Haggadah: A Program for a Passover Seder


A Program for a Passover Seder

Prepared by Burton Weltman

“And thou shalt remember that thou wast a slave in Egypt.”

Deuteronomy 16;12

Preface: Secular Judaism and a Secular Haggadah: An Explanation.

This is not your grandparents’ Haggadah, assuming your grandparents were Jews and were fairly conventional in their Passover celebrations.  This is a secular Haggadah.  The purpose of this preface is to explain the assumptions about Judaism and Passover that are reflected in this Haggadah.

A Haggadah is a script for a Passover Seder. A Seder is an annual Jewish holiday that celebrates the liberation of a people called the Hebrews from slavery in ancient Egypt. The Hebrews are considered by Jews to be their ancestors from whom they ostensibly derive their religion and the Hebrew language.  The word Haggadah is Hebrew for telling, and the purpose of a Seder is annually to retell and reexamine the story of the Hebrews’ liberation from Egypt and their migration to settle in Palestine.  The holiday is called Passover – Pesach in Hebrew – because in the story God passed over the homes of the Hebrews and spared them when he punished the Egyptians by killing their first-born children (Exodus 12:13-14).

The Passover story is contained in the first five books of the Jewish Bible. The Jewish Bible contains some twenty-four books.  The Christian Old Testament is derived from the Jewish Bible.  Most of what we consider the Jewish Bible was compiled in written form during the fifth century BCE, but Jewish tradition holds that oral versions of the first five books, including the Passover story, were composed by Moses who led the exodus from Egypt around 1200 BCE.  For this reason, the first five books are sometimes called the Five Books of Moses, but other times called the Pentateuch.  The word Torah is also sometimes used to denominate the first five books, but other times is used to refer to the whole of the Jewish Bible, which is also called the Tanach.  The difficulties that we Jews have had in settling on a name for our Bible is, in turn, reflected in our differences in interpreting it.

Passover has been celebrated since ancient times, but what is today considered the traditional form of a Haggadah appeared in the later Middle Ages.  Most Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah) still take this form today.  The traditional Haggadah prescribes a religious ceremony full of thanksgivings and prayers to God.  Since there are many different strands of Judaism, Haggadot vary depending on whether the celebrants are Orthodox, Conservative, Liberal, Reform, Reconstructionist, or otherwise.  But most Jews follow the traditional God-centered form.  Except for secular Jews.

Secular Jews are humanists who regard Judaism as a human-made culture rather than a God-given religion.  Secular Jews consider themselves to be part of an ethnic group that shares a common history, literature, several languages, music, art and other cultural creations.  Although much of Jewish culture has historically revolved around religion, and religious references are embedded in the culture, secularists do not believe that Judaism depends on religion.  They believe that the culture holds up and holds together without God. In a similar manner, Irish culture has historically revolved around the Catholic religion but being Irish does not depend on being Catholic.

Secular Jews do not necessarily reject the idea of God but merely think that Jews can relate better to people, both Jews and non-Jews, by leaving God out of the discussion of public events and social issues.  Most acknowledge that the idea of God can be a source of solace and inspiration in the private and personal lives of believers.  Some may be believers themselves.  But they worry that when God is used as a justification for actions in public life, the idea of God can become a source of divisiveness and strife.  Since groups of people often have different ideas about God, when one of them claims that God has commanded something, that command can set them against each other, Jews against Jews, Jews against Christians, Protestant Christians against Catholic Christians, Christians against Muslims, and so forth.

As a result, secular Jews distinguish themselves from other Jews by leaving prayers to God out of their celebrations even as they share other aspects of Jewish culture with religious Jews.  Like religious Jews, secular Jews consider the Jewish Bible to be the founding document of the Jewish people.  But secular Jews approach the Bible differently than do most religious Jews, and this is reflected in our Haggadot.

The Jewish Bible is peculiar for a religious text in that it was written in the form of a history of the genesis of Judaism.  Starting with stories about the creation of the world, it proceeds with stories about Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and many others down to the return of some of the Israelites from captivity in Babylonia during the fifth century BCE.  It is at this point that the Bible was compiled out of many stories that had come down through the ages, initially in oral form and then in writing.  And it is at this point that secular Jews date the beginning of Judaism and Jewish history.

The Bible’s main storyline begins with Abraham after some false starts, the first ending with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and the second ending with the annihilation in Noah’s flood of almost every living being in the world.  Abraham ostensibly lived around 1800 BCE and is portrayed in the Bible as the progenitor of the Hebrew people.  His Hebrew descendants were later enslaved in Egypt, and their escape from Egypt and conquest of Palestine are memorialized in the Passover story. The Hebrews are, in turn, described in the Bible as the ancestors of the Israelites who lived in Palestine after the Hebrews conquered that land around 1200 BCE.

Like the Hebrews before them, the Israelites’ religion was based on priests sacrificing animals and vegetables to God.  Israelite worship centered in a Temple in Jerusalem, which required adherents to live in or close to that city.  When northern Palestine was conquered by Assyrians around 725 BCE and the rest by Babylonians in 586 BCE, the temple was destroyed and the Israelites were scattered around the Middle East, very few of whom ever came back to Palestine.  These events created a crisis in Israelite culture and religion.

Following their expulsion from Palestine, the Israelites developed in exile a form of worship that took place in local synagogues presided over by rabbis, rather than a main temple run by priests.  Synagogues were essentially schools, rabbis were teachers. Worship centered around studying the newly compiled Bible, a book that people could take, read and contemplate anywhere.  Contemplating ethical questions that derive from the Bible is what most people today recognize as the practice of Judaism.  Religious Jews put God at the center of this practice, secular Jews put humanity at the center. In either case, this is what is meant by saying that Jews are a people of the Bible and Jewish history begins with its compilation.

The Jewish Bible is a difficult book to understand, and both religious and secular Jews agree that the it requires interpretation.  They disagree, however, on how to interpret it.  The Bible is full of stories and statements, many of which seem random, or are obscure or inconsistent with each other. The very first lines of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, contain, for example, two different versions of the creation of the world, one after the other, with no explanation of why there are two stories or which one is correct (Genesis 1:1-2:8). The Bible also portrays many of its leading characters, including God, as behaving in objectionable ways. Abraham, for example, who is ostensibly the forefather of the Jewish people, is portrayed as prostituting his wife in a cowardly attempt to protect himself, and unnecessarily so as it turns out (Genesis 12:10-20).

Most religious Jews approach the Bible as the literal truth and insist that what seem to be inconsistencies can be reconciled.  They also idealize, even idolize, the main characters in the Bible, even when the characters do things that seem wrong to us.  Religious Jews have developed complicated intellectual procedures and composed elaborate explanations that ostensibly reconcile inconsistencies in the stories and rationalize objectionable behavior of the characters.  They approach these interpretative problems as a challenge to their faith and see their admittedly sometimes strained solutions as proof of their devotion.

Secular Jews, however, along with many Reform Jews, approach the Bible as a collection of largely fictional stories that are to be interpreted symbolically and critically.  They hold that by including two different creation stories at the opening of the Bible, the Bible’s compilers were signaling to their readers right from the start that they did not intend the book to be accepted literally.  Their inclusion of inconsistent stories about the Hebrews and the Israelites was also an indication that the compilers did not consider these stories to be actual history.  In turn, the inclusion of unflattering stories about Hebrews and Israelites was a way of emphasizing that they were not Jews.  We Jews came from them, and we may even have reason to atone for some of their actions.  But they were not us and we should be better.

Secular Jews regard the Bible as a sourcebook of paradigmatic ethical dilemmas and existential problems that the Jews’ ancestors faced and that Jews still face today.  Rather than trying to reconcile and rationalize the stories, secular Jews try to fathom the intentions of the compilers when they incorporated these stories in the Bible and try to understand what the stories might mean to our lives.  In interpreting the Bible and preparing our Haggadot, secularists look particularly to the principle enunciated some two thousand years ago by Rabbi Hillel, who is widely recognized by both religious and secular Jews as the greatest interpreter of the Jewish Bible.

Hillel summarized the teaching of the Bible in a version of what is known today as the Golden Rule, which he defined as “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”  The Golden Rule is a well-nigh universal principle, with versions incorporated in some eighty philosophies, religions and cultures around the world.  Hillel claimed that the Golden Rule was the underlying moral of the various stories in the Bible.  It is a rule of empathy that binds Jews to each other and to other peoples.

The Golden Rule is also the founding principle of secular Judaism.  Using Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule as a guideline, secular Jews attempt to interpret the meaning of the Bible stories, evaluate the behavior of the main characters in the stories, including Moses and even God, and decide what the stories say about Judaism and being a Jew. The Golden Rule is not, however, a formula that provides easy answers.  It is a benchmark for ethical analysis and moral choice but not a guarantor of results. As a result, secular Jews approach the Bible as a sourcebook of questions about life, rather than as a fount of definitive answers.  Being Jewish means continually asking questions about current events that can be compared with and related to the Bible’s stories, but never being completely satisfied with the answers one comes up with.

Passover is essentially a holiday about a story, and it is a story that raises important ethical questions.  The Bible adjures us to retell this story about the liberation of the Hebrews each year.  But any story can be told in many different ways, and the way one tells it indicates as much about the teller as about the characters and events in the story. The Passover story is, thus, not only about Moses and the Hebrews but about the Jews who later compiled the Bible.  Why did they write about things in the way they did?  What does it say about them?  Passover is also about us as we compose our Haggadah and retell the story.  A Haggadah must address issues facing the world at any given time and Haggadot must, therefore, change with the times. The purpose of this Haggadah is to relate the Passover story to current events and present-day ethical questions.  How we deal with these questions during our Seder should say things about us

For purposes of reference and support for the historical statements in this Haggadah, or for just further reading, I recommend The Sacred Chain: The History of the Jews by Norman Cantor (HarperCollins, 1994), particularly Chapters One through Three.  I also recommend reading the Books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy in the BibleFor those interested in a brief history and discussion of secular Judaism, that elaborates on some of the themes in this Haggadah, I have written a short essay entitled “An Unorthodox View of Jewish History: Why are Jews still here at all and why aren’t there more of us?” which can be found on my Blog at historyaschoice.wordpress.com



“And this day shall be for you a memorial.”

Exodus 12:14

Introduction: The Passover Story.

Narrator: Welcome to our Passover Seder. The ceremonial portion of this event will be relatively brief, but please munch on matzo and any other eatables within reach as we go through this Haggadah.  The goal is to commemorate the holiday, not to fast or to get tipsy by drinking wine on an empty stomach.

A traditional Haggadah contains some fourteen segments and a traditional Seder can go on four hours, seemingly forever when you are waiting for dinner, with a good deal of prayerful repetition and rejoicing.  This Haggadah has an introduction and four parts which have been adapted from the traditional format.  It incorporates the four glasses of wine that are traditionally consumed at a Seder.  You are forewarned to confine your consumption of wine to the limits of your tolerance for alcohol without becoming inebriated, because the Haggadah designates a Narrator who conducts the Seder but also designates Readers for various parts of the story.  So, your reasonably sober participation in the ceremony is required. The Haggadah also includes suggested discussion questions, but you are encouraged to contribute questions of your own and to comment on, correct, contradict, query or add to anything that is being said.

As a way of setting the tone for the Seder, we will welcome each other by singing the Hebrew song “Havenu Shalom Aleichem.”  The words translate as “We bring peace to you,” which is the goal of our Seder for each other and for the world.  We also sing in remembrance of loved ones who have passed away, may they live in our memories and rest in peace.

Sing: Havenu Shalom Aleichem.

Havenu Shalom Aleichem,

Havenu Shalom Aleichem,

Havenu Shalom Aleichem,

Shalom, Shalom, Shalom Aleichem.

Narrator: The purpose of this Seder is to memorialize the story in the Bible of the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in ancient Egypt.  A memorial is a remembrance of events that can both celebrate and critique them.  The events are honored in their honest retelling and reevaluation.

Reader #1: The back story of Passover in the Bible begins with a man named Joseph, a descendant of Abraham, who settled in Egypt.  Joseph performed some important services for the Pharaoh, among others helping the Egyptians to weather years of bad crops by saving grain from good years in storehouses.  Joseph became the Pharaoh’s prime minister and brought his family to settle in Egypt.  The family prospered and multiplied for many generations until there came into power a new Pharaoh who decided to enslave the descendants of Joseph, by then a numerous people called Hebrews.  The Hebrews were regularly abused thereafter, and the Pharaoh at one point even ordered the killing of all Hebrew boys. (Exodus 1:8-23)

The Passover story itself begins when a Hebrew named Moses was approached by God and told to demand that the Pharaoh free the Hebrews.  Moses did God’s bidding and when the Pharaoh refused to free the Hebrews, God inflicted a series of ten plagues on the Egyptian people in an attempt to coerce the Pharaoh to do so.  God’s last plague was killing the Egyptians’ first-born children while passing over the homes of the Hebrews and sparing their children.  After this plague, the Pharaoh allowed the Hebrews to leave but then changed his mind and chased after them with his army.  With God’s help, Moses parted the Red Sea, enabling the Hebrews to get across, then closed the sea and drowned the Pharaoh and his army.

Reader #2:  According to the story, Moses and the Hebrews then spent some forty years wandering in the desert between Egypt and Palestine.  In the course of their wanderings, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and Moses composed an oral version of the first five books of the Bible, including the Passover story.  At God’s insistence, the Hebrews committed genocide against several peoples who stood in the path of their journey, the people of Sihon, for example, of whom Moses said “we spared nothing but the livestock which we took as spoil” (Deuteronomy 2:33-36). There was also the slaughter of the Amalekites (Exodus 17:13-16) and the Midianites (Numbers 31:7-24).   Because of some minor offense Moses committed against God’s dignity, Moses was not himself permitted to reach the promised land, and he died just as the Hebrews reached Palestine (Deuteronomy 32:48-52).

As they entered Palestine, God told the Hebrews that if the current occupants surrendered to them, the Hebrews should enslave them, but if the inhabitants resisted, the Hebrews must kill them. After reciting a hit list of ethnic groups that he wants slaughtered, God says “I shall exterminate these” and he commands of the Hebrews that “You must not spare the life of any living thing” (Exodus 23:23-24; Deuteronomy 20:10-17). Consistent with God’s commands, the Hebrews enslaved and exterminated the various inhabitants of Palestine and occupied the place themselves (Deuteronomy 7:21-25).  This is the basic Passover story as it is told in the Bible.

Reader #3:  Although many observant Jews consider the Passover story to be literal truth, it is almost unanimously considered by historians to be a myth.  There is no evidence that the Hebrews ever existed as a people, or that the events in the story ever happened.  Josh Mintz writing for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz summed it up several years ago saying “The reality is that there is no evidence whatsoever” for the story and there is not even “one shard of pottery (the archaeologist’s best friend) with Hebrew writing on it.”  Although the ancient Egyptians were meticulous chroniclers, “Egyptian records make no mention” of the Hebrews or the Passover events and there is “no evidence in Israel that shows a sudden influx of people from another culture at that time.”  In any case, the word “Hebrew” merely meant nomad in the language of the time and does not refer to a specific ethnicity or religion.

Despite their status as mythological beings, most Jews regard the Biblical Hebrews as our cultural ancestors, and we treat the Passover story as part of our Jewish heritage.  In so doing, we are responding in a way similar to the way other peoples have treated their hypothetical predecessors. For example, when the Jewish Bible was being compiled during the fifth BCE, the ancient Greeks were also compiling stories of their putative ancestors, including the story in the Iliad of the Achaeans who supposedly fought the Trojan War.  As with the Passover story, the events in the Iliad ostensibly took place around 1200 BCE.

Reader #4: While some fifth century BCE Greeks believed in the literal truth of these stories, most took them to be myths that represented the sorts of ethical choices their ancestors had made and ethical issues they themselves faced.  The Greeks considered the Achaeans in the Iliad to be culturally their ancestors, even if they were not literally so. And they approached stories such as the Iliad as both celebrations and critiques of their putative ancestors and their ancestors’ gods.

In the same way, Jews of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, many of whom did not believe in the literal truth of the Passover story, considered themselves ethically and culturally descendants of Hebrews who heroically escaped from Egypt.  And like the Greeks with their stories, many Jews approached the Bible stories, including the story of Passover, in a spirit of both celebration and critique.  It is in that spirit that we secular Jews consider the Hebrews and their Passover story to be part of our Jewish heritage today.

Suggested Discussion Questions: Cycles of Abuse.

