The Future of Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1976, Vol. IV, Number II

What is the future of Humanistic Judaism? 

I don’t know. It’s hard for me to be objective. For me it’s such a sensible philosophy of life that I find it difficult to understand why so many seemingly rational people do not choose to identify with it. 

All that I can perceive in the American Jewish community seems to indicate that more and more Jews need to hear what we are saying. These are people who are emotionally and intellectually alienated from existing Jewish institutions but who value their Jewish identity. 

Why are they alienated? 

Many are turned off by the mumbo jumbo of theology. They come to the synagogue to receive some kind of meaningful guidance for their daily lives and find themselves involved in a world of theistic fantasy where the rules of the game have nothing at all to do with real life. Too rational to accept romantic nostalgia as an adequate substitute and too honest to stomach hypocrisy they enter the limbo of malcontents who have no Jewish alternatives. Unlike their friends who have chosen compromise, they are not burdened by family guilt or peer pressure. Unlike their friends who have chosen “to leave,” they find Unitarianism and Ethical Culture deficient in Jewishness. 

Many are repelled by the open hypocrisy. There seems to be no correlation between what Jews say they believe and what they do. The Torah is exalted as the ultimate book of wisdom and no one reads it. The Talmud is praised as a source of great ethical insight and no one consults it. Prayer is announced as an essential human discipline and everyone ignores it. Judaisms appears to be an immense pretension, a behavioral lie. For some Jews this game of illusions is necessary for Jewish survival. For others less willing to subordinate their personal integrity to a doubtful strategy, the inconsistency is insufferable. 

Many are alienated by an absence of real experiment. In the establishment institutions whether conserative, reform or reconstructionist, change has been trivial – a jazz service here, a cinema service there, but no real coming to grips with the revolution in ideas and feelings that is part of the computer age. The radical Jewish Left has pioneered the communal havurah. But the religious structure is irrelevant to the life style of the average middle-class Jew and even the most ambitious of the avant-gard (sic) Jewish activity is burdened by nostalgia. There is so much fear among th rabbinic leaders that we will lose contact with our past that little energy survives to establish some kind of meaningful contact with the future. The burden of proof is distributed irrationally. Those who wish to make changes bear the most of it, even though what they resist has long since been ignored. Jews today often try to prove their right to their identity, not by doing what they need not defend, but by defending what they do not need. 

Many are turned off by the parochialism of the Jewish community. In a mobile age when national boundaries are ceasing to be relevant and when the worlds of business and education demand social intermingling, the hysterical response of rabbinic leaders to intermarriage is deeply reactionary. The charges against the Jews of tribalism and clannishness have usually been dismissed as the rantings of antisemites. But many Jews experience these attitudes as the normal response of their family and friends. They find themselves surrounded by a fear of openness and a passion for  social isolation that belie the propaganda of liberalism which Jews associate with their image. An obsession with the question of Jewish survival dominates the work of the community and claims all energies. Jewishness becomes the ultimate criterion by which all activities are judged and by which all goals are evaluated. The result is stifling. 

Many are alienated by the appeal to antisemitism. They are resentful of an establishment that seeks to frighten them into being Jewish. Group paranoia hardly seems an acceptable base for an affirmative identity. While one may have to be Jewish for negative reasons, he does not have to build an organizational identity out of a social disease. Moreover, young Jews do not perceive the American Jewish community as a destitute, downtrodden community. Having been raised in the affluence of middle-class suburbia and have tasted every opportunity for bourgeois success, they see their people as one of the wealthiest and most influential components of the American establishment. They perceive that the intellectual and financial resources of the Jewish world are too vast for only self-pity and self-defense, and that, with proper motivation and direction, they could be used for more humanistic ends. The self-image of the Jew raised in Hitler’s era is different from the vision of his (sic?) post-war child. 

