What Does Humanistic Judaism Offer?

Humanistic Judaism — An Anthology, Spring, 1986

What does Humanistic Judaism have to offer?

We offer a positive voice about the Jewish present. We maintain that, on the whole, the quality of Jewish life in the pre­sent is superior to the quality of Jewish life in the past. The contemporary society of secular study, individual freedom, and sexual equality is morally better than the societies that spawned the Torah and the Talmud. There is no need for reverent nostalgia and sentimental guilt.

We offer a cultural definition of Judaism. In a world of enormous diversity in Jewish choice and practice, it is naive to confine Jewish identity to affirmations of theological belief and to religious behavior. If Judaism is primarily an ethnic culture, it can embrace wide ideological differences, allowing more people to iden­tify themselves as Jews.

We offer the possibility of a secular religion. If religion refers to the behavior we manifest in the presence of what we do not control, then too much religion is dangerous, just as no religion is preten­tious. In the face of situations we have the human power to alter, the secularist is de­fiant, challenging, irreverent, and eager to change. In the presence of the unalterable, secularists shrug their shoulders in resignation but offer no gratitude.

We offer an alternative history of the Jewish people. Instead of seeing Judaism as the creation of priests, prophets, and rabbis, as the gift of the authors of the Bi­ble and the Talmud, we credit its secular origins. The Jewish establishment distorted Jewish history to make it appear that the survival of the Jew lay in religious behavior. They consigned to oblivion the thoughts, ideas, and names of countless millions of Jews who were skeptical of religious authority and who contributed their secular genius to Jewish culture. The attitudes and ideas of the modern secular Jew are not alien to the Jewish past. Their roots just never made it through the of­ficial censorship. Humanistic Jews have Jewish roots. But they need an alternative history to recover them.

We offer an openness to intermarriage. In a world of multiple identities, family identity does not have to coincide with Jewish identity. The intermarried are not pariahs who need to be excluded; nor are they erring children who need to be patronized. They are members of the Jewish people who should be welcomed into whatever community activity they wish to participate in. To insist that Jewish identity has to be the primary and all-encompassing identity for all Jews is an act of ethnic suicide.

We offer the opportunity of cultural “conversion.” There are now hundreds of thousands of Gentiles who are married to Jews or who are socially involved with Jews who would enjoy the opportunity of identifying with the Jewish people and with Jewish culture if they did not have to make theological commitments that even most native-born Jews have behaviorally rejected.

We offer the endorsement of a variety of lifestyles. We refuse to drown in senti­ment about the traditional Jewish family, with its patriarchal tyranny and male chauvinism. Singlehood and in­dividualism are not unfortunate aberra­tions. They are legitimate options that deserve moral recognition and discussion. The long-suffering Jewish mother needs to share the Jewish stage with Gloria Steinem. Otherwise, we will save our cliches and lose our young people.

We offer a unique relationship to Zionism and the Jewish homeland. The state of Israel was not created by the devo­tion of the pious. The Orthodox rejected political Zionism and branded it a secular heresy. The founders of the modern state were secular and humanist pioneers who desired to initiate a revolution in Jewish life and to define Jewish identity in terms of a full national culture, not by the nar­rowness of religious ritual. This Israeli humanism is now under severe assault by the growing power of militant Orthodoxy. Its defenders need our help to protect the integrity of the pioneer vision and to create a truly secular state free of religious coercion and open to a truly cultural definition of Jewish identity.

We offer more than a Jewish agenda. As humanists, we are eager to participate in an emerging world culture, as well as in Jewish culture. Parochialism, in an age of multiple personal identities, will drive away the ethically responsible. They will not want to participate in any cultural ef­fort that forbids them to look beyond the boundaries of their own ethnic group.

We offer more future and less past. In a time of rapid change, excessive nostalgia can be disastrous. The scientific spirit refuses to worship the past and to imagine that the greatest wisdom was uttered 3,000 years ago. Nor does it need the en­dorsement of the past, whether Biblical or Talmudic, to make changes for the future. Given the revolutions of modern life, we should be just as interested in creating new Jewish culture as in reviving the old. We must invent behavior to serve human needs — not make human lifestyles fit rigid, outdated behavior.