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Why the Book and Blog

WHY I WROTE THE BOOK

REASON IN RETREAT: THE CHALLENGE TO HUMANISTS

The last time I checked amazon.com, there were 6900 books on the Torah – why another? And why the blog?

Several reasons:

(1) To provide a counter argument—a small but determined piece of resistance – to the explosive growth of religiosity, superstition, and public piety during my lifetime.

“I’m not saying that.”

I was always a secular humanist. When they put “under God” in the Pledge, I said to myself , “I’m not saying that.” I was 12.

Religious belief has always been a strong force in American life (“in God we trust” on all our money and as the motto of my alma mater, Brown), and there have been several attempts to formally make this a Christian country. Even now, people are trying to rewrite American history to portray it all as the story of the emergence of a Christian nation.

All God, all the time

Since that moment 50 years ago when I first articulated, if only to myself, my atheism/secular humanism, I have witnessed a disturbing growth in public piety and religiosity (i.e., the self conscious, smug, proclamation of and gratuitous talk about religion, as opposed to actual good behavior).

I have witnessed the resurgence of orthodoxy and fundamentalism. I have seen the outbreak of a war on science and evolution. According to a Chicago Tribune report of a 2004 CBS poll, “55% of Americans believe that God created humans in [their] present form and only 13% claim to believe in evolution” (from Sarah Igo, The Averaged American).

And of course, I live in the time of September 11, and of the religiously motivated atrocities that preceded and followed it.

I find this all very dismaying. I was fortunate to have a classical/liberal/secular-humanistic education, during which I learned the methods and mentalities that characterize Western civilization, science, and learning.

I could see no reason at the time why these ideals would not triumph, and I left college quite optimistic – and quite unprepared for what happened.

What happened was what the world got a lot more religious.

All God, all the time

Today, 95% of people say they believe in God, and similarly impressive percentages believe in Heaven, Hell, Satan, and angels. Athletes and other performers thank Jesus for their victories, as if he were an invisible friend giving them an edge over the competition. You can actually go on the Internet and buy porcelain figurines of the robed Jesus helping someone with his golf swing and improving other sports abilities.

Not that long ago, politicians were expected to be churchgoers, but little more. Today they wear their religion on their sleeve and proclaim it at every opportunity. Jesus is Bush’s favorite philosopher? Does he even know any others?

Political and religious authority: a dangerous mix

When politicians get religious, it’s not a good sign. The current merging of Republicans and Christians (some 40% of the party’s base consists of Evangenlicals) is extremely worrisome. History proves that when politicians think they have divine approval, when state power is melded with and reinforced by religious authority, there is invariably a whole lot of death and destruction.

Religiosity rampant

Today, the progress of science – the unraveling of the incredible mysteries of the DNA and the universe – is encountering stiff opposition from ideas like creationism and intelligent design. Entire institutes, organizations and foundations exist just to prove that a particular creation myth, the one in the Book of Genesis – one of maybe a thousand such myths throughout the world – is true.

But all creation myths have the same truth value – zero, since none of them is based on anything resembling evidence.

Today, the book marketplace is crowded with frightening works concerning Biblical prophecies about the end of the world, which has been frequently predicted but which, as you might’ve noticed, has not yet happened.

People went crazy in the year 2000, just as they went crazy in the year 1000. The world didn’t end, and computers didn’t crash. But that doesn’t mean the end-times aren’t coming, and a lot of people are getting ready – and scaring the hell out of each other and the rest of us as well.

It’s nothing more than the elevation to unquestionable truth of a single piece of writing, which is in turn nothing more than the ramblings of an ancient writer with a vivid imagination or a good memory for legend, or perhaps both (and perhaps hallucinogenic drugs as well…who knows?).

Technology and religious fanaticism

And today, we don’t just have religious fanaticism – we have easily exportable and technologically leverageable religious fanaticism.

In the old days, if you were a religious true believer, spreading your orthodoxy was a major hassle. You had to get on your horse, gather other fanatics, seek out unbelievers, hack them to pieces…maybe it was satisfying in its own up-close-and-personal way, but it was highly labor- and resource-intensive.

