The Early Modern East European Roots of Secular Humanistic Judaism Introduction


The Early Modern East European Roots of Secular Humanistic Judaism




WHY STUDY HISTORY? Secular Humanistic Judaism did not appear suddenly out of an ideological or cultural void. Like all ideas and practices, it grew out of previous beliefs and value systems, and from the circumstances and life experiences of those who played a role in its development, knowingly or not. If we are going to truly understand what we believe and practice as Secular Humanistic Jews then we need to know where these beliefs came from and why they developed as they did. Secular Humanistic Judaism’s seeds were formed from the humanistic traditions of ancient Jewish sources. They continued to develop during the Middle Ages and blossomed in modem Europe as a result of two forces. One force encompassed the momentous changes within Christian Europe resulting in the end of both feudalism and the hegemony of the Catholic Church. A new world evolved in Europe, and a new way of thinking that was more rational and focused on people, not on the divine. As the world they lived in changed, Jews could not escape the impact. The other force which would result in the development of modern Judaism in its many forms was the response of European Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries to the particular circumstances under which they lived. While the Jewish religion and culture flourished, living conditions for Jews were, at best, those of second class citizens and, at worst, pervaded by poverty and the constant threat to their property, their livelihood and their very lives. Most Jews still placed their fate in God’s hands. However, a different set of responses come from Jews who blended the traditional humanistic values from Torah, prophets and sages, with modem secular and humanistic ideas such as nationalism or socialism. They are people like Achad Ha’am, Simon Dubnow, and Chaim Zhitlovsky, who are the forebears of our Movement. Their words and deeds would ultimately drive the Jewish people to adapt sufficiently to survive and thrive in modernity. Our curriculum is based on the premise that one of the paths to self-respect is through knowledge of one’s own history. A sense of belonging, pride and understanding of who we are and where we came from empowers us to participate more fully in the Jewish world. Knowledge of our historical roots gives us concrete evidence that we belong to the Jewish people, that we are the direct ideological descendants of some of the greatest Jewish thinkers and activists in Jewish history, and that our Movement is firmly placed within the Jewish traditions. At first it may seem more difficult to develop pride in such a new movement, compared to the longer legacy of tradition in the other branches of Judaism. This need not be so if we learn that our way of being Jewish continues important Jewish traditions, both ancient and modern. The wholeness of our Jewish identity depends upon us knowing not only our role within the Jewish People today, but also how the past continues inside each of us. Our history provides us with a treasury of wisdom that is useful and with relevant role models worth emulating. Hopefully when both young and mature students learn about our heroes and their deeds they can begin understand the connection between values, actions and consequences. The Haskalah, and the process of political emancipation that moved along with it, began a chain reaction of sweeping changes for the Jewish people. These changes enabled us to survive and adapt to new circumstances. Jewish history of this time demonstrates the power of human determination and the courage needed to change human life for the better. Because of the ideas and activism of the heroes of the past we are the heirs of a better life. lf we are to safeguard it we had best know how it was won.


This book is for readers who are familiar with the fundamental ideas of Secular Humanistic Judaism. For those who are not, reading The Basic Ideas of Secular Humanistic Judaism by Eva Goldfinger is strongly recommended. The purpose of this publication .is to provide background information for studying the early modem European roots of our Movement. For teachers of children and younger teens a companion kit containing classroom resources and activities is available. For older teens or adults, Judaism In A Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought, edited by Renee Kogel and Zev Katz, is the necessary companion volume. Zev Katz lists additional resources in his annotated bibliography In this material we have tried to illustrate clearly our links to the past, in some places, using a broad brush stroke to give a sense of the enormity of the changes from the Middle Ages to modernity, in others, providing more detail. While our Movement covers a common ground, its boundaries enclose a great variety of strongly held claims, from different regions of our cultural, geographical and political landscapes. They could not all possibly be represented here. Each section contains the interpretations of its particular author. It is the responsibility of each community or congregation to guide its teachers in presenting the particular political and cultural directions of their own organization. The scope of this kit is limited to the European arena from the Middle Ages until the early 20th century. In the development of ideas during the later part of this period the boundaries between Europe, North America and Israel are not always clear, as many leading thinkers and activists left Europe to pursue their dreams in these lands of promise. This survey covers those whose vision took shape in Europe, whether they remained there or later emigrated.