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Erich Fromm’s Humanistic Judaism

Sam Rodin
October 18, 2017


by Sam K. Rodin

From the Summer 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

FOR THE GREAT humanist thinker Erich Fromm, the Hebrew Bible was a revolutionary book. “Its theme,” he wrote (in You Shall Be As Gods, 1966), “is the liberation of [humanity] from the incestuous ties to blood and soil, from the submission to idols, from slavery, from powerful masters, to freedom for the individual, for the nation, and for all [hu]mankind.”

A psychoanalyst, sociologist, public intellectual, and anti-war activist, Fromm (1900-1980) wrote the modern classics, Escape from Freedom (1941) The Art of Loving (1956), and To Have or To Be? (1976), all of which sold many millions of copies in many languages. Fromm’s penetrating analyses of the root causes of some of the the crises of modern society, and his guidance on developing our human potential for creating a just and peaceful world, had a profound, enlightening influence on many readers in the 20th century and remain even more relevant in the 21st. What is often not remembered, however, even by admirers of his work, is that the roots and inspiration for Fromm’s radical humanism lay in the Jewish tradition in which he was steeped as a child and young man. His interpretation of Judaism is worth revisiting and reviving as an inspiring resource and an inoculant against ultra-nationalist or fundamentalist expressions of Jewish identity on the one hand, and the fragmentation of Judaism into diverse brands competing in the religious marketplace on the other.

Fromm had an excellent traditional Jewish education in early 20th-century Frankfurt, Germany, and was familiar with the Torah, Talmud, Jewish philosophy, Jewish mysticism, and khasidism. As he noted in You Shall Be As Gods, his teachers were among the most eminent Talmudic scholars in Germany before the Holocaust. Although he turned away from the life of a practicing Jew in his late twenties, and his outlook was profoundly shaped by the influence of Marx and Freud, and later by Buddhism and mysticism, Fromm confessed to his old friend Ernst Simon at the end of his life: “My interest in and love for the Jewish tradition has never died, and nobody can talk to me for any length of time who will not hear a Talmudic or khasidic story” (as recounted in Lawrence J. Friedman’s 2013 intellectual biography, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet).

Fromm’s book traces the Torah text’s evolution from primitive authoritarianism and clannishness to the idea of the radical freedom of the human being and the solidarity of humanity. He also charts Judaism’s many centuries of progression from an authoritarian to a humanistic religion, especially in its theology — an evolution concomitant with the historical and sociopolitical evolution of the Israelites from a tribe to the bearers of a universal religious and ethical tradition.

Throughout that history, there persisted a tension between particularism and universalism, conservatism and radicalism, fanaticism and tolerance, that still polarizes the Jewish world today — and for Fromm, authoritarian religion versus humanistic religion is the decisive polarity. In Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950), he defines the essential element in authoritarian religion as the surrender to a higher power that transcends humanity, with its main virtue obedience and its cardinal sin disobedience. Humanistic religion, on the contrary, he writes, is

centered around the human being and his or her strength . . . Man must develop his power of reason . . . He must develop his powers of love for others as well as for himself and experience the solidarity of all living beings . . . Man’s aim in humanistic religion is to achieve the greatest strength, not the greatest powerlessness; virtue is self-realization, not obedience ... The prevailing mood is that of joy, while the prevailing mood in authoritarian religion is that of sorrow and guilt.

Radical humanism, for him, is a global philosophy that emphasizes the oneness of the human race, the capacity of humankind “to develop its own powers and to arrive at inner harmony and at the establishment of a peaceful world . . . It considers the goal of man to be complete independence and this implies penetrating through fictions and illusions to a full awareness of reality . . . and a skeptical attitude toward the use of force” (You Shall Be as Gods).

FROMM SELECTS as mainstream the progressive, humanistic interpretation of Judaism’s evolution rather than the conservative, nationalistic, or fundamentalist interpretations. Of course, he acknowledges that there is a profoundly nationalistic spirit in much of the Torah as well as in the Talmud, but he interprets this as reactiveness to and compensation for the chronic humiliations of two thousand years of antisemitism, and believes that nationalism was balanced in both the Biblical and rabbinic tradition by its very opposite principle, universalism.

Prior to recounting the history of Abraham, for example, the Bible stresses the idea of the unity of the human race in the story of the creation of humankind. One man and one woman are created “in the image of God” to be the forbears of the entire human race. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5), the 3rd-century code of Jewish law, uses this myth to teach the dignity of each human being and the fundamental equality of all: “Adam was created an individual in order to teach that whosoever destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes guilt to him as if he had destroyed an entire world. And he who saves a single soul, is considered as if he had saved an entire world.”

