The Many and the One – Yom Kippur Memorial 5782/2021

This High Holiday sermon was delivered at Yom Kippur Memorial services at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September/Tishrei 2021/5782. It was part of a series entitled “After Disaster.” Video of these High Holiday services and sermons is available here. 

How can we wrap our minds around mass death? Do we understand all those deaths through piles and piles of things – shoes and eyeglasses, or paperclips, or candles, or panels in a quilt? Do we understand all those deaths through particular stories of particular people: Anne Frank of the Holocaust, Ryan White of AIDS, the testimonies of former slaves like Fredrick Douglass and Sojourner Truth? Can we understand better if we COMBINE overwhelming numbers with particular names – memorial recitations on Holocaust Memorial Day/Yom Hashoah, monument walls like the Vietnam War memorial, the yizkorbukh/memory book of destroyed East European Jewish shtetls? Or perhaps when we face the death of so many instead of just one, words fail; perhaps we understand mass tragedy best through the abstraction of art or monuments, like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama commemorating lynching victims with hanging steel monoliths. We could make a secular pilgrimage to sites of suffering, walking where they walked and where they died – European death camps, or anonymous mass graves at schools intended to “civilize” indigenous peoples, or African slave castles and American auction blocks. Today it might be emergency rooms and nursing homes and cemeteries where so many have mourned COVID losses over the last 18 months.

The truth is that ALL of these approaches can be effective ways to remember both the many, and the one. Think of a loved one that you have lost; most of us have a few. There are particular items of theirs that we keep to remind us of them. There are the stories they told, and the stories we tell about them. There are the moments in the calendar when we remember their names – birthdays or yahrtzeit/death anniversaries, or a memorial service on Yom Kippur. We might own art or listen to music they loved, we might visit the house where they grew up or the house where they raised us or the country from which our family came here. Some visit the cemetery, especially near the Jewish New Year. We know they are not precisely there to listen to us, but the very action of going there is an expression of the love for them that we still feel. When my father died four years ago, I had not lived in his house, the house in which I grew up, for almost 20 years. Going back to that home, helping to clear it out, saying goodbye for a last time – it was still a site of memory. I can imagine in the future driving past that home again with no family connection there active, and still feeling all the memories come back to me.

Just a few months ago, in the last few months of the Jewish year just ended, we hoped that COVID-19 losses were winding down; I thought then of something Churchill had said in November 1942: “this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” We knew this summer that the virus was still out there, that variants might still do damage, that stubbornness or fear had left too many unvaccinated and at greater risk. We knew there is a world beyond the United States where thousands more will still die. But we did not expect to lose well over 1000 Americans per day AGAIN in a fourth wave of bereavement. And with rising cases in the least vaccinated areas, September may be even worse before things begin to get better. We know that those over age 65, hit so hard in the earlier waves, are today over 80% fully vaccinated. And despite the high profile of the delta variant and breakthrough cases and rising cases among children, the DEATH rates per case for the vaccinated and those under 12 are still very low. Those odds do nothing to comfort those mourning a loved one lost to COVID, because that loss is not the many – that loss is the one, the only one, the one they loved.

These waves of losses upon losses, especially after hope, may sound familiar at a memorial service – the experience of grief at the loss of a single loved one is often described as like waves, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes just a reminder of their absence. Over time, the waves of grief may recede like the tide, but there are also moments when the tide of grief returns and seems to drag us down until it again retreats and we can return to life.

Perhaps this wave is the last major wave of COVID-19, and it will finally recede into the background like the flu, managed with booster shots and washing hands. Even IF this disaster is gradually ending, we still face the challenge of AFTER. If we tried to grapple with the total personal impact of 650,000 individual deaths, it would overwhelm us. Each of those thousands of people who died, no matter whether they were already old or sick or in the peak of health, they each had widening circles of family and friends, colleagues and connections that still feel today the impact of their loss. Each deserved individual funerals and mourning, even over Zoom or in the cemetery with just a few people present. And, of course, there were plenty of losses of loved ones unrelated to COVID at all – cancer and age and accident did not take a holiday. We held this Yom Kippur nizkor/we will remember memorial service long before COVID, and we will continue in the future. To remember, we do a little of everything. We hear personal stories, we think about the big picture of life and death as well as the personal, we visit the cemetery, we build monuments, we recite names, and we remember to remember.

In 2020, the wider world of Humanistic Judaism lost a sweet, wonderful, brilliant woman. Marilyn Rowens was an early member of the Birmingham Temple, the first Humanistic Jewish congregation, and she was instrumental in creating programs for children and adults for over 30 years. I began my rabbinic studies near the end of her time as Executive Director of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and I have many vivid and wonderful memories of learning from and laughing with her. At her funeral, which I watched on Zoom, her family read something of hers I had never heard, a short piece called “wave bye-bye.” As we wave bye-bye to the Jewish New year just ended (and the long Jewish year just ended, and good riddance to that!), we remind ourselves that waving bye-bye to those we love is part of life, a lesson we learn again each time we love and lose and love again.

Life is waving bye bye to people places things ideas & yesterdays.

What a thrill! What a joy. The very first thing our babies learn to do is to wave bye bye. As soon as they’re born they smile they coo they laugh their eyes sparkle. We rejoice & we proceed to teach them the very first lesson of life—to wave bye bye—the very first lesson & the continuing most significant & difficult lesson of life—to wave bye bye.

Nothing is permanent in life. Husbands, wives can go away or get sick. Lovers fall out of love. Jobs & possessions lost. Children leave home. Nothing is permanent except saying bye bye, sometimes with joy, sometimes with sorrow. Saying goodbye is universal & no one can avoid it.

And oh, the many ways we can say it! It isn’t always happy & it isn’t always sad. It’s just a very important part of being alive. When we say goodbye to something that’s over, we say hello to something else that’s just beginning!

How we handle saying goodbye is how we handle our lives. & it is not easy.

What does bye bye mean? Letting go, saying farewell, departing, setting free, giving up,

releasing, disconnecting, partying company getting unjoined, existing independently—separating, not being dependent anymore.

