Humanistic Judaism and God

Humanistic Judaism Anthology – Spring, 1986

Judaism without God is a difficult con­cept for many people to grasp. If they are not outraged, they are puzzled.

For traditional Jews who see Jewish history as the evidence for the presence of God in the world, removing God is remov­ing the reason for Jewish survival.

For people who view Jews as a religious denomination and who see religion as the worship of God, an atheistic secular Judaism is a contradiction in terms.

For religious naturalists who have re­jected supernatural beliefs and who have redefined the word God to refer to nature or to some part of nature, the elimination of God is an unnecessary step.

For traditional moralists who derive their ethics from divine authority and who insist on clearly defined rules with ab­solute certainty, morality is not possible without God. And Judaism without moral­ity is not much of a Judaism.

For atheists who agree that there is no God but who cannot imagine a religion without one, doing religion without God is like doing elections without candidates.

For people who may not be sure about God but who are sensitive to human needs, dispensing with God violates the requirements of human happiness. A Judaism without God cannot be emo­tionally satisfying.

To understand Humanistic Judaism is to understand why these six responses are inappropriate.

  1. Finding a just God in Jewish history is like finding icebergs in Brazil. If God has been the friend of the Jewish people, we do not need enemies. In the century of the Nazi Holocaust, the Jewish experience is a solemn testimony to the absence of God. If Yahveh is indeed the lord of history, he cannot hide behind the excuse of Jewish sinfulness. Too many innocents perished in the slaughter.

Some theologians seek to rescue God in strange ways. The Lubavitcher Rebbe sees the Holocaust as a fitting punishment for the secular Jews of Eastern Europe. Richard Rubenstein views him as so high and mighty that the petty events on the surface of a small planet invite only his in­difference and moral neutrality. Harold Kushner describes him as limited, a deity who means well but who does not possess the power to get what he wants. And his desperate defenders see him as the in­genious divinity who arranged the Holocaust so that the state of Israel could follow.

What can be said for such ludicrous defenses? Why would a just God slaughter the “innocent” religious together with the “wicked” secular? Why would anybody be interested in a God who did not care what happened to people and who viewed our suffering with the same indifference as he viewed our pleasure? Why would an in­competent and powerless God be more important to people than an incompetent and powerless human being? As for ar­ranging a Holocaust to guarantee a Jewish state, that behavior is about as intelligent as burning down a house to get roast meat.

If there is a God and he is either unjust, indifferent, or dumb, then he does not deserve our praise and adoration. At the most, he deserves the appeasement cere­monies of frightened victims. At the least, he is worthy of our indifference and con­tempt.

  • Defining Jews as a religious deno­mination is as appropriate as defining Anglo-Saxons as a theological persuasion. Even the Bible views the Jews as a tribal nation and art ethnic race. Biblical writers may denounce “bad” Jews who refuse to worship Yahveh exclusively, but they never deny the Jewishness of the people they denounce. From the very beginning, Jewish identity was a kinship identity, in­dependent of theological beliefs and reli­gious commitments.

Even the rabbis preserved the “racial” classification of the Jews. Despite their in­sistence on public religious conformity, they conferred Jewish status on the children of Jewish mothers regardless of the personal beliefs of the child or of the mother. Bible-believing Gentiles needed conversion. Atheist children of Jewish women did not.

Anti-Semites who refuse to accept the conversion of Jews to other religions as a sign of genuine change are simply follow­ing age-old Jewish tradition and popular practice. Changing publicly proclaimed beliefs does not alter Jewish identity earned through birth. As for converts to Judaism, they are less converts than adopted children; they must change their ancestors as well as their religious prac­tices. In traditional conversion, Abraham and Sarah become their “parents.”

If Mr. Cohen decides to indulge himself in Zen Buddhism, neither he nor his neighbors will think of him as any the less Jewish. And if he decides to take Jewish history seriously and to dispense with God, neither his friends nor his enemies will see any significant change in his Jewish identity.

Jewish identity is a kinship identity, in­dependent of theological beliefs and religious commitments.

  • Saving the word God by redefining it is both evasive and immoral.

It is evasive because a word that can mean anything the definer wants it to mean is no longer intended for communi­cation. Its purpose is either psychother­apy or social security. Either the definer “needs” the word for emotional reasons that have nothing at all to do with its historic meaning, or he finds it useful for social respectability. (Many people are afraid of being accused of atheism even if they are atheists.

Redefining God is immoral because or­dinary words are entitled to their ordinary meanings. God is an old word with an old historic denotation. For the ordinary user, God refers to a supernatural father figure who made and runs the world and who consciously interferes with the operation of his creation. The vocabulary of prayer is directed to a personal power who can respond to praise and petition. Even after all the liberal theists redefine God to their personal satisfaction and social comfort, even after they insist that the term refers to some abstract non-anthropomorphic natural force of goodness or creative energy, they still end up talking to it as though it were a personal “papa figure.” The historic meaning of the word makes that response inevitable.

