AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Tuesday, 10 January 2017


An extremely interesting paper was written in 2010 by Bernardo Sorj, a Brazilian social scientist, retired professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He is Director of The Edelstein Center for Social Research and of the Plataforma Democrática Project. He has published 30 books and more than 100 articles, on Latin American political development, international relations, the social impact of new technologies, social theory and Judaism.

And on Judaism focuses the paper in question, on Humanistic & Secular Judaism, to be precise. This is its Introduction:


This essay is an introduction to a Judaism that I hope will interest Jews and non-Jews alike. It updates the humanistic and secular Judaism that was a hallmark of the greatest modern Jewish thinkers, including Baruch SpinozaSigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Franz KafkaGeorge Gershwin, Arthur Rubinstein, Theodor Herzl, Emma Goldman, and Amos Oz, along with the majority of Nobel laureates.

Each of them in their particular manner advanced modern Judaism as a way of being Jewish without relying on sacred books or divine commandments; instead, they drew on the psychological and existential dramas of Jewish history and culture for their inspiration. They felt a particular sense of solidarity in times of Jewish persecution and revulsion when Jews acted carelessly and caused others to suffer.

This is a necessary update because modern, humanistic Judaism is in crisis. Although the majority of Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel consider themselves to be humanistic, humanistic Judaism has lost much of its original impulse and creativity.

This crisis is a byproduct of the far-reaching transformations that Jewish communities and society in general have undergone in recent decades. We live in a postsocialist and post-Zionist world where Jews feel they are full members of the democratic societies where most of them live.

The different branches of modern Judaism did emphasize its universal ethical dimensions. By doing so, they have concealed the tensions between the diverse identities and loyalties present within each of us. Identification with the suffering and joy of others carries a different weight depending on our various identities  - for example, family, religion, gender, ethnicity, nationality. These conflicts exist and will only vanish on the day humanity comes to live in harmony - if that day ever comes.

Until then, the currents of fidelity and solidarity will ebb and flow in each of us, and their relative importance will vary at different times in our lives. There will be times when we feel conflicted about the different parts of our identities, but instead of concealing these tensions we need to make them part of our self-understanding, so that we can better develop our autonomy and sense of personal freedom.

By emphasizing the universal dimensions of Judaism, twentieth-century secular humanistic Judaism came to undermine the justification for the existence of a Jewish identity. If Jewish values are the same as universal values, why maintain a Jewish identity? Secular humanistic Jews should revalue the particularistic aspects of Jewish tradition and history - without falling into an isolationist attitude based on fear and distrust of the non-Jew, who is sometimes represented in a dehumanizing manner.

The humanistic and progressive vision of history has proved too optimistic. We live in a world charged with political, ethnic, and religious conflict. We cannot avoid acknowledging that Jews around the world can be vulnerable to attack. Otherwise, we might naively facilitate a xenophobic Judaism that feeds on any expression, real or imagined, of antisemitism.

Rationality is not the only measure of human history or the only basis of human action. Spirituality -  emotions, feelings, and the search for transcendence - are present in every religious and nonreligious human act and are fundamental to social bonds and collective identities. This book does not attempt to avoid the nonrational dimensions of human life; on the contrary, it acknowledges their reality and the challenges they pose to humanistic Judaism.

We should recognize that we are limited in our capacity to shape the world. Such recognition means a humbler view of both our own and each generation's role in history and society. Secular humanistic Judaism has fallen prey to hubris, a feeling of omnipotence that replaces God with humanity and feeds the illusion that the world can be bent to one's own will. Such is not the case. Even if God is dead and everything seems possible, we cannot simply substitute man for God and ideology for religion.

On the contrary, we must realize that our ability to understand and shape the world is finite. When religion's answers about the meaning of the universe are no longer satisfying, we must learn to accept the human condition and its unsolvable enigmas. Obviously this self-awareness does not justify moral
resignation; in fact, it constitutes a unique source of authentic ethical responsibility based on personal convictions of right and wrong - without expecting God's compensation in this world or an afterlife.

