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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…..

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.

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Jewish Book Month 1987

The Jewish Humanist,  November 1987

November is Jewish Book Month, a time to honor the literary creativity of contemporary Jewish writers – or to honor the writing of talented non-Jews who choose to write about Jews.

The best way to celebrate this special month is to read Jewish books – not just any old Jewish books, but good ones. In a country like America, where the Jewish literary establishment is very powerful, where Jewish culture and Jewish identity arouse widespread positive interest, and where successful writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, vie for the attention of the large Jewish reading public, there is no shortage of appropriate books.

During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I chose readings from five new books to illustrate my presentations on ethics. Each of them is a book worth reading and discussing.

Here they are.

Power and Powerless by David Biale. Biale is a professor of Jewish history at the University of California in Berkeley. He proposes a provocative thesis that many modern Jews are not comfortable with, because it does not conform to the image of the Jew which they wish to present to the Gentile public. Jews usually see their historic experience as one of weakness and powerlessness, a continuous story of suffering and humiliation. This perception feeds into the need to appear as victims of powerful enemies and to solicit sympathy and pity. But Biale disowns this perception. He maintains that for most of Jewish history Jews were indeed powerful in the environments where they chose to live or found themselves. The power was usually not military. However, it might be economic. The history of the Jews, according to Biale, is not one long tale of woe. It is a story of the effective use of -talent and connections to make useful changes and to provide strong defenses. Although we Jews are often more comfortable with losing than with winning, we cannot understand our roots if we insist on projecting our present anxiety onto our past experience.

Out of Step by Sidney Hook. This book is the autobiography Sidney Hook, one of America most prominent humanist philosophers – and one of America’s mc controversial intellectuals. A child of Jewish New York, Hook became a Marxist radical during his student days at CCNY (the training ground of so much of the Jewish intellectual elite). In the decades that followed, as established his -credentials as philosopher and an academician, he repudiated his Marxist ideology and embraced a more moderate social democratic liberal posture. Throughout his career, given his strong Jewish attachments, he fought for the legitimacy of his Jewish atheistic position. Controversy entered his life during the Vietnam era and the radicals and championed the old liberal notion that a school of higher learning should be open to hearing all opinions, right and left – and should not become a political instrument of political radicals. Hook’s autobiography reveals that he still retains his feisty and acerbic style in his 80’s

Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies. This memoir is the story of the woman who befriended the Frank family in Amsterdam and supported them in their hiding place. An employee of Otto Frank, Miep was confronted with a terrifying moral choice. Should she risk her life and the life of her family to rescue Jewish friends? Her response was without hesitation. Even when her friends were arrested, she recklessly ran to Gestapo headquarters to appeal for their release. Her story dramatizes the moral courage of many Gentiles, who, to no personal advantage for themselves, chose to save Jews. What makes her memoir so powerful is that it is told with no self-conscious heroism.

The History of the Jews by Philip Johnson. Johnson has become a well-known popular historian, whose conservative opinions on the malaise of modern society have been enshrined in a series of successful books. Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions his style and the force of his opinions are of compelling interest. Given his ethnic background, it was surprising that he chose to devote such extensive research to the history of the Jews. But he is obviously fascinated by us and by our achievements. While his presentation of the early history of the Jews is dominated by a naive reliance on the truth of the Biblical myths, his analysis of the evolution of the Jews in the Diaspora is nothing less than brilliant. He is not troubled by the economic role of the Jew in both the Middle Ages and in the contemporary capitalist world. He finds it fascinating and deals with it realistically. This history is written by an admirer of the Jews – but not one overly sentimental or fawning.

To the Land of the Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld. Appelfeld is an Israeli who spent his youth in Bukovina in Eastern Europe. He is intimately familiar with the Holocaust and has devoted his writing career to dramatizing the devastation of his people through short somewhat surrealistic novels. Badenheim 1939 made him famous. And this novel follows in the same tradition. A Jewish woman is accompanied on her ill-omened trip to death by her adolescent son. Neither she, nor the people with her, are willing to acknowledge what is happening to them. All is denial. And this denial, in the midst of the most ominous warnings, is Appelfeld’s commentary on the Jewish response to the inconceivable horror of the Holocaust.

If you are looking for good Jewish reading, any one of the five will do.

Jewish Humanist

A Humanistic Jewish Education

The Jewish Humanist, January 1977

 

‘Education’ is a sacred Jewish word. ‘Jewish education’ is a sacred Jewish phrase.

In Jewish social mythology no ethnic group values formal education more than Jews. Going to school is so universally Jewish that not going to school requires an apology.

Jewish education began with the study of the Torah and the Talmud. But it transcended that parochial beginning and moved on to physics, chemistry, psychology and the humanities. The Jews became in the twentieth century the arbiters of intellectual achievement.

The secular state school became a ‘sacred’ institution for European and American Jews. It was the most reliable road to social advancement. What Jews could not achieve through pedigree and inherited wealth they achieved through certificates of education.

Jewish children night complain about the boredom and tedium of public school. But they never questioned its value and its power. Only the recent glut in the market of educational degrees has aroused a new skepticism.

The emergence of secular education created a new institution called the ‘religion school’. The ‘religion school’ was a kind of academic garbage can. It taught all those peripheral and denominational subjects that the public school was unwilling or unable to teach.

To Jewish children ­ and to Jewish parents – the power distinction was very clear. Public schools had the power to make you either a social winner or a social loser. Their rewards were economically significant – and their punishments were terrifying. They had the ‘with it’ prestige of the future.

Sunday Schools had only the power of the past. They were concessions to residual guilt, fading nostalgia and the pain of persistent anti-Semitism. Their rewards were economically insignificant (except for Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation) and their punishments were ludicrous (especially with the vanishing of the afterlife.) As educational places they suffered from pleading postures, resentful students and indifferent parents.

Sunday Schools and religion schools only work when they have purposes which the society deems important to personal success – and when the parents who require their children to attend recognize this importance. If the parents do not recognize that the religion school possesses worthwhile power then the children – who generally read their parents very well – will not.

Theoretically, a humanistic Jewish School is committed to a vital training program. Ethical education is the acquisition of ethical skills which children need for personal survival and success. Cooperative, generous self-reliant and rational people are usually more successful than their opposites in fulfilling their basic needs.

The purpose of a humanistic Jewish school is to help its students become more cooperative, more generous, more self-reliant and more rational – using whatever is relevant in the Jewish experience to reinforce these values. Since it meets at odd hours – weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings – and since the parents are the most important authorities in the lives of their children, the school is viable only if the parents make it viable.

Humanistic Jewish parents – who are behaviorally sincere – act in the following way.

  1. They find out what their children are studying in the Temple school and continue the discussion at home. They inquire about specific information and specific attitudes. They never settle for meaningless vague questions like ‘Did you enjoy Sunday School?’
  2. They never settle for a babysitting service. They insist that whatever time their children invest in the Temple school (including the Mitzvah and Confirmation programs) be related to the important task of character development. They are less interested in having their children temporarily amused or entertained and more interested in seeing a long-run improvement in self-esteem and ethical behavior.
  3. They do not treat Jewish activity as only vehicles to group identity. When they celebrate holidays together with their children, they choose ceremonies, readings and statements which strengthen humanistic values.
  4. They assume responsibility for the character development of their children. They are not afraid to make demands when demands are appropriate. They know that reliability and the completion of tasks are valuable moral skills.
  5. They let their children know frequently why humanistic Judaism is important to them and why ethical training is as significant to ultimate success as secular academic work.

Parents are ethical role models. So are teachers. They have to work together.

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The Philosophy of Confirmation

The Jewish Humanist, January 1982

Growing up.

It deserves a celebration.

Most cultures arrange for one. A new adult is a useful addition to a traditional family. He is a promising asset to a struggling community.

Even in a modern industrial urban society growing up is important to more than the individual. Every society needs the talents and skills of its young people. They are the promise of the future.

Judaism arranged to celebrate this experience in a ceremony called Bar Mitzvah. It was for boys alone. And it was fairly uniform. Reading from the Torah or some other book of the Bible became the ritual, since the Torah was the constitution, it represented adult responsibility.

Now we in the Birmingham Temple, as proponents of Humanistic Judaism, find growing up to be a significant experience. But we find the traditional way of celebrating it to be less than adequate.

A good Jewish ceremony should satisfy the following criteria.

It should provide for equality. It should be available to both boys and girls. Bar Mitzvah should be complemented by Bat Mitzvah. In fact, calling it simply the Mitzvah ceremony avoids the hassle. The Hebrew word mitzvah means commandment and suggests that the celebrant is now eligible to be responsible for the requirements of his own life.