Today, 19 people with box cutters can board airplanes and wreak havoc, all out of religious fanaticism. And I don’t even want to think about cyber-terrorism.

These developments, coupled with the flowing together of religious power with government/state power, which is happening, paradoxically, in some of the more backward areas of the world like the Middle East, as well as in some of the most developed, like the United States…means that today’s resurgence of religiosity and religious orthodoxy is not just an academic or doctrinal matter – it is a stark threat to our very existence on earth.

As I mentioned earlier, when governments believe that God is on their side, it is usually very bad news for human beings.

The ideals of Greek/Roman Humanism, Classical Jeffersonian Liberalism, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment – the only ways in which humans have made progress, since prayer and worship yield nothing except job security for clerics – have not triumphed.

Quite the opposite. They don’t even get a fair hearing today. I see the world drifting backward, into the darkness. And one of the forces driving it backwards is religious orthodoxy.

Humanist ideas and ideals

So that’s one reason why I wrote the book – to explain the ideals of humanism and to show how they would be applied to a subject about which people feel very strongly, i.e., the Bible – and the Torah in particular…. and by doing so, to make other people feel better about secular humanists…and to make help secular humanists feel better about themselves, by defining themselves in terms of positive ideals.

I believe there are many closet secular humanists out there – and they are one of the key audiences for this book. All they need is the intellectual ammunition. And that is what I mean to give them.

(2) Not the devil

A second reason why I wrote the book…and this sort of follows from the first, is to put a more positive face on secular humanism…and give other secular humanists the intellectual tools to do the same.

When you think of the animosity and exclusion that homosexuals faced 50 or 100 years ago, it’s not too far-fetched to say that secular humanism is the new homosexuality.

To fundamentalists, secular people are…well, the devil. Atheists have no God, therefore no morality. I’ve heard this charge repeated over and over until I am really tired of it.

I just heard it repeated again by someone who should know better but is cognitively incapable of knowing better, namely an Orthodox rabbi writing a column in the Providence Journal.

He repeated the cliche – which is untrue at best and libelous at worst – that dictators like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong are products of atheism.

This is absolutely ridiculous. Tyrants deify themselves and the state. They have nothing to do with secular humanism.

Good without God

For way too long, secular humanists have been vilified as lacking in morality or in lacking a basis for morality. Nothing could be further from the truth. You do not need God in order to be good and in fact some very God-fearing people are, as we all know, very bad.

The second word in the title of my book is “atheist.” But in the subtitle you find the phrase “secular humanist.” I very quickly switch from one to the other, because I want the secular humanist point of view to be positive. I want secular humanists to understand that they have something to be for, not merely against.

Humanists stand FOR something.

What’s so important about “a-theism” anyway? As Rabbi Wine asks, Why not classify religions as humanistic/ahumanistic? Since the only beings who practice religion are humans, isn’t that just as important a division, if not more so, than theistic/atheist?

Some regions, such as Buddhism, are inherently atheistic or nontheistic. Buddhism is humanistic as well. Likewise, Secular Humanistic Judaism is both nontheistic and humanistic.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are mixed. They are humanistic when they promote humanistic values, such as tolerance, nonviolence, the value and autonomy of human beings, charity, courage, compassion, honesty, and so on.

But they are decidedly ahumanistic when they practice exclusion, intolerance, oppression of women, discrimination, persecution, violence, ancestor worship, the submission of human beings to divine authority, and the mindless, unquestioning veneration of ancient texts.

Crusades and Inquisitions

Secular humanists have nothing to apologize for. We do not start Crusades, we do not conduct Inquisitions, we do not torture and burn people who disagree with us. We don’t kill people over the meaning of ancient texts.

And, on a kinder, gentler level, we do not force our religion into the faces and lives of others by putting our ideals on parade insisting that politicians all adhere to them…or by staging in-your-face public celebrations of our values.

Can you imagine a baseball player, after hitting a winning homerun, saying, after the game, “Well, that was a great triumph for human beings — for me, the thousands of hours I’ve practiced…and the great advice from my coaches, not to mention the encouragement of the fans. I want to say, right here and now, that God and Jesus had nothing to do with it.”

