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The Real Story of the Bible: Richard Friedman’s Hidden Book

Recorded February 1999 by the Center for New Thinking.

Richard Elliott Friedman, the author of Who Wrote the Bible?,  wrote another challenging book, The Hidden Book in the BibleFriedman claims to have uncovered the text of the document which is the oldest part of the Bible.  Standing alone it is very different from the  Bible as a whole.  It forces us to rethink Biblical history.  It is certainly  an exciting new way to view the messages of the Bible.

 

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

Humanistic Judaism

Courage in the Face of Death

“Courage” memorial reading, Humanistic Judaism journal, Winter/Spring 1999

Death needs courage. It is so overwhelmingly final that it fills our lives with dread and anxious fear. When it arrives at the end of a long and happy life it is never welcome, yet not deeply resented. But when it comes too soon, invading young lives, disrupting hopes and dreams, it adds anger to our fear. We cry out at the injustice of destiny and wait for answers that never seem to come.

Courage is the power to confront a world that is not always fair. It is the refusal to beg for what will never be given. It is the willingness to accept what cannot be changed.

Courage is loving life even in the face of death. It is sharing our strength with others even when we feel weak. It is embracing our family and friends even when we fear to lose them. It is opening ourselves to love, even for the last time.

Courage is self-esteem. It prefers quiet determination to whining. It prefers doing to waiting. It affirms that exits, like entrances, have their own dignity.

SIGN_SHE

Wine’s Rabbinic Thesis (1956)

TRADITIONS CONCERNING THE EARLY RELATIONSHIP OF JAHWEH AND ISRAEL IN DATEABLE PROPHETIC WRITINGS

 

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Hebrew Letters Degree and Ordination. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cinctnnati, Ohio. February, 1956

Referee: Dr. Sheldon H. Blank

———————————————-

SUMMARY

The purpose of the following investigation is to discover those traditions concerning the relationship of Jahweh and Israel in the days preceding the initial Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan, which are reflected in the writings of the prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Deutero-lsaiah.

There are three aspects to the early relationship of Jahweh and Israel under which these traditions are arranged: (1) divine election; (2) divine providence; and (3) divine legislation. To each of these aspects a chapter was devoted.

In the first chapter concerning divine election the following three questions are answered, wherever possible: (1) Did each of the prophets under consideration believe that at some time in the past Jahweh adopted Israel as his people, as the special object of his providence? (2) If so, did he believe that Israel, in turn, had adopted Jahweh as its God, as the exclusive object of its devotion and obedience? (3) If he acknowledged the divine election of Israel, at what time and place did he believe that event to have occurred?

In the second chapter concerning divine providence the following two questions are answered, wherever possible: (1) What pledges or promises did each of the prophets under consideration believe that Jahweh made during the period of Israel’s early history, to provide and care for the nation? (2) What providential acts did he believe that Jahweh performed in fulfillment of these promises?

In the third chapter concerning divine legislation, the following two questions are answered, wherever possible: (1) What demands, if any, did each of the prophets under consideration believe that Jahweh made upon the people of Israel in pre-Conquest days? (2) When and where did he believe that such demands, if any, had been delivered?

In all three chapters, not only the traditions which each of the prophets accepted, but also those traditions possessed by his contemporaries, which he may have rejected, are noted.

In the final conclusion, all of the relevant traditions or beliefs discovered are arranged chronologically in order to indicate the temporal terminus ad quem for the emergence of each of them.

 

INTRODUCTION

The history of the relationship of Jahweh to the children of Israel in the days prior to the final conquest of the land of Canaan is described in detail in the various narratives of the Hexateuch, These accounts, whether J,E,D, or P, are characterized by both a prose style and a chronologically ordered presentation. Although they are not always mutually consistent, since many of the historical assertions of each narrative contradict, either explicitly or implicitly, those or another, they concern themselves, generally, with the same major personalities and events. Unfortunately, however, their respective authors are presently anonymous, with the consequence that the date and setting of their composition are often difficult to ascertain.

