short and pragmatic. It is long and theoretical. The consequence of the new schooling is an increasing self – awareness, which questions traditional authority and heightens individual identity. 

In an advanced industrial society, the emphasis on work shifts to an emphasis on consumption.  Affluence breeds at consumer culture. Increased leisure affords the individual the time to think about personal satisfaction and personal happiness. Duty and responsibility become less important than discovering the requirements for self – fulfillment. 

The New Egalitarian 

The post-agricultural world undermines the old authoritarian structures and sponsors an environment of greater social equality. 

Money and education replace land and pedigree as the vehicles to success. For the ambitious, social climbing is easier than under the old system. Earning and learning are easier to arrange than having the right ancestors. 

Mobility gives people more options than ever before. If one boss is no longer satisfactory, another can be found. Where bosses are transient, they tend to be treated with less respect. 

Affluence rescues the majority from the struggle for survival and allows them time to pursue the good life. Leisure skills which were, at one time, confined to the small minority of the rich and powerful now become universal. The middle class replaces the lower class as the dominant chunk of contemporary society. The upper class struggles to keep its lifestyle one step ahead of the masses 

Family behavior patterns have changed.  Husbands and fathers are less authoritative. Wives and children are more assertive. 

Work opportunities for women reduce their dependence on their husbands and make them less deferent. Female liberation reflects female economic power. Women who are free to provide for themselves find husbands less intimidating.  

Science discredits the wisdom and the knowledge of the old. What is more vulnerable is no longer necessarily truer. In fact, new discoveries and new evidence may make the young wiser than their parents. Under these circumstances the authority of elders vanishes. 

The decline of religion in a secular age produces a decline in worshipful behavior. As displays of reverence to the gods fade away, so does reverent behavior toward human authorities. 

The anonymity of the big city removes the surveillance of familiars. The disapproval of strangers is not as effective in restraining provocative behavior as the disapproval of long-time neighbors. 

The consequence of all these changes is a change in family behavior patterns. Husbands and fathers present themselves in a less authoritative way. Wives and children have become more assertive.  

Personal autonomy is… an earned privilege. Children need parents who prepare them for responsibility.  

Under the traditional system, husbands and fathers strove to be intimidating. Wives and children were deferential. This difference was expressed in three ways. The first way was use of a special language of courteous appeasement. Lavish praise and gestures of subordination defined its style. The second way was obedience. The master’s commands were seen as legitimate and irresistible. No public challenge was appropriate. The third way was service. Subordinates expressed concern about the needs of the master and sought to satisfy them. In many ways, the behavior of wives and children was indistinguishable that of servants. 

To say the least, that sort of behavior is now a dim memory in egalitarian America. 

Egalitarian Behavior 

The most startling sign of the revolution in family life is the death of deference. Children now talk to parents and teachers in a way that would have earned them public execution only a few centuries ago 

The following scenes have become commonplace:  

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All this new behavior arouses ambivalent feelings in liberal parents. They are dismayed and humiliated by their loss of authority. But they find themselves prisoners of the fashionable new realities (often labeled “humanistic”) which justify this behavior. 

The new egalitarianism is supported by new doctrines that inhibit parents from behaving like effective authorities. The most important of these doctrines is the affirmation of personal autonomy. 

In its absolute form, the principle of personal autonomy guarantees each person the right to be the master of his own life.. All people are equal in authority. No one can justly dominate or control another. Nor, if he wished to retain his dignity, can he allow himself to be dominated or controlled. The right to command is replaced by the right to suggest. 

With such a doctrine, the old hierarchy collapses. Not only do wives no longer have the obligation to submit to the authority of their husbands, but children no longer have the duty to heed the commands of their parents. Children resist conformity to the expectations of their elders. Rebellion becomes an expected part of growing up and turning into a successful human being. 

Liberal parents who embrace the value of personal autonomy move from a posture of command to the more egalitarian one of discussion. The language of deference disappears. Reverence for authority would only impede the give and take of negotiation. 

Children’s autonomy takes up a lot of parents’ time. To keep the child from feeling intimidated and to reassure the child that they have no intention of trying to run his life, parents are compelled to use the language of appeasement. “I have my life and you have your life” is a familiar refrain. 

Not only parents, but also children, have a moral responsibility to strengthen the family.  

Since children see themselves as masters, and not as servants, they behave accordingly. Their mouths express their self-image. They view autonomy as a birthright and not as a privilege to be earned. Although they are financially dependent and even parasitic for increasingly longer periods of time, they see themselves as independent. Quickly learning the language of mastery, they use it to intimidate their bewildered parents. Many parents reverse roles and become servants of their assertive children-especially if they feel guilty about not enjoying parenthood. 

