An Unabashed Atheist: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, A Review

Thinking Outside the Box- Winter 2007

Atheism is a dirty word in America. The hatred of atheists was aggravated by the con­nection of atheism with Marxism. Ironically, Marx made a mistake. Most people who are poor or who are in the working class are very religious. Atheism was a deterrent to Com­munism. Most atheists are the children of the middle class.

Whereas secularization in Europe has made atheism mildly respectable, secularization in America has left large pockets of deeply reli­gious people. Atheists in America are discreet. Political safety demands that they show an appropriate level of humility. Religious people can safely denounce atheism as immoral and dangerous, but atheists must “behave.” They must always express their deep respect for the religious option. They must often disguise their convictions as agnosticism, a designation that implies that theism and atheism are equally valid choices. If they are sufficiently obsequi­ous, they will agree with the opposition that science and religion are compatible and that science cannot be the foundation of ethical values. Anti-atheists do not have to be nice. But atheists must always know their place.

One of the most famous self-proclaimed atheists in the world is Richard Dawkins. He is an Oxford professor and one of the most articulate defenders of Darwinian evolution. In his latest best seller, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), he refuses to be “ap­propriately humble.” He refuses to cater to the power of religion in America. He refuses to be deferent. He behaves as though atheism were as respectable as religion. Given the normal public discourse between theists and atheists, he is outrageous. He refuses to be patronized. The mere privilege of freely expressing his convictions is not enough.

Dawkins maintains that statements about God are no different from statements about the weather. They are statements about reality. They are statements open to scientific investi­gation. Science is not a procedure confined to the events of the “natural world.” It is a method for the discovery of truth that relies on hu­man observation and controlled investigation. Supernatural events, if they exist, are open to human observation. Certainly the biblical au­thors thought so. Believers always appealed to human experience to demonstrate the existence and goodness of God. If God is real, then faith is not enough. Faith is the hypothesis. Faith without evidence is wishful thinking.

Dawkins addresses all the available proofs for the existence of God and finds them want­ing. Part of the problem is that the God who is the conscious creator and manager of the uni­verse vanishes into philosophic abstraction. He becomes very much like the emperor’s clothing. You are never quite sure what you are looking for. And you are never quite sure why one god is better than several. The flesh and blood gods of mythology have turned into the verbal toys of theologians.

Dawkins asserts that ethics does not need God to be valid. The authority behind moral commands does not lie in the commander. It lies in the consequences of behavior. Ethics begins with genes struggling to reproduce themselves. It continues with individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their offspring. It moves on to groups that make it possible for individuals and their offspring to survive. It completes itself with a global world of strangers where the instincts of group living reach out beyond the family and the tribe to embrace others. Morality does not emerge from the drama of divine revela­tion. It is the child of evolution, negotiating the demands of selfish genes with the agenda of group survival. Along the way people put their convictions into the mouths of the gods. The authority of God ultimately rests on the authority of ancestors who struggled for life and happiness.

Dawkins does not stand in awe of reli­gious literature. He does not play the part of the humble atheist who pays tribute to the greatness of the Bible and the Koran even though he does not believe in the reality of their central character. He finds no moral greatness in the angry and vengeful Yahveh of the Old Testament. He discovers no great truth in the absurdities of New Testament theology. The roots of humanism do not lie here. They lie in the work of those who resisted the mes­sage of this literature.

Finally, Dawkins does not regard the ubiquity of religious conviction and religious behavior as evidence of their value. In the course of evolution genes “misfire.” They undergo mutations that are harmful, not use­ful. Religion, like the fear of strangers, may be an evolutionary aberration that may inhibit the struggle for human happiness rather than enhance it. The “God delusion” is not the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom emerges only when you fully recover from it.

For people who tolerate atheists and expect them to “know their place,” Dawkins is infuriat­ing. But for those who want to confront the alter­native to religion as a clear and self-respecting option, the honesty of Dawkins is refreshing.

How Antisemitism Was Transformed

Rise of Antisemitism, Winter 2003

Antisemitism is alive and well, but it has undergone some interesting transformations.

When antisemitism began, it was Euro­pean. Its historic roots lay in the anti-Juda­ism of early Christianity and the Middle Ages. Its trigger lay in the traumatic world of early capitalism.

In 1873 a major economic depression sent millions of Europeans into panic. The collapse of once-powerful banks, the wiping out of the savings of once-powerful people, the specter of unemployment — all combined to raise the question, “Why?” Antisemitism was a pow­erful and convincingly simple answer to this complex question. It thrived on the well- known connection of Jews with money. It won the hearts of both aristocrats and peasants who despised the leaders of the money economy.

While anti-Judaism was directed to the re­ligion of the Jew, antisemitism was focused on the “race” or ethnicity of the Jew. For the “anti- Judaites” the solution to the Jewish problem was the conversion of the Jew. For the antisemite the solution to the Jewish problem was the elimination of the Jew. Most antisemites were not interested in the religion of the Jew. They were absorbed in the social, economic, and po­litical roles that Jews played. For them conver­sion was irrelevant. It could not change the fundamentally evil nature of the Jew. Anti- Judaism imagined that the Jew was salvageable. Antisemitism knew that he was not.

In the end, if the Jew is the devil, if he has invented the evils of both capitalism and socialism, he is intolerable. Extermination flows logically from the premises of anti-semitic ideology. Expulsion and persecution are insufficient to eradicate the social evil that the Jew represents. For the arch-antisemite the Jew is the incarnation of evil. And evil has no right to exist.

The consequence of European anti­semitism was the Nazi debacle and the Holo­caust. So important was the Jewish enemy that his elimination took priority over competing items on the Nazi agenda. Even at the end of the war, when Nazi resources were exhausted, soldiers and trains were made available to execute the Final Solution.

After the Second World War, it seemed inconceivable that antisemitism would find defenders. The horror of the Shoah was so great that Western European governments outlawed antisemitic propaganda and anti-semitic political parties. Nazi symbolswere banned. Public hostility to the Jews achieved the status of a crime. Even the Ger­mans began the long repentance of repara­tions. The revival of antisemitism in Europe seemed unlikely.

Then, only three years after the war, Stalin turned his political power against the Jews of the Soviet Union. Jewish writers were elimi­nated. Jewish Communist leaders were ex­ecuted. Antisemitism shifted its European center from Western Europe to Eastern Eu­rope. If Stalin had not died in 1953, most of the Jews of Russia would have been deported to the gulags of Siberia. After his death antisemitism persisted, but it fizzled down to policies of persecution, all of it rendered lu­dicrous by the official protest that anti­semitism could not possibly exist in the Communist motherland.

Recent developments have shifted the center of antisemitism and antisemitic pro­paganda out of Europe. The reason is ironic. Jew-hatred in Europe triggered the rise of Zi­onism. And the leaders of Zionism claimed that the establishment of a Jewish state would cure antisemitism. Yet, as we know, the es­tablishment of the state of Israel provided a major provocation to the Arab and Muslim worlds. The consequence of this development was the emergence in the Muslim world of a rabid antisemitism. While many Arab anti- Zionists directed their hostility to the Israelis alone, most Arab anti-Zionists made no dis­tinction between Israelis and Jews.

