The Rabbi Writes – The Right to Die

Volume 27, No. 6, January 1991

The right to die.

On the surface a rather bizarre right. Especially when we remember that most human rights talk is about the right to live. Demanding freedom, dignity and security is all related to enhancing the quality of life. Suicide seems a less appetizing civil liberty.

But in recent years the affirmation of the right to die has been growing stronger and stronger. Modern medicine has prolong the life of many people beyond their ability to cope with the ravages of aging. Medical technology has become so sophisticated that terminally ill and comatose patients are kept alive by machines that promise no more than a living death. Expectations for the quality of life have resin decade by decade. Excruciating pain and humiliation are no longer tolerable or justifiable for millions of people.

The right to die issue was dramatized recently, right here in the state of Michigan, with the Jack Kevorkian case. A Detroit area physician and euthanasia advocate helped an Oregon woman, Jane Adkins, Who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, to commit suicide. Refused a setting in a motel or funeral home, Kevorkian set up his suicide machine in the back of a van. Adkins presses the button and died. She had chosen Michigan as the place of her suicide because there was a physician who was willing to assist her and because for some odd reason there is no law in the state of Michigan that prohibits assisting at a suicide.

A public furor arose over the Kevorkian action. Many condemned him as a moral monster who had betrayed his oath as a doctor. Others called for his immediate arrest. Still others demanded that the state legislature act immediately to cover up the loophole in the law. In the end he was put on trial in Oakland County. But, shortly after the trial began, the prosecutor withdrew the charge claiming that the present law failed to sustain his guilt. The anti-euthanasia people are livid. They are working to change the lot to make sure that what Kevorkian chose to do will never again go unpunished.

The anti-euthanasia people do not believe in the right to die. They do not believe in an easy death (that’s what the word euthanasia means). They believe that all forms of suicide are wrong even for the terminally ill.

They believe that God creates life and only God can take it away. They believe that human suffering is a mystery that only God can understand. Although it appears to be evil it really serves some good purpose which the limited human intellect cannot discern. Moreover, human life is sacred and taboo because it bears the divine image. It cannot be tampered with. What Kevorkian chose to be was God. And no human being has the right to play that role.

Now most humanists might object to the haste and shabby setting which accompanied the suicide of Jane Adkins. But they cannot resist the right of Jane Adkins to be the master of her life and to choose her death when she was suffering terminal pain and humiliation. That right to die, under such circumstances, is a moral right.

The dispute with traditionalists centers around the purpose of life. For the pious the purpose of life is life. It is the humble acceptance of whatever God has arranged for us. For us as humanists the purpose of life is not life. A life with no pleasure or dignity, or with no chance of pleasure or dignity, is without meaning. The purpose of life is the quality of life, a quality of life defined by basic human needs. When these needs can no longer be satisfied life ceases to be significant. Living as a “vegetable“ or a living as a dying victim of painful disease has so special moral claim to preservation.

The right to die is the other side of the right to live with dignity. If indeed we are “divine“, as the pious claim, we demand for ourselves what even the most modest of deities would insist for themselves.

What are the implications of the right to die?

It means the people who are terminally ill and who have no realistic hope of recovery have the right to choose death.

It means that society should assist these people so that their justifiable suicide will be easy (euthanasia) and not hard.

It means that the medical profession, as the expert agents of society, should assist the people who make this choice so that it is not carried out hastily and in settings that are inappropriate. No person should be assisted in this choice until their decision has been evaluated by a panel of community workers including physicians, counselors and peers, set up for this purpose. If the committee concurs with the petitioner, A suitable place of death and medical and psychological help should be provided. Physicians, who, in good conscience, cannot participate in this program should not be required to do so.

It means that the state legislature should not yield to the traditionalists who, most likely, represent only a minority of the state’s voters on this issue, But should respond to the legitimate demands of the people of choice to turn the moral right to live with dignity into a legal right.

The Voice of Reason

Humanistic Judaism, Spring, 1991

The Arkansas state legislature has passed a bill requiring science teachers to give as much time to the Genesis story of creation as a gift to the Darwinian story of evolution.

A California judge just recently declared the teachers and the California public schools must acknowledge the evolution is only a theory and not a fact.

