Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

My Religion

Bernard H. Baum
Winter 2005

(Following is an edited version of remarks prepared for delivery at Beth Emet Synagogue, Evanston, Illinois on April 9, 2004)  

It’s nice to be here on Good Friday. That was the first real Seder, and that bodes well for what I understand is to be twenty minutes together.  

To ask a professor to speak for only twenty minutes is a bit of an outrage, but I’ll live with it. In academia, we start out with a statement about objectives for a course and it is usually put in terms of what you ought to know by the course’s completion. Believing in the Socratic method, I will begin by raising a few questions.  

Number one, what statement appears as an aim of Zionism on the back of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) membership card? Second, what action provides one with the answer to the question, “Who is a Jew?” or “Am I Jewish?” Third, what was it like to be Jewish before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948? That is a much more complicated question, so I’m not going to be able to really answer it. Finally, I will raise the question to which I will give the answer: who was Emil G. Hirsch?  

Emil G. Hirsch  

My title for tonight, “My Religion,” is the title of a volume that was published in 1925, two years after the death of Emil G. Hirsch. It was a collection of his sermons, a series which he called “My Religion.” I took it for a title because I think that much of what I think about Judaism and my religion comes from that work of Emil G. Hirsch.  

I’m not suggesting that my thought is a product only of Emil G. Hirsch. There have been many others who have influenced me,  

Kaufmann Kohler and Abraham Geiger among them. As I thought about the title “My Religion,” I became very much aware that ultimately for each of us, our religion can be characterized as “My Religion.” There are as many statements about religion as there are people here, and then some.  

I want to focus for a moment on my biases, because I think it is unrealistic and unwarranted and unfair to talk about one’s ideas about religion without some other background.  

Born in Germany  

I was born Germany and was fortunate enough to be brought to these beloved United States. In Germany, my father was a member of what we called the “Zentraal Verein,” which was an organization much akin to the American Council for Judaism, that is it advocated for integration of the Jews into the larger society. It is important to clearly differentiate between what happened in Germany and what exists in the United States. Germany had lost a war and was perhaps treated somewhat unfairly at Versailles. Germany was ripe for the kind of anti-Semitism that came about. The United States, on the other hand, was founded on different principles than the Weimar Republic and I think that we can be very pleased about that. Certainly, I am.  

Now a few words about my objectives, and some definitions, as you are aware professors usually start a course by defining terms. Here, we have a whole host of terms — Jew, Jewish, Israel, Zionist, Judea, Classical Reform. Unfortunately, we do not have the time to belabor these definitions. I will just note that religion is the relationship of one or more people to some higher power. Every culture, every society has that present.  

What I call My Religion is a highly developed and, for me, very personal religion. It is a statement about humankind‘s relationship with some higher power. I believe that the philosophy of what is sometimes pejoratively referred to as Classical Reform is progressive. Perhaps we ought to change the terminology to “progressive,” as some sister religions have done.  

Devotion to God  

The philosophy of the reformers made life much more possible and viable for those of us who identify as Jews. Their religion — and mine — is one based upon a devotion to God and to the ethical and moral values set forth by the Prophets. This is the religion I grew up with and it is the religion which was shared by those who developed Reform Judaism both in Europe and in the United States. The very term “prophetic Judaism,” embraced by the reformers, emphasized the mandate to work tirelessly for the rights of the downtrodden and to create a just society on earth. It was not a religion about Jews, but a religion about God, and what God expected of us. The prophets of the Bible served as advocates of ethical monotheism and the mission of Jews was to stand as an example of the highest standards of ethics and morals to help bring the world to an awareness of and commitment to this vision.  

My religion does not believe in heresy. The Orthodox, and particularly in Israel where they have governmental control, know what is right, and that’s what Orthodox means, the correct doctrine. In Reform Judaism, judgment is based not on the law but rather on what is relevant and consistent with integrity, justice and humility.  

The practices that are involved in manifesting that kind of devotion to justice and the other virtues varies. I admit that the congregations in which I grew up, first in Germany and then here, Temple Sholom and Temple Sinai, were often cold places. They didn’t have the warmth, what has been called the “Yiddish type.” Some have said that Yiddish is vital to Judaism, yet I never knew Yiddish, and did not know what a bagel was until I went to the University of Chicago. And you know what, I don’t think it affected my Judaism. None of that is integral to what really is the spirit of Reform Judaism.  

Absence of Symbolism  

I’m not a purist with regard to the absence of symbolism. I believe that symbolism serves a vital function in religion. I just think it’s gone too far. You don’t have to agree, and that’s the beauty of Reform Judaism, that we don’t have to agree. I’m thrilled to be a member of Beth Emet where I figured originally I’d be persona non grata. Here, I’ve had the ability under a free synagogue to get up once and a while and say what I feel and what I think, not because I’m trying to convert you, but because I want you to understand what I’m saying. As I tell my students at the beginning of a course, you don’t have to agree with me to pass this course, I just want you to understand me.  

Now, I’ve explained to you why I am not a member of ARZA. I’m not a member because I do not feel that the national state which is called Israel is an integral part of my religion. Now, I am as delighted as anyone that there is a haven or refuge for members of my family and all the others that suffered, but I do not think that allegiance to what is now a national state, a foreign state, is religious.  

