21 December 2007

Intriguing and, frankly, disquieting book about Humanistic Judaism

Jews Without Judaism: Conversations with an Unconventional Rabbi
Daniel Friedman
Prometheus Books, 2002

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I am neither a Jew nor a Judaist, and so my interest in the topics discussed in this slender (yet surprisingly pricey) volume is primarily intellectual.

The basic premise of this book is that Jews are a cultural, ethnic, and/or national group, that Judaism is the religion that this group has historically practiced, and that the two have been distinct and not necessarily overlapping categories since the time of Napoleon. In fact, Rabbi Friedman repeatedly asserts, most contemporary American Jews (the "culturally Jewish") are "Jews without Judaism," those who value certain aspects of their Jewish heritage without feeling compelled to believe in the G-d of Abraham or follow the guidelines outlined in the Torah. Instead of condemning these folks for abandoning their religion, this unconventional rabbi applauds them for their courage to admit to their irreligion as he introduces them to what he calls "Humanistic Judaism."

I've often heard contemporary liberal Judaism described as "ethical monotheism," but in this collection of fictional dialogues Rabbi Friedman openly derides monotheism (and theism in general) as untenable and without empirically verifiable foundation. (It is definitely odd to read a rabbi openly admit to being an atheist, and in the dialogues he explains how he feels his role as rabbi is not compromised by this lack of faith.) As well, he repeatedly critiques the idea of "Jewish ethics" or "Jewish values" (such as justice, compassion, and education), seeing them instead as the same liberal, secular values shared by other beneficiaries of the Enlightenment:

"There is nothing distinctly Jewish about values. This was the contradiction inherent within Reform Judaism. Values are universals: if they are valid, they are valid for everyone...For nonreligious Jews, the fiction that there are 'Jewish values' that they are upholding gives them the illusion that they are still maintaining Judaism. In fact, they are starting with the values of their Western, liberal, secular culture and then 'finding' them in traditional texts...The irony is that truly religious Jews---Halachic Jews---often advocate contrary values [based upon the written and oral Torah]." (pp.42-3)

In a similar fashion, Rabbi Friedman points out that many of the traditions found in contemporary Judaism are rooted in the need to maintain a Jewish identity rather than through the desire to obey G-d and His commandments.

This lack of faith in Judaism is not wrong, but is instead cause for rejoicing, Rabbi Friedman asserts, for two reasons. The first is that "one of the great benefits of Jewish experience, and of being Jewish, is that we are free from belief restrictions. The essence of being Jewish is the freedom to believe whatever truth your mind reveals to you" (p.57). (Ironically this assertion doesn't ring true for the same reasons that there aren't uniquely "Jewish values"---freedom to question and the primacy of reason belong to the ethos of the Enlightenment in general and not to one particular ethnic group.) The second reason is his contention that contemporary American Jews no longer face the ostracism and prejudice that forced them to establish an identity based on separation and difference from the dominant culture, and so the maintenance of this separation through heartfelt participation in the daily religious life is an outmoded behavior for most American Jews.

This book will probably help many cultural Jews feel good about their ability to remain Jewish without being Judaists, but it also feels a bit shallow. If there is no real difference between being Jewish and being non-Jewish in terms of faith or ethics, and if there is no need to maintain a sense of separate identity in a pluralistic secular society, then why continue to identify as Jews at all? Why not be Unitarian Universalists or even better, "humanists" (since that appellation is less of a mouthful)? Rabbi Friedman finally gets around to describing Humanistic Judaism on page 92 as "a nontheistic religion that combines a humanistic philosophy of life with the holidays, symbols, and ceremonies of Jewish culture," yet he concludes that this "religion" affirms the same old Enlightenment values as most of the culture at large. Are decontextualized holidays and symbols enough? Are they even necessary? Rabbi Friedman's conclusion seems to be that they are not:

"Once the two-millennia-old consciousness of difference---based upon exclusion---has disappeared, whether future generations of Jews will choose even to draw together into communities of fellow Jews is doubtful. That they will need or wish to formalize and express their Jewishness by means of holidays, ceremonies, and rituals is unlikely. Jewishness will be more a fading memory of ethnic ancestry than an experienced reality." (p. 102)

This disappearance need not be cause for alarm, he asserts, because the sense of separation between Jews and non-Jews was initially engendered by millennia of intolerance and persecution. Assimilation, to Friedman, seems a small price to pay for an end to those social conditions.

This was an intriguing and, frankly, disquieting book. Beginning with the premise that Judaism and Jewishness are distinct and non-overlapping categories, the author concludes that the former has all but disappeared, and that its demise ultimately portends the disappearance of the Jews as a people. That this is seen as a good thing might have been expected from a white supremacist or fundamentalist Christian writing on Armageddon, but it is definitely odd, to say the least, coming from a rabbi.

(This review was originally written on November 25, 2006.)

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