Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1978, Vol. VI, Number II
The Greeks gave us the word orthodox which means the right way (as opposed to the wrong way).
Alvin Reines, a professor of philosophy at The Hebrew Union College has given us the word polydox which means the multiple way (as opposed to any one way).
‘I am a Polydox Jew’ may sound a bit esoteric. But it has become the label affirmation of a small number of libera REform rabbis and laymen who believe that establishment Reform is reverting to tradition and is betraying the unique message of historic Reform.
Time Magazine recently publicized the first national conference of Polydox Jews in St. Louis. Alvin Reines spoike. The Polydox Jewish Confederation was established and the Institute for Creative Judaism, the research arm of the movement, was funded.
At present, there is only one official Polydox congregation (in Richmond, Virginia). Most self-aware Polydox Jews are Reform rabbis who serve regular Reform congregations and who were disciples of Alvin Reines at the Hebrew Union College.
The ‘scripture’ of Polydoxy is the written word of Reines, who has composed a series of essays about his ideology during the past thirteen years.
Since Polydoxy, like Humanistic Judaism, is one step ‘beyond’ Reform, we may reasonably ask the question-what is the connection between PJ and HJ?
We shall begin the answer with the articulation of the basic principles of Reines.
- American Jews are in crisis because the official religion of the community-whether Orthodoxy , Conservativ or Reform, is unrelated to the private religion of its individual members. The Jewish establishment lacks integrity.
- ‘Religion, in its broadest sense, includes three basic elements: an ideology of existence that responds to the ultimate problems of the human condition; a doctrine of morality; and a system of observances that expresses and celebrates peak moments and occasions in human experience.’
- Freedom is a fundamental value. ‘Every member of the Polydox Jewish Confederation pledges to affirm the religious freedom of all other members in return for their pledges to affirm his or her own. Equally binding on the members of the PJC is the corollary of the Freedom Covenant: every person’s freedom ends where the other person’s freedom begins.’
- ‘A Jew is a person who wishes to take the name Jew, and who is descended from a Jewish parent, grandparent, or ancestor; also a Jew is a person who wishes to take the name Jew and is a member of the Jewish community.’
- Jewish communal loyalty is produced by belief in the religion of Judaism of the community. Jews who do not really believe in the religion of their particular Jewish communities will themselves ultimately abandon membership in those communities, or their children or grandchildren will. Compared to shared religion, the shared elements of ethnicity are derivative and trivial, and call for no special loyalty. To deny one’s real religion is to deny one’s own true self; to deny ethnicity is to deny non-essential patterns of behavior.
- The Polydox Jew has the right to set the times of festivals according to rhythms that he or she finds most meaningful. These rhythms may be natural, such as solstice and seasons; economic; cultural; or personal. An instance of rhythmic harmonization is changing the Hanukka celebration to eight days beginning at the winter solstice December 21-22, rather than at Kislev 25. This change of date brings the Hanukka celebration into harmony with the great, natural economic and social rhythms of the real world in which the American Jew actually lives.
These six principles summarize the basic tenets of Reines.
I would like to reply to them one by one.
- Crisis. What Reines says is true. American Judaism suffers from advanced hypocrisy. The declarations of organizational Judaism do not coincide with the real religion of most American Jews. However, the crisis is even deeper. Private Jews, speaking privately, often say they believe what they, in fact, do not believe. Many individual Jews are self-declared. It is not their stated beliefs which are in conflict with the voice of the establishment. It is their behavior. The major task of an honest Judaism is not to challenge the establishment for their hypocrisy. In many cases, they are just echoing what many individual Jews claim they believe. It is to challenge the hypocrisy of the individual Jew whose behavior does not reflect any of the reverence for God and Torah he claims to have.
- Religion. What Reines affirms is generally valid. Religion begins with the fear of death, or of the dead. It proceeds to use the reverence for the dead to enforce certain moral standards and it celebrates this reverence through community celebrations. The moral and community dimension is only one of two major aspects of the religious enterprise. The other is the fascination with supernatural power (the power possessed by the dead)-how to appease it and how to use it.
- Freedom. The Polydox concept of freedom is the most difficult concept to understand. It suffers from the same negativism that plagues Unitarianism. It starts out with the claim that no person has the right to tell anyone else what he or she should believe. No individual can play the ultimate authority to any other.
As a general political principle, radical freedom is workable and appropriate. Each individual, whether he is Jewish or non-Jewish has the right to practice whatever religion he wants to so long as he does not interfere with the equal freedom of others to do the same. We simply agree to disagree. We do not use state power to enforce religious conformity. But as a principle for organizing religious communities, it is neither workable nor appropriate. Resistance to authoritarianism is purely negative. It has no positive glue to bind a community together.