Many Jews are estranged by the vicariousness of contemporary Jewish experience. They recognize the obvious truth that the only Jewish reality that excites the majority of American Jewry is the state of Israel. In present day synagogues and community centers the programs for both youth and adults are overwhelmingly devoted to the culture and political problems of the Israeli people. While they do not deny the uniqueness and grandeur of the life style in the Jewish state, and while they are eager to work for the survival of this nation, they find the Israeli experience a second-hand adventure. For those Jews who choose to be truly Zionistic and to immigrate to the Jewish homeland, Jewishness built around the excitement of Israeli patriotism is direct and authentic. But for the vast majority of American Jews it is an exercise in futility. By labeling Diaspora-living as inferior, Zionism condemns the Jew who chooses to live in the Diaspora to be an “almost-Jew”, to be a Jew who is incapable (by his place in the world) of being fully Jewish. The world of Jewish Identity has been split in two. There are those who live Jewishness in the state of Israel, and there are those who stand on the sidelines and “kvell.” For a Jew who selects to be neither an Israeli nor a “kveller”, there are almost no options. 

Many are driven away by the excessive nationalism that permeates the community leadership. Their education and their sentiments lead them to struggle for the humanist ideal of a unified mankind. Involvement in the affairs of the Jewish community only brings them problems of conscience. Instead of encountering the tradition of international culture, which Jews helped to pioneer in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they find themselves embroiled in the internal politics and foreign relations of a small Middle Eastern state, and discover that the United Nations and American disarmament are not the enemy. The concept of the Jews as an international people, skeptical of all chauvinism, and committed by their history to world unity has become a soul without an institutional body to give it reality. 

The alienation of so many American Jews from Jewish institutions and from any kind of positive Jewish association is deplorable. Not because being Jewish is important in and of itself; and not because Jewish survival has some religious or supernatural significance which the rational person is unable to perceive. But because Jewish identity has a humanist and ethical value which mankind needs. 

To be Jewish is to be a member of an international family whose structure and whose loyalty transcend the nationalist disaster of the contemporary world. The Jews are more than Judaism. They are more than Israel and the Zionist experiment. They are more than a unique ethnic culture. They are, in experience, an ‘internationality’, a people whose worldwide extension is a harbinger of future group identity in our rapidly changing world. For the past two centuries Jews have been the initiators and developers of cosmopolitan culture in the European environment. From Ludwig Zamenof to Albert Einstein Jews have helped to pioneer the idea of a world society in which the primary social identity of each individual would be “hunman”, and in which the ultimate group loyalty would be mankind. 

If this humanistic ethic, strongly embedded in the modern experience of the Jewish people, can be divorced from the irrelevant supernatural trappings of the past, it will provide a secular Jewish alternative to both secular nationalism and to religious mysticism. A truly humanistic Judaism will create a Jewish alternative which is sorely needed and which has never been given an organized public expression. 

A Jewish humanism which is courageous enough to dispense with the hypocrisies of conventional religion must be honest enough not to be all things to all people. It cannot with integrity satisfy the ethical and Jewish needs of every alienated Jew. If it tries to be meaningful to every Jew who is estranged from exiting religious institutions, it will be meaningful to none. Some who are alienated want more religion, more supernatural experience, more mysticism. Others want more nationalism, more Zionism, more involvement with the state of Israel. To reject theology does not mean that one accepts humanism or humanistic ethics. Secular Jews can be as chauvinistic and as parochial as religious Jews. 

There is, in my mind, a personal and social need for an “ethical” institution which carries on the historic moral role of the conventional religious congregation, without the supernatural sanctions which a belief in God provided. Since there are many possible secular moral systems, there are many possible “ethical” congregations. A humanistic Jewish temple is one that trains its members in a humanistic morality and in the humanistic value of Jewish identity. 

I believe that there are thousands of Jews in America who would find such an institution emotionally and intellectually satisfying. Whether we, as pioneer groups, have the power to reach them, will depend on the strength of our desire and our will. 

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Rabbi Sherwin T. wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism, is the leader of the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan