Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1990 (vol. 18 no. 4, p13-19)
Twenty years ago, the Society for Humanistic Judaism held its first meeting. The Birmingham Temple was about seven years old and there were two other congregations, Congregation Beth Or of Chicago and the Westport Congregation of Fairfield County, Connecticut. We weren’t quite sure what would happen. We didn’t know that there would be many more congregations and groups, that ultimately an International Federation of Secular Humanistic Judaism would emerge. What we did know was the excitement of being together, of discovering the solidarity that came from saying we have a task and we have a message.
Now twenty years have passed, and a lot of things have happened. But the thing that brought us together twenty years ago was the firm belief that Humanistic Judaism makes a difference. We felt that what we would be saying and teaching, or sharing and acting out, would not only benefit ourselves but would be good for the Jewish world.
What does it mean to make a difference? A Jewish philosophy of life that makes a difference provides meaning and structure for our lives as Jews. It helps us understand who we are; it helps us distinguish between reality and fantasy; it helps us clarify our moral values; it motivates us to act on what we believe; it satisfies our spiritual needs. It helps us integrate our Jewish identities; it does not stand separate from what we believe or think or feel, but helps us say what we honestly believe. And above all, if it is meaningful, if it makes a difference, if it gives structure to our lives, it gives us a community in which we can find support and solidarity.
Humanistic Judaism has many roots. It has its roots in the national experience of the Jewish people, because before anybody imagined that the Jews were a religious denomination, the Jews were a nation with a language and culture of their own.
It has its roots in the great teachers of the past, prophets and rabbis, who spoke out against oppressive establishments.
It has its roots in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and in the scientific tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth century with which many famous Jews were identified. Jews like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, who felt totally alienated from the religious establishment, but whom we now are proud to call part of the Jewish world and Jewish history.
It has its roots in the struggle of Jews for emancipation, working toward a secular society in which individuals have personal rights and the opportunity to determine the course of their lives and to act on the values they choose.
It has its roots in Yiddish nationalism, that powerful force built around the existence of an Ashkenazic Jewish nation in eastern Europe with its rich culture and voices like Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and Simon Dubnow.
It has its roots in the Zionist movement, which in the twentieth century proclaimed that we Jews are not merely a religious denomination — that is an answer made up by frightened nineteenth century Jews to deal with the presumed hostility of their Gentile neighbors — but that we Jews are by history and ethnicity a nation, open to those who would join us. It has its roots in the feminist movement, which says that we will not tolerate in Jewish life discrimination against women and inequality in their relationship to men.
It has its roots in the experience of the Jewish people during the Holocaust and the terrible questions that came out of that Holocaust with regard to who was guiding the destiny of the Jewish people.
Finally, it has its roots in the underground culture that produced Jewish skepticism and Jewish humor. While the establishment culture was insisting that we live in a world guided by love and justice, the underground culture said, “What?” And out of that underground culture came the character of the Jewish personality, which is never recognized at an interfaith dinner.
Why does Humanistic Judaism make a difference? First of all, because it affirms that we Jews are a people. A woman came to see me at the Birmingham Temple. She was a social worker, a non-Jewish woman who had lived in Israel for about five years and spent time on a kibbutz, had come to love Jewish culture, and had returned to the Detroit area to practice her profession. She said, “I’m an agnostic, I’m not sure there is any God, but I want to be part of the Jewish people. I’ve gone to a lot of rabbis. They have ceremonies in which I would have to say things I don’t believe, and they tell me that if I can’t affirm those beliefs I can’t be Jewish. Yet I feel Jewish, I feel myself identified with Jewish history and Jewish culture.” And I said, “You’ve come to the right place.”
In Humanistic Judaism, we don’t force people to make affirmations of faith that may or may not have any relationship to their beliefs. We don’t do what now happens in the State of Israel, where only Orthodox conversions are recognized and people often —for the sake of gaining a Jewish identity —get up and say things they don’t believe.
We don’t believe, really, in conversion. We believe the Jewish people are a large, extended international family. You can join the mishpokha by saying you want to become part of the family. When you join a family, you don’t have to stand up and say, “I believe this, I believe that.” You simply say, “I love the family,” and the family says, “Welcome into our family.” So Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because we have a special message about Jewish identity. And it has always disturbed me that the secular Jews of Israel, who were the majority, never stood up to confront the Orthodox establishment and say, “We will not take this nonsense any more.”
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it insists on the value of truth. I recently met a man in Detroit who identified himself as a member of the American Humanist Association and as a Jew. I invited him to join the Birmingham Temple, and he told me that he couldn’t do that because he was a member of an Orthodox shul. I said to him, “I don’t understand. How can you go to an Orthodox shul and do all that davening when nothing that is said there is what you believe?” “Believe, shmelieve,” he said. “Who cares about that? It’s Jewish, I feel Jewish.”
