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The Rabbi Writes

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

1983. It’s our 20th anniversary year. 

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

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

What did we learn during the past twenty years? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polydoxy

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

The Greeks gave us the word orthodox which means the right way (as opposed to the wrong way). 

Alvin Reines, a professor of philosophy at The Hebrew Union College has given us the word polydox which means the multiple way (as opposed to any one way). 

‘I am a Polydox Jew’ may sound a bit esoteric. But it has become the label affirmation of a small number of libera REform rabbis and laymen who believe that establishment Reform is reverting to tradition and is betraying the unique message of historic Reform. 

Time Magazine recently publicized the first national conference of Polydox Jews in St. Louis. Alvin Reines spoike. The Polydox Jewish Confederation was established and the Institute for Creative Judaism, the research arm of the movement, was funded. 

At present, there is only one official Polydox congregation (in Richmond, Virginia). Most self-aware Polydox Jews are Reform rabbis who serve regular Reform congregations and who were disciples of Alvin Reines at the Hebrew Union College. 

The ‘scripture’ of Polydoxy is the written word of Reines, who has composed a series of essays about his ideology during the past thirteen years. 

Since Polydoxy, like Humanistic Judaism, is one step ‘beyond’ Reform, we may reasonably ask the question-what is the connection between PJ and HJ? 

We shall begin the answer with the articulation of the basic principles of Reines. 

  1. American Jews are in crisis because the official religion of the community-whether Orthodoxy , Conservativ or Reform, is unrelated to the private religion of its individual members. The Jewish establishment lacks integrity. 
  1. ‘Religion, in its broadest sense, includes three basic elements: an ideology of existence that responds to the ultimate problems of the human condition; a doctrine of morality; and a system of observances that expresses and celebrates peak moments and occasions in human experience.’ 
  1. Freedom is a fundamental value. ‘Every member of the Polydox Jewish Confederation pledges to affirm the religious freedom of all other members in return for their pledges to affirm his or her own. Equally binding on the members of the PJC is the corollary of the Freedom Covenant: every person’s freedom ends where the other person’s freedom begins.’ 
  1. ‘A Jew is a person who wishes to take the name Jew, and who is descended from a Jewish parent, grandparent, or ancestor; also a Jew is a person who wishes to take the name Jew and is a member of the Jewish community.’ 
  1. Jewish communal loyalty is produced by belief in the religion of Judaism of the community. Jews who do not really believe in the religion of their particular Jewish communities will themselves ultimately abandon membership in those communities, or their children or grandchildren will. Compared to shared religion, the shared elements of ethnicity are derivative and trivial, and call for no special loyalty. To deny one’s real religion is to deny one’s own true self; to deny ethnicity is to deny non-essential patterns of behavior. 
  1. The Polydox Jew has the right to set the times of festivals according to rhythms that he or she finds most meaningful. These rhythms may be natural, such as solstice and seasons; economic; cultural; or personal. An instance of rhythmic harmonization is changing the Hanukka celebration to eight days beginning at the winter solstice December 21-22, rather than at Kislev 25. This change of date brings the Hanukka celebration into harmony with the great, natural economic and social rhythms of the real world in which the American Jew actually lives. 

These six principles summarize the basic tenets of Reines. 

I would like to reply to them one by one. 

  1. Crisis. What Reines says is true. American Judaism suffers from advanced hypocrisy. The declarations of organizational Judaism do not coincide with the real religion of most American Jews. However, the crisis is even deeper. Private Jews, speaking privately, often say they believe what they, in fact, do not believe. Many individual Jews are self-declared. It is not their stated beliefs which are in conflict with the voice of the establishment. It is their behavior. The major task of an honest Judaism is not to challenge the establishment for their hypocrisy. In many cases, they are just echoing what many individual Jews claim they believe. It is to challenge the hypocrisy of the individual Jew whose behavior does not reflect any of the reverence for God and Torah he claims to have. 
  1. Religion. What Reines affirms is generally valid. Religion begins with the fear of death, or of the dead. It proceeds to use the reverence for the dead to enforce certain moral standards and it celebrates this reverence through community celebrations. The moral and community dimension is only one of two major aspects of the religious enterprise. The other is the fascination with supernatural power (the power possessed by the dead)-how to appease it and how to use it. 
  1. Freedom. The Polydox concept of freedom is the most difficult concept to understand. It suffers from the same negativism that plagues Unitarianism. It starts out with the claim that no person has the right to tell anyone else what he or she should believe. No individual can play the ultimate authority to any other. 

As a general political principle, radical freedom is workable and appropriate. Each individual, whether he is Jewish or non-Jewish has the right to practice whatever religion he wants to so long as he does not interfere with the equal freedom of others to do the same. We simply agree to disagree. We do not use state power to enforce religious conformity. But as a principle for organizing religious communities, it is neither workable nor appropriate. Resistance to authoritarianism is purely negative. It has no positive glue to bind a community together. 