How do you let go of someone you love? Children grow & leave. Parents grow old & die. How do we let go of loves? A harsh break is almost impossible to handle – to adjust to. The

cracks in life are brittle & harsh. If we can see ourselves, if we can reflect the light of awareness from others. If we can laugh- then the waves of isolation are manageable. Laughter is our defense. Laughter is our tool!

When I think of my sister I can see sparkling dancing blue. The blue of her eyes. & I can hear her laughter. A laugh that gallops up from the tip of her toes to the ends of her curly blonde hair. A contagious laughter that mixes with the air & provides a healthy perspective for everyone in her presence. A woman of wit & humor. Her smile & optimistic attitude made us forget when we were near her that hers was a terminal illness & her laughter was vehicle for saying goodbye. During the last few months of her life the family shared old stories & memories. Her son brought her home from the nursing home for a birthday dinner. She relished her favorite dishes, enjoyed the candlelight & wine. We talked about her teenage days when she worked in my father’s grocery store. How she hated it! The horrible tasks she had to do. She repeated the old story for us about pulling a pickled herring out of the herring barrel for a fussy customer, “no not that one – give me a bigger one,” the customer insisted. My sister thrust her hand in the slimy barrel again & again. The last time I saw her before she died, we talked about our children, our Aunt Minne, our unfulfilled dreams—& the pickled herring–& we laughed. We waved a final bye bye. I carry her laughter with me always.

But each bye bye is waved on the threshold of a new & exciting hello! We don’t completely say goodbye. We change our perspective & see our future differently—more clearly. We gain awareness from each ending experience from each separation. Separating & breaking away from people, places, things, parents & children, is the process of change- the process of going from one space to another- the process of growth.

There is a time for laughter when there is nothing better than laughter. We want to make others laugh. We are connected to the world by laughter. Laughter connects us with people. We need each other for tears & laughter.

The power & strength of all my future hellos rests on the foundation of my experiences, my awareness of my need to be attached to the world & my ability to skillfully wave bye bye,

Bye Bye.

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The American House Divided – Yom Kippur Morning 5782/2021

This High Holiday sermon was delivered at Yom Kippur Morning services at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September/Tishrei 2021/5782. It was part of a series entitled “After Disaster.” Video of these High Holiday services and sermons is available here. 

In 2001, Rosh Hashana began just six days after 9/11. 9/11 was not a Jewish disaster like destructions of the Jerusalem Temples or the expulsion from Spain, though of course many Jewish people were killed. You may recall internet rumors that the Israeli secret service told thousands of Jews not to come to work that day. An early example that the internet is good for spreading ideas but not for the truth. 9/11 was the disastrous end of the long 1990s: from the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 to that clear September morning when some imagined an end to history, a cooperative new world order, a new globalism through internet technology and cultural exchange. And then the planes hit, and the towers fell. Rabbis everywhere rushed to rewrite their sermons – in one of my sermons that year, the central metaphor was the need to destroy old foundations to create new buildings! Needed to change that…Twenty years later, we are very weary of suicide terrorism, of geopolitical and economic conflict, and especially weary of the classic blunder of getting involved in a land war in Asia. So many problems require global solutions, and there is so little good will between peoples and nations. Indeed, there is little good will left within our own nation between each other.

Another sermon content warning. Last night I warned my Yom Kippur message would be all about Jews. This morning, the message is mostly about America with some Jewish angles. I am not a political pundit, and it is both inappropriate and illegal for me to endorse or oppose a political candidate or political party from the pulpit; as a private citizen I can do what I choose, but as the Rabbi of Kol Hadash, I am non-partisan. That does not mean that am not allowed to about the world outside those doors or how our shared values impact what we do out there. I can and I should talk about issues, concerns, our place in the world. And so I will.

In Philip Roth’s alternative history novel The Plot Against America, Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 election on an isolationist platform, and large scale anti-Jewish persecution comes to America. As a slow-moving pogrom approaches the Jews of Newark, one character says, “How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country?” (196) Roth wrote his novel in 2004 thinking about the George W. Bush White House, but that line could easily have been written in 2020. And it could have been written by anyone along the American political spectrum! “How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country?” We know that Conservatives aspiring to “Make America Great Again” want everything to stop changing – for them, great was in the past, so we have to go back. They are dismayed that, for the first time in 80 years of polling, less than half of Americans claim membership in a church, synagogue, or other religious institution – ironically, by that metric, we at Kol Hadash are part of the MORE religious minority since we are part of a “religious” institution! These people are dismayed that society tolerates and even celebrates what used to be unacceptable. In 2004 the Republican National Committee was adamantly in favor of bans on gay marriage. In June 2021, the RNC Chair tweeted this: “Happy Pride Month! GOP is proud to have doubled our LGBTQ support over the last 4 years, and we will continue to grow our big tent by supporting measures that promote fairness and balance protections for LGBTQ Americans and those with deeply held religious beliefs.”Some Evangelicals were very upset by this tweet, but a survey on same-sex marriage released that same month showed 55% of Republicans in favor, with 73% of independents and 83% of Democrats. In fact, 71% of American Jews support rabbis officiating at same sex weddings, and only 15% of American Jews flat-out oppose rabbis celebrating these partnerships. The basic human right to marry for love has mostly won – a change for the better, we would say. It is not just religion that MAGA wants to freeze in the 1950s – they also do not like increasing demographic diversity from immigration & birthrates, accelerating technological change, & the implications of falling rural populations & growing suburbs & cities. “How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country?” sounds right to them.