After 1967, the concepts of European antisemitism and its propaganda were adopted by Arabs to explain how it was pos­sible for little Israel to defeat the combined armies of the Arab world. The answer was simple: Israel is the creation of America. And America is controlled by the Jews. American power is Jewish power. The demon of the money economy had now used its enormous political, economic, and military power to enslave the Muslim world and to corrupt its historic culture with the Jewish values of the American consumer society. For most Mus­lim fundamentalists, as well as many “Mus­lim Marxists,” Jews and America go together. And so does their evil.

Today in Cairo and Damascus, Baghdad and Karachi, the assault on the Jews is relent­less. European antisemitism has been dressed up in Muslim clothing, but the heart of the message is the same. The Jews stand at the center of human history as an evil force. Only their elimination, together with their puppets America and Israel, will save Islam and the world. Zionism has managed to generate a hatred in the Muslim world equal in inten­sity to the hatred in Europe that brought it into existence.

The September 11 scenario revealed this obsession. New York was chosen as the main target of the Muslim fundamentalist terrorists because it was viewed as the true capital of Jewish power. The World Trade Center was the temple of money and of the global economy, which represented the corrupt na­ture of Jewish power.

The return of virulent antisemitism to Europe arrived with the Muslim immigrants who are now pouring into Europe. The popu­lations of England, France, and Germany have already been radically altered by this migra­tion. Since the birthrates of native Europeans are low and the reproduction rate of Muslim immigrants is high, the future is clear. Europe will become increasingly more Muslim.

The centers of antisemitism in Europe no longer lie in the aristocracy or in the army or among the intellectuals. In the social sphere Jews are now able to achieve the summits of power and fame. On the contrary, the centers of antisemitism now lie among the poor Mus­lim immigrants and among the Europeans on the left who champion their cause. Anti­semitism has always been as much a disease of the poor as of the rich. For the economic losers of the global economy, antisemitism provides a simple and “credible” answer. The antisemitic violence that took place last April in France was the product of the inflamma­tory antisemitic propaganda that now floats around the Muslim world.

The shift of antisemitism from the Chris­tian to the Muslim world has produced ironic political consequences. The forces in West­ern Europe that hated Jews now also hate Muslims. But they generally hate the Jews less than they hate the Muslims. After all, Euro­pean Jews are committed to European culture. The Muslims represent a darker anti- European force. Plus — using the political principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend — the Jews suddenly emerge as useful allies of the anti-Muslim right. Even Monsieur LePen of the racist National Front has said as much. History does have the power to pro­duce absurdities.

It is certainly true that arranging for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians will re­duce the hostility of many Arabs and many Muslims toward Jews. But it is also true that for diehard Muslim fundamentalists the war against Western culture is also the war against the Jews and their American “puppets.” While Europe still harbors many antisemites on both the right and the left, the center of Jew-hatred now lies in the Semitic world and in the Mus­lim culture that the Arabs pioneered.

Islam Today

Islam and the Modern World, Autumn 2005-Winter 2006

Islam has high visibility in America be­cause of what happened on September 11, 2001. But it has low understanding. Most Americans associate modern Islam with violence and terrorism. Their knowledge is limited by hostility and distance. The varieties and complexities of Muslim life are not part of their perception.

Early Islam was a surprising story of phe­nomenal success. Inspired by the teachings of an Arab prophet from Mecca, the armies of Islam went out to conquer the civilized world in 635 C.E. They defeated the Greeks and Persians and boldly annexed most of their empires. Within only one century the Muslim world stretched from India to Spain. It was one of the most amazing conquests in the history of humanity.

Within three centuries most of the con­quered people had become Muslims and had adopted the Arabic language and Arabic culture as their own. An authoritarian govern­ment and an authoritarian clergy, supported by an authoritarian law, unified this vast domain. From the Qur’an[1] to the mosque, a new intensely religious civilization evolved. Although it tolerated Christians and Jews, its outreach and demands were totalitarian.

The religious intensity was bound to spawn division. Establishment Muslims were called Sunni. The dissenters took such names as Kharijites, Shiites, and Druse. All of them were united by mutual hatred and self-righ­teousness. While the wars with the Christian and Hindu worlds dominated politics, the internal wars were equally fierce.

The decline of the Muslim world before the advent of the urban industrial revolution in Western Europe was due to many factors. There was the economic reversal that came with the shift of the trade routes from Europe to Asia, the ocean voyage replacing the camel caravan. There was the trauma of the Mongol and Turkish conquests. There was the absence of a strong and vital middle class. Above all, there were the intransigent clergy, who nixed all scientific inquiry. The Muslim world en­joyed no Renaissance. By the nineteenth cen­tury the Islamic realms were overwhelmingly poor, backward, and passive. The doctrine of kismet (fate) discouraged any notion of hope and progress. The once-mighty conquerors were ripe for conquest.

The trauma of modern Islam was the con­quest of this depressed and volatile world by the great powers of Europe. Within one cen­tury the British, the French, the Italians, and the Russians had occupied almost all of the former Muslim territories. The humiliation of Islam was complete. The Christian world, which had, at one time, cowered before the might of the Muslims, was now the victor.

But there was one major difference in this reversal. The “Christian” powers of Europe were no longer Christian in the way they had been in earlier centuries. They had become the children of the first urban industrial revolu­tion. They were interested in the pleasures of this world, not the rewards of the next. They preferred cheap labor to converts, markets to shrines. If they were missionaries, they were missionaries for capitalism and free enter­prise. If they were educators, they were edu­cators of science. If they were idealists, they were idealists for secular states, industrial freedom, and female liberation. Nationalism had replaced religion as their chief passion. In many ways they were purveyors of a post- Christian civilization.

The encounter of Islam with the post- Christian West turned into both attraction and confrontation. Many Muslims wanted to imitate the West, either because they saw some personal advantage in changing or because they believed that only “modernization” could restore Muslim power. Many of these Muslim secularists shifted from religion to national­ism, imitating the West by becoming ardent Arabs, Persians, and Turks. But most Muslims were traumatized by the encounter. Modern Western secular culture violated the social order that gave structure and meaning to their lives. Individual freedom, secular education, and the liberation of women and children, in particular, were provocative. They simulta­neously envied the West and hated Western culture. And their antipathy was reinforced by the fanaticism of their clergy.

The Muslim secularists were initially successful, despite the conservative masses. They were often supported by the conquer­ing European powers. They had the ad­vantage of Western education. They found many adherents among native army of­ficers who yearned to expel the foreigners. Ataturk in Turkey, Pahlavi in Persia, and Nasser in Arab Egypt led political revolutions that sought to empower their nations through modernization. Later, Boumeddine in Al­geria, Qadaffi in Libya, Assad in Syria, and Hussein in Iraq followed the secularist road. But to no avail. Their modernization plans were foiled by growing populations, corrupt bureaucracies, military dictatorship, and the absence of vital middle classes. In the end their reigns produced some West­ernization — but mainly sullen and disillu­sioned masses.

