Humanism and Reform

Humanistic Judaism, Summer/Autumn 1977

This issue is about Congregation Beth Or. Congregation Beth Or was a reform congregation. It is now a humanistic one.

Beth Or is humanistic-because of the special power and integrity of its rabbi, Daniel Friedman-And also because of the unique courage and hutspa of its own members.

Beth or is also humanistic because reform Judaism is less than it should be.

The Jewish Reformers of the 19th century prided themselves on being the avant-garde of religious innovation-the rescuers of Jewish identity for the age of science. They saw themselves as bold and radical-eager to remodel the structure of Jewish authority.

The Jewish performers of the late 20th century are tired and cautious. They pride themselves on their return to tradition. Preferring nostalgia to creativity, they have become the promoters of Halachic antiquities. Fearful of Orthodox and Conservative disapproval, they label every surrender to old authority as a concession to the unity of the Jewish people. All the hutspa is gone. All the radical passion is absent. Pleading for the approval of the past, they have no energies to deal with the future.

What happened?

Not really very much.

In the very beginning the radical image of Reform was more glitter than substance. Using a Protestant model, the early reformers tried to demonstrate that Orthodox Judaism had betrayed the real Jewish past. Reform Judaism was not new at all. It was simply the revival of the original teachings of the great Jewish prophets.

From the very beginning Reform presented itself is ultimately traditional.

And that was silly.

Reform Jewish behavior, as any mildly retarded observer wouldn’t have noticed, had nothing at all to do with the tradition. Not only would the Talmudic rabbi have found it offensive, the Biblical prophets would have preferred Astarte worship to Abraham Geiger.

The early reformers were forced to distort the story of the Jewish past in order to kosherize the Jewish present. It never occurred to them that kosherizing was unnecessary. Admitting innovation has greater dignity than depriving heroic figures of the past their real thoughts and feelings.

If the Talmud was essentially irrelevant to the western urban lifestyle, then the Torah was even worse. Protestant Biblical piety is a joke amongst people who want to be winners in a secular world.

In the end, Reform- and most of all classical Reform chose the Bible is the ultimate sacred Jewish symbol. The religious energies could no longer be directed to real creativity. It had to be wasted proving the unprovable- demonstrating that the sprit of the Torah was essentially the same as the spirit of humanistic science.

Reform Judaism left courage. And the desperate effort of social climbing, the classical reform tried to please the protestant establishment. And that guilty response to this desperate effort, the new were firm tries to please additional geez.

The net result is humiliation and fiasco. Because, quite frankly, nobody can do Protestantism better than Protestants. And nobody can do traditional Judaism better than traditional Jews.

In both cases, Reform started out as the victim of other people’s initiative – a second-rate imitation of what the imitators could do better. Behind the radical mouth lay the obsequious need to please. Reform sought out its own oppressors.

When the Protestant bourgeoisie lost their clout, Conservative Judaism moved in to terrorize. Once the enormous social snobbery of German Jews was overwhelmed by Russian Jewish success, the social barriers that made reform seem boldly anti-traditional broke down. Reform Judaism was then able to show its true colors.

It is not the way many latter relics of the old classical Reform have maintained, that the old Reform was truly radical before it was destroyed by the new Reform. The need to apologize is intrinsic to both varieties.

The greatest ‘crime’ of both old and new Reformers is that, in the name of serving tradition, they distort it. Unable to stand up courageously to the hostility of their ancestors, they preferred to do cheap psychotherapy. The search for ‘roots’ became the search for approval.

Humanistic Judaism is an attempt to do what Reform Judaism should have done. Its main concern is not with the past. It looks to the future. Whether the past loves us or hates us is irrelevant to our long-run welfare is. Whether the future consequences of our present behavior love or hate us does make a difference.

We ought to understand our past without needing it. To feel that insight is true liberation.

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 – Zionism

Volume 33, No. 6, January 1997

1997 is an important anniversary for Jews. One hundred years ago-in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland-the Zionist movement was established by Theodore Herzl. Zionism is the most powerful and most successful Jewish movement of the twentieth century. The Jewish state is its incredible achievement. No other Jewish development has embraced so many Jews so passionately as has the Israel connection. If we add the revival of the Hebrew language to the accomplishments of Zionism, it emerges as one of the most significant forces for national liberation in the history of modern nationalism.

