We Are Twenty-Five Years Old

TJH Jan. 1998, vol XXV, no 6.

We are twenty-five years old. 

 This year – 1968 –  is an important year for us. It is our silver anniversary celebration time. 

 Our Temple is no ordinary temple. From the very beginning we chose to publicly  Embrace and ideology different from that of the Jewish establishment. From the very beginning we were embroiled in a controversy that most budding congregations do not have to confront. 

 The reason for our existence and growth was never that we were a convenient suburban temple –  nor that we were socially chic –  nor that we provided physical amenities second to none. People came to us because they believed, despite all the difficulties of public exposure, in what we taught.  

 In other congregations the initial traumas have to do with finding a place for services, recruiting people to teach children, developing a sense of belonging and commitment. We had these problems too. But they were always less important than translating our stated convictions into a viable congregational format. Was it possible to abolish prayer and worship and still create an institution with a clear Jewish identity? 

Out of the challenge to find an answer to this question came the Birmingham Temple. And the answer that emerged –  even twenty-five years later –  later still defines the reason for our existence. 

 We succeeded because we said certain things that had never really been said before very clearly in the North American Jewish community. 

 We said that there was no need for Jews to pretend to believe what indeed they did not believe. There was no need to recite prayers that were meaningless simply because they were Jewish. There was no need to subscribe to convictions that were incredible simply because they were traditional. Our Jewish identity was not a function of any belief system. It was independent of any creeds. It arose out of family roots and family connection. 

 We said that there was no need to be kosherized by the past. Old Jewish statements were no more valuable than new ones simply because they were old. Ancestors were no more authoritative than contemporary simply because they were ancestors. The test of Truth was not antiquity;  it was the promotion of human dignity. The test of Jewishness was not in the Bible and the Talmud; it was a sense of identification with the culture and the fate of the Jewish people.  

We said that there was no need to separate the secular and the religious. Congregations, Shabbat meetings and holiday celebrations were not the sole possession of theistic people. Bar mitzvahs and confirmations were not, of necessity, attached to prayers and Torah readings. Religion was more than the worship of God. It was in the broadest sense, a philosophy of life turned into the morality and celebrations of an organized community. “Secular” was non-theistic, not non-religious. 

 We said that there was no need to assume that nostalgia was the only warm emotion. Loyalty to the past may be just as cold as any set of prayers that are mumbled without emotion. And creativity for the future may be just as “hot” as the dancing of Hasidic devotees. The warmth of belonging in solidarity is more likely to exist in community where shared ideas and values bind people together than in a congregation that is a neighborhood convenience or a family inheritance. 

We said that there was no need to lie to children. There was no need to assume that children required beliefs that we as adults no longer required. There was no need to teach children to believe what indeed we knew they would ultimately reject when they grew up. The hypocrisy of well-intentioned parents was unnecessary. The greatest gift that we can give our children is our honesty and integrity. When mouth and action come together than healthy religion begins. 

 We said that there was no need to be timid about necessary change. Cautious, piecemeal reform does not serve consistency well. Life is too short to be the prisoner of foolish contradictions. We do not exist to fit the forms of the past. The forms of the past exist to serve our needs and the needs of future generations. Sometimes only bold action will enable us to make things right. 

 All these things we said we are still saying. They define the reason for our existence. 

Sherwin Wine 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, January 1983, Vol. XX, Number 6

1983. It’s our 20th anniversary year. 

In July of 1963, the idea of the Birmingham Temple was born. In September we held our first meeting. In November we were chartered. 

Some said that we would never last. But we lasted. And we grew stronger. And we helped to create sister congregations in other communities. 

What did we learn during the past twenty years? 

We discovered that we did not have to be imprisoned by the past. If neither Orthodoxy nor Conservatism nor Reform fit our beliefs, we did not have to adjust to what was unacceptable. We did not have to succumb to cynical resignation. We could pioneer an alternative that had never been tried before and make it work. 

We learned that maintaining our integrity helped us deal with hostility. The intimidation techniques of our enemies were less effective so long as we were defending what we really believed. Compromise would have undermined our self-esteem and made us vulnerable to attack. Beyond our integrity, boldness was our greatest asset. 

We discovered that we could be truly creative. Since there was no readily available working tradition for humanistic Judaism we had to make our own. We redid the holidays. We wrote new services. We transformed the Bar and Bat Mitsvah (sic) ceremony. We invented a new form of Jewish education. Our commitments forced us to do what we never planned to do. They made us see our own talents. 

We learn that we were able to serve people who had never been adequately served before by institutional life. Most of our first members were peripheral Jews who found their Jewish involvements uncomfortable and compromising. They never imagined that it was possible for them to feel at the center of Jewish commitment. But the Temple gave them a philosophic home where they never had to feel like strangers. 

We discovered that we were saying out loud what many people already believed. The Temple made no converts. It simply became a public voice for people who never had one before. The liberation of humanistic Jews is not their awakening to secular truth. It is a willingness to go public.  

We learned that we enjoyed pioneering. Starting something new was even more fun than inheriting something old. It enabled us to focus on our own present needs and not the needs of ancestors who had died a long time ago. We felt unique and useful. The pleasure of being our own person made up for any residual guilt that gave us anxiety. 

We discovered that we were continually changing. Some of our enemies claimed that we would end up as rigid and dogmatic as the people we opposed. But, very early, we experienced the frustration of trying things that didn’t work. We learned to try, to test and to choose. Our members were too good humored to let any procedure become sacred. Some of our first songs have been justifiably forgotten. And some of our best celebrations are very new. 

We learned that we could transmit our philosophy to the next generation. Many skeptics wondered whether children in a conventional religious world could embrace the humanistic alternative. But we saw our children grow up to enjoy the humanistic answers and to become articulate spokespeople for the Temple point of view. We developed a sense of continuity. 

We discovered that it is sometimes hard to be a humanistic Jew. We were denied the ease of joining just a neighborhood congregation. Joining the Birmingham Temple meant continuous training. Our friends, neighbors and associates did not regard our affiliation with indifference. We had to defend, to explain, to justify. And, in the process, we had to work hard at understanding our philosophy. Members of other congregations could hide behind the respectability. We had to prove ourselves. 

