Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1989, vol. XVII no. 1
Humanistic Judaism is a new alternative in Jewish life. Self-aware secular and humanistic Jews have been around for less than a century. But their roots are deeper and older than their self-awareness. They have strong connections with important events that preceded their public debut.
While the Orthodox rabbinic tradition with its trinity of Bible, Talmud, and Siddur contains isolated statements of humanistic value, the premises of this tradition are hostile to humanism. They cannot serve as the basis for a humanistic Jewish outlook. On the contrary, the assault on this tradition is the root of secular Judaism.
Two major historic forces have assaulted the tradition. The first was subtle, unconscious, and nondeliberate. It was the experience of the Jewish people through centuries of undeserved suffering and oppression. The inconsistency of that experience with the official ideology of divine justice laid the emotional foundation for Jewish skepticism. The second force was overt, conscious, and deliberate. It was the impact of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, on the belief system of traditional Jews. The leaders of the Haskala were the precursors of Humanistic Judaism. Their writings became the intellectual groundwork for a secular approach to Jewish identity.
The Jewish Enlightenment was part of a wider movement that radically transformed the world view of the European intellectual elite. The original Enlightenment did not begin with the Jews. It began with non-Jewish philosophers and scientists who lived in Holland and England in the middle of the seventeenth century. Later it was embraced by Jewish enthusiasts who used its energies to refashion Judaism.
The European Enlightenment
The European Enlightenment was the intellectual expression of profound social and economic changes that were taking place in the countries of northwestern Europe. City life was replacing village life. Manufacturing was becoming the rival of agriculture. Affluence was softening the struggle for survival. Revolutionary new ideas were a reflection of revolutionary new styles of living. At a time when human beings were increasingly experiencing their own power, philosophy had to follow suit.
The Enlightenment was reinforced by religious developments in Western Europe. In the Germanic countries of the north, the Protestant Reformation succeeded in sweeping away the priestly structures of the Roman Catholic Church. Although the ideas of the Reformers were hardly consistent with those of the Enlightenment philosophers, the Protestant emphasis on literacy and individual conscience provided the soil in which more radical belief systems could grow. While the Catholic Counter Reformation held southern Europe in the thrall of censorship and physical intimidation, the Protestant ideology mobilized the northern bourgeoisie for secular success.
Holland and England were two strongly Protestant countries that became “homelands” of the Enlightenment. Amsterdam and London sent their merchant fleets to the four corners of the earth and became the financial centers of the world. Money and investment rivaled the Bible as consuming passions. The new capitalism proved a stimulus to science. And the new affluence made people less desperate for the rewards of the afterlife and more eager for the pleasures of this world.
In this energized environment of trade and exploration, with its bizarre mixture of Biblical fundamentalism and secular science, a radical new world view emerged. The people who hated its ideas called it the work of Satan. The people who embraced it called it the Enlightenment.
The intellectuals, both professional and non-professional, who articulated the ideas of the Enlightenment were not organized in some militant fraternity. They were solo scientists and philosophers with unique personal styles, who made their attacks on the enemy with very little awareness that they were part of an ideological movement. Later on, when the Enlightenment reached France in the eighteenth century, an authoritarian state and church aroused more solidarity and more militancy.
Hindsight has recruited many “soloists” for the work of the Enlightenment. Spinoza, Grotius, and Descartes worked in Holland. Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Shaftesbury, Butler, Johnson, and Hume graced the British scene. Voltaire, Diderot, de Condorcet, d’Holbach, and Rousseau were the “stars” of the French campaign. Germany featured Leibniz, Kant, and Lessing. Although there were many disagreements among these ideologues, certain central ideas were common to all of them. These ideas are the message of the Enlightenment.
Most of these thinkers were committed to a method for the discovery of truth, which they called reason. Reason meant different things to different philosophers. But on the whole, there was a shared meaning, which included the autonomy of the human mind, skepticism with regard to faith and tradition, attention to the evidence of human experience, and a preference for consistency. Although the inductive reasoning of John Locke and the deductive reasoning of Rene Descartes may seem worlds apart, they were united in the new affirmation of the power of the human mind.
Most of these thinkers believed in the essential goodness of humanity. Rejecting the thesis of Christianity that people were inherently sinful and anti-social, they argued that ignorance, not defectiveness, was the cause of immorality, and that the proper cure was education, not repentance and grace—which, in fact, now seemed quite irrelevant.
Most of these thinkers firmly believed in human progress and imagined that the age of reason was the prelude to the redemption of humanity. The age of religion that preceded was viewed as a time of primitive superstition. And the age of science that would follow was anticipated as a time of utopian happiness. While the philosophers of the Enlightenment did inherit the nostalgic Renaissance fondness for the cultures of Greece and Rome, they really believed that the present was better than the past and that the future would be better than the present.
The message of the Enlightenment was no idle intellectual exercise. It was used for practical political purposes to assault existing institutions and to reform society.
The first victim was traditional religion. Although most of the early Enlightenment thinkers were deists (like Newton and Voltaire), they despised orthodox Christianity and the priesthood that sustained it. They sought to remove education from the hands of the clergy and to separate religion from government. Anti-clericalism was a major theme of the political Enlightenment. When the French revolutionaries disestablished the church and secularized the state, they were carrying out the dictates of their Enlightenment mentors.
