2001 Shaping Our Secular Jewishness by Jeffrey Kaye
In the public arena, these are somewhat lonely times for humanists, for secularists, and especially so for secular humanist Jews. We hear about increased calls for expressions of faith in the public arena and prayer in schools. Polls show a huge majority of Americans - 75 percent -- support government funding of "faith-based organizations." We heard about the pride of the mainstream Jewish community in the selection of Joseph Lieberman, an observant and pretty conservative Jew as a vice-presidential candidate. Personally, I think it was nice that Gore did choose a Jew as his running mate. I just think he chose the wrong Jew. Point being: We do not hear much about secular humanists as role models. Public Dialogue in the Jewish Community In short, the shape of secular Jewishness, other than for those of us who are directly involved in aspects of it, is not good. We are not part of the public dialogue in the Jewish or non-Jewish community. So let me discuss some of the reasons, and suggest some options. Truth be told, to a large extent, the secular Jewish movement in North America is upholding what remains of an immigrant culture. We celebrate it, and pay homage to a marvelous legacy, but to some extent, it seems more and more distant. Our challenge is to make it ours, or to use a term that gained currency in the sixties - to make it "relevant."
Secular Jewishness was able to thrive in European ghettoes and subsequently in immigrant communities, where you didn't have to think about being Jewish or defining Jewishness. Circumstance made it a part of your fiber. If you were forced to live in the Pale of Settlement in Russia, or if your family moved to the East End of London or the lower east side of Manhattan, or the Ward in Toronto, or Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, the mere fact of community and proximity formed who you were. In later generations, there can be a realization that something's been lost, so grandchildren and great-grand kids search for and try to reclaim their cultural heritage.
Our Kids and Their Heritage For their Sholem Community bar and bas mitzvahs presentations our kids have spoken movingly and often brilliantly of Jewish anarchists, and Bundists, and communists. Other kids have spoken of resistance during the Holocaust, Jews in the labor movement of the 1930, Jews in the civil rights movement of the 60s. The question we have to confront is: what will our grandchildren and great-grandchildren be able to speak about when they look back at the secular Jewish movement of this decade?
I think we need get back to our basics, to invoke the fundamentals - well stated in the CSJO statement of policy: "Our prophetic tradition of social justice and humanism is the foundation upon which our community is built. It provides us with standards for the conduct of our lives and those of succeeding generations."
"We don't need to be all things to all people." I know that in some communities there may not be such a clear consensus or agreement on a commitment to social justice and progressive politics. Many of our friends in the Society for Humanistic Judaism, for example, have as a priority establishing themselves as a legitimate and recognized branch of Judaism - with a "big tent" philosophy, open to Jews of various political persuasions.
I would suggest that for us, that's not the road to take. By being all (or many) things to all people, even all humanists, we lose our own definition. So for the CSJO and affiliates, I believe that our expression of Jewishness should hold that a commitment to social and economic justice be a defining and core value. Why?
No Biblical Quotations Needed To justify their own activism argument, many progressive Jews turn to Biblical passages and lists of mitzvas, mitzvot - commandments. That's fine, but a little perilous. If you want, you can find passages from the Bible to justify almost any behavior. As secular Jews, we don't need a sacred text to justify or regulate behavior. We simply have to remind ourselves of the proud history of progressive Jews in fighting against fascism and tyranny, and for labor rights, social justice, and peace.
Beyond our Jewish history is a common sense practicality of secularists and humanists, that we must take responsibility for making this world a better place. We're not going to pray to make that happen. We're not going to simply hope that it happens; we're going to try to make it happen. That's the core value I'm talking about: Our belief in the need for social justice, our history, plus a conviction that no divine authority is going to intervene, requires a commitment to progressive politics. That should be the hallmark of our identity. Some will argue that this will turn people off. I would suggest that should not deter us. We don't need to be all things to all people. As I've told people hesitant about involving themselves with the Sholem Community -- this might not work for you; you might feel more comfortable someplace else. That's OK. We're made stronger by knowing who we are.
