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THE MOSCOW CONFERENCE: A Gamble That Paid Off

What Does It Mean to be Jewish, Winter 1995

Moscow was our destination. The Fifth Biennial Conference of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews was to be held there on the weekend of Sept­ember 23-25.

Eighty of us departed North America for this Russian rendezvous. Some of us were apprehensive. We had been bombarded with media propaganda on the dangers of or­ganized crime, mugging, and murder. Twenty people already had succumbed to this warn­ing and had withdrawn from the group. They were convinced that we were flying into a Mafia trap and would be destroyed. Not even the onion domes of St. Basil’s could convince them to relent.

But, for most of us, excitement overcame fear. It was not only that we would experience the wonders of the Hermitage and the Bolshoi, that we would walk the banks of the Neva and promenade under the towers of the Kremlin. It was also that Humanistic Judaism had ar­rived in Russia. A new Eurasian Association for Humanistic Judaism had been formed some two years before, and we were coming to ex­press our support for this fledgling organiza­tion and for the future of a Jewish community in all the republics of the former Soviet Union.

The holding of a conference in Moscow was a gamble. Russia was in economic turmoil. The amenities in public institutions did not meet Western standards. The new leadership of our communities had not yet been tested.

But the experience we had turned out to be far more wonderful than anything we could have anticipated. It was not only that Moscow and St. Petersburg are filled with cultural mar­vels, or that the new capitalist energies of these two cities provided a dynamic setting of change and hope, or that all our fears of Mafia rape proved to be groundless. It was also that the experience of meeting Russian Jews who shared our aspirations and convictions and who were eager to bond with their brothers and sisters from Europe, Israel, and North America was deeply moving.

The conference was held in the original building of the University of Moscow, right across from Red Square and the imposing tow­ers of the Kremlin. The building had been quite magnificent in tsarist times. But it was now a shabby relic of its former glory, a victim of Communist mismanagement and neglect.

Holding the meeting there was important. It was the most prestigious educational insti­tution in Russia. It also had been one of the chief bastions of anti-Semitism in tsarist and Bolshevik days. Ironically, it now housed the new Jewish University. Our board meetings were held in the new Jewish library.

Two hundred fifty delegates attended the meeting. Besides the 80 of us from North America, there were 30 from France and En­gland, 10 from Israel, 2 from Latin America, and more than 125 from seven republics of the former Soviet Union. The Eurasian delegates, in many cases, traveled several days and nights by train to reach Moscow. They came, not only from Russia, but also from Belarus, Ukraine, Khazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. The Eurasian Association is a coali­tion of thirty-five small communities scattered over eight million square miles, some of them closer to China and India than Moscow.

The theme of the conference was “What Does It Mean To Be Jewish?” The question was directly related to the needs of Russian Jews. It also flowed directly from the decision made at our Brussels conference in 1988, when we had dealt with the question “Who Is A Jew?” Having declared that Jewish identity is not only an inheritance but also a choice, we were now confronted by the more important issue of Jewish living. If one is a Jew, how does one lead a Jewish life? If one is a Humanistic Jew, how does one lead a Humanistic Jewish life? Determining Jewish identity is only the pre­lude to arranging for Jewish commitment. For Russian Jews who are searching for ways to express their Jewish identity for the first time, this question is crucial, especially since they are being assaulted by aggressive Lubavitcher missionaries who claim that their way is the only true way to be Jewish.

Addressing this question was a panel of distinguished speakers. There was Yehuda Bauer, world-famous Holocaust scholar and co­chair of the International Federation. There was Yaakov Malkin, founder of the community center movement in Israel and dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Israel. There was Albert Memmi, an intellectual darling of the French literary world, a professor at the Sorbonne, and the leader of our French communities. There was Egon Friedler, well-known journalist and writer from Latin America and leader of our Uruguayan organization. There were many Russian speakers, including Semyon Avgustevich, the organizing genius of the Eura­sian Association.

There were two stellar moments at the conference. The first was the Saturday evening banquet. The Eurasian delegates sat at twenty-six tables, each of which bore the name of a city where one of our Humanistic Jewish com­munities existed. Delegates from outside Rus­sia could choose the community they wanted to connect with by simply sitting down at the appropriate table. The experiment worked wonderfully. The bonding was intense. Out of that communication came sister communities. We of the Birmingham Temple in Detroit have adopted Vitebsk in Belarus as our sister con­gregation. We will offer support, establish an ongoing dialogue, and learn from each other. By the end of the evening there was fervent conversation and spontaneous singing. The presence of distinguished guests from the Rus­sian Jewish leadership and the Russian par­liament seemed less important.

