Why Be Good? Yom Kippur 5775

 This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur 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.

I once met with a family after the patriarch had died. As usual, I took out my pen and pad of paper and asked them to tell me about him. They said, “He worked hard, and he loved his family.” And that was it. So I asked, “Did he have any activities or hobbies he enjoyed?” “He worked hard, and he loved his family.” “How was he as a father?” “He worked hard, and he loved his family.” I realized that he probably was a jerk! If you did a personality survey based on how the deceased are portrayed in eulogies, you’d wonder what happened to all the mean people we meet. This is the wisdom behind the Yiddish expression “all brides are beautiful, all the dead are pious.” With this family, once I understood the dynamic, I put down my pen and asked them to talk freely, off the record. In the end we did find ways to present him well – he WAS loved by his family (if not, they would have trashed him!), and if he was hypercritical, I could say he “had high standards, he pushed us to succeed.” At a funeral, I have an obligation to meet the needs of the family, but I also have an obligation to the truth – I will not lie and say he was beloved by all, or that he made friends easily, or that he was very generous if he was none of those. It would not ring true to the family, and I would know it was a lie. At a rehearsal for one of my first Bar Mitzvahs with Kol Hadash, the student’s parent told him, “Don’t worry if you make a mistake in the Hebrew reading – no one will know.” The student said to himself (but I heard him), “But I’ll know.” And I complimented him for that. There is something in us, call it conscience or a sense of self, that maintains our own standards. When I’m hired for a life cycle event, they get my whole person – my mouth, sure, but also my brain, and along with my brain goes my sense of self, my ethical being.

WHY be a good person? Not a question you hear often. There are many routes to HOW to be a good person – secular ethical philosophies, political parties who are happy to tell you and how to behave, innumerable religions who are convinced that THEY have the true, right path. Recall the story of the man who goes to heaven and is given a tour, seeing all ethnicities and religions getting along. He then sees a walled off section with no windows and asks his guide why. The response: “Oh, that’s the Orthodox Jews. They think they’re the only ones here.” Of course, you could replace “Orthodox Jews” with “Roman Catholics” or “Greek Orthodox” or “Sunni Muslims” or “Shi’ite Muslims.” In past years, we have spent our High Holiday time exploring HOW to be a good person, what lessons to draw from the human experience across religious and cultural lines on what the good life should be. Out there, there are plenty of Yom Kippur sermons on how often people fail to be good; evidently some people go to synagogue to be made to feel bad. Perhaps it’s a kind of emotional atonement: if I confess my sins and listen to someone harangue me for a few hours, I’ll burn off some failure and feel better. Well, I don’t harangue people for their moral failings, even those seven of you who really deserve it. Which seven? I won’t tell you, but I will tell you why I won’t tell you.

Jewish folklore describes the Lamed Vovniks – 36 hidden righteous (traditionally men, we can say people) upon whom the world’s existence depends. Lamed vov is how to write the number 36 in 2 Hebrew letters. Those who know their Hebrew numerology will also remember that 36 is double Chai, 18 or life. One of the virtues of the lamed vovniks is great humility; often they themselves do not know that the world depends on them. If no one knows who are the lamed vovniks, 36 righteous people on whom the world depends, then you had better treat everyone as if they might be one, and act yourself as if you might be too! This is one answer to “why be good” – the world depends on it – but it won’t work for us. It presupposes a cosmic judgment for the collective sins of humanity, as well as a kind of vicarious atonement – someone else’s good deeds and righteousness avert disaster for all. You can hear echoes of the traditional Yom Kippur scapegoat, or another legend of a righteous individual suffering for the sins of humanity you may have heard elsewhere. Most important, the Lamed Vovnick story shows that the question of why be good and how be good are intertwined: until you’ve defined what it means to be good, you don’t know the answer to why be good or how to be good. For the lamed vovnik, piety is a cardinal virtue, whereas we might prioritize other qualities like courage for a worthy cause, kindness to those in needs, the willingness to challenge authority and think independently. Sometimes traditional Jewish ethics agree with us, sometimes they do not. Still, consider what our interactions would be like if we lived the legend of the lamed vovniks – if we truly believed that anyone we met could be someone on whom the world depends, or that we ourselves could have such a cosmic importance. We would talk kindly to each other, we would treat each other with respect and dignity, we would take others’ failings in the best possible light – “hypercritical” becomes “high standards” – we would examine our own actions to do our very best. The reason the lamed vovnick won’t work is that we know it’s a myth; but sometimes myth, even after its myth-ness is exposed, can still have positive influence if no longer absolute control.

