Commentary Magazine


Ethical Culture

To the Editor:

. . . When I turned to Milton Himmelfarb’s “The Topless Tower of Babylon” [December 1970], I suppose I expected something on sex and/or Armageddon, both of which were available in another article. What I found was an attack on Ethical Culture as America’s “decompression chamber” for Jews leaving Judaism, equivalent to European movements like Esperantoism, Socialist Internationalism, and Hillelism on which I can discover no further information. This is surely a startling parallel, if there ever has been one, and it calls for at least two statements from someone who is familiar with the Ethical movement, as surely Mr. Himmelfarb cannot be expected to be.

Ethical Culture has not functioned historically to ease the passage “from the Jewish community to a Christian denomination of high social status.” Many of the original members maintained their ties specifically with Temple Emanu-El, and examples of dual membership can still be found, perhaps to try to avoid the implications of copping out. But beyond these ties, which may be largely symbolic, there are Ethical movement members who have been and still are active in Jewish public life and philanthropy. There are Ethical members who come from a Jewish background who see their new community as the end of their Jewishness, but as it happens they are few. Most are eager to affirm that, at least where prejudice or hardship are concerned, they still wish to be counted. What happens to the next generation cannot be easily established. Some fair number of children of members, or even former members, finding themselves out of a city served by Ethical Culture, do take part in or join Unitarian churches, particularly now that most of their congregations are also humanistic. Certainly some of the next generation become “nothing,” a situation we scarcely approve, but it is also true that many children in fact return to Judaism. . . .

The either / or we all face is surely not to be reduced to the question of Christian or Jew! At least for myself, “born Protestant,” it was a different kind of choice. Attracted by the social ideals of Israel’s prophets and Christianity’s saints, and indeed discovering the same hopes in the scriptures of all the traditions despite the arguments of theological nicety and those of race, class, tongue, and politics which have always divided men, I had to choose the particular or the general. For me the alternatives were the Protestant background of my childhood, with limitations that included a vague cultural anti-Semitism, or something inclusive of other ways and other faiths. As the Ethical Culture leader in Brooklyn I have a ministry on broader grounds than I could have had elsewhere. We have people from many backgrounds, with no one required to denounce what he or his family have been. We see diversity as a good, and as a way of weaning ourselves and the community at large away from the separation and hates that have been tragic throughout human history. We are humanists. We proclaim that we must first of all be human beings and be prepared to honor all of human traditions that deserve it. We all face the voting booth, as Mr. Himmelfarb has said, but it is not to choose between Christianity and Judaism, but between the life of particular loyalty however we were born, and a life of universal humanity which need dishonor none of the particulars.

For Ethical Culture (and for Universalism I suppose) it must be said that we are small and even weak. Admitted. And that as humanists we are human in the other sense too and are less than we wish we were. Admitted, again. It may even be said, if one wishes, that we are hopeless idealists, and that we would be better off staying with the old established religious products. I’m not ready to concede this, but I’m able to envision a fruitful argument about it. But surely, when you come to the heart of it all, the vision of a kind of religious fellowship, and even a kind of larger community, open to Jew and Christian and Buddhist and the rest, open to black and white and to whomever else wishes to be present, surely this vision deserves better treatment than it received from Mr. Himmelfarb. Surely this vision is not to be reduced to the slash in either / or. Let us argue about whether, in a world of real people, and nations, and ideologies, and unsolved problems, we can carry off a religious group whose goal is simply “doing good.” Let us argue, but let us not just dismiss the case. Despite my high regard for what he has often written, I fear that this time Mr. Himmelfarb avoided the real issue.

Howard Box
Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture
Brooklyn, New York

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