What Makes Humanistic Judaism Jewish?

1992 Conference Highlights, Spring 1993

I have been following with great expectation the coming of the Messiah. He is, apparently, in Crown Heights.  He made the cover of The New York Times Magazine. He is called the Lubavitcher rebbe.

Many of my friends who are very, very liberal, mock the Lubavitchers. I never do. I don’t agree with  their ideology. It’s not my Jewish cup of tea, but, I do not mock people who have become the most successful Jewish organization in North America. They are the most successful fundraisers in almost all North American communities, except for the Jewish Welfare Federation. In my own city, they are planning to build a college campus; and to their annual benefit come hundreds, if not thousands of people — most of them non-Orthodox, many of them secular — to give the Lubavitchers thousands and thousands of dollars. Why would I mock such a successful organization?

I recently asked a friend (who is not a member of the Birmingham Temple or a humanistic or secular group but is obviously a secularist) why he gives so much money to the Lubavitchers, and his answer was, “Well, you see, they’re really Jewish.” I thought that was an interesting remark because many people who give their money to the Lubavitchers believe that. They may not articulate it in that way, but they believe in the recesses of their hearts, deep down, deep within, that ultimately, when it comes to the test, the people who are “ really Jewish” are the people who are really Orthodox — who preserve the tradition and who are willing, at great risk, in a society that is hostile to their lifestyle, to maintain it in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Now, we are not simply humanists. We are Humanistic Jews. We see ourselves as part of Judaism, and therefore we have to deal with a very important question, which is implicit in the answer the secularist gave me. He is not prepared to be a Lubavitcher Jew. He will not lead his life that way. But if ever he should need religion, he will go to the “real thing.” It might be only one time in his life. It might be a wedding, it might be a funeral, it might be a bar mitsva. Whatever it is, he’s not interested on a daily basis; but if he wants contact with the “really Jewish” thing, that’s where he will go. One of the major problems we have with Israel is that we often assume that the land is loaded with secularists. In a sense it is, but they are negative secularists. Negative secularists are people who hate organized religion. But if they should need it, they want the “real thing” and not the watered down thing.

It is very important for us to clarify for ourselves how and in what way Humanistic Judaism is really Jewish so that somebody who is a Humanistic Jew can stand up and say, “This is really Jewish.” All kinds of people throw accusations at us: How can a group that doesn’t believe in God be really Jewish? How can a group that doesn’t place Torah at the center of its life be really Jewish? How can a group that doesn’t accept the discipline of halakha be really Jewish? How can a group that doesn’t say the Sh’ma and pray be really Jewish?

So I want to answer the question as competently as I can: What makes Humanistic Judaism Jewish?

All the alternatives to Orthodoxy came about because of certain traumatic changes that occurred during the past four hundred years, starting in Western Europe and spreading all over the world. First, the trauma of science, which provided a new method for the discovery of truth and challenged the traditional statements of faith concerning God, the creation of the universe, the origins of people, and the nature of history. The revolution of technology, which has radically altered our lives to the point where we no longer see ourselves merely as helpless victims of our environment; rather, in some cases, technology provides us with power almost equal to the power attributed to the gods of old. Capitalism — the industrial, free enterprise economy — which has radically altered the lifestyle of almost everybody in the Western world and is now rapidly beginning to alter the lifestyle of people all over the world. Individualism, which flowed from these economic changes: the revolutionary idea that I am more than a member of a family, a clan, or a tribe — I have an identity, I have a right to happiness. Democracy, which said that authority does not flow from God through kings or priests down to the people but that authority starts from the people, and those in charge are responsible to that authority. Feminism, which says that the male chauvinist dictates that have come out of virtually all cultures are invalid and need to be replaced by ideologies of gender equality.

Within Judaism, there have been various responses to these revolutions. The first and most dramatic one, which occurred in the nineteenth century, was the Reform movement. The Reform movement arose almost simultaneously in Germany, Great Britain, and North America. Ultimately the Reform movement split into conservative Reform and radical Reform. Conservative Reform took the name Conservative. (It’s conservative only by comparison with radical Reform; the real conservative movement is Orthodox.) And radical Reform retained the name Reform.

From the beginning, the Reform movement, whether conservative or radical, had a series of problems. The first and major problem was the issue of legitimacy. By what right do you make these changes?  God issued his laws, and who are you? Who gave you the authority to say, “I will not do this” or “I will not obey that”? What is the source of your legitimacy?

The historic source of legitimacy for Jewish authority lay in certain sacred texts. The three basic ones were, first, the Bible (which includes the Torah), second, the Talmud, and third (and very important, because everybody used it every day, and although he or she might not understand the words, they were a part of his or her life), the Siddur, the prayerbook. Ultimately you legitimized yourself by appealing to those texts; and if you didn’t appeal to those texts, you had no legitimacy.

