Evolution is Our Story

Evolution: summer 2000

Charles Darwin is not a traditional Jew­ish hero. But he is one of the great sages of Humanistic Judaism. The principles of bio­logical evolution and natural selection lie at the heart of our belief system.

Twenty-five hundred years ago some anonymous priests edited two stories about the invention of life. These stories constitute the first two chapters of the Torah. In the first story God manufactures life in three days – plants first, then animals, and then people. In the second chapter he starts with man. Adam is bored. So God creates plants and animals to amuse him. Adam is still bored. So God conjures up a woman from Adam’s rib. Adam is impressed.

These two stories provide the informa­tional and ideological foundation for tradi­tional Jewish biology. All life is simulta­neously created. All life forms have remained the same since their creation. The age of both the universe and life is somewhere around six thousand years.

In most Jewish schools today these stories are still being taught. For liberal Jews they present an enormous problem. They are in obvious contradiction to what modern sci­ence teaches. They do not bear the faintest connection with the realities of natural evo­lution. Only a tortured poetic interpretation can rescue them. They are simply embarrass­ingly inappropriate. But, since even liberal Jews, whether Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist, are stuck with the Torah, they feel compelled to present the stories.

The net result is that liberal Judaism has no strong message on cosmology or biology. No one really believes the traditional stories. But no one is prepared to draft a compelling alternative. One of the cornerstones of an ef­fective philosophy of life, a credible view of where we came from, is neglected. The fun­damental questions of the nature of life are relegated to the public school. The synagogue prefers mythology.

This deplorable situation is aggravated by the rise of fundamentalism in Jewish and Christian life. One of the “banners” of this new fanaticism is the defense of the Genesis sto­ries as basically true. Creationism has now reared its absurd head to challenge the prin­ciple of evolution. Creationists demote evo­lution to a mere “theory” despite the over­whelming evidence to support it. And they present their mythology as a theory of equal validity. While Orthodox Jews applaud this development, liberal Jews condemn it. But there is nothing in their prayer books or in their school programs that would give any substance to their resistance. Their approach is negative: “Do not take the stories literally.” “Do not put religion into the public schools.” But there is no positive and enthusiastic de­fense of evolution. In the end, the temples read the creation story on the Sabbath and teach the creation story in their Sunday schools. The Darwinian story they claim to believe in is never dramatically told.

Humanistic Jews are liberated from the “yoke” of liberal Jewish religion. They do not place the Torah and its stories at the center of their Judaism. They do not need to pay hom­age to ancient myths and to demonstrate their worth even when that worth is questionable. They are free to create an alternative story that is responsible to evidence and is flexible enough to face constant revision. If they want to, they can write it down in Hebrew and place its words on a parchment scroll, even though the truth of the story is not a function of an­tiquity. Nor are they afraid to admit that knowledge and wisdom can come from people other than Jews.

If Humanistic Judaism is to function as a complete philosophy of life, then it must pro­vide a dramatic answer to the questions about the origin and nature of life. It must articu­late that answer clearly and forcefully so that both children and adults can incorporate it into the foundations of their Judaism. The story of evolution must be a dramatic part of public celebrations, school programs, and textbooks. It must have a prominent place in the presentation of the basic ideas of the move­ment. There is no need to find a way to con­nect it to Genesis; all attempts to make that connection distort the meaning of the origi­nal myths and only sow confusion.

As a foundational story of Humanistic Judaism, evolution is a powerful saga. The drama of life continually transforming itself in a tough setting of competition and struggle is compelling. The development of life is no serene emergence, with divine decrees con­juring up living forms effortlessly and instan­taneously. It is a dangerous ascent, and only a small fraction of the organisms that attempt the climb make it to the top. The hurdle of natural selection is tough to surmount. The fit between organisms and their environment is not an easy one.

Just as the history of the Jews needs to be rescued from the absurd doctrine of the Cho­sen People, so must the story of life be saved from the destructive embrace of creationism. We need to be continually reminded of the realities of life so that we can cope with it. The message of evolution is not only infor­mational, providing the order in which liv­ing things emerged. It also is philosophic, describing a setting for life that rational people can accept and adjust to.