Another example from Jewish literature, one of my favorite passages in the Exodus narrative. After the sin of the Golden Calf, God has decided to wipe out the Israelites and start over with Moses [Exodus 32]. “Your people have blown it for the last time!” He says (notice how it’s like parents – do you know what YOUR son just did?). Moses serves as God’s therapist, since He has an anger management issue, and talks him down – what would the other peoples say if you don’t fulfill your promises, you did promise YOUR people to bring them to their land, and so on. Later rabbis [BT Berakhot 32a] imagined what chutzpah it took to talk back to God, imagining Moses saying to himself, “How can I talk back? And yet, if I do not, something terrible will happen. Zeh talui bee – this hangs on me, depends on me.” We don’t have to be talking to a god to take the responsibility of acting when action is needed. And it does not need to be the entire universe that hangs on our deeds. Jewish tradition claims that if you save one life, it is AS IF you saved the whole world. Or to quote contemporary bumper sticker wisdom, think globally, act locally.

Deep in our psyches, we want what we do to count. We want someone to be keeping score, we want a system that rewards the good and punishes the bad. We want the answer to “why be good” to be “because it’s worth it” – you will get what you deserve. If the human experience in this life seems to contradict that desire, we invent all kinds of systems to make it true: heaven and hell, cosmic judgment at the end of days, karma that comes back to you, reincarnation up or down based on your deeds in a previous life. These religious beliefs all try to bring justice to the universe; they answer “why be good” – because someone is watching, and he knows if you are sleeping, he knows if you’re awake, knows if you’ve been bad or good…We might ask, if you’re only being good is because someone is watching you, does that really count as being good, or are you just minimally wise to avoid certain punishment? We understand our psychological needs and how we project them onto the universe, so these answers won’t work for us either. We know too many good people who died too soon to believe that the system is designed according to our moral agenda. I have done funerals for suicides, drug overdoses, young people with cancer, even a crib death, and seeing the pain the deaths cause their families is all the evidence I need.

Are there exactly seven people in this congregation with moral failings? There are seven, and seven times seven, and seven times seven times seven. I do not believe in original sin, or in any kind of supernatural sin for that matter. I do not believe that Jews are obligated to follow 613 commandments, so many and so restrictive that failure is inevitable and guilt is guaranteed. I do believe that morality, being good is an ideal, and human ideals are imposed on a material world that does not conform to our desires. Just as it may help to imagine ourselves to be one of the secret righteous, we must also accept that all of us have our failings. There are no saints, no matter what data funeral eulogies would provide. Gandhi was not a good parent, Martin Luther King Jr. had extramarital affairs, Mother Teresa refused to allow birth control in her missions no matter how it would have improved her charges’ lives. Sometimes we just have to make the best of who we are.

For two-and-a-half years, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel debated. One group said, “It is better for humanity not to have been created than to have been created”; and the other said, “It is better for humanity to have been created than not to have been created.” They finally took a vote and decided that it were better for humanity not to have been created than to have been created, but now that they have been created, let them investigate their past deeds or, others say, let them examine their future actions. (BT Eruvin 13b)

Consider how this Talmudic argument is both useless and useful: 2 ½ years debating something you have no power to affect; what are you going to do, turn back the clock and wipe us out? Based on their ideals of a perfect universe, the schools agreed that the cosmos would have been better off without humanity. So what? Here’s how the argument becomes useful – we have to deal with reality. Hillel and Shammai might say, “what if God overheard the discussion, decided they were right, and sent another Flood with NO Noah?” Since we’re on thin cosmic ice anyways, they would say, we had better be good by looking back at what we’ve done or looking forward to what we will do. In our secular vocabulary, we might say the earth doesn’t need us to keep spinning, but we need the earth and each other. This is why we also need a Yom Kippur process of making things right, since all things human are not ideal. Imagining that we are a cosmic mistake is still mostly useless, because we were NOT created, and we will not be uncreated, at least until the sun explodes. And who’s motivated to be good by considering life a mistake?

