Project of IISHJ

The Philosophy of Humanistic Judaism: Part II Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine

The Philosophy of Humanistic Judaism: Part II Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine

Humanistic Judaism Magazine Spring 1969

Jewishness is a modern paradox. While it is easy to define Jews it is hard to define what makes them Jewish. The criteria of identity are so unconscious that few people can articulate their standards. Although they are strong and compelling, verbal description rarely does them justice. The state of being Jewish seems to r e ­ sist the conventional categories and to emerge as a unique phenomenon.

Understanding the Jewish condition is inhibited by security needs. A minority vulnerable to hostility and persecution wants to create a public image of impeccable respectability. The religious definition of the Jew, which is the official “party” line of the community establishment, has less to do with the facts than with the need to be socially conforming. In a unitary American culture, which is intolerant of perma­nent ethnic diversity, Judaism must be essentially religious or forego its normality. After proper deference is paid to the propaganda of pluralism, lasting group loyalties which require neither church nor temple still appear as mildly subversive.

If we view religion narrowly as the organized expression of a theological point of view, or more broadly as a community reflection of a unique philosophy of life, then, in neither case, is the essence of contemporary Jewish identity religious. The metaphysical and ethical beliefs of American Jewry are as diverse as those of the general population. If the Lubavitcher Hasidim and the Workmen’s Circle are part of the same group, then the group can hardly be defined by a single orientation to the cosmos. Membership in the community is pragmatically independent of either private belief or public creed.

The interfaith “what we Jews believe” syndrome is one of the more pathetic deceptions our culture provides. It hides the breadth of Jewish disagreement and obscures the real bonds of group unity.

Certainly, the racial definition of the Jew is less than appropriate. It has become almost a cliche of ADL propaganda to deny (with a host of scientific evidence) the myth of ethnic purity. Although Jews publicly resist genetic uniqueness, their private conversations about Jewish hereditary ‘genius’ reveals a viewpoint little different from the grosser racialism . Our people are ambivalent about the charge of physical identity. They like sharing the genes of Einstein as long as they can avoid any necessary connection with those of Fagin. When Kaufmann Kohler, the leader of Reform a half century ago, asserted that Jews possessed an innate gift for spiritual greatness, the Jews applauded. But Hitler and the antisemites changed the mood. Racial superiority was delightful; racial inferiority was less than tolerable.

It is undoubtedly true that, in given areas of the world, rigid inbreeding produced a regional Jewish ‘type.’ But there was no uniformity among the types. Modern Israel reveals the genetic diversity of world Jewry. The stark juxtaposing of European, Asiatic, and African Jews, so visible to the tourist eye, explodes the racial theory.

Cultural unity is no more adequate as a proper definition. Being an illusion, it survives in the dreams of secular chauvinists. Without the vehicle of a Jewish language, the behavior patterns of the Jewish citizens of Western technology tend to be indistinguishable from those of their middle-class neighbors. Israel’s cultural uniqueness lies in the revival of the Hebrew language. Lived in English, Israeli life would become standard American. If contemporary nationalists fight desperately for linguistic uniqueness, they do so because they know that, without it, assimilation to an international industrial culture is inevitable. Since Yiddish is dead and functional Hebrew is confined to a small minority of world Jewry, English speaking American Jews can share the society of their Anglo Saxon colleagues more easily than the world of either their Russian relatives or their Israeli cousins.

Painting, music, and drama have also ceased to have clear national styles. The modern variations in artistic expression cross national boundaries and cause dissension within every country. Our present technology is molding an artistic smorgasbord which is more universal than the language compartments suggest. As one of the most ardent participants on this cosmopolitan feast, the Jew is divorced from the very parochial conditions which would make a cultural definition possible.

Nor can one honestly assert that Jews are ethically distinct. Many apologists maintain that Jews possess moral virtues that other groups do not, and that group identity is defined by a set of commonly held ethical values. When pressed to be more specific, the defenders of this thesis usually resist. If they do make citations, they invoke the family unity of the Jewish home or the pursuit of education. Since neither of these values is uniquely Jewish, the moral definition collapses before the evidence. And since the ethical behavior of Jews is not noticeably superior to that of other groups, the thesis savors of a hutspadik pretension. Active Jewish liberalism may have many individual exponents; but it hardly characterizes the vast majority of contemporary Jews.

