Why Be Jewish? Rosh Hashana 5775

This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2014/5775 as part of a series entitled “Why Bother?”. You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

Ten years ago, in my first Kol Hadash High Holiday sermon, from this very rock, we explored what Judaism means to Humanistic Jews. For us, Judaism is Jewish thought and Jewish culture, Jewish history and Jewish tradition, Jewish freedom and Jewish creativity, and Jewish family and Jewish memory. I began and ended with Yehuda Amichai’s “Poem Without End”.

Osweicim synagogue, restored in 2000

Inside the brand-new museum
There’s an old synagogue
Inside the synagogue
Is me.
Inside me
Is my heart.
Inside my heart
A museum.
Inside the museum
A synagogue,
Inside it
Inside me
My heart,
Inside my heart,
A museum

A beautiful image: a never-ending spiral of meaning, and each level could be our Judaism – Judaism is the ancient religious tradition and the actual lived history of the synagogue, Judaism is the new creativity of a museum made for future generations, Judaism is the personal experience of the individual, Judaism is the heart of emotional memory. Some of you may remember that sermon, or at least you may remember the story I told about how hard it can be to define “the tradition:” there was a conflict in the synagogue over what the REAL tradition was at a certain point in the service. Half of the congregation would stand, the other half would stay seated, and they would all start yelling at each other. So they decide to consult the oldest man in town to find out what “the tradition” had to say about it. The “standers” made their case, and he responded, “No, that’s not the tradition.” The “sitters” then declared that they were correct, but the old man answered, “No, that’s not the tradition.” They explained to him that at the moment, half of them stand, half of them sit, and everyone yells – “Ah, THAT’S the tradition!” Ten years ago, there was a question behind that sermon that I did not ask, but we must answer:  “Why be Jewish at all?”

A Yiddish saying proclaimss’iz shver tsu zeyn a yid” – it’s hard to be a Jew. Certainly the case when the saying was coined under violent pogroms and persistent persecution. In our generation, we hoped that anti-Semitism was the distant past, but this summer saw everything from protesters in Paris attacking a synagogue to an NFL color commentator joking that his broadcast partner, Josh Lewin, invented copper wire fighting over a penny with a family member. Remember the white supremacist who went to a Jewish Community Center in Kansas City and killed 3 people, none of them Jewish. Before we all run for the hills, recall that this summer it was the French police (along with Jewish self-defense) that protected that synagogue, the exact opposite of pogroms under Tsars or Kristallnacht under Nazis when the police were part of the problem. The bad NFL joker: immediately suspended and he apologized. These incidents are shocking because they are rare, foreign to our experience as American Jews. Here we are largely accepted and comfortable, we are integrated enough to be over-represented in Congress, and we are lovable enough that the rest of America keeps marrying us. The reality of open love in a free society may make it hard to be a Jew in new ways, but celebrating love is far better than facing hate. Unfortunately, real Antisemitism beyond bad jokes persists in too many places. Sometimes, the “why be Jewish” is answered by spiting our enemies: “You want us to disappear? Too bad!”

This summer also showed it can be hard to be a Jew when that identity is more than just culture and heritage, but also a living connection to a Jewish state. Many rabbis and The New York Times report that Israel is the third rail of sermonizing, something they don’t want to touch with a ten foot yad [Torah pointer]. Not because they don’t care about Israel, but because they are criticized no matter what they say. Express sympathy for dead Palestinian children, even at a place as liberal as New York City’s flagship LGBT synagogue, and board members resign in anger. Defend Israel’s military actions like bombing rocket launchers in urban areas, and half of your Facebook friends will disown you, assuming you also support targeting militants at home with their families. Governments protect their citizens at the expense of the other, and that means hard choices all the time – if you hadn’t noticed, the United States has been drone striking overseas targets with civilian casualties for years. For those connected by emotion to a land in which they do not live, those who may agree with some choices that Israel’s leadership takes but not others, ethnic solidarity and natural sympathy for human suffering are in conflict. Perhaps such tensions are inevitable given the realities of geo-politics, perhaps they could be lessened by less construction and more constructive choices. Either way, it is hard to be a Jew because of Jewish suffering, and it is hard to be a Jew when we see Jewish actions, however justifiable, cause suffering. When the family you love makes hard choices, it’s never easy.

Last night, we explored the universalist impulse to leave behind ethnic definitions for a universal humanity, solving the problem of difference by eliminating difference. If being Jewish is so hard, why bother? Why stay, why join, why be connected in any way? If something causes you grief, why not just free yourself and move on?

If you are here today, on Rosh Hashana for a Jewish New Year, then you’ve chosen to bother, for one reason or another. And that’s good – my goal is NOT for you to leave and never come back! As Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute once put it, previous generations were Jewish before they knew it: Jewish by birth – language – neighborhood, Jewish by immigrant and ethnic culture. They wondered how to balance being Jewish and becoming American. Today, the question has shifted: with all of my possible identities, connections, opportunities, why should being Jewish be important to me? Why should being Jewish even be on the list? Sixty years ago, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March opened “I am an American, Chicago born … and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.” Augie March IS Jewish, as it comes out, but that’s not where he starts his song of himself. If we accept that we are something, if we agree it is preferable to be something and not nothing, if we understand that we can be many identities at any moment, then the issue is different. Not why be anything; why be THIS?

What we really have is three questions with the same answer: First, I asked you to consider last night, if you were born Jewish, why have you STAYED Jewish? Second, why might some choose to BECOME Jewish? And if one is connected to Jewishness through marrying someone Jewish or through one’s curiosity, why is Jewishness interesting? These are very different questions to very different audiences – why stay Jewish, why become Jewish, why explore things Jewish. I can give you personal reasons why I’ve STAYED Jewish, but I’ve never BECOME Jewish; I’ve never discovered the Jewish people through marriage! Nevertheless, I suspect that the answers to all three will be mostly the same: as with a lot in life, it all comes down to sales.

My father owned a business for over 30 years, and he was always his company’s best salesman. As I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Judaic Studies, he was looking to sell his business and retire. He asked if I’d be interested in taking over the company. I had already decided to be a Humanistic Rabbi, so I thanked him for the offer and declined; I said something like “I’m not that interested in being in sales.” What do I do as a Humanistic rabbi? Brochures, websites, marketing, messaging, promotional offers, advertising – I’m selling something different: I’m selling our community, to some extent I’m selling myself. The art of sales is really the art of persuasion – this is worth it! You SHOULD bother. What I’m selling is the value TO YOU of being with US. A few years ago, we were trying to come up with attention-getting slogans for the congregation. My early favorite was “Kol Hadash: Cheap and Easy.” Another favorite, because it can be read two ways: “We’re better than nothing.” Not that we are the least bad alternative, but that actually choosing us is BETTER than nothing, MUCH better than being NOTHING!

In the new world of the twentieth century, emancipation enabled a new free market – a free market for ideas and inspiration. When people choose for themselves where they live, what they eat, what they wear, and even what they believe, the old answers, the old selling approach won’t work. Imagine you worked for a Jewish advertising agency, call it “Mad Mensch.” In 1964, what were the top Jewish sellers for why be Jewish?

Number one: Be Jewish because we made a covenant with God at Mount Sinai – when we follow the Torah things go well, when we break the rules we ourselves are broken and scattered until we repent. Why was The Covenant a big seller? A clear bargain, a strong incentive program, the weight of tradition and cosmic authority behind it. Why doesn’t the Covenant pitch work anymore? Real life never worked that way – human suffering does not correspond to religiosity or to righteous behavior. To paraphrase the Yiddish poem “Dead Men Don’t Praise God,” ‘at Sinai we received the Torah, and in the Holocaust we gave it back.’ Not to mention the fact that the only “proof” that the Torah was given at Sinai is in the Torah itself, and archaeology and historical study have undermined the event’s claim to have actually happened – as powerful a story as it may be, no Sinai, no covenant, no deal.

