Remembering Christopher Hitchens: The Shtarker


Of all the eulogies and essays about Christopher Hitchens that have appeared following his death Dec. 15 at age 62, one is particularly pernicious.

“The Trouble With Hitchens,” by Benjamin Kerstein, surfaced on a Web site called JewishIdeasDaily.com.  In it, he accuses Hitchens of being anti-Semitic.

Someone far, far more astute than I could make hash of such nonsense.
Unfortunately, that someone just died. So I’ll give it a shot.

Kerstein acknowledges that over the course of his lifetime of intellectual discourse and writing, Hitchens traveled far from his youthful left-leaning anti-colonial, anti-Zionism to find common cause with neo-cons later in life. But Hitchens’ acid criticisms of Judaism, the religion, and Zionism as a movement, according to Kerstein, still warrant labeling him a particularly sneaky kind of anti-Semite.

There are, according to Kerstein, long passages in Hitchens’ best-selling “God Is Not Great” that seem to single out Judaism for the original sin of institutionalizing monotheism.

“Hitchens goes out of his way not merely to criticize Judaism but to portray it in the ugliest possible terms,” Kerstein writes, “invoking many of the classic themes of anti-Semitism in order to do so.”  

“Circumcision, [Hitchens] claims, is the ‘sexual mutilation of small boys’ and ‘most probably a symbolic survival from the animal and human sacrifices which were such a feature of the gore-soaked landscape of the Old Testament.’ ”

News flash: Hitchens despised all religion, and in making an argument, any argument, he pulled no punches. (Another news flash: Circumcision is a form of partial sacrifice — which is much more enlightened than actually killing someone).

It isn’t brain surgery to troll through Hitchens’ writings and pull out the sentences that are most critical of Judaism and Israel. But that doesn’t prove Hitchens is anti-Semitic; it does show that Kerstein is fishing.

I met Hitchens three times. Once, I moderated a debate between him and Rabbi David Wolpe on whether religion is good. Another time, I moderated a panel on which Hitchens, Rabbi Wolpe, Rabbi Brad Artson and author Sam Harris debated “Is There an Afterlife?”

I’ll leave it to Rabbi Wolpe, who became close with Hitchens, to voice his own memories of Hitchens in the eulogy he wrote for The Journal (on Page 33).

But the second time I met Hitchens is the most relevant here. It was on the occasion of the eighth annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture, which Hitchens delivered at the request of Ruth and Judea Pearl, parents of the late, esteemed journalist, at UCLA on March 3, 2010.

Kerstein alludes to the lecture, but dismisses it as too little, too late. I couldn’t disagree more.

In it, Hitchens, who didn’t discover that he, himself, was Jewish until age 38, and who married a Jewish woman, made a case in his talk that the Jewish gift to the world of the art forms of argument, skepticism and cosmopolitism is precisely what anti-Semites seek to destroy.

“I was late in discovering some occluded parts of my heritage, and I once wrote that anyone who wanted to defame the Jewish people would, if they were doing so, be defaming my wife, my mother, my mother- and father-in-law and my daughter. So I thought I didn’t really have to say anything for myself, but I did add that in whatever turn of voice the question was put to me — whether it was friendly or hostile — ‘Was I Jewish?’ I would always answer, ‘Yes.’ The denial in my family would end with me.”

Hitchens went on to dissect exactly what anti-Semitism is. Is criticizing Israel anti-Semitic? Hitchens asked. No — unless you deny the right of Israel to exist. Is questioning the facts of the Holocaust anti-Semitic? No — unless you question its basic occurrence, too. Is monotheism anti-Semitic? Yes, said Hitchens, at least two-thirds of it is.

“It’s the very bitch, I’m saying, anti-Semitism,” Hitchens continued. “This plague is very protean and very durable and very volatile. Just as you think it’s been eradicated, up it pops again, surges. It’s exploded with or without the existence of the State of Israel, with or without finance capitalism, for which Jews were blamed, and with or without communism, for which, amazingly, Jews were simultaneously blamed.