Very early, the Reform movement, both conservative and radical, chose a strategy for legitimacy, and that strategy was called reinterpretation. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue, and I was ordained as a Reform rabbi, so I am very familiar with the procedure. The procedure is, for example, to start off with Genesis I, a story about the creation of the world in six days and God resting on the seventh. You start off by saying, ”On the surface it appears that this is an unbelievable story; but if you understand the real meaning, the secret meaning, the meaning that I will give to you now, then you will realize that the text has a tremendous spiritual significance.” And so, that became the procedure. People praised the Torah as the constitution of the Jewish people, even in the most radical Reform temples, praised the wisdom of the Talmud, praised the wisdom of the Siddur, even though revisions were made in it. And the consequences are very important.

The first consequence of this procedure is apology. The Lubavitchers don’t have to apologize for their position. The texts, the sacred texts fit their lifestyle. But liberal Jews who choose this strategy always have to apologize: ‘‘On the surface it appears to be this, but it really is this; let me give you the secret meaning.” ‘‘No, no, we don’t do three-fourths of the things in the book, but we really respect it.” Over and over, draying and twisting in order to establish their legitimacy in the text.

The second consequence is hypocrisy, which is what drove me from the Reform movement. I didn’t believe that the people sitting in the congregation were hypocrites. Many of them were very accomplished, well-educated people. They did good things for their families and their communities, and I respected them. What I couldn’t abide was the charade. The ark was opened, and this document was taken out, and it was raised up and kissed. And generally (this is my observation) the less significance the Torah is given, the bigger the ark. The ark is bigger in Reform temples — the ark is enormous. I looked out at the audience. I know what that Torah says, I understand the historic circumstances that produced it. I understand the people who seek to live consistent with its precepts. But there was no connection, other than historic, between that document and the lifestyle of the people who were sitting out there in the audience. And that to me was the charade. Why would intelligent people, committed to integrity, engage in this charade? I understood why. That scroll kosherized them. That ceremony said, ‘‘Even though you may not abide by most of the principles in that document, its very presence — the fact that we raise it up and praise it and claim that it is the source of Jewish wisdom — gives you legitimacy.”

The third consequence is guilt. If, indeed, that document represents the lifestyle that I ought to be following, and I am not following it, then the people who are really Jewish are the people who are following it. I have a document that legitimizes the lifestyle of people who are not in my congregation. This is what I found so self-destructive, and I see it now in the ‘‘return to tradition” movement in Reform and Conservatism, which is so confused. The reason is that people are craving legitimacy, they’re craving some way to deal with the gnawing accusation that their symbols and their behavior do not match. I have spoken with large numbers of Reform and Conservative rabbis who look with great respect, nostalgia, and deference toward the Orthodox rebbes. They complain about their hostility, their rigidity. But in the end they regard them as the authentic bearers of the tradition, willing to do what they themselves no longer are willing to do. It’s unavoidable, because if you use that criterion for legitimacy, then that’s what follows.

Along came a movement, in the 1920s and 1930s, called Reconstructionism. It was a bold movement. Mordecai Kaplan was a disciple of John Dewey; Kaplan’s ideas, other than his ideas about Jewishness, are Dewey’s ideas. John Dewey was a full-fledged humanist. And so, Mordecai Kaplan ended up a humanist but with a deep and abiding attachment to many of the symbols of the past and a great concern about legitimacy, His answer to the latter question was the same, basically, as that of Conservatism and Reform. He chose the same strategy, the strategy that the sacred texts count. We have no right to reject them. If we reject them, we lose our legitimacy as Jews. Therefore, we must use the prayerbook, even though we may change it a little bit, because otherwise we have no legitimacy; and therefore we have to reinterpret all the old words. Kaplan redefined the word God to mean (and this is Deweyism) the power that exists in the world as salvation. Why you would talk to such a power or pray to it is not comprehensible, but that’s how he defined it. So when he said, “Barukh atta adonai eloheno melekh ha’olam, Praised art thou, O Lord, our God, king of the universe,” he didn’t mean what the Lubavitcher rebbe means, he meant what John Dewey meant. But the words weren’t drafted by John Dewey; John Dewey wouldn’t have drafted those words. They don’t say what John Dewey was saying. They say what a person who lived a long time ago, in 100 or 200 B.C., believed consistent with his passion, his understanding of the world.

Humanistic Judaism is fully and completely Jewish, but it is a radical break with the strategy of Reform, Conservatism, and Reconstructionism. It is not simply part of a continuum. It says, ‘‘We are sick and tired of trying to legitimize ourselves with something that doesn’t represent who and what we are. It is deeply humiliating, it is a violation of our integrity, it is a waste of our energy to try to do this. All we do is to play into the hands of the Orthodox, because they are the ones who created the texts, they are the ones the texts fit. That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate these texts as literature, it doesn’t mean we can’t find a quotation here or there. But if that’s what kosherizes us, we’re through. Then let me go to a Lubavitcher banquet and give them my money, because they represent what is really Jewish.”

