Forty Years Later: A Retrospective

Transforming Judaism- Winter 2004

Forty years ago, in the summer of 1963, eight families and I organized a new congre­gation in suburban Detroit. The suburb was Birmingham, and so our congregation was named the Birmingham Temple. Ten months later the Temple family collectively aban­doned God-language — and Humanistic Ju­daism was born.

Until that moment most Jews who had given up on God did not organize congrega­tions, accept rabbis as their philosophic lead­ers, and turn secularism into an organization. But the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism did. Was this a ludicrous contradic­tion, or was it the beginning of a viable answer for secular Jews who wanted to remain Jewish?

Well, the Birmingham Temple and Hu­manistic Judaism are now forty years old. They have confronted the traumas of the six­ties, the compromises of the seventies, the ambivalence of the eighties and the nineties. They have witnessed the black revolution, the feminist revolution, the youth revolution, and the sex revolution. They have seen Israel wax and wane. They have lived through antisemitism diminishing and returning. They have even glimpsed the beginning of a glo­balized world.

Along the way, many formidable chal­lenges appeared. There was the challenge of intermarriage, with its painful confrontation between love and ethnic survival. There was the challenge of New Age religion, with its attractive combination of radical freedom and mystical experience. There was the challenge of creativity: inventing new formats and pro­grams for a Judaism that had never existed before. There was the challenge of liberal Jews who feared the accusation of atheism more than that of hypocrisy. There was the ongoing hostility from the general Jewish community to what was perceived as a provocation be­yond the parameters of acceptable deviation.

What have we learned over the past forty years? What has our confrontation with these challenges taught us?

  1. We have learned that it is better to be a believer than a nonbeliever. Not believ­ing in God is no guide to life. It is a nega­tive assertion that offers only the pleasure of defiance. We Humanistic Jews are be­lievers. We believe in the power of people to change the world for the better. We be­lieve in the right of every individual to be the master of his or her own life. We believe in the adventure of reason as the best way to pursue the truth. On the foun­dation of our positive beliefs, a powerful philosophy of life can be built.
  2. We learned that “telling it the way it is” is better than confusing ambiguity. Had we chosen to follow the Reconstructionist lead and redefine God as meaning what it does not mean — in order to play it safe or to preserve the illusion of ideological continuity — we would have ended up praying to unconscious powers that can­not hear our prayers. Acts of worship do not promote an awareness of what it means to be a Humanistic Jew. Only a more radical step could establish the basis for a humanistic lifestyle. Living without magic power means abandoning God-language. It means saying “human power” when you mean “human power.” Hiding behind old words only hides the message. The strength of our message lies in its boldness.
  3. We learned that it is important never to be a watered-down version of a more power­ful Judaism. When you make the Torah the center of Judaism, you hand legitimacy over to the Orthodox. Only they take the Torah and its lifestyle seriously. In contrast, Conservatism and Reform and Reconstruc­tionism — which continue to maintain the centrality of the Torah — are generally viewed as watered-down versions of the original. Humanistic Judaism does not start with the Torah. It starts with the Jewish people and their historic experience — not the mythical experience of Torah and Talmud writers but the real experience depicted by archeology and modern his­torians. The lessons of Jewish history — especially the need for self-reliance — are the foundation of Humanistic Judaism.
  4. We learned that there is no substitute for addressing the personal agenda of every individual Jew. Jews are not only Jews. They are individual human beings strug­gling to find happiness in a stressful world. The old Jewish secularism ad­dressed itself primarily to Jewish nation­alism and Jewish culture. Preserving Jewish identity and the Jewish people was its primary focus. In its revolutionary ex­pression it addressed itself to humanity as a whole but rarely to the individual as an individual. Of course, nationalism was a refreshing change from the tyranny of the old religion. But it was never enough. The strength of Humanistic Judaism is that it addresses the human condition in which all individuals find themselves. Talking about Jewish survival is important and necessary. But it needs to be balanced with a concern for personal happiness and per­sonal dignity. The life of courage is Jew­ish — and more than Jewish.
  5. We learned that, in many cases, there are no precedents from the Jewish past that can help us. Modern Europe and America have given the Jews, for the first time, the opportunities of a free and open society. Individuals are free to make their own choices about work, marriage, leisure, sex, religion, and politics. Individual freedom undermines the social solidarity that tra­ditional societies foster. The message of the past is to reject individual freedom and insist on group conformity. But, in a free world of growing intermarriage, it seems heartless to give love no place in the ethical equation. Do individuals al­ways sacrifice themselves for their ances­tral groups? Or do ancestral groups need to change and be more open? Humanis­tic Jews have chosen to answer these ques­tions differently than in the past. We are the champions of personal dignity and the open society.
  6. Finally, we have learned to be optimistic. Optimism is not a passive reflection of current conditions. It is not merely an objective assessment of the obstacles we face in life. If that is what it is, we would not have survived or grown during the past forty years. Optimism is, above all, a choice: a refusal to surrender to despair, a refusal to interpret ambiguous evidence negatively. In the face of overwhelming odds we have chosen “to preach our mes­sage” to the Jewish world. The evidence of recent surveys of the Jewish commu­nity in North America, dramatizing the existence of huge numbers of self-­identified unaffiliated secular Jews, rein­forces our choice. We have every reason to be hopeful about our future — not only because the polls are friendly but also be­cause our determination is firm.

Humanistic Judaism: A Response to Future Shock

SHJ Conference 2004, summer 2004

Humanistic Judaism has a unique role to play in the Jewish world. That role is more than providing an ideological space or a con­gregational home for secular and nontheistic Jews. It is more than providing a cultural Ju­daism for Jews who no longer can accept a conventional religious Judaism.

This role can best be explained by remem­bering the words of the futurist Alvin Toffler. It was Toffler who invented the phrase “fu­ture shock.” Toffler used this phrase to de­scribe the mental and emotional state of mod­ern people who are overwhelmed by the accelerating rate of change. Industrialization, urbanization, capitalism, science, democracy, freedom, and the new technology have arrived in rapid succession during the past two hundred years. They have radically altered the lives of most men and women in the West­ern world. Responding to all this relentless and continuous change produces confusion and anxiety.

Toffler suggested that people have devel­oped a series of defensive strategies to cope with this anxiety. The most powerful one is denial, the refusal to accept that change has taken place. And the most popular form of denial is nostalgia, a hankering after a roman­ticized past that can never be restored. Since people cannot avoid the real world in which they work and play, they create islands of nos­talgia to which they can retreat periodically and pretend that nothing has really changed at all. The institution that lends itself most easily to this strategy is religion. Religion be­gan as the worship of ancestors. The purpose of much religion in modern society is not to help people confront the real world but to en­able them to retreat every so often into a com­fortable past world that no longer exists.

The Jewish people, the most urbanized people in the world, is in future shock. Over the past two hundred years every aspect of its life has been radically transformed. Work, education, family, sex, government, and be­liefs are no longer the same. The break with the past is so dramatic that most Jews cannot even conceive of what Jewish life in the Middle Ages was really like. But this devia­tion from the ways of our ancestors fills us with great anxiety and triggers many troubling emotions. There is the fear that our ancestors disapprove of us and will punish us. There is the guilt of having abandoned what they worked so hard to secure. There is the sad­ness that the past has died and will never re­turn. There is the anger directed to the amor­phous forces responsible for the change.

Denial and nostalgia become the chief strategies for coping with all this discomfort. Synagogues and temples become islands of nostalgia, where for short periods of time Jews can use the language and symbols of the past and pretend for a moment that nothing has changed. They can pretend that reliance on God is the comfort of their life, They can pre­tend that the Torah lifestyle remains at the center of their existence. They can pretend that the texts of the past support the dramatic changes they cannot deny. They can lift quotations out of context and imagine that the past “kosherizes” the present.

Humanistic Judaism is the only branch of Judaism that refuses to practice this denial. That is its unique role in Jewish life. For Hu­manistic Jews the changes are real and unde­niable. They stand in opposition to the pref­erences of the past. The differences are real and cannot be wished away. A good philoso­phy of life helps us to face reality and not to run away from it. Judaism is not an eternal doctrine. It is a strategy for saving the Jewish people in a sea of change.