(3) What does the Torah really say?

A third reason why I wrote the book was that I’ve had long had misgivings about the Torah and what it said.

I had grown accustomed to seeing books of Torah commentary with the square of text in the middle and everyone’s thoughts arranged around it. But I had never thought much about how people got from the original text to the commentary.

I began to focus on this question after 30 years spent in the theoretical study and practical application of linguistic principles, though never to religious texts. And the reason I re-focused on the issue had to do with the fourth reason for writing the book:

(4) The direct provocation of a single individual. He was the grain of sand in my oyster. The match to my haystack.

I became familiar with the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism at the Birmingham Temple (MI), where the Torah was kept in a library. It came as something of a shock to me to encounter a humanistic temple in Deerfield (IL) where the Torah was actually in front of the congregation in its own little modernistic Ark – and was actually read from on occasion.

This was the case when we first affiliated with Temple Beth Or in the mid-90s. We eventually left and came back when there was a new Rabbi. He was not of a secular humanistic bent when it came to the Torah. Quite the opposite.

He was a Humanist convert from Conservatism. His schtick was that he didn’t believe in God, but regarded Torah a “core resource,” the source of much wisdom. He considered the persona of God to be an exemplar for human conduct – and said as much from the pulpit. He had – and has – his followers.

I didn’t believe either of these propositions, but since I hadn’t read the Torah, I didn’t know for sure.

I realized that I had to read the Torah in its entirety. And I committed myself to the project. I was determined to find out the truth: Is the document relevant and insightful to modern people? Is the persona of God worthy of admiration?

I went in with no prejudices one way or the other. If the answers to these questions had been yes, I would have written no book, and there would be no blog.

But there are about 6900 books on the Torah, and as far as I know, not one of them answers the above two questions the way I do: no and no.

There really is not much there. The Torah doesn’t have much to say to us on matters of morality and good living – why would it? It’s from the ninth century B.C.E. Its God, despite a few benevolent moments, is a vicious, vindictive tyrant.

The authoritative version of what the Torah really says (as far as we know)

I selected the Jewish Publication Society translation, which is both recent and authoritative. Although I have a doctorate in linguistics, I’m just a beginner in Bible-text studies. It was important for me early on to establish the scholarly credentials of the translation I was using. As an academic, I was able to do this.

Sure enough, the JPS version turned out to be highly authoritative, benefiting from the work of many scholars over a long period, repeatedly revised and refined. I checked with an eminent rabbinical authority anyway…and the individual confirmed that this was indeed the authoritative version.

Later I acquired, as a backup reference, Gunther Plaut’s The Torah: A Modern Commentary… and found that he began with the very same translation.

Although I don’t recommend that you make the same 440-page slog of a journey through the JPS Torah, I will tell you that I encountered some surprises, which I will be happy to pass on to you.

Torah surprises

It came as something of a surprise to me that the Torah is selectively read, and that there is a great deal of subject matter that is never mentioned in Sunday school or uttered from rabbinical pulpits.

There is, for instance, a story in the book of Genesis (Ch. 34) about the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, by the sons of a local chieftain. Her brothers take revenge by convincing the rapist’s kin (the Hamites) to be circumcised, then killing them while they’re recovering from the surgery!

As Mr. T. might say, I pity the fool who gets this passage for his/her bar/bat mitzva!

More importantly, there are long passages that vilify and predict the direst consequences for those who stray from God’s commandments (e.g., by becoming secular humanists).

One such passage (in Deut., Ch. 28) goes on for 52 verses and states at one point that the sinners’ plight will be so awful that women suffering from starvation will eat their own afterbirth! The amount of space and attention devoted to – not to mention the richly detailed grotesqueness of – these punishments far exceeds, in terms of quantity of text, God’s better moments, and I find the curses to be some of the most eloquent writing in the Torah.

