By Curt Collier
May 15 is Founders Day in the Ethical Culture Movement. For it was on this day in 1876 that Felix Adler called for the formation of a new organization, where people could hold privately any “honest conviction,” but would be united in one “common cause,” the betterment of humanity. What is remarkable was that Adler was 25 years old at the time. So much of what Adler says seems obvious to us…we living 145 years later in a radically different time, but in his day, such statements were revolutionary. Immediately the progressive establishment of the day both celebrated and condemned this brash young man and his simply stated maxim, “deeds before creeds.”
Some religious groups were also skeptical, and more than a little defensive towards the ideas of this new movement. When the Unitarians protested that a religion could not be based solely on ethics but would need a spiritual foundation, the Ethical Culturist William Salter gave his famous address (which was printed and distributed) called “Why Unitarianism Does Not Satisfy Us,” specifically pushing back against the notion that ethics needed a heavenly basis in order to be grounded in truth. Salter’s main complaint against beliefs grounded in religion, however, is that they “demand too little on the practical side.” Meaning that something more than divine providence would be needed; a religion based solely on ethics would require action. Neither Salter nor Adler dismissed traditional religious beliefs outright, but rather thought that an ethical life was grounded in how we engaged the world, not necessarily in what we believed about the world.
The biggest group to find Adler’s ideas objectionable, however, were the progressive Jewish thinkers of the day. Adler was Jewish, and had studied to be a rabbi, but had given only one sermon upon returning from rabbinical school in Germany, which he provocatively entitled “Judaism of the Future” (Adler was 19 when he graduated from Columbia University, and 22 when he completed his PhD). At that time, Reform Judaism had not yet formed, and as there was no rabbinical school for progressive Jews (such as Samuel Adler, Felix’s dad), young men were sent back to Germany where a progressive Jewish movement had long been established. The problem for many progressive Jews is that Adler’s Judaism of the future had no need for God for some of the reasons mentioned in his disagreement with the Unitarians.
Adler was a topic of hot contention
In 1885, progressive rabbis gathered in Pittsburgh to lay out the founding documents of Reform Judaism (called the Pittsburgh Platform). Felix Adler was a topic of hot contention, and as Jewish historians note:
“…that the final version of the platform was as much a reaction to the then emerging Ethical Culture movement founded by Dr. Felix Adler and its criticism of Reform theism and the Reform Movement’s continued attachment to Jewish ethnicity. Indeed, it seems that the best way of reading the Pittsburgh Platform as an historical document is to understand it as a dynamic “middle position” between the secularism of the Ethical Culture movement and traditionalism of the nascent Conservative Movement in American Judaism during the 1880s.” (ReformJudaism.org)
It’s hard to believe that such an expansive and rigorous religious tradition such as Reform Judaism would be intimidated by a young man who ran one congregation, but such was the extent of Adler’s critique. (Years later, Mordechai Kaplan would use Felix Adler’s ideas in the creation of Reconstructionist Judaism, as well.) Their complaint, however, was that in attempting to distill Judaism down to an essential push toward living a goodly life, Adler’s ethics were no longer rooted in a culture that interprets what the good is. As modern Reform Jewish proponents write:
“Perhaps that is why Ethical Culture has not flourished as its founder would have hoped: it was not rooted in the particularism of a civilization. It sought to be universal not only in content but in form as well. It was thus deprived of the sancta which a group creates and around which its people develop emotional associations.” (From a 1971 article in Commentary magazine).
Ethics too universal
The argument here is that Ethical Culture’s ethics was too universal, that, as they put it, “when religious philosophy and ethics are to be translated into laws and social institutions, they must partake of the character of a group. That is how cultures have developed, out of the specific and individual experiences of specific groups, whether they be clans, tribes, nations, or peoples” (Commentary, 1971). Unique cultures expand ethics through the particular culture that the ethics finds itself embedded in, and since Ethical Culture eschewed the very essence of Jewish identity (its culture), it could never really propagate ethical beliefs. Perhaps this is a way of saying that if you don’t speak the language, you won’t be understood.
For those of us who are Ethical Culturists, it is precisely the universalism of our ethics that makes it so appealing. We don’t deny the uniqueness, nor the importance of diversity of cultural beliefs. But ultimately, the propagation of ethics is not through the ideas of a culture, but through its activity. Some cultural practices elicit our best, and some our worst. Regardless of the culture we find ourselves in, acting to elicit the best from others is a universal practice and has universal benefits.
These two ideas of Felix Adler’s—that ethics need not be rooted in traditional religion (and hence free from dogma or constraints that hinder its ability to grow and evolve), and that all peoples of the earth can engage in the practice of eliciting the best from one another regardless of beliefs or cultural traditions, was Adler’s great philosophical gift.
We should have bent the rules
Near the turn of the century, Founders Day was a big event for Ethical Culturists. The tradition was that we would all gather on that day and baskets of flowers and words of loving kindness were given to those who carried on and supported the Ethical Culture way of life. I kind of hate we’ve dropped that, we universalists who often don’t stand on particularist traditions, but I think this time we should have bent the rules. Giving bouquets of flowers to those who promote ethical ideals and practices was a way of exemplifying the beauty brought into the world by people dedicated to bringing out the best in others. This May 15, even if you don’t want to buy flowers, at least use this day to remember what it’s all about, or better yet, find a way to support those working to make this whole noisy, boisterous culture of ours just a bit better.
Curt Collier is interim leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.