We learned, above all, that shared values and ideas help to develop a community. We started out as strangers who came together for philosophical reasons. But our common commitments made it easier for us to become friends. Our first attachments were to ideas. But they deepened into connections with people. The history of our temple is a story of friendship and community. We have always wanted to be for (sic) more than a discussion society. We have striven to become a family of choice. 

We have discovered many things in twenty years. They are part of our unique tradition.  

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, October, 1978, Vol. XVI, Number 2

The Future of The Birmingham Temple 

The Birmingham Temple is fifteen years old. 

Given the environment in which it grew up, its survival is both amazing and exciting. 

The source of its vital energy lies in two things-the determination and talents of its members-and the sense of mission which the possession of a unique philosophy bestows. 

Without Humanistic Judaism, the Temple would not have been able to recruit the members….who give it its unique character.  And without the need to justify its new philosophy, the congregation would never have been motivated to be creative. 

After fifteen years, The Birmingham Temple has achieved the edge of community respectability. 

It has a home of its own, with an attractive new addition under way.  It has a growing membership which includes some of the brightest young and old people in the community.  It has a large group of student alumni who derive a good part of their childhood memories from the Temple experience.  It has a wide audience of non-members who attend its programs.  It has spawned other congregations which rescue it from isolation and give it the image of a genuine….Jewish alternative. 

The achievements are considerable.  And remembering them for short periods of time is pleasurable and normal. 

But the very nature of Humanistic Judaism prevents us from spending too much time on nostalgia.  We are future oriented.  The accomplishment of yesterday is less important that (sic) the problem of tomorrow. 

What are the problems of tomorrow? 

What new creative answers will we have to come up with? 

There will be the need to deal realistically with the revolution in personal life style. 

The growing world of single people-divorced, widowed and deliberate-can derive no satisfaction from an ethic which finds fulfillment only in family life. 

There will be the need to deal with the aging of the Jewish community.  The decline in the bourgeois birth rate will shift a lot of attention from youth education to creative education for adults. 

There will be the need to communicate effectively with other humanists in our community so that we can cooperate against the increasing aggressiveness of fundamentalist religion. 

There will be the need to share our experience with other Jews in other places, who find Humanistic Judaism significant and want to do what we did. 

Above all, there will be the need to be present-oriented not past-oriented.  At a time when a lot of residual guilt will disappear with a generation of Jews who have no memory of traditional parents and grandparents, new ceremonies and rituals will have to be invented.  The emotional level of religious life will rise from nostalgia to aesthetic fulfillment. 

The next fifteen years will have enough problems to solve so that we will be rescued from boredom and complacency. 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, May_June 1990, Vol. XXVI, Number 10

The Birmingham Temple is alive and well.  The events of the past year attest to the energy and vitality of our congregational family.  The Art show, the Vivace Concerts, the Retreat, the Million $ Auction, the Humanist Forum, the Family Club, the Temple Singers gala-all are witnesses to the enthusiasm and community spirit of our members. 

For the past 27 years we have been continuously renewed by the creative marriage between oldtimers and newcomers.  We value our ‘traditions’.  But we have never been afraid to try something new if we felt that it would enhance the lives of our members and strengthen the survival of our community.  There are too many challenges for us to rest on our laurels. And there are too many opportunities for improvement for us to settle for self-congratulations. 

When we think about the year to come and about what we want to do with it as a Temple family, we need to be very much aware of our present and future needs.  The past is a reliable guide.  But we have to be open to new and useful possibilities. 

We need to continue our work to provide interesting programs and shared experiences for young parents and their children.  The future of our congregation like that of any Temple, depends on the enthusiasm of young families.  When we started-and everybody was young-the euphoria of beginnings made us successful..  Now we need more planning and a greater sensitivity to how families have changed-working mothers, fewer children, higher expectations. 

We need to strive even harder to serve the special requirements of singles, young adults and senior citizens.  There are many diverse lifestyles and no one format can serve the desires of everyone.  Of course, we cannot undertake so many new projects that we replace quality with quantity.  We have to choose a few new ways to be useful to all this diversity and make them work. 

We need to rethink the purpose and format of our holiday and Sabbath celebrations.  What is it that our members want out of a Friday evening experience in the Temple?  What do they want to hear?  What do they want to feel?  What do they want to learn? 

We need to be creative about our outreach to the larger Jewish community.  There are many concerns and anxieties in the Jewish and general world that have not been adequately addressed.  The growing power of conservative religion is a threat to our freedom and our legitimacy.  Do we sit passively and accept Orthodox encroachment?  Or do we take a more activist and challenging posture?  Do we resist Orthodox attempts to monopolize the words ‘Jewish’ and ‘observant’? 

We need to be innovative with regard to ethical service-both to our own members and to others.  We responded to the plight of the homeless in our community.  But what more can we do to relieve suffering-and be effective? 

We need to reach out to the hundreds of Soviet immigrants who are coming to our community-most of whom are basically secular-and find a way to integrate them into our community.  I am confident that if many of them understood what we believed and did, they would be very comfortable to join us.  Both their lives and ours would be enriched. 

We need to take a realistic look at our physical hoe and determine its adequacy.  We have built our Temple in stages-first the Meeting Room and Library and then the Family Room.  It may now be time for us to complete our house by planning an Educational Center that would provide space for both children and adults and an appropriate facility for the educational programming we are planning.  After 27 years of the uncertainties of the public schools it may now be time to bring our children home to the Temple. 

We need to find the young man or woman who will train as my successor and provide continuing rabbinic leadership in the spirit of Humanistic Judaism after I retire.  Hopefully this decision will be made very soon and will enhance the confidence we have in our future. 

We need to reinforce our sense of participation in a Jewish movement that goes beyond our Temple and embraces Jews throughout the world.  Our strength lies in the power of our own community.  But it also lies in the fact that we are not alone, that our approach to Judaism and our convictions about life are shared by thousands of people in other cities and in other lands.  We have to establish stronger links with them so that we can work more closely together to achieve shared goals.  The third conference of the International Federation in Chicago this October will be a wonderful opportunity to experience this solidarity.   