The line between childhood and adulthood, becomes very vague, except for one simple distinction: parents are the ones who have to pay. Children are the ones who never have to pay. 

With such tantalizing rewards for having children, is it any wonder that the birth rate among the educated is plummeting?  

More and more people (as surveys indicate) are regretting parenthood. They are finding their children less and less satisfying. Despite the enormous amounts of money they spend on their children (for which they can now expect no economic return in their old age), they do not even receive the small gift of respect. 

The death of deference poses a serious threat to the survival of advanced industrial societies. Mouthy, aggressive, parasitic children reduce the motivation for having children. Only the influx of young people from less sophisticated, traditional societies will ultimately prevent the new “autonomous” society from turning into an old folks home. 

Humanist Response 

As humanists, we have a vested interest in encouraging the educated to have children. Since no adequate alternative to the family has yet been devised for the production and rearing the children, we also have a vested interest in strengthening the family. 

The awareness of four important realities may help us reverse some of the damage. 

The first is the fact that the traditional family cannot be restored. And, even if it were possible to restore it, it is not desirable to do so. The freedom and creativity of the new urban world have enormously enhanced the quality of personal life. These benefits far outweigh the reproductive advantages of the traditional society.  

The second reality is the fact that the liberation of women from male domination is a positive step forward, even though the sharing of power in the family creates greater  

instability – and even though female economic power encourages divorce. As achieving adults, women deserve the dignity of equality. And society cannot afford to waste their talents. 

The third reality is the simple truth that autonomy is not a birthright. It is an earned privilege. Children must train themselves for freedom. They need parents who prepare them for responsibility and who give them knowledge and structure. Without appropriate self-discipline, autonomy is harmful. There are times when parents need to see themselves as authorities, as caring experts in long-run planning. There are times when negotiation is silly and when parents need to command. 

The fourth reality is the reality that is resisted the most. Not only parents, but also children, have a moral responsibility to strengthen the family. Children also have a moral responsibility to acknowledge that, in this age of prolonged economic dependency, they usually receive much more than they give. The normal expression of this awareness is an age-old behavior of deference called gratitude. 

It is naive to assume that the deferent children of the past are restorable. Nor would we want children who never challenge old and possibly obsolete ideas and values. But respectful gratitude is a small price to pay for enormous investments of love and money. 

Humanistic families do not aim for total equality. There are times when parents are appropriately authoritarian. There are times when children are appropriately submissive and deferent.  

Women and Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 25-26, No 4-1, Autumn 1997_Winter 1998

Feminism is one of the most important social movements of the last two centuries. The liberation of women has more than historic significance. Above all, it has moral significance. From a humanistic perspective the freeing of women from male oppression and exploitation was ethically necessary. 

Respect for the dignity, equality, and talent of women is certainly humanistic. But it is not traditional. Prior to modern times there was no feminist reality in the Jewish or non-Jewish world. In a society dominated by agriculture, the primary role of women is reproduction and child rearing. The liberation of women depends on mass urbanization and the diminished need to produce children for cheap labor. When expectations rise, when children become both expensive and parasitic, when prosperity produces the cult of happiness and self-fulfillment, and when opportunities for female work emerge outside the home, then feminism is possible. These conditions have existed only in modern times. 

Traditional Judaism, whether priestly or rabbinic, is the enemy of feminism. In that respect it is no different from traditional Christianity, traditional Islam, or traditional Hinduism. Torah Judaism views women as a source of sin. Their menstrual blood defiles the territory they touch, and their immoral ambition can be checked only by male domination. Talmud Judaism sees women as the agents of frivolous and dangerous diversions. Conversing with them leads men into lewdness. No good can come from granting women either power or freedom.  

The opposition between feminism and traditional Judaism is very difficult for many modern Jews to accept. They want to believe that the roots of their feminist convictions lie in the ethics of the Jewish past. The apparent discontinuity offends their need to affirm the Jewishness of their values.  

How do Jews cope with this ideological discomfort? Many of them try to find support for their feminism in the literature of rabbinic Judaism. Since this endorsement is not there, they rip texts out of their ideological context and appropriate any obscure comment that might be regarded as pro-woman. The sadness in this effort is the need to be “kosherized” by these texts. Some liberals cannot listen to the past. They insist on using it for their ideological agenda. 