The second moment was at the end of the conference on Sunday morning. The declara­tion on how to lead a Jewish life had just been read. Delegates were standing up to articulate their response to the weekend. One of them, a representative from Kazan, whom we called Olga from the Volga but whose real name was Olga Apollonova, stood up and declared with great fervor, “We thank you for coming to Rus­sia. We have been waiting for the message of Humanistic Judaism. You do not have to break down the door. The door is open.”

What did we learn from our experience?

We learned that Russia, with all its eco­nomic and political problems, is bumbling down the capitalist road. No one has a better alternative. Even the opposition does not want to go back to the old communism. They want the freedom of capitalism with a wel­fare system.

We learned that the new free environment allows fascists and anti-Semites to sell their wares and to peddle their hate. Right outside the former Lenin Museum in Moscow, the anti- Semitic bible, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was being openly sold.

We learned that the Jewish community in Russia is struggling with the issue of whether there is any future for Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. The Israelis predict catastro­phe and want them to come to Israel. But many want to remain. Despite anti-Semitism, Russia is their home and Russian culture is their culture.

We learned that there is a real opening for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Russia. The ag­gressive message of Orthodoxy has limited appeal to a community molded by secularism and intermarriage. Our success will be deter­mined by our ability to train educators and leaders for new communities as well as by our power to produce a Humanistic Jewish litera­ture in Russian. The task is formidable. But we cannot betray this historic opportunity.

Forty Years Later: A Retrospective

Transforming Judaism- Winter 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Mainstream: The Fifth Branch

Building Bridges to a Wider Jewish Community: Autumn 00/ Winter 01

What is the place of Humanistic Judaism in the Jewish world? Is it on the inside or on the outside? Is it rooted in the beliefs and be­havior of contemporary Jews? Or is it a pe­ripheral and bizarre phenomenon, a passing wave of Jewish heresy?

The enemies of Humanistic Judaism see it as alien and peripheral and seek to ex­clude it from membership in the established Jewish community. Some secular and human­istic Jews consent to this exclusion and reluctantly accept being on the outside. They see themselves as beyond the pale, a strug­gling minority of defiant Jews. But others find this exclusion humiliating and unacceptable. They see their philosophy as representative of the feelings and beliefs of a large segment of the Jewish people who deserve community recognition and power.

The test of our self-esteem as Humanistic Jews is that we reject exclusion. Secular con­victions and secular behavior are an important part of contemporary Jewish life. In Israel, Europe, North America, and South America, the Jewish world has been transformed by the gradual secularization of public and private behavior. Denying this reality and pretending that all conventional Jews are religious is an abuse of the rights and dignity of hundreds of thousand of Jews. Fighting for recognition of Humanistic Judaism within the framework of the Jewish community is more than a political struggle. It is a moral demand to define the Jew­ish reality as history has made it.

The traditional Jewish community was the child of the age of religion. It was the creation of religious orthodoxy and authori­tarian governments. The rabbis, like the Christian and Muslim rulers, did not believe in democracy, personal freedom, or pluralism. They assumed that there was one true path to salvation and that all members of the com­munity should conform to it. They viewed all dissent as heresy, worthy of excommunica­tion. Unity meant conformity. Deviation was a sin. The benefits of community — social acceptance, protection, and welfare — were purchased at the price of conformity.

In the past three hundred years, Jewish communities have changed. The rapid spread of liberal democracy throughout the Western world and the triumphant political and economic power of Western nations have radically altered the political structures of the Jewish world. Large numbers of Jews have be­come Reform and Conservative. The practice of toleration and the acceptance of diversity have, through necessity and conviction, be­come standard operating procedures of Jew­ish politics. The separation of religion and government has rendered Jewish communities autonomous and Jewish identity voluntary. Taxation has turned into fundraising. And the fundraising institutions have become the most important institutions of Diaspora Jewish life. Secular leaders and philanthropists have re­placed the rabbi as the ruling powers.

Diaspora Jewish communities are no longer institutions of compulsory uniformity. They are coalitions of autonomous congrega­tions and institutions, which are self-govern­ing and which join together to pursue shared goals. These shared goals include social wel­fare, cultural programming, and the fight against anti-Semitism. During the past fifty years, support for the Jewish state has been the most compelling force for unified action. In North America, where Orthodoxy is weak, Reform and Conservative Jews have domi­nated Jewish community life.

In Israel, of course, Jewish life is no longer a matter of minority politics. The state and the government are Jewish. But while the founders of Zionism were secular and liberal, they were not able to produce an impeccable liberal de­mocracy. In contemporary Israel, secular and non-Orthodox Jews enjoy personal and politi­cal freedom, but they suffer the humiliation of Orthodox power over many areas of their personal and public lives. Marriage, divorce, inheritance, burial, food, and Sabbath obser­vances are subject to Orthodox tyranny. Even Jewish identity lies in the hands of Orthodox rabbis and Orthodox courts. A large secular Jewish population cries out for political relief.