Adam and Eve: what it really says

I also discovered last some of the best-known stories don’t quite say what we are told they say. The Genesis account of Adam and Eve says nothing about sin, sex, redemption, or the fall of man. The serpent doesn’t even tempt Eve directly. What exactly is the offense supposedly committed by Adam and Eve?

Genesis, Chapter 2, Verse 17 says, “but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not yield to it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” In Chapter 3, “the serpent said to the woman, ‘you are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.’”

So this is the problem: aside from the threat to their lives, Adam and Eve are not to acquire moral discernment. Apparently that is to be left to God.

Tower of Babel: what it really says

There’s a similar distortion in the telling of the story of the Tower of Babel. Again, according to tradition, human arrogance is punished. What was the nature of this arrogance?

Genesis 11:5 tells us that “the Lord said, ’If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to do nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.’”

Arrogance? Or aspirations? If we look at the words of the text, it becomes clear that it is human aspirations that give God a problem.

Spin

Most important of all, I discovered spin. Spin is a particular kind of speech and writing about the Torah and the rest of the Bible.

It does not explain or elucidate, unlike commentary that provides archaeological or historical background, or perhaps alternate translations, to help readers better understand a piece of Torah content.

No, this is commentary whose production resembles a cotton candy machine, spinning out long gauzy interpretations of what the Torah writers really meant to say, reinterpreting, translating, inserting metaphors, and often just making things up. Plus, a lot of quoting out of context.

All in all, it adds up to what I call “rabbinical spin,” the process of transforming the simple (and often well-meaning) Torah text into a document of profound relevance.

So… in addition to all the other motivating factors for writing the book, there was the discovery of this massive and long-standing intellectual con game – the selective quoting, the quoting out of context, all the other “interpretive” strategies that constitute rabbinical spin – which I am eager to expose.

WHAT’S IN THE BOOK

Now that you know the reasons why I wrote the book, you’ll understand why I have included the content that I have included.

The first chapter lays out the difference between translation and inference, between translating a text and spinning it.

This chapter also includes an appendix that explains why the JPS version is the magnificent work of scholarship that it is. There’s also an appendix of “Torah FAQs” – since I found that most people don’t know the basic facts, among which are that the Torah is not the Bible and none of the events in the Torah actually happened or have any historical basis.

In the second chapter I actually analyze and dissect a learned rabbi’s statements about what the Torah says. I identify the places where he departs from Torah content or simple paraphrase…and inserts passages from elsewhere in the Torah or starts creating his own metaphors, cross-cultural allusions, and made-up “interpretations” simply fashioned from whole cloth.

The third chapter is a Torah summary. No spin. Just what it says.

The next two chapters deal with the Torah’s morality (unimpressive) and the persona of God (more often than not, the CEO from hell).

The concluding chapter explains why it really matters – how the humanistic interpretation of the Torah is actually an example of humanistic values in practice, whereas the traditional treatment is a denial of these values.

WHO IS THE AUDIENCE?

Not true believers, unless they are open to humanist conversion (described below).

True unbelievers, although a small minority of the population, will now have a rational, plausible, philosophically and scientifically consistent way of looking at the Torah. It’s okay to believe that none of the events in the Torah actually happened. Instead, historical and archaeological data tell us quite a bit about the early history of the Jews, and it is there, not the Torah, that we find the true beginnings of our people.

But by far my main target audience is the vast mass of potential doubters who are sitting in synagogues and churches (or not sitting in synagogues and churches) thinking that they simply cannot accept the traditional program…yet not knowing what the alternative might be.

Here’s a litmus test: if prayer makes you uncomfortable, embarrassed, just a little bit humiliated, you are probably a secular humanist, and you will find the book interesting and informative.

HUMANIST OUTREACH

In the blog I propose the outreach of secular humanism to potential adherents — and even to opponents. For a very long time, secular humanists have been talking to no one but each other. But I am convinced that we must begin talking to others, else we – and perhaps the world itself — may not survive.

We are not the devil. We are not immoral. At our best, we practice the same values as religious people, minus all the prayer, ritual, superstition, veneration of ancient texts and general God-baggage.

