Project of IISHJ

The Philosophy of Humanistic Judaism: Part I

The Philosophy of Humanistic Judaism: Part I Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine – Summer 1968

The first need of American Jewry is survival; it is honesty. Before we can plan what we should be, we have to know what we are. Before we can discuss the conditions of group endurance, we have to confront the reality that endures. Pious state­ments of non-existent belief will do us no good. It is ludicrous to praise bibles we don’t read and gods we don’t worship. It is futile to announce commitments we have long since abandoned and attachments we have clearly discarded. Self-deception is a common human art, which finds its most comfortable home in modern religious institutions.

Most definitions of contemporary Judaism are the product of academic fantasies. Scholars and clergymen imagine what they would like Jews to believe and they proceed to equate that desire with what Jews believe. There are countless books available for popular reading which propose to reveal the commitments of modern Jewry. Waxing eloquent on matters theological, their authors discuss the deep God devotion and intense worship practices of the American Jewish community. The naive Gentile reader would assume that his local Jews were “chips off the Old Testament,” pious Bible lovers who can hardly wait for their next installment of Midrashic commentary. Long discourses on the covenant between God and Israel are followed by impassioned references to the centrality of Torah in Jewish life. Modern Jewry turns out to be only an adjusted extension of good old Hillel and Akiba. Having carefully studied these documents of illusions, the realistic observer can only ask, “If there are so many Jews like the ones described, where are they?”

But the illusion is understandable. It is difficult for most people to confront what they really are and what they really believe. There are many factors, psychic and social, which inhibit our insight and prevent us from seeing the obvious. If intellectual integrity were the only human need, honesty would be easy.

In fact, we tend to determine what we believe by what we say rather than by what we do. Imprinted from childhood with certain ritual phrases of belief, we repeat them endlessly as a convenient way of describing what we have never bothered to investigate. Too often so -called sociological surveys of Jewish belief depend on the direct questioning of individuals who lack any form of self-insight. The people interviewed parrot back phrases learned in Sunday School which bear absolutely no relationship to their behavior. After all, what a man is truly committed to, he is willing to act on. If a person claims to love prayer, but rarely prays; if an individual lauds the meaningfulness of God, but never invokes God for the solution of his daily problems; if a man describes the Torah as the greatest of all possible books, but never reads it: he is either lying or self-deceived. For what a man does is the only adequate test of a man’s beliefs.

The pressure of society is another inhibiting cause of honesty. We live in a culture where theological belief is respectable. In modern suburbia, belonging to a church or synagogue and sending the children to Sunday School are more than fashionable, they are social requirements. Affiliation with a religious institution never has to be justified; non-affiliation always has to be explained. As long as one is willing to say that he believes in God (in some way or other), he is socially safe and free from, the pain of neighborly disapproval. For Jews, who are a vulnerable ethnic minority addicted to rapid social climbing and who bear the neurotic scars of two thousand years of relentless persecution, caution is preferable to honesty. After fear has dictated our conformity, we rationalize our action by imagining that we believe what our behavior denies.

And then there is guilt. No cause of self-deception is more powerful. Since our religion is inextricably bound up with the family into which we are born, we cannot easily separate our religious practices from our family loyalties. To attempt to make this distinction is to expose ourselves to the painful disapproval of those we love. Intellectual honesty appears, in the moment of stress, a trivial obstacle to parental pressure. The challenge need not be overt. We have only to imagine the pleading faces of our venerable ancestors, who sacrificed their lives to defend what we no longer believe. It is psychically necessary for many to think that what they are saying and doing meets the expectations of their forefathers. The desperate attempt of the Reform movement to demonstrate some vital connection between its modern rationalism and the fanatic temperament of the ancient prophets is a case in point. Only guilt would have the power to drive men to such an absurd conclusion.

In order to understand the realities of what we believe we have to pay serious attention to what we do or don’t do. We have to observe what really excites Jews as opposed to what they say excites them. In other words, sociologists can give us better insight into the nature of Judaism than theologians.

