Jewish identity and survival: challenge for secular/humanistic Jews

By Jerald Bain

May 4, 1986 Jewish history spans almost 4000 years. We marvel today at the continued existence of the Jewish people after all these years, after all the trials and tribulations that the Jews have had to endure. We stand in awe of what we call our survival - but how is that survival measured? The Jews today are an international nation of some 12,000,000 to 13,000,000 people. Joseph Schatzmiller, professor of history at the University of Toronto and director of the university's Jewish studies program, has estimated that had the Jews really been survivors, we would today be a nation of 250,000,000 people. We have lost numbers not only to genocide and slaughter, but of more significance to conversion and indifference. If our survival is so tenuous, what of our future? Of what is our identity and ethnicity going to consist in the days and years to come?

In the not too distant past, being Jewish, Jewish identity, Yiddishkeit, were all part of the fabric of daily life. This is beautifully exemplified in Maurice Samuel's book, "The World of Sholom Aleichem" in which he describes the Judaism of the inhabitants of the mythical shtetl of Kasrielevke: "Life and religion were indivisible for the Kasrielevkites; they did not think of religion as something tagged on to life, something separate, detachable and optional. ----- what did a Kasrielevkite work for all week? To reach the Sabbath and celebrate it. What did learning consist of? The Bible, the Talmud, the sacred books generally, the literature of the sages." For the Kasrielevkites, their Judaism was their religion which was the total sum of their life. All other activity was an appendage, a means to sustain oneself materially while Judaism sustained one spiritually.

That town, those people, that way of life are gone. Yes there are pockets of Jewish communities in various corners of the world that try to preserve Kasrielevke, but fundamentally the town is gone, and only the memory remains.

The Jews of Kasrielevke had not encountered what we are now immersed in -modernity, science, a demand for answers to compelling questions, acceptance of ideas based more on the rational than the emotional. If we begin to question the existence, reality and relevance of God, then we must find new forms for an ethnic expression. We face a new problem - the problem of clarifying Jewish identity, of defining it, of describing, of subscribing to it in any form. And, this is a problem not only for secular Jews, but also for those Jews who find themselves in the synagogue and are not satisfied with traditional theistic responses to the major Jewish questions of the modern age.

According to Marshall Sklare, an American sociologist, joining a synagogue represents an "ethnic survivalist choice", which means that the synagogue serves mainly as a symbol of ethnic identity and not as a religious commitment devoted to the worship of God. Jewish religious and community leaders are concerned about attracting young people to Judaism because there is less ethno-cultural attraction in our modern age as compared to the shtetl days when almost the totality of life was ethno-culturally centred. Now we are faced with establishing a strong attractive pull toward Judaism, of whatever kind, in an atmosphere where there is little or no Jewish life or learning at home. Under such circumstances, where Jewish life at home is barren, the Jewish school, whether secular or religious, cannot hope to turn out Jews with a strong commitment to their Judaism and to Jewish identity.

In the spring of 1986, the outgoing president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Milton Harris, was asked what he thought was the most pressing task facing Canadian Jews. He responded as follows: "I believe that the major direction that we have to go in, in the future, is to find a modus vivendi for a viable Canadian Jewish national life in a free and open society, and that means that our prime focus has to zero in on the reasons for maintaining Jewish identity. In the past, the main reasons were either religious and/or outside pressure, outside hostility. But we are living in a different environment ----- Now I know that those who are being brought up as strictly religious in our community are not going to have that problem - as they have not had in the past - but I believe that they are a minority in our community and that we cannot write off all of the rest."

So that is our challenge, maintaining and redefining our identity and finding new creative ways to understand our Jewishness and enlarge upon it. But before we do this, each and every one of us has to answer some fundamental questions for him/herself: Is being Jewish important? Why are you Jewish? Why expend effort to further your Jewishness? In view of what, historically, appears to be an apparent decline in the Jewish community - both in numbers and in Jewish content - is there a continuing need to be Jewish and to express Judaism? The answers to these questions have both philosophical and psychological implications.

Secular/humanistic Jews, who are organizationally involved, have answered these questions in a positive manner by putting forth an effort to search out one's own needs. Organizationally affiliated secular Jews have attempted to satisfy those needs while also contributing to the community at large.

The question of the value of Jewish identity was posed at the 1985 Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews. Several responses are to be found in a booklet that came out of that Conference entitled, "The Secular Jewish Alternative", edited by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine. Participants expressed a variety of perspectives: "Insofar as people are the result of past and present, they have, like it or not, identities identifying them as members of a group ----- The beauty of communal life is the warmth of continuity." - - - "One's Jewish identity is an existential fact; an accident of birth which does not need evaluative justification for the survival of the Jewish people and of its unique culture. It is the mainstay of the feelings of 'belonging1 " -----. "Through their Jewish identity, Jews also have a deeper commitment and understanding of their 'human identity1, belonging and being part of mankind in general." - - - "The value of Jewish identity is a positive approach towards one's Jewishness; a healthy appreciation of one's self-image" - - - - "What is the value of being oneself? Can one be an individual without reference to the group?" ----- "An attachment to the Jewish experience reinforces our humanism." ----- "on the whole, being Jewish makes me feel good. It gives me a sense of rootedness, of pride, of connectedness to my forebears; a social and symbolic framework within which to celebrate the changing of the seasons and the cycle of life; and a cultural heritage rich in emotional and intellectual associations".

