A Historic Event

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 34, No 4, Autumn 2006_ Vol 35 No 1 Winter 2007

The date is Friday, December 22. The time is 2:00 in the afternoon. The setting is the western hills of Jerusalem. The place is the famous Israel Museum, perched on top of Israel’s cultural and Parliamentary “mountain,” a secular “temple” to the message of Zionism. The event is the first ordination of Secular Humanistic Rabbis in Jerusalem. It is an historic moment. 

The path to this moment has been long and circuitous. First came the movement of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, organized by secular Jews in response to antisemitism and in rebellion against the religious passivity of traditional Judaism. Second came the dramatic attempts by secular Jews to organize secular Jewish communities in Palestine that would celebrate Judaism as a culture, and not as a religion. The kibbutz was the most viable result of this effort. Third came the establishment of the Jewish state and the emergence of a new national Jewish culture expressed in the renaissance of the Hebrew language. Fourth came the cultural and political crisis, embodied in the growing power of militant Orthodoxy, the decline of socialism and the kibbutz movement, and the increasing search by young secular Israelis for philosophic and spiritual answers that secular nationalism could not provide. And last, the arrival in Israel of the ideology of Humanistic Judaism, with its marriage between Jewish culture and a humanistic philosophy of life – and with its special creation, the profession of a “secular rabbi.” 

Secular Judaism in Israel suffered from two problems during its impressive history. The first was that secularism and humanism played second fiddle to two more powerful movements to which they were attached. Nationalism and socialism were both secular. But they had other more compelling agendas that were competitive with humanism and that inhibited the development of a positive personal philosophy of life capable of transcending political boundaries. The second was the profound hostility of most of the Zionist pioneers to organized religion and its manifestation in a militant political Orthodoxy. Much of secularism in Israel was negative, a continuing battle against the hated religious establishment. There was no energy left for fashioning the institution of a positive secularism, which could embrace a clear alternative to the life of faith. Secular Israelis lived the life of courage. But they did not know how to translate this experience into an inspiring message for young people struggling to find hope and meaning in a dangerous world. 

When North American Humanistic Judaism first arrived in Israel, old-time secularists were comfortable with its message. But they were not comfortable with the idea of a secular rabbi. Although they had not trained any philosophic and ceremonial leaders to serve the philosophic and ceremonial needs of their families and communities, they were hostile to the word rabbi, with all its connotations of traditional religion. In many cases – whether a wedding, a funeral, or a bar mitzvah ceremony – they often used the services of traditional rabbis. But they were reluctant to create a secular version of a rabbi to serve their needs with integrity and dignity. It was ironic that the people who were bold enough to create a Jewish state against overwhelming odds and to invent a new Hebrew culture were paralyzed by this provocation. 

But their grandchildren do not suffer the same ambivalence. They are the generation of Israelis who are openly searching for personal answers beyond nationalism and socialism. Some of them make the now familiar pilgrimage to India after their army experience, exploring the mysticism of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. Some of them are captured by the aggressive missionaries of the Lubavitchers. But most of them are open to a powerful humanistic message from empowering humanistic teachers. They have no difficulty with the concept of a secular rabbi. They have no difficulty with the idea of a secular clergy. While they oppose the ambitions of the militant Orthodox, they are open to positive teachers with positive messages. Jewish culture can be meaningful for them only if it touches their desire for happiness, personal fulfillment, and moral idealism.  

The audience of 300 at the ordination in the Israel Museum were mainly young. Interspersed among them were political leaders, writers, journalists, academicians, and representatives from liberal religious movements. The audience was a sign of hope for our movement in Israel. Their enthusiasm, excitement, and joy were a mirror to the thousands of Israelis outside the museum who would welcome secular rabbis and the positive message of Secular Humanistic Judaism. 

North America was represented by me, by Rabbi Adam Chalom, by Rabbi Greg Epstein, and by movement leaders including Michael Egren, Ron Milan, Phillip Gould, and Marvin Rosenblum. 

The program featured the participation of some very important leaders. A.B. Yehoshua, Israel’s most famous writer and an impassioned secularist, opened the event with a profound analysis of the permanent connection of Israel and the Diaspora. Yehuda Bauer, Israel’s most distinguished Holocaust scholar and the first president of the International Federation, celebrated the importance of this historic event. Above all the team of father and daughter, Yaakov Martin and Rabbi Sivan Maas, who together created the International Institute program for the training of Secular Humanistic rabbis and leaders in Israel, articulated their vision. Sivan Maas  was ordained as a rabbi in Detroit during the Colloquium of 2003. Her charisma, wisdom, and determination are largely responsible for the dramatic new success of our movement in Israel. 

