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 – 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.

Jamestown and Virginia: England and America

Recorded in 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

In the face of Spanish Catholic success the English Protestants were determined to create their own English empire in North America. Several attempts had already failed when the Virginia Company was able to found a small vulnerable settlement on a swampy island near the mouth of the James River. Both the town and the river bore the name of an English king with high political pretensions. Out of this iffy adventure emerged a viable English colony. Good management was not the cause. A noxious weed called tobacco and African slaves were the winning formula.

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Capital Punishment: Execution in the Era of Timothy McVeigh

Recorded October 1997 by the Center for New Thinking.

Michigan was the first political authority in the modern world to outlaw capital punishment. But the outrageous crime of Timothy McVeigh has raised again the question whether this prohibition is indeed immoral. Is executing anybody beneath the dignity of any ethical government? Or are there some crimes so horrible that allowing the criminal to live fails to give full expression to the moral outrage of a wounded society? Is vengeance always immoral and unjust? The Oklahoma City bombing makes us confront the issue.

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Bill and Hillary: Love, Hate and Opportunism (1999)

Recorded on 11-2-1999 by the Center for New Thinking.

Do Bill and Hillary really love each other? Or are they rank opportunists whose ambitions for power are disguised by sweet talk? Sex scandals and impeachment have made their public devotion less than credible. What is the real story behind the faces? Is there passion and disgust, love and hate? What have people who really know said about their relationship?

 

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Eight Years of The Religious Right

The Jewish Humanist, October 1988

Eight years ago Ronald Reagan was running for President for the first time. And it was quite clear that – given the difficulties of Carter – he was going to win.

Eight years ago a sinister new political force presented its face to the public in the presidential campaign. The Moral Majority, under the leadership of evangelist Jerry Falwell, made its national debut in support of Reagan.

Eight years ago the Voice of Reason was born at the Birmingham Temple. Aroused by the danger to our civil liberties in the Falwell success, many of our members decided to respond in an organized way to this organized threat.

The Voice of Reason was an important chapter in our twenty-five year old history. It was an expression of our commitment to a liberal democracy and to the separation of religion and government which it implies. For that reason we have chosen to honor the Voice of Reason as part of our anniversary celebration.

Eight years later, at the time of another presidential election, it is appropriate for us to look back at the Falwell phenomenon and assess its successes and failures.

The religious right has been successful in mobilizing a large minority of the American people as a permanent activist lobby for fundamentalist causes. Some ten to fifteen percent of the American population is fanatically committed to tearing down the “traditional” barrier between church and state. Never before in American history have so many been so focused on this issue.

For many of the people in this political lobby the entrance of religious symbols and religious values into the public sphere is the most important political goal they have.

The religious right has been successful in assuming the mantle of moral defender in our troubled society. Sensitive to the concern that so many Americans have about the decline of traditional ethical values, especially those having to do with family and sex, the fundamentalist preachers have tuned into this anxiety and provided a simple and dramatic remedy. Secularism is now identified by many Americans with either immorality or moral permissiveness. Secular state schools are now regarded as neutral or negligent in the development of either patriotism or personal character. Private religious school systems are flourishing. And millions of non-fundamentalist parents have now come to accept the argument that religious education is moral education.

The religious right has been successful in encouraging a fanatic hostility to the decisions of the Supreme Court, especially those with regard to school prayer, school Bible readings, the integrity of science and abortion. The devotees of the right are determined to replace the justices on the court who espouse any liberal or moderate views with their own spokespeople. The chief criterion for the admission of these candidates to the court is their stance on the place of religion in public life.

The religious right has been successful in intimidating public educators and forcing them on the defensive. Cautious teachers, principals and superintendents are now reluctant to offer clear and direct support to secular education in a secular state.

Hoping to appease the “nudges” of the right, they have often consented to replace scientifically respectable textbooks with more timid alternatives. They have eliminated meaningful sex education. And they have allowed fundamentalist recruiters into their schools to seduce non-religious students into religious activity.

The religious right has been successful in putting science and scientists on the defensive. Building on the new fashionable anti-intellectuality of the past two decades and the stress that new information and new technology place on the public, the fundamentalists have compelled scientists to defend tried and true scientific conclusions that were no longer challenged forty years ago. In many places the theory of evolution is experiencing the same trial as Darwin experienced over a hundred years ago in England.

