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Who is a Jew: Fundamental Issues

IFSHJ Conference Highlights: Who is a Jew  Spring 1989

Two years ago in Detroit, about 350 peo­ple gathered from ten countries around the world to establish the International Federa­tion of Secular Humanistic Jews. There was great excitement in the air, a lot of hope and anticipation of what we might be able to do together. There was the surprise of discover­ing so many people around the world who shared our ideas, a sense of solidarity, relief from the isolation that people who think that their perception of Judaism is bizarre or different or outlandish often experience.

We were an assembly with great diversi­ty. Some were from old secular, socialist, politically radical backgrounds. Some came from traditional backgrounds. They had rebelled against that tradition; they felt themselves to be very, very Jewish but had not found themselves comfortable within the framework of a traditional Judaism, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform.

There were those who were children of intermarriage, who in some way found their Jewish connection to be a very special con­nection, who wanted to be part of the Jewish people but found themselves repudi­ated by religious authorities who, ironically, claim that Judaism invented love, brother­hood, and justice.

There were those who had come from assimilated backgrounds, people who had grown up in families where Jewish identity wasn’t very important but who now wanted in some very significant way to identify with the Jewish people.

We all came together to form that Federa­tion. We were trying to say something to the Jewish world. The question Who Is a Jew? is very much related to that context.

We, first of all, wanted to say to the world that we as Secular Humanistic Jews were not nonbelievers, that we were believers. People often put us in the category of not believing. That isn’t true. It may be that most Secular Humanistic Jews have many more beliefs than nonsecular Jews. I always say that to people when they challenge me. I say that I have a host of beliefs, positive beliefs, about people, the world, and humanity.

We were there at that meeting to say that Judaism, the Jewish people, is more than a religion or religious denomination; that we share a common history and a common fate and a common culture. We were there to say very clearly that we speak for the history of the Jewish people, a history dramatized by the Holocaust in this century; and indeed no divine voice could easily be heard in the cruelty that was meted out by fate to the Jewish people.

We also maintained that Judaism is more than words in the Siddur, or in the Tanakh, or in the Talmud; that Judaism is the experi­ence of the Jewish people, and that experi­ence has an ethical message relevant to one of the topics of this conference. I was talk­ing recently to a very traditional Jew who spoke about how appropriate it was to expel Arabs from Israel. I told him that was in­conceivable to me, given the history of the Jewish people. You can find a lot of reac­tionary quotations in Jewish literature, but the experience of the Jewish people is dif­ferent. And the message of that experience is compassion for the suffering.

Last, and above all, we were saying by coming together that we are a legitimate op­tion in the Jewish world. We were saying that there is a fourth alternative in Jewish life, which is real and legitimate, and our coming together was intended to make that possible.

The question Who Is a Jew? is related directly to our task of creating a meaningful Secular Humanistic Judaism. The issues in­cluded in that question lay the foundation of our ideology and our commitment. If you answer the question appropriately, you deal with the whole issue of the nature of Jewish­ness. I am always assaulted by people who tell me that you can’t really be Jewish without davening, without immersing your­self in the practices of the past. Indeed, if you define a Jew as a religious person, then you have no comeback.

Many young people in North America — and it may be true in Europe — are looking for their Jewish roots. When somebody from a yeshiva tells them that their roots are tradi­tional religion, even though they may not really believe, they choose to do so because it’s the only way they know how to be Jewish. We have a different answer. If we deal with that answer, we are dealing with a funda­mental part of Secular Humanistic Judaism.

The question Who Is a Jew? also addresses the issue of how we view human beings. Are we simply creatures of God, subject to his authority and humble and obedient before the laws that are given to us? Or are we autonomous persons? Do we as human beings have the right to define the groups we will belong to? If a human being stands up and says, “I identify with the history, the fate, and the culture of the Jewish people” and expresses his or her identity through ac­tion and goodwill, that person indeed has the right to call himself or herself a Jew.

This question deals with the issue of ethics and authority. Where does authority lie? Can a group of rabbis, self-proclaimed bearers of the word of God, decide who is a Jew, even though their criteria may be a mixture of racist and religious ones that are inapplicable to what we would call rational living today? Or does authority lie some­where else?

When somebody quotes to me all the traditional passages from the Tanakh and elsewhere that forbid intermarriage and in a sense exclude the offspring of it, my answer is, “I’m sure your quotations are correct, but of what value are they? They do not con­form to the standards of human reason and human compassion, and those are the stan­dards that are to be found in many texts in Jewish history and are implied in the ex­perience of the Jewish people; and they should be the chief criteria.”

Lastly, this question addresses the issue of the survival of the Jewish people. Are we going to be this exclusive club that checks birth certificates, gloats over the fact that people are excluded from organizations they would like to join, and takes great pride in our racial purity? Or are we going to be an open people that says to anybody who wants to join us, anybody who wants to be part of this Jewish experience, “We want you; we need you; come join us”?

The fundamental issues of Secular Humanistic Judaism are contained in this question and, therefore, the resolution that we make at this conference will lay the foundation for a meaningful and significant Jewish humanism. It is not only that we are fighting the militant Orthodox. We are seek­ing to define ourselves and who we are.

The Birmingham Temple’s First Quarter-Century

Humanistic Judaism in the Next Generation – Autumn 1988

We are twenty-five years old.

This year — 1988 — 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 an 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 those 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 still defines the reason for our existence.

We succeeded because we said certain things that had never clearly been said before 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 con­temporaries simply because they were an­cestors. The test of truth was not antiquity; it was reasonableness. The test of morality was not prophetic utterances; it was the promotion of human dignity. The test of Jewishness was not 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 mitsvas 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 nonreligious.

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 and soli­darity is more likely to exist in a 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 we knew they would ultimately reject when they grew up. The greatest gift that we can give our chil­dren is our honesty and integrity. When mouth and action come together, 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.

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.

What Does Humanistic Judaism Offer?

Humanistic Judaism — An Anthology, Spring, 1986

What does Humanistic Judaism have to offer?

We offer a positive voice about the Jewish present. We maintain that, on the whole, the quality of Jewish life in the pre­sent is superior to the quality of Jewish life in the past. The contemporary society of secular study, individual freedom, and sexual equality is morally better than the societies that spawned the Torah and the Talmud. There is no need for reverent nostalgia and sentimental guilt.

We offer a cultural definition of Judaism. In a world of enormous diversity in Jewish choice and practice, it is naive to confine Jewish identity to affirmations of theological belief and to religious behavior. If Judaism is primarily an ethnic culture, it can embrace wide ideological differences, allowing more people to iden­tify themselves as Jews.

