Going Mainstream: The Fifth Branch

Building Bridges to a Wider Jewish Community: Autumn 00/ Winter 01

What is the place of Humanistic Judaism in the Jewish world? Is it on the inside or on the outside? Is it rooted in the beliefs and be­havior of contemporary Jews? Or is it a pe­ripheral and bizarre phenomenon, a passing wave of Jewish heresy?

The enemies of Humanistic Judaism see it as alien and peripheral and seek to ex­clude it from membership in the established Jewish community. Some secular and human­istic Jews consent to this exclusion and reluctantly accept being on the outside. They see themselves as beyond the pale, a strug­gling minority of defiant Jews. But others find this exclusion humiliating and unacceptable. They see their philosophy as representative of the feelings and beliefs of a large segment of the Jewish people who deserve community recognition and power.

The test of our self-esteem as Humanistic Jews is that we reject exclusion. Secular con­victions and secular behavior are an important part of contemporary Jewish life. In Israel, Europe, North America, and South America, the Jewish world has been transformed by the gradual secularization of public and private behavior. Denying this reality and pretending that all conventional Jews are religious is an abuse of the rights and dignity of hundreds of thousand of Jews. Fighting for recognition of Humanistic Judaism within the framework of the Jewish community is more than a political struggle. It is a moral demand to define the Jew­ish reality as history has made it.

The traditional Jewish community was the child of the age of religion. It was the creation of religious orthodoxy and authori­tarian governments. The rabbis, like the Christian and Muslim rulers, did not believe in democracy, personal freedom, or pluralism. They assumed that there was one true path to salvation and that all members of the com­munity should conform to it. They viewed all dissent as heresy, worthy of excommunica­tion. Unity meant conformity. Deviation was a sin. The benefits of community — social acceptance, protection, and welfare — were purchased at the price of conformity.

In the past three hundred years, Jewish communities have changed. The rapid spread of liberal democracy throughout the Western world and the triumphant political and economic power of Western nations have radically altered the political structures of the Jewish world. Large numbers of Jews have be­come Reform and Conservative. The practice of toleration and the acceptance of diversity have, through necessity and conviction, be­come standard operating procedures of Jew­ish politics. The separation of religion and government has rendered Jewish communities autonomous and Jewish identity voluntary. Taxation has turned into fundraising. And the fundraising institutions have become the most important institutions of Diaspora Jewish life. Secular leaders and philanthropists have re­placed the rabbi as the ruling powers.

Diaspora Jewish communities are no longer institutions of compulsory uniformity. They are coalitions of autonomous congrega­tions and institutions, which are self-govern­ing and which join together to pursue shared goals. These shared goals include social wel­fare, cultural programming, and the fight against anti-Semitism. During the past fifty years, support for the Jewish state has been the most compelling force for unified action. In North America, where Orthodoxy is weak, Reform and Conservative Jews have domi­nated Jewish community life.

In Israel, of course, Jewish life is no longer a matter of minority politics. The state and the government are Jewish. But while the founders of Zionism were secular and liberal, they were not able to produce an impeccable liberal de­mocracy. In contemporary Israel, secular and non-Orthodox Jews enjoy personal and politi­cal freedom, but they suffer the humiliation of Orthodox power over many areas of their personal and public lives. Marriage, divorce, inheritance, burial, food, and Sabbath obser­vances are subject to Orthodox tyranny. Even Jewish identity lies in the hands of Orthodox rabbis and Orthodox courts. A large secular Jewish population cries out for political relief.

In the Diaspora, secular and humanistic Jews enjoy the freedom that Western govern­ments and constitutions have conferred on them. But, within Jewish communities, both local and national, they have suffered from exclusion. And, ironically, this exclusion has been inflicted on them by Reform and Con­servative Jews, who have been victims of exclusion in other places.

There are two reasons for this rejection in a seemingly pluralistic Jewish world. In Diaspora environments Jews have preferred to define themselves solely as a religious group. By this definition, to be Jewish is to be religious. Nonreligious Jews represent some kind of internal contradiction or lapse in Jew­ish identity. This absurd restrictiveness is re­inforced by the discomfort that many Jews have with Jewish atheism. In America espe­cially, religious belief has been identified with both respectability and morality. Many secu­lar Jews are uncomfortable to identify them­selves as secular. They fear adverse public opinion in the non-Jewish world.

The second reason for exclusion is that secular Jews have been largely disorganized. They have functioned as alienated people without congregations or communities. Or they have participated in Jewish organizations that do not have a religious agenda, but that include Jews from many denominations. Hadassah, ORT, and B’nai Brith are not actu­ally religious. Their programs are secular. But the majority of their members are not.

Humanistic Judaism, when it was estab­lished thirty-seven years ago, was a deliber­ate attempt to give organizational reality to the secular Jewish world. Orthodox, Conser­vative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Juda­ism presented themselves as branches of Judaism with congregations, trained leaders, and federations of communities. The failure of secular Jews to conceive of themselves as a fifth branch of Judaism and their hostility to congregational structures and professional leadership made it easy for their enemies to keep them on the outside. Reading circles and schools, however reinforced by ethnic and national sentiment, were not enough to break through the barriers. Secular Humanistic Judaism had to be reconceived as a Jewish de­nomination, standing side by side with the four religious denominations. The negative appellation non-religious had to be replaced by the positive humanistic.

During the past ten years the Jewish es­tablishment in North America has become more receptive to recognizing Humanistic Judaism as a legitimate fifth alternative. Many developments are responsible for this change. The increasing freedom of Jews to choose not to be Jewish in a society of declining anti- Semitism; the growing anxiety over the sur­vival of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, triggered by the rising rate of intermarriage; the increasing secularization of Jewish life through prosperity and family decline; the increasing diversity of lifestyles in the Jew­ish melieu; the decline in synagogue affilia­tion in a world where old formulas no longer fit new needs; a greater openness to choices that at one time were viewed as being on the fringe — all of these factors form the context for change.

One manifestation of change is the delib­erate attempt to recruit openly declared Secular Humanistic Jews for leadership roles in Jewish community federations, Jewish community councils, and Jewish community centers. Another is the admission of Humanistic rabbis to local boards of rabbis and their active participation in the work of these associations.

The most dramatic development occurred in Atlanta in November, 1999. At that time United Jewish Communities (UJC), the new “congress” of all the Jewish communities in North America, held its first continental as­sembly. The Society for Humanistic Judaism was invited to present a session at that con­ference. In November 2000 in Chicago, the leaders of our movement presented, together with their Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist compatriots, a Shabbat service and a study session. The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism hosted a booth to advertise the programs of the Institute to train rabbis and madrikhim. Our presence at the UJC General Assembly and our participation in its programs is a quantum leap in community recognition and acceptance. We hope that this precedent will provide a stimulus to similar developments in Europe, Latin America, and Israel.

Conceiving of ourselves as part of the mainstream and not as part of the fringe is a radical departure from our traditional self-im­age. But reality justifies our new approach. A large percentage of the Jewish people are secu­lar in conviction and behavior. They are often at the center of Jewish community life. The time may have arrived when their presence and true identity will finally be recognized.