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.

Reason and Emotion

Reason and Emotion for Humanistic Jews, Autumn 1986

Reason and emotion: Are they compati­ble? Or are they the polar opposites of the human potential?

So often humanists and Humanistic Jews are accused of being coldly rational, of denying the emotional side of the human personality. Our opponents proclaim this dichotomy between the mind and the heart, between logic and passion. Many times we accept this perception of our philosophy and come to believe that we are emotionally deficient.

However, this dichotomy is silly. We need to resist it.

The first step is to acknowledge certain truths about reason.

Reason is not the same as logic. To be reasonable is to be in touch with the facts, to be aware of reality. If you start out with a set of absurd premises, logic will lead you to a set of absurd conclusions. If you maintain that the earth is flat, you can logically con­clude that you will fall off the end of it. Rea­son is as much concerned with the premises as with the procedures for arriving at the conclusion. Logical fundamentalists are not reasonable. And logical schizophrenics are just plain crazy.

Reason is not cold. Reason is a human faculty that has evolved over millions of years. It is tied to the human struggle for survival. Reasonable people, people who stay in touch with reality, have a better chance for survival than people who choose fantasies. The will to live, the passion to sur­vive, is not cold. It provides the “heat” of human existence. Reason, as much as the emotions, is an agent of that life force. It gets its fuel from danger, crisis, and the need to make decisions.

Reason is the friend of emotion. Our desires and needs are emotional drives. But they are not always compatible. Our need for love is not always compatible with our need for dignity. Our need for safety does not always jibe with our need for adventure and change. We cannot satisfy all of our desires simultaneously. We have to choose. Reason is the human faculty that helps us decide which emotion to indulge and which desire to restrain. It makes us aware of the consequences of our behavior and places our needs in some sort of priority order. Being spontaneous is of no use if two “spon­taneities” are competing for the same time and energy.

Reason and emotion complement each other. Discovering the truth is different from responding to the truth. Rational peo­ple can get very hot when it is time to get hot. The rational medical researcher may be coldly objective in trying to discover the cause of a disease and hotly passionate in leading the battle to eliminate it. The rea­sonable social activist may be clinically proper in studying the profile of the poor and inspired in the struggle to defend them. Reasonable people do not look to their emo­tions to find the truth. They save their feeling energy to act on it.

Reason cultivates courage. Quite often, the emotion that dominates our lives is fear, especially the fear of reality. There are so many games we play to avoid confronting painful facts. And we are so skilled at weav­ing fantasies about ourselves and others to defend our self-esteem. Courageous people need reason to fight their fear and to lead them to reality. Courageous people do not wish to live in a world of fantasy — both because it offends their dignity and because they cannot effectively change what they refuse to recognize.

What are some of the realities concerning our feelings and emotions that it is important for us to recognize?

Feelings are simply there. They cannot be dismissed. They cannot be expelled. They cannot be controlled like behavior. You can command people to be loving to others; but you cannot command them to love others. You can order your family to be nice to their enemies; but you cannot order them to stop hating the foe. What we feel and what we do are two different things. An ethic, whether philosophic or religious, that insists that people change their feelings is naive and out of touch with reality. All of us, much of the time, have feelings of hate, jeal­ousy, anger, and fear. We cannot order them out of our minds. The test of our char­acter is not whether we have these emo­tions; it is what we do with them. Behavior, not feelings, determines our character.

In the long evolutionary saga of human­ity, every feeling served an important pur­pose. Our emotions are the internal reflec­tion of behavior that, at one time, was necessary for survival. Love arranged for the nurturing of children and the bonding of parents. Anger kept intruders out of our space and defended our territory. Fear made us aware of dangers we could not control and persuaded us to run away. Hate severed our connection with harmful mem­bers of our community and enabled us to expel them. Jealousy reminded us of our competitive deficiencies and motivated us to improve our skills. Guilt emphasized our dependence on others and kept us loyal. Sadness enabled us to recognize defeat and to rest before our next encounter. No feeling is without its positive side. Even in our modern urban environment, where oppor­tunities for confrontation are so frequent, this evolutionary reality holds true. Anger is still necessary to defend our dignity. Fear is still essential to keep us away from danger. Hate is still useful for resisting harmful rela­tionships. Jealousy is still important for self- improvement. Guilt is still significant for preserving community. Sadness is still a step to personal recovery. Love is still indis­pensable to guarantee our future.

Spiritual living is not the same as spirituality… .Humanists believe firm­ly in the power of the human spirit, [but] they are wary of the “spiritual.”

Every feeling can be dangerous. Despite the common religious conviction that divine providence has designed us perfectly, our feelings are not harmonious. They often show up where they do not belong and stick around long after they should have depart­ed. It is easy to see how anger, fear, hate, jealousy, guilt, and sadness can be inappro­priate and lead to self-destruction. But love receives so much hype that we are reluctant ever to denounce it. Yet, in many human relations, love is masochistic, encouraging the lover to surrender dignity and to accept humiliation. In this present decade, when intellect is discounted and emotion is valued, it is important to remember that “being emotional” may not be as praise­worthy as some people think.

Feelings love to hide. Ever since Freud, we are very much aware that what we think we feel may not be what we really feel. The mind is able to repress uncomfortable thoughts and desires and to protect us from the pain of confronting them. Our con­sciousness celebrates love; our unconscious cherishes hate. Our consciousness seeks the spiritual; our unconscious is obsessed with sex. With such self-deception, sincerity be­comes meaningless. What we honestly be­lieve that we feel may be a fantasy of avoid­ance. Outsiders, observing us and listening to us, may discern more about our real feel­ings than we do. Thus, it is a dangerous cliche to say that all people know best what they want.

There are many emotional styles. Not all emotions are hot. Some emotions are cold. Indifference and resignation are emotional states as much as love and hate. If all behav­ior is attached to feeling — and we cannot avoid behaving — then every action or state of being has emotional content. Austere, withdrawn people are just as emotional as volatile screamers. They simply have differ­ent temperaments. Future-oriented, creative people are just as emotional as past- oriented, traditional people. They just have different feeling responses to the authority of ancestors. Dependable, supportive, but undemonstrative, people are just as loving as verbal, demonstrative huggers. They merely show their love in different ways.

