Humanistic Judaism

Courage in the Face of Death

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Hope

Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism (1976)

We live and find it hard to live. We are consumed by anxiety and we know that nature is stingy with satisfaction. We are terrified by the limits of our wisdom and we shiver in the cold of human ignorance. Love touches us with the pleasure of fulfillment and runs away too soon. Pain squeezes the marrow of our bones and lingers with malice. Although our suffering cries out for justice, the world answers with deaf defiance. The darkness of evil is a persistent shadow.

We live and find it good to live. We feel the invitation of doing and we rush to the surprise of new excitement. We sense the opportunity of our talents and we plunge to taste their fulfillment. Bold events stimulate our sense of self and tease the ordering skill of our reason. Unselfish acts overwhelm our being and fill our hearts with the security of love. The world is an open door to vital variety and it stuns our hopes with boundless promise. The light of our possibility shines through to overwhelm the darkness.

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Ayfo Oree

Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism (1976)

Ayfo Oree lyrics

AY-FO O-REE? O-REE BEE.

AY-FO TIK-VA-TEE? TIK-VA-TEE BEE.

AY-FO KO-KNEE? KO-KNEE BEE.

V’-GAM BAKH.

Where is my light? My light is in me.

Where is my hope? My hope is in me.

Where is my strength? My strength is in me.

And in you.