Muslim fundamentalism is a militant response to the Muslim encounter with the ideas and values of urban industrial civilization. Fundamentalists are more than traditionalists. They are at war with secularism. Secularists are the agents of the Devil and must be eliminated — their beliefs and their values undermine the foun­dations of Islam. Only a holy war, which restores the original faith of the Muslims, can defeat them.

Contemporary Islam embraces three components. The first consists of the belea­guered secularists, who have lost ground over the past thirty years. The second is the militant fundamentalists, who have been winning increasing support in all the nations of the Muslim world. The third is the ambivalent middle, who are the clear ma­jority. They vacillate between the visions of material prosperity offered by the secularists and the militant piety of respected religious leaders. Since they are an amorphous mass without any clear direction, they offer no ef­fective resistance.

Muslim fundamentalists, despite their recent amazing growth, face many problems.

The first is science. Fundamentalists depend on Western technology to maintain their power but cannot produce an educational system that can give them scientists. They rely mainly on “stealing” the technology of the nations they despise. The second problem is the clergy. Economic and social manage­ment by the imams and the mullahs produces lethargic and corrupt regimes. The clergy are wonderful at mobilization; but they are a di­saster when it comes to maintenance (think Iran and Afghanistan). The third problem is internal feuding. Sunni fundamentalists hate Shiite fundamentalists, and both branches of Islam are divided into factions incapable of compromise.

But the main problem is that urban indus­trial civilization is taking over the planet. The global economy, with all its secular choices and freedom, will not easily be crushed. In the end Islam, like Christianity and Juda­ism, will have to adapt to it. The first wave of Muslim secularists may have achieved limited success. But the inevitable second wave will be reinforced by a transformation that is sweeping over China, India, and Latin America. Political and religious terrorism may not cease. But the consumer culture moves relentlessly on. The mullahs in Iran will not conquer poverty. Nor will they be able in the long run to persuade their Muslim adherents to stay poor.


 

Jews and Arabs

Crisis in Israel – Autumn 2002

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for the war in the Middle East? Or is the Jewish-Arab war condemned to last forever?

The war between the Jews and the Arabs in former British Palestine has been going on for eighty-one years. In 1921 the first Arab explosion against the Zionist pioneers an­nounced the beginning of the fray. For eight decades the war has waxed and waned. Thou­sands have been killed and maimed. Hatred and suspicion have undermined any success­ful resolution of the conflict.

After the Jewish War of Independence in 1948, the war became a war between the Jew­ish state and external Arab enemies. In that conflict, the Israelis were generally victorious. The Israeli triumph in 1967 crushed Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hero of Arab nationalism. But in 1987 the Palestinian Arabs chose a new kind of battle: internal rebellion. The intifada was born. And it has grown in fury ever since.

The foundation of the war is the power of nationalism. Jewish nationalism was born out of the defiance of the oppressed Jewish masses in Tsarist Russia. It was fed by racial antisemitism. Diaspora nationalism sought to liberate the Jews of Eastern Europe and give them cultural autonomy. It was destroyed by native resistance and the Holocaust. Zionist nationalism also saw itself as a national lib­eration movement. It naively proposed to solve the Jewish problem of antisemitism by return­ing the Jews to their ancient homeland. Rein­forced by socialist idealism and the revival of Hebrew as a popular language, Zionists estab­lished a Jewish settlement in Palestine. The closing of the doors to immigration in America, the support of the British govern­ment, and the rise of Adolph Hitler provided an impetus that the slaughter of six million Jews was to make irresistible. Zionism became the most powerful movement to mobilize the Jewish masses in the twentieth century.

Arab nationalism was an import from the West, cultivated initially by Christian Arabs as a way of countering their exclusion by Muslims. Propelled by Turkish oppression and by the humiliation of European conquest, the nationalist movement was led by West­ernized Arab intellectuals who embraced secular values and placed nationhood above religion. But since the Arab world never fully experienced the secular revolution that trans­formed European life, the Arab nationalism of the street had difficulty distinguishing be­tween Arab loyalty and Muslim loyalty. Reli­gion inevitably became part of the nationalist package in the Muslim world.

Since the Arab world is vast, divided by regional differences, cultural diversity, and the internal boundaries of twenty-two states created by colonial masters, the unification of the Arab nation has not been easy. Nasser tried and failed. He was defeated both by the Israelis and by the hostility of his political enemies and rivals in the Arab world.

The one issue that has the power of tran­scending the internal state boundaries of the Arab world and mobilizing the Arab masses is Zionism. The Jewish state, whether deserv­edly or not, has become the symbol of Arab humiliation. Perceived as the last and most outrageous example of European colonialism, Israel is the object of universal hate in the Arab world. The defeat of Israel has become the ultimate perceived means of restoring Arab honor. The hatred of Zionism is so intense that it is difficult for most Arabs to distinguish between their hostility to Israel and their ha­tred for Jews.

In fact, the suspicion and hatred between Arabs and Jews is so fierce that dialogue is condemned to failure. Most public and pri­vate encounters between conventional Arab and Jewish leaders degenerate into shouting matches. Each side insists on its rights. And, of course, both sides are “right.” The Pales­tinian Arabs have been invaded, abused, and oppressed. The Israeli Jews are by now mainly native-born residents of the land they defend and the creators of a dynamic, modern, high- tech state, who have no place else to go.

From the Jewish point of view, Arab hos­tility cannot easily be distinguished from antisemitism. The memories of the Holocaust hover over every response. Of course, the popular media in the Arab world reinforce this perception by aping the propaganda of European Jew-hatred. From the perspective of the Arabs, Jewish voices are confused with the voices of Jewish extremists who advocate expulsion and deportation.

There is an abundance of extremists on both sides. The Arab and Palestinian nation­alist and fundamentalist worlds feature many militant groups who advocate terrorism and who call for the destruction of the Jewish state. The Jewish and Israeli extremists are equally militant in their refusal to recognize the right of a Palestinian state to exist (other than by suggesting that Jordan is already a Palestin­ian state). But, to the credit of the Israelis, Is­rael has a peace movement that has no counterpart in the Arab world.

Both sides see themselves as victims. Jews see Israel as a small, beleaguered state in a vast and petroleum-rich Arab world that does nothing to rescue its Palestinian brothers and sisters from poverty. Arabs see Israel as the agent of American imperialism, supported by the wealth and military technology of the world’s only superpower, a nation beholden to Jewish political power.

The failure of the Oslo peace process is as much the result of intense hatred and sus­picion as of the incompatibility of vested in­terests. The issues of boundaries, Jerusalem, and refugees are surrounded by such levels of distrust that the normal compromises that negotiations bring can never emerge. No ar­rangements can provide the security that most Israelis want. And no “deal” can yield the sense of honor and vindication that most Pal­estinians and Arabs want.

In the search for alternatives to endless war, certain realities need to be confronted.