What’s the alternative? Unless one understands that, I don’t think one can effectively comprehend what Humanistic Judaism is all about. What Humanistic Judaism says is that the kosherizer of Judaism is not a sacred text. It is the experience of the Jewish people. The ultimate court, the ultimate appeal is not a quotation in a book. It is not a document, no matter when written, no matter how sacred in the eyes of many people. We live in the age of science, and the ultimate appeal is to experience, the perceived experience of the Jewish people. Before books came the Jewish people. And if you don’t appeal to the experience of the Jewish people, if all you’re doing is running to a book, all you are is a quotation hunter and it’s meaningless.

About twenty years ago, I attended the funeral of a woman who was a survivor of Auschwitz and who had been severely harmed by her experience. Her health had been damaged, and one of the reasons she died fairly young was that she never had recovered. Her daughter belonged to a Conservative congregation, and the rabbi got up and started reading the twenty-third Psalm: ‘‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The Lord is my shepherd? What did that statement have to do with the dead woman’s experience? I shall not want? Whenever I need something, he shows up and takes care of me? It was at that moment that it struck me, so power­fully, that these conventional passages we read have nothing to do with the Jewish experience. This was a quotation from a book. What did it have to do with her life, her pain, her suffering, her tragedy? Who­ever stood up at her funeral should have been screaming at the heavens, not prais­ing the Lord. So there is a dichotomy between experience and the sacred text. You find the sacred word that kosherizes the event and never talk about the experi­ence, never deal with reality.

If the Jewish experience, not sacred texts, is the criterion of Jewishness, what follows is that humanism is Jewish. The sacred texts say that we are the chosen people, that we have received from God a special position in the world, that all of human history revolves around us. When we misbehave, God will bring a nation to come and punish us; but in the end (as he promised our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) we are chosen for glory. But those statements do not in any way con­form to the Jewish experience. The Jewish experience is an experience of absurdity. I do not experience in the world some kind of moral order whereby good is rewarded and evil is punished, and I refuse to roman­ticize the Holocaust by finding some mys­terious meaning behind it. I let Jewish experience speak for itself; and the only answer that comes from that experience is that we live in a world in which, if there is anybody in charge, he doesn’t give a damn what happens to us. There may be nobody in charge, and therefore, in the end, we have to assume the responsibility for our lives. That is the message of Jewish history and that is humanism.

The people who have done the greatest disservice to the sacred texts are liberals, because of their incessant need to be kosherized. They cannot allow a text to say what it says. They have a compulsive need to steal the text and force into it a meaning it does not mean. If I use experience as the criterion, then democracy is Jewish. If I go to the sacred text, there is no democracy. In the Exodus story, the Jews are let out of Egypt by miracles. As they wait at Mount Sinai, their leader goes up and gets the message, then comes down and announces it, and the people have two options: either accept it or refuse it and be destroyed. With freedom like that, you don’t need tyranny. It says very clearly in the Torah that the ultimate authority lies with the kohen gadol, the high priest, and he or she who defies his authority shall be put to death.

Why would a people raised on such theocratic texts have taken so completely to the freedom of America? When those texts started out, we were shepherds and farmers, and the texts fit that kind of culture. Then, two thousand years ago, we entered the bourgeoisie. The nature of our culture changed. We became a city people. We were instrumental in the early develop­ment of the capitalist system. Ultimately, when the political system no longer fit the new economy, it crumbled; and what flowed from all that change was liberal democracy. Because we have two thou­sand years of urban, bourgeois experience, when we came to America we fit right in. None of that experience is glorified, dis­cussed, praised, or analyzed in the sacred texts, but it is part of the Jewish experi­ence.

If we use experience as the criterion, then skepticism is Jewish. In the sacred text the hero is the person of faith. Today we have people of faith; they are the Gush Emunim in Israel, who say, “If we are willing to hold on to the West Bank and Gaza, even if all the nations of the world come up against us, God will interfere.” Faith is the ideology of the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, the people of the Qumran community who waited, puri­fying themselves, for the Messiah who would rescue them. There are rumblings of skepticism in the sacred text, in the book of Job. Somebody, says, “Enough is enough;” but after forty chapters of complaining, Job still is unwilling to take the final step. The Jewish people, however, responded to all their disappointment and disillusionment, and out of it came Jewish humor: shrug­ging the shoulders and saying, “If this is paradise, we don’t need hell. “How do you explain the splendid intellectual achieve­ments of Jews in the nineteenth and twen­tieth centuries, people who had no connec­tion to the ideologies of the sacred texts but who had a fundamental connection to the evolution of a skeptical tradition within the experience of the Jewish people?