Paul Laxalt, a conservative senator from Nevada, has co-sponsored a bill in Congress, which is called a Family Protection Act and what to remove the issues of abortion and teacher qualification from the jurisdiction of the higher courts.

Committees of the Christian fundamentalists in southern Texas organizing to remove the pornographic writings of Salenger and Hemingway from the shelves

Committees of the Christian fundamentalists in southern Texas organizing to remove the pornographic writings of Salenger and Hemingway from the shelves of public library’s.

Mark Siljander, and Michigan Republican primary candidate actually backed by the Moral Majority, recently want to surprise victory against seemingly overwhelming odds.

A letter arrives to my office address to ‘you humanist bastard’.The anonymous author proclaims, ‘The Age of the Enlightenment is dead. The Age of Faith is reborn’.

Is the age of enlightenment really dying?

Well, if it were up to the Moral Majority and to its allies in the New Right, it’s certainly would be. The advocates of political Christian fundamentalism are determined to reverse the course of 200 years of American history and to turn our country into a Puritan version of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran.

The ideas and the ideals of the Enlightenment are now under attack. The Age of Reason is now on the defensive. The belief in an orderly world governed by natural law, the valuing of reason is the best method for the discovery of truth, the ability to live with uncertainty and the tentativeness of judgments, the eagerness to welcome new ideas, and maximizing of individual freedom and personal options, the assumption that good citizenship as possible without denominational religion—all these affirmations of the enlightenment are now being assaulted by voices of reaction.

The voice of reason is being drowned out by the voice of Fanaticism.

Who is this voice of Fanaticism?

The list is long. There is…

The Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell

The Christian Voice of Jerry Jarmon

The Religious Roundtable of Ed McAteer

The Committee for the Survival of the Free Congress of Paul Weyrich

The Christian Crusade of Billy Joe Hargis

The Stop ERA of Phyllis Schlafly

The Conservatives Caucus of Howard Phillips

What do they want? They want. Period.

The National Conservative Political Action Committee of Tim Dolan

The Conservative Digestive Richard Viguerie

And the remnants of the John Birch Society

As well as many others.

To put prayers in the public school;

To insinuate Bible stories into public science classrooms;

To censor classic literature they deem morally offensive;

To undermine our judicial system a state secular education;

To use public money to support denominational religion;

To ban sex education;

To limit sexual freedom;

To defeat the ERA universe the hard-won gains of female liberation;

To ban abortions;

To revive political witch hunts in the name of anti-communism;

To secure a political power to make the changes they desire.

How are they going about getting what they want?

They have developed a simple message that everyone can understand. Unlike the complex answers of liberal intellectuals, their analysis of the causes of crime, poverty, and family decline can be reduced to a simple observation. Turning away from God and the Bible is responsible for moral decay. It, therefore, logically follows that, if we turn back to God in the Bible, all will be well.

They have infiltrated political parties. They are encouraging their members to become active Republicans and Democrats. They have already taken over the Republican Party in Alaska and are aiming for broader victories.

They pushed through members to go out and vote for the candidate they have chosen–or, in many cases, vote against the political figures they have targeted. Church of Idaho, McGovern of South Dakota, Bayh of Indiana and many others were victims of their effective campaign.

They have mastered the media. Ironically, the technology which the spirit assigned to sponsors of them better than it serves defenders of science. They understand the power of radio and television to indoctrinate the masses and to mobilize them for social action. Fundamentalist station channels are proliferating. Millions of dollars are pouring in weekly from enthusiastic audiences. The political fundamentalists have entered the home of every American with their electronic campaign.

Alliances with formally angry opponents. Hostility to the public school system, the advocacy to parochial education and hatred of abortion unite them with conservative Catholics. The salvation style of fundamentalist Christianity makes them appealing to native Blacks. The Bible approach to the importance of the state of Israel into the Begin government claim to the West Bank and Gaza gives them support in the Jewish community. They have cleverly decided to woo their old enemies.

They have encountered very little organized opposition. The tendency of many liberals and moderates to regard them as funny fanatics who will ultimately fade away serves them well. The smugness of the academic and intellectual communities make it easy for them to succeed by default. Why are they here to begin with? Why is there a resurgence of political fundamentalism the national scale?

There are several important reasons.