We need OUR answer to “Why be good” that does not imagine we are cosmically important, or that our every deed is being scored in a Book of Life, or that we were a great mistake. The theme of our High Holiday explorations has been “why” rather than “how” – why be anything, why be Jewish, why be Jewish and a Humanist? Because if you can’t answer why, who cares about the how? If someone asks you “How can I break into my neighbor’s house?” don’t answer “with a crowbar;” say, “why would you want to do that?” The funerals I perform are mostly for genuinely good people; changing “hypercritical” to “high standards” happens less often than you might imagine.

Let us first ask what it means to be good, and maybe that will address the why for us. If Yom Kippur is about doing better, a road map to the good would be helpful. What is virtue? A perennial question in philosophy and religion. In Pirke Avot, Rabbinic sayings compiled in 200 CE, we read about four human types: the fool, the average, the wicked and the saint. Virtue is not the same as simply being obedient; following the rules makes you average, the lowest common denominator, but to merit the title “good” requires more. For some, self-sacrifice is a virtue – the rabbinic “saint” is the one who says “what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is yours,” while the average says “what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine” – the wicked says “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine”! [Pirke Avot 5:13] Virtue there is extreme generosity. For others, self-actualization is a higher value than self-sacrifice: in Maimonides’ famous ladder of charitable giving, the highest level is teaching the needy a profession so they no longer need charity. In science, theories can be proven true or false. My experience with philosophy has been that there is often an element of truth in both sides, which is why smart people can disagree. Being autonomous and in charge of our own lives rings the good bell, and so too does caring for others. Just as there is no one “how” be good, there is no one sense of what virtue is. When we study ethical choices across cultures, looking for common ethical principles, we find a few everywhere: treating others fairly, honoring your family, limiting violence, and so on. The trick is the balance among those values: is treating others fairly MORE IMPORTANT than honoring your family, or when you have a government job to fill should you automatically hire your cousin? In some cultures nepotism would be “bad,” while in others it’s unthinkable to help a stranger instead of your family. Defining what virtue could mean does not provide a clear reason “why be good,” since there are so many versions of virtue, even beyond religious piety. I once did a funeral for an older woman – I spoke first with her children, and then separately with her grandchildren over the next couple of days. I might have been talking about two different people! But she was – as a parent at 30, she was very different as a grandparent in her 60s. We learn over time, what we believed was good may change as we understand life differently and we ourselves have changed.

Why be good? We can always turn to evolution – if we understand who we are and how we came to be, perhaps that will shed light on how best to get along. Why was being “good” an evolutionary advantage? Humanity, certainly before modern times, always functioned in social groups – society did not begin with the political philosopher’s idealized state of nature, where autonomous individuals made social contracts. This past year, I read a fascinating article about a family in Siberia who fled Soviet control in 1930s, disappeared into the woods, and were not discovered until 1970s! They had lived on their own with almost no contact with civilization, no metal (since it rusted away after a decade), no medicine, no society, no culture beyond their own songs and their revered Bible. Two of the children had never known anyone but their immediate family. What made the story so striking was how amazing and unusual it was to be so isolated; whether it’s Aristotle’s claim “humanity is a social animal” or Genesis’ statement “it is not good for humanity to be alone,” we know deeply, as I’ve cited before, that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. Groups with pro-social genes likely did better than groups with anti-social genes at caring for the sick and the young, collaborating for food and security, passing on accumulated knowledge and culture. We are more likely to trust others and work together if they have proven themselves to be trustworthy, what the group might define as “good” – honest, responsible, capable, etc. If someone has a track record of “good,” that is, pro-social behavior, we’re even more likely to forgive them for wronging us, or to accept their apology and move forward. So an evolutionary reason for “why be good” could be “it’s good for the group, and therefore good for you if you’re in the group.”

