Secular Humanistic Jewish Ideology

“Secular Humanistic Jewish Ideology” from Humanistic Judaism journal, Winter 1991. Also published in Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought.

There were times when ideology was very important in Jewish life, when a set of compelling ideas seized the minds and hearts of Jewish men and women and mobilized them to make dramatic changes in religion and culture.

The prophetic ideology of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah turned defeat into victory. Yahveh, the national God of the Jews, who was unable to crush the superior power of the Assyrians and their natural allies, became a world God of infinite power, who was using the Assyrians to punish his chosen people for their sins. Yahvism, rescued by prophetic ingenuity, became the foundation of a new and powerful religion. The Jewish people was thrust into the center of a divine drama of cosmic proportions.

The ideology of the Pharisees and their rabbinic leaders provided a response to the suffering and humiliation of the Jews and to the seeming injustice of God. A final judgment day would mark the end of this world and usher in the Kingdom of God. The dead would rise from their graves, stand before the seat of justice, and receive either eternal reward or eternal punishment. The powerful appeal of this scenario transformed Jewish life. Thousands of Jews flocked to the standard of the Pharisees. The rabbis assumed power. Rabbinic Judaism became official Judaism.

Other compelling ideologies have entered Jewish life from time to time, causing radical changes in Jewish behavior. A compelling ideology embraces all of life: the personal and the communal, the spiritual and the corporal. It addresses anxieties people have. It answers the questions people are asking. It is enhanced by charismatic leaders and dramatic symbols. Above all, it defines the goals of personal and social existence and identifies the source from which the power to achieve them will come.

In modern times, both Marxism and Zionism have won passionate adherents. Both have mobilized millions of people. But with these two exceptions, the past two hundred years have witnessed a decline in Jewish ideology. Fewer and fewer Jews connect their Jewishness with powerful and mind-grabbing ideas. Being Jewish and being ideological because one is Jewish no longer equate with the same intensity that they did in prophetic and rabbinic times. Most Jewish ideology today is about as passionate as the courteous statements made at interfaith banquets.

Why has this change occurred?

The old ideology, whether prophetic or rabbinic, is no longer credible. In an age of reason, science, and comparative religion, divinely chosen nations and resurrections are hardly the theological stuff of which conviction is made. What used to seem possible and real no longer seems possible or real. Political emancipation and secular education have made it difficult to believe what used to be easy to believe.

The new twentieth-century ideologies have failed to produce their promised utopias. This failure has provoked a pervasive disillusionment and cynicism. Scholars are now suspect. Rational thinking is condemned as shallow. Intuition and mystic insights are exalted. Listening to one’s heart is preferred to listening to one’s mind. New Age philosophy thrives on anti-intellectualism. Inconsistency becomes a virtue in an environment in which following one’s feelings is accepted advice even in educated circles. Impulse rather than ideology becomes the sign of the free spirit. It is also an excuse to avoid establishing any real control of one’s life.

Most modern Jews separate their Jewishness from their personal philosophy of life. The first is a cultural and nostalgic experience. The second is a private commitment—or a commitment exercised in a group other than a Jewish one. Jews daven [pray] and do transcendental meditation. They chant traditional blessings on Jewish holidays and oppose the encroachments of organized religion on public life. Jewishness and ideology function in separate compartments of people’s lives. One has nothing to do with the other.

The power of traditional religious literature—the Bible, the Talmud, the Siddur—makes it difficult to dispense with them, especially in the absence of other Jewish writings of equal prestige. Being Jewish means using “the sources” even if you do not believe in most of what they say. The Kaddish is no longer a rabbinic tribute to a powerful and just God; it is a collection of Jewish sounds stripped of conceptual meaning.

In the century of racial anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the survival of the Jewish people is an obsessive issue. Jewish survival demands Jewish activity. Prayer and worship are the most familiar Jewish activities, especially in the Diaspora, where Jewish languages have all but disappeared. Parents hire religious teachers to teach their children to recite religious words they do not believe in, because they imagine that Jewish prayer is a guarantee of Jewish identity—and Jewish identity is a guarantee of Jewish survival. For a nonideological Judaism, any synagogue will do.