As Humanistic Jews, our way of coping with future shock is to make five affirmations.

We let the past speak for itself. We do not do what many well-intentioned liberal Jews choose to do. We do not force the past to agree with the present. We know that Moses, Isaiah, and Hillel would not be happy with our present lifestyle. We do not distort their world in order to extract their approval. We let them say what they intend to say. We let them be what they were. We try to under­stand why they made the decisions they did, even though we would not choose to make the same decisions. We listen respectfully to the past because it is the voice of our ances­tors, and they deserve our respect. But we do not try to hide the differences. Where we agree, that is wonderful. Where we do not, that is reality.

We empower the present. Since the cre­ations of the past are human creations, just like the work of the present, they are not su­perior to what the present has to offer. The holidays, ceremonies, and values of the past that fit the realities of the present must be saved and savored. But the present has the same right to create that the past did. The vic­tories and traumas of recent times need to be celebrated and remembered. We give the present its own dignity.

We say what we believe. We can never confront reality if we use words that were in­tended to describe another world centuries ago. A good philosophy of life is more than an exercise in nostalgia. It is a path to truth and reality and must speak clearly and di­rectly to our own convictions. If we have to make a choice between continuity and integ­rity, we always choose integrity.

We find our continuity in the fewish people. It is not God or Torah that are the real foundation of Judaism; it is the Jewish people struggling to find ways to survive and pros­per in a difficult world. This affirmation lies at the heart of the writings of two great hu­manistic Jewish philosophers from Russia, Ahad Ha’am and Micah Berdichevsky. In the end, they said, beliefs, values, words, and ceremonies may change. But the Jewish people in all its diversity remains.

We love the future. It is important to respect the past and to empower the present. But it is especially important to honor the future. In a world of continuous change the future is always with us. When, in ancient times, the priests of Jerusalem allowed only one temple — and that temple had to be in Jerusalem — they failed to imagine that one day the Jewish people would be an international people. They were stuck in the past and present. We must not make the same mistake. It is difficult to imagine what life will be like in fifty years because, given the present accelerating rate of change, it will be very different from what it is now. But it is clear that a Judaism in a global world that is becom­ing one big mixed neighborhood needs more imagination than nostalgia.

As Berdichevsky said in his essay Wrecking and Building, “We can no longer solve the riddles of life in the old ways, or live and act as our an­cestors did. We are not their living monuments…. Through a basic revision of Israel’s inner and outer life, our whole consciousness will be trans­formed: and we shall live and stand fast.”

Two Kinds of Religion

Is Humanistic Judaism a religion? Winter 2002

Is Humanistic Judaism a religion?

For many people, including many Hu­manistic Jews, the answer would be no. There is no God. There is no worship. There are no prayers. There is no recognition of supernatu­ral power. A philosophy of life for atheists and agnostics cannot be religion.

But this answer may be naive. It fails to understand the history and function of reli­gion — especially in the lives of people who are products of the modern secular world.

Historically, religion has its origins in two developments.

The first is the human condition. To be human is to confront continuously two persistent and unpleasant realities: suffering and death. If there were no suffering and no death, religion would not exist. The need to cope with these two unwelcome intrusions is the mother of religious belief and religious behavior.

The second development is the human imagination. It is obvious that ordinary power — human power — cannot eliminate all suf­fering and abolish all deaths. It may reduce suffering and postpone death. But it cannot defeat them in the long run. Human imagina­tion, prompted by human desperation, pro­vides an alternative power so extraordinary that it can only be called magic.

Magic power defies the limitations of ordinary experience. It transcends the restric­tions of the natural world. Being supernatu­ral, it does not need to obey the laws of nature. Being sacred, it cannot be measured and cannot be exhausted. As a mysterious and overwhelming force, it can do what ordinary power is powerless to do. It can conquer both suffering and death. Magic and religion have a common origin: the human need to tran­scend the human condition.

The belief in magic power is reinforced by the uniqueness of the human experience. When we are born, we are helpless, unable to do anything for ourselves except cry for help. When our parents respond to our cries, when they rescue us, wipe us, and feed us, our in­fant minds perceive their power to be extraor­dinary and magical. Since childhood is very long, the addiction to magic becomes a natu­ral predilection that we are never fully pre­pared to give up. Fairy tales and Harry Potter continue to charm us even when we grow up. Part of us never wants to leave childhood. Part of us never wants to surrender magic power.

But magic and religion are not identical. Magicians seek to manipulate magic power. Religion worships it. Religion emerges when our parents and our more distant ancestors achieve the power to transcend death. They do this through the human belief in spirits of the dead. Since these spirits are familial and parental, we respond to them the way we re­spond to our mother and our father — with fear and with reverence. Ultimately the spir­its of the ancestral dead turn into gods. And the gods turn into God. Worship is the con­tinuation of the awe and the reverence that our childhood connection to parental power inspires. In the end our infant cries turn into prayer. And God remains our heavenly father and mother.

The two themes of religion, then, arising from the origins of religion, are magic power and ancestral reverence. When religion be­gins, it is attached to family, clans, and tribes. It is not something chosen. It is a set of practices that are inherited, from holidays and sacred symbols to prayer and dress. In most cultures religion and patriotism cannot easily be distinguished. They have the same roots and are inspired by the same attachments. Most people end up in the religious systems they embrace, not because of conscious reflection or personal beliefs, but because they love and fear their parents and their ancestors. Where the ancestral theme is the most powerful, religion can be called ancestral religion.

Sometimes, however, the theme of magic power becomes the central focus. During the past two thousand years, as ancestral ties have been weakened by urban civilization — as individualism and individual identity have been strengthened by mobility and the power of new technology — religion was separated from patriotism and became a matter of per­sonal choice. Personal immortality and eter­nal happiness became the major rewards, both of them guaranteed by magic power. In this way an alternative to ancestral religion was born. Because of its emphasis on individual reward, it can best be called salvation reli­gion. Christianity and Islam are salvation re­ligions. Buddhism, in its popular expression, is a salvation religion. The array of modern urban cults, from Hari Krishna to Scientology, are salvation religions. Even Rabbinic Juda­ism, with its final judgment day, is a salva­tion religion.

In salvation religion, ancestors fade away and magic power comes to the fore. Rituals, magical formulas, and personal faith release the powers of “the Force.” Ethnicity and eth­nic memory become irrelevant. Attachment to roots is less important than attachment to the message. The drama of personal conversion replaces the quiet comfort of inherited status.

Of course, salvation religion, if adopted by tribes and nations, can turn into ancestral religion. What starts out as personal choice can turn into an ancestral legacy. What starts out as personal conviction becomes piety, an intense desire to imitate one’s ancestors. Most Christians today are not part of salvation religion. They are Catholic because they are Irish, Orthodox because they are Greek, Presbyterian because they are Scottish. Most Muslims today are Muslim for the same reason. Most Jews are Jewish, again for the same reason. Ancestral loyalty replaces supernatural salvation as the primary motive for connection.

Since the Enlightenment, most Jews have been ideologically divorced from the salva­tional message of traditional Rabbinic Juda­ism. They are not even aware of it. The resurrection of the dead and the final judg­ment day have no place in their world view. If they think of themselves as religious, it is not because they have firm convictions about the reality of magic power. They are Jews be­cause their ancestors were Jews or because they married Jews. Their holidays and group symbols are not matters of personal choice, but inherited gifts, warmed by childhood memories and family nurturing. They are Jews because that is where “destiny” has placed them. With Buddhist parents, they would have been Buddhist. While their rabbis struggle to offer feeble proofs for the “superi­ority” of their faith, their faith has long since vanished. But their attachment to their roots remains strong.

If Judaism is viewed as a salvation religion, then Humanistic Judaism cannot be a religion. But if it is viewed as primarily an ancestral religion, then Humanistic Judaism is comfort­ably a religion. Humanistic Jews today are Jews for the same reason that most Jews today are Jews. Their “patriotism” is their religion.

For many “ancestral” Jews, magic power remains a minor theme in their attachment. For others it has disappeared entirely. For many “ancestral” Jews, loyalty to their ances­tors is so intense that they are willing to re­peat theological formulas and prayers they no longer believe in. For others, loyalty yields to personal integrity. They are unwilling to say what they do not believe.