Life is hard enough as it is, and a lot of us find it simpler and more integrated this way, not wasting one moment worrying (or pretending to worry) about what God wants, meant, or has decreed.

Can we convince others of the benefits of secular humanism and its reason/reality-orientation? Can we provide a counterweight to the gigantic religious pendulum? Can we convince others that to shed God, mythology, and ritual is actually a great liberation of the spirit? Our very survival may depend on the answer.

This outreach involves religious concepts like humanistic or revelation, humanist conversion, and humanistic salvation, all of which have meaning and can be explained to people who want to think about secular humanism in religious terms.

To stem the tide of ignorance and superstition, to help reason get back on its feet and make a case for itself: these are the purposes to which I’ve dedicated my book, my blog – and the rest of my life.

___________

27 Responses to “Why the Book and Blog”

  1. on 31 Jan 2007 at 3:20 amBrandon Burton

    I just finished Alan’s book, “An Atheist Reads the Torah”, and I have to say that I really enjoyed it. In fact, I read it in two long sittings. It was fascinating to read the diversity of psychosis exhibited by “God” throughout. No doubt, it might have made more sense during that bloodier and less educated time period, but not now. He makes his points clearly and it is refreshing to see all the worst traits of good ole’ Yaweh laid bare (well maybe not so good).

    The way I see it: If everything in the Torah was 100% true, Yaweh wouldn’t be worth worshipping.

    This book is really a must have for an atheist or secular humanist. It has a lot to say on the so-called morality of holy scripture. It fits right up there with my holy scriptures… Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, etc…

  2. on 05 Apr 2007 at 8:04 amSara Wilson

    Excuse, and what you think concerning forthcoming elections?

  3. on 06 Apr 2007 at 5:59 amcraiglist

    Interesting blog

  4. on 06 Apr 2007 at 3:34 pmAlan

    Reply to craiglist: Thanks for the comment. It’s good to know I’m reaching people. Please pass the link on to others who might be interested.

    Thanks again.

    Alan

  5. on 09 Apr 2007 at 9:51 amemma

    cool blog!

  6. on 09 Apr 2007 at 4:02 pmAlan

    Thanks, emma. Stay tuned and pass it on. Next post — “Atheists, Anger, and the Moral High Ground.”

    reason and truth…

    Alan

  7. on 16 Apr 2007 at 6:19 amTimoty

    cool blog!

  8. on 01 Jun 2007 at 4:23 pmAlan

    Fortunately, I don’t get many of these. I notice that you and I live at almost the same place (intersection of Jew and atheist, minus the queer).

    shalom,

    Alan

  9. on 15 Jul 2007 at 9:33 amSimon

    As one who variously describes myself as a secular, humanistic mystic or a Buddhist Christian of Jewish descent, I found your blog as a result of BBC Radio 4’s “Sunday” programme today, 15 July.

    Thank you for articulating what so many of us feel: lets’ have genuine, awe-filled spirituality without all the phallocratic, hierarchical nonsense. Our religious traditions are stuffed with truly disgusting events. Many of my ‘atheist’ correspondents are really simply angry at the malevolence of our history. As a result, they throw out the spiritual baby with the religious bath water.

    We need more writers and speakers of all traditions to celebrate the positive that is (often deeply) hidden in the separatism that the religious institutions have encouraged.

    Many thanks and Shalom, Metta and Blessings.

  10. on 15 Jul 2007 at 5:28 pmAlan

    Simon,

    I don’t know if you’re going to come back and read this, so I’ll also try to reach you by email. Sorry for the duplication, if any.

    I am very grateful for your note, and for the Internet (another triumph of science and reason), which enables my reputation to get as far as the BBC and allows your kind thoughts to reach me!

    Yes, we are all one species with one set of needs, regardless of our stories, and to realize this is the first step. Just to allow other people to have their stories and keep the stories from pitting us against each other would be a huge accomplishment. After that…who knows what we’re capable of (please see my latest entry)?

    Thanks again and shalom,

    Alan

  11. on 19 Jul 2007 at 6:29 amSimon

    Thank you for this and your email, Alan.