“Our task is to call this filthy thing, this plague, this pest, by its right name,” Hitchens said of anti-Semitism, “to make unceasing resistance to it, knowing all the time that it’s probably ultimately ineradicable, and bearing in mind that its hatred toward us is a compliment and resolving some of the time, at any rate, to do a bit more to deserve it.”

Hitchens once said that the role of the journalist is to “go out and make mischief.” I suppose this is his corollary — the role of the Jew is to deserve the hatred of people who embrace conformity, blind acceptance and unexamined belief.

If Kerstein, like too many Jews today, wants to create litmus tests for what makes one sufficiently pro-Jewish or pro-Israel, Hitchens reminded us, by his words and life, that there is that other kind of Jew, the Jew among Jews, who like Jacob, wrestles not just with God, but especially with God.

Part of wrestling is resistance, and part of wrestling is embrace. Over his too-short life, Hitchens, like most Jews I know, treated his heritage and his People to both.

After the afterlife debate, I wanted to introduce my son, then a high-school senior, to Hitchens, and say goodbye.

“My son is a big fan,” I said to Hitchens.  

“Oh,” he said, reaching for my son’s hand. “Don’t be fan, be a critic. Be a doubter. Find faults. Argue.”

Christopher Hitchens, alav ha-shalom.

Hitchens, Wolpe, Harris, Artson and the Afterlife [EXCERPTS & VIDEO]


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Prop H8, gratuitous, immature, Islam


Proposition 8

I have read the articles about how gay couples are distraught at the passage of Proposition 8 (“Where’s the Struggle,” Nov. 21). How about an article from The Jewish Journal about how devastating it is for faithful Mormons to see their temple property trashed? Why not publish pictures showing signs reportedly held by demonstrators that read, “Mormon scum”?

It has been reported that donors to Proposition 8 are being blacklisted, rocks have been thrown through church windows, businesses are being boycotted and a book sacred to Mormons was found ablaze on a front porch.

Hmmm. Scapegoats, temples attacked, book burning. Does this sound familiar to Jews? Many who share these views — the majority of Nov. 4’s electorate — are hiding their yellow signs and bumper stickers supporting Proposition 8 for fear of being outed and attacked verbally and physically. The vocal minority is on the rampage.

John Gable
via e-mail

Although religion plays a significant role in our culture of marriage, it is not an issue of law regarding Proposition 8 (“Where’s the Struggle,” Nov. 21).

For myself, I am fine if gays are able to marry, and I am sure that I would not even notice, aside from the media extravaganza. My interest here is in the surprising dialogue uttered by political leaders, state Supreme Court justices, highly regarded law professors, pundits, journalists and everyone else who seems to have little understanding of the basic nature of law.

The equal protection clause does not mean that all people and things are equal, as in the same. The law does not intend to make all people and things the same, nor is it capable of doing so.

The equal protection clause means that the law will be applied equally to all citizens. My American Heritage dictionary, copyright 2001, defines marriage as the civil union between a man and a woman, as husband and wife. A civil union is a contract by law. In Western culture, marriage has been defined as between a man and woman across continents for centuries, meaning that it has long-standing precedence in law.

Our culture has evolved, and now we recognize a new kind of civil union between two people of the same sex. A union between two people of the same sex is dramatically different than a union between a man and a woman.

I am not saying anything here about one union being better than the other or one is good and the other bad, but I am saying that they are dramatically different, so where in our Constitution does it say that you have a right to legal nomenclature, which has long standing in law, of meaning something other than you wish it to be?

Homosexual couples under civil union and heterosexual couples under marriage, which means civil union, have equal actionable rights, meaning the law is applied the same to both unions. The legal terms applied to the two unions are different, because they are different types of civil unions, not the same in nature, but treated equally in applied law.

A civil union between a man and woman is the only existing union of two people that is capable of producing a child, in and of itself. No other type of union is capable of producing a child within the bounds of the legal union, with the child being of the DNA of the man and woman of the union, which is very unique, different and therefore not the same. No religion is necessary here, as this distinction is a matter of biological science.