We cannot do all that we need to do in the coming year.  But, given our track record, we will do more than we imagine. 

The Rabbi Writes: Renewal

The Jewish Humanist, March 1993, Vol. XXIX, Number 8

Renewal.  That is the theme of our March retreat.  It is the special theme of our thirtieth anniversary celebration. 

Renewal means a strengthening of our commitment to the importance of the Birmingham Temple and of Humanistic Judaism in our lives.  It means that neither can be taken for granted, and that their welfare and survival depend on our personal efforts and involvement. 

There are many ways that we can express our commitment. 

We may choose to develop a better understanding of our Jewish and humanist roots.  The Monday evening class on Jewish history and Jewish culture and the Shabbat morning discussion group on Jewish literature await our participation. We can even call the Temple and acquire a book list of important reading that we can do all on our own.  Study can intensify our humanistic awareness of the Jewish experience and Jewish identity. 

We may choose to join a Temple committee or Temple work group.  The congregation exists because hundred (sic) of volunteers over the past thirty years have contributed their time and energy to the programs and activities of our unique community.  The Temple provides all kinds of opportunities for interesting work-intellectual, artistic, literary, social, ethical.  Along the way you meet new people and make new friends.  The bonds of friendship are the lifeblood of the congregation. 

We may choose to participate in the celebration life of the congregation  Every Shabbat evening we come together to celebrate our Jewishness and to renew our commitment to each other, to the Jewishh people and to the ethical values we strive to realize.  Being in the Temple on Friday night-all together-heightens our awareness of the community to which we belong and of the philosophy of life by which we seek to live.  Singing songs and lighting candles are not trivial when they are part of community renewal. 

We may choose to bring our Judaism into our home.  There is more to Jewish expression than Hanukka and Passover.  We may introduce a holiday we have never celebrated before.  We may read out loud the literature of Humanistic Judaism, think about it and talk about it with our partners and children.  We may even display a symbol as simple as our very own “Humanorah” to remind us of our identity and beliefs.  Even sophisticated people-although they are reluctant to admit it-may find meaning in visible symbols. 

We may choose to give our energy to community service.  Ethics only become real when they are turned into personal behavior.  Poor Jews need our help.  Russian families need our help.  Homeless people need our help.  The battle for abortion and life style rights is a continuous struggle against powerful opponents.  Social action can be done in many places.  But doing it through the Birmingham Temple strengthens the moral outreach of our own community. 

We may choose to discuss the Temple and Humanistic Judaism with our friends and neighbors.  Sharing ideas and convictions with others does not turn us into aggressive and overzealous missionaries.  But there may be people we know who would really enjoy the Birmingham Temple if only they fully understood our philosophy and if only they could associate Humanistic Judaism with enthusiastic people they love and trust.  New members come to us-not because they are “converts”-but because they discover, for the first time, a community where they can be both honest and comfortable.  Finding new families and singles for the Temple strengthens the congregation.  But it may also strengthen the newcomers. 

We may choose to participate in the movement of Humanistic Judaism.  The Temple is part of a national and world outreach which we helped to create.  We do not stand alone.  There are brother and sister communities in North America, Europe, Israel, Australia and Latin America who share our commitment to a cultural Judaism.  There is also the International Institute which trains our leaders and rabbis and also provides weekend seminars of adult education to help us intensify our Jewish and Humanist awareness.  Participating in the movement means meeting and working with people from all over our country and the world.  There are national conferences to attend.  There are international; meetings to enjoy.  There are annual trips to Israel to join.  There are programs, like the rabbinic program, to support.  Sharing with others in the project of making Humanistic Judaism a viable and recognized alternative in Jewish life is an exciting way to build our future. 

We may choose to be optimistic.  Hope is not a guarantee promised by destiny.  It is a determination to create what needs to be created.  Without that determination the Birmingham Temple would never have survived the assaults of her opponents and the wariness of skeptics.  Choosing hope means that we are serious about the future.  We do not accept the past unquestioningly.  We do not revere our tradition.  We are open to making changes that need to be made.  What once worked may no longer work.  As long as we remain faithful to our fundamental principles and mission, the strategies of implementing them can comfortably adjust to reality.  Creativity has to balance our nostalgia. 

I hope that the thirtieth birthday anniversary will be a time of renewal for you. 

Professional Leaders: Why and How

Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1992, Vol. XX, No. 2, pp 3-5. 

The oldest profession in the world is the clergy. Originally the clergy spent most of their time in ecstatic trances or in negotiations with the gods. Along the way they picked up other tasks. They invented literacy and started schools.  They offered refuge to the poor and started welfare.  

They took over rites of passage and made them   religious. In time their work included not only tasks that were intrinsically religious but also many tasks that were accidentally religious, tasks that could have been done just as easily by secular people. Nevertheless, the public associated the secular functions with religion and with the clergy.  

When the secular revolution dethroned religion, one would have thought that a secular clergy would emerge to replace the religious clergy. But that did not happen. While secular educators largely took over education and secular civil servants largely took over welfare, the role of guardian of community values, including the right to play “master of ceremonies” at certain community events, remained with the traditional clergy.  


The answer lies in the obsessive hatred of so many secularists toward organized religion. They hated priests and rabbis. They hated churches and synagogues. The fuel of anticlericalism energized many liberal and socialist movements. In socialist circles, anticlericalism was accompanied by an equally   obsessive egalitarianism, which refused to allow anybody to play leader. (Of course, since leaders are inevitable, the refusal to define the parameters of leadership turned many socialist leaders into unofficial dictators.) 

Negative secularism is driven by the need not to do anything that religious people might choose to do (short of eating, sleeping, and sex). A secular clergy was anathema to secular zealots, not because there was anything intrinsically religious in what such a clergy would be expected to do,  but because of refusal to admit that some  of the social functions performed by traditional religion might be useful. 

This negative secularism led to the death of the first secularist movements. Because their leaders were unwilling or unable to serve the personal and community needs of the members in a professional manner, their bourgeois children turned back to the religious clergy to handle life cycle ceremonies,   connections with  ethnic roots, and the inculcation of values in the young. Once the zeal of the socialist revolutionary was replaced by the indifference of the bourgeois professional, no dedicated full-time leaders remained to transmit the secularist message. The freethinkers fizzled as much from the lack of professional “missionaries” as from the obsolescence of their utopian rationalism. 