Although “man is not God, nor could he become God,” writes Fromm, “he can become like God, he can imitate God, as it were.” The Hebrew prophets, who are Fromm’s primary inspiration, teach that we are to cultivate the essential qualities that characterize God: justice and love. About the prophet Micah’s famous declaration — “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” — Fromm comments, “Man is not God, but if he acquires God’s qualities; he is not beneath God but walks with him.” Fromm argues that the intrinsic logic of imitatio Dei, as developed in rabbinic thought, is “to make the human being completely autonomous, even to the point” of dealing “with God on terms of equality.”

For Fromm, the acknowledgment of God is most importantly not a theological doctrine but a negation of idols. “The history of humanity up to the present is primarily the history of idol worship,” he writes, “from the primitive idols of clay and wood to the modern idols of the state, the leader, production and consumption — sanctified by the blessing of an idolized God . . . The idol is lifeless; God is living. The contradiction between idolatry and the recognition of God is, in the last analysis, that between the love of death and the love of life.”

He develops the insights of Feuerbach and Marx that authoritarian religion is a form of alienation and a projection of our human capacities, and he incorporates Freud’s analysis of authoritarian religion as a collective neurosis. We no longer worship primitive idols, Fromm observes, but we are asked to make human sacrifices in war to the idols of nationalism and the state, to money, status, success, and so forth. The true worship of God is first of all the negation of such idolatry.

CHARTING the gradual evolution of the concept of God over a millennium in You Shall Be as Gods, Fromm identifies these stages:

1. “The concept of God is at first formed according to the authoritarian political and social concepts of a jealous tribal chief or king who has supreme power. The God of the Israelite tribe is conceived as an absolute authoritarian ruler who must be obeyed and appeased.”

2. With the covenant between God and Noah, God is transformed into a “constitutional monarch” obligated to man to abide by the principle of reverence for life. “The covenant with Noah is with the entire human race and the animal kingdom, promising that God will never again destroy life on earth.”

3. With the covenant between God and Abraham, God promises that Abraham’s tribe will become a great nation, a blessing to all humankind (Genesis 12:1-3). His descendants are, paradoxically, to be distinguished as bearers of universal ethical values; their particularity is to become the people responsible for the universal, so that “all the families of the earth will find blessing through you.”

In the remarkable story of Abraham’s argument with God on behalf of the doomed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Fromm writes, “a new element has entered the Biblical and later Jewish tradition. Precisely because God is bound by the norms of justice and love, man is no longer his slave. Man can challenge God — as God can challenge man . . .”

4. God then reveals himself to Moses with a paradoxical name: Eheyeh asher eheyeh, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14; yud-hey-vov-hey in the original Hebrew). Fromm notes that this obscure name “says [that] God is, but his being is not completed like that of a thing, but is a living process. . . . A free translation of God’s answer to Moses would be: “My name is Nameless’ . . . Only idols have names, because they are things. The ‘living’ God cannot have a name.”

“This God without attributes,” he continues, “who is worshiped ‘in silence,’ has ceased to be an authoritarian God; man must become fully independent, and that means independent even from God.” Moreover, the “idea of the One God expresses a new answer for the solution of the dichotomies of human existence; man can find oneness with the world, not by regressing to the pre-human state (attachment to blood and soil), but by the full development of his specifically human qualities: love and reason.”

Fromm’s humanistic interpretation of Judaism provides common ground for both religious and secular Jews. He quotes Abbe Pierre, the French monk and resistance fighter: “[W]hat matters is not the difference between believers and unbelievers, but that between those who care and those who do not care.” He quotes, too, the Talmudic commentary on Jeremiah 16:11: “They have forsaken Me and have not kept My Torah . . . If only they had forsaken Me and kept My Torah.”

“The fight against idolatry,” Fromm concludes,

can unify [people] of all religions and those without any religion . . . [hu]mankind can be spiritually united in the negation of idols and thus by an unalienated common faith. . . . Judaism is a faith in a nameless God, in the final unification of all [humankind], in the complete freedom of each individual . . . The prophetic vision of a united, peaceful [hu]mankind, of justice for the poor and helpless, became the dominant, lasting influence on Jewish thought.