Another source of historical opinion concerning God’s early relationship with Israel is the statements of the literary prophets, whether oracular or otherwise, which are recorded in the four books of the Latter Prophets. Although these prophetic writings are neither historical narratives nor generally prosaic, they do contain references, however rare and haphazardly dispersed, to the association of certain personalities, events, and laws with the pre-Conquest encounters of Jahweh with Israel. Moreover, these scattered references, unlike the Hexateuchal accounts, are usually not anonymous. Since most of their authors are both known by name and dateable, the time and setting of their utterances can be approximately determined, with the happy result that certain historical opinions can be associated with certain specific periods of time in Israel’s history. Thus, where the evidence permits, a development of historical opinions and beliefs can be noted.

In view of this advantage, we, therefore, propose to study in the succeeding chapters the beliefs and opinions concerning the early relationship of Jahweh to Israel which are reflected in the writings of those literary prophets who are clearly dateable and whose extant oracles are sufficiently ample to provide fruitful investigation. The prophets whose statements will be considered are the following (n the order of their appearance in history): Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Deutero-Isaiah.1 Any assertion made by these individuals which is recorded in the books of the Latter Prophets and which concerns the relationship of God to Israel in the period of historical time covered by the Hexateuchal narratives, will be regarded as relevant to our study.

The purpose of or investigation is twofold. First, it is our intention to ascertain, to the degree that the evidence allows, the beliefs concerning Jahweh’s early association with Israel to whose contemporary existence each of the prophets under consideration alluded, either by acceptance or rejection. And second, it is our intention to contrast these beliefs of each prophet with the relevant allusions of the other five prophets under study in order to discover similarities and differences. The discovery of these similarities and differences may enable us to trace the development of certain historical traditions concerning God and Israel, which occurred during the eighth, seventh and sixth centuries.

Our procedure in the following Investigation will be to study the appropriate historical references of our six prophets under three categories. These categories are suggested by the three major functions ascribed to Jahweh in his relationship to Israel by all the Hexateuchal writers. They may be designated as divine election, divine providence, and divine law-giving. One chapter will be devoted to each of these aspects of Jahweh’s relationship to Israel in the period preceding the final Conquest of Canaan. Moreover, each chapter will contain an Introduction of appropriate Hexateuchal illustrations in order that we may more readily notice relevant statements in the prophetic writings under Investigation.

 

CONCLUSION

In concluding our investigation, we shall attempt to provide a comprehensive view of all the development in the traditions concerning the early relationship of Jawheh and Israel, which have been indicated in the conclusions of the three preceding chapters.

The following the traditions arose no later than the middle of the eighth century.

  • The tradition that at some time before the Conquest Jahweh chose Israel to be his people, and Israel in turn chose Jawheh to be its God.
  • The tradition that God had brought Israel out of the land of Egypt.
  • The tradition that Jahweh first established intimate relations with Israel at the time of the Exodus from Egypt.
  • The tradition that Jahweh had provided for Israel during a pre-Conquest wilderness sojourn.
  • The tradition that sacrificial worship in the form of animal and cereal offerings had been ordained by Jahweh in pre-Conquest days.

The following tradition possibly arose no later than the middle of the eighth century.

  • The tradition that certain official holy days, including, perhaps, the pilgrim festivals, the Sabbath, and the new moons, had been ordained by Jahweh in pre-Conquest days.

The following possibly arose at some time between the end of the eighth and the end of the seventh centuries.

  • The tradition that the Exodus from Egypt had been a redemption from bondage.

The following tradition possibly arose at some time between the end of the eighth and the beginning or middle of the sixth centuries.

  • The tradition that Jahweh had first established intimate relations with Israel, not at the time of the Exodus, but at the time of Abraham.
  • The tradition that Jahweh had promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and Jacob.

The following traditions arose no later than the beginning of the sixth century.

  • The tradition that Jahweh had promulgated at the time of the Exodus covenant a specific legal code, containing, at the least, a provision for the manumission of both male and female Hebrew slaves after six years of bondage, and, perhaps including, prohibitions against the worship of other gods, adultery, murder, stealing, false swearing, and the return of a twice divorced woman to her first husband.
  • The tradition that Jahweh had promulgated in the wilderness at the time of the Exodus a specific legal code of statutes and ordinances perhaps written, which included as one of its most important provisions the ordaining of the Sabbath, and which, perhaps contained laws banning incest and the oppression of the underprivileged.

