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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Building Secular Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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The Diary of Otto Frank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Criticizing Religion

I am generally intolerant of intolerance.

There is a limit to multiculturalism. As a Jew strongly affirming Jewish identity in a non-Jewish world, as a Humanist defending our right to believe what we believe and live by our values despite popular conventions or objections, I certainly celebrate diversity. And many people agree with the cliché, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” whether or not they really mean that to the point of actual death. But must that diversity and tolerance include those whose cruelty and criminality claim the defense of culture and religion?

Women’s bodies are the battlefield on which the dispute between religion and secularization, tradition and modernity, are being fought. The despicable behavior of Boko Haram in Nigeria (famous recently for kidnapping over 250 girls, having committed much violence for over a dozen years), political battles in the United States over contraception or abortion or the HPV vaccine, increasing rigidity and strictness of women’s “modesty” and “family purity” regulations in ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism – all examples of traditionalist religious groups who feel their way of life threatened, and so they clutch what they can control (their women) that much tighter as they feel their hold slipping away.

This spring, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a courageous secular critic of Islamist treatment of women who herself left Islam for a secular life, was offered an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University. The offer was withdrawn after controversy arose regarding her past remarks on Islam. Sometimes she does paint with too broad a brush (from 2007):

Hirsi Ali: Only if Islam is defeated. Because right now, the political side of Islam, the power-hungry expansionist side of Islam, has become superior to the Sufis and the Ismailis and the peace-seeking Muslims.

Reason: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?

Hirsi Ali: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace. . . .

I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself; at present, there are native Westerners converting to Islam, and they’re the most fanatical sometimes. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You stop that. You stop the symbol burning and the effigy burning, and you look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, “This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.” There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.

Reason: Militarily?

Hirsi Ali: In all forms, and if you don’t do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed. . . . .

There is no moderate Islam. There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.

On the other hand, a recent interview (2014), while still critical of using Islam to oppress women:

“honor killings, denying girls an education, denying women the right to leave their homes without permission from a male relative, performing marriages on girls as young as age 9, the continued practice of female genital mutilation for “purity,” the stoning of homosexuals…”

also offers more nuance:

Muslims who do not want to live under sharia law are attempting to separate religion from politics. But they won’t be able to do that unless they address these doctrinal issues. They won’t be able to win the argument against the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, because like every other Islamist or jihadist organization, the Brotherhood is delivering a message consistent with what’s really in the Koran and the hadith. If you want to stand up to these people, you have to address the doctrine. You have to look at the Koran and say that there are parts of it you don’t consider moral anymore.

The first step to correcting problems in your religious tradition is to admit that you have a problem in your religious tradition! Religious moderates are not helping when they deny that their religious tradition can be used in the terrible ways it is actually used. As Ali put it in that same interview, “Some moderate Muslims hate me…because I make them feel uncomfortable. The things I talk about put them in a state of dissonance that they can’t live with.” In my own experience, I can still connect with Jewish tradition and values even if I disagree with and criticize some of them. But it is manifestly false to claim that my liberalized version is “real” Judaism while anti-feminist versions are “distortions” – they can all be divergent evolutionary descendants of a common cultural ancestor.

At the same time, critics of religion are inaccurate when they condemn ALL Christians or Muslims or Hindus or Jews for the sins and excesses of SOME. The battle over teaching evolution in schools is also between liberal interpretations of religion that accept science and their fundamentalist counterparts. Must secularists agree with the fundamentalists that only fundamentalist versions of religion are “real” Christianity, Islam, etc.? Wouldn’t we do better to make common cause against a shared anti-modernist, anti-feminist foe rather than declare that anti-modernism or anti-feminism is inevitably part of any true version of a religion, even those denominations now ordaining women clergy?

Any theory of religion must include both the Inquisition and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., arranged marriages and women rabbis, jihad and toleration. Both Conservative and ultra-Orthodox Jews claim to follow “Jewish law,” and I fear no oppression from the liberal articulation and enforcement of halakha in Conservative Judaism and its rabbis of both genders, straight and gay. It remains to be seen if a liberal shari’a  [Islamic law] can yet emerge. But if it does, we should welcome Islam to the experience shared today among Christians and Jews: the Joy of Sects.

More thoughts on this subject can be found in my contribution to
Jews and the Muslim World: Solving the Puzzle (IISHJ, 2010).

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A Week of Actions #choosetoACT

I am very gratified that my idea of “action” as a Humanist response to a National Day of Prayer has been picked up by others who will #choosetoACT this April 24-30, 2014, the Week of Action supported by Foundation Beyond Belief. As I was recently quoted in the Chicago Tribune:

“If prayer is expressing a hope that things go better, the way that humanists do that is they get out there and they act,” Chalom said. “Just sending words up into the ether expresses our opinion but doesn’t have a real impact in the world. If we want to have real impact in the world, we should do something.”

