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Vladimir Lenin: Tsar of the Bolsheviks

Recorded May 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

Ulyanov was his real name. Lenin was his revolutionary name. His body still lies embalmed for public view in Red Square. Born to a bourgeois family, Lenin turned radical when his revolutionary brother was killed. Embracing Marxism, he became the boldest Marxist leader in Europe. The trauma of the First World War gave him an unexpected opportunity to seize power with his Bolshevik faction. Once in power, he became a dictator who transformed Russia. Would the story of Bolshevik Russia have been different had he not died early from a stroke?

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

Recorded February 1999 by the Center for New Thinking.

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

 

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

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Karl Marx: The Promise of Utopia

Recorded in February 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

When Karl Marx died, his disciples were few in numbers. But within ten years his followers were numerous. And within 20 years they constituted millions. Of all the varieties of socialism, Marx’s scientific socialism was the most successful. The drama of revolution, the clash of the classes and the ultimate emergence of Utopia invited popular enthusiasm. Marx believed that progress was inevitable, guided by the inexorable laws of history. Fashioned in academic isolation, the vision of Marx became the philosophy of a brutal empire.

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The God Delusion: Richard Dawkins and Militant Atheism

Recorded 2006 by the Center for New Thinking.

A preeminent scientist – and the world’s most prominent atheist – asserts that a belief in God is irrational and that religion is harmful. Richard Dawkins eviscerates the major arguments for religion and demonstrates the supreme improbability of a supreme being. He maintains that religion fuels war, ferments bigotry and abuses children. He also asserts that atheism is superior to religion, providing a clearer truer appreciation of the universe’s wonders than any faith could ever muster.

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

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Bill and Hillary: Love, Hate and Opportunism (1999)

Recorded on 11-2-1999 by the Center for New Thinking.

Do Bill and Hillary really love each other? Or are they rank opportunists whose ambitions for power are disguised by sweet talk? Sex scandals and impeachment have made their public devotion less than credible. What is the real story behind the faces? Is there passion and disgust, love and hate? What have people who really know said about their relationship?

 

Click HERE to download and listen to the audio lecture

 

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The Fatwa Against Rushdie

The Jewish Humanist, March 1989

A brilliant and creative writer, by the name of Salman Rushdie, has been condemned to death for writing a book that his accusers have not even read.

Ayatollah Khomeini has re-entered the political spotlight by ordering the execution of a secular intellectual of Muslim origin. Rushdie, an award-winning novelist of international fame, has been declared guilty of blasphemy, a crime worthy of death in fundamentalist circles. His book, Satanic Verses, innocently plays with Muslim myths, including the stories of Mohammed and his wives, in order to demonstrate the ambiguity of good and evil. To the secular reader the presentation is subtle, creative and brilliant. To the pious Muslim reader it is nothing short of an assault on God.

In the post-Enlightenment secularized world of the West such a book has a right to exist, even though it causes pain and discomfort to pious believers. Free speech is a fundamental liberty which even traditional religious people have come to accept. After all, it simply evens the score. For countless centuries religious leaders have had complete freedom to speak and write scurrilously about atheism and secularism, defaming its teachers and philosophers in the most outrageous way. “Blasphemy” can go both ways.

But in the Muslim world, which never experienced a true Enlightenment and where religion has never had the opportunity to adapt to a secular democratic world, free speech is difficult to comprehend. Insulting God, by denying the infallibility of his prophets and scripture, endangers not only the individuals who are guilty of blasphemy but also the society that tolerates it without adequate punishment. If the guilty are not removed all will suffer the wrath of Allah.

The crafty Khomeini is using the opportunity of this scandal to re-assert his pre-eminence in the Muslim world, especially after the debacle with Iraq. However it is a diversionary tactic, which runs counter to the recent attempts of some of his lieutenants to cozy up to the Western powers in the hope that Western financial help will now be available to rebuild the economy of Iran. Khomeini cannot have it both ways. He cannot threaten the West and seduce them into assisting him at the same time. Right now, being the angry voice of a militant Islam is more appealing.

Interestingly, his new terrorism is working. Booksellers, like Waldenbooks and Dalton, are refusing to sell Rushdie’s book. Governments, like Canada, are forbidding its import. Religious leaders with a few exceptions are choosing silence. The author has offered an abject apology (which has humiliatingly been rejected). Even the American president, who is hardly a favorite in Teheran where he enjoys the status of a condemned Satan, has chosen to speak softly. Only the European community has responded with some courage, although it still continues to import Persian oil.