What is the philosophic message of evolution?

  1.  The forces of nature that control our uni­verse and the development of life are natural and impersonal. They have no conscious pur­pose and no moral agenda. They operate re­lentlessly, ultimately sweeping most organ­isms into the garbage can of history. Natural selection may appear to be a cruel judge. It cannot be negotiated with. And it cannot change its mind.
  2.  All life is connected. We are not special creations of God, earthly angels with souls who have no fundamental relationship to the rest of nature. We are made of the same stuff as all other living things. We share the same origins. We share many of the same needs and desires. All the parts of our body and our mind have their roots in the bodies and minds of fish and reptiles and other mammals. Fear, anger, love, and sadness are not uniquely human. They have their counterparts in our animal cousins. We did not begin as fallen gods. We began as walking apes. Feeling our basic connection to all of nature restores balance to our lives and makes us see who we really are. It also makes us more compassionate with the suffering of living beings that are not human.
  3.  There is no fundamental harmony in na­ture. The living world is filled with many competing agendas. What is survival for the hunter is death for the hunted. What is vic­tory for the invader is destruction for the in­vaded. Humans and the microbes that afflict their bodies are not in harmony. They are at war with each other. In this world of strug­gling organisms we have both friends and enemies. There is no way to make every or­ganism our friend. When we can be generous, we ought to be. When the enemy is fierce, we need human allies in the battle.
  4.  Love and ethics emerged in our struggle for survival. Some animals are loners. Oth­ers, like us, need community. Each of us is too vulnerable alone. Our evolution has turned us into social beings dependent on the kindness and help of other people. Morality did not fall from heaven. It evolved over mil­lions of years as the price we have to pay for group existence. Over time, natural selection reinforced the tendency within us to work with others and to care for them. All cultures bear the imprint of this conscience.
  5. Victory is never final. Our survival lasts only so long as we fit our environment. If we destroy the foundation of the environment in which we evolved, we also shall be destroyed. Protecting and improving the natural setting in which we live is as important as any new power we acquire. Power is useless if it blows up the foundation of our existence.

Evolution is our story. It has an impor­tant message. It needs to be proclaimed in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. It needs to be celebrated through holidays and tributes. It needs to be taught clearly and boldly to our adults and our children in the schools we cre­ate. As Humanistic Jews we have a powerful answer to the question, what is life? And our answer is not mythology. It is confirmed ev­ery day by the testimony of our experience.

Cremation

Death and Dying – Summer 1989

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

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

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

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

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

Why is cremation forbidden?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circumcision

Becoming Parents, Summer 1988

To circumcise or not to circumcise. That is the question. At least for a militant group of new opponents, many of them Jews.

Doubting the value of circumcision is something new in Jewish life. For most of Jewish history, such opposition would have been inconceivable. In the perspective of priestly and rabbinic Judaism, circumcision takes top billing with observing the Shabbat as one of the two most important signs of Jewish identity.

Even in modern times, Jews who have no connection with the Jewish community or with Jewish culture, who hate organized religion and all forms of conformist ritual, will still manage to have their sons circum­cised. Many are the calls I have received from peripheral Jews in out of the way places seeking some way to insure a “kosher” circumcision for their child.

Avoiding circumcision is not like eating shrimp. The emotional commitment to the brit milla is far more intense than to almost any other Jewish ritual. To announce to your fellow-Jews that you intend to remain a ham-eating atheist is far less traumatic than to declare that you intend to leave your son uncircumcised. The first provocation is by now ho-hum. The second is almost next to betrayal.

For traditional Jews, phallic circumcision is the basic initiation rite into membership in the Jewish people. Although the effect of the surgery can hardly serve as a visible public symbol of Jewish identity, like a beard or tsitsis —- except in a nudist colony — it symbolizes belonging more than any other procedure. Especially in the Christian world, where all historic nations avoided circumcision like the plague until this cen­tury, being circumcised was a unique condi­tion that defined the Jewish male.