Behavior often can change feelings. While it is true that emotions are simply there, undismissable, it is also true that they can change over the long run. Not all emo­tions. Some responses to life are too deeply rooted ever to go away — or even to experi­ence slight alteration. But many feelings are reinforced by the behavior they inspire. We are afraid to swim and so we never try. And because we never try, our fear grows stronger. Dwelling on the fear through introspection does not drive it away; nor does understanding its causes relieve its intensity. Only when our will, in opposition to our fear, insists that we try to do what we are afraid to do — and we discover that we can do it — does our fear diminish. While behavior usually follows feelings, feelings sometimes follow behavior.

Ventilating our feelings calls for discre­tion. During the past two decades, it has become fashionable in psychotherapeutic circles to encourage people to release the feelings they are afraid to express. Holding in emotions is thought to be as dangerous as prolonged constipation. If you are angry, let other people know about your anger. If you are sad, let other people know about your sadness. The result of this fad is not a dramatic improvement in human behavior. Quite the contrary. People have simply grown accustomed to dumping their emo­tional garbage on people who are conve­niently nearby. Marriages are destroyed. Friendships are disrupted. Work environ­ments turn chaotic. An orgy of honesty trau­matizes human relations and wreaks havoc with the fragile structure of courtesy, com­passion, and discretion that makes society possible. In a world of tender egos and lim­ited patience, wise people know that “hold­ing in” can be a discipline for survival and happiness. Uncontrolled “dumping” is dan­gerous. Some thoughts should never be uttered. Some feelings should never be expressed.

Emotional experiences need character to tie them together. In our advanced con­sumer culture, clever manufacturers sell ex­periences as well as things. They stage an event and promise an “emotional high.” A rock concert, a religious revival, a weekend of meditation, a Hasidic farbrengen, a mara­thon of self-discovery — all are available to the general public for the picking. No train­ing is required. No ideological commitment is solicited beforehand. No demands on future behavior are seriously made. Each event stands by itself as a fondly remem­bered experience. The “with-it” Jew can do Oriental mysticism, gestalt, Hasidism, Zen, and EST with little concern for their incom­patibility. Since the only thing that counts is the emotional high of the experience itself, consistency is irrelevant. Of course, what is absent is something called character, that strong cord of consistent beliefs and values that gives substance to individuals and makes them more than a collection of in­credible happenings. People with character are not searching for emotional highs. They derive their feeling of satisfaction from lead­ing their lives in accordance with long-run principles and convictions.

Spirited living is not the same as spiri­tuality. Humanists who have rich emotional lives understand that prose is often inade­quate to express feelings of joy, wonder, exultation, and human solidarity. They sur­round themselves with the poetry of the arts, the beauty of music, painting, dance, theater, and the splendors of nature. Some­times they are participants. But, in all cases, they affirm the value and glory of this natural world of life and death. While they believe firmly in the power of the human spirit, they are wary of the “spiritual.” This word has a specific meaning in Western culture. It is connected with the super­natural, the realms of deathless souls, divine intelligence, and “superior” worlds that transcend the “inferior” offerings of mate­rial existence. It is associated with men and women who have forgone the pleasures of the material world in order to serve the cause of a transcendent power. Many spiri­tual people are not very spirited. They pre­fer passive waiting to action, asceticism to joy, surrender to conflict.

Reasonable people know that the human spirit does not grow through pious rever­ence. It grows through struggle and defi­ance. The spirituality of the Baal Shem Tov may be impressive. But it cannot compare in emotional power to the heroic spirit of Prometheus and the secular defenders of the Warsaw ghetto.

In a time when the religious opposition is growing strong, we humanists are tempted to steal the vocabulary of the competition. In the end, such desperation will only make us look foolish. We will talk a lot about spir­ituality. But we will never really be able to do it with conviction.

If what we want is more poetry, then in­deed let us create more poetry and call it that. If what we want is more hugging and dancing, then let us have more hugging and dancing and call it that. If what we want is a stronger sense of community that tran­scends our individual existence and binds us together in solidarity, then let us work on the bonds of community and call it that. But let us not confuse the development of the human spirit with the experience of peace and serenity that comes from believing that there is a profound harmony between human need and the forces that guide the universe. Our beliefs as humanists and as Humanistic Jews are in strong conflict with this premise of historic spirituality. The pain and suffering of existence cannot be trivialized by claiming that they are simply part of some greater positive whole. And if the universe, with all its vast influence, does not give us peace and serenity but makes us a little bit nervous, that response is very appropriate and very Jewish.

The Rational Life

The Rational Life, Autumn 1982

The rational life. At one time, in the heyday of the Enlightenment, it was the ideal. The spokespersons of reason domi­nated the intellectual world and imagined that the life of reason would become the modus vivendi for all of humanity.

The early rationalists saw the life of reason in opposition to the life of faith. The life of faith, in their eyes, was dominated by the superstitions of traditional religion. It cultivated blind obedience and a self- destructive humility that denied men and women the power to be the masters of their own lives. It downplayed happiness here on earth and promised an illusory immor­tality of eternal bliss.

The men of reason believed that the life of reason would dispel superstition and would provide “salvation” through the truths of the new science. Made aware of its own power, humanity would seize the opportunity to transform the human condi­tion and to pursue human happiness in the only life that was ours to live.

The men of reason were naive. But were they wrong?

Many modern thinkers think so. Or, rather, we should say “postmodern think­ers,” since they associate modernity with the life of reason, which they claim is now passe. Postmodern thinkers hold reason responsible for the horrors and the disillu­sionment of the twentieth century. While not wanting to return to the life of faith, they often find it less objectionable than the life of reason. They accuse the rational­ists of fostering a narrow and elitist path to truth, which, in the end, produces a tyr­anny and emptiness worse than the life of religion.

Their chief accusations go something like this:

  •  Reason is cold and unemotional. It ig­nores the feeling side of human exist­ence. It does not pay attention to the parts of the human psyche that provide warmth and meaning to human life.
  •  Reason is wary of the power of intu­ition, which also may stand in opposi­tion to traditional faith and which also is the source of important truths. The truly free spirit cannot be limited by the pedestrian restrictions of the scientific method. It needs to use the power and the wisdom of the whole mind.
  •  Reason looks at the world through ana­lytic eyes. It cuts reality into pieces, labels them, and connects them with the categories of cause and effect. But it is incapable of synthetic truth. It cannot experience the world as a whole. And the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The analytic power of the left brain needs to be supplemented by the synthetic power of the right brain.
  • Reason leads to moral chaos. Without God and religion, everything is permit­ted. Reason can tell us how to do things, but it cannot tell us why we should do what we ought to do. Without some authority that lies beyond reason, fas­cism is just as reasonable as democracy. The terrible anarchy of modern urban life comes from the personal moral au­tonomy that reason grants.
  •  Reason fosters tyranny. The worst tyr­anny of modern times was the Marxist dictatorship of the communist empire. The leaders of that empire spoke in the name of secularism and reason and justified their actions on rational grounds. Their revolution elevated a new “clergy” of intellectuals who were more dogmatic, more arrogant, and more repressive than the clergy they sought to replace.
  •  Reason rests on the elitist notion of an objective truth, to which only the ex­perts of science have access. It fails to acknowledge the more democratic real­ity that truth is essentially subjective and that there are as many truths as there are people who experience the world.