We offer the possibility of a secular religion. If religion refers to the behavior we manifest in the presence of what we do not control, then too much religion is dangerous, just as no religion is preten­tious. In the face of situations we have the human power to alter, the secularist is de­fiant, challenging, irreverent, and eager to change. In the presence of the unalterable, secularists shrug their shoulders in resignation but offer no gratitude.

We offer an alternative history of the Jewish people. Instead of seeing Judaism as the creation of priests, prophets, and rabbis, as the gift of the authors of the Bi­ble and the Talmud, we credit its secular origins. The Jewish establishment distorted Jewish history to make it appear that the survival of the Jew lay in religious behavior. They consigned to oblivion the thoughts, ideas, and names of countless millions of Jews who were skeptical of religious authority and who contributed their secular genius to Jewish culture. The attitudes and ideas of the modern secular Jew are not alien to the Jewish past. Their roots just never made it through the of­ficial censorship. Humanistic Jews have Jewish roots. But they need an alternative history to recover them.

We offer an openness to intermarriage. In a world of multiple identities, family identity does not have to coincide with Jewish identity. The intermarried are not pariahs who need to be excluded; nor are they erring children who need to be patronized. They are members of the Jewish people who should be welcomed into whatever community activity they wish to participate in. To insist that Jewish identity has to be the primary and all-encompassing identity for all Jews is an act of ethnic suicide.

We offer the opportunity of cultural “conversion.” There are now hundreds of thousands of Gentiles who are married to Jews or who are socially involved with Jews who would enjoy the opportunity of identifying with the Jewish people and with Jewish culture if they did not have to make theological commitments that even most native-born Jews have behaviorally rejected.

We offer the endorsement of a variety of lifestyles. We refuse to drown in senti­ment about the traditional Jewish family, with its patriarchal tyranny and male chauvinism. Singlehood and in­dividualism are not unfortunate aberra­tions. They are legitimate options that deserve moral recognition and discussion. The long-suffering Jewish mother needs to share the Jewish stage with Gloria Steinem. Otherwise, we will save our cliches and lose our young people.

We offer a unique relationship to Zionism and the Jewish homeland. The state of Israel was not created by the devo­tion of the pious. The Orthodox rejected political Zionism and branded it a secular heresy. The founders of the modern state were secular and humanist pioneers who desired to initiate a revolution in Jewish life and to define Jewish identity in terms of a full national culture, not by the nar­rowness of religious ritual. This Israeli humanism is now under severe assault by the growing power of militant Orthodoxy. Its defenders need our help to protect the integrity of the pioneer vision and to create a truly secular state free of religious coercion and open to a truly cultural definition of Jewish identity.

We offer more than a Jewish agenda. As humanists, we are eager to participate in an emerging world culture, as well as in Jewish culture. Parochialism, in an age of multiple personal identities, will drive away the ethically responsible. They will not want to participate in any cultural ef­fort that forbids them to look beyond the boundaries of their own ethnic group.

We offer more future and less past. In a time of rapid change, excessive nostalgia can be disastrous. The scientific spirit refuses to worship the past and to imagine that the greatest wisdom was uttered 3,000 years ago. Nor does it need the en­dorsement of the past, whether Biblical or Talmudic, to make changes for the future. Given the revolutions of modern life, we should be just as interested in creating new Jewish culture as in reviving the old. We must invent behavior to serve human needs — not make human lifestyles fit rigid, outdated behavior.

Perspective: Zionism – Peoplehood, Not Religion

Humanistic Judaism, Summer, Volume 10, No. 2, 1982

There are many Jewish roots of Jewish humanism.

As a non-establishment Jewish tradition, humanism has been embraced by many Jews throughout Jewish history. But not until the age of science and the secular state did Jewish humanists feel free to announce themselves publicly. In the last two centuries, humanism has become an open viable alternative in Jewish life.

The most successful movement of the twentieth century was a humanistic one. We call it the Zionist Movement.

In the narrow sense, Zionism is about the establishment of an independent Jewish state and the return of the Jews to Hebrew speaking Israel. But, in the broader sense, Zionism is a new way of affirming Jewish existence in the Diaspora as well.

Against the Reformers who claimed that the Jews were only a religious denomination, against the Orthodox who maintained that Jewish identity was inseparable from piety, The Zionist pioneers proclaimed loudly and clearly that the Jews were a secular people- a nation without territory, but nevertheless a nation.

Zionism is the boldest attempt in modern times to take the definition of Jewishness away from the religious establishment and to create a new sense of Jewish self-awareness. The socialist Yiddishist movement in Eastern Europe was less successful and was ultimately destroyed in the trauma of the Holocaust.

There are two kinds of Zionism. The first is ‘theoretical’ Zionism. It found no value in the Diaspora and hoped for its disappearance. The second is ‘pragmatic’ Zionism. It’s drove for the Jewish state. But it accepted the reality that most Jews, even though they valued the Israel connection, would choose to live outside of Israel. For the pragmatist of the test of Zionism is not merely aliyah but also the affirmation of Jewish nationhood and Jewish peoplehood.

A people is a disbursed nation. A nation is a community of individuals, Families, clans and tribes who share a sense of common ancestry and who feel unique because of the unique language or culture. Most nations have a territorial base which they call their homeland. Most independent states are attached to a nation. But some states, like Belgium, Canada and the Soviet Union, are collections of nations. And others, like the United States, feature ethnic loyalties in addition to the dominant Anglosaxon culture.

For a long while we Jews had no independent territorial homeland. We had no secular rulers. We gave a little attention to secular culture. The Zionist pioneers created the revolution that altered this reality. They gave us an independent territorial homeland. They trained secular rulers. They produced a secular Hebrew culture.

In order to understand that our humanistic Jewish roots we have to understand the history of Zionism, its problems, it’s achievements in its failures.

NATIONALISM

We Jews have always experienced ourselves as a nation. The authors of the Bible in the Talmud saw us that way.Our friends and enemies never doubted our ethnicity. Even our religious leaders taught us to pray for a national restoration. No force in Jewish or Gentile life before the emergence of the reform movement ever viewed the Jews as merely a religious phenomenon.

Jewish nationhood was continuous. Even when our ancestors departed the land of his real, they did not lose their sense of national identity. Their dispersed communities were ethnic enclaves. Their religious leaders were also national leaders.

Modern Zionism was the expression of the liberation and renewal of the Ashkenazic Jewish nation in Central and Eastern Europe. This Yiddish speaking people lived with Germans, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians. They shared governments with their neighbors. But they saw themselves as distinct and separate.

