The Rabbi Writes – Prayer in Public Schools

Volume 31, No. 6, January 1995

Newt Gingrich has spoken. He wants prayer in the public schools. And so do millions of other American. Most of them are not members of the Religious Right. They just want to improve the personal and social values of their children.

The separation of religion and government is a traditional political principle in our nation. It is embodied in the Bill of Rights of our Constitution. It has been made sacred by the endorsement of Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It has been confirmed by the decisions of the Federal Supreme Court.

Separation in America had three roots. One was pragmatic. America was Protestant. There were many Protestant denominations, none of them holding the allegiance of a majority of the American people. They were often at war with each other, competing for members and state support. It was not feasible to establish any one of them as the state religion. The most practical solution was to establish none of them.

The second root was a minority new among Protestant dissenters, many of whom had come to America. Both the Quakers and the Baptists subscribed to the supreme importance of individual conscience. Religion only had value when it was free and uncoerced. State religion was coercing religion. It had the power to violate individual conscience. It was unacceptable, even though religion and God were indispensable to salvation. Every individual had to work out his own personal connection to God.

The third root was the Enlightenment. The spokesmen of the Enlightenment exalted reason over faith. There were contemptuous of religious superstition. They were hostile to intrusive clergy and established churches. They wanted to mold a new kind of citizen who would assume responsibility for his own life and who would use science as the path to knowledge. They saw no benefit to the state from religion. If individual citizens wanted to be religious, they should pursue it privately in private institutions and at private expense.

The anti-establishment clause of the Constitution arose from these three diverse roots. All three groups were in favor of it, but for different reasons. Ultimately, they would disagree about what “no establishment” meant.

For conservatives, state schools were Protestant schools. They could authorize Protestant prayers and Protestant Bible readings and Protestant holiday celebrations so long as they did not favor any particular Protestant denomination. For moderates, state schools were agencies of an American civil religion, which was neither Protestant nor Catholic, nor Jewish.

They acknowledged the importance of God and prayer and believed that public ceremonies where God was included were perfectly appropriate.

For Catholics separation meant that their children did not have to go to state schools. But it was only fair that the neutral government would support their own parochial schools, as other governments did in many of the countries of Europe.

For liberals, separation meant the total absence of religious vocabulary, religious literature and religious celebration in the public schools and in the public life of the nation. It also meant no state money for religion sponsored schools. Up until the 1960’s the courts did not completely support this position. But in the early 1960’s the Supreme Court explicitly forbade prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. Over the years, with religious diversity the state schools had become increasingly more secular. The Supreme Court confirmed this trend and gave a victory to the liberals.

 Through the years the liberal agenda had been ironically reinforced by the hostility between fundamentalist Protestants and the Catholic Church. Many Protestants who were in favor of prayer in the public schools supported a strict separation because they did not want any state money going to Catholic parochial schools. In the past three decades, however, anti-Communism, anti-secularism and anti-feminism have broken down the old hostility and united the Protestant Right with the Catholic Right. It is very important for all of us who embrace the political position of “strict separation” to understand that we can no longer rely on the old religious hatreds to serve our purpose. Anxiety over moral change has broken down the barriers to cooperation.

Some liberals, like Bill Clinton, are running scared. They see compromise as the best strategy. They are willing to settle for a “moment of silence”, but they fail to understand the real nature of the opposition. The opposition feeds on the ever-present anxiety that our children are not receiving the moral training they need to be good citizens. And for most people, moral training is tied up with religion. Prayer and morality go together in their minds.

Most Americans want the public schools to teach values as well as information. They want the schools to be a bulwark against drugs, crime and self-destruction. In the past, public schools did teach the values of good citizenship. And they taught them in a secular way.

Somewhere, along the way, many separationists gave up on the importance of teaching values in the public schools. They replaced values indoctrination with values clarification. They abdicated the responsibility of the schools to provide for direct moral education. Disagreeing on abortion, pre-marital sex and homosexuality does not mean that you cannot agree on self-discipline, responsibility and abstinence from drugs. Relying on the Constitution and the Supreme Court as the chief strategy of survival is a weak program for separationists. Both the Constitution and the Supreme Court can be changed. Strict separationists are a distinct minority in this country.