My community, Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, has also jumped into this initiative – see this article in the Chicago Tribune‘s “Trib Local.” Like everyone who is part of the Week of Action, we plan to share our positive actions by Tweeting or Facebook posting with the hashtag #choosetoACT so that we can show how much we are doing together.

Here are some examples of what we are encouraging people to do:

  • Blood Drive: The Chicago Coalition of Reason, an umbrella group for Chicago-area secular, freethought and non-theistic organizations of which Kol Hadash is a founding member, is sponsoring a Chicagoland blood drive from April 24-30 – visit www.lifesource.org or call 877-543-3768 – tell them you are donating with the Chicago Coalition of Reason, group code 776A. You can donate at any donor center or mobile blood drive, convenient to work or home!
  • Volunteer at Bernie’s Book Bank Saturday, April 26 4-6 pm., Lake Forest. From their website:

Bernie’s Book Bank facilitates the collection, processing and redistribution of new and gently used children’s books to significantly increase BOOK OWNERSHIP among at-risk infants, toddlers and school-age children throughout Chicagoland.

In addition to sorting books there, volunteers can bring books with them to donate. Email communityservice@kolhadash.com for more information or to participate.

  • Volunteer with TOV – Chai LifelineSunday, April 27, 11:30 am – 12:30 pm, Deerfield High School. Following our regular Sunday School, we will be making fleece blankets for seriously ill children.
  • Recycle O Rama: April 26 10am -2 pm: Vernon Township office, 3050 N. Main St. in Buffalo Grove. SWALCO is accepting for recycling: Electronics, florescent bulbs, batteries, ink cartridges, propane tanks, latex paint, gym shoes, prom dresses, beads and buttons, CDs, DVDs, gently used books, hearing aids and eye glasses and more. Contact Commissioner Schroeder at bschroeder@vernontownship.com.


  • EmpowerRun 5K, May 3 in Libertyville: Sign up and join fellow Kol Hadash runners while supporting A Safe Place, the only shelter for women and children serving Lake County.
  • Start Backyard Compost: Purchase a rain barrel and compost bin on Saturday, May 10, from 9 am–3 pm at Independence Grove’s Parking Lot K near the Native Plant Sale at North Bay Pavilion (Libertyville). Sponsored by SWALCO and the Stormwater Management Commission.
  • Feed the Hungry: Donate food or organize a food drive for your local food pantry
  • Click to Give to the charity of your choice in various areas of need.
  • Support our troops. Send package or letter to soldiers serving abroad. http://www.anysoldier.com/index.cfm#LetsGetStarted
  • Help a family member: Help a sibling with his or her homework; take out the garbage without being asked; call a grandparent just to say “hi” –you get the picture.
  • Register to vote: links for Lake County or suburban Cook County.
  • Join Kol Hadash Helping Hands Committee and help a member in need. Contact helpinghands@kolhadash.com.

The more we do together, the more good work gets done!


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Schama’s Story of the Jews, Part 1

Letting go can be hard to do.

In A Provocative People, Sherwin Wine explains why it is so hard to do “secular” Jewish history if it contradicts the Bible’s version:

Wherever Jews and Christians are to be found, this story is popular and familiar. It is so popular and so familiar that it has been incorporated into the patriotism and the holidays of the Jewish and Christian worlds. While the story may be familiar, charming, and even inspirational, it suffers from a major problem. It is simply not true. There is no evidence – beyond the text of the Bible – that most of these events took place – or that most of these people really existed.

When Simon Schama’s new PBS documentary “The Story of the Jews” discusses Moses and the Exodus, this is exactly the problem – Schama loves the experience and narrative of Passover, the idea of a formless Jewish God only knowable through revealed words, the “anti-assimilation” message Passover presents (to his reading). But as even Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe accepts, the Exodus did not actually happen. Schama speaks of these events in the past tense, as if they did, rather than in the literary present of a story of timeless significance. ‘In the story, Moses receives the 10 Commandments’ is very different from ‘During the Exodus, Moses received the 10 Commandments.’ The first minute of the show claims the series will cover “5000 years of the Jewish experience”. The Jewish year is 5774, but that counts from CREATION, not real Jewish history. As Schama’s own voice later explains, Jewish history is more accurately 3000 years from an uncertain beginning. But letting go of the rhetoric of “5000 years” or “the Exodus is the moment that the Israelites became Jews” is hard to do. Because what else beyond the Haggadah would have to change?

Schama is clearly presenting HIS story of the Jews, but there is a real difference between story and history – something he accepts for Genesis but rejects for Exodus and beyond. It’s almost as if he HAS to have some kind of Moses, some kind of Sinai even if it’s only the 10 Commandments revealed rather than the complete Torah. Perhaps his book is more nuanced than the documentary, but that’s another review.