In the nineteenth century, in the age of the Enlightenment and secular Emancipation, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe substituted territorial nationalism for religion as their reigning passion. The Germans, Hungarians and Russians unified their peoples. The Romanians liberated part of their nation. And the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians and Lithuanians strove to expel foreign oppressors.

The Jews were also cut up in this nationalistic fervor. But they suffered a major deficiency. All the territory they inhabited was claimed by other nations. And their smaller numbers and dispersion prevented them from claiming their share of land. Had Ashkenazic Jewry been able to establish an independent European territorial center, the Zionist Movement, as we know it, would never have emerged.

But Jewish nationalism was assaulted by many hostile forces. Racial antisemitism was the worst. Unlike religious hatred it’s focused on the ethnicity of the Jew. Birth, not belief, became the criterion for identifying the enemy. The Jews became ethnic intruders who were threatening the racial integrity of their host nation by their mere presence. Antisemitism became a convenient nationalistic tool for mobilizing the masses to display the patriotic fervor.

When Theodore Herzl published The Jewish State in 1986, a territorial haven for Jews, Away from Europe, had become a necessity. Palestine was the obvious alternative.

The land needed to be found. The state needed to be created. But the nation, the Jewish nation, already existed.

ROMANTICISM

Modern humanism divided early into two camps. In the first camp were the Rationalists. They valued human reason and envisioned a new social order dominated by science, emotional moderation and cosmopolitan taste. Voltaire, Paine and Comte were their heroes. In the second camp were the Romantics. They valued human will and imagined a New World of personal freedom and passionate autonomy in which creativity would replace tradition as the guide to living. Goethe and Nietzsche were their heroes.

Both Rationalists and Romantics were opposed to the old religious order. But they disliked it for different reasons. For the Rationalists it was superstitious. For the Romantics it was authoritarian.

Jewish humanists who were disciples of the Enlightenment and who emphasized the rational and the universal found both religion and nationalism boring. But Jewish humanists who admired Nietzche and his boldness of spirit found nationalism romantic. The task of rescuing oppressed people, taking charge of one’s own destiny against overwhelming odds, and creating a new state was an appealing arrogance and an exciting act of will. Micah Berdichevski, One of the first Zionist writers, articulated this mood when he proposed to reject the passivity of Diaspora history.

Romantic humanism, much more than its Rationalist counterpart, was the parent of the Zionist spirit. Zionism, as Ben Gurion pointed out, was a ‘revolution’ in Jewish attitude and Jewish emotion. It was the  herald of the ‘new Jew’ who abandoned passive piety for boldness, daring and courage and who also rejected rational arguments for caution and practicality. As Herzl implied, “If we want something hard enough, it will be no dream.”

Peoplehood and romanticism have been part of the Jewish experience for a long time. Zionism dramatized them.

PROBLEMS

From the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise Zionists disagreed one with the other. These arguments reflected the difficulty of translating the ideal of romantic peoplehood into a practical project.

If Palestine is not available as a Jewish homeland, will Uganda do? After all, the task is one of rescuing the nation, not a particular piece of sacred territory.

Does the territorial Jewish nation need to be independent? Would a secular Jewish cultural center be more feasible and less cumbersome?

What shall be the language of the Jewish state? Yiddish is the living language of the living people. Hebrew is shared by the Sephardim. But it is only the language of scholars.

What shall be the economic structure of the new state? Is capitalism compatible with humanism?

Can religion be separated from Jewish peoplehood and Jewish nationhood? Is a secular state possible for Jews?

How shall Jews defend themselves against their Arab enemies? Is the development of military virtue consistent with humanistic ideals?

Do the Arabs of Palestine have a right to be a nation in their own land? Is a binational state desirable and possible in Israel?

Should a Jewish state be morally superior to other states, and ethical example to other nations? Or are the Jews entitled to normality?

The conflicting answers to these questions continue to divide the secular Zionist world. And the ultimate acceptance of the Zionist enterprise by religious and Orthodox elements has added even more controversy to the debate.

In the midst of these continuing arguments Zionism has scored some incredible success. It has reconstituted 3 million Jews as a territorial nation. It has established an independent Jewish state capable of defending its own survival. It has revived a ‘dead’ scholarly language and made Hebrew the language of the Israeli masses. It has experimented in new forms of social experimentation and has produced the only free socialist communes in the world. It has brought together the Ashkenazic and Sephardic parts of the Jewish people into a single national effort. It has made Israel the center of Jewish life in the Diaspora and the most compelling Jewish concern of the Jewish world.

But, from the humanistic point of view, it has failed in other areas. It has failed to create a secular Jewish state where religious and non-religious liberty is guaranteed.It has failed to Grant equal rights and equal privileges to the Arabs who reside within its borders. It has failed to provide peace and security for the Jews who chose to be Israelis. Above all, it has failed to define a successful relationship of equality with the Diaspora. Although Israel is the only territorial state in the world created by its own Diaspora, and although its significance derived from its connection with world Jewry, secular Israelis still regard Diaspora life as an inferior Jewish existence.

SIGNIFICANCE

As one of the important roots of a viable Jewish humanism and in the face of all its problems, successes and failures- what is the significance of zionism to a humanistic outlook?

Zionism is the most effective expression, in modern times, that we Jews are more than a religion. We are a people and an ethnic culture.

Zionism is the most dramatic manifestation of the humanist revolution in Jewish life- the refusal of Jews to be the passive victims of fate- and the determination of Jews to take their own destiny into their own hands and to shape it to their needs.

Zionism is the most creative force in Jewish life today for the development of a secular Jewish culture. The revival of a secular Hebrew and the ceremonial life of the secular kibbutz are important alternatives to the religious ritual of establishment tradition.

Zionism is the most powerful present commitment for mobilizing the world Jewish community. Israel has become the cultural center of an international people and is the unifying focus of the Diaspora.

Humanistic Judaism and a pragmatic Zionism go hand-in-hand. Jewish humanists can help to keep Zionism secular. Zionism can help to keep a humanistic Judaism Jewish.

The Rabbi Writes – Zionism

Volume 33, No. 6, January 1997

1997 is an important anniversary for Jews. One hundred years ago-in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland-the Zionist movement was established by Theodore Herzl. Zionism is the most powerful and most successful Jewish movement of the twentieth century. The Jewish state is its incredible achievement. No other Jewish development has embraced so many Jews so passionately as has the Israel connection. If we add the revival of the Hebrew language to the accomplishments of Zionism, it emerges as one of the most significant forces for national liberation in the history of modern nationalism.