Of course, progressives today might say the exact same thing – “How can people like these be in charge of our country?” They look at the federal courts, the state legislatures, the US Senate with dismay. In some ways, Progressives have become the conservatives, trying to preserve past progress on voting rights and abortion while pushing forward on other issues. But seeing the previously unthinkable has shaken their confidence – a torchlit march of white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us,” increases in anti-immigrant and anti-Asian violence, and what they consider steps backward from the Obama era. They see US Citizenship and Immigration Services change its mission statement in 2018 to no longer describe America as a “Nation of Immigrants;” they ask what happened to American Jewish poet Emma Lazarus’ promise to welcome huddled masses yearning to breathe free, inviting the homeless tempest-tossed (like our forebearers) through the golden door. Progressives see millions of their fellow citizens not just passively accepting these changes, but welcoming them with enthusiasm! These progressives ALSO lament “How can this be happening in America?”

So, too, the libertarian, whose vision of free-market capitalism & personal liberty as the core of the American tradition finds no comfortable mainstream political home. Both parties cut taxes or spend without much of a care for deficits, both seek to impose government control on personal decisions on what goes into one’s body like drugs or vaccines or what comes out in a pregnancy termination. Libertarians generally favor immigration and oppose social spending – whom should they root for between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders? And let us not forget the poor moderate in the middle, now squeezed between extremes. They remember a time when there was dialogue and cooperation or even just friendship across the political aisle, when “bipartisan” did not mean “traitorous,” and “compromise” was a compliment, not an insult. “How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country?” indeed.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln quoted the New Testament to describe the politics of his day: “”A house divided against itself cannot stand.” [Matthew 12:15] I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave & half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided.” Within 3 years of this statement, a bloody American Civil War had begun which would cost over 600,000 dead. Our current civil unrest is certainly a house divided, but with fewer deaths. Or maybe not – official COVID casualties have now passed 650,000, and that may be an under-estimate. Yes, not all of those COVID deaths are attributable to political conflict, suspicion of one’s opponents, distrust of institutions: the results of a house divided. However, many of those deaths have been casualties of a house divided, particularly since we learned that wearing masks and distance and a vaccine could reduce, if not eradicate, this plague on both our houses.

How did we get here? I do not think that 9/11 was THE disaster that drastically changed the overall direction of American discourse; 9/11 intensified divisions that were already there. In my lifetime of voting, from the Clinton/Gingrich battles of the 1990s to Bush v. Gore at the Supreme Court to Obama birtherism. But it goes back much further in the American political psyche. There are worse options in the American political repertoire that may yet see a resurgence: dig for yourself into historical political cartoons, partisan journalism and campaign rhetoric from the 19th century; or learn about electoral violence against African Americans and others through the first 2/3 of the 20th Century. As divided as our house seems now, it has been even worse.

Richard Hoffstader’s famous 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” begins with “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.” The essay explores anti-Masonic conspiracies about “Illuminati” from the 1790s, anti-Catholic fervor from the 1830s to 1890s and the John Birch Society. Does this passage ring familiar today?

America has been largely taken away from them & their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans & intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic & communistic schemers; the old national security & independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders & foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power.

This was written in 1964! From such a worldview, the terrible images and events of January 6, 2021 are no longer as inconceivable as they were on January 5th.

We can also see how this worldview can feed into antisemitic tropes – Jews have often been called rootless cosmopolitans, undermining national identity and religious tradition with secular globalism, undermining the Protestant work ethic with foreign socialist ideas. Even if one does not descend into the fever swamp of online antisemitism, those in the mainstream who are committed to robust nationalism and traditional religion see those who would undermine these institutions as their enemies; as a recent critique of critics of Zionism put it, these have become “un-Jews” in their attacks on robust Jewish peoplehood as embodied in Israel and in their emphasis on broader social justice as the center of their Judaism rather than Jewish particularism or tradition for tradition’s sake.

What makes the current moment particularly precarious is that we can feel attacked from the other side of the political spectrum too. If you really ARE a rootless cosmopolitan, a pure universalist, then Jews are too stubbornly distinct. If you really ARE a radical socialist, Jews with power in media, finance and establishment politics are working against you. If you really ARE a secular globalist, Jews in general and Israel in particular may be too religious and too tribal for the new world order you are working to achieve. Even if you yourself are a progressive Jew!

The 2020 Pew study of American Jews would be a gold-mine for anti-Semites of either stripe: Almost ¼ of American Jewish households earn $200,000 a year or more, compared to only 4% of general population. The capitalist elite! 29% of all Americans have a college degree or higher – that describes 58% of American Jews, double the proportion. The intellectualist elite!

Of course, we have our allies on each side as well, even if they only love some of us. Those who favor strong American nationalism and religious tradition see strong Israeli nationalism and modern Orthodox Judaism as models, even if they do not love secularized liberal Jews. And those secularized liberal Jews are stalwart supporters of LGBTQ rights, environmentalism, immigration and other progressive issues, even if they are sometimes frustrated when for example the 2017 March for Racial Justice was scheduled on…Yom Kippur (the march did eventually apologize for the oversight). And there are ongoing debates on the far left, sometimes intense, over whether Israel represents legitimate minority ethnic self-determination or illegitimate settler colonialism of Western culture. In some ways, we are caught in the middle of these political divisions because we don’t fit in neatly in any one department – Religion? Ethnicity? Nationality? Over the course of my academic career, I took many classes in Jewish studies, but they were all over the academic departments: religious studies, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, history, literature, and often cross-listed as that and also as Judaic studies!

            How do we mend the house divided, the Jewish house or the American house? A parallel example: I often perform outdoor weddings. If there is the threat of rain, inevitably someone asks me, “Could you put in a good word so it doesn’t rain?” I used to say, “Well, I’m not that kind of rabbi.” Now I say, “If I could do that, I wouldn’t be doing this.” If I could control the weather, do you think I would be officiating weddings like this. If I had a silver bullet to slay the vampire of hatred, suspicion and fear, I wouldn’t be doing this. Platitudes about listening, understanding, finding shared purpose are all well and good, and they may make a difference. In the past, we can find examples of divided houses coming together. Maybe there are lessons to be drawn from that history.