Feminism is morally right and appropriate even if our rabbinic and priestly fathers did not approve of it. The validity of an ethical value does not depend on the endorsement of the past, and the Jewishness of an ethical value does not depend on its being old. The experience of Jewish people in modern times is sufficient justification for its rightness. If there is any historic Jewish involvement with feminism, it lies in the fact that Jews were early pioneers in the urbanization of the western world. But that development is not endorsed by traditional texts. Jewish feminism has no significant past. It has only a present and a future. 

Four issues comprise the Jewish feminist agenda in the contemporary world. The first is the integration of women into all aspects of community life. The segregation of Jewish women denies them equality. The second is the opportunity to become community leaders, whether leadership means being president of the congregation or being the rabbi. Exclusion from any leadership role is morally unacceptable. The third is the need to make the language of celebration woman-inclusive. Inclusive language means that women share power and dignity with men. The fourth is resistance to any attempt to turn the obvious differences between men and women into an excuse for proclaiming female inferiority. Men are neither more intellectual nor less emotional than women are. 

Jewish feminism cannot be nostalgic. It has to be creative. It has to promote policies and practices that are new to Jewish life. Morality overrides tradition. Humanistic Judaism and other liberal Judaisms have to create what priestly and rabbinic Judaism failed to provide. 

A creative Jewish feminism must be based on six grounding principles: 

  1. A creative Jewish feminism does not fight the past. It listens to the voices of the past even though it does not approve. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism retells and rewrites Jewish history to emphasize the important contributions of women to Jewish life despite the hostility of the rabbis and the establishment literature. Most of these intellectual and artistic gifts were made in modern times. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism actively resists any attempt to force non-Orthodox Jews to participate in gender segregation at any public Jewish event outside an Orthodox synagogue. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism actively recruits women for leadership roles in the community. It assists women who want to become rabbis and helps them find employment. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism insists on inclusive language, even if familiar songs, prayers, and reflections thereby become less familiar. The dignity of women must take precedence over nostalgia. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism produces a new Jewish literature celebrating female equality and power and incorporates this new literature into Jewish education and celebrations. 

Homosexuality: A Challenge to Traditional Morality

Humanistic Judaism,Vol 25, No 1-2, Winter_Spring 1997

Homosexuality is the hottest moral issue of the late 1990s because it strikes at the very heart of traditional morality. 

What we call “traditional morality” is the hand-me-down ethic of an agricultural society. The fundamental social unit of a peasant culture is the family. The family works or grazes the land and subsists on its produce. The cultivation of land requires cheap and plentiful labor. Having and raising children is the easiest way to provide that labor. Especially when infant mortality is high, reproduction is the primary responsibility of all family members. To abstain from procreation violates the law of survival. The traditional family is reinforced by the institutions of male domination, female chastity, marriage, ancestor worship, and land inheritance. The happiness of the individual is subordinated to the welfare of the group. Work and children are the foundation of all ethical norms. 

In such a context, homosexuality is deeply offensive. It is an insult to family continuity, a dereliction of duty, a refusal to conform to ancestral ways. It cannot be openly tolerated. If it exists at all, it is a covert behavior conducted by men and women who are married and who produce children. It is a private pleasure that is never allowed to interfere with the public responsibility of reproduction. Like romantic love, it is not essential to the family’s and community’s agenda. 

The authors and editors of the Torah, like all their contemporaries, were members of an agricultural, sheep-herding society. (Raising meat is a form of agriculture). They hated homosexuality and saw it as an “abomination.” Since they were deeply attached to their shepherd traditions and were hostile to any form of urban culture, they found any deviation from the reproductive mode of sexual behavior very offensive. Thus religious homosexuals must confront the fact that their ancestors hated them. The prohibitions in the Torah and in the sacred documents of other religions are too explicit to deny. 

Male homosexuals, in particular, were despised. Female homosexuals can perform their “duty” even if they derive no pleasure from it. The same is not true of men. A few societies gave a special status to male homosexuals, but the price was that they ceased to be regarded as men. 

Toleration of homosexual behavior begins with the development of uran culture. Since the Greeks were pioneers in urban culture, it is no mere coincidence that some of their intellectuals celebrated the virtues of homosexual love. But this love was confined to the attachment of married men for boys. It was assumed that when homosexual boys grew up, they, in turn, would be married. Athens was not San Francisco.  

Open homosexuality for men and women who intend to remain unmarried is quite new. It arose out of the rapid urbanization of Western Europe and North America in the past century and a half. It has no historic precedent because capitalism and science, the causes of mass urbanization, have no historic precedent. 

