Humanistic Judaism and Tradition

Tradition and Humanistic Judaism – How Do They Mix?  Autumn 1987

For many Jews, Judaism is identified with the literature of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Siddur. This literature is often called “the tradition” and has served as the ideological basis for Orthodoxy for over fifteen hundred years.

Can these books, which are so much identified in the public mind with Jews, also serve as the ideological basis for a humanis­tic Judaism? After all, both Conservative and Reform Jews retained these documents as their official literature. Why not Human­istic Jews?

The prestige of these documents makes them almost irresistible. Even though their vocabulary is theistic, even though their style is authoritarian, even though much of their history is mythology, they are so old and so famous that it would be nice to have them on our side. They could do for us what they do for Reform. They could give us the semblance of “legitimacy.”

This issue is not trivial. If these books “belong” to us, then secular Judaism is simply one of five different interpretations of the traditional texts. If they do not, then Humanistic Judaism is a radical departure from all existing Judaisms.

In trying to determine the place of tradi­tional literature in a humanistic approach to Jewish identity, we need to affirm certain realities.

Jewish identity does not depend on using the tradition. Jewishness is an ethnic iden­tity, not an ideological one. No adherence to any ideas or documents makes a Jew a Jew. A Jew who does not believe in the value and truth of the Torah is equally as Jewish as one who does.

The endorsement of the past is unneces­sary. We do not have to agree with our an­cestors in order to have ideas that are valid and Jewishly significant. If we want to understand the literature of the past, we do not need its endorsement. Some Jews are so anxious to identify with Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah that they do not pay any attention to what these people really said. They give these heroes ideas and sentiments they never had in order to prove that the beliefs of the past are the same as the beliefs of the present. In the hands of the desperate, Moses becomes a civil libertarian and the Torah becomes a plea for democracy.

The people of the past are entitled to their integrity. The author of Genesis 1 believed in a flat earth and a flat heaven. He is mor­ally entitled to have his opinions acknowl­edged. The author of Genesis 2 believed that the first woman was created from the rib of the first man. He has a right to have his idea recognized. The literature of the past is more interesting if we allow the authors of the past to say what they think than if we force them to say what we think. An ethical approach to textual criticism allows people to mean what they say, even if their ideas are embarrassing. Male chauvinism and theocracy may be offensive to us. But they were not offensive to our ancestors. The language of tradition is not obscure. It is refreshingly plain and direct. We have a moral obligation to respect that directness.

God is not removable from traditional lit­erature. The authors of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Siddur had a deep belief in a supernatural father-figure who governs the world with justice. Modern Jews who are uncomfortable with this intense convic­tion have to face up to it when they deal with traditional texts. To the authors of the tradition, the worship of God was supreme­ly important. Failure to worship endan­gered the survival of both the individual and the community. Since group survival was at stake, worship and morality could not be separated. The distinction between ritual and ethics did not exist. Ceremony guar­anteed the life of the community.

Traditional ideas vary from period to pe­riod. The official literature of Orthodoxy includes documents from four periods in Jewish history: the tribal, the royal, the priestly, and the rabbinic. In each period, the prevailing ideas of the ruling elite were distinctly different from those that came before and after. Kings did not agree with priests; and priests did not agree with rabbis. Despite what Orthodox rabbis main­tain, there has been a continuous change of beliefs throughout Jewish history. In the royal period, intermarriage was allowed. In the priestly period, it was forbidden. In the priestly period, the resurrection of the dead was unknown. In the rabbinic period, it was the cardinal principle of the establishment. A static view of the tradition is a distortion.

We must neither revere tradition nor ignore it. We must understand it and use it carefully.

One quotation does not prove anything. We cannot understand the message of the tradition in any given period by pulling at­tractive quotations out of context. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ is set in the context of Leviticus, with its intermi­nable laws of animal sacrifice and priestly privilege. “Proclaim liberty throughout the land” is set in the context of the institution of slavery and its fifty-year durability. “Whatever is hateful to yourself do not do unto others” is found in the middle of ritual minutiae. Simply picking and choosing iso­lated statements that sound ethically attrac­tive, with no acknowledgment of the sur­rounding literary territory, distorts the tradition. Orthodox Jewish life was and is a complex whole, not a set of fashionable quo­tations suspended in mid-air.

