Lifestyles in Transition

The Jewish Humanist, February 1977

People in transition. We are people in transition.

We are moving from one life style to another.

Our behavior is changing. As husbands or wives, as mothers or fathers, as employers or employees, as men or women, we are no longer behaving the way we used to.

The change is overwhelming. Divorce is ordinary. Pre-marital sex is conventional. Career women are legion. Artificial birth control is the norm for American Catholics. Even abortion has become Italian.

The change is so overwhelming that we often deny it. It makes us feel so insecure, so guilty. We try to imagine that our moral values have remained the same. We try to avoid confronting our behavior.

Moral schizophrenia is the psychic disease of many people in transition. It is the self-destructive defense against fear and guilt. Our conscious beliefs go one way, our behavior goes another. Our stated values are fantasies. They are unrelated to the substance of our actions. When we are challenged , some of us get very angry because we are resisting the painful truth. Some of us shrug our shoulders because we are embarrassed by our own ambivalence.

Moral schizophrenics are always the victims of change. Since they deny that it is happening, they can never control it.               They simply change and grumble. Unconscious needs and dumb social forces push them on relentlessly. Their resistance, when it comes, is both hysterical and ineffective. They are the victims of their own cowardice.

Healthy people are always fighting ethical dishonesty. They want their stated values to coincide with their behavior. They want to be aware of .what they are doing and why they are doing what they do. They want to be in control of their behavior and to consciously select the changes which are best suited to their needs. They want to resist irrational fear and non-productive guilt.

As people in transition – who can no longer live according to the dictates of old social scripts and who want to preserve their own moral integrity – we need a healthy style for coping with change. We need to admit ultimate responsibility for our own lives. Blaming others for bad decisions may be justified but is generally useless. Blaming destiny or irresistible social forces may be accurate but is usually a way of avoiding doing anything. Peevishness is fashionable. If we cannot be in total control, then we will not be in control at all!

Assuming responsibility is merely the good-humored awareness that conscious decision does make a difference.

We need to identify our most important desires. A healthy life style should serve our needs, not violate then. We have to be honest about our feelings. Anger and depression are signs that we are missing what we really went. Pro-longed anxiety Indicates that we haven’t come to terms with what we really fear. We have to know our needs before we can choose to satisfy them.

We have to be able to put our wants in some order of priority. Since we cannot satisfy all our desires simultaneously, we have to pick and choose. Human needs are complex. They cannot be reduced to single desires like sex, love, power or serenity. Simplicity is intellectually neat but pragmatically naive. On a practical level, we are messy jumbles of wants, each demanding center-stage and enormous amounts of energy. Knowing desire is never enough. We have to figure out the order of desire. If we don’t do it consciously and rationally, then we will do it unconsciously and irrationally. The former procedure is less spontaneous – but it is also less dangerous.

We need to know how to make rational choices. Irrational choices are decisions that serve the interests of dead people – that serve the needs of ancestors who cannot be served. Irrational people are always citing tradition and historical convention to justify their life style. Rational people always justify their behavior by pointing out how decisions serve the needs of the living. ‘I can’t help myself; that’s the way I feel’ is the standard reply of people who are traumatized by ancestral disapproval and who refuse to take the painful step of resisting the past for the sake of living needs and future good consequences.

We have to be able to resolve incurable ambivalence. Most of us want both independence and togetherness. The current psychotherapeutic fashion is for people to say that they want to run their own lives. But they generally want to run their own lives together with someone else. They want the ecstasy of intimacy and the pleasure of separateness at the same time. Total independence and total intimacy are not compatible. If we want one, we cannot have the other. Self-fulfilment is more than selfish independence or masochistic merging. It is a good-humored compromise called responsible intimacy.

We need to know the life style options. The traditional world allowed only one script for each sex and for each class. The contemporary world is a supermarket of life styles. Open marriage, communal child-rearing, living together, single swinging, nature simplicity, leisure careers – are still novel but increasingly legitimate choices. Even conventional long-run relationships, whether in marriage or work, require new stimulation to rescue them from boredom. Keeping ourselves aware of alternatives is necessary for both hope and sanity.