I believe that this assault on reason is invalid. The postmodern critique is a dis­tortion of the truth and is, in a very real sense, responsible for the very danger it complains about.

Reason is not cold. Nor is it hot. It is a method for the discovery of truth, which can be used by either cold people or hot people. Most of the time it is attached to the heat of passionate desires. Desire moti­vates people to use reason. People want to survive and be happy. Reason helps them understand the reality they are dealing with. It helps them satisfy their desires by being responsible to the facts. It helps them tame their desires by reminding them of both their limitations and opportunities. Emotion and reason are not enemies. They go hand in hand.

Reason is not contemptuous of intu­ition. All great discoveries begin with intuition. The scientific method begins with a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a hunch or intuition. Without brilliant hunches and intuitions, science would be powerless. But, while intuition is valuable, it is not enough. It has to be tested by the evidence of human experience. There are crazy in­tuitions as well as profound ones. There has to be some way of telling the difference between them. That is what science is all about.

Reason is not only analytic. It also entails synthesis. It deals with the macro­scopic picture as well as the microscopic picture. The theory of evolution is not about small facts. It ties them all together into a big whole. The “big bang” theory is not about a teeny event. It is about the whole universe. It synthesizes billions of events and makes them fit one into the other. Holistic insights are as integral to science as they are to art. But synthesis is not just the sudden flash of insight. It also depends upon the hard work of making sure that brilliant flashes of insight are what they claim to be.

Reason does not lead to moral chaos. God is no guarantee of moral order, simply because no one can agree on what God wants us to do. God is not available to be interviewed. Every religion can put words into his mouth, and does. The history of humanity is the story of religious people killing each other over disagreements about God’s commands. And faith is truly cha­otic because it provides no way of peace­fully arbitrating disagreement. Reason is less arbitrary. It requires that all moral commands or recommendations be tested by the consequences of choosing to act on them. Universal ethical rules are the result of common sense based on long-run hu­man experience. Failure to act on them threatens survival and happiness, both personal and collective. Reason is the only method for the discovery and justification of moral values that does not rely on arbitrary faith and intuition. The anarchy in our society is not caused by people who are rational. It is caused by postmodern hardline subjectivists who believe that truth and ethics are simply a function of what­ever their inner voices announce. Freedom that is not subject to the test of conse­quences is not rational and is dangerous indeed.

Reason does not foster tyranny. As both Baruch Spinoza and John Stuart Mill pointed out, reason cannot survive where there is no freedom. Without the give and take of a free society, conclusions freeze into dogma. Tentative answers turn into absolute proclamations. The Marxists of the Communist empire claimed the author­ity of reason, but they were much more comfortable with the style of the religion they insisted they hated. All forms of dogma are inimical to reason, whether they be Jewish, Christian, or Marxist. And all forms of dictatorship are subversive of the integrity of reason. Tyranny flows quite naturally from absolute certainty, the vulnerable need to be protected from error. When the boundary between truth and error is unclear, only freedom suffices.

Reason is elitist in one sense but egali­tarian in another. The one person with evidence to support a stand does win out over the masses who have not done their empirical homework. But this one person can come from any class, ethnic, or educa­tional background. The peasant or the plumber with the evidence wins out over the king with none. On the other hand, an egalitarianism that claims that all opinions are subjective and, therefore, of equal value is opposed to reason. Reality is not the creation of our minds. It is not invented; it is discovered. Equating ignorance with knowledge may be democratic. But, in the end, it is foolish and dangerous. Reason does not imagine that truth comes from an act of will. It is the product of training, discipline, and hard work, Rational free spirits pay attention to outer evidence. Crazy free spirits listen only to inner voices.

The rational life may not be as euphoric as the early Enlightenment philosophers imagined. But it is the best alternative available. To live the life of reason is to be able to do the following:

Face the Facts

Rational people can respect themselves only if they are strong enough to face reality. Painful truth is more desirable than painless illusion. You cannot take control of your life if you are dancing with fanta­sies. Rational people do not believe be­cause they want to believe or need to believe. They believe because the evidence provides them with no other alternative.

Live with Uncertainty

For many questions there are presently no clear answers. Evidence is too slim or ambiguous. The best you can say is “I don’t know.” Some people find uncer­tainty unbearable. They prefer any answer, however absurd, to no answer at all. Ratio­nal people do not like uncertainty. But they are strong enough to live with it. They do not insist on an answer when none is really available. They do not admire in­tense faith. They are afraid of it. Where evidence exists, strong convictions are appropriate. But waiting for the evidence can take equal strength.

Live with Ambiguity

There are no absolutely right or wrong decisions. All decisions have good and bad consequences. Recognizing ambiguity is part of being rational. When we make decisions, we may choose the alternative with the least number of disadvantages or the greatest number of advantages, but we can never escape mixing the two. Rational people are never self-righteous. They never claim moral purity. They are too practical and good-humored for that.

Dismiss the Past

The past is unreachable and unchange­able. No magic can transform it. Learning from the past is rational. Worrying about the past and wishing it were different are a waste of time. Rational people turn their energies to what they can change and improve. They do not cultivate full-time regret. For them, being sorry does not last forever. It turns into constructive action. Guilt is not a profession. It is the rational prelude to making actions produce better consequences.

Resist Resignation

There are many things we cannot change, including the law of gravity. But there are many things we can change. No matter what happens no sacred or holy power has ordained it. It happened because — like a hurricane — blind, unconscious, and un­caring forces made it happen. Or it hap­pened because — like cruel violence — people made it happen. If something is bad, we may not have to accept it. And if we can change it, we do not have to pretend that it is besherrt (destined). Pas­sivity in the face of our power to make a positive difference is not rational.

Pursue Happiness

Suffering may be unavoidable, but it is not a rational goal. Rational people may suffer because they cannot avoid suffering or because they cannot achieve what they want without pain. But they do not choose to suffer because of a belief that suffering is ultimately good. Happiness is the satisfac­tion of basic human needs and desires, including the desire for community. Happy people know that their happiness is inter­twined with the happiness of others. We are social beings who thrive on the help and approval of our peers.