  • This war is not only bad for the Israelis and Palestinians. It is also bad for the Jews and the Arabs. For the Jews the war has already spread to Europe, where Muslim militants as­sault synagogues and vulnerable Jews. For the Arabs the war prevents any real confrontation with the political, economic, and social issues that confront the Arab world. War continues to justify government by military dictators.
  •  This war is bad for America and the world. The Palestinian issue has provided the fuel whereby Muslim militants have won the allegiance of millions of Arabs and Muslims in their desire to wage war against America and Western culture. A war between the West and Islam is a world war. It is different from a war against Muslim fundamentalist terrorism. In the latter war we enjoy and will enjoy the support of most Muslim governments. The success of our response to September 11 lies in our ability to make the distinction.
  •  Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians by themselves cannot achieve peace — or even an effective truce — by relying on negotia­tions alone. The cycle of vengeance has its own logic. Every terrorist action requires re­taliation. Every retaliation requires counter- retaliation. No antagonist can allow itself to be seen as weak. Revenge is a necessary tac­tic to maintain credibility. The cycle cannot stop itself without outside intervention.
  •  The proposed Palestinian state is no more than three thousand square miles in size, hardly a formula for viability. It is presently a series of urban “doughnut holes” in Israeli- occupied territory. The presence of the Israeli army is justified, not only by the argument for security, but also by the necessity to defend small Jewish settlements, which have been placed in the West Bank and Gaza by religious Jewish settlers laying claim to the land. These settlements prevent peace, add nothing to the security of Israel, and only provide more provocation to Arabs to kill more Jews.
  •  Jerusalem is already divided. Jewish Jerusalem (about two-thirds of the expanded city) has no Arabs; Arab Jerusalem (the east­ern sector) has no Jews. While some Arabs work in Jewish Jerusalem, almost no Jews ever penetrate Arab Jerusalem unless they are on military duty. A unified city is more desir­able than a divided city. But the division al­ready exists.
  •  A bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state (a dream of many peaceniks) is not politically viable even though it would be economically desirable. Jewish and Arab nationalism are realities. They cannot be wished away. Mu­tual hatred and suspicion are realities. They cannot be dismissed. Arguing against nation­alism may work a hundred years from now. It does not work now. A Jewish state is no more a racist state than an Arab state. It is a state where Jewish national culture is the dominant culture and where most people speak Hebrew. It is Jewish in the same way that Palestine will be Arab. Three million Palestinian refugees cannot return to the Jewish state without de­stroying the Jewish national character of the Jewish state.
  • Because outside intervention is required, the only superpower capable of orchestrating a successful intervention is America. Since September 11, Bush has mobilized an effec­tive coalition of world powers, including Eu­rope, Russia, China and India — as well as many allies in the Muslim world. The war between the Israelis and the Palestinians has begun to undermine the coalition, especially with Bush’s perceived support of the Sharon government in Israel. Joint intervention, with the approval of the United Nations and with the support of moderate Muslim powers would restore the coalition. This intervention is no different from the intervention that America initiated in Bosnia or Kosovo.

What would be the elements of such an intervention?

  1.  America controls the process of interven­tion. The Israelis do not trust the United Na­tions and will not cooperate with an effort managed by the hostile nations of the Third World.
  2.  America behaves as a neutral “parent.” It does not always praise one side and condemn the other. It creates a setting for negotiations, with the presence of major members of the coalition. The format of negotiations is only a pretense. In the “back room” America dic­tates the settlement. Everybody knows that America has imposed the settlement. Both antagonists protest. But they yield because they have no choice. The imposition gives the leaders of both sides an excuse. They can jus­tify their “surrender” to their constituencies by pleading helplessness. They may even shake hands reluctantly. Of course, Arafat will be there. The latest Israel foray has restored him as the popular leader of the Palestinians.
  3.  The imposed settlement will include the following: 1) the removal of all Jewish settle­ments from the West Bank and Gaza with the exception of those settlements that function as contiguous suburban communities for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; 2} the digging of a ditch and the building of a fence along the adjusted 1967 boundaries between the Jews and the Arabs; 3) the policing of this fence by America and its European allies; 4) the granting of Arab East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as their national capitol; 5) the demilitarization of the new Palestinian state, with periodic inspec­tions by Americans and their coalition part­ners; and 6) compensation for Palestinian refugees who cannot return.
  4.  Compensation for Palestinian refugees may cost more than thirty billion dollars. It will be covered by America, Japan, and our European allies. If the compensation helps to bring about an effective truce, it will be worth the investment. Rescuing the global economy for peace justifies the expense.
  5.  All that can presently be achieved is an effective truce. Peace will have to await a re­duction in the fury and hatred and suspicion.
  6.  Israel needs to be compensated for its willingness to shrink and to confront the wrath of its right-wing extremists. Since it will not in the foreseeable future be accepted by the Arab and Muslim worlds, it needs to be regarded as the European power that it is. Israel’s high-tech economy needs the Euro­pean market, just as its European culture needs a European support system. The price that Europe pays for this necessary peace is that it accepts Israel as a member of the Euro­pean Union. Such acceptance is no different from accepting Cyprus or Turkey. Israelis will be better off with euros than with shekels.

After this settlement is imposed, terrorist violence will continue. The war against Mus­lim fundamentalist terrorists also will continue. For the extremists in the Arab and Muslim world — and even in the Jewish world — hatred is a way of life. For the moderates, an effective truce will enable them to join the forces of peace.

The ball is in President Bush’s court. Only he can lead the way. The leaders of the De­fense Department and the religious right will oppose this kind of proposal. But only such action can provide any light at the end of the tunnel in the Middle East.

Jews and the Muslim World

Colloquium 07 – Summer 08

Since the advent of Zionism, the Arab and Muslim worlds have become obsessions in Jewish life. And since September 11, 2001, the world of Islam has become an obsession in American life. Similarly, Jews and Americans take the center stage in the Muslim perception of evil. The demonization of the Jew in Muslim propaganda during the past forty years echoes the strident hatred of German fascist leaders before and during the Second World War.

For most of the past fourteen hundred years the fate of the Jew in the Islamic world has been kinder than his fate in the Christian world. While there are harsh tales of Muslim persecution of the Jews, the steady stream of murderous assaults that defines the experience of Jews in Christian Europe is absent from the Muslim chronicles. Jews were not loved in the countries of Islam, but they were not demon­ized. In Spain and in many other places Jews and Muslims established alliances of conve­nience, which lasted for centuries.

Both Judaism and Islam had Semitic roots. The patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible were just like the patriarchs of Arab recollection. The detestation of painting and sculpture, the reverence of unhewn stones, the Bedouin abhorrence of pig meat, the love of animal sacrifices, the attachment to polygamy and secluded women – all of these cultural tastes were shared by Jews and Arabs. There was a compatibility of spirit and practice between the Jewish and Muslim societies that did not exist between the Jews and the Greco-Roman culture of the Christian world. Even the status of the Jewish and Muslim clergy and their pri­mary role as interpreters of sacred scriptures stood against the functioning of the Christian clergy as masters of ritual and worship. Ac­commodating to Muslim practice was easier for Jews than adapting to the cultural milieu of the Christian nations.