The most effective counter to prayer in the public schools is to demonstrate that good values can be taught without prayer. The focus of our message must not be only personal freedom and individual conscience. Those issues are not at the heart of the Gingrich initiative. The focus of our message has to be what secular schools can do to enhance the moral behavior of our children. It needs to concentrate less on liberty and more on discipline.

The Rabbi Writes – I Am a Detroiter

Volume 31, No. 8 3, 1995

I am a Detroiter and so are 4 million other people in this metropolitan area. We may live in Birmingham, Farmington Hills or west Bloomfield. But, in the eyes of the world outside, we are still Detroiters.

Some of us are the traders by choice. We have thought seriously about other places to live. But we have come to the conclusion that the Detroit area is the best of all possible options for us.

Others are Detroiters by fate. They would much prefer to be someplace else. They are here only because they have to be. They feel condemned by destiny. When they have to reveal it to others that they are the traders, they make their announcement defensively and apologetically. They have difficulty understanding why anybody would freely choose to live in the Detroit area. In their eyes Detroit is the “pits”.

“Fate-Detroiters” have a long list of complaints. The inner city is a devastation. There is no functioning downtown. Crime is rampant. Culture is thin. Young people are fleeing. The population is shrinking and aging. The scenery is boring. The climate stinks. The race war is relentless. There’s no place to go – except to Chicago or Toronto.

Some of these complaints are valid. Most of these complaints are not.

Certainly, there is crime, poverty, racial tension, urban devastation in the absence of a central downtown. But some of the changes are positive. Suburban housing is bigger and more commodious then the old urban variety. Detroit now spends three counties; most of that area future is comfortable and safe neighborhoods. Shopping centers, with greater variety and options in the old downtown, have become new settings for pedestrian traffic, community interchange and entertainment. The automobile makes educational and recreational opportunities available that the old public transit never provided. There is more opera, classical music, theater and dance than most “sophisticated” citizens choose to or are able to take advantage of. The metropolitan area features the diverse environments of Ann Arbor, Northville, Royal Oak and Birmingham. The Great Lakes may not be as magnificent as the Rockies, but they are clearly not ordinary. The suburbanization Of America has its disadvantages; but it has its advantages to. And the old urban density was never as wonderful and romantic as we know imagine. If it was we would have created its duplicate in suburbia.

I am a Detroiter by choice. Even though I was born and raised in Detroit, there were other urban options available to me when I graduate high school. It would have been easier to organize Humanistic Judaism and bigger more Jewish cities like New York and Los Angeles.

I chose Detroit because Detroit is my home. The streets are filled with childhood memories. The setting is filled with family and friends. Human relations our capital investments in life. They take much time, energy and personal devotion. Then I chose Detroit because Detroit is my home. The streets are filled with childhood memories. The setting is filled with family and friends. Human relations are capital investments in life. They take much time, energy and personal devotion. They engender profound attachments and commitments which are not easy to give up.

Neither weather north theater lights are more important to me and my human connections. I see too many people who abandon their human environment for physical environment they think it’s more comfortable. in my cases separation is less desirable than they initially imagined. I think that, in my old age, I will still choose the February ice of Detroit to the desert warmth of Scottsdale or San Diego.

I chose Detroit because I think that Michigan is beautiful. The magnificence of the Detroit River fills me with all. Adam is Oakland county has much of the splendor of New England. Fort Melbourne and the Bluewater Bridge provide me with inspiring with Easters. I like flat terrains. They do not hide the sky nor dwarf human beings and human creations. They give me my dignity.

I chose Detroit because it is mid-western. I like the culture of the Midwest, it’s speech, it’s openness, it’s hospitality. I find the east and west less rooted in more pretentious. I find the south less welcoming, warm and speech, cold and it’s acceptance of strangers. The Midwest is a wonderful combination of New England Yankees, Pennsylvania Quakers and generations of immigrants who shaped at this founding culture. When I am in the Midwest I sometimes weary of its matter-of-fastness. But I always look forward to coming back to it.

I chose Detroit because I am a workaholic. I did not want an environment so comfortable and so seductive that I would be drawn to leisure activities I find less meaningful. Cold and rainy days are good for work. A less than exiting outdoors makes things indoors all the more wonderful. Eternal sunshine discourage is the kind of human effort that makes life interesting. I do not dream of comfortable places for retirement. My mind is always inventing new projects. I’m not sure that I chose Detroit because I am a workaholic. I did not want an environment so comfortable and so seductive that I would be drawn to leisure activities I find less meaningful. Cold and rainy days are good for work. A less than exiting outdoors makes things indoors all the more wonderful. Eternal sunshine discourages the kind of human effort that makes life interesting. I do not dream of comfortable places for retirement. My mind is always inventing new projects. I’m not sure that longboat key supports that lifestyle. Long Boat Key supports that lifestyle.

