Humanistic Judaism

Jewish Survival

“Jewish Survival” from Humanistic Judaism journal, Spring/Summer 1980

Jewish survival.

It’s a magic phrase.

Most Jews feel guilty if they are not concerned with Jewish survival. Most of us feel it necessary to prove that we are.

After all, we have suffered so much persecution, we have been assaulted by so many enemies. If we consent to the disappearance of our group, we will earn the disapproval of our martyred ancestors. We will give the final laugh to our enemies. We will be accused of treason.

Because of this guilt, the issue of Jewish survival has become a Jewish obsession. All Jewish discussions ultimately lead to it. Most Jewish anxiety stems from it.

Despite the tenderness of the problem, we Humanistic Jews have to have an answer to the question of survival. If we are committed to the value of Jewish identity, we are also committed to the preservation of that identity.

But we have to be careful how we define the question.

We have to avoid regarding Jewish survival as the highest value, to which all other ideals are subordinate. Such devotion is the narrowness of community leaders who always regard social action and cultural programming as “gimmicks” for interesting Jews in Jewish institutions; or the fanaticism of Meir Kahane who justifies terrorism in the name of community survival.

We have to distinguish between the quantity of life and the quality of life.

There is no doubt that if all of us embraced the Lubavitcher ideology and life style that Jewish uniqueness would be preserved. But at what price? Is a life of compulsive ritual, male chauvinism, cultural segregation and a childlike devotion to an absolute ruler morally tolerable? And if it is morally Intolerable, it is not an appropriate demand to make on anybody.

We need to make a distinction between holocaust and assimilation. A holocaust implies the destruction of the Jew. Assimilation implies the disappearance of Jewish identity. Certainly, there an important distinction between the fascist who wishes to physically eliminate the individual Jew and the universalist who desires that the Jews and all other ethnic groups choose a “higher” human identity. Changing one’s cultural commitment is radically different from losing one’s life.

We need to be aware of the irony of antisemitism. While hatred of the Jew has destroyed many Jews, it has also brought many reluctant members back into the fold and unified the community against the enemy. Without our foes we would be hard put to stay together. Therefore, it is by no coincidence that community leaders use antisemitism as a motivation for loyalty. Just as physicians have a vested interest in disease, many avid Jews have an unconscious need to find enemies.

We have to dismiss the illusions which traditional historians have fostered. The assertion that Torah loyalty preserved Jewish identity throughout the centuries is not completely true. Religion is not the only factor in Jewish culture. Language (whether Hebrew or Yiddish) and economic specialization were of equal importance. The Christian rulers of medieval Europe did not allow our ancestors to live because of their Torah. They granted them survival because of their economic usefulness. In the end, language, religion and work were vehicles of ethnic pride.

We have to avoid blind nostalgia. It is important to remember that what worked in the past may not work in the future. A technique for group survival that was effective in the past, like ritual segregation or the refusal to marry outside the group, is useless if the vast majority of contemporary Jews are unwilling to use it. Laws that nearly everybody disobeys, subject the authority that pronounces them to ridicule. They produce self-righteousness, not survival.

. . . .

What does Humanistic Judaism have to offer to the promotion of Jewish identity that is different from the well-known approaches of Orthodoxy, Reform-Conservatism and Mystical Judaism?

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. Our Jewish identity is not inferior to that of the past.

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, and not a religion, then it can embrace wide ideological differences. It can be inclusive rather than exclusive, allowing more and more people to identify themselves as Jews.

We offer the possibility of a secular religion. Such a combination is not a contradiction in terms. It simply implies that the secular Jewish activities of language, music, dance and humor are of equal or greater importance to those of religion. If religion refers to the appeasement and resignation behavior we manifest in the presence of what we do not control, then too much religion is dangerous, just as no religion is pretentious. The secular mood is the opposite to the religious feeling. In the face of situations, we have the human power to alter, it is defiant, challenging, irreverent and eager to change. In the presence of the unalterable, the secularist becomes mildly religious, shrugging his shoulders in resignation, but offering no gratitude. For those Jews who are far more secular than religious, we applaud their liberation and welcome their Jewish identity.

We offer an alternative history of the Jewish people, and an alternative view of Jewish roots. 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 was controlled by the clergy and 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. Merchants, musicians, poets, folklorists, inventors, soldiers, humorists, and the devotees of the popular language were made officially invisible, although their contribution to a Jewish sense of uniqueness and well-being was the equal to that of the clergy. The attitudes and ideas of the modern secular Jew are not alien to the Jewish past. They 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. 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. Joining a culture is much kinder, more rational and better humored than joining a religion.

We offer the endorsement of a variety of life-styles. We refuse to drown in the sentiment about the traditional Jewish family. Its patriarchal tyranny and male chauvinism are as characteristic as the security system it provided. 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 Bella Abzug. Otherwise, we will save our clichés 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, and not by the narrowness of religious ritual. Tel Aviv and the kibbutz are more characteristic of the new Israel than Jerusalem and the Bible. 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 freed of religious coercion and open to a truly cultural definition of Jewish identity.

We offer more than a Jewish agenda. We are also humanists, eager to participate in an emerging world culture, as well us 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. Judaism is too narrow unless it is willing to share its time with universalism.

We offer the concept of a new kind of Jewish leader. He must be able to serve as the ethical and cultural guide of Jewish groups and congregations in the same way that the historic rabbi served the community. But his training would not ape the training of the traditional rabbi, with its almost exclusive emphasis on religious texts. It would focus on the secular and humanist roots of Jewish culture and prepare him to add his own creative alternatives. (The training of Reform and Conservative rabbis today is simply a watered-down version of the training of traditional scholars.) Without this new leadership, the Jewish humanist and the Jewish secularist will gravitate to more traditional guides to serve their needs.

We offer more future and less past. In a time of rapid change, excessive nostalgia can be disastrous. What will be, becomes just as important as what was. The scientific spirit refuses to worship the past and to imagine that the greatest wisdom was uttered three thousand years ago. Nor does it need the endorsement of the past, whether Biblical or Talmudic, to make changes for the future. Given the revolution of modern life, we should be just as interested in creating new Jewish culture as in reviving old varieties. If we invent behavior to serve human needs—and do not invent human life styles to fit rigid behavior—we have no other choice.

As you can see, if we value Jewish identity there are many bold and unique actions that we can take to ensure its survival.