It was in the Christian world that the Jews were demonized. The militancy of the Crusades, the emergence of the aggressive missionary activity of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, and the persistent hostility to the banking and commercial activities of the Jews encouraged intense hatred. The Third and Fourth Councils of the Western Church, held in 1179 and 1215, respectively, turned the Jews into devils whom neither conversion nor baptism could cure. It was in the Christian world that Jews become racial pariahs that later secular writers would appropriate for modern antisemitism. The Jewish devil became the Jew­ish conspiracy to dominate the nations of the world. Zionism was a response to the intensity of Christian hostility to the Jews.

But Zionism sought to solve this Jewish problem in the Muslim world. Jewish na­tionalism chose a Muslim territory for Jewish settlement, a territory that had played host to a Muslim majority for more than one thousand years. While Christian antisemites were happy to see the Jews leave Christian Europe for Mus­lim Asia, the Muslims did not share their joy. The arrival of the Zionists reminded them of the arrival of the British and French. While the Jews saw themselves as the victims of Christian antisemitism, the Muslims saw the Zionists as the last invasion of European colonists. They saw no virtue in solving a European problem by transporting the Jews to a Muslim land. The European arrogance of using the whole world as a place to solve European problems infuriated the Arabs and triggered an Arab and Muslim hatred of the Jews that had not existed before.

The Muslim obsession with the Jews is something new. The advent of Zionism was the provocation. A noble and idealistic move­ment to rescue the Jews was perceived by its Muslims enemies as a travesty of justice. Jewish victims became Jewish villains. Jewish settlers were viewed as Jewish invaders. The vision of Jewish suffering was turned into an image of Muslim suffering. No genocide or Holocaust could reverse the confrontation. The victimiza­tion of the Jews was no excuse for the victim­ization of the Arabs.

The 1967 war turned hatred into antisemi­tism. The Jewish victory in the Six Day War was an ultimate humiliation. The Muslim world struggled with the question of how this defeat was possible. Antisemitism provided the an­swer. Straight from Hitlerian Europe came the reply. The Arab and Muslim worlds were not defeated by tiny Israel. They were defeated by a giant world conspiracy organized and financed by the world Jewish community. This com­munity controlled all Western governments and every development in the global economy. Jewish leaders had already sponsored two depressions and two world wars to enrich themselves and to enhance Jewish power. They had initiated the saga of the Holocaust to hide their ruthlessness and to persuade the Gentile world to see them as sufferers and not as conquerors.

After 1967 antisemitism became an im­portant ingredient of Muslim propaganda and Muslim politics. Anti-Zionism was replaced with the detestation and demonization of the Jew. Only the “Jewish enemy” of antisemitism could inspire the terrorist assault on Israel, the Jewish Diaspora, and their perceived allies. The assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 by an enraged Palestinian was the beginning of the Muslim war against the devil. America had become the tool of the Jews. The Muslim fundamentalist assault on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001 was a con­tinuation of this war. New York, “the real capital of the Jews,” was to feel the brunt of Muslim revenge.

The Jewish response to this confronta­tion is fear and contempt – fear of Muslim numbers and Muslim power and contempt for the ignorance that allows this antisemi­tism to be believed. With some Jews, fear and contempt have united into hatred. The enemy has arranged for us to turn into mirror images of themselves.

Is this confrontation between Jews and the Muslim world irresolvable? Are we con­demned to eternal war? Or is there a real possi­bility of “shrinking” the hatred, of diminishing the confrontation?

Gibson’s Bad News for the Jews: The Passion of the Christ a film by Mel Gibson, Review

Colloquium 2003: Spring 2004

The most famous Jew who ever lived is a problem for Jews. His name was Jesus, and he became the central figure of the world’s most successful religion. Today more than two billion people — one-third of the human race — proclaim themselves to be Christians.

The Christian Church persecuted Jews for more than fifteen centuries. Christian leaders accused Jews of being Christ-killers. They slaughtered them in pogroms. In the Jewish mind, Jesus and antisemitism go together. We cannot even talk about him in our services and Sunday Schools. He belongs to the “en­emy.” For a Jew to become a Christian is an act of treason.

The only ancient stories we have about Jesus are Christian stories. There are no reports from contemporary Greek or Roman histories. The official Christian story of his life and death dates from the fourth century C.E., when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This official story is contained in four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and in two creeds, Athanasian and Nicene. In this narrative there are five major events: Jesus’ virgin birth during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, his four-year preaching career, his passion and crucifixion at the age of thirty-three, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension to heaven after forty days on earth. This official story was re­inforced by punishment for those who devi­ated from it.

Throughout the ensuing centuries, the Western Church (the Roman Catholic Church), in particular, focused on the details of the Crucifixion and demonized Jews as Christ- killers. In the Middle Ages, passion plays were created, which retold the New Testament story with gory embellishments and depicted the Jew as the agent of the Devil.

The antisemitism of the Catholic Church was alleviated in the past three centuries by the arrival of the secular revolutions that transformed modern society: capitalism, sci­ence, and democracy. The Church was de­prived of its temporal power. Modern schol­ars wrote new versions of the Jesus epic, in which the role of the Jews was downplayed and the message of love became the central theme. When antisemitism reasserted itself in the twentieth century, the guilt engendered by the Holocaust produced the apologies of the Church after Vatican Council II.

When the cinema arrived on the scene, with all its power to influence public opin­ion, film versions of the story of Jesus, from De Mille’s King of Kings to George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told, were relatively benign. In later years, Jewish Hollywood reversed the roles. The “crucifixion” of the Jews, as embodied in the Holocaust, now became a continual theme. Jews were the victims; Chris­tians were the cruel murderers.

Mel Gibson’s new movie about Jesus de­fies all this “positive” development. It is an old-time Catholic passion play on film, with its gory sadism and its powerful antisemitism. It is as though Gibson wanted to cancel out the “Holocaust syndrome” and to restore the time when Christians felt perfectly free to portray Jews as villains, without guilt. After all, Gibson and his father belong to a seces­sionist group of Catholics who disapprove of the liberal reforms of Vatican II and wish to restore Catholicism to its former orthodoxy. Some of these secessionists, including Gibson’s father, deny the Holocaust.

The film is a powerful cinema experience. Jews cannot appreciate it because they are turned off by its obvious antisemitism. Liberals cannot appreciate it because they cannot identify with the virtue of suffering. All they can talk about is the excessive and intolerable gore. Liberal Christians cannot appreciate it because they have “converted” to the Jesus of the Enlightenment, whose main achievement is not the atonement for sin or the conquest of death but the message of love.

But for conservative Christians this film is a triumph. It recaptures the central message of traditional Christianity: Jesus Christ suffered and died for our sins. His chief enemy is the Devil, who seduces humanity to defy God. Two powerful emotions are aroused by this movie. The first is guilt — the guilt the believer feels for his own sins and for the suffering of Jesus, who takes on himself the punishment that the believer deserves. The second is rage — rage against the cruelty of the Devil and against the sinners who embraced his cause. All their noses are crooked and Semitic. Only one Jew­ish nose in the film is straight.