Direct Our Emotions

Emotions are facts. Denying them when they are uncomfortable does not make them go away. They simply go into hiding and cause more trouble than before. Nor do our emotions exist in perfect harmony, each complementing and cooperating with the others. Fear, anger, hate, and love compete for our energy. If left to their own devices, they produce emotional chaos. We end up indulging the wrong feeling at the wrong time. Rational people never deny their feelings. They try to become more and more aware of them. But they do not surrender to them. They control them. They respond with fear when fear is appro­priate. They offer love when love can be nurturing. Reason does not stand above emotion. It is the managing director, mak­ing sure that our emotional energies work for our happiness and the happiness of others.

Acknowledge Our Power

It is dangerous to imagine that we can do what we are not able to do. But it is equally dangerous to imagine that we cannot do what we are able to do and need to do. Too much humility provides a rationalization for cowardice and makes us wary of useful action. Reasonable people do not claim powers that reason denies. But they do not hide behind the excuses of convenient modesty. Most of us have the power to do more than we give ourselves credit for. Self-esteem is owning up to our own power, especially in a world where religion gives the credit for everything to outside powers.

The rational life is a fulfilling life be­cause it negotiates between what we want and what is possible. That balancing act needs the discipline and good humor of reason.

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.

Humanistic Judaism and God

Humanistic Judaism Anthology – Spring, 1986

Judaism without God is a difficult con­cept for many people to grasp. If they are not outraged, they are puzzled.

For traditional Jews who see Jewish history as the evidence for the presence of God in the world, removing God is remov­ing the reason for Jewish survival.

For people who view Jews as a religious denomination and who see religion as the worship of God, an atheistic secular Judaism is a contradiction in terms.

For religious naturalists who have re­jected supernatural beliefs and who have redefined the word God to refer to nature or to some part of nature, the elimination of God is an unnecessary step.

For traditional moralists who derive their ethics from divine authority and who insist on clearly defined rules with ab­solute certainty, morality is not possible without God. And Judaism without moral­ity is not much of a Judaism.

For atheists who agree that there is no God but who cannot imagine a religion without one, doing religion without God is like doing elections without candidates.

For people who may not be sure about God but who are sensitive to human needs, dispensing with God violates the requirements of human happiness. A Judaism without God cannot be emo­tionally satisfying.

To understand Humanistic Judaism is to understand why these six responses are inappropriate.

  1. Finding a just God in Jewish history is like finding icebergs in Brazil. If God has been the friend of the Jewish people, we do not need enemies. In the century of the Nazi Holocaust, the Jewish experience is a solemn testimony to the absence of God. If Yahveh is indeed the lord of history, he cannot hide behind the excuse of Jewish sinfulness. Too many innocents perished in the slaughter.

Some theologians seek to rescue God in strange ways. The Lubavitcher Rebbe sees the Holocaust as a fitting punishment for the secular Jews of Eastern Europe. Richard Rubenstein views him as so high and mighty that the petty events on the surface of a small planet invite only his in­difference and moral neutrality. Harold Kushner describes him as limited, a deity who means well but who does not possess the power to get what he wants. And his desperate defenders see him as the in­genious divinity who arranged the Holocaust so that the state of Israel could follow.

What can be said for such ludicrous defenses? Why would a just God slaughter the “innocent” religious together with the “wicked” secular? Why would anybody be interested in a God who did not care what happened to people and who viewed our suffering with the same indifference as he viewed our pleasure? Why would an in­competent and powerless God be more important to people than an incompetent and powerless human being? As for ar­ranging a Holocaust to guarantee a Jewish state, that behavior is about as intelligent as burning down a house to get roast meat.

If there is a God and he is either unjust, indifferent, or dumb, then he does not deserve our praise and adoration. At the most, he deserves the appeasement cere­monies of frightened victims. At the least, he is worthy of our indifference and con­tempt.

  • Defining Jews as a religious deno­mination is as appropriate as defining Anglo-Saxons as a theological persuasion. Even the Bible views the Jews as a tribal nation and art ethnic race. Biblical writers may denounce “bad” Jews who refuse to worship Yahveh exclusively, but they never deny the Jewishness of the people they denounce. From the very beginning, Jewish identity was a kinship identity, in­dependent of theological beliefs and reli­gious commitments.

Even the rabbis preserved the “racial” classification of the Jews. Despite their in­sistence on public religious conformity, they conferred Jewish status on the children of Jewish mothers regardless of the personal beliefs of the child or of the mother. Bible-believing Gentiles needed conversion. Atheist children of Jewish women did not.

Anti-Semites who refuse to accept the conversion of Jews to other religions as a sign of genuine change are simply follow­ing age-old Jewish tradition and popular practice. Changing publicly proclaimed beliefs does not alter Jewish identity earned through birth. As for converts to Judaism, they are less converts than adopted children; they must change their ancestors as well as their religious prac­tices. In traditional conversion, Abraham and Sarah become their “parents.”

If Mr. Cohen decides to indulge himself in Zen Buddhism, neither he nor his neighbors will think of him as any the less Jewish. And if he decides to take Jewish history seriously and to dispense with God, neither his friends nor his enemies will see any significant change in his Jewish identity.

Jewish identity is a kinship identity, in­dependent of theological beliefs and religious commitments.

  • Saving the word God by redefining it is both evasive and immoral.

It is evasive because a word that can mean anything the definer wants it to mean is no longer intended for communi­cation. Its purpose is either psychother­apy or social security. Either the definer “needs” the word for emotional reasons that have nothing at all to do with its historic meaning, or he finds it useful for social respectability. (Many people are afraid of being accused of atheism even if they are atheists.

Redefining God is immoral because or­dinary words are entitled to their ordinary meanings. God is an old word with an old historic denotation. For the ordinary user, God refers to a supernatural father figure who made and runs the world and who consciously interferes with the operation of his creation. The vocabulary of prayer is directed to a personal power who can respond to praise and petition. Even after all the liberal theists redefine God to their personal satisfaction and social comfort, even after they insist that the term refers to some abstract non-anthropomorphic natural force of goodness or creative energy, they still end up talking to it as though it were a personal “papa figure.” The historic meaning of the word makes that response inevitable.

