The Society for Ethical Culture

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Felix Adler

      Felix Adler (1851-1933) was the founder of the Ethical Culture Movement. Born in a small town in Germany, he came to the United States at the age of six because his father, Samuel Adler, was appointed rabbi of Temple Emanu-el in New York.

     In 1870, Felix earned a B.A. at Columbia University. Then he returned to Germany and enrolled at Heidelberg University, leading to ordination as a reform rabbi and a Ph.D. in philosophy.  On his return to New York, he gave a sermon at Temple Emanu-el called “The Judaism of the Future,” in which he predicted a Judaism without God.

     The Society for Ethical Culture, which Adler founded in 1876, is essentially a repetition  of Jewish ethics as taught in the Torah and the Talmud. Adler had, of course, learned this during his rabbinical studies. Therefore he contributed nothing new to ethical conduct. He only changed the name of the source from Judaism to his new organization. Judaism has always emphasized deed over creed, as does the Ethical Culture Society. No doubt, Adler, having been appointed a professor of philosophy at Columbia, participated in all those “liberal” causes which are also the province of Jewish interest. Yet, Ethical Culture appeals evidently only to intellectual snobs who have no more understanding of religion than someone who has learned how to add, subtract, divide, and multiply but knows no more about mathematics than that, yet claims that math is childish nonsense.

    The functions, the anticipated consequences of Judaism, are far more than ethical culture, however important. First, Judaism explains the relationship of man to the universe. “I am the Lord Your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” This supports freedom and rejects slavery. “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” This gives men the right to rest and recover from a week of labor.

     Judaism also relates man to man. “Honor your mother and your father,” etc. not only supports the relationship of one generation to the next, it also dignifies all human beings, old and young. “You shall rise before the ‘hoary’ (white) head” emphasizes the bond between the generations, including those temporarily young.

    We are forbidden to commit adultery, murder, steal. lie, and envy because no human society can exist for long if these prohibitions are not observed. The common experience of mankind demands that we refrain from conduct that injures our fellow men. Indeed, Ethical Culture claims to support all of this. Yet, it lacks an essential aspect of Judaism which makes it possible for endless generations of Jews to live by these commandments. It is called “religion,” from the Latin “Res Ligare,” meaning “the thing that binds.” Judaism binds its followers together. This is done by using ritual, which is a means of making the unseen visible. Therefore we carry the Torah scroll around the synagogue (assembly), as it is a visible object, as is a lulav and an esrog, a tallith, or a kippa. These objects, indeed man made, are an effective means of giving our tradition substance and meaning.

     Judaism, unlike Ethical Culture, anchors every Jew in the long history of the Jewish people. Every Jew, living now, was present at Mr. Sinai. Every Jew, alive today, is a descendant of Abraham. All Jews, currently alive, spent forty years in the wilderness... and all Jews were the victims of the Holocaust. “We are one,” so that which happens to any Jew anywhere happens to all of us.

     Judaism, like other religions, celebrates the life cycle from birth to death and also celebrates the cycle of nature from spring to winter back to spring. None of this is possible in the Ethical Culture religion.

     Judaism is also a great teacher. Two huge religions have come out of Judaism. Their total followers amount to 3.7 billion people around the world. These descendants of Judaism are guilty of horrible crimes against the Jewish people. Even now, two generations after the Europeans murdered six million Jews and enriched themselves by stealing all the property of the dead Jews, the European Union and their followers are once more looking to destroy Israel and kill the few Jews still living among them. They cannot tolerate the ethics taught by Israel to all the nations of this world. Therefore they seek to kill the messengers, because they cannot kill the followers.

     Felix Adler, indeed a typical “intellectual,” understood none of this. Living in an unreal, abstract world, he sought to teach a lesson which his Jewish ancestors had learned long before him. “Veohavto lerayacho komaucho.”

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The German Jews in America (2014).

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