He thus presents an impassioned defense of the humanistic spirit of traditional Judaism, emphasizing the spiritual and political centrality of the teaching of the prophets and rabbinic Judaism that the Jewish role was to be the Jews being a “light unto the nations.” He also writes movingly of the humanistic and spiritual benefits of sabbath observance, and goes so far as to recommend that non-Jewish societies would enhance their realization of humane and spiritual values if they instituted one day a week devoted to the renewal of our humanity.

FROMM ALSO GIVES a positive value to the diaspora: “From their wandering, stateless existence, Jews had been able to develop and uphold a tradition of humanism.” Rather than interpreting exile as divine punishment (as in Deuteronomy and Christianity), or as simply the vulnerability of a stateless people forever subjected to persecution and degradation, he sees diaspora and exile as having enabled the positive development of a uniquely humanistic culture.

Nurturing that humanism, and assuming responsibility for building a world of peace and the fulfillment of our human potential, were the central concerns of all Fromm’s work as a psychoanalyst, a social theorist, and a political activist. His analysis of the fear of freedom in modern civilization, which was a central motif of his explanation for the rise of fascism, also applies to the withdrawal into nationalistic, fundamentalist, and ethnocentric versions of Jewish identity ­— examples of what Fromm calls “group narcissism,” the collective self-inflation and sense of superiority that is typical of all nationalisms.

He was, in fact, a critic of all nationalisms and the danger they represent to world peace, and became a vocal critic of Israeli Jewish nationalism and its policy towards its Arab minority. As early as 1950, notes Jack Jacobs in The Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives, and Antisemitism (2014), Fromm wrote that the “claim that the state of Israel is a fulfillment of . . . Jewish messianic hopes is not only unjustifiable but contradicts the most fundamental principles and values of the Jewish tradition.”

The 19th-century category of nationality, he believed, cannot encompass the breadth and depth of Jewish civilization across the centuries, notwithstanding the valiant efforts of Zionist thinkers to redefine Jewish civilisation in nationalistic terms. A strong Israeli identity has been created in the state that is self-consciously distinct from the Jewish identity that was the product of two thousand years of exile; indeed, the founders of Zionism built their project of nation-building in the ancient Jewish homeland on the concept of the “negation of the exile” (shlilat hagalut). Their newly sovereign Jewish state was to usher in the new, muscular Jews, no longer subject to the humiliations and passivity of being a powerless minority but free to fashion their own society and culture according to their own needs and aspirations. This was to be a revolutionary break with the Judaism of the diaspora, with the goal of “normalizing” Jewish life, of making the Jews a nation like any other. Clearly, however Israel has not normalized the condition of Jewish society. Instead, it has retreated into a fortress mentality and is preoccupied with issues of security. In many ways, Israel has, ironically and reluctantly, become a ghetto.

And perhaps the remarkable vibrancy and creativity of Israeli society is more the result of the diversity of cultural influences that its immigrants have brought to their new state than an expression of an Israeli national identity. If this is the case, the fulfillment of the Zionist dream is not the “negation of the exile” but the continuation and reframing of diaspora Jewish culture in the new-yet-ancient homeland. In other words, Israeli society may share with the diaspora the paradoxical Jewish fate of still being in exile, even while being “at home.”

Here the discussion perhaps moves beyond Fromm’s own appraisal of the Jewish State, which he never visited and generally opposed as a creation of nationalism that contradicted his embrace of Judaism as a universalist, humanistic religion. According to Lawrence J. Friedman’s 2014 biography of Fromm, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, Fromm even confided in the spring of 1966 to the Polish philosopher Adam Schaff that “a principal motive for publishing You Shall Be as Gods was to reawaken in Jews a realization that universal humanism, not the belligerent Israeli nation-state, resided at the heart of their tradition. Jews needed to be reacquainted with the message of the Old Testament prophets.” Safe to say that Fromm was a committed diasporist who would have agreed with the argument pursued by Alan Wolfe in his controversial 2014 book, At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews, that the diaspora has the important role of upholding the more universalistic moral values of Judaism to temper and balance the particularistic concerns of an ultra-nationalistic Israel and an ethnocentric diaspora Jewish community.

Some Jews in both the diaspora and Israel continue to express their Jewish values by working in fields that improve the condition of human life: medicine and the healing arts, education, social reform, the sciences, economic development, the arts, etc. The challenge, for them, as for all human beings, is to find their way to a productive, fully human life in a just society that helps cultivate our human potential for reason and love. Fromm’s humanistic interpretation of Judaism is a great resource towards that end.

Sam K. Rodin is a sociologist who has taught at universities in the UK, the U.S. and New Zealand. He works on issues of human rights, social theory, and Jewish values.