It is immoral to steal words from every­day communication and to alter their meaning arbitrarily — especially if the ac­tion serves your personal advantage. Theology as a cloak for atheists is like the emperor’s clothing in the Anderson fairy tale. It is shoddy business.

The traditional God — if he is believed to be real — makes a difference. A per­sonal God who watches our behavior and who judges it with rewards and punishments may be terrifying, yet he cannot be ignored. His presence is related to our survival and happiness.

But a God who is no more than the One, the Absolute, the Potential for Goodness and Creativity, the Ground of Being, Universal Love — or any of a dozen and one liberal redefinitions — is either too vague to be interesting or too familiar to be unique. If God is Love, how is that dif­ferent from Love is Love? And if God is Nature, how is that different from Nature is Nature? Conservative theists need the word God because it refers to a being that no other word denotes. But liberal theists do not need the word. Perfectly ordinary words already exist for whatever they mean by God.

  • As for morality, God is hardly indis­pensable.

It is quite obvious that the word God does not, of necessity, imply good. Gods can be wicked as well as benevolent. Otherwise, why all this insistence on demonstrating from human experience the “goodness” and “justice” of God?

If God’s behavior can be evaluated, then the evaluator must already know what good means. He does not need God to tell him what is right or wrong. He is aware of what is right or wrong before he judges God.

Notions of right and wrong arise out of the social setting of parental discipline and are later attributed to a heavenly superparent. The human need to live in groups for survival demands trust, worthi­ness, sharing, and abstinence from vio­lence. Social groups in which promises are never kept, food is not shared, and children assault their parents have little chance to survive.

Even the Bible recognizes that divine endorsement is not enough to make com­mandments morally convincing. The system of rewards and punishments that the authors of the Torah so neatly ar­ticulated is evidence that divine authority is inadequate. The Hebrews are promised fertility and prosperity for their obe­dience, drought and devastation for their resistance. The satisfaction — or frustra­tion — of human needs becomes the sell­ing argument. The implication is clear. Right behavior leads to pleasant conse­quences. Wrong behavior leads to unpleasant consequences.

In the reward and punishment system, the importance of God does not lie in his moral authority. It lies in his power to satisfy human needs and to provide for human pleasure — which, quite obviously, have their own intrinsic moral merit. A god that does not care about human welfare has no moral clout.

Practical humanism is the harsh aware­ness that the quality of human life is up to human beings.

  • A religion without God, a secular re­ligion, appears to be a contradiction in terms. After all, religion is often defined as a belief in God. But equating religion with theology is sociologically incorrect. Beliefs are private, passive, and not easily detected. Many people, for social safety, pretend to believe in God even when they do not. Although their behavior is reli­gious, it may not reflect internal convic­tion.

Religion — as opposed to theology — is a behavior, generally a publicly observed behavior done in groups. Worship and submission are postures that most people describe as religious, even when their spoken theology is insincere.

Religious behavior is an appeasement behavior. It is the human response to situations of helplessness, when human power seems inadequate to deal with over­whelming danger or disaster. The more helpless people feel, the more religious they become. People tend to be most reli­gious when they are confronted with the reality of death.

Now, “submission” or resignation is a perfectly rational response to situations of helplessness. What is irrational is imagin­ing that the assaulting forces are a super­human person you can talk to.

A non-theological religion would cer­tainly recognize that human beings are limited, that certain life situations are ir­reversible, and that there are times when “surrender” or resignation is perfectly ap­propriate. We cannot bring back the dead. We cannot prevent earthquakes. We can­not abolish the law of gravity.

But a non-theological religion would avoid theological descriptions of “destiny” that transform the impersonal forces of nature into superhuman parents. Worship — with all its verbal flattery, de­meaning postures, and endless gift- bringing — would be avoided. In its place would appear the good-humored submis­sion of shoulder shrugging.

Theological religions, by their ex­cessive use of worship behavior, tend to make people feel more helpless. If humanists do submission from time to time, they do so reluctantly. They much prefer problem-solving.

  • Being nice to the masses because you think they need God even though you do not believe in God is an excuse for cowar­dice. It provides people who are afraid of revealing their humanism with a reason for not doing so.

Therapeutic strategies that turn people into protected children undermine their rights. To be sheltered from the truth is to lose your dignity. If indeed there is no God, pretending that there is one neither enhances your self-esteem nor improves your ability to deal with reality. Yielding, without question, to an authoritarian superparent is hardly the avenue to decent maturity.

But, even if you prefer security to digni­ty, the God-route is, most likely, the wrong way to go. Living with a cosmic “peeping Tom,” who continuously watches your behavior and judges it, is liable to make you nervous. And praising a Power that is ultimately responsible for all events, even the unjust ones, may lead to the pent-up anger we call depression.

Judaism without God may be a surpris­ing concept. But it is a perfectly appropri­ate one. It is a healthy non-theological religion that derives its morality from human need and that finds in Jewish history a reflection of the “absurdity” of the universe.

Believing Is Better than Non-Believing

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

It is not easy these days to be a Humanistic Jew. We live in a world in which the professed beliefs of most people — including most Jews — are either non­humanist or anti-humanist.

We live with the collective memories of nations that associate their roots and their ancestors with piety and religious devotion.

We live with the power of entrenched religious establishments that confer respectability upon those who join churches and synagogues and say they believe in God.

We live with the indoctrination of the past, which claims that atheism and morality are incompatible and that, in a time of moral decay, only a renewed faith in traditional religion will rescue society from anarchy.

We live with the shallowness of an age of science in which countless numbers of people understand the use of machines but do not understand the method of free inquiry that gave birth to them.

We live in a world of disillusionment with modern times in which many people assume that the faith of the past will be the cure for their anxiety and disappointment.

We live in a world of aggressively proselytizing fundamentalists who have branded secular humanists the enemies of civilization.

We live in a time of Orthodox revival in which religious fanaticism has replaced secular Zionism as the imagined guarantor of the Jewish future.

At the beginning of the twentieth century — when human self-confidence and optimism were stronger — the reigning intellectuals were solidly in the secular corner and put the religious on the defensive. But now the tables have been turned. We never thought 30 years ago that we would be back arguing the truth of the Biblical creation story, the merits of evolutionary theory, and the possibility of reincarnation. This new assault may be a time for humanists to reassess their survival strategy and develop a more effective response to the outside world.

Why is the opposition so successful? A realistic answer turns upon the style of presentation the fundamentalists use.