The victories of Zionism were won against overwhelming odds. A dispersed people were turned into a territorial nation within fifty years. Money was solicited-land was acquired-immigrants were recruited-communities were established-enemies were defeated-and a modern urban industrial state emerged from the desert. Even the agricultural sector was so successful that it became the producing ground of Israel’s military leaders.

From the beginning Zionism was essentially a secular enterprise. While the attachment to Palestine was reinforced by the Messianic fantasies of Orthodoxy, the determination to defy the “fates” and to establish a Jewish state through human effort came from the secular resistance to tradition. The overwhelming majority of the intellectuals, leaders, pioneers and activists of Zionism came out of the secular world. Antisemitism had driven many of them from assimilation to a militant nationalism. The Jewish state they envisioned had nothing to do with Torah Judaism. It was to be governed by the ideas and ideals of a secular nationalism. The Zionism of Herzl Nordau, Ben Gurion- and even Jabotinsky-promoted a secular Jewish state in which Jewish national identity was separated from religion, a state which granted equal status and equal freedom to the atheist and to the “believer?” It pioneered a secular Jewish culture in which the primary intention of Jewish identity was not Halakdic observance but was the use of the Hebrew language. In fact, the Jewish state would produce the “new Jew” who would be radically different from the pious Jew of the East European ghetto.

The Zionist founders imagined that the new Jewish homeland would become a role model for the development of an open democratic state in which non-Jews and national minorities would be accorded equal treatment to that of the “natives?” It would also put an end to antisemitism by terminating the Diaspora, normalizing the Jewish condition and removing the provocation of a “ghost people”.

But the founder’s vision ran into problems. While the early years of the Jewish settlement and the Jewish state were fairly secular the later years have been much less so. The later immigration was different from the early immigrants. The first pioneers were secular idealists who chose Palestine because they wanted to be a part of an important social experiment. They were willing to endure privation and suffering in order to realize their “dream.” In some ways they were secular “monks and nuns” whose ascetic lifestyle added to their moral purity and nobility. The later immigration was very different from the first. Most of the arrivals came because they had to, not because they wanted to. Many of them were religious. Many of them came from Oriental countries where the experience of a secular democracy was unknown. Many of them felt no ideological restraints on their prejudices and their hatreds. All of them came after the terrible Holocaust which crushed much of their naïve idealism of the past. All of them had to confront a never-ending war with the Arab world.

In time Israelis by birth replaced Israelis by choice. The native-born discovered that they were Israeli in the same way that they were native. Greeks discover that they are Greek. Israel was simply home-not a social experiment, not a utopian dream, not a role model to the world. Emigration began to match immigration. Materialism began to win out over self-imposed sacrifice. The consumer culture, with all its abrasiveness, took over the streets. It was the compensation for the annoying war that refused to end.

After the Six Day War new “idealists” arrived. They were ultra-Orthodox Jews who saw in the victorious Jewish state the hand of God. As the secularists became more clinical they became more passionate. Only this time the secular vision was replaced by a militant religious vision, a combination of the old Messianism and the new nationalism. The “idealistic” shoe moved to the foot of the old opposition. The new “ideal” was a Torah state run by Orthodox Rabbis and hostile to secularists and Arabs.

Today in Israel there is no secular state. The orthodox rabbinate governs Jewish marriage, divorce, and death and determines Jewish identity. Every Israeli is assigned to a religious group-Jewish, Muslim, Catholic etc- and to the control of an officially recognized clergy for each group. There is no civil marriage. There are no non-religious cemeteries.  There is no secular path to divorce. There is no universal Israeli identity. The only way to become a Jew in a state committed to the nationhood of the Jewish people is to be converted by an Orthodox rabbi.

Today in Israel the original secular culture is being compromised. The state schools are under the control of an Orthodox minister of education. Ever since the Likud assumption of power in 1977 the teaching of the Bible in the schools has fallen into the hands of traditional people. Religious values and Israeli patriotism are becoming inseparable. Increasingly in Israel, being secular simply means not being Orthodox.

Today in Israel the grandchildren of the pioneers have joined the consumer culture. The old idealism has been replaced by a quite normal and quite pervasive ambition to live more comfortable. The ironic twist is that the people non-willingly to make “sacrifices” for their ideals are the Orthodox.

Today in Israel there are both ethnic bigotry and antisemitism. The conflict with the Arabs has produced a level of mutual hatred and suspicion unmatched in many other countries. This war has also turned the Muslim world into a hotbed of fanatic Jew hatred. The Zionist dream of eliminating antisemitism has failed. It may be the case that the peace process will inevitably win out, simply because it is unavoidable and because external pressures will be overwhelming. But the gradual, yet dramatic, reversal of Zionist culture will continue. Both the orthodox birth rate and secular emigrating will reinforce that development. As Israel approaches its 50th birthday anniversary, the new Israel, is vastly different from that of the Zionist pioneers. The secular forces are no longer in charge. They are on the defensive and they will need the help of secular North America to defend themselves in the cultural war that is looming. Zionism pioneered a new secular way to be Jewish. We must do whatever we can to support the beleaguered heirs of that vision.

The Challenge of Soviet Jewry

Humanistic Judaism, Fall, November 1991

The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union is one of the most important events of the 20th century, equal in importance to the Bolshevik Revolution, which brought communism to power. For more than 70 years, all major political developments in both the West and the East evolved around the Bolshevik presence. Fascism, war, and the political tensions between Left and Right all were responses to communism, whether perceived as savior or devil.

In the early years of the revolution, thousands of Jews, both in and outside of the Soviet Union, shared the Bolshevik fervor. Caught up in its messianic enthusiasm, they believe that communism is the answer to anti-Semitism and the Jewish problem. But these devotees were crushed by the real realities of the communist system, which used anti-Semitism as a tool of social control. Enthusiasm was followed by disillusionment and the bitterness of betrayal.

Today, after 70 years of repression and isolation, the Jews of the former Soviet empire are free. They are confronted with both opportunity and danger. They have difficult decisions to make. Should they or should they not remain in the Soviet Union? What place should they give to Jerusalem and Judaism in their life? What kind of Judaism should they seek to embrace?

Lost for so long to the Jewish world, Soviet Jews have become a gold mine for Jewish recruitment. What do they choose to remain in the Soviet Union or to emigrate to Israel or North America, they are the largest body of unaffiliated you to suddenly appear as a major factor in the modern seen. Today, the “missionaries” of traditional and reform Judaism are busy looking for “converts”. And with books and videotapes, Lubavitchers have penetrated the remote cities and villages of the Soviet Union in search of followers.