The victories of Zionism were won against overwhelming odds. A dispersed people were turned into a territorial nation within fifty years. Money was solicited-land was acquired-immigrants were recruited-communities were established-enemies were defeated-and a modern urban industrial state emerged from the desert. Even the agricultural sector was so successful that it became the producing ground of Israel’s military leaders.

From the beginning Zionism was essentially a secular enterprise. While the attachment to Palestine was reinforced by the Messianic fantasies of Orthodoxy, the determination to defy the “fates” and to establish a Jewish state through human effort came from the secular resistance to tradition. The overwhelming majority of the intellectuals, leaders, pioneers and activists of Zionism came out of the secular world. Antisemitism had driven many of them from assimilation to a militant nationalism. The Jewish state they envisioned had nothing to do with Torah Judaism. It was to be governed by the ideas and ideals of a secular nationalism. The Zionism of Herzl Nordau, Ben Gurion- and even Jabotinsky-promoted a secular Jewish state in which Jewish national identity was separated from religion, a state which granted equal status and equal freedom to the atheist and to the “believer?” It pioneered a secular Jewish culture in which the primary intention of Jewish identity was not Halakdic observance but was the use of the Hebrew language. In fact, the Jewish state would produce the “new Jew” who would be radically different from the pious Jew of the East European ghetto.

The Zionist founders imagined that the new Jewish homeland would become a role model for the development of an open democratic state in which non-Jews and national minorities would be accorded equal treatment to that of the “natives?” It would also put an end to antisemitism by terminating the Diaspora, normalizing the Jewish condition and removing the provocation of a “ghost people”.

But the founder’s vision ran into problems. While the early years of the Jewish settlement and the Jewish state were fairly secular the later years have been much less so. The later immigration was different from the early immigrants. The first pioneers were secular idealists who chose Palestine because they wanted to be a part of an important social experiment. They were willing to endure privation and suffering in order to realize their “dream.” In some ways they were secular “monks and nuns” whose ascetic lifestyle added to their moral purity and nobility. The later immigration was very different from the first. Most of the arrivals came because they had to, not because they wanted to. Many of them were religious. Many of them came from Oriental countries where the experience of a secular democracy was unknown. Many of them felt no ideological restraints on their prejudices and their hatreds. All of them came after the terrible Holocaust which crushed much of their naïve idealism of the past. All of them had to confront a never-ending war with the Arab world.

In time Israelis by birth replaced Israelis by choice. The native-born discovered that they were Israeli in the same way that they were native. Greeks discover that they are Greek. Israel was simply home-not a social experiment, not a utopian dream, not a role model to the world. Emigration began to match immigration. Materialism began to win out over self-imposed sacrifice. The consumer culture, with all its abrasiveness, took over the streets. It was the compensation for the annoying war that refused to end.

After the Six Day War new “idealists” arrived. They were ultra-Orthodox Jews who saw in the victorious Jewish state the hand of God. As the secularists became more clinical they became more passionate. Only this time the secular vision was replaced by a militant religious vision, a combination of the old Messianism and the new nationalism. The “idealistic” shoe moved to the foot of the old opposition. The new “ideal” was a Torah state run by Orthodox Rabbis and hostile to secularists and Arabs.

Today in Israel there is no secular state. The orthodox rabbinate governs Jewish marriage, divorce, and death and determines Jewish identity. Every Israeli is assigned to a religious group-Jewish, Muslim, Catholic etc- and to the control of an officially recognized clergy for each group. There is no civil marriage. There are no non-religious cemeteries.  There is no secular path to divorce. There is no universal Israeli identity. The only way to become a Jew in a state committed to the nationhood of the Jewish people is to be converted by an Orthodox rabbi.

Today in Israel the original secular culture is being compromised. The state schools are under the control of an Orthodox minister of education. Ever since the Likud assumption of power in 1977 the teaching of the Bible in the schools has fallen into the hands of traditional people. Religious values and Israeli patriotism are becoming inseparable. Increasingly in Israel, being secular simply means not being Orthodox.

Today in Israel the grandchildren of the pioneers have joined the consumer culture. The old idealism has been replaced by a quite normal and quite pervasive ambition to live more comfortable. The ironic twist is that the people non-willingly to make “sacrifices” for their ideals are the Orthodox.