In the Diaspora, secular and humanistic Jews enjoy the freedom that Western govern­ments and constitutions have conferred on them. But, within Jewish communities, both local and national, they have suffered from exclusion. And, ironically, this exclusion has been inflicted on them by Reform and Con­servative Jews, who have been victims of exclusion in other places.

There are two reasons for this rejection in a seemingly pluralistic Jewish world. In Diaspora environments Jews have preferred to define themselves solely as a religious group. By this definition, to be Jewish is to be religious. Nonreligious Jews represent some kind of internal contradiction or lapse in Jew­ish identity. This absurd restrictiveness is re­inforced by the discomfort that many Jews have with Jewish atheism. In America espe­cially, religious belief has been identified with both respectability and morality. Many secu­lar Jews are uncomfortable to identify them­selves as secular. They fear adverse public opinion in the non-Jewish world.

The second reason for exclusion is that secular Jews have been largely disorganized. They have functioned as alienated people without congregations or communities. Or they have participated in Jewish organizations that do not have a religious agenda, but that include Jews from many denominations. Hadassah, ORT, and B’nai Brith are not actu­ally religious. Their programs are secular. But the majority of their members are not.

Humanistic Judaism, when it was estab­lished thirty-seven years ago, was a deliber­ate attempt to give organizational reality to the secular Jewish world. Orthodox, Conser­vative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Juda­ism presented themselves as branches of Judaism with congregations, trained leaders, and federations of communities. The failure of secular Jews to conceive of themselves as a fifth branch of Judaism and their hostility to congregational structures and professional leadership made it easy for their enemies to keep them on the outside. Reading circles and schools, however reinforced by ethnic and national sentiment, were not enough to break through the barriers. Secular Humanistic Judaism had to be reconceived as a Jewish de­nomination, standing side by side with the four religious denominations. The negative appellation non-religious had to be replaced by the positive humanistic.

During the past ten years the Jewish es­tablishment in North America has become more receptive to recognizing Humanistic Judaism as a legitimate fifth alternative. Many developments are responsible for this change. The increasing freedom of Jews to choose not to be Jewish in a society of declining anti- Semitism; the growing anxiety over the sur­vival of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, triggered by the rising rate of intermarriage; the increasing secularization of Jewish life through prosperity and family decline; the increasing diversity of lifestyles in the Jew­ish melieu; the decline in synagogue affilia­tion in a world where old formulas no longer fit new needs; a greater openness to choices that at one time were viewed as being on the fringe — all of these factors form the context for change.

One manifestation of change is the delib­erate attempt to recruit openly declared Secular Humanistic Jews for leadership roles in Jewish community federations, Jewish community councils, and Jewish community centers. Another is the admission of Humanistic rabbis to local boards of rabbis and their active participation in the work of these associations.

The most dramatic development occurred in Atlanta in November, 1999. At that time United Jewish Communities (UJC), the new “congress” of all the Jewish communities in North America, held its first continental as­sembly. The Society for Humanistic Judaism was invited to present a session at that con­ference. In November 2000 in Chicago, the leaders of our movement presented, together with their Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist compatriots, a Shabbat service and a study session. The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism hosted a booth to advertise the programs of the Institute to train rabbis and madrikhim. Our presence at the UJC General Assembly and our participation in its programs is a quantum leap in community recognition and acceptance. We hope that this precedent will provide a stimulus to similar developments in Europe, Latin America, and Israel.

Conceiving of ourselves as part of the mainstream and not as part of the fringe is a radical departure from our traditional self-im­age. But reality justifies our new approach. A large percentage of the Jewish people are secu­lar in conviction and behavior. They are often at the center of Jewish community life. The time may have arrived when their presence and true identity will finally be recognized.

The Rabbi Writes – 2nd Bienniel Meeting of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews

The Jewish Humanist, September 1988, Vol. XXVI, Number 2

At the end of September, during the festival of Sukkot, a special conference will be held in Brussels-which, in a very important way, is part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Birmingham Temple. 

The second biennial meeting of the new International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews is the special event.  It was founded in Detroit two years ago.  And, to a large extent, it grew out of the pioneer efforts of our own Temple to develop a humanistic alternative in Jewish life.  Today seven national organizations from America, Canada, France, Belgium, Uruguay, Argentina and Israel are joined together in a common effort to promote a secular approach to Jewish identity.  Hopefully, this international connection will provide a worldwide voice for our philosophy and for our decisions on important issues. 

One of these issues is the question of who is a Jew.  Although, on the surface, it appears to be a perfunctory issue, the answer to the question has aroused intense controversy in the Jewish world.  The persistent attempts of orthodox Jews in Israel to force the Israeli government to exclude from Jewish identity and Jewish privileges all citizens who do not conform to the orthodox vision of what a Jew is has dramatized the question. 