At the end of WWI, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was born after the devastation of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe – it was a merger of The American Jewish Relief Committee (supported by Reform German Jews), the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering Through the War (supported by East European Orthodox Jews), and the Jewish People’s Relief Committee of America (supported by Jewish socialists who were mostly secular) [see Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism: A History, loc. 2897]. Three different groups doing the same thing that eventually merged. Whoever suggested to Monty Python that they make a movie featuring The People’s Front of Judea fighting with The Judean People’s Front got something very right. Or consider the unified American purpose during World War II, unthinkable in 1940 from a bitterly divided country between isolationists and interventionists. Or the postwar consensus in America against Communism (even if Jewish socialists sometimes took the brunt of that consensus). Or the Jewish community’s support for Israel shortly after its founding. Maybe all we need is another disaster or success to bring us closer together!

If you hadn’t noticed, we’re already in the middle of a great disaster and we are further apart than ever. So lesson one is: do not hope for disasters to bring us together! In our Kol Hadash Science Fiction book club, we read a novel about the aftermath of an asteroid crashing into earth. Based on what you know of politics, nationalism, history and human nature, do you think that would bring humanity closer together or put us at each other’s throats? We ALREADY face global crises, from climate to drinkable water to the COVID pandemic, and I don’t see Russia, China, US, Europe and Iran rushing to work together on any of them. The unity of September 12, 2001 faded far too quickly to expect a deus ex machina, divine intervention in either a positive miracle or a mass destruction, to save us from the worse angels of our own nature.

Lesson two is that we cannot minimize real differences. This summer, I was talking about politics with a friend who has a trans child. I commented that everyone, even political opponents, thinks they’re being ethical from their own perspective. She said to me bluntly, “They want my kid dead.” The denial of the reality of trans-ness, the denial of gender affirming medical care, the othering that takes place, well we know how high the suicide rate can be among trans teens. I could not argue with that statement because her anger is fully justified. Sometimes you HAVE to fight – Lincoln did not want a civil war, but it needed to be fought to end slavery. There must be red line issues beyond which there is no compromise; they may not be the same for everyone participating today, but sometimes there is no middle ground on which to compromise. I DO NOT believe that compromise is a dirty word; I believe we can find common ground with very disparate partners. The Catholic Church may be our foe on abortion and contraception and our ally on caring for immigrants and teaching evolution in science classes. But the Book of Ecclesiastes had it right that there’s a time for war and a time for peace, a time to remain silent and a time to speak. Human rights and human life demand more than moderation.

Last, I ended last night with the declaration that WE are the majority in Jewish life – the fundamentalists, the isolationists, those who would “Make Judaism Great Again” by freezing us in time or in place, they are the minority, the 20%. When even a majority of Republicans now support same-sex marriage, a tipping point on that issue has been reached in culture and society. So the last lesson is: for those who believe in democracy, find the majority. Even the rabbis of the first centuries of the Common Era accepted “After the majority you shall incline.” [Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metziah 59b] Your allies may change for different issues, and you may not get everything you want. Incremental change may be frustrating for those who seek a revolution, but sustainable progress is still progress.

For all the revolutionary excitement of the George Floyd protest moment, the election of new District Attorneys and the passage of new policies on the use of force and civil asset forfeiture and ex-felon voting might have the more lasting impact. Just this week, I read a story about a black family whose house was first assessed for well under an agreed-upon selling price; they then purged their house of all their family pictures and anything that indicated the owners were black (posters and books), even borrowing their white neighbor’s family pictures to display instead. A second assessment came back $92,000 higher. As one of the owners put it, “In the Black community, we know selling your home means take down your pictures. Don’t be present. As soon as I told my dad about our experience, he said, ‘Why was Erica home? Why didn’t you take down your pictures?’ He knew right away.” Would we have heard this story in mainstream media without the racial justice moments of the past few years? This community already knew this to be true. I doubt we would have heard about it. But I do have hope that the more of us who hear and are outraged by this, the greater the majority will become for fixing it. You cannot find these creative majorities if you only talk with those who largely agree with you, so we do need some listening and understanding and stretching along with the arguing and the coalition-building.

As we said on Rosh Hashana, for Humanists and for Humanistic Jews there is no cosmic “why” when disaster strikes. Temples are destroyed, people exiled, government buildings attacked, houses divided, hearts and bodies broken. And behind these disasters we see no just supernatural system punishing us or testing us or improving us. Yet if we do not ask “why,” we MUST ask “How”? Not “how did this disaster happen” in an endless cycle of recrimination and regret. “How” so we can learn lessons from human suffering. “How” so we can reduce human suffering. There IS no cosmic purpose to suffering, but WE can create human purpose if suffering today leads to less suffering tomorrow because we learned from it and can do better. When to get started? No day but today.

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The Jewish House Divided – Yom Kippur Evening 5782/2021

 This High Holiday sermon was delivered at Yom Kippur Evening services at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September/Tishrei 2021/5782. It was part of a series entitled “After Disaster.” Video of these High Holiday services and sermons is available here. 

Content warning: this Yom Kippur sermon will be mostly focused on Jews. This warning is probably not needed at other congregations; at Kol Hadash we treasure our whole congregational family, and our guests of other heritage who celebrate with us, which also means they are part of our mishigas, our absurdity. We thank you and we love you as you love us; tonight we sympathize with you as we work through some family business. And since Jews are people too, perhaps we can offer some insight into the general human condition.

One could argue that the Jewish house divided all goes back to the disaster of 1492. Yes, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It was also the year of the Jewish expulsion from Spain, which followed expulsion from England and from France 200 years earlier. 1492 was a watershed because it drew three intellectual battle lines we still face today. First, the disastrous expulsion threw thousands of Spanish-speaking cosmopolitan Sephardic Jews into the Ottoman Empire. The Jews already living there mostly spoke Arabic and did not always get along with the snooty new arrivals with broader horizons. How connected to the wider world of human culture and values should Jews be? For that matter, what is the proper balance of open and insular for ANY cultural group?

Second battle: post-disaster, the Sephardim also wound up in Holland and other Dutch colonies, including New Amsterdam (later New York), where you can still find a few Jews here and there. How can one Jewish tradition survive the distance, the time, and the pace of change of globalism, both then and especially now?