It is well-known that propinquity breeds affinity, relationship leads to resemblance, and interdependence leads to likeness.  This process can be for the better or the worse. Dog-owners, for example, often start to resemble their dogs. Whether that change is for the better or worse depends on the owner and the dog.

Children also generally take after their parents, often despite themselves.  That may be for the better or the worse.  Abused children, for example, are more likely than other children to end up abusing their own children.  Abuse seems to breed abuse in a vicious cycle.

Do you see a cycle of abuse in the treatment of other ethnic groups by the newly liberated Hebrews?  What lessons do you think the compilers of the Jewish Bible wanted us to take away from this story?  What might be the connection between the Passover story and the Golden Rule?

Do you see examples of vicious cycles of abuse in the world today?  How can we avoid such cycles?   How can we break a cycle of abuse where it exists?

Part 1. Explaining the Passover Story: The Four Questioning Kids.

Narrator: Passover is celebrated as a story of the Hebrews’ liberation from oppression, and Moses is celebrated as their heroic leader.  The Passover story has for centuries been an inspiration to Jews seeking liberty and justice in times when they were being persecuted, denied the rights of citizenship, or forced to live in ghettos. Since the Passover story is contained in the Christian Old Testament, it has also been an inspiration to Christians and other oppressed peoples struggling for human rights.  We Jews are grateful that a story from our heritage has been helpful to others.

The story was taken up by African-Americans fighting against slavery in the nineteenth century and seeking civil rights in the twentieth century.  “Go Down Moses” is an African-American spiritual that was composed by slaves during the mid-nineteenth century.  The song proclaims the ideals of freedom and justice that we honor in our celebration of Passover.  It is a song of hope that defies oppression.  We will sing a few verses.

Sing: Go Down Moses.

 When Israel was in Egypt’s land,

Let my people go!

Oppressed so hard, they could not stand,

Let my people go!

(Refrain) Go down, Moses,

Way down in Egypt’s land;

Tell old Pharaoh

To let my people go!

So Moses went to Egypt land,

Let my people go!

He made the Pharaoh understand,

Let my people go! Refrain.

You need not always weep and mourn,

Let my people go!

And wear these slavery chains forlorn,

Let my people go!  Refrain.

Reader #5: Almost all holidays have their ideals which are laudable and their realities which are often a mixture of the admirable and the abominable.  Thanksgiving, for example, celebrates the laudable ideals of ethnic diversity, tolerance, cooperation, and helping others in distress.  And the admirable reality is that the Native Americans on what is considered the first Thanksgiving did most of the giving and the English immigrants gratefully did most of the receiving.

The abominable reality is that the English responded to the Indians’ generosity with a Thanksgiving prayer that thanked God for the plagues that had killed off most of the natives so that there was more room in America for English settlement. And the English soon drove the remaining Indians off of their native lands anyways.  Nonetheless, we celebrate Thanksgiving for its laudable ideals even as we use those ideals to critique the abominable behavior of its founders.

Reader #6: Similarly, with Passover, there is much to celebrate in the ideals of freedom and brotherhood that it represents.  In the course of the Hebrews’ migration from Egypt, God lays down the Golden Rule injunction to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  This injunction is the source of Rabbi Hillel’s claim that the Golden Rule is the underlying meaning and moral of the Bible, and it encompasses an ideal that has inspired Jews and others to participate in humanitarian civic and political movements.

Freedom and brotherhood are the light in the Passover story.  But there is also the dark.  How do we explain the massacres ordered by God and the misdeeds of Moses in the Passover story?  And how do we explain the inclusion of this behavior in the Bible?  Some history of the Passover holiday may help.

Reader #7: The Passover story was composed over the course of a long period of time.  The events in the story are supposed to have taken place around 1200 BCE.  Stories about those events were passed down for centuries by word of mouth until around 800 BCE when versions of it were apparently first written down.  Various versions of the story were thereafter passed down in both oral and written forms until the version with which we are familiar was compiled during the fifth century BCE.

The development of the Passover story was something like a game of telephone in which a person whispers something in the ear of his or her neighbor, who in turn whispers it to his or her neighbor, and so forth.  This went on for something like thirty generations.  Just imagine if we played a game of telephone with thirty people, and what would happen to a story as it was whispered from the first to the last person.   If we asked people to tell the story they had heard, we would almost certainly get thirty different versions.

Reader #8: The task facing the compilers of the Bible was how to pick and choose among the different versions of the stories handed down to them.  They responded by including at least two versions of almost every important event or statement in the first five books of the Bible that were supposedly composed by Moses, including differing versions of the Passover events and two versions of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-21; Deuteronomy 5: 1-22). Even if something like the events in the Passover story had actually happened, the telephone effect would have rendered the reality of them undiscoverable.

When the compilers of the Bible included the Passover story in the book, they had a number of narratives from which they could choose.  The compilers chose to include parts of the story that are unflattering toward the Hebrews and their God.  For example, as part of the back story to Passover, the Bible says that one of the services that Joseph performed for the Pharaoh, and that won the Pharaoh’s favor for the Hebrews, was devising a scheme of taxation that effectively entrapped the Egyptian peasants into debt slavery to the Pharaoh.  Joseph, thereby, helped enslave the Egyptians even as he was winning acceptance and prosperity for his own people (Genesis 47:20-22).

Reader #9: Was the purpose of including this episode in the Passover story to imply that when the Hebrews were themselves enslaved, their enslavement was turnabout?  Was it intended as an example of the principle that what you do unto others is liable to be done unto you?  Does this episode highlight the virtue of Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule through portraying its opposite?  Was it intended as a warning to Jews to give what they expect to get and expect to get what they give?  Maybe so.

The Hebrew God as he is portrayed in the Passover story is also very different from God as he was worshiped by Jews when they compiled the Bible in the fifth century BCE.  In the Passover story, he is a tribal god concerned only with the welfare of the Hebrews.  He is extremely jealous of other gods and is very strict about how he is worshiped.  He repeatedly killed, or had Moses kill, Hebrews who were not performing rituals exactly the way he wanted.  He even killed the two sons of Moses’ brother Aaron for accidentally making minor errors in a ritual sacrifice (Leviticus 10:1-3).  The Hebrew God also repeatedly had Moses and Joshua massacre peoples who would not bow to him or who occupied land he wanted for the Hebrews.  The Hebrew God does not do unto others as he would have them do unto him.

Reader #10:  In contrast, the Jewish God as he is portrayed in later portions of the Bible, and as he was worshiped when the Bible was compiled, is a universal god who is seemingly concerned with the good of all peoples.  And he is concerned more with peace and justice than with ritual correctness.  He is the God of the prophet Isaiah who preached about turning spears into pruning hooks, and the prophet Amos who preached the responsibility of Jews to work for the welfare of all humankind.

This version of God seems to expect respect because he gives it.  He is very different than the God in the Passover story.  Why?  Is this another example of the compilers of the Bible deploying what became Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule, only this time against the Hebrew God to contrast him with the Jewish God?  Maybe so. Secular Jews take this evolution from tribal God to universal God one step further when they dispense with the idea of God altogether in favor of the universal principles he ostensibly represents.

Narrator: This question of why the Bible and our Haggadah include negative portraits of the Hebrews and their God is something that we can explore with a version of the questions that are traditionally asked by the four types of sons who are supposedly found at Seders.  They are traditionally characterized as the Wise Son, the Wicked Son, the Stupid Son, and the Silent Son.

In a traditional Haggadah, the Wise Son deferentially asks “What are the laws that God has commanded us to follow?” The Wicked Son scornfully asks “Why should I care about any of this?” The Simple Son stupidly asks “What are you talking about?” And the Silent Son just appeals for answers with his questioning looks.  Each of the sons is essentially told to praise God for liberating us Jews from slavery and to gain wisdom and virtue by studying the Bible.

Consistent with our secular and non-sexist approach, I have changed the names of the questioners to the Curious Child, the Skeptical Child, the Confused Child, and the Socially Committed Child, and modified their questions and our answers to fit the message of this Seder.

Reader #11: The Curious Child asks why the rabbis would have included in the Bible a story about the origins of Judaism that portrays our ancestors and the God they worshiped in such a negative light?

As with many important questions, there is no one final answer to this one.  The Bible is generally considered the first religious book that was composed in the form of a history.  It is ostensibly a history of the Hebrews and their God, and a prehistory of the Jews.  But it was not written by one person or one group of people.  It is made up of different stories that were first told in many different times and places.  The compilers of the Bible had to choose among a plethora of stories in deciding which ones to include.

These compilers were scholarly rabbis who knew the distinction between history and myth, and between fact and fiction.  But they did not have many historical facts about the origins of Judaism to put in their book.  So, the rabbis may have chosen stories that they knew were myths but that they hoped would portray some underlying truths about Judaism.

It is also possible they deliberately chose stories that would portray Judaism as a progressively changing way of life in which even the image of God got better.  That is, they expected Jews to object to the Hebrews’ version of God as he is portrayed in the Passover story and, in contrast, look more favorably on the version of God they themselves worshiped.  And maybe the rabbis portrayed their ancestors as having many faults so as to inspire Jews of their day, and Jews like us today, to try to become better.

Reader #12:  The origins of the Jews as they are portrayed in the Bible can be compared with the origins of the American people.  The United States was founded on many social evils, including the enslavement of Africans, genocide against Indians, imperialism against Mexicans, and the subjugation of women.  We have to acknowledge these evils as a formative part of our country’s history even as we reject them.

But our country was also founded on ideals of liberty, democracy, tolerance and justice for all.  These ideals have inspired Americans in the past and inspire us today to better ourselves and our society.  Similarly, despite the evils attributed to the Hebrew God and the Hebrews, Rabbi Hillel still summarized the moral of the Bible in the Golden Rule.  That is a worthy ideal to take away from the Passover story.

Reader #13: The Skeptical Child asks why do I need to know about the past?   Who cares about those mythical Hebrews and how they are portrayed in the Bible?

Who we are and what options we have in our lives are largely influenced by our histories.  We need to know the past to know who we are.  The story of those Hebrews is part of our cultural history, part of what we Jews think of ourselves, even if those people never existed and the events never happened.  What they stood for is in us, for better and worse.  One reason the rabbis included so much anger and violence in the Passover story may have been to remind us of the dark side of ourselves and to encourage us to look for ways in which our society is influenced by anger and violence.  The story provides a negative benchmark against which we can measure ourselves and society.

Reader #14: The Confused Child asks how can it be that we honor our ancestors but also criticize them?

We celebrate holidays such as Passover because they represent ideals that we hold dear.  At the same time, the Passover story warns us that we must not adulate our leaders or our ancestors.  We must not worship any man and must be careful how we worship God.  The story portrays the Hebrew God as capable of pronouncing such empathetic commandments as “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Remember thou wast a slave in Egypt,” but then demanding the slaughter of anyone who does not pay proper obeisance to him or does not perform ritual sacrifices in exactly the proper way.

The story also portrays Moses as a great but fallible man.  He empathized with his fellow Hebrews, stood up to the Pharaoh, and even married a Midianite woman who was not a Hebrew.  But Moses’ definition of who constituted his neighbor and whom he should therefore love as himself was very narrow, and he even massacred his wife’s Midianite people at God’s command.

Moses did not fulfill the Passover ideals, nor seemingly did the Hebrew God or many other Hebrews, but then neither have we.  If our ancestors had fully realized those ideals, or if we did so ourselves, then ideal behavior would be commonplace and not worth celebrating.  It is because we rejoice in the ideals that our ancestors represent, but also need to reflect on their shortcomings and on our own shortcomings, that we celebrate a holiday such as Passover.

Reader #15:  The Socially Committed Child asks how we can apply what we have learned about the history of the Passover story to our lives today, to help us be better people and make a better world?

The Passover story is both a cautionary and an inspirational tale.  In the objectionable actions of the Hebrews, it cautions us not to let concerns for our own welfare overwhelm our consideration for others.  At the same time, the story inspires us to be considerate to others as the best way to be considerate to ourselves, to love our neighbors as extensions of ourselves.  In the actions of the rabbis who included in the Bible a Passover story that is not entirely flattering to the Hebrew people or their God, it cautions us to be humble about our ancestors and our origins.  At the same time, it inspires us to tell what we think is the truth, even if it may seem humiliating.

Narrator: Let us drink the first glass of wine in honor of all those people, both Jews and others, who have been inspired by the Passover story to struggle for liberty and justice. We also drink in gratitude for those who have retold the story over the course of the millennia so that we can celebrate Passover today and our children and grandchildren can do so in the future.

Suggested Discussion Questions: Melodrama, Comedy, and Tragedy.

Stories can generally be told in three basic forms: melodrama, comedy, or tragedy. A melodrama is a story of good against evil, good guys against bad guys.  It is essentially a war and we either rejoice in the victory of the good guys or mourn if the bad guys win.  Comedy is a story about disorder created by fools and their foolishness, and the efforts of wise people to correct or curb the fools.  Comedy can be dark and is not necessarily funny.  It can end either in a mess or in the restoration of a just order.  Tragedy is a story of good gone too far until it turns into bad.  It is about pride or hubris which leads the central characters to think they can do whatever they want, but they can’t, and they fail and fall because of their pride.

The Passover story is traditionally told as a melodrama with the Hebrews and their God as the good guys against the evil Pharaoh.  How could you tell it as a comedy or tragedy?  Can God or Moses or the Pharaoh be seen as fools?  Can God or Moses be seen as going too far in a good cause?  How would you tell the story?  What difference does it make which way you tell it?

Part 2.  Passover and the Ten Plagues: Dayenu.

Narrator: One of the most disturbing elements of the Passover story is the ten plagues that the Hebrew God inflicted on the Egyptian people in order to coerce the Pharaoh into freeing the Hebrews.  Why God chose these particular ten plagues, nobody knows.  But one of the most controversial segments of a Seder is the recitation and consideration of the plagues.  If the Hebrew God was so powerful, why did He have to resort to plagues to convince the Pharaoh?  If His goal was to influence the Pharaoh, why did He inflict the plagues on the whole Egyptian population?  Under international law today, harming civilians in order to coerce a government to do something is considered a crime against humanity and a form of terrorism.  Why did the rabbis who compiled the Bible include the plagues in the Passover story?  And why is it traditional to dip one’s finger into a glass of wine upon reciting each plague and then let a drop of the wine fall onto a napkin?

Reader #16: The traditional rationalization of the plagues is attributed to a fifteenth century CE scholar Rabbi Shalom, whose name ironically means peace in Hebrew.  He reportedly said the plagues were a just retribution against ordinary Egyptians because of the advantages they had received from the Hebrews’ slave labor.  The plagues, Shalom said, were also a just punishment from God against the Egyptians for their failure to worship Him instead of worshiping the Pharaoh and the various Egyptian gods. In turn, the reason the plagues were included in the Passover story was to warn non-Jews not to mess with Jews because God would eventually get them.  And Shalom’s explanation for reciting the plagues at Passover and wasting a drop of wine for each is to wish that God would continue to plague the enemies of the Jews.

The massacres of various peoples by the Hebrews on their way to and into Palestine has similarly been traditionally rationalized as just punishment for their failure to worship the Hebrew God in place of their own gods.  This is, of course, the same rationalization that has historically been used by Christians to persecute Jews because Jews refuse to recognize Jesus as the Savior.  It is the excuse used by zealots of many religions to persecute anyone whose beliefs differ from their own or who disagree with their beliefs.  “God made me do it,” they say.  And that is the reason secularists want to keep God out of the public arena and public debate.

Reader #17: A modern explanation of the plagues that has been adopted by secular and many Reform Jews takes its cue from a saying in the Book of Proverbs: “Do not rejoice at the downfall of your enemies” (Proverbs 24:17). The Book of Proverbs is one of the later composed books in the Bible. It reflects a universal God who is the agent of wisdom rather than its author and for whom the pursuit of wisdom is the goal of life.  This is essentially the view of secular Jews, albeit without the need for God.

In this modern view, the plagues were not justified.  The Hebrew God was rash, harsh and extremely vain, and even Moses is recorded as trying to get Him to go easier on the Egyptians.  But the Hebrew God repeatedly warned Moses and the Hebrews that he was not someone to be messed with.  In this view, the plagues were as much a warning to the Hebrews to obey God as they were a punishment for the Egyptians.  Having brought the Hebrews out of Egypt, God told them “I set before you today a blessing and a curse: a blessing if you obey the commandments of Yahweh [the Hebrews’ name for God]…a curse if you disobey the commandments” (Deuteronomy 11:26-29).   Although the Hebrews benefited from God’s brutality against the Egyptians by getting their freedom and a homeland, God followed up his warnings by repeatedly massacring Hebrews who failed to observe his injunctions to the letter.