Or course, even if this evolutionary reconstruction is accurate, that’s not enough of a reason today. We evolved to eat meat, but plenty of us are healthy on vegetarian diets. We evolved with violent conflict between groups, but today we often channel it into sports, exercise, or workplace competition. Evolution weeds out weak traits, like my nearsightedness, but eyeglasses and lasik surgery means I was not selected against by a runaway bison; my children get to have just as many challenges with glasses and braces as I did! Using evolution to evaluate social behavior is tricky: there’s plenty of theory but limited experimental evidence, and the more we understand about human psychology and the impacts of human culture, the harder it is to tease out what is biological and what is cultural. When asked a question about the limited number of women scientists, the physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out that as a black man, he was always encouraged to pursue sports even though he wanted to be a physicist since he was a child. If you see a person with an elephant sitting on them and they complain of chest pain, they might be having a heart attack, but you’ll never know until you remove the elephant. [can't find a citation for that metaphor, though I know it's not mine!]

There’s also a serious problem with the answer of “Ask not what your evolutionary subgroup can do for you, Ask what you can do for your evolutionary subgroup” – do I ever get to ask what the group does for me? Or what I get to do for myself? Only focusing on a group tramples the individual, though we also understand that only listening to the individual means a community of one. We do not run our personal lives or our Jewish lives purely on what the group thinks is good – some of us fast on Yom Kippur, some do not, and we celebrate the freedom to make our own choices. Someone who cares absolutely NOTHING about what any other person or society thinks is technically called a sociopath, but ONLY caring about what everyone else thinks is also a problem. Let’s change the scope, then – not why is it good for the group if individuals are good, but why might it be good for the individual to be good.

Why would we be good for ourselves, if not for others? Part of our sense of self comes from the kind of person we think we are, and so too does our ability to be good. Those who feel limited find it hard to be generous. Those who have been cheated may be less likely to trust, and more likely themselves to cheat. We love to think that we could suffer and do better, in the language of Jewish ethics, “do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Exodus 23:9 and others] Or even just the golden rule, however you formulate it – do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or Hillel’s negative version: do not do to others what is hateful to you. But it’s very tempting to go instead for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. If everyone else is cheating, why shouldn’t I? If someone screwed me over, then it’s a screw or be screwed world and I won’t get fooled again. In Israel, no one wants to be a frier, a sucker, the person taken advantage of. On the other hand, if we have a strong sense of self-worth, a deep seated dignity, a confidence that we can do the right thing and still turn out all right, then we can give people second chances, we can blame those who deserve blame and not take our injury out on the next person. How do we acquire those characteristics? Practice, practice, practice. There was once an illuminating study done correlating the Transparency International corruption index to UN delegations with unpaid parking tickets – the tickets couldn’t be enforced because of diplomatic immunity. As you might have guessed, the least corrupt nations had almost no tickets and paid them right, while the most corrupt had dozens. Sometimes the small issues help with the big issues – if your habit is to tell the truth, to live your beliefs, the more you do it, the more natural it becomes.

Why do people get to funerals on time? I’ve heard plenty of excuses for starting weddings late: running on Jewish time, or Irish time, or Italian time; maybe the only group “on time” is the WASPs! But even Jews get to funerals on time. Why? It’s important enough, there’s a fear of social disapproval, it’s a serious event, and it’s a sign of respect for both the deceased and their family. Why be good? We are good for ourselves and good for each other. We are good because we think it is important, and we are good because life is imperfect and we have to do as well as possible. We are good because we want to make a good impression, and we are good because it makes us feel better about ourselves. The world may not depend on our behavior, but our ability to forgive others begins with our acceptance of our own flaws. In the end, however, one more reason why we are good may be the most effective – our impact on the future. Immortality is another religious reason to be good – deny yourself in this life to earn life eternal. Even in a secular sense, our good deeds can buy us our own brand of immortality. I can’t tell you how many times children remember their parents to me, at our initial meetings and in public at the funeral and in conversations at the shiva home and for the rest of their lives, as their role models and heroes. Hard work, honesty, generosity, integrity – these are the life lessons offered by people we love. As I give these eulogies, I sometimes think, “What will my family and friends say about me?” And so I strive to be loving, and good, and honest, and patient, and generous because that’s how I can impact the future, that’s what entirely depends on me. If people who loved me remember me for that, emulate me in that, then the world is sustained not just by the living righteous, but also by the legacy of truly good men and women. We always end our congregational memorials with a line from the biblical book of Provberbs (10:7): zekher tsadik l’vrakha – the memory of a righteous person is a blessing.