They have always been around. But, they now have a new self-confidence. The decline of the North and the growing prosperity of the South has given them economic clout and greater self-esteem. After all, the heartland of fundamentalism is the South. And the South is no longer the depressed region which sponsored the ‘hillbilly’ mentality. Prosperity has created a new assertiveness and an eagerness to defend the ethnic religion.

The economic recession in most of America has frustrated millions of citizens. They are angry and troubled about their declining living standards and do not know how to deal with economic forces over which they seem to have no control. This is a good beginning for religious fervor and paranoia.

Spreading problems of crime and family decline terrified money people. Liberal clichés about personal freedom do not deal with the real question. Concern for personal safety and the welfare of children is a valid concern. The fundamentalists have a silly solution to the problem. But, at least, they’re trying to answer the question.

Most people understand how to use technology. But, do not understand the spirit of free inquiry which makes the development of technology possible. Or educational system has produced technologists. But, it has not developed the mentality of true science. We are not living in an age of science. We are still living in an age of superstition, where irrational people have access to technology.

So what can we do? How could we, as defenders of reason and free inquiry, respond to their provocation?

We can take the problem seriously. Given their determination, economic power and mass appeal, the forces of the New Right and their social agenda will not easily sleep it away.

We can organize. We can band together to become a public Voice of Reason to counter the propaganda and political activity of the political fundamentalists.

What would be the message of the voice of reason?

It would be positive. It will not allow the New Right to put us in the position of always being against. It would state very clearly that we are for three traditional American values–free inquiry —having good citizenship in a secular state—community peace and harmony—with the consequent need to avoid imposing controversial moral values on everybody.

It would be patriotic. It would not permit the opposition to claim Americanism. It would demonstrate that the founding fathers were disciples of the Enlightenment –not pious religionists. Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Franklin resisted the Moral Majority of their day to lay the foundations of a secular state.

It would be moral. It would not simply defend negative freedom and turn over all the ethical vocabulary to the moralists on the right. It will declare that teaching values is an important part of public education. After all, reliability, honesty, cooperation, sharing, and self-control are part of good citizenship. They are necessary, non-controversial discipline n in a secular state. While denominational religion can reinforce these values, they can also be derived from reason and common sense. In a land of competing religions, the shared reasonable approach is the only feasible way to teach social discipline and to preserve community peace.

It would be sensitive. It would acknowledge the worries that many poor and middle-income Americans have about crime, child pornography, and family decline. It would be concerned with pragmatic responses to these issues.

It would be non-partisan. Many Republicans, as well as Democrats, fear the Moral Majority and its attempts to take over the machinery of the political parties. The Voice of Reason would not identify with the liberal economic agenda. It would recognize that both economic liberals and economic conservatives are in favor of the secular state and free inquiry.

How was the Voice of Reason go about spreading this message?

It would establish a national organization.

It would secure the endorsement of prominent ‘stars’ in the natural and social sciences, as well as the backing of public figures.

It would produce materials for public distribution.

It would create media programs for radio and television.

It would hold public meetings and rallies to generate publicity and create a sense of group solidarity.

It would train citizens to be the effective voices of reason and to answer the distortion of the New Right.

It would issue position papers to evaluate proposed legislation.

It would monitor the behavior of Congress and state legislators and support targeted candidates, whether Republican or Democratic.

It would solicit money to make this campaign possible.

Right now, the Voice of Reason is more than a ‘would’. It is an ‘is’. Last December, a national organization called the Voice of Reason was established in Michigan and Illinois. Its founding committee came from both the Society for humanistic Judaism and from other concern groups.

The voice of reason is growing. It is reaching out to many other states. It needs your help and support.

Humanism Variety

Humanistic Judaism, Fall, Winter 1974-75

An enthusiastic modernist asked me recently if I thought that the advance of science and empirical procedures would usher in the possibility of a world religion. If, with the exposure of the masses to secular education, acceptance of humanist message becomes fairly universal, then the basis of a genuine unity exists. While traditional religions with their closed methodologies of faith created exclusive cultural enclaves, the new humanism, characterized by an anti-dogmatic and responsible openness, would enable men of radically different backgrounds to hurtle their home barriers and merge into the religion of mankind.