At stake in this encounter is the future of free speech as well as the future of art and science. If intellectual and literary figures, whose creativity deviates from the norm of religious prosperity, can be placed on death lists by fundamentalist governments and the Western public – then free speech will be an ultimate victim of international terrorism.

The attitude that assumes that Khomeini is a passing crazy and does not deserve our courageous defiance is dangerous. When Khomeini dies, others equally crazy and fanatic, will follow. But once the posture of surrender is begun, once the defiance is mild rather than bold, the battle will be lost. It will just be easier to comply then resist. Dignity will seem less important than physical security.

It is, therefore, very important that we, as secularists and humanists, who will suffer most from fundamentalist intimidation, should not yield to these threats. It is important that we encourage publishers and booksellers not to yield and that we denounce and embarrass those who do. It is also important that we encourage the American government to speak out boldly against this intimidation and to institute sanctions. America’s caution will neither protect American hostages nor encourage pro-Western elements in the Iranian government.

Whether you approve or disapprove of Salman Rushdie is not the issue. Free speech is. And now is the time to defend it.

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Jewish Book Month 1987

The Jewish Humanist,  November 1987

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

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

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

Here they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shulamit Aloni

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1993

SHUALMIT ALONI IS COMING! YOU WILL NOT WANT TO MISS HER!

Aloni is the leader of the Meretz coalition in the Israeli Knesset She is the controversial Minister of Education and Culture, whose defense of a secular state has aroused the passionate hostility of the ultra-Orthodox. Over the past few months a public battle has been waged between liberals and religious conservatives over her membership in the Israeli government. The Orthodox want her head. The moderates see her as the one guarantee that the present regime will defend civil liberties and begin to dismantle the state support of traditional religion. This controversy has been featured on the front pages of most newspapers and given Aloni international fame.

Shula is a native Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem. Her early years were the formative years of the Jewish state. Reared in the secular Zionism of the Zionist pioneers, she hoped that the state of Israel would fulfill the humanistic dreams of the founders. To her dismay the Labor government of David Ben-Gurion compromised these ideals for political expediency and turned over the regulation of family life to the Orthodox. Her response to this betrayal was not the cynical resignation of most Labor politicians, but open defiance. She committed her life to politics, to feminism, to personal freedom and to the defense of the liberal democratic tradition of the modern Enlightenment.

This defiance was not easy. Given her talents and charisma, she could have, with little effort, achieved political power If had been willing to compromise the Integrity of her ideals. Her punishment was that she was banished by the leaders of the Labor Party to the periphery of Israeli political Golda Meir, in particular, was incensed her disobedience and by her embarrassing persistence. Golda, as Aloni points out, saw herself as the ultimate Jewish mother of the Jewish nation, whose children were not as wise as she was. When she encountered political resistance, especially within her own camp, her response could be ruthless. Golda believed that pursuing the cause of either feminism or civil liberties was a harmful division from the main task of Unifying the Israeli people in defense of the Jewish state against the Arab aggressors.

Shula expressed her defiance in many ways. She wrote books and newspaper articles and hosted a provocative radio show. She counseled the marriage and divorce victims of Orthodox law, finding creative ways for secular Jews to avoid Orthodox jurisdiction. She became a consumer advocate, mobilizing thousands of followers to press for domestic reform. She was elected to Knesset where she remained, for a long time, a sole advocate for women’s rights and Separation of religion and government. She organized a new political party, the Citizens Rights Movement (Ratz), which provided a clear public voice for the elementary personal freedom which we in America take for granted. For over a decade she was treated as a political pariah, a solo prophetic voice in a sea of cynics and chauvinists. But, in the last election, her party helped to create a coalition of the liberal left – Ratz and Mapam and Shinui – which named itself Merétz and went on to win ten seats in the Knesset. With Meretz, the Labor Party and Rabin were able to unseal the Likud and to achieve political supremacy. Aloni’s reward was the Ministry of Education and Culture, a crucial ministry which had been under Orthodox control in the previous government and which had wrought havoc with the secular curriculum of the state schools. The battle lines were now drawn, especially when she proclaimed that feministic values needed to re-enter the Israeli school system. She has now become the chief target of Orthodox hate. Even Rabin has wavered in support of her and has tried to censor her.’ Power has brought her no relief from continuous assault.

Now Shula is more to us than a brave Jewish defender of freedom and human dignity. She is the longtime friend of the Birmingham Temple and one of the founders of the Humanistic Jewish movement in Israel.

