Wine’s Rabbinic Thesis (1956)



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

Referee: Dr. Sheldon H. Blank



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

I heartily recommend the acceptance of this thesis.

Sheldon H. Blank, Referee

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The Humanistic Alternative

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

Jewish Humanist

Who is a Jew?

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

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

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

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

The Jewish world is confused on this issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanistic Judaism

Jewish Identity in the Contemporary World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the past two centuries, three options emerged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanistic Judaism

Secular Humanistic Jewish Ideology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why has this change occurred?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judaism Beyond God

Reform Judaism

“Reform Judaism” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)

Reform—at least in the beginning—chose a bolder format. It broke with rabbinic Judaism and rejected the halakha. Living in Northern Europe, the early Reformers were influenced by Protestant culture and by its attachment to the Bible. Fearful of proclaiming reason alone as the source of truth, they searched for a more traditional authority. Faith in the Bible was so respectable in their environment that it seemed a natural alternative. Some of them began to assault Orthodoxy with denunciations of talmudic superstition and with appeals for a return to the purity of the Bible.

But the Bible was hardly the anthology for teaching the Secular Revolution. In many respects, it was more “primitive” and less reasonable than the Talmud. Its view of the universe, nature, and society was not compatible with modern science. Its description of the rights of husbands, wives, and foreigners seemed a bit awkward as a preface to human dignity and universalism. And it was loaded with all kinds of laws about sacrifice, ritual purity, and dietary practices that the Reformers were eager to discard on rational grounds. Although they hesitated to give up such a powerful weapon, something else was clearly needed.

In the 1840s, there appeared a German duo of renegade rabbis, Abraham Geiger and Samuel Holdheim, who provided Reform with a presentable ideology. Unlike the Conservatives who were stuck with the theological formulations of the halakha and who (with the exception of the Reconstructionists) never really attempted to deal with an alternative value for Jewish identity, the Reform renegades sought to find a justification for Jewish identity in the age of reason.

Their new formulation took account of the consequences of the Secular Revolution on Jewish life. In Western Europe, they had lost their national culture. Neither language nor folk customs separated them from other Europeans in their region. Emancipation meant secular citizenship and secular education and the opportunity to sign up for the new secular nationalism of England, France, and Germany. As for the halakha, it had been discarded by many secularized Jews as a burdensome interference with social integration.

The Reform ideologues, for obvious reasons, discarded ethnicity and nationality as motivating values. They seemed to have no future. Personal Messiahs and supernatural rewards were also rejected. They offended reason. Rabbinic law was irrelevant. It rubbed against the higher values of secular existence.

Only theological ideas remained. But which one? The ideologues selected monotheism. But what is uniquely Jewish about monotheism? Millions of non-Jews worship one God. Here the Reformers picked up on the traditional idea of the Chosen People (which [Mordecai] Kaplan was later to discard) and transformed it. While it was true that many Gentiles were already monotheists, the Jews were the divinely appointed missionaries of ethical monotheism. The special job of the Jews was to be the role-model advertisers of the one God.

Jewish history was a “progressive revelation” of the existence and nature of the Supreme Being. While the Bible and Talmud were expressions of this revelation, they were imperfect and open to emendation by future events. The age of reason was only one more step in the development of that disclosure. Ultimately, the nature of God would be totally revealed. The Messianic age of peace and love would follow. And the Jews could retire from their age-old job.

The Reform overhaul of the meaning and value of Jewish identity was bold and clear. Its only problem was that it was ludicrous. Why are Jewish monotheists more divinely appointed than Muslim monotheists? It would seem that it is the job of every sincere monotheist to be a missionary for the cause. How can any people designate themselves as ethical role models without ceasing to be exactly what they want to be? Self-righteousness is morally offensive. In what way does Jewish history reveal the existence of a nice single God? Jewish suffering suggests that he is either not so nice or that he is nice but limited. But, above all, what does ethical monotheism have to do with the age of reason or the Secular Revolution? The modern urban industrial world is hardly the setting for divine enthusiasts among the educated elite. Why would a bunch of Jewish “not-quite agnostics,” with a perfunctory formal belief in a perfunctory God, be chosen for such a missionary task? Yahveh must be as confused as his army of converters.

