Toward a True Alliance of Humanistic and Secular Jews

Hershl Hartman, Educational Director of the Los Angeles Sholem Community Organization/School, offers a study of Secular Jewishness and Humanistic Judaism.

It has been a dozen years since the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO) joined in coalition with the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ) in the formation of a worldwide movement — the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews (IFSHJ). Since 1986, the desire to achieve and maintain unity has resulted in conscious efforts to blur differences between the two groups [CSJO and SHJ], to the detriment of both. Both ideological distinctiveness and differing approaches to organizational processes have been submerged in the name of unity and civility. For various reasons, it has been CSJO that most often gave way to SHJ. As a result, the structures of IFSHJ and its affiliated International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ), the procedure by which they are governed, and the positions they espouse, have become more and more uncomfortable for many CSJO affiliates and their leaders.

The record of attendance (more accurately, non-attendance) of CSJO members at IFSHJ and IISHJ events speaks louder than any report or resolution. CSJO members, in frustration, have simply "voted with their feet."

Part of the frustration, I believe, comes from the lack of a clearly defined concept of the meaning of Secular Jewishness, as distinguished from — not in opposition to — Humanistic Judaism. The frustration is compounded by the fear that exploring these differences will weaken the alliance. As a result, we have had the phenomenon of CSJO publications that are indistinguishable in their content from those of SHJ. I submit that this isn’t due to an "ideological superiority" or "greater relevance" of Humanistic Judaism, but to confusion in CSJO ranks about key aspects of the ideology of Secular Jewishness.

This confusion is unfortunate. The alliance between Humanistic and Secular Jews needs the strength that pluralism can provide. In order for that strength to be reliable, however, the pluralism must be real: Secularists must know and understand their roots and the signal contribution they have made and can make to the continuity of the Jewish people, its history, and its culture.

"Culture" is not a code word for ethical precepts, though it includes them. It is not a euphemism for unread books, unsung songs, unspoken languages — it is the repository of all those elements and more. A Secular Jewishness that fails to place Jewish culture at the very center of its being has lost its reason to be and its distinct contribution to a meaningful alliance of Humanistic and Secularist Jews.

I don’t know how to make it any plainer than this: Secular Jews find the expression of their Jewish identity in the history and culture of the Jewish people. Individuals’ relationship to the supernatural is an individual matter. A Secularist need not be an atheist, an agnostic nor an ignostic.

At the risk of repeating what many know, but from a profound disquiet over evidence that much of it has been forgotten, here are some key aspects of Secular Jewishness:

A Secular Jewishness that fails to place Jewish culture at the very center of its being has lost is reason to be and its distinct contribution to a meaningful alliance of Humanistic and Secularist Jews.

The roots of Secular Jewishness reach as far back as the Prophets’ opposition to priestly rituals and social injustice; to the liberating rational philosophy of Barukh Spinoza and other thinkers of the Enlightenment, even to the anti-clerical concepts of early khasidism. The first organized expressions of Secularism arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries both in Europe and in the Western Hemisphere. Those organizations defined the Jews as a people whose history, traditions, values and cultures could be researched and understood rationally, using the methods of modern thought and science. The encompassing term was "Yidishkayt" — Jewishness: peoplehood as the distinguishing feature of Jews rather than religious faith and ritual observance.

From these Secularist concepts arose the great Jewish social enterprises of the 20th century: Zionism, communal organization and the Jewish labor/socialist movements. All the great works of modern Yiddish literature and theatre — which form most of the core of Jewish culture in both English and modern Hebrew — are permeated by these Secularist concepts. So, too, is the overwhelming bulk of Jewish humor, folklore, folk song and the graphic arts.

The ethical value system of Secular Jewishness is also derived from these roots. It stresses the principles of social and personal justice enunciated by the Prophetic movement and the progressive, humanistic concepts still developing in contemporary democratic thought. It draws on the understanding, gained from the Jewish historical experience, that the broader and more profound are the personal and social rights and liberties in the greater societies where Jews live, the deeper and richer are the potentials for continuity and development of the Jewish people and its culture. Secular Jews understand that democratic processes are "good for the Jews," while authoritarian, elitist structures weaken the democratic impulse and, thereby, threaten Jewish continuity.

Secular Jews, therefore, have always had a strong commitment — as a matter of enlightened self-interest — to peace, to untrammeled civil and personal liberties, to protection of people and the environment from greed for personal gain, and to the rights of every people, nation or ethnic group to dignity and self-determination.

Culturally, Secular Jews understand that a significant part of these values is embedded in Yiddish literature, including poetry, fiction, theatre, scientific and philosophical works, as well as the incredible richness of Yiddish folklore. Since the bulk of these treasures is not yet available in English or Hebrew, efforts to preserve the Yiddish language are vital to the survival of Jewish culture. It is not nostalgia that motivates us, but the struggle for continuity. At a minimum, we seek to instill respect for Yiddish and knowledge of its accomplishments and value.

Is it possible to plan a school curriculum or a holiday observance that does not center on the culture and history of Jewish peoplehood, but on personal ethics, morality and rejection of the supernatural? Certainly — that is precisely what one finds in the materials provided by SHJ. And such materials may well be exciting and inspiring to those who left Reform Judaism in search of something more comfortable.

Secular Jews, however, are not content with rationalizing religion. We aspire to a higher calling: discovering and nurturing our roots as individuals in the collective history and culture of our peoplehood. Only if we remain true to that heritage can we make a significant contribution to the Secularist and Humanist alliance.