The heady optimism that characterizes this question was not unique to my questioner. Over a century ago the naive exponents of free-thinking imagine that the use of reason, once widely spread, would prove the key to a universal ideology in which all men would participate. However, they cannot be too severely condemned, for, after all, naïveté was the mood of the era. Even a contemporary Rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise, was proclaiming, in all seriousness, that by the beginning of the 20th century Reform Judaism and a purified Hebrew monotheism would have won the world.

The problem is that the question I received contained a hidden promise. The asker assumes that scientific humanism is one religion. He assumed that, if all men embrace the empirical approach, all meaningful controversy would be ultimately resolvable. While men may disagree about conclusions when evidence is meager, the responsibility to public experience will enable men to agree when evidence becomes overwhelming. (After Magellan’s crew sailed around the planet, it was pretty impossible to maintain that the earth was flat.) Thus, disagreement is theoretically only temporary. Time and patience will heal all arguments and reduce men to increasing unanimity of opinion. Controversy will never cease, but each disagreement is conceivably “settleable” by a set of imagined experiences. The logical possibility of a single conclusion makes unity possible.

If religion were concerned with information about man in the universe alone, then one would have to assert that empiricism provides the basis for a universal religion. But, of course, it’s primary concern transcends information and reaches out to evaluation. Religion has historically, although not uniquely, been concerned with the question of meaning in life; and meaning, or purpose, is a function of ultimate values and final goals. The discovery of an achievement of those value and has been a persistent driving traditional religion and secular philosophy.

Now, certainly, most of our values can be empirically determined. Because the vast majority of our ethical judgment or involved with means and not ends, they are extrinsic. An activity that had extrinsic value is never good in itself; it is good for achieving some other action or experience that is “self-validating:” that needs no justification beyond itself. Science can conceivably answer all questions of extrinsic value. If the empiricist knows the goal, and if he has available the relevant data, he can determine what procedures are necessary to achieve the goal. But he could not demonstrate that any end is worth pursuing, simply for its own sake. While he may lead his student to experiences he personally finds intrinsically meaningful, and teach him how to achieve them, he cannot prove their value from his own perception of the student himself.

Intrinsic or ultimate value is not a proper subject for scientific demonstration. Science may do a statistical survey on what ultimate values people do have. They cannot, however, make a list of ultimate values people ought to have. Science may open up a host of new activities which individuals may find meaningful and self-justifying; it cannot, however, demonstrate their meaningfulness. Final values are the result of personal intuition. To talk about them is to talk about a personal situation, not a universal one. Each individual, through his own experience, finds those actions and passions he wishes to repeat.

It is, therefore, obvious that all humanists, no matter how united on a method for the discovery of informational truth, will not find the same “meaning” in life. Unless we assume against the personal testimony we daily encounter, that all men share the same ultimate values, you will have to conclude that among humanists a variety of different “religions” may exist, each religion a function of a unique set of values.

Of course, it is possible for two people to share the same ideas about the intrinsic merits of certain experience and still not share the same religion. The difference lies in the ordering. Even if both individuals find ultimate meaning in the act of compassion and in the act of intellectual discovery, one person may regard compassion as the more significant while the other may view intellectual discovery as qualitatively superior. There are degrees of intrinsic value; and the discernment of degrees is again both personal and intuitive. One humanist, on the basis of his value order, may prefer to devote the major part of his life to the cause of social justice, and only a small part to academic pursuits, while another may prefer the thrill of pure your research and indulge asocial crusade now and then. Neither humanist is expressing the humanistic value order. Each of them simply reflects a different temperament.

Even if all men become humanists (which is highly unlikely) organized religion would still reflect these differences of “temperament”. Even if all humanists came to endorse the same side of ultimate values, the religious expression would still have to deal with the fact that the same values may be ordered differently. Some congregations would be primarily devoted to you in the mystic experience; others to the thrill of understanding the operation of the universe. Some would prefer to build their program around the kinesthetic pleasure of song and dance; others to emphasizing help for the underprivileged. Available religious society would be committed to do more than the empirical method; it would be billed on a sense of shared meaning, a set of final values that call into a certain order of emphasis. The personality of a congregation like that of an individual is determined by its value structure; and this structure provides a basis for organized activity.