Reader #18: In the modern view that the plagues were not justified, the reason that the compilers of the Torah included them was as a warning about benefiting from injustice to others.  The Hebrews benefited from brutality but then were subject to it themselves.  What price freedom, the Bible in effect asks us? Was there a better strategy that would have followed the Golden Rule?  And when we recite the plagues and waste a drop of wine for each, this symbolizes the blood of the innocent Egyptians that was shed in the course of the Hebrews’ liberation.  We recite them not in celebration but in mourning.

Narrator: Let us recite the ten plagues and let fall a drop of wine for each in silent mourning.

  1. Blood.
  2. Frogs.
  3. Lice.
  4. Flies.
  5. Pestilence.
  6. Boils.
  7. Hail.
  8. Locusts.
  9. Darkness.
  10. Killing of first-born

Let us also sing a traditional Hebrew song, “Dayenu,” that well summarizes the moral of the story of Passover.  Dayenu literally means “Enough!” and figuratively means “It would have been enough!”  The song is usually rendered as a victory song, rejoicing in the victory of the Hebrews and the devastation of the Egyptians.  It is, however, better seen as an ambivalent expression of thankfulness for the liberation of the Hebrews, but also regret at the harm that was done to innocent Egyptians.

The transformation of “Dayenu” from a somber reflection on Passover into an upbeat celebration of the holiday is similar to the transformation of “God Bless America” from the way it was originally intended by Irving Berlin as a solemn prayer asking God to help a troubled country in a troubled time to the way it is usually sung today as a rejoicing that God has blessed America and Americans are God’s chosen people.  We will try to sing “Dayenu” as it was originally intended, so please try to curb your enthusiasm.  The song has some fifteen verses.  We will sing first Yiddish verse with the refrain and then read the next few verses while singing the refrain in keeping with the spirit of “Enough.”

Sing:  Dayenu.                        

Ilu hotzi hotzianu, hotzianu mimitzrayim,

hotzianu mimitzrayim, Dayenu.

(Refrain) Day, Day, Dayenu,

Day, Day, Dayenu,

Day, Day, Dayenu,

Dayenu, Dayenu.

Had He brought us out from Egypt and not executed judgment against them,

It would have been enough. Refrain.

Had He executed judgment against them and not destroyed their idols,

It would have been enough.  Refrain.

Had he destroyed their idols and not slain their firstborn,

It would have been enough.  Refrain.

Reader #19: The song “Dayenu” recites the major events of the traditional Passover story with each event followed by the chant of “Enough!” or “It would have been enough!”  It rejoices in the liberation of the Hebrews, and the subsequent founding of the Jewish people, but it also raises questions about whether all of the killing and suffering inflicted by God on the Egyptian people was necessary and justifiable.  As descendants of those Hebrews, these are questions we must ponder.

“Enough already” the song seems to be saying.  Enough of slavery, killing, hatred and revenge, all of which were inflicted on the Hebrews by the Pharaoh, but were also inflicted on the Egyptians by God and Moses.  In the Passover story, innocent people on both sides suffered from the actions of their leaders.  We must ask “Couldn’t it have been otherwise?”     

Narrator: Let us drink the second glass of wine in sorrow for the innocent people who have suffered in the past and who are suffering today, and with a commitment to “Enough already!”

Suggested Discussion Questions: Playing a Zero-Sum Game?

In gaining their freedom, the Hebrews benefited from the seemingly unjust suffering of innocent Egyptians.  Whatever blame adult Egyptians might have shared in the enslavement of the Hebrews in Rabbi Shalom’s argument, the infant Egyptian children that God killed as one of the plagues could not be deemed to have participated in that guilt.  Should we consider the Hebrews guilty of an ethical lapse for benefiting from God’s brutal ways?  Was there anything they should or could have done differently?

Benefiting from others’ misery and the injustices done to others is an ethical problem that almost every living person faces.  It is especially a problem those of us who live middle or upper class lives in a prosperous country such as the United States.  Imperialism against poorer peoples past and present makes possible our well-being.  Within our own country, people often benefit from the way they look, the language they speak, or the religion they practice, while others are disadvantaged on those bases.

Are we guilty of an ethical lapse for benefiting in this way?  Have you ever benefited personally from the misery or injustice of others?   How can we avoid playing a zero-sum game in which some people benefit at the expense of others?  How can we, instead, help everyone to benefit?

Part 3. The Passover Symbols: Never Again.

Narrator: Passover is a celebration of people who struggle against oppression.  Throughout history, oppressors have attempted to reduce their victims to a condition of helplessness and hopelessness.  Yet time and again, oppressed peoples have taken advantage of whatever opportunities their circumstances allowed to create lives and cultures that ennobled them.  We see that in the story of the Hebrews in Egypt.  We also see it in the song “Go Down Moses” that is an example of the culture of liberation created by enslaved African-Americans.

Likewise, during the Nazi Holocaust of World War II, Jews persisted in creating worthwhile lives and cultural dignity even as they were being enslaved and annihilated.  In honor of those Jews and all persecuted peoples, we will sing the Yiddish song “Zog Nit Keynmol,” which translates as “Never say…,” as in “Never say die” or “Never give up.” The song was written in 1943 following the massacre of Jews by the German army in the Warsaw Ghetto.  It is a song of hope that defies the odds.       

Sing:  Zog Nit Keyn Mol.

Zog nit keyn mol, as du geyst dem letsn veg,

himlen blayene farshtein bloye teg.

Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebente sho,

s’vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zayen do!

Never say this is the final road for you,

Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.

As the hour that we longed for is so near,

Our step beats out the message: we are here!


This song was written with our blood and not with lead,

It’s not a little tune that birds sent overhead.

This song a people sang amid collapsing walls,

With pistols in hand, they heeded the call.


Therefore, never say the road now ends for you,

Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.

As the hour that we longed for is so near,

Our step beats out the message: we are here!

Narrator: You have plates on your table that contain various culinary symbols of Passover.  The Hebrews worshiped their God with ritual animal and vegetable sacrifices burned on a sacred altar so it is no surprise that the symbols are food.  In the traditional Haggadah, they represent the suffering only of the Hebrews.  In our Haggadah, they represent the suffering of both the Egyptians and the Hebrews.  They also represent a commitment to “Never say die” no matter how dire the circumstances, and to saying that “Never again” shall we allow such horrible things to happen to people if we can stop them.

Reader #20: The bitter herb or maror represents the bitterness and hardship of the Hebrews and the Egyptians under the cruel rule of the Pharaoh.  Let us say “Never again.”

Reader #21:  The lamb shank bone or z’roa represents the first-born Hebrew children killed by the Pharaoh and the first-born Egyptian children killed by God, all of whom were sacrificial lambs in the Passover power struggle.  Let us say “Never again.”

Reader #22:  The karpas or celery dipped in salt water represents the resolve of Hebrews and Egyptians to sustain themselves despite their tears for their murdered children.  Let us vow to never say die.

Reader #23:  The egg or beytso represents new born Hebrew children, Egyptian children and the children of peoples everywhere who are the hope of us all for the future.  Let us vow to never say die.

Reader #24: The matzo, an unleavened bread suitable for people on the run, represents the creativity of the Hebrews and other oppressed people who are able to adapt to difficult circumstances in their struggle for liberty and justice.  Let us vow to never say die.

Narrator:  Let us drink the third glass of wine in honor of those who never say die in the face of oppression, and as our commitment to saying “Never again” to oppression.

Suggested Discussion Questions: The more things change, the more they stay the same?

One of my history professors once said that if you are ever called upon to give a talk about a time and place about which you know nothing, all you have to do is say it was a time of trouble and a time of change, the old order was receding and a new order was not yet in place, conservatives who were privileged under the old order were conducting campaigns of fear and hate against the changes and those making them, liberals who were seeking to extend rights to a broader constituency were being accused of weakness by friends and foes alike, and the sun rose every day.  Because that is the way of the world.  And that is a main theme of the Bible as a whole and the Passover story in particular.  There is always a crisis.  But things can get better in the long run if we stick with our values and commitments.

We are today in the midst of a difficult situation in the United States and it feels to many as though there may be no way out.  But in the course of the twentieth century, our parents and grandparents in this country made their way through the Great Depression, World War II, McCarthyism, and the Korean War.  Many of us in the elder generation made our way through the era of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the mass urban riots that seemed would never end.  But they did.  How did people get through those crises?   What might we learn from them?

Part 4. The Moral of the Passover Story: What is to be done?

Narrator: Passover is a founding holiday of the Jewish people.  According to the story, a ragged bunch of Hebrews came out of Egypt and gained their liberation from what was then the mightiest power in the Middle East.  These Hebrews then supposedly wandered for some forty years in the desert, and eventually conquered the territory we call Palestine to establish the first state of Israel.  Over the course of the next millennium, these Israelites developed a way of life and a religion that we can recognize as Jewish, and that marks the beginning of the Jewish people.  Even though the Passover story is almost certainly a fable, it is the beginning of a long history that leads to us and is part of us.

Reader #25: Passover is, however, a difficult holiday.  Part of the difficulty is that we have to sit through a lengthy ceremony before we can eat dinner.  But, it is also difficult because the story is full of contradictions and raises many questions that cannot be definitively answered.

The Passover story forces us, for example, to question at what price to others we would gain or protect our own freedom.  Was the torture of the Egyptian people a legitimate means to gain the freedom of the Hebrews from the Pharaoh who, after all, tyrannized the Egyptians as well as the Hebrews?  Today, we must similarly ask whether it is legitimate to accept as “collateral damage” the deaths of innocent civilians who have been bombed in the course of attacking terrorists that threaten the United States?

Reader #26: The Passover story also reminds us that it is all too easy to pass over from being one of the oppressed to being an oppressor, as the Hebrews did when they enslaved and exterminated other peoples after gaining their own freedom.  Today, we must similarly ask if it is legitimate to invade other countries ostensibly to liberate those peoples from oppression while actually protecting our own interests?

Finally, the Passover story reminds us that it is all too easy to pass over from defending oneself against racism and ethnocentrism to practicing racism and ethnocentrism against others, as the Hebrews did in their conquest of Palestine, and as too many Israeli and American Jews are doing today in their treatment of Palestinians.  How can we avoid doing unto others what we would not have them do unto us?

Narrator:  These are vexing questions.  But then being vexed by endless questions and quandaries seems to be part of what it means to be a Jew.  And, so, it is not surprising that the moral of the Passover story seems itself to be a question: What can we do to end oppression in the world, so that we can finally say “Never again” and mean it?  That we can someday answer this question is the hope with which we live.

Towards that end, let us sing the Hebrew song “Bashana Haba’ah” which translates as “In the year that will be…,” meaning that when all is well, this is how it will be.  It is a song of hope that will hopefully become for our descendants a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sing: Bashana Haba’ah.                            

Bashana haba’ah.

Neishev al hamirpeset

V’nispor tziporim nod’dot.


(Refrain) Od tir’eh, od tir’eh,

Kama tov yihiyeh,

Bashana bashana bab’ah.


In the year that will be,

We’ll sit on the porch

and count the migrating birds. Refrain.


Children on vacation

Will play tag

Between the house and fields. Refrain.


You will see, you will see

How good it will be

In the year that will be. Refrain.


In the year that will be,

We will spread out our hands

Towards the radiant light. Refrain.


A white heron

Like a light will spread her wings

And within them the sun will rise.  Refrain.

Narrator: Let us drink the fourth glass of wine to a world without oppression.  And then let’s eat.



Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito: “I think, therefore we are (not I am).” Part III: A Cross of Gold and the Golden Rule.

Burton Weltman

The Gold Standard versus the Golden Rule.

“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns.  You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”  William Jennings Bryan. Chicago: July 9, 1896.

In what is generally considered the greatest political convention speech in American history, William Jennings Bryan delivered his “Cross of Gold” speech to an ecstatic Democratic Party National Convention in 1896 and secured for himself the party’s presidential nomination.  Although Bryan lost that presidential election and two more after that, his words dramatized a recurring theme in American social and political thinking that still resonates today: That the Golden Rule should not mean that Gold Rules.

Conventional histories of that election generally focus on the specific issue that Bryan addressed in the speech, which was whether the United States should remain on the gold standard for its currency.  The gold standard was favored by bankers and creditors generally, and resulted in tighter credit and higher interest rates for farmers, workers and small businessmen.  The alternative promoted by Bryan was a bi-metal gold and silver standard, which would help debtors, farmers, small businessmen and the working classes.  But this was only part of his message.  The speech was rooted in a much broader debate that has recurred throughout American history between those who propound individualism and favor the hierarchical society of winners and losers that inevitably results, and those like Bryan who promote communalism and a more egalitarian society.  That was Bryan’s deeper message.

This debate has many different aspects and ramifications.  It can be encapsulated in the question of what comes first “We” or “I?”  It  can be characterized ontologically and psychologically in  the difference between Descartes’ formulation of “I think, therefore I am” and the alternative formulation that I have been promoting of “I think, therefore we are.”

The debate has ethical dimensions that can be seen in the difference  between “measure for measure” ethics, or “what you do unto me, I can do unto you,” and  “reciprocity” ethics, or “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”  The former is based on a contractual model of ethics.  Contracts are agreements between individuals in which each pledges to do something that the other wants.  Failure to fulfill the terms of a contract can result in retribution.  This retribution can be either compensatory — you pay damages that make me whole — or punitive — I take the Biblical “Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.”  It is an impersonal and individualistic ethics that treats others as means towards a person’s own ends.

Reciprocity ethics are based on the Golden Rule in which others are treated as an extension of ourselves.  “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” in Biblical terms.  It is a communal ethics of personal relationships and caring for others both in the here-and-now and in the future.  The closer the connection of the other to you, the more intense your care and caring will likely be.  But every interaction is based on an assumption of care.  Bryan spoke on behalf of reciprocity ethics.

The debate can be exemplified in legal terms by the question of who gets to keep stolen property sold by a thief to an innocent third party.  Under community law principles, the innocent buyer gets to keep the property because the goal is to promote trust among people.  If an innocent buyer was to lose the benefit of his/her good faith bargain with an apparently legitimate seller, it would breed mistrust among people and undermine the community. The right of the innocent buyer was supported by Medieval Canon Law and in many early American jurisdictions.

Under modern American property law principles, the stolen property goes back to the original owner because the goal is to uphold the sacred rights of individual property.  Contract law in the nineteenth century operated almost entirely on the principle of “buyer beware,” which was consistent with the predominant individualism of the society, and had the effect of promoting distrust and disunity among people.  This was especially the case in the late nineteenth century.  Bryan spoke for the rights of people as a community over the rights of property owners..

Bryan was an imposing figure with a leonine mane of hair and a powerful voice.  The Golden Rule was his standard.  The Gold Standard was for him one of the ways in which the laissez-faire individualistic economic principles that characterized the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century had led to the oppression of ordinary people and the ascension of the fortunate few — the 1% we might say today — to positions of Midas-like wealth and Ozymandias-like power.

Bryan warned the Democratic Convention that a war was being waged in this country, “a struggle between the idle holders of idle capital and the struggling masses who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country.”  And he challenged the delegates to declare which side they were on, “upon the side of the idle holders of idle capital, or upon the side of the struggling masses?” Democrats chose him and his side in that war three times, as did some 46% , 45% and 43% of the voters in his three presidential runs.  This was a substantial showing on behalf of the Golden Rule, albeit not enough to get him elected.

Bryan’s presidential runs coincided with two major reform movements in this country, the Populist Movement of the late nineteenth century and the Progressive Movement of the early twentieth century.  Both movements were primarily cooperative and anti-individualist in their main thrust, although both  also had their individualist wings.  Although Bryan was not literally either a Populist or a Progressive, he was widely seen as a spokesperson for the communitarian side of both movements.  Bryan was a devout Christian and derived many of his communal political principles from his roots in the liberal Social Gospel religious movement of that period.

With the demise in the 1920’s of both Bryan’s political career and the social movements that had defined his career, he turned to defending Biblical creationism against the theory of evolution.  Political conservatives since the late nineteenth century had been using the evolutionary theory as a rationalization of laissez-faire capitalism and rule by the rich.  They extolled dog-eat-dog competition and celebrated rich people as deserving winners in the evolutionary struggle, as the fittest in the evolutionary “survival of the fittest.” Conservatives had scorned the poor as deserving hardship and opposed any efforts to help the working classes  In the famous Scopes Trial and other forums, Bryan waged a battle between this so-called Social Darwinism and the doctrine of the Golden Rule.  It was for him the same struggle he had proclaimed in 1896.