Another old pitch: Be Jewish because we are the Chosen People. Not only are we the favorite children of a cosmic Father, we created ethics, we have the most brilliant scientists, the funniest comedians, the best families and the richest traditions. And, as a result, though you shouldn’t say it too loudly, the rest of the world is somewhat lesser than us. Why a big seller? The Chosen People appeals to our ego, it justifies self-pride, and why would you bother being anything else, or marrying anyone else, when you can be the best? The Chosen People pitch doesn’t work anymore either. At a certain point in your development, I hope you outgrew the belief that everything revolves around you – the “me-ocentric” theory of the world. Does it really make sense that the god of an entire universe of billions of stars would choose one small group of one species on one planet as the most important beings anywhere, the only ones to receive the true story of how everything came to be and what all humanity needs to do, in a language that’s hard to learn and that very few people speak? As history progressed, as freedom rang, we got to know our non-Jewish neighbors, and we learned that they too have wisdom and insight and humor to inform and inspire us. In some cases they came to love us, and we loved them back. Every group is wonderful in its own distinct way, but our group better than everyone else? Just too convenient and self-serving, not to mention rude – morality and reality reject it. Chosen People? No sale! Besides, if you’ve ever heard us argue about a thermostat setting, you’ll realize we’ve gone from the Chosen People to the Choosy People!

Here’s another past winner – be Jewish because Hitler would have killed you. Well, sign me up! For a generation, remembering the Holocaust and staying Jewish to deny Hitler’s victory was a powerful motivation. But we have to realize that World War II ended almost 70 years ago, and the fact that your people were hated and killed in the past does not give you a positive reason to stay connected. No one is motivated to stay Jewish today because of the Chmielnicki pogroms in Ukraine in 1648. I was surprised to learn that one of the Ukrainian navy ships taken over by Russia when it annexed the Crimean peninsula was U-208 Khmelnytskyi – he may have killed thousands of Jews in his revolt, but to them he was a national hero! Again, in 1648. You cannot build a healthy, vibrant, living identity exclusively on fear and trauma and anger. I sometimes define history as “what happened before you were paying attention.” The Mitzvah students I’m tutoring today were born after 9/11. For a child born today, in 2014, 9/11 might as well be Pearl Harbor –they can learn from it, but they cannot live in it or live for it. Yes, sometimes products sell out of fear, but for Jewish identity to be a positive part of our lives, we need reasons TO be Jewish.

The absolute closer, the pitch that worked better than all the rest combined: Your ancestors survived Inquisition, pogroms, persecution, migration, Holocaust and anti-Semitism, and NOW you’re giving up? The award winner, the first best and last resort to keep you Jewish 50 years ago: GUILT. What would your grandmother say if she saw you eating bacon when she starved rather than violate her covenant – not even a covenant with God, but her covenant with the Jewish people. Have you no loyalty? Don’t you love your grandmother? At long last, have you no sense of decency? How could you be the one to break the golden chain of Jewish tradition, 4000 years of pain and tears and joy? You can feel the power, the pull on the heartstrings, the weight of years and expectations, the manipulation. But guilt doesn’t work well in the free market – people in 1964 who refused to buy cars from the Germans or “the Japs” have grandchildren with Toyota Priuses. Guilt has its uses, but being Jewish because you feel guilty means that you’re living your life as someone else wants you to, by someone else’s values and choices. This very morning, rabbis are railing at their congregations about Jews who are not in synagogue. They’re complaining to the people who ARE there about the people who are NOT there! Why? “You should feel guilty if you even think about not showing up for Yom Kippur, because then I’ll be talking about YOU!” The clear truth of Jewish identity today is that it is far easier for people to just tune out the guilt trip and do something that makes them feel good about themselves. If you’re only at High Holiday services, if you’re only Jewish lest you feel guilty that you’ve broken the covenant, if you’re only Jewish lest you feel guilty that you’ve abandoned the chosen people, if you’re only Jewish lest you betray your grandparents and finish the work of the Holocaust, then how does your Jewishness IMPROVE your life, inspire you, motivate you to deepen your connection? If your ties to being Jewish are negative and painful, then you may endure it once or twice a year like a dental appointment (apologies to my dentist in the congregation), but you’ll run away as soon as you can, and you may never come back. Our children learn from what we do far more than from what we say.

We need new ideas. We reject the subservience to the past required by the Covenant. We reject invidious comparisons with other identities inherent in the Chosen People. We refuse to sell through fear or guilt. So what do we have? As we explored last night, there is the value of roots and rootedness, the ability to appreciate diversity because of one’s distinctiveness, the strength of positive family connections, the dignity of inheriting the past while owning your own life. These are not unique to Jewish identity; they are valuable in ANY distinct identity, as long as they do not overgrow their bounds from pride to chauvinism. I have no need for Father’s Day Cards that say “World’s #1 Dad.” My response is always, “Where did you get your statistics? How do you know I’m not #3, or #17?” But a card saying “you’re a great dad and I love you” is distinctive when it’s from my children; our relationship is special without being “the best.” Being Jewish can be special without being Chosen.

Why be Jewish, why stay Jewish, why become Jewish, why connect with things Jewish? The new marketing is called micro-targeting – what are you already interested in, and I’ll find you something similar. People who bought this book also bought these other ones. In other words, your Jewish connection will be your own, as often or rarely as you use it, and however you use it. Let me share with you three reasons that are compelling to me, and they may be to you as well.

First: Jewish is as Jewish does. Judaism is a rich and varied and long tradition – everything from rational philosophy to animal sacrifice to mystical exploration, hereditary kings and priests giving way to rabbis and religious law, multiple languages sharing the same alphabet, artwork celebrated in one corner of the Jewish world while condemned in another. At times we are inspired by our legacy; at times we are alienated. There is something for everyone, every learning style, every intelligence, every aptitude and interest. This is the beauty of celebrating Judaism as a culture: no matter what you believe, there’s always something for you. We can even find a defense of our own challenges to tradition from within our tradition – the Jewish tradition of integrity, those Jews during Inquisition and Pogrom who would not say words they did not believe.

Even Jewish martyrdom has its inspirations. In the YL Peretz story, “Three Gifts”, a soul ascends to heaven, but its deeds are found to be exactly in balance. It returns to find three gifts to tip the scale. The soul witnesses a man killed protecting a small bag of earth around his neck, but it was from the land of Israel to be buried with him; the soul picks up the bag. Then it sees a Jewish woman about to be dragged to hear death in a pogrom jab pins into her legs to make sure her dress will stay closed and her modesty preserved; the soul takes a bloody pin. Finally the soul witnesses a Jewish man being beaten by a gauntlet of clubs; when his yarmulke is struck off, he faces the choice of going back to get it and face more pain or to go on with his head uncovered. The man returns and is beaten to death, and the soul takes the bloody yarmulke. When these three gifts are presented to the heavenly tribunal, they exclaim, “These three gifts are absolutely beautiful. Totally worthless, but absolutely beautiful.” On one level, this martyrdom is a waste – they died for something that wasn’t true. At the same time, it shows courage and conviction and the strength of identity. “Totally worthless, but absolutely beautiful.” Jewish is as Jewish does.

