I am thoroughly frustrated with Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former head of Reform Judaism. You may recall his January piece in HuffPost – and my response – in which he called secular Jews deluded and argued that Judaism is useless without God.
Now comes the Pew Report and the waves of discussion about how growing numbers of Jews report that they are atheists or agnostics and definitely not Jewish by religion. This has led some people to consider the possibility that the Jewish world may be better served by encouraging a little more consideration of cultural and Secular Humanistic Judaism.
Yoffie, writing in Haaretz, is disturbed by all the attention directed at groups that promote “cultural and secular humanistic Judaism.” (His refusal to capitalize the name of our movement signals his contempt.) After decrying the “preposterous” idea that secular forms of Judaism can contribute to the survival of the Jewish community, he makes this case:
…in the wake of the Pew results, the issue for the Jewish community is what our priorities should be and how we can best channel our resources. And the fact is that it makes no sense whatever to encourage the development of aggressively secular Jewish institutions and programs. The Jewish people has several centuries of experience with secular Jewish movements of various sorts. … And what they all share is an inability to sustain themselves over time; absent a religious anchor, they wither and die.
Jewish socialism is no more. Yiddishism has disappeared. Jewish humanism exists on the margins. And secular Zionism has failed as well…in the task of offering a meaningful Jewish existence to its Jewish citizens.
Yoffie is not completely wrong when he points out that some forms of Jewish secularism have vanished. So have some forms of Jewish religion. In fact, taking a look at the numbers, I’d wager that Reform and Conservative Judaism may join them some day.
Yiddishism or Jewish socialism hardly serve as helpful paradigms for the current discussion. Yiddishism died off because the largest group of Yiddish speaking Jews in the world was slaughtered and the other large group, immigrant American Jews, reared English-speaking children. Jewish socialism died because socialism failed. As for secular Zionism, I believe that there are several million secular Israelis who might take issue with Yoffie’s fitness to serve as judge of what is “meaningful” about their “Jewish existence.”
Yoffie’s tirade arises from fear. He wrongly sees the rejection of religion that is emerging organically within the Jewish people as a threat to the survival of the Jews. Though later in his article he downplays these trends by pointing out that “[f]ully 78 percent see themselves as Jewish by religion,” he conveniently fails to mention that this number drops precipitously for younger Jews. Like so many of their fellow Millennials, they have abandoned religious faith.
Movements like Humanistic Judaism, that have done outstanding work with minuscule budgets, are now seeking a little more financial investment in order to reach out to these people on their terms. Yet while Yoffie and the Jewish religious establishments have enjoyed tens of billions of dollars in support, he arrogantly urges the Jewish community to resist the urge to invest in us:
The Jewish community must be wise enough to know that those who vociferously exclude the religious dimension of Judaism are offering a recipe for disaster. If our current institutions, including the synagogue, are not doing a good job of conveying Judaism’s religious message — and apparently they are not — then they must do better. But a one-dimensional, godless Judaism has never been the answer, and it will not be the answer now.
Let me make one thing very clear. Even I, an atheist Jew with no belief whatsoever in a supernatural realm or any such nonsense, do not “vociferously exclude the religious dimension of Judaism.” Humanists are realists. We absolutely acknowledge the various religious dimensions of Judaism.
What we vociferously exclude is the necessity of a theistic religious dimension. We simply do not believe in that. Our reason does not accept such a belief system. And what we have noticed – as anyone with eyes has noticed – is that an increasingly large number of people, including loads of Jews, agrees with us.
Moreover, while we have eliminated the supernatural religious dimensions of our Judaism, we have adapted a certain kind of religious dimension on our terms. Part of the reason that other cultural forms of Judaism struggled or disappeared is that they did not address the needs of Jews to celebrate or mourn in community. By offering all of the life cycle and holiday celebrations or observances, Humanistic Judaism does not replicate that mistake.
In his ignorance Yoffie characterizes our approach as “one-dimensional, godless” Judaism. He clearly understands nothing about what we do or believe. Maybe next time he could read an article about Humanistic Judaism or pick up the phone to ask one of us about it before he pontificates.
Yoffie also thinks that the rise of non-religious Jews (who maintain their Jewish identity) is a result of the failure of established institutions. This is actually hilarious when you consider that he spent sixteen years as head of the largest American Jewish denomination.
Personally, I would like to ask Rabbi Yoffie why he thinks that conventional synagogues “are not doing a good job of conveying Judaism’s religious message.” I would argue that they do a very good job of communicating their message to those who agree with them. Can’t this be enough for him? Is his religious worldview so impenetrable that it resists the possibility that some people just don’t share it? Or that in spite of their different beliefs, many of those people still consider themselves proudly Jewish?
Those of us who reject traditional or liberal forms of Jewish theistic religion do so for one simple reason. We disagree with them. We’re not confused by their inability to articulate their religious faith. We’re just not into it.
If Yoffie thinks that changing the message delivery system is going to change our minds, then he is the one who is deluded. Humanism is growing because, for millions of people, it makes more sense than any kind of theism, even the most moderate types.
And, for what it’s worth, theism is not the only thing that turns us off. We also reject tradition’s essentially dishonest approach to Jewish history:
Judaism’s foundational religious event is the revelation at Sinai, and while there are a variety of ways in which that event might be understood, the message of Sinai is that Judaism is more than individual religious belief; it is also the faith of a people with its own distinctive culture and history. …[W]e know from our experience in the modern era that the religious and peoplehood strands of Judaism are inextricably intertwined; neither one, in isolation, is sufficient to maintain some reasonable level of Jewish existence. When a Jewish community selects one while rejecting the other, it inflicts grievous wounds on itself.
Once again, let me remind Yoffie of a simple fact that he knows as well as I do: NOTHING HAPPENED AT SINAI. This “foundational” event can be understood in exactly one way that is consistent with reality: IT IS A LEGEND AND IT DID NOT OCCUR.
If he wants to believe that it occurred – and to accept one of the convoluted accounts of how it “might be understood” in spite of the fact that it didn’t really happen – that is his prerogative. A growing number of Jews are not buying it. Does he want them to disappear from the Jewish community? Are they not deserving of a form of Judaism that acknowledges the plain reality that SINAI IS A MYTH?!
He concludes with this:
…an ideology of Jewish secularism in its various manifestations is not what [American Jews] want or need, no matter what their personal theologies or levels of religious observance. They know now, as they have always known, that absent Torah, mitzvot, ritual and sacred texts, there is no Judaism — and no Jewish future.
It seems to me that I’ve heard all this before. Actually, I’ve heard it thousands of times before. Usually the rabbis who urge this line of thinking are a bit more bewhiskered.
Quite often they’re talking about Yoffie.