Seven rabbis were ordained. They had visited the United States in 2005 when they were graduated as madrikhim. They are quite extraordinary. Each of them is the recipient of many graduate degrees. Each of them possesses a unique charisma. Each of them is an articulate exponent of the philosophy of Secular Humanistic Judaism. Each of them is creating an important niche in Israeli life as community leaders, teachers, ceremonialists, and counselors. Each of them spoke so eloquently that the audience rose to cheer them. 

The ordination received strong coverage in the press and on the radio and television. Almost all interviewers were friendly and excited. We extend special thanks to Yona Metzger, the Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Israel, who denounced the ordination and petitioned the Attorney-General to close the event down. Nothing happened – except that he managed to raise our visibility.  

Everybody who was present felt that they were present at a historic moment in the evolution of Secular Humanistic Judaism, a turning point for our movement. 

The best news is that more Israeli secular rabbis are waiting in the wings to be ordained. 

New Opportunities and Directions

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1980

The last annual meeting of the Society for Humanistic Judaism was a quantum jump in our self-awareness as a movement. We emerged with a clear sense of our uniqueness of the Fourth Alternative in Jewish life.

Out of our response to the events, we discovered new opportunities and new directions.

What are some of the new opportunities?

1. We have opened up dialogue with secular Jews. Harold Gales, the founder of the National Conference of Secular Jews, (and the author of an article in this issue) participated in an outreach dialogue during the conference. He expressed a strong sense of solidarity with the aims and philosophy of Humanistic Judaism and articulated the need for cooperation and sharing.
Secular Judaism and Humanistic Judaism are virtually identical in their ideology. They differ in their strategies. The secular movement emerged in the 19th century as a passionate rebellion against the reactionary political and social policies of organized religion. It, therefore, saw all aspects of religious institutional life as hostile and dangerous. In the Jewish community, it organized cultural societies and cultural schools. But it avoided any imitation of congregational structures and rabbinic leadership.

The Humanistic movement developed in the 20th century out of the radical elements of liberal religion. Although it rejected the theological heart of organized religion, it found merit in the community life and in the celebration of seasonal holidays, historic events and life-cycle ceremonies. It also found value in a professional clergy who would provide the leadership for humanistic congregations that the religious clergy provided for conventional churches and temples. In the Jewish community, humanism assumed the format of the religious institution but the philosophy of a free-thinking secularism.

Humanism Judaism and secular Judaism are expressions of the same Fourth Alternative in Jewish life. Therefore, the new dialogue between us is a way of discovering the breath of this alternative and of arranging for joint action in behalf of what we both embrace.

The Jewish community needs to hear our shared voice on important issues like the nature of Judaism, female equality, personal lifestyle, intermarriage and conversion.

2. We have begun an important conversation with Polydox Judaism. Rabbi Joseph Rosenblum of St. Louis, the president of the Institute for Creative Judaism, and one of the leaders of the Polydox movement, also participated in the outreach dialogue which was held at the May conference. Polydoxy, the brainchild of Alvin Reinea, a philosophy professor at the Hebrew Union College, represents the left-wing of the Reform movement. Like Unitarianism, it is a transition from liberal religion to humanism. Well affirming creedlessness and freedom of choice as its basic commitment, most of its adherents are proto-humanists with very little genuine theological interest.

Certainly, many Polydox Jews are more than a part of the Fourth Alternative than they are of conventional Reform Judaism. In fact, dialogue and cooperation with Humanistic and Secular Jews will be more fruitful for them than the futile attempt to find accommodation with the Reform establishment which rejects them. The Second and Third Alternatives – Conservatism and Reform – are coming closer together. Polydox can have no place in this new traditionalism. It will certainly be more comfortable within the ranks of the Fourth Alternative.

3. We have established an important link with our fellow humanists in Israel. As the national homeland of the Jewish people, Israel is the center and focal point of Jewish cultural life. The Zionist reality is of special significance to secular Jews because the founders and pioneers of the modern state were overwhelmingly secular. Krishna Jews were initially resistant to the message of political Zionism.

Today, the tables have been partially turned. Israeli humanists and secularists are on the defensive. A militant orthodoxy is seeking to recruit the power of the government to impose religious values and standards and all Jews. The control of education, family life and public institutions is the heart of their agenda. The new conservative Begin regime has established an alliance with a clerical establishment and is ‘creepingly’ altering the secular character of the Jewish state.

In the face of this new offensive, Israeli humanists need as much help as they can find, especially from those Jews who share their beliefs and values. Although most Israelis are secular in their behavior, the new chauvinism equates religious nostalgia with patriotism. And it finds justification for reactionary political behavior and religious literature. So far, the secularists have not been able to arouse their own forces sufficiently to resist this new assault. Resting all the successes earlier decades, they have taken too much for granted.

