The Irony of Jewish Survival

Colloquium ’97: Reclaiming Jewish History, Spring 1998

When Alan Dershowitz spoke at the Bir­mingham Temple, he announced that he was a secular Jew and that Humanistic Judaism was the closest to what he felt and believed. He volunteered to help us.

The reason for his coming was a book he wrote about the future of American Judaism. He gave the book the disturbing title The Van­ishing American Jew. Dershowitz maintains that assimilation, personal freedom, and de­clining anti-Semitism have created a situation in which Jewish group survival is in danger. Jews are so fully integrated into American culture that their Jewish identity has become an adjunct to their American identity. The lib­erty and toleration of American society have made Jewishness a personal choice. Neither laws nor bigotry compel Jews to remain Jews.

But Dershowitz, unlike many Jewish com­mentators on the American Jewish future, does not recommend a return to tradition and Or­thodoxy as a counterbalance to the forces of assimilation. He does not call for a return to community segregation and a primary focus on the issue of Jewish survival. He is afraid that such a return will destroy the Jew he admires and resurrect the Jew he does not admire.

The most interesting observation in Dershowitz’s book is his contention that the greatest achievement of Jewish history is the modern secular Jew. The incredible intellec­tual and artistic achievements of Jews during the past two centuries were produced, not by traditional Jews, but by secular Jews. They are Einstein, Freud, and Durkheim. They are the Nobel Prize winners. They are the movers and shakers of social action and political revolu­tion. They are the voices for universal justice and human rights. In the eighteen centuries of Orthodox Jewish domination, none of this spirit prevailed. The parochial agenda of Orthodoxy kept Jews focused only on the Jewish world.

The implication is clear. A return to Ortho­doxy and tradition is a return to Jewish parochialism. It is a negation of everything at­tractive about Jews in the past two centuries. It is the resurrection of a narrow and fearful vi­sion that saw the Gentile world as the enemy and conformity to tradition as the only guaran­tee of Jewish salvation. Out of such a theologi­cal field, the passion for intellectual, artistic, and ethical adventure cannot grow. If you reject freedom and persuade all Jews to return to Or­thodoxy, you will “guarantee” Jewish survival; but you will have a Jew you neither want nor admire. The irony of the Jewish future is that the Jew we want to preserve cannot be separated from the personal freedom and assimilation that seem to threaten Jewish group survival.

This marvelous irony raises the question of what is necessary to create, maintain, and preserve the modern secular Jew. It is clear that Jewish tradition alone cannot produce this phenomenon. It needs a catalyst. The catalyst is the power of modern Western secular cul­ture, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, and the Greco-Roman culture of the classical world. Hellenism and Orthodoxy produced a “child” that was identical to neither of its parents.

The modem Jew is like a good salad dress­ing. The vinegar is Orthodoxy. By itself it is harsh and uninviting. The oil is Hellenism. By itself it lacks the intensity of Jewish pas­sion. Together, they are a pleasing and attractive experience. The oil of Hellenism provides the reason and openness, the love of humanness and beauty, which the life of intellectual and artistic adventure requires. Orthodoxy provides the intensity and anger that have fueled Jewish ambition and have provoked Jewish thinkers and artists to defy established norms. Reason without intensity is weak. Intensity without reason is blind. But the combination is powerful and benign.

The implications of this reality are clear.

The flowering of Jewish identity was not in the biblical and talmudic past. Neither the cult of Yahveh nor Pharisaic Judaism pro­duced the free spirit that the pursuit of truth and beauty requires. On the contrary, in many cases, it suppressed that spirit in the name of dogmatic conformity. The intensity, passion, and militancy of traditional Judaism could be attractive and productive of universal good only when they could be separated from the theology of the rabbis. In the context of rabbinic Judaism they fostered a narrow fa­naticism — a passion that ultra-Orthodox Jews all over the world still exhibit.

Returning to the traditions of the past is like returning to the vinegar without the oil. Repu­diating the open society of the modern world does not produce a wise Jew. It produces a pa­rochial Jew, whose only concern is Jewish group survival and whose chief pleasure is making invidious comparisons between Judaism and “inferior” alternatives. The resegregation of Jew­ish life is the setting for turning the modern Jew into a nostalgic sectarian.

The culture of the Greeks and the Romans, from which so much of our modern secular culture flows, is not the enemy, as traditional rabbis proposed. It is the catalyst that takes Jewish intensity and ambition and transforms it into a vehicle for intellectual achievement and moral improvement. There was a brief time in the ancient world when this combi­nation was attempted. But the wars with the Romans and the triumph of rabbinic Judaism drove Hellenistic Jews into the underground of Jewish life. From time to time a Jewish philosopher would be brave enough to resur­rect a pale reflection of that mixture, but the tyranny of the halakha ultimately prevailed.

The greatest period of Jewish history is the modern era, the time in which the “vinegar” and the “oil” came together to produce the secular Jew of the past two centuries. Within a short time, this combination produced the creative intellectual power to transform our views of people and the universe, and the en­trepreneurial power to remake the economics of the world. Never before has Jewish talent and creativity been able to reach so many so widely. As Dershowitz points out, to lose the secular Jew is to lose the Jew we admire. It is not the Jewish past we seek to preserve. It is the wonders of the Jewish present.