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Why be Jewish AND Humanist? Yom Kippur 5775

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur 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.

Do you know what year it is? In the general calendar, it’s 2014. In the Chinese calendar, it’s the Year of the Horse. In the Muslim calendar, it’s 1435 after Mohammed’s escape to Medina. In the Jewish calendar, it’s 5775. 5 thousand, 700 and 75 years after what? Year Zero: Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden – allegedly. The Jewish calendar is creationist, but we Humanistic Jews still use it for Jewish life. It’s no wonder we’re confused – Jewish days begin at night, the Jewish calendar is called a luni-solar calendar (luni? or looney?) and we add a leap month 7 out of every 19 years. In the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur is always on the same day, the tenth of Tishrei, but the High Holidays always seem to be either early or late, like some Jewish people I know. A purely rational person would have ditched this calendar mess a long time ago. Now, I’m saying this in one of the three countries in the world that refuses to use the metric system: it’s the United States, Liberia and Burma.

Metric system refuseniks

Our general calendar has its flaws too – in 1752, the English speaking world went to bed on September 2 and woke up on September 14 – only adding one leap day every 4 years had gotten us way behind, since the actual length of a solar year is not 365 ¼ days, it’s 365.2421897 days, on average. Human beings measuring cosmic time is not only a question of reason. Sometimes, it’s reasonable to be unreasonable.

This High Holidays, we explore the question of “why” – so far, why bother being anything, and why bother being Jewish. We’ve found that being different provides dignity and roots, and being Jewish inspires us to respond creatively to our inheritance, to take what we have received and make it meaningful, and then enable our heirs to do the same. Yet we are more than simply our roots – we have branches and leaves and fruit, we have a present as well as a past. We are not only part of the Jewish family by birth, by choice, by marriage, by affinity. We also have beliefs about the world and humanity that tie us to a larger world of humanism. Our Humanism is more than a Renaissance-style celebration of universal human culture; it is a person-focused approach to life that is both meaningful and inspirational. It is a change of focus – too much of religion is directed up there – we focus on each other, and inside ourselves; this world, not above and beyond. People have the right and responsibility to be in charge of their lives, independent of any claimed supernatural authority. Too much of religion tells us what we cannot know, what we cannot do. We celebrate that human knowledge and power can understand and improve the world. Our ethics revolve around human dignity, human needs, and human responsibility, as we will explore tomorrow morning. And these values and rights apply not only to our group, but to all human beings of every background, every gender, every identity. Our Humanism is a positive self-definition of what we do believe and how we live, not just a debate about one fact: is there or isn’t there. We can imagine ourselves as an adapted Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live: We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggone it, we like people!

The more we try to define our identity, the more we wind up expanding our identitIES. We are universalists from a particular perspective, part of both the human family and our own Jewish family. The challenge, as the Birmingham Temple’s Rabbi Jeffrey Falick put it in a Rosh Hashana sermon last week, is how to defeat the old Yiddish saying: ein tuchus ken nit tanzen af tsvay khasines – one tush can’t dance at two weddings! Now how did I hear what he said when you all saw me here? How can one rabbi attend two Rosh Hashana evening services in two states? The internet! In a world of the internet, when where you are from or what day it is prove no barrier to finding like-minded people all over the world, we understand more and more that “who am I” does not have a single answer. Walt Whitman wrote in his “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” One tuchus, two weddings; one person, many identities.