We need to resist stereotypes. As: children of our genes we are indeed programmed. But our programming allows for wide options. Men are not violating their nature when they are soft, gentle and dependent. Women are not resisting their essence, when they are strong, aggressive and publicly commanding. Our society requires greater flexibility than the tradition allowed. We need to be more open to variety. People do not exist to fit life styles. Life styles should be designed to fit people.

We need to be individually real. Before the present transition family, work and ethnic identities were primary. For a growing minority they have become secondary, although still very important. This minority are an avant garde, sensitive to the problems of investing self-awareness in groups. Groups no longer provide the stability and security they used to. Being able to see oneself as independently real of any group identity is becoming necessary for many people. In a world of serial careers, intermarriage and feeling young at fifty, it is dangerous to find one’s self-image in a group label.

We above all, have to be able to deal with the value of the temporary. Our conditioning so values the eternal that we often view marriages and careers that do not last forever as failures. We deny the importance of our pleasure and our joy because it does not last forever. In a world of rapid change this conditioning is conducive to neither happiness nor survival. Seeing change as painful but often desirable will, make us less possessive and more attractive.

We are people in continuous transition. We need the skills to make that transition worthwhile.

Visiting East Asia

The Jewish Humanist, September 1996

I have just returned from five weeks in East Asia. I had been there three times before, the first time as a Jewish Chaplain in the American army in Korea. My memories of Korea were poverty and devastation. I was anxious to see what the economic revolution of Asian capitalism had done to the settings of my memories. China, Vietnam and Indonesia were added to my voyage. I had seen China and Indonesia a decade before. Vietnam was new to me and, because of the terrible war, the most intriguing of my destinations.

I was aware, from my reading, that great transformations had taken place. I knew that the most dynamic economies of the world had their home in the Far East. I knew that the old Communism had given up its ghost and had embraced the consumer culture. Only authoritarian regimes and empty Marxist slogans remained. But I was unprepared for the dramatic difference to the past. The new urban centers of skyscrapers, expressways, automobiles, high tech factories, shopping malls, banks and motorbikes startled me. American culture had crossed the Pacific and had made a comfortable marriage with the fresh ambition and talents of eager Asians. The “goodies” of the Western world are more fascinating to these once hungry people than they are to us, somewhat jaded from overexposure.

As a Jew, visiting East Asia is different from visiting Europe or the Middle East. In the Western and Middle Eastern worlds there is an old and significant Jewish presence. The stories of both Christianity and Islam cannot be told without the Jews. The cities of Germany, Russia, Turkey and a dozen other neighboring countries have profound Jewish memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. In fact, our Jewish ancestors helped to make them great.

But China, Korea and Vietnam have no long-run significant connection to Jewish history. We all know about the native Chinese Jews who had their origin in the arrival of adventurous Persian Jewish merchants in the days of the Sung emperors. We also know about the Russian and German Jews who found their way to Harbin and Shanghai in this century, the agents of an expanding Russia or refugees from Hitler. But they are gone, a brief but exotic chapter in the saga of the Jewish people. They left no imprint on Chinese culture or Chinese memory. Tourists can find a few relics of their past in old Kaifeng or in the fast-changing streets of the former international settlements in Shanghai.

Yet in some strange way, East Asia is very Jewish to me. The young people remind me of all those Asian students in the United States and Canada who are replacing Jewish students as the winners of the top honors in science and mathematics. They are ambitious for education and success, in the same way that the Jewish immigrant children I grew up with in the ghetto of Detroit were eager for academic and worldly achievement. Their faces and food were not familiar, but their values were.