The attempt to equate Jewishness with a set of eminently respectable social values is an act of moral boorishness. It suggests, by implication, that these values (if they are defining virtues) are absent from the behavior of nonJews. Such an act of gracelessness is typical of the self-righteous. It reveals a kind of humorless arrogance (which is not uniquely Jewish).

Scholars who are desperate may end up by relegating Jewishness to the category of “mystery ,” or by peevishly asserting that “anyone is Jewish who says he is .” But neither solution is satisfactory. The first romanticizes confusion; and the second ignores the involuntary character of Jewish identity.

An adequate definition of Jewish status must begin with an honest appraisal of how Jews identify each other. There is obviously an operative standard of inclusion and exclusion. It is neither theological nor racial nor cultural nor m oral. If we look carefully we will see that it has less to do with personal behavior than with family connection.

Jewish status, like one’s last name, is a matter of birth. As we are born into our nuclear family, so are we born into our Jewish condition. We may become theists or humanists, Zionists or anti-Zionists, Birchers or Marxists, devotees of Moses or lovers of Zen–but, as long as we and others are aw are of our family tree, our Jewishness persists. Conventional Jewish mothers do not check the ideological commitments of their prospective sons-in-law; they want to know who the parents are. An antisemitic atheist from a Jewish womb is acceptable; a circumcised Hebrew -speaking American who believes in the truth of the Bible is not.

Conversion to Judaism has been historically rare, not only because of Christian persecution, but also because missionary prospects viewed Judaism as a kind of family affair. To become a Jew was not only to accept the discipline of the halakha but also to assume the ancestry of Abraham. It was to sever one’s familial connections and to pretend to be a child of another tribe. Without a pervasive sense of common forefathers, the religious bonds would have been insufficient to insure group unit. Even the blackest of Jewish blacks in Abyssinia and the most Tartarish of Jewish Tartars in the Crimea insisted on their physical descent from the patriarchs. Without that illusion, the legitimacy of their status would have been open to question.

Rabbinic Judaism affirmed this standard by declaring that the offspring of a Jewish mother was irrevocably Jewish. No apostasy, no repudiation of hallowed beliefs, no mockery of community custom, could alter his identity. Jewishness came with the womb and expired only with death. New members might be adopted (‘conversion’ has an ideological non-Jewish overtone) into the group; but their acceptance and the acceptance of their children were never secure until the adoption was forgotten.

The outside world responded to this criterion by viewing Jewishness as an inherited condition. Disraeli may have been a devoted member of the Church of England, lauding the virtues of Protestant Christianity; but in the eyes of his public, he remained a Jew –albeit an Anglican one. Marx may have despised all forms of organized religion, branding them the opium of the people; yet, in the view of both friend and foe, he was irresistibly Jewish –even though in an atheistic way. Womb identity was not an antisemitic invention; it was a venerable Jewish tradition, which both insider and outsider applied with consistency.

Now racial and familial identity must not be confused. The first implies (if we use the precise university definition) physical uniformity. The second only demands a sense of shared ancestors. Two people, of visibly different genetic makeup, may still share a common set of grandparents–or think they do. A family that started in Jerusalem might disperse itself throughout the world, intermarrying with wide varieties of racial types, and still retain the sense of closeness that common ancestry provides. The familial feeling would lie in genealogy–and not in physiology.

Even sharp cultural differences would not inhibit group intimacy. The Rothschilds became in each of their environments, either impeccably English or impeccably French, or impeccably German, without shedding the family loyalty that went beyond financial interest. Even the Sassoons, embracing Oriental and Occidental extremes, enjoyed a world-wide family unity. Racial, linguistic, and philosophic differences often surrender to the power of the mishpokha feeling.

Jews are no exception. As one of the oldest enduring extended families, they have spanned the world, participated in all its major cultures, savored all its vital religious ideologies, and simultaneously retained the group bond. Whether it be the pleasure of family roots or the pressure of external hostility, the cause of their togetherness has been independent of ethical value and cosmic belief.