The following tradition possibly arose between the beginning and the end Exilic period.

  • The tradition that Jahweh, at the time of Abraham, had commissioned, perhaps only implicitly, the Patriarch and his descendants-to-be for a mission of salvation to all the peoples of the world.

The following tradition arose no later than the late Exilic period.

  • The tradition that Jahweh had performed in the wilderness such “miracles” as dividing the waters of the Red Sea and cleaving a rock to bring forth water.

It is our sincere hope that some of the conclusions which we have listed may be employed to advantage in the dating of anonymous passages in Scripture.

 

EVALUATION

Cincinnati. March 7, 1956
Report on Thesis by Sherwin T. Wine entitled “Traditions Concerning the Early Relationship of Jahweh and Israel in Dateable Prophetic Writings”

In a lucid “Introduction” the author further defines the terms which he employs in the title, “Early” means the period covered by the Hexateuch, i.e., until the final conquest of Canaan. The “traditions concerning the … relationship of Jahweh and Israel” are the traditions which might be designated “divine election, divine providence, and divine lawgiving.” “Dateable prophetic writings” include “the writings of those literary prophets who are clearly dateable and whose extant oracles are sufficiently ample to provide fruitful investigation,” specifically the writings of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Deutero-Isaiah. Excluded are the anonymous and therefore mostly undateable verses and chapters within the writings of these five prophets. (The author usually adopts the referee’s opinion as to the extent of the anonymous material.) He includes Deutero-Isaiah because, although anonymous, the author of Isaiah 40 to 55 appears to be a single dateable personality.

The author lists and examines, within these limits, the allusions, direct or indirect, to the traditions concerning the relationship of Jahweh and Israel the traditions concerning promises to the Patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, the law-giving at Sinai, Jahweh’s care for Israel in the wilderness, his giving of the land – whatever relevant Hexateuchal traditions the dateable prophets know or seem to know. With meticulous logic the author carefully distinguishes between explicit and implicit allusions to the traditions and admits no references to the list without sufficient evidence.

In his final chapter he lists his findings as to the earliest appearance in this prophetic literature of the various themes and the form in which they first appear. According to his findings, if the argument from silence is admissible, some of these themes are not older than the seventh or sixth centuries, despite their common occurrence in the undated documents which make up the Hexateuch.

The interpretation of the Exodus from Egypt as a redemption from, bondage may not be older than the seventh century, and the tradition that Jahweh first established intimate relations with Israel at the time of Abraham could be as late as the sixth century as against an eighth century tradition that this occurred first at the time of the Exodus, to cite only two of a number of examples. The author hopes that his conclusions “may be employed to advantage in the dating of anonymous passages in Scripture.”

This compact (98 page) study is excellently done. It is very well organized, thought through, and it is presented with admirable clarity. No word is wasted. Its single defect is its almost total disregard of current literature on the subject. But better an original study of the sources, even exclusively, than too much reliance upon secondary literature. Nevertheless, before he publishes the thesis, and the thesis is worthy of publication, the author should take cognizance of the current literature.

I heartily recommend the acceptance of this thesis.

Sheldon H. Blank, Referee

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The Humanistic Alternative

Rabbi Sherwin Wine concludes Colloquium 1999 – “Beyond Tradition: The Search for a New Jewish Identity” with a brilliant address on the need for a Humanistic alternative in Jewish life that can build on the strengths of previous attempts to create a sustainable non-traditional Jewish identity. For more on this Colloquium, including links to publications of selected proceedings, visit http://www.iishj.org/colloquium-99.html.

Jewish Humanist

Who is a Jew?