Following the Golden Rule along the Yellow Brick Road.

“We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded.  We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came.”  William Jennings Bryan. Chicago: July 9, 1896.

In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum in 1900 and made into a movie in 1939, the heroine Dorothy finds herself stranded in the magical land of Oz and seeks a way to get back home.  She is advised by the inhabitants to follow a yellow brick road which will lead her to a wizard who will magically solve her problem.  Along the way, she makes three friends and finds a fellowship in their company that ultimately solves her problem and theirs as well.

The story has been interpreted by some readers as an allegory representing the struggles of the Populists against exploitive Eastern bankers, represented by the Wicked Witch of the East, and Western railroad interests, represented by the Wicked Witch of the West.  Dorothy’s three friends are a scarecrow, representing a farmer stuck in a spiral of debt that he cannot figure out how to end; a tin man, representing a worker laboring in a heartless mechanical factory system; and a cowardly lion, representing William Jennings Bryan who critics said roared like a lion but acted like a mouse when confronting the powers-that-be. Dorothy represented the American public caught up in the social and economic storm of that time and just wanting things to get back to normal.  Dorothy and her friends hope that the wizard, who represents a transcendent authority or all-powerful leader, will send Dorothy home and give the scarecrow brains, the tin man a heart, and the lion some courage.

The yellow brick road, which represents the gold standard, leads the four comrades to a so-called Emerald City which is emerald only because people are required to wear glasses with tinted green lenses.  It is a fake.  And the wizard turns out to be a fraud who has no magic.  But the four companions are able to solve their problems and to become their hoped for best selves through helping each other, one for all and all for one, without any need of a transcendent authority.  That is, by seeing each other as extensions of themselves and treating each other as they would want to be treated if they were in the other’s situation, they are able to achieve their goals.  It is a story of the power of ordinary people acting as a community and following the Golden Rule.

The moral of the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is that the Golden Rule is a sufficient ground for establishing our existential being, and for deriving ethical principles and enforcing them. A transcendent authority — a god, guru, wizard, or absolutist government — is not necessary to establish our identities as individuals, and to prescribe and enforce ethical rules.  Dostoevsky claimed that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted and nihilism prevails.  Voltaire said that if God did not exist, we would have to invent Him.  Not so, I would argue.  God may be sufficient for these purposes but He is not necessary.

The key to my argument is the contention that the Golden Rule is not merely an ethical adjuration to do better but is a statement of psychological and social fact.  We, in fact, live according to the principles of “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  It is part of our human condition.  As I contended in Part I of this essay, we cannot know ourselves without knowing others.  “I think, therefore we are” is an existential fact of life.  I know myself through knowing others and their knowing me.

The way we think of ourselves, therefore, depends on how we think of others.  If we think of the well-being of others as connected with our own well-being, loving our neighbors as though they are extensions of ourselves, then we are likely to think well of ourselves.  If we disregard others’ well-being, we are likely to think poorly of ourselves.  In turn, the way we expect others to treat us depends on how we treat them, on doing unto them as we would have them do unto us if we were in their situation.  If we treat others poorly, we are likely to expect them to treat us poorly, and they probably will.  Hostility breeds hostility.  If we treat others well, we are likely to expect the same from them and are more likely to be treated that way.

The Golden Rule is contained in one form or another within virtually every major existential and ethical philosophy and religion in the history of the world.  Many philosophical schools and religions around the world since ancient times have also contended that humans are happiest and healthiest when they are in close communal and cooperative relations with others and when they follow the Golden Rule.  Anthropologists have provided support for this contention in examining societies past and present.  Evolutionary biologists have contended that the ability of humans to cooperate is a key to our evolutionary success.  And research on human brains has recently supported this contention.  Humans are apparently hardwired to feel best when helping others and living in close communal relations with family, neighbors and co-workers.  The philosophy of ethics, which is often ridiculed as soft and fuzzy, is being supported by hard science.

That the Golden Rule is a psychological reality and possibly even a biological fact of human life does not mean that we do not need government or laws or means of enforcing those laws.  Although the Golden Rule explicitly describes how one individual person should treat another individual person — “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” for example — it implicitly requires a cooperative community and a government to fulfill its purposes.  Treating others as an extension of oneself requires institutions greater than oneself to fulfill their needs, which ultimately means government.  The Golden Rule points, however, toward a government of, by and for the people instead of a government that rules as a transcendent authority over people.  Ironically, it is individualism and anti-government libertarianism that almost inevitably lead to authoritarian government.  In the absence of communal ties and cooperative ethics, government must impose itself on isolated individuals in order to establish law and order.  Communalism can, instead, lead to the sort of participatory government that the Founders of our country intended.

Individualism, Individuality and Death.

“We do not come as individuals.”  William Jennings Bryan. Chicago: July 9, 1896.

The Founding Fathers were not wallflowers.  They were men with large egos who openly sought lasting fame.  That they promoted communalism does not mean that they did not also seek to assert their own individuality.  Individuality and communalism are complementary, not contradictory, values.  It is important in this regard to distinguish between individualism and individuality.  Individualism is an ideology that promotes a cult of self-development by the self-sufficient individual.  It places “I” before “We” and relates everything in the world to “Me.”  It also invariably places each individual in competition with other individuals, and leaves him/her in a perpetually precarious position facing potential attack from other individuals.  While stressing personal independence, individualism effectively makes a person dependent upon the willingness of others to leave that person alone.  With individualism as one’s starting point, the Golden Rule can seem silly, a pious ideal and ritual wish that one might recite on Sundays but that one knows is an impossible dream.

Individuality is the quality that distinguishes each individual from other people.  Individuality is a relative term that delineates how a person compares and contrasts with other persons. It is what makes a person unique.  Individuality can, as such, be developed only in communal relations with others and most securely in cooperation with them.  Individuality implies mutual interdependence rather than either independence or dependence, as each person makes his/her unique contribution to the communal whole.  The Golden Rule is a prescription for individuality and the quest for individuality leads to the Golden Rule.

But then there is death.  For advocates of individualism and advocates of a transcendent authority such as God, death is their strongest argument.  Humans are aware from an early age that they are going to die and each person dies his or her own death.  Exponents of individualism claim that both the contemplation of death and the experience of dying create an insuperable gulf that separates all of us and renders each of us an isolated individual.  In turn, religious advocates claim that awareness of death leads people to long for a transcendent authority such as God to whom they can attach themselves and who might grant them eternal life after death.  Without God, they say, life is short, mean and meaningless.  This is a powerful argument but many thinkers from David Hume to Thomas Mann have tried to counter it.

Thomas Mann, for example, turned the argument on its head and claimed that without death, life is mean and meaningless.  Through the character of Herr Settembrini in The Magic Mountain, Mann claimed that if life were eternal, then time would be valueless, effort would be worthless, and commitment would be silly.  Life would be profligate, something to squander because there would always be more to come.  And people would have no rhyme or reason to come together.  With or without God, eternal life would isolate individuals and render ethics meaningless.  With eternal life at stake, belief in God leads to the sort of cynical commitment represented by Pascal’s wager.  Pascal, a contemporary of Descartes, said that even if God does not exist, you have nothing to lose by believing in Him.  And if God does exist, then you have everything to gain by believing in Him and everything to lose by not believing in Him.  So, he concluded, believing in God is the practical thing to do.  But where is the dignity in life or in God with such a bargain?

Death, according to Mann, gives life dignity.  Rather than being the enemy of life, death makes life worth living.  And rather than isolating individuals from each other, death makes life  a shared experience with others.  Death creates boundaries to life within which we are challenged to do our best and make a contribution to each other.  Commitment makes sense in this context because we have only so much time and we must make the best of it.  And since we are all in this together, and no one gets out alive, we have reason to see each other as an extension of ourselves and to cooperate with each other.  Rather than separating one from the other, death makes us part of a collective life in which the Golden Rule makes the best sense.  Following the Golden Rule allows one to live with dignity without God but can also help one to live with dignity with God.

Mann’s argument does not take the sting out of death.  But individualism, with its focus on “I” and the isolation of each individual, effectively focuses the individual on death and makes death a continual source of anxiety.  Communalism, with its focus on “We,” makes one part of something bigger than oneself without having to abjectly submit to a transcendent authority such as an absolute God or an authoritarian government.  It does not rule out the need for government or eliminate the desire in some to believe in God, but it places those attachments on a more dignified and secure footing.  Communalism provides better protection for individuality and relief of anxiety than individualism, and leaves one better able to pursue happiness in life.

John Locke versus Francis Hutcheson: Considering “The Pursuit of Happiness.”

The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer.”           William Jennings Bryan. Chicago: July 9, 1896.

Communalism has been a major part of social theory and practice throughout American history.  An important ingredient of most Native American societies, communalism was also integral to the first European American settlements.  The Puritans, for example, explicitly rejected individualism and sought to establish a communal society in Massachusetts during the early 1600’s.  They enacted maximum price and minimum wage laws so that no one could take advantage of another’s need for goods and services or for a sufficient income.  They established procedures for sharing and rotating land occupancy so that all would take turns farming the best land and no one could monopolize all of the best land.

Jonathan Winthrop, the Puritan leader, denounced the idea “That a man may sell as dear as he can and buy as cheap as he can” and “That a man may take advantage of his own skill or ability, so he may of another’s ignorance or necessity.”  The Reverend John Wise explained the Puritan theory of government saying that it must “Use and Apply the strength and riches of Private Persons towards maintaining the Common Peace, Security, and Well-being of All.”  All must share in the common wealth of the commonwealth.

Individualism developed, however, as a competing orientation in America during the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries.  The competition revolved in large part around differences between the philosophies of the Englishman John Locke and the Scotsman Francis Hutcheson.  Conventional American histories focus on the influence that Locke had on the colonists and often ignore Hutcheson completely.  But Hutcheson was extremely influential, especially with leading figures in the founding of the country such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin among many others.  Hutcheson is the originator of the phrase “pursuit of happiness” that is enshrined as an inalienable human right in the Declaration of Independence.

Locke was the most important philosopher of individualism during this time.  Echoing Descartes’ Cogito, Locke claimed that each human is born as a “tabula rasa,” that is, as a blank slate devoid of knowledge or personality.  Intellectual development consists of amassing facts to fill up the brain.  Personal development consists of amassing private property as a means of establishing one’s identity and one’s relations with others.  In Locke’s formula, you are what you own and the people you control through that ownership.  In Locke’s view, the primary purpose of government is to protect “life, liberty and property,” since life depended on owning property, and liberty consisted of being able to own and operate property.  His was a philosophy that stressed the self, selfishness, and self-aggrandizement.

Hutcheson was a leading figure in the Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and a primary originator of the Common Sense moral and social theories that were held by most of the American Founding Fathers.  Hutcheson developed theories of benevolence in explicit opposition to Locke’s theories of selfishness.  Contrary to Locke, Hutcheson claimed that the primary purpose of life was to make oneself happy by making others happy, and that the primary purpose of government was to protect “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  This meant that government should encourage cooperation because that’s how people achieved happiness.

Hutcheson rejected Locke’s “tabula rasa” theory of personality and contended that each human is born with a common sense intellectual faculty, that is, a capacity for higher level thinking of the sort that we today would call critical thinking.  Critical thinking involves comparing and contrasting viewpoints.  It cannot be done in isolation because it requires others’ viewpoints for purposes of analysis. For Hutcheson, intellectual development consists of pursuing knowledge through critical thinking with others, not, as Locke would have it, through amassing facts and experiences by oneself.  Hutcheson also contended that humans are born with a common sense moral faculty, what we might call a conscience.  A person’s social development consists in exercising the person’s moral faculty in helping others, and pursuing happiness for oneself by bringing happiness to others.  A person gains an identity and develops his or her individuality not by controlling property and other people, but by working with others.

Although the Founders later injected Locke’s formula of “life, liberty and property” into the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution in defining one of the primary purposes of government, that did not mean they were abandoning the “pursuit of happiness” delineated earlier in the Declaration.  Nor, in protecting individual rights in the Bill of Rights, were they opting for individualism or so-called libertarianism.  Despite the unhistorical and hysterical contentions of libertarians and others on the political right wing, the Constitution is on the whole a communal document that was adopted by “We the People” in order to “promote the general Welfare” and that endows a government of the people with “Power… to make all laws necessary and proper” toward that end.

Libertarianism is essentially an anti-government version of Hobbes’ war of each against all.  Libertarians do not trust anyone and especially do not trust anyone in power in the government.  For them, government merely provides an opportunity for selfish individuals (like themselves) to get over on the rest of us.  So, they claim, government must be crippled and everyone must protect himself and his property as best he can, essentially on his own.  As with Locke, they believe that what you own defines who you are.  Consistent with this ideology, libertarians strongly support an unhistorical and illogical interpretation of the Second Amendment that allows everyone to have whatever guns and other weapons they might want and think they need to protect themselves and their property against each other and against the government.  Libertarians have thereby slid down a slippery slope of individualism from caution to paranoia.

In this context, it might be useful to compare and contrast libertarianism with anarchism.  Anarchism is essentially a utopian extension of the Golden Rule.  Like libertarians, anarchists distrust government and worry that power corrupts.  But whereas libertarians worry that government supports the unworthy masses against the deserving few, anarchists claim that government inevitably supports the rich and powerful against everyone else.  Anarchists want a world without government but they base their hopes on a belief that people are essentially good and that if we only got rid of private property, we could  also get rid of government and happily live communally ever after in peace and harmony.  Libertarians may be described as utopian or, maybe, dystopian capitalists, anarchists as utopian socialists.

Herbert Spencer versus Lester Frank Ward: Reconsidering “Survival of the Fittest.”

“There are two ideas of government.  There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that then their prosperity will leak through on those below.  The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.” 

William Jennings Bryan. Chicago: July 9, 1896.

Native American, African American, and European American social theories and practices were predominantly communal from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth century.  During the so-called Jacksonian era of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the social paradigm among European Americans flipped so that individualism became the dominant ideology for them and communalism became a secondary principle.  And laissez-faire capitalism became the predominant economic theory in the United States, even if it was not uniformly the practice.

Even as laissez-faire capitalism was being trumpeted as the American way of life during the nineteenth century, and the courts regularly struck down regulations of big business and support for small farmers and workers as unconstitutional, state and federal governments routinely provided economic support for big business enterprises.  And the courts supported this disparate treatment on the grounds of protecting the sacred rights of property.  The Supreme Court, led by Justice Stephen Field, read laissez-faire principles into the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, claiming that almost any regulation of business, as opposed to support for business — including child labor laws, minimum wage laws, health and safety laws — was an unconstitutional taking of property under those Amendments.  It was in this context that the Supreme Court first ruled that corporations were “persons” under the Constitution.  Since the protections of property under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments applied only to persons, if corporations were not deemed persons, then state and federal governments could completely regulate them.  Such an outcome did not fit with the Court’s theory of individualism in which winners were supposed to form a ruling hierarchy of wealth over lower class losers.

In sum, while the predominant theory in this country as Bryan spoke in 1896 was laissez-faire individualism, the predominant practice was cutthroat competition for ordinary people but corporate monopolies for the rich.  This situation was often described as capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich.  The social ideas of Thomas Malthus, the evolutionary theory of Social Darwinism, and a Hobbesian interpretation of the mantra “survival of the fittest” were widely used to justify this disparate treatment of economic winners and losers.  The use of these ideas for those purposes was decried by Darwin as well as Bryan.

Thomas Malthus was an early nineteenth century Protestant English clergyman who claimed that in the absence of strictly enforced population control measures, population inevitably outruns the supply of food and other necessities of life, and the result is famine and social dislocation.  The problem is the lower classes who have no self-control and tend to breed like rabbits.  Malthus claimed that without strict controls on the behavior of the lower classes, periodic famines, deadly epidemic diseases, and wars were necessary to rid the world of the excess lower class population.  He was particularly opposed to any sort of charity for the poor because that would encourage the poor to have more children.  The lower classes must essentially be starved into birth control.

Charles Darwin admitted to using Malthus’ population theories in developing his evolutionary theory of “natural selection,” according to which those species that are best adapted to a given environment will survive while others will perish.  But Darwin did not apply natural selection to the internal operations of human society.  That is, natural selection applied to competition among species and did not necessarily imply competition within species.  To the contrary, some species might thrive and survive on the basis of cooperation among its members rather than competition, and that, according to Darwin, includes humans.