The third battle: just 2 years after the first Jews arrived in NEW Amsterdam, in Old Amsterdam Baruch Spinoza, a Sephardic Jew, dared to say what he truly believed, and rabbinic authorities of his day excommunicated him. In some ways, this is a self-inflicted disaster, because how can we be one Jewish community if we are of many minds and cannot co-exist under one roof? These three battles: balancing openness and insularity, maintaining unity despite dispersion, and balancing communal unity with intellectual diversity – the battles did not begin with the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, they just became intensified. Rabbinic arguments in the Talmud are legendary; Maccabee pietists and Jewish Hellenists battled over how connected Jews should be to wider Greek culture two centuries before the Common Era; and debates between Jewish centralization and Jewish dispersion run through all of Jewish history from the myths of exodus and conquest in the Bible to modern Zionism.

Some consider of Yom Kippur a time of Jewish unity, when those who never attend synagogue find their way, and even those not attending services may observe in their own way – fasting, walking in nature. About 50% of American Jews choose to fast on Yom Kippur, which means that 50% choose NOT to fast on Yom Kippur. In Israel on Yom Kippur, hundreds of secular Jews take advantage of mostly empty roads for mass bicycle rides – that is their Yom Kippur. And everywhere there are some who eat on purpose on Yom Kippur and willfully violate the fast with NON-Kosher food as an expression of their Jewish freedom – an anti-tradition is still a kind of a tradition! But once you are counting both tradition and anti-tradition, that’s not really Jewish unity anymore. We’re all doing SOMETHING on the same day, but we’re not doing remotely the same thing with the same intention.

Once upon a time, the United Jewish Appeal tried to inspire Jewish unity with “we are one.” You can hear it in institutional names: United Jewish Appeal, Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, Hebrew Union College… To be honest, Jewish unity would NOT be the message I get from reading our founding Biblical literature. Here is a partial list of Biblical divisions: Cain vs. Abel – Abel dies. Isaac vs. Ishmael – Ishmael is expelled. Jacob vs. Esau – Esau disinherited. Joseph and his brothers – Joseph sold into slavery. Miriam and Aaron vs. Moses – Miriam cursed with leprosy. Moses vs. Korah the Levite – Korah and his rebels swallowed by an earthquake. King Saul and King-to-be David – Saul tries to murder David and then Saul is killed by the Philistines with David nowhere to be found. There are conflicts between Israelite tribes, between kings and prophets, between prophets and prophets, between prophets and priests, between those who worship Yahveh among many gods and those who were for Yahveh eloheinu, yahveh ekhad – Yahveh our god, Yahveh alone. And that’s just the Bible – wait until you get into REAL history! Maccabees and Hellenists, Jewish Philosophers like Maimonides and Jewish mystics who burned Maimonides’ philosophy, Hasidic pietists and their traditionalist opponents, traditionalists vs. Enlighteners, Zionists vs. Cultural Autonomists vs. Internationalists … dayenu! Enough! Do you hear these same battle lines in history – how exposed to the outside world should we be, how do we maintain a core tradition, how far can we move and change while still being connected to each another? Forget “we ARE one” – were we EVER one?

We certainly are not one today, and painfully so. Let me explain one example from just a couple of months ago. Many who suffer ask the same question: why did this disaster happen to us? Some Jews ask a related question: why did all these disasters happen to us on the same date? The 9th of Av traditionally marks the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples (never mind how unlikely it is that both would be destroyed on the exact same date centuries apart). The 9th of Av is also claimed as the date of other Jewish tragedies: supposedly the spies return from the promised land claiming the land is unconquerable on that date; the Bar Kochba revolt was supposedly crushed in 133 CE on that date; and Jews were expelled from England in 1290 AND from Spain in 1492 near that same date of the 9th of Av.

The new disaster this summer was not only the same date of Tisha B’Av; it was in the same place: the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Built by King Herod the Great (a divisive figure in his own right), that surviving wall is an impressive site, a place of Jewish pilgrimage and prayer for centuries. The first time I visited in the mid-1990s, despite the gender segregation and other problems at the site, I was very moved to feel how smooth the stones were from all the generations of my people who had touched those same stones. The Western Wall is run under ultra-Orthodox control, so men and women cannot pray or even stand together and women are restricted in their use of Torah Scrolls and other traditionally male rituals. An organization called Women of the Wall has been fighting this for over 30 years.

Eight years ago, a new platform around the corner from the Western Wall to the south side of the Temple Mount was built for egalitarian prayer services. It is out of sight of the ultra-Orthodox praying at the Western Wall, but clearly not out of their minds. This past Tisha B’Av, members of the Masorti or Conservative movement in Israel tried to hold an all-gender service at the south platform, including women reading from the Biblical Book of Lamentations. Tragically, the event was crashed by hundreds of right-wing Orthodox Jews who shouted, cursed, even brought their own mechitza partition to try to re-segregate the genders. In fact, for each of the 9 days of mourning from the beginning of the month of Av to the 9th, this same group had sent “troops” to the egalitarian platform to occupy it with gender-segregated study sessions and prayers. “We are one?” Even on a date that warns of the dangers of mutual hostility, on the very site those dangers were realized, we are many and we are a house divided.

Those rejectionist Orthodox Jews claim that their hatred, their disrupting of liberal Jewish prayer services, is not baseless; it is to prevent heresies that will cause more divine punishment – just like Spinoza’s ban in 1656. Reform and Conservative Jews who have fought Orthodox hegemony at the Wall have ample evidence how much their choices are despised; it would be understandable if they felt animosity in return. As for secular Israeli Jews? The Secular are more concerned about the Orthodox monopoly on marriage, and on defining who is Jewish, and forcing businesses and public transportation to close on Shabbat. They are more focused on getting more ultra-Orthodox Jews to join the workforce and to serve in the army instead of study full-time in yeshivas.