We Humanistic Jews are part of a “fourth alternative” in Judaism. We share this alternative with all our brothers and sisters who designate themselves as Secular, Cultural or Creative Jews. We have different labels, but essentially, one program. We need to cooperate with each other to make this program for Jewish survival a respectable reality.

Humanistic Judaism

Jewish Identity in the Contemporary World

“Jewish Identity in the Contemporary World” Humanistic Judaism journal, Spring 1987

What I’d like to do first is to test your limits with regard to what is a meaningful Jewish identity.

You are the son of a survivor. You have no religious inclinations of any kind; in fact, the Holocaust has turned you off completely. When people ask you about your Jewish identity, you tell them you don’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shavuot—that you don’t care about the holidays. However, you say your Jewish identity is very important to you because Jewish history for you is connected to your own philosophy of life. Your own philosophy of life is secular and humanistic. You believe you are in charge of your destiny. You believe that the message of Jewish history is precisely that.

You are an Israeli, and if there is one thing you hate, it’s religion. You were born in Poland. Religion was stuffed down your throat. You came to Israel. Now you love to go to the beach on Rosh Hashanah. If somebody asked you about your Jewish identity, you’d say, “I don’t have to worry about it. I speak Hebrew all day.”

You are an Anglo-Saxon atheist. You grew up in the Bronx. Most of the people in your neighborhood were Jews. You went to a predominantly Jewish high school. You come to a college where 50 percent of the students are Jewish and as time goes on you recognize that most of your life is spent with Jews. Then one day you decide that you’d like to be Jewish. You identify with the history and the fate of the Jewish people. Most of your friends are Jews. You start telling people you are Jewish.

You are an attorney. You have very little interest in formal religious activity, but you went to Israel in 1968 and you were turned on. Every year when the United Jewish Appeal comes around, you are involved. You feel very, very Jewish, but most of your Jewish activity is raising money for Israel.

You are a parent. You are a secular Jew, and the one thing you hate to do is to light candles. However, you’d like to do something for the Shabbat. You decide to choose some of your favorite Jewish poetry and, just before the meal begins, to read a poem or two to your family.

You are a graduate student. You become very much involved with Zen Buddhism. But you love your Jewish identity. You say to yourself: My philosophy of life is Zen, but my culture is Jewish. I’ll learn Yiddish, I’ll learn Hebrew—I’ll do Zen in Hebrew.

You are a yored, one of those people who leave Israel and come to live in Detroit to make money. People write you letters from back home, and you always write back that you are just here temporarily and you intend to go back. You have no religious inclinations whatsoever. You feel guilty about the fact that you have left the land of Israel, but when people ask you about your Jewish identity you say, “I fly to Israel twice a year. I have that connection. I live in a world where in thirteen hours I can get there.”

You are an attractive woman, and your parents have been waiting for a long time for you to marry a Jewish man. At the University of Michigan, you meet a man who is not Jewish but whom you love intensely. You are a secular Jew, he is a secular Anglo-Saxon, and you ask yourself: Can this marriage work? Your parents say it can’t, and they add, “If people like you do that, what is going to happen to the survival of the Jewish people?” You are torn between your own needs and the guilt that you feel. You say to yourself: I love my Jewish identity. I have a good strong cultural identity and that’s all I need. I can love somebody from another people. After all, I’m a humanist.

These are not idle stories. They are stories of people I have encountered. Maybe you have encountered some of them, too. They are people we bump into in North America, but I don’t think they’re confined to North America. I think these problems occur all over the Jewish world.

Today we have lots of people who claim to be Jewish in ways that are unacceptable to the tradition. I don’t mean whether the person is officially a Jew. According to Orthodox law, if you’re born of a Jewish mother and you run around doing Tibetan mantras, it’s all right; if you want to dress up as a Catholic priest, fine—your Jewish identity is secure.

I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the “good Jew.” What are the parameters of a meaningful Jewish identity? At one time that was easy to answer because the rabbis were in charge, and it simply meant reverence for ancestors and obedience to Halacha [Jewish law]. Now that’s gone.

In the past two centuries, three options emerged.

The first was Reform, which responded to the tremendous changes that Jews were undergoing in the nineteenth century. Reform responded to Jewish needs by defining Jewish identity as a religious identity. We were a religious denomination, and in that way Jews would be able to live acceptably in this modern, open world that had been created by the Enlightenment and the Age of Science. But Reform ideology has collapsed. For one thing, many Reformers, although they talked a lot about God, were basically closet humanists. Secondly, when racial anti-Semitism grew at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, the idea of a purely religious Jewish identity collapsed. Today the Reform movement certainly is strong, but its ideology is pasted together. The heart of the old ideology is gone.

Then there was Yiddish nationalism. What a powerful movement that was, based on a living people in Eastern Europe. But then that was tested by the Holocaust.

And, last, there is Zionism. The most successful modern Jewish response to the issue of a meaningful Jewish identity, an alternative to tradition, has been the Zionist movement. Israel’s coming into existence, its perseverance and its centrality in Jewish life have certainly demonstrated that Zionism is a viable alternative. But Zionism also has been tested. One of the things that Zionism was to do was to get rid of the galut, the Diaspora, and to “normalize” the Jewish people. But the Diaspora embarrassingly remains and most likely will continue to remain—which makes the Jews still abnormal and Israel part of a world Jewish people.

Zionism was supposed to provide a place where Jews would have their own land, and that has presented a problem. If you live in Israel today, you are very much aware of the fact that of the five million people who live within the present boundaries of Israel, including the occupied territories, close to two million are Arabs. You can’t live in Israel without being aware of the fact that you’re living, like the English in Canada, in a binational state.

It’s very difficult to talk about contemporary Jewish identity for a variety of reasons. First of all, each of us has a vested interest. If you’re Zionists, you want to imagine that ultimately all Jews will choose to come to Israel or—and you hear this all the time—that the galut will fade away. If you’re socialist, you still dream that somehow or other those collectivist impulses of the masses will come back together.

One of the problems we have in dealing with the present is that we never have experienced anything like it before in Jewish history. We make decisions that may be morally appropriate, but our ancestors wouldn’t approve so we feel guilty. One of the reasons we have difficulty is that the primary question on any Jewish program, even secular programs, is: What is going to happen to the Jewish people? What can we do to ensure Jewish survival?