It was Herbert Spencer who jumped on Darwinism as a justification for laissez-faire capitalist individualism.  He coined the slogan “survival of the fittest” and promoted the rule of the rich as an example of that principle.  Spencer is essentially the founder of the Social Darwinism that Bryan found so offensive.  But there was an alternative version of Social Darwinism in the late nineteenth century that took its cue from Darwin himself and that emphasized the inherently cooperative nature of human existence.  Lester Frank Ward, one of the pioneers of sociology, argued that “fittest” did not mean strongest, richest or most powerful.  Fitness is a function of adaptation to the environment and especially to changing environments.  The fitness of humans, said Ward, is a result of our adaptability and our ability to work together.  It is social cooperation and not laissez-faire competition that makes humans fit and has historically enabled humans to survive and thrive.  Laissez-faire individualism is a prescription for human catastrophe.

Ward’s message was overwhelmed in its time by support for Spencer’s version of Social Darwinism by Andrew Carnegie and other wealthy and powerful people, all of whom preached competitive individualism for the masses while building huge monopolistic corporate empires for themselves.  It is ironic that opposition to evolutionary theory was led in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by political and religious liberals such as Bryan who feared the conservative message of Social Darwinism while opposition to evolutionary theory has in recent years been promoted by political and religious conservatives whose social views are essentially similar to those of the Social Darwinians whom Bryan opposed.

The essence of Ward’s liberal Social Darwinian message survived, however, in the theories of many of the Progressives, New Dealers, Great Society proponents, and other liberals of the twentieth and early twenty-first century.  America’s major contribution to world philosophy — the school of thought embodied in the pragmaticism of Charles Sanders Peirce, pragmatism of William James, and experimentalism of John Dewey — is rooted in evolutionary theory and in Golden Rule ethics.  It is the message of “I think, therefore we are,” and the idea of seeing others as extensions of ourselves in the here-and-now and in the future.

We see examples of this message all around us.  The teacher who sows seeds of learning  in the hope they will grow in future ways and times the teacher may not see.  The grandparents who try to provide for grandchildren they may never see or see grow up.  The politician who enacts long-term policies that may not succeed until after the next election.  Caring for others now and in the future.  This sort of thinking flies in the face of the predominant selfish individualism fostered by our society, a society in which a right wing majority of the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations — legal fictions defined solely by money — have the same rights as humans and that under the free speech guarantees of the Constitution, money literally talks.  These are fantasies worthy of L. Frank Baum that would be comical if they were not so harmful.  But hope remains in the staying power and underlying reality of the cooperative message, a human and humane message that is increasingly being supported by science.

Egoism and its attendant evils will never completely go away but maybe they can become the exception rather than the ruling ideal.  We can see every day the increasingly destructive effects on the environment of our current ways of thinking and acting.  We may be in the process of destroying the environment in which humans have survived and creating an environment in which we may no longer fit.  In the competition among species for survival of the fittest, cockroaches, just as one example, may be a better fit than humans for the new environment we are creating and they may outlast us.  What we need is a paradigm change of the sort demanded by William Jennings Bryan so that the Golden Rule, instead of the rule of gold, becomes the norm in our society and  no longer an ideal exception, and so that we no longer stumble and fall  on a fool’s gold errand down the yellow brick road.

Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito: “I think, therefore we are (not I am).” Part II: The World According to Calvin and Hobbes.

Burton Weltman

I think, therefore I laugh… Parody as Reality.

Calvin: “Do you believe in the Devil?  You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption and destruction of man?”

Hobbes: “I’m not sure man needs help.”

This is a sample colloquy between the main characters of Calvin and Hobbes, a popular nationally syndicated comic strip produced by Bill Watterson from 1985 to 1995.  Calvin was a little boy.  Hobbes was his toy stuffed tiger who became a full-sized talking tiger whenever no one else was around.  The comic strip featured Calvin’s and Hobbes’ sardonic observations about the foibles and foolishness of adult humans and the hypocrisies and atrocities of human society.

The comic strip Calvin was named after John Calvin, a sixteenth century leader of the Protestant Reformation who founded a strict version of Protestantism. John Calvin and his followers focused on what they claimed is the lasting and pervasive effect of Adam’s Original Sin.  They insisted that humans are born in sin, inevitably live in sin whatever their best efforts to do good, and all deserve to be sent to Hell when they die.  That conclusion includes even newborn babies and children who have done little or nothing in their short lives.  Only God’s arbitrary forgiveness saves some few humans from the eternal damnation they all deserve.

John Calvin also insisted that it was up to each individual to read the Bible for him/herself, decide what it means, and determine at his/her peril how to lead a righteously God-dominated life.  This line of thought could sometimes lead to holier-than-thou competition among believers and vengeance-is-mine-on-behalf-of-the-Lord persecution of non-believers.  The comic strip Calvin often reflects the misanthropic John Calvin’s dark perspective.

The comic strip tiger was named Hobbes after Thomas Hobbes, a seventeenth century philosopher and contemporary of Descartes, who believed that humans were voracious and vicious by nature, and that life without a dictatorial government to control people would consist of a “war of everyone against everyone.”  People would be in “continual fear and danger of violent death” and their lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Hobbes believed that people are inherently self-centered and selfish and that only an authoritarian government, “a common power to keep them in awe,” could save humans from themselves and society from chaos.  People were by nature free, independent and individualistic, but needed to be tightly leashed and dominated to survive.  Unlike Calvin, Hobbes did not believe in Divine Providence and insisted that only complete subservience to government, not God, could bring peace on earth.  The comic strip Hobbes often reflects the dour philosopher’s sour perspective.

In choosing to parody the perspectives of John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes in his comic strip, Bill Watterson hit on two of the main tributaries to the mainstream of Western social thought over the past four hundred years.  As with most social thinkers during that time, including most conservatives, liberals and radicals, Calvin and Hobbes took individualism as the starting point of their theories and came to some form of authoritarianism as their conclusion — God domination for Calvin, government domination for Hobbes.  Descartes’ Cogito has been popularly understood to provide philosophical support for this line of thought.

 I think, therefore I am free…But not for long .

Hobbes: “Until you stalk and overrun, you cannot devour anyone.”

Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” has been widely understood to demonstrate that each of us is an isolated individual and is the center of his/her own universe.  It has also been understood to establish that society is merely a conglomeration of independent individuals, and that without some transcendent authority to connect us to each other, dictate moral values to us, and enforce law and order on us, there is no feasible way for ethical human beings and ethical societies to survive.  Chaos, violence and a dog-eat-dog cycle of predatory behavior would prevail.

This intellectual transition from a premise of individual freedom to an authoritarian conclusion follows logically from Descartes’ Cogito and is reflected in the theories of Calvin, Hobbes and many others over the last four hundred years.  If each of us is an isolated individual then each of us is theoretically a law unto him/herself.  The  logical result of this sort of self-willed insularity would be chaos if it was allowed to play out.  While exceptional individuals might on their own behave morally and even heroically in accord with what they perceive as a  common ethic, we cannot trust that others will do so.  Therefore, a transcendent authority, which is generally taken to be God or government or both, is required to establish a code of ethics that would be accepted by everyone.  And a transcendent enforcer, which can punish transgressors in this life and/or the next, is necessary to ensure that law and order prevails and that everyone obeys the code.  Although one can try to limit the ways and means and the extent to which a transcendent authority can restrict individual freedoms and inflict punishments on transgressors — through constitutions, checks and balances, division of powers, and other vehicles — individualism is a theory and practice that cannot sustain itself and authoritarianism seems to emerge inevitably from individualism even as the two theories contradict each other.

Authoritarianism is, however, also a fragile system that almost invariably produces the chaos and violence it is intended to prevent.  The logic of this outcome was described by Hegel in his discussion of the master-slave relationship.  Individualism generates a war of each against all for security and supremacy.  This war will invariably result in might making right and the stronger imposing their will as masters on the weaker.  Peace will be imposed on the populace but it will be a fragile peace.  Any victory in this war will be inherently precarious and fraught with peril for the masters because the self-esteem and the security of the masters depend on the slaves accepting their subordination.  If the slaves insist on their equality with the masters, either through outright rebellion or even just insubordination, then the masters’ self-esteem is undermined and their safety is threatened.  The pride of the masters goeth before their fall.  The result, says Hegel, is that masters are as much enslaved by their domination of their slaves as the slaves are by their masters, and masters are inevitably insecure.

Hegel’s conclusions were exemplified in the ante-bellum American South by the exaggerated fears of slave masters of slave rebellions.  Most slave owners lived in constant fear of slave uprisings and imposed all sorts of onerous restrictions on their own activities out of fear of their slaves.  Slave owners also frequently undertook preemptive violence against their slaves, thereby coarsening their own lives as a means of protecting themselves, and for the same reason often made their plantations less efficient and profitable than they otherwise would have been.

Hegel’s master-slave analysis has been applied to other unequal relationships and winner/loser outcomes that result from individualistic struggles for supremacy and survival.  Winner/loser outcomes and have/have-not relationships almost inevitably generate self-fulfilling vicious cycles of fear and violence as the winners and the haves try to protect their dominant positions.  We can see this vicious cycle over the last one hundred years in the United States in the exaggerated fears of the upper classes of uprisings by workers, blacks, immigrants, Muslims, and other have-not groups.  These fears have led to preemptive repression and violence by ruling class winners against downtrodden losers, with the result that the rulers have often brought about the violence that they feared and also generated cycles of seemingly endless conflict with many of those they rule.

I think, therefore I cry: The Cogito and Social Theory

Calvin:”There’s no problem so awful that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.”

Individualism and its consequences have preoccupied Western thinkers since the sixteenth century, albeit with a tremendous amount of ambivalence and guilt built into the theory and practice of it.  Both in theory and in practice people have been whipsawed back and forth, for example, between commitment to absolute individual freedom and the necessity of law and order discipline, between belief in individual responsibility and belief in charity toward the have-nots, and between the integrity of the isolated individual and the warmth of a shared community.  Whichever way people have turned, they seem to experience loss and guilt.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and especially Calvinism, significantly changed the way in which believers related to each other and to their God.  The Catholic Church, which had dominated religious life during the European Middle Ages, portrayed the church as a community of believers and a society for mutual aid toward salvation.  In this view, the Church acted as an intermediary between people and God to help them get right with the Lord.

In contrast, Protestants promoted individual self-help toward salvation.  Protestants proclaimed the responsibility of each individual to get straight with God on his/her own.  Each person was free to do as he/she pleased but would be condemned to eternal torment in Hell if he/she did not strictly follow the dictates of God in the Bible.  Protestant ministers, except for a few preachers who occasionally claimed to be inspired by God or in some kind of direct contact with Him, did not provide the help that Catholic priests offered to mediate between people and God.

Protestantism has, however, been full of conflicts, contradictions and agonizing ambivalence that is a consequence of its individualistic premises.  Can, for example, someone who has had a salvation experience do whatever he/she wants without any of his/her acts being deemed sins, as Anne Hutchinson and other seventeenth century antinomian Protestants claimed?  Is absolute individual freedom the meaning of Jesus’ death for our sins and Paul’s repudiation of the Law?  Or must everyone still obey the letter of Biblical Law, and even then possibly be damned to Hell?  Are some of us innocent at least sometimes or are all of us always guilty?  Is it fair that newborn babies are considered sinners and are damned if they die without baptism?  The history of Protestantism has from its inception been replete with conflicts between individualism and authoritarianism, and recurring cycles of antinomian radicalism and orthodox conservatism.

Like Protestantism, most political philosophy over the last four hundred years has started with the isolated individual and then tried to explain and justify society, social control and government.  Most thinkers have come to some sort of unstable compromise between freedom and authority in which government is seen as a necessary evil.  This conclusion has been reached and preached by conservative theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, liberal theorists such as John Locke, who heavily influenced the American Founding Fathers, and more recent radical thinkers such as John Rawls.  It is a conclusion that inevitably breeds distrust of government as a repressive institution that threatens to swallow up individuals and their freedoms.

Political theorizing during this time has typically started with a “state of nature” (Hobbes and Locke) or an “original position” (Rawls) in which isolated individuals face each other and face a choice of how to establish social relations with each other.  This choice is typically accomplished through some sort of social contract in which individuals agree to relinquish some of their rights (Locke and Rawls) or all of their freedom (Hobbes) to the government in return for protection and social services.  This is a deal that tends to be portrayed as a devil’s bargain that makes government a constant threat to people.

Even most socialistic theories, such as those of the influential nineteenth century radicals Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, have been premised with individualism.  This is a starting point that puts cooperative and communitarian programs at a disadvantage, and led Owen and Fourier to make compromises with authoritarianism that contradicted many of their socialistic goals.

Mainstream economic theories in the modern era, such as those of David Ricardo, Alfred Marshall, and Milton Friedman, have similarly started with the individual producer and consumer who is then required to submit him/herself to domination by so-called market-place principles and to let the “invisible hand” of competition determine his/her life choices.  These theories insist that individuals be free to make their own decisions but also insist that people make those decisions according to the demands of the marketplace, thereby mixing freedom with submission.  The theories also generally insist as a matter of personal responsibility and economic rationality that the haves deserve to enjoy their wealth and the have-nots deserve to suffer their poverty.  Charity is often lauded in individual cases but discouraged as a general practice because it breeds sloth and it wastes resources that might otherwise be productively and profitably invested.  In these theories, government involvement in the economy is seen as at best an occasional necessary evil  and government is invariably blamed for anything that goes wrong.

Finally, ethical theories over the last four hundred years as diverse as those of Descartes, Kant, Herbert Spencer, Nietzsche, and Sartre have all started with isolated individuals and ended by either applauding or denouncing the imposition of moral and social codes on people.  The conclusions of Calvin and Hobbes that individualism requires repression has been reflected in most social and political theory and practice since his time, and the idea that people might willingly behave according to the Golden Rule or some other cooperative ethic has generally been rejected and even ridiculed.

I think, therefore I choose: Individualism in History

Calvin:”It’s hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning.”

Conventional thought tends to portray individualism and individual freedom as the central issue in history, as though arguments and struggles for and against individualism were the most important thing for everyone.  This was not, however, the case in most societies and prior times in which Descartes’ Cogito and the idea of individualism would not have made sense to people.

In ancient Greece, for example, Aristotle  reflected the general sentiment when he claimed that man is a social animal who gains an identity from those around him not from himself.  The concept of “We” came before the idea of “I.”  For Aristotle and most other Greek thinkers, an isolated individual was literally an idiot.  Reality derives from society not from the individual.  While the Greeks recognized and focused on the problematic relationship of the one to the many, and the difficulty of integrating and interrelating individuals and society, the idea of “one for all and all for one” was for most Greeks not an ideal that was largely honored in the breach but a statement of  fact that explained how they saw themselves and justified their actions, even when they were not ideal.

Politics and participation in government were considered by Aristotle and most other Greeks to be the highest forms of activity.  Freedom was exercised through government, not against it, and government was the expression of freedom, not its enemy.  Exile and exclusion from society were widely considered fates worse than death, as exemplified by Socrates’ choice of death rather than escape from Athens when he was convicted of blasphemy.  Human sociability, the willingness and need of people to be with other people and to get along with them, rather than authoritarian imposition of law and order, was considered by most Greek thinkers to be the best source of ethics and ethical enforcement.

A similar communal emphasis permeated mainstream thought in the European Middle Ages, during which intellectual and ethical debate was dominated by the Catholic Church.  Reiterating the idea that man is a social animal, Thomas Aquinas, the Church’s preeminent philosopher, claimed that natural law was innate in humans and coexisted with divine law.  Even an atheist, he argued, was capable of ethical behavior in fulfillment of his/her best self and most enlightened self-interest.  Monastic communalism was the highest ideal of medieval society and the model for Thomas More’s critique in his Utopia of the emerging individualism in Western society during the 1500’s.  Exemplifying this communalism, artistic and architectural creations in medieval Europe were done anonymously and were considered collective creations of the community not the product of individuals. “We” came before “I.”

The Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation changed this.  We know today who did most of the creative work during that time because Renaissance artists aggressively sought individual fame.  Reflecting the consequences of the emerging individualism in society, most Western societies starting in the 1500s developed both dictatorial churches and dictatorial governments, ruled by absolute monarchs, so-called divine right kings, in conjunction with government-controlled churches, pray my way or die institutions.