Value imperialism of the disease that good humanists resist. To assume that the welfare of mankind requires a single set of moral ends which the young must be educated to accept is to cultivate self-righteousness and to frustrate the creation of a workable society. It might be eco-satisfying to know that “my” values are the values; but it breeds the danger that “I” will treat contemptuously alternative moral choices. To assume, as many modern Christian humanists do, that all men ought to accept a radical and suffering love as their primary ethic is to project the personal side of ultimates onto the universal scene and violate the obvious uniqueness of individual taste and temperament. Love as a secondary motif might give life a different meaning from love is a primary motive (and, therefore, provide a different religion); it but it is consistent with an empirical outlook.

Thus, world united by its commitment to the scientific method and its rejection of intuition as a valid means to information truth will still spawn and sustain a variety of religions, each religion a derivative of how individuals and groups perceive the character and order of their values.

In fact, the variety may be further increased by another factor, the factor of aesthetics. Two humanists may share the same life goals and therefore share the same religion and yet choose to symbolize and dramatize their commitment to different poetries. The consistent Christian humanist may fully acknowledge that the validity of the values Jesus proclaimed are independent of the fact that he proclaimed them and may further admit that many other historic figures preached pretty much the same message, and still choose to use the figure of Jesus as the personal symbol of his ethical commitment. Alternative symbols are possible, but none is as compelling for him.

The Jewish humanist will readily admit that his value system does not depend on prophetic or Talmudic endorsement for its validity, and yet he will choose to use certain events in Jewish history as dramatizing of these commitments. Alternative poetry is certainly available, but for him no other possibility has the same emotional impact. He certainly has no objection to using items in other poetic traditions. It’s just that, since he desired to devote only a limited amount of time to symbolism in ceremony, he would prefer to use one set of related symbols well, rather than a variety of culturally unrelated symbols superficially.

One can conceive of a host of different poetic styles to express a given side of religious values. On a theoretical value, that difference in aesthetics would not make a difference in religion; but, on the practical, or organized level, it would provide an emotional basis for separate development. Aesthetic modes are not easily merged, because they are so tied up with the pleasures of what is visible and audible. Moreover, certain options may possess a kind of intrinsic value for those to use them.

This observation confirms the “problem” our optimistic questioner faces. While the world of the future may, therefore, see the continuing advance of science and empirical thinking; and while it may witness a general disintegration of the theoretically oriented religious denominations, the emergence of one system of value meaning is highly unlikely. In fact, technological this already, with its opportunities for leisure and study will hide in the sense of individuality and provide within the framework of a comment with method, a wide variety of ethical and aesthetic alternatives.

The Triumph of Science: From Darwin to Einstein

Recorded April 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

The 19th Century featured an explosion of scientific thinking and scientific exploration. The vision of the universe which traditional religion had championed was overthrown by the discoveries of science. From the age and history of the universe to the development of life, the old ideology yielded to a powerful assault of empirical evidence. Both Darwin and Einstein transformed the images of reality which guided human thinking. These scientists became the ‘prophets’ of the new secularism. Millions of people became their disciples.

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

God and Human Knowledge

“God and Human Knowledge” from Judaism Beyond God, (1985)

God was the central figure in the world of tradition. The universe was his creation. He could do with it whatever he wanted. As an all-powerful, demanding, intervening superfather, he dwarfed the rest of reality. God was part of a supernatural world of angels and demons who did not have to obey the laws of nature and who possessed extraordinary powers that natural creatures did not have and could not understand. The world of faith was a frightening place, loaded with natural disaster and supernatural terror.

God was an unchallenged given. In the age of faith, you might argue about the nature of his personality and desires, but you never challenged his existence. Jews, Christians, and Muslims disputed endlessly. But atheists were never part of the discussion. To question the reality of God was to question the validity of faith.

The need to prove the existence of God is the beginning of his end. It means that people are starting to doubt. An organization where the employees begin to doubt the existence of their employer is in deep trouble. As reason grew in strength, more and more religious philosophers became embarrassed with their divine superstar and his behavior. Why does an all-powerful God allow the suffering he can certainly prevent? Why does an all-knowing God hold people responsible for behavior he already knows they will perform? Why is a God of the whole universe interested in the daily behavior of an insignificant peasant?

