Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986
Traditional Judaism depends on an acceptance of the stories in the Torah. The Jewish religion began with God, who transmitted his commands to Abraham and Moses. Abraham’s grandson, Israel, had twelve sons, each of whom became the ancestor of a tribe. Ultimately all twelve tribes went to live in Egypt, where they were enslaved by the Pharaohs. After their liberation from bondage, their new leader, Moses, led them to Mt. Sinai. At this mountain, they received the full doctrine of the Torah and pledged themselves and their children to fulfill the commandments.
By this official story, the Bible came first. The religious regimen of Jewish life came second.
Non-traditional Judaism, including Reform, justifies its label by establishing its adherence to the Torah. The Torah is the peg on which all “real” Judaism supposedly hangs. The holidays and other ceremonies derive their “kosher” character from their presence in the Bible.
Humanistic Judaism, on the other hand, denies that the holiday and life-cycle ceremonies, which express the rhythm of Judaism, are the result of the Torah. It denies that the origin of Judaism lies in the Bible and in the historic events described in the Bible.
Using the scientific discoveries of archaeology and higher Biblical criticism, a humanistic Judaism presents a counterstory to the story of the Torah.
Humanistic Judaism affirms ten historical observations, which are in conflict with traditional claims:
- Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never existed; they are mythical figures.
In ancient Palestine, there were three Semitic peoples who spoke the same language. There were the Canaanites (also called Phoenicians), the Amorites, and the Hebrews. Their difference was not racial but occupational. The Canaanites were city-dwellers, the Amorites hill-country farmers, and the Hebrews wandering herdsmen and shepherds. The Hebrews conquered the Amorite hill-country in successive small invasions lasting more than a thousand years. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are personifications of three important invasions. Although the authors of the Torah try hard to deny the ethnic and cultural connection between the Hebrews and the Canaanites, objective research proves them wrong.
- Most Hebrews never went down into Egypt.
The Exodus story is a myth. There is no historical evidence to substantiate a massive Hebrew departure from the land of the Pharaohs. As far as we can surmise, the Hebrew occupation of the hill-country on both sides of the Jordan was continuous. The twelve tribes (Joseph considered as two) never left their ancestral land, never endured 400 years of slavery, and never wandered the Sinai desert. The origin of their customs and ceremonies had nothing to do with an Egyptian experience.
- Moses was never the leader of the Hebrews.
One Semitic tribe called Levi did spend time in Egypt. They may even have been slaves. However by 1200 B.C., long after the Hebrews had been settled in Palestine, this tribe was wandering the Sinai desert. Their leader and shaman was a man called Moses (an Egyptian name), and their chief god was either a snake god called Nehushtan or a wind god called Yahveh. Under the leadership of Moses, they infiltrated the Hebrew land of Judah. (The south of the Hebrew territory was called Judah and the north was called Israel.) Famous for their magical powers, they were invited by the people of Judah (the Jews) to become their priests. After Moses died, his descendants, in particular, were in demand as priests. In time, the Levites, like the Magi of Persia, specialized in soothsaying and in the conducting of religious ceremonies. While the Levites remembered their leader Moses, the Jews had, for obvious reasons, no historic memory of his leadership.
- The Jewish religion was old before the Bible was written.
Long before the Levites ever set foot in Palestine, long before the story of the Torah was written, the Hebrews had an ancient religion and an ancient set of religious ceremonies. The Torah was not even written by Moses (who was most likely illiterate). It was written by a group of Levitical priests 700 years after Moses had died and centuries after the basic religious calendar of Judaism had evolved.
- Sukkot, Hanukka, and Passover were established holidays long before the Torah was dreamed of.