Secular Judaism of the twentieth century was based on "certainties" about the meaning of life and history. Contemporary humanistic Jews value uncertainty as a source of liberty and compassion. Certainties divide and separate, while uncertainty, doubt and fear in face of the unknown, suffering and death, put the human condition in its proper dimension.

Institutionalized religion recognizes that doubt invades even the most fervent believer - and represents a moment of weakness that needs to be fought. That is why "blind" faith is demanded of believers. Secular people from the most diverse cultural traditions live with doubt and uncertainty in all aspects of their lives. But for them doubt is experienced as something that enhances our humanity, motivates our curiosity, allows us to value other cultures, and leaves us open to new responses.

In all areas of life, the right to doubt is a fundamental value, and the stifling of doubt leads to oppression in all its manifestations. When we exercise our right to doubt, we become empowered as free persons. Notwithstanding, we still need collective beliefs if we are to build community and advance collective action. Our challenge, then, is to foster communities that recognize the value of doubt and nurture individuals who will use their doubt to enrich their communities.

The hubris of twentieth-century secularists in relation to human history and society also applies to Judaism. Hubris led many secularists to scorn aspects of Jewish cultural traditions, which for centuries had been expressed through religious narratives. The secular Zionists, in addition, denied the richness and diversity of Jewish cultural life in the Diaspora and its role in the survival of Judaism.

While we may disagree with and criticize other streams of Judaism, we cannot ignore the contributions of each one, even when we find many aspects of their practice unacceptable to us. In the end, we should be pluralists, not as an expression of mere tolerance for difference, but in recognizing the limitations of every worldview and the richness of diversity.

When a Jew defines him or herself as an agnostic or atheist, he or she is following a general trend in modern thought that questions the existence of God. But he or she is also echoing a particular doubt about the capacity of the Jewish God to provide convincing answers about the meaning of life in general and Judaism in particular.

Secular movements within Judaism were initially constructed in response to religious tradition, which was experienced as an oppressive and paralyzing force. Without a doubt, this was a correct diagnosis at the time. It is not by chance that those who developed Yiddish culture and modern Hebrew language, founded the State of Israel or who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising were mostly secular Jews. On the other hand, the twentieth century has taught us that atheism can also be an inquisitorial and totalitarian ideology. In the name of atheism, totalitarian regimes have tried to impose their beliefs on others, just as religious leaders try to impose beliefs and values in the name
of God.

Today, new religious movements are embracing humanistic values and open dialogue -  in opposition to dogmatism, authoritarianism, and the revival of fundamentalism. These new movements have emerged from open societies where individuals and groups can advance their own view of the world without fearing external sanctions.

Therefore the main dividing line for Judaism today is not whether God exists, which is a personal issue. The real division is between those who accept a pluralistic view of Judaism, encompassing all Jews, and those who want to establish a monopoly on their own distinct form of Judaism; between those who believe men and women to have equal rights and those who believe women have fewer rights; between those who condemn homosexuality and those who believe that sexuality and other mores are matters of personal choice; between those who use religion to impose their "truths" in the public sphere and those who believe in democracy, dialogue, and separating worldly politics from
transcendental belief.

What distinguishes a humanistic Jew is not belief in God keeping kosher or using a kippah. The humanistic Jew (regardless of belief in God) respects the human dignity of all people and does not allow a collective identity to be used to dehumanize those who hold different beliefs. Humanistic Judaism is an effort to constantly renew tradition so that its values dignify every human being.

While we may disagree with and criticize other streams of Judaism, we cannot ignore the contributions of each one, even when we find many aspects of their practice unacceptable to us. In the end, we should be pluralists, not as an expression of mere tolerance for difference, but in recognizing the limitations of every worldview and the richness of diversity.