“Who is a Jew?” The Jewish Humanist, August 1988

The “Who Is A Jew” question is a critical issue in Jewish life today. Orthodox authorities in Israel and in the Diaspora are seeking to achieve the power to force all Jews to accept their definition of Jewish identity. Reform and Conservative leaders, eager to appease the Orthodox, are not anxious to recognize a purely secular definition of the Jew. And secular Jews, especially young ones, are now beginning to succumb to the new assaultive fundamentalist propaganda that theistic religion is the only way in which Jewish identity can be maintained and preserved. “No davening [praying], no Jews,” it says.

Growing intermarriage among Diaspora Jews also makes this question critical. The Jewish status of countless thousands of sons and daughters of Jewish fathers is now in question. If they love the Jewish people, but do not want a religious conversion because they are not religious, they will be excluded. Plus, there is the humiliation of Jews, who know themselves to be Jews, having to undergo a ritual test they do not believe in in order to become what they already are.

All these people need our help. If the orthodox and conservative authorities have their way, the Jewish people will continue to shrink into a hard core of religious fanatics. A bold generous counter-statement is necessary to prevent this tragedy.

The Jewish world is confused on this issue.

Religious authorities have for so long been in charge of Jewish life that even many non-religious Jews think that they have the right to determine the criteria of Jewish identity. An inappropriate nostalgia prevents them from dealing with this question with integrity.

In Western Europe and North America, the prevailing definition of the Jews as a member of a religious denomination and nothing more makes it difficult for many Western Jews to understand how one can be Jewish and not be a “believer.” Even secular Jews pretend to be religious in order to conform to the social expectation of what it means to be Jewish. The history of this definition—the fearful attempt of emancipated Jews to deny their national identity lest they be accused of dual loyalty—is largely forgotten. And we are all victims of this cowardly compromise.

Zionism has also provided some mischief. While, to its credit, it has emphasized the national and ethnic character of the Jewish people, it has tended to stress the incompleteness of Jewish identity outside of life in the state of Israel. Diaspora Jews, if they are not religious, end up being shadow figures of ethnicity.

Liberalism has also provided its trouble. Given the history of racial and religious prejudice, most liberals hate all forms of involuntary identity. As a result, they want Jewish identity to be a purely voluntary act. If you want to be Jewish, you are. If you do not want to be Jewish, you are not. However, commonsense indicates that there are many, many Jews who despise being Jewish who indeed are. Excluding them from Jewish identity does not do justice to who they are. Ethnic identity is generally an involuntary identity. Pretending for the sake of some illusory self-mastery that Jewish identity can be discarded when it is inherited is foolish. Neither conscience nor residual antisemitism will allow it.

Our resentment of our historic enemies also poses a problem. On the whole, liberal Jews will allow deviations from the traditional theistic norms provided that the deviant does not join the “enemy.” Atheists and practitioners of transcendental meditation can stay in the fold, But Jews who become Christians or Muslims cannot. Now this distinction is irrational; if Jewish identity is a religious identity it does not make sense. When the Supreme Court of Israel excluded Brother Daniel, a Catholic monk from Jewish identity, they even went beyond Orthodox rejection. His parents were Jewish. He had suffered persecution during the Holocaust period. He had left Poland to live in Israel because he identified with Jewish nationality. He simply saw himself as a national Jew with a different “religion.” But he foolishly expected consistency from liberals and secularists who viewed him as a traitor.

Internal racism is another source of difficulty. Jewish social practice belies official propaganda. While many Jews publicly applaud the religious definition of the Jew, they privately make insidious distinctions between born Jews and Jews by choice. They regard the former as being more authentically Jewish. A thoroughly assimilated Montana rancher with a Jewish mother is “more Jewish” than the Dutch humanist immigrant to Israel who identifies with the Jewish people, masters Hebrew and immerses herself in Jewish culture, Even if she hypocritically chose a religious conversion—which many Gentile kibbutzniks do—it would make no difference. Conservative Jews have responded timidly to the issue and to this confusion. They accept the right of rabbis to determine Jewish identity. They simply want Conservative rabbis to have the right to be considered kosher authorities.

Reform—especially American Reform—has responded more boldly. In recent years [1983] they have championed the cause of paternal descent. They want children of Jewish fathers to be given equal status to the children of Jewish mothers. But they still adhere to the supremacy of religious arbiters. In the end, non-Jews who want to broaden the list of kosher authorities to include Reform rabbis.