    Perhaps I may share one of my favourite quotations from Hildegard of Bingen:

    “Everything that is in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth is penetrated with connectedness, penetrated with relatedness.”

    Shalom and Metta
    Simon

  12. on 19 Jul 2007 at 4:38 pmAlan

    Hello, Simon, and thanks for your reply. I loved the quote. Everything in the universe is composed of the same chemical building blocks — truly a miracle!

    shalom,

    Alan

    “On the day you were born, you begin to die. Do not waste a single moment more.”

    Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

  13. on 20 Jul 2007 at 8:38 amSimon

    How interesting that you quote Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. My own studies, for the past ten or more years, have centred on Buddhism and its ‘interface’ with the ‘Abrahamic’ traditions, Christianity particularly. I was lucky enough to have had a 45 minute private audience with the Dalai Lama in 2001 which has continued to inspire my work to find a formulation and practice which can satisfy the needs of a secular and humanistic generation.

  14. on 20 Jul 2007 at 5:20 pmAlan

    Simon,

    Always nice to hear from you. What a tremendous privilege you had! What did he say?

    I love the Dalai Lama because he gets it, and he gets how simple it is: “My religion is kindness.” People worship him for having this insight, but he doesn’t want that. He wants people to look inside and figure it out for themselves.

    That’s what I’m trying to do. With all due respect, I suggest that where the Abrahamic religions took a wrong turn is in creating way too much deification of people, imaginary events, and texts. I wonder if the Dalai Lama would approve of that.

    To me, religion is about doing what we have to do and what we ought to do; about how to live, then die. You don’t need any imaginary stories for these tasks, though religion can provide a (false) refuge from them.

    I too search for the formulation and practice of a spiritual servant of truth and kindness. See my page on “Secular Wisdom.” Also, I’ll send you my entry on daily practice.

    shalom and metta,

    Alan

  15. on 28 Jul 2007 at 3:14 amSimon

    Alan,

    Two deaths in the past week and I enjoy the idea of the two of them meeting in some afterlife: Rabbi Sherwin Wine and Tammy Faye Bakker Messner!

    What you ask about HHDL (the Dalai Lama): what did he say? We talked for 3/4 hour about all sorts of things. On the topic of religion, he said that, for him, all religions were about two things. The first is ‘loving-kindness’ or compassion. The second is how to achieve loving-kindness. His view is that it is only in the second that they differ.

    The more I study and practise, the more convinced I am that whilst our fundamental nature, our ‘face before we are born as Zen puts it, is compassionate and creative, reconnecting with that is quite a task.

    Where I think Buddhism and Judaism connect is that both are about how to live a good life in peace and justice. This is the bit that is missing from the Christian gospels for the simple reason that they are more concerned with what the Tibetans call “Rigpa”, the View, which is more like the sudden realisation, the jolting awake. In addition, of course, Jewish history, as we tell it to each other, is a constant reiteration of the Firest Noble Truth, the truth of suffering.

    For me, I get very tired of the way in which we rehearse the stories of our long exile but all-too-rarely move to the Second Truth, the truth of how we cause so much of our own suffering. It is so often “they” who are blamed. From that position, there is no way out other than to crush “them”. But, as The Dhammpada says, enmity does not end by being opposed by enmity.

    I’m not sure what sort of sh*t you get for sharing a view of Judaism without Ha Shem (similar to my own experience of sharing Christianity without a Creator, I imagine) but I can tell you that I get very tired of being in such a small minority as a pacifist of Jewish descent! “Antisemitic” and “self-hating” are only two of the labels that people stick on me. Strange, isn’t it, that it is OK to be against the policies of one’s own government, but to criticise the actions of the government of the State of Israel is deemed to be blasp-hemy. People seem unable to distinguish between the political and the spiritual in this particular case. It would appear more acceptable to deny objective reality of a deity than to suggest that actions of the Knesset may, just possibly, be ill-judged.

    It’s a strange world indeed.

    Shalom and Metta,
    Simon

  16. on 28 Jul 2007 at 5:20 pmAlan

    Simon,

    As always, it’s delightful to hear from you, to read your thoughts, and to get your perspectives on the quest that we are both engaged in.