The one positive aspect of this theological travesty was that Reform Jews never took this formal ideology seriously. Like the Conservatives, they just limped along on the inertia of old identities. And like the Conservatives, they preferred the consolation of traditional endorsement. They really wanted “kosherizing” by the Bible. But which part? Their nonobservance made the endorsement of most of it very difficult.

Enter Prophetic Judaism. Many of the Reform leaders latched on to the Yahveh prophets who are praised by the editors of the Bible. Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah suddenly emerged as Reform heroes. The new scientific criticism of the Bible indicated that it was more complex and less unified than faith and tradition had described it. It had different authors from the writers the rabbis had designated. There were many internal contradictions. Individual books were patchwork creations from many separate documents. And much of the prophetic message was older than the Torah and was distorted by it.

The prophets became the comfortable heroes of the Reform layperson. Since they were old, traditional, and biblical, they were more understandable than Geiger’s “spirit of the age.” No matter that the prophets were devotees of ecstatic visions and supernatural intrusion. No matter that they were profoundly opposed to urbanization and the breakdown of the shepherd economy. No matter that their devotion to Yahveh was accompanied by a violent hostility to the worshipers of other gods. No matter that they were absolutely certain of the truth of their own personal revelation and intensely intolerant of disagreement. No matter that their love of the “good” and their hatred of “evil” did not mean a society of dignity and personal freedom. They had become the unlikely heroes of the age of reason. Yahveh would have had a fit.

The Reform Movement ended with slogans. Its formal ideology and its informal heroes had very little to do with Reform behavior. For a while, its Protestant format and its hostility to Jewish nationalism gave its adherents a form of social security. But they did not do very much to make Jewish identity interesting or worthwhile.

Judaism Beyond God

Reconstructionist Judaism

“Reconstructionist Judaism” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)

Reconstructionism is the third style of the Jewish Ambivalent. It arose out of Conservative Judaism and is emotionally allied with it. In fact, Reconstructionism fits very neatly into its pragmatic operating procedure—free philosophic inquiry and halakhic behavior.

Mordecai Kaplan, who was the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement and its reigning guru, was a graduate and teacher of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the New York school for Conservative Judaism. He was born in Lithuania over a hundred years ago and came to America at an early age. He organized his own congregation on the west side of Manhattan, which he called the Society for the Advancement of Judaism and which became the pioneer congregation of his new movement.

Kaplan was the emotional child of Europe and of the traditional lifestyle of the Litvak Jew. But he was the intellectual child of two secular humanists, John Dewey and Emile Durkheim. Dewey, the philosopher, maintained that religion could have a humanistic meaning. It was the celebration of all those powers in the universe that help us stay alive and solve our problems. “God” is the symbol of that power. Durkheim, the sociologist, maintained that religion was a social enterprise, a ritual glue that kept everybody together. The heart of religion was sacred behavior, the untouchable and unchangeable set of actions by which any group affirmed its unity. If one takes Dewey and Durkheim, mixes them up, and adds a large dose of Litvak loyalty, one gets Reconstructionism.

Kaplan tried to wed humanism and halakha. He claimed that Judaism was not a specific combination of theological beliefs. It was a religious civilization and could accommodate many different systems of thought. He claimed that God could be redefined as the creative energy of the universe that enables individuals and communities to survive. And salvation was fulfillment in the here and now. Above all, he pleaded for the reconstruction of the Jewish community to allow for diversity in unity.

The unity for Kaplan was the folk, the Jewish people. And the sign of that unity was an adherence to the three folk sancta: God, Israel, and Torah—in other words, the halakha, or a slightly amended reasonable facsimile of it designated folk-religion. In the end, it was the same old Conservative package: act traditional and think humanist; use all the words of faith and humility and make them mean reason and dignity. The official Reconstructionist prayerbook is hardly distinguishable from the Conservative one.

Reconstructionism differs from Conservatism in its refusal to endorse the idea of the Chosen People. For Kaplan, this concept was a violation of the humanistic respect for the value of all cultures and civilizations. But its removal from the vocabulary of the prayerbook (which was a small change) seemed bizarre. Why bother to change one little item in the service when the whole concept of a worship experience where people talk to God for three hours is inconsistent with an impersonal deity? How can any reasonable person talk to creative energy?