Communism had not been able to destroy the Confucian values of family loyalty, family ambition and self-discipline. As a Jew, these values were familiar to me. They were at the foundation of Jewish success. Add to this the Confucian reverence for the written word and scholarly study, embellish it with lingering bourgeois skills in commerce and trade – and you have the perfect setting for winning in an education oriented capitalistic world. In many respects the Chinese in Southeast Asia are resented in the same way as the achieving Jews in the Western world.

My experience in East Asia stood in dramatic contrast to my experience in the countries of the Muslim world. In the Muslim places where there is no oil, deep poverty prevails. While there is reverence for the written word, the text of the Koran, most study and learning are directed to religious study. The secular sciences of Western society are viewed as dangerous and subversive of the faith. A powerful religious establishment hates Western culture and offers resistance to its ideological advances. Iran, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and many other nations live with this hostility and the civil war it creates.

What unites the Jews and the people of East Asia is an overwhelming embrace of secular education. It is the key to their mutual success. No powerful Buddhist or native clergy remains in the Far East to oppose the appeal of scientific thought. Old values have been wedded to new thinking, without the reactionary intervention of fundamentalist religion. The consequence is social discipline and worldly success.

Of course, modern urban industrial capitalist civilization has brought the problems of overcrowding, crime and rudeness. They are the unavoidable accompaniments of a dynamic economy. But the growing victory over poverty outweighs their annoying intrusion. East Asia is way ahead of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. In a few decades its emerging affluent nations may become the economic and political center of our planet.

It is quite possible that, in the twenty first century, Jewish ambition and the energies of the Pacific Rim will come together in a new chapter of Jewish history. Shanghai will not be Minsk, but then neither was London, New York or Los Angeles. Maybe the Jewish love of Chinese food is a prophecy!

The Persians

The Jewish Humanist, March 1977

The Persians.

Jews don’t have very strong feelings about Persians. Their name doesn’t conjure up any images of holocausts or pogroms. Unlike Germans and Arabs we seem to have no good reason to hate them – or to love them.

If it weren’t for Purim, we most likely would choose to ignore them.

But they deserve our attention. In fact, for that very reason, Purim is important.

As a story, the book of Esther is only a delightful myth. Neither Ahasuerus, Esther, Mordecai nor Haman ever existed. No Jewish queen ever graced the royal court of Susa. No wicked Persian prime minister ever plotted the genocide of the Jews.

The Esther story is a Mardi Gras myth dramatizing the victory of spring over winter, of life over death. Esther is the barely disguised Ishtar, goddess of fertility. Mordecai is none other than Marduk, guardian chief of the gods and the fatherly enemy of evil. The tale, in its origin, is Semitic and Babylonian.

The story of Esther was long resisted by the priests and rabbis because its thinly covered polytheism. Yahweh allowed no rivals. However, historical luck rescued it from oblivion. When the rabbis turned against the Maccabee kings of Judea because they had dared to call themselves kings, they abandoned all the holidays honoring that warrior family. Hanukkah was discarded and ignored for centuries. Nicanor’s day was also abandoned.

What is Nicanor’s Day?

It was a holiday, falling on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar (March), and commemorating a Maccabee victory over the Greek general Nicanor. In the days of the Second Commonwealth, it was more important than Hanukkah.

The rabbis pushed Purim, because Purim fell on the same day and because it would allow the people to keep their festival without having to pay honor to the Maccabees. Although it violated their theological purity, the changed the name of Nicanor’s Day to Purim and kosherized the book of Esther to justify the change.

Purim, n some strange historical way, is connected with Hanukkah and the Maccabees. Hanukkah (as well as Nicanor’s Day) was the holiday of those who loved the Maccabees. Purim (despite its Persian setting) was the holiday of those who hated the Maccabees and who wished to erase their memory.

Nevertheless, modern Purim has forgotten this old political controversy. It retains its importance for two reasons.

The first reason is fun. Purim is nothing less than the Jewish Mardi Gras. Even if it were called Nicanor’s Day the laughter would be the same.

The second reason is history. By the coincidence of the myth’s national setting, Jews are forced to pay attention to their Persian connection.

The Persian Connection?