Answers were not easy to come by. Ultimately, God was turned into a vague abstract retired superstar who was so distant and mysterious that nothing positive could be said about him. Any atheist could almost be comfortable with the God of Maimonides. But then why bother with God at all?

As modem science revealed the vastness of the universe, a divine father figure with a personal interest in planet Earth became less believable. The world of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton made people too small to be noticeable and God too big to be approachable. For many thoughtful people, having him around was pragmatically the same as not having him around. Since he had lost his power to intimidate, God became a perfunctory sweet frosting on the natural cake of the world.

Ultimately, Immanuel Kant, the philosopher of Koenigsberg, a mild and unpretentious man, did God in. He demonstrated that the existence of a supreme being was problematical and that reason could neither prove his reality nor disprove it. This unseemly slaughter transformed theology. The main question shifted from “Does God really exist?” to “Do people need God?” Theology became a department of psychology. The issue was no longer whether God was really there, only whether people needed God to be there. How humiliating! By the twentieth century, the religious experience—which, at least, is open to

study and investigation— became the new focus of theology. Believing in God became a new form of psychotherapy.

The age of reason did not kill God through angry disbelief. It disposed of him in a much more deadly fashion. It made him too vague to be interesting. Theology passed from the excitement of hell, fire, and brimstone to the boredom of abstraction with capital letters. The “All,” the “One,” the “Ground of Being” are like the emperor’s clothing. You are not even sure they are there. And if they are, who cares? Ultimately, the masters of contemporary religion refused to admit to any God that was meaningful. He lingered on as a word of reverence. Most people believed—but there was nothing to believe in.

In a world without God, people’s attention turned to the natural world. Theology was replaced by physics, chemistry, biology, and geology. These new sciences changed our view of the world. The planet Earth became a small satellite spinning around a small star. The earth grew older and older. And humanity discovered that it was the cousin of the ape.

Divine creation was out. Evolution was in.

Evolution is the monumental epic story of the secular age. It is more than the story of the development of life. It includes the entire universe—from the moment of the Big Bang to the present. It starts with electrons and photons, gravitons and gluons. It moves on to atoms, stars, and galaxies. It features explosions, transformations, and glorious fires. It encompasses the birth and death of millions of suns, the formation of billions of moons. Nothing ever stops changing, always turning from one thing into another.

The stuff of evolution is not the divine word. It is elusive energy. Everything is a disguise for energy. Comets and leopards, rocks and people—all share the same little particles, the same little flashes of substance. The evolution of earthly life is only a small chapter in the saga of a changing universe.

Bible stories cannot match the grandeur of this unfolding epic. Boiling rocks and flying reptiles are only two of a trillion wonders. Instead of emerging neatly packaged and classified for human use, the universe moves on its messy way in cruel indifference to human desire.

The Garden of Eden has been replaced by East African gorges. Adam and Eve walk upright, but they have sloping foreheads and jutting jaws. Our roots are not in heaven. They are in water holes and swamps. And our embryonic bodies cannot hide the fact that fish and frogs are part of our family tree.

Reason has presented us with a new setting. The world we live in is both messy and orderly. All units of energy under the same conditions behave in the same way, no matter where they are or when they are.

Since the universe is a collection of events, not a thing, it was not “manufactured” or “created.” Energy changes form and association. It may squeeze together or thinly spread. It may contract and explode. But its universal drama has no beginning and no end.

Events in the universe have causes. But the universe, as a whole, has no cause. The question, “Who made the World?” is naive. Even if we incorrectly assume that the world is a manufactured object, the conventional answer, “God,” is unsatisfying. For if one can legitimately ask, “Who made the world?” one can, with equal justice, ask, “Who made God?” The logical answer, “Super-God,” leads us down a trail of regression that provides no enlightenment. If we can imagine a God without a beginning, we can much more easily imagine a world without a beginning.

The age of reason is the age without God. While nostalgia preserves him in the vocabulary of the powerful, he has lost his substance. The terrifying heavenly super father has been replaced by a dispensable philosophical abstraction. He has lost his ability to intimidate and to attract. The world he supposedly created is now more interesting than he is. Science has replaced theology as the intellectual commitment of modern times. If science and modem theology appear compatible, it is hardly a tribute to religion. Liberal religion has produced a God too vacuous to be taken seriously. Fundamentalist religion, as the surviving popular resistance to the age of reason, may be rude and assaultive. But at least its God is worth noticing. The God of the fundamentalists can enforce what he commands.