Negative secularism was rampant in Jewish ranks in the last century. Secular congregations were unthinkable. Secular rabbis, or even ceremonialists, were inconceivable. Secular professional leaders (other than teachers) were trayf. After socialism died, there was no one, in a world of middle-class individualism and specialization, to carry on the ideological and organizational drive of the secular Jewish movement. 

When Humanistic Judaism emerged in 1963, its ideology was not very different from the world view of the Yiddishist and Zionist movements that preceded it. The major difference was our commitment to use and develop professional leaders. We believed that, without a secular clergy, there would be no effective secular communities and no effective way to be given credibility in the Jewish community. 

We began with rabbis, because the first Humanistic Jewish communities (the Birmingham Temple in Michigan and Congregation Beth Or in Illinois) had rabbinic leadership. We also recognized that we needed professional mentors and spokespersons whose stature in the wider community would equal the status accorded Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis. (The title was secondary to the role. Many Reform rabbis, for many years, preferred the title “Doctor” to “Rabbi.”) 

Secular rabbis (or scholar-leaders) would have been ideal for most of our communities, had they been available. Since we did not have a training school of our own, we relied on defectors from the Reform movement. And the number of Reform rabbis who were believing humanists, who were willing to testify publicly to their beliefs, who would be willing to be pioneer developers of small communities with little financial compensation, could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Even most of these rabbis were too ambivalent when put to the test. 

What we needed we did not have. We could either wait until the right people emerged, with the risk that we would be waiting for Godot and disappearing from the inertia of waiting. Or we could go ahead and train the people we needed. We chose the second alternative. 

It was clear to us that we needed two kinds of professional leaders. We needed full-time rabbis or scholar-leaders to lead large communities. And we needed part-time mentors and guides to serve small communities. These part-time leaders could be drawn from the many talented volunteers who already worked for their groups. 

All they needed was a profession and a training program. 

The “pararabbi” was called a madrikh (feminine, madrikha; plural, madrikhim; in Yiddish, vegvayzer), a Hebrew word meaning guide. The madrikh would serve as a combination educator, ceremonialist, counselor, program planner, and spokesperson. He or she would be certified and trained by the movement and would be subject to the professional discipline of a professional code.  

The training, established in 1988 in North America and Israel, became the major project of the new International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Students who successfully complete nine intensive seminars are designated madrikhim.  Certification is granted by the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews. Madrikhim serve communities all over North America.  They teach children and adults. They conduct bar and bat mitsvas. They officiate at weddings. They offer philosophic guidance to their members. They represent their communities to the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. 

In 1991 the program for training Humanistic rabbis and secular scholar-leaders was established. One student has enrolled. In addition to Institute seminars and extensive field work, a doctorate in Judaic studies in a secular university is required for certification. The secular madrikh and the secular rabbi complement each other. They are two levels of Humanistic Jewish professional leadership. 

We have now begun to provide for our own future. We cannot depend on the “refugee” leaders of other Jewish movements.  We cannot rely on the well- intentioned efforts of untrained volunteers. We need trained leaders who know that their work is a profession and who receive recognition of their professional achievements from the people they serve. In time many madrikhim will evolve into full-time leaders. In time, both rabbis and madrikhim will form a corps of visible “missionaries” to sustain existing communities and to create new ones. In time, the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds will come to accept our professional leadership in the same way that they learned to accept Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis. 

A negative secular Judaism must be replaced by positive Secular Humanistic Judaism. The principle of a positive Judaism is guided by the necessity to serve the real needs of real people and the courage to be innovative when the movement we believe in demands it. 

The Israel Secular Association–Why is it Necessary

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1978, Vol. VI, Number II

Today, in Israel, the orthodox non-humanistic approach to personal and social life is increasing its influence. The political victory of the convervative coalition, the fatigue of the liberal Left, the spreading propaganda that Traditional religion reenforces (sic) patriotism, the cult of nostalgia which feeds on the fear of the future, the seeming need to resist religious controversy in the face of Arab threat, and the growing power of the Oriental Jew-all contribute to the emergence of a ‘new’ Israel. The secular and humanistic Jews who were the primary force in the establishment of the Jewish State now find themselve ‘strangers’ in their own land. Many of them are emigrating to avoid the stifling cultural environment of the new state sponsored religious chauvinism. However, a small group of determined humanists continue to resist. They have established the Israel Secular Association to struggle for a secular state which promotes humanistic values and universalism among all Israelis-Jew and Arab alike. 

The ISA needs your help and support. They need their cause-which is our cause advertised among American Jews. They need their opinions and attitudes published in the opinion organs of world Jewry. They need contact with sympathetic Jews. They need to know that they do not stand alone. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Sara and Isaac Hasson (who are the leaders of the ISA) in London at the world conference of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. They are courageous and articulate humanists who, at great personal sacrifice, are organizing resistance to ‘creeping orthodoxy’ in Israel. They are fighting to preserve in the Jewish State the ideals of a secular and humanistic Zionism-a Zionism which goes beyond the issue of Jewish identity alone to the issues of human integrity and human survival. 

—Sherwin Wine 

The Future of Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1976, Vol. IV, Number II

What is the future of Humanistic Judaism? 

I don’t know. It’s hard for me to be objective. For me it’s such a sensible philosophy of life that I find it difficult to understand why so many seemingly rational people do not choose to identify with it. 

All that I can perceive in the American Jewish community seems to indicate that more and more Jews need to hear what we are saying. These are people who are emotionally and intellectually alienated from existing Jewish institutions but who value their Jewish identity. 

Why are they alienated? 

Many are turned off by the mumbo jumbo of theology. They come to the synagogue to receive some kind of meaningful guidance for their daily lives and find themselves involved in a world of theistic fantasy where the rules of the game have nothing at all to do with real life. Too rational to accept romantic nostalgia as an adequate substitute and too honest to stomach hypocrisy they enter the limbo of malcontents who have no Jewish alternatives. Unlike their friends who have chosen compromise, they are not burdened by family guilt or peer pressure. Unlike their friends who have chosen “to leave,” they find Unitarianism and Ethical Culture deficient in Jewishness. 