The Persian Connection is that set of ideas, books and institutions which the Persian conquest of the Jews brought to Judaism. Around 530 B.C. Cyrus, the young and bold king of Persia, set out to create an empire through the conquest of foreign countries. When he was finished, Egypt, Phoenecia, Syria, Armenia, Assyria, Chaldea, Media, Parthia, West India and Judea were his possessions. The Persian Empire was the first true world empire. Cyrus was no longer merely king. He became the king of kings.

What did the Persian Connection mean for the Jews?

The PC gave us monotheism. Theological ideas do not arise in a vacuum. They reflect the political and social realities of their day. A world god is merely the image of a world king projected into the sky. The first real world king was Cyrus, ruler of the Persians. The first real world god was Mazda, the chief god of the Persians. If Yahweh, the god of the Jews, was to survive his competition, his devotees would have to make him Mazda’s equal. In the end the Bible, Yahweh’s professional portfolio did exactly that. The priests of Jerusalem, who did most of their editing of sacred texts in the Persian period, elevated Yahweh to universal rule – and claimed, with enormous chutzpa, that Yahweh was simply using the Persians Or any nation for that matter, as a way to reward or punish the Jews. In order to survive the Jews had to imagine themselves more important than the Persians and their god more significant than Mazda.

The PC gave us the Torah. The Torah, as the political constitution of the Jewish state, is a document which gives supreme power to the Jerusalem priests. These priests were called Zadokites. They were the editors and completers of the Torah. Under the leadership of Ezra, they came home from Chaldean exile with Persian permission. They ruled the Jews in the name of the Persian king. They were favored by the Persian court because they were clergymen who would be incapable of leading a military rebellion. Needing to justify their right to rule the Jews (as opposed to the non-traditional royal house of David) they completed the Torah and used the Torah to enforce their authority. A peaceful theocracy, diverted by ritual excess from armed revolt, was convenient for the Persians. The Jews were now too priestly to fight.

The PC gave us the Diaspora. In the Persian period for the first time in their history, the Jews found themselves part of a world empire. National boundaries were now irrelevant. People of different nations could now move freely from country to country. Living in a small mountainous country, bad for agriculture and harsh for survival, many Jews decided to emigrate for economic reasons. Some became merchants and settled in the cities of the Empire. Some signed up as mercenaries in the Persian army and went as far as southern Egypt to patrol the boundaries. Others wandered, without fixed skills, to more fertile places. An international empire spawned an international people.

Today the Persian Connection is less dramatic. The modern Persian calls his country Iran and himself Iranian (a pretentious title linking the Persians to the ancient Aryans). He has exchanged Allah for Mazda and given up the conquest of land for oil (a more lucrative substitute). The king still calls himself King of Kings, Shah in Shah, but he is hardly made of the stuff of Cyrus. The Rothschilds would be better models. Although Muslim, modern Persians hate the Arabs, as cultural rivals and former conquerors. They discreetly supply the oil’ needs of Israel and treat their local Jews as well as any Muslim country can.

Modern Persia is not terribly important for Jews.

Ancient Persia was.

Purim reminds us of this Persian Connection.


1998 US Elections – the Clinton Scandals

The Jewish Humanist, January 1999

America is changing. The last election dramatized that fact. The voters of America are very different from what they were thirty years ago. The Republican Party suffered the consequences of not understanding the reality of America today.

The ‘scandal’ did not punish the Democrats. Clinton returned from the ‘dead’. The Democrats increased their numbers in the House of Representatives. They won major senatorial New York and California. They defeated two Republican governors in Alabama and South Carolina. Only in Michigan, where Fieger led the team, were the Democrats humiliated.

The Religious Right, who helped to orchestrate the Republican strategy, were slapped in the face by the voters. Two state referendums to restrict abortion freedom failed to win majorities. Two lottery proposals to finance public education succeeded.