The gay activists say that the discrimination is from the stigma of the term and that it is a term that means second-class citizen. People seem to have no understanding of what discrimination in law means.

All humans and government institutions discriminate in the course of daily life. Discrimination means to identify and classify according to difference. If you have a table full of apples and oranges and you identify which are apples and which are oranges, you are discriminating by difference.

Discrimination in law means that classification is used to cause harm by applying law unequally. Where did the legal term, “civil union,” come about this perceived stigma? The term marriage means civil union, so why doesn’t the term marriage carry this perceived stigma?

It is because the perceived stigma is not of the term but of the homosexuality. The law is a series of rules, not an emotional rendering of how people feel. Both unions enjoy equal application of the law, which is all the law is required to administer.

And what about the second-class citizen argument? Well, we have class licenses in law, meaning that different classes of licenses have differing applications of law. The state of California civil union law for homosexual couples is not a class license.

If a gay couple has all the rights of law as the heterosexual couple, and then they have the term marriage, will that make them a heterosexual couple in the eyes of the public and government? Of course not, which is why this debate is so silly and serves as another example of why we the people are really not very sophisticated, even at the highest levels of authority.

Victor Kodiac
Marina del Rey

A Moderate Proposal

Rob Eshman laments not having space to do justice to the views of Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe in their debate at the Wilshire Theatre (“A Moderate Proposal,” Nov. 21). If he would have left out the totally gratuitous description of what Hitchens was drinking, he would have had more space to write something useful.

Jim Freed
Santa Monica

Christopher Hitchens is not a bad guy, but he is immature; he needs to grow up (“A Moderate Proposal,” Nov. 21). I hope some day he does. I’m praying for him.

Irene Dunn
North Hills

Reaching Across Divide

“There are some anti-Jewish attitudes in the Muslim world — Firestone said,” as reported in your article, “Mosques, Synagogues Reach Across Divide,” which gushes over ‘twinning’ under the name of confronting Islamophobia and anti-Semitism together (Nov. 14).

Some? Is the good rabbi deaf or blind? Just get on the Internet for God’s sake, and it is not a pun. “Death to the Jews,” “Death to America,” “Death to the infidel” are broadcast daily on Al-Jazeera and other places.

In these dialogues, the underdog is helping the other side to become even more powerful. Islam is not only a religion but a dictatorial, tyrannical political system. They are not preaching love, understanding, freedom, equality, women’s rights or democracy, only jihad to take over the world. Not my words, theirs.

And we should worry about Islamophobia?

They need to change first; then we sit down to talk.

Dr. Robert Reyto
Los Angeles

Lying to Bubbe

I just read the letter, “Thou Shalt Not Lie,” responding to Teresa Strasser’s column about lying to her grandmother about her husband’s background (Letters, Nov. 14). The letter writer was outraged at Strasser’s deceit, and he only got it half right. The real moral failure here is with the editor-in-chief, Robert Eshman, for running the column in the first place and goading such writers on.

Evidently, he relishes such misadventure and, by publishing the piece, endorses it.

Albert Malevich
Hancock Park

Warrior Mom

I enjoyed David Suissa’s article, “Warrior Mom” (Nov. 14), very much, particularly because I know Esther Kandel personally. Our families have been friends for four generations.

The article reminded me of what happened to Esther Kandel’s great-grandmother, who was also named Esther. Her husband went to America to seek a better life, leaving his wife back in Russia. The First World War broke out before she could join him.

Alone with three young children and also pregnant, there was no way of communicating, let alone get any financial help for five long years. She supported her family on her own, smuggling cigarettes across the border, which was very hard and dangerous work.

Eventually, a year or two after the war, they were reunited in El Paso, Texas. I am sure her namesake would have been very proud of her courageous and fearless great-grandchild.