The orthodox criteria for Jewish identity are an odd mixture of racial and religious requirements.  All people born of Jewish mothers, regardless of their religious beliefs, loyalties or cultural attachments, are Jews.  But men and women who want to join the Jewish people must be converted by orthodox rabbis and pledge their commitment to orhodox practice.  This apparent inconsistency is defended with great passion by traditional Jews. 

The consequences of this traditional position, if it is applied uniformly throughout Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora, is the exclusion of large numbers of people who want to be Jews.  In an age of inreasing intermarriage there are thousand of Jewish children who have Jewish fathers but no Jewish mothers.  In a time of religious diversity there are thousands of potential “converts” who like Judaism but who cannot stomach orthodoxy.  In a world where millions of Jews are secular and find their Jewish identity in cultural loyalties, an identification of Jewish legitimacy with orthodox law and orthodox practice makes a majority of the Jewish people feel like second-class citizens. 

Neither conservative nor reform authorities have responded adequately to this controversy.  Conservative Jews follow the orthodox timidly, only demanding that conservative rabbis have the same privileges as the orthodox.  Reform Jews have been bolder acknowledging that Jewish fathers confer Jewish identity just as well as Jewish mothers.  But they still insist on some form of theistic conversion process for newcomers. 

What is needed is a bold repudiation of the orthodox position.  We need a definition of Jewish identity which will embrace all the people who think they are Jews, are acknowledged as Jews and who want to be Jews. 

We need a definition that will give the same rights to Jewish fathers as the orthodox give to Jewish mothers. 

We need a definition that will proclaim Judaism to be more than a religion, and Jewish identity to be far more than religious identity.  Cultural Jews are as much Jews as religious Jews. 

We need a definition that offers admission to secular people.  Secular newcomers who want to identify with Jewish history and Jewish destiny should be as welcome as the smaller minority who seek to be sincere orthodox Jews. 

We need a definition that tells the truth about the Jewish people and enables Jews to be honest about who they are and what they are. 

And once we have arrived at this definition through public discussion on an international level we need to speak loud and clear with one voice to the Jewish world.  It may be the case  that our proclamation will be welcomed by thousands of Jews who have been uncomfortable with the traditional monopoly of official definitions. 

What follows is the resolution approved by the International Executive of the Federation to be presented for discussion, amendment, and approval by the Brussels conference. 

Who is a Jew?  After more than thirty centuries Jews continue to debate this question. 

This debate is no academic exercise.  At stake is the integrity of millions of Jews who do not find their Jewish identity in religious belief or religious practice, but who discover their Jewishness in the national experience of the Jewish people.  At stake, also, is the Jewish identity of thousands of men and women, in Israel and in the Diaspora, who want to be Jewish, but who are rejected by the narrow legalism of traditional authorities. 

We, the members of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, believe that the survival of the Jewish people depends on a more generous view of Jewish identity than traditional religion allows.  We welcome into the Jewish people all men and women who sincerely desire to share the Jewish fate, regardless of their maternal ancestry and regardless of their religious beliefs.  We challenge the assumption that the Jews are primarily a religious community and that certain religious convictions and behavior are essential to full membership in the Jewish people. 

On the contrary, the Jewish people began as a nation, a nation with many diverse and opposing beliefs and personal convictions  It evolved into an international people, with a culture and civilization all its own.  Judaism, as the national culture of the Jews, is more than theological commitment.  It is language, a vast body of literature, historical memories and ethical values.  It is a treasure house of many options. 

We Jews have a moral responsibility to embrace all people who seek to identify with our culture and destiny. Will the children and spouses of intermarriage, who desire to be part of the Jewish people be cast aisde because they do not have Jewish mothers and do not wish to under conversion? 

Therefore-in response to the cruel and self-destructive definition of the Jews 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 to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, civilization, community and fate of the Jewish people. 

The Millennium: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

HJ Vol 27 No 4 Autumn 1999

Millennium fever is abroad. Some people are expecting the end of the world. Others are preparing for computer catastrophes. Still others are planning parties. Since socialism died, secular utopian visions for the next thousand years are hard to find. Of course, all of this anxiety is technically inappropriate. Since Jesus was most likely born in 4 B.C.E., the beginning of the millennium (as dated from his presumed birth) happened three years ago! 

Millennium time is an obvious time for prophecy. Secular prophets can be excused if they turn out to be fallible. There are so many variables to tangle with. The way to begin the process is to look at the amazing transformations of the past millennium. 

One thousand years ago, most of the planet’s people were subsistence farmers living in villages. The muslim world was at the peak of its power. Christian Europe was an economic backwater. Human minds and lives were centered on religion. Governments were princely and authoritarian. 