Modern Jewish ideological secularism is often a sham. Most “secular” Jews define their secularism by their hostility to organized religion and the traditional rabbinate. Their secularism is not a positive philosophy of life, a new compelling vision of the world and of Jewishness. While these negative secularists resent the burden of traditional law and traditional authority, they do not mind playing traditional when it is convenient. A funeral or bar mitsva becomes an opportunity to dress up in the costumes of Orthodoxy and pretend for a moment that one is identifying with one’s ancestors. People who grumble about the oppressiveness of religion, who choose to spend Rosh Hashana on a Tel Aviv beach, are often the same people who insist that all the halakhic details of shiva [mourning] be observed when their parents die. In their minds religion is irrelevant or worse—but: if you do it, you might as well do it “right.”

Jewish nationalism—whether Yiddishist or Zionist—began with secularists. But its success brought antisecularists into the fold. Today a majority of the supporters of Zionism are followers of conventional religion. Public Zionism, therefore, has to be circumspect. It can no longer afford to offend the religious. The old secularist fervor would undermine Jewish unity, successful political campaigning, and fundraising. Public Zionism has become a set of safe nationalist clichés that offer no real guidance to Jews seeking a meaningful personal philosophy of life. A nationalism that seeks to mobilize large numbers of people of diverse opinions needs a safe ideology—which, for practical purposes, means no ideology.

The decline of ideology is manifest everywhere in Jewish life. Jewish feminists don the symbols of the halakhic system that rejects them. The Reform movement seeks to be emotionally kosherized by a return to tradition. The Conservative movement has given up trying to explain why it is neither Orthodox nor liberal and instead justifies itself by the meaningless plea of moderation. Even bold stands on female rabbis and homosexual rabbis are comfortably combined with ritual praise of the ethical traditions of the Jewish past.

Philosophical talk has been replaced by survival talk. Whatever seems to enhance Jewish survival, regardless of its effect on the quality of Jewish life, is good. Secularists give money to the Lubavitchers because Orthodox Jews stay Jewish. Reform rabbis sponsor Orthodox conversions because Jewish unity strengthens the Jewish people. Welfare federations provide support to Orthodox yeshivas—the more tradition, the more survival. At one time in the Jewish world, in the days of the prophets and the rabbis, the primary question of Judaism was, “Is it true?” Today, in a survival-obsessed Jewish society, the question of truth has vanished. The only question that remains is, “Is it Jewish?”

As we contemplate the future of the Jewish people and the future of Secular Humanistic Judaism, we need to deal with the decline of ideology.

One option is to play down ideology—to become merely a potpourri of people who have either vague or vivid grievances against organized religion. The danger in this approach is that we will give up our substance in order to improve the packaging; and the new packaging will not work in the end. Negative secularists are not the stuff of which to build a strong movement. They share no positive agenda. They are easily seduced by Orthodox tidbits when they want to feel Jewish. They can be satisfied by Reform or Conservative nostalgia as well as by secular nostalgia.

The other option is to be clearly ideological in a Jewish world that avoids ideology. The opportunity in this approach is that we can recruit people who share our positive agenda, who value our willingness to deal with ideas and with personal integrity in Jewish life. The danger is that we will turn off negative secularists who find no value in philosophy or in consistency.

Given the advantages and disadvantages of both options, I would choose the path of ideology. We are a movement committed to a radical reinterpretation of the Jewish experience. We are not a movement equipped to benefit from impulsive nostalgia. In the long run, we will serve individual Jews and the Jewish people more effectively if we enable them to link their personal beliefs with their Jewish identity. We will serve our movement more effectively if we give it a unique function in Jewish life.

What do we need to do to make our ideology a strong ideology?

We need to insist that the question “Is it true” is more important the question “Is it Jewish?” The Sh’ma [prayer affirming God] is Jewish, but it is not, from our perspective, true. The Kaddish is Jewish, but it is not consistent with what we believe. A strong ideology insists that when we celebrate who we are, we speak with conviction. New words that express our convictions are preferable to old words that do not. Nostalgia is valuable, but it is not primary.

We need to reduce our basic beliefs to four or five simple, dramatic statements—statements that address Jewish anxieties and concerns. A powerful message is a brief message. Overlong academic formulations are useless.

If I were to choose five basic statements, they would be the following:

  • Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people, which includes many religious and secular traditions.
  • A Jew is any person who chooses to identify with the fate and culture of the Jewish people.
  • After the Holocaust, it is clear that the meaning of Jewish history is that Jews must be responsible for their own fate.
  • Every person is entitled to be the master of his or her own life, subject to the final authority of his or her own conscience.
  • The power to achieve human survival, happiness, and dignity is a human power.