Hadassah Gourarie
Los Angeles

No Money, No Cry

Yes, it’s time to get creative, but stretching a buck is nothing new for Levantine Cultural Center (“No Money, No Cry,” Nov. 28). For years, we have presented cultural arts programs that bring Arabs, Muslims and Jews together to listen to music, watch films, contemplate the ideas of authors and imagine the Middle East/North Africa not an embattled region but as a constellation of communities with a great deal in common.

And we’ve done it with less than $100,000 a year. Our funding has been strictly grass roots, perhaps because major donors are still scratching their heads, trying to figure out how their Jewish, Arab, Iranian, Armenian or other specific agenda is represented by a pancultural organization that eschews national identities for a shared dialogue of civilizations.

The Levantine Cultural Center is not a Jewish organization per se, although there are several Jews on our board and advisory board. Yet we have managed, with very little money, to prove the viability of a broader agenda that serves the interests of a Jewish community that seeks peace with Israel’s neighbors.

We view the current economic crisis not as a time to retreat but an opportunity to expand our partnerships and welcome new members and supporters to the table.

Jordan Elgrably
Artistic Director
Levantine Cultural Center

Peace Process

Now that a mensch will be moving into the White House, I hope that Judea Pearl’s words are brought to his attention (“It’s Time for Words to Lead the Peace Process,” Nov. 21). In my opinion, Obama must cajole the United Nations into passing a resolution proclaiming that the world body will not allow the State of Israel to disappear.

Then, why must the Palestinians accept Israel as a “Jewish State” if Israel considers itself a democracy? If 80 percent of the citizens are Jewish, isn’t that enough? Eighty-eight percent of Ireland’s citizens are Roman Catholic, but I have never heard democratic Ireland called a “Roman Catholic state”.

The degree of hatred now on both sides may preclude any hope for a peaceful two-state resolution, but I think Pearl’s words could help make a miracle.

Martin J. Weisman
Westlake Village

Like poisoned mushrooms sprouting after a toxic rain, the Nov. 21 edition of The Journal contains two articles urging that more energy be put into the fictitious peace process by Israel and the incoming Obama Administration (“New Administration Must Pursue Mideast Peace“).

Some readers may recall Faisal Husseini, a “Palestinian moderate” who died in 2001. Before his death, Husseini openly said that Oslo was simply a Trojan horse, and that this ruse had succeeded in gulling the Israelis.

Despite all that has happened since the “peace process” openly collapsed in 2000, nothing seems to faze the naifs in the Israeli government or their ideological confreres who write in various Jewish publications. It’s as if the British government had insisted on continuing talks with the Nazi regime, while German bombs were falling on London in 1940-41.

Let’s all clap our hands if we believe in the “peace process” and the “two-state solution!”

Chaim Sisman
Los Angeles

India Deaths

The deaths of Rebbe Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, as well as the nearly 200 killed in Mumbai, remind us of the perilous nature of zealous terrorism. We’ve seen these enemies before; we will see them again; we will continue to be bombarded, bombed, shelled, shot at and beaten, but we will not be overwhelmed. We hadn’t for centuries; who’s to say we will be.

The events in Mumbai are impossible to grapple with, and we feel impotent, immobile in the face of it. Are we supposed to pray and say, “All is in His hands?”

There is a need to be cognizant of our prayers but more forthright in our steadfastness and strength about what we believe to be right in the midst of tyranny and oppression.

Some find solace in prayer; some find solace in quiet mediation. Words can’t surmise the feelings of loss in this tragedy, but maybe the passage from Psalms help us feel reassured:

“They are brought down and fallen, but we are risen and stand upright.”

Why should we let terrorists win out when we know there are those who are selfless, like the Holtzbergs, who gave their lives to better others?

The lives of Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife will now embolden and inspire their 2-year-old son, Moshe, an orphan. He will learn the nobleness of living a rewarding life in the midst of immorality, chaos and danger.

“Lord, deliver us; may the King answer us on the day we call.”

Fear may be the easiest emotion to feel now, but I feel it should be steward-determined resoluteness in the face of these harsh realities.