The “born-again” religionists believe that they have an important message, which the world needs to hear. They believe that this message is urgent and that terrible consequences will ensue if the warning is ignored. They believe that they are the defenders of morality and that the welfare of society depends on their missionary zeal. They believe that they are surrounded by powerful enemies who want to subvert what they work so hard to create. They believe that they have the right to intrude upon the privacy of citizens because the information they bring is a matter of life and death. Although they see themselves as a beleaguered minority, they believe that, in the end, they will win.

Humanistic Jews should be believers, en­thusiastic messengers of a positive philosophy of life.

Above all, they present themselves as “believers,” as the messengers of a positive statement about the world and its future. Their opponents (namely, we “vicious” humanists) are labeled “unbelievers,” deniers of the truth, and purveyors of negativism and nihilism. In fact, the religionists have been so suc­cessful with their propaganda that many humanists consent to their label and freely refer to themselves as “unbelievers.”

Unbelief is a loser’s style. It is a posture of inferiority, an acknowledgement that the message of your enemies is so power­ful and so positive that you must define yourself by it. While the opposition has a compelling reason to speak about its beliefs, “unbelievers” have no really significant beliefs to share. Their style is a holding operation, a defensive stance. They only want to make sure that the religious world does not intrude on their lives. They have no urgent or important message for others.

So long as we present ourselves as unbelievers — whether in the Jewish com­munity or in the broader world — we will be losers. We will be viewed as the deniers of other people’s strong convictions, not the possessors of strong convictions of our own. Especially in a free society of com­peting ideas, unbelief is a disastrously negative strategy.

So what does it take to turn a Humanistic Jew into a “believer,” an enthusiastic messenger of a positive philosophy of life?

Not very much. After all, we do have strong positive beliefs about nature, people, and morality. The problem is how we see ourselves and how we present our convictions to others.

The following ten guidelines may be helpful.

  1.  If you are a believer, you refuse to be an unbeliever.

It is very important never to allow others to define you publicly in terms of their own attachments. Humanists not only do not believe in Biblical creation; they do believe in evolution. They not only do not believe in the efficacy of prayer; they do believe in the power of human effort and responsibility. They not only do not believe in the reality of the supernatural; they do believe in the natural origin of all experiences.

  •  If you are a believer, you focus on the positive.

Believers tell people first what they believe, not what they do not believe. Effective humanists do not begin their presentation of personal conviction by announcing what they deny. They describe the things and the events in the universe that they think are really there. Agnosticism with regard to God may be the intellectual position of most humanists, but it is less important than our positive commitment to reason and scientific inquiry. Skepticism with regard to the divine origins of Jewish history may be the attitude of Humanistic Jews, but it is less important than our affirmation that Jewish culture is the creation of the Jewish people.

  •  If you are a believer, you know that the message is important.

From the fundamentalist perspective, preparing yourself for the afterlife is desperately important; from the humanist perspective, training yourself to make the most out of your life here on earth is equally important. In a world in which infantile behavior and infantile dependency are rampant, humanism has something important to say to people, whether or not they are open to hearing the message.

  •  If you are a believer, you offer positive alternatives.

Too often, humanists and Humanistic Jews assault existing institutions and practices without providing adequate substitutes. Just because traditional Jewish communities were built around prayer and God does not mean that alternative Jewish communities cannot be built around a secular Jewish culture and ethical concerns. Just because the traditional Jewish puberty rite is male chauvinist and focused on Bible readings does not preclude an alternative growing- up ceremony that is discrimination-free and celebrates the child’s connection to all of Jewish creativity.

  •  If you are a believer, you do not worry about being unfashionable.

Many people enjoy unbelief when it is chic, when it is the intellectual rage. They take pleasure in tweaking the nose of authority and announcing their liberation. But when unbelief becomes less fashionable, they find their defensive posture uncomfortable. They prefer to assault; they are uncomfortable being assaulted. But humanists who are believers are prepared for changes of fashion. Since they know what they do believe, as opposed to what they do not believe, they do not lose their intellectual security when the crowd stops applauding.

  •  If you are a believer, you do not resent the enthusiasm of opponents.

Many humanists decry the efforts of fundamentalist missionaries. They despise these self-appointed proselytizers who intrude on their privacy and rudely challenge their personal beliefs. But the response is inappropriate. If you are convinced that your message is essential to human survival and happiness, you have a moral obligation to intervene. Many liberals who think it perfectly appropriate to proselytize actively for nuclear freezes and abortion freedom resent the same enthusiasm when it is applied to religion. This attitude prevents us from being effective. If we, as humanists and Humanistic Jews, have something important to say about the path to self-esteem, we should be eager to share it. Our resentment of “intrusion” is merely a sign of our own discomfort with positive convictions.

  •  If you are a believer, you turn negative situations into positive ones.

In a non-humanistic world, there are many humanistically objectionable institutions and social practices that cannot be changed. Religious chaplains in the army, religious inscriptions on national monuments, invocations and benedictions at school and fraternal events — all these provocations move many unbelievers into futile resistance. But believers recognize that these practices and institutions exist because they are the only way in which many communities know how to celebrate their connection with their roots and their past. An invocation can as easily be a quotation from Thomas Jefferson as an appeal to Jesus. A “religious” lecturer to the Israeli army can as easily be a faculty member of the Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism as a Lubavitcher Hasid. Believers do not seek to destroy “misguided” institutions. They seek to use them.

  • If you are a believer, you choose to reverse roles.

Since unbelievers see themselves as outsiders in a community of believers, they make concessions more readily than do their opponents. If the Orthodox want to close down the Jewish Community Center on the Sabbath, if Conservatives want to keep humanistic literature out of the Jewish community library, unbelievers often will yield to the opposition out of a sense that their opponents feel more strongly about these issues than they, the unbelievers, do. But believers refuse to be second-class citizens. Humanistic Jews do not reject the Sabbath. They believe that the Sabbath should be a day for family celebration, personal recreation, and Jewish cultural stimulation. Humanistic Jews do not discard Jewish literature. They affirm the importance of seeing the Jewish experience through eyes that are not traditional. In most cases, their convictions are just as intense as those of their opponents. So, if the other side is always making demands, humanistic believers reverse roles. They have demands to make too.

  •  If you are a believer, you seek out other believers for mutual support.

Unbelievers are notorious non-joiners. Because they often are refugees from authoritarian institutions, the idea of belonging to a group or community that supports congregations and fellowships — of developing a working network of philosophic brothers and sisters — is anathema to them. The very smell of organization terrifies them. They prefer the safety of isolation. Even though the opposition derives its strength, power, and effectiveness from the willingness of its members to express their solidarity through group effort, unbelievers resist measures that would enable them to be equally effective. But believers know that everything the other side does is not bad. Organization is not bad if the purpose of the organization is good. Believers also know that isolation is a self-destructive strategy. It reinforces helplessness and the sense of “outsiderness” and leads to ideological impotence. A voice that cannot be heard is no voice at all.