It should provide integrity. The symbols and words should honestly express what the celebrant believes and what the community stands for. If the Torah is only a famous book and no longer the constitution of humanistic Jews, it should not be the central future of this important celebration. Above all, at a moment when a child is reviewing his idealism and testing his commitments, sincerity should be a minimal requirement.

A good ceremony should provide inspiration. The adolescent should be able to focus on his interests and his talents and find connection with those who share them. An arbitrary Biblical reading is too impersonal to be meaningful. Choosing a heroic figure out of the Jewish past or present who can serve as a role model to the boy or girl and who captures the enthusiasm of the student, makes a lot more sense.

A good ceremony should provide a sense of competence, a feeling of achievement. The student should believe that he is now able to do something well that adults normally do. Presenting a competent lecture to an adult audience may be only one of many options. (On the secular kibbutzim in Israel community service is stressed). But it is certainly an effective one.

A good ceremony should reinforce a sense of roots. Jewish roots from the humanistic perspective, are not only religious roots. They are secular ones also. Music, dance, humor, science and business are as much a part of Jewish culture as worship.

It is very important that the student feel that he has real roots in the Jewish past. He may not be able to identify with his grandfathers’ dietary habits. But he can identify with his love of family.

A good ceremony should allow the community to experience its own ideals and its own commitments. The celebration is not only for the child. It is especially for the assembly of adults who need periodic opportunities to affirm their own beliefs. A young adult is an important symbol to a congregation. He is an expression of hope.

A good ceremony, above all, should occur at the right age. In a modern urban culture, thirteen is hardly the entrance to adulthood. It barely makes adolescence. However, it is a time of important physical and mental changes. The most creative alternative is to have two optional ceremonies – the mitzvah thirteen to celebrate the beginning of adolescence and a mitzvah (confirmation) at a later age (16 or beyond) to mark the entrance into adulthood.

These seven criteria have guided the development of our own growing up ritual. They define our goals. In the years to come our procedures may change. But our moral requirements will continue to direct change to valid alternatives.

 

Jewish Humanist

The Persians

The Jewish Humanist, March 1977

The Persians.

Jews don’t have very strong feelings about Persians. Their name doesn’t conjure up any images of holocausts or pogroms. Unlike Germans and Arabs we seem to have no good reason to hate them – or to love them.

If it weren’t for Purim, we most likely would choose to ignore them.

But they deserve our attention. In fact, for that very reason, Purim is important.

As a story, the book of Esther is only a delightful myth. Neither Ahasuerus, Esther, Mordecai nor Haman ever existed. No Jewish queen ever graced the royal court of Susa. No wicked Persian prime minister ever plotted the genocide of the Jews.

The Esther story is a Mardi Gras myth dramatizing the victory of spring over winter, of life over death. Esther is the barely disguised Ishtar, goddess of fertility. Mordecai is none other than Marduk, guardian chief of the gods and the fatherly enemy of evil. The tale, in its origin, is Semitic and Babylonian.

The story of Esther was long resisted by the priests and rabbis because its thinly covered polytheism. Yahweh allowed no rivals. However, historical luck rescued it from oblivion. When the rabbis turned against the Maccabee kings of Judea because they had dared to call themselves kings, they abandoned all the holidays honoring that warrior family. Hanukkah was discarded and ignored for centuries. Nicanor’s day was also abandoned.

What is Nicanor’s Day?

It was a holiday, falling on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar (March), and commemorating a Maccabee victory over the Greek general Nicanor. In the days of the Second Commonwealth, it was more important than Hanukkah.

The rabbis pushed Purim, because Purim fell on the same day and because it would allow the people to keep their festival without having to pay honor to the Maccabees. Although it violated their theological purity, the changed the name of Nicanor’s Day to Purim and kosherized the book of Esther to justify the change.

Purim, n some strange historical way, is connected with Hanukkah and the Maccabees. Hanukkah (as well as Nicanor’s Day) was the holiday of those who loved the Maccabees. Purim (despite its Persian setting) was the holiday of those who hated the Maccabees and who wished to erase their memory.

Nevertheless, modern Purim has forgotten this old political controversy. It retains its importance for two reasons.

The first reason is fun. Purim is nothing less than the Jewish Mardi Gras. Even if it were called Nicanor’s Day the laughter would be the same.

The second reason is history. By the coincidence of the myth’s national setting, Jews are forced to pay attention to their Persian connection.

The Persian Connection?

The Persian Connection is that set of ideas, books and institutions which the Persian conquest of the Jews brought to Judaism. Around 530 B.C. Cyrus, the young and bold king of Persia, set out to create an empire through the conquest of foreign countries. When he was finished, Egypt, Phoenecia, Syria, Armenia, Assyria, Chaldea, Media, Parthia, West India and Judea were his possessions. The Persian Empire was the first true world empire. Cyrus was no longer merely king. He became the king of kings.

What did the Persian Connection mean for the Jews?

The PC gave us monotheism. Theological ideas do not arise in a vacuum. They reflect the political and social realities of their day. A world god is merely the image of a world king projected into the sky. The first real world king was Cyrus, ruler of the Persians. The first real world god was Mazda, the chief god of the Persians. If Yahweh, the god of the Jews, was to survive his competition, his devotees would have to make him Mazda’s equal. In the end the Bible, Yahweh’s professional portfolio did exactly that. The priests of Jerusalem, who did most of their editing of sacred texts in the Persian period, elevated Yahweh to universal rule – and claimed, with enormous chutzpa, that Yahweh was simply using the Persians Or any nation for that matter, as a way to reward or punish the Jews. In order to survive the Jews had to imagine themselves more important than the Persians and their god more significant than Mazda.

The PC gave us the Torah. The Torah, as the political constitution of the Jewish state, is a document which gives supreme power to the Jerusalem priests. These priests were called Zadokites. They were the editors and completers of the Torah. Under the leadership of Ezra, they came home from Chaldean exile with Persian permission. They ruled the Jews in the name of the Persian king. They were favored by the Persian court because they were clergymen who would be incapable of leading a military rebellion. Needing to justify their right to rule the Jews (as opposed to the non-traditional royal house of David) they completed the Torah and used the Torah to enforce their authority. A peaceful theocracy, diverted by ritual excess from armed revolt, was convenient for the Persians. The Jews were now too priestly to fight.

The PC gave us the Diaspora. In the Persian period for the first time in their history, the Jews found themselves part of a world empire. National boundaries were now irrelevant. People of different nations could now move freely from country to country. Living in a small mountainous country, bad for agriculture and harsh for survival, many Jews decided to emigrate for economic reasons. Some became merchants and settled in the cities of the Empire. Some signed up as mercenaries in the Persian army and went as far as southern Egypt to patrol the boundaries. Others wandered, without fixed skills, to more fertile places. An international empire spawned an international people.

Today the Persian Connection is less dramatic. The modern Persian calls his country Iran and himself Iranian (a pretentious title linking the Persians to the ancient Aryans). He has exchanged Allah for Mazda and given up the conquest of land for oil (a more lucrative substitute). The king still calls himself King of Kings, Shah in Shah, but he is hardly made of the stuff of Cyrus. The Rothschilds would be better models. Although Muslim, modern Persians hate the Arabs, as cultural rivals and former conquerors. They discreetly supply the oil’ needs of Israel and treat their local Jews as well as any Muslim country can.

Modern Persia is not terribly important for Jews.

Ancient Persia was.

Purim reminds us of this Persian Connection.

 

Jewish Humanist

Jews and Christmas

The Jewish Humanist, December 1976

A local Reform rabbi recently described to me his act of heroism and integrity. Invited last December to a family dinner at the home of a wealthy temple member, he was astounded to find, in the middle of the den, a small Christmas tree festively decorated. Although, as he clearly pointed out, his host was a large contributor to the building fund, m former vice-president of his congregation, and a Jewish community leader of immense power, the rabbi refused the holiday egg-nog and, in the presence of amazed witnesses, proceeded to denounce “this tasteless sham.” He reminded his host that fawning assimilation was no vehicle to Jewish self-esteem and excoriated him for having- failed to set a proper example as a leader. The next day his embarrassed member indignantly resigned and withdrew his financial support. Despite congregational pressure to make the rabbi recant and apologize my friend bravely refused to comply. “I will not sell my integrity for money,” he announced.

A cousin of mine confided in me last year that her neighbor, whom she had always regarded as intelligent and sensitive, had sent her a Christmas card. Although the card contained only some, innocuous poetry about the winter season, my cousin was deeply troubled by this religious boorishness. After all, Hanukkah greetings are easily available. It would have been so nice to have her Jewishness acknowledged in the same way that she took great pains to respect the “Christian” character of her neighbor’s home. (Of course, her neighbors never went to church and despised all of organized religion. But Christmas as Christmas is not Hanukkah.)