Humanistic Judaism is a religion, but it is “less religious” than the more intense forms of ancestral religion. It refuses magic power. And it refuses to affirm what its adherents no longer believe.

Judaism, the historic culture of the Jew­ish people, is an ongoing legacy from the an­cestral past. Our continued participation in that culture is often motivated by affection for our ancestors. Whether we personify them as “God” or view their creations as human, our sense of roots can be equally powerful.

The Latin word religio refers to the bind­ing power of ancestral connection. Humanis­tic Jews are Jews because of that cultural and religious connection.

A Ninefold Path for Humanistic Jews

Humanistic Judaism in the 21st century – Autumn 2001

What would it be like to live in a world without the automobile, the airplane, the cin­ema, the telephone, television, and the com­puter — without even plumbing, electricity, and running water?

Life before the twentieth century is difficult to imagine. A world of peasants and villages, tents and nomads, barter and scar­city, animal energy and early death is so far from our experience that we can talk about the past without really understanding it. But this is the world in which Judaism arose. Struggling for existence in this milieu gener­ated the issues the prophets and the priests addressed. It was the stimulus for the beliefs of our ancestors.

The past three hundred years have dra­matically transformed the human condition. The authors of rabbinic Judaism would be traumatized by the world we live in. The lifestyles of even conservative people today would be both puzzling and outrageous. Femi­nism, science education, the consumer cul­ture, individual freedom, democratic politics, and interfaith banquets are beyond what they could have imagined or tolerated. Their Judaism does not fit the present — not only because they were naive authoritarians, but, especially, because they were addressing an audience that no longer exists.

Judaism is an evolving culture with no single philosophy of life. In every age there has been a dominant ideology, which ad­dressed the problems and traumas of that age in a way that the people of that age found con­vincing. Prophetic Judaism, with its message of an all-powerful Jewish God, was a response to the despair of a Jewish people crushed by the Assyrian conquest. Priestly Judaism, with its message of the Chosen People, provided solace to a nation that had all but lost its in­dependence. Rabbinic Judaism, with its prom­ise of salvation in the next life, provided a new structure for conceiving reward and pun­ishment in a world where suffering and death had become unbearable.

The continuity in Jewish history is not ideology. It is the ever-changing Jewish people. Neither one God nor Torah appear in all the eras of Jewish development. And, if they disappear as the central themes of Jewish belief, the Jewish people will continue. No set of convictions is intrinsic to Jewish culture. Every generation has to find its own integrity.

Humanistic Judaism is the Judaism of the twenty-first century because it embodies the wisdom and values of the principal thinkers of the contemporary world. A secular world needs a secular philosophy of life. The expe­rience of a profound dependency on an au­thoritarian God is absent from the daily life of most Jews. An egalitarian democratic world can base itself on the past only by radically distorting its message. Humanistic Judaism rests on the perspectives of the past. But it does not struggle to serve them in the way other Jewish denominations do. It seeks to make honest Jews in the present.

In a globalist secular world, Judaism be­comes the culture of the Jewish people, ethics becomes the pursuit of happiness and dignity for all men and women, power is lo­cated in human effort and human coopera­tion, and courage replaces faith as the best way to cope with daily living.

Living as a Jew in the twenty-first cen­tury means living with novelty — a set of conditions that began in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and that are new to Jewish history. Widespread intermarriage, unisex power roles, strident feminism, unlim­ited professional options, the dominance of science and technology, the emergence of lei­sure culture, physical and social mobility, group identities more important to Jews than Jewish identity, the de-ethnicization of Diaspora Jewish culture, the deghettoization of Jewish communities, a traumatic rate of change that fosters “future shock” — all of these novelties define the context of Jewish existence today.

Within the Jewish community the end of the twentieth century presented a series of challenges, which were not anticipated at the beginning. The aging of the Diaspora, the trag­edy of the Holocaust, the rise of the state of Israel to center stage, the intense militancy of a reborn ultra-Orthodoxy, the ethnic transfor­mation of the Jewish state through Oriental immigration — all of these surprises molded the shape of the new Jewish people.

How do we, as Humanistic Jews, respond to all of these novelties and surprises, which define the Jewish agenda of our new century? How can we best serve our movement and the survival of the Jewish people in this unprec­edented setting?

The following “ninefold path” seems appropriate.

  • Be a rational voice. Our role in the Jew­ish world is to be a voice of reason. The response to relentless change by millions of people is to denounce the present and to romanticize the past. While science radically transforms our environment and lengthens our life, cults of nostalgia and religious fundamentalism thrive. A hankering for the stability of the past pro­duces a permanent and chronic conser­vative militancy. In the Jewish world the new, visible ultra-Orthodoxy and the nos­talgic “return to tradition” by the Reform movement are irrational responses to stress and traumatic change. Since we cannot return to the past, romanticizing it will not help us cope effectively with the present or plan for our future. Our voice has to be a voice of sanity in a crazy world.
  • Be authentic. As tradition becomes in­creasingly less relevant to the human condition, we have to maintain an appro­priate relationship to our cultural heri­tage. We have to make sure that what we choose is consistent with what we believe and with how we choose to live. Tradi­tion is our servant — not our master. Where it fits, we use it. Where it does not fit, we feel comfortable enough to create something new. This boldness is uniquely ours. It is our special gift to the Jewish people.
  • Be open. Partnerships, families, and marriages are changing. The conventional relationships of the past are becoming un­conventional. The aging of the population is producing huge reservoirs of people in their sixties, seventies, and eighties who are searching for education and inspira­tion. Our communities need to be open to this transformation of the Jewish pub­lic. Unmarried partners, gays and lesbi­ans, senior citizens, singles with no marriage agenda — all of them need to be welcome in our communities with pro­gramming that serves their special needs. Given our philosophy, our service to these people is more than opportunistic. It flows from conviction.
  • Be imaginative. A century ago the Protes­tant model of the lecture sermon domi­nated religious services in the Western world. At one time thousands of Jews, even in the working class, would show up on any given day to listen to talks by rabbis, teachers, labor leaders, and politicians. Some of these talks were Castroesque, lasting for hours. But times have changed. Young people are less pa­tient with talk. They prefer music or dance. In the twenty-first century the for­mats of celebration will radically change. There will be more music, less talk. If we want to be successful in this new cen­tury, we will have to discover our musi­cal voice. We will have to learn how to sing Humanistic Judaism.
  • Be interesting. In a rapidly changing world most people are more engaged with the present and the future than they are with the past. There are compelling current issues that test our ethical conventions and force us to rethink what we truly be­lieve. Issues of environment, genetics, capital punishment, nationalism, and rac­ism will dominate the daily news. If we fail to address them in a public way, we will be an interesting sideshow in the Jewish world but not a significant voice.
  • Be inclusive. The phenomenon of inter­marriage will not go away. It is the prod­uct of an open, free, and egalitarian soci­ety. We have to continue to find ways to allow people of good will to participate in Jewish culture and their birth culture simultaneously. The boundaries between groups and nations will become less rigid in this century. We have to be pioneers in this world rather than reluctant partners.
  • Be flexible. We must always be open to rethinking our enthusiasms. In a century where the global economy prevails, the nation-state declines, and ethnicities mix freely, the traditional nationalism built around the territorial state may become less relevant. What will happen to the state of Israel is not clear. Will it remain exclusively Jewish? Will it become bina­tional? The present turmoil suggests significant change. The concept of the Jewish people as an international nation, first suggested by historian Simon Dubnow, may become increasingly more relevant — especially in a world where most ethnicities become international. The twentieth century was the century of Zionism. The twenty-first may be the century for embracing new options.
  • Be complete. The most profound connec­tions between people are not made at lectures, services, or parties. They are made in settings where people can live together. Increasingly people in our world are choosing camp and retreat settings for interfacing with others. One weekend together as a community may be worth a thousand services. In a more informal, egalitarian, and open world, we need to “complete” our community-building by experimenting with alternative ways to find meaningful connections.
  • Be a movement. Some Humanistic Jews think of our movement as a religion. Others view it as a secular philosophy of life. Some are enthusiastic about the word spiritual. Others are disturbed by it. Some are searching for a stronger link to the traditions of the past. Others are looking for bold creativity. In the years to come there will be many more issues that will provoke disagreement. But, if we are to be a successful movement, we have to embrace a wide diversity. We have to be able to distinguish between fundamental differences and differences of style and vocabulary. Generosity rather than nar­rowness is required. Many styles enrich us without damaging what we all basi­cally share. Distinguishing between fun­damental and trivial differences is essential to our survival and strength.