Secular humanist a cutie as I’m cannot be indifferent to this new development and this new opportunity. After 70 years of secularization, most of your dues are not religious. If they never learn about the possibility of being both meaningfully secular and meaningfully Jewish, they would use traditional expressions that are inappropriate to their convictions and lifestyle, or-more likely-they will choose to do nothing about the Jewishness at all.

We, a secular humanist excuse, have a moral obligation to reach out to our Soviet Jewish brothers and sisters, wherever they may be. We need to share with them our experience that Judaism and humanistic convictions can go hand in hand. The task is overwhelming. But it also will be exciting and energizing for a movement.

The Humanistic Alternative

Rabbi Sherwin Wine concludes Colloquium 1999 – “Beyond Tradition: The Search for a New Jewish Identity” with a brilliant address on the need for a Humanistic alternative in Jewish life that can build on the strengths of previous attempts to create a sustainable non-traditional Jewish identity. For more on this Colloquium, including links to publications of selected proceedings, visit https://www.iishj.org/colloquium-99.html.

Who is a Jew?

“Who is a Jew?” The Jewish Humanist, August 1988

The “Who Is A Jew” question is a critical issue in Jewish life today. Orthodox authorities in Israel and in the Diaspora are seeking to achieve the power to force all Jews to accept their definition of Jewish identity. Reform and Conservative leaders, eager to appease the Orthodox, are not anxious to recognize a purely secular definition of the Jew. And secular Jews, especially young ones, are now beginning to succumb to the new assaultive fundamentalist propaganda that theistic religion is the only way in which Jewish identity can be maintained and preserved. “No davening [praying], no Jews,” it says.

Growing intermarriage among Diaspora Jews also makes this question critical. The Jewish status of countless thousands of sons and daughters of Jewish fathers is now in question. If they love the Jewish people, but do not want a religious conversion because they are not religious, they will be excluded. Plus, there is the humiliation of Jews, who know themselves to be Jews, having to undergo a ritual test they do not believe in in order to become what they already are.

All these people need our help. If the orthodox and conservative authorities have their way, the Jewish people will continue to shrink into a hard core of religious fanatics. A bold generous counter-statement is necessary to prevent this tragedy.

The Jewish world is confused on this issue.

Religious authorities have for so long been in charge of Jewish life that even many non-religious Jews think that they have the right to determine the criteria of Jewish identity. An inappropriate nostalgia prevents them from dealing with this question with integrity.

In Western Europe and North America, the prevailing definition of the Jews as a member of a religious denomination and nothing more makes it difficult for many Western Jews to understand how one can be Jewish and not be a “believer.” Even secular Jews pretend to be religious in order to conform to the social expectation of what it means to be Jewish. The history of this definition—the fearful attempt of emancipated Jews to deny their national identity lest they be accused of dual loyalty—is largely forgotten. And we are all victims of this cowardly compromise.

Zionism has also provided some mischief. While, to its credit, it has emphasized the national and ethnic character of the Jewish people, it has tended to stress the incompleteness of Jewish identity outside of life in the state of Israel. Diaspora Jews, if they are not religious, end up being shadow figures of ethnicity.

Liberalism has also provided its trouble. Given the history of racial and religious prejudice, most liberals hate all forms of involuntary identity. As a result, they want Jewish identity to be a purely voluntary act. If you want to be Jewish, you are. If you do not want to be Jewish, you are not. However, commonsense indicates that there are many, many Jews who despise being Jewish who indeed are. Excluding them from Jewish identity does not do justice to who they are. Ethnic identity is generally an involuntary identity. Pretending for the sake of some illusory self-mastery that Jewish identity can be discarded when it is inherited is foolish. Neither conscience nor residual antisemitism will allow it.

Our resentment of our historic enemies also poses a problem. On the whole, liberal Jews will allow deviations from the traditional theistic norms provided that the deviant does not join the “enemy.” Atheists and practitioners of transcendental meditation can stay in the fold, But Jews who become Christians or Muslims cannot. Now this distinction is irrational; if Jewish identity is a religious identity it does not make sense. When the Supreme Court of Israel excluded Brother Daniel, a Catholic monk from Jewish identity, they even went beyond Orthodox rejection. His parents were Jewish. He had suffered persecution during the Holocaust period. He had left Poland to live in Israel because he identified with Jewish nationality. He simply saw himself as a national Jew with a different “religion.” But he foolishly expected consistency from liberals and secularists who viewed him as a traitor.

Internal racism is another source of difficulty. Jewish social practice belies official propaganda. While many Jews publicly applaud the religious definition of the Jew, they privately make insidious distinctions between born Jews and Jews by choice. They regard the former as being more authentically Jewish. A thoroughly assimilated Montana rancher with a Jewish mother is “more Jewish” than the Dutch humanist immigrant to Israel who identifies with the Jewish people, masters Hebrew and immerses herself in Jewish culture, Even if she hypocritically chose a religious conversion—which many Gentile kibbutzniks do—it would make no difference. Conservative Jews have responded timidly to the issue and to this confusion. They accept the right of rabbis to determine Jewish identity. They simply want Conservative rabbis to have the right to be considered kosher authorities.

Reform—especially American Reform—has responded more boldly. In recent years [1983] they have championed the cause of paternal descent. They want children of Jewish fathers to be given equal status to the children of Jewish mothers. But they still adhere to the supremacy of religious arbiters. In the end, non-Jews who want to broaden the list of kosher authorities to include Reform rabbis.

At the other extreme we have the proposal of certain secularists like Haim Cohen, the former chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, who want to make Jewish identity purely voluntary, an act of personal will and decision. Jews who do not want to be Jews are not Jews. And individuals who want to be Jews, who regard all other Jews as illegitimate—like the Black Hebrews—are also Jews. Neither history, culture nor social context are relevant.

It seems to be that an appropriate answer to the question “Who Is A Jew?” must fulfill the following criteria.

It must recognize that for most Jews, Jewish identity is involuntary. We are born into the Jewish people. We do not choose to be Jews. We discover that we are Jews. Hopefully we will enjoy what we are. But there is no guarantee. Choosing to be Anglo-Saxon or Chinese is not an option.

It must include people with two Jewish parents or with only one. A father is just as good as a mother. After all, he most likely gives you your last name.

It must make no ideological criterion for Jewishness. There are Jewish theists and Jewish atheists. There are Jewish communists and Jewish fascists. There are rabbinic Jews and Christian Jews. There are Jews we are proud of and Jews we are ashamed of. If we are a normal ethnic group we cannot pretend to be what we are not.