Each of these reasons by itself might find another place for its satisfaction. But in combination, they make Detroit in my city. I do not know for sure whether in the infirmities of my final years, I will surrender and find a refuge in some overcrowded tropical paradise, I hope not.

The Meaning of Jewish History

“The Meaning of Jewish History”  From Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1986.

For the Jewish people, Jewish history has been more than a history. It has also been a course in philosophy.

For more than three thousand years, priests, prophets, poets, rabbis, and scholars have used the Jewish experience to “prove” their vision of the world. The events of the Jewish saga became “evidence” for certain beliefs about the nature of God and the universe. The exodus from Egypt was more than an exodus. In priestly and rabbinic hands, it became the demonstration of divine power and divine justice.

The meaning of Jewish history is the set of answers to important questions about God, the world, and people, which observers derive from the Jewish experience. Four questions, in particular, became the dominant themes of this evaluation. What does Jewish history demonstrate about:

The nature of the universe?

The power of human beings?

The evolution of human experience?

The essence of Jewish identity?

Rabbinic Judaism, which was the establishment ideology of the Jewish people for more than two thousand years, used the events of the Jewish story to answer these four questions. The answers of the rabbis became the “official” meaning of the Jewish experience. Rabbinic literature derived its character from this unique perspective.

What were the answers of the rabbis?

From the rabbinic point of view, the existence, experiences, and survival of the Jewish people demonstrated the presence in the universe of an all-powerful, loving, and just God, who punished the wicked and rewarded the good, and who was attentive to the hopes and aspirations of all humanity. The world was a well ordered place in which a divine intelligence was actively concerned with the moral agenda of human beings. Therefore, whatever happened in the world—no matter how seemingly unjust— happened for the good. In the end, even the suffering of the innocent would be vindicated by divine rewards.

Jewish history, according to the rabbis, demonstrated that human power was extremely limited; that human beings, relying on their own power alone, could accomplish very little. Time after time, according to the Bible and the Talmud, the Jewish people were rescued from disaster and from the embarrassment of their own inadequacy by divine intervention. The message of the priests and the prophets was that reliance on human effort and on human ingenuity was as effective as leaning on a “weak reed.” The wise man recognized that human happiness was possible only with supernatural help.

Jewish history also revealed that the quality of human life was gradually declining. The present was inferior to the past, and the future would be inferior to the present. Similarly, the teachers of the present were inferior to the teachers of the past, and the teachers of the future would be inferior to the teachers of the present. The patriarchs, the prophets, and the rabbinic fathers were wiser, more saintly, and more inspired than any sages that would follow. Modern-day saints and scholars would be mental and spiritual pygmies in comparison with their ancient predecessors. God’s conversations with humanity, and the time of divine revelation, had come to an end with the prophet Malachi. The world would sink into corruption and violence until only the messianic intervention of God would rescue humankind.

As to the nature and character of the Jewish people, the rabbis were very definite in their answer. The Jewish people was inseparable from the Torah and the religion it embodied. Without the Torah, the Jewish people would lose its essence and its unique personality. Without the Torah, the Jewish people would lose its motivation to survive as a distinct nation and would quickly be absorbed by the Gentile world. The Jews and rabbinic Judaism were pragmatically one.

The Humanist Critique

The meaning of Jewish history, as it was conceived by the rabbis, presents many problems for Humanistic Jews.

Supernatural guidance of natural events is not a credible idea for rational secularists. The assumption that what happens in this world is caused by decisions made in another is without valid evidence. If there are natural events, they have natural causes.

The discoveries of the past are important. But there is no evidence that the experts of the present are inferior to the experts of the past. In the world of science and technology, the information of the present is far superior to that of the past. There is no reason to assume that the development of religions and philosophic truths has been any different.

Religious personalities have been important in Jewish history. But to maintain that priests, prophets, and rabbis were the chief actors in the Jewish drama is to ignore the secular dimension of the Jewish experience. The authors of the Bible and the Talmud may not have chosen to record the achievements of the merchants, bankers, and artisans. Yet these achievements, economic and cultural, may have been just as influential in molding the Jewish character.