At the other extreme we have the proposal of certain secularists like Haim Cohen, the former chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, who want to make Jewish identity purely voluntary, an act of personal will and decision. Jews who do not want to be Jews are not Jews. And individuals who want to be Jews, who regard all other Jews as illegitimate—like the Black Hebrews—are also Jews. Neither history, culture nor social context are relevant.

It seems to be that an appropriate answer to the question “Who Is A Jew?” must fulfill the following criteria.

It must recognize that for most Jews, Jewish identity is involuntary. We are born into the Jewish people. We do not choose to be Jews. We discover that we are Jews. Hopefully we will enjoy what we are. But there is no guarantee. Choosing to be Anglo-Saxon or Chinese is not an option.

It must include people with two Jewish parents or with only one. A father is just as good as a mother. After all, he most likely gives you your last name.

It must make no ideological criterion for Jewishness. There are Jewish theists and Jewish atheists. There are Jewish communists and Jewish fascists. There are rabbinic Jews and Christian Jews. There are Jews we are proud of and Jews we are ashamed of. If we are a normal ethnic group we cannot pretend to be what we are not.

It must provide for some identification with the historic Jewish people. “Bizarre” people who deny that Jews who are normally regarded as Jews are really Jewish and who affirm that they alone are Jewish—like certain Black religious sects in America—cannot be taken seriously. There has to be some identification with the history and fate of the acknowledged Jewish people.

It must allow all men and women of goodwill to join the Jewish people, whether they be religious or secular, theistic or humanistic. No formal ceremony or certificate is required. The informal acceptance of the Jewish community which the individual wants to join—whether it be the synagogue or the kibbutz—is sufficient.

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.

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Pesakh: Which Liberation?

“Pesach: Which Liberation?” The Jewish Humanist, April 1997

Pesakh [Passover] is a Jewish holiday celebrating Jewish liberation. But which liberation?

Priestly and rabbinic authorities linked the old spring fertility festival to the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt The editors of the Torah found the meaning of Passover in the miraculous rescue of the Hebrews from the slavery of Egypt by the Hebrew God Yahveh. They saw this rescue as the primary evidence that Yahveh was indeed the most powerful of all the gods, so powerful that the other gods could not even be regarded as gods.

For the Torah editors whatever freedom there was in the story of the Exodus was the freedom to worship and serve Yahveh in the way that he designated. The covenant at Sinai was not open to discussion and amendment. Only an affirmative response was possible. A negative one would have meant abandonment and destruction.

The story has its problems from a ‘liberation’ point of view. Why did Yahveh allow the Jews to suffer in slavery for four hundred years when his earlier intervention would have prevented so much pain? Why did he harden the heart of Pharoah to resist the Hebrew demands and then punish the Pharoah and his family for a decision that was Yahveh’s responsibility? What is quite clear is that the contemporary meaning we give to the word “freedom” is not part of this story.

Rabbinic Judaism, which cultivated this story in the Haggadah, made it very clear that the freedom celebrated at the festive Seder was not the freedom of personal choice but the freedom and survival of the Jewish nation. That freedom and survival could only be maintained or—if lost—could only be achieved again through obedience to God and the rabbis. Conformity to the Halakha [religious law] was the guarantor of national survival and salvation.

Most of the rival ideologies to Rabbinic Judaism were equally authoritarian. Whether they were Samaritan or Karaite, they demanded the same conformity. If there was any freedom implicit in the Passover story it was the freedom from foreign oppressors. The freedom to deviate from the single path of salvation was not even contemplated.

Of course, throughout the centuries, there were individual Jews who rebelled against the conformity of religious authority. But their voices were rarely recorded. And they were often excommunicated from the people. As late as the middle of the seventeenth century a defiant Jew named Barukh Spinoza was condemned to excommunication for challenging official doctrine concerning the authorship of the Torah and the immortality of the soul.