This too began to pass starting in the late eighteenth century.  Since then, most Western societies have gradually become less authoritarian in government, albeit with totalitarian spasms such as the fascist and Nazi regimes of the twentieth century, and most have also moved toward religious tolerance and even indifference.  In turn, most countries have replaced extreme forms of individualism with modest forms of social democracy and have been able to adopt cooperative ethical codes without resorting to religious coercion or political oppression.  The reasons for this change are complex but they include the collectivism that is inherent in the industrialization and urbanization that have characterized this period, and the labor unions and socialistic movements that emerged.

These changes have, nonetheless, been largely understood and undertaken as modifications of the individualistic logic that stems from Descartes’ Cogito rather than a rejection of individualism.  The continued prevalence of an individualist ethos has inhibited the more humane theory and practice that would be a consequence of recognizing that “We” precedes “I” and enacting the Golden Rule.  Individualism has been particularly persistent in the United States where the fear of the authoritarian consequences of their own laissez-faire individualism has led so-called libertarians such Ron and Rand Paul and other far-right wingers to resent and reject almost all government programs.  Projecting onto government the fears generated by the imagined consequences of their own individualistic premises, they warn that any and every government program is the beginning of authoritarianism and the end of freedom.  They are hoisted on their own petards and aim to hoist the rest of us in the same way.

I think, therefore what would the Founding Fathers do?

Calvin: Today at school I tried to decide whether to cheat on my test or not…I wondered whether it is better to do the right thing and fail…or is it better to do the wrong thing and succeed.

Hobbes: So what did you decide?

Calvin: Nothing.  I ran out of time and I had to turn in a blank paper.

Hobbes: Anyway, simply acknowledging the issue is a moral victory.

Calvin: Well, it just seemed wrong to cheat on an ethics test.


But it does not have to be this way and the American Founding Fathers knew it.  Most of the Founders were not adherents of individualism and they rejected both a dictatorial God and a dictatorial government as the guarantor of an ethical society.  Theirs was a social theory that was based on communalism and that incorporated an ethic based on the Golden Rule.  They believed that there can be worlds other than the world according to Calvin and Hobbes, and their belief still has validity.  I will discuss this contention in the third part of this essay: Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito:”I think, therefore we are (not I am).”  Part III:  A Cross of Gold and the Golden Rule.

Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito: “I think, therefore we are (not I am).” Part I: Resolving the Popeye Perplex.

Burton Weltman

“I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.”

“I am what I am, and that’s all I am.”  So sayeth Popeye the Sailor Man before he downs a can of spinach and goes forth to pummel some bad guys and save some innocent people from harm.  Popeye was a popular comic strip super hero before there were superheroes, with bulging biceps and enormous strength that he derived from consuming spinach.  A precursor from the 1920’s of the age of superheroes that emerged during the Depression years of the 1930’s, Popeye shared a key trait with Superman and most other superheroes from then to the present day: a belief in himself as a miraculously conceived individual with unique characteristics that he derived from no one else.  Popeye was his own man, an independent individual, and there was no one to whom he owed a debt of gratitude for his specialness.  “I yam what I yam,” Popeye would repeatedly declaim in a slurred expression that was alternately and ambivalently humble – he did not claim to be more than he actually was – and proud – because what he actually was was plenty good.

“I am that I am.”  So sayeth God to Moses before He goes forth to pummel the wicked Pharaoh with plagues and enables Moses to lead the Hebrews out of slavery.  From ancient times in Western society through the Middle Ages, it was generally held that no person could claim to be self-sufficient or the author of his/her own powers, and no one could claim to be unique.  Among Jews, Christians and Muslims, it was generally believed that only God could say that He was what He was and that it was the sin of pride for a person to say that of him/herself.  Pride, the belief that one was the author of his/her own virtues and accomplishments without the support of other people or God, was seen as the root of all evils.

But things changed.  Beginning with the Protestant Reformation and the emergence of capitalist economic systems in the 1500’s, and then with the Enlightenment and the rise of liberal and democratic social and political theories and practices in the 1700’s, an ideology of individualism developed that has permeated Western societies to the present day.  Pride, personal independence and self-sufficiency became virtues.  We routinely praise people whom we identify as being self-made and independent, and who have pride in their individual selves.  And we criticize people who do not claim to be independent and who seem not to have pride in themselves or their work.

We are, however, ambivalent about our pride. So, for example, expressions of pride in a personal achievement, such as scoring the winning touchdown in a football game, are often accompanied by “Thank the Lord” statements which ostensibly denote humility.  But even these statements sometimes seem to connote some special relationship of the speaker with God and some favoritism from the Lord, as though He actually cares who wins a football game.  Pride seems thereby to emerge even from within a statement expressing humility.  The upshot is that we tend in our society to display an ambivalence and an internalized contradiction between pride and humility that could be termed a Popeye Perplex.

Philosophical support for the ideology of individualism was supplied in the early 1600’s by Rene Descartes through his formulation of Cogito, ergo sum or “I think, therefore I am.”  Popeye was  a disciple of Descartes.  But I do not think that either Descartes or Popeye got things quite right, and I think that a reformulation of the Cogito could be a way of resolving the Perplex.

The Cogito: If I yam what I yam, what are you?

We humans seem to be among the few creatures on earth who are aware of ourselves.  We are, in turn, plagued by persistent existential questions about who and what we are.  Hence Popeye’s almost obsessive concern to reassure himself and others that he was what he was, whatever that was.  Descartes’ claim that “I think, therefore I am” represents the predominant answer in our society to these existential questions.

Descartes’ formulation has been widely interpreted to mean that we humans are thinking creatures who can know only one thing for sure — that each of us exists as an isolated individual.  This conclusion is reflected in Popeye’s mantra of “I yam what I yam.”  Descartes’ Cogito is also popularly taken to mean that each individual is the center of his/her own universe and can rely only on his/her own observations and conclusions in deciding how life should be lived.  Based on these interpretations, Descartes has often been viewed as the godfather of individualism.

But Descartes’ actual intention was quite different.  His intention was to establish God as the center of the universe, as the central point of meaning for humankind, and to connect us to each other through God.  Descartes is often credited with allowing us to turn Adam’s Original Sin of pride and personal independence into a high virtue.  In this misreading of Descartes, we fail to understand that he actually sought to promote a collective communion with the Lord and a humble recognition of humans’ dependence on God.

Descartes begins his reasoning with an attempt to find something that a person can know for sure.  He expresses concern that some Evil Genius might be feeding him misleading perceptions which would lead him to false thoughts.  He then hits on the indisputable fact that he is thinking and the fact that he is thinking is indubitable even if an Evil Genius is otherwise misleading him.  From this fact, he proceeds to the conclusion that a person can know for sure that he/she exists.  A person can ostensibly know this because each person is aware of his/her own thoughts and is, therefore, aware of him/herself as an existent being.

But Descartes does not rest with “I think, therefore I am.”  That was only a preliminary conclusion.  For if the only thing I can know for sure by myself is myself, how is it that I can successfully act in the world outside of myself?  We all act and operate successfully as though we know things outside of ourselves.  We communicate with each other, work with each other, and manipulate all sorts of other things as though we know about them.  How can this be?

Descartes’ answer is God: “When I turn my mind’s eye on myself, I understand that I am incomplete and dependent on another,” he says.  That other is God.  After considering all that he thinks he knows about the universe, Descartes comes to the conclusion that “all these attributes are such that, the more carefully I concentrate on them, the less possible it seems they could have originated from me alone [even from an Evil Genius].”  They must, instead, come from God and “it must be concluded that God necessarily exists.”

God brings things together and holds them together for us so that we can function in a world about which we cannot really know anything outside of our individual selves.  It is through our common connection with God that we can connect with each other and the outside world.  God is the deus ex machina who makes the machinery of the universe work.  In sum, instead of celebrating independence and promoting individualism, the Cogito functioned for Descartes as a proof of God’s existence and our communal dependence on Him.

Despite Descartes’ intentions, his Cogito has been used to justify the individualism that has permeated Western societies over the last four hundred years.  The ethical, political and economic theories developed during this time have almost invariably started with the isolated, independent individual and then tried to explain and justify society.  This has been true of even most socialistic and communitarian thinking.

Social and political practice has followed from this same starting point.  It is a starting point that puts most cooperative and communitarian theories and practices at a disadvantage.  It can lead to the extreme conclusion of Margaret Thatcher, England’s longtime conservative Prime Minister, that there is no such thing as society, only a bunch of individuals.  It therefore behooves anyone who wants to attack the prevailing individualism, and who hopes to replace it with a more cooperative social theory and practice, to address the Cogito and see if there is an alternative to its insistent focus on “I.”

Cognition and the Cogito: We before Me.

Descartes’ Cogito has been repeatedly criticized by philosophers even as it has become a popular mantra.  Criticism multiplied during the mid to late nineteenth century as philosophers increasingly rejected the dualism — mind versus body, self versus the world — of Descartes and his disciples and promoted, instead, more integrated and dialectical philosophies.

Kierkegaard, for example, complained that the Cogito was a circular argument that presupposes “I” and then uses it to prove the existence of “I.”  Nietzsche claimed that in phenomenologically examining one’s thoughts, one could at most say that “It thinks” but that one has no basis for saying “I.”  William James, following a suggestion from George Lichtenberg, went a step further and concluded that the most one could say is that “Thinking is occurring” but not that “I” think.  Following the lead of these critics, I think there are at least two problems with Descartes’ Cogito that lead me to conclude that a better formulation would be “I think, therefore we are,” a formulation that would provide philosophical and psychological support for a cooperative and communal social theory and practice.

First, Descartes confounds the difference between consciousness and self-consciousness.  The first “I” in his Cogito is not the same as the second “I” and there is no logical connection between the two.  Consciousness is an awareness of things outside of ourselves which is generally demonstrated by a responsiveness to those outside things.  Arguably, any living creature has consciousness of some sort because all living creatures, even amoebas, respond to outside influences and seem able to process information they receive from the outside world to reach conclusions upon which they act or at least react.  Self-consciousness, in contrast with simple consciousness, is an awareness of our awareness of things.  Seemingly, only the so-called higher life-forms, which do not include amoebas, have this second sort of awareness.

Descartes seems to think that because I – the first “I” in his Cogito – have an awareness of things, I have an awareness of my thinking about these things and, therefore, an awareness of myself.  That logic is flawed.  All Descartes has proved by saying “I think” is that he is comparable to an amoeba.  By the mere fact of thinking, Descartes has not established knowledge of himself or knowledge of his own existence.  He has merely established what William James called “a stream of consciousness,” a blur of perceptions and thoughts, the sort of thing that James Joyce portrayed brilliantly in Ulysses and confoundedly in Finnegan’s Wake.

The second problem with Descartes’ Cogito is that as a matter of philosophical logic and psychological fact he proceeds backwards.  It is not from my awareness of myself that I then gain awareness of others, it is from an awareness of others that I gain an awareness of myself.  Ontologically and psychologically “We” or at least “You” comes before “Me.”  I cannot say “I” without an awareness of other people with whom I interact and with whom I can compare and contrast myself.  As such, a ireformulated Cogito might better be “I think, therefore we are.”

There is an ethical dimension to this critique of the Cogito.  In order to get past an amoeba-like awareness of others as merely stimuli which require a response and reach a self-conscious awareness of myself as one among many beings, I must recognize other people as essentially the same as me and equal to me.  That is, in order to see myself, I must see others as beings to whom I can compare myself and against whom I can contrast myself.  If these others are completely foreign and unlike me, then I cannot see myself in them.  If they are completely like me, then I cannot see myself as distinguished from them.  In any case, I must first see others in order to then see myself.

I must also see other people as essentially equal to me in order to trust the evidence about myself that I receive from my interactions with them.  My self-awareness stems in large part from other people’s reactions to me, including their judgments of me, and from my reactions to them, including my judgments of them.  In order to trust their reactions to me and their judgments of me, I must respect them as people essentially equal to me.  In turn, in order to rely on my judgments of them, I must see them as like me and not so different as to be beyond comparison with me.  In sum, self-consciousness, an ability to say “I” and actually know what you are talking about,  requires respect for others.  So too does self-respect.  Your respect for others is a catalyst for and a measure of your respect for yourself.

It is from this circumstance that I believe the Golden Rule emerges as a statement of fact as well as an ethical ideal.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself” are descriptions of reality and not merely ideality, because the way we think of ourselves depends on how we think of others.  If we think of the well-being of others as connected with our own well-being, loving our neighbors as though they are extensions of ourselves, then we are likely to think well of ourselves.  If we disregard others’ well-being, we are likely to think poorly of ourselves.  In turn, the way we expect others to treat us depends on how we treat them, on doing unto them as we would have them do unto us if we were in their situation.  If we treat others poorly, we are likely to expect them to treat us poorly, and they probably will.  If we treat others well, we are likely to expect the same from them and are more likely to be treated that way.

Recognizing the reality of a reformulated Cogito and the Golden Rule is a way to solve the Popeye Perplex and resolve our chronic ambivalence and alternation between pride and humility.  This recognition means acknowledging that others are an extension of ourselves and that the way we treat others is a reflection of what we think of ourselves, so that thinking well of ourselves does not involve promoting ourselves above others, denigrating them, and seeing ourselves as self-made successes.  In turn, we do not have to humiliate ourselves in order to accept that we are part of a common humanity.

This acknowledgement that “We” precedes “Me” means accepting the contention of John Dewey and other pragmatic and progressive social thinkers that our self-development as individuals starts with our actual experience as social beings, and that theories and practices which reflect that fact protect individuals and promote individuality better than abstract formulations which start with isolated individuals.  Or as Karl Marx claimed: “The self-development of the individual is the basis for the development of all” and vice versa: The development of the collective is the foundation of the development of the individual.  Dewey and Marx were thereby contending that the world actually works according to the Golden Rule and were encouraging recognition of that fact as a first step toward realizing the benefits thereof.  I will elaborate on these contentions in the second part of this essay: Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito: “I think, therefore we are (not I am).”  Part II: The World According to Calvin and Hobbes.

An Unorthodox View of Jewish History: Why are Jews still here at all and why aren’t there more of us?

An Unorthodox View of Jewish History:

Why are Jews still here at all and why aren’t there more of us?

Burton Weltman

  1. An Orthodox Parallax: Shifting the Perspective on Jewish History.

These are the two most amazing facts about Jewish history: First, that there is any Jewish history at all and, in particular, that Jews have survived as a people during the last two thousand years.  Second, that there are so few Jews in the world today, only some fourteen million.

Considering the circumstances in which Jews have lived for most of the last two millennia, it is remarkable that we still exist as a people.  The prehistory of the Jewish people begins with the Biblical Hebrews, who ostensibly lived in ancient Palestine beginning some three thousand years ago.  Although the Hebrews and their story in the Bible are almost certainly mythological, it is a matter of historical record that Israelites lived in Palestine during the eighth and seventh centuries.  These Israelites are the historical ancestors of present day Jews.

But the Israelites were exiled from Palestine.  The so-called Ten Lost Tribes who lived in northern Palestine were expelled by the Assyrians around 725 BCE, and disappeared from history.  Then in 586 BCE, the remaining two tribes of Israelites were taken into captivity by the Babylonians.  They were, however, able to retain their identity as a people, and some were later permitted to move back to Palestine.  But from the time of the Babylonian Captivity to the present day, the great majority of Jews have been dispersed around the world.  They have lived in disparate places in which they have invariably been a minority, and even a marginal, population.  And from the second century CE, when the minority of Jews who lived in Palestine were expelled by the Romans, to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jews were without a place they could consider a homeland.

In circumstances such as these, most ethnic groups have simply disappeared, and their religions have either disappeared or become cult relics.  This happened, for example, with the Parthians.  From around 225 BCE to 225 CE, the Parthians inhabited most of western Asia, including what is today Iran, in one of the largest geographical empires in history.  Conflict with the Roman Empire and internal strife led to the dissolution of the Parthian Empire, and no one has heard of them since.  In turn, Zoroastrianism, which was the official religion of the Parthian Empire, became an obscure cult.  Given the similarity of circumstances, how are we to explain the survival of Judaism and the Jews as a people?

As remarkable as it is that Jews have survived as a people, it is also remarkable that for most of the last two thousand years there have been so few Jews.  Jews thrived and multiplied their numbers in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea from the Hellenistic Period around 300 BCE through the Roman Period of the first century CE.  It has been estimated that anywhere from 10% to 30% of people in this region considered themselves Jews during this time.  And Jewish merchants and workmen followed the Roman armies in their conquests throughout Europe, so that Jews spread out beyond the Mediterranean basin.  Given this starting point in ancient times, natural population growth should have resulted in there being hundreds of millions of Jews in the world today instead of merely some fourteen million.  How are we to explain this?