The sophistication of evil cannot defeat the simplification of human decency.
Violent terror has killed hundreds, millions, perhaps billions, over centuries of our people.

The rabbi and his wife were giving people. The names we do not know from this massacre were businessmen, locals and tourists who all espoused their freedom.
Let us not extinguish that flame of hope that symbolizes our common core decency.

Jared Feldschreiber
Los Angeles

Corrections

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino was incorrectly referred to in Circuit (“Schulweis Gets ADL Daniel Pearl Award,” Nov. 28) as rabbi emeritus. He continues to serve as an influential and active pulpit and teaching rabbi at VBS, as he has since 1970.

In “Diller Awards Recognize Teens’ Extraordinary Efforts” (The Jewish Journal Giving Guide, November 2008), the correct name of the chair of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards selection committee is Barbara Rosenberg. The age range for qualified nominees is 13-19. Nominations are due Feb. 17.

Ratner and Diddy, Wolpe and Hitchens, the pocketbook and the soul


Brett Ratner

The Brett Ratner cover story was so telling on so many levels (“Just a Nice Jewish Director,” Oct. 24). It was telling of the young female writer in that the very superficiality that she suggests has plagued Ratner’s career (the decadence of his home and lifestyle, name-dropping who’s in his cell phone, his playboy image) is exactly what her article indulges in.

Nowhere in the article is there any extensive discussion or exploration of Ratner’s movies (aside from naming them in passing), which is very unfair to this young and accomplished filmmaker. Of course, that’s expected, as Ratner’s body of work, which — box office grosses aside — is not really worthy of extensive discussion.

And yet, that in itself is very telling of The Journal, which has devoted a cover story to this filmmaker, when so many worthier Jewish filmmakers who are true mensches (Sam Raimi? Sidney Lumet?) have yet to get a cover story.

The Journal, simply put, is more enamored with shallow Hollywood power, pretension and materialism than the writer of this piece is. It would be akin to a credible black publication sticking Diddy on its cover — hell, he’s young, black, filthy rich and successful. Who cares if he has absolutely nothing to say in his work?

Jacob Kurtzberg
Thousand Oaks

Conscience or Pocketbook?

As a Jewish Democrat, I have heard repeatedly the question asked by political pundits as to why Jews vote with their conscience for Democrats, instead of with their pocketbook for Republicans (“The Debates Won’t Matter,” Oct. 3).

This year, I am pleased to note that my vote for a Democrat will care for both my conscience and my pocketbook.

Martin A. Brower
Corona del Mar

Soul Searching

I would like to thank Gary Wexler for sharing with us his own “soul searching” in regards to what his responsibility is toward his mother (“Soul Searching,” Oct. 24). As one who sees many families struggling with end-of-life decisions, I certainly recognize his angst.

I suggest that he was given a gift by his mother when she gave him a directive by expressing her thoughts while on the 405 years ago. By hearing her, he can be guided if confronted with difficult choices.

At the same time, I personally feel uncomfortable with describing her now as “without her full soul.” I suggest that this reference, which can understandably be perceived, as changes in quality of life, are best attributed to losses in the mind/brain and not to the soul.

While the mind/brain in an “Alzheimer’s victim” can be understood to have decreased function, I believe the soul remains unchanged and eternal. If, as his friend beautifully describes, the essence of the soul can be passed on to others, then like love the soul itself need not be diminished.

Kenneth Leeds, M.D.
Beverly Hills

Quarrel

The so-called quarrel between Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe is no more than a sideshow, complete with sophistic books and $45 theater tickets (“Religion: The ‘First and Worst’ Explanation” and “We Were Intended by God — Not Afterthoughts,” Oct. 24).

In one corner, the alternately smug, smarmy and snarling Hitchens; in the other, the put-upon, poetic and pastoral Wolpe. Neither, apparently, has much understanding of science, Wolpe less than Hitchens; neither admits to the inconvenient truth that faith is just that, faith, an unarguable irrationality.