There is a humorless edge to Kaplan. If you want to combine halakha and humanism, do not be fastidious. Nothing really fits anyway. In that respect, conventional Conservatism is superior to Reconstructionism. It never tried to be profound. It lets the absurdity stand because it is emotionally satisfying. Ambivalence should never insist on consistency.

Modern Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reconstructionism are best described by the Yiddish phrase: nisht a hin, nisht a her—neither here nor there. They may work for some people. But they do not take reason and dignity seriously enough. A humanism that is dressed up to look like rabbinic Judaism is ashamed of what it is.

Judaism Beyond God

Conservative Judaism

“Conservative Judaism” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)


The Conservative Movement is made of much the same stuff as Modem Orthodoxy. But it is bolder. Spawned in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century, it found its most comfortable home in North America. Identified with three rabbinical seminaries in Breslau, Budapest, and New York, it was explained and defended by scholar luminaries like Zacharias Frankel, Heinrich Graetz, and Solomon Schechter.

Initially united with the reformers in an alliance against the Rejectionists, its leaders split early from the coalition on the issue of the halakha. Developing a “positive historical” approach to the problem of Jewish behavior and Jewish identity, they adopted a pragmatic stance: free philosophic inquiry together with moderate ritual conformity. The mind would be reasonable, but the body would be traditional. Since most people settle for appearances, it was an appealing compromise. Secularized Jews could feel traditional without having to be assaulted by traditional ideas.

All Conservatives agreed that nothing should be done to destroy the appearance of tradition—at least, in synagogue behavior and holiday observance. Musical instruments might be tried for Sabbath worship. The sexes might be mixed for synagogue services. Protestant style sermons might be added for public edification. But little was done to shatter the “look” of tradition. And nothing was done for which a talmudic justification was not found.

As time makes innovation seem traditional, creeping change never destroys the illusion. When the Conservatives finally decided to ordain their women rabbis, they dressed them up in the symbols of the old male chauvinism and stretched a few talmudic quotations to justify their action.

The Conservative Movement in America has been the most successful of all the modern Jewish “denominations” because it allows the Jews to have their cake and eat it simultaneously. Like Modern Orthodoxy, it chooses to offend no one—or, at least, very few. Since it deals primarily with appearances, it has difficulty dealing with the substance of belief and integrity. Speaking the ideas of reason and dignity while wearing the costume of faith and humility is precarious theater. It gives all moral power to the Rejectionists who, at least, believe in what they do.

Here is the problem: having to prove that you are what you are not undermines your dignity. Many Conservative rabbis suffer from a guilty reverence of pious authority. They admire teachers who despise them.

Judaism Beyond God

Modern Orthodox Judaism

“Modern Orthodox Judaism” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)

Modem Orthodoxy is the establishment Judaism of Western Europe. It is sedate and decorous. It is traditional and secular. Its leaders receive a good secular education and train in modern seminaries. Its members participate in all the professions of an urban society. Appearance-wise, they are indistinguishable from all the other citizens of the secular state. What is unique about their behavior is mainly evident in their homes and synagogues. These institutions become the focus of their traditional attachments. Since most of the unique behavior patterns of the rabbinic lifestyle are incongruous with secular existence, they are praised but rarely observed. Female segregation, ritual purity, and the dress code do not find any real community support and are not enforced by public opinion.

While it is important to the Modem Orthodox to be designated “Orthodox,” they are despised and denounced by the Rejectionists. Separate seating for the sexes in the synagogue is hardly a substitute for traditional belief. An “orthodoxy” that avoids discussing divine rewards and punishments, the salvation of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and the importance of the World to Come undermines the motivation of the halakha and subverts the traditional justification for preserving Jewish identity. Proving that the dietary laws are good for health and hygiene (true or not) turns the argument into a rational consequential one and deprives the rabbinic tradition of the supernatural context out of which it arose.

The Rejectionists are right. Modern Orthodoxy sometimes looks like Orthodoxy. But it tastes different. And most of its adherents are more comfortable spending time with their secular friends than with pious Hasidim.

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The Lubavitcher Messiah

The Jewish Humanist, August 1994

The Rebbe is dead. Or is he?

Hundreds of Lubavitcher Hasidim are waiting breathlessly for his resurrection. They cannot accept his death. They await his return.