As in the case of religion, with regard to Zionism we are also free to make choices. We must save that ability to make choices. When we say that we stand with Israel, or similar comments, these are too general for me, because I don’t agree with the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, and I know many of you don’t either. When we say we stand with Israel, it seems a reasonable inference that we do indeed embrace these policies.  

The concept of the “mission of Israel” embraced by the original reformers rejected any notion of a return by Jews to Palestine. This covenant concept, instead, argued that the Jews are a people chosen by God to enter into a special covenant and that this relationship determined the course of their history.  

Need to be Dispersed  

In traditional Judaism, this idea was tied in with the settling of Eretz Israel, the Holy Land promised by God as an eternal gift to the Jews. The Reformers opposed any suggestion that they should hold political loyalties other than the loyalty to the land of their birth and citizenship. Reform theologians used language from the prophets to declare that Jews had a special mission to be a light unto the world and thus needed to be dispersed. God, they believed, had deliberately scattered the Jews among the nations to bring the ethical monotheistic message of Israel’s God to all people.  

Kaufmann Kohler, a leading Reform theologian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and president of Hebrew Union College, explained it this way: “The task which God assigned to us is to unfold and spread the light of the monotheistic truth in its undimmed splendor, ever to be living witnesses, and also to die, if needs be, as martyrs for the One and holy God, to strive and battle also, if needs be, to suffer for the cause of truth, justice and righteousness, and thus to win the nations, the races and creeds, all classes of men by teaching and example, by life and mental and moral endeavor as well as of incessant self-sacrifice and service for Israel‘s religious and ethical ideals.”  

A typical Reform view was expressed in the comments of Gustavus Poznanski when he participated in the dedication of a new building for Congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina in 1841, “This synagogue is our temple, this city our Jerusalem, this happy land our Palestine, and as our fathers defended with their lives that temple, that city, and that land, so will their sons defend this city and this land.”  

Let me answer some of the questions I raised, and then conclude. What is on the back of the ARZA membership card, which some of you may have with you? It calls for “the ingathering of the Jewish people in its historical homeland” from all countries of the world.  

Love for United States  

For my part, I do not want my grandchildren to go to Israel to live. I am a citizen of the United States. I love the United States. I want to pass on that heritage. This view is thoroughly consistent with that of the early reformers. Max Lilienthal, a prominent rabbi in Cincinnati in the latter part of the 19th century, echoed this view: “America is our Palestine; here is our Zion and Jerusalem, Washington and the signers of the glorious Declaration of Independence — of universal human right, liberty and happiness — are our deliverers, and the time when their doctrines will be recognized and carried into effect is the time so hopefully foretold by our prophets. When men will live together in brotherly love, peace, justice and mutual benevolence, then the Messiah has come indeed, and the spirit of the Lord will have been revealed to all his creatures.”  

Half humorously, in the absence of finding one simple definition of Judaism and my religion, I came up with this one. What action provides one with the answer to the question, “Who is a Jew?,” “Am I Jewish?” The answer to that question is, apply for citizenship in the state of Israel under the Law of Return and see if you are accepted. That is an operational definition, used in the behavioral sciences because the abstractions are too difficult to deal with.  

What was it like to be Jewish before the creation of the state of Israel? I don’t know. I don’t remember. It’s much too complicated, but I remember that I didn’t have to pay dues to ARZA. One of the things I learned from my father, and I’d like to carry on to my children, is that when you disagree with someone. say so. And even as an immigrant from Germany, my father, who joined Temple Sholom sixty years ago, felt that the heading on the stationery, which read “The Temple on the Lake,” was not humble enough. He saw to it that it was changed. He taught me that if people have ideas and principles, they should act on them.  

Old Time Religion  

This is what I have chosen to do tonight, not just to give you the flavor of the old time religion, but to explain to you why when I got a dues bill here 25 years ago, and I later found out that $15 of it was dues to ARZA, I went right to the board as my father had done at Temple Sholom. At the time, I said I think this is unwarranted, please fix it, make ARZA dues a line item. I understand that it now is a line item. I don’t get it anymore. I get a bill, but it doesn’t say ARZA. It may be that when I donate to the Jewish United Fund and I say that the funds are to be used for domestic purposes that they mingle it anyway. I’ve given up on that.  

I’ve given up on a lot, but I have not given up on those great thinkers, those very religious people who were our forebears and I’m pleased that we have some changes like de-gendering the prayer-book, although I must say there is some aesthetic quality and beauty about the Union Prayerbook that this one doesn’t have. I believe that Emil G. Hirsch, that early leader of Reform Judaism in Chicago, and the others felt that there would be changes made, and I think we’ve made them. I am happy that we are part of a progressive movement and the religion in which I believe — a Judaism committed to one universal God and rejecting ethnocentrism and separation for Judaism’s mission as a light to the nations remains very much alive. Hopefully, this religious vision will survive into the 21st century. If it does not, men and women of all faiths who believe in a God large enough to encompass all of mankind with a vision of a moral and purposeful world will be the losers.  

Positive Vision  

My grandmother used to tell me in German to do justly and to fear no one. That is how I would like to go into the future — not with fear, not with a burden of anti-Semitism but with a positive forward look and vision of what I have just talked about. Thank you.  

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.