This issue of the Western Wall and egalitarian prayer is very important to liberal religious Jews outside of Israel, who want to travel to their homeland and pray with their integrity at their holiest ancestral sites. But most Secular Israeli Jews do not care that much about prayer at the Wall, since they do not pray and so they are not moved to fight for the right for women to wear prayer shawls and carry Torahs there. For some, praying at the Western Wall is like talking directly to God; for others, it’s like talking to a wall! Secular Israeli Jews have found some workarounds: on Shabbat public transportation, there has always been the option of a private taxi van or Monit Sherut, so some enterprising secular souls came up with a Smartphone app that uses a few of these vans to follow the major bus lines in Jerusalem on Shabbat. The name of their app? Sha-Bus! Needless to say, Sha-bus does not run through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, and smartphones have been banned by many of those sects anyways; they are too open to the outside world, and it is too easy to find divergent ideas.

The Jewish house is divided, has always been divided, will be divided in the future. As we shift to America, the Pew Forum’s recent report “Jewish Americans in 2020” headlines that we are “increasingly diverse” and “politically polarized”. 75% of the Orthodox identify as Republican or lean Republican, over 70% of the Conservative, Reform and everyone else go the other way. Is religion very important to you? 86% of Orthodox Jews say it is, compared to 14% of Reform Jews (the numbers are closer if you ask “is being Jewish important to you” since we all know that being Jewish is more than religion). How essential to being Jewish is remembering the Holocaust or leading an ethical life? Over 70% of all Jews agree on those two, but only 15% say that observing Jewish law is essential (among Orthodox Jews over 80% say Jewish law is essential). Do you believe in the God of the Bible? 93% of Orthodox Jews say they do, while over half of the rest of us either believe in some OTHER higher power or spiritual force, or we are part of the 22% of all American Jews who DO NOT believe in either a spiritual force OR the God of the Bible. Even the Orthodox are not monolithic: there are the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi, but there are also modern orthodox a la Yeshiva University, Open Orthodox a la Yeshivat Hovevei Torah, even Orthodox rabbinical schools for women like Yeshivat Maharat in NY and others in Israel – not to mention all the rival Hasidic sects & offshoots within sects who cannot stand each other!

There are many other points of Jewish disunity revealed in Pew 2020 – perceived levels of discrimination against Jews compared to other minority groups like Muslims, Blacks, or the LGBTQ; approval or disapproval of Benjamin Netanyahu or Donald Trump; the possibility of peace between Israel and an independent Palestine; whether the Democratic Party or the Republican Party is more friendly towards American Jews – the list of disagreements goes on and on. Now some religiously liberal Jews supported Donald Trump and some Orthodox Jews loathe him. Still, the dominant trends and their divergence are striking. There are some points of agreement, of course, and all sides acknowledge they have at least some things in common. But the tensions are just waiting for a stressor to trigger them, and they go back to those questions sparked by the disaster of the Spanish Explusion of 1492.

Each side sees the other as dangerous; for example, they have very different answers to what “causes” antisemitism. Are we most endangered if we maintain our difference and separation from society, or is the greater risk from those who would erase our differences through integration? Is a more religious America in Jewish interests? Yes for the ultra-Orthodox who want public funding and no government oversight of their private religious schools, but no for the rest of us who fear Christian hegemony. After the Jews were expelled from Spain (talk about Christian hegemony!), the Inquisition worked to find secret Jews who had outwardly converted. They called it limpieza de sangre “purity of blood” as they quite literally interrogated the sincerity of quote “New Christians”, an early kind of racial antisemitism. However, some of the most zealous persecutors of Jews both before the expulsion and after had themselves been raised Jewish and converted! Is the lesson that integration leads to betrayal, or that tolerance requires diversity, like the golden age of Muslims, Christians and Jews a few centuries before? We will explore the challenges of Antisemitism more tomorrow morning – it was a High Holiday sermon topic for me on its own just two years ago, but alas it seems to be ever-relevant.

Even today, each side of this divided Jewish house sees the other as collaborating with the enemy and naively betraying their Jewishness for outside approval. Politically progressive Jews defend the Israel-critical “Squad” in the House of Representatives, and politically Conservative Jews defend right-wing anti-diversity and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Just as Spinoza and his rabbis could not just get along, the Jewish house today faces a fundamental disagreement about the core message of Jewish ideas and the Jewish experience: is our best strategy sympathy with all oppressed, or should we emphasize SELF-advocacy because we cannot rely on the kindness of strangers?

And there’s the issue of Israel. We are not afraid here to talk about the Jewish state and its complications and contradictions – Israel is a point of pride for its creative secular Jewish culture and disappointing for its treatment of its own minorities, both Palestinians of Israeli citizenship aka “Israeli Arabs” and the dilemmas of the occupied territories. I see our engagement, at least my engagement, as a kind of tough love – not indifferent, still connected and grappling. The term “Zionism” itself has become a lightning rod word since it can stand for everything from believing in ethnic self-determination for both Palestinians and Jews to a messianic Greater Israel ideology of Israel for the Jews and not a state for all its citizens. Even explicitly self-labeled “Anti-Zionist Jews,” whether politically progressive or ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidism, they spend a surprising amount of their energy talking about Israel – still engaged, still connected and grappling.

Obviously I am not going to solve the issues of Israel, or a Jewish house divided, or how to balance particularism and universalism, in one sermon! I can highlight the fault lines, see the dynamics at play, seek a way to co-exist. Several years ago, as a parallel example, we hit an inflexion point in the growth of Kol Hadash. Many of you may know, and some remember, that we emerged as a split-off from a long-time Humanistic Congregation called Beth Or, which our Rabbi Emeritus Daniel Friedman helped “convert” from Reform to Humanistic in the last 1960s – Beth Or itself closed in 2010. As you can imagine, a congregational house divided can be as bitter as a divorce. Some years after the split, a family who had been on the other side left Beth Or and wanted to join Kol Hadash. It was very difficult to re-process those emotions, but we knew that ours would be a wide tent congregation and we would find a way to co-exist in one sanctuary with people who might not like each other. We were able to move forward.