If experience is the criterion, then Zion­ism is Jewish. The old belief was that we would return to the land of Israel only when the Messiah came. There was a picture in the newspaper of a man from Mea Shearim in Jerusalem who calls him­self a Palestinian because he will not rec­ognize the legitimacy of the government of the State of Israel, established by tray/Jews for tray/purposes. What was revolutionary about Zionism was to say, “we’re sick and tired of waiting; we don’t care how many sacred texts promise us that we will be restored. Our experience tells us that wait­ing only produces more waiting and more suffering. So we shall take our fate in our own hands. We may not succeed, it’s only a dream, but we will do something.’’

If experience is our criterion, then com­passion is Jewish. You can go to the sacred texts and find compassion (“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”). But you also can find Ezra, who, upon returning from Babylonia, says to the Jewish people, “If you are married to non-Jewish women, send them away; you are violating the commandment of God, and therefore they shall be sent away no matter how much you love them.” So, if I want to, I can go to the sacred texts and I can justify chau­vinism or I can justify compassion. But, if I want to legitimize the idea that we ought to respect the national aspirations of all people in a world in which everybody has to get together — black and white, Israeli and Palestinian — then all I have to do is appeal to the Jewish experience. If you look at the experience of the Jewish people and how this people has been abused, it is inconceivable that such a people would choose to oppress anybody.

If experience is the criterion, then the Bible is Jewish. Orthodox Jews believe that the Bible, the Tanakh, was not written by Jews; it was written by God. God is not a Jew. We were just the passive recipients, the lucky receivers. He found certain people called prophets to whom he dictated the texts, and they were the chosen secretaries who recorded the documents. So the Bible isn’t Jewish, the Bible is divine. Then along came a man in the seventeenth century, a Jewish philosopher, a child of humanism, named Baruch Spinoza. He dared to suggest that the Torah text was not even written by Moses but was written or edited by Ezra many centuries later — with the implication that we must deal with the Bible as regular literature. If the Bible isn’t a divine text, if the Bible is literature, then it is Jewish. It was written by Jews who were fallible human beings, who were products of the age in which they lived, and who wrote certain things that are terrific and certain things that are rotten and certain things that are mediocre, and they’re all there together.

If you believe that experience is the criterion, then the present is as Jewish as the past. According to tradition, there was a period in ancient times when God spoke to the Jewish people. It’s called the period of revelation. It was somewhere between 1200 B.C. and 200 B.C. When he had said everything he wanted to say, he stopped. So people who lived during that period, who communicated with God, or who were closest to that time, were wiser than anybody who lives today; and therefore, the past is more legitimate than the present. But I say unashamedly that I believe the past two centuries have been the most creative period of Jewish history. For the first time Jews lived in an atmosphere of freedom in which people, no matter what their ideas, could write, publish, and share them. It produced an intellectual feast from Einstein to Freud to Fromm to Rosenzweig to Buber, a feast of choice such as never existed before.

If experience is the criterion, then our culture is Jewish. The traditional view is that the most important element in Jewish life is religion. But while all those texts were being written by priests and, later, by rabbis, Jews were singing songs (some of them secular), they were doing dances (many of them secular), they were eating food, they were laughing, they were living a whole life, they were producing a folk culture that never found expression in those official texts. And in modern times, when they no longer could believe in the validity of the texts, those Jews who weren’t busy trying to kosherize themselves with those texts developed a whole new litera­ture in Yiddish and in Hebrew, virtually all of it secular: the literatures of Yiddish nationalism and Zionism. And that litera­ture is Jewish. So Judaism is not only religion, Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people.

Yehuda Amichai, Shaul Tchernikovsky, Haim Nachman Bialik, Max Nordau, Theodore Herzl, ChaimZhitlowsky, Simon Dubnow — all of these people are Jewish, as Jewish as Moses, because they write from the Jewish experience and appeal to it. So we have two choices: we can try to fit the Jewish experience into sacred texts and lose our self-respect because the squeeze doesn’t fit; or we can try to find the texts that fit our experience. For me, the great moment of liberation was when I no longer felt oppressed by the texts, when I could say, “That’s a nice text, I like it; this one is interesting, I’ll use this, I’ll use that — but they are not my tyrant, and I don’t have to be kosherized by them.” That is our choice.

Humanistic Judaism is really Jewish. It is really Jewish because it flows from the experience of the Jewish people. That, in the end, is the criterion of legitimacy.

Let me conclude with a quotation from Max Nordau, a Zionist intellectual and a very ardent humanist, who lived in France at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries: “My memories as a Jew do not fit the sacred texts they give to me. I am not a Jew of faith. I am a Jew of experience.”

I cannot speak for you; I can speak for me. I, as a Humanistic Jew, am not a Jew of faith.

I am a Jew of experience.