Today in Israel there are both ethnic bigotry and antisemitism. The conflict with the Arabs has produced a level of mutual hatred and suspicion unmatched in many other countries. This war has also turned the Muslim world into a hotbed of fanatic Jew hatred. The Zionist dream of eliminating antisemitism has failed. It may be the case that the peace process will inevitably win out, simply because it is unavoidable and because external pressures will be overwhelming. But the gradual, yet dramatic, reversal of Zionist culture will continue. Both the orthodox birth rate and secular emigrating will reinforce that development. As Israel approaches its 50th birthday anniversary, the new Israel, is vastly different from that of the Zionist pioneers. The secular forces are no longer in charge. They are on the defensive and they will need the help of secular North America to defend themselves in the cultural war that is looming. Zionism pioneered a new secular way to be Jewish. We must do whatever we can to support the beleaguered heirs of that vision.

The Rabbi Writes – The Massacre in Beirut

Volume 20, No. 3, October 1982

Rosh Hashana. The massacre in Beirut. Outrage. Shame.

And up all the facts have been revealed. But enough have surfaced to fill our Jewish hearts with guilt. The Defense Minister of the state of Israel has publicly admitted that he allowed the forces of the Christian Lebanese Phalange to pass through Israeli lines and to enter the Palestinian camps of Shatila and Sabra for the purpose of rooting out terrorists. But as every Lebanese child knows, to allow militant Christians, thirsty for revenge for the assasination of their hero leader, into an unarmed Palestinian camp is to invite murder. It is as innocent as putting a snake in a baby’s crib.

How does a humanistic Jew respond to the news that leaders of the Jewish state have sanctioned a holocaust? How do we deal with their initial refusal to allow an impartial investigation? Do we defend our Jewish leaders because they are Jewish? Do we minimize the outrage? Do we plead that greater atrocities have been committed against us? Do we claim that we are not responsible for what Israel allows?

The first thing we do is to dismiss certain harmful illusions.

It’s not my problem – is an illusion.

Whether we like it or not, all Jews are identified with the behavior of the Israeli government. As the most consuming passion of world Jewry, support for Israel cannot be dismissed when it is inconvenient or embarrassing. we cannot proudly identify with all the good achievements, and then in cowardly fashion avoid our obvious association with bad behavior. The world sees Israel and the Jewish people as one.

We buy our own behavior have created this impression. As members of the Jewish family we are implicated in the crime. We therefore have a special responsibility to let the world know how we feel.

Disunity is bad – is an illusion.

Sharon implied that Jewish protestors were giving assistance to the enemies of the Jewish people and that they were guilty of treason and antisemitism. Many of our timid community leaders who were interviewed in the Detroit Free Press obviously feel the same way. But silence is complicity. We who denounced the silence of Germans in World War II who also succumbed to appeals for unity should be hard put to swallow the Sharon argument. Perhaps Amos and Isaiah, who objected policies of their government in the face of external danger were also antisemites.

Jews are the only victims of the double standard – is an illusion.

Norman Podhoretz complains that the world allows the Gentile nations behavior that it refuses the Jews. Atrocities are committed all the time all over the world and are ignored by world opinion. Only when Israel behaves less than noble does moral outrage appear. Yet the reverse is also true. We Jews are so accustomed to being the unique victim that when other people, especially our enemies, are victimized we regard them as imposters, as unworthy of the status which we have for so long grown accustomed to claim for ourselves alone. That arrogance is also a double standard. We cannot bear to think that the Palestinian experience bears any similarity to the Jewish one.

The Holocaust gives us special privileges – is an illusion.

Many Jews including Begin, believe that Jewish suffering in the holocaust was so terrible that it justifies Jewish violence against an uncaring world. How can 500 Palestinians compare to 6 million Jewish dead? Counting casualties become the criterion for outrage. By this standard we still have over 5 million to go before the world has a right to object. No more unattractive self-righteousness can present itself.

What other people think is unimportant – is an illusion.