Unitarians suffer from this malaise. Since they despise any official creeds and proclaim radical freedom, they often recruit congregants whose primary emotion is anger at the authoritarian religions of their childhood from which they have escaped. These congregants know what they don’t want out of religion. But they are never quite sure what they do want.
Their essential thrust is liberty not co-operation (sic). Mystics and rationalists end up in the same congregation united only by their hostility to traditional religion. Since the group has such a wide diversity of religious beliefs, any of them often incompatible one with the other (sic), the congregation spends enormous amounts of time negotiating compromise. The result is no bold creativity but timid progress. Since every person’s belief must be respected, decision making suffers paralysis. Moreover, the educational system becomes vacuous, because no indoctrination is allowed. A thin smorgasbord of world religious options is presented, while the children are told to simply choose what is meaningful to them. No choice is better or worse than any other. Hare Krishna is as good as Bertrand Russell. The Lubavitcher Rebbe is as desirable as John Dewey. The greatest ‘sin’ is to tell children that some choices are better than others. The commonsensical boldness would smack of indoctrination.
How, indeed, do you organize a congregation or a religious community when the only unifying principle is the agreement to disagree. How do you create a public service that both a humanist and a supernatural mystic would be able to share and find mutually inspiring? At best, what you would have is a convential (sic) Jewish Community Center where a series of religiously incompatible groups share the facility.
All that Polydoxy seems to arrange for is a situation where flexible humanistic Jews are compelled to spend their time negotiating a joint service with less flexible, more traditional Jews. The result is a timid cautious presentation pleasing to neither side.
What I say to Polydoxy Jews is what I have said to so many Unitarians. Since most of you are humanists, anyway, why torture yourself? Be bold. Announce your humanism and allow your paralyzing minority to find their religious satisfaction elsewhere. An institution which seeks to accommodate all opinions provides none.
Does Polydox promote no ethical value other than freedom? Are cooperation, generosity, compassion and rationality to be only personal options? Will four hundred individual definitions of the word ‘God’ improve communication within a congregation and enhance the religious experience?
Standing against authoritarian religion is commendable. But it is never enough for organizing a community-if indeed you want a community.
- Jewishness. Reines’ definition of a Jew is a generous commonsensical explanation, which is re-enforced (sic) by the way people normally use the word. The defining character of the Jewish community is shared descent. One may enter this ‘family’ either by birth or by ‘adoption’.
- Ethnicity. Because of Reines’ definition of a Jew, his objection to ethnicity as a survival glue seems difficult to understand. If, indeed, Jewishness begins with ancestry (which after all is ethnic) and if indeed there is no shared community religion other than a belief in the validity of radical freedom, how can ‘religion’ be the survival factor? If the power of family is ignored, what compelling uniting ideological substance remains?
Reines provides no raison d’ etre for Jewish survival. If Jewish ethnic identity is trivial, if Jewish family loyalty is secondary, why bother to combine radical freedom with Jewishness? After all, it is presumptuous to preempt radical freedom as a uniquely Jewish concept. For those who want it the Unitarians are already there.
- Holidays. Moving holidays to serve individual desire has a slightly self-destructive thrust. Festivals are community celebrations. If every Jew celebrates Hanukka when he wants to, then Hanukka is useless.
If Polydoxy as a movement, wants to move Hanukka to the winter solstice, that strategy has some semblance of rationality. As a community action, it might be persuasive to other liberal Jews. (Although the winter solstice seems a silly criterion in an urban culture. Making it coincide with Christmas would make more sense.)
But Polydoxy is sabotaged by its own principle. In any congregation individual members are encouraged to celebrate Hanukka on whatever date they choose. The Polydoxy community cannot be effective because it cannot take a strong community stand against the pressure of the overwhelming majority of Jews to conform to the traditional date.
Reines is trapped by incompatible objectives. He wants radical individual freedom and bold community innovation simultaneously.
I think that Reines really wants to be part of bold community innovation. But he has chosen to promote a tired and increasingly ineffective old Unitarian principle instead.
The strategy of the Freedom Covenant is to allow Polydoxy to function as an alternative Reform Judaism. It allows Polydox rabbis to do humanistic things in Reform Temples without alienating the established membership. Given its political context it will have to proceed slowly.
As Humanistic Jews, we’re glad the Polydoxy is around. We regard it as the first step on the way from Reform to Humanistic Judaism.