Second: Be a Jew, be a mensch. The Yiddish word “mensch” means simply a person, but the best kind of person. I am NOT saying that every Jew is automatically a mensch (I know too many of them), nor that deep study of Judaism will automatically make you a mensch – rabbis are arrested for crimes, too. I do not believe that Jews invented nor have a monopoly on ethics – we’ll talk more about Ethics on Yom Kippur morning when we explore “why be good.” Nevertheless, there ARE values articulated in Jewish culture that we celebrate –an emphasis on literacy and learning that we have broadened to include both men and women and secularized beyond the Talmud; an ethic of community responsibility and mutual support combined with a work ethic of individual success. Jews have often celebrated brains over brawn, a welcome respite from today’s athlete worship and sometimes violent militarism. We have found humor an antidote to the dashed promises of faith – when life doesn’t turn out as you expect, you can laugh or cry, we have done both. We have our failings, but that makes us human. A seasonal example: High Holidays not only about divine forgiveness, but also human forgiveness – not just asking for forgiveness from someone else, but being willing to offer forgiveness when sincere apology is made. This means making yourself available to someone who has wronged you to give them the opportunity to make it right. Is that easy? Not at all. But how wonderful that our tradition explored how hard it can be to repair relationships through human atonement. Buddhist tradition has its lessons, so too does Judaism. Be a Jew, be a mensch.

Third: The Jewish citizen of the world. In the last few centuries, Jews have become a prototype of a globalized identity: living within and fluent in other cultures, but still distinct and separate in some ways. A world people with different daily languages but a common identity beyond that of their city or country. Sometimes that gave us an outsider’s perspective, letting us challenge conventions like Freud’s theories on sex or Einstein’s relativity. At all times it gave us the ability to think beyond our personal identity, since we always had more than one. Because of this dual identity, Jews have been accused of being “rootless cosmopolitans,” citizens of the world, with no allegiance to the people among whom they lived. The more that people circulate in a global economy, the world will need ROOTED cosmopolitans, people who have a global perspective and awareness but still know who they are and where they come from. If you are Jewish, if you’ve become Jewish, that rootedness can find deep origins in the Jewish experience, and so too can that universal perspective. A Jewish citizen of the world.

In the end, I suspect that I am still Jewish because I am stubborn, and that is definitely a Jewish tradition. We have called ourselves a stiff-necked people – we can be a pain in the neck, or as Henny Youngman might have said, some people have a lower opinion of us. More than the Jews have kept being stubborn, being stubborn has kept the Jews around. You do NOT get to tell me that I do not get to be Jewish. I am still here and I am still Jewish because I am going to fight for the right to be who I am, on my own terms. If you won’t accept me, if you don’t think that I am Jewish or you don’t think what I do is Judaism, that’s your problem, not mine. If I lived my life by your standards, it would not be my life. And I refuse to surrender being Jewish to you. Even the Jewish values I reject – chauvinism, anti-feminism, insularity – they are skeletons in MY closet, knots on MY family tree. It’s good to be passionate about things in life – why not this?

Who’s sold? Am I only selling to myself? I have to start there. Remember Sy Sperling of the Hair Club for Men – he used to say “I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.” I’m not only the rabbi of Kol Hadash, I’m also a member and a Sunday School parent and a friend. I’m not only a professional Jew who’s paid to be Jewish; I am a Jew, and that identity provides meaning and inspiration to my life. If the best sales pitch I can offer is a personal testimonial, then here it is:

My first trip to Israel, in the mid-1990s, I went to visit the Western Wall, the last surviving wall of the Jerusalem Temple that was destroyed in 70 CE. On my way there, I knew  there were some barriers to a positive experience. I knew that this is on a mountain that is claimed to be holy by both Jewish and Mulsims, and the Dome of the Rock right over the Western Wall is a source of conflict even to this day. I knew that the site was gender segregated, even moreso today than it was 20 years ago, men and women forced to be apart. I knew that the big beautiful plaza in front of the Wall didn’t used to be there – there used to be houses that were knocked down in 1967 to create that plaza. I also knew that I had forgotten my baseball cap in my dorm room and had to wear a silly paper yarmulke that kept blowing off my head – the price of admission to the Wall. And I knew that I did not bring a piece of paper on which to write a hope for the future to place in the Wall.

I knew all that. But when I got to the front, and I touched the stones, and I felt how smooth they were. I realized those stones were smooth because generations of my people had come to this space and touched these stones with their fingers. It was electric. I didn’t need the supernatural, I didn’t need a revelation. It was a connection with my past, in my present.

That moment deepened my life, and continues to – I can still feel those stones. And if you can feel it too, you know why we wish each other L’shana tova, a good and meaningful new year.

Posted in General HJ, Holidays | 1 Comment

Why Be Anything? Rosh Hashana 5775

This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2014/5775 as part of a series entitled “Why Bother?”. You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

130 years ago, a new language was born – Esperanto. It had regular rules, no exceptions, simple grammar, this new language could be learned in 1/10th the time it takes to learn English. In its heyday they would hold Esperanto conferences – Esperanto speeches, Esperanto poetry, Esperanto songs. When the conference was over, the attendees would go back to speaking their native language, Yiddish.

Jews were not the only ones who spoke Esperanto, but they were very interested. Over the last 200 years, Jews have often been attracted to movements that promised to solve non-Jewish hostility and the dilemma of Jewish separatism. Maybe, these Jews thought, the solution to being different is not to convert and to be something else; maybe the solution is to eliminate difference altogether. Imagine life before the mythical Tower of Babel, or before our actual evolutionary Exodus from East Africa, when all homo sapiens then alive spoke one language, were one tribe, one humanity. A utopia recorded history has never seen, but many have imagined.

The inventor of Esperanto was, no surprise, a Polish Jew, Ludwik Zamenhof. In his words,

In Białystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town, a sensitive nature feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division and sees at every step that the diversity of languages is…the most influential basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies. I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all people were brothers, while outside in the street at every step I felt that there were no people, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so on. This was always a great torment to my infant mind,…so I often said to myself that when I grew up I would certainly destroy this evil.

Zamenhof was a complete universalist: he even declined to join an organization of Jewish Esperantists! Zamenhof did not want to be a Jew nor a Pole nor a Russian – Zamenhof wanted to be only a human being, a member of the human family.

Zamenhof died in 1917, but that’s not the end of the story. Ludwik Zamenhof, internationalist, is buried … in the main Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, near the first chief rabbi of Warsaw and thousands of other Jews. As the Jewish American sociologist Horace Kallen put it in the same era, in gendered language: “Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent: they cannot change their grandfathers.

Every person lives many identities: humanity, ethnicity, family, philosophy, citizenship, gender, political persuasion, individuality. I recently spoke with a wedding couple, and the non-Jewish bride expressed concern that if she were to sign a ketubah [Jewish marriage agreement], she would be abandoning who she is. I pointed out to her that when you get married, who you are changes by addition, not subtraction – she will still be who she was before, but now she will also be part of her husband’s family, appearing on his family tree, and her home will be connected to his family culture just as it will be to hers. The challenge with multiple identities is finding the balance among them, or between them if they collide. One 19th century Jewish poet called for the Jew to be “a man on the street and a Jew in his tent” – in other words, accept a double identity to minimize the public difference between Jews and everyone else. Some would extend that difference minimization to simply “be an individual, be a universalist, be human above and beyond everything.” Esperanto now, Esperanto tomorrow, Esperanto Chee-am! [forever]

We at Kol Hadash have made a different choice – we have chosen to be something, we accept that we ARE something we do not want to leave behind. Thus our presence here tonight for Rosh Hashana, the beginning of a Jewish New Year. Tomorrow morning, we’ll explore the specific choice of being Jewish; tonight we have to answer a question before that question – why be anything?