When hypocrites, like the Russians and the Libyans complain, who cares? But when the dutch, the Danes, and the Swedes – the ardent supporters of Israel in the American Congress and American journalism complain – the Israeli government ought to listen. The self-esteem of a nation depends on the approval of its friends and allies. Will the morale of Israel be elevated by the endorsement of South Africa and Jerry Falwell?

The Israeli military leaders had no motivation to sanction a massacre – is an illusion.

In 1948 the Irgun terrorists attacked the Arab village of Deir Yassin and massacred men, women and children. The report of that massacre spread throughout the Palestinian Arab community creating panic and persuading thousands of Palestinians to flee their homes. In 1980 to a similar incident in Lebanon might persuade thousands of Palestinian refugees in Israeli occupied territories to flee their camps and to cross over the Syrian lines to safety. The convenient exodus of 1948 is the precedent for the aborted exodus of 1948 is the precedent for the aborted exodus of 1982. Both the Phalange and the Israeli military would have regarded the terrified departure of the Palestinians as good riddance.

After we have dismissed the illusions, the second thing we do is to protest. we do what 400,000 Israeli citizens did in Tel Aviv.

We protest the refusal of the leaders of the American Jewish establishment to express moral outrage.

We protest the refusal of the Israeli government to allow an objective investigation of the events until world pressure compelled them to relent.

We protest the leadership of Begin and Sharon who have brought shame to the Jewish people.

We protest, not only to be heard, but also to clear our conscience. Silence is complicity.

The Rabbi Writes – The Israel Connection

Volume 20, No. 3, October 1982

The Israel connection.

For North American Humanistic Jews, it is very important.

This July, 300 delegates from the United States, Canada, England, France, Belgium, Argentina and Israel met in Jerusalem in the Truman Auditorium of Hebrew University to establish the Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. This school is the first institution of higher learning which has been created for the specific purpose of promoting a humanistic approach to Jewish identity and Jewish culture.

With a part-time faculty of thirty scholars, academicians and teachers, the Institute intends to publish literature in Hebrew, English and other useful “Jewish” languages – literature which can be used for educational and inspirational purposes by secular Jewish communities. It intends to train professional leaders, lectures and spokes people to provide scholarly and popular answers to important Jewish questions and to service a focal point for a federation of humanistic Jewish societies throughout the world.

Haim Cohen, The civil libertarian, legal scholar and former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Israel will serve as the Honorary President. Yehuda Bauer, The world-renowned scholar-expert on antisemitism and Holocaust studies, will serve as the president.

Also this July, 11 young people from the Birmingham Temple – ages made a summer “pilgrimage” to Israel to attend the opening seminar of the Institute and to spend six weeks in a special training program for secular humanistic youth. This trip was the first of, hopefully, many “pilgrimages“ which will be available to all 10th grade graduates who are affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism. We hope that this summer adventure will take its place alongside the Mitsva and Confirmation ceremonies as one of the rites of passage in growing up as a Humanistic Jew.

Why this special emphasis on the Israel connection?

Israel is the Drammatic embodiment of our view of Jewish identity. The Zionist state is a living testimony to the fact that the Jews are more than a religious denomination. We are a historic nation with a national culture, A culture brought enough to include both religious and secular Jews. Because of Israel it is no longer easy to pretend that the Jews are only at theological fraternity.

Israel is also a dramatic embodiment of our view of human power. Against  orthodox passivity and Messianic waiting, the Zionist pioneers proceeded to take Jewish “destiny“ into their own hands into mold the Jewish future instead of resigning themselves to it. The Zionist venture was – and still remains – a revolutionary break with the mood of the old religious tradition.

Israel is the fastest growing Jewish community in the world. The reason is not immigration; it is birth rate. Because of a declining Jewish birth rate, the Diaspora communities are shrinking. In 1985, 25% of the world Jewish population resides in Israel. Into thousand 40% of world Jewry will live in the Jewish state. Time goes on, Israel will increasingly become the center of Jewish identity.

 Israel is the only state where Jewish culture can function as a majority culture. The Jewish language is the national language. Jewish holidays are national holidays. Jewish heroes are national heroes. Therefore, the Jewish creative potential of Israel is far greater than that of Diaspora communities where an uphill battle will always be fought against the attractiveness of the dominant culture. Less effort has to be exerted in Israel to remain Jewish. More effort can be devoted to more positive enterprises.