Many are repelled by the open hypocrisy. There seems to be no correlation between what Jews say they believe and what they do. The Torah is exalted as the ultimate book of wisdom and no one reads it. The Talmud is praised as a source of great ethical insight and no one consults it. Prayer is announced as an essential human discipline and everyone ignores it. Judaisms appears to be an immense pretension, a behavioral lie. For some Jews this game of illusions is necessary for Jewish survival. For others less willing to subordinate their personal integrity to a doubtful strategy, the inconsistency is insufferable. 

Many are alienated by an absence of real experiment. In the establishment institutions whether conserative, reform or reconstructionist, change has been trivial – a jazz service here, a cinema service there, but no real coming to grips with the revolution in ideas and feelings that is part of the computer age. The radical Jewish Left has pioneered the communal havurah. But the religious structure is irrelevant to the life style of the average middle-class Jew and even the most ambitious of the avant-gard (sic) Jewish activity is burdened by nostalgia. There is so much fear among th rabbinic leaders that we will lose contact with our past that little energy survives to establish some kind of meaningful contact with the future. The burden of proof is distributed irrationally. Those who wish to make changes bear the most of it, even though what they resist has long since been ignored. Jews today often try to prove their right to their identity, not by doing what they need not defend, but by defending what they do not need. 

Many are turned off by the parochialism of the Jewish community. In a mobile age when national boundaries are ceasing to be relevant and when the worlds of business and education demand social intermingling, the hysterical response of rabbinic leaders to intermarriage is deeply reactionary. The charges against the Jews of tribalism and clannishness have usually been dismissed as the rantings of antisemites. But many Jews experience these attitudes as the normal response of their family and friends. They find themselves surrounded by a fear of openness and a passion for  social isolation that belie the propaganda of liberalism which Jews associate with their image. An obsession with the question of Jewish survival dominates the work of the community and claims all energies. Jewishness becomes the ultimate criterion by which all activities are judged and by which all goals are evaluated. The result is stifling. 

Many are alienated by the appeal to antisemitism. They are resentful of an establishment that seeks to frighten them into being Jewish. Group paranoia hardly seems an acceptable base for an affirmative identity. While one may have to be Jewish for negative reasons, he does not have to build an organizational identity out of a social disease. Moreover, young Jews do not perceive the American Jewish community as a destitute, downtrodden community. Having been raised in the affluence of middle-class suburbia and have tasted every opportunity for bourgeois success, they see their people as one of the wealthiest and most influential components of the American establishment. They perceive that the intellectual and financial resources of the Jewish world are too vast for only self-pity and self-defense, and that, with proper motivation and direction, they could be used for more humanistic ends. The self-image of the Jew raised in Hitler’s era is different from the vision of his (sic?) post-war child. 

Many Jews are estranged by the vicariousness of contemporary Jewish experience. They recognize the obvious truth that the only Jewish reality that excites the majority of American Jewry is the state of Israel. In present day synagogues and community centers the programs for both youth and adults are overwhelmingly devoted to the culture and political problems of the Israeli people. While they do not deny the uniqueness and grandeur of the life style in the Jewish state, and while they are eager to work for the survival of this nation, they find the Israeli experience a second-hand adventure. For those Jews who choose to be truly Zionistic and to immigrate to the Jewish homeland, Jewishness built around the excitement of Israeli patriotism is direct and authentic. But for the vast majority of American Jews it is an exercise in futility. By labeling Diaspora-living as inferior, Zionism condemns the Jew who chooses to live in the Diaspora to be an “almost-Jew”, to be a Jew who is incapable (by his place in the world) of being fully Jewish. The world of Jewish Identity has been split in two. There are those who live Jewishness in the state of Israel, and there are those who stand on the sidelines and “kvell.” For a Jew who selects to be neither an Israeli nor a “kveller”, there are almost no options. 

Many are driven away by the excessive nationalism that permeates the community leadership. Their education and their sentiments lead them to struggle for the humanist ideal of a unified mankind. Involvement in the affairs of the Jewish community only brings them problems of conscience. Instead of encountering the tradition of international culture, which Jews helped to pioneer in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they find themselves embroiled in the internal politics and foreign relations of a small Middle Eastern state, and discover that the United Nations and American disarmament are not the enemy. The concept of the Jews as an international people, skeptical of all chauvinism, and committed by their history to world unity has become a soul without an institutional body to give it reality. 

The alienation of so many American Jews from Jewish institutions and from any kind of positive Jewish association is deplorable. Not because being Jewish is important in and of itself; and not because Jewish survival has some religious or supernatural significance which the rational person is unable to perceive. But because Jewish identity has a humanist and ethical value which mankind needs. 

To be Jewish is to be a member of an international family whose structure and whose loyalty transcend the nationalist disaster of the contemporary world. The Jews are more than Judaism. They are more than Israel and the Zionist experiment. They are more than a unique ethnic culture. They are, in experience, an ‘internationality’, a people whose worldwide extension is a harbinger of future group identity in our rapidly changing world. For the past two centuries Jews have been the initiators and developers of cosmopolitan culture in the European environment. From Ludwig Zamenof to Albert Einstein Jews have helped to pioneer the idea of a world society in which the primary social identity of each individual would be “hunman”, and in which the ultimate group loyalty would be mankind. 

If this humanistic ethic, strongly embedded in the modern experience of the Jewish people, can be divorced from the irrelevant supernatural trappings of the past, it will provide a secular Jewish alternative to both secular nationalism and to religious mysticism. A truly humanistic Judaism will create a Jewish alternative which is sorely needed and which has never been given an organized public expression. 

A Jewish humanism which is courageous enough to dispense with the hypocrisies of conventional religion must be honest enough not to be all things to all people. It cannot with integrity satisfy the ethical and Jewish needs of every alienated Jew. If it tries to be meaningful to every Jew who is estranged from exiting religious institutions, it will be meaningful to none. Some who are alienated want more religion, more supernatural experience, more mysticism. Others want more nationalism, more Zionism, more involvement with the state of Israel. To reject theology does not mean that one accepts humanism or humanistic ethics. Secular Jews can be as chauvinistic and as parochial as religious Jews. 