There are reasonable reasons to leave an identity behind – perhaps you fear persecution, or you sincerely desire to end conflict and division; just because you were born X, you can still try to be Y, or choose no label at all. The historic Jewish temptation to the universal, the Esperanto impulse. Example: in the 1870s, Felix Adler, son of a famous New York City Reform Rabbi, started Ethical Culture, which drew hundreds of New York area Jews with its emphasis on “deed, not creed” – and minus any ethnic, ritual or cultural orientation. Outside of the Northeast, the population attracted to Ethical Culture was more mixed, but Jews were still significantly over-represented. Example: Communism long had great appeal for Jews, because it promised to end ethnic hatred through international worker solidarity. In the United States in 1947, the International Workers Order had 15 language sections – the Yiddish language section was 40% of the membership, when Jews were only 4% of the American population! For all that internationalism, however, it wasn’t that simple. Leon Trotsky was born Lev Bronstein; he left being Jewish for international socialism in his teens. But that didn’t stop antisemites from using Trotsky’s and Marx’s Jewish origins to criticize communism, or stop Joseph Stalin from using Trotsky’s Jewishness to expel and murder him and to persecute Soviet Jews in the name of universalism. Supposedly the chief rabbi of Moscow said: Trotsky makes the revolution, the Bronsteins pay the bills.

The reality is that who we are is not only a function of our individual choices – you can change David Daniel Kaminsky to Danny Kaye, but you cannot change your grandfather, those people and that culture that came before you. The memories your parents or your grandparents gave you of lighting Hanukkah candles or holding Passover seders will be a part of you until a science fiction future when you can erase the memories you don’t want. I actually have no memory of either of my grandfathers – my father’s father was shot by a burglar while my father was still in utero, and my mother’s father died just before I turned 3. But I know the stories, I have the pictures that look vaguely like me and a lot like my parents, I am an heir.

The Universalist response, “That’s internal, that’s “just” emotional, the tyranny of memory. That can be overcome by strengthening the will and ignoring the guilt.” Unfortunately, we ourselves are not the only arbiters of our identity – society plays a role, and some features are inescapable. Consider the case of Barack Obama – he has one white parent and one black parent. Could Barack Obama really choose to identify as “white,” as he has chosen and society has accepted his self-identification primarily as “black?” Under South African Apartheid, there were several racial categories, including Black, White, Coloured or mixed, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Other Asian, etc. People were racially classified by 3 factors: physical appearance, social acceptance, and individual descent – and you could petition a committee to change your racial identity: in 1984, 795 people were re-classified. 518 went from Coloured to White; two Whites became Chinese and one White became Indian; 89 Black Africans became Coloured, and 5 Coloured people became African.

Ridiculous, but, the universalist might argue, that’s what you get for trying to define borders and boundaries to separate humanity. Maybe it’s better to forget the whole thing! The Jewish experience? There have been times in Jewish history when you could not leave your Jewishness behind, even by assimilation or conversion – the Spanish Inquisition did not persecute self-identified Jews; it pursued so-called “New Christians” who had been Jewish and converted, but were still suspect. The new standard was “Limpieza de Sangre,” or “Blood Purity.” The social snobs of the 19th and early 20th century who excluded successful Jews from country clubs didn’t care about their education, their diction, the Americanness of their names or the shape of their noses – a Jew was a Jew. We know the racial Antisemitism of the Nazi Holocaust, when hatred did not stop to check what you believed or which identity box you marked – one Jewish grandparent could be enough, and the victims could not change their grandfathers, in a tragic way. Gradually, Jews have been accepted as “white,” whatever that means, but you would not have to be crazy to draw the lesson that being anything different, minority, alien is dangerous, and that difference is a source of conflict. You may recall the case of former Senator George Allen – when it came out during his 2006 campaign that his Tunisian-born mother had hidden the fact that she was Jewish, he responded indignantly, “How dare you cast aspersions on people because of their religion,” and then held an awkward press conference the next day admitting she was Jewish while asserting, “But she made great pork chops!” If you know her family’s story, how they were persecuted as Jews during the Holocaust under German occupation, however, the fear becomes more understandable.

There are positive reasons to identify with humanity as a whole: as Shakespeare’s Shylock said, we are “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer.” Science, philosophy, art can all educate and inspire any human of any background. On some level, it is crazy to divide the entire world’s population into “Jews” and “non-Jews” – 0.2% vs. 99.8%. Our tradition claimed that we were the chosen people, that all history revolved around us, but just as the world does not actually revolve around every 3 year old, it does not revolve around the Jewish people, or around any one people. When you are part of a small people like the Jews, it can be very tempting to expand your group identity beyond 0.2% – how about the international proletariat? Educated seekers of universal Ethical Culture? Pioneers of a global language? All true, and yet, even if we want it, we do not have absolute freedom to choose who we are – we cannot choose our grandfathers, and we cannot fully determine how others see us.

Now our individuality rebels – “who are they, who are you to tell me what I cannot do, whom I can and cannot be?” This rebel sees a slippery slope from group identity to group-think, group responsibility, group limitations. How can I assert my autonomy, my individuality if people think of me as a label first and as unique me second? This is the deep irony of a Humanistic community – we tell you to think for yourselves. “Make up your own mind!” If I am Jewish, am I implicated in anything any other Jew does? If I am part of a group, will they speak for me differently than I would have spoken for myself? Will the group expel me if I think for myself, if I challenge group consensus? Forget it, says the rebel, no groups for me. In the end, if we say that people are in charge of their own life, we had better mean it. If they choose to resign, we cannot stand in their way. But group identity is deeply rooted in the human psyche, everything from family and neighborhood to sports team up to a cultural and philosophic community like Kol Hadash. The benefits from being together can be worth the challenges and limitations of getting along, the need to argue for one’s perspective or to gracefully accept if the group chooses another path. If we want the strength of mutual support, if we want a voice in the larger Jewish and human conversation, if we seek inspiration from both our roots and our shared commitments, then a label and a group it may be. And a label can make all the difference – I recently heard a story of a family living on the Canadian-USA border who were asked to choose which country they wanted to live in. After careful consideration, they chose to be in the United States, since “those Canadian winters are just too cold.”

Let’s look at this differently. Do you love your family? Is there ANYTHING WRONG with loving your family? Is there anything about loving your family that makes you unable to be good and decent to the other 99.999% of humanity? We have to avoid two extremes – on one end, there is loving your family above and beyond the humanity of anyone else – we call that the Mafia – they love “the family,” and they are terrible to humanity. On the other extreme, there is loving humanity more than those who gave you life and who today give you love. Karl Marx’s family suffered terrible poverty, including the deaths of children in squalid conditions, while Marx spent his time in the British Library working on Das Kapital. Yes, you are allowed to have a family, and to love that family, and to love that family more than universal brotherhood, or at least as much. In my 10th year, I love my congregation more than ever, but I still love my family more than you. If you can have a family of love and commitment, can you not extend that family to distant cousins, adopted relatives, even an ethnic community? The radical Rosa Luxemburg, born Jewish, responded to anti-Jewish pogroms by writing: “I have no room in my heart for Jewish suffering. Why do you pester me with Jewish troubles? I feel closer to the wretched victims of the rubber plantations of Putumayo or the Negroes in Africa… I have no separate corner in my heart for the ghetto.” Can you not feel for both? You can be part of more than one family at once – yours by birth, your partner’s by marriage, your ethnicity, even the human family. Remember the bride and the ketubah: one family does not replace the other – they exist simultaneously in you.

One Jewish ex-communist, Morris Schappes, put it very simply (Judaism in a Secular Age, p. 267):

No one lives in The Universe. There is no address that reads 175 Fairview Boulevard, The Universe. Even the Universal Postal Union could not deliver mail to such an address. You live in a country, a state, a nation. There is no history of The Universe. Uni­versal history is the sum total of group histories (tribe, people, nationality…), seen in their interconnections. Similarly, there is no simply “human” experience that can give rise simply to “human values.” For all these thousands of years all human experience has been cast in the form of the lim­ited group. An “internationalist,” thus, is not one who lives in an “intemation” in outer space, far far out. He is an American interna­tionalist, a Polish internationalist, A Ghanaian or an Indian inter­nationalist. They may converge, but they converge from different points. We here may be American Jewish internationalists. But to omit the American or the Jewish is to strip the “internationalist” of vital, concrete meaning.