Israel is the home of the largest body of self-proclaimed secular Jews in the world.

Just as Reform was the dominant ideology of the nineteenth century founders of the American Jewish community – making it, In the American context, older and more prestigious than Orthodoxy – so what is humanism the dominant belief of the Zionist founders of the Jewish state. From the labor movement to the kibbutzim, From the universities to the newspapers, the secular point of view prevailed. In the same sense as in America, Orthodoxy is “newer“ than secularism. It’s recent victories are in assault on the “establishment“.

Israel is the home of the largest body of scholars, academicians and teachers who identify themselves as secular and Humanistic Jews. No where else is it possible to assemble a working faculty for an institute of Humanistic Judaism. While the new school will be international, with branch offices in North America and western Europe, the center must remain in Jerusalem where the intellectual resources are more available.

The Israel connection is indeed very important. In an age of technological revolutions where traveling from Detroit to Jerusalem is far easier now than moving from Detroit to Toledo was 150 years ago, maintaining the is real connection may become a far simpler project than we imagine.

The Rabbi Writes – Jerusalem, October 1992

Volume 29, No. 5, December 1992

The Fourth Biennial Conference of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews

It was a memorable event. Delegates from nine countries assembled in the Khan theater to proclaim the commitment to a cultural Judaism without God. It was obvious that progress had been made during the last six years, ever since our first meeting in Detroit in 1986. We had increased in number. We had defined our ideology. We had elevated our visibility in the Jewish world. We had created an international Institute to train the leaders and educators we so desperately needed.

“On the way“ to Jerusalem we had met in Brussels in 1988 and in Chicago in 1990. At each of these events we sought to reinforce the purpose of the Federation. We wanted to bring together all the secular and humanistic Jews in the world and make them part of one movement. We wanted our voice and our presence to be recognized and acknowledged. We wanted to do together what we would not be able to do alone.

There were many highlights of the conference.

There was the Khan Theater, a Jerusalem landmark, Filled with people, many of them young, eager to identify with the cause of a cultural Judaism.

There was the babble of tongues – Hebrew, English, Russian, French and Italian – that made you feel the truly international character of our movement and gave the moment the excitement of diversity.

There was Naomi Hazzan, Member of Parliament, friend of Shulamit Aloni, fiery defender of the separation of religion and government, calling for the end to the wicked regime of Orthodox control over Israeli life.

There was Yizhar Smilansky, Famous poet and writer, tall, white- haired and charismatic delivering his impassioned denunciation of racism and militarism by rewriting the book of Joshua and reciting the text in staccato and relentless outbursts.

There was Haim Cohn, former senior judge of the Israeli Supreme Court, revered jurist and civil libertarian, Honorary president of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, receiving his award as our role model Humanistic Jew and offering a clear and unequivocal call for rational enlightenment in Jewish life.

There was the arrival of the delegates from the former Soviet Union, pioneers of Humanistic Judaism in the secular Jewish world of Eurasia, sharing with the crowd at the incredible success of their efforts in towns and cities of Russia and the Ukraine, speaking of the amazing possibilities for our movement in these newly opened lands.

There was the meeting with the Russian immigrants who have come to Israel, hundreds of them, who have found an intellectual and spiritual home and Humanistic Judaism, Who were filled with endless questions about what we do in North America.

There was Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yekutieli, descendent of a prominent Iraqi family and militant secularist, who told us about his victories against Orthodox intimidation in his city of yeshivas and about how it was possible for determined humanists to mobilize their followers successfully in defence of their civil rights.

There was Danny Garbarz of Paris, university student and leader of the French youth movement for Humanistic Judaism, Energetic and brilliant, who shared with us his plans to mobilize Jewish young people all over the world for a secular commitment to Jewish identity.

There was Meron Benvenisti, Controversial writer, intellectual and former political leader, who boldly proclaimed at a celebration luncheon for the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem that there was nothing to celebrate, that Jerusalem remained hopelessly divided between Jews and Arabs and that only a piece which involved ethnic equality, mutual respect and the sharing of land would really work.

There was the intimate closing session when we explored together the texts of the new Secular Humanistic Anthology, tasting the words of Spinoza, Einstein and Tchersiklovsky and experiencing the excitement of finding our place and the tradition of Jewish inspiration.