It’s not really a question of being Jewish OR: Jewish or American, Jewish or secular, Jewish or liberal or conservative or libertarian. We are always in the state of Jewish AND – in my case, Jewish AND male AND straight AND born where I was born AND living where I live. Each of us is large, each of us contains multitudes. In the world of our ancestors, your culture, your religion, your ethnicity, your language, your group identity, they were mostly indivisible. You were an Ashkenazi Jew who spoke Yiddish and observed Shabbat, or a Sephardic Jew from Syria who spoke Judeo-Arabic and would never mix lamb with yogurt, or a Polish-speaking Polish Catholic from Poland. 1 tuchus, 1 wedding. Yes, you had some contact with the outside world, and maybe they influenced you more than you were willing to admit. But today we are never forced to be one thing – we are always the particular multitudes of our unique biography. For Humanistic Jews, this is our multiple minority, and part of the dignity of difference is accepting our uniqueness – I am Jewish in a non-Jewish world, a Humanist in a religious America, stubbornly Jewish amid universalist Humanists, a secular Jew amid religious Judaisms.

We are hardly the first generation to attempt a synthesis between ancestral Jewish identity and modern values. Rabbi Falick pointed out that the 19th century Reform movement was created to bridge the gap between Judaism and modernity – strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, those rabbis sought a way to have your Kant and eat matza too. We are doing the same in our own generation, from our own perspective. The first generation of secular Jewish schools and communities emerged 100 years ago, organized around Yiddish, Jewish culture and the Jewish labor movement. They too had to balance their secular identity, their Jewish heritage and their labor activism. Sometimes their identities reinforced each other; Passover makes a great Jewish labor holiday – a worker’s rebellion against slave labor conditions! To celebrate their Jewish freedom, they created a Yom Kippur Ball and Banquet. A few years ago our own Steering Committee debated, given how wonderful community feeling is during our Rosh Hashana oneg receptions, did we want some kind of oneg after Yom Kippur …. That was a step too far, though we did explore the possibility of an empty-plate oneg, what one member called a “no-neg.” The freedom to offend does not mean that one must be offensive.

Sometimes those secular socialist Jews contradicted themselves in their multitudes – the Jewish Labor movement split many times between the nineteen-teens and the 1950s over the gradually increasing anti-semitism of the Soviet Union. Sometimes push came to shove, and the Jewish won.

That is the real challenge, that is why this question of why be Jewish and a Humanist needs an answer. Multiple identities are all well and good when they are in separate categories – liking egg rolls for appetizers and ice cream for dessert rarely produces direct confrontation. My Jewishness is not affected by my hair color, even if it’s on the march from brown to grey. But when it comes to a religious cultural philosophical values identity, there are times that push comes to shove, there are moments when the multitudes within me battle each other and contradicting myself becomes conflict.

It can be hard to be Jewish if you’re a Humanist. We saw on Rosh Hashana evening the tension between universalist Humanist commitment and our particular Jewish identity, and how loving our family does not mean we may treat humanity any less. There are certainly elements of our Jewish tradition, and of our Jewish family today, that offend our Humanism. Does every Jewish media story need to revolve around “Is it good for the Jews?” Haredi Orthodox Jewish communities that treat women as inferior to men, that support gay conversion therapy, that are anti-science and refuse outside knowledge – they are Jewish. Nationalist and messianic extremists who refer to the deaths of children in Gaza as “mowing the grass” – they are also Jewish. Some might disown them and claim “that’s not really Judaism,” but OUR values and all Jewish values are not the same. Think of a Venn diagram –there is some overlap between our values and Jewish values, but there is also some disconnection.