Before the Enlightenment, Jewish people davened because they believed in the power of God, they believed in the power of prayer, they believed in the supernatural transformation of things. Nobody ever said, “I’m doing it because it’s Jewish.” Their philosophy of life, their personal convictions were tied up with what they did. Now there is a separation, a dichotomy. Most Jews no longer believe what the prayers say. Even Lubavitcher missionaries come up to you and say, “It doesn’t make any difference whether you believe. Just say it, it’s Jewish.” And that is the bankruptcy of what is happening in Jewish life — personal belief, personal philosophy, is now separated from Jewishness.
Humanistic Judaism says the question of truth is just as important as the question of Jewishness. I will not get up and say what I do not believe. That is my integrity; I will not be this dichotomous person, split in two, my personal philosophy of life unrelated to the words I recite.
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it does not depend on quotations. A young member of my congregation, a very sensitive young man, has been troubled by the intifada in the West Bank and Gaza and some of the responses of Israeli extremists toward the rights and dignity of Palestinians. He recently went to a service at one of the Conservative synagogues in our town. The rabbi gave an impassioned defense of the right of the Jews to the West Bank and Gaza, and he then proceeded to cite some quotations from the Bible.
I said to this young man that in Jewish life you always can find the quotation you need. I can find quotations too: “You must love your neighbor as yourself,” “Remember that you were strangers in the land.” There is no single Jewish point of view, and there never has been.
And he said to me, “So where do we get our Jewish values?” And I said, “Jewish values do not come from Jewish quotations. Jewish values come from the Jewish experience. The reason it is wrong to oppress Palestinians and to deny them the right to self-determination is because of Jewish history. It is inconceivable that a Jewish people that has endured discrimination and suffering all these years could in turn not be sensitive to the needs and rights of other people.
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it makes the present as important as the past. A member of my congregation, who died about two years ago, was a very, very consistent Humanistic Jew. He would not say what he did not believe. He loved some of the poetry that we use in our services, particularly a poem by David Rokeach. And so he made a specific request that at his funeral service, he did not want the Kaddish recited, he wanted that poem read. And when I read, at the end of the service, this passionate poem by David Rokeach, it was very meaningful for me because I realized how much the words had meant to him: “Whoever stands against the mountain without recoil, [whoever faces life with courage, even though they die] shall ascend its summit.”
After the service was over, somebody came up to me and said, “Why didn’t you recite the Kaddish?” And I said, “I didn’t recite the Kaddish because the man who died didn’t believe in praising God at the time of death, but rather he believed in human courage in the face of death. And he also believed that words written only a few years ago could be of equal value to words written two thousand years ago.”
Humanistic Judaism says we are not interested in whether something is merely old. We are interested in whether something for us is true and has high quality. Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it allows the creativity of the Jewish present to have equal status with the creativity of the past.
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it uses the tradition creatively. There was an article by Woody Allen in Tikkun, in which he talked about his favorite biblical character who came out of the book of Job. Was it Job, struggling with the agonies of “why is this happening to me, why is this happening to me, why is this happening to me,” forty chapters of it? No, his favorite character in the whole Bible was Job’s wife, because, as she is moaning and groaning, having been tested by God, she says to him, “Come on, Job, where’s your dignity? Why don’t you just stand up, curse God, and die! Just stand up and say, ‘Stop fooling around with me.’” Now, some people thought that remark was terribly blasphemous. But, if you use the tradition creatively, you don’t have to pick all the heroes that the establishment does. You may decide that Job’s wife is more interesting than Job. You may decide that Saul is more interesting than David.
Several years ago I was talking with a couple about the wedding ceremony they wanted, and the woman said to me, “Why does he break a glass and I don’t?” I said, “I don’t know. Do you want to break a glass?” She said, “Yes.” So, at the wedding, a celebration of their equality, there were two glasses broken and the audience broke into a cheer. Just because the tradition says one glass, why must we use only one glass? The tradition is there for us to use to express what is important to us. We don’t exist for the tradition; the tradition exists to enrich our lives, to enrich our imagination.
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it is responsible to the facts. I recently had the opportunity to critique a group of papers prepared by people training in the madrikh program of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. One woman had written that Judaism is superior to Christianity because while Christianity emphasized the afterlife, Jews were always emphasizing this life.
So I said to her, “Making unfair comparisons is not a way to be a good Jew. One of the most important ideas in rabbinic Judaism is the resurrection of the dead and the preparation for the world to come. My grandfather believed in it fervently. There are wonderfully good things about the Jewish tradition. We don’t have to deny things that we don’t like or don’t agree with. We can look at themand say they are facts in our history.”
In so many parts of the Jewish world, people find it necessary to be kosherized by the past, to prove that somehow their ideas are really the Jewish ideas that were there in the past. If you’re a good Humanistic
Jew, you do not need to do that. The validity of the ideas does not depend on whether people agreed with you in the past. The way to treat the past is with respect, to acknowledge what people indeed believed. To look at the history and say, these are the facts, I can deal with it, I can live with it, I don’t have to distort it, I can be comfortable being realistic and honest.
