On Second Thought

I said here (in a comment to the repost of Rabbi Adar’s blog post responding to my prior post, which in turn was a response to a post of hers) that there is no real dispute between Rabbi Adar and myself over sacrifice vs. trade-off.

Upon reflection, I think that’s not entirely true, but not for the reasons either of us discussed in our posts (which I think sort of turned into an example of “things rabbis do in Talmud and midrash”).

The difference on our positions stems from a in baseline set of conclusions about what’s actually happening in Jewish tradition. If you ever wondered, “Why not just be Reform, Humanist Jew in Indianapolis?,” well…you’re about to get part of the answer.

I think it’s best that we cut to the meat of it. What follows are excerpts from the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ adopted 1999 Pittsburgh Platform. (CCAR is the Reform Movement’s rabbinical association. You can find the entire platform here.)

We affirm the reality and oneness of God, even as we may differ in our understanding of the Divine presence.

We affirm that the Jewish people is bound to God by an eternal (b’rit), covenant, as reflected in our varied understandings of Creation, Revelation and Redemption.

We encounter God’s presence in moments of awe and wonder, in acts of justice and compassion, in loving relationships and in the experiences of everyday life.

We respond to God daily: through public and private prayer, through study and through the performance of other (mitzvot), sacred obligations — (bein adam la Makom), to God, and (bein adam la-chaveiro), to other human beings.

We cherish the truths revealed in Torah, God’s ongoing revelation to our people and the record of our people’s ongoing relationship with God.

We affirm that Torah is a manifestation of  (ahavat olam), God’s eternal love for the Jewish people and for all humanity.

We are called by Torah to lifelong study in the home, in the synagogue and in every place where Jews gather to learn and teach. Through Torah study we are called to (mitzvot), the means by which we make our lives holy.

The 1999 Platform continues, but I think these are good enough to illustrate what I think is happening here.

And here is a portion of what the Society for Humanistic Judaism provides online to those interested in the movement:

What do Humanistic Jews affirm?
  • Human beings possess the power and responsibility to shape their own lives independent of supernatural authority.
  • A Jew is a person who identifies with the history, culture, and future of the Jewish people.
  • Judaism is the historic culture of the Jewish people.
  • Jewish history is a human saga, a testament to the significance of human power and responsibility.
  • Jewish identity is best preserved in a free, pluralistic environment.
  • Ethics and morality should serve human needs.
  • The freedom and dignity of the Jewish people must go hand in hand with the freedom and dignity of every human being.
What do Humanistic Jews believe?
  • Each Jew has the right to create a meaningful Jewish lifestyle free from supernatural authority and imposed tradition. Humanistic philosophy affirms that knowledge and power come from people and from the natural world in which they live. Jewish continuity needs reconciliation between science, personal autonomy, and Jewish loyalty.
  • The goal of life is personal dignity and self-esteem. Life is worthwhile when all persons see themselves as worthwhile. Dignity and self-esteem are distinct from happiness. Happiness is less the goal of life than the consequence of having attained it. Self-esteem is dependent upon autonomy. Each autonomous person feels responsible for the basic direction of his/her own life and that no one else has the right to usurp that responsibility. Autonomy does not mean that each person is individually self-sufficient. Healthy dependence is horizontal rather than vertical.
  • The secular roots of Jewish life are as important as the religious ones. Judaism is an ethnic culture. It did not fall from heaven. It was not invented by a divine spokesperson. It was created by the Jewish people. It was molded by Jewish experience. Holidays are responses to human events. Ceremonies are celebrations of human development. Music and literature are inspired by human experience.

If you look at these, you’ll see tremendous differences. Humanistic Jews believe that Judaism–all of it–is the product of persons, and that there is no divine anything that gave rise to Judaism.

This has incredibly important implications. Reform Judaism uses the language of commandedness–of mitzvah–to mean that certain conduct is somehow demanded by some form of revelation from the divine, and is owed both to our fellow persons and the world (horizontally), and to a divine being (vertically).

Humanistic Judaism says that our obligations are owed to our fellow persons and the world, but that there is no vertical dimension. Can you believe that there is some sort of deity and be a Humanistic Jew? Sure; but you have to ask what kind of deity that would be. It would not be the convenanted, yet somehow human-dependent, being posited by the 1999 Platform.

Why am I not a Reform Jew? Because I agree with Humanistic Judaism that there is no evidence for the vertical connection and the accompanying obligations upon which Reform Judaism bases itself. And the 1999 Platform’s adoption of a kind of covenantal theology between humanity and the divine is one whose intellectual background I find unsatisfying.

And so, when Rabbi Adar and I disagree, there’s something fundamental happening that isn’t just about the semantics of “sacrifice” versus “trade-off.” Rabbi Adar likely accepts a concept of commandedness that I do not accept at all.

There are plenty of Jews on either side of that divide. There are important Jewish thinkers–among them Simon Dubnow, Haim Zhitlovsky, and Yehuda Bauer, and even in a way Mordechai Kaplan–who rejected the notion of a divine commander; Dubnow, Zhitlovsky, and Bauer rejected even the divine per se. We look to Jewish history, culture, thought, and life writ large for what it can mean to be Jewish.

When we say sacrifice, unless we’re talking directly about things that happened at the First or Second Temple, we almost always mean “trade-off,” because at bottom we don’t think you can sacrifice in any other way.