For all of these reasons, humanistic Judaism is deeply linked to the defense of democracy. Freedom of thought, respect for the dignity of every human being, and social justice are its fundamental values. They are to be anchored in institutions that ensure the practice of these rights and the achievement of new ones. Democracy is fundamental to the State of Israel and is the only safeguard for a life of peace and dignity for Jews in the Diaspora. Democracy should also be the standard of every Jewish community's internal life. Unity and diversity coexist through dialogue, respect, and the ability to live within the tensions naturally generated by Judaism's diverse branches. 

* * *

In recent decades, changes within Judaism have accelerated, causing insecurity within many Jewish institutions that often suppress or distance dissonant voices. Albert Hirschman argues in his book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty that when the organizations we belong to do not work properly, our first reaction is to express our dissatisfaction, to use our voices.

But our inclination toward protest depends on our degree of loyalty and our will not to jump ship. If our voices are not heard, our loyalty decreases, and many individuals may opt to leave Judaism altogether. Although their decision should be respected, in the end it is impoverishing - because it implies removal from an enriching tradition - and if we can prove our case, this abandonment of Judaism becomes unnecessary.

The winds of change are blowing within Judaism, and the vast majority of Jews are increasingly drawn toward new forms of thought and practice, unburdened by the fear of innovation or anxiety about breaking with the old religious or secular models. Judaism today is extremely diverse and rich, although many Jews are unaware of these new ways to celebrate being Jewish.

This new Judaism is based not on fear of persecution but on pride in being part of an extremely creative culture and history. It is enriched by the interchange between yidn (Jews) and goyim (non-Jews), and it does not resort to self-exclusion or isolation.

Like all cultural identities, Judaism is a mixture of destiny and choice. For almost two thousand years, historical circumstance has made being Jewish a matter of fate. Now it is becoming more and more a matter of individual choice: a choice to be Jewish and a choice about how to be Jewish; to be born into Judaism and to want to continue to be Jewish; to be Jewish and to want one's children to be Jewish also; not to be born Jewish and to decide to share one's life with Jews and raise Jewish children; or simply deciding to identify with Jewish culture and its collective life.

Judaism has survived by reinventing itself and adapting to new circumstances. I hope this book contributes to identifying new trends within Judaism and to promoting a pluralist vision of Judaism. Answers to questions like Who are we? What path should we follow? will always convey tensions and contradictions.

Individualism and solidarity often collide, as do the values of particularism and universalism. Living freely means making choices, which makes us responsible for reconciling different values in an ongoing effort to seek out and provide creative answers. And for Judaism, freedom means that the issue at stake is not what it is to be a Jew - it means learning how to choose and advance the type of Jew one wants to be.

  • This is a presentation of JUDAISM FOR EVERYONE, in 4 parts, on YouTube in Portuguese:




Part I: A Culture in Transformation
  • What Is a Jew?
  • Biblical Judaism
  • The Greco-Roman Period and the Varieties of Judaism
  • Talmudic Judaism
  • The Talmudic World of the Middle Ages
  • Jews, Christians, and Muslims
  • Modernity: The Return of Philosophy, History, and Politics
  • Cultural and Political Movements in Modern Judaism

Part II: Contemporary Judaism
  • The Holocaust, Memory, and Politics
  • The State of Israel: The Challenge of Creating a Secular Democracy
  • Postmodernity, Diaspora, and Individualized Judaism
  • National Judaisms
  • Judaism as Endurance, Cognitive Dissonance, and Collective Guilt

Part III: Challenges Facing Judaism
  • Who Speaks for the Jews: Rabbis? Plutocrats? The Israeli Government?
  • Who is Jewish? Weddings and Burials
  • Anti-Semitism and the Relation between Yidn and Goyim
  • The Future of Judaism
  • The Future of Humanistic and Secular Judaism

Appendix: World Jewish Population




You can continue reading here:
➤➤Alternatively, you can ask me to email the book to you as a PDF attachment.


  • Other YouTube videos of Bernardo Sorj, lecturing in Portuguese:

  • For a thorough examination of Judaism in its historical, cultural and religious aspects, see my blog-page:
    DEFINING JUDAISM (by Jacob Katz)