This new century is going to be exciting and unpredictable. Let’s make the most of it.

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.

The New Humanism: What Is It?

Humanistic Judaism: Beyond God, Beyond No God – Summer/Autumn 2007

Is there any connection between Salman Rushdie and Humanistic Judaism? Now there is.

During the weekend of April 20-22, 2007 Rushdie was at Harvard, together with hundreds of hu­manists from North America and Europe. The occasion was the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. The mobilizer of the event was Rabbi Greg Epstein, a recent graduate of our Interna­tional Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and the current Harvard Humanist Chaplain.

Rushdie is an atheist and a humanist. He is also the man the Ayatollah condemned to death in 1989 for writing the book Satanic Verses. Born into an Indian Muslim family in Bombay and educated in England, Rushdie had already achieved fame as a novelist and commentator on Indian life. His surrealistic style of writing celebrated the absurdity of the human condition. Only laughter could do justice to the internal contradictions of Indian and Muslim life.

Condemned to assassination, Rushdie went into hiding for many years. Any public appear­ance was fraught with danger. Rushdie’s plight was testimony to the frightening terrorism of fundamentalist Islam. Rebelling against the life of recluse, Rushdie defied his enemies and be­gan to speak in public. Nothing has happened. But the decree of death has never been fully withdrawn. Courage now needs to be added to brilliance as one of his virtues. Rushdie’s ap­pearance at Harvard for a humanist conference was certainly an act of courage.

The theme of the celebration was the New Humanism. What is the difference between the “new humanism” and the “old human­ism”? The difference lies in the rejection or acceptance of the cultures of the past.

Humanism arose out of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an eighteenth-century European intellectual movement that ushered in the Age of Science. It championed reason as the best method for the discovery of truth. It identified the consequences of human behav­ior as the best criterion for the determination of moral behavior. It celebrated human empower­ment and human dignity. It was this-worldly and optimistic, promising the improvement of the human condition here on earth.

The chief enemy of the Enlightenment was organized religion, especially organized Christianity. The war between reason and faith turned into an intense hostility between the two sides. The clergy saw secular human­ism as the ultimate foe. Secular humanists saw organized religion as the chief barrier to emancipation. The events of the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution gave testimony to the intensity of this battle.

When humanism was first turned into an organized movement in North America and Europe, humanists insisted on a clean break with the religious past. To be humanists was not to be a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or even a Jew. Humanists must organize themselves in opposition to traditional religious systems. This decision produced the “old humanism,” a movement profoundly hostile to churches, synagogues, and clergy.

But the old humanism was unable to mobilize most of the people who had become secular in the Age of Science. It cut people off from their cultural roots. It severed their con­nection to holidays and ceremonies, family memories and customs that possessed great cultural power. Whatever new celebrations were invented were sterile, lacking emotional and cultural depth. Humanist societies were small collections of intellectuals who felt especially wounded by dogmatic and fanatic clergy. The secularized masses that bore no conscious hostility to their roots were turned off by the perceived negativity of the old hu­manism, by the continuous denunciations of the religious enemy.

The dilemma lay in the word religion. Most secularized humanists resisted being called religious, even though they felt strong emotional connections to their religious past. Perhaps Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were more than religions. Perhaps they were cul­tural systems as well as religious systems. If you imagined that each religion was attached to a unique ideology, then such an assertion was invalid. But if it was the case that each religious system ultimately embraced many philosophies of life – some of them contradic­tory one to the other and all of them united by a single international culture – then the assertion corresponded to reality.

In every great world religion you can in­deed find many philosophies of life. That is how they became world religions. In Judaism you have Maimonides and the Kabbala. In Islam you have Osama bin Laden and Omar Khayyam. In Christianity you have Paul of Tarsus and Harry Emerson Fosdick. All that unites these dichotomies is a shared cultural system of family memories, holidays, cer­emonies, and literature. Philosophy is one thing. Organized religion is another, a cultural system that connects us to our ancestors.

Cultural religions were created by either conquest or dispersion. Christianity and Islam started with conquest. Judaism began through dispersion. World religions embrace many national traditions. Christians include Greeks, Romans, Germans, and Russians. Muslims include Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Jews embrace Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and the new mixed gene pool of Israelis.

Humanistic Judaism is part of the New Humanism. It does not protect the culture of the past. It does not repudiate ancestral roots. It embraces them and makes them a home for humanistic convictions and hu­manistic integrity.

At the Harvard conference, a Unitarian leader identified Unitarians as a version of Hu­manistic Confucianism and a Hindu scholar saw Hinduism as a cultural system that could offer hospitality to a Humanistic Hinduism. In all cases, the accommodation to roots is a bal­ancing act between continuity and integrity.

Can there be a Humanistic Islam? Given the prominence of fundamentalist Islam today, many people claim that such a designation is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. But Salman Rushdie, the man who was condemned to death by fundamentalist Islam, disagreed. He recalled his own childhood of secularized Muslims, of pious Muslims who preached toleration, of Muslim teachers who were more comfortable with the natural world than with the supernatural world. He saw himself as a secular Muslim, a secularist by conviction, a Muslim by culture. He saw value in presenting the connection with the past as a way of reach­ing millions of secular Muslims who could not be reached by rejectionist Humanism.

My dialogue with Salman Rushdie was one of the high points of my life: It confirmed my commitment to Humanistic Judaism and to the New Humanism.

Building Secular Humanistic Judaism – The Tasks of the Federation

Building a Strong Secular Humanistic Judaism: Spring 1988

The founding of the International Feder­ation of Secular Humanistic Jews in Detroit in 1986 was a very important event. The philosophy of a secular Judaism was turned into a world movement.

Our movement has a unique role to play in the world Jewish community. We have a unique message to proclaim. We have a unique approach to the purpose of life and the source of ethical commitment. We have a unique view of the nature of Jewish identity and the meaning of Jewish history. We have a unique connection to the revolu­tionary developments in Jewish life during the past two hundred years.

The establishment of the North Ameri­can section of the Federation this weekend is an attempt to bring this unique message to more and more Jews on this continent.

Of course, we have many problems. Most Jews who are secular and humanistic do not know that they are. Many self-aware humanistic Jews are able to articulate what they do not believe and to express their hos­tility to organized religion; but they are not able to present what they do believe in a positive and constructive fashion. The visi­bility of our movement is very low. For most Jews and non-Jews, there are only three “flavors” of Judaism — Orthodox, Con­servative, and Reform.

There is also the problem of an aggres­sive Orthodoxy. At one time most Jews as­sumed that religious fanatics were vanish­ing and that they would ultimately be con­signed to the oblivion of history. But, despite the predictions, they are a vital and growing segment of the Jewish people. And they have mastered all the techniques of public relations. Because of them and their reac­tionary definitions of Jewish identity, thou­sands of people who want to identify as Jews find themselves excluded from the Jewish people.

Especially important is the problem of the young. The secular community, like the liberal community, is an aging group. Most young adults who are unaffiliated are secu­lar, but they see no reason to do anything about their Jewishness. They are estranged from the formats and propaganda of the old secular world, with its emphasis on Yiddish culture and group survival. They want something more personal, more attuned to the contemporary concern for “meaning in life” and personal fulfillment. How do we respond to these problems?

We need more than meetings where we get to know each other. We need projects that we share.

The first project is solidarity and visibility.

In Jerusalem, at the last meeting of the International Executive of the Federation, a statement was drafted in response to the question “Who is a Jew?” That question is a major controversial issue in the Jewish world today. Orthodox Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora have sought to impose their answer on all the citizens of Israel, most of whom are secular, and on the Jewish institu­tions of other countries. In an age when the trend toward intermarriage is overwhelm­ing and when most Jews have repudiated the authority of tradition, the Orthodox want to restrict Jewish identity to persons having Jewish mothers or undergoing Orthodox conversion. Even the Reform movement, which now says that Jewish fathers will do also, maintains that to be fully Jewish is to be religious.