The irony is that the more we understand where we live, the more we accept who we are, the more we learn who our grandfathers and our grandmothers were, the better we understand everyone else. EVERYONE comes from somewhere; if we drop difference for universalism, we won’t understand and appreciate the vast majority of humanity that persists in being who they are. I do not want there to be only Applebee’s – I want Chinese take-out, and drive-through Mexican, and Vietnamese-Italian fusion cuisine.

In that Warsaw Jewish cemetery, not far from Ludwik Zamenhof, the father of Esperanto, lies Isaac Lieb Peretz, a giant of modern Yiddish literature. Peretz also welcomed the wider world, but he appreciated the universal from a particular perspective:

“I am not proposing that we lock ourselves in a spiritual ghetto. We must leave it – but with our own soul, our own spiritual wealth. We must make exchanges. Give and take. Not beg.

Ghetto means impotence. Interchange of culture is the only hope for human growth. Man, the complete man, will be the synthesis of all the varied forms of national culture and experience.

To take yet continue to be oneself – that is the important thing. It is also difficult, especially for nations that are weak and not independent. That is why we must be more demanding with the Yiddish writer. He has something that is unique.

He should not do what others have done. Leave the ghetto, see the world – yes, but with Jewish eyes.”

If I don’t understand what it means to be MY something, how can I understand when someone else wants to be who they are? The more I connect with my own culture, the more I appreciate the distinctiveness of Korean culture or Lebanese culture – “yes, we have something like that,” a much better basis for dialogue than “why are you so different from what I want you to be?” Remember, demanding that other groups surrender who they are means that we impose our dominant culture on them – when 19th century White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, the WASPs, said “just be American,” they really meant “be WASPy like us!” In our America, where whites will no longer be the majority, group identities will shift too.

If people and peoples are already different, don’t deny their difference and demand they vanish – find a balance between what the former British chief rabbi called “The Dignity of Difference,” and going over the deep end into chauvinism and division. If I’ve sold you on the possibility, even the desirability, of being something, we still have to answer: why be Jewish? Just because you’ve decided to buy a car, now you have to choose which one! We will turn to this question tomorrow morning, but for those who consider themselves Jewish, or at least Jew-ish: why are you STILL Jewish? Not where did you come from, but why are you here, specifically here? On Yom Kippur, we’ll explore balancing our specific Judaism with our connection to universal humanity and human values, celebrating culture while affirming the rights of women, minorities and the individual mind.

130 years ago, if you wanted a place in the world where you could minimize difference, you did not have to go further than the United State of America! Remember our metaphor for diversity? “The melting pot.” Are you at all surprised to hear that “The Melting Pot” was popularized in 1908 by a Jewish playwright as a play celebrating assimilation? Here is a key speech:

“… America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, your fifty languages, and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to – these are fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”

Note that those are all white Europeans, but that’s part of the blindness of the melting pot ideology. Lose what you are, become what we want you to be – a full universalism denies the dignity of difference and diversity. Yes, we need common ground, common culture, common values, but not at the expense of who we are.

A much better metaphor for the dignity of difference comes, again, from Horace Kallen. We heard him say earlier that we can change a lot, but we cannot change our grandfathers. If that is the reality, and we love our family, and we celebrate our difference with even greater respect for others because we know who we are and they can be who they are, then we do not need to melt away. Kallen’s vision: “a chorus of many voices each singing a rather different tune. … What must, what shall this cacophony become – a unison or a harmony?” A unison or a harmony? Everyone singing the same note, or many notes coming together to sing a fuller anthem? To my ear, harmony is richer through diversity, a more beautiful world in many colors. L’shana Tova.

Posted in General HJ, Holidays | 1 Comment

When Life Seems Too Much, We Are the Most Human

This post was originally delivered as part of a High Holidays sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2008; this year’s High Holidays topics are available here. This post previously appeared in 2014 on the Grief Beyond Belief blog and is re-posted from that site with permission.

A truth of the human condition: just when life seems too much for us, that’s when we’re most human. I’ll tell you a secret of the rabbinic trade: It’s no secret to create meaningful wedding ceremonies or funerals – you talk about the people, which is why everyone is really there, and you tell the truth. “This is a tragedy;” or “we are here today to celebrate new love and a beautiful future.” When the rabbi or priest goes off into traditional pieties, hopes and prayers of how we wish the universe ran, that’s when they lose people. When you stick to reality, you can’t miss saying something relevant to the way people live every day, not just on holidays.

Just when life seems too much for us, that’s when we’re most human. This summer, I officiated a babynaming in the home of a dying woman – the woman was the new baby’s grandmother. The parents had moved the ceremony to her home in hopes that she could come downstairs for just a few minutes, but that morning she was just too weak and exhausted. I visited with her briefly before the ceremony, and then we marked the occasion downstairs with the rest of the family. I said then that present at that moment was the entire gamut of human emotion: excitement at new life, pain at the suffering of someone you love, remembering grandparents and great-grandparents after whom the baby and her older sister had been named. After the ceremony was over, the parents and the baby and her sister and I went upstairs to the dying grandmother’s bedroom, and we created a brief re-enactment of the naming for her. It was not easy for anyone, and there were more tears than at any other babynaming I’ve done. The grandmother died within a few days of the ceremony, only 60 years old. I visited that very same home for the shiva [post-funeral reception] exactly a week after the babynaming, standing almost exactly where I stood for the naming ceremony, and I felt how wonderful it was that we were able to do what we did the week before – we had faced reality with caring and with courage, and just when life seemed too much for us, that’s when we were most human.

People ask me how I handle painful situations like funerals. I don’t look forward to them, but they are moments of peak experience, moments when we are truly human in our rawest and most honest form. That gamut of human emotions is there at any moment of the human condition – somewhere in the world, people are suffering unjustly and celebrating new life and falling in love and mourning a loss right now, and our sympathies and excitement could connect with any of them, and with all of them. It is not a beautiful world that providence designed for our benefit, nor is ours an unremittingly painful existence from which death is the only release – the human condition is flawed, and beautiful, and challenging, and it is our reality whether we like it or not. Far better to face that reality, and then get busy living while the living’s here.

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Why Bother?

These talks will be delivered at High Holiday services this September/October for Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, and later available through The Kol Hadash Podcast.
If you’re interested in celebrating the Jewish New Year with us in Deerfield, Illinois, please email our office or call 847-383-5184.

Why Bother?

With 250 TV channels, the World Wide Web, and centuries of human culture to choose from, how can a Humanistic Jewish High Holidays compete? Challenging questions can reveal our deepest commitments.
“Why Be Anything?”       Rosh Hashana Evening, September 24, 2014 8:00 PM
Labels divide people – different ethnicities, religions, nationalities, even sports allegiances can be lethal. An infant from anywhere in the world can grow up fluent in any other language and culture, so why should we be attached to the accident of our birth? Yet there are limits to choosing one’s own identity. In the quest for balance, how should we negotiate our individuality with our group identities?
“Why Be Jewish?”       Rosh Hashana Morning, September 25, 2014 10:00 AM
With rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East, never-ending and heart-rending conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, militant Orthodoxy fighting modernity on one side and ongoing Jewish integration into Western Culture on the other, who would be crazy enough to want to be Jewish? And yet we do, and we are. The truth is that, with all of its challenges, being Jewish adds deep meaning to our lives.
“Who Am I?”       Rosh Hashana Children’s Service, September 25, 2014 2:00 PM
There are many pieces to every human being – our family, our friends, what we enjoy, and the kind of person we want to be. What do we inherit, and what can we choose for ourselves?
“Why Be a Jew AND a Humanist?”     Yom Kippur Evening October 3, 2014 8:00 PM
The religious approach to life has been around for a long time. Believing that people, and only people, have conscious power to improve the world is a much more recent innovation, even if its evolutionary ancestors first appeared centuries ago. But people do terrible things, and some fight modernity and progress with all their might. Is a Humanistic approach to life, and to Judaism, a path to despair or to hope?
“Why Be Good?”      Yom Kippur Morning, October 4, 2014 10:00 AM
Without cosmic judgment, Yom Kippur becomes an internal experience – self-judgment and self-forgiveness. In moderation, both are healthy and important, but only if they lead to changed behavior in the future. In the negotiation between individual self-fulfillment and communal responsibility lies the dignity of proving ourselves to be good people, if we can live up to our own standards.
“What’s Important?”      Yom Kippur Children’s Service, October 4, 2014 2:00 PM
The older we become, the more choices we have. We need to learn how to choose: what will make us happy? What will bring happiness to the people we love?
“Why Remember?”     Yom Kippur Memorial & Conclusion, October 4, 2014 3:30 PM
Would life be easier alone, with no entanglements or risks? Would we be happier if our happiness were self-determined, not dependent on the emotions and behavior of others? Or is the pain of relationship and separation, love and loss, worthwhile for the joy we experience? And can experiencing life together help us to appreciate the beauty of a life well-lived?
Posted in Holidays, Kol Hadash Shofar | 4 Comments