There is, in my mind, a personal and social need for an “ethical” institution which carries on the historic moral role of the conventional religious congregation, without the supernatural sanctions which a belief in God provided. Since there are many possible secular moral systems, there are many possible “ethical” congregations. A humanistic Jewish temple is one that trains its members in a humanistic morality and in the humanistic value of Jewish identity. 

I believe that there are thousands of Jews in America who would find such an institution emotionally and intellectually satisfying. Whether we, as pioneer groups, have the power to reach them, will depend on the strength of our desire and our will. 


Rabbi Sherwin T. wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism, is the leader of the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan 

Sherwin Wine’s ‘Humanistic Judaism’ – A Book Review by Rami Shapiro

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1978, Vol. VI, Number II

“The most interesting Jews of the last hundred years never joined a synagogue. They never prayed. They were disinterested in God, They paid no attention to the Torah lifestyle. They found bourgeois Reform as parochial as traditional Orthodoxy. They preferred writing new books to worrying about the meaning of old books. They had names like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Theodore Herzl.” 

And, though Sherwin T. Wine never explicitly says so in this introduction to his first book, Humanistic Judaism (Prometheus Books), we Jews have more in common with these Jews than we will ever have with Jews like Jeremiah, Rashi, and the Baal Shem Tov. 

Initially, one balks at the idea. Why can’t I retain and strengthen my ties to such ancestors?  And who is Wine to say that the chain of tradition suddenly kinks, cracks and crumbles with the advent of quantum mechanics and the post industrial world? What is the Humanist movement to suggest that my claim to carrying on the spirit (if not the letter) of the law and the prophets is just so much intramural politicking and bogus prooftexting (sic)? 

Rabbi Wine’s response is simple and direct: It isn’t he or Humanistic Judaism which is severing our links to tradition: It is ourselves and our behavior. No philosophical premise bars us from copying the lifestyle of Rambam or the Besht, rather it is our own behavior patterns that put the lie to such nostalgic desires. It isn’t theology so much that separates us from our ancestors. It is honesty. 

And honesty is just what Rabbi Wine’s book is all about. He demands it of his readers, and he wields it like a bludgeon. This is nowhere more evident than in his assessment of contemporary definitions of Judaism. Such definitions are, for the most part, academic fantasies in which the writer imagines the “ideal Jew”, and substitutes his imaginings for reality. As Rabbi Wine puts it, the Jews appear as “pious Bible lovers who can hardly wait for their next installment of Midrashic commentary.” Books on Jewish life in America deal in depth with the covenant between God and Israel and the centrality of Torah in Jewish life. Yet honesty demands a revision of these nostalgic musings. 

“If a person claims to love prayer but rarely prays, if an individual lauds the meaningfulness of God but never invokes God for the solution of his daily problems, if a man describes Torah as the greatest of all possible books but never reads it, he is either lying or self-deceived.” (Wine, p.18). 

Rabbi Wine believes it is self-deception that leads to this hiatus between espoused belief and exposed behavior; and self-deception is the most difficult deception to correct. If one believes the world is flat, only not falling off its edge will prove otherwise. 

In the case of Humanistic Judaism, however, Rabbi Wine is more apt to push one over the edge than to ask one to make that step on one’s own. With a combination of gestalt reality punching and fluid style, Wine pushes the reader to look objectively at his or her beliefs, and compare them to his or her behavior. If they are not consistent, one of them must go. And in a toss-up between belief and behavior, belief is usually the loser. 

“The lifestyles of most contemporary Jews, even those who profess a love of tradition, are in total opposition to the decrees of both the Bible and the Talmud. A nude bathing pre-medical student who lives with her boyfriend and refuses to eat pork as an affirmation of her Jewish identity is hardly a return to tradition. Even without pork she would give Hillel a heart  

attack.” (p. 4) 

The actual behavior of the Jews is a more accurate measure of our mores and beliefs than our rote mouthing of pious platitudes, and present Jewish practice does not point to a community motivated by the standards of the past. Despite wishful thinking to the contrary, “preferring Moses to Freud is irrelevant in an environment where nobody reads Moses.“ (p. 10). 

The point, then, is not very esoteric: our behavior suggests, or rather heralds, a break with the past. The mores and styles of medieval Jewry no longer apply to our lifestyle. And why should they? The rabbis never tried to mold their post-Biblical world to fit the Bible’s environs of priest and prophet. Quite the opposite: they created the talmudic dialectic in order to metamorphose pastoral patriarchs into urban savants. No Jewish society felt so bound to tradition that they refused to alter it to suit their own ends. It is only in the 20th century that we Jews have deified our heroes, and built a fence of guilt around our tradition; a fence which corrals fewer and fewer Jews, leaving those within comfortable and self-righteous, while the escapees flounder about seeking a cogent alternative to help them coordinate and articulate their break with tradition and their coming to grips with reality. 

It is Rabbi Wine’s hope that Humanistic Judaism will meet the need of these refugees by affirming a dynamic and creative alternative to tradition bound Judaism. Whether Humanistic Judaism will succeed in uniting these people is questionable. No inkling of success or failure can be garnished from Rabbi Wine’s book. Yet there is a precedent for this attempt to make Jews honestly confront the split between their actions and their words. This precedent is Reconstructionism, and it is a precedent which failed. 

Reconstructionism strove to articulate in a consistent philosophic framework the functions and needs of the folk. It, like Humanistic Judaism, is an elucidation of Jewish folk religion: what the Jews do religiously as opposed to what they say they are doing. Yet folk religion is by its very nature comprised of inconsistencies in practice, principles and beliefs. Kaplan and Wine are uncomfortable with inconsistencies, however, and hence a little uncomfortable with the folk as well. 

What makes the situation all the more fascinating is that both Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism claim to support the folk and their behavior. Their only desire is to consciously guide the development of that behavior in order to achieve swiftly and more efficiently the very goals for which religion unconsciously strives; the establishment of a society in which the individual can achieve happiness, balance, and self-actualization. Yet it is this conscious elitist ideological formulation of folkr practice that causes the folk to reject the elitists. 