In an urban culture, reproduction is problematic. Children neither work for you nor stay with you. They may not even respect you because, in a world of changing information, they may know more than you do. In addition, they are expensive and parasitic for long periods of time. Choosing not to have children is a legitimate moral choice in an urban culture, especially in a technological society in which the life span of the individual is prolonged and infant mortality is reduced to insignificance. Only in an advanced urban culture can the values that now dominate liberal society emerge: individualism, feminism, happiness, and self-esteem. Only capitalism and affluence can allow what agricultural society forbids. Liberty rests on a sometimes fragile economic foundation. 

The homosexual rights movement first emerged in Berlin after the defeat of the kaiser. The turmoil of World War 1 undermined established conservative regimes and triggered the lifestyle revolution of the 1920s. From clothing to the cinema, sexual liberation emerged with stunning glitz. The sophisticated city of Cabaret was the perfect venue for a movement that defied social convention. The depression, the triumph of fascism, and the horrors of the Second World War pushed sexual liberation aside. But postwar affluence eventually revived the movement. 

The uproar of the Vietnam War and the student revolution that followed emboldened homosexuals. Before that time, it was difficult to press for homosexual rights beause, unlike some other minority groups, homosexuals, for reasons of safety, chose clandestine lifestyles. A group that is afraid to be visible cannot lobby or organize demonstrations. The emergence of the homosexual community from the closet gave them a new power to make demands and to gain political satisfaction. 

The Stonewall incident in 1969 in Greenwich Village mobilized widespread homosexual resistance to repression. Cities like New York and San Francisco became havens for men and women coming out. The word gay replaced queer in sophisticated parlance. Homosexual political and propaganda power grew. In time the defense of homosexual rights became “politically correct” in liberal circles. In some places laws were passed to end discrimination and provide protection from hatred. 

In the 1970s and ‘80s, homosexuals pressed for relief from persecution. They wanted the right to practice their lifestyle openly, the right to housing and employment, the right to be teachers, councilors, clergy and parents, the right to serve in the armed forces, and the right to have their lifestyle included as a moral option in public education. Over the course of these two decades, more and more of the American and European public came to support these demands. 

Even the intrusion of the AIDS plague did not retard the advance of homosexual rights. On the contrary, the assault of HIV forced the now openly homosexual community to mobilize itself for action, discipline some of its promiscuity, and develop a network of mutual support and fundraising. The community became more responsible, more self-confident, and more aggressive. One of the consequences of AIDS was a new emphasis on nonpromiscuous homeosexual partnerships that paralleled marriage in the heterosexual community. 

Of course, the success of the homosxeual community as a political constituency was bound to produce an intense conservative reaction. By the 1990s, the Religious Right in America, stalemated on the abortion issue, began to push gay rights to the forefront as the symbol of moral decadence. Assisted by the AIDS scare, its leaders chose resistance to homosexual demands as the “flag” of their moral crusade. Even Bill Clinton, who had been supported in his first presidential campaign by the gay community, retreated before the right-wing assault. 

Nevertheless, the homosexual political vanguard pressed forward with a new demand for gay marriage, arguing that homosexual partnerships are no different from childless heterosexual marriages. In our modern society, heterosexual couples who choose not to have children are nevertheless entitled to legal acceptance and the status of marriage. Why not grant an equal right to homosexual couples? Without marriage, homosexual partners are denied the priveleges that legal marriage brings: the right to inherit wealth, the right to manage the illness and death of life-long partners, the right to insurance and tax benefits, the right to spousal pension and retirement benefits. The homosexual world is filled with horror stories about alienated, hostile family members who, when a homosexual becomes ill or dies, suddenly emerge to claim control of money and funeral arrangements, driving away the partner whose presence is needed and who has the moral right to the assets and benefits. The push for gay marriage dramatizes how far the homosexual community has come in its drive for equality and moral recognition, but also the difficult battles still to be fought. 

Humanistic Judaism must stand against biblical Judaism and halakhic Judaism in defense of homosexual rights and homosexual freedom. From a humanistic point of view, the choice of a homosexual lifestyle is ethically appropriate. Individuals have the right to be the masters of their own lives insofar as they do not harm others. In its social consequences, gay sexual behavior is no different from contraceptive and childless “straight” sexual behavior. Indeed, in an urbanized world threatened with planetary overpopulation, gay sex may provide a social benefit. And stable homosexual partnerships are preferable to homosexual promiscuity, just as stable heterosexual partnerships are preferable to homosexual promiscuity. 