The religious right has been successful in making abortion freedom as a central issue of American political life. More determined than most conventional Catholics, they have elevated their answer to this question to be the moral litmus test for all politicians. Even Jerry Falwell, borrowing a page from the left and Martin Luther King Jr., has proposed a campaign of civil disobedience to undermine abortion freedom in this country. With assaultive demonstrations at abortion clinics, the debate is heating up to explosion.

The religious right has been successful in infiltrating the Republican Party and moving it to the right. Even though Pat Robertson did not succeed in remaining a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, his followers and the devotees of other fundamentalist preachers retain a strong influence on Republican decisions and strategies. The near-win of Robertson in Michigan may portend similar events in other places. For sure, no secular sentiment ever passes the lips anymore of any successful Republican candidate.

Well, as you can see, the successes of the religious right are quite impressive. But there have been several significant failures.

The religious right has failed to turn its propaganda into effective legislation. Despite the promised support of both Reagan and conservative Congressmen, most of the agenda has failed to become reality. While some abortion restrictions have passed into law, very little has been achieved with school prayer, Bible readings and anti-evolution. While the Supreme Court has helped, the ambivalence of both moderates and many economic conservatives have prevented the energies of the religious right to be transferred to the legislators.

The religious right has failed to win the support of a majority of the American people despite the title of its most powerful national organization, (Moral Majority). On the contrary, its leaders have become some of the most hated figures on the American scene. While Falwell is adored by his followers, he is feared by almost eighty percent of the American population. The intensity of the fundamentalists has produced a counter-intensity of disgust and loathing that serves as an effective wall to fundamentalist ambitions.

The religious right has failed to unite its forces or discipline its leaders. The recent delicious fiascos with Bakker and Swaggart have revealed a world of unseemly competition and hypocrisy under the moral platitudes. We now know that fundamentalists and charismatics do not like each other and that kinky sex is a prerequisite for television evangelism. People are now beginning to laugh at what they used to revere. A lot of devotees have departed the fold.

The religious right failed to win its most ambitious attempt to control the Supreme Court. Although Bork is an atheist, his staunch conservatism and sympathetic feeling for religious symbolism in public life made him a test case for fundamentalist aspirations. His defeat was an enormous disappointment to diehard conservatives and a ray of hope to frustrated separationists and civil libertarians.

Now these failures were due to a variety of causes. One was the basic centrist position of most of the American people. The second was the internal feuding among the fundamentalist leaders and the stupid and embarrassing behavior of their most visible spokesmen. The third was the dichotomy between the programs of economic conservatives and lifestyle conservatives, the former of which see no connection between free enterprise and anti-science. The fourth was the determined political effort Of the American Civil Liberties Union, the People for the American Way, and smaller organizations like the Voice of Reason (now renamed Americans for Religious Liberty) to mobilize opposition to the agenda of the religious right.

Despite the failures of the fundamentalists the successes of the “enemy” of our constitutional liberties means that we must continue to be vigilant, continue to stay organized to respond to danger. That vigilance is the meaning of our tribute to the Voice of Reason.

 

The Future of American Jewry

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1994

What is the future of American Jewry? That is no idle question. Because what the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism need to do to guarantee their future depends on the character of the Jewish community they will be serving.

Profound changes are taking place. They have been going on for a long time. They are, most likely, irreversible. We are living with their consequences right now.

The first change is intermarriage. Priestly and rabbinic Judaism forbade intermarriage for both religious and racial reasons. But the modern urban world has made this ban unworkable and unenforceable. Increasing numbers of Jews choose to marry people they love, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. The endless condemnations of rabbis make absolutely no difference. In a free and open society cross-cultural unions are inevitable.

The major consequence of intermarriage is not so much that intermarrieds choose to give up their Jewish identity or to leave the Jewish community. It is the “de-ethnicization” of American Jewry. The deep ethnic roots of American Jews in the Yiddish experience of Eastern Europe are fast disappearing. The ethnic roots of increasing numbers of American Jews are as much Anglo-Saxon or Irish as they are Ashkenazic. The ethnic flavor of American Jewry will be hard to maintain in the face of Jews with multi-ethnic backgrounds.