It must provide for some identification with the historic Jewish people. “Bizarre” people who deny that Jews who are normally regarded as Jews are really Jewish and who affirm that they alone are Jewish—like certain Black religious sects in America—cannot be taken seriously. There has to be some identification with the history and fate of the acknowledged Jewish people.

It must allow all men and women of goodwill to join the Jewish people, whether they be religious or secular, theistic or humanistic. No formal ceremony or certificate is required. The informal acceptance of the Jewish community which the individual wants to join—whether it be the synagogue or the kibbutz—is sufficient.

Jewish Identity in the Contemporary World

“Jewish Identity in the Contemporary World” Humanistic Judaism journal, Spring 1987

What I’d like to do first is to test your limits with regard to what is a meaningful Jewish identity.

You are the son of a survivor. You have no religious inclinations of any kind; in fact, the Holocaust has turned you off completely. When people ask you about your Jewish identity, you tell them you don’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shavuot—that you don’t care about the holidays. However, you say your Jewish identity is very important to you because Jewish history for you is connected to your own philosophy of life. Your own philosophy of life is secular and humanistic. You believe you are in charge of your destiny. You believe that the message of Jewish history is precisely that.

You are an Israeli, and if there is one thing you hate, it’s religion. You were born in Poland. Religion was stuffed down your throat. You came to Israel. Now you love to go to the beach on Rosh Hashanah. If somebody asked you about your Jewish identity, you’d say, “I don’t have to worry about it. I speak Hebrew all day.”

You are an Anglo-Saxon atheist. You grew up in the Bronx. Most of the people in your neighborhood were Jews. You went to a predominantly Jewish high school. You come to a college where 50 percent of the students are Jewish and as time goes on you recognize that most of your life is spent with Jews. Then one day you decide that you’d like to be Jewish. You identify with the history and the fate of the Jewish people. Most of your friends are Jews. You start telling people you are Jewish.

You are an attorney. You have very little interest in formal religious activity, but you went to Israel in 1968 and you were turned on. Every year when the United Jewish Appeal comes around, you are involved. You feel very, very Jewish, but most of your Jewish activity is raising money for Israel.

You are a parent. You are a secular Jew, and the one thing you hate to do is to light candles. However, you’d like to do something for the Shabbat. You decide to choose some of your favorite Jewish poetry and, just before the meal begins, to read a poem or two to your family.

You are a graduate student. You become very much involved with Zen Buddhism. But you love your Jewish identity. You say to yourself: My philosophy of life is Zen, but my culture is Jewish. I’ll learn Yiddish, I’ll learn Hebrew—I’ll do Zen in Hebrew.

You are a yored, one of those people who leave Israel and come to live in Detroit to make money. People write you letters from back home, and you always write back that you are just here temporarily and you intend to go back. You have no religious inclinations whatsoever. You feel guilty about the fact that you have left the land of Israel, but when people ask you about your Jewish identity you say, “I fly to Israel twice a year. I have that connection. I live in a world where in thirteen hours I can get there.”

You are an attractive woman, and your parents have been waiting for a long time for you to marry a Jewish man. At the University of Michigan, you meet a man who is not Jewish but whom you love intensely. You are a secular Jew, he is a secular Anglo-Saxon, and you ask yourself: Can this marriage work? Your parents say it can’t, and they add, “If people like you do that, what is going to happen to the survival of the Jewish people?” You are torn between your own needs and the guilt that you feel. You say to yourself: I love my Jewish identity. I have a good strong cultural identity and that’s all I need. I can love somebody from another people. After all, I’m a humanist.

These are not idle stories. They are stories of people I have encountered. Maybe you have encountered some of them, too. They are people we bump into in North America, but I don’t think they’re confined to North America. I think these problems occur all over the Jewish world.

Today we have lots of people who claim to be Jewish in ways that are unacceptable to the tradition. I don’t mean whether the person is officially a Jew. According to Orthodox law, if you’re born of a Jewish mother and you run around doing Tibetan mantras, it’s all right; if you want to dress up as a Catholic priest, fine—your Jewish identity is secure.

I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the “good Jew.” What are the parameters of a meaningful Jewish identity? At one time that was easy to answer because the rabbis were in charge, and it simply meant reverence for ancestors and obedience to Halacha [Jewish law]. Now that’s gone.

In the past two centuries, three options emerged.

The first was Reform, which responded to the tremendous changes that Jews were undergoing in the nineteenth century. Reform responded to Jewish needs by defining Jewish identity as a religious identity. We were a religious denomination, and in that way Jews would be able to live acceptably in this modern, open world that had been created by the Enlightenment and the Age of Science. But Reform ideology has collapsed. For one thing, many Reformers, although they talked a lot about God, were basically closet humanists. Secondly, when racial anti-Semitism grew at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, the idea of a purely religious Jewish identity collapsed. Today the Reform movement certainly is strong, but its ideology is pasted together. The heart of the old ideology is gone.

Then there was Yiddish nationalism. What a powerful movement that was, based on a living people in Eastern Europe. But then that was tested by the Holocaust.

And, last, there is Zionism. The most successful modern Jewish response to the issue of a meaningful Jewish identity, an alternative to tradition, has been the Zionist movement. Israel’s coming into existence, its perseverance and its centrality in Jewish life have certainly demonstrated that Zionism is a viable alternative. But Zionism also has been tested. One of the things that Zionism was to do was to get rid of the galut, the Diaspora, and to “normalize” the Jewish people. But the Diaspora embarrassingly remains and most likely will continue to remain—which makes the Jews still abnormal and Israel part of a world Jewish people.

Zionism was supposed to provide a place where Jews would have their own land, and that has presented a problem. If you live in Israel today, you are very much aware of the fact that of the five million people who live within the present boundaries of Israel, including the occupied territories, close to two million are Arabs. You can’t live in Israel without being aware of the fact that you’re living, like the English in Canada, in a binational state.

It’s very difficult to talk about contemporary Jewish identity for a variety of reasons. First of all, each of us has a vested interest. If you’re Zionists, you want to imagine that ultimately all Jews will choose to come to Israel or—and you hear this all the time—that the galut will fade away. If you’re socialist, you still dream that somehow or other those collectivist impulses of the masses will come back together.

One of the problems we have in dealing with the present is that we never have experienced anything like it before in Jewish history. We make decisions that may be morally appropriate, but our ancestors wouldn’t approve so we feel guilty. One of the reasons we have difficulty is that the primary question on any Jewish program, even secular programs, is: What is going to happen to the Jewish people? What can we do to ensure Jewish survival?