    What’s more absurd than Sherwin meeting Tammy Faye? How about Moroccan Jews washing and wrapping his body in the Orthodox manner and saying kaddish over it before it was sent home to be cremated? Sherwin would have loved the irony.

    It’s sad to be reminded, once again, how religion pollutes politics and leads a nation away from common sense and its own best interests. Of course, the first insult that the true believers resort to when challenged is “unpatriotic,” disloyal,” or, in the case of Jews, the insults leveled at you. These are frightened people, clinging to their stories as a substitute for courage (or laughter) in the face of uncertainty — another of the linchpins of Sherwin’s philosophy.

    I also agree that Jews must not make suffering and persecution the focus of their history. Rabbi Wine was very clear about that: we have had many great moments; many societies have welcomed and nourished us.

    If I have more thoughts later, I’ll send them. But for now,

    thanks, shalom, and metta…

    Alan

  17. on 12 Sep 2007 at 10:00 amSusan

    Tonight is Rosh Hashana and, for the first time in my fairly lengthy life, I am not at the Temple. For so many years I sat there enjoying the music and cringing at the prayer. I couldn’t relate to a God I couldn’t believe in and I couldn’t feel comfortable with the earnest, (believing?) people around me.
    Thankfully, I found your blog and read your words…I am not alone! I am a Jew but I am an atheist! Are these two things necessarily mutually exclusive? Can I still enjoy the Seder without feeling a hypocrite? Can I light the candles on Friday night even if I don’t believe in God? Can I have the traditions without the religion? If so, how? If not, what will take their place?
    Thank you for providing me a forum to vent,
    L’shana Tova,
    Sue

  18. on 12 Sep 2007 at 5:44 pmAlan

    Susan,

    Thanks for writing. I love to talk about Judaism and Humanism and to hear from people like yourself.

    The short answer: you a great candidate for Humanistic Judaism (the movement really needs better publicity), which has been around for 40 years and whose founder and leader recently died in an accident. Terrible, heartbreaking. A truly unique individual. We can discuss.

    All your questions have been addressed, in various ways, by the Humanistic Jewish movement, which has worked out a rich and varied form of Judaism without God. I’ve been consciously secular since I was 11 but didn’t discover Humanistic Judaism until 1979, when I met Rabbi Sherwin Wine. Then my Jewish education really took off. Something else I can tell you about if you like.

    For now, please google Sherwin Wine and The Society For Humanistic Judaism. There maybe a congregation in your area. If not, I can help. I have materials I use for solo or small group service.

    You could start actually the year at a Humanistic service, as I am doing. One of Sherwin’s proteges has started a congregation in the Chi. area. I can also tell you what I do. The High Holidays are very important to me. Forgiveness, atonement, resolution — these come from people. God is not involved.

    Please let me know you got this. If I don’t hear back in a coiuple of days, I’ll take the liberty of sending an email, just this once.

    Also, there’s a blog entry called “Being Jewish.” If you can’t find it in the archive, I’ll send it.

    shalom and l’shana tovah,

    Alan

  19. on 21 Sep 2007 at 4:12 pmed

    I have read the above of why the blog and book and also re Yom-Kipur and I must say it mirrored my thoughts. Skipping meals is at best symbolic-and is hypocritical if its all you do all year long-knowing you can do so much more.

    The problem I have is calling someone Jewish yet at same time an Atheist. Its like a square being round or a full glass being empty.

    I am an Atheist but probably closer to Agnostic (no real knowledge of god so must find out more). If fish had gods, these gods would have fins and live under water, as well as dont mind eating other fish. But what if we have no real knowledge of god- only the distortions of the ignorant/self deluding people of the past.

    What if we discover the real nature and a real “god” as we discovered higher mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy? Just because they havent doesnt mean we cant or wont. My guess is that any god we invent wont be like the real deal (assuming there is a real deal). We are like fish who cant immagine anything like a mammal or even like the primitive shamans of old who explain everything in spiritual terms (for lack of other) who then get exposed to modern science.

    Please let me know what you think.