There are many motivations for ethical behavior. The major motivation for good behavior in the Bible and the Talmud is the authority of God and the rewards and pun­ishments he administers. But that does not mean that divine favor was the only motiva­tion. After all, most ethical rules arise out of the experience of small groups in their struggle for survival. Many of the moral ideals in traditional literature, which we find ethically acceptable because they con­form to our conscience and our reason, were also reasonable when they were first enunciated. Although the traditional writers did not articulate these reasons, we can.

The people who were denounced are also part of the tradition. It is useful to remember that people condemned by traditional writers were also Jews. They were the Jews who were not lucky enough to receive the approval of the ecclesiastic authorities. Job’s wife challenged the justice of God and was silenced. The “villain” of Psalm 1 ques­tioned the existence of God and was de­clared a fool. The opponents of Jeremiah refused to resign themselves to defeat at the hands of the Chaldeans and were pro­claimed to be sinners. But they obviously had their Jewish followers who thought that they were patriotic Jews, even though they lost out in the struggle for power. The underdogs of tradition are also traditional.

What really happened is as much tradition as what the authorities of the past thought happened. The Zadokite priests and the Talmudic rabbis believed that Moses, inspired by Yahveh, wrote the Torah. We now know that Moses did not write the Torah and that it was written over a period of five hundred years. Is the illusion of the past more tradi­tional than the reality of the past? Or is the actual event also a tradition? Jewish life was molded not only by what people thought happened but also by what really happened. Living without an official Torah was an im­portant part of the ancient Jewish experi­ence and in no way diminished Jewish iden­tity. In fact, it provided for a richness of options that could never be fully sup­pressed, even after a theocratic “constitu­tion” was imposed.

What people did may be different from what people said. Many of the laws in the Torah and the Talmud were purely theoreti­cal. They never really became part of the behavior of the Jewish people. The elaborate plans for the jubilee year at the end of the book of Leviticus, with its freeing of the slaves and the restoration of property to the poor, was never implemented. Attached to some priestly fantasy, it found no respon­sive public in the pragmatic world of Jewish economics. The law said one thing; the people did another. The Jewish tradition is as much the product of the real Jewish ex­perience as of the imaginings of Jewish lawmakers.

The tradition is morally uneven. There is an enormous number of ideas and values in traditional literature, many of them incom­patible one with the other. The ideas of in­herited guilt and collective punishment do not jibe with the commitment to individual responsibility and individual dignity. Devo­tion to the sacrificial cult does not fit well with the pursuit of justice to the poor. Some traditional values are humanistic. Others are anti-humanistic. Some of the tradition is humanistically offensive. Even more of it is neither here nor there. Humanistic Jews neither love nor hate “the tradition” as a whole. They love some of it. They like some of it. They deplore some of it. And the rest they view with historic interest.

It is quite clear that, despite its fame and antiquity, the official literature of traditional Judaism cannot serve as the ideological basis of a humanistic Judaism. Only the most unfair distortions could rescue this lit­erature for that role. Humanistic Judaism is a radical departure from the procedures of Orthodoxy and its liberal alternatives. It does not seek to legitimize its norms and recommend behavior by finding proof texts in the Torah and the Talmud.

What, then, is the function of this literary portion of our tradition in the world of Hu­manistic Jews?

Its main function is historical. It tells us where we came from. It describes the be­liefs and practices of our ancestors, whether we agree with them or not. It gives us clues to the real events of Jewish history. It intro­duces us to the ideas of its opponents, some of which may be humanistically attractive. It is a treasury of quotations that fit very neatly into the ethical conclusions of a modern humanism. It helps us to define our own perspective on the Jewish experience through the challenge of a powerful alter­native.

We must neither revere it nor ignore it. We must understand it and use it carefully.