There was the special moment in the kibbutz library of Aryeh Ben Gurion, Nephew of the first prime minister of the Jewish state, all of us standing before the documents and books which represented eighty years of secular Jewish celebration in the world of kibbutz life, And realizing the vast wealth of Jewish creativity that lay at the foundation of our movement.

There were too many high points to record. But all of them were part of a significant series of events that made up this conference.

For the first time Secular Humanistic Judaism received considerable attention from the Israeli press and media. The visibility of the movement took a quantum jump before the eyes of the Israeli public.

For the first time the vast region of Eurasia entered our movement. The Jews of the former Soviet Union, by virtue of 75 years of secular education, are an enormous pool of potential members and workers for our movement. Many Jews will leave the area. But most will stay. And if they want to be Jewish, Humanistic Judaism is the best and most honest way for them to express their Jewish identity. The Federation published a statement to that effect.

For the first time the Federation held a meeting in an Israel which was no longer under the control of a government beholden to the orthodox fundamentalists. Rabin is in power. And two of the founding members of the Israeli Humanistic Jewish movement, Shulamit Aloni and Yair Tsaban now hold important posts in the government. Their enemies have made an issue of their secularism. But they are determined to use their influence to resist the forces of religious reaction and self-ghettoization in the Jewish state.

We have every reason to feel optimistic about our movement, despite the power and determination of our opposition. Hopefully, the Spirit of the Jerusalem conference will serve to make us bolder and more assertive. WE have an important message for the Jewish world. Our solidarity with Humanistic Jews around the world will make it louder and clearer.

The Rabbi Writes – American Civil Religion

Volume 31, No. 7 2, 1995

February is the month when both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were born. They were the two “gods“ of the American civil religion in which I grew up. Together with the American flag their portraits graced the walls of almost every classroom I used.

Fifty years ago there was a powerful American patriotic “religion“ which lay at the heart of public school education. Its gods were the Founding Fathers. Its Torah was the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Its vivid symbol was the American flag. Its ethics with the requirements of good citizenship. (We even received the grades and cooperation, reliability and self-control.) Its sacred songs with the Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. Its clergy with thousands of WASP spinsters who had committed their lives to American public education and to Americanizing the children of European immigrants.

National pride, instead of God, lay at the heart of this “religion.” National history, rather than mythology, was the foundation of its holiday celebrations. While the Fourth of July was not a Day of prayer, it was a joyous holiday with your folks to memories of our sacred patriotic American saga. Everybody regardless of his or her personal theology or lack of theology, could participate in the pageantry and commitments of the civic cult.

The American civil religion was the reason why the separation of church and state worked in America. The removal of denominational religion from the heart of public education was not replaced by a spiritual and ethical vacuum. It was replaced by a full-blown and powerful secular patriotic “religion“ which provided the foundation for group solidarity, civic pride and ethical behavior. Without it the separation of traditional religion and government would not have worked. It was one of the great unrecognized achievements of the American political system.

This achievement rested on certain ideological and emotional foundations which gave it stability. There was the belief that there was an American nation, with a unique and powerful culture all its own. There was the conviction that the major cultural element was Anglosaxon and that the English language, which was inseparable from the foundations of America, was intimately tied to that cultural core. There was the understanding that immigrants would be stimulated into this American culture and when identified with the symbols of the patriotic religion. There was the understanding that while diversity was important for personal freedom there had to be a certain level of public conformity in order to ensure community solidarity and moral empathy. If everybody looks and acts like a stranger, it is difficult to develop a sense of community solidarity.

One of the reasons why the separation of church and state is collapsing in this country, why the Religious Right and Christian Coalition are seizing power, is that the American civil religion is vanishing. In its place is a moral vacuum in public education which cries out for replacement. Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed are more than happy to provide one.

Why is this “patriotic religion“ vanishing?