The message to Republicans was clear. Assaulting Clinton was a political disaster. Following the agenda of the Religious Right was the path to self-destruction. The managers of this strategy were guilty of incompetence. They had to go. Newt resigned in a huff. The Democrats tasted the most delicious of victories.

What does this reality mean for us as Americans and as Jews?

It means that sexual morality in America has changed. Thirty years ago the Clinton scandal would have forced the resignation of the president. Kennedy only survived disgrace because the media were less intrusive. But, after the feminist and youth rebellions of the last three decades adultery and sexual promiscuity are ho-hum for a large part of the American electorate. Living with partners outside of marriage is respectable and homosexuality, despite fierce resistance, is gaining more and more acceptance. When behavior is no longer controversial it is called ‘private’. Most Americans believe that ‘private’ behavior, in so far as it does not produce public harm, should not be investigated or disturbed by public scrutiny. It is not the public’s business.

In a dynamic consumer culture, where individualism is triumphant and traditional families are shrinking, there is no will to punish presidents for behavior that is ‘ordinary’ in the middle and upper classes. The message for the political future is that sexual accusations are losing their intimidation power. The election revealed that the public, on sexual issues, is far more tolerant than Kenneth Starr ever imagined.

The election means that the Religious Right has power but not enough power to do what it wants to do. Their support is up to 25% of the American voters. However, that percentage is insufficient for political control. American culture is essentially a secular culture that resists religious fanaticism.

The election means that the religious Right is a liability to the Republican Party. There are two conservative agendas in America. One is economic and resists government intrusion into the work and money life of American citizens. The other is social and seeks to use the government to police the sexual and reproductive behavior of the American public. Voters on the Right believe in both agendas. Voters in the Center only believe in the first one. They are afraid of the second. Since most Americans are in the Center, parties can only win elections if they appeal to the Center. Ever since Nixon the Republicans have taken the Center and have gladly given the Left to the Democrats. But the dominant presence of the Religious Right at the Republican conventions of 1992 and 1996 frightened the Center and drove many of its voters into the Democratic camp. When Clinton embraced the economic agenda of the Republicans and rejected their social program the Democratic victory was sealed.

In some ironic way the Religious Right is the best thing that has happened to the Democrats in a long time. The people who fear and hate them have now forged a new alliance of the Center and the Left. The Democrats need a powerful enemy to mobilize their troops. And the Religious Right obliges by playing the role.

The election means that the racial composition of active voters is changing. More and more Blacks and Hispanics are voting. The Blacks helped to defeat the Republican governors in Alabama and South Carolina. The Hispanics gave Barbara Boxer her senatorial victory in California. The hidden Republican strategy to be seen as the party of white America only works if whites remain the overwhelming majority of the American people The Republican program that won political control of both the South and the West over the past thirty years no longer works.

The election means that the impeachment ‘push’ is now a retreat. The new Congress may impeach but they will not convict Clinton. Voter ‘backlash’ has already punished the Republicans. The issue now is how to abandon the campaign and save face. The determination of the Religious Right to impeach Clinton is now a political liability.

The election means that the Jews have returned to the Democratic Party. The abandonment by Jewish voters of D’Amato in New York, despite his years of support for Jewish causes, is a clear indication that Israel and reparations are not the only issues that-concern Jews. Most Jewish voters even if they are economically conservative, are in the Center. They fear the religious Right. And they fear a Republican party that is allied to them. As both Jews and Americans they do not wish to endanger a free and multicultural society that promotes affluence and opportunity. We do not need the native Anglo-Saxon ‘haredim’ running our lives.

American Diversity

The Jewish Humanist, February 1999

February is Brotherhood (and Sisterhood) Month in America. It is a useful time to celebrate the diversity which is part of American life. Our country, like most of the nations of the world, is no longer ethically or religiously uniform. It is a composite of people from all over the planet.

The original concept of a nation was that of a community of racially identical people with shared ancestors and shared memories. The Israelites of the Bible conformed to this model. Birth was the only legitimate entry into the nation. If strangers lived in the midst of the community, they were merely tolerated aliens. Modern Japan preserves this hostility to foreigners.