Spinoza was the true founder of Jewish “liberation.” In his writings he proclaimed the revolutionary doctrine that every person was entitled to be the master of his/her life and choices—and that legitimate government derived its authority from the consent of the governed. Freedom became personal and individual. It was the source of human dignity.

These ideas were part of a new philosophic and social development which we call the Enlightenment. Spinoza was one of its first great teachers. In time the Jews of Europe were enveloped by the power of this movement. The Enlightenment led to the English and French Revolutions. The Revolutions led to Jewish emancipation—not to the emancipation of the Jewish nation, but to the emancipation of the Jewish individual. In the Jewish world a new force emerged. It was led by new scholars who were committed to both the new freedom and the openness of the new science. This initiative was called the Haskalah. Its expert proponents were called maskilim.

These maskilim proposed nothing less than the development of Science of Judaism, a bold attempt to review the Jewish past through the eyes of reason and to reveal a new way of understanding the Jewish experience. They encouraged skepticism and challenge to established authority. They championed change and reform. They brought to Jewish life what Jews were already experiencing in the outer secular world—the pleasure and challenge of personal freedom.

One of the products of the Enlightenment and the Age of Science which followed was the emergence of a new science called Higher Biblical Criticism. That investigation by modern scholars of the stories in the Biblical texts led to conclusions that shocked the Orthodox world. It became clear that many events that pious people assumed were as real as their own bodies were either mythology or distortions of very different events. In the world of the new archaeology and the new Egyptology, very little evidence could be found for the drama of the Exodus. It may have been the case that most Israelites had never gone down to Egypt. It may have been the case that the nation of Israel had not emerged until the time of Saul and David.

But none of this discovery or doubt affects the power of Passover for us as Humanistic Jews. Passover is for us the festival of freedom—not the limited freedom of national survival, but, more importantly, the freedom of personal dignity. The most dramatic liberation of the Jews was not the presumed Exodus from Egypt. It was the power of the Enlightenment which paved the way for the most dramatic achievements of Jews in political reform, social welfare, artistic creativity and intellectual outreach. In the last two centuries the Jews have blossomed in the countries of freedom in a way that the earlier authoritarian ages never allowed. Spinoza is as important to us as Moses…..

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.

Judaism Beyond God

Alternative Literature

“Alternative Literature” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)

Humanistic Jews need a literature that clearly and boldly states what they think and believe—in the same way that “Rejectionist” literature clearly and boldly presents what Rejectionists think and believe.

This literature should defend reason and dignity in a clear and open way. It should talk about human power and human freedom with the same directness that rabbinic literature talks about divine power and divine freedom. The ordinary reader, who is not familiar with clerical and legal rescue strategies, should be able to hear the message without confusion.

This literature should present Jewish history and the Jewish experience in a scientific humanistic manner. Instead of explaining how the old establishment literature failed to tell the story in the right way, it should tell the story in the right way. Instead of pretending that the roots of the modern Jewish personality lie in the belief system of the priests and the rabbis, it should describe the real roots.

This literature should be straightforward and should not have to be defended against misinterpretation. Humanism is not served well by writing that seems to say the opposite. The texts should make it easy for us to teach, not necessary for us to apologize.

If we apply these three criteria to existing literature, what passes the test?

The classics of humanism pass the test. Epicurus, Democritus, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Jean-Paul Sartre, and George Santayana speak their minds clearly and without reservation. They are not Jews. But they are articulate humanists. The literature of humanism is part of a humanistic Judaism, even more than the pious writing of pious Jews who did not defend either reason or human autonomy.

These writers did not deal with Jewish history or the Jewish experience specifically. But in their treatment of the human condition, they enable us to understand the values and ideas that make a secular Jewish identity possible. If Humanistic Judaism is a philosophy of life, it must be able to place the value of Jewish identity in a philosophic context. That context is universal and includes all humanists.

The writings of famous Jews who were humanists and who wrote about humanism pass the test. Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Walter Lippmann, Walter Kaufmann, Isaiah Berlin, and Hannah Arendt came to their humanism out of the background of their Jewish experience. Although they were not aware of their own Jewish significance, they were voices of the Jewish experience—an experience which had molded the Jewish personality but which had never been able, in the face of rabbinic suppression, to establish its own literature. The words are new. But the affirmation of the human spirit is an old Jewish response.