Several winters ago one of my Sunday School teachers chastised me for having referred to the annual winter recess in the presence of the children, as Christmas vacation. She protested that Jewish students are always assaulted by the barrage of Christian propaganda through the mass media and the programs of the public school. – The Temple, of all places, should be the one haven where the individuality of their own tradition is affirmed. “Christian vocabulary,” she asserted, “has no place in a Jewish school. We ought to make our children proud of their own holidays.”

These three incidents reveal a fundamental sociological truth. Christmas is a problem for most American Jews. In a culture where Jews are rapidly becoming an assimilated minority, this holiday season is never for us what it is for our Gentile friends – a time of family reunion and community goodwill. It is usually a season of guilty anxiety when our Jewish loyalty and commitment are publicly tested. Christmas decorations confront the Jewish parent, not as objects of beauty, but as devilish enticements, too seductive for the Jewish good. If only Christmas carols were not such lovely musical threats. If only Christmas trees could be uglier. It takes immense strength to resist such pleasant temptations, and we are bound to resent what is so delectable but forbidden.

Rabbis used to express their ritual concerns by denouncing violations of dietary laws and Sabbath rest. But in a milieu where dietary laws are for caterers and Sabbath observance is an activity of grandparents, the Christmas tree is the new -bite noir. Reform rabbis who have long since abandoned any form of Jewish ritual discipline and who eloquently announced the priority of ethics over ceremonial trivia, reveal a righteous indignation about the Jewish observance of Christmas that even civil rights, Vietnam, and a nuclear holocaust could never evoke. The Christian “enemy” must be resisted at all costs, even at the price of glorifying the ordinary. The deification of Hanukkah is a tribute to our fears. A minor winter festival, with its roots in a pagan fascination with lights and with its historical justification tied to a shabby battle between two kinds of religious fanatics, has been elevated in America to the highest of ritual heights. Yom Kippur pales before its current splendor – Passover cannot touch its expenditures. As the Jewish answer to Christmas in a child-centered culture, it has wildly succeeded. It has become the annual badge of identity.

My rabbi friend, who preferred integrity to money, revealed in a recent temple bulletin the reasons why Jews should have nothing at all to do with Christmas. It is clear, he says, that Christmas is a Christian holiday, intimately tied to the story of Jesus’ virgin birth and ‘inevitably bound to the dogmatic beliefs of the historic Church. To celebrate Christmas is to symbolically affirm one’s identity with this tradition, as well as one’s agreement with its principles Christ is not separable from Christmas. In fact, Protestant and Catholic clergymen are valiantly resisting the efforts of the religiously indifferent and the crassly commercial to turn the occasion into a mere secular holiday of goodwill, devoid of any theological meaning. They want to “put Christ back into Christmas.” And we as Jews ought to respect their effort. We ought to help them in their struggle for religious purity by keeping our “unbelieving Jewish hands” off their sacred festival. We have our own holiday. We don’t need theirs.

In fact, the rabbi says, Jewish observance of Christmas only excites Christian contempt. Many obsequious early Reformers imagined that, if they imitated their Gentile neighbors and pretended to be less conspicuously Jewish, they would more readily win the social approval they desired. But just the opposite occurred. The more they imitated, the more they tried to affirm their identity with the majority culture, the less they achieved the respect and admiration they craved. Without authenticity they were contemptible beggars of community acceptance. The authentic Jew, who proudly affirmed his difference, was much more likely to be successful at finding approval.

The classic Reform indulgence of a Jewish Christmas, our bulletin writer suggests, was an expression of the immense self-hate that pervaded the psyche of an insecure and vulnerable minority. Self-respecting people are not afraid of difference and are not obsessed by the need for community acceptance. Christmas decorations in a Jewish home are pitiful, not so much because they violate religious requirements, but especially because they reveal the fear and self-contempt of their owners. Jewish dignity is always expressed in the willingness to assert Jewish identity under all conditions. Proud people do not hide behind, another person’s inheritance. They use their own.

It is certainly true, the rabbi maintains, that there are major religious differences between Judaism and Christianity. For Jews to celebrate Christian holidays, or for Christians to observe Jewish festivals, is to ignore these historic distinctions` and to treat religion lightly. The Jewish refusal to observe Christmas is an expression of, an ideological reality. To pretend to agree when .there is no agreement, to express unity when there is no unity, is to indulge futile gestures that feebly hide the truth. Honesty requires us to subscribe to no false brotherhood.’ We are honor bound to affirm our difference and the symbols of our difference.

Nor can we forget, the writer continues, the immense suffering our people have endured at the hands of official Christianity. Peace and goodwill may be the propaganda of Christmas; but they have nothing at all to do with the reality of Christian behavior toward Jews. The holidays of the Christian calendar are too intimately identified with the blood of our martyrs for us to practice them without guilt and hostility. We cannot erase the memories of two thousand years and reverse our conditioning. If we are sometimes angrily parochial, we are amply justified.

Perhaps. Yet the answers of our bulletin writer rest on a false assumption. It is assumed throughout his discussion that Jews have an option that they are free not to celebrate Christmas. But no option exists. All Jews in America must celebrate Christmas in some fashion or other. Since our whole American culture makes of this holiday a national festival, more Jews abstain from work on Christmas (through no choice of their own) than stay home for Rosh Hashana. All work stops; all business closes. Even Jewish families are forced to be together and to eat together. Some of our people celebrate the day with uncomfortable hostility, wasting its potential. Others relax in the pleasures of family reunion and hospitality, savoring its secular opportunities. Like the Sabbath in Israel, even nonbelievers have to observe it as a day of rest. If we are honest about the holiday question, we never ask: should American Jews celebrate Christmas. We rather inquire: how should American Jews celebrate Christmas (even if it means spending the whole day making invidious comparisons with Hanukkah or self-pityingly denouncing anti-Semitism).

Given the fact that Christmas is a holiday for Western Jews, however imposed, rabbis cannot close their eyes to its presence. Even Reconstructionists wax eloquent with programs for Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving. But Christmas as a national day of leisure is conspicuously ignored. It is as though the experience is too painful to acknowledge or too embarrassing to admit. After all the protestations about the virtues of Hanukkah, no one takes off for Hanukkah, but Christmas ends up as our day of rest. Even the dullest child can see the power of that difference. One fact is clear. Hanukkah is no substitute for Christmas. First of all, it rarely ever falls on Christmas Day. And secondly, after one has finished with eight days of candles, dreidels, gifts, potato pancakes, and holiday-streamers, Hanukkah is a second-rate aesthetic experience next to its rival. As a winter festival for northern climates, Christmas with all its greenery, lights, and snowy songs is incomparable. Not even Judah Maccabee and his brave brothers can change that reality. (If only they had been a ski patrol and worshiped evergreens)

As long as we Jews have to celebrate Christmas, we might as well enjoy it. Instead of moping around with useless guilt and sour-grapes jealousy, we ought to make Christmas as comfortable for Jews as possible. In this regard the “religiously indifferent” and the “crass commercialists” are our allies. It is absolutely ludicrous and masochistic for Jews to attempt to reverse historical evolution and to “put Christ back into Christmas.” Why should we want to encourage a parochial mythology at the expense of a universal ethical message? Why should we allow stuffy and irrelevant clergymen to wreck Christmas? Is it not enough that the historic Church took-a perfectly charming Roman festival of the winter solstice and ruined it by identifying it with a myth about gods and mangers that had to be taken literally? Are we then to regret the death of the story? Ought we not to rejoice that young American children (despite their priests’ and ministers) prefer Jingle Bells to crèches? Japan has evolved a Christless Christmas which has become one of the major festivals of its calendar year. The Japanese have made of the holiday what they wanted to make of it – to serve their needs – without guilt or anguish.

Just as Christianity took the Roman “Christmas” and transformed-it to serve Christian needs; so can modern secularists use it to express humanistic needs. With millions of non-Christian Christmas observers in Russia, Japan and in Western Europe, and with the inevitable assault of the scientific age on all mythologies, our winter festival ought to inevitably evolve into an aesthetically charming holiday of international goodwill devoid of any serious theological implications. Of course, the Christian legend will linger indefinitely. But it will be on the defensive. A delicious irony will have evolved. Like Chinese food, the holiday will become more pleasurable for the tourists than for the natives. If such a procedure hardly seems “cricket”, the Christian traditionalists, given their past record of sympathy for others, richly deserve it.

Nor can the argument of Christian contempt be a telling one. Jews who observe a secular Christmas are no more contemptible to the hordes of Gentiles who are equally secular than Jews who •indulge Halloween, Valentine’s Day, or Thanksgiving. Christmas trees are no more religiously compromising than painted eggs for Easter. The charge of self-hate is equally absurd. On the contrary, the desperate attempt to avoid “contamination” with Christian symbols is the sign of self-doubt. It is no affirmation of self-esteem. Unwilling to forego the pleasures of assimilation, Jewish parents feebly protest their tribal loyalty every Hanukkah by the vehemence with which they resist Christmas. A self-confident Jew has no fear that a secular Christmas will destroy his identity. He is terrified by no ceremonial trivia and is afraid of no cosmopolitan experiment. As a Jewish humanist, free to demythologize whatever is aesthetically indispensable, he feels no need to be restrictive. He can celebrate and enjoy both Hanukkah and Christmas.