The film is bad news for the Jews. Although inspired by Catholic fervor, it will become a cult film with the Protestant Religious Right, the lovers of Sharon’s Israel. (Will wonders never cease!) It will be embraced by enthusi­asts in Europe and by the anti-Jewish public of the Muslim world (even though official Islam does not accept the crucifixion of Jesus).

The good news is that Western Europe is so secularized that Disney is doing better than Gibson. And, in North America, skepticism and nonconformity are so widespread that The Da Vinci Code remains a bestseller — a book with the thesis that Jesus may never have been crucified, but instead got married and had a child. An America that is willing to entertain such an idea is very far from the mindset of The Passion of the Christ.

Meeting the Challenge of Renewal

Challenge of Jewish Renewal  – Autumn 1998

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this all mean?

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

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

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

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

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

How do we respond?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will There Be War in the Middle East?

Building Bridges to a Wider Jewish Community: Autumn 00/ Winter 01

That question dominates the anxiety of the Jewish world.

Before the Camp David breakup, we were talking about peace — peace between the Is­raelis and the Palestinians, peace between the Jews and the Arabs. At this writing, the peace process apparently has collapsed. We no longer believe in the possibility of peace. We only talk about a way to end the violence.

There are horrifying memories that will not go away. A Palestinian child shot to death by Israeli fire while his terrified father tries to shield him. The bloodied body of an Israeli reservist tossed from the window of a Ramallah police station to an exultant Palestinian mob below. An enraged Israeli Arab screaming, “Death to the Jews” while rushing the Israeli police. Jewish settlers from Upper Nazareth rampaging through the lower city in search of their Arab victims.

Who is to blame for this shocking change? Was it Ariel Sharon, who defiantly marched through the Dome of the Rock sacred com­pound with an enormous retinue of security guards? Did he want to provoke the Arabs and destroy the peace process? Did he want to up­stage Bibi Netanyahu, his archrival, for the leadership of the Likud Party, the political voice of hostility to the Oslo peace agreements?

Was it the fanatic Hezbollah in Lebanon, who orchestrated the Palestinian street dem­onstrations and whose stated ambition is to drive the Israelis into the sea? Did they mobi­lize the perpetrators of Palestinian violence?

Or was it the sleazy Yasser Arafat, who refused the brave and generous offer of Ehud Barak, the prime minister of Israel, and later the last-ditch proposals of President Clinton, subverting seven hard years of peace negotia­tions? Does he believe that he can wring more concessions from the Israelis through violence rather than through talking?

All these “culprits” may have added fuel to the fire. But the main trigger to the violence was the increasing disillusionment with the peace process felt by thousands of Palestin­ians who came to see that an independent Palestinian state, as conceived by the Israe­lis, would be nothing more than a Bantustan. The Palestinians had had false expectations of what the Israelis would be willing to yield.

There are certain unavoidable realities that we need to confront in order to understand the nature of the crisis. There are two incompat­ible agendas. The maximum concessions of the Israelis cannot meet the minimum demands of the Palestinians. Whether the issue is Jerusa­lem or the return of Palestinian refugees, the gulf between the two sides is very wide.

Israel, including the Palestinian territo­ries, is a very small country. Jews and Arabs have intermingled. Finding appropriate boundaries to separate them is not easy. Even if both sides loved each other it would not be easy.

The hatred and suspicion engendered by seventy years of war are so intense that inter­nal negotiations are an impossibility. Each side perceives itself as the victim and rein­forces its victimhood with horror stories of eviction and terrorism. Jews and Arabs find it difficult to talk to each other. They find it easier to scream at each other.

The Palestinian agenda is ambiguous. The pragmatic side recognizes that Israel is here to stay and that Palestinians will have to settle for a small state surrounded by Israeli mili­tary and economic might. The emotional side wants to expel the Jews and restore the old Palestine. The Palestinian dilemma is whether to accept a real state with permanent inferi­ority or to fight for a big state in a war that can only lead to self-destruction.

The rebellion revealed that the Arabs of Israel see themselves as Palestinians first and Israelis second. This reality is a frightening discovery for the Israelis. Over one-fifth of the Israeli people are Arabs. And, after years of discrimination and rejection, they do not identify with the culture of the government that claims them. Even if Israel successfully separates from the Palestinian state, it remains a volatile “mixed neighborhood.”

The major issue that undermines the peace process is not Jerusalem. It is the re­turn of Palestinian “refugees.” No Palestin­ian government can hope to survive if it surrenders the right of Palestinians to go back to their original home. And the state of Israel cannot survive as a Jewish state if it allows the refugees to return. A Jewish state with an Arab majority is an impossibility.

The rebellion struck a blow at moderate governments in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It gave power to fanatics and extremists who are calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and for the elimination of Arab and Muslim “traitors” who would deal with the Jewish state. The trouble can only provide added credibility to Saddam Hussein and the Iranian regime. The moderates are on the de­fensive and scared. Even the Arab-hating secu­lar Turks have chastised Israel.

Yasser Arafat is no longer in control of his “troops.” His refusal to accept Barak’s peace offer and Clinton’s proposal came out of fear that acceptance would mean assassi­nation. As a survivor, his political stand al­ways follows what he perceives Palestinian public opinion to be. He is, tragically, a fol­lower rather than a courageous leader.

The Israelis’ gains of the past few years in the Arab world are lost. Arab and Muslim nations, which had opened themselves to the possibility of opening the door, are pulling back. From Morocco to Oman, from Jordan to Indonesia, an Israeli connection is now per­ceived to be a liability. It will not be easy to reopen that door. Israel remains a European state stuck provocatively into the middle of the Muslim world. Only North America and part of Western Europe can be reliably counted on to offer support and protection.

The days of Barak are numbered. The peace process failed — at least for now. What probably will follow is a govern­ment led by Ariel Sharon, which will nix any peace initiative.

The consequences of a real war between Israel and her Arab enemies are too frighten­ing for the world to contemplate. An oil em­bargo alone could attack the global economy and wreak havoc on America and other in­dustrial nations. Nobody interested in the welfare of the global economy can allow this war to happen.

So what are the implications of these re­alities for the future?

Outside intervention by the great powers, organized through United States initiative, is the only way to stop the violence. Israel and the Palestinians, left to their own devices and without outside pressure, cannot do it.

For the foreseeable future the most that can be arranged is a truce. Israel would be well-advised to pull back to the line it can sustain as the boundary line between itself and the Palestinians — and hold it. Interna­tional supervision of the truce line may be necessary, even though Israelis mistrust any international intervention.

The alienation of Israeli Arabs will in­crease, presenting the state with a continuing provocation. An Arab minority friendly to Is­rael would require major changes that the Is­raeli public is not willing to concede.

The new Israel will again be a fortress Israel, mobilized for war and increasingly de­pendent on its American allies. Its govern­ments will be conservative, dominated by Sephardim and Orthodox Jews. Many secu­lar Jews will choose to emigrate. Many high-tech industries, the gems of the new Is­raeli economy, will decide to locate in safer places of the global economy.

If violence continues, Diaspora Jews will be caught up in the violence and the terror­ism. The Muslim enemies of Israel will not distinguish between Israelis and the Jewish people. An uncomfortable vigilance will en­ter into Diaspora Jewish life.