The Anglosaxons are no longer what they used to be. They are now a minority in the nation which they founded. They are no longer providing the major cultural drive in America. They now live amid millions of people who have no connection to Anglosaxon culture and no desire to participate in it. We Americans are all part of a multi-cultural and multi-racial pot pourri which lacks a core cultural commitment in which glorifies diversity over solidarity. Patriotism was struck a powerful blow by the Vietnam War. But it was mainly undone by the emergence of ethnic politics and raise conflict. Values were no longer American. They now became African, Latin or European. In fact, there were no universal shared American values beyond the general agreement not to impose our personal or a group of values on everyone else. In liberal circles it became fashionable to regard values as subjective matters of personal choice and his attributes of ethnic loyalty rather than civic virtue or good citizenship. No one had the right to tell anybody else what to think, feel or value. Every individual was autonomous. And every group with autonomous. There was nothing left for the community as a whole to teach about right or wrong. The public school could provide information. It could help students clarify their personal and ethnic values. But it could no longer indoctrinate. It could no longer be the instrument of the American civil religion as the transmitter of the ideal vision of the American citizen.

The appropriate educational expression of a society committed to multi-cultural loyalty is a multic-cultural school system in which parents and children can choose the culture they wish to identify with. The role of the state is to support and subsidize this choice. It is not to provide a vision, all its own, of ideal behavior.The government becomes like the commander of an army post with many different regiments, each with its own agenda. If what we want is a multi-cultural and multi-lingual America, in the public schools will become an irrelevant issue because there will be no public schools.

I regret the feeding of the “American civil religion.” I regarded it as the major bulwark of the separation of conventional religion from government institutions. I regarded it as the major cultural glue of diverse people and strangers struggling to stick together. Although I often resent the naïve glorification of Washington and Lincoln, I’m up much prefer it to the propaganda of segregationist multi-culturalism which has replaced it. The year “melting pot“ idea is now in disrepute. But, at least, it had a workable vision for a united America.

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 Challenge of Soviety Jewry

Humanistic Judaism, Fall, November 1991

The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union is one of the most important events of the 20th century, equal in importance to the Bolshevik Revolution, which brought communism to power. For more than 70 years, all major political developments in both the West and the East evolved around the Bolshevik presence. Fascism, war, and the political tensions between Left and Right all were responses to communism, whether perceived as savior or devil.

In the early years of the revolution, thousands of Jews, both in and outside of the Soviet Union, shared the Bolshevik fervor. Caught up in its messianic enthusiasm, they believe that communism is the answer to anti-Semitism and the Jewish problem. But these devotees were crushed by the real realities of the communist system, which used anti-Semitism as a tool of social control. Enthusiasm was followed by disillusionment and the bitterness of betrayal.

Today, after 70 years of repression and isolation, the Jews of the former Soviet empire are free. They are confronted with both opportunity and danger. They have difficult decisions to make. Should they or should they not remain in the Soviet Union? What place should they give to Jerusalem and Judaism in their life? What kind of Judaism should they seek to embrace?

Lost for so long to the Jewish world, Soviet Jews have become a gold mine for Jewish recruitment. What do they choose to remain in the Soviet Union or to emigrate to Israel or North America, they are the largest body of unaffiliated you to suddenly appear as a major factor in the modern seen. Today, the “missionaries” of traditional and reform Judaism are busy looking for “converts”. And with books and videotapes, Lubavitchers have penetrated the remote cities and villages of the Soviet Union in search of followers.

Secular humanist a cutie as I’m cannot be indifferent to this new development and this new opportunity. After 70 years of secularization, most of your dues are not religious. If they never learn about the possibility of being both meaningfully secular and meaningfully Jewish, they would use traditional expressions that are inappropriate to their convictions and lifestyle, or-more likely-they will choose to do nothing about the Jewishness at all.

We, a secular humanist excuse, have a moral obligation to reach out to our Soviet Jewish brothers and sisters, wherever they may be. We need to share with them our experience that Judaism and humanistic convictions can go hand in hand. The task is overwhelming. But it also will be exciting and energizing for a movement.

Vladimir Lenin: Tsar of the Bolsheviks

Recorded May 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

Ulyanov was his real name. Lenin was his revolutionary name. His body still lies embalmed for public view in Red Square. Born to a bourgeois family, Lenin turned radical when his revolutionary brother was killed. Embracing Marxism, he became the boldest Marxist leader in Europe. The trauma of the First World War gave him an unexpected opportunity to seize power with his Bolshevik faction. Once in power, he became a dictator who transformed Russia. Would the story of Bolshevik Russia have been different had he not died early from a stroke?

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