Over the last one hundred years, an orthodox narrative has developed that claims to explain these two phenomena.  This orthodox view claims that Jews have survived as a people because of their adherence to Orthodox Jewish religious beliefs and practices.  According to this view, if Jews had not adhered to Orthodoxy, they would have disappeared as a people.  This orthodox view also claims that there are so few Jews in the world because Jews have experienced continuous persecution during the last two thousand years, first by Christians and then also by Muslims.  The murderous Russian pogroms of the late nineteenth century and the genocidal Nazi Holocaust of the mid-twentieth century are portrayed as the norm in Jewish history.

This narrative of Jewish history has been almost unanimously accepted by Jews, including those who eschew Orthodoxy and adhere to Conservative, Reform, and secular Judaism.  This is a mistake.  In so doing, Conservative, Reform and secular Jews essentially demean themselves, and undermine their claim to represent a viable alternative to Orthodoxy.  This historical self-disrespect is, however, consistent with the ways in which most non-Orthodox Jews generally portray themselves.  Conservative and Reform Jews generally speak of themselves as less orthodox, less strict, or less traditional than Orthodox Jews.  The operative term is “less,” as though they are lesser than Orthodox Jews.  Likewise, secular Jews generally speak of themselves as non-religious Jews.  Again the emphasis is on what they are not instead of what they are.  Rather than defining themselves in positive ways that differ from Orthodox Judaism, as proponents of a distinctive and progressive Jewish culture, most secular Jews present themselves as somehow diminished from Orthodoxy.

The purpose of this essay is to suggest a view of Jewish history that is significantly different than the orthodox/Orthodox view.  Writing as a secular Jew myself, I intend to try to demonstrate that secular Judaism has deep historical roots, and offers the best prospects for the future of Judaism.  Toward this end, I will emphasize the importance of looking at history as a process of people making choices, rather than as merely a chain of causation or mere happenstance.  I will also focus on the way orthodox Jewish history has been written, and who has generally written it.

My theses are twofold:  First, that Judaism has survived in small part because of Orthodoxy, but in larger part despite Orthodoxy.  And second, that the persistence of Orthodoxy is the main reason there are so few Jews.  My conclusion is that if Judaism is to thrive, and not merely survive as a quaint cult, it will be based largely on the creativity and leadership of secular Jews.

  1. Defining Judaism: The Torah as Question and Quandary.

Who and what is a Jew are highly contentious questions among Jews, with one’s answers depending largely on whether one is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or secular.  There is, however, one thing that almost all Jews of every persuasion will agree upon, and that is that Jews are a people whose identity starts with a book, the Torah.  Although the term Torah is also contested among Jews — it is used narrowly by some to describe the Five Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch, that make up the first five books of the Bible, and used by others more broadly, as I will use it in this essay, to describe all of the books that make up the Jewish Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament — there is widespread consensus that Jewish identity is connected somehow to the Torah.  But that is pretty much where the consensus ends.

Most Orthodox Jews see the Bible as the Word of God and the literal Truth, even if it is sometimes so obscure as to be almost impossible to fathom.  They pore over the Torah and Talmudic commentaries on the Torah seeking to uncover the answers to all of life’s important questions.  Conservative and Reform Jews generally approach the Bible as part history, part myth, and part metaphor.  Some claim that the Bible is divinely inspired, even if it is not literally true.  Secular Jews generally regard the Bible as a collection of largely fictional stories.  These stories portray the paradigmatic ethical dilemmas and existential problems that our ancestors faced, and that we still face today.  Secular Jews approach the Bible as a source book of important questions about life, rather than a fount of definitive answers.  The Torah is an important text for Christians and Muslims, as well as for Jews.  Among Christians and Muslims, as among Jews, there are similar disagreements on how to approach the Bible, as literal truth, myth, or metaphor.

The Jewish Bible is made up of many narrative strands that were passed down for centuries by word of mouth until around 800 BCE, when versions of some of it were first written down.  The initial development of the Bible was oral, and was something like a game of telephone in which a person whispers something in the ear of a neighbor who in turn whispers it to a neighbor, and so forth for dozens of generations.  What was eventually written down at the end of the process as the Bible seems unlikely to have been the same as what was said in the beginning.

The version of the Jewish Bible with which we are familiar today was seemingly compiled during the sixth and fifth centuries BCE.  The editors of the Bible apparently had a large body of materials from which to choose, and they included some, excluded others, in compiling the book.  This process itself makes the Bible a debatable proposition.  Even if one accepts the Orthodox view that the editors were divinely inspired, and that the choices of what to include were essentially God’s, debatable questions still remain as to what were the reasons for the choices.  The editors apparently realized the tenuous historicity of their materials, since they included in the Pentateuch at least two different versions of every significant event and pronouncement.  There are even two versions of the creation story within the first few pages of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah, thereby immediately confronting readers with the fact that the Bible cannot be taken literally and must be interpreted.

The Bible is also debatable because the editors included in the text incidents that portray almost every one of the major characters — from Adam to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and Solomon, and almost every Jewish King thereafter — as guilty of serious misbehavior.  The misbehavior ranges from Abraham prostituting his wife, to David arranging the death of a rival for the affections of a woman.  Even the Hebrew God is portrayed as having made mistakes, which He admits when he destroys most of His creation in the Flood.  He is also portrayed as having behaved cruelly, for example, when He inflicts the ten plagues on innocent Egyptians as a means of influencing their ruler, the Pharaoh.  The inclusion of this misbehavior in the Torah inevitably leads to debatable questions as to what we are supposed to think of these figures, even the Hebrew God.  Most of the stories in the Pentateuch, including the story of Passover in which the Hebrews quickly turn from being oppressed into oppressors, seem to be negative references, albeit in pursuit of a positive ideal.  In sum, the editors, whether or not inspired by God, seem to have desired the Bible to be a document about which people would argue, and disagree.

The editors of the Jewish Bible seem, in fact, to have approached their materials in essentially the same way most Greeks of that period were treating the Iliad and other stories about the Greeks’ ancestors and their gods.  While some Greeks took the stories literally and prescriptively, as describing the ways they must live and worship, most Greeks, including the major dramatists and philosophers, treated the stories as fictions that described the basic human condition and human problems.  The Greeks’ stories portrayed their Hellene ancestors as people very different from themselves, and as people who solved their problems in ways very different from the ways contemporary Greeks would solve similar problems.  This appears to be the approach of the Bible’s editors, who seemingly would not have endorsed much of the behavior of either the Hebrews or the Hebrew God in the Pentateuch.  And this is also the approach of secular Jews.

Orthodox Jews endlessly scrutinize the Torah looking for answers to life’s questions among the book’s contradictory pronouncements, many of which are long out of date and just plain embarrassing.  If  the Torah is the Word of God that reflects God’s Will, what is one to make, for example, of the Pentateuch’s requirement that adulterers be stoned to death?  If the Hebrew God in the Pentateuch is the God of peace and justice that Orthodox Jews ostensibly worship today, what is one to make of the Hebrew God’s ordering the genocidal slaughter of the Midianites and Canaanites?  If the Torah is literally true, what is one to make of the detailed specifications provided by the Hebrew God in the Pentateuch for making altars and other religious items with which He is supposed to be worshiped, but that cannot actually be followed?  The instructions just do not work, and they include materials and other things that were not available to Hebrews at the time God ostensibly gave these orders.

Jews today do not believe in stoning adulterers to death or in committing genocide.  And few try to build the alters specified in the Pentateuch.  The Torah is filled with internal inconsistencies, and with conflicts between what is required therein and what Jews, including Orthodox Jews, actually believe and do.  Orthodox Jews who take the Bible literally are hard put to rationalize these things.  Even Conservative and Reform Jews end up resorting to apologetics in trying to explain away the Bible’s incongruities and, thereby, save what they see as the sanctity of the Bible.  Christians who take a literal view of the Old Testament face a similar problem, and are forced into similar apologetics.  More broadly, this is an example of the problems that can arise when people take a text literally, and treat it as the answer to all of life’s important questions, whether the text be the Bible, Das Capital or Winnie the Pooh.

Secular Jews have no such problems because they approach the Bible as a starting point for discussion, rather than an ending point.  And they conclude that given the conflicts and contradictions in the Bible, and the unfathomable questions that it raises, even if the Bible is the Word of God or has been divinely inspired, God seems to agree with the secularists.

  1. Defining Judaism: The Minyan as Metaphor and Model.

In addition to accepting the Torah as a starting point of Jewish identity, a second thing that defines someone as a Jew is the person’s participation in a Jewish community.  Judaism is a communal credo.  Whether one considers Jewishness in the Orthodox way as a religion with ethnic characteristics, or in the secular way as an ethnicity and culture with a religious background, there is general agreement among Jews that one cannot be a Jew all by oneself.  This fraternalism is symbolized by the religious requirement of at least ten people (men for the Orthodox, men and/or women for the Reform) in order to conduct a prayer service.

Jewish communalism can be either broadly humanitarian or narrowly clannish depending on how one defines the community.  Most Orthodox, and even many Conservative and some Reform Jews, for example, claim that Jews are “the Chosen People,” based on the favoritism that God showed to Abraham and the Hebrews in the Bible.  Many also claim, for this same reason, that Jews have an exclusive right today to occupy Palestine.  The Hebrews were God’s  people, they say, and God gave Palestine to them and their descendants, who are the Jews of today.

Using the Jewish Bible to establish the supposedly superior position of the Jews is a form of bootstrapping argument.  There is no historical evidence in support of the claim that God specially chose the Hebrews and gave them Palestine.  In fact, there is no historical evidence for any of the stories in the Pentateuch, and these stories are almost certainly mythological.  That is, they were invented by later Jews in order to shed light on the meaning of Judaism.  In any case, even if one accepts the Torah’s account of God’s favoritism to the Hebrews as actual history, or as a divinely inspired myth that reflects holy truth, there are at least two additional problems with the argument that Jews are “the Chosen People” who have exclusive rights to Palestine.

First, while the Hebrews may be predecessors of the Jews, the Jews are not Hebrews, and the differences between the two peoples are decisive.  They can be described as similar to the differences between Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens in human evolution.  They were two different, albeit related, species.  The Pentateuch tells the story of the Hebrews from their origins in Abraham to their escape from Egypt and approach to Palestine.  These Hebrews worshiped a fierce tribal god very different from the image of the benevolent universal God worshiped by most Jews.  Hebrew worship centered around animal and vegetable sacrifices on an altar and in a temple, whereas Jewish religion centers around prayer and study that takes place in a synagogue.  The Hebrews’ religion was led by priests who were considered special people with a special relationship to God.  Judaism is led by rabbis who are essentially just teachers.  The differences between Hebrews and Jews are so great that it does not seem plausible that promises made to Abraham and the Hebrews could carry over to the Jews.  The promises certainly do not have the appearance of a legally enforceable contract.

Second, even if one accepts that Jews have a right to call themselves a “Chosen People” and to occupy Palestine based on God’s promises to Abraham, then so too do Christians and Muslims.  The Torah, or Old Testament, is one of the sacred books of Christians and Muslims, and they revere Abraham as the father of their religions.  They would, therefore, have reason to claim to be God’s “Chosen People” and to have the right to occupy Palestine.  And this right would seemingly include the present-day Palestinians, with whom the Jewish Israelis are contesting the land of Palestine.  So, even if one accepts the premises of the  Orthodox, one cannot accept their arbitrary conclusions.  In turn, the right to occupy Palestine would seemingly be a fit subject for negotiation and compromise, rather than unilateral religious fiat.

Jewish communalism can also, however, be broadly humanitarian, rather than narrowly sectarian.  The Torah describes the development over time of an ethic that both binds Jews to each other and connects Jews with the rest of humankind.  The prophets Isaiah and Amos, for example, preached in favor of social justice, and the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humankind.  Theirs was an ethic that Rabbi Hillel encapsulated in his summary of the Torah with a version of the Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”  Versions of the Golden Rule are promoted by some eighty major religions and philosophies.  From the version of Hillel’s contemporary Jesus –“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — to Kant’s later Categorical Imperative — “Act as though the principle of your action is a universal prescription” — the Golden Rule is well nigh a universal principle.  It is the ethic that has prompted disproportionate numbers of European and American Jews to participate in humanitarian civic and political movements over the last one hundred and seventy-five years.  And it is a founding principle of secular Judaism.

  1. Delineating Secular Judaism: Not Religious but not Atheist Either.

Secular Judaism is defined by the same two starting points as the other forms of Judaism: the Jewish Bible and Jewish communalism.  Although secular Jews generally regard the Torah stories as mythological rather than historical, the Torah is still seen by secularists as the foundation of Jewish history, Jewish views of God and the universe, and Jewish ethics.

There is no historical evidence for the existence of the Hebrews or any of the events in the Pentateuch, and there is only scant evidence for some of the other persons and events in the rest of the Bible.  There is no evidence, for example, for Moses or the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, let alone the Tower of Babel and all those patriarchs who lived for hundreds of years.  There is also no historical evidence for the existence of David or Solomon or Solomon’s empire.  But the Biblical stories provide Jews with a sense of how their predecessors felt about themselves and how they envisioned a trajectory for their history.  Jews can then develop their own course of history based on accepting or rejecting the values of the Biblical characters and answering the questions raised by the Biblical stories.  How do we as Jews envision the arc of history?  How can we contribute to a humanitarian future of the sort imagined by Isaiah and Amos, rather than a vicious cycle of violence of the sort we see, for example, in the interplay between Moses and the Pharaoh in the Exodus story?

Despite the claims of the Orthodox that they revere and follow the Torah, Jews have not practiced most of the rituals prescribed in the Torah for at least two thousand years and their image of God is very different from that presented in the Pentateuch.  Jews, including the Orthodox, have long since abandoned the animal sacrifices required in the Pentateuch.  And Jews, including the Orthodox, have long since rejected the Pentateuch’s image of a murderous God who, for example, summarily killed a Hebrew who accidentally got one of those animal sacrifices slightly wrong.  But the rituals described in the Torah and the varying images of God — sometimes jealous and murderous tribal god, sometimes generous and beneficent god of humanity, sometimes abstract principle of benevolence and/or justice that pervades the universe — provide Jews with a starting point and framework for discussing questions about God and the pros and cons of religion.  How can we think about life, the world and the possibility of God in ways that are consistent with the humanitarianism described in many of the Psalms?  How do we avoid the anger, narrowness and vengefulness that we see in other places in the Torah?

Finally, although Jews have not followed most of the Torah’s ethical injunctions for at least two thousand years — even the Orthodox, have, for example, long since rejected the Pentateuch’s requirement that disobedient children be stoned to death — there are important ethical guidelines that can be derived from the Torah.  The arc of the Torah stories suggests the development of a broad humanitarian ethic of the sort that Rabbi Hillel summarized in his version of the Golden Rule.  The Golden Rule is, however, not an answer.  It is merely a benchmark for thinking about ethical questions.  How do we organize our daily lives and our social institutions so that everyone is treated fairly?  The Golden Rule provides a framework for discussing ethical issues that are derived from the Torah, but do not require belief in the Torah’s literal truth.

The ambiguities, contradictions, and archaisms in the Torah require Jews to continually debate ideas about history, ethics, God and humankind’s place in the universe.  As a result, the Jewish community has historically been a debating society.  Among the Orthodox, the debate has been about how to find definitive answers in the Torah, and how to sustain an insular purified Jewish community.  Among secularists, the debate has been more broadly about how to maintain a Jewish culture and community, while interacting with the wider non-Jewish society.  The secular debate focuses on the needs of humankind, not merely on what is best for the Jews, and on the goal of implementing the Golden Rule, not merely performing religious rituals to please God.  And it is this broader secular debate, rather than the narrowly religious debate, that has historically been most productive for Jews.

Secular Jews do not necessarily deny the existence of God or deny that faith in God might be meaningful to people.  It is important to distinguish between secularism, agnosticism, and anti-theism (what most people call atheism).  Secularists generally raise two main objections to organized religion.  First, they claim that there are so many different ways of envisioning God and God’s will, and so little evidence of anything having to do with God, that no good can come of involving God in decisions on how to organize and operate our societies.  Secularists want to keep debates about God’s will out of discussions of interpersonal relations and decisions about public policy.  They conclude that people must work through social issues cooperatively, without any individuals or groups insisting that their way is best because they have a mandate from God.