That question prevents us from dealing with the basic issue. The best method I know of for ensuring Jewish survival is the Lubavitcher method. If your primary value is Jewish survival, then integrity is not the issue. What you will do is join the group that will provide maximum survival. You don’t believe, true, but you will join the group and dress up like a Lubavitcher, behave like a Lubavitcher, say you believe all the things Lubavitchers are supposed to believe because your primary value is Jewish survival.

It’s very dangerous for humanists to go around saying that the preservation of the Jewish people is the first value of Jewish life. There have to be other values. But generally when people talk, survival is what comes up. That’s the anxiety.

People say, “What we need is more education,” or “What we need is more services,” or “What we need is more Yiddish culture.” But what we demand of people, if it’s going to be effective, has to be related to what they feel they need.

So if we’re going to be able to do something for Jewish identity today as Secular Humanistic Jews, then we have to be aware of the nature and needs of the Jew today. What are the changes that have transformed Jewish life? What are the implications of these changes? How ought we to deal with them?

Let me list the changes that have taken place over the past two centuries. There has been a belief revolution—the Age of Science—that has undermined the old faith-belief system.

There has been a history revolution. You can no longer read the Bible and take it literally. We’re not even sure that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were real people. We’re not even sure that most of the stories told about Moses are the real stories. We’re not even sure any more about the actual origins of the Jewish people.

There has been a secular revolution. Today most Jews do not go to Jewish institutions for their education. Even Jewish institutions in the Jewish state in many ways are replicas of what we call secular education. Today Jewish children do not spend most of their time worrying about Torah and Talmud. They’re dealing with physics, chemistry, and so on.

We’ve been changed by affluence. In a subsistence culture, the basic question is group survival. Today I find that most Jewish young people in North America are unconcerned with that—and I’m not sure it’s that different in Buenos Aires or even in Tel Aviv, and I know the kibbutzim are experiencing the problem. At one time you could say to someone, “What have you done lately for the group?” Now people ask, “What do I need for my happiness? Don’t tell me what the group needs. What is the group going to do for me?”

We’ve been transformed by technology. The contemporary Jew lives in a global village. It’s easier to go from Chicago to Tel Aviv than it was a century ago to go from Chicago to Milwaukee. You just dial and you get South Africa, Zanzibar, or Brazil; you can talk to somebody in a moment.

We’ve been transformed by urbanization. Even in Israel, most of the people live in Haifa, Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem. Most Jews live in centers of culture and power.

We’ve been transformed by intermarriage. In North America, close to 40 percent of Jews marry non-Jews. It is not true that most of those people seek to leave the Jewish people. They simply live in an open society, where they fall in love with people who are not members of their own group. They have children, many of whom have Jewish last names and live in a world in which their identity sometimes is held suspect by Jews who are very much into policing Jewish identity.

We’ve been transformed by utopianism. There are many people in this room who remember the ’20s, the ’30s, or the ’40s, when many people believed that a socialist revolution would change the world. We’ve lived through a lot of revolutions, Bolshevik and fascist, and now even some of the most ardent people on the left have discovered that maybe we have to reevaluate where that’s going. If you look at the temper of young people today, in North America at least, their political affiliations certainly don’t coincide with what they were back in the ’60s or back in the ’30s.

We’ve been transformed by anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, which destroyed one-third of our people.

The most dramatic event transforming Jewish life is what I call the Zionization of the Jewish people, the establishment of Israel, and the emergence of Israel as the focal point of Jewish life.

Last, we have what I call the Anglo-Saxonization of Jewish life. When you watch the behavior of young people in Tel Aviv, or even middle-aged people, you find that they are part of the consumer culture that was developed here in the United States. The consumer culture is exportable. It’s going everywhere in the world.

Today, after the Holocaust, the largest Jewish community in the world, more than six million, resides in North America, and the power and influence of that community, certainly with regard to Israel, is enormous.

What are the implications of all this? The contemporary Jew lives in unique circumstances. People will say, “We’ve had anti-Semitism before and we’ve had changes before,” But I don’t know of any other society where the rate of change has been what it is in our society. We are assaulted by so much change that we suffer from future shock. We’re living in the present and future all the time.

One of the reasons why it often is very difficult to use traditional texts, unless you simply lift a quotation out of context, is that all these marvelous people were answering anxieties that came out of a more agrarian culture. Some of our anxieties today are the same, but many are not.

One of the anxieties that I encounter all the time among people whom I counsel is the inability to handle all the things that are changing in their lives. Their careers change, their marriages break up, the neighborhood doesn’t work and they’re forced to move, their skills become obsolete.

The contemporary Jew generally knows what he does not believe, but he hasn’t yet figured out what he does believe. People haven’t figured out what they do believe because things change so fast.

The contemporary Jew has to try very hard to believe traditionally. The fundamentalists that I encounter are, in many respects, different from the pious people of the past. When you live in an environment in which it is very hard to believe what you’re supposed to believe, you develop a desperate posture. At one time the stories in the Bible were believable. People believed in that kind of a world. It was easy because everybody did. Now, if you want to believe in the miracles of the Bible, you have to make an effort. You have to apologize, defend, explain; and what it produces is this enormous militancy.

The contemporary Jew has higher expectations. When I was a child, people were accustomed to suffering. What else was there to life? You suffered. Now people want happiness and fulfillment, and when they come to the temple or synagogue, they want magnificent aesthetic experiences. I remember people sitting in shul [synagogue] and being bored for hour after hour after hour. I can’t imagine my father using the phrase “aesthetic experience.”

The contemporary Jew knows that survival is not enough. Secular Humanistic Judaism will never get off the ground if its only focus is on what we can do to insure Jewish survival because Jewish survival is not the primary agenda of most Jews today, not even in Israel. The primary agenda of most people has to do with their own personal needs, and unless you have something to say philosophically, poetically, or whatever, to their human condition—not just to their Jewish condition—how will you ever reach them?

The contemporary Jew lives with everybody, and this relates to Israel as well as the rest of the world. There was a time when Anglo-Saxons imagined that the United States could be an Anglo-Saxon country. But immigrants came—Polish, Italians, Jews, Russians, and the rest. Even Anglo-Saxons are now regarded in America as an ethnic group. The reality in Israel too is that Jews live with Arabs. They may not want to. They may feel like the whites in my neighborhood who don’t want to live with blacks just a few miles away. Go find a place in the world today where Jews will not have to relate in some way, either friendly or hostile, to others and to share space.