From a pragmatic point of view, however, the insistence on calling homosexual partnerships “marriage” is a stumbling block. The word marriage has a long association with the social right to bear children and, for most of the public — even for many people sympathetic to homosexual freedom — is not easily transferred to homosexual partnerships. The battle would be easier to win if homosexuals pushed for the rights and privileges of domestic partnerships, whether they be called “marriage” or something else. 

The issue of whether homosexuality is genetic is irrelevant to the moral discussion. If homosexual behavior were both bad and genetically determined, that would be an argument for enforced segregation and exclusion. Pleading helplessness is meaningless in the face of social harm; it is simply a victim’s strategy for arousing pity. It may indeed be the case that homosexual desire is genetically determined, but the moral right of homosexuals to practice their lifestyle derives from individual autonomy and social usefulness. Talented people who are not engaged in producing offspring provide and have provided enormous gifts to society. 

Confronting the Religious Right

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 23, No 3-4 Summer_Autumn 1995

Confronting the Religious Right 

Because of the Religious Right, political decisions in America have become ethical issues. Preserving the separation of religion and government is a moral challenge of supreme importance. 

The power of the Religious Right rests on a variety of developments. Charismatic leaders, money, media exposure, the exploitation of available church audiences, the vulnerability of the Republican Party — all these factors are important to the rise of the political fundamentalists. But the most important foundation is the growing concern of millions of Americans with the moral decline of America. Selfishness, rudeness, “flakiness,” disrespect for all authority, and the incessant demand for instant gratification are more visible than ever before. The Religious Right claims that a return to religion, especially in our public schools, will cure this “disease.” 

Even though the cure is an illusion, the “disease” is real. There is a values crisis in America. Something has to be done to deal with it. And the great danger is that we will turn the problem over to “quack doctors” who will do more harm than good. 

Opposing prayer in the public schools, fighting government vouchers for parochial schools, removing Bible readings from state-run classrooms — all of these efforts will fail if we do not address the values issue. 

A negative strategy, a strategy that simply says no, will not work. Only a positive strategy, a proposal that seeks to confront values anxiety with values education, has any real chance for success. It is not enough to romanticize the historic importance of the separation of church and state. We must also have some alternative answer to the need to teach values to our children. 

“Politically correct” liberals often claim that values are too subjective and too controversial to be taught in the public schools. Only the home and the church can appropriately handle them. But what if the home and the church are not able to do what the community expects from them? What if millions of children have no exposure to a decent home or to an effective church? Are there no shared values that a public school can transmit? Is morality only a matter of sex education, feminism, and abortion? 

The historic public school in America taught values. It was called “good citizenship.” Many of us grew up with a report card that evaluated our self-control, reliability, and cooperation. Our teachers saw themselves not only as information dispensers, but also as moral disciplinarians. While their techniques would now be regarded as too harsh and too authoritarian, their message was appropriate. Education is not only about personal development and personal rights; it is also about living in a community. 

Many public school teachers are still trying to teach citizenship values, either through personal example or by direct instruction. But they are often afraid, in the present environment of the fundamentalist right and the multicultural left, to say so. They are intimidated into claiming that they are teaching no values at all.  

Such a strategy feeds into the political agenda of the Religious Right. This reticence enables them to condemn “valueless” education and to push for prayer in the public schools. Only the refusal to be reticent, only the willingness to resist the pressures from the right and the left, only the courage to advocate values education in the state schools, will provide a workable counterforce to fundamentalist pressure. 

The premises of such a values education have been with us for a long time. Here they are: 

  1. The Founding Fathers of this nation, together with thousands of other historic figures — male and female, black and white — are appropriate ethical role models for our children. 
  1. There are certain moral values that are shared by almost all Americans, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, religious or nonreligious. Values like fairness, responsibility, reliability, compassion, cooperation, and the postponement of gratification are universal. They are important and noncontroversial. 
  1. Ethical values can be taught in both a religious and a nonreligious way. One way is to attach the value to the command of God. The other way is to connect the value to the consequences of behavior. Keeping promises can be important because God wants us to keep promises. It also can be important because society will fall apart if nobody can trust or believe anybody else. Teaching values in a secular way does not negate the possibility of teaching values in a religious way. But it is possible to present them in a nonreligious way, which does not violate the religious beliefs of the students. 
  1. Citizenship values do not have to be taught in a separate class. They need to be integrated into the discussion of every subject and into every classroom situation. An effective teacher, regardless of academic discipline, knows how to teach values. 

These four premises are the foundation of a positive strategy for confronting the Religious Right. Perhaps what we need in the public schools is not to begin the day with prayer, but to hear and see ethical quotations from great Americans. With a quotation, at least you can have a discussion.