Cover image for Exodus to humanism : Jewish identity without religion
Exodus to humanism : Jewish identity without religion
Ibry, David.
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Amherst, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1999.
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143 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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BM538.H87 I27 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Publisher's Weekly Review

Ibry, a member of the British Association of Counselors, contends that Judaism is obsolete, but that it is possible to maintain a Jewish identity by embracing humanism. To buttress his argument, he sought others who might agree with him; he located 27 people who shared their ideas with him through interviews. However, Ibry's presentation is so confusing that it is difficult to separate his own views from the views of those he is interviewing. The book's limited range is further demonstrated by its failure to mention American Jewish humanists, a small but expanding group whose ideas echo Ibry's own. Eight marginally related chapters deal with a hodgepodge of subjects including morality, women, converts, exclusiveness and science. Occasional anecdotes enliven the discussion, but more typical of the book is an opaque linguistic analysis of life after death. Jewish humanism deserves a better declaration than this. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One My Case for Humanism Fighting the Truth My earliest memories are about the Truth.     Doda Lena was sitting next to me in our garden on the slopes of Mt. Carmel. Her voice was soft and melodious. She had large grey eyes and a bony, angular body. She must have been an attractive young woman, but to me she was an ageless aunt whose purpose in life was to be nice to me and tell me stories.     There was peace and security in that Israeli garden. My father was probably reading in his library, my mother was busy organizing our meal with Yona, the maid, and my sister was still at the Reali primary school.     It was a long story: this young man, Doda Lena told me, was seeking the Truth. At first he believed it to be among the Goyim (the Gentiles), but later he discovered other Goyim with a better Truth. Eventually after searching left, fight, and center throughout the whole world, he finally realized where the real Truth lay: here with us, because it was the same Truth we believed in--my father, Doda Lena, myself, my sister, our neighbors and their children. Of my father's death, I only remember that day. The grave was a mound of reddish soil, and we all stood around it. I was not crying. I think nobody was crying, but I had a strange feeling that people were supposed to cry, though I was not sure why. And I sensed that my mother was somehow different and later on I heard her speaking differently.     I remember how I enjoyed the trip on the big white ship, the marine breeze, and the occasional splash of salty taste. In the evenings we had Tarzan films on deck. To me it seemed a huge boat on an endless sea, and I was sorry when we reached land and had to leave that endless sea.     In the new Italian home they spoke differently. I felt ashamed because I could only speak with my mother and my sister. I had already learned some rudiments of writing, but now my mother taught us how to write differently. We were told that what we knew was Hebrew and what we were learning was Italian.     There were many exciting new things around the new house and in fact I did not mind the change, although I missed the garden and the long hours spent watching the ants and the spiders.     Also I felt somewhat uneasy at being different.     We lived with Grandmother, Auntie, and Auntie's daughter. It was Grandmother who made me feel uneasy. I admired her sitting there at the head of the table, always so straight and composed (of course I didn't know she was wearing a corset).     She hardly ever smiled and I do not recall having ever seen her laughing. For her, things were either black or white, either truly right--and that meant Roman Catholic dogma--or truly wrong, whatever was not Roman Catholic.     I would have liked her to approve of me because I realized that there was something about me which was not the way it should have been. I cannot put it into words; presumably I just wanted to be like the others, to have been born in a place like the others, and yes, to be a Christian like the others.     When the anti-Jewish laws were announced, emotionally they brought nothing new to me. All "those" feelings were already part of my world, a world of insecurity and isolation. The novelty was that now I had to be ashamed, now I had to forget that faraway house and its garden. I had to hide their existence deep in my memory, so I tried not to think about them anymore.     Because of the new laws I could no longer attend state schools, and my mother sent me to a private school run by the Jesuits. There I received a very thorough tuition in the Truth.     My cousin Carlo was older than me. He was how I should have been. He had nothing to hide; he was born in the right place and people liked him. It was my cousin who taught me the facts of life. I was shocked and could hardly believe it. My mother and grandmother never spoke about the facts of life and I understood that there was something improper about them. My cousin told me of when he asked a girl to go to the movies with him. I envied him, though I was not clear about what I would have liked to do with a girl at the movies.     We had Mass every morning at the Institute of the Jesuits. When Padre Tessarolo thundered from the pulpit warning us against impure thoughts leading to impure acts, a light flashed in my mind. Suddenly I knew what I would have liked to do with Ines if I had dared to ask her to come to the movies with me and if she had accepted. (Ines was our housemaid and of course much older than me.) There in the darkness I would have searched for her breasts and ... yes, this was exactly what I was not supposed to think about, as Padre Tessarolo warned us. It was my first confrontation with the Truth, or better it was just that parts of me were sort of unwilling to conform with the Truth.     