The problem in the contemporary world is not the power of God. It is the power of people. The technology that is born of science has given humanity the intimidating force that was formerly reserved for divinity. In a time of biological engineering and computer slaves, new “deities” of knowledge and power have emerged. The natural world, all by itself, provides us with access to overwhelming might.

In the age of science, the leaders of humanity are faced with the question only gods used to ask: “How do we use the terrifying power we possess?” The tricks of old Yahveh on mountaintops are now easily duplicated by run-of-the-mill military establishments. And the non-traditional electric switch has turned “Let there be light” into a routine human experience.

No redefining the word God will change the reality we now perceive. The world that reason has revealed to us may give us more anxiety than we want. Or it may fill us with the pleasant anticipation of new adventure and opportunity. But its new face cannot be easily denied.

The New Atheists

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 2003/Winter 2004

This is the season for atheism. Three intellectuals have ridden the train of fame to the top of the bestseller list with three atheist books. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett have clearly proclaimed that atheism is the only path for honest, consistent, rational thinkers.

Atheists are usually more discreet. They are reluctant to publicly acknowledge their lack of faith. They often hide behind more ambiguous designations like “agnostic,” “free thinker,” or “skeptic.” They often plead their respect for religion and religious values and express regret for not believing. Atheists are always on the defensive. They never feel really comfortable in a society that places such a high value on religious faith. They never feel really safe in a society that still equates atheism with immorality.

Our three writers are bold and fearless. Two of them, Dawkins and Harris, describe religious belief as ridiculous and without a stitch of evidence. They also denounce the religious penchant to distinguish between scientific truth and religious truth. For them there is only one kind of truth. It is the truth that is supported by the evidence of controlled investigation. Faith and intuition are the beginning of the truth process. They are “hunches” and hypotheses that require future verification. Knowledge demands more than internal conviction. It insists on external evidence. Truth is responsible to fact. Whether one is talking about Bible stories or about transcendent deities, the same criterion applies. Whether one is describing angels or atomic particles, the same test for reality is relevant. Feeling that something is true is never enough.

Dawkins, who is a biological scientist and the world’s most famous science writer, dismisses religion as a useless and often dangerous evolutionary accident. “Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of any underlying psychological propensity which . . . once was useful.” [The God Delusion, p. 65] In other words, religion cannot help us. It may even harm us. It may be the cause of intense hatred and violence.

Capitalism and the Jews

“Capitalism and the Jews”  from The Jewish Humanist March-April 1976

Hester Street. Eighty years ago.

They came by the thousands. The greatest mass migration in the history of the Jewish people.

They came from Minsk and Pinsk. They came from Zhitomir and Berdichev. They came from Lodz and Bialystok.

Most of them were pious and Orthodox, obsessed by the rituals of shtetl life. Many of them were secular and socialist, impatient with poverty and dreamers of the proletarian revolution.

Eastern Europe was the homeland of the Ashkenazic Jew. Eighty percent of world Jewry was squeezed into the ghetto of Western Russia, Galicia, Slovakia and Transylvania.

By 1945 the “homeland” was ten thousand miles away. Emigration and holocaust were the movers. America became the new center of Ashkenazic life. English replaced Yiddish as the major language of Western Jews. Six million Americans represented half of world Jewry.

Collins Avenue. The faded focus of a new migration. An internal migration.

They came from New York and Pittsburgh. They go to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. They come from Detroit and Chicago. They go to Los Angeles and San Diego. Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cleveland are old Jewish words. Houston, Phoenix and Aspen are new Jewish words.

The second migration is different from the first one. The Jews are different. In a short span of eighty years the Western Jew was transformed by the most dramatic revolution in Jewish history. Never before had any Jew been changed so much so quickly.

Secular capitalism did it. It undermined traditional Christianity. It undermined the Jewish life style. It “destroyed” —not by being mean. It subverted—by being so very nice.

All the characteristics of the historic Jew, which feudal society deplored and condemned, applauded and rewarded.

Jews had a head start for survival in a capitalistic society. They had skills that other people lacked.