Rather than manufacture a conflict between faith and science, Hitchens and Wolpe would do well to engage the philosopher Sir Karl Popper (e.g. “Dialectica 32:342, 1978”) and the Nobel laureate biologist Sir Peter Medawar (“The Limits of Science,” 1984). Science and religion ask and answer very different, nonoverlapping questions.

Science does not make assertions about ultimate questions: How did it all begin (before Planck Scale)? What purpose do we serve? How will it all conclude?
Answers to such neither arise out of nor require validation by emperical evidence. Thus, it is meaningless to argue whether these answers are true or false, unless, of course, you want to sell books and collect speaking fees.

In the spirit of teshuvah, I invite Hitchens and Wolpe to audit my graduate class of 20 years on the epistemology and ethos of bioscience. There will, of course, be no charge.

Dr. Michael Melnick,
Professor, Developmental Genetics
USC

Both Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe are wrong in their arguments about creation. Time is a human measurement of movement and not a dimension of reality. The universe is an all-inclusive system in motion.

Thus any motion of the universe determines its next motion, hence, it is not a universe in chaos as argued by Hitchens, but one of cause and effect, deterministic to infinity. The complexity of the universe as shown by science, from the human body to subatomic physics to astronomy, makes it self-evident that the big bang was caused by some intelligent force.

Wolpe is wrong when he argues we have free will and, by inference of religion, there is a personal god. Free will is an illusion. If a stick being carried down white water rapids in a river were to suddenly gain consciousness, it would think it was directing itself through the rapids, rather than realizing the rapids was directing it. The stick, as all things in the universe and the universe itself, is a movement of cause and effect. We humans like to see ourselves as observers of the universe, rather than what we are, a part of the universe.

The purpose of a human is simply being a human in a moving universe.

Leon M. Salter
Los Angeles

No healing the world here — Humanistic Jews are ‘building’ the world


Rabbi Greg Epstein, the young Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, maintains that the question “Do you believe in God?” is totally meaningless and that “tikkun olam,” to repair the world, is the wrong concept.

But he also affirms that religion will never disappear and that the “New Atheists” don’t have the answers to meeting human needs.

In his 31 years, Epstein seems to have done most everything, from being a singer and composer in a professional rock band to studying ancient Aramaic literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

During a lengthy phone conversation, he previewed some of the points he will raise when he speaks at Rosh Hashanah services at Adat Chaverim, the local Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, points that he analyzes more deeply in his forthcoming book, “Good Without God.”

Humanistic Jews do not believe in an omnipotent supernatural power, “but in this day and age, the term God can mean anything you want it to be,” he said.

“If you mean a bearded deity on a throne who worries about your personal lifestyle and issued 613 commandments, we reject that. But if your god stands for nature, or the universe, or love, that’s fine,” he added.

“The real point is that this is the only world we can ever know and that this life is the only chance we get to make a difference.”

Epstein also thinks that the oft-repeated injunction to repair the world misses the mark, because it assumes there once was a perfect world, which degenerated and must now be fixed.

“I prefer the phrase ‘bniyat olam,’ to build the world,” Epstein said. “Humanistic Judaism teaches that there never was a utopia, but this lack of perfection is no excuse for intellectual or spiritual laziness.

“We must build our relationship to our fellow humans and the world brick by brick, for we are responsible for one another and no one else will do the work.” He added facetiously, “The most pernicious rhyme in our language is ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ the idea that there was once a perfect white egg which shattered into a million pieces, and no one could put it together again.”

Many, but not all, Humanists are atheists or agnostics, but Epstein is no fan of such popular proponents of the “New Atheism” as writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens.

In an early story about these writers in Wired Magazine, the cover proclaimed “No heaven, no hell — just science.”

That distillation oversimplified a “painfully complex” question, Epstein said. “Science is the best tool for determining the truth about us, but that is not the same as doing something about it. It is not enough to just observe, we must engage in our community and do something.”