Being Jewish has value, therefore, because our Jewishness is part of our personal identity. As the Jewish historian, Simon Dubnow, has noted, we are individual integral members of the Jewish people, but the reverse is just as true - the Jewish people, its history and culture, are part of us. We live in a symbiotic union with the Jewish nation and, therefore, with ourselves and our own sense of being. If being Jewish has value and importance, why is it that our sociologists tell us that the Jewish community is, in fact, philosophically weaker than it once was? Marshall Sklare, who in 1971 wrote a book entitled, "American Jews", has suggested that the contemporary problem in Jewish education rests in its new objective-preserving ethnic identity, assuring that our children understand that they're Jewish and should want to remain so. This is a problem faced by all non-orthodox segments of the Jewish community, whether religious or secular. The problem is heightened by the fact that parents have delegated their task of distinctive ethnic socialization to the school and to a large degree have absolved themselves of making a commitment to the enhancement of their own Jewish identity.

Given the anemic state of motivation to enlarge upon Jewishness within the general Jewish community, the secular Jewish movement has a number of significant challenges which it must address in order to have relevance and survive. Some of these challenges are the following:

  1. To affirm the value of Jewish identity.
  2. To make ourselves, individually, more Jewishly conscious.
  3. To establish and nurture Jewish institutions so as to create
  4. secular/humanistic Jewish communities, for without community, what are we?
  5. To combat and avoid assimilationism if we feel that our Jewish ethnicity has intrinsic value to exist as a separate entity.

How do we accomplish these goals, these challenges, these new objectives of modern Jewish life? Many secular Jews are to be found in synagogues. These Jews may not recognize that they are secular but we know that philosophically they are because they believe in the humanistic rather than the theistic understanding of the world around us. They are in synagogues as a symbolic gesture of their identity with the Jewish people. The synagogue is the undisputed symbol of belonging to the Jewish people. Secular Jews will have to come up with a powerful alternative symbol before the synagogue will be given up as the major citadel of Jewish identity and ethnicity.

Many Jews, however, feel uncomfortable with the theistic ambience of the synagogue and they search for a means to express their Judaism in a secular manner. In the United States, some such individuals find themselves in the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The SHJ uses the synagogue format but the Jewish message is delivered in a secular manner. The synagogue format for some of the SHJ congregations includes a secularly oriented rabbi or spiritual leader. This approach is to be contrasted to independent secular Jewish organizations many of which find themselves within the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations. CSJO affiliated groups function through an executive structure, and through various committees, programs are created and executed. Leadership is almost always voluntary and of a lay character. Many people have come to secular Jewish organizations of the CSJO type to escape the congregational format which often conjures up images of a rigid non-questioning approach to understanding one's Jewishness.

Despite these differences, the SHJ and CSJO have common goals and this impels us to find areas of common interest and undertakings and to work in co¬operation with one another wherever this is feasible and to our mutual benefit. We in the CSJO need to take stock of our strengths and weaknesses and ask ourselves whether our current loose organizational structures will have sufficient strength and endurance to allow us to build and expand.

What are the major tasks that confront both us as secular/humanistic Jews and the institutions in which we are active? There are three major areas of challenge: 1. To enlarge upon our own personal Jewishness. 2. To give our children a positive Jewish identity. 3. To build our organizations and institutions.

How can we accomplish these tasks? First and foremost is Jewish education, both for ourselves and our children. Our education should be based on the recognition that all of Jewish heritage and the Jewish experience is ours to explore and exploit. The Torah and Talmud are the fundamental sources of our Jewishness - they are not the totality of our Jewishness, but they do provide the basic well of knowledge and understanding about the essence of our Jewish being and the mystique of the Jewish people. They can be studied, at least in segments, and we can accept that which is appropriate and reject that which is mythological and superstitious. We can extract those teachings that have relevance for today's realities.

But we need to do more than study original sources. We need also to become acquainted with the secular/humanistic trends in Jewish history. We need to reach into the treasure trove of secular Jewish learning and make ourselves and the Jewish community aware that secular Judaism is not an invention of 20th century Jews disenchanted with Orthodoxy, but that the idea of devotion to Jewish culture and knowledge, without God, has deep roots in the history of our people.

How can we enhance educational opportunities in a meaningful way? The ideal would be the creation of secular Jewish institutions of higher learning for the training of leaders who would act as resources for their own communities. Religious Judaism does this now through the many yeshivot it operates and the rabbis who are trained in these academies. We need a secular/humanistic equivalent. Perhaps the newly created secular Jewish studies institute that has been established in Israel will serve as a prototype for secular Jewish communities around the world.

It will take time, however, for such secular yeshivot to be established. In the meantime, each of us can explore in more depth his/her own Jewishness by self study and by group study. Each of our organizations can initiate study groups to explore the great and limitless heritage that we Jews have bequeathed to ourselves. We need to ask how much Jewishness are we prepared to instill into ourselves and what are we personally prepared to do to enlarge upon our Judaism and transmit it to our communities. In answering these questions, we must recognize that if we want Judaism to survive then our universalistic tendencies and aspirations must allow our Judaism to predominate or we will have universalism without Judaism. In the final analysis, we are all personally responsible for the fate of not only our own Jewishness, but the Jewishness of the Jewish people.