The contemporary Jew lives in a world culture. If I were a tourist in Japan a century ago, I would not have known how to relate to it. Nobody would have spoken English. I wouldn’t have understood the artifacts. What is happening in the world today is that there is a kind of universal culture created by modern science and technology.

The contemporary Jew has the freedom to make his own options. Even in dictatorships or juntas, as long as you don’t assault the authorities, they don’t care whether you observe Shabbat but not Sukkot, observe Sukkot but not Shabbat, eat pork but not shrimp, eat shrimp but not pork. What happens now in the world is that each Jew develops his own private Jewishness. I know somebody who will eat ham, but not with milk.

The contemporary Jew lives with chronic anti-Semitism. It is quite true that in the Soviet Union, were it not for chronic anti-Semitism, a lot of the people who are now proclaiming their Jewishness would not have done so. One of the major preservatives of Jewish identity—certainly in modern times—is the sense of guilt that people who are members of a vulnerable group feel. The removal of anti-Semitism won’t happen and for a very simple reason. We Jews by our lifestyle—this over-urbanized people of professional education—represent an adaptation to the modern world that other people do not have. Anti-Semitism in the twentieth century was never directed primarily toward the beliefs of the Jewish people: it was directed toward the image of the Jew, the city slicker, the person who was difficult to comprehend and who was envied and feared.

The contemporary Jew experiences Israel as the most dramatic event, the most dramatic aspect of Jewish identity today. The one thing that is the big turn-on for Jewish identity is the connection that people have to Israel. There may be people who have objections to some of its policies, but the reality is that over the years, some of the most militant anti-Zionist groups dramatically modified their positions. Because in the end, you’re not going to be able to look at Israel and say, “You’re insignificant.”

Last and most important of all: In order to understand what Jewish identity means, we have to understand that we are an international people. In this city of Detroit [in the 1920s], Henry Ford published and circulated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the most vicious anti-Semitic writings of the twentieth century. We were called “the international Jew.” We were called that also by Father Charles Coughlin, who at one time had aspirations to be President of the United States of America. The assault bears some truth. One of the reasons why people have difficulty digesting us is that indeed we are a nation that became an international nation. No matter what people do to normalize us, that’s what we remain. In the age of modern technology, when it’s easy to fly back and forth, and there is economic stress and people look for a place where there are suitable outlets for their career skills, Israelis and Diaspora Jews keep moving back and forth. It is highly unlikely, given the technology of 60 to 100 years from now, that national boundaries will be of enormous significance. They will be there, obviously, and nationalism will certainly be strong, but an international people may indeed be the wave of the future.

How do you cope with all these changes? One way is denial. This is something you hear frequently: “Do you know what is great about the Jewish people? The Jewish family.” In Oakland County, Jews have a 50 percent divorce rate. What are they talking about? Denial means unpleasant facts are forgotten, and what we have is a cliché that comes out of the past.

Then there is rejection: people who say, “I don’t like the modern world. I don’t like what’s happening.” We have fundamentalists in the Jewish world, as well as in the Muslim world and the Christian world.

The third way is guilt. Guilt is when you say “Maybe I can have it both ways. Maybe I can change and not change at the same time. What I’ll do is go to Yom Kippur services and fast, and then I’ll break the fast with shrimp and scallops.” The texts of the past may not necessarily say what I believe, and what I could do with integrity is to allow them to say what they say because the authors of those texts are entitled to their integrity, and I want to hear what they have to say. I don’t need them to “kosherize” me. But if I’m ambivalent and feel a little guilty, I say “I’ve changed, but if my ancestors were living here today, they’d say ‘Good boy, Sherwin.’”

The fourth way is called avoidance: “I want Jewishness for music, a little dance, a little song. That’s all. If I want a philosophy of life, I’ll go elsewhere.” The power of historic Judaism lay in the fact that it incorporated both a culture and a philosophy of life, Now for a lot of people it’s just cultural tidbits.

Let me conclude with what I consider to be the pattern of integrity. The pattern of integrity responds to the realities by taking them seriously, and, if we take them seriously, six propositions follow:

If we are going to be effective as Secular Humanistic Jews in the twenty-first century, the first thing we have to do is relate to the needs that people have as human beings, to their human condition, and not always talk only about a Jewish culture but also talk about a philosophy of life. I believe that unless we have a secular humanistic answer to the questions, “What do I do with my emotions?” and “What do I do with my life?”—unless we spend time on these questions within the framework of Secular Humanistic Jewish groups, we’re not going to hold anybody. You can’t build on cultural tidbits.

The way of integrity means that you tie the Jewish experience to that philosophy. I am a secular humanistic Jew not only because I was born of a Jewish family. I came to my secular humanism through my Jewish experience. I feel that Jewish history is not an expression of the presence of a loving and just God, but of the indifference of the universe to the human moral agenda; and if that’s the case, the meaning is that we human beings must assume responsibility for our fates. My Jewish experience is tied to my philosophy.

The third proposition is that we must innovate. The most successful Jewish enterprise in the twentieth century was not just the creation of Israel; it was the revival of modern Hebrew. What we Secular Humanistic Jews have to do is to invent alternative ways of doing all kinds of things. We’ve been doing it for a long time—Shabbat, Pesach, bar and bat mitzvah. It’s not simply a matter of rescuing the old; it’s a matter also of inventing the new. We may even invent new holidays.

The way of integrity means that we live with openness. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who wants to be Jewish can identify with the fate of the Jewish people—to that person, we should say, “Welcome.” Does an Anglo-Saxon atheist from the Bronx want to be Jewish? Terrific. Why not? Does somebody want to be Jewish simply by participating in social and political action? Fine. Let each person choose what is meaningful. Our message to people is, “We do not oppose your right to develop your agenda. If you want to put Jewish identity at the top, that’s fine. If you want to make it fourth and you feel you have other concerns in your life that are more important, we’re not going to assault you with a lecture.”

If we have integrity, we reject messianic utopianism. By the end of the twentieth century, we’ve had enough preachers of utopia. We need people who are neither too pessimistic or excessively optimistic, but people who are realistic. I never say to people, “We Jews believe that ultimately peace will reign throughout the world.” I say, “From Jewish experience, it’s very iffy. We’d better do something about it. That’s the message of Jewish history.”