Epstein also distinguishes his philosophy from that of Jewish, mostly Yiddish-speaking, secularists of previous generations, who maintained that religion would ultimately disappear as mankind became increasingly rational.

“Religion is not primarily about faith in God; it is about community, identity, heritage and being of service to others,” he said. “We Humanists must also do more to meet these needs, rather than complain about what others believe.

“As a friend pointed out to me, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech, he did not say, ‘I have a list of complaints,’ but ‘I have a dream.'”

Questioned about the role of religion in the current presidential race, Epstein recalled that slamming the other candidate’s religion or piety has a long, dishonorable tradition in American politics.

In the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson challenged incumbent John Adams, the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, an Adams partisan, swiftboated Jefferson in the following advertisement.

“The Grand Question Stated: At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD _ AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for Jefferson – and no god!!!”

Epstein was born in the Flushing section of Queens, N.Y., then a widely diverse, multiracial community, and he had his bar mitzvah in a local Reform synagogue.

“It seemed to me then that no one took the message of religion seriously, and everyone recited prayers just by rote,” he said. “So I soon started exploring everything except Judaism and visiting every place except Israel.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Epstein studied Buddhism in Taiwan and China, then joined the rock band Sugar Pill and recorded two albums. Like many of his contemporaries, Epstein said, “I wanted to express myself through art and music, rather than religion.”

At this point, Epstein discovered the pioneer Humanistic Judaism congregation established by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in suburban Detroit, and “I finally connected to my heritage, but also realized that I had a lifetime of learning ahead of me.”

The process began with five years of study in suburban Detroit and Jerusalem at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, followed by a master’s degree in Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, and another master’s degree in theology and comparative religion from the Harvard Divinity School.

Four years ago, he became a chaplain at Harvard, where he advises students in the Secular Society, Interfaith Council and the Harvard Humanist Graduate Community.

Epstein’s thoughts are frequently expressed in national publications and on radio networks, and he is one of a select group of invited panelists for the On Faith blog, started jointly by Newsweek and the Washington Post.

According to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, there are 1.6 million American adults and children who define themselves as “just Jewish,” and who are either secular or without any denominational affiliation.

Epstein said that one out of five young American Jews between ages 18 and 25 fall into that category, and that globally 1.1 billion human souls do without formal religion.

If all secular and unaffiliated American Jews joined together, they would form the country’s second largest Jewish denomination, barely trailing Reform membership.

The problem for Epstein and other Humanist leaders is that the 1.6 million are not organized and are not joining the existing congregations/communities of the Society of Humanistic Judaism.

After more than 40 years on the North American scene, the movement claims only some 10,000 adherents and 30 congregations, according to national executive director M. Bonnie Cousens.

Only six of the congregations are led by ordained rabbis, the others by lay leaders or “madrichim.”

What accounts for the low figures, given the large pool of potential members?

There are no clear-cut answers, but Cousens and other national leaders speculate that secular Jews, having arrived at this state through personal doubts and mental wrestling, are just not prone to join any organization.

Another cause may be that there is still, at times, an onus attached to “coming out” as a secular or atheistic Jews, though reactions by more traditional Jews seem less shocked and outraged than in the past.

Rabbi Miriam Jerris, president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis, bemoaned the society’s lack of popular visibility, saying, “There are so many Jews out there just waiting to discover us.”

Epstein is more upbeat. Drawing on his four-year experience at Harvard, he said that in the beginning only four students regularly attended his meetings.

Now his meeting rooms are crowded and last year, when he organized an international conference on “The New Humanism,” some 1,100 people attended.

“We may be a small minority, but minority groups can have a profound impact on mass movements,” he said. “Even now, I believe, liberal mainstream congregations are speaking more to human needs than divine needs.”

To have a growing impact, Humanistic Jews “must sing and must build, and I mean that literally and metaphorically,” he said.

So Epstein is hopeful, but within reason. Quoting playwright Tony Kushner, Epstein said, “We are optimists, but we are not stupid optimists.”