I do not know what inflection point may come in the Jewish house divided, and we will talk more about how to start to mend our divided houses tomorrow as Jews and as Americans. What I would remind us today is that, in so many ways, we are the Jewish majority. The Jewish majority that celebrates same-sex marriages and intermarriages with wonderful partners, the Jewish majority that welcomes immigrants and celebrates diversity, the Jewish majority that celebrates Jewish freedom to make Jewish choices about Jewish life. Only in America could our house be so divided, and yet co-exist next to each other. In Highland Park, near Lake Cook Road, two Jewish restaurants are neighbors – Mizrahi Grill (Kosher Middle Eastern) and Max’s Deli (clearly NOT kosher)! I know plenty of Jews who are happy to eat at both, depending on what they feel like eating. Max’s Deli is open on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, but the patrons and workers of Mizrahi Grill do not protest. They co-exist. And sometimes, when you live in a house divided, co-existence is quite the achievement.

There is a famous Jewish value of Shalom Bayit, peace in the home. Sometimes you forego vengeance and anger and bitterness, or you take positive steps to repair relationships, in the interests of shalom bayit. Because Hebrew is a language of many layers, we can also read “shalom bayit” a bit differently, because the same root is found in shalom/peace and in shalem/whole or complete. If we cannot have complete shalom bayit, peace in one home in which we disagree, we can work first for a bayit shalem, a home no longer divided in which we can share a roof and start a conversation.


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Hate and Indifference: Rosh Hashana Morning 5782/2021

This High Holiday sermon was delivered at Rosh Hashana morning services at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September/Tishrei 2021/5782. It was part of a series entitled “After Disaster.” Video of these High Holiday services and sermons is available here. 

A Rabbinic story, set 2000 years ago, explains a Jewish disaster: the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

A certain man had a friend named Kamtza & an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He once made a party & told his servant, “Go bring Kamtza.” The man went & brought BAR Kamtza. When the host found him there he said, “You are mocking me; what are you doing here? Get out.” Bar Kamtza his enemy said, “Since I am here, let me stay & not be thrown out; I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” He said, “No.” “Then let me give you half the cost of the party.” “No,” said the other. “Then let me pay for the whole party.” He still said, “No,” took him by the hand and threw him out.

Bar Kamtza said to himself, “Since the Rabbis were sitting there & did not stop him from humiliating me, this shows they agreed with him. I will go inform against them to the Roman Government.” He went and said to the Emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.” The Emperor said, “How can I tell?” Bar Kamtza said: “Send them an animal offering & see if they will sacrifice it.” So the Emperor sent him with a fine calf. On the way, Bar Kamtza made a mark on its upper lip where Jews count it a disqualifying blemish but Romans do not. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order to not offend the Government. Rabbi Zechariah disagreed, “People will say that blemished animals are being offered on the altar!” They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he would not go & inform against them; Rabbi Zechariah again disagreed, “Is a person who only makes a blemish on holy animals to be put to death???” Years later, Rabbi Yohanan remarked: “Through the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, & we ourselves exiled from our land.”

Rabbi Yohanan was wrong. It was not just Rabbi Zechariah being a stickler for the rules that destroyed the Second Jerusalem Temple – and you can debate what you might have done in Zechariah’s shoes: undermine faith in the Temple’s purity? Or kill someone who is only minorly guilty for the collective good? The Temple was also destroyed by the hatred between Bar Kamtza and the party host who would not be appeased, and Bar Kamtza’s hatred for the rabbis that stirred up conflict between Jews and Romans.

Elsewhere in the Talmud, the rabbis declare that the First Temple was destroyed centuries earlier for 3 sins: worshipping idols, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed. However, during the Second Temple the people studied Torah, obeyed commandments and did acts of loving kindness – so why did disaster strike again? This time they blame sinat khinam – baseless hatred – which must be as bad as idolatry, forbidden sex and bloodshed all together since it caused a similar disaster. The party host, Bar Kamtza, and the rabbis were caught in a flood of hatred that consumed them and their society as well.

Plagues and other disasters rarely fly solo. If we agree, as we explored last night, that disasters have causes in the real world but not cosmic reasons in the heavens, then our task is not to suffer through disasters in pious silence; our responsibility is to understand disaster and then learn how to mitigate and prevent it as best we can. We spoke on RH evening about the plague of the COVID pandemic and what we can learn. One of those lessons I touched on was the emptiness of the cliché “we’re all in this together.” In one way yes, but in many ways no. Because there is a second plague, a slow-moving and often hidden disaster, that predates Coronavirus, a plague that made it worse and will outlive it as well – the plague of hate and indifference.

It may be that “love makes the world go round” and “all we need is love”, but if you examine how we actually treat each other, and especially how we treat our enemies like Bar Kamtza, a better song title is “what’s love got to do with it?” You might think that after the Babylonian exile, when the Jews finally returned and rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, that they would find a way to get along. You might have thought that, as long as you had never met 3 actual Jewish people and then watched them disagree. The Second Temple era is noted for arguments between varying approaches to Judaism, power struggles between priestly families, a Maccabean civil war between Jewish fundamentalists and Jewish Hellenizers, debates over how to respond to Roman occupation of Judea, and ultimately a great and disastrous revolt that saw Jerusalem destroyed again, Jews exiled again, and renewed questions of: “Why?” This time the rabbis settled on “baseless hatred,” but the problem with accepting “baseless hatred” as the reason and trying to avoid it in the future is that MOST people believe that THEIR hatred is NOT baseless – I have very good reasons for hating those jerks! Even die-hard anti-Semites claim to have good reason for their hatred. Now their “reason” is supposed evidence for a global Jewish financial conspiracy using the media to undermine traditional religion and national identity in favor of both globalist capital and socialist government. It doesn’t have to make sense to us for them to consider their hatred well-based. Recall the story of the man railing against all the ills of the world in a bar. At the end of his rant, he concludes, “And for all this, I blame the Jews.” Another person pipes up, “And the bicycle riders!” Puzzled, the man looks at the other person and asks, “Why the bicycle riders?” “Why the Jews?”