It is immoral to steal words from every­day communication and to alter their meaning arbitrarily — especially if the ac­tion serves your personal advantage. Theology as a cloak for atheists is like the emperor’s clothing in the Anderson fairy tale. It is shoddy business.

The traditional God — if he is believed to be real — makes a difference. A per­sonal God who watches our behavior and who judges it with rewards and punishments may be terrifying, yet he cannot be ignored. His presence is related to our survival and happiness.

But a God who is no more than the One, the Absolute, the Potential for Goodness and Creativity, the Ground of Being, Universal Love — or any of a dozen and one liberal redefinitions — is either too vague to be interesting or too familiar to be unique. If God is Love, how is that dif­ferent from Love is Love? And if God is Nature, how is that different from Nature is Nature? Conservative theists need the word God because it refers to a being that no other word denotes. But liberal theists do not need the word. Perfectly ordinary words already exist for whatever they mean by God.

  • As for morality, God is hardly indis­pensable.

It is quite obvious that the word God does not, of necessity, imply good. Gods can be wicked as well as benevolent. Otherwise, why all this insistence on demonstrating from human experience the “goodness” and “justice” of God?

If God’s behavior can be evaluated, then the evaluator must already know what good means. He does not need God to tell him what is right or wrong. He is aware of what is right or wrong before he judges God.

Notions of right and wrong arise out of the social setting of parental discipline and are later attributed to a heavenly superparent. The human need to live in groups for survival demands trust, worthi­ness, sharing, and abstinence from vio­lence. Social groups in which promises are never kept, food is not shared, and children assault their parents have little chance to survive.

Even the Bible recognizes that divine endorsement is not enough to make com­mandments morally convincing. The system of rewards and punishments that the authors of the Torah so neatly ar­ticulated is evidence that divine authority is inadequate. The Hebrews are promised fertility and prosperity for their obe­dience, drought and devastation for their resistance. The satisfaction — or frustra­tion — of human needs becomes the sell­ing argument. The implication is clear. Right behavior leads to pleasant conse­quences. Wrong behavior leads to unpleasant consequences.

In the reward and punishment system, the importance of God does not lie in his moral authority. It lies in his power to satisfy human needs and to provide for human pleasure — which, quite obviously, have their own intrinsic moral merit. A god that does not care about human welfare has no moral clout.

Practical humanism is the harsh aware­ness that the quality of human life is up to human beings.

  • A religion without God, a secular re­ligion, appears to be a contradiction in terms. After all, religion is often defined as a belief in God. But equating religion with theology is sociologically incorrect. Beliefs are private, passive, and not easily detected. Many people, for social safety, pretend to believe in God even when they do not. Although their behavior is reli­gious, it may not reflect internal convic­tion.

Religion — as opposed to theology — is a behavior, generally a publicly observed behavior done in groups. Worship and submission are postures that most people describe as religious, even when their spoken theology is insincere.

Religious behavior is an appeasement behavior. It is the human response to situations of helplessness, when human power seems inadequate to deal with over­whelming danger or disaster. The more helpless people feel, the more religious they become. People tend to be most reli­gious when they are confronted with the reality of death.

Now, “submission” or resignation is a perfectly rational response to situations of helplessness. What is irrational is imagin­ing that the assaulting forces are a super­human person you can talk to.

A non-theological religion would cer­tainly recognize that human beings are limited, that certain life situations are ir­reversible, and that there are times when “surrender” or resignation is perfectly ap­propriate. We cannot bring back the dead. We cannot prevent earthquakes. We can­not abolish the law of gravity.

But a non-theological religion would avoid theological descriptions of “destiny” that transform the impersonal forces of nature into superhuman parents. Worship — with all its verbal flattery, de­meaning postures, and endless gift- bringing — would be avoided. In its place would appear the good-humored submis­sion of shoulder shrugging.

Theological religions, by their ex­cessive use of worship behavior, tend to make people feel more helpless. If humanists do submission from time to time, they do so reluctantly. They much prefer problem-solving.

  • Being nice to the masses because you think they need God even though you do not believe in God is an excuse for cowar­dice. It provides people who are afraid of revealing their humanism with a reason for not doing so.

Therapeutic strategies that turn people into protected children undermine their rights. To be sheltered from the truth is to lose your dignity. If indeed there is no God, pretending that there is one neither enhances your self-esteem nor improves your ability to deal with reality. Yielding, without question, to an authoritarian superparent is hardly the avenue to decent maturity.

But, even if you prefer security to digni­ty, the God-route is, most likely, the wrong way to go. Living with a cosmic “peeping Tom,” who continuously watches your behavior and judges it, is liable to make you nervous. And praising a Power that is ultimately responsible for all events, even the unjust ones, may lead to the pent-up anger we call depression.

Judaism without God may be a surpris­ing concept. But it is a perfectly appropri­ate one. It is a healthy non-theological religion that derives its morality from human need and that finds in Jewish history a reflection of the “absurdity” of the universe.