Perhaps most important of all, we have to accept that we are a world people. That’s what the International Federation [of Secular Humanistic Jews] is about. It means that people in the Diaspora recognize that Israel is, for all practical purposes, the center of the Jewish people and that Israelis recognize, without contempt, that the Diaspora is here to stay. And the only reason why Israel is significant is because it is attached to something called the Jewish people, which is a world people.

A good philosophy of life teaches people to face reality and to be strong enough to deal with that reality. The reason I regard myself as a Secular Humanistic Jew is that we affirm human dignity, which means we are not afraid to face the truth, both pleasant and unpleasant. That is our pride both as Jews and as human beings.

Humanistic Judaism

Secular Humanistic Jewish Ideology

“Secular Humanistic Jewish Ideology” from Humanistic Judaism journal, Winter 1991. Also published in Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought.

There were times when ideology was very important in Jewish life, when a set of compelling ideas seized the minds and hearts of Jewish men and women and mobilized them to make dramatic changes in religion and culture.

The prophetic ideology of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah turned defeat into victory. Yahveh, the national God of the Jews, who was unable to crush the superior power of the Assyrians and their natural allies, became a world God of infinite power, who was using the Assyrians to punish his chosen people for their sins. Yahvism, rescued by prophetic ingenuity, became the foundation of a new and powerful religion. The Jewish people was thrust into the center of a divine drama of cosmic proportions.

The ideology of the Pharisees and their rabbinic leaders provided a response to the suffering and humiliation of the Jews and to the seeming injustice of God. A final judgment day would mark the end of this world and usher in the Kingdom of God. The dead would rise from their graves, stand before the seat of justice, and receive either eternal reward or eternal punishment. The powerful appeal of this scenario transformed Jewish life. Thousands of Jews flocked to the standard of the Pharisees. The rabbis assumed power. Rabbinic Judaism became official Judaism.

Other compelling ideologies have entered Jewish life from time to time, causing radical changes in Jewish behavior. A compelling ideology embraces all of life: the personal and the communal, the spiritual and the corporal. It addresses anxieties people have. It answers the questions people are asking. It is enhanced by charismatic leaders and dramatic symbols. Above all, it defines the goals of personal and social existence and identifies the source from which the power to achieve them will come.

In modern times, both Marxism and Zionism have won passionate adherents. Both have mobilized millions of people. But with these two exceptions, the past two hundred years have witnessed a decline in Jewish ideology. Fewer and fewer Jews connect their Jewishness with powerful and mind-grabbing ideas. Being Jewish and being ideological because one is Jewish no longer equate with the same intensity that they did in prophetic and rabbinic times. Most Jewish ideology today is about as passionate as the courteous statements made at interfaith banquets.

Why has this change occurred?

The old ideology, whether prophetic or rabbinic, is no longer credible. In an age of reason, science, and comparative religion, divinely chosen nations and resurrections are hardly the theological stuff of which conviction is made. What used to seem possible and real no longer seems possible or real. Political emancipation and secular education have made it difficult to believe what used to be easy to believe.

The new twentieth-century ideologies have failed to produce their promised utopias. This failure has provoked a pervasive disillusionment and cynicism. Scholars are now suspect. Rational thinking is condemned as shallow. Intuition and mystic insights are exalted. Listening to one’s heart is preferred to listening to one’s mind. New Age philosophy thrives on anti-intellectualism. Inconsistency becomes a virtue in an environment in which following one’s feelings is accepted advice even in educated circles. Impulse rather than ideology becomes the sign of the free spirit. It is also an excuse to avoid establishing any real control of one’s life.

Most modern Jews separate their Jewishness from their personal philosophy of life. The first is a cultural and nostalgic experience. The second is a private commitment—or a commitment exercised in a group other than a Jewish one. Jews daven [pray] and do transcendental meditation. They chant traditional blessings on Jewish holidays and oppose the encroachments of organized religion on public life. Jewishness and ideology function in separate compartments of people’s lives. One has nothing to do with the other.

The power of traditional religious literature—the Bible, the Talmud, the Siddur—makes it difficult to dispense with them, especially in the absence of other Jewish writings of equal prestige. Being Jewish means using “the sources” even if you do not believe in most of what they say. The Kaddish is no longer a rabbinic tribute to a powerful and just God; it is a collection of Jewish sounds stripped of conceptual meaning.

In the century of racial anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the survival of the Jewish people is an obsessive issue. Jewish survival demands Jewish activity. Prayer and worship are the most familiar Jewish activities, especially in the Diaspora, where Jewish languages have all but disappeared. Parents hire religious teachers to teach their children to recite religious words they do not believe in, because they imagine that Jewish prayer is a guarantee of Jewish identity—and Jewish identity is a guarantee of Jewish survival. For a nonideological Judaism, any synagogue will do.

Modern Jewish ideological secularism is often a sham. Most “secular” Jews define their secularism by their hostility to organized religion and the traditional rabbinate. Their secularism is not a positive philosophy of life, a new compelling vision of the world and of Jewishness. While these negative secularists resent the burden of traditional law and traditional authority, they do not mind playing traditional when it is convenient. A funeral or bar mitsva becomes an opportunity to dress up in the costumes of Orthodoxy and pretend for a moment that one is identifying with one’s ancestors. People who grumble about the oppressiveness of religion, who choose to spend Rosh Hashana on a Tel Aviv beach, are often the same people who insist that all the halakhic details of shiva [mourning] be observed when their parents die. In their minds religion is irrelevant or worse—but: if you do it, you might as well do it “right.”

Jewish nationalism—whether Yiddishist or Zionist—began with secularists. But its success brought antisecularists into the fold. Today a majority of the supporters of Zionism are followers of conventional religion. Public Zionism, therefore, has to be circumspect. It can no longer afford to offend the religious. The old secularist fervor would undermine Jewish unity, successful political campaigning, and fundraising. Public Zionism has become a set of safe nationalist clichés that offer no real guidance to Jews seeking a meaningful personal philosophy of life. A nationalism that seeks to mobilize large numbers of people of diverse opinions needs a safe ideology—which, for practical purposes, means no ideology.

The decline of ideology is manifest everywhere in Jewish life. Jewish feminists don the symbols of the halakhic system that rejects them. The Reform movement seeks to be emotionally kosherized by a return to tradition. The Conservative movement has given up trying to explain why it is neither Orthodox nor liberal and instead justifies itself by the meaningless plea of moderation. Even bold stands on female rabbis and homosexual rabbis are comfortably combined with ritual praise of the ethical traditions of the Jewish past.