A Progressive Home of Our Own By better defining ourselves in terms of clearly-articulated principles, we offer a home for people like me and my wife - people who feel the need to express both our Jewishness and our progressive politics - and see them linked together. Also, I would suggest that by offering this kind of organizational outlet and a commitment to progressive politics, we provide a strong substitute for those who need what religion and religious institutions offer, community and a commitment to something bigger than ourselves.
So what is that "something" and how do we go about defining ourselves? One of the challenges for us is the period we are living in. Although we may share their values, we are far from our downtrodden immigrant ancestors who struggled out of self interest, because their survival was determined by their political struggle. Nor are we living in an era like the 30s or the 50s or sixties where labor, civil rights, social and peace movements took center stage, seized the public consciousness, and infused the fabric of contemporary life.
Organizational Projects There is no shortage of issues for progressives. But what do we do as organizations? A key task is to cultivate a culture of social responsibility and political action. The "this" will mean different things to different families and organizations. At Sholem last month [April 2001], as an organization we helped clean up a beach. That might not work in Kansas. Years ago, we marched as a group in a demonstration against an anti-immigrant ballot proposition. So there are many options for community engagement (and let me say I put e-mail petitions at the very bottom of the list). I would hope that our organizations encourage involvement by individuals in their lives. Many of our family members, I'm proud to say, chosen pursuits and avocations that demonstrate a commitment to caring - as teachers and union activists, as concerned journalists and civil rights lawyers and housing activists and political office holders, as community organizers and as workers in political campaigns. These sensibilities should infuse our organizations.
Our groups should also cement relations with other organizations doing good, Jewish and non-Jewish. I would hope that we can strengthen an alliance with the Workmen's Circle when possible. And if local rabbis and their congregations are doing something that we can support, then we should. Our organizations should be seen and counted on as active participants in the progressive life of our communities.
Family Values As secular progressives, we should claim the higher moral ground on issues to which progressives seem to have ceded territory to conservatives. We believe in family values. We may not be church goers, but our family values are as strong as anybody's. We believe in globalism and the common good. Corporate globalism is abhorrent, but not the notion that the globe's people should benefit in equal measure from the earth's bounties.
As progressive secular Jews, we also need to be more inclusive, with a larger definition of what unites us to better shape our secular Jewishness. Many of us immersed in an Ashkenazic culture also need to draw on Sephardic Jews to the extent we can. Our reverence for Jewish languages must be more inclusive. Yiddish will hold a special place in our hearts; we should incorporate it as we do, but not to the exclusion of Hebrew. We must recognize and be ready for the fact that the population of secular Jewish institutions is changing. We must make room for refugees from synagogues and organized Jewish life who come to us for reasons other than being born into a secular Jewish family. We also can't overlook the spiritual needs of members - although "spirituality" (some call it the "S" word) has different meaning to different people, and there is an inherent tension between the spiritual and the secular. We address that need in our music and in ritual.
Act as Communities Finally we must find ways of equipping ourselves to act as communities. That's another serious challenge. We all lead very busy lives, but if we are to survive as significant alternatives to synagogues, we also have to offer an alternative organization - one that does not rely on top down, rabbinical authority but that involves community. In the final analysis, what we are all about is commonweal and community, and we need to provide structures that nurture warm communal relations. I'm talking about communal involvement in decision-making, activities, and rituals.
Which brings me back to my call for progressive action as a unifying motif for secular Jewish organizations. I said earlier that we don't have to rely on sacred texts for that justification, but if you really need biblical inspiration, go no further than the prophet Amos to find it: "So because you trample on the poor, and take taxes from them of grain: you have made houses for yourselves of cut stone, but you will not live in them; the fair vineyards planted by your hands will not give you wine...You oppressors of the righteous, who take ransoms from the needy and push them aside at the city gates. ... Spare me (your sacrifices), the roar of your songs... the music of your guitars. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream..."