History and Future of Secular Government

This review of How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by Jacques Berlinerblau appeared in Humanistic Judaism (Vol. XLII no. 2, Winter/Spring 2014) and is reprinted with permission.

            During the past several years, advocates of public vouchers to fund private religious schools have been stymied by state constitutions that prohibit using public money to pay for sectarian schools. It turns out that these provisions were not enacted for secular philosophical reasons; in fact, these “Blaine Amendments” (named after the nineteenth century politician James G. Blaine) were generally passed to undermine Catholic schools. And why had separate Catholic schools emerged a generation earlier? Because the routine Bible readings in public schools invariably mandated that a Protestant version of the Bible be used, since “Protestant officials concluded that the Protestant King James Bible was ‘nonsectarian’ and ‘nondenominational.’ As a ‘neutral’ text, it was deemed appropriate for all public school pupils…Through it all, many Protestants cast themselves as defenders of the idea of separation.” (How to Be Secular, p. 96)

We modern secularists like to think that there was golden age of the separation of church and state: the Founding Fathers were essentially deists, who didn’t believe in the personal or active God of traditional religion. Even though the Declaration of Independence says men were “endowed [with rights] by their Creator,” that was not the same as God the lawgiver or God the Judge at the end of days. The U.S. Constitution contains no reference to God at all, and explicitly prohibits any religious test for federal office. The First Amendment prevents Congress from designating an established national religion, and the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli, ratified unanimously by the Senate and signed by President John Adams, put it even more clearly: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,…” Mail was even delivered on Sundays from 1775 onward!

Into this paradise of separation between church and state, between religion and government, goes our narrative, religious institutions have been sinisterly insinuating themselves ever since: fighting for prayer in public schools, voucher funding for religious education, public affirmations of Christianity, and on and on.

But real history is more complicated, and more interesting. And Jacques Berlinerblau’s newest book, How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), explores this complicated history with a clear purpose: to inspire today’s defenders of the secular public square to be more effective by basing their claims on real history, by forming coalitions with appropriate partners, and by learning the virtue of moderation in the pursuit of secular liberty. By exploring the extremes of absolute secularism in the Soviet Union with its official League of Militant Atheists and contemporary France with its ban of all religious clothing (head scarf, kippah or cross) in public schools, as well as the odd bedfellows that created the basis for today’s church-state separationists, Berlinerblau offers lessons both in how to be secular and in how not to be secular. And he does so with his trademark wit and sardonic humor, which makes for an entertaining, almost conversational, read.

Berlinerblau is the director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and holds two Ph.D.s, one in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literature and one in Theoretical Sociology. His previous books include The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously and Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics. Those who attended Colloquium 2009 of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism remember his enthusiasm for both Secular Humanistic Judaism and the concept of secularism; his keynote address was, “A Manifesto for a New Secular Judaism.” In his current book, Secular Humanistic Judaism makes an appearance (p. 187), though Berlinerblau distinguishes between Secular Jews and “secularish” Jews – secularized, but not self-consciously or philosophically secular à la Humanistic Judaism. One of the hallmarks of How to Be Secular is Berlinerblau’s conscientious commitment to accuracy and clarity, even if it complicates the story we want to tell ourselves about America’s “secular” past.

Berlinerblau points out, for example, that Bible readings and school prayer were the norm until the early 1960s, when a series of court cases in “blue” states such as Illinois and New York began the change. (When Southern Christians insist that stopping prayer is “removing God from the classroom,” they are historically if not constitutionally correct.) In Engel v. Vitale (1962), the New York Board of Regents’ official prayer was struck down; it ecumenically read “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.” And in 1963, Abington School District vs. Schempp struck down the practice of reading prescribed Bible verses and the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). According to Berlinerblau, fully 70 percent or more of Americans disapproved of these decisions, a statistic from which he draws the following lesson:

Pursuing a judicial strategy unattached to any legislative plan or grass-roots organization is a tactic that has served minorities well …[yet] there are risks. Namely, that times change, opinions change, and, most important, the ideological drift of the Court changes.

Secularism prevailed in the judiciary but not in the legislative branch. Secularism won in the courts, but it never won hearts and minds. Many Americans felt that Washington, DC, had imposed secularism upon them. (p. 109)

             Berlinerblau also demonstrates that the common assumption (by the religious and secular alike) that only non-theists would support a secular government is historically false. In the 1830s, during a debate over Sunday mail delivery (which did not end until 1912 as a result of a collaboration of labor unions and religious leaders), Baptist minister John Leland defended continued Sunday delivery:

The powers given to Congress are specific – guarded by a ‘hitherto shalt thou come and no further.’ Among all the enumerated powers given to Congress, is there one that authorizes them to declare which day of the week, month, or year, is more holy than the rest, too holy to travel upon? If there is none, Congress must overleap their bounds, by an unpardonable construction, to establish the prohibition prayed for.

 A Baptist minister defending separation of church and state? Given the insistent push for public religiosity emblematic of southern Baptists today, we tend to forget that the original use of that phrase appears in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut!

            On the other hand, that same president and Founding Father, John Adams, who signed the Treaty of Tripoli denying that the United States was a Christian nation, also drafted the 1779 Massachusetts state constitution with the inclusion of these words: “It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons to worship the SUPREME BEING, the great Creator and Preserver of the Universe . . . [citizens should] make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of public worship of GOD.” Indeed, as Berlinerblau points out, “Jefferson framed legislation punishing Sabbath breakers, as did Madison.” (p. 38)

             What this shows is that even those who have separationist impulses are not always consistent, and, conversely, even the very religious might be recruited to the cause of a secular public square. Berlinerblau observes that “more than a few forms of Christianity lie on the secular spectrum” (p. 157) and that many of the origins of the founders’ American secularism derived from their experiences with Christian sectarian strife. Mainstream liberal religions could also be allies: “members of the liberal faiths sometimes perceive secularism as militantly antireligious (the equation they have in mind is secularist = extreme atheist). In fact, liberal religious groups have historically found themselves occupying an uncomfortable ‘third way,’ or ‘mediationist,’ position, stuck somewhere between orthodoxy and infidelity. Secular activism will need to rectify that problem by finding ways to let the liberal faiths comfortably situate themselves on the spectrum.”(p. 161) Likewise for other religious minorities like Hindus, Muslims, and religious Jews, and political fellow travelers like libertarians (whose slogan, in the libertarian Reason magazine, is “free minds and free markets”).