Second, secularists claim that it is a waste of time and effort attempting to find God’s will or to court God’s favor by poring over ostensibly sacred documents or performing elaborate rituals.  There are so many different religious documents and ways of interpreting them, and so many different rituals, that no good can come of insisting on a particular document, interpretation, or ritual.  Secular Jews are especially critical of religious requirements, such as keeping Kosher or keeping the Sabbath on Saturday, that arbitrarily cut Jews off from the wider community in which they live.  But secularism does not itself denote any  position on whether God does or does not exist, or whether people ought to consider God in their personal decisions.

Agnostics are secularists who take their concerns about God’s existence to the next step.  They claim that there is so much uncertainty about God’s existence, and about God’s will, that we ought to keep God out of even our personal decisions.  Agnostics do not deny the existence of God, but merely contend that one must live as though there is no God.  To do otherwise, they conclude, is to leave one open to irrational and unwise decisions based on faith without reason.

Agnostics often distinguish between belief in God — belief being a thought that implies evidence and reason — and faith in God — faith being a feeling that exists without evidence or reason.  They eschew belief in God because they claim there is a lack of solid evidence and sound reasons for such a belief.  At the same time, agnostics generally recognize that many people will experience a faith in God, even though those people do not have sufficient ground for actual belief.  The feeling that there must be a God is almost a reflex with some people.  Agnostics contend, however, that people should keep their faith to themselves and act only on the basis of sufficient evidence and adequate reasons.  Blind faith is not a legitimate basis for action.  While agnostics are secularists, not all secularists are agnostics.

Anti-theists or atheists claim that there is no God, and that any belief or faith in God can lead to no good.  They claim that action based on belief or faith in God is wrong-headed and likely wrong.  Anti-theists are secularists, but most secularists are not anti-theists.

Although secular Jews reject organized religious practices for themselves, they do not necessarily oppose organized religion, so long as religion involves only worship and does not extend its reach into social policy.  Secularists are not intolerant of religious people, but oppose religious people who are intolerant of others.

The Origins of Orthodoxy: Jews for and against Jesus.

Judaism was a popular and populist religion in the pre-Christian era.  This was in large part because of its broad ethical emphasis and relatively loose ritual practices.  Who and what was considered a Jew were liberally construed.  It seems that in most places one was considered Jewish if one attended a synagogue, believed in a universal God, and perused the Torah.  Males generally did not have to be circumcised.  Kosher food rules were relaxed.  Sabbath restrictions were loose. Most people who considered themselves Jews seemingly practiced what we would today consider to be Reform or secular Judaism.

Following the death of Jesus and the expulsion of Jews by the Romans from Jerusalem in the first century CE, Jews and Christians became competitors for adherents.  All of the first Christians were Jews, and many Jews became believers in Jesus as the Messiah.  Many of  them considered themselves to still be Jews, and even argued that since Jesus was himself a Jew, one had to first become a Jew in order to follow Jesus.

This “Jews for Jesus” position did not appeal to early Christian leaders such as Paul, who wanted to appeal to a broader population than merely Jews.  He decreed that Christianity was a new beginning, and that one did not have to be a Jew to be a Christian.  Paul also defined Christianity as primarily a matter of beliefs rather than laws.  In abrogating the Jewish requirements of male circumcision and keeping Kosher, he effectively made it easier to become a Christian than it was to be an Orthodox  Jew, while at the same time tapping into the popular beliefs in a universal God and the Golden Rule ethics promoted by the Jews.

The “Jews for Jesus” position also did not appeal to Jewish leaders, who responded to the apostasy of some Jews and the competition with Christians for adherents by tightening up Jewish regulations and restrictions.  These rabbis sought, thereby, to initiate a reign of orthodoxy and Orthodoxy in which Jews would all follow the same strict rules.  Their purpose was seemingly to sharply distinguish Jews from Christians so as to help keep Jews from becoming Christians, and to exert greater control over the Jewish population.  The rabbis would require those who wanted to be Jews to make a serious commitment.  But instead of helping them compete with Christians, these reforms essentially ensured defeat.

The rabbis’ Orthodox reforms had the purpose and effect of isolating Jews from the rest of the population, but also limiting the number of people who would want to become Jews.  They absolutely required circumcision for males.  Circumcision in those days was a significant operation to perform on an infant and a horrendous procedure for an adult.  With this emphasis on circumcision, Jewish leaders effectively foreclosed the conversion of adult males to Judaism which had swelled the ranks of Jews in the pre-Christian era.

Likewise, a strict adherence to Sabbath restrictions required Jews to live within short walking distance of a synagogue.  This requirement had the effect of creating Jewish neighborhoods and towns which were physically separate from non-Jewish areas.  Strictly enforcing Saturday Sabbath regulations similarly resulted in a separate Jewish workweek that was out-of-step with that of Christians.  This had the effect of creating a Jewish workforce that worked in Jewish businesses, with Jewish businessmen and workers in a separate world of work from non-Jews.  In turn, Kosher laws effectively kept Jews from eating with non-Jews and, thereby, kept Jews from socializing with non-Jews.

The rabbis’ turn to Orthodoxy in the Christian era may have in some sense purified Judaism, but it left Jews with a leadership whose primary purpose seemed to be to keep a small flock intact and under control, rather than to maintain, let alone expand, their numbers or get involved in the wider society.  With the support of non-Jewish political rulers, they were able to make this so.

  1. Rabbis and Businessmen: The Reign of Orthodoxy…or Not.

During the Middle Ages, Christianity and Islam became the predominant religions and cultures within Europe and the Middle East.  During this time, a pattern of Jewish settlement developed that played out in similar ways throughout these regions for some fifteen hundred years.  Christian and Muslim rulers found Jews to be useful, especially in business and economic matters.  As a result, Christian and Muslim rulers generally tolerated, and even encouraged, Jews to settle in largely segregated communities within their lands.

Jews were willing and able to perform commercial services that Christians and Muslims would not do, or could not do as well as Jews.  Catholics, for example, were forbidden to lend money at interest.  As commerce developed during the Middle Ages, money lending became crucial for economic development, so Jews were employed in that capacity.  More important, the insularity and clannishness of Jews made them invaluable for long distance business transactions.

Prior to the communications revolution of the mid-nineteenth century, during which the telegraph, railroad and steamship were developed, commercial transactions largely depended on people knowing and trusting each other.  Personal contact and connections were critical.  This was especially true of transactions between parties separated by long distance, and a few dozen miles could be a long distance in those days.  Agents of distant businesses or governments would have to be recognized and accepted by local people as reliable and trustworthy business partners.  Despite what became a common stereotype among Christians and Muslims of the Jew as a  shyster, Jews were ideally suited to play the role of business agent because they could be trusted.

For one thing, Jews constituted a small fraternal group who tended to be related by extended family connections, and distanced by only a few degrees of separation, no matter how far they lived from each other.  As such, there was a built-in basis of trust among Jews toward each other that did not exist among the much larger and diverse populations of Christians and Muslims.  Unlike Christian and Muslim businessmen, Jewish businessmen living in different parts of Europe and Asia were often related to each other or knew each others’ families.  If Jews could trust each other, then non-Jewish businessmen and government officials could have some confidence that business transactions conducted for them by Jews would not be hijacked by conmen and shysters.

Orthodoxy helped in establishing this confidence among Jews.  It was relatively easy for a person to fake his credentials as a Christian or Muslim. He merely had to profess his belief and be familiar with a few rituals.  But it was very difficult for an impostor or conman to pass himself off as an Orthodox Jew.  Orthodox Jews could easily distinguish someone who was one of their kind, and therefore could be trusted, from someone who was not.  As a consequence, Orthodox Jews could more easily and safely conduct business both for themselves and on behalf of Christian and Muslim clients.  In turn, the tenuous status of small groups of Jews living among large groups of Christians and Muslims made the Jews more trustworthy business associates for the non-Jews.  Christian and Muslim businessmen and rulers could rely on the threat of confiscation of Jewish property, and expulsion of the Jews from their lands, to help keep Jewish businessmen from taking advantage of them.

As a means of organizing and regulating the settlement of Jews in their lands, Christian and Muslim rulers would generally recognize and authorize Orthodox rabbis and businessmen as the elite leaders of the Jewish communities.  Given the insularity of Orthodox Jews, Orthodox leaders could be relied upon to keep ordinary Jews from infecting the Christian and Muslim populations with Jewish religious ideas.  The isolation from the wider society that Orthodox Sabbath and Kosher rules effected was a positive for the Christian and Muslim rulers.  In turn, Jewish communities operated nominally under Orthodox rules and regulation.  I say “nominally” because the only historical evidence we have of what happened in these communities consists of documents written and left by the Orthodox rabbis and businessmen who ran these communities.

The reliability of Orthodox versions of what went on in their communities must be questioned.  While the rabbis would  have been able to require their constituents to perform Orthodox public observances, they could not control their constituents’ thoughts or most of their private activities.  One is reminded of the slave owners in the ante-bellum American South who reported that their slaves were happy and satisfied with their lot as slaves.  These reports may have been sincere, but they were not accurate.  The same is likely to be the case with Orthodox versions of Jewish history.  That is, most Jews were not Orthodox, and were likely what we would call Reform or secular Jews, even though they lived in ostensibly Orthodox communities.  The weak hold that Orthodoxy had on ordinary Jews is evidenced by the weak population numbers of Jews.

It has been estimated that in order to account for the small number of Jews in the world today, an average of some fifty percent of each generation of those who were born as Jews over the last two thousand years must have stopped being Jewish.  For the most part, these people were not defectors who left the fold because Jews were being persecuted, nor were they murdered.  The persecution of Jews has not been historically continuous.  It has been sporadic, even though sometimes horrific, and it has generally been no worse than the persecution of other minorities.

The sporadic persecution of Jews by Christians and Muslims has to be put in the context of the wide range of persecutions and massacres during medieval and modern times.  These include the persecutions and massacres of Muslims by Christians and vice versa, and the persecutions and massacres of each other by Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims, and by Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians.  They also include the persecution and slaughter of so-called heretics (Nestorians, Albigensians, Hussites, and Anabaptists, just to name a few) by Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims.  In addition, if you accept the Bible stories as history, the Hebrews repeatedly engaged in religious persecutions and massacres of other peoples.  History is all too full of sectarian religious persecutions and massacres by people who claim to know God’s will and to be His Chosen People, right up to the present day.  In any case, persecution does not seem to be the major reason there have been so few Jews.

The main reason seems to be more mundane.  Most Jews were not rabbis, merchants or bankers.  They were workers and small farmers, who for the most part served the needs of the Jewish community, especially including the rabbis, merchants and bankers.  Orthodoxy was not inherently advantageous to the social and economic positions of ordinary Jews, as it was to the merchants and bankers.  So, many of them defected because being part of an Orthodox Jewish community was difficult in itself, what with all the Sabbath and Kosher restrictions, and because it cut them off from economic and social opportunities in the wider society.  That there have historically been fewer Jews than one would expect is for the most part not because of persecution by non-Jews, but because of the narrowness of life in Orthodox Jewish communities.

There is also reason to believe that most of those who remained Jews and stayed within their Jewish communities were not Orthodox in their beliefs or their private practices.  They may have been required by their leaders to publicly obey Orthodox Sabbath rules and other regulations, but that does not mean they held Orthodox beliefs.  Unlike the defectors from Judaism, they remained Jews probably out of family loyalty, ethnic solidarity, commitment to the Torah, and/or just plain inertia.  The satisfactions they derived from Jewish culture and the support they received from the Jewish community were sufficient to keep them within the fold.  But it is not unlikely they were reformist or secularist in their beliefs and private practices.  Since ordinary Jews did not leave many records of their beliefs or lives — the histories were written by the Orthodox rabbis — the evidence for this conclusion is necessarily circumstantial and speculative.

One piece of circumstantial evidence is the enthusiastic rejection of Orthodox principles and practices by the overwhelming majority of European Jews during the course of the nineteenth century when Jews were no longer required by their Christian and Muslim overlords to live in ghettos ruled by Orthodox rabbis and businessmen.  Conservative, Reform and secular Judaism flourished once Jews were allowed to express themselves, and Orthodoxy became a small minority position among Jews as it remains today.  The reaction of Jews to liberation from their Orthodox ghettos was similar to that of the Russian and Mexican peasants following the Russian and Mexican Revolutions of the early twentieth century.  Russian and Mexican peasants had long been considered by their rulers and by outside observers to be devoted Orthodox Catholics and Roman Catholics, respectively.  But they abandoned their respective churches in droves when given the opportunity, and for the most part have not come back even in the wake of the disappointment and failure of both revolutions.

Liberated from the constraints of a narrow Orthodox intellectual regime that focused almost entirely on the study of the Torah and Talmud, secular Jews began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to make disproportionately large contributions to the intellectual and cultural life of the wider society.  And they did so while still identifying themselves as Jews and dealing with Jewish issues and themes.  These were people who inherited the Jewish tradition of debating important issues raised in the Torah, and who applied their critical thinking and creativity to broader issues and fields of human endeavor.  They were people who absorbed the fraternalism of the Jewish community, and extended their humanitarianism to all of humankind.  For starters, think of Einstein in physics, Freud in psychology, Bergson in philosophy, Durkheim in sociology, Boaz in anthropology, Kafka in literature, Chagall in art, Copeland in music.  The list is enormous and it continues to the present day.

Another piece of circumstantial evidence is the fact that the views I am expressing in this essay are not new, even if they are unorthodox.  The great majority of Jews over the past 175 years, as they have been liberated from the ghettos and shtetls, have rejected Orthodoxy, and many have asked the sorts of questions and entertained the sorts of views that I have been raising in this essay.  There is no good reason to believe that Jews confined in prior times under Orthodox rule did not do likewise, even if they were not able to leave records of their views and did not make it into the records of their Orthodox rulers.  It would be insulting to the memory of past Jews to believe that they were not capable of thinking critically and independently about these issues.

Orthodoxy may be a main reason that Jewish ghettos and other segregated Jewish communities survived, but Orthodoxy is not thereby the reason that Judaism has survived.  Religious Jews contend that without the binding power of religion, Judaism would have disappeared in the past and will disappear in the future.  They claim that secular Jewish philosophy, history, culture and ethics are not enough to sustain Judaism.  Secular Judaism is self-defeating, they conclude.

But the history of the Jews seems to contradict these contentions, and the history of my own family over the last 125-150 years seems to support the staying power of secular Judaism.  I speak as part of the middle generation of at least five generations of secular Jews in my family.  My paternal great grandparents in Russia during the mid-nineteenth century may have been explicitly secular, but I am not sure.  In any case, my paternal and maternal grandparents were secular Jews, first in Russia and then in America.  My parents were secular Jews, as are my siblings and our children.  And my grandson is being raised as a secular Jew.  The overwhelming majority of my aunts, uncles and cousins and my cousins’ children have also been or are secular Jews.  Many have married non-Jews, but have raised or are raising their children as secular Jews.  In sum, my family is not merely maintaining but increasing the number of secular Jews.

“And yet it moves,” Galileo supposedly mumbled under his breath, referring to the earth when he was forced by the Catholic hierarchy to recant his proof that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice versa as it says in the Old Testament.  The claims of Orthodox Jews that secularism is barren, and that theirs is the only way for Jews to survive as a people, are just not so.  These are the sorts of claims that long-established social and cultural elites regularly make about challenges to their predominance, especially when orthodox religious leaders are confronted with a secular challenge to their dogma.

The Renaissance in the later Middle Ages, the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century were all condemned on this basis.  In each case, apologists for the established elites warned that deviating from orthodoxy would destroy civilization, and in each case they were wrong.  Each of these movements spawned significant secular developments in science, philosophy and the arts, and created new opportunities for liberty, equality and fraternity for more people.  Rather than destroying Western society, these movements helped regenerate it.  A secular and cultural approach to Judaism could have a similar effect on the Jewish community.

Although Jews are few in numbers, this could be an advantage at this relatively early stage of post-ghetto Jewish history.  Small numbers makes it easier for more people to participate and to participate more fully in the community’s development.  This was true, for example, of the community of patriots that founded the United States.  But just as it was important for eighteenth century Americans to stop thinking of themselves as lesser Englishmen, it is important for secular Jews to stop seeing themselves as merely non-religious or ersatz Jews.  And it is important for us to know and be able to present Judaism as more than just blintzes and bagels.  We must see ourselves as real Jews carrying forward ancient traditions of critical debate rooted in the Torah, and progressively developing Hillel’s conception of the Golden Rule as the underlying meaning of the Torah.  Such a program would be a way and a reason for Judaism to survive and thrive.