That question prevents us from dealing with the basic issue. The best method I know of for ensuring Jewish survival is the Lubavitcher method. If your primary value is Jewish survival, then integrity is not the issue. What you will do is join the group that will provide maximum survival. You don’t believe, true, but you will join the group and dress up like a Lubavitcher, behave like a Lubavitcher, say you believe all the things Lubavitchers are supposed to believe because your primary value is Jewish survival.

It’s very dangerous for humanists to go around saying that the preservation of the Jewish people is the first value of Jewish life. There have to be other values. But generally when people talk, survival is what comes up. That’s the anxiety.

People say, “What we need is more education,” or “What we need is more services,” or “What we need is more Yiddish culture.” But what we demand of people, if it’s going to be effective, has to be related to what they feel they need.

So if we’re going to be able to do something for Jewish identity today as Secular Humanistic Jews, then we have to be aware of the nature and needs of the Jew today. What are the changes that have transformed Jewish life? What are the implications of these changes? How ought we to deal with them?

Let me list the changes that have taken place over the past two centuries. There has been a belief revolution—the Age of Science—that has undermined the old faith-belief system.

There has been a history revolution. You can no longer read the Bible and take it literally. We’re not even sure that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were real people. We’re not even sure that most of the stories told about Moses are the real stories. We’re not even sure any more about the actual origins of the Jewish people.

There has been a secular revolution. Today most Jews do not go to Jewish institutions for their education. Even Jewish institutions in the Jewish state in many ways are replicas of what we call secular education. Today Jewish children do not spend most of their time worrying about Torah and Talmud. They’re dealing with physics, chemistry, and so on.

We’ve been changed by affluence. In a subsistence culture, the basic question is group survival. Today I find that most Jewish young people in North America are unconcerned with that—and I’m not sure it’s that different in Buenos Aires or even in Tel Aviv, and I know the kibbutzim are experiencing the problem. At one time you could say to someone, “What have you done lately for the group?” Now people ask, “What do I need for my happiness? Don’t tell me what the group needs. What is the group going to do for me?”

We’ve been transformed by technology. The contemporary Jew lives in a global village. It’s easier to go from Chicago to Tel Aviv than it was a century ago to go from Chicago to Milwaukee. You just dial and you get South Africa, Zanzibar, or Brazil; you can talk to somebody in a moment.

We’ve been transformed by urbanization. Even in Israel, most of the people live in Haifa, Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem. Most Jews live in centers of culture and power.

We’ve been transformed by intermarriage. In North America, close to 40 percent of Jews marry non-Jews. It is not true that most of those people seek to leave the Jewish people. They simply live in an open society, where they fall in love with people who are not members of their own group. They have children, many of whom have Jewish last names and live in a world in which their identity sometimes is held suspect by Jews who are very much into policing Jewish identity.

We’ve been transformed by utopianism. There are many people in this room who remember the ’20s, the ’30s, or the ’40s, when many people believed that a socialist revolution would change the world. We’ve lived through a lot of revolutions, Bolshevik and fascist, and now even some of the most ardent people on the left have discovered that maybe we have to reevaluate where that’s going. If you look at the temper of young people today, in North America at least, their political affiliations certainly don’t coincide with what they were back in the ’60s or back in the ’30s.

We’ve been transformed by anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, which destroyed one-third of our people.

The most dramatic event transforming Jewish life is what I call the Zionization of the Jewish people, the establishment of Israel, and the emergence of Israel as the focal point of Jewish life.

Last, we have what I call the Anglo-Saxonization of Jewish life. When you watch the behavior of young people in Tel Aviv, or even middle-aged people, you find that they are part of the consumer culture that was developed here in the United States. The consumer culture is exportable. It’s going everywhere in the world.

Today, after the Holocaust, the largest Jewish community in the world, more than six million, resides in North America, and the power and influence of that community, certainly with regard to Israel, is enormous.

What are the implications of all this? The contemporary Jew lives in unique circumstances. People will say, “We’ve had anti-Semitism before and we’ve had changes before,” But I don’t know of any other society where the rate of change has been what it is in our society. We are assaulted by so much change that we suffer from future shock. We’re living in the present and future all the time.

One of the reasons why it often is very difficult to use traditional texts, unless you simply lift a quotation out of context, is that all these marvelous people were answering anxieties that came out of a more agrarian culture. Some of our anxieties today are the same, but many are not.

One of the anxieties that I encounter all the time among people whom I counsel is the inability to handle all the things that are changing in their lives. Their careers change, their marriages break up, the neighborhood doesn’t work and they’re forced to move, their skills become obsolete.

The contemporary Jew generally knows what he does not believe, but he hasn’t yet figured out what he does believe. People haven’t figured out what they do believe because things change so fast.

The contemporary Jew has to try very hard to believe traditionally. The fundamentalists that I encounter are, in many respects, different from the pious people of the past. When you live in an environment in which it is very hard to believe what you’re supposed to believe, you develop a desperate posture. At one time the stories in the Bible were believable. People believed in that kind of a world. It was easy because everybody did. Now, if you want to believe in the miracles of the Bible, you have to make an effort. You have to apologize, defend, explain; and what it produces is this enormous militancy.

The contemporary Jew has higher expectations. When I was a child, people were accustomed to suffering. What else was there to life? You suffered. Now people want happiness and fulfillment, and when they come to the temple or synagogue, they want magnificent aesthetic experiences. I remember people sitting in shul [synagogue] and being bored for hour after hour after hour. I can’t imagine my father using the phrase “aesthetic experience.”

The contemporary Jew knows that survival is not enough. Secular Humanistic Judaism will never get off the ground if its only focus is on what we can do to insure Jewish survival because Jewish survival is not the primary agenda of most Jews today, not even in Israel. The primary agenda of most people has to do with their own personal needs, and unless you have something to say philosophically, poetically, or whatever, to their human condition—not just to their Jewish condition—how will you ever reach them?

The contemporary Jew lives with everybody, and this relates to Israel as well as the rest of the world. There was a time when Anglo-Saxons imagined that the United States could be an Anglo-Saxon country. But immigrants came—Polish, Italians, Jews, Russians, and the rest. Even Anglo-Saxons are now regarded in America as an ethnic group. The reality in Israel too is that Jews live with Arabs. They may not want to. They may feel like the whites in my neighborhood who don’t want to live with blacks just a few miles away. Go find a place in the world today where Jews will not have to relate in some way, either friendly or hostile, to others and to share space.

The contemporary Jew lives in a world culture. If I were a tourist in Japan a century ago, I would not have known how to relate to it. Nobody would have spoken English. I wouldn’t have understood the artifacts. What is happening in the world today is that there is a kind of universal culture created by modern science and technology.