One thousand years later, the Muslim world is economically primitive. European culture dominates the world. Most people live in cities, not villages. The lifestyles of urban people are overwhelmingly secular. The political environment of most powerful nations is one of democracy and personal freedom. Our millennium has been unique. There is a radical discontinuity between its beginning and its end. 

For the Jews of the world, the past millennium has brought an equally radical transformation. One thousand years ago, most of the Jewish people lived in Muslim countries. Their lives were controlled by religious ritual and religious authority. External and internal governments were authoritarian and oppressive. One thousand years later, most Jews reside in nations of predominantly European culture, including a Jewish state. Their lifestyle has more to do with consumer choices than with divine commandments. Their political and economic environments offer emancipation, freedom, and prosperity. Their connection to their historic past is minimal. 

Never before in Jewish history has change been so dramatic. In the last two hundred years of this millennium, the interests and behavior of Jews have completely diverged from the traditions of the past. Synagogues and temples have become haves of nostalgia, where Jews can pretend to be traditional and to dent that they have radically changed. But the reality is too powerful to sustain the denial. A secular environment of personal freedom has no precedent in human history. At the end of this millennium has no precedent in human history. 

A free society, the gift of Anglo-Saxon Protestant politics, has undermined the walls of Jewish conformity. Today Jewish diversity is expanding. No single Jewish authority has the power to regulate Jewish life. Every Jew enjoys the privilege of choice. And the “menu” is almost infinite. Moses and Marx, Jeremiah and Freud, Akiba and Camus, gefilte fish and bacon, all are possible combinations on the buffet of freedom. Many Jews don yarmulkes at intermarriages. Some choices are rational and in good taste. Some choices are irrational and in bad taste. But no one seems to have the power to stop choosing. Of course, all this rapid change has produced high levels of guilt and anxiety. Many Jews are traumatized by freedom. Many want to go forward and backward at the same time. The rise of a militant Jewish fundamentalism is not a sign that change is reversing. It is a tribute to its success.  

So what are the prospects for the next millennium? Will the technological transformation of the industrial world render nationalism obsolete and break down the ethnic and religious barriers that have divided humanity? Will communication and transportation be so swift that the “global village” becomes real? Under today’s circumstances it is difficult to predict events beyond the next one hundred years. Empirical prophets are restrained by insufficient evidence. Nevertheless, it is clear that the beginning of the next millennium will continue the radical transformation of the Jew.  

What can we expect? 

Prosperity, leisure, and secular education will continue to make the Jew more secular. The secular goods of the market economy and the consumer culture have become more attractive than the offerings of traditional religion. 

Israel will continue to exist. A global economy will utilize its buying power and make it prosperous. The gradual secularization of the Arab and Muslim worlds will enable Israel to find allies, if not friends, in the Near East. 

Jewish life will grow more chaotic through diversity. Atheists, mystics, and Jesus-freaks all will be a part of it. In Israel, peace will bestow new power on the secular minority. New Age religion will share the marketplace with Orthodoxy. 

The dichotomy between ultra-Orthodox and secularized Jews will grow wider. As a protest against the modern world, ultra-Orthodoxy will continue to recruit many Jews who find the stresses of contemporary urban society intolerable. Living in their islands of segregation, traditional Jews will feel increasingly alienated from the rest of the Jewish community. 

Intermarriage will remain a significant part of Jewish life. Even in Israel, marriages between Jews and Arabs will flow from the freedom of an open society. Anti-Semitism will persist as a chronic annoyance. Since its foundations lie in the discomfort of millions of people with the stresses of a modern capitalist and urban culture and the perceived dominant role of Jews in that culture, its locus will continue to lie chiefly among the poor and lower classes. 

In the Diaspora, assimilation and intermarriage will de-ethnicize the Jewish people. After several generations, the stereotypes of Ashkenazic Jews will vanish. Jewish identity will be primarily a matter of choice. In the Jewish state, a new ethnicity will emerge out of the mixing of Ashkenazic and Eastern Jews. In both places the Jewish profile will become radically different. 

Higher birthrates in Israel will reverse the current population edge of the Diaspora. By 2050 the Zionist dream will be realized: the majority of the Jews in the world will reside in Israel. Israel will continue to play a greater and greater role in Jewish life, even for the de-ethnicized Jews of the Diaspora. 

American Jewry will shrink in size through low birth rates and attrition. But many non-Jews will choose a version of Jewish identity. A fascination with the achievements of Jews will continue to recruit adherents from the middle and upper classes. 

Humanistic Judaism will continue to grow and to become more respectable. Secular Jews will be attracted to Humanistic Judaism if the movement is both strong and visible. Reform and Conservative Jews will keep shifting between traditional and liberal initiatives in order to deal with their diverse and amorphous constituencies. Internal disputes may fragment both movements. 

Relentless change will be the order of the day. The technology of the next millennium will continue to generate both power and anxiety. More than theology, it will determine the future of Jewish life and of Judaism. 

Jewish Survival

“Jewish Survival” from Humanistic Judaism journal, Spring/Summer 1980

Jewish survival.

It’s a magic phrase.

Most Jews feel guilty if they are not concerned with Jewish survival. Most of us feel it necessary to prove that we are.

After all, we have suffered so much persecution, we have been assaulted by so many enemies. If we consent to the disappearance of our group, we will earn the disapproval of our martyred ancestors. We will give the final laugh to our enemies. We will be accused of treason.

Because of this guilt, the issue of Jewish survival has become a Jewish obsession. All Jewish discussions ultimately lead to it. Most Jewish anxiety stems from it.

Despite the tenderness of the problem, we Humanistic Jews have to have an answer to the question of survival. If we are committed to the value of Jewish identity, we are also committed to the preservation of that identity.

But we have to be careful how we define the question.

We have to avoid regarding Jewish survival as the highest value, to which all other ideals are subordinate. Such devotion is the narrowness of community leaders who always regard social action and cultural programming as “gimmicks” for interesting Jews in Jewish institutions; or the fanaticism of Meir Kahane who justifies terrorism in the name of community survival.

We have to distinguish between the quantity of life and the quality of life.

There is no doubt that if all of us embraced the Lubavitcher ideology and life style that Jewish uniqueness would be preserved. But at what price? Is a life of compulsive ritual, male chauvinism, cultural segregation and a childlike devotion to an absolute ruler morally tolerable? And if it is morally Intolerable, it is not an appropriate demand to make on anybody.

We need to make a distinction between holocaust and assimilation. A holocaust implies the destruction of the Jew. Assimilation implies the disappearance of Jewish identity. Certainly, there an important distinction between the fascist who wishes to physically eliminate the individual Jew and the universalist who desires that the Jews and all other ethnic groups choose a “higher” human identity. Changing one’s cultural commitment is radically different from losing one’s life.

We need to be aware of the irony of antisemitism. While hatred of the Jew has destroyed many Jews, it has also brought many reluctant members back into the fold and unified the community against the enemy. Without our foes we would be hard put to stay together. Therefore, it is by no coincidence that community leaders use antisemitism as a motivation for loyalty. Just as physicians have a vested interest in disease, many avid Jews have an unconscious need to find enemies.

We have to dismiss the illusions which traditional historians have fostered. The assertion that Torah loyalty preserved Jewish identity throughout the centuries is not completely true. Religion is not the only factor in Jewish culture. Language (whether Hebrew or Yiddish) and economic specialization were of equal importance. The Christian rulers of medieval Europe did not allow our ancestors to live because of their Torah. They granted them survival because of their economic usefulness. In the end, language, religion and work were vehicles of ethnic pride.

We have to avoid blind nostalgia. It is important to remember that what worked in the past may not work in the future. A technique for group survival that was effective in the past, like ritual segregation or the refusal to marry outside the group, is useless if the vast majority of contemporary Jews are unwilling to use it. Laws that nearly everybody disobeys, subject the authority that pronounces them to ridicule. They produce self-righteousness, not survival.

. . . .

What does Humanistic Judaism have to offer to the promotion of Jewish identity that is different from the well-known approaches of Orthodoxy, Reform-Conservatism and Mystical Judaism?

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. Our Jewish identity is not inferior to that of the past.

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, and not a religion, then it can embrace wide ideological differences. It can be inclusive rather than exclusive, allowing more and more people to identify themselves as Jews.

We offer the possibility of a secular religion. Such a combination is not a contradiction in terms. It simply implies that the secular Jewish activities of language, music, dance and humor are of equal or greater importance to those of religion. If religion refers to the appeasement and resignation behavior we manifest in the presence of what we do not control, then too much religion is dangerous, just as no religion is pretentious. The secular mood is the opposite to the religious feeling. In the face of situations, we have the human power to alter, it is defiant, challenging, irreverent and eager to change. In the presence of the unalterable, the secularist becomes mildly religious, shrugging his shoulders in resignation, but offering no gratitude. For those Jews who are far more secular than religious, we applaud their liberation and welcome their Jewish identity.

We offer an alternative history of the Jewish people, and an alternative view of Jewish roots. 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 was controlled by the clergy and 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. Merchants, musicians, poets, folklorists, inventors, soldiers, humorists, and the devotees of the popular language were made officially invisible, although their contribution to a Jewish sense of uniqueness and well-being was the equal to that of the clergy. The attitudes and ideas of the modern secular Jew are not alien to the Jewish past. They 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. 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. Joining a culture is much kinder, more rational and better humored than joining a religion.