Traditional scholars make no distinction between the experience of the Jewish people and the descriptions of that experience that appear in the official texts of sacred literature. They simply assume that what the Bible and the Talmud claim to have happened did happen. If the Book of Exodus maintains that the Red Sea split before the fleeing Hebrews, then there was a split. If the anonymous Talmudic storyteller declares that a one-day supply of holy oil lasted for eight days, then this extraordinary event was real. There is no awareness of the fact, so amply confirmed by modem scientific criticism, that the real history of the Jews is vastly different from the saga presented by the rabbinic tradition.

In the light of these objections to the rabbinic approach to Jewish history, Humanistic Jews provide different answers to the four questions.

A Humanistic Perspective: World View

From a humanistic perspective, the existence, experience, and survival of the Jewish people hardly demonstrate the existence of a loving, just God who is compassionately involved with the moral agenda of human beings. On the contrary, the very opposite is indicated. In the century of the Holocaust, after twenty centuries of continuous, unprovoked Jew hatred, the experience of the Jewish people points to the absence of God.

A humanistic Judaism finds a totally different meaning in Jewish history from that proposed by traditional Judaism. A believer in future supernatural rewards and punishments would be hard put to justify the scenarios of Jewish sorrow and suffering from a morally divine perspective. No good God would arrange or allow a Holocaust of six million innocent victims. A thousand glorious resurrections would never provide moral compensation.

If Jewish history has any message abut the nature of the universe, it is that the universe is indifferent to our suffering or happiness, that it cares nothing about the moral concerns of the human struggle. The Jewish experience points to the absurdity of the world. Events happen in accordance with physical laws, not in accordance with ethical ones. Earthquakes and wars cannot defy the law of gravity; they can easily defy the Golden Rule.

The cosmic implication of Jewish history is that you cannot rely on the kindness of the universe. In the end, if human beings want justice, they will have to arrange for it. If they want happiness and dignity, they will have to arrange for them, too. And there is no messianic guarantee that we will achieve what we strive to achieve. Uncertainty is the stuff of an absurd universe.

In the light of four thousand years of continuous reproduction, Jewish survival is not so dramatic. Look at the Chinese, the Hindus, and the Greeks, who are equally ancient. Look at the Arabs, our Semitic rivals. Whatever gods took care of them did a far better job than Yahveh.

A Humanistic Perspective: Human Power

The rabbinic answer to the question of human power is inadequate and contrived. To assume that every human failure is due to human weakness and that every human success is due to divine assistance is to build the desired conclusion into the premise. From a naturalistic point of view, human success is the result of human effort and human ingenuity. If the achievement occasionally seems “divine,” that is a tribute to human potential. Sometimes adversity evokes extraordinary results.

The Exodus from Egypt (if it is indeed a historical event) was a human happening that used human power to arrange for human freedom. The resistance of the Maccabees was a “human” rebellion that used human ingenuity to defeat the Greeks.

The survival of the Jews through fifteen centuries of unremitting persecution is no testimony to divine benevolence. It is a witness to the continuous ability of the Jews to invent new reasons for their enemies to let them live. If their religious ideas were offensive, their economic skills remained indispensable. The Zionist enter-prise was a determined effort on the part of secular Jews to reject the historic passivity of the pious, with all its messianic waiting, and to assume conscious responsibility for the Jewish fate.

Jewish history testifies to the power of human ingenuity to cope with the cruelty of destiny. While Jewish suffering was more destructive than helpful, it did hone Jewish survival skills and stimulated the development of group solidarity and ambition.

A Humanistic Perspective: Progress

The rabbinic vision of human development, its answer to the question of human progress, is a distortion of reality. The belief that the best, the smartest, and the most charismatic lived long ago and that succeeding generations of religious experts and moralists can only manage to be less brilliant and less inspiring would be a charming myth if it did not have such harmful consequences.

The helplessness of modem Orthodoxy to find legal and moral relief for its overburdened adherents is the result of this doctrine. If contemporary scholars are overwhelmingly inferior to Moses and

Jeremiah, Hillel and Akiba, they have no moral authority to change what the superior ones have sanctioned. If divine revelation is con-fined to the distant past, nothing in the present can override its commands. Religion is reduced to the worship of the past.