The either-or alternatives of distinct ideologies are quite irrelevant to the realities of contemporary religious belief. Educated Jews and Christians are much closer to each other in their humanistic dispositions than they are to the more traditional uneducated members of their respective denominations. Jewish and Christian belief on the university level are not very distinct. Hanukkah and Christmas emerge only as aesthetic options identified with childhood memory and family loyalty. To convert them into irreconcilable symbols is to distort the truth. It is to turn ideological molehills into ceremonial mountains.

Nor is Christian persecution a sufficient reason for the rejection of Christmas. If the holiday season had retained its historic theological significance, the reaction would be appropriate. But as the official winter festival of a secular Western culture, it survives primarily as a ceremonial opportunity for cozy goodwill. Despite the pleas of a vocal pious minority, its humanistic evolution is inevitable in the end it will turn out to be a repudiation of the very myth that sponsored it. It will slowly transfer its attention from the vocabulary of divine-grace to the reality of human love.

The Jewish hang-upon Christmas is a function of Jewish guilt. Ambivalent about assimilation and yet committed by his ambition to total integration, the modern American Jew finds it difficult to mediate between his past and future. His aggressiveness for Hanukkah and against Christmas is an expression of self-delusion. It helps sustain the fantasy that he has preserved the religious uniqueness he has long since abandoned. It makes him feel terribly Jewish without any real effort – and without any real insight.

A rational Jew accepts the fact that he celebrates Christmas. Since this ceremonial truth neither disturbs him nor frightens him, he desires to evaluate it fairly. He knows that, as a universal holiday Christmas has no peers. It transcends all national boundaries and unites millions of Christians and non-Christians in a worldwide celebration of goodwill. As a humanist, he is delighted by this development and works to make Christmas less Christian. As a Jew, he also celebrates and enjoys Hanukkah, but is wise enough to realize that it is no adequate substitute for its sister holiday. He does not view these festivals as mutually exclusive but sees then as complementary companions. If he is a parent, he will not deny his child either opportunity and has no objection to the celebration of a secular Christmas within the framework of his Sunday School, temple, or public school. He even welcomes humanistic procedures for Christmas as he welcomes then for Thanksgiving. In short, he is aware that he is more than Jewish, and accepting that “more” makes him feel a more effective and more understanding person.

Jewish Humanist

Capitalism and the Jews

“Capitalism and the Jews”  from The Jewish Humanist March-April 1976

Hester Street. Eighty years ago.

They came by the thousands. The greatest mass migration in the history of the Jewish people.

They came from Minsk and Pinsk. They came from Zhitomir and Berdichev. They came from Lodz and Bialystok.

Most of them were pious and Orthodox, obsessed by the rituals of shtetl life. Many of them were secular and socialist, impatient with poverty and dreamers of the proletarian revolution.

Eastern Europe was the homeland of the Ashkenazic Jew. Eighty percent of world Jewry was squeezed into the ghetto of Western Russia, Galicia, Slovakia and Transylvania.

By 1945 the “homeland” was ten thousand miles away. Emigration and holocaust were the movers. America became the new center of Ashkenazic life. English replaced Yiddish as the major language of Western Jews. Six million Americans represented half of world Jewry.

Collins Avenue. The faded focus of a new migration. An internal migration.

They came from New York and Pittsburgh. They go to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. They come from Detroit and Chicago. They go to Los Angeles and San Diego. Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cleveland are old Jewish words. Houston, Phoenix and Aspen are new Jewish words.

The second migration is different from the first one. The Jews are different. In a short span of eighty years the Western Jew was transformed by the most dramatic revolution in Jewish history. Never before had any Jew been changed so much so quickly.

Secular capitalism did it. It undermined traditional Christianity. It undermined the Jewish life style. It “destroyed” —not by being mean. It subverted—by being so very nice.

All the characteristics of the historic Jew, which feudal society deplored and condemned, applauded and rewarded.

Jews had a head start for survival in a capitalistic society. They had skills that other people lacked.

Capitalism sponsors a mobile society. Rooted peasant people find moving traumatic. Jews are addicted to wandering. Because of antisemitism, they had to defend themselves against a heavy emotional investment in any place (except the fantasy land of Israel). Long before the bourgeoisie made a distinction between ancestral land and real estate, the Jews had experienced the difference. Feudal society condemned them for their rootlessness. The industrial world rewards their mobile skills with wealth.

Capitalism admires verbal abilities. Language is the intellectual vehicle for science and technology. Language is the way you educate workers in schools for new professions and jobs. Language is the tool of salesmanship—the art of convincing consumers to consume. If Jews are anything, they are verbal. They had to be. Deprived of all physical means of self-defense, they had, to train their mouth to do what weapons do for most people. The Jewish mouth became a formidable instrument of war and protection. Hostile, non-verbal peasants find this characteristic frightening and unattractive. The\urban bourgeoisie pay a lot of money to acquire it. Lawyers, writers and academicians become the conspicuous edge of an industrial culture. Jews take to these professions like birds to air.

Capitalism adores aggressiveness. How else can you sell? How else can you promote new ideas and sponsor new products? Peasants and feudal lords hate pushiness. It is so inconsistent with the tranquil and stable life of village and manor. But urban survival demands aggressiveness. The passive waiter is a winner in the eternal scheme of the feudal world. He is a guaranteed loser in the urban scene. Jews are pushy because they were never able to relax. Antisemitism produced a continuous state of alert. Jews were never safe enough to be less than nervous. Now nervous pushiness may not be the most attractive aggressive style. But, in a capitalistic world, it is better than dull passivity.

Capitalism was the first environment to reward the very Jewish characteristics which the feudal antisemite found intolerable.

No Jewish community, in the long history of the Jewish people, has been as wealthy, educated and politically powerful as the American Jewish community.

The radical changes in contemporary Judaism, whether conservative, liberal or humanistic—which make it a distinct religion from traditional Judaism—are the results of a revolutionary adjustment. Secular capitalism has created a new Jewish religion. What is it? What is it becoming?

Judaism in America.

It is unlike any Judaism that ever came before

It is a radical break with the past and with the life style of the Jewish tradition.

It is a product of western capitalism and the urban industrial society which capitalism spawned.

Western capitalism presented the Jew with social realities that violated the essence of Jewish piety.

It sponsored female liberation. An expanding industrial economy provided women with options other than motherhood and wifehood. Female freedom is the consequence of money power and financial alternatives

Western capitalism sponsored secularism. The industrial state was built on the premise that the most readily available power for economic expansion was natural— not supernatural. Divine power was so secondary that it could be relegated to private choice. The state could not be bothered with religious controversy because no essential power was being provided anymore by religious institutions and by clerical professionals.

Western capitalism sponsored the right to happiness. Divine justice had decreed that, given Jewish behavior and Jewish disobedience, suffering and death were deserved. If the Messiah came, it would be an act of divine mercy, a gracious Yom Kippur style act of a sentimental deity. But the capitalist consumer culture cannot be built on the right to suffer.

The growing industrial state needs the citizen conviction that pleasure is appropriate and that happiness is deserved. The early stages of development can use masochistic thrift. But the later stages require massive spending.

Western capitalism sponsored individualism. The traditional family unit makes sense in an agrarian environment where children are free labor and protectors of the aged. In an urban culture the most efficient labor unit is the mobile individual. Individualism is the social product of this economic reality.

Judaism in America cannot survive unless it affirms these four realities of an industrial economy. It does not have the power to repudiate the social reality.

It must reject male chauvinism and affirm female liberation.

It must reject the primary significance of supernatural power and affirm that the essential available energies are secular, human and natural.

It must reject the ethics of sacrifice and suffering and affirm the right of men and women to personal fulfillment now.

It must reject the primacy of the family unit and affirm the significance of individual identity in all relationships—whether marriage or work. The revolutionary consequence is the endorsement of temporary relations as kosher.

The life style of this new Judaism is not a gradual evolution of the old life style. It is a radical and traumatic break with the past.

When the majority of American Jews will be able to accept this reality, official Judaism will stop playing around with the nostalgia and will be able to use its creative energies to celebrate the new life style.

A Provocative People

Jewish History and the Jewish Future

“Jewish History and the Jewish Future” from A Provocative People, (2012)

From the early Semites to the global economy is a stretch of eight thousand years. From the emergence of Israel and Judah to the present, at least three thousand years intervene. The Jewish reality has been around for a long time.