Capitalism sponsors a mobile society. Rooted peasant people find moving traumatic. Jews are addicted to wandering. Because of antisemitism, they had to defend themselves against a heavy emotional investment in any place (except the fantasy land of Israel). Long before the bourgeoisie made a distinction between ancestral land and real estate, the Jews had experienced the difference. Feudal society condemned them for their rootlessness. The industrial world rewards their mobile skills with wealth.

Capitalism admires verbal abilities. Language is the intellectual vehicle for science and technology. Language is the way you educate workers in schools for new professions and jobs. Language is the tool of salesmanship—the art of convincing consumers to consume. If Jews are anything, they are verbal. They had to be. Deprived of all physical means of self-defense, they had, to train their mouth to do what weapons do for most people. The Jewish mouth became a formidable instrument of war and protection. Hostile, non-verbal peasants find this characteristic frightening and unattractive. The\urban bourgeoisie pay a lot of money to acquire it. Lawyers, writers and academicians become the conspicuous edge of an industrial culture. Jews take to these professions like birds to air.

Capitalism adores aggressiveness. How else can you sell? How else can you promote new ideas and sponsor new products? Peasants and feudal lords hate pushiness. It is so inconsistent with the tranquil and stable life of village and manor. But urban survival demands aggressiveness. The passive waiter is a winner in the eternal scheme of the feudal world. He is a guaranteed loser in the urban scene. Jews are pushy because they were never able to relax. Antisemitism produced a continuous state of alert. Jews were never safe enough to be less than nervous. Now nervous pushiness may not be the most attractive aggressive style. But, in a capitalistic world, it is better than dull passivity.

Capitalism was the first environment to reward the very Jewish characteristics which the feudal antisemite found intolerable.

No Jewish community, in the long history of the Jewish people, has been as wealthy, educated and politically powerful as the American Jewish community.

The radical changes in contemporary Judaism, whether conservative, liberal or humanistic—which make it a distinct religion from traditional Judaism—are the results of a revolutionary adjustment. Secular capitalism has created a new Jewish religion. What is it? What is it becoming?

Judaism in America.

It is unlike any Judaism that ever came before

It is a radical break with the past and with the life style of the Jewish tradition.

It is a product of western capitalism and the urban industrial society which capitalism spawned.

Western capitalism presented the Jew with social realities that violated the essence of Jewish piety.

It sponsored female liberation. An expanding industrial economy provided women with options other than motherhood and wifehood. Female freedom is the consequence of money power and financial alternatives

Western capitalism sponsored secularism. The industrial state was built on the premise that the most readily available power for economic expansion was natural— not supernatural. Divine power was so secondary that it could be relegated to private choice. The state could not be bothered with religious controversy because no essential power was being provided anymore by religious institutions and by clerical professionals.

Western capitalism sponsored the right to happiness. Divine justice had decreed that, given Jewish behavior and Jewish disobedience, suffering and death were deserved. If the Messiah came, it would be an act of divine mercy, a gracious Yom Kippur style act of a sentimental deity. But the capitalist consumer culture cannot be built on the right to suffer.

The growing industrial state needs the citizen conviction that pleasure is appropriate and that happiness is deserved. The early stages of development can use masochistic thrift. But the later stages require massive spending.

Western capitalism sponsored individualism. The traditional family unit makes sense in an agrarian environment where children are free labor and protectors of the aged. In an urban culture the most efficient labor unit is the mobile individual. Individualism is the social product of this economic reality.

Judaism in America cannot survive unless it affirms these four realities of an industrial economy. It does not have the power to repudiate the social reality.

It must reject male chauvinism and affirm female liberation.

It must reject the primary significance of supernatural power and affirm that the essential available energies are secular, human and natural.

It must reject the ethics of sacrifice and suffering and affirm the right of men and women to personal fulfillment now.

It must reject the primacy of the family unit and affirm the significance of individual identity in all relationships—whether marriage or work. The revolutionary consequence is the endorsement of temporary relations as kosher.

The life style of this new Judaism is not a gradual evolution of the old life style. It is a radical and traumatic break with the past.

When the majority of American Jews will be able to accept this reality, official Judaism will stop playing around with the nostalgia and will be able to use its creative energies to celebrate the new life style.