Philosophical talk has been replaced by survival talk. Whatever seems to enhance Jewish survival, regardless of its effect on the quality of Jewish life, is good. Secularists give money to the Lubavitchers because Orthodox Jews stay Jewish. Reform rabbis sponsor Orthodox conversions because Jewish unity strengthens the Jewish people. Welfare federations provide support to Orthodox yeshivas—the more tradition, the more survival. At one time in the Jewish world, in the days of the prophets and the rabbis, the primary question of Judaism was, “Is it true?” Today, in a survival-obsessed Jewish society, the question of truth has vanished. The only question that remains is, “Is it Jewish?”

As we contemplate the future of the Jewish people and the future of Secular Humanistic Judaism, we need to deal with the decline of ideology.

One option is to play down ideology—to become merely a potpourri of people who have either vague or vivid grievances against organized religion. The danger in this approach is that we will give up our substance in order to improve the packaging; and the new packaging will not work in the end. Negative secularists are not the stuff of which to build a strong movement. They share no positive agenda. They are easily seduced by Orthodox tidbits when they want to feel Jewish. They can be satisfied by Reform or Conservative nostalgia as well as by secular nostalgia.

The other option is to be clearly ideological in a Jewish world that avoids ideology. The opportunity in this approach is that we can recruit people who share our positive agenda, who value our willingness to deal with ideas and with personal integrity in Jewish life. The danger is that we will turn off negative secularists who find no value in philosophy or in consistency.

Given the advantages and disadvantages of both options, I would choose the path of ideology. We are a movement committed to a radical reinterpretation of the Jewish experience. We are not a movement equipped to benefit from impulsive nostalgia. In the long run, we will serve individual Jews and the Jewish people more effectively if we enable them to link their personal beliefs with their Jewish identity. We will serve our movement more effectively if we give it a unique function in Jewish life.

What do we need to do to make our ideology a strong ideology?

We need to insist that the question “Is it true” is more important the question “Is it Jewish?” The Sh’ma [prayer affirming God] is Jewish, but it is not, from our perspective, true. The Kaddish is Jewish, but it is not consistent with what we believe. A strong ideology insists that when we celebrate who we are, we speak with conviction. New words that express our convictions are preferable to old words that do not. Nostalgia is valuable, but it is not primary.

We need to reduce our basic beliefs to four or five simple, dramatic statements—statements that address Jewish anxieties and concerns. A powerful message is a brief message. Overlong academic formulations are useless.

If I were to choose five basic statements, they would be the following:

  • Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people, which includes many religious and secular traditions.
  • A Jew is any person who chooses to identify with the fate and culture of the Jewish people.
  • After the Holocaust, it is clear that the meaning of Jewish history is that Jews must be responsible for their own fate.
  • Every person is entitled to be the master of his or her own life, subject to the final authority of his or her own conscience.
  • The power to achieve human survival, happiness, and dignity is a human power.

We need to be what we are and not try to be what we are not. We have deep roots in the Jewish experience. But we represent a radical break with the rabbinic tradition. We can use the literature of the past when it expresses humanistic sentiments. But we do not need to be kosherized by it. Quotations will not make us more legitimate. The ultimate vulnerability of the Reform and Conservative movement is the need to find authority in the literature of rabbinic Judaism. Orthodox clothing does not fit non-Orthodox people.

We need to take seriously our commitment to reason. Old liberal beliefs that no longer conform to the evidence should be discarded. Unyielding loyalty to a humanistic tradition can be as reactionary as unyielding loyalty to the halakhic tradition. We should not burden ourselves with embarrassing falsehoods. Old humanistic clichés like “All people are basically good,” or “Human ethical progress is constant and inevitable,” or old Marxist slogans like “The laws of history dictate ultimate human liberation” are, in the light of the twentieth century experience, simply silly. They are about as credible as the Lubavitcher messiah or the Reform vision of the messianic age.

We need to answer questions that Jewish people are asking. The power of the prophetic and rabbinic traditions lay in their responsiveness to deep concerns. The quest for spiritual experience is a Jewish quest. It demands an answer—and not the dismissive answer of the old secular tradition, which was deeply suspicious of the very word spirituality. Today many Jews who seek a spiritual dimension in their lives are fully humanistic. But they have no vocabulary to describe what they want and need. A Secular Humanistic Judaism that lacks a strong, clear, and positive answer to the question of spirituality will not be effective.

We need to reconnect Jewish identity with a strong personal philosophy of life, a philosophy that enables people to cope more adequately with the adversities and opportunities of individual existence. Jews are more than Jews. They are human beings, with all the fears and anxieties of the human condition. Prophetic and rabbinic Judaism addressed the human condition as well as the question of Jewish survival. Modern Judaism, by and large, does not. Jews do their Judaism in the synagogue and their personal philosophy of life in universities, friendship circles, professional work, private readings, marathon weekends, or psychotherapy. They do not expect the message of the synagogue to be a personal guide for effective living. They expect it only to reinforce their Jewish identity. An effective ideology addresses Jewish issues in the context of broader human issues: How are Jewish identity and self-esteem related? What does Secular Humanistic Judaism have to say about the search for personal dignity and fulfillment? In what way is Jewish liberation connected to general human liberation?

We need to speak in a language that people understand. Intellectual formulations appeal to some people, but others can better understand principles embodied concretely in the lives of real people. Biography becomes philosophy. Heroes become role models. All successful ideologies have vivid personalities who serve as living examples of appropriate behavior; even children can comprehend the values they represent. Who are our unique heroes? What literature do we have to tell their stories to adults and children? There are many biographies of Spinoza and Einstein. But we do not have a biographic literature written from a Secular Humanistic Jewish point of view.

We need appealing symbols. The most effective ideology is never found in dry formulations. It is expressed in songs, holiday celebrations, and body decorations. The ideology of halakhic Judaism is better expressed by the Siddur than by the Maimonidean creed. The principles of Jewish Marxism were better dramatized by May Day and the Yiddish “Internationale” than by public readings of Das Kapital. What are the songs of our movement? What are the unique celebration formats we all share? What are the symbols of our commitment that we would choose to wear? It is not enough that each community is creative. There has to be a set of shared symbols, songs, and formats that uniquely dramatize the ideology and membership of our movement. At some time or other we all need to sing the same song and know that other Secular Humanistic Jews are singing it too.