Along the way the Jewish nation has acquired or created the structure and pieces of a resilient and adaptive culture. There have been many languages, many social institutions, many family practices, many rituals and celebrations, many dominant ideologies, many strategies for group survival and many historical memories interwoven into the fabric of Jewish identity. Since the Jews have never been an imperial power, their national culture reflects the diversity that conquering civilizations have left.

Along the way, the Jewish nation experienced three powerful social and economic transformations. The Jews began as herdsmen and gradually entered the agricultural world of farmers and villages. They then moved from the farmer side of the agricultural world to the emerging urban and commercial side of the same world. And finally they were swept up in the many revolutions of the urban industrial upheaval, which radically changed the material and social conditions of their historic existence. Each of these transformations produced massive internal confrontations. The conservatives who resisted change fought the liberals who welcomed it. The Protest Movement of the nostalgic prophets, the anti-Hellenist fervor of the Rabbis and the present dramatic dichotomy between the ultra-Orthodox and the secularized masses testify to the power of these changes.

Along the way, the Jewish nation experienced a dramatic shift in management and leadership. Tribal warrior chiefs were replaced by warrior kings. And, more importantly, warrior kings were replaced by the clergy. Theocracies, government by the clergy, became the norm for most of Jewish history. The replacement of the Zadokite priests by the rabbis was a significant change, but it did not alter the reality of clerical domination. Not until the nineteenth century were the rabbis deposed and turned into employees of the new secular professionals, whofollowed in the wake of the urban industrial revolution. The success of Zionism has now placed the secular leaders of the Jewish State in the role of informal spokespeople for the Jews.

Along the way the Jewish nation has hosted many powerful ideologies. There was the cultic mythology of the El, Asherah and Baal religion. There was the theology of the protest prophets and their monotheistic devotion to Yahweh. There was the ideology of the Zadokite priests that celebrated the Jews as the chosen people of God, the Jerusalem Temple as his residence on earth and the Torah as the embodiment of divine wisdom. There was the belief system of the Rabbis, which expanded divine revelation to the Tal-mud and offered the prospect of a happy individual immortality. There was the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah, shared with Eastern philosophy, which promised the ecstasy of a personal union with the Deity. There was the “rational theology” of the Hellenized philosophers like Maimonides, who exalted reason as the path to truth and an “Aristotelian God” to guarantee the order of the universe. There was the Enlightenment enthusiasm of the radical Haskalah, which championed science, humanism and a utilitarian ethics. There was the Marxist ideology of the radical socialists, which replaced religious devotion with revolutionary fervor. There was the liberal philosophy of bourgeois capitalism, which championed individual rights and consigned God to the role of ethics endorser. There was the self-affirmation of New Age religion, which rendered every introspective individual an authentic voice of spirituality. None of these ideologies was compatible with any of the others. All of them had counterparts in other cultures. All of them were Jewish—because they were embraced in time by large numbers of Jews. An ethnic culture—filled with diversity—embraced them all.

Along the way, the Jewish nation also became intensely provocative. Being Jewish was not like being Swedish. For millions of people, the Jews aroused emotions of intense fear, hatred and genocidal rage. The hostility was not only racial contempt directed toward those considered social inferiors. It was not only the exclusionary fear that was directed by most nations toward strangers. The hostility almost always acknowledged the cleverness and power of the Jews. This demonization of the Jew as the source of evil power lay in two places—the historic hostility of the Christian clergy to Rabbinic Judaism and the assumption by enterprising Jews of an economic role that was provocative. Of the two sources, the role of the Jew in the world of commerce and money was the more provocative.

Along the way, the Jews split into two main branches—an Eastern and a Western. For most of Jewish history, the Eastern Diaspora was dominant. In recent centuries, the Western Diaspora took first place. The center of the Jewish world shifted from territory to territory. Judea, Chaldea, Spain, Turkey, Poland, America and Israel have all featured major expressions of Jewish cultural vitality.

Along the way, the Jews became a small nation with extraordinary influence. The sacred scriptures of Zadokite and Rabbinic Judaism were appropriated by the imperial Christian civilization of the Greco-Roman world. Jewish merchants and bankers helped to lay the foundation of the urban industrial world. Secular Jewish intellectuals became major figures in the scientific revolution. The number of Jews who today function prominently at the top financial, cultural and intellectual institutions of the emerging international culture is out of proportion to their numbers in the world population. The Jews, in modern times, have become an ethnic and cultural phenomenon.

JEWISH SUCCESS

The traditional rabbinic view of Jewish history identified the greatest era of Jewish existence with the distant past. Since the rabbis deemed religion to be the most important achievement of the Jewish people, the age of the greatest religious teachers was the “Golden Age” of the Jews. Some-where between 1800 BCE and 500 CE, there supposedly appeared the noble prophets, the devoted priests and the wise rabbis. Inspired by God, they produced the incomparable Bible and Talmud and revealed the path to personal and national salvation. After the Enlightenment, most of the new secular and secularized scholars of the Jewish world ironically preserved this evaluation. Having transferred the Jewish genius from God to Jewish thinkers, they still persisted in maintaining that the greatest gift of the Jews to the world was monotheism and the Bible. The success of Jews, and Christianity, became proof of Jewish success, even though the old Christianity was rapidly fading away in the new secular world. For the old rabbis, Jewish life and Jewish wisdom had gone downhill after the completion of the Talmud. Modern times exemplified Jewish decadence. For the new scholars, the genius of the Jewish present was only derived from the special genius of the Jewish past.

But the opposite is actually true. The greatest era of Jewish life is the present. Despite the Holocaust, never before have the Jews, both individually and collectively, possessed more wealth, more power and more influence. The global economy, which the Jews helped to pioneer, now embraces the planet, including regional cultures that lie beyond the domains of Judaism and Christianity. The realm of science, in which Jews have ex-celled far beyond their numbers, has now replaced religious faith as the dominant source of intellectual power in the countries that possess military and economic strength. The legacy of Jewish Nobel Prize winners out-shines the prophets and sages of the religious past; it is science that now has the power to transform human existence. None of the insights of the biblical past have cured disease, lengthened life, triggered a dynamic economy or forged the technology to unite humanity. In fact, the hard core of religious fundamentalists who hate the modern world and the world of science derive their inspiration from the “wisdom” of that era. The emerging global culture, which rests on the achievements of science, has dramatically raised the standard of living for over one-half of the people on our plan-et. Most of the readers of this book would not be alive to read any book without the successes and special contributions of Jewish medical scientists.

The greatest era of Jewish history is now. Neither antisemitism nor the Holocaust can diminish the glory of the Jewish present. In fact, their virulence, including the virulence of religious fundamentalism, pays tribute to the provocative power and influence of the Jew and to the success of the Jew in a new and unsettling environment. Modern antisemites do not hate Jews because of their intense religious faith. They accuse the Jews of being the fomenters of atheism and radical change. They define them as devilish inventors of the global culture. Not even Zionism and the state of Israel have been able to undermine the image of the “International Jew” who conspires to undermine traditional values and structures of the old society. Jews are associated, in the public mind, with the destabilizing effects of money, urbanization, international trade and racial mixing. Everybody agrees that the Jews are smart. But not everybody agrees that they are good for the world.

Antisemitism and the Holocaust have made Jews uncomfortable with Jewish success. In America, the fact that it is known that Jews wield enormous power in both the Democratic and Republican parties does not stimulate Jewish pride; it stimulates Jewish fear. Jews are perfectly comfortable discussing Jewish power in private. But they are hostile to anybody who dares to discuss Jewish power in public. Jews are reluctant to display their power and their wealth, even though they have achieved the distinction of being one of the most affluent and best educated ethnic groups in the world. Jews prefer—and given their history, justifiably—to present them-selves as victims. The popularity of Holocaust centers and Holocaust studies in Jewish life is not only a protest against ruthless genocide. It is also a function of Jewish anxiety. Victimhood is a safer image than power. Jews are uncomfortable being seen at the top of the world in money and intelligence. They prefer to present themselves as the inventors and role models of humane ethics, even though the non-Jewish world does not perceive them that way.

When socialism came to Jewish life in the aftermath of the rise of the new antisemitism, Jewish socialists were uncomfortable with the existing Jewish profile. Neither the image of the affluent Jew as a successful entrepreneur nor the image of the poor Jew as an unsuccessful entrepreneur were perceptions that Jewish socialists were comfortable with. The Jewish worker and the Jewish farmer were more desirable paradigms. With the rise of the textile industry in both Eastern Europe and North America, a Jewish working class “fortunately” emerged for a short while. Labor un-ions and strikes now placed Jews on the “right” side of the struggle. Zion-ism created the image of the Jewish farmer, strong lover of the land and manual labor. But within two generations the children of the working class and the kibbutzim abandoned their work profile and their socialism. All that remains are stories about the Jewish working class that Jews on the Left cultivate as a new nostalgia. Bobes (Grandmas) and Zeides (Grandpas) are now turned into worker heroes, while the achievements of their bourgeois grandchildren are overlooked, certainly not praised or idealized. Even the prophets of the past are turned into precursors of a radical socialism. The truly radical transformation of the Jews into a people of power and influence conveniently goes unnoticed. Individual heroes like Einstein and Freud can be honored for their success, but never the modern Jews collectively.