What the Jewish world needs to hear and has not heard in any dramatic way is a gen­erous statement that does not keep Jews out of the Jewish community and that does not reject individuals who genuinely want to be part of the Jewish people, even though they do not want to be Orthodox or religious. We need a statement that openly declares that we Jews are more than a religious denomi­nation, that we are a historic nation and an international people.

The Federation declares in its proposal: “Therefore, in response to the cruel and self-destructive definition of the Jew now proclaimed by the Orthodox authorities, and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people, we affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent, or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, civiliza­tion, community, and fate of the Jewish people.”

This statement will be submitted to all the constituent members of the Federation for discussion and debate. During the coming year, all members — the Society for Human­istic Judaism, the Congress of Secular Jew­ish Organizations, the Israelis, French, Bel­gians, British, Argentines, and Uruguayans — will have the opportunity to discuss this statement, involve their people in the resolu­tion of this issue, and offer their recom­mendations.

When we all come to Brussels for the second congress of the Federation, we will continue the discussion and arrive at a con­sensus statement. This proclamation will then be publicized to the Jewish and general worlds. A dramatic declaration on an im­portant issue in Jewish life will give us a public voice, make us visible to the people we want to reach, and enhance a sense of solidarity among our own adherents. It is about time that the reactionary boldness of Orthodoxy and the timid voice of liberal religion be matched by a courageous and ethically sound alternative.

The second project is literature.

Where is the history book that articulates our point of view? Abba Eban, in his popu­lar television series, said that the greatest gift of the Jews to the world was the idea of monotheism. If, indeed, the greatest gift of the Jews to the world is monotheism, and if the meaning of Jewish history is the banner of monotheism, then we, as secular Jews, are illegitimate.

Almost every available story of the Jew­ish people champions that point of view.

The alternative view, the idea that the signif­icance of Jewish history lies in the abandon­ment of the Jewish people by an “unjust” destiny and the emergence of a skeptical self-reliance, exists in no history book avail­able to the public.

Who is going to be responsible for cre­ating this book? We need to find the best his­torians of the secular humanistic Jewish world and commission them to produce such a work.

We also need an anthology of basic humanistic Jewish thought, a basic reader that can serve as our “Bible.” If somebody asked me today to put in his hands a book containing the fundamental statements of a secular Judaism by our leading intellectuals, I would not be able to do it. These state­ments are dispersed in a vast literature cre­ated throughout the past two hundred years and unavailable to popular use. Without that anthology we have no real intellectual and ideological visibility.

Fortunately, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Jeru­salem, established by the Federation to be our intellectual center, has undertaken to create this reader within the next two years. When the anthology becomes available, we will have an important educational and inspirational tool for popular outreach.

The third project is trained leadership.

The success of the opposition depends on the existence and enthusiasm of full-time professional people who have a vested inter­est in the growth of their movement and who devote enormous time to preaching the word and spreading the message. If we do not have a cadre of men and women of equal commitment and better training, we will never be able to do what we need to do.

In response to this need, the Institute in Jerusalem has begun to develop a training program for professional leaders to serve in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. And the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews in North America has initiated the certification of qualified profes­sionals as leaders for secular Jewish com­munities, with the privilege to serve all the life cycle needs of humanistic Jews, includ­ing marriage.

In time, we hope that a substantial num­ber of idealistic young secular Jews will choose to pursue doctoral studies in Juda­ism and humanism and will emerge as a trained intellectual leadership for our cause and as an effective alternative to the tradi­tional rabbinate.

The fourth project is ethical idealism.

At one time most secular Jews had a “religion.” It was utopian socialism. One of the reasons why their Jewishness had tarn was that they went beyond self-absorption with Jewish survival to more inspiring causes. They used their Jewishness for moral purposes.

In an age when the glories of socialism have, to a large degree, faded, we need to ask ourselves: What are the ethical enter­prises we should be engaged in that flow from our humanistic commitments?

There is one ethical enterprise that is ger­mane to the very survival of a free society. It is our response to the assault of the religious fundamentalists on the intrinsic character of a constitutional and liberal democracy, whether in North America or in Israel. The issue is more than the separation of church and state. It is the defense of the Enlighten­ment, of modern learning and science. It is the defense of the importance of openness and creative change. The battle for reason and against obscurantism, the battle for individual rights and against religious con­formity can provide some of the idealism we need for an enthusiastic Judaism.

The fifth project is the articulation of a personal philosophy of life.

I recently met a young man who grew up in a secular Jewish family in Detroit and who is now living on the West Coast. When I asked him whether he was still involved with secular Judaism, he replied no. He ex­plained that he still saw himself as a secular Jew but that he had become a member of a liberal church movement in Southern Cali­fornia. Although he did not agree with some of the theistic teaching in his new group, he enjoyed the fact that they dealt with ques­tions that his own secular Jewish training never bothered to respond to. What is the purpose of life? How do I deal with my daily anger and frustration? How can I become a happier and more fulfilled human being? He claimed that Jewishness was important to him but that it was only part of his own philosophy of life.

We, as humanists, as secular Jews, have answers to the questions he was asking. But we get so absorbed with the promotion of Jewish identity that we fail to realize that we need to appeal to the whole person and not simply to part of him. We need to do what traditional religion and traditional philoso­phy do, but in a secular way.

Young people want more from Secular Humanistic Judaism than a meaningful Jew­ish identity. They also want a meaningful life. We cannot present the one without the other.

Our ability to undertake and complete these projects will be a test of whether we are able to deal effectively with the prob­lems we confront and of whether we can turn a present aspiration into a significant movement in the world Jewish community.

Zionism and Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

The state of Israel.

No expression of Judaism can be com­plete unless it deals with this reality and with the political movement that spawned it.

Zionism is the most successful and the most dramatic Jewish movement of the twentieth century. It is also the most uni­versal. Theology and ritual divide Jews. But loyalty to the state of Israel unites them. Both the religious and the secular can be comfortable with Zionism. Although anti-Zionism was, at one time, powerful, it now condemns its devotees to the role of the peripheral and the pariah.

The roots of Zionism are both ancient and contemporary. Throughout Jewish history, the Bible, the Talmud, the Siddur, and the folk literature preserved the memory of a Jewish territorial nation. Jews living in lands other than Israel believed that they were residing in exile. They believed that, in the future, they would be rescued by the Messiah and would be returned to their homeland.

The modern source of Zionism was the sense of nationhood that Western Ashkenazic Jews experienced in Central and Eastern Europe. United by folk memories and the Yiddish language, the Russian and Polish Jews saw themselves as neither Russian nor Polish. They viewed themselves as national Jews, with a language and culture all their own. This ethnic self-awareness was reinforced by the rising power of nationalism in Europe. Germans, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and Romanians were beginning to feel more German, Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Romanian. One of the devices they used to create greater internal solidarity was to in­vent an external enemy. Anti-Semitism turned the Jews into the national enemy, excluded them, and made them, ironical­ly, feel more Jewish.

If the Jews were indeed a distinct na­tion, they required a territory of their own, like every other nation. Nostalgia and the desire for territorial roots offered no alter­native but Palestine.

Zionism, as a political ideology, comes in many varieties. Bourgeois Zionism wants Israel to be a free enterprise capital­ist state. Labor Zionism prefers a socialist Israel where the workers control. Reli­gious Zionism wants a Jewish state where God rules and where the constitution is the Torah.

But, regardless of the differences, most Zionists agree on ten principles.