For example. Although the synagogue is often hailed as the Jewish house of learning, it can more accurately be described in America as a permanent shelter for puberty rites. Without Bar mitsva and confirmation its school system would lose its very reason for existence and would abandon the temple to the dreary function of remembering the dead. Not that Jews have given up learning. In fact, Jew s today constitute a major part of our domestic intellectual elite. They are even accused of controlling American letters and exercising massive control over academic studies. If they are better educated than ever before, it is hardly because of the synagogue. The secular university has become the new shrine for Jewish studies. Its disciplines of psychology, sociology, medicine, and law have long ago replaced the study of the Bible and rendered Talmud learning exotic even for Jews. If an objective observer desires to understand the motivating beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Jews under forty, he should devote his time to analyzing the fundamental principles of scientific and university inquiry. An intimate reading of Rabbi Akiba will do him no good. It may, at best turn out to be a delightful exploration of what Jews used to believe.

Modern Judaism has much more to do with the methods of the secular university than with the techniques of the Talmudic rabbis. Empiricism, pragmatism, and free inquiry are far more characteristic of the truth procedures of contemporary Jews than attachment to prophetic revelation . One may approve or deplore this situation, but neither sentiment will reverse the change. One may summon all Jews back from their “sinful heresies,” denounce their disloyalty, invoke the suffering faces of ancient martyrs, and bemoan the changes with tired contempt; but the new reality will not be altered. An ironic transformation has come to pass. Orthodoxy, by virtue of the secular revolution, has ceased to be Jewish, Like the Sabbath day in America, it is something for Seventh Day Adventists–and not for Jews.

Nor will the Bible game survive much scrutiny. Reform rabbis may arrange countless interfaith banquets where the Torah devotion of their congregants is announced and applauded. They may do dramatic readings of the psalms and clever reinterpretations of Bible verses. They may even expose the world to the unknown Talmudic wonders of Jewish history. But to no avail. An objective survey of present Jewish reading reveals that most Jews rarely open the Bible and never study the Talmud. Despite the nostalgic novels of Potok, Agnon, and Singer, the Jews have found new and more exciting study materials. After they have paid their customary tribute to the glories of ancient Jewish literature, they read something else.

As for the life of prayer and worship, it functions as a very dim memory in the psyche of the suburban Jew. While it is periodically indulged at Bar mitzvas and Yahrzeits, it is a somewhat vicarious experience, in which the rabbi, cantor, or choir perform for a passive audience. The reason for this laxity is clear. To the skeptical, analytic, and humorful mind, worship is difficult; and to the devotee who has redefined God as a natural impersonal force, prayer is silly. Without the imagined presence of an awesome, all-powerful father figure the whole structure of Jewish worship collapses. The recent Reform proposals to revise the Union Prayer Book seem a bit anachronistic. Why bother to improve prayers for people who don’t want to pray? Perhaps more drastic alternatives are needed.

If one objectively surveys the Jewish activity of adult Jews in an America metropolitan community, he immediately notices that most of this activity has nothing whatever to do with what is usually called religious practice. Outside ghetto socializing, the only uniquely Jewish cause which excites Jews is uninvolved with either theology or worship. This cause is the state of Israel. The June war revealed to many blasé sophisticates the reality of their Jewish involvement. Their excitement sometimes puzzled and disturbed them — but it was real and could not be denied. The Israeli attachment is the very reverse of the theological commitment. In America we tend, for reasons of social safety, to overstate the genuineness of a theological conviction we have gradually abandoned and to understate the depth of an ethnic attachment our behavior clearly reveals.

The reality of what Jews actually do is the best evidence of the character of modern Judaism. Existing Jewish practice gives no indication that there persists in the American community the kind of religious conviction that motivates people to live by the classic standards of either the Bible or the Talmud. Contemporary Jewish culture is university oriented and scientifically indoctrinated. Present day middleclass Jews have found ways other than theology to deal with their anxieties. The rabbis may cleverly poke fun at the reigning psychiatrist; but they still have to come up with a more effective alternative. Preferring Moses to Freud is irrelevant in an environment where nobody reads Moses.

An honest Judaism does not describe what Jews used to believe; it clarifies and articulates what Jews do believe. Since Jewish identity is defined by society (and even by Orthodoxy) as an ethnic identity, Judaism changes from century to century. In Solomon’s day it was polytheistic; in Hillel’s day it was monotheistic; in our time it has, by any behavior standard, become humanistic. As long as a Jewish people persists, whatever beliefs the overwhelming majority of that people subscribes to is justifiably called Judaism. Our task is, therefore, to discard pretense, to check our actions, and to discover what we truly believe. Without honest self-insight, we are condemned to the futile task of improving illusions.

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
All texts, photos, audio and video are © by the Literary Estate of Sherwin Wine, whose custodian is the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism – North American Section. All rights reserved.