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Our French Heritage

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 25, No 1-2 Winter_Spring 1997

We are here in Paris. And for us, as Humanistic Jews, Paris has a special significance. 

First of all, Paris is the most beautiful city in the world. Other cities have more imposing natural settings. But no other urban center possesses to the same degree the wonders of human creation. We Jews have been an urban people for more than two thousand years. Paris epitomizes the urban setting that has been our home for such a long time. 

More importantly, Paris was the setting for a series of political events that transformed the Jewish people. We call them the French revolution. It was in Paris that Jewish emancipation began in Europe. It was in Paris that an elected government first proclaimed religious toleration. It was in Paris that the Declaration of the Rights of Man was conceived and proclaimed. The secular revolution fought by French rebels against the old regime brought freedom to Jewish life, a freedom not only to taste the opportunities of the outside world, but also to defy the tyranny of tradition in the inner world of Jewish community life. That freedom brought positive energy to the Jewish world. 

The foundation of the French Revolution was an intellectual movement called the Enlightenment. The devotees of the Enlightenment celebrated the life of reason. They imagined that it was possible to create a new social order that was both compassionate and rational, a political and economic system that would promote dignity and happiness. Religion and tradition were viewed as obstacles to the achievement of these goals. Creative alternatives replaced the veneration of the past. 

Before the Revolution, the primary vision of social order was the family model. This model derived from the historic role of the family in an agricultural world. Loving the land and producing more and more children was what the farming life needed and demanded. The family ethos provided for both. It also provided authoritarian parents who offered protection and acceptance at the price of obedience. All larger units of social organization were modeled on the family. Clans had elders. Tribes had chiefs. Nations had kings. And the universe had God. Until modern times, people were viewed as subjects of higher authority in the same way as children were the subjects, and even servants, of their parents. 

The family model explains traditional religion and traditional ethics, with their emphasis on faith, reverence of the past, unconditional obedience, and hostility to outsiders. Traditional religion and paternalism went hand in hand. The alliance of the aristocracy with the church was as much a matter of vested interest as it was of belief. 

Capitalism and urbanization undermined the traditional family and the traditional social order. They produced mobility, ambition, and mixing — which, in turn, produced such new values as individualism, skepticism, and personal freedom. A world of free and ambitious individuals found tradition confining and authoritarian parents intolerable. In time, skepticism and free exploration produced the wonders of science. Evidence, not ancestors, now became the arbiter of truth. 

The French Revolution embraced a new social order, which we call democracy. It affirmed the right of human beings, using human reason, to rearrange the political landscape in the name of human happiness. It spoke of equality and fraternity. It honored personal autonomy. It rejected the paternalism of kings and bishops and encouraged the elevation of the lower classes through education. The authoritarian state was consigned to the dustbin of history. Even revolutionary dictators had to clothe their pronouncements in the language of freedom. 

The verbal flag of the Revolution was the word citoyen. No longer would people be the subjects of kings. They would be citizens, brothers and sisters in equality. A radical new social order was proposed. Instead of the authoritarian family-nation, there would be a community of autonomous individuals, bound together by patriotism and mutual interest, who would jointly promote the public welfare. Furthermore, the “public welfare” was no single goal determined by a supreme ruler. It was a multiplicity of individual agendas seeking some kind of workable harmony. 

Secular Humanistic Judaism is the child of Paris, as much as of Jerusalem. It is the offspring of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It is the son and daughter of the two thousand years of Jewish urban existence, which is one of the sources of modern capitalism and science. It rejects authoritarian government and embraces the ideal of the citoyen

What does this social ideal mean for us as Jews? 

Citoyen means that the old family model will not work either for ethics or for governance. The test of right and wrong does not lie in the will of our ancestors or in the will of God. It lies in the connection between our behavior and the satisfaction of the basic needs of ourselves and of others. People are not the servants of government, whether divine or human. Governments are the servants of people. 

Citoyen means that love is not enough. In an urban world of strangers, justice cannot depend on love. Feelings of love are appropriate to the intimate world of family and friends. They cannot guide us in the anonymous outside world. Ethical behavior toward outsiders, moral concern for the welfare of people we do not know, derives from urban anxiety — from the deep-seated awareness that we, too, depend on the kindness of strangers. A particular stranger may not be able to help us, but every stranger is a symbol for all. Compassionate and respectful social behavior arises out of the knowledge that failure to respond to the needs of others will justify others in returning our indifference. Duty has foundations in both empathy and self-interest. Guilt is connected to the discomfort we feel when we receive more than we give. 

Citoyen means that democracy is a convenience. Societies in which permanent majorities oppress permanent minorities are not just. No individual outside the family model can be expected to be loyal to a social system from which he or she derives no benefit. Individual rights restrict the power of the majority and force it to become more sensitive and more rational. A just society may not necessarily arrange for equal rewards for equal talent and equal effort, but it enables every citizen to feel that he or she is included. 

Citoyen means that there is an inevitable tension between my needs and the needs of others. Family survival is no longer the only agenda. Personal happiness is also compelling and morally justified. Justice is a balancing act between the individual and the group. One extreme is masochism, the sacrifice of the individual for the group. The other extreme is an atomistic selfishness, the rejection of the group in favor of self-assertion. A meaningful life lies somewhere in the middle. Individual Jews do not exist only to promote Jewish survival. Personal identity and personal needs are also important. A compassionate and rational Judaism must be able to address not only the survival needs of the Jewish people and the ethical responsibilities of being a world citizen, but also the happiness of the individual Jew. 

Citoyen means that there are no utpisas. Messianic visions are tied to authoritarian thinking. They are the expectations that native  and dependent children have of “omnipotent” parents. Many followers of the French Revolution betrayed their new adulthood and indulged in childish expectations of the future. A world of competing personal agendas is not easy to harmonize. We will never stop bumping into each other. Frustration will not go away. Life will continue to be unfair. But the reward of personal dignity, plus the awareness that we can arrange for more happiness and more justice than we presently have, provides the basis for a meaningful life. 

We are individuals. We are Jews. We are humanists. All of these realities are important. No one of them is more important than the others. We are also citoyens, heirs of the French Revolution. We cannot go back to the family model. History will not allow that. Nor would we choose to return. Our balancing act is hard; but, if we value it, it will make us strong.