Unitarians suffer from this malaise. Since they despise any official creeds and proclaim radical freedom, they often recruit congregants whose primary emotion is anger at the authoritarian religions of their childhood from which they have escaped. These congregants know what they don’t want out of religion. But they are never quite sure what they do want. 

Their essential thrust is liberty not co-operation (sic). Mystics and rationalists end up in the same congregation united only by their hostility to traditional religion. Since the group has such a wide diversity of religious beliefs, any of them often incompatible one with the other (sic), the congregation spends enormous amounts of time negotiating compromise. The result is no bold creativity but timid progress. Since every person’s belief must be respected, decision making suffers paralysis. Moreover, the educational system becomes vacuous, because no indoctrination is allowed. A thin smorgasbord of world religious options is presented, while the children are told to simply choose what is meaningful to them. No choice is better or worse than any other. Hare Krishna is as good as Bertrand Russell. The Lubavitcher Rebbe is as desirable as John Dewey. The greatest ‘sin’ is to tell children that some choices are better than others. The commonsensical boldness would smack of indoctrination. 

How, indeed, do you organize a congregation or a religious community when the only unifying principle is the agreement to disagree. How do you create a public service that both a humanist and a supernatural mystic would be able to share and find mutually inspiring? At best, what you would have is a convential (sic) Jewish Community Center where a series of religiously incompatible groups share the facility. 

All that Polydoxy seems to arrange for is a situation where flexible humanistic Jews are compelled to spend their time negotiating a joint service with less flexible, more traditional Jews. The result is a timid cautious presentation pleasing to neither side. 

What I say to Polydoxy Jews is what I have said to so many Unitarians. Since most of you are humanists, anyway, why torture yourself? Be bold. Announce your humanism and allow your paralyzing minority to find their religious satisfaction elsewhere. An institution which seeks to accommodate all opinions provides none. 

Does Polydox promote no ethical value other than freedom? Are cooperation, generosity, compassion and rationality to be only personal options? Will four hundred individual definitions of the word ‘God’ improve communication within a congregation and enhance the religious experience? 

Standing against authoritarian religion is commendable. But it is never enough for organizing a community-if indeed you want a community. 

  1. Jewishness. Reines’ definition of a Jew is a generous commonsensical explanation, which is re-enforced (sic) by the way people normally use the word. The defining character of the Jewish community is shared descent. One may enter this ‘family’ either by birth or by ‘adoption’. 
  1. Ethnicity. Because of Reines’ definition of a Jew, his objection to ethnicity as a survival glue seems difficult to understand. If, indeed, Jewishness begins with ancestry (which after all is ethnic) and if indeed there is no shared community religion other than a belief in the validity of radical freedom, how can ‘religion’ be the survival factor? If the power of family is ignored, what compelling uniting ideological substance remains? 

Reines provides no raison d’ etre for Jewish survival. If Jewish ethnic identity is trivial, if Jewish family loyalty is secondary, why bother to combine radical freedom with Jewishness? After all, it is presumptuous to preempt radical freedom as a uniquely Jewish concept. For those who want it the Unitarians are already there. 

  1. Holidays. Moving holidays to serve individual desire has a slightly self-destructive thrust. Festivals are community celebrations. If every Jew celebrates Hanukka when he wants to, then Hanukka is useless. 

If Polydoxy as a movement, wants to move Hanukka to the winter solstice, that strategy has some semblance of rationality. As a community action, it might be persuasive to other liberal Jews. (Although the winter solstice seems a silly criterion in an urban culture. Making it coincide with Christmas would make more sense.) 

But Polydoxy is sabotaged by its own principle. In any congregation individual members are encouraged to celebrate Hanukka on whatever date they choose. The Polydoxy community cannot be effective because it cannot take a strong community stand against the pressure of the overwhelming majority of Jews to conform to the traditional date. 

Reines is trapped by incompatible objectives. He wants radical individual freedom and bold community innovation simultaneously. 

I think that Reines really wants to be part of bold community innovation. But he has chosen to promote a tired and increasingly ineffective old Unitarian principle instead. 

The strategy of the Freedom Covenant is to allow Polydoxy to function as an alternative Reform Judaism. It allows Polydox rabbis to do humanistic things in Reform Temples without alienating the established membership. Given its political context it will have to proceed slowly. 

As Humanistic Jews, we’re glad the Polydoxy is around. We regard it as the first step on the way from Reform to Humanistic Judaism. 

Reform Judaism

“Reform Judaism” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)

Reform—at least in the beginning—chose a bolder format. It broke with rabbinic Judaism and rejected the halakha. Living in Northern Europe, the early Reformers were influenced by Protestant culture and by its attachment to the Bible. Fearful of proclaiming reason alone as the source of truth, they searched for a more traditional authority. Faith in the Bible was so respectable in their environment that it seemed a natural alternative. Some of them began to assault Orthodoxy with denunciations of talmudic superstition and with appeals for a return to the purity of the Bible.