Venn diagrams

Just as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is a destructive version of Islam, but still an expression of Islam, or white supremacy is a twisted Christianity, so too these expressions of Jewish identity are, to us, objectionable forms of Judaism. But we cannot deny that they are Jewish, as others would deny us. The question is whether we can handle being identified with them, or do we say “if those people are on my team, I quit!” Some in the world of general Secular Humanism insist that the only True Judaism, the only True Christianity, the only True Islam is the most fundamentalist one – it makes the best enemy, but it also means they wind up agreeing with fundamentalists who say the same thing! There can be liberal Christians and conservative Christians, Orthodox Jews and Humanistic Jews, liberal westernized Muslims and fanatic eliminationist Muslims. We refuse to surrender our heritage to the most fanatic; we will not give up being in our family. Different heirs make different choices with the same inheritance – some transcend the violence and division of their religious tradition, others deepen it. We may share little in common in lifestyle and values, but we are distant branches on the same evolutionary tree. Just as we contain multitudes, so too does Judaism.

The other side of this challenge to being both universalist and particular, committed to the dignity of cultural and ethnic difference and also to basic human rights, is that there are limits to cultural relativism. If a culture systematically disenfranchises and denigrates women, treating them as less than full human beings, must we respect it? On the other hand, a French style secularism that bans religious symbols from public space, be it a Muslim hijab, a Jewish kippah, or even a cross, feels universalist to the point of infringing on personal religion. Human rights do not only apply to “my” people and stop at the borders of different cultures. So when a cultural tradition collides with human rights, we may wind up siding with our values against a culture, even our own culture; of course, there will always be others of our people right next to us. Remember the former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling (born Donald Tokowitz) and the terrible things he said and did? When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was asked how he felt about it as a fellow Jew, Silver answered, “My response was as a human being,” and that was the end of it. And plenty of other Jews felt the exact same way – as human beings AND as Jews! We may sometimes feel alone in the Jewish world in our multiple minority, but if we say what we believe, we find that we represent many. We Humanistic Jews are multitudes that we don’t even realize. I hear the same story all the time – “I’ve felt like a Humanistic Jew for many years on my own, and I’ve finally found you!” I both love and hate that story – I’m glad they found us, but why did it take so long? We’ve been around for 50 years!

This story demonstrates that just as it can be hard to be Jewish if you’re a Humanist, it can be hard to be a Humanist if you’re Jewish. People don’t even know to look for us – they can’t believe there are enough Jewish people who think like they think and live like they live that there might actually be communities to celebrate as they want to celebrate. As much as we can take Jewish tradition and reinterpret, select, understand in a humanistic light, in the plain light of truth we must admit that much of historical Jewish culture was expressed through religious ideas – as was almost every culture before modern times. Yes, the Talmud contains fascinating anecdotes and stories we can enjoy, but much of the Talmud’s 6,200 pages are legalistic hair-splitting irrelevant to our secular lives. Everyone knows that Hanukkah is about the miracle of the lights and Passover is about the 10 plagues and the Exodus from Egypt by God, so why do you bother us with the inconvenient truth that the stories were written centuries later and most likely didn’t happen? Who do you think you are to change this tradition, even if I don’t believe it either? The answer is, I have as much right to adapt my inheritance to my needs as you have to keep it the same or our ancestors did to create it. Unless you’d rather go back to sacrificing goats on Yom Kippur – anything else is changing tradition.

The other reason it can be hard to be a Humanist if you’re Jewish has to do with the Jewish historical experience. I was once asked a question by a member of Kol Hadash: “Can you be a Humanist if you don’t like people?” Jewish history is full of reasons not to like people in general: “people” are prone to violence and chauvinism and fanaticism, “people” impose their beliefs and lifestyle on others, “people” can destroy their environment, and they can certainly destroy each other. We no longer believe in a naïve Enlightenment idealism of human perfectibility, the tabula rasa – blank slate that can be filled with correct education to create a utopia. We’ve been mugged by reality too many times, particularly as the Jewish people. The cynic sneers: “Those idealists who loved the cosmopolitan German culture of Beethoven and Goethe, they were murdered, and YOU put your trust in humanity…”

I have no blind faith in humanity, in progress, in reason – working in organized Humanism has taught me that Humanists can be just as unreasonable as anyone else. I am also convinced that human knowledge and effort improve the world, so I have no choice but to be both Humanist AND Jew – both of them are who I am, now and at all times. As an undergraduate, I spent Passover for four years at a friend’s home with his family,. Their Haggadah was very conventional, a step or two above Maxwell House.  Reading through those texts, I found myself alternatively confirming my Judaism with positive connections, and my Humanism when I disagreed with the values represented in the text. Very well, I contradict myself – I am large, I contain multitudes.