When America began, the nation was overwhelmingly homogenous in both race and religion. Anglo-Saxon Protestants predominated. Native Americans were excluded. Africans were viewed as sub-human. And the few Germans in Pennsylvania hardly counted. Jews and Catholics were too few in number to make any difference.’

Two hundred years later America is vastly different. Anglo-Saxon Protestants are a minority. Native Americas and Africans have been absorbed into the body politic. Catholics have become the largest religious denomination. And the largest Jewish community in the world is settled in the major cities of America. Over the last two centuries millions of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America have come to live in this country. Their descendants have changed the racial and religious face of the United States. In many parts of our nation it is impossible to find any ‘original’ Americans.

What has happened to America is also the story, of many other advanced nations who have attracted large numbers of foreign immigrants because of urbanization and economic opportunity. The immigrants need jobs. The hosts need cheap labor. Mobile urban communities accommodate newcomers far more easily than traditional peasant communities. The Indians and Palestinians in England, the Algerians in France and the Turks in Germany – all of them testify to the new diversity among the prosperous nations of the Western world.

But this diversity also exists in the Third World. Brazil is a stew of invading Europeans, imported Africans and natives. All over Latin America and Africa white invaders have left mixed communities. Both in Asia and Africa the national boundaries drawn by colonial conquerors ignored the historic boundaries between ethnic groups. Nigeria is a country with five significant nations. India is a coalition of at least fifteen. The Congo is a nightmare state that embraces dozens of different tribes which hate each other.

The consequences of all this mixing is the emergence of a distinction between nationality and citizenship. Your nationality is your ethnic origin. Your citizenship is your territorial allegiance, the land which claims your political commitment. Modern territorial states are different from historic nations. They are often composed of people who no longer share a long-run common history or even a single language. States like Canada, India and Peru feature more than one territorial language.

All this change is accelerated by the increasing mobility of the world population. Modern technology has reduced our planet to a global village. Air travel has shrunk distance. And computer slaves enable people from faraway places to communicate with each other as though they were ‘in the same room’. The new ‘intimacy’ reduces fear, increases the sharing of ideas and goods and encourages people to explore new venues. The incredible rise in the number of international travelers is a prelude to the more permanent migration of millions of people.

In such a ‘global’ world territorial states do not have the opportunity to integrate their ‘diverse populations’ into some kind of nationality. Instead, a new international culture is arising which transcends national boundaries and which embraces the urban residents of the world. Much of their international culture is derivative from American culture. Skyscrapers, expressways and jeans are no longer American. They bear no national identity. They are the artifacts of an emerging international community.

The evolution of territorial states and an international culture does not obliterate differences. As group conformity dissolves individual difference is enhanced. Some people eat Italian food on Monday and Thai food on Tuesday. Others choose Chinese food for Monday and Mexican food for Tuesday. Some people choose to master English as their second language. Others choose to learn Spanish. Many Jews enjoy Christmas. Many Christians find meaning in Passover and the Seder.

As societies become more pluralistic, the boundaries between nationalities and religions do not dissolve. They become softer, more flexible, more ‘individual friendly’. While many traditionalists view this development with honor, liberals see this development as a way of breaking down the age-old hostilities between groups. Once self-righteousness and the fear of strangers diminish, the possibility of building an international community emerges. What was once a utopian ‘fantasy’ is at the beginning of its realization.

Of course this new mixing has its negative diversity. Racism and bigotry thrive in environments where old boundaries break down and where traditional belief systems are threatened. Both the rise of intense nationalism and religious fundamentalism are responses to the traumatic changes engineered by this social revolution. At a time when people should be optimistic, all these fierce reactions make them think that the world is falling apart.

As we celebrate Brotherhood and Sisterhood month in America let us understand that the old monocultural America is gone. We Jews are no longer strangers in an Anglo-Saxon country. We are one of the vital options in a diversity of free and open choices. America is our home, as is the world.