In the religious centers of Jewish capitalist success, the synagogues and temples of Reform and Conservative Judaism, the public presentation of contemporary Jews always hovers at the level of the interfaith banquet. Jews are either presented as the victims of antisemitism or as the inventors of utopian and Messianic visions of social reform. The intellectual contribution of the Jew to the modern world is praised, but it is always subordinated to the Jewish genius for religion. Jews are touted as the people of the Book, rather than the people of the books. What most Jews really read and value is never admitted publicly. Jews are reduced to a distortion in order to counter antisemitism. What really needs to be said—that the Jews have become the vanguard for the radical transformation of society through the power of science and its global vision—is just too provocative for Jews to handle.2

JEWISH FUTURE

The future of the Jewish ethnic nation, like that of all nations, is problematic. The urban industrial world, with its emerging international culture, is not friendly to exclusive national identities. There is too much merging, mobility and intermarriage to allow for rigid boundaries between ethnic groups and cultures. Only a deliberate effort of separation, a repudiation of the major rewards of the new system—from money to personal freedom— can enable old cultures to survive with some purity. The price of this disciplined separation is militancy, a perpetual state of war with the dominant culture.

In the new world of continuous and rapid change, with its counterpart of continuous and rapid technological innovation and obsolescence, the future becomes almost impossible to predict. But certain lasting or emerging features of Jewish life have a good chance of defining the Jewish future.

The expanding secularization of Jewish life will continue. Most Jews complain about urban and suburban life, the materialism of the consumer culture and the stress of competition. But they do not want to give up the rewards of the new world; nor does effective separation seem either attractive or feasible. The new global economic system is very powerful and seductive. Only a few “wounded” people will have the desire and will-power to separate from it. Israel is now as much a part of this system as the Diaspora.

On the whole, Jews will remain near the top of the economic hierarchy. Education is the key to success in the information age. Jews have a surfeit of it. Of course, they will not be alone. There will be the remaining European elites in Europe and North America, as well as the rising presence of East and South Asians. Jews may cease to be extraordinary. But they will still be rich in comparison to other peoples of the world. Only the unfortunate Eastern Jews of Israel—lost in the corruption and failure of Orthodoxy and the state school system—will remain on the other side of the prosperity line.

The world Jewish population will shrink. Prosperity in an urban world lowers the birthrate and ages the nation. Neither the substantial reproduction rates of both secular Israelis and Orthodox Jews will be able to compensate for the dramatic shrinkage in North America and Europe. Jewish youth will become a scarcer commodity. Programs and facilities for older Jews will achieve a greater presence. None of this means extinction, just a different balance of young and old.

The distinctions between Eastern and Western Jews will gradually fade away. Both groups have now been appropriated by the new economy and the new international culture. Intermarriage in Israel between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim will accelerate. The mix will not change the direction of things. Mizrahim may be two centuries behind the Ashkenazim in their recruitment for urban culture. But they are heading in the same direction. The rift between secularized and ultra-Orthodox Jews will widen into a major dichotomy. Not only radically different lifestyles will promote this split. Intermarriage especially will make the divide unbridgeable. The ultra-Orthodox will remain about ten percent of the Jewish population, their fabulous birthrate balanced by inevitable defections. But they will be well-organized, aggressive and demanding—and never open to compromise. They will continue to infiltrate establishment institutions with the young “cheap labor” of teachers and communal workers they will be able to pro-duce. Confrontation will be frequent. Just as the Orthodox and the Hasidim united to battle the new secularism, so will Conservative, Reform and secular Jews band together to oppose the “enemy.” Modern Orthodox Jews will be sucked into the militancy of ultra-Orthodoxy. Increasingly, in the Diaspora, the face of Judaism for non-Jews will look more and more Orthodox. However, the check on Orthodox power will be their inability to go beyond the ten percent mark. Militant segregation—the only way Orthodoxy can work in the modern world—is too high a price for most Jews to pay for Jewish survival. The Orthodox will be conspicuous, but not triumphant. Like all fundamentalism, they will be a chronic condition in Jewish general life, an annoying anachronism in the rapidly changing global civilization.

Reform and Conservative Judaism will change places in the Diaspora. Once the dominant movement of North American Jewish life, Conservatism will shrink. Jews interested in returning to tradition will be attracted to the new dynamism of militant Orthodoxy. Those interested in a conservative Reform can now find it in Reform—with less of the scolding that the ambivalent Conservative movement still provides. Reform Jews will re-main heavily secularized, with periodic indulgences in traditional behavior as a way to reinforce family connection.

Most Jews in the Diaspora will pursue the individualist agenda of the global culture. Marriage will continue to evolve into partnerships of love and personal fulfillment, with all the attendant pleasure and instability that such partnerships bring. Children will be stressful and divorce will be frequent. Family loyalty will be less significant than individual happiness. Even besieged Israel will not be immune to this development. Lonely individuals and couples will seek community with people who share their work, their leisure interests and their convictions. Others will choose non-affiliation on all levels, preferring to pay for services rather than joining communities. A large number of rabbis, ceremonialists and teachers will provide rites, classes, and inspirational weekends for Jews who seek them out. The unaffiliated, in terms of marriage, children and congregation will play an important role in Jewish life. They will radically change the institutional ways that Jews are served as Jews.

Diversity in Jewish life will increase. With so many individuals freely making individual choices, the number of Jewish religious and cultural options will grow. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform have already added Reconstructionist, Renewal and Humanistic. More Jewish choices will inevitably appear. Conventional Jewish choices will shrink in number. Un-conventional connections will increase. Individual Jews, in their search for personal fulfillment, may prefer to be eclectic, tasting a wide variety of Jewish options.

With the exception of the militant Orthodox, the boundaries between the Jewish and non-Jewish world will be less fixed, more fluid. A shared global culture and world languages will enable people from ethnic enclaves to mix freely with people from other ethnic places. This development is taking place right now. There are three manifestations of this development. The first is the emergence of a smorgasbord of literature, music, food, holidays and celebrations that is now available to any educated person. Jews choose many non-Jewish items for their intellectual, cultural and ceremonial life. Non-Jews increasingly find Jewish cultural creations as attractive options. Jewish identity is far more open and porous than conventional Jewish leaders can tolerate.

The second manifestation is growing intermarriage. Most of this marriage is not interfaith, a difference of beliefs and values. Most of this marriage is intercultural, a difference of ancestors and ceremonies. Neither scolding nor denunciation by Jewish leaders manages to change this reality. Intermarriage is the inevitable consequence of living in a mixed ethnic environment where personal freedom prevails and where the secular values of an emerging global culture dominate personal choices. While the racial profile of Israelis is getting “darker” because of intermarriage between Eastern and Western Jews, the racial profile of North American Jews is getting “lighter” because of intermarriage between Jews and Anglo-Saxons. Ultimately African, Asian and Hispanic genes will also make a dramatic appearance. Ethnic attachment and ethnic stereotypes are beginning to coincide less and less. Even Israel, with its enormous number of intermarried Russian immigrants, is confronting the same challenge. Only abolishing the new economy or militant segregation can change this reality. Many contemporary Jews have more than one ethnic connection. And future Jews will, too.

The third manifestation of an open society is that for many loyal Jews, Jewish identity and Jewish culture will not be their primary commitment. They love being Jewish and they want to participate in Jewish family life. But they have other commitments in the areas of personal relations, friend-ships, work and leisure that are more compelling. Even in Israel, many young Jews are weary of persistent appeals to nationalism and patriotism. The old, all-encompassing collectivism of family and tribe has lost its power for many Jews. Not even guilt can alter this new behavior. The Jewish world functions with increasing numbers of Jews who do not place their Jewish commitments in first place.

One of the future realities in Jewish life will be the growing importance of Israel in Jewish self-awareness. Given the military power of the Jewish state, it is highly unlikely that its enemies will be able to destroy it in the near future. Despite the shrinking of Jewish immigration to the Jewish state, within two decades the majority of the Jews in the world will be living in Israel. The new center of Jewish life may even become bigger than the dispersion. Inevitably, the external and internal problems of Israel will remain an important part of the Jewish national agenda. The culture war between the secularists and the Orthodox in Israel will feed the same war in the Diaspora. And the place of Israeli literature, music and film in Diaspora life will only increase.