During the past century in North America, religious circumcision received an important boost. Physicians decided that the surgery had therapeutic value. Ulti­mately, more than 85 percent of all newborn American males were circumcised for secular medical reasons. While this develop­ment certainly took away from the unique­ness of the Jewish condition and diminished the significance of circumcision as a sign of Jewish identity, it provided a rational hygienic justification for doing something that many modern people previously viewed as primitive and barbaric. What anti-trichinosis theories did for anti-pork- eaters, the new medical reasoning did for circumcision-lovers. Science had come to the rescue of religion.

But the heyday of universal circumcision is over. During the past twenty years a vocal anti-circumcision lobby has emerged in America, especially in California. In 1971 the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that there is no observable medical value to circumcision. And by 1988 five states denied financial coverage for the pro­cedure. Books and periodicals featured anti­circumcision themes. And new organiza­tions arose to lead the battle against this in­fant surgery.

The opponents of circumcision fall into three groups.

The first group find no positive health value in circumcising boys. They do not believe that it either prevents disease or pro­motes cleanliness. In fact, they claim, the surgery may have negative effects. The trauma of the pain and the risk of infection may endanger the child’s welfare. The im­plication is clear. Even circumcision for religious reasons may be harmful. Perhaps Jewish parents will have to be retrained in their religious zeal in the same way that the anti-blood transfusion Jehovah’s Witnesses need to be held back by the law for the sake of their children.

A humanistic Jewish response to circum­cision separates the therapeutic from the ceremonial issues. As a medical proce­dure, circumcision needs to be judged by medical standards.

The second group are civil libertarian. They object to non-urgent elective surgery being foisted on babies by their parents. After all, once the foreskin goes, it is not recoverable. An issue of so sensitive a nature ought to be decided by the person who has to suffer the consequences. Men should not undergo this surgery without their consent. And infants are incapable of giving their consent.

The third group are feminist. Their resistance is directed less to the surgery and more to the ceremony. The idea of using phallic circumcision as the only required initiation rite is deeply offensive to them. The celebration is only for boys. Girls have no equivalent ceremony of their own. The patriarchal and male chauvinist premise that underlies the brit milla is inconsistent with the moral premises of a democratic and egalitarian society.

How valid are these objections?

Before I answer this question, let me pro­vide a little background information.

Traditional Jews believe that circumci­sion was ordained by God. The command­ment pre-dates Moses and goes all the way back to Abraham. In Genesis 17, Yahveh is reported to have said to Abraham: “This is my covenant which you shall keep between me and you and your seed after you. Every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin. And it shall be a token of a covenant between me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circum­cised. . . and the uncircumcised male. . . shall be cut off from my people.” The penalty for the uncircumcised, then, is death or excommunication.

The Biblical commandment features some glaring omissions. No explanation is provided to clarify why foreskin removal is chosen among many other possible alter­natives as the sign of the covenant. Perhaps, in Yahveh’s mind, modesty precluded an explanation. Or, perhaps, phallic surgery was associated in his thinking with his cove­nant promise to guarantee Abraham num­berless descendants. The other omission is any justification of requiring circumcision on the eighth day. Why not the seventh day or the ninth day? Did Yahveh simply make an arbitrary choice for the sake of uniform­ity? After all, most other circumcising peo­ple impose the procedure much later. Some even wait to puberty.

From an anthropological view, Hebrew circumcision is not part of divine revela­tion. It is part of a human story that em­braces many people of the distant past. In the ancient world, fellow-Semites like the Phoenicians and Ethiopians practiced cir­cumcision. And the neighboring Hamitic Egyptians also indulged in the practice.

The real reasons for foreskin removal are lost with the reasoning processes of primitive peoples in dim antiquity. Quite certainly their motivation was hardly hygienic. Cutting away flesh with a dirty flint knife (shades of the Stone Age!) would cancel out any presumed health benefits from having a circumcised penis.

The most likely explanation is the ap­peasement of the gods in order to guarantee fertility. Part of the penis is offered to the deity in order to secure his protection of the rest. Since circumcision was originally done at puberty (the earliest known Semitic bar mitsva), it was intended to prepare the male for adulthood by guaranteeing his reproduc­tive future.