  1.  The Jews are a nation. They are more than a religious group, more than a theolo­gical fraternity, more than a cultural enti­ty. Jews are Jewish in the same way that Frenchmen are French.
  2.  Every nation, including the Jewish nation, needs a territory all its own. A unique territory allows the nation to cultivate its own language, promote its own customs, and be the master of its own destiny.
  3.  For the past 2,000 years, Jews have been abnormal. Until 1948, they were a nation without a territory. They will be normal again when the majority of the Jews of the world return to their homeland.
  4.  Israel is the only feasible Jewish homeland. The personality of a nation cannot be separated from its memories and from the territory where it evolved.
  5.  Hebrew is the national language of the Jewish people. English is too univer­sal. Yiddish is too parochial. A unique language becomes the cultural bond of both secular and religious Jews.
  6.  Immigrating to Israel is more virtu­ous than staying in the Diaspora. If Jews refuse to move to Israel, there will be no viable Jewish state. Jewish life in a Jewish state is qualitatively better than Jewish life in the midst of a Gentile nation.
  7.  The establishment of a Jewish state will reduce anti-Semitism. If Gentiles can see Jews as members of a normal nation, they will no longer fear them. If Jews leave the countries where they arouse hostility, anti-Semites will have to find other scape­goats for their envy and hatred.
  8.  Jews who remain in the Diaspora will ultimately assimilate to the majority culture of their host nations. In a modern, urban, industrial, secular culture, assimi­lation is the gradual assumption of a new patriotism. Jews can remain Jews only where they can be Jewishly patriotic.
  9.  Israel is the viable solution to the problem of Jewish survival. In an age when ritual segregation is rejected by most Jews, territorial segregation is the only feasible means to ensure group integrity.
  10. For every Jew, his primary identity is his Jewish identity. He must be prepared to do first what is necessary to insure Jewish community survival. Aliyah (moving to Israel] is a primary mitzvah.

How does Humanistic Judaism relate to these ten principles?

The Humanistic Jew accepts the fact that the Jews are a nation. Like the Zionist, he makes a distinction between citizen­ship and nationality. It is quite reasonable to describe oneself as an American citizen of Jewish nationality. Because of the Jewish fear that such a statement may be construed by modern governments as an act of dual loyalty, the word people is usually substituted for the word nation. But, in essence, it means the same thing.

The Humanistic Jew accepts the fact that, in the past, a nation needed a specific territory in order to remain a nation. But, in the age of industrial technology, this re­quirement no longer applies. Today, the time it takes to fly from New York to Tel Aviv is far less than the time a traveler took to donkey from Jaffa to Jerusalem a century ago. In former times, isolation from a nation’s territory meant isolation and ultimate assimilation to the host culture. In modern times, both literacy and advanced communication and trans­portation make it possible for a dispersed nation to preserve its sense of community. The Greeks, the Armenians, and the Irish know that, as well as Jews.

The Humanistic Jew recognizes that many people regarded the Jew as peculiar and abnormal because he had no ter­ritorial base. But what was Jewishly ab­normal is now rapidly becoming humanly normal. In an age of labor mobility, an in­ternational nation is no longer bizarre. It is avant garde. Territorial nations are becoming territorial states. A territorial state is a political entity where people of different nationalities discover that they must share the same piece of land. The connections among the inhabitants are geographic and economic rather than ethnic. America is no longer an Anglo- Saxon nation. And Israel is one-third Arab.

The Humanistic Jew recognizes that Israel is the Jewish homeland. As the mother country of the Jewish nation, it is the appropriate headquarters and center of that international corporation. Memories cannot be manufactured. Like nations, they develop their power over long periods of time. New York may have more Jews than Jerusalem. But Jerusalem includes the armies of the faithful dead, not just the living.

The Humanistic Jew values the Hebrew language. Every viable ethnic community that is not racially distinct cultivates its own language. The greatest of all the Zionist achievements was the revival of the Hebrew language as the spoken tongue of the masses. Since Hebrew is not a world language like English, it requires for its survival a special territory where a majority of the inhabitants use it for their daily speech. One of the major reasons for the preservation of the state of Israel is the maintenance of Hebrew-speaking culture. With Israel as the Hebrew center, the language becomes available to the world Jewish community as a resource for com­munity expression.

The Humanistic Jew understands that Israel cannot accommodate the majority of the Jewish people. The reason is not only that Israel is too small; it is also that Israel cannot suitably employ the mem­bers of a nation, the overwhelming major­ity of whom now belong to the managerial class. Israel does not need more lawyers, accountants, and psychiatrists. She needs farmers, porters, and construction workers. Immigrating to Israel is a virtue if the immigrant’s talents will be fully utilized in that environment. To waste managerial potential is a waste not only for the world Jewish community but also for the human community.

The Humanistic Jew does not believe naively that the existence of the state of Israel will reduce anti-Semitism. In the Middle East, Zionism has increased anti- Jewish feeling. In Europe and America, loyalty to Israel reminds many people of the multiple attachments that they suspect all Jews have. Above all, Jews are hated because they are conspicuously successful in an urban industrial society — out of proportion to their numbers. A small Jewish state ironically depends for sur­vival on Jewish success in the Diaspora. Israel needs the very power out of which anti-Semitism grows.

The Humanistic Jew does not believe that living in the Diaspora means ultimate assimilation. Since Jewish communities are no longer isolated from each other and can maintain effective contact with the Israeli center, Jewish self-awareness has increased, not declined. Moreover, it is quite clear that all nations, even large territorial ones, are assimilating to a new culture. That culture is the world culture of science and technology, which has secularized most of our planet and created a world of shared work styles, shared pro­ducts, and shared values. In the past 20 years, the Oriental Jew in Israel has expe­rienced more assimilation than the Jew of New York. In future years, the differences among all nations will be reduced because of this shared culture. From the humanis­tic point of view, this shared cultural bond with all people is something good.

The Humanistic Jew is well aware of the fact that no small territorial state is the master of its own destiny. Even large states, like America, are heavily depen­dent on external resources. The fate of the Jews in Israel is not separable from the fate of the Jews in America. The key to Jewish continuity remains what it was before Zionism. The Jews should be as widely dispersed as possible, so that the destruction of one community will not result in the destruction of all.

The Humanistic Jew affirms the value of Jewish identity and works to express it within the setting of the Jewish commu­nity. But he chooses his human identity as his primary identity. A healthy Jewish community can be realized only if it sees itself as part of a larger community with its own needs and demands. Without this transcendent ideal, Zionism becomes chauvinism. Jews and Arabs can learn to share the same territory if they have the vi­sion to go beyond their national identities and to celebrate their shared human identity.

Humanistic Judaism and historic Zionism share some important convic­tions: the values of Jewish nationhood and of Hebrew culture. But Humanistic Judaism finds value in the reality of the Jews as a world people, an international nation.

Israel as the be-all and end-all of Jewish existence is too much. Israel as the cultural homeland of a planetary people is just fine.

Ten Truths about Our Jewish Roots

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

Traditional Judaism depends on an ac­ceptance of the stories in the Torah. The Jewish religion began with God, who transmitted his commands to Abraham and Moses. Abraham’s grandson, Israel, had twelve sons, each of whom became the ancestor of a tribe. Ultimately all twelve tribes went to live in Egypt, where they were enslaved by the Pharaohs. After their liberation from bondage, their new leader, Moses, led them to Mt. Sinai. At this mountain, they received the full doc­trine of the Torah and pledged themselves and their children to fulfill the command­ments.

By this official story, the Bible came first. The religious regimen of Jewish life came second.

Non-traditional Judaism, including Reform, justifies its label by establishing its adherence to the Torah. The Torah is the peg on which all “real” Judaism sup­posedly hangs. The holidays and other ceremonies derive their “kosher” charac­ter from their presence in the Bible.

Humanistic Judaism, on the other hand, denies that the holiday and life-cycle ceremonies, which express the rhythm of Judaism, are the result of the Torah. It denies that the origin of Judaism lies in the Bible and in the historic events described in the Bible.

Using the scientific discoveries of ar­chaeology and higher Biblical criticism, a humanistic Judaism presents a counter­story to the story of the Torah.

Humanistic Judaism affirms ten histori­cal observations, which are in conflict with traditional claims:

  1.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never existed; they are mythical figures.

In ancient Palestine, there were three Semitic peoples who spoke the same lang­uage. There were the Canaanites (also called Phoenicians), the Amorites, and the Hebrews. Their difference was not racial but occupational. The Canaanites were city-dwellers, the Amorites hill-country farmers, and the Hebrews wandering herdsmen and shepherds. The Hebrews conquered the Amorite hill-country in successive small invasions lasting more than a thousand years. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are personifications of three important invasions. Although the authors of the Torah try hard to deny the ethnic and cultural connection between the Hebrews and the Canaanites, objec­tive research proves them wrong.