Of course, by some “miracle,” the peace process could be restored by dramatic changes in the perspective of Israelis and Palestinians. But I would not hold my breath.

Is Humanistic Judaism A Religion?

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

In recent years, I have encountered, a persistent objection: “How can you call your organization a temple? Humanism may be a great philosophy of life. It may even be the ideological answer to man’s twentieth-century needs. Yet, if there is one thing it isn’t, it isn’t a religion.”

The question is a significant one. If we are going to designate our philosophy and institution as religious, then we must be as precise and accurate with the phrases we employ as we expect the theologian to be with the words he uses. One has a moral obligation to be faithful to the historic meaning of ordinary words.

To discover the authentic significance of religion, we must clarify the unique characteristics of the religious experience. A proper definition must rely on what is peculiar to the phenomenon under analysis. To define religion as “the pursuit of fulfillment” or “the pursuit of salvation” or “the act of relating to the universe as a whole” is to consign the term to the limbo of words that have lots of prestige but refer to nothing in particu­lar. For after all, what human activity, from psychiatry to politics, is not con­cerned with human fulfillment? And what human procedure does not involve relating to the universe “as a whole”?

Initially, we must clarify what religion is not. Many liberals are fond of desig­nating the religious experience as the

moral dimension of human life, the ethical commitment of the individual. However, while it is certainly true that all historic religions have been vitally concerned with social right and wrong, it is also true that there are hosts of activities, normally des­ignated as religious, that have nothing at all to do with ethical propriety. Lighting candles and celebrating spring festivals are morally neutral. Moreover, large num­bers of sincere and sensitive people think of themselves and are regarded by others as both ethical and nonreligious.

Many popular definers associate reli­gion with the act of faith as opposed to the procedures of empirical reasoning. Reli­gion is viewed as a unique approach to questions of truth. While this definition may be attractive by its simplicity, it will not hold water. Reasoning through obser­vable evidence is common to parts of all sacred scriptures; and intuitive trust in the truthfulness of self-proclaimed author­ities is as common to the daily procedures of politics and business as it is to those endeavors that are normally regarded as religious.

As for the persistent attempts to identi­fy religion with the worship of God, they may be appropriate within the narrow framework of Western culture but invalid universally. The Confucian ethical tradi­tion and the Buddhist Nirvana are reli­giously as significant as God and yet are quite distinct from the normal notion of deity. Nor will the Julian Huxley defi­nition of the religious experience as the apprehension of the sacred quite do. To simply describe the sacred as that which is able to arouse awe, wonder, and rever­ence is to identify its consequences but not to clarify the nature of its constituent parts. Without analysis, the definition simply substitutes one mystery for an­other.

A proper view of religion requires an honest confrontation with certain histor­ical realities:

  1.  In almost every culture, religious in­stitutions are the most conservative. It is historically demonstrable that ecclesias­tical procedures change more slowly than other social patterns. Ideas regarded as radical and revolutionary within the framework of church and synagogue are usually regarded as commonplace in other areas of human behavior. While most institutions resist change, organized religion has been the most supportive of the status quo. Intrinsic to established priesthoods is the notion that change may be necessary but not desirable.
  2.  Religious teachers and prophets per­sistently refuse to admit that their ideas are new; if they do, the indispensable sa­cred character of their revelations disap­pears. The religious radical must always demonstrate that he is, in reality, the most genuine of conservatives. Moses pleaded the endorsement of Abraham; Jesus in­sisted that he was but the fulfiller of old prophecies; Mohammed posed as the re­viver of pure monotheism; and Luther claimed that he desired only to restore the pristine and authentic Christianity. As for Confucius, he denied originality and at­tributed all his wisdom to old emperors. Even the Jewish Reformers vehemently af­firmed that they were simply recapturing the true message of the Prophets. Novelty is historically irreligious.
  3.  In ordinary English, the word reli­gious is usually equivalent to the Yiddish frumm. Both adjectives are tied up with the notion of ritualism. An individual is judged as “more religious” or “less reli­gious” by the degree of his ritual behavior. The liberal may protest that this usage is narrow and primitive. But he still has to explain why even sophisticated speakers, when they relax with the word religious and are non-defensive, associate it with repetitive ceremonies.
  4.  The annual cycle of seasons, as well as the life cycle of human growth and decay, are universal concerns of all orga­nized religions. Spring and puberty may have no apparent ethical dimension, but they are more characteristic of historic re­ligious interest than is social action. We may deplore the religious obsession with Bar Mitzvah. But then, after all, we have to explain it.
  5.  Despite Whitehead’s popular defini­tion of religion as that which man does with his solitude, most religious activities have to do with groups. In most cultures, sacred events are not separable from either family loyalty or national patrio­tism. The root word religio is a Roman term for the sum of public ceremonies that express the allegiance of the citizen to the state. Even the ancestor cult that defines the popular religion of most of the Eastern world is an act of group loyalty that di­minishes the significance of the isolated individual and enhances the importance of family continuity. Historic religion started with the group and is not easily separable from it.
  6.  The notion of the saint or the holy man permeates most religious cultures. This revered individual achieves his status not only because of his impeccable ritual and moral behavior but also because he is able to enjoy the summit of the reli­gious experience. To be able to transcend this messy world and to unite mystically with what is beyond change, space, and time is his special forte. The mystic expe­rience has almost universally been regar­ded as the supreme religious event and the entree into the supernatural.

Any adequate theory about the nature of the religious experience and its unique characteristics must be able to explain these six facts. It must find the common cord that binds these disparate elements together. While many factors can account for some of them, only one theory takes care of all of them. And this theory is in­separable from the initial concern of historic philosophy.

The origin of philosophic inquiry and metaphysics lies in a disdain for the sensi­ble world of continual change and a per­sistent love of what is eternal and beyond decay. Plato was adored by later theologians because of his “religious” temperament. He detested the world of impermanence and asserted that wisdom was concerned only with entities that never change. The chaotic world of space­time events that modern science inves­tigates was anathema to his pursuit of knowledge. If the Greeks were unable to develop the rudiments of a real empiri­cism, herein lay their problem. Whatever they searched for had to be deathless and eternal. They could never end up being in­terested in what was tentative and condi­tional.

In fact, the search for the deathless is the psychic origin of the religious experi­ence. The human individual is a unique animal. He alone is fully aware of his per­sonal separateness from other members of his species and conscious of the tem­porary nature of his own existence. He fears death and needs to believe that dying is an illusion. In his anxiety, he searches for persons or forces that enjoy the bles­sing of immortality. With these, he seeks to identify and find the thrill of being part of something “bigger than me.” The religious experience is universally an act of feeling at one with what seems to possess the aura of eternity.

If we test this definition by the evi­dence, it works superbly. It explains the essentially conservative nature of historic religion. Change, experiment, and mere opinion are in spirit nonreligious. Only eternal truths will do. All seeming change is pure illusion; and even the most radical steps must be covered by the cloak of rein­terpretation. The definition also clarifies why all new truths must be labeled as old. The religious temperament requires the solace of age and venerability. Even if the good word is humanly new, it turns out to be divinely old.