We first met her in 1979 when she consented to come from Israel to be our special guest at the annual meeting of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Her appearance was transforming. The rapport between her and her American audience was electric. We loved her from the start. And she loved us.

In 1981, enthusiastic about the prospects For Humanistic Judaism in Israel, she helped to organize a dialogue between secular Jews from America and secular Jews from Israel at Shefayim, a seaside kibbutz north of Tel Aviv. Many important Israeli intellectuals and writers attended. Within two years the Israeli Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism was born.

Shula’s coming is part of our celebration of our Temple’s thirtieth birthday anniversary. One of the best things that has happened to us in the past thirty years is that we made the Shula connection. Her participation in our celebration is testimony to the fact that Humanistic Judaism has an important part to play In the Jewish world.

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Jewish Book Month 1986

The Jewish Humanist, November 1986

November is the month when we think about books we should be reading, especially books about Jewish history and Jewish culture, philosophy and ethics.

During the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services I either used or made reference to books which many people subsequently wanted to read. In response to their request I am presenting the following recommended reading list. Some of the books are easy to read. Others are painful. All are important.

Shcharansky by Martin Gilbert – This is a powerful biography of one of the genuine Jewish heroes of this century. As the son of a devoted communist, Shcharansky repudiated the life of comfortable conformity and became one of the Soviet Union’s most famous dissidents. Fearlessly challenging the Soviet government on human rights issues and demanding the right of emigration for himself and all Russian Jews who wanted to leave. Shcharansky was ultimately imprisoned and subjected to torture and humiliation. The story of his personal resistance – with its extraordinary courage and with its intensification of his Jewish identity is inspirational reading. Gilbert, the historian of the Holocaust, relied heavily for his information on the letters Shcharansky wrote to his wife Avital while in jail.

The Affair by Jean-Marie Brevin – Brevin is a successful French lawyer who is fascinated with the famous Dreyfus Affair and the political drama which surrounded it. When an obscure Jewish officer is convicted in 1894 of giving military secrets to the German enemy, France explodes into a mighty confrontation between those who think him innocent and those who think him guilty. The Anti -Dreyfusards want to use his conviction and the anti-Semitism which accompanies it to overthrow the fragile Third Republic and replace it with the elitist rule of monarchy, army and church. The Pro-Dreyfusards, like Emile Zola, want to use the case to promote a secular democratic state. The details of the story are so compelling that you cannot put the book down once you start reading it.

Shoah, a documentary with Claude Lanzman – No film has more devastatingly revealed the horror of the Holocaust than this production by this eccentric French Jewish director. Using none of the usual “body scenes” of most Holocaust presentations, Lanzmann relies only on the verbal testimony of victims and observers. The imagination of the viewer takes over from there. The most powerful scene – recorded in this book version of the movie script – is the interview with the barber from Czestochowa who is spared at Treblinka to cut the hair of other victims before gassing. The Jews were turned into the executioners of their own people.

Arab and Jew by David Shipler – Few books have revealed the di lemma of modern Israel more than this powerful commentary by the former New York Times reporter in Jerusalem. Two nations – Arab and Jew – live within the boundaries of the Jewish state. How do they see each other? How strong is their mutual fear and anger? What are the possibilities for mutual understanding and reconciliation? Shipler attempts to answer these questions through his assessment of dozens of Jews and Arabs from every walk of life and from every political and religious persuasion. The revelations are startling and frightening. The most pathetic story is the tale of love between a Palestinian radical woman and a Jewish right-wing Likudnik who discover that there is too much hate to allow for their love. No book has presented the problem of mutual intolerance more vividly and more dramatically.

Falling in Love by Francesco Alberoni – This Italian classic, recently translated into English, allows sociologist Alberoni to explore the meaning of love. He makes a very sharp distinction between falling in love with all its anguish and euphoria and love itself. Falling in love he regards as a disease. It happens to people who are experiencing strong senses of personal inadequacy and who project unrealistically on to the beloved what they themselves do not think they have but want for themselves. The result is that most romantic- love, like most revolutionary fervor, ends in disappointment. Or it may resolve itself into something healthier and realistic, which he calls love. Alberoni’s exploration is a unique assessment of an important emotion.

World’s Fair by E. L. Doctorow – A novel by Doctorow is always a treat, especially when it is a nostalgia trip. A Jewish boy in New York in 1939 (most likely Doctorow himself) is taken to that wondrous vision of the future called the World’s Fair. The naive excitement of an enthusiastic child allows the wonder and innocence of the reader himself to reawaken.

Happy reading!