The literature of secular historians, sociologists, and archaeologists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who have uncovered the real history of the Jews, passes the test. Baruch Spinoza, Julius Wellhausen, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Simon Dubnow, Salo Baron, and Theodor Gaster went beyond the official story of rabbinic Judaism to reveal the events that were distorted or never noticed and the natural causes that made these events possible. It is the Jewish experience, not the classic description of that experience, that is important.

The writings of Jewish nationalists, whether Yiddishist or Zionist, whether socialist or capitalist, who rejected supernatural authority and who sought to persuade the Jews to take their own destiny into their own hands, pass the test. I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Ahad Haam, Micah Berdichevsky, Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, A. D. Gordon, Ber Borochov, Shaul Tchemikhovsky, Vladimir Jabotinsky, David Ben Gurion, and Joseph Brenner mocked the pious passivity of the old regime and sought to restore Jewish confidence in human planning and human effort. Their passion produced some of the best humanistic Jewish propaganda. Even exaggerated sentimental poetry like Tchemikhovsky’s “Ani Maamin” still hits the mark: “Laugh, laugh at all my dreams. But this I the dreamer proclaim. I still believe in man. I still believe in you.”

The affirmations of intellectual and organizational pathbreakers for a humanistic Judaism must be included. Horace Kallen, Yehuda Bauer, Haim Cohn, Albert Memmi, and Gregorio Klimovsky are important voices.

The celebration materials of secular Jewish communities qualify for admission. For seventy years, the secular kibbutzim in the land of Israel invented new humanistic ways to celebrate old holidays. Their efforts are collected in kibbutz archives, untranslated and presently unavailable to world Jewry.

The reflections of Jewish essayists and novelists who are ardent humanists and who value their Jewish identity are an important part of a humanistic Jewish literature. George Steiner, Yehuda Amichai, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and Primo Levi dramatize the human condition and the Jewish condition. Whether their perspective is cosmopolitan or nationalistic, a new approach to the significance of Jewish identity flows from their creativity.

A humanistic Jewish literature differs in many ways from the rabbinic variety.

It is new and contemporary. It lacks the advantages of antiquity and wide popular recognition. It is not embedded in the folk cultures of Western civilization. It does not conjure up the image of books that grandparents revered.

It tends to be scholarly and intellectual. Folksy legends and naive stories that appeal to children are few and far between. Not that these rabbinic styles are not possible on humanistic terms. They just have not been indulged.

Its authors tend to be far more diverse. They are less involved in professional Jewishness than the historic prophets, priests, and rabbis. They lack the professional solidarity and intensity that these old fraternities engendered.

But, most important of all, it is incomplete. Rabbinic Judaism has had over two thousand years to say what it needed to say. Its view of Jewish history, its roster of heroes, its celebration formats, its sentimental symbols, its sacred scriptures, its folksy messages for the masses, are established. What remains is only repetition and reverence.

Humanistic Judaism has only begun. Most of the literature it needs, it still has to create. Two thousand years of censorship and official intimidation have put us far behind in the race. The Jewish experience is old. But having the opportunity to describe it in a humanistic way is new.

We still need a clear, popular, poetic, non-scholarly presentation of Jewish history. We still need folksy sentimental biographies of humanistic Jewish heroes. We still need vivid celebration formats that make the humanistic meaning of the holidays come alive. We still need naive didactic stories for children and inspirational anthologies for adults. We still need time for our symbols to touch the heart.

The test of a successful Humanistic Judaism will be its courage and persistent integrity. If the task of creating this new literature frightens the Jews of the Secular Revolution and freezes their talents, they will drift back to the compromises of the lackluster Ambivalents. They will strive to rescue the “scriptures” of rabbinic Judaism for their very own and fail. In the end, they will be neither here nor there—suffering the cynicism of lost integrity and deception.

But if the task inspires them with a sense of urgency and excitement, there is no doubt that the talent exists to tell the Jewish story the way it should be told.