We offer the endorsement of a variety of life-styles. We refuse to drown in the sentiment about the traditional Jewish family. Its patriarchal tyranny and male chauvinism are as characteristic as the security system it provided. 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 Bella Abzug. Otherwise, we will save our clichés 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, and not by the narrowness of religious ritual. Tel Aviv and the kibbutz are more characteristic of the new Israel than Jerusalem and the Bible. 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 freed of religious coercion and open to a truly cultural definition of Jewish identity.

We offer more than a Jewish agenda. We are also humanists, eager to participate in an emerging world culture, as well us 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. Judaism is too narrow unless it is willing to share its time with universalism.

We offer the concept of a new kind of Jewish leader. He must be able to serve as the ethical and cultural guide of Jewish groups and congregations in the same way that the historic rabbi served the community. But his training would not ape the training of the traditional rabbi, with its almost exclusive emphasis on religious texts. It would focus on the secular and humanist roots of Jewish culture and prepare him to add his own creative alternatives. (The training of Reform and Conservative rabbis today is simply a watered-down version of the training of traditional scholars.) Without this new leadership, the Jewish humanist and the Jewish secularist will gravitate to more traditional guides to serve their needs.

We offer more future and less past. In a time of rapid change, excessive nostalgia can be disastrous. What will be, becomes just as important as what was. The scientific spirit refuses to worship the past and to imagine that the greatest wisdom was uttered three thousand years ago. Nor does it need the endorsement of the past, whether Biblical or Talmudic, to make changes for the future. Given the revolution of modern life, we should be just as interested in creating new Jewish culture as in reviving old varieties. If we invent behavior to serve human needs—and do not invent human life styles to fit rigid behavior—we have no other choice.

As you can see, if we value Jewish identity there are many bold and unique actions that we can take to ensure its survival.

We Humanistic Jews are part of a “fourth alternative” in Judaism. We share this alternative with all our brothers and sisters who designate themselves as Secular, Cultural or Creative Jews. We have different labels, but essentially, one program. We need to cooperate with each other to make this program for Jewish survival a respectable reality.

Alternative Literature

“Alternative Literature” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)

Humanistic Jews need a literature that clearly and boldly states what they think and believe—in the same way that “Rejectionist” literature clearly and boldly presents what Rejectionists think and believe.

This literature should defend reason and dignity in a clear and open way. It should talk about human power and human freedom with the same directness that rabbinic literature talks about divine power and divine freedom. The ordinary reader, who is not familiar with clerical and legal rescue strategies, should be able to hear the message without confusion.

This literature should present Jewish history and the Jewish experience in a scientific humanistic manner. Instead of explaining how the old establishment literature failed to tell the story in the right way, it should tell the story in the right way. Instead of pretending that the roots of the modern Jewish personality lie in the belief system of the priests and the rabbis, it should describe the real roots.

This literature should be straightforward and should not have to be defended against misinterpretation. Humanism is not served well by writing that seems to say the opposite. The texts should make it easy for us to teach, not necessary for us to apologize.

If we apply these three criteria to existing literature, what passes the test?

The classics of humanism pass the test. Epicurus, Democritus, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Jean-Paul Sartre, and George Santayana speak their minds clearly and without reservation. They are not Jews. But they are articulate humanists. The literature of humanism is part of a humanistic Judaism, even more than the pious writing of pious Jews who did not defend either reason or human autonomy.

These writers did not deal with Jewish history or the Jewish experience specifically. But in their treatment of the human condition, they enable us to understand the values and ideas that make a secular Jewish identity possible. If Humanistic Judaism is a philosophy of life, it must be able to place the value of Jewish identity in a philosophic context. That context is universal and includes all humanists.

The writings of famous Jews who were humanists and who wrote about humanism pass the test. Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Walter Lippmann, Walter Kaufmann, Isaiah Berlin, and Hannah Arendt came to their humanism out of the background of their Jewish experience. Although they were not aware of their own Jewish significance, they were voices of the Jewish experience—an experience which had molded the Jewish personality but which had never been able, in the face of rabbinic suppression, to establish its own literature. The words are new. But the affirmation of the human spirit is an old Jewish response.

The literature of secular historians, sociologists, and archaeologists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who have uncovered the real history of the Jews, passes the test. Baruch Spinoza, Julius Wellhausen, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Simon Dubnow, Salo Baron, and Theodor Gaster went beyond the official story of rabbinic Judaism to reveal the events that were distorted or never noticed and the natural causes that made these events possible. It is the Jewish experience, not the classic description of that experience, that is important.