We need to be what we are and not try to be what we are not. We have deep roots in the Jewish experience. But we represent a radical break with the rabbinic tradition. We can use the literature of the past when it expresses humanistic sentiments. But we do not need to be kosherized by it. Quotations will not make us more legitimate. The ultimate vulnerability of the Reform and Conservative movement is the need to find authority in the literature of rabbinic Judaism. Orthodox clothing does not fit non-Orthodox people.

We need to take seriously our commitment to reason. Old liberal beliefs that no longer conform to the evidence should be discarded. Unyielding loyalty to a humanistic tradition can be as reactionary as unyielding loyalty to the halakhic tradition. We should not burden ourselves with embarrassing falsehoods. Old humanistic clichés like “All people are basically good,” or “Human ethical progress is constant and inevitable,” or old Marxist slogans like “The laws of history dictate ultimate human liberation” are, in the light of the twentieth century experience, simply silly. They are about as credible as the Lubavitcher messiah or the Reform vision of the messianic age.

We need to answer questions that Jewish people are asking. The power of the prophetic and rabbinic traditions lay in their responsiveness to deep concerns. The quest for spiritual experience is a Jewish quest. It demands an answer—and not the dismissive answer of the old secular tradition, which was deeply suspicious of the very word spirituality. Today many Jews who seek a spiritual dimension in their lives are fully humanistic. But they have no vocabulary to describe what they want and need. A Secular Humanistic Judaism that lacks a strong, clear, and positive answer to the question of spirituality will not be effective.

We need to reconnect Jewish identity with a strong personal philosophy of life, a philosophy that enables people to cope more adequately with the adversities and opportunities of individual existence. Jews are more than Jews. They are human beings, with all the fears and anxieties of the human condition. Prophetic and rabbinic Judaism addressed the human condition as well as the question of Jewish survival. Modern Judaism, by and large, does not. Jews do their Judaism in the synagogue and their personal philosophy of life in universities, friendship circles, professional work, private readings, marathon weekends, or psychotherapy. They do not expect the message of the synagogue to be a personal guide for effective living. They expect it only to reinforce their Jewish identity. An effective ideology addresses Jewish issues in the context of broader human issues: How are Jewish identity and self-esteem related? What does Secular Humanistic Judaism have to say about the search for personal dignity and fulfillment? In what way is Jewish liberation connected to general human liberation?

We need to speak in a language that people understand. Intellectual formulations appeal to some people, but others can better understand principles embodied concretely in the lives of real people. Biography becomes philosophy. Heroes become role models. All successful ideologies have vivid personalities who serve as living examples of appropriate behavior; even children can comprehend the values they represent. Who are our unique heroes? What literature do we have to tell their stories to adults and children? There are many biographies of Spinoza and Einstein. But we do not have a biographic literature written from a Secular Humanistic Jewish point of view.

We need appealing symbols. The most effective ideology is never found in dry formulations. It is expressed in songs, holiday celebrations, and body decorations. The ideology of halakhic Judaism is better expressed by the Siddur than by the Maimonidean creed. The principles of Jewish Marxism were better dramatized by May Day and the Yiddish “Internationale” than by public readings of Das Kapital. What are the songs of our movement? What are the unique celebration formats we all share? What are the symbols of our commitment that we would choose to wear? It is not enough that each community is creative. There has to be a set of shared symbols, songs, and formats that uniquely dramatize the ideology and membership of our movement. At some time or other we all need to sing the same song and know that other Secular Humanistic Jews are singing it too.

We need to be pluralistic with conviction. A successful Judaism needs to be a pluralistic Judaism, in which all Jewish options have their place. But it does not need to be a mushy pluralism that seeks to avoid confrontation and gloss over differences. Ideological competition is real—and it is good for Judaism. No single ideology, or lack of ideology, can possibly serve the needs and temperaments of all Jews. Only the give and take of competing views of Jewish identity can produce the vitality and variety that a healthy Judaism requires. Strong convictions, strongly expressed, are essential to meaningful internal debate. As long as they do not degenerate into absolute and self-righteous convictions, they give substance to Jewish commitment. A strong ideology needs to find the balance between offending nobody and rejecting everybody else.