Antisemitism will continue to be a significant force in Jewish life. Whatever its origins, the Jews continue to be a provocative people, demonized by both the Right and the Left. The grievances arising from life in a global economy and an emerging global culture feed the hatred of a people who are perceived as winners in the trial of global transformation. While Zionism has restored a vibrant center to the Jewish nation, it has simultaneously provoked an intense antisemitism in the Muslim world. This Jew-hatred will continue to endanger the survival of the Jewish state, even if some kind of accommodation between Israelis and Arab Palestinians is achieved. The imagined solution to antisemitism has only produced more. Of course, a continued antisemitism will continue to keep Diaspora Jews interested in preserving their Jewish identity and will contribute to Jewish group survival.

The consequence of this connection will be the movement of Jewish establishment political life to the Right. The defense of Israel and the defense of Jewish economic interests will finally coincide. The Jews, in modern times, chose the Left as the best guarantee against antisemitism. The future will feature increasing Leftist discomfort with the existence of the Jewish State. But the Right is also problematic for the Jews. Much of it is still antisemitic. And much of it is now religiously fundamentalist, an odd ally for a people that is overwhelmingly secularized or secular. This last development will keep many Jews uncomfortably on the Left. Even if a future American government forces peace by compelling the Israeli government to return to something close to the 1967 borders, persistent Muslim fundamentalism and Third World ambivalence will leave the Jews hovering between the Right and the Left.

Perhaps the most astounding development of the Jewish future will be the relevance of the Jewish Diaspora model to all nations. With national populations shifting and changing, especially in the First World of Europe and North America, the United States, Britain, France and Germany are turning into multi-national states in which racial and ethnic homogeneity has vanished. African, Asian and Mestizo populations are becoming local majorities in many western venues. Aging white populations are importing thousands of necessary young non-whites to sustain their economies. In America, the notion of a multi-cultural society is taking hold. In a time when technology can connect us instantly to any place in the world, dispersed communities can be tied together by the bonds of new communication and transportation which defy distance. Nothing is far away any more —neither South Africa, Japan nor Israel.

Even Israel is changing. The size of the population of Israeli Arabs and foreign workers is growing. The Jewish state is going through the same trauma as Europe and North America. It, too, is part of the dynamic First World. It, too, is experiencing itself as a multi-cultural or multi-national society. The future will only aggravate this development. Perhaps the age of the ethnically pure state is ending. Nations and states no longer coincide. States are territorial units accommodating people of a wide variety of national identities. Perhaps, in such a global society, state citizenship will be separated from national identity. The Chinese in America can be Chinese by nationality and American by citizenship. They can be loyal to the historic family to which they belong and loyal to the state that is their home. They can speak both Chinese and English and feel no discomfort in a multilingual global society. If it is possible for the Chinese, it is also possible for the Jews. As for the Jewish State, it will be like every other First World state, a mixture of several nations. In a global economy, Israelis will produce their own Diaspora, and necessary foreign workers will find their way to Israel. In a mobile world, forcing immigrants to conform to a single territorial model will no longer work. Israel will remain the center of the Jewish world. But it will never become a fully Jewish state.

It is quite possible that territorial nationalism, which is still very strong, will be undermined by the very economic and technological development that territorial nations embrace. By the end of the twenty-first century, the mixing of people will be so universal that old nations will turn into world-wide dispersions. When that happens, not Zionism, but the old Jewish ethnic model of a dispersed people will again become relevant.

Very early in their history, the Jews tasted the possibility of becoming a world people. This development may be their most enduring contribution to the world. Many historians will still maintain that monotheism and a compassionate ethics were the major contributions of the Jews. But monotheism is an increasingly problematic ideology in a secular world, and philosophic monotheism has its roots in many cultures. As for compassionate ethics, it is neither ethical nor empirically responsible for any nation to designate itself the inventor of ethics.

Given their history and influence, the Jews have been and remain a provocative and extraordinary people, the unwitting precursors of a global world they helped to invent.

Judaism Beyond God

 Jewish Identity Through Jewish History

“Jewish Identity Through Jewish History” from Judaism Beyond God, (1985)

Before we explore the value of Jewish identity in a secular age, we need to clarify what Jewish identity is.

We need to evaluate certain words that people use to describe Jews. Religious, racial, cultural, national are common designations. They have been used frequently by both friends and enemies.

What friends and enemies think is not irrelevant. Useful labels are public creations. They belong to a world of shared meaning. Groups have boundaries. What those boundaries are for Jews is determined not only by Jews but also by those who stand on the other side of the boundary. We are not only what we say we are. We are also what others say we are.

Sometimes what we think about ourselves and what others think about us is not part of our awareness. It is unconscious and can only be detected through behavior. Our actions are always more interesting than our words. They reveal what we really believe about ourselves. If we want to understand the nature of Jewish identity, we have to watch how Jews behave, not just how they choose to present themselves to others.

Are the Jews a religious group?

Certainly, in the countries of the Western world, that designation is the most convenient. It avoids the accusation of dual nationality and identifies Jews with a community activity that is viewed as positive. In Eastern Europe, it is less convenient. Seventy-five years of Communism secularized most Jews. In Israel, a definition of the Jews as a religious denomination would subvert the reason for a Jewish state. Theological fraternities do not need countries of their own.

The truth of the matter is that while many Jews do religion, many do not. No common set of theological beliefs unites all Jews. Many have no theological beliefs. Many openly denounce religion. Many espouse atheism. But their Jewish identity remains intact. Jews are proud to claim both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as members of the tribe.

The Reformers’ attempt to define the Jews as a religious denomination—and nothing more—failed. It excluded too many people who were obviously Jews. A definition that cannot accommodate Theodor Herzl and Golda Meir is less than convincing. Even the Rejectionists, who defend rabbinic Judaism, live by the criterion that the children of a Jewish mother are Jewish and remain Jewish, no matter what they believe or do.

When the Israeli Supreme Court denied Jewish status to Brother Daniel, a bom-Jew who had become a Catholic monk, they did not behave appropriately.1 They had no difficulty giving Jewish Marxists what they had denied to him. Was the fact that Brother Daniel had suffered as a Jew in wartime Poland, despite his religious beliefs, irrelevant?

In fact, anti-Semites always ignore Jewish religious behavior. Conversions to Catholicism meant nothing to the persecutors of the Marranos. And the Nazi bullies never believed in “former” Jews. In their eyes, credal statements could neither make nor unmake a Jew.

It is quite clear that the Jewish status of a Mr. Cohen is usually determined long before anybody bothers to ask him what his religion is. In the secular age, as a Jew, he has many options—both religious and secular.

Are the Jews a racial group?

Ever since Hitler, Jews have avoided this designation. It reeks of persecution and concentration camps. Jews go to great length to prove the diversity of physical form that exists among Jews. The differences between Western and Oriental Jews, so apparent in Israel, are obvious examples.

But it is quite clear that the Jews, at the very beginning of their history, enjoyed some form of racial conformity. They were a collection of Semitic tribes. They were part of the gene pools of Western Asia. They viewed themselves as the descendants of a single ancestor called Abraham.

In the nineteenth century, the word race was loosely used to describe a group of people who shared a common origin and who behaved as a nation. But in the twentieth century, the word has been given a more precise scientific meaning. Physical characteristics, more than pedigree, are the criteria.

After twenty centuries of breeding with slaves, converts, and outsiders, the original Semitic mix has been diluted. And the new rage for intermarriage in Europe and North America will make any racial classification more difficult.

Oddly enough—or not so oddly—Rejectionists, like the Lubav- itchers, retain the racial outlook of the biblical editors who view outbreeding as religiously dangerous. They maintain that Jews have an inherited disposition to spirituality. Even if well-intentioned Gentiles want to become Jewish, their desire is a hopeless one. They lack the genetic equipment to become what they want to be. Racial theories are not confined to Nazis.

Are the Jews a national group?

The Zionists think so. The authors of the Bible think so. And the rabbinic fathers concur.

A nation, in ancient times, was a confederation of tribes who shared a common language and a common territory. Outside Judea, rabbinic Jews believed that they were in exile, that they were not part of the nations among whom they lived, and that they would return someday to their territorial homeland. Their hostile hosts agreed with them and gave them the status of aliens.

But very early, the dispersion of the Jews created subnations. Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic faded away. New territorial enclaves with unique Jewish languages emerged. Northern Europe produced Yiddish. Spain invented Ladino. Jewish Arabic united the Jews of the Near East. And Jewish Persian became the mother tongue of Jewish Central Asia.

Were the speakers of Yiddish and Jewish Arabic one nation because the Bible said so and because they shared Hebrew as their devotional language? Or were they separate nations, distinct from their neighbors and distinct from each other? The coming together of Western and Oriental Jews in modem Israel is similar to the experience of Anglo-Saxon and Italian ethnics on the streets of Boston. If there is an Israeli nation today, it is being molded by secular Hebrew, Arab hostility, and “intermarriage.”