The second victim was the feudal system of hierarchy and privilege. While many of the new thinkers identified very strongly with a Whiggish aristocracy, they undermined the stability of the very system they enjoyed by destroying the credibility of traditional authority. In the end, kings were no better than bishops. Their divine certificates were equally invalid. Unwitting liberal aristocrats, who loved the world of elitist salons, laid the foundations for democratic revolutions. They could not mock their own peers without, in turn, subverting their own privileges.
In the middle of the seventeenth century, the leaders of the Enlightenment were cautious religionists and timid reformers. By the end of the eighteenth century, many of them had become devout atheists and democratic revolutionaries.
The Jewish Enlightenment
The Jews of Western Europe—although few in number—could not escape the Enlightenment. Their bourgeois affinities and their political vested interests drew them irresistibly into the controversy.
Some Jews were attracted to the ideas of the Enlightenment because of self-interest. Even if they were personally traditional, they were oppressed by the same Christian authorities that were threatened by the new ideology. Conservative Jews and radical humanists shared the same political enemies and, therefore, the same political agenda. While Torah Judaism maintained the unity of religion and government, its devotees, as a vulnerable minority in Gentile countries, found no immediate value in theocracy. Secular governments were better for Jews—even religious Jews—than Christian ones.
Some Jews were attracted to the ideas of the Enlightenment because their involvement in the capitalist revolution made them open to a rational critique of traditional religion. Eager for secular education and impatient with their own reactionary rabbinic authorities, they were drawn to an ideology that promised liberation from the tyranny of tradition. These Jews became the forerunners of humanism in Jewish life.
It took more than a century for a full-fledged humanism to emerge in the European Enlightenment. The same is true of the Jewish Enlightenment. Starting in the middle of the eighteenth century, the Jewish devotees of reason needed more than a hundred years to produce an unashamed secular point of view.
The first Jewish responses were ambivalent. Centered in Germany, where the only substantial Jewish community in Western Europe resided, the Haskala (as the Jewish Enlightenment was known in Hebrew) was a fairly timid venture. Its chief ideologue was Moses Mendelssohn, the darling of the liberal German intelligentsia. Mendelssohn claimed to be both a rationalist and a traditional Jew. Making an arbitrary distinction between philosophy and religious practice, he assigned the first to reason and the second to divine revelation. The first was discussable; the second was not.
Out of this ideological mish-mash came a strategy for modernizing the Jews. Mendelssohn was assisted by an ardent reformer named Naphtale Herz Wessely. The strategy included the following projects: the establishment of free secular schools with secular studies for Jewish youth, the training of Jewish teachers in secular seminaries, and the revival of the Hebrew language as a secular language for literary inspiration. Later, after Mendelssohn’s death, the commitment to traditional religious practice was abandoned and conscious attempts to reform Judaism in the spirit of the Enlightenment were undertaken.
In time the Haskala recruited thousands of Jews and produced a vast body of literature. Its scholars were called maskilim, and they presented themselves to their respective communities as the vanguard of the Enlightenment and the enemies of superstition.
The primary achievement of the maskilim was the creation and development of what Leopold Zunz called the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Science of Judaism. This bold project was an attempt to provide a substitute for the naive traditional-supernatural presentation of Jewish history. In its place emerged a secular, naturalistic view of the Jewish past, appropriate to the new historical style inspired by the Enlightenment.
The new history had very clear secular and humanistic implications. Once you remove divine intervention from Jewish history you are left with Judaism as a human creation. But most of the maskilim were not prepared to affirm these implications. Most of them were fairly traditional. Their ideas were more radical than their personal lifestyles.
Some of them preserved the dichotomy of Mendelssohn, attempting to separate their historical research from their religious commitments. They remained religiously observant and religiously conservative.
Some of them tried to redefine God in naturalistic terms. Like [early Reform rabbi] Abraham Geiger, they now saw the hand of God in the natural development of the Jewish people. This accommodation gave rise to the Reform movement.
Some of them tried to remain scholars alone, making no connection between their research and the struggle of the Jewish people to deal with the new ideas of the Enlightenment and the traumatic effects of political emancipation.
A few of them followed reason to its inevitable end. If the history of the Jews that tradition had presented was no longer valid, then the religious ideas that flowed from it were no longer valid.
Not all the new historians, then, were consistently naturalistic. Neither Graetz nor Frankel nor Geiger nor Krochmal was able to fully divorce his religion from his research. But their achievements were significant. A new way of looking at Jewish history had been born, which turned the legendary story of Judaism into a this-worldly saga. Facts, rather than faith, became the arbiter of our roots. The myth of the superior past and the inferior present was replaced by a more reasoned, realistic view of Jewish progress.
The secular and humanistic Jewish thinkers, Yiddishist and Zionist, who emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and who boldly and explicitly voiced their humanistic beliefs, were the heirs of this Jewish Enlightenment. Both the timid and the more radical maskilim laid the foundation for their humanism. These thinkers were “step two” to the Haskala’s “step one.”
As humanistic Jews, we are the “descendants” of the Enlightenment. Without it we would never have been able to see the Jewish experience in a humanistic way.
It is true that some of the Enlightenment ideology was naive. Experience has taught us that wickedness is not simply the child of ignorance and that human progress may not be quite so inevitable. But we cannot even reach these conclusions without the realistic tool of reason. And reason, in all its glory, is the special legacy of the Enlightenment.