Two forces are pulling in opposite directions in America. One force is the power of Zionism and Israel which dramatizes the ethnic dimension of Jewish identity, with its strong appeal to a national self-image, national culture and national language. Zionism has helped to re-ethnicize many Jews. The other force is the power of intermarriage which tends to universalize the Jewish community, diffusing Jewish ethnic memories in a sea of competing and complementary memories. The child with a Yiddish grandmother and an Irish grandmother may indeed be Jewish. But he is not ethnically Jewish in the same way as a child with two Yiddish grandmothers. What is happening in Israel is the opposite of what is happening in America.

The second change is the shrinking of the extended all-encompassing family and the emergence of the individual. For many American Jews permanent indissolveable relations are things of the past. More than one marriage, more than one career, more than one residence are commonplace. Mobility is the name of the game. The serenity or boredom of unchanging conditions are gone.

Jews of the past were burdened by the intensity of their connections. For many of them the demands of family and community were too oppressive, too guilt-producing, too intrusive for comfort. They often fled them to breathe the fresh air of privacy and aloneness. But, now the tables have been turned. The big anonymous city of individuals, separated from parents and children, is a cold and cruel environment. They crave connection. They search for community. In many cases they will even join communities with ideologies they do not believe in because they are desperate for connection, nurturing, and acceptance. The children of Jewish affluence are, in particular, vulnerable

The third change is the power of feminism. Society is being transformed by the entry of women into all professions and into all the chambers of political decision. The old male chauvinism of the Jewish world has collapsed, except in the Orthodox enclaves. The face of the American Jewish leadership is changing Even traditional women are choosing to do traditional things that only men did before, from wearing yarmulkes to lifting Torahs. The change is so revolutionary that it defines the boundary between the Jewish establishment – whether Reform, Conservative or Secular – and the fundamentalist dissenters who repudiate the Enlightenment. Feminism is creating this unbridgeable gap between the Jewish world that embraces female equality and the Jewish world where men still rule exclusively. It is a dichotomy that will only expand with time.

The fourth change is the “demacherization” of Jewish communities. With the arrival of capitalism and emancipation the rabbis lost their political power. They were replaced by “machers”, successful Jewish businessmen who became the new leaders of the Jewish world. “Machers” might be bossy and undemocratic; but they were generous with their time, talent, devotion and money. They had a strong sense of community commitment and responsibility.

But the last two decades have failed to produce new “machers.” The children of “machers” tend to be yuppie professionals who prefer the pursuit of personal fulfillment to community work. The “next” generation is less interested in building and strengthening community institutions. Jewish organizations all over America are worried about where the necessary army of devoted workers and leaders are going to come from. A hedonistic culture of affluence makes public work less exciting than private adventure.

The fifth change is the ideological free-for-all that an educated autonomous Jewish population inevitably creates. The world of ideas is a smorgasbord of choices, ranging from atheism to reincarnation, from rationalism to mystical spirituality. Every individual puts together his or her unique combination of choices as a personal philosophy of life. The endless variety of choices makes any set of denominational labels obsolete even before they are proclaimed Jewish diversity is like American diversity – an amorphous collection of shifting personal opinions.

How do we need to respond to all these changes and their consequences?

We need to be less ethnic and more universal. A Jewish people with diverse ethnic roots has to place less emphasis on nationalism and more emphasis on the planetary importance of Jewish identity. The Jewish strategies of North America and Israel may not always coincide.

We need to be a family to people who crave family connection and support. We must be the family of choice that works where the family of inheritance has failed. The importance of the new            groups that have emerged in our congregation will continue to grow.

We need to be open to all the possibilities of female leadership. Women rabbis will most likely be a dynamic force in the Judaism of the twenty-first century.

We need to train our young people for community service. A congregation is more than a service center. It is a place where the ethical virtues of commitment and devotion are cultivated. We need to never lose sight of our humanistic message and our ideological focus. In a world of endless diversity of beliefs it is convenient to be all things to all people. Our strength is the clarity of our philosophy of life. In the emerging Jewish world the Jewish ideological realities will correspond less to Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. It will more easily fit a loose division of fundamentalism, New Age thinking, and rational humanism. In such a world we have a good chance to embrace many new seekers of the “truth” if we have something real, consistent and significant to say.