The Jews were a single nation. They divided up into several smaller nations. And now some of them are creating a new Hebrew-speaking nation. But the majority of the Jews of the world have abandoned unique Jewish speech to adopt the language of their local environment. In America, Jews are pragmatically identified with the white subnation, those Americans who share American English and who are visibly neither black nor Chicano.

For most of their history, Jews were part of unique Jewish nations because they spoke unique Jewish languages, even though they did not possess territory of their own. Today, linguistic assimilation has undermined Jewish nationality in most parts of the world. If many Israelis did not speak English, American Jewish tourists would feel less sentimental about Israel.

Nations without territory are possible. (Look at the Yiddish nation.) But nations without either language or territory are illusions. Communities of Hebrew-speaking Jews form the only viable Jewish nation today. Israel is a Jewish nation. But not all Jews are part of that nation.

Israel is a unique phenomenon. Its roots lie in the Diaspora. It is the creation of the Diaspora. Other diasporas are the creation of their homeland. They have their roots there. They have their linguistic memories there. Israelis have to deal with their past in the same way that most Americans do. They have to think about Europe, Asia, and Africa. They have to deal with the fact that their families are recent arrivals. They have to confront the fact that their grandparents speak Hebrew less fluently than they do.

Italian-Americans look back to their homeland. Israeli Jews look back to their Diaspora. The importance of the Bible in Israel is related to this strange reversal. By emphasizing the Bible, the early Zionists wanted to negate the two thousand years of the dispersion. They wanted to create the illusion that the roots of modern Israel are in the ancient kingdom of David and Solomon. But the connection is tenuous. The real connection is with that disturbing Diaspora that refuses to disappear or to come home. Jewish identity in Israel can never be “normal” in the same way that English identity is taken for granted in England because the creation of Israel was abnormal. No invading illiterate barbarian tribes invented it. Israel was the planned project of urban sophisticates with long written memories. Some Jews today are part of a Jewish nation. But it is highly unlikely that most of them ever will be.

Are the Jews a cultural group?

Many secular Jews like to refer to themselves as cultural Jews. By that description, they mean to suggest that while they no longer have any attachment to rabbinic theology, they do have a sentimental connection with Jewish holidays, Jewish music, Jewish food, and Jewish symbols. They may even enjoy Jewish literature and dance Jewish dances. They may even dabble in Jewish languages.

Cultural attachments are what survive when linguistic and religious behavior disappear. They survive on pick and choose. They can often be done in translation.

But cultural attachments are different from living cultures. Vital cultures are the merging of language with lifestyle and daily activity. They require their own unique space and exclude others. Hasidic Jews and Shiite Persians understand that reality. American Jews who eat matsa and dance the hora have Jewish cultural attachments. But they do not live in Jewish culture.

In the perspective of Jewish history, Judaism can be viewed as a civilization. There was no single Jewish national culture. There was Ashkenazic Jewish culture. There was Sephardic Jewish culture. Each culture was defined by a unique Jewish language written in Hebrew letters. A civilization is a collection of nations united by symbols and lifestyle. In that sense, Hellenism, Christianity, Islam, and Confucianism were also civilizations—but on a much grander scale. Yet all of these civilizations are now yielding to a new one, the emerging new civilization of western capitalism. And the urban Jew is at the center of this development.

The culture of most Jews today is Western European secular culture, which has been refined by North America and which is spreading all over the world. Modem technology and modem architecture have no real nationality. They are international in the same way that science is. World languages like English, French, and Spanish unite the educated elites of all participating nations. Even the insular Japanese patronize symphony orchestras and collect Renoirs.

Modem Israel is nationally distinct. But it is not really culturally distinct from North America. A world of shared artifacts and shared education does not breed separate cultures. Tourists today are getting less for their money. They are finding it harder to visit quaint nations and to view charming local customs. Even the natives find it demeaning to be quaint, and they are cynical enough to turn local customs into tourist traps. Jewish visitors to Israel prefer Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. But Tel Aviv is where the action is.

Some Jews, Rejectionist Jews who live behind the walls of segregation, have their own culture. But most Jews, including Israeli Jews, have become part of a culture that is not uniquely Jewish. Western culture, as a consumer culture with many options, allows for cultural attachments. American Jews can choose Passover and Hebrew classes. But they can also choose Chinese food, karate, and French lessons.

Some people may deplore the disappearance of grand old cultures and the emergence of an international style with cultural options. But the old cultures will survive only as segregated islands. The wonders of the new culture are too attractive.

As for many Jews, they do not choose to indulge any of the Jewish cultural options that are available. But they still are Jews. And some of them value their Jewish identity.

Kinship

It is quite obvious that Jewish identity includes religious, racial, national, and cultural behavior. But it cannot be adequately defined by any one of them. A broader and more inclusive concept is required.

What realities should this concept embrace? What are the parameters that surround all Jews, whether they choose to engage in uniquely Jewish activity or do not choose to do so, whether they value their Jewish identity or do not value it?

Jewish identity, first of all, means a sense of shared ancestry. The Jews began as a nation, an ethnic federation of tribes. Their epic literature, which has become part of the sacred scriptures of the Christian world, speaks of their common ancestors. Whether Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob were real personalities or personifications of tribal invasions is irrelevant to the issue. The Jews saw themselves (and their neighbors saw them) as a true nation, a people united by “blood” ties and family loyalty. Even in talmudic times, joining the Jews was never a mere religious conversion. It was an “adoption.” New Jews severed all connections with their old families and adopted the ancestry of Abraham and Sarah.3

The Jewish people was dispersed from its homeland and became a family of new nations. But Jews never lost their sense of kinship. No matter where they lived, no matter what language they spoke, no matter what culture they adopted, no matter what racial elements they incorporated—they believed (and their neighbors believed) that they were united by a bond of “blood.” Nineteenth century writers would not have hesitated to use the word race to describe this awareness—even the most pro-Semitic. But the dangers of that word in the twentieth century forbid its use. The more benign word kinship may be more discreet. Or the phrase family sense.

All Jews—even those who hate being Jewish—have this awareness of other Jews being their “relatives.” New Jews, those who choose to become Jewish, also sense that they are joining a family fraternity where enthusiasm may confer fewer privileges than birth. Outsiders, too, both the pros and the antis, have this view of tribal connection. The phrase member of the tribe, although offensive to some, captures the awareness of a condition that is less than national but more than ideological.

The second parameter of Jewish identity is shared memories. Kinship means family roots and family history. The story of the Jews, whether positive or negative, fills the popular culture in the Western world. Christians give the Jews center stage in their drama. Muslims assign them a more peripheral role. But both traditions force Jews—even Jews who want to run away from their history or who are indifferent to or ignorant of it—to confront their past. The Jews have a secure place in the popular memory. Announcing that you are a Jew is different from announcing that you are a Swedenborgian. Receivers of the news can fit you into their cultural memory Even the peasant folk who have “never met a Jew before” know that Jews are not novelties. Even Jews who claim that they “know nothing about Judaism” know that they have a secure place in the history of any Western culture.

The third parameter of Jewish identity is shared danger. Jews are a vulnerable family. For whatever historical reasons, we are surrounded by hostility. The potential of anti-Semitism is part of the self-awareness of all Jews. It is also part of the awareness of Gentiles who deal with Jews. The events of the twentieth century have reinforced this apprehension. The Holocaust has tied Jewish identity to such fundamental emotions as fear, anger, loyalty, and pride. Frequently, Jews and Jewish leaders complain about the overemphasis on the negative side of Jewish existence. But Jewish anxiety and Jewish behavior do not pay any attention to this warning. Most parents who seek a Jewish education for their children want their sons and daughters to feel “proud” of their Jewish connection. They are obviously afraid that someone will make them feel less than proud. Being defensive is part of the Jewish condition.

Vulnerable kinship is an imperfect classification of Jewish identity. But it is more accurate than the words religion, race, nation, or culture. The word people is a convenient designation. Yet its usefulness is its vagueness. You can make it mean whatever you want it to mean. The word is part of public relations, not clarification. If a people can be a vulnerable international family—then fine.

Jewish identity is not an enigma. It is not a mystery. Vulnerable kinships exist elsewhere. Gypsies are an example. They are lower in the social scale than we would prefer as a parallel. But they are less than a nation and more than an economic function. And they know that when they announce themselves, they are in danger.

Apprehensive international families can provide many positive benefits. Danger—if it is not physical—can be an exciting condition. It keeps you on the alert and forces you to be very aware of your environment. It trains you in the survival skills of flight, appeasement, and confrontation. It persuades you to try cooperation and group solidarity. It makes you always envision alternatives to what you are doing presently. If anti-Semitism is not overt, Jews have one of the best training programs for survival in the modem urban world.