Even modem liberal expressions of rabbinic Judaism such as Conservatism, Reform, and Reconstructionism, which accept some form of contemporary revelation, suffer from this view. They still vigorously seek to find sanction in the Bible and the Talmud for the changes they institute. Without the “kosherizing” of the past, present decisions lack validity.

Nostalgia for the pious past pervades the historic perspective of contemporary Jewish leaders. Most of these commentators on the Jewish scene see modem Western urban Jewry as less “Jewish” and less exciting than the pietists of earlier generations. They imagine that the age of the Secular Revolution has devastated the Jewish people through skepticism, assimilation, and intermarriage.

For Humanistic Jews, this nostalgia is deplorable. From our perspective, the Secular Revolution was the best thing that ever happened to the Jewish people. It removed the tyrannical religious monopoly of the traditional rabbis. It opened the Jewish mind to scientific inquiry and naturalism. It provided Jews with a more realistic understanding of the Jewish past and the evolution of Jewish culture. It introduced Jews to secular studies and to the intellectual pursuits that enabled them to make their mark on the revolutionary rethinking of the human condition. It provided them with a free economy and a democratic political structure that enabled them to reach unprecedented heights of prosperity and community involvement. It rescued them from religious passivity and gave them the confidence to assume responsibility for the Jewish fate.

Despite wars and massacres, the human condition and the Jewish condition have vastly improved. Few contemporary Jews, if offered the option, would volunteer to return to the Age of the Patriarchs.

Jewish wisdom and creativity in the twentieth century does not have to take a back seat to the legacy of the distant past. The Jews of this century are, probably, the most interesting, the most challenging, and the most creative generations of Jews that ever lived. Einstein was not inferior to Moses. And Freud did not have to offer reverence to Isaiah. Bialik and Tchernikhovsky are the equals of the psalmists. Herzl and Nordau are more relevant than Leviticus.

None of us need the sanction of the Torah or of the rabbis to be Jewishly valid. The worship of the past is replaced by respectful listening.

A Humanistic Perspective: Jewish Identity

The rabbinic answer to the question of Jewish identity is simply untrue. Jewish identity and Torah allegiance are not wed to one another. As the Zionist ideologue Ahad Ha’am pointed out, the Jewish people existed before Judaism, and the ethnic will to live preceded any theological formulations that justified it.

From the humanistic point of view, rabbinic Judaism did not create the national determination to survive. It provided a respectable public justification of it. In modem times, secular Zionism is an equally successful expression of the same ethnic drive.

The constant in Jewish identity is not theological conviction or Torah allegiance but Jewish peoplehood. In every age, the urge to survive—universal among nations—motivated Jews to find appropriate ways to satisfy it. In a religious age, they found religious strategies. In a secular age, they have found secular strategies.

The experience of Jewish ethnicity is the heart of Jewish identity. Even today, returnees to traditional Judaism do not first come to it out of theological conviction but out of a profound (if misleading) conviction that it is the best means of guaranteeing Jewish ethnic survival.

Conclusion

The meaning of Jewish history is radically different for Humanistic Jews from what it is for traditional or even liberal Jews.

The moral universe of the rabbis dissolves into the indifferent universe of the post-Holocaust era. The depreciation of human power and ingenuity is replaced by an appropriate tribute to the surprise of the human potential. The gloomy vision of a world declining in wisdom yields to a reassuring recognition of human progress. The rigid equating of Jewishness with religiosity gives way to recognition of the creative power of the Jewish will to live.

This new meaning is an important message we must share with the Jewish world.

 

I Am A Believer

“I Am A Believer”  from Staying Sane in a Crazy World, (1995)

I am a believer.

But I am not a believer in a conventional sense.

I believe that we live in a crazy world, that there is no guarantee that the good will be rewarded and that the wicked will be punished.

I believe that the strength to cope with a crazy world comes from within ourselves, from the undiscovered power we have to look real­ity in the face and to go on living.

I believe that the best faith is faith in oneself, and that the sign of this faith is that we allow our reasoning mind to discipline our action.

I believe that the love of life means the love of reason and the love of beauty.

I believe that staying sane in a crazy world is not easy, but that in the long run, it is the foundation of our survival and self-esteem.

I believe that human dignity comes from the courage to live with real­ity and to enjoy its challenge.