But the Bible was hardly the anthology for teaching the Secular Revolution. In many respects, it was more “primitive” and less reasonable than the Talmud. Its view of the universe, nature, and society was not compatible with modern science. Its description of the rights of husbands, wives, and foreigners seemed a bit awkward as a preface to human dignity and universalism. And it was loaded with all kinds of laws about sacrifice, ritual purity, and dietary practices that the Reformers were eager to discard on rational grounds. Although they hesitated to give up such a powerful weapon, something else was clearly needed.

In the 1840s, there appeared a German duo of renegade rabbis, Abraham Geiger and Samuel Holdheim, who provided Reform with a presentable ideology. Unlike the Conservatives who were stuck with the theological formulations of the halakha and who (with the exception of the Reconstructionists) never really attempted to deal with an alternative value for Jewish identity, the Reform renegades sought to find a justification for Jewish identity in the age of reason.

Their new formulation took account of the consequences of the Secular Revolution on Jewish life. In Western Europe, they had lost their national culture. Neither language nor folk customs separated them from other Europeans in their region. Emancipation meant secular citizenship and secular education and the opportunity to sign up for the new secular nationalism of England, France, and Germany. As for the halakha, it had been discarded by many secularized Jews as a burdensome interference with social integration.

The Reform ideologues, for obvious reasons, discarded ethnicity and nationality as motivating values. They seemed to have no future. Personal Messiahs and supernatural rewards were also rejected. They offended reason. Rabbinic law was irrelevant. It rubbed against the higher values of secular existence.

Only theological ideas remained. But which one? The ideologues selected monotheism. But what is uniquely Jewish about monotheism? Millions of non-Jews worship one God. Here the Reformers picked up on the traditional idea of the Chosen People (which [Mordecai] Kaplan was later to discard) and transformed it. While it was true that many Gentiles were already monotheists, the Jews were the divinely appointed missionaries of ethical monotheism. The special job of the Jews was to be the role-model advertisers of the one God.

Jewish history was a “progressive revelation” of the existence and nature of the Supreme Being. While the Bible and Talmud were expressions of this revelation, they were imperfect and open to emendation by future events. The age of reason was only one more step in the development of that disclosure. Ultimately, the nature of God would be totally revealed. The Messianic age of peace and love would follow. And the Jews could retire from their age-old job.

The Reform overhaul of the meaning and value of Jewish identity was bold and clear. Its only problem was that it was ludicrous. Why are Jewish monotheists more divinely appointed than Muslim monotheists? It would seem that it is the job of every sincere monotheist to be a missionary for the cause. How can any people designate themselves as ethical role models without ceasing to be exactly what they want to be? Self-righteousness is morally offensive. In what way does Jewish history reveal the existence of a nice single God? Jewish suffering suggests that he is either not so nice or that he is nice but limited. But, above all, what does ethical monotheism have to do with the age of reason or the Secular Revolution? The modern urban industrial world is hardly the setting for divine enthusiasts among the educated elite. Why would a bunch of Jewish “not-quite agnostics,” with a perfunctory formal belief in a perfunctory God, be chosen for such a missionary task? Yahveh must be as confused as his army of converters.

The one positive aspect of this theological travesty was that Reform Jews never took this formal ideology seriously. Like the Conservatives, they just limped along on the inertia of old identities. And like the Conservatives, they preferred the consolation of traditional endorsement. They really wanted “kosherizing” by the Bible. But which part? Their nonobservance made the endorsement of most of it very difficult.

Enter Prophetic Judaism. Many of the Reform leaders latched on to the Yahveh prophets who are praised by the editors of the Bible. Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah suddenly emerged as Reform heroes. The new scientific criticism of the Bible indicated that it was more complex and less unified than faith and tradition had described it. It had different authors from the writers the rabbis had designated. There were many internal contradictions. Individual books were patchwork creations from many separate documents. And much of the prophetic message was older than the Torah and was distorted by it.

The prophets became the comfortable heroes of the Reform layperson. Since they were old, traditional, and biblical, they were more understandable than Geiger’s “spirit of the age.” No matter that the prophets were devotees of ecstatic visions and supernatural intrusion. No matter that they were profoundly opposed to urbanization and the breakdown of the shepherd economy. No matter that their devotion to Yahveh was accompanied by a violent hostility to the worshipers of other gods. No matter that they were absolutely certain of the truth of their own personal revelation and intensely intolerant of disagreement. No matter that their love of the “good” and their hatred of “evil” did not mean a society of dignity and personal freedom. They had become the unlikely heroes of the age of reason. Yahveh would have had a fit.

The Reform Movement ended with slogans. Its formal ideology and its informal heroes had very little to do with Reform behavior. For a while, its Protestant format and its hostility to Jewish nationalism gave its adherents a form of social security. But they did not do very much to make Jewish identity interesting or worthwhile.