Most nights when I went to bed a big fight raged in my mind between parts of me which were "evil" and the Truth. At times evil was too strong and won the day, or rather the night.     It took me years before I started doubting the Truth.     The newspapers, the radio, the large street posters were all continuously dishing out Truths. Even though the Truths dished out by the papers and the radio were not the same kind of Truths Padre Tessarolo was thundering about, they were equally presented as Truths one should not and could not doubt.     I am not sure how and when it happened. I can't say if it had been a sudden or a slow process, if anyone or anything in particular had influenced me. The fact is that I grasped something new which I found very stimulating: the concept of my ability to think with my own head, and my power to reject any claim to lay down the law about the Truth of right and wrong. Religion If I want to be logically consistent in challenging the truth, I have to focus on religion, because religion is based on a message of truth.     Whereas human theories on whatever subject--social, moral, political, and even scientific ideologies--are open to human challenge and doubt, religion offers superhuman messages which are revealed to humanity through channels designated by a power no human can challenge. Well then, how do you explain all those intelligent and clever people believing absurd and utter nonsense, performing irrational rituals and being mesmerized into a world of fiction and make-believe. The answer is simple: through indoctrination and conditioning, usually from a very early age. Parents, educators, ruling classes, and political leaders all feel the need for a covenant with supernatural powers in order to secure discipline, law, and order by means of superhuman rules which should not be disobeyed and could not be doubted.     Perhaps, after all, I had been lucky because the unusual circumstances of my life helped me to reject all such claims of exclusive truths on the part of religions.     I imagine that at the beginning religions were a tribal affair. A tribe was held together by and derived its self-confidence and strength from its religion. Wars were a matter of a religion with its god or gods against another religion with its own god or gods. Much later when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, religion was used to enforce morally the allegiance of its many and diverse subjects. Moral being the key word, because it meant that people had to follow whatever rules out of an inner compulsion prevailing over other human feelings and impulses. Models My problem was that I needed a model to look up to, an ideal to aim at and identify with. At the Leone XIII, the Institute of the Jesuits, they taught me that the meek will inherit the earth and that the last will be first. Surely, I thought to myself, if the meek and the last achieve greater merit, this implies some hierarchical order where people are considered more or less than others. So, if I were to model myself on the last rather than the first, it would be my way of trying to excel by being better than others, which appears to defeat the message of the model.     Whatever model, it seems to be based on more or less of some value. Is this what all humans have in common: the ambition to achieve more, i.e., to achieve more than others, because no one could be more unless somebody else were less?     My only teacher not wearing the habit was De Simoni. He was a lieutenant in the fascist militia and taught us military culture. Though the Institute was a private school and therefore able to accept me notwithstanding the anti-Jewish laws, when it came to the syllabus they had to conform with the official curriculum as set out by the Ministry of Education.     De Simoni was a handsome young man, always immaculately dressed in the fascist uniform. He talked well and convincingly. Often he reminded us of Mussolini's slogan: Better a Single Day as a Lion Than a Hundred Days as a Sheep . Almost in the same breath he would warn us of a major danger facing the world: a conspiracy by international Judaism allied with international Communism and international capitalist freemasonry. Every time he said that, it felt like being physically attacked, because I knew that he knew , and I knew that the whole class knew . As soon as his lesson started, I dreaded what was to come.     I wished somebody, perhaps my father or just anyone, would come to my side. I wished I had the courage to be a lion and jump on my desk and stand up to them and have the guts to shout them down. But I didn't. If there was such a thing as God, it would have been on their side. I was on my own and I could rely only on myself.     I was growing up and I was afraid. I was not afraid of God and I was not afraid of Hell. I feared men, what they could do for the sake of whatever theoretical construction they had built up in their own minds.     To feel safe I needed strength, and strength is but the result of a rapport where the strong are strong inasmuch as others are weaker; and my condition was making others strong at my expense. In order to face by myself all those people judging me through their whichever loyalties and whichever set of entrenched truths, I had to rely on something offering me the strength to stand up to them and challenge their truths. O God of Israel Oh God of Israel, hast thou not heard the cries of the mothers, the screams of the children, hast thou not seen thy people being exterminated? During the last period of the war, when northern Italy was occupied by the Germans, we moved out to the countryside, and though we didn't know about the extermination camps, we realized how dangerous and life-threatening was the situation for me. I had false identity papers with a different name and place of birth. It made me tense, and I developed an inner anxiety at the sight of anyone in a military or police uniform, because people were often stopped and asked to identify themselves. I understand now that I owe my life to all those who guessed or knew, but did not report me. There was a reward for anyone reporting Jews to the authorities, and not far away, on Lake Maggiore, the Germans were led to the villas of Jews. The Germans killed them and then threw their bodies in the lake before ransacking the villas. Writing about those days now, after more than fifty years, after having seen and experienced so much more than at that time, I wish to express my appreciation and gratitude to the society which surrounded me, for its great humanity.     