Whoever would imagine that the death of a Jewish cult leader would make front page news seven days in a row. But the Lubavitchers are no ordinary cult. Next to the state of Israel, they are the most successful Jewish organization in the world. Now 250,000 strong, they have quintupled their numbers over the past 40 years and entered into the mainstream of Jewish life. In 1951 when the Rebbe took over, they were a bizarre Jewish sect that few Jews even knew about. Today their emissaries cover the globe and negotiate with the rulers of the world.

Hasidism has been around for almost 300 years. Emerging in southeast Poland at a time of political and economic devastation, it gave hope to hope-hungry Jews. God would send his Messiah to rescue his people only when they loved him enough. Observing the commandments was not enough. But observance with heartfelt devotion was the key to salvation. Hasidism began with singing and dancing with fervor and shaking, and ended up with miracle working Rebbes who were the dispensers of supernatural power. Devotional leaders founded devotional dynasties. Each dynasty turned into a cult of the personality. If the Rebbe was not God, he was, at least, the deputy of God on earth. He was the very gate to Heaven. Devotion went up. Power came down.

Zalman Schneersohn of Lubavitch was unique. While most Hasidim came from Galeia and the Ukraine, he hailed from Lithuania, the homeland of Hasidim haters. Litvaks almost invariably denounced Hasidism as craziness and heresy. But Zalman the Litvak became a Hasidic Rebbe. Being a Litvak, he tried to give his movement a slight intellectual twist. Habad is the acronym for three Hebrew words that denote wisdom. The Lubavitchers became Hasidism with a Litvak edge.

In 1957, the Lubavitch movement was in exile. Devastated by Communism and the Holocaust, its leadership was in exile in Brooklyn, its followers depressed, its numbers diminished. The old Rebbe died that year and was succeeded by his son-in-law who was also descended from the original Zalman. The new Rebbe was brilliant, charismatic and creative. Familiar with the secular world as an engineer graduate of the Sorbonne in Paris, he combined Hasidic piety, intellectual mysticism and a missionary zeal to reach the ‘lost’ Jews. Instead of despising them he went out to recruit them. The result is a powerful religious empire spanning six continents and a cadre of thousands of dedicated workers who, for an economic pittance, go forth to conquer the Jewish world. In time, some of these devotees would proclaim their Rebbe the Messiah.

What is the significance of all this Messianic fervor?

It means that all these old ideas about Messiahs and resurrections, which liberal Jews assumed were fast fading away in Jewish life, were wrong. They are alive and well. After four centuries of the age of science, fundamentalism is still strong. And the Jews are as much a part of that world as the Christians and Muslims.

It means that the “Jews for Jesus” and the Lubavitchers are on the same wave length. Both believe in salvation. Both believe in Messiahs. Both believe in resurrection. In the end, whether you prefer Jesus or the Rebbe, the mind-set is the same.

It means that rationality is having a hard time in Crown Heights.             The smartest strategy is to keep postponing the coming of the Messiah. But true believers want the Messiah right now. The rub is that he may not show up. And if he doesn’t there is always the risk of mass disillusionment. However, the history       of religion has demonstrated that true believers always find the perfect excuse. Perhaps the Rebbe did not find the world worthy of salvation.

It means that a lot of Jewish energy is being devoted to harmful illusion. Believing that everybody’s life can be rescued by a single person is a dangerous conviction. It undermines self-reliance and turns people into childlike dependents. The coming of the Lubavitchers is no great boon for the Jewish people. Jewish identity survival has no humanistic value if Jewish passion means the abduction of reason, autonomy and self-esteem.

It means that a movement built around the cult of personality needs a personality. It may be the case that the dead Rebbe will serve that purpose. But that has not been the Hasidic tradition.         Schneersohn designated no heir. Internal bickering has now resulted in major confrontations. The danger of splits is real. If no new charismatic Rebbe shows up, can the movement hold together? Ironically, the strong point of the Lubavitchers, their reverence for their leader, is also their weak point.

What this whole fiasco adds up to is the dichotomy in Jewish life. Humanistic Judaism looks at the Jewish experience and arrives at a totally different conclusion from that of the Lubavitchers. They see Messiahs. We find the need for self-reliance. They see divine determination. We find human determination. What we have to remember is that our style may not be as dramatic, our           songs may not be as lively, but our message is a lot healthier. Messiahs have always  been an enormous disappointment. “Jews for the Rebbe” are, after all, in the same delusionary world as Jews for Jesus.