The contemporary Jew has the freedom to make his own options. Even in dictatorships or juntas, as long as you don’t assault the authorities, they don’t care whether you observe Shabbat but not Sukkot, observe Sukkot but not Shabbat, eat pork but not shrimp, eat shrimp but not pork. What happens now in the world is that each Jew develops his own private Jewishness. I know somebody who will eat ham, but not with milk.

The contemporary Jew lives with chronic anti-Semitism. It is quite true that in the Soviet Union, were it not for chronic anti-Semitism, a lot of the people who are now proclaiming their Jewishness would not have done so. One of the major preservatives of Jewish identity—certainly in modern times—is the sense of guilt that people who are members of a vulnerable group feel. The removal of anti-Semitism won’t happen and for a very simple reason. We Jews by our lifestyle—this over-urbanized people of professional education—represent an adaptation to the modern world that other people do not have. Anti-Semitism in the twentieth century was never directed primarily toward the beliefs of the Jewish people: it was directed toward the image of the Jew, the city slicker, the person who was difficult to comprehend and who was envied and feared.

The contemporary Jew experiences Israel as the most dramatic event, the most dramatic aspect of Jewish identity today. The one thing that is the big turn-on for Jewish identity is the connection that people have to Israel. There may be people who have objections to some of its policies, but the reality is that over the years, some of the most militant anti-Zionist groups dramatically modified their positions. Because in the end, you’re not going to be able to look at Israel and say, “You’re insignificant.”

Last and most important of all: In order to understand what Jewish identity means, we have to understand that we are an international people. In this city of Detroit [in the 1920s], Henry Ford published and circulated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the most vicious anti-Semitic writings of the twentieth century. We were called “the international Jew.” We were called that also by Father Charles Coughlin, who at one time had aspirations to be President of the United States of America. The assault bears some truth. One of the reasons why people have difficulty digesting us is that indeed we are a nation that became an international nation. No matter what people do to normalize us, that’s what we remain. In the age of modern technology, when it’s easy to fly back and forth, and there is economic stress and people look for a place where there are suitable outlets for their career skills, Israelis and Diaspora Jews keep moving back and forth. It is highly unlikely, given the technology of 60 to 100 years from now, that national boundaries will be of enormous significance. They will be there, obviously, and nationalism will certainly be strong, but an international people may indeed be the wave of the future.

How do you cope with all these changes? One way is denial. This is something you hear frequently: “Do you know what is great about the Jewish people? The Jewish family.” In Oakland County, Jews have a 50 percent divorce rate. What are they talking about? Denial means unpleasant facts are forgotten, and what we have is a cliché that comes out of the past.

Then there is rejection: people who say, “I don’t like the modern world. I don’t like what’s happening.” We have fundamentalists in the Jewish world, as well as in the Muslim world and the Christian world.

The third way is guilt. Guilt is when you say “Maybe I can have it both ways. Maybe I can change and not change at the same time. What I’ll do is go to Yom Kippur services and fast, and then I’ll break the fast with shrimp and scallops.” The texts of the past may not necessarily say what I believe, and what I could do with integrity is to allow them to say what they say because the authors of those texts are entitled to their integrity, and I want to hear what they have to say. I don’t need them to “kosherize” me. But if I’m ambivalent and feel a little guilty, I say “I’ve changed, but if my ancestors were living here today, they’d say ‘Good boy, Sherwin.’”

The fourth way is called avoidance: “I want Jewishness for music, a little dance, a little song. That’s all. If I want a philosophy of life, I’ll go elsewhere.” The power of historic Judaism lay in the fact that it incorporated both a culture and a philosophy of life, Now for a lot of people it’s just cultural tidbits.

Let me conclude with what I consider to be the pattern of integrity. The pattern of integrity responds to the realities by taking them seriously, and, if we take them seriously, six propositions follow:

If we are going to be effective as Secular Humanistic Jews in the twenty-first century, the first thing we have to do is relate to the needs that people have as human beings, to their human condition, and not always talk only about a Jewish culture but also talk about a philosophy of life. I believe that unless we have a secular humanistic answer to the questions, “What do I do with my emotions?” and “What do I do with my life?”—unless we spend time on these questions within the framework of Secular Humanistic Jewish groups, we’re not going to hold anybody. You can’t build on cultural tidbits.

The way of integrity means that you tie the Jewish experience to that philosophy. I am a secular humanistic Jew not only because I was born of a Jewish family. I came to my secular humanism through my Jewish experience. I feel that Jewish history is not an expression of the presence of a loving and just God, but of the indifference of the universe to the human moral agenda; and if that’s the case, the meaning is that we human beings must assume responsibility for our fates. My Jewish experience is tied to my philosophy.

The third proposition is that we must innovate. The most successful Jewish enterprise in the twentieth century was not just the creation of Israel; it was the revival of modern Hebrew. What we Secular Humanistic Jews have to do is to invent alternative ways of doing all kinds of things. We’ve been doing it for a long time—Shabbat, Pesach, bar and bat mitzvah. It’s not simply a matter of rescuing the old; it’s a matter also of inventing the new. We may even invent new holidays.

The way of integrity means that we live with openness. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who wants to be Jewish can identify with the fate of the Jewish people—to that person, we should say, “Welcome.” Does an Anglo-Saxon atheist from the Bronx want to be Jewish? Terrific. Why not? Does somebody want to be Jewish simply by participating in social and political action? Fine. Let each person choose what is meaningful. Our message to people is, “We do not oppose your right to develop your agenda. If you want to put Jewish identity at the top, that’s fine. If you want to make it fourth and you feel you have other concerns in your life that are more important, we’re not going to assault you with a lecture.”

If we have integrity, we reject messianic utopianism. By the end of the twentieth century, we’ve had enough preachers of utopia. We need people who are neither too pessimistic or excessively optimistic, but people who are realistic. I never say to people, “We Jews believe that ultimately peace will reign throughout the world.” I say, “From Jewish experience, it’s very iffy. We’d better do something about it. That’s the message of Jewish history.”

Perhaps most important of all, we have to accept that we are a world people. That’s what the International Federation [of Secular Humanistic Jews] is about. It means that people in the Diaspora recognize that Israel is, for all practical purposes, the center of the Jewish people and that Israelis recognize, without contempt, that the Diaspora is here to stay. And the only reason why Israel is significant is because it is attached to something called the Jewish people, which is a world people.

A good philosophy of life teaches people to face reality and to be strong enough to deal with that reality. The reason I regard myself as a Secular Humanistic Jew is that we affirm human dignity, which means we are not afraid to face the truth, both pleasant and unpleasant. That is our pride both as Jews and as human beings.