In ancient Palestine, three moments of the seasonal year were suspenseful. The first was the fall equinox, when the rainy season was scheduled to begin. The second was the winter solstice, when the dying light of the sun was scheduled to renew itself. And the third was the spring, when the herds and the flocks regularly conceived. The failure of either the rain, the sun, or animal fertility to fulfill its promise spelled disaster. Therefore, our Hebrew ancestors set aside a week of celebration at each of these annual crises to ensure success. They danced and sang and sought to urge on the natural forces through imitation. They poured water on Sukkot, lit lights on Hanukka, and ate eggs on Passover to urge the rhythm of nature to assert itself. The Levitical authors of the Torah sought to deny the nature origins of these festivals and to attach them (with the exception of Hanukka) to a historic desert experience the Hebrews never knew. But modern research gives the lie to this tampering.
- Judaism began as a series of nature experiences.
Judaism is as old as the Jewish people. It began with the nature experiences of the Hebrew people in their own land. It began with the Jewish response to the seasonal crises of autumn, winter, and spring, as well as to the individual crises of birth, puberty, marriage, and death. What the Bible denies, the evidence of history affirms. Although the Orthodox leadership, both historical and rabbinical, sought to turn the attention of the Jews from nature to their god Yahveh, it could not erase the nature experience. Even when officially demoted to insignificance, it persisted as the major motivation for celebration.
- The Torah is an attempt to explain the already established Jewish calendar.
After the destruction of the northern Hebrews (Israel) by the Assyrians and the defeat of the southern Hebrews (the Jews) by the Chaldeans, a power vacuum existed. Since the Chaldeans and their successors, the Persians, did not wish to restore the military leadership of Judah out of fear that revolt would be encouraged, they removed the royal House of David and replaced it with a group of harmless collaborators. These collaborators were the Levitical priests, who were eager for power.
The Levites had a problem. In the eyes of the people, they were usurpers, opportunistic replacements of the legitimate House of David. They therefore had to prove their right to rule.
The Torah is a deliberate attempt by the Levites to prove that Moses and his relatives (as contrasted to David and his descendants) are the rightful rulers of the Jews. A fictional Moses is created who becomes the leader of all the Hebrews and the star of a supernatural spectacular at Sinai.
In order to reinforce the authority of Moses, the Levites deliberately associated all holidays with Moses and with Yahveh, the god of Moses. Passover emerged as the anniversary of the mythical Exodus. Sukkot emerged as a commemoration of the never-never 40 years of wandering in the desert. And the rest day, sacred to Saturn, the god of Jerusalem, was justified as the Sabbath through a childish story of creation. When the Levites got through with their book, the history of Judaism was totally distorted. A non-hero called Moses arose as the savior of Israel, and the ancient Jewish calendar with all its pagan gaiety was reduced to a solemn desert travesty.
- The Biblical point of view is the Levitical point of view.
The Bible is a series of 24 books either written by or edited by the Levites. It is an attempt to explain ancient Judaism through the vested interest of a priestly clan. If read uncritically, it distorts the truth and makes the origins of Judaism appear as they weren’t. The Torah is not the source of Judaism. It is a clever and successful attempt to rationalize Judaism for the benefit of a small power elite.
- The Jewish religious experience preceded the articulated beliefs about the gods or God.
The religious experience in all cultures is the attempt to celebrate the unchanging rhythm of life, whether seasonal or personal. Before there was any Moses or Levites, before there was any formal theology of Yahveh, there existed an ancient Hebrew calendar of life. The dramatic experiences of this calendar, with their sense of identity with the events of nature, were independent of any theological explanation. Only later, when the caretakers of religion tried to articulate the significance of these experiences, did they conjure up fantasies about the gods. Judaism preceded the gods and will survive them.
- Historic Judaism is not the Bible. It is the celebration of life through the seasonal and personal calendars of Jewish experience.
An authentic Judaism seeks to go behind the official theological rationalizations. It seeks to articulate the human experience that makes Sukkot, Hanukka, Passover, and the other celebrations significant. It finds the ethical values of these holidays not in a mythical story but in the human response to the seasons. Reflection is natural to the autumn, hope is essential to the winter, and freedom is the imitation of spring.
And so, there they are.
Ten historical assertions. Ten humanistic interpretations of Jewish history.
Just as the modern Jew is utterly distinct from the man the official theology describes, so was the ancient Jew vastly different from the pious image the Bible prefers.