An honest Judaism starts with this reality and builds on it. Instead of forcing Jews into ideological and cultural niches that do not fit, instead of defining Jewishness by universal moral values that most people never live up to, instead of foolishly trying to mold a people to meet the demands of a ruthless respectability, we ought to just relax with what we really are. We ought to good-humoredly confront the fact that if we insist on searching for a common set of theological notions or social values which describe all Jews, living or dead, we are condemned to futility. If we cannot accept membership in an international extended family united by feelings of shared ancestry and ties of common history, without the pretension of ethical distinction, we cannot accept our Jewishness. The propaganda of religious leaders and cultural secularists have refused to confront us with this truth.

A Jewish humanism uses this truth in assisting the modern Jew to be authentic. By affirming that Jewish identity is non-ideological and familial, it never forces the individual to compromise his integrity with the demand that he ought to believe what he doesn’t believe. By insisting that Jewishness is independent of any kind of moral supremacy, it frees the person from pretending to be what he knows he isn’t. By equating group membership with family feeling instead of cultural uniqueness, it can confront the reality of our status without refusing to accept the nature of our assimilation. Jews and Jewishness may be both pro-social and anti-social, beautiful and ugly, wise and foolish. They may display behavior patterns which are sometimes admirable and sometimes disgusting, but perfectly normal and eminently human. Like all large families, Jews have their fair share of saints and beasts as well as their fair quota of mystics and rationalists. Of course, none of these alternatives has anything to do with the state of being a Jew.

As a member of an old tribe with many memories the Jew is inevitably drawn to family anniversaries. These are called holidays and are as appropriate to the Jewish people as birthdays and wedding reminders are suitable to smaller clans. The realistic pleasures of Rosh Hashana, Hanukka, and Passover are usually familial, and have little or nothing to do with theological commitment. The old Haggada may be intellectually intolerable, but the Seder remains a vital group experience. Days of Judgment may be amusing leftovers of bygone societies, but Rosh Hashana survives as a meaningful affirmation of group identity. The fall holiday season more realistically celebrates the birth of the Jewish people than the birth of the world.

The Jewish calendar is a family calendar. While it ought to be enhanced and supplemented by celebrations that affirm our human identity, it gives us historic roots and invites us to enjoy our birthright without confusing it with questionable dogma and ludicrous pretension.

Child education for Jewish humanists has two dimensions. One is information about man and his past which will enable the child to understand his intimate connection with all men; the other is an objective and scientific understanding of his Jewish family, which will provide him with suitable insight into his involuntary status as a Jew. Since the secular schools already provide most of the “human” information, it is the primary role of the temple school to afford the Jewish data. Of course, Jewish history must always be presented within the humanist assumption that human identity is primary and that Jews are as historically guilty of resisting this commitment as any other group. Teachers who view religious education as a defense and apology for historic Jewish beliefs and behavior are responsible for the hysterical character of current curricula. Self-flattery is a symptom of self-h ate; honesty is a sign of self-esteem.

If you ask reasonably: why bother with Jewish holidays and Jewish history; why bother to perpetuate old “family” identities that have neither philosophic nor ethical uniqueness, the humanist answer emerges from unpleasant fact and realistic hope. The unpleasant fact is chronic antisemitism. It would be nice to live in a world where Jewish identity would not arouse the paranoiac fears of countless millions and would not be of great social importance to masses of people. But reality defies desire. Humanists who are Jews early discover that their humanism is of less significance to the public than their Jewishness. As long as external hostility exists (no m atter how dramatically diminished), the Jewish family will exist. The only options open to the members of that family will be relaxed acceptance or futile resistance.

The realistic hope is a practical variation on a utopian d re a m of “one world.” Since the greatest obstacle to human unity is the organized power of state nationalism , any existing group of strong internal loyalty which transcends state boundaries and unites people on an international scale is a welcome ally in a good cause. Whatever the allegiance be, class, professional, or familial, if it enables people to feel a part of a society broader than their nation, it is a step in the right direction. The Jews have been accused by their enemies of being both rootless and cosmopolitan. It is a hidden compliment that ought to be exploited.

Familial ties are never trivial. From the view of childhood conditioning, they make theological propositions and moral slogans look powerless. The question is: are they beneficial? If they become fearful obsessions with family survival, defensive apologies for group superiority, they do great harm. If, on the contrary, they sponsor a happy wedding of sentiment and individual integrity, they can be vehicles of immense social good.

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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.