We need to be pluralistic with conviction. A successful Judaism needs to be a pluralistic Judaism, in which all Jewish options have their place. But it does not need to be a mushy pluralism that seeks to avoid confrontation and gloss over differences. Ideological competition is real—and it is good for Judaism. No single ideology, or lack of ideology, can possibly serve the needs and temperaments of all Jews. Only the give and take of competing views of Jewish identity can produce the vitality and variety that a healthy Judaism requires. Strong convictions, strongly expressed, are essential to meaningful internal debate. As long as they do not degenerate into absolute and self-righteous convictions, they give substance to Jewish commitment. A strong ideology needs to find the balance between offending nobody and rejecting everybody else.

Birmingham Temple logo

Brussels 1988 – International Federation Conference

The Jewish Humanist, November 1988

Brussels 1988. An important place and time for Humanistic Judaism.

The second biennial meeting of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews produced an important document. The question “Who is a Jew?” was answered boldly, generously and with a unique voice. Never before had any Jewish movement drawn the parameters of Jewishness so broadly. Hopefully, the issuance of this statement to the Jewish press and to the Jewish world will challenge the traditional establishment and arouse useful discussion.

The meeting in Brussels also provided for emotional highs. Two hundred people from thirteen countries, speaking Hebrew, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Yiddish, created an environment of international excitement. Some came – out of secular Yiddishist backgrounds. Some came from active Zionist organizations. Some were children of the kibbutz, imbued with the results of over seventy years of humanistic experiments. Others were members of secular Jewish schools and secular Jewish culture clubs. Still others, like us, were the products of full-fledged humanistic congregations. Even famous free-floating Jewish intellectuals, like Albert Memmi and Amos Funkenstein, added to the variety of flavors.

The- main setting for the conference was the Centre Communautaire Laic Juif, a secular Jewish community center in the heart of Brussels. Established over twenty -five years ago by a charismatic couple, Simone and David Susskind, it has emerged as the major humanistic Jewish voice on the European scene. Its programs reach thousands of Jews in Brussels. Its publications, especially its French magazine Regards are read by over ten thousand Belgian Jews. Its special conferences embrace the famous leaders and intellectuals of the Jewish world and bring them together to discuss important issues.

There were many special moments. There was the triumphant conclusion of the day-long attempt to reach consensus on the Who is a Jew? statement, with regional delegations cheering and applauding-. There was the warm and inspiring message of Albert Memmi, famous writer and the honorary president of the Federation, who challenged us to respond creatively to the real world of assimilation and intermarriage. There was the simple and compelling acceptance speech of David Susskind, who received a special award for distinguished service to the cause of Jewish humanism, and who shared with us the passion of his commitment. There was the powerful challenge of Yehoshafat Harkabi, former Director of Military Intelligence for the state of Israel, who demanded that we dismiss our destructive illusions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and called us to confront the reality of Israel’s present position and the necessity for dramatic compromise. There was, of course, the incredible sense of solidarity and closeness as we all sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs with Jews from many places and many nations.

The conference made us an aware that, despite our differences, we were part of a growing world movement and that we needed to work together to make it strong. But we also recognized that context made a difference. The problems of North America were not the same as those of Europe. And the problems of Europe were distinct from those of Israel and Latin America. We discovered that we had to listen to each other very carefully so that we could really understand from where each one of us was coming and what each one of us needed.

Out of the conference came an agenda of tasks that we needed to undertake if we were going to be successful in serving the needs of secular and humanistic Jews. We needed to provide popular essays about our philosophy – in at least four languages – so that unaware secular Jews could identify with our ideology and our movement. We needed to strengthen our Institute in Jerusalem so that trained teachers and leaders would be available to serve struggling communities all over the world. We needed to develop the aesthetic and emotional side of our humanistic commitments so that shared celebrations and shared symbols would give us a heartfelt sense of Jewish identity. We needed to reach out to the thousands of Jews who had no knowledge of us but who belonged with us, especially the cultural Jews of the Soviet Union and the unaffiliated Jews of North America and Europe. We especially needed to map out an effective strategy to counter the militancy of the new orthodoxy and to help rescue the Jewish world for sanity and openness.

We left Brussels with the determination to undertake these tasks and with the comfort of knowing that we would undertake them together.

The closing event of the meeting was held at the Holocaust Memorial in Brussels, an outdoor shrine in the heart of the old ghetto where twenty-six thousand names of Nazi victims are inscribed in bronze. We stood in silent tribute and then sang the defiant song of the Jewish partisans. We felt the sadness and despair for all that was lost. We also felt deeply our connection to the suffering and survival of the Jewish people. We knew that, ultimately, we could not rely on the kindness of God. The future of the Jewish people and of humanity lay, in some small way, in our hands.

Jewish Humanist

The Message of Humanistic Judaism

The Jewish Humanist, June 1977

Humanistic Judaism is the Birmingham Temple. It is also more than the Birmingham Temple.

Humanistic Judaism is Deerfield Temple Beth Or, the Westport Congregation for Humanistic Judaism; the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Greater Los Angeles, the Toronto Jewish Humanist Congregation and dozens of individuals in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, Houston and San Francisco.

Humanistic Judaism is the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Established in 1969 by members of the Birmingham Temple, the Society serves as the link among all self-proclaimed Humanistic Jews in North America and beyond.

Our Temple is unique. It is the pioneer congregation of a new religious movement. It is the community voice for hundreds of Jews whose ideas and opinions need to be heard in the Jewish world.

Humanistic Judaism allows us to reach beyond the parochial boundaries of a single congregation and find the broader fellowship of like-minded believers.

This year Westport, Connecticut was the setting for the annual meeting of the Society. Delegates from all over North America came together to share achievements, to exchange ideas and to plan for the future.

The general consensus was that we have a distinct and unique message for world Jewry – different from the message of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Secular Judaism.

What is this different package of ideas and practices which Humanistic Judaism represents?

In order to articulate the ‘Humanistic’ answers we have to first spell out the questions we share with all other branches of Judaism.

There are six questions.