One of the grisliest stories in the Torah, an old literary fragment inserted into a more sophisticated text, suggests this motivation. In Exodus 4, this mysterious in­sert appears as Zipporah, the wife of Moses, leaves Midian with her son and her hus­band to journey to Egypt. “It happened upon the journey that Yahveh encountered him [the boy] at an inn and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Yahveh’s feet; and she said, ‘Truly you are a kinsman unto me by virtue of the blood of circumci­sion.’ Therefore, he (Yahveh) let him alone.” Yahveh in this story is appeased by the bloody foreskin and must now assume the role of a protective kinsman.

Whatever the real reason, by the time the Torah text containing the circumcision commandment was written, circumcision was so much a part of Jewish practice that no explanation for its choice as the sign of the covenant (Yahveh’s promise to protect and multiply the Jews) was required.

As for infant circumcision, the reason most likely imitates that of infant baptism. Christian baptism started out as an adult ceremony. But in time, it was moved for­ward to birth. Parents were fearful to leave their children unprotected, especially because of the threat of early death. Similar­ly, infant circumcision provided immediate protection from hostile deities. Caution turned a puberty rite into a birth ceremony.

The requirement of the eighth day simply tied the ceremony to lucky numbers. The seven-day week followed by the eighth day closing was a familiar pattern for calendar events. Both the autumn Sukkot festival and the winter Hanukka holiday followed the same format.

In time, the circumcision procedure turned into a full-fledged ceremony with fixed ritual procedures. By late rabbinic times, the ceremonial drama included six distinct parts: 1) the presentation of the child, 2) the seating of the child on the throne of Elijah, 3) the recitation by the father of the circumcision blessing (“Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has made us holy through your commandments and commanded us to initiate the covenant of Abraham our father”), 4) milla, the cut­ting and separation of the foreskin, 5) p’ria, the removal of the foreskin, 6) and mitsitsa, the stopping of the blood through oral suction.

In the beginning, the surgery was per­formed by the father of the boy. But, like most religious procedures, it was turned over to experts. The mohel, the professional ritual circumciser, made his debut. And the flint knife, reminiscent of neolithic times, finally turned into an iron blade.

It is important to point out that the Jewish identity of the male child never depended on circumcision in the way that Christian identity depended on baptism. A person born of a Jewish mother was Jewish regardless of anything he might choose to do or have done to him. An uncircumcised Jew remains a Jew, even by Orthodox standards.

Hostility to circumcision appeared early in Jewish history. The Philistines prided themselves on their foreskin retention. And the Greeks were absolutely revolted by the procedure and its effects. They regarded it as mutilation. Part of pre-Christian Greek anti-Semitism derived from this visceral response.

Of course, the objections were not hygienic. They were aesthetic, religious, and moral. To the Greeks, circumcision seemed almost as bad as castration. The human form, as intended by nature, was violated. To this day, Greeks and Latins re­tain this revulsion.

But what of the objections of our modern North American opponents? How valid are they?

The charge that circumcision is either unnecessary or harmful must confront con­temporary evidence. While the 1971 report of the American Academy of Pediatrics ruled circumcision unnecessary, it is impor­tant to note that the Academy is reviewing its earlier decision because of new evidence. Of fifty thousand known cases of penile cancer in North America only nine have occurred in circumcised males. Urinary tract infections occur less frequent­ly when the foreskin is removed. And ninety-five times as many uncircumcised males contract AIDS as do the circumcised. If all these assertions are true, then the pain and trauma, if they indeed exist, may be worth enduring.

The charge that infant circumcision, be­ing involuntary, violates the civil liberties of the child is valid only if the surgery has no therapeutic effect. The needless subjection of a child to pain without its consent is cruel. But, if there is therapeutic value, then the argument fails. It is the responsibility of the parent to protect the child from harm, whether it be through an involuntary smallpox vaccination or an involuntary tonsillectomy.

Quite frankly, the fury of many anti- circumcision militants is out of proportion to the provocation. Given the horrendous proportions of child abuse, a little foreskin removal (which may, in the end, turn out to be beneficial hardly deserves the hostility it receives.

