Who is a Jew: Fundamental Issues

IFSHJ Conference Highlights: Who is a Jew  Spring 1989

Two years ago in Detroit, about 350 peo­ple gathered from ten countries around the world to establish the International Federa­tion of Secular Humanistic Jews. There was great excitement in the air, a lot of hope and anticipation of what we might be able to do together. There was the surprise of discover­ing so many people around the world who shared our ideas, a sense of solidarity, relief from the isolation that people who think that their perception of Judaism is bizarre or different or outlandish often experience.

We were an assembly with great diversi­ty. Some were from old secular, socialist, politically radical backgrounds. Some came from traditional backgrounds. They had rebelled against that tradition; they felt themselves to be very, very Jewish but had not found themselves comfortable within the framework of a traditional Judaism, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform.

There were those who were children of intermarriage, who in some way found their Jewish connection to be a very special con­nection, who wanted to be part of the Jewish people but found themselves repudi­ated by religious authorities who, ironically, claim that Judaism invented love, brother­hood, and justice.

There were those who had come from assimilated backgrounds, people who had grown up in families where Jewish identity wasn’t very important but who now wanted in some very significant way to identify with the Jewish people.

We all came together to form that Federa­tion. We were trying to say something to the Jewish world. The question Who Is a Jew? is very much related to that context.

We, first of all, wanted to say to the world that we as Secular Humanistic Jews were not nonbelievers, that we were believers. People often put us in the category of not believing. That isn’t true. It may be that most Secular Humanistic Jews have many more beliefs than nonsecular Jews. I always say that to people when they challenge me. I say that I have a host of beliefs, positive beliefs, about people, the world, and humanity.

We were there at that meeting to say that Judaism, the Jewish people, is more than a religion or religious denomination; that we share a common history and a common fate and a common culture. We were there to say very clearly that we speak for the history of the Jewish people, a history dramatized by the Holocaust in this century; and indeed no divine voice could easily be heard in the cruelty that was meted out by fate to the Jewish people.

We also maintained that Judaism is more than words in the Siddur, or in the Tanakh, or in the Talmud; that Judaism is the experi­ence of the Jewish people, and that experi­ence has an ethical message relevant to one of the topics of this conference. I was talk­ing recently to a very traditional Jew who spoke about how appropriate it was to expel Arabs from Israel. I told him that was in­conceivable to me, given the history of the Jewish people. You can find a lot of reac­tionary quotations in Jewish literature, but the experience of the Jewish people is dif­ferent. And the message of that experience is compassion for the suffering.

Last, and above all, we were saying by coming together that we are a legitimate op­tion in the Jewish world. We were saying that there is a fourth alternative in Jewish life, which is real and legitimate, and our coming together was intended to make that possible.

The question Who Is a Jew? is related directly to our task of creating a meaningful Secular Humanistic Judaism. The issues in­cluded in that question lay the foundation of our ideology and our commitment. If you answer the question appropriately, you deal with the whole issue of the nature of Jewish­ness. I am always assaulted by people who tell me that you can’t really be Jewish without davening, without immersing your­self in the practices of the past. Indeed, if you define a Jew as a religious person, then you have no comeback.

Many young people in North America — and it may be true in Europe — are looking for their Jewish roots. When somebody from a yeshiva tells them that their roots are tradi­tional religion, even though they may not really believe, they choose to do so because it’s the only way they know how to be Jewish. We have a different answer. If we deal with that answer, we are dealing with a funda­mental part of Secular Humanistic Judaism.

The question Who Is a Jew? also addresses the issue of how we view human beings. Are we simply creatures of God, subject to his authority and humble and obedient before the laws that are given to us? Or are we autonomous persons? Do we as human beings have the right to define the groups we will belong to? If a human being stands up and says, “I identify with the history, the fate, and the culture of the Jewish people” and expresses his or her identity through ac­tion and goodwill, that person indeed has the right to call himself or herself a Jew.

This question deals with the issue of ethics and authority. Where does authority lie? Can a group of rabbis, self-proclaimed bearers of the word of God, decide who is a Jew, even though their criteria may be a mixture of racist and religious ones that are inapplicable to what we would call rational living today? Or does authority lie some­where else?

When somebody quotes to me all the traditional passages from the Tanakh and elsewhere that forbid intermarriage and in a sense exclude the offspring of it, my answer is, “I’m sure your quotations are correct, but of what value are they? They do not con­form to the standards of human reason and human compassion, and those are the stan­dards that are to be found in many texts in Jewish history and are implied in the ex­perience of the Jewish people; and they should be the chief criteria.”

Lastly, this question addresses the issue of the survival of the Jewish people. Are we going to be this exclusive club that checks birth certificates, gloats over the fact that people are excluded from organizations they would like to join, and takes great pride in our racial purity? Or are we going to be an open people that says to anybody who wants to join us, anybody who wants to be part of this Jewish experience, “We want you; we need you; come join us”?

The fundamental issues of Secular Humanistic Judaism are contained in this question and, therefore, the resolution that we make at this conference will lay the foundation for a meaningful and significant Jewish humanism. It is not only that we are fighting the militant Orthodox. We are seek­ing to define ourselves and who we are.