Eventually the war ended. I no longer had to hide my identity, nor to lie or pretend about myself. One thing I had learned: to mistrust those who claim to know the real truth and feel justified to force it on others. There were two major truths in postwar Europe. Naturally they both claimed and preached how superior their own truth was. Though only one truth claimed to have God on its side, the other one acted as if it were a religious theocracy, preventing and suffocating by violent means all attempts of different, let alone contrary ideologies. Deep down I was still looking for something to believe in, and I did not appreciate my fortunate position. My life had been so much affected by unforeseen events that I was seeking the certainty in correct values as a way of coping with the anxiety caused by possible new and unknown circumstances.     We are born Christians or Jews, Protestants or Catholics, etc., and we are brainwashed accordingly about moral, sociological, and national correctness. When we meet others brainwashed with different sets of correct values, we are pushed into reinforcing our own correct values, in order to fight off what is sensed as a threat to a fundamental part of our identity, on which we rely for our psychological security. I know now that correctness should express the ways, the behavior, the rules we should live by, and not the ways, the behavior, the rules we are told and instructed to live by. The problem is, how can we see through the indoctrination we have received and identify the rules we should live by?     The answer must be that it is for society to debate, decide, and set out the rules the majority want to live by. This means that it is not up to any ruling authority, civilian or ecclesiastical, to decide and proclaim the moral rules, but instead it is for society to debate and then express a majority decision over its own moral laws. Only by refusing to be locked into whatever lager (guarded encampment) of whatever correctness was I finally able to feel stronger than those who are locked in their respective lagers.     Okay, it gave me an exhilarating feeling of freedom to realize that I could decide not to abide by whatever rules of whatever lager without incurring the wrath of whatever supernatural power. But if societies need rules and regulations in order to function and survive, as a member of society don't I have to abide by the rules and regulations of my society? Morality Since birth we learn and are taught what is good or bad for our well-being and for our survival. Sooner rather than later we absorb a reality which has to be coped with by means of rules and norms. And all those rules and norms imply dichotomous value judgments about what is right or wrong.     Presumably one of the very first problems for an organized social life was the validation of whatever rules and norms regulated it. The rules and norms about the fundamental rights and wrongs have to be made so definitely certain that they become part of one's own way of seeing things. The easiest validation was by means of a revelation from some superhuman source, which in turn would require a religious structure to justify it.     When I think of explaining the power of religion, I think about my grandmother. She was a remarkable person, but with hindsight I realize that her unshakable certainty of being right and her absolute refusal to consider the possibility of being wrong ended up by building feelings of resentment in me.     The trouble with religious systems of morality is precisely their claim of perfect truth for their moral values. Like all values, true values express a dichotomy where they are negated by opposite values, because if good was not contrasted by bad and all was good, then good would cease to be of any value. But, whereas moral values produced by humans are only relative to given human circumstances and are negated by opposite values relative to the same human circumstances, the superhuman values of religions have to be negated by a superhuman absolute evil. On the one hand superhuman absolutely true values offer to believers the psychological confidence of being absolutely right, but on the other hand human progress is made possible by doubt and lack of certainty. Furthermore, in interhuman affairs, the certainty of being absolutely right leads to the highest possible level of emotional confrontation.     Moral judgments are human psychological constructions through which we achieve the kind of intellectual structural order in our perception of reality, granting us positive feelings about ourselves, our views, and our behavior. Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and as one cannot claim that good always prevails, the moral systems of religions rely on the support of an ideal perfect world. And without the support of a perfect world, I seemed destined to face a lonely and difficult existential battle. Humanism What a relief, what a great joy when I discovered that there were thousands upon thousands sharing my views. Prominent persons, learned ones, and people in all walks of life. For me humanism is a human worldview, or rather a worldview of how humans explain, interpret, and make sense of our reality. And this means that we have to accept that our ideals, however dear they are to us, have to be taken with buckets of salt.     Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374)--Petrarch--is considered the first great humanist. At that time, when royals had libraries of about fifty manuscripts, Petrarch had a library of about two hundred. He was very keen not only to read the literary works of the great Roman civilization, but also to figure out what made that civilization great, how it functioned, what its people believed and thought.     