More important than the political battle is the cultural opportunity for the Israeli connection. Secular farm settlement and urban huggim have created over the past seventy years a vast amount of education and celebration materials to serve the ethical and ceremonial needs of their people. The literature is so extensive that it is virtually a ‘gold mind’ of usable alternatives for Diaspora Jews. Most of the creative materials need to be translated from the Hebrew into English. Once available, their cumulative effect will be overwhelming for North American Jewry.

The dramatic appearance and participation of Shulamit Aloni at the May conference highlighted the Israeli connection. She is certainly the most charismatic and pragmatic exponent of humanism in Israel today. As a member of the Knesset, and as a courageous lawyer and journalist; she has provided the most effective resistance to religious encroachment. With her help, we hope to sponsor a conference with humanists throughout the world in which would offer support to the secular struggle.

4. We have continued to expand our outreach into the general world. The fellowship of religious, which six to embrace all units who still use the structures of organized religion to express their commitment, will hold it if you can’t switch at the Birmingham Temple in October. The fellowship allows you to chance, at the Cocodrie where is aunt share ideas. In particular, right in the development of uniquely humanistic holidays and lifecycle. The emergence of World Day (November 1) and People Day (May 1) are part of this exploration

The advancement of a secular world culture, which does not eliminate but which supplements natural culture is at the very heart of humanistic commitments. But this attachment needs to go beyond the realm of pious clichés into the reality of community symbols and celebration. We need to train our young and our old to be world citizens and to dramatize this achievement through new and universal ceremonies. We have to start with small groups of people who are willing to be pioneers.

The newly found Council for a Democratic and Secular Humanism is another important vehicle for outreach. The creation of Paul Kurtz, one of humanisms most articulate spokesmen, the Council reaches out to all secularists, whether they imitate or reject the structure of organized religion. It will provide the necessary rallying point for the resistance to the political activity of fundamentalist religion in this country. That battle is the same struggle that Israeli humanists are fighting in the Jewish state. Only the flags and symbols change.

These four new opportunities for dialogue with the Secularist, the Polydox, the Israeli humanists and the non-Jewish community define our outreach and enable us to embrace people of different labels who are part of the Fourth Alternative.

But the outreach will only be important if it leads from talk to action. There are real needs to be served which require cooperative effort. There is the need to publicly define Judaism as a culture, and not as a religion. The prevailing practice among the three other alternatives in North America to explain Jewish identity as a religious identity, or to emphasize that religion is the most important part of Judaism, must be resisted. There are two ways to do the resistance. One is forceful and insistent propaganda. The other is the creation of adequate educational materials for young and old that dramatize the secular side of Jewish culture.

There is the need to endorse what traditional religion is reluctant to endorse. The decay of the historic family is dramatic but not without alternatives. A morality which denounces divorce, singlehood and female independence is both inappropriate and harmful. The mobile individual is a reality, and a potentially good reality, of modern society. This point of view needs to be publicly articulated. And educational materials have to be creative too reinforce it.

There is the need to organize events the political militancy of the new fundamentalism. Unless we resist, we shall find ourselves living in a world dominated by a superstitious and tyrannically religion. For the new evangelicals ‘secular humanism’ is the enemy. We must be able to articulate are philosophy and commitments in a positive way so that those who opposes appeared to be the ‘nonbelievers.’

There is the need to provide professional leadership for Jewish humanist congregations and secular groups. Since rabbis are now generally regarded as teachers of Judaism (rather than defenders of the Orthodox rabbinic tradition), the idea of a ‘secular rabbi’ is novel but appropriate. But for those humanists and secularist totally opposed to any form of religious vocabulary, another title can be provided (the Hebrew manhig, leader, it may be an option). The title secondary to the reality. Without trained professionals’ philosophic leadership, humanistic and secular Jews will never be able to compete with the spokesmen of the more traditional alternatives. Hopefully, liberal seminaries will assist us in training leaders to serve the Jewish community. If not, we shall have to turn to the secular universities for new options.

There is the need to provide a unique alternative talk to the compulsive past orientation of conventional Judaism. Scenarios of the future are equally as important as scenes from the past. Old events cannot be changed. They can only be remembered. But future events are open to the influence of human decision. It is important for us to give equal time to both the before and the later, especially in these times of rapid change. And especially when what is the blonde in the past may not be an appropriate model for what needs to be done in the future.

Humanistic Judaism is expanding its outreach. We are getting bolder and more ambitious. After all, we cannot neglect of the opportunities that are available and the needs that must be served.