We need a birth celebration that features at its center something Jewish, something easily given to both boys and girls…. Its main drama is the conferring of a Hebrew name on the infant.

The first two objections are directed primarily to infant circumcision itself and not to the brit milla, the religious ceremony. The third charge, the feminist complaint, denounces the ceremony, not the surgery. It maintains that the brit is inappropriate as a birth ceremony since it is designed for boys and not for girls.

There is little humanistic doubt that this complaint is valid. As the original purpose of circumcision faded from Jewish ken and the ceremony took on the significance of a birth celebration and an initiation ritual for membership in the Jewish people, the exclu­sion of female infants took on a political significance. A patriarchal society grants full membership only to men. Women are possessions and attachments who derive their identity from their connection to their fathers and husbands. No special celebra­tion is required for their arrival because they are secondary in importance. Their membership in the community derives from their membership in households of which men alone are the head. In a sense, the cir­cumcised penis protects not only the boy who possesses it but also the woman who will ultimately come to be attached to him. The brit milla, by its very nature, assigns an inferior status to girls.

A humanistic Jewish response to circum­cision separates the therapeutic from the ceremonial issues. As a medical procedure, circumcision needs to be judged by medical standards. If parents believe that it has health value — and there is much evidence to indicate that it does — then they should arrange to have their son circumcised by ap­propriate medical personnel, with all the guarantees of medical protection, at a time deemed appropriate for the child. If parents believe that it has no health value or that it is harmful, they should avoid the procedure for their son. The decision should be based on a scientific determination, just as one decides upon diet or vaccination.

But whether phallic surgery should be the central feature of a Jewish birth celebra­tion is another issue. Equality between boys and girls, men and women, is also an impor­tant humanistic value. And a ceremony that subverts that value is inappropriate for Humanistic Judaism.

Introducing female circumcision — a la East African practice — would be a rather bizarre way to solve the problem. And so would including women in the traditional minyan required for the performance of the ritual.

There is no way of making a happy celebration out of the performance of bloody surgery, even if you add female pa­tients and female observers. If somehow the ceremony was not so male chauvinistic, the surgery ritual might be worth enduring for the sake of tradition and continuity, in the same way that liberal Jews continue to observe the traditional dates for most holidays even when they are inconvenient. But surgery-as-ceremony is not worth en­during if it violates values more important than tradition or continuity.

There is no doubt about it. We need a new kind of Jewish birth celebration and in­itiation rite that provides for relaxed festivi­ty and that features at its center something Jewish, something easily given to both boys and girls.

This new kind of celebration has been developing among liberal and humanistic Jews over the past thirty years. Its setting is the home, the temple, or the community center. Its main drama is the conferring of a Hebrew name on the male or female infant. Even in the traditional circumcision ritual, Hebrew names are announced.

There is no reason for tying circumcision to a humanistic Jewish birth celebration. Despite its historic importance, it is simply inappropriate in the same way that female segregation is inappropriate.

There are times to rescue the old. There are also times to invent the new. Judaism is the story of both.

Believing Is Better than Non-Believing

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following ten guidelines may be helpful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rabbi Writes: Abortion

The Jewish Humanist, September 1989, Vol. XXVI, Number 2

Human rights in America received a serious blow from the Supreme Court on July 3 when five justices upheld a Missouri law restricting abortion freedom.  Ever since January, when the Court announced that it would consider the controversial case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the pros and cons of the abortion world have been waiting with bated breath to hear the decision.  Liberals were somewhat prepared for an unsatisfactory outcome.  They knew that the Reagan appointments of O’Connor, Scalia and Kennedy would have conservative consequences.  But they were hoping against hope. 

Rehnquist, speaking for the majority, stated that there was presently no necessity to overthrow Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision of 1973 that defined abortion choice as a constitutional right.  But he saw no constitutional reason why appropriate restrictions could not be placed on the exercise of this freedom, especially since the state had a vested interest in the preservation of individual life.  He found no difficulty with the state of Missouri’s decision to prevent abortion in public hospitals and clinics.  It was under no obligation to assist people in the exercise of their rights.  Nor was the required 20 week check on the viability of the fetus an illegal intrusion.  The independence of the fetus was a medical decision which could not be replaced by arbitrary court standards. 