Petrarch, though a Christian believer, was a scholar in Studia Humanitatis , the studies concerning humankind on earth rather than the supernatural world of theological studies. When admiring the pagan civilization of Rome and Greece, he felt empathy for the Roman way of life and its values. On the surface it may appear that the basic theoretical difference between the three great monotheistic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--and the paganism of Rome and Greece is that whereas the monotheistic religions have only one God, the Romans and the Greeks had plenty: ten, twenty, or however many more. In fact there is a much deeper difference of substance besides numbers.     The Roman and Greek gods, though immortal and very powerful, were humanlike, with all the passions, weaknesses, feelings, loves, hates, jealousies, pleasures, and displeasures of the senses of humans. In other words, they were not perfect; they were fallible and could make mistakes . So in the pagan Roman and Greek world, the model for absolute perfection was practically absent. This pagan way of looking at reality did not make humans any more or any less wicked, but it removed the possibility of covering up human mistakes, human wickedness, and human nonsense with perfectly true dogma which cannot be doubted.     Petrarch was a poet and not a philosopher. He was a man of feelings and not of theories and probably never bothered to rationalize with logical argument his empathy for the pagan values of ancient Rome. And in any case, in the late Middle Ages challenging religion and the Church would have been no joke and people would have refrained from expressing openly whatever doubts they might have harbored in their minds.     As a student of Italian literature at university, I felt drawn to Petrarch. It dawned on me that the correct way for understanding was by admitting the imperfection in our capacity to postulate a perfect God. I asked myself: if Petrarch had achieved this view, what had motivated him? Perhaps looking around a countryside ravaged by barbarian foreign militias where the monuments of the ancient Roman glory stood derelict and defaced, Petrarch tried to resurrect what he saw as his own heritage, the great civilization of his ancestors. Religion and Identity I could not get rid of feelings of guilt at not being as my father would have wanted me to be. He would have wanted me to be living, working, and fighting for his dream of a new Zion. Even before settling in Israel, he had changed his Jewish Russian name into the most Hebrew name he could think of. Notwithstanding obstacles of all kinds, including the refusal on the part of the British consul to grant him a certificate as required by the Turkish authorities, he had negotiated and finalized in March 1914 the purchase from Sir John Gray-Hill of Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem, at that time under Turkish rule, with the aim of having a suitable seat for a new university to radiate a new Israeli secular culture. For him there was no religious problem in marrying a Christian, provided they were both nonreligious and provided they agreed to raise a Jewish nonreligious family in Israel. Perhaps he was a bit of a dreamer, but wasn't Israel only a dream at that time?     He was a man who never hesitated to challenge the views of whatever establishment. On his death in 1933 he presented his priceless library, which included one incunabulum and many very valuable Judaica, to the Pevsner Jewish library of Haifa. (However the incunabulum and all the valuable books never reached their destination.)     I only had a vague notion of the sort of new Israel he had dreamed about, but I knew that his new Israel had to be the beacon for a new culture no longer based on religion, to enlighten the world. So I volunteered and clandestinely went there to share in the fighting for the creation of the State of Israel. As a scout in the new Israeli army, I went on dangerous missions behind enemy lines, and was ambushed and fired on whenever detected. I am happy I did, even though I realized that the State of Israel was not going to be an outwardly oriented beacon for a new culture, but would express an inwardly oriented culture mirroring the diaspora culture of Eastern European Judaism, where there was no distinction between the Jewish religion and being Jewish.     How sad it was for me to discover that because of my rejection of religion and because my mother was not Jewish, even my comrades did not think of me as a Jew. How sad to discover that the narrowness my father disliked so intensely was actually part and parcel of Jewish upbringing in Israel. I know that there are secular Israeli Jews and even atheist Israeli Jews, but in the Israeli culture, Israeli Jews are not the inhabitants of Israel, descendants from the Hebrews of the Bible, but are the people of the Bible who happen to live in Israel. The Israeli Jew receives his or her identity from the old Jewish religion first, and second from the new Israeli reality.     Of course the Jews could never all live in Israel (even if they all wanted to), which means that Jews living outside Israel accept the identity of the country they live in, and in practice their Judaism is a religion and not a nationality. I do identify with my Israeli Jewish roots, but I refuse to accept, let alone identify with, the Jewish religion. It sounds like a paradox.     Throughout my life I have been conditioned by my Jewishness: when I was born a Jew in Israel, when I had to hide it during the war in order to survive, when risking my life in the Israeli army, when people were relating to me either with suspicion or with hostility--and by people I have to include many Jews for whom my humanist worldviews were anathema and a betrayal. And with hindsight I realize that such an attitude toward me on the part of non-Jews as well as of many Jews disgusted me so much that it must have contributed to my emotional hostility toward all religions. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 David Ibry. All rights reserved.