The challenge of genuine history is that it challenges assumptions – what we knew to be true and solid “melts into air” in Karl Marx’s phrase. And there is plenty in Schama’s account that meets this goal admirably. He begins by showing many varieties of Jewish faces, saying that we are all Jews even if we sometimes have little in common – “not even the way we pray, assuming we do.” He profiles Sigmund Freud turning back to the figure of Moses at the end of his life, a life of proudly identifying as a “godless Jew.” Schama clearly states the Bible began to be written around 700 BCE, including the literary (but not literal) creation of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, and Joseph. Schama accepts David and Goliath as symbolic of a clash of nations rather than literal historical figures following the Bible – “an echo of some sort of reality.” He shows a woman reading Torah in a religious service, while acknowledging this is a modern innovation. And he explicitly describes the Torah being edited and finalized during the Babylonian and exile and imposed on Jerusalem, sometimes with innovations like Ezra’s ethnic purification.

The dilemma is following through on these facts and how they change what you thought was history. If these stories began to be written around 700 BCE, why believe that Abraham is fiction but Moses, Exodus and Sinai (supposedly 1200 BCE) are fact? II Kings 23:21-23 is strong evidence that King Josiah’s Passover around 620 BCE was brand new even though it was claimed to be old:

The king commanded all the people, “Offer the Passover sacrifice to the LORD your God as prescribed in this scroll of the covenant.” Now the Passover sacrifice has not been offered in that manner in the days of the chieftains who ruled Israel, or during the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah. Only in the 18th year of King Josiah was such a Passover sacrifice offered in that manner to the LORD in Jerusalem.

Is it more likely that the holiday, the tradition, the Exodus story was as central as Schama claims and just ignored for all those centuries, or rather that it was invented then, just as Schama admits Ezra innovated when returning from Babylon with the completed Torah?

Sometimes real history is just more complicated and messy than simple frameworks. Schama is so committed to monotheism and non-idolatry as what is “distinctively Jewish” that it blinds him to the real historical possibility of previous Jewish polytheism and idol worship. He reviews many Biblical names for God without considering the option that at one time (and in Canaanite religion, the cultural spring from which Judaism really sprang) they WERE different gods later merged into one. He critiques the Jewish Temple in Elephantine (Egypt) for violating the Jerusalem’s Temple’s monopoly and for having an image of both YHVH and the “Queen of Heaven,” even though in this same era the Jerusalem Temple ALSO worshipped the Queen of Heaven and there were MANY shrines in Judea until King Josiah’s reformation – the Second Book of Kings and the prophet Jeremiah are very clear on the subject. Judaism of most of the First Temple Period (1000-587 BCE) was VERY different from the Judaism of the Second Temple period (530 BCE – 70 CE), even though Second Temple ideology got to write the history of the First. In seeking to emphasize Jewish unity, he sometimes falls into the trap of Jewish uniformity. All Jews have NEVER agreed on what “all Jews believe” – why should our beginnings be any different from today?

Schama emphasizes many times the distinctiveness of Judaism, how it survived conquest and remained apart from Hellenism in the ancient world, and that despite examples of Hellenistic Jews there was something fundamentally irreconcilable between the two. Yet his quintessential example of anti-assimilation, Passover, shows borrowing from other cultures – reclining as at a Roman feast, eating an epikomen (“afikomen”) at the end of the meal, even Hebrew month names are borrowed from the Babylonian calendar. He claims that Judaism was based on non-idolatry and a “god of words” in opposition to the “limestone temple” of Hellenism, yet he also describes vividly the Jewish trauma of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction, “the beating heart of Judaism.” Those “Hebrew” letters on the Dead Sea Scrolls he is so excited are just like what he learned for his Bar Mitzvah – an example of the powerful experience I call “historical transcendence” – they’re originally Aramaic letters borrowed from the Persians. And how did all those Jews get to look so different from each other? It wasn’t the varied climates in which they lived or the foods they ate…

One last concern is a strong suggestion of what the eminent Jewish historian Salo Baron critiqued as the “lachrymose” (tearful) view of Jewish history. Schama reads a passage of the Passover Haggadah which claims that in every generation they tried to destroy us, which he understands as the price the Jews pay for maintaining their difference; a guest jokes, “The Jewish imagination is paranoia confirmed by history.” The reality of Jewish life is more complicated: centuries of coexistence as a tolerated but subordinate minority punctuated by episodes of violence and more severe persecution – which is “the norm”? Both, of course.  The next episode, on Jewish life under Christianity and Islam, promises more of the same: “how Jews struggled in a non-Jewish world, but the Jewish faith endures.” We’ll have to see how it turns out once I get caught up in TIVO time.

Still, there is much to be inspired by from “The Story of the Jews.” Near the end of the program, Schama recalls that Freud, the godless Jew, visited Titus’ arch in Rome and sent a postcard of it to a friend with the note, “The Jew survives it!” The truly inspiring story of the Jews is not the mythical exodus, but the very real survival of very real men and women through their own courage, tenacity and endurance.

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