Elitist religions like Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism are expressed in terms of ideology. Folk religion is expressed in terms of everyday behavior, customs and rituals. In fact the beliefs underlying the behavior of the people may well be incompatible with each other, and Even incompatible with the higher rationalism of the individual doing the action, yet this is never a problem until someone insists on formulating folk religion philosophically. 

Once such formulations are made, the contradictions become obvious, and then the ideologue seeks to adjust the behavior and beliefs to fit a more philosophically consistent system. This is done by establishing the primacy of ideology over behavior, which by definition does violence to the folk religion the ideologist sought  to help. 

In other words, Wine’s reliance on the people’s behavior to put the lie to the people’s espoused beliefs may very well backfire (as it did with Reconstructionism), leaving him with a small nucleus of ideology conscious Jews who cannot relate to the rest of us no matter how violently we transgress our pious mouthings. Nobody wants to be shown how inconsistent she or he is, and she or he will reject any attempt to do so. Being stripped of one’s inconsistencies may be ideologically necessary, but it isn’t very comfortable. Stripped of the theologically meaningless, yet psychologically comforting language of classical faith one is confronted with the awesome task of creating one’s own meaning in the world. Such a task may well prove to foreboding and harsh light of Humanistic Judaism which illuminates this very area may be too stark to capture the hearts as well as the minds of the Jewish people, even those who have left traditional modes behind. In a word, then, if one were to critique Humanistic Judaism as a religion, one could attack it for being so very elitist and so very discomforting. 

But then one has to choose. Which will it be: to etch out our own self-actualization and meaning in the uncarved block of the Real, or to lay back on the soft cushions of tradition and medieval godspeak, mouthing one thing while practicing another, and taking care to avoid noticing the contradictions? I, for one, prefer reality to illusion, and hence welcome Rabbi Wine and his challenging call for honesty.  


Rami Shapiro is a third year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Secular Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1979, Vol. VII, Number I

The Workmen’s Circle-the Sholom Aleichem schools-the Peretz Shulen- the Jewish people’s Institute-The Farband-Kibbutz Artzi-  

These organizations have been around for a long time. Although they enjoy no formal unity, they do share an informal ideology which many call Secular Judaism. The word ‘secular’ expresses their strong resistance to all forms of organized religion. While some Secular Jews are avowed atheists and others are discreet agnostics or indifferent believers, all are united by their avoidance of prayer, worship and Rabbis. 

Many Secular Jews have joined humanistic congregations. Others have been hostile because they cannot comprehend how humanism and religion can be brought together. Still others have been ambivalent, availing themselves of the services of Humanistic rabbis without being able to fit them into their ideology. 

Secular Judaism used to be stronger than it is now. In the heyday of Yiddish culture it flourished among the Jewish young. Today it is an aging movement, sabotaged by the Holocaust and affluence and surviving on the fading memories of old revolutionary causes. Nevertheless, it remains an important force in the Jewish community which the Jewish establishment continues to ignore. While it is certainly as old as the Conservative movement and was at one time just as widespread, it has never conformed to the public relations (we love the Bible) image that the rulers of the Jews have wished to convey in America. 

Given the obvious humanist thrust of Secular Judaism, it is appropriate to ask the question: what is the connection of Humanistic Judaism to Secular Judaism? 

In order to answer the question, let me first describe the origins and principles of the Secular movement. There are six main sources of the Secular ideology. 

The first is the ethnic experience of the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. The Jews began as a nation and until the French Revolution always conceived of themselves as a nation. Even in the Diaspora their fondest dream was the vision of national restoration in the land of Israel. Reinforced by distinct languages, unique work and religious segregation, the Jewish national experience persisted until modern times. While in Western Europe small numbers, linguistic assimilation, integration and formal citizenship persuaded many Jews to define themselves safely as only a religious group. In Eastern Europe the congestion of Jews in the settlements of Poland and Lithuania, where the economy was underdeveloped and the antisemitism was overt, the national experience persisted with great strength. In that environment atheistic Jews never doubted that they were Jewish. Nor did their Orthodox relatives ever question their Jewish identity. 

The second source of Secularism was the ethnic power of the Yiddish language. Before the French Revolution, Yiddish was the universal language of Ashkenazic Jewry. From the Rhine to the Dnieper, from Riga to Trieste, Yiddish was the linguistic bond that tied together most of the Jews of Europe. It was the most distinctive sign of their unique nationality and separation. In the nineteenth century, the new strength of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian nationalism with their strong anti-semitic edges made Yiddish the vehicle for Jewish self-assertion. The folk language despised by the rabbis was elevated into the vehicle for a new popular culture. Novels, drama and even science found their home in Yiddish. Eastern European Jews who despised the yoke of traditional Judaism could drop every traditional ritual and remain intensely Jewish by doing their secular things in Yiddish. To The commonsensical observer the Yiddish speaking atheist from Warsaw was far more Jewish than the god-loving Reform Jew from Berlin.  

The third source of secular Judaism was the Enlightenment. The fashion of science and reason which began in Western Europe and spread eastward profoundly affected the Jewish communities. Jews and rationalists shared a common enemy- the Christian establishment. The clerical power had to fall before the Jews would be free to participate in a scientific capitalistic culture. In general circles, the Enlightenment fostered secularism, a belief that a modern state did not need the assistance of supernatural powers or the clergy in order to serve its citizens. In Jewish circles the Enlightenment became the Haskalah, a movement which promoted scientific attitudes, secular studies, professional advancement and hostility to the Orthodox rabbinate. Secular Jews came to believe that organized religion, with its anti-scientific bias, was the enemy of human advancement and Jewish progress. 

The fourth source of Jewish Secularism was the message of Marxism. While the successful Jewish bourgeoisie of Western Europe were embarrassed by the revolutionary ideology of Karl Marx, many Jews in Eastern Europe, angered by poverty, antisemitism, underemployment of their intellectual skills and the passivity of their rabbinic leaders turned to Marxism. Regarding religion as the tool of the bourgeois establishment to justify the oppression of the working class, Jewish Marxists were militantly atheistic. Ironically, however, their provocative Yom Kippur eve dances and feasts, with their rich Yiddish intellectual debates, seemed more Jewish than the decorous Protestant style religious services of classical Reform. 