  •  Most Hebrews never went down into Egypt.

The Exodus story is a myth. There is no historical evidence to substantiate a mas­sive Hebrew departure from the land of the Pharaohs. As far as we can surmise, the Hebrew occupation of the hill-country on both sides of the Jordan was continu­ous. The twelve tribes (Joseph considered as two) never left their ancestral land, never endured 400 years of slavery, and never wandered the Sinai desert. The origin of their customs and ceremonies had nothing to do with an Egyptian expe­rience.

  •  Moses was never the leader of the Hebrews.

One Semitic tribe called Levi did spend time in Egypt. They may even have been slaves. However by 1200 B.C., long after the Hebrews had been settled in Palestine, this tribe was wandering the Sinai desert. Their leader and shaman was a man called Moses (an Egyptian name), and their chief god was either a snake god called Nehushtan or a wind god called Yahveh. Under the leadership of Moses, they infiltrated the Hebrew land of Judah. (The south of the Hebrew territory was called Judah and the north was called Israel.) Famous for their magical powers, they were invited by the people of Judah (the Jews) to become their priests. After Moses died, his descendants, in particu­lar, were in demand as priests. In time, the Levites, like the Magi of Persia, special­ized in soothsaying and in the conducting of religious ceremonies. While the Levites remembered their leader Moses, the Jews had, for obvious reasons, no historic mem­ory of his leadership.

  •  The Jewish religion was old before the Bible was written.

Long before the Levites ever set foot in Palestine, long before the story of the Torah was written, the Hebrews had an ancient religion and an ancient set of reli­gious ceremonies. The Torah was not even written by Moses (who was most likely illiterate). It was written by a group of Levitical priests 700 years after Moses had died and centuries after the basic reli­gious calendar of Judaism had evolved.

  •  Sukkot, Hanukka, and Passover were established holidays long before the Torah was dreamed of.

In ancient Palestine, three moments of the seasonal year were suspenseful. The first was the fall equinox, when the rainy season was scheduled to begin. The second was the winter solstice, when the dying light of the sun was scheduled to renew itself. And the third was the spring, when the herds and the flocks regularly conceived. The failure of either the rain, the sun, or animal fertility to fulfill its promise spelled disaster. Therefore, our Hebrew ancestors set aside a week of celebration at each of these annual crises to ensure success. They danced and sang and sought to urge on the natural forces through imitation. They poured water on Sukkot, lit lights on Hanukka, and ate eggs on Passover to urge the rhythm of nature to assert itself. The Levitical authors of the Torah sought to deny the nature origins of these festivals and to attach them (with the exception of Hanukka) to a historic desert experience the Hebrews never knew. But modern research gives the lie to this tam­pering.

  •  Judaism began as a series of nature experiences.

Judaism is as old as the Jewish people. It began with the nature experiences of the Hebrew people in their own land. It began with the Jewish response to the seasonal crises of autumn, winter, and spring, as well as to the individual crises of birth, puberty, marriage, and death. What the Bible denies, the evidence of his­tory affirms. Although the Orthodox leadership, both historical and rabbinical, sought to turn the attention of the Jews from nature to their god Yahveh, it could not erase the nature experience. Even when officially demoted to insignificance, it persisted as the major motivation for celebration.

  • The Torah is an attempt to explain the already established Jewish calendar.

After the destruction of the northern Hebrews (Israel) by the Assyrians and the defeat of the southern Hebrews (the Jews) by the Chaldeans, a power vacuum existed. Since the Chaldeans and their successors, the Persians, did not wish to restore the military leadership of Judah out of fear that revolt would be encour­aged, they removed the royal House of David and replaced it with a group of harmless collaborators. These collabora­tors were the Levitical priests, who were eager for power.

The Levites had a problem. In the eyes of the people, they were usurpers, oppor­tunistic replacements of the legitimate House of David. They therefore had to prove their right to rule.

The Torah is a deliberate attempt by the Levites to prove that Moses and his relatives (as contrasted to David and his descendants) are the rightful rulers of the Jews. A fictional Moses is created who becomes the leader of all the Hebrews and the star of a supernatural spectacular at Sinai.

In order to reinforce the authority of Moses, the Levites deliberately associated all holidays with Moses and with Yahveh, the god of Moses. Passover emerged as the anniversary of the mythical Exodus. Sukkot emerged as a commemoration of the never-never 40 years of wandering in the desert. And the rest day, sacred to Saturn, the god of Jerusalem, was justified as the Sabbath through a childish story of creation. When the Levites got through with their book, the history of Judaism was totally distorted. A non-hero called Moses arose as the savior of Israel, and the ancient Jewish calendar with all its pagan gaiety was reduced to a solemn desert travesty.

  •  The Biblical point of view is the Levitical point of view.

The Bible is a series of 24 books either written by or edited by the Levites. It is an attempt to explain ancient Judaism through the vested interest of a priestly clan. If read uncritically, it distorts the truth and makes the origins of Judaism ap­pear as they weren’t. The Torah is not the source of Judaism. It is a clever and suc­cessful attempt to rationalize Judaism for the benefit of a small power elite.

  •  The Jewish religious experience preceded the articulated beliefs about the gods or God.

The religious experience in all cultures is the attempt to celebrate the unchanging rhythm of life, whether seasonal or per­sonal. Before there was any Moses or Levites, before there was any formal theology of Yahveh, there existed an an­cient Hebrew calendar of life. The dramatic experiences of this calendar, with their sense of identity with the events of nature, were independent of any theological explanation. Only later, when the caretakers of religion tried to ar­ticulate the significance of these ex­periences, did they conjure up fantasies about the gods. Judaism preceded the gods and will survive them.

  1.  Historic Judaism is not the Bible. It is the celebration of life through the seasonal and personal calendars of Jewish ex­perience.

An authentic Judaism seeks to go behind the official theological rationaliza­tions. It seeks to articulate the human ex­perience that makes Sukkot, Hanukka, Passover, and the other celebrations significant. It finds the ethical values of these holidays not in a mythical story but in the human response to the seasons. Reflection is natural to the autumn, hope is essential to the winter, and freedom is the imitation of spring.

And so, there they are.

Ten historical assertions. Ten humanistic interpretations of Jewish history.

Just as the modern Jew is utterly distinct from the man the official theology describes, so was the ancient Jew vastly different from the pious image the Bible prefers.

Is Humanistic Judaism A Religion?

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

In recent years, I have encountered, a persistent objection: “How can you call your organization a temple? Humanism may be a great philosophy of life. It may even be the ideological answer to man’s twentieth-century needs. Yet, if there is one thing it isn’t, it isn’t a religion.”

The question is a significant one. If we are going to designate our philosophy and institution as religious, then we must be as precise and accurate with the phrases we employ as we expect the theologian to be with the words he uses. One has a moral obligation to be faithful to the historic meaning of ordinary words.

To discover the authentic significance of religion, we must clarify the unique characteristics of the religious experience. A proper definition must rely on what is peculiar to the phenomenon under analysis. To define religion as “the pursuit of fulfillment” or “the pursuit of salvation” or “the act of relating to the universe as a whole” is to consign the term to the limbo of words that have lots of prestige but refer to nothing in particu­lar. For after all, what human activity, from psychiatry to politics, is not con­cerned with human fulfillment? And what human procedure does not involve relating to the universe “as a whole”?

Initially, we must clarify what religion is not. Many liberals are fond of desig­nating the religious experience as the

moral dimension of human life, the ethical commitment of the individual. However, while it is certainly true that all historic religions have been vitally concerned with social right and wrong, it is also true that there are hosts of activities, normally des­ignated as religious, that have nothing at all to do with ethical propriety. Lighting candles and celebrating spring festivals are morally neutral. Moreover, large num­bers of sincere and sensitive people think of themselves and are regarded by others as both ethical and nonreligious.

Many popular definers associate reli­gion with the act of faith as opposed to the procedures of empirical reasoning. Reli­gion is viewed as a unique approach to questions of truth. While this definition may be attractive by its simplicity, it will not hold water. Reasoning through obser­vable evidence is common to parts of all sacred scriptures; and intuitive trust in the truthfulness of self-proclaimed author­ities is as common to the daily procedures of politics and business as it is to those endeavors that are normally regarded as religious.