The writings of Jewish nationalists, whether Yiddishist or Zionist, whether socialist or capitalist, who rejected supernatural authority and who sought to persuade the Jews to take their own destiny into their own hands, pass the test. I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Ahad Haam, Micah Berdichevsky, Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, A. D. Gordon, Ber Borochov, Shaul Tchemikhovsky, Vladimir Jabotinsky, David Ben Gurion, and Joseph Brenner mocked the pious passivity of the old regime and sought to restore Jewish confidence in human planning and human effort. Their passion produced some of the best humanistic Jewish propaganda. Even exaggerated sentimental poetry like Tchemikhovsky’s “Ani Maamin” still hits the mark: “Laugh, laugh at all my dreams. But this I the dreamer proclaim. I still believe in man. I still believe in you.”

The affirmations of intellectual and organizational pathbreakers for a humanistic Judaism must be included. Horace Kallen, Yehuda Bauer, Haim Cohn, Albert Memmi, and Gregorio Klimovsky are important voices.

The celebration materials of secular Jewish communities qualify for admission. For seventy years, the secular kibbutzim in the land of Israel invented new humanistic ways to celebrate old holidays. Their efforts are collected in kibbutz archives, untranslated and presently unavailable to world Jewry.

The reflections of Jewish essayists and novelists who are ardent humanists and who value their Jewish identity are an important part of a humanistic Jewish literature. George Steiner, Yehuda Amichai, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and Primo Levi dramatize the human condition and the Jewish condition. Whether their perspective is cosmopolitan or nationalistic, a new approach to the significance of Jewish identity flows from their creativity.

A humanistic Jewish literature differs in many ways from the rabbinic variety.

It is new and contemporary. It lacks the advantages of antiquity and wide popular recognition. It is not embedded in the folk cultures of Western civilization. It does not conjure up the image of books that grandparents revered.

It tends to be scholarly and intellectual. Folksy legends and naive stories that appeal to children are few and far between. Not that these rabbinic styles are not possible on humanistic terms. They just have not been indulged.

Its authors tend to be far more diverse. They are less involved in professional Jewishness than the historic prophets, priests, and rabbis. They lack the professional solidarity and intensity that these old fraternities engendered.

But, most important of all, it is incomplete. Rabbinic Judaism has had over two thousand years to say what it needed to say. Its view of Jewish history, its roster of heroes, its celebration formats, its sentimental symbols, its sacred scriptures, its folksy messages for the masses, are established. What remains is only repetition and reverence.

Humanistic Judaism has only begun. Most of the literature it needs, it still has to create. Two thousand years of censorship and official intimidation have put us far behind in the race. The Jewish experience is old. But having the opportunity to describe it in a humanistic way is new.

We still need a clear, popular, poetic, non-scholarly presentation of Jewish history. We still need folksy sentimental biographies of humanistic Jewish heroes. We still need vivid celebration formats that make the humanistic meaning of the holidays come alive. We still need naive didactic stories for children and inspirational anthologies for adults. We still need time for our symbols to touch the heart.

The test of a successful Humanistic Judaism will be its courage and persistent integrity. If the task of creating this new literature frightens the Jews of the Secular Revolution and freezes their talents, they will drift back to the compromises of the lackluster Ambivalents. They will strive to rescue the “scriptures” of rabbinic Judaism for their very own and fail. In the end, they will be neither here nor there—suffering the cynicism of lost integrity and deception.

But if the task inspires them with a sense of urgency and excitement, there is no doubt that the talent exists to tell the Jewish story the way it should be told.

Modern Orthodox Judaism

“Modern Orthodox Judaism” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)

Modem Orthodoxy is the establishment Judaism of Western Europe. It is sedate and decorous. It is traditional and secular. Its leaders receive a good secular education and train in modern seminaries. Its members participate in all the professions of an urban society. Appearance-wise, they are indistinguishable from all the other citizens of the secular state. What is unique about their behavior is mainly evident in their homes and synagogues. These institutions become the focus of their traditional attachments. Since most of the unique behavior patterns of the rabbinic lifestyle are incongruous with secular existence, they are praised but rarely observed. Female segregation, ritual purity, and the dress code do not find any real community support and are not enforced by public opinion.

While it is important to the Modem Orthodox to be designated “Orthodox,” they are despised and denounced by the Rejectionists. Separate seating for the sexes in the synagogue is hardly a substitute for traditional belief. An “orthodoxy” that avoids discussing divine rewards and punishments, the salvation of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and the importance of the World to Come undermines the motivation of the halakha and subverts the traditional justification for preserving Jewish identity. Proving that the dietary laws are good for health and hygiene (true or not) turns the argument into a rational consequential one and deprives the rabbinic tradition of the supernatural context out of which it arose.

The Rejectionists are right. Modern Orthodoxy sometimes looks like Orthodoxy. But it tastes different. And most of its adherents are more comfortable spending time with their secular friends than with pious Hasidim.