             Berlinerblau’s last chapter, “Tough Love for American Secularism,” may not have won him friends among the activists at American Atheists or the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who never met a public faith affirmation they wouldn’t fight, but it does provide some pragmatic advice, including to be pragmatic: “Secularists must recall that politics is the art of the possible. Total separation of church and state is a nonstarter in the White House and it matters little if its occupant is a Democrat or a Republican.” (p. 201) There are times to use your opponents’ radicalism against them, times to “Fight Anti-Atheist Prejudice,” and times to “Grin and Bear It:”

There is no constitutional sanction against [President Barack] Obama or [Texas Governor Rick] Perry, as private citizens, doing God talk. Interestingly, the Freedom From Religion Foundation tried to prevent Obama from authorizing a national day of prayer. The Federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Wisconsin snippily dismissed the foundation’s case, arguing that ‘hurt feelings differ from legal injury.’ . . . Secularists, for now, need to focus solely on the significant trespasses. (pp. 205-206).

            As Humanists and Secular Humanistic Jews, we know that there has never been a paradise, whether for Jews, or for secularists, or for anyone. And there never will be as long as humans are human. But we also know that if we work together to incrementally improve the world, we can make a difference. Berlinerblau’s full-throated defense and exhortation to American secularism is to do just that.

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Building Secular Communities

In July, I will be leading a panel discussion at the “Humanism at Work” conference sponsored by Foundation Beyond Belief in Rosemont, IL (near Chicago O’Hare airport) on “Building Secular Communities.” This is a topic on which Humanistic Judaism has much valuable experience to offer the broader secular and Humanist world, since we’ve been in the “secular community” business for 50 years.

Foundation Beyond Belief’s blog recently published an interview with me on my experience building secular communities. An excerpt:

Why do we need secular communities? Or are they unnecessary? 

I would never impose them on anyone, of course, since there are some secular people who don’t feel the personal need to join a group. In fact, one of our organizational challenges is that we appeal to individualists who like to think for themselves! And if they do show up to a group, they risk sounding like this hilarious clip from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. At the same time, the fellowship of like-minded people who don’t think alike (one of our unofficial slogans) is invaluable to support your own perspective as well as to feel like you’re not alone. The emotional support of such people through life’s challenges and joys is also invaluable. As one of my members said after I officiated at her father’s funeral (paraphrasing), ‘I have no idea what I would have done if I didn’t have this.’ It may be a tautology, but secular communities are absolutely necessary to those who need them – they meet very deep-seated human needs that historically religions met, and what kind of humanists would we be to deny, reject, or ignore basic human needs like community and friendship?

The entire interview is worth a read, as this is and will be a very hot topic in the secular/humanist community for the foreseeable future. FBB was also kind enough to make me my very own “meme,” though they could have been a little kinder with the grey hair…

Posted in Week of Action | 1 Comment

The Diary of Otto Frank

Originally a 2013/5774 Rosh Hashana [Jewish New Year] sermon, part of a series called “The Greatest Stories Never Told” imagining alternative voices from Jewish literature and history. Audio available through The Kol Hadash Podcast.

My name is Otto Frank, and I used to be my own person, not just Anne’s father. You have probably read her diary, or at least heard of it, and you know about our attic hiding place in a warehouse in Amsterdam, where we hid for 2 years until we were discovered and sent to Auschwitz. Only I survived the war. In the First World War, I was an officer in the Kaiser’s army. I ran a business in Germany until we left in 1933, and then I ran another in Amsterdam – in fact, we were hiding in my building. I was the father of TWO daughters, not one, Anne AND her older sister Margot, and I was trying to save NINE people. My associates who hid us and fed us, they were in danger too, and two of them were also arrested. I have my OWN memories of that upstairs annex on Prinzengracht. But after the war, when my loyal friend Miep Gies knew for sure that Anne was dead, she told me she had found my daughter’s diary in the piles of papers left behind. I read that diary, and I knew that the diary of Anne Frank would tell the story of the Holocaust in a way nothing else could. So I cleaned it up a bit; is that so wrong? Still, I sometimes wonder how it might have been different if I had kept the book for myself, or if I had written my own story of the annex. Instead of Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl, what about Otto Frank, Diary of a Middle Aged Man? Maybe not.”

Is it wrong to imagine what a real person might have said? It’s one thing to retell the Garden of Eden story in the voices of Eve and the Snake, but it’s entirely different to put words in the mouth of a real person, even more so a survivor of the Holocaust. I once was a teaching assistant in a class called Perspectives on the Holocaust, and one of the assigned readings was Cynthia Ozick’s short story “The Shawl”, a riveting narrative about two daughters and their mother in a concentration camp. My class was shocked to learn during our discussion that “The Shawl” was fiction and not memoir, and Ozick herself was not a survivor – born and raised in New York City, no personal or family Holocaust experience. The class’s reaction was: How DARE she write about the Holocaust when she hadn’t experienced it herself? How dare anyone create Holocaust fiction when some deny that it actually happened? How dare that Italian funny man, Roberto Begnini, create Life is Beautiful, a comedy film set during the Holocaust, where a man saves his son’s life by pretending a concentration camp is a game of hide and seek? How dare they, how dare I?

The Jewish New Year is a time for reflection: who are we, where are we going? We see no external author dictating the plot of our story, and we also know that we cannot always determine how our narrative develops – events beyond our control interfere all the time. Still, we can write our own pages in the book of our own life, if we are willing to tell our story. Perhaps by exploring how Otto Frank might have told his, we can learn something about telling our own.

How dare we do so? Three answers: humanity, necessity, creativity. First, humanity. From the evolutionary moment we discovered how to use language, we could learn from anyone what they felt, what they experienced, what they had learned. A newborn baby of any ethnicity can learn any language on earth. At the same moment we are male or female or Jewish or Irish or anything else, we are always human. A slave from North Africa who became a Roman citizen once wrote, “I am a human being; nothing human is alien to me.” Humanistic Jews draw inspiration from all human wisdom, whatever its ethnic origin, and we temper pride in our own people with the humility of knowing that human progress is a common human achievement. People all over the world celebrate weddings with wine, and many cultures light ceremonial fire in winter as nights grow longer – they’re just not lighting candles for the Maccabee children. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, secular philosophy, they are all responses to the human experience. Our common humanity is why we CAN write what we have not experienced; or else women writers could have no male characters, nor Jewish writers embody non-Jews; there would be no historical fiction, no science fiction, no fiction at all. We CAN write because we NEED to create.

Here Otto jumps in: “You know, some people have objected to my publishing the diary at all! They claim Anne’s diary was private, personal, not intended for publication. Publishing it was a last violation of Anne’s personhood, they say. They forget, or they don’t know, that Anne herself heard a radio announcement to save war diaries and she wanted hers to be one of them. They forget that Franz Kafka, when he was dying, asked a friend to burn his writings, which would have cost the world such beauty! They forget that I was the ONLY survivor of my family – can you even imagine? I could have treasured Anne’s writing all for myself, and no one would have said anything against me. But that would not have helped me, and it would not have helped anyone else. What Anne wrote spoke to the world, not just to me, not just to Jews or to the Dutch. Anne’s voice was a human voice, putting a human face on a human tragedy. If it were not for Anne’s voice, would the world have been ready to hear Elie Wiesel by the time he was able to write Night? Night didn’t appear in English until 1960, eight years after Anne’s diary. If you read Anne’s diary, you don’t need to know HOW Anne died to know who she was while she lived. It’s not only survivor testimony that keeps memory of the Holocaust alive – sometimes it’s voices that speak from the grave.
“You see,” Otto says, “that’s the second reason your rabbi is speaking for me – necessity. Anne was 14 years old in 1943; today she would be 84. If we only rely on survivors to tell the stories and make the experience real, if we only rely on survivors to bring the dead back to life by giving words to grief and love, then we will stop talking. Of course, commit no fraud, but if you admit it’s fiction, of course new voices! I remember a novel imagining Anne survived the war secretly and lived in New York, or Einstein’s Dreams imagining what Albert might have imagined while changing all of science.
Here’s the lesson, here’s what I have to teach. My daughter did not plan to publish her diary because she did not plan to die! I myself was compelled to speak for her after she died. Many, many survivors have spoken of the need to bear witness, to tell the world what happened. How lucky was I, how lucky was the world, to have so many of Anne’s thoughts and feelings to hold on to! The lesson: if you do not speak for yourself, someone else will have to. I had to do it for my daughter; but will your children have to do it for you? What do they really know of who you really are? What will they say when the rabbi comes to talk with them after you are gone? If you consider yourself a humanist, a Jew, a good person, a loving parent, will they have enough evidence? And what would you WANT them to remember? I remember much more of Anne and our time in the Annex than just the diary, but when I read the diary I recalled many of the moments Anne described; others, like that first kiss, were hers alone. But now we all know her even better than I did then, even the day before we heard those terrible boots stomping up the secret staircase.”