As for the persistent attempts to identi­fy religion with the worship of God, they may be appropriate within the narrow framework of Western culture but invalid universally. The Confucian ethical tradi­tion and the Buddhist Nirvana are reli­giously as significant as God and yet are quite distinct from the normal notion of deity. Nor will the Julian Huxley defi­nition of the religious experience as the apprehension of the sacred quite do. To simply describe the sacred as that which is able to arouse awe, wonder, and rever­ence is to identify its consequences but not to clarify the nature of its constituent parts. Without analysis, the definition simply substitutes one mystery for an­other.

A proper view of religion requires an honest confrontation with certain histor­ical realities:

  1.  In almost every culture, religious in­stitutions are the most conservative. It is historically demonstrable that ecclesias­tical procedures change more slowly than other social patterns. Ideas regarded as radical and revolutionary within the framework of church and synagogue are usually regarded as commonplace in other areas of human behavior. While most institutions resist change, organized religion has been the most supportive of the status quo. Intrinsic to established priesthoods is the notion that change may be necessary but not desirable.
  2.  Religious teachers and prophets per­sistently refuse to admit that their ideas are new; if they do, the indispensable sa­cred character of their revelations disap­pears. The religious radical must always demonstrate that he is, in reality, the most genuine of conservatives. Moses pleaded the endorsement of Abraham; Jesus in­sisted that he was but the fulfiller of old prophecies; Mohammed posed as the re­viver of pure monotheism; and Luther claimed that he desired only to restore the pristine and authentic Christianity. As for Confucius, he denied originality and at­tributed all his wisdom to old emperors. Even the Jewish Reformers vehemently af­firmed that they were simply recapturing the true message of the Prophets. Novelty is historically irreligious.
  3.  In ordinary English, the word reli­gious is usually equivalent to the Yiddish frumm. Both adjectives are tied up with the notion of ritualism. An individual is judged as “more religious” or “less reli­gious” by the degree of his ritual behavior. The liberal may protest that this usage is narrow and primitive. But he still has to explain why even sophisticated speakers, when they relax with the word religious and are non-defensive, associate it with repetitive ceremonies.
  4.  The annual cycle of seasons, as well as the life cycle of human growth and decay, are universal concerns of all orga­nized religions. Spring and puberty may have no apparent ethical dimension, but they are more characteristic of historic re­ligious interest than is social action. We may deplore the religious obsession with Bar Mitzvah. But then, after all, we have to explain it.
  5.  Despite Whitehead’s popular defini­tion of religion as that which man does with his solitude, most religious activities have to do with groups. In most cultures, sacred events are not separable from either family loyalty or national patrio­tism. The root word religio is a Roman term for the sum of public ceremonies that express the allegiance of the citizen to the state. Even the ancestor cult that defines the popular religion of most of the Eastern world is an act of group loyalty that di­minishes the significance of the isolated individual and enhances the importance of family continuity. Historic religion started with the group and is not easily separable from it.
  6.  The notion of the saint or the holy man permeates most religious cultures. This revered individual achieves his status not only because of his impeccable ritual and moral behavior but also because he is able to enjoy the summit of the reli­gious experience. To be able to transcend this messy world and to unite mystically with what is beyond change, space, and time is his special forte. The mystic expe­rience has almost universally been regar­ded as the supreme religious event and the entree into the supernatural.

Any adequate theory about the nature of the religious experience and its unique characteristics must be able to explain these six facts. It must find the common cord that binds these disparate elements together. While many factors can account for some of them, only one theory takes care of all of them. And this theory is in­separable from the initial concern of historic philosophy.

The origin of philosophic inquiry and metaphysics lies in a disdain for the sensi­ble world of continual change and a per­sistent love of what is eternal and beyond decay. Plato was adored by later theologians because of his “religious” temperament. He detested the world of impermanence and asserted that wisdom was concerned only with entities that never change. The chaotic world of space­time events that modern science inves­tigates was anathema to his pursuit of knowledge. If the Greeks were unable to develop the rudiments of a real empiri­cism, herein lay their problem. Whatever they searched for had to be deathless and eternal. They could never end up being in­terested in what was tentative and condi­tional.

In fact, the search for the deathless is the psychic origin of the religious experi­ence. The human individual is a unique animal. He alone is fully aware of his per­sonal separateness from other members of his species and conscious of the tem­porary nature of his own existence. He fears death and needs to believe that dying is an illusion. In his anxiety, he searches for persons or forces that enjoy the bles­sing of immortality. With these, he seeks to identify and find the thrill of being part of something “bigger than me.” The religious experience is universally an act of feeling at one with what seems to possess the aura of eternity.

If we test this definition by the evi­dence, it works superbly. It explains the essentially conservative nature of historic religion. Change, experiment, and mere opinion are in spirit nonreligious. Only eternal truths will do. All seeming change is pure illusion; and even the most radical steps must be covered by the cloak of rein­terpretation. The definition also clarifies why all new truths must be labeled as old. The religious temperament requires the solace of age and venerability. Even if the good word is humanly new, it turns out to be divinely old.

The theory explains the religious power of ritual. Traditional ceremony is not sig­nificant because of its ethical content; that excuse is a sop for the modern intellect. Ritual acts derive their psychic punch from the fact that they are meticulously identical and repetitive. In a world of con­tinual and frightening change, they give to human behavior a mood of eternity. Their power is not symbolic; it is intrinsic to the ceremony itself. New observances that are labeled as new may be aesthetically char­ming, but they lack the religious dimen­sion. As for the seasons and life-cycle events, what greater evidence is required to substantiate the thesis? Societies may undergo revolutions and violent social upheaval; they may experience the over­throw of every existing value and idea. But the explosion is powerless to alter the relentless sequence of spring, summer, fall, winter — birth, puberty, maturity, and death. Nothing is more eternal than the seasons. Their continual repetition and observance is an ultimate security.

Moreover, the group character of most religious observance reflects the human desire for permanence. The family and the nation have always been inseparable from the major religious experiences of any culture simply because they suggest the immortality the individual does not. And the mystic experience is equally ex­plained by this need to defeat change and death. The ecstasy of the saint is ra­tionalized as an encounter with the changeless. To “transcend” the world of space and time may be informationally ab­surd; but as an exclamation of victory over the fear of death it has emotional significance.

If, then, the unique character of the religious experience is the act of identify­ing with what appears to be permanent, a proper understanding of humanism re­quires the following observations:

  1.  The religious temperament and the pursuit of knowledge through empirical procedures are incompatible. Humanism is committed to the techniques of modern science; and all proper statements within that framework are tentative, subject to the refutation of future evidence. Empiri­cism cannot tolerate eternal truths about man and the universe. The conditional character of all knowledge, with an in­finite capacity for adjustment, is its spe­cial power and glory.
  2.  Humanism is a total philosophy of life, which does not allow the religious temperament to invade every area of its discipline. However, if man has a need to transcend his temporariness and identify with something or someone more perma­nent than the individual, this need cannot be ignored. Within the framework of humanism, two means of satisfaction ex­ist. By asserting that every person is com­posed of the same matter/energy from which all other phenomena derive, hu­manistic teaching affirms that each of us shares an intimate bond, a basic identity, with everything in this universe. Stars and flowers are material brothers to our na­ture. And by proclaiming that before and beyond the individuality of any person, each of us shares an essential oneness with all human beings, humanism pro­claims that all of us share in the ongoing existence of humanity as a whole. In fact, the very basis of ethical behavior lies in this religious experience. If every person can feel himself only as an individual, the social character of morality is impossible. Ethical behavior is feasible only when people sense that the essential nature that binds them together is more significant than the individual differences that sepa­rate them.

Thus, humanism is more than a reli­gion. While there are certain areas of its discipline that provide the religious expe­rience, there are many areas in which the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. Therefore, the humanist never regards the description “less religious” as a threat. Humanists rather view it as a compliment. They are aware of the fact that the balanced life requires much more. While they resist the invasion of all life by the religious temperament, they, at the same time, affirm the value of the religious experience in the simple rehear­sal of nature’s seasons and the image of immortality in human survival.