The theory explains the religious power of ritual. Traditional ceremony is not sig­nificant because of its ethical content; that excuse is a sop for the modern intellect. Ritual acts derive their psychic punch from the fact that they are meticulously identical and repetitive. In a world of con­tinual and frightening change, they give to human behavior a mood of eternity. Their power is not symbolic; it is intrinsic to the ceremony itself. New observances that are labeled as new may be aesthetically char­ming, but they lack the religious dimen­sion. As for the seasons and life-cycle events, what greater evidence is required to substantiate the thesis? Societies may undergo revolutions and violent social upheaval; they may experience the over­throw of every existing value and idea. But the explosion is powerless to alter the relentless sequence of spring, summer, fall, winter — birth, puberty, maturity, and death. Nothing is more eternal than the seasons. Their continual repetition and observance is an ultimate security.

Moreover, the group character of most religious observance reflects the human desire for permanence. The family and the nation have always been inseparable from the major religious experiences of any culture simply because they suggest the immortality the individual does not. And the mystic experience is equally ex­plained by this need to defeat change and death. The ecstasy of the saint is ra­tionalized as an encounter with the changeless. To “transcend” the world of space and time may be informationally ab­surd; but as an exclamation of victory over the fear of death it has emotional significance.

If, then, the unique character of the religious experience is the act of identify­ing with what appears to be permanent, a proper understanding of humanism re­quires the following observations:

  1.  The religious temperament and the pursuit of knowledge through empirical procedures are incompatible. Humanism is committed to the techniques of modern science; and all proper statements within that framework are tentative, subject to the refutation of future evidence. Empiri­cism cannot tolerate eternal truths about man and the universe. The conditional character of all knowledge, with an in­finite capacity for adjustment, is its spe­cial power and glory.
  2.  Humanism is a total philosophy of life, which does not allow the religious temperament to invade every area of its discipline. However, if man has a need to transcend his temporariness and identify with something or someone more perma­nent than the individual, this need cannot be ignored. Within the framework of humanism, two means of satisfaction ex­ist. By asserting that every person is com­posed of the same matter/energy from which all other phenomena derive, hu­manistic teaching affirms that each of us shares an intimate bond, a basic identity, with everything in this universe. Stars and flowers are material brothers to our na­ture. And by proclaiming that before and beyond the individuality of any person, each of us shares an essential oneness with all human beings, humanism pro­claims that all of us share in the ongoing existence of humanity as a whole. In fact, the very basis of ethical behavior lies in this religious experience. If every person can feel himself only as an individual, the social character of morality is impossible. Ethical behavior is feasible only when people sense that the essential nature that binds them together is more significant than the individual differences that sepa­rate them.

Thus, humanism is more than a reli­gion. While there are certain areas of its discipline that provide the religious expe­rience, there are many areas in which the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. Therefore, the humanist never regards the description “less religious” as a threat. Humanists rather view it as a compliment. They are aware of the fact that the balanced life requires much more. While they resist the invasion of all life by the religious temperament, they, at the same time, affirm the value of the religious experience in the simple rehear­sal of nature’s seasons and the image of immortality in human survival.

RESPONSA – Messianic Jews

1992 Conference Highlights, Spring 1993

Question: What is Humanistic Judaism’s position regarding Messianic Jews? Are they Jewish? If so, how are they distin­guishable from Gentile Christians?

Responsum: Few issues in Jewish life arouse Jewish emotion more than the pros­elytizing activity of Jews for Jesus. After centuries of Christian persecution and op­pression, which left powerful memories of aggressive missionary activity and forced conversions, our view of Jewish converts to Christianity (as Messianic Jews are often regarded) tends to be less than friendly. Many Jews see them as traitors and turn­coats, betrayers of our people, consorters with our historic enemies, unconscionable subverters of Jewish survival in the century of the Holocaust.

Almost universally, Jewish organiza­tions refuse Jewish status to Messianic Jews. The Israeli Supreme Court, in a recent, much-publicized decision, denied them the status of Jews, a decision that runs counter to the principles of both Orthodoxy and Zionism. Rabbinic Judaism maintains that the children of Jewish moth­ers are Jews, regardless of their religious beliefs; Jewish identity is ethnic and “eter­nal.” Zionism maintains that Jewish iden­tity is national, not religious; even athe­ists, practitioners of yoga, and believers in reincarnation and astrology are Jews so long as they identify with and participate in Jewish national aspirations. (Ironically, Messianic Jews, who are rejected as Jews, have a stronger belief in the validity and authority of the Torah and theological Judaism than do secularists who are ac­cepted as Jews.) The decision to reject Messianic Jews is not a matter of principle. It is an act of anger and spite. Once belief is ruled out as the criterion of Jewishness, then singling out messianic beliefs as a sign of non- Jewishness is invalid.

The criterion for Jewish identity (as established by the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews in Brussels in 1988) is the willingness to identify with the history, culture and fate of the Jewish people. Messianic Jews identify with that history, practice that culture, and accept the burdens of the Jewish fate. Why should people who actively desire to identify with the history, fate, and culture of the Jewish people be rejected as Jews when the most wild-eyed, New Age hippie with minimal interest in Jewishness retains Jewish iden­tity?

From a Humanistic Jewish point of view, believing that Jesus is the Messiah is no more offensive than believing that the Lubavitcher rebbe is the Messiah. If we are not prepared to exclude “errant” Lubavitchers, then why exclude “errant” believers in Jesus? We, as Humanistic Jews, would prefer that Jews be rational and nonmessianic. But, if they choose to be messianic, we are not going to engage in the absurd game of choosing “kosher” messiahs over “non-kosher” messiahs. Rabbi Akiba believed that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah. Did Akiba thereby cease to be a Jew? Thousands of Jews in the seven­teenth century believed that Shabbatai Zevi was the Messiah. Did they, too, stop being Jews? Why pick on Jesus? After all, we cannot have our cake and eat it too. We cannot claim at interfaith banquets that Jesus was a Jew and simultaneously deny the Jewish identity of born Jews who want to be Jews and who choose Jesus as their savior.

From a Humanistic Jewish perspective, all messiahs are ridiculous. But being ri­diculous does not disqualify a person from being a Jew. Judaism is a pluralistic civili­zation. It can accommodate theists and atheists, mystics and rationalists, halakhists and individualists, devotees of the rebbe as well as devotees of Jesus. Messianic Jews are Jews, even if their belief system may be offensive to us. They are entitled to the privileges of Jews under the Law of Return. They are entitled to participate in the deliberations of Jewish communal bodies so long as they are not seeking to prosely­tize.

Gentile Christians are not interested in Jewish identity. They are not interested in celebrating Jewish holidays, even from a messianic point of view. They are not interested in participating in Jewish cul­ture or in identifying with the Jewish historical experience. Gentile Christians participate only in Christian culture. Mes­sianic Jews have chosen to participate in Jewish culture as their primary culture.

Messianic Jews are very far from Hu­manistic Jews in their belief system. But, like the Lubavitchers (who are almost equally as distant) they share with us a commitment to the survival of the Jewish people.