Rabbi Chalom again. How dare I put words in Otto’s mouth? Humanity, necessity …and creativity. The Holocaust poet Avraham Sutzkever wrote “Step on words as on a minefield.” Be very careful in what you write and say, but do not silence yourself. You run the risk of disrespecting memory, but you might also touch people and move them in new ways as they remember the Holocaust, or the Shoah, whatever they call it. Perhaps you will motivate them to speak and to act when they might not have, and that is a good worth pursuing.

And new generations respond differently. 15 years ago, many were appalled when two children of Holocaust survivors made a comedy show from their experiences with survivor parents; they called it “Taking the Shoah on the Road.” It opened with the song, “There’s no business like Shoah business, like no business I know.” Too much, too soon? Steve Allen likely coined the phrase “tragedy plus time equals comedy” – and the very Jewish Mel Brooks got great mileage from “the Inquisition, what a show”; and now that I think of it, Mel Brooks also wrote, “Springtime for Hitler and Germany!”

I have no song and dance for you, even if I had more talent. There were jokes told in the secret annex in Amsterdam and in ghettoes and concentration camps, but context makes all the difference. What was it like reading Elie Wiesel’s Night in the original Yiddish, the language in which he suffered and mourned and raged? What was it like reading Anne Frank’s diary in her handwriting for the first time, and then for the second? And what if the diary had never seen the light of day at all?

            Otto again: “You have no idea how close that was, the series of fateful choices that led to that diary’s afterlife. I knew we had no future under Nazis – that’s why we left Germany early, in 1933, and that’s why again we tried to get out of Europe in ‘38 and ‘41. I had planned ahead to hide in the secret annex, though we had to run early when Margot was called for questioning, and we hadn’t planned on hiding everyone that wound up there. The Nazis who arrested us in 1944 just threw our papers around, and they left the diary. And if our friend Miep had actually READ the diary, she would have destroyed it because it named our helpers and their black market suppliers! In January 1945, Elie Wiesel left the Auschwitz sick barracks, afraid of what they might do to him and refusing to let his father leave and die alone. I, Otto Frank, was there in those very same sick barracks, and I stayed, and I was liberated, along with someone else you may have heard of named Primo Levi. If I had left, if Elie had stayed, if the hiding spot had not been betrayed, if, if, a thousand times if.
What’s the lesson? You don’t need a Holocaust to be surprised by life. Car accidents and cancer and chance happen every day. We cannot stop them all, we cannot always manage them, sometimes they manage us and we struggle to stay afloat. What’s the lesson? Prepare and plan as best you can, but you cannot be destroyed when the best laid plans are betrayed by an indifferent universe. Some survivors were broken and never recovered. And many came back to life from the land of the dead, creating new families and helping to build a new Jewish state or putting down new roots in the New World, even a New Amsterdam, now called New York. My Anne was a vibrant young girl whose only experience of the outside for two years was looking at a tree – but she was alive. The tree itself, that lived until 2010, and saplings from that tree have been planted all over the United States. I, Otto, lived for 35 years after the war, I married again, but one doesn’t get over something like that – at best you get used to it. And that’s another lesson: don’t plan to always get over, surmount, avoid tragedy. Sometimes, we have to face it, to get used to it. Yes, learn from it, but also learn to live with it when it cannot be changed, like the past.”

Ah, says Rabbi Chalom, that’s where I disagree with Otto. The past DOES change, it changes all the time as we ourselves change. There is no unmoving mover, there is no impartial observer of the course of human events. Every time we remember our own past or learn a detail of human history, that history changes because we ourselves have changed. If these voices, mine and “Otto’s,” if these ideas change your reading of The Diary of a Young Girl, the words on the page have not changed, but the experience of reading is still very different. As some of you know, this past spring my half-brother Dorian died rather suddenly. I was not very close with Dorian, over a decade older and from my father’s previous marriage. So I learned a lot about him and how he connected with others at his funeral; that experience that was both enlightening and disappointing. Why didn’t I know before? All the more reason to talk NOW. And what I learned about my brother, and the very fact of his death, have changed what I thought I knew. Text and Context dance a complicated tango in our minds.

Would The Diary of Anne Frank have been as impactful if she had lived? Would a book by Otto Frank about his daughter have been as beautiful? Impossible to know, but I doubt it. What we need to discover, each of us, is what we want in our own diary, our own sense of who we are. The Jewish New Year is traditionally a serious day, the beginning of ten days of reflection and repentance. We prefer apology and restitution here and now rather than repentance directed above, yet we still use these days for self-reflection. What would you write about yourself and how you understand the world?

            “And,” Otto adds, “that reminds me of one last thing, something your rabbi wrote about. The question of WHY? In Auschwitz, Primo Levi was struck and he asked ‘why;’ the guard said, ‘Here there is no why.’ We humans want there to be a why, a reason, a cause and effect we can understand – that’s how civilization is built. The problem is that sometimes, there just is no why.
Any Humanism in the face of a Holocaust, especially a Jewish humanism, must be limited. There will be no messianic, perfect age because we are working with flawed material – human beings! We invent antibiotics, eventually we make antibiotic resistant bacteria. Clean your home, you might increase your children’s allergies. The new problems may be better than the old ones – I would happily trade a dust allergy for cholera! But we must also accept our limitations, just as we accept that sometimes in the best of worlds there IS no why.
Why did my Anne die and I live? Survivors of Holocausts, or plane crashes, or earthquakes often ask themselves this. Why are you living in America when others are dying in Syria, in the Aleppo where your rabbi’s father’s family was born? Some see providence in their own survival, others see chance. My answer? Here there is no why. It’s the wrong question. Yes, I made the best of tragedy by sharing Anne’s beautiful words with the world. But I would easily trade my daughter’s diary for my daughter’s LIFE; any power that created such a trade deserves no praise, no gratitude. We in the Annex, we were always on our own, except for all the other people who kept us alive. Yes, some evil person turned us in, and many good people kept us alive. My humanism survives when I remember those good people in dark times.”

Rabbi Chalom again, at the end. In the Babylonian Talmud, it is asked why Noah in Genesis is described as “righteous in his generation” – was Noah was simply righteous compared to a wicked generation, like a barrel of waste in a vault of vinegar, only fragrant by comparison? Or, if Noah was righteous when others were wicked, would he have been righteous in any time, like perfume amid garbage – if fragrant there, how much more so elsewhere!

The righteous, the good, are not only the perfect, the heroic, the mythical. They are also the human, the flawed, the people we know and STILL admire. 2000 years ago, Rabbi Hillel said; “Bamakom sheh-ayn anashim, hishtadel l’hyot ish. In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.” That is our perfection, that is our aspiration for the new year. Each one of us can be a hero in our own way – what will your story be?

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