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it insists on human autonomy. About six months ago somebody who had heard about Humanistic Judaism came to see me, and he said, “Please show me the service book of Humanistic Judaism.” And I said, “We have celebrations here in our congregation. They are created by me, by the ceremonial director, and by other members of the congregation. But we have no official book, no Siddur, because that would be inconsistent with our ideology.” In Humanistic Judaism, each community has to decide what is comfortable for it. If, in Northern California, they want to use particular texts and readings for their celebration, that’s their choice. There is no fixed format that comes out of the past that dictates with authority what we need to do.
Just before April 20, in a class I was teaching, one of the boys said, “Why don’t we make Earth Day a Jewish holiday?” And one of the other kids said, “You can’t make Earth Day a Jewish holiday— it’s not a Jewish holiday.” And I said, “You can make a holiday a Jewish holiday, because that’s what they’ve done throughout Jewish history. They did that to Pesakh, they did that to Purim. If, two thousand years ago, a group of people chose a holiday and said it was Jewish, why do they have the right and we don’t?”
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it puts Jewishness and philosophy together. Last October I was in Moscow. It was a time of high excitement because of the tremendous changes, and high anxiety because of the great fear that was now pervading the Soviet Jewish community. I met a distinguished professor of ethnography who was involved in the dissident movement and who was a confirmed Humanistic Jew. I asked where his convictions as a Humanistic Jew came from. From his philosophic ideas? From the secular environment of the Soviet Union? And he said, “I am a Humanistic Jew because of my Jewish experience.
My father and mother were Holocaust survivors. I lived my early years with the impact of that experience. And therefore I am a Humanistic Jew, questioning whether we live in a universe guided by love and justice. I am a Humanistic Jew, realizing that ultimately we human beings have to be responsible for our fate because there is no force out there that is going to take care of us.”
Humanistic Judaism says that if you look at Jewish history, if you really feel it, if you really understand what has happened to Jews during the past two thousand years, if you understand our fate and destiny, then your humanism doesn’t come from some philosophic textbook. It comes from the Jewish experience. Your philosophy of life and your Jewish experience go together.
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it returns the spiritual to where it belongs. There is a person I’ve known for many, many years who always has said he is not going to join the Birmingham Temple because Humanistic Judaism is not spiritual enough. I never could get him to define the word spiritual. It was like something floating up there somewhere — something ethereal, indescribable. Recently I was at a party with this person, and we got to talking about the Holocaust center in Washington, D.C., and that led me to bring up something that had been very disturbing to me. Recently the Israeli government cancelled a television program about the Armenian holocaust because of fear that the Turkish government, which is semi-friendly to the State of Israel, would object to the program and it would sour relations. My acquaintance said that was a wise decision. And I said to him, “I don’t know what you mean by the word spiritual, but to me, as a Humanistic Jew, it means that I have some connection with something greater than myself, and it’s not the whole universe to start off with — it’s the rest of the human race. When you feel that you’re part of something greater than yourself, the initial experience is with humanity. And if you can’t as a human being be outraged that the suffering of other people is not recognized, that somebody else’s holocaust is not recognized, then what does the word spiritual mean?”
Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it recognizes that people are people, not labels. I was called by a hysterical mother. Her daughter wanted to marry a non-Jewish man, and none of the rabbis in town would respond to them in a positive way. So I said, “Please send them to see me.”
They were two environmental lawyers, totally compatible, both basically humanists. And I said to them, “What’s the problem?” He said, “No one ever deals with me as a person. They always deal with me as a label. I’m a Gentile, and the most important thing about us is that she’s Jewish and I’m not.” And then she said, “My parents always said that we Jews believed in brotherhood and justice and love. And now I’ve got a hysterical liberal mother who can only deal with this man I love as a label.”
“I understand your grievance,” I said. “First of all, I want to congratulate you because you love each other, because I think love is wonderful. I want to congratulate you because you have all these values that you share. I want you to know that I will help you. And,” I said to the non-Jewish man, “if you want to study and learn more about Jewish culture, I will be glad to spend time with you. But I want you to know that the two of you are first and above all, in my eyes, not labels. That would be inconsistent with my moral view of the world as a Humanistic Jew. You are persons, unique and special, each with his own or her own power and the right to be treated as persons, not as labels.”
Finally, Humanistic Judaism makes a difference because it is more than a collection of individuals. I received a letter from a member of the Israel Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and she told me about something that was happening in Israel. Members of the Israel Association, overwhelmed by the agreements that were being made by both the Labor Party and the Likud with the Orthodox, had held a demonstration protesting the attitude of the Orthodox toward the State of Israel and the rights of Secular and Humanistic and Reform and Conservative Jews. She said, “It got on television, and it was wonderful because for so long we Secular Humanistic Jews in Israel have been disorganized, and now we’re organizing. We are going to affirm our human rights. We have discovered that we are not alone, each individual alone, but that we have a voice. And that voice is possible only if we come together.”
The reason that we have the Society for Humanistic Judaism is that we are not an abstraction. We’re not just an abstract philosophy floating in the air. We’re not simply a collection of isolated individuals. We are a community. We want to be a stronger voice, and we want to experience the pleasure and the thrill of struggling together and working together and speaking together because we believe that we have a message. Because we believe that Humanistic Judaism makes a difference.