The fifth source of Secular Judaism was antisemitism itself. Although Marx proclaimed the international solidarity of the working class and implied that a Jewish proletarian was closer to a Russian worker than to his obvious Jewish relatives who ran businesses and spoke Yiddish, Jews found that Russian workers were as antisemitic as the Russian bourgeoisie. Stunned by this rejection but unwilling to abandon Marxism, thousands of Russian Jews reluctantly discovered that they were only comfortable doing their Marxism with other Jews. 

The last source of Jewish Secularism was Zionism. Responding to the emergence of the new antisemitism in Eastern and Western Europe, Zionism sought to solve the Jewish problem by making the Jews normal again, by turning them back into a territorial nation. The new antisemitism did not despise Jews because of their religion. It despised Jews because they were viewed as economic parasites and rootless intellectuals. Many Jewish secularists were drawn to Zionism because they were the victims of antisemitism also, and because they saw Palestine as a place where Jews could become a ‘normal’ nation rooted and close to the land. 

They did not wish to restore the old Israel. They wanted to create the new Israel, which would be a shining socialist beacon to the world. Most of the founders of the agricultural settlements in Palestine were fanatic secularists who wanted nothing at all to do with organized religion, but who wanted to express their Jewishness through Hebrew culture and Jewish nationality. 

Many of the immigrants who came to America after the Russian pogroms were not Orthodox (as their grandchildren often imagine). They were secular intellectuals, secular radicals and secular Zionists. They became the most creative element in American Yiddih culture. From the Jewish Daily Forward to the Second Avenue theaters they spawned a cultural life that required neither synagogues nor rabbis to make it Jewish. In fact, the passive traditional community fed off the enthusiasm they engendered. Secular achievement, much more than the Torah lifestyle, produced New York Judaism, the power of which radiated all over the world. The American Jewish Secular experience was reinforced by the vitality of Jewish Secular life in Poland, Russia and Palestine. The ideas of Ahad Haam, Simon Dubnow, Haim Zhetlovsky, Ber Borochov, Sholom Aleichem and dozens of others became the prestigious voice of this aggressive movement. Divided on a thousand issues, it was still able to challenge the traditional forces with a dynamic Jewish alternative. 

The principles of this challenge were never clearly articulated as a consistent shared ideology. But they were always implied in Secular behavior. 

Here they are. 

  1. The Jews are not a religious community. They are a nation. 
  1. The chief manifestation of Jewish nationality is a unique language. Left-wing Marxists claimed that it was Yiddish and Yiddish alone. Zionists (because they did not wish to exclude Oriental Jews and because they wished to affirm their connection with the ancient Jewish past) claimed that it was Yiddish temporarily but Hebrew ultimately. 
  1. Religion, which is the worship of God with all its attendant traditional rituals, is superstitious and harmful. Synagogues and rabbis keep Jews from devoting their energies to practical matters. 
  1. The Jewish tradition consists of both theology and ethics. While the theology is useless, many of the ethical values are still valid. They arise out of the Jewish experience. Although values like peace and justice are universal, Jews can best understand them by relating them to their own historic experience. 
  1. Jewish holidays did not start out as commands of God. They started out as nature festivals and community celebrations which were intended to bind the Jewish people together and to give them a sense of unity. They are not religious holidays. They are folk festivals. They can easily be reinterpreted to emphasize the importance of the Jewish people as opposed to the importance of God. 
  1. The Jewish people should be preserved and Jewish identity should be promoted because cultural diversity is better than world uniformity. 

These six principles are ideas which Humanistic Jews would be comfortable with-with a few reservations. 

Here are the reservations. 

  1. The Jews are indeed an international recognition. With the destruction of Eastern European Jewry, the drive of secular Jews to achieve this recognition was subverted. What remained was a regretful nostalgia for a world that no longer existed. Neither proletarian solidarity nor Yiddish sentimentalism are appropriate to the affluent Jewish bourgeoisie who are part of the managerial class. 
  1. Yiddish has died and Hebrew is the language of only one-fifth of the Jewish people. English is spoken by more Jews than any other language. While language is still an important sign of Jewish identity, it cannot be the most important sign. The celebration of national holidays and cooperation for mutual defense now replace them. 
  1. Religion is not essentially the worship of God. It is the way (as the Jewish sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out) tribes and nations celebrate their immortality. The Jewish community transcends the life of any individual Jew and gives him continuity. A secular religion is not a contradiction in terms. It is (as the French humanist August Comte implied) simply describing in natural terms what tradition described in supernatural terms (by turning the community and its ancestors into God). 
  1. Jewish ethics require Jewish teachers. Secular Jews always relied on Yiddish linguists, renegade scholars and practical leaders to serve the teaching function Since they associated rabbis with religion, they could never conceive of a secular rabbi. This limitation has left them without professional leadership. The old informal ethical leadership has disappeared. And no real provision was made for the training of secular professionals who would serve as ethical guides, cultural scholars, creators of new materials, philosophical counselors and community leaders. Secular Judaism has to rely on inadequately trained leadership, which receives neither (sic) recognition from its own community, the Jewish community or the general public.  They need secular rabbis. 
  1. Since the Marxist debacle, secular Jews have lost their sense of being more than Jews, of belonging to a larger human community. Humanism is the religious celebration of the unity of the world community. Jewish holidays are necessary. But they are not enough. Secular Judaism has become parochial. It has lost the transcendent and universal thrust that the old May Day celebration had. As bourgeois and managerials Jews, Secular Jews have not yet figured out how to integrate their Jewishness with their humanistic loyalties. 
  1. Cultural diversity is important. But in the ‘global village’ national cultures tend to become less different and to conform to an emerging world culture of shared technology. Strident affirmations of national difference are less realistic than viewing national culture as an aesthetic option in certain areas of our lives. Otherwise our behavior will never fit our propaganda. 

Despite these reservations, Humanistic Judaism and Secular Judaism share unities that are far stronger than differences. 

We have every reason to cooperate and to help each other.