  1.  If you are a believer, you give personal testimony all the time.

Fundamentalists are never reluctant to share their personal convictions when the opportunity arises — whether in business, in friendship, or at public celebrations. Their religious beliefs are not in some little corner of their minds, unrelated to their daily activity. In a real sense, what they are flows from what they believe. One of the reasons people are so strongly aware of their existence is that they talk about it all the time. For unbelievers, however, personal testimony is difficult. There is nothing to testify to because there is nothing positive to proclaim. Humanist believers shed such inhibitions. Even when an audience is less than friendly, they are willing to speak out. They recognize that “hiding” subverts integrity and cultivates self-hate. They want other people to know who they are and what they stand for. They want humanism and Humanistic Judaism to have a public voice. They may do no more than the Holocaust survivor who, at a community Holocaust commemoration in Detroit, shared her humanistic vision of the meaning of the horror in a moving declaration that justice must depend on human effort and human vigilance. They may do no more than the young man in my congregation who rose to explain secular humanism in his high school class when a Christian fundamentalist student denounced it. Believers give testimony when testimony is necessary.

Believing is better than not believing. It is a strategy more conducive to self­-esteem and effectiveness. If there have to be unbelievers, let those who do not believe in humanism play that role for a while.

The Rabbi Writes: Renewal

The Jewish Humanist, March 1993, Vol. XXIX, Number 8

Renewal.  That is the theme of our March retreat.  It is the special theme of our thirtieth anniversary celebration. 

Renewal means a strengthening of our commitment to the importance of the Birmingham Temple and of Humanistic Judaism in our lives.  It means that neither can be taken for granted, and that their welfare and survival depend on our personal efforts and involvement. 

There are many ways that we can express our commitment. 

We may choose to develop a better understanding of our Jewish and humanist roots.  The Monday evening class on Jewish history and Jewish culture and the Shabbat morning discussion group on Jewish literature await our participation. We can even call the Temple and acquire a book list of important reading that we can do all on our own.  Study can intensify our humanistic awareness of the Jewish experience and Jewish identity. 

We may choose to join a Temple committee or Temple work group.  The congregation exists because hundred (sic) of volunteers over the past thirty years have contributed their time and energy to the programs and activities of our unique community.  The Temple provides all kinds of opportunities for interesting work-intellectual, artistic, literary, social, ethical.  Along the way you meet new people and make new friends.  The bonds of friendship are the lifeblood of the congregation. 

We may choose to participate in the celebration life of the congregation  Every Shabbat evening we come together to celebrate our Jewishness and to renew our commitment to each other, to the Jewishh people and to the ethical values we strive to realize.  Being in the Temple on Friday night-all together-heightens our awareness of the community to which we belong and of the philosophy of life by which we seek to live.  Singing songs and lighting candles are not trivial when they are part of community renewal. 

We may choose to bring our Judaism into our home.  There is more to Jewish expression than Hanukka and Passover.  We may introduce a holiday we have never celebrated before.  We may read out loud the literature of Humanistic Judaism, think about it and talk about it with our partners and children.  We may even display a symbol as simple as our very own “Humanorah” to remind us of our identity and beliefs.  Even sophisticated people-although they are reluctant to admit it-may find meaning in visible symbols. 

We may choose to give our energy to community service.  Ethics only become real when they are turned into personal behavior.  Poor Jews need our help.  Russian families need our help.  Homeless people need our help.  The battle for abortion and life style rights is a continuous struggle against powerful opponents.  Social action can be done in many places.  But doing it through the Birmingham Temple strengthens the moral outreach of our own community. 

We may choose to discuss the Temple and Humanistic Judaism with our friends and neighbors.  Sharing ideas and convictions with others does not turn us into aggressive and overzealous missionaries.  But there may be people we know who would really enjoy the Birmingham Temple if only they fully understood our philosophy and if only they could associate Humanistic Judaism with enthusiastic people they love and trust.  New members come to us-not because they are “converts”-but because they discover, for the first time, a community where they can be both honest and comfortable.  Finding new families and singles for the Temple strengthens the congregation.  But it may also strengthen the newcomers. 

We may choose to participate in the movement of Humanistic Judaism.  The Temple is part of a national and world outreach which we helped to create.  We do not stand alone.  There are brother and sister communities in North America, Europe, Israel, Australia and Latin America who share our commitment to a cultural Judaism.  There is also the International Institute which trains our leaders and rabbis and also provides weekend seminars of adult education to help us intensify our Jewish and Humanist awareness.  Participating in the movement means meeting and working with people from all over our country and the world.  There are national conferences to attend.  There are international; meetings to enjoy.  There are annual trips to Israel to join.  There are programs, like the rabbinic program, to support.  Sharing with others in the project of making Humanistic Judaism a viable and recognized alternative in Jewish life is an exciting way to build our future. 

We may choose to be optimistic.  Hope is not a guarantee promised by destiny.  It is a determination to create what needs to be created.  Without that determination the Birmingham Temple would never have survived the assaults of her opponents and the wariness of skeptics.  Choosing hope means that we are serious about the future.  We do not accept the past unquestioningly.  We do not revere our tradition.  We are open to making changes that need to be made.  What once worked may no longer work.  As long as we remain faithful to our fundamental principles and mission, the strategies of implementing them can comfortably adjust to reality.  Creativity has to balance our nostalgia. 

I hope that the thirtieth birthday anniversary will be a time of renewal for you. 

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.”  


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. 


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 Spiritual Dimension

Humanistic Judaism North American Federation Conference Highlights Spring 1990 

Recently I was visiting in the hospital a woman who had just given birth to a child. She was holding her baby. Since she was a feminist and a female liberationist, she had never thought that having a child would be the greatest moment in her life. But it was. And the words she used to describe her ecstasy were that holding this child was “like a spiritual experience”. 

I know people who go up to Northern Michigan in the autumn to see the leaves changing. They walk through the woods and have extraordinary responses. And I find that more and more of them feel comfortable with saying that these experiences are spiritual happenings for them. 

I know people who for the past 20 years have been into yoga and meditation. Many of them are secular humanists. One woman said to me that she had an experience where she saw an extraordinary light. She did not think she was bumping into God (she’s not quite sure what he looks like), but she said it was an extremely intense spiritual experience for her. 