Scalia joined the Court majority but dissented from the Rehnquist opinion.  He regretted that the Court had not been told enough to repudiate what was constitutionally wrong.  He believed that dismantling Roe v. Wade piece by piece was an act of judicial cowardice. 

On the other hand, Blackmun, the author of the 1973 majority statement, said that he heard the death knell of abortion freedom in the Rehnquist opinion and feared further assaults on the constitutional rights of American citizens. 

Following the decision anti-abortionists in virtually all the state legislatures framed new laws to place public restrictions on personal choice and to deny all forms of state aid and state support for women seeking abortion.  Liberal forces, angry and defiant, mobilized to resist this new legislative onslaught.  But, having lost the battle of the courts, they were not quite sure what new strategy to adopt.  They had invested so much energy in the motion that judges were ultimately the best defenders of abortion freedom.  The Rehnquist opinion dramatized certain realities for both conservative and liberal. 

1.  Ronald Reagan has won his battle to change the character of the Supreme Court.  The liberal Warren Court that drove conservatives to campaigns for impeachment no longer exists.  The liberals are now an old and somewhat feeble minority, desperately clinging to office out of fear of who would replace them.  The conservatives are young and vigorous.  And their public supporters, who at one time denounced the Court as a Communist cabal and sought to restrict its power, are now full of praise for the authority of the Court. 

2.  The Constitution, like the Bible, is not a document with an independent meaning all its own.  It ultimately means what its official interpreters make it mean.  They do not discover their opinions in the Constitution.  They impose their opinions on the Constitution, whether those judicial interpreters are liberals or conservatives.  The Constitution is a set of ‘kosherizing’ words.  But what these words mean is up to the judges.  And the judges, in the end, respond to changing political realities and to changing public opinion.   

3.  American public opinion has been deeply influenced by the persistent campaigns of the anti-abortionists.  In fact, the propaganda of the “pro-life” people has been far more effective than the educational campaigns of the “pro-choice’ advocates.  Anti-abortionists have been successful in seizing the moral high ground and in sowing doubts among ambivalent voters.  The Court, to some degree, is a reflection of the new public opinion. 

4.  Relying on the courts for ultimate protection is a misguided strategy in a democratic society.  Judges, in the end, are agents of political agenda and political parties.  In the higher courts they are political appointees, reflecting the political struggles of their time and deeply responsive to constituencies that favor their appointment.  Liberal courts can easily turn into conservative courts and vice-versa.  In the end, the defense of human rights must be won at the polls and not in the courts. 

Herein lies the challenge for all of us who believe in abortion freedom.  We have to convince the masses of the justice of our cause-not the judges. 

Ironically, many liberals who claim to be egalitarian have very elitist political convictions.  They do not trust the masses and are very pessimistic about the possibility of reversing conservative public opinion.  They are much more comfortable turning to small judicial bodies to impose their enlightened opinions on people who appear to be less enlightened.  They do not really trust the democratic process.  The reality is that, over the past decade, social conservatives have been far more successful in mobilizing the masses than liberals. 

Therefore, the traumatizing Rehnquist opinion is both a challenge and an opportunity for us.  We can no longer rely on the courts for our victories. We have to turn to the polls.  We will have to lobby legislators.  We will have to convince voters.  We will have to mobilize workers.  We will have to appeal to the ears and minds of the American people. 

This may sound like more work than we are prepared to do.  But there is no alternative.  In the end, the security of our freedoms cannot rely on the fickle loyalty of the courts.  It must depend on the support of the people and of public opinion. 

The judicial “setback” of the Webster decision may be the beginning of the revitalization of the feminist movement and of liberal political forces that need the challenge of an important political battle.  And we will not have won our fight until we convince a clear majority of the American voters that reproductive rights are human rights. 

Homosexuality: A Challenge to Traditional Morality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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