Who is a Jew: Fundamental Issues

IFSHJ Conference Highlights: Who is a Jew  Spring 1989

Two years ago in Detroit, about 350 peo­ple gathered from ten countries around the world to establish the International Federa­tion of Secular Humanistic Jews. There was great excitement in the air, a lot of hope and anticipation of what we might be able to do together. There was the surprise of discover­ing so many people around the world who shared our ideas, a sense of solidarity, relief from the isolation that people who think that their perception of Judaism is bizarre or different or outlandish often experience.

We were an assembly with great diversi­ty. Some were from old secular, socialist, politically radical backgrounds. Some came from traditional backgrounds. They had rebelled against that tradition; they felt themselves to be very, very Jewish but had not found themselves comfortable within the framework of a traditional Judaism, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform.

There were those who were children of intermarriage, who in some way found their Jewish connection to be a very special con­nection, who wanted to be part of the Jewish people but found themselves repudi­ated by religious authorities who, ironically, claim that Judaism invented love, brother­hood, and justice.

There were those who had come from assimilated backgrounds, people who had grown up in families where Jewish identity wasn’t very important but who now wanted in some very significant way to identify with the Jewish people.

We all came together to form that Federa­tion. We were trying to say something to the Jewish world. The question Who Is a Jew? is very much related to that context.

We, first of all, wanted to say to the world that we as Secular Humanistic Jews were not nonbelievers, that we were believers. People often put us in the category of not believing. That isn’t true. It may be that most Secular Humanistic Jews have many more beliefs than nonsecular Jews. I always say that to people when they challenge me. I say that I have a host of beliefs, positive beliefs, about people, the world, and humanity.

We were there at that meeting to say that Judaism, the Jewish people, is more than a religion or religious denomination; that we share a common history and a common fate and a common culture. We were there to say very clearly that we speak for the history of the Jewish people, a history dramatized by the Holocaust in this century; and indeed no divine voice could easily be heard in the cruelty that was meted out by fate to the Jewish people.

We also maintained that Judaism is more than words in the Siddur, or in the Tanakh, or in the Talmud; that Judaism is the experi­ence of the Jewish people, and that experi­ence has an ethical message relevant to one of the topics of this conference. I was talk­ing recently to a very traditional Jew who spoke about how appropriate it was to expel Arabs from Israel. I told him that was in­conceivable to me, given the history of the Jewish people. You can find a lot of reac­tionary quotations in Jewish literature, but the experience of the Jewish people is dif­ferent. And the message of that experience is compassion for the suffering.

Last, and above all, we were saying by coming together that we are a legitimate op­tion in the Jewish world. We were saying that there is a fourth alternative in Jewish life, which is real and legitimate, and our coming together was intended to make that possible.

The question Who Is a Jew? is related directly to our task of creating a meaningful Secular Humanistic Judaism. The issues in­cluded in that question lay the foundation of our ideology and our commitment. If you answer the question appropriately, you deal with the whole issue of the nature of Jewish­ness. I am always assaulted by people who tell me that you can’t really be Jewish without davening, without immersing your­self in the practices of the past. Indeed, if you define a Jew as a religious person, then you have no comeback.

Many young people in North America — and it may be true in Europe — are looking for their Jewish roots. When somebody from a yeshiva tells them that their roots are tradi­tional religion, even though they may not really believe, they choose to do so because it’s the only way they know how to be Jewish. We have a different answer. If we deal with that answer, we are dealing with a funda­mental part of Secular Humanistic Judaism.

The question Who Is a Jew? also addresses the issue of how we view human beings. Are we simply creatures of God, subject to his authority and humble and obedient before the laws that are given to us? Or are we autonomous persons? Do we as human beings have the right to define the groups we will belong to? If a human being stands up and says, “I identify with the history, the fate, and the culture of the Jewish people” and expresses his or her identity through ac­tion and goodwill, that person indeed has the right to call himself or herself a Jew.

This question deals with the issue of ethics and authority. Where does authority lie? Can a group of rabbis, self-proclaimed bearers of the word of God, decide who is a Jew, even though their criteria may be a mixture of racist and religious ones that are inapplicable to what we would call rational living today? Or does authority lie some­where else?

When somebody quotes to me all the traditional passages from the Tanakh and elsewhere that forbid intermarriage and in a sense exclude the offspring of it, my answer is, “I’m sure your quotations are correct, but of what value are they? They do not con­form to the standards of human reason and human compassion, and those are the stan­dards that are to be found in many texts in Jewish history and are implied in the ex­perience of the Jewish people; and they should be the chief criteria.”

Lastly, this question addresses the issue of the survival of the Jewish people. Are we going to be this exclusive club that checks birth certificates, gloats over the fact that people are excluded from organizations they would like to join, and takes great pride in our racial purity? Or are we going to be an open people that says to anybody who wants to join us, anybody who wants to be part of this Jewish experience, “We want you; we need you; come join us”?

The fundamental issues of Secular Humanistic Judaism are contained in this question and, therefore, the resolution that we make at this conference will lay the foundation for a meaningful and significant Jewish humanism. It is not only that we are fighting the militant Orthodox. We are seek­ing to define ourselves and who we are.

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