At their best, multiple identities reinforce each other. My Judaism confirms my Humanism, and my Humanism enriches my Judaism. The lesson I learn from Jewish history is the importance of human self-reliance, and the value of human action over prayer and faith. There are others who read different lessons from the Jewish experience – was the founding of modern Israel a miracle, or the product of stubborn human effort? A college classmate once told me that because his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, he was inclined to believe in divine providence; my response was that in the same situation I would have the exact opposite interpretation. Imagine if we read the statistics on Jewish behavior the opposite way they are normally presented – instead of saying 15% of American Jews keep kosher or light Shabbat candles, why not say 85% do not do either? That would build community feeling among the more secular, who are the vast majority, rather than a Jewish establishment that regrets reality. The Jewish world was shocked last October to hear that 20% of American Jews, and a third those under 35, identified as “Jews of no religion” – “Are you Jewish?” “Yes.” “What religion are you?” “None.” We’ve known this population is there for a long time, and we have taken the next step – integrating a secular lifestyle with an abiding Jewish identity, enriching both.

Jewish culture is an example of the human experience – the parallels between the Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah and coming of age rituals in other cultures, plus our knowledge of human psychological development, enable us to make our personalized Mitzvah experience that much more meaningful and relevant than Jewish tradition alone. Cultural cross-pollination produced a Passover seder modeled on a Roman Feast, and today we sing the African-American spiritual “Let My People Go” in our English-language Haggadah. The Jewish tradition of questions and challenges, a desire for reasons to justify religious practice, an emphasis on literacy and teaching, even a counter-tradition of Jewish skeptics and heretics who refuse to believe what authorities demand – all of these support both a Humanistic approach to the world and a creative approach to being Jewish. I love the Yiddish saying: “angels used to walk the earth, not they’re not even in heaven.” Seeking forgiveness on Yom Kippur, even in traditional Jewish life, was always about forgiveness from the person you had wronged first – not quite Humanistic, perhaps “humanish-tic.” We’re always negotiating the balance, and different generations will change their inheritance – the earliest Humanistic Jewish parents in the 1960s and 70s had themselves been raised in very Jewish neighborhoods in the 1920s and 30s, often by immigrant parents, so Jewishness was more assumed. Today we live much more dispersed, more integrated with our surroundings, and so Judaism is re-emphasized when we come together. And our children will make their own choices for their needs, based on their identities. If we contain our own multitudes, so will they.

The Broadway show “Rent” was written by Jonathan Larson, born to Jewish parents in White Plains, NY. After many years of financial struggle, Larson died of an undiagnosed heart condition just before the musical opened and became a smash success. It is impossible for us to know exactly which of Larson’s lyrics were inspired by his Judaism, which by his humanity, which by his individual experience. He was large, he contained multitudes – he was all of who he was, as long as he was. At the end of the show, after one character has died and another recovered, the last song resounds with Humanism: No afterlife, no cosmic reward and punishment, no book of life, no revelation telling us what to believe or how to live.

There’s only us
There’s only this
Forget regret– or life is yours to miss.
No other road
No other way
No day but today ….

There’s only now
There’s only here
Give in to love
Or live in fear
No other path
No other way
No day but today 

Is that a Jewish message? A Humanist message? A Humanistic Jewish message? As Saturday Night Live once asked, Is it a floor wax or a dessert topping? The answer: “it’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping”. Our tuchus can dance at many weddings, for we contain multitudes, in all of their contradictions and their complementarity. The wisdom of our country’s founding motto still abides: e pluribus unum – from many, into one.

Posted in General HJ, Holidays | 2 Comments

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 | 3 Comments

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.

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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?
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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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