  1. How do we define the nature of Jewish identity in an age when the spectrum of Jewish belief ranges from Lubavitcher piety to Marxist atheism?
  2. How do we deal with the historic primacy of the Torah at a time when the Torah life style corresponds in no way to the behavior of most Jewish people?
  3. How do we bridge the gulf between the Jewish personality of the past – pious, faithful, reverent and traditional – with the Jewish personality of the present – challenging, rational, skeptical and creative?
  4. How do we deal with the fact that the vocabulary and world-view of contemporary science In no way corresponds to the vocabulary and world-view of historic Judaism?
  5. In an age when a God who intervenes directly in the lives of people is no longer believable, is there any part of the religious enterprise which is still valid?
  6. In a cosmopolitan world where ethnic and religious groups live intermingled how open should Jews be to the non-Jewish world?

The six answers which follow are the ‘quickie’ summary of Humanistic Judaism.

Jewish identity. A Jewish identity which can embrace both Lubavitcher piety and Marxist atheism cannot be a religious identity. Neither a set of religious beliefs nor a single life style can define Jewishness. The only category which is broad enough is ethnic and familial. To be Jewish is to be a member of an international ‘nation’. This ‘nation’ has its center presently in the state of Israel. But Its members are citizens of many countries, speak many languages, embrace many political opinions and indulge a wide variety of cultural styles. The very nature of Jewish identity forces Jews to work for a world community. Because only a world community can give official sanction to the international character of Jewish identity.

Life Style. Unlike all the other liberal branches of Judaism Humanistic Judaism does not seek to save the words of the Torah while rejecting its substance. It boldly admits that the Torah is historically interesting but intellectually irrelevant. In an age when information about people and the world continuously changes, no sacred book is appropriate, even as a symbol. Wisdom comes from the testing and insight of contemporary science, which allows no absolute truth. New rules have to be invented for new situations all the time.

Jewish Present. Humanistic Jews find the Jewish present just as interesting as the Jewish past. The secular world of science and technology has given the Jew more education, power and intellectual clout than he has ever enjoyed before. By virtue of their unprecedented affluence and freedom, contemporary Jews are, at least, the equals of their desert ancestors. An appropriate Jewish history gives as much time to Einstein as to Moses.

World View. The ‘God’ vocabulary of historic Judaism cannot fit the naturalistic view of contemporary science. Saving theology is a waste of time. The language of prayer and worship is so inappropriate that it cannot be rescued. A successful Judaism seeks to use the language that the modern Jew uses in his daily life.

Religion. Much of the old religious enterprise is useless to Humanistic Jews. Contacting supernatural power is an act of futility. Character building and ethical training are the aspects of historic religion which are still appealing. The religious community is an extended family with shared values. The congregation translates these values into practical behavior. Rationality, trust, cooperation and generosity become skills for learning.

Openness. Humanistic Jews start with Jewish literature but do not stop there. They are open to receiving wisdom about solving problems from any ethnic source. The affirmation of human power, human reason and human happiness is-more than Jewish. It is also universal. Humanistic Jews find their ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’not only among other Jews. They find them also among other humanists.

These six brief answers are a unique combination. They are the missionary message of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. They unite us with hundreds of Jews outside the Birmingham Temple.

The Society needs your support to spread the ‘word’.

Jewish Humanist

The Humanist Institute

The Jewish Humanist, February 1985

On February 15 we shall be honoring the four members of our congregation who are students of the Humanist Institute.

The Humanist Institute is a new development in the humanistic world which is very important to the welfare and future of the Birmingham Temple.

The Institute is a graduate school for the training of humanist leaders which was established by the North American Committee for Humanism in 1982. The Committee is an international conference of humanist leaders who firmly believe that the growth and development of a humanist constituency in the United States and Canada depends on the training of competent and dynamic spokespeople who will go forth to proclaim the humanist message and to organize humanist communities.

There are seven important humanist organizations in North America today – the American Ethical Union, the American Humanist Association, the American Rationalist Association, the Bertrand Russell Society, the Council for a Democratic and Secular Humanism, the Fellowship of Religious Humanists (Unitarian), and the Society for Humanistic Judaism. None of them is strong enough or rich enough to organize a leadership school of its own. Only if they pool their energies and resources is a working school possible.

That cooperation is exactly what began in 1982. Frightened by the assaults of the religious right, the leaders of these seven groups came together in Chicago to establish an institution of higher learning which would provide visibility and training for the humanist world.

Important progress has taken place since then. A home was found for the Institute in the prestigious building of the New ‘fork Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan. A distinguished educator, Howard Radest, was chosen as Dean. Our most energetic humanist missionary, Roger Greeley of Kalamazoo, was appointed the Associate Dean in charge of student recruitment, and student placement. Twenty-five students, from different humanist backgrounds and from different parts of the country, were selected to be the first class of the Institute. A graduate curriculum of 90 credits (three full-time years of study) was designed to provide high-quality professional training for the leadership candidates. A part-time faculty of well-known academicians from Columbia, Harvard, State University of New York, University of Michigan and the University of Southern California were recruited as teachers. And a nation-wide fundraising effort was launched to secure the funds that the Institute requires for survival and growth.

Among the 25, students of the first class are four Humanistic Jewish candidates, who want to pursue careers in the world of Humanistic Judaism and who want special training and certification for their future roles as educators and community leaders.

Why is the Institute important to us in the Birmingham Temple?

The Institute is important to us because the ‘future of Humanistic Judaism demands well-trained rabbis, educators and administrators to lead congregations and communities. Without such leaders ‘established congregations cannot be maintained and new communities cannot be created.

The Institute is important to us because, until the Institute came into existence, there was no place where Humanistic rabbis and Jewish educators could be trained. Existing Humanistic rabbis are ‘refugees’ from the Reform movement and the Hebrew Union College. Given its commitment to a theistic Judaism, the Hebrew Union College is unwilling to train openly humanistic Jewish leaders who will not provide their talents and energies for Reform enterprises.

The Institute is important to us because it is the first step in providing us with the leadership training we need.

Right now the course work is concerned with general humanism. In the near future a Jewish curriculum will be added to serve the Jewish students. This curriculum will be designed in cooperation with the new Israel Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Jerusalem and with Judaic Studies departments in major secular universities.

The Institute is important to us because we will be able to help design the program we need together with a sympathetic school administration, instead of being the victim of hostile institutions who are indifferent to our welfare and our future.

The Institute is important to us because it will become a visible public academic center where Humanistic Jewish scholars in North America can be motivated to dialogue and to create new essential literature.

The Institute is important to us because now we can recruit young talented people to train for leadership careers in Humanistic Judaism. We no longer have to wait passively for the ‘refugees’ trained by other movements to choose us. We can choose and train our own leaders.