You cannot deny reality. If people who regard themselves as secular humanists are going around saying that they are having spiritual experiences, then you cannot sit around with some old secular dictionary and say the word spiritual is treyf

Given the history of secular humanism and Secular Humanistic Judaism, spirituality may seem to be something alien. The word spiritual conjures up certain non-humanist words and ideas; “supernatural”, “God”, a meaning that comes from “out there” for my life, withdrawal from everyday concerns, a sense that everything in the world constitutes some kind of harmonious whole. 

But when humanists talk about a spiritual experience, they may be talking about being at the symphony concert and hearing the Beethoven Ninth and being absolutely overwhelmed by the power, the beauty, the grandeur of the event. Or they are walking in the woods, or a child is born, or they have some special moment with a friend, or they are looking at the stars and observing the order of the universe. 

What does the secular humanistic version of spirituality have in common with the traditional kind? The experience of beauty. Both the traditionalist and the humanist acknowledge that the spiritual experience is one of intense beauty. 

Now beauty poses a problem. It is something that many people regard as trivial. It is also subjective. What one person regards this beautiful another may regard as ugly. How do you get a handle on beauty? 

Beauty is subjective but not trivial. The things that we perceive as beautiful in our lives are those things that give meaning to us, those things that are related to our survival and our happiness. What a human being would regard as beautiful would be different from what an insect would regard as beautiful if it had the power to think and feel. Since there are degrees of meaning, there are degrees of beauty. Objects, people, and events that are very meaningful and very beautiful are also very spiritual. 

One of the most beautiful things that we experience, which is part of every religion and every culture is light. Why do virtually all cultures light candles? The answer is quite clear. Without light, there is no life. When human beings first discovered fire, that discovery was the beginning of human civilization. Thus light and fire are understandably sacred and beautiful. 

Water is beautiful. Why does everyone want to live by the water? What is there about water that makes it so attractive and compelling? Well, where does life start? We start in water and some of us never want to leave! 

Vistas are beautiful. Why do people want to climb hilltops and enjoy the view? Remember, we started out as primates. For primates, the primary sense is vision. If they did not have good vision and they were jumping from one tree to the other and they missed, they were through. When they came down from the trees onto the Savannah grass and we’re looking apprehensively for danger, they needed vista and perspective. 

Symmetry is beautiful. Most people like symmetry; we ourselves are symmetrical. There are art forms that are asymmetrical, but we can get very disoriented when things are too asymmetrical. 

Order is beautiful. Why are people always turned on by the stars? I have a feeling that if you are out there next to Jupiter, it is not so orderly. But from a distance, from our perspective, it is different. Obviously, human beings cannot survive in chaos. There is something about order, predictability, that is related to our own sense of survival. 

Power is beautiful. Why are we into mountains? One of the ways to develop perspective on life is to feel insignificant. You get caught up in everyday problems and then you have what we call “experiences of something greater than yourself”, and all of a sudden the concerns that seemed so big become trivial. In fact, the sense of not feeling so important or feeling small against the universe, is an absolutely relaxing experience that enables you to prepare for the next chapter in your life. 

Grace is beautiful. Grace is doing the most difficult task with almost no apparent effort. ( there may be great effort involved, but it appears effortless. )  The most popular art form in our society is sports. For some people, watching participants in the Olympic games is like watching dancers. To them, athletic mastery is an affirmation that it is possible to establish perfect control over one’s body. It is the embodiment of an ideal. 

Solidarity is beautiful. Someone told me that the greatest spiritual experience in her life was back in the early 1960s, when she came to Washington and stood on the Mall and heard Martin Luther King Jr speak. She felt united with all those people, and for her that sense of unity was an ultimate experience. 

Even evil can be beautiful, when it imitates elements of good. One of the things that was very troublesome to many people was that Hitler understood how to integrate beauty with evil. He created torch light parades – masses of people carrying torches in the night. He knew how to exploit the power of beauty. Someone who was at Yellowstone Park during the terrible fire last year told me that the raging fire paragraph ( which certainly wasn’t productive of human good ) was in itself something beautiful 

What are the implications of what I am saying? The first is that beauty or spirituality is an act of creation. It does not exist in the object out there. It is an interplay between the object and the human being. On Sukkot I heard a performance of Yiddish music. I was in Israel, and this performance really grabbed me, to the point where I had a spiritual experience. An Irishman listening to that music would not have had a spiritual experience. Chinese people listening to that music would not have had a spiritual experience. It is not related to the affirmation of their roots. 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I performed a wedding recently in which the man was in his early eighties and the bride was seventy-nine. He was standing there holding the bride’s hand and saying, “she’s beautiful, beautiful”. The guests were puzzled because she appeared old and decrepit. But in the eyes of this man she was extremely beautiful. She was, for him, a spiritual experience. 

Not everything is beautiful. I find it annoying when people say, “All is Love”. In the middle of an earthquake, they say, “All is love”. As people are dying of cancer, they say, “All is Love”. They keep affirming that behind all this turmoil and evil there is some good force that unites all things. 

One of the most refreshing things for me, when finally I was confirmed as a secular humanist was that I could be honest, that I could call evil “evil”, rotten “rotten”, good “good”, and beautiful “beautiful”. In fact, beauty would have no meaning if everything were beautiful. The difference between a humanistic spirituality and a theistic spirituality is our assertion that ugliness is as basic as beauty. The universe does not always serve the human agenda. 

For me spirituality is an experience of intense beauty, and beauty is no trivial value. It is not simply art it is not simply nice faces in the living room. Beauty can be part of the most profound experiences of life. 

I do not want to argue about a label. Some old-time secularists are uncomfortable with the word  spiritual. So let them simply say “beautiful” or “meaningful” or “inspiring” or whatever word they choose. But for people who are not uncomfortable with the word ( because they were less engaged in the old battle against organized religion ), experiences of intense beauty can be appropriately “spiritual”. 

The challenge to us is how to increase these experiences in our lives, especially the kinds of experiences we can share as a community: the music we use, The poetry we choose, the experiences that go beyond the intellectual. Beauty is not an explanation of what is valuable in the universe. It is the experience of what is valuable in the universe. How do we arrange this experience? 

Aesthetics is not a trivial concern for us Secular Humanistic Jews if all we can do is to articulate our ideology, we will lose. If we can create for ourselves and others experiences of intense beauty, then we will be able to reach out to the people who need us. 

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.