    PS Your hit the nail on the head re Muslims. Hope they dont hunt you down lol.

  20. on 21 Sep 2007 at 6:47 pmAlan

    Hi and thanks so much for writing.

    Your comments are very thoughtful, and I’ll probably have some thoughts now and others later.

    We’re off to the lake soon to do taschlich — in a Humanistic way, of course. We will cast off our illusions into the water and commit to an ideal for the new year. Being Jewish is being a member of a great worldwide family, connected by ties of blood, culture and history. Take a look on my post about “Being Jewish.”

    There’s no supernatural by definition. There’s only the natural, knowable world. Everything else, including God, is in people’s minds, kept there by programming and social reinforcement — but it’s no less real. Subjective entities like God and Hell are real, too — just to one person at a time.

    If there’s a God, he will make himself known, and will qualify as reality, unlike Superman and Klingons. But the Bible God is only one of a thousand. He’s real and they’re not?

    I do think we are like fish when it comes to understanding reality (strings, quarks, other dimensions) and our brains: how does neurochemistry become subjectivity?

    I’ll add more later, if I have any additional thoughts.

    Someone must have the courage to tell Muslims the truth (from behind bullet-proof glass), because the fate of humanity may lie in the balance. I have that courage. There are too few others, for exactly the reasons you cite.

    shalom,

    Alan

  21. on 20 Dec 2007 at 2:39 pmShii

    Back in the 80s, a sociology professor (recently quoted in Harper’s magazine) predicted that when fascism came to America it would be “wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.”

    This is an incorrect attribution; I checked Harper’s as well as academic databases and found no mention of this.

    http://shii.org/knows/Fascism_comes_wrapped_in_the_flag

    If you’ve cleared up your memory, please let me know.

  22. on 20 Dec 2007 at 8:32 pmAlan

    Let me check my records. Did you check ALL of the magazine’s contents? I think it was in one of the introductory essays that Lapham used to write exclusively, towards the end.

    If I’m wrong, I’ll delete it.

    Thanks for writing and shalom,

    Alan

  23. on 21 Dec 2007 at 6:10 amShii

    I did an all-text search for “fascism AND cross” at my college and didn’t get anything. I limited it to just “fascism” and you’re quite right that most of the articles which mention fascism are by Lapham, but alas, none of them mention this quote. It’s too bad– it could have been a very useful lead.

    I don’t mean to reflect badly on your blog. I’m Jewish and quite fond of humanism and I think the open discussion you’re having is very important. Simply stumbled across your site in a different context. :)

    Shii

  24. on 22 Dec 2007 at 1:42 amAlan

    Shii…

    Thanks for writing — and for keeping me honest. I’m going to go to the library and see if they have actual copies of Harper’s Magazine. I’m fairly sure it was within the last year. If I’m wrong, I’ll change it. But it’s such a good line, you’re right — could I have made it up or gotten it from somewhere else?

    I do appreciate your getting back to me. If you have a moment, just let me know where you encountered the blog — I’m just curious about how it makes its way around the Internet.

    Shalom,

    Alan

  25. on 24 Dec 2007 at 12:34 amShii

    Alan, I believe you got this line from a misquote of Sinclair Lewis currently being bandied around on the Internet. (Which, by the way, is what brought me to this blog. I’m looking for the original source.) I’ll save you a trip to the Library–Lapham did write an essay on fascism in October 2006, but this quote wasn’t mentioned.

    All the best,
    Shii

  26. on 24 Dec 2007 at 12:38 amShii

    P.S. Instead of reattributing this to “Internet”, I would recommend rephrasing what you want to say a little. After rereading different versions of this for about a week now, I’ve decided none of the versions are really a satisfactory political statement, for this reason:

    http://shii.org/knows/Fascism_comes_wrapped_in_the_flag#Why_did_neither_of_these_people_actually_say_this.3F

  27. on 24 Dec 2007 at 1:14 amAlan

    Shii,

    Indeed, one of my correspondents identified it as coming from Lewis, and I was going to tell you that. But if even that provenance is doubtful, I can make the point without it.

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