“We’re all in this together?” Some of us are rowing towards shore while others are drilling holes in the bottom of the boat. Some parents are screaming at teachers and school administrators – the teachers are trying to keep kids safe, and those angry parents think that the schools are either harming their children’s socialization or health by making them wear masks or they are being trained to unquestioningly obey authority. Political opponents are not just wrong, they are evil; or, at best, they are promoting evil. “Red states and blue states” does not really describe the map -think Illinois between downstate and Chicago. It’s not even red counties and blue counties – it’s red houses and blue houses, even red siblings and blue siblings.

“We’re all in this together?” Some of us in this storm are in yachts while others are in leaky canoes. Think of another unity cliché: In 1883 American Jew Emma Lazarus wrote, “until we are all free, we are none of us free”; almost 90 years later Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Is that really true? Landowning white Protestant men have been free and full citizens of the United States since 1789 – everyone else has had to work towards that goal since then. Perhaps MLK Jr.’s version is closer to reality: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If the systems are corrupt, then we cannot rely on them to protect us even in our privileged positions. Still, the non-freedom of some was much worse than the non-freedom of others – if you had the choice of being a white man or a black woman in 1850, or in 1950, is it really a choice?

The problem with “we’re all in this together” is that it implies we all face the same challenges, and that is just not so. A single parent who relies on childcare for her waitress job had a vastly different pandemic from a telecommuting executive without children or a well-off empty-nest retiree enjoying a rising stock market – from January 2020 to July 2021 the S&P 500 was up 25%, while average median income in the same period was up only 5% [Q1 2020 vs. Q2 2021], and that’s if your job was at all possible!

Even today, as we have taken halting steps to emerge from the pandemic – two steps forward, and one or two back – we are not all in this together in the exact same boat. If you cannot be vaccinated or you have children under 12, your life is very different than fully vaccinated households and individuals. These High Holiday services are socially distanced, at reduced capacity and masked – they are the best we can do for those who chose to participate in person, and I feel for the parents of young children and everyone else who chose to attend online because they felt that even a greatly reduced risk was still not worth it. It does not take active hatred between different human experiences, like the hatred between Bar Kamtza and the party host, to create tension: white and black, men and women, financially secure and economically unstable, COVID mostly safe and COVID still at risk…It does not take hatred. Conflict can come from indifference, like saying “my temporary discomfort at wearing a mask trumps your fear for your child.” Having raised a child with food allergies, I was shocked to hear complaints about not being able to send one’s child with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – compared to my child’s risk of death! The Rabbis were indifferent to how Bar Kamtza was treated, so Bar Kamtza wanted to get back at the rabbis, and he did not care that his revenge came at the expense of all Judea.

Explicit racial and ethnic hatred is now beyond the pale, and that is a good thing, full stop. I would much rather be arguing over whether a particular critic of Israel is or is not antisemitic. Or arguing whether racism applies only to intentional hatred or if it can also be a structural social problem. These debates are much better than burning crosses, lynchings and legal ghettoes (for Jews and for people of color). As the tide of unambiguous and explicit bigotry recedes, what structural and systemic problems are revealed that grew in that terrible environment? Should we measure problems by racist intent or by disparate impact on different groups? Supreme Court Justice John Roberts famously wrote, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Some years later, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor responded, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” Recall Elie Wiesel’s insight that “the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” If we are indifferent to experiences radically divergent from our own, I fear that we will assume that life is fine now for everyone, and it is a short step from there to forgetting that there were ever problems to begin with.

In the Jewish imagination, Jerusalem was the shining city on a hill: “Ten portions of wisdom descended to the world – the Land of Israel took nine and the rest of the world took one. Ten portions of beauty descended to the world – Jerusalem took nine and the rest of the world took one.” That belief made it easy, and for some makes it easy today, to assume that the Jews are the chosen people, the others all hate and fear us from jealousy, and the promised Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem are worth anything to reclaim. Similarly, the American imagination has thought of the United States as a city upon a hill, an exceptional example to the world of freedom, tolerance, opportunity and whatever else we choose to emphasize. The first claim that North America was a City Upon a Hill was in 1630 by Puritan John Winthrop, but the phrase was mostly forgotten until it was resurrected for political purposes first by John F. Kennedy & then by Ronald Reagan. It is the first part Matthew 5:14 that Winthrop quoted which is the key: “you are the light of the world.” If you think America is and has always been the light of the world, or that the Jews are a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” then any who criticize you are wicked, and foreign, and heretical, even evil.

Let’s translate this to a personal level. The Jewish New Year is supposed to be a time of truth, confronting our failures and making amends. If someone came to me in the weeks before Rosh Hashana, in the spirit of self-examination, and they told me that they would LOVE to repent for anything they had done wrong, but in fact they are actually a shining person on a hill, a model for everyone in every way, the light of the world as they have been since they were born…. What should I say? Of course, they need to learn that no one is perfect, including them. And if someone came to me relentlessly negative about themselves, focusing only on their limitations and failures, never acknowledging their success and positive steps, I would try to help them see through the fog of cynicism to find legitimate self-esteem for the real good they have done and can still do. If America has not been perfect, it has not been relentlessly evil either, says this grandchild and great-grandchild of immigrants.

Criticism does not always come from hate, and it certainly does not come from indifference – you have to be engaged to know what is wrong and needs fixing. If you only listen to your friends, your Kamtzas, and you refuse to mend your relationships with your Bar Kamtzas, your enemies, if you simply tune them out and throw them out, then the seeds are planted for a house divided against itself – we’ll talk more about divided houses on Yom Kippur.

What America needs, what the Jewish people needs, what each of us needs to do better is just this: “Tough Love.” Tough love means that I care about you, and that’s why I am telling you hard truth about yourself. Tough love is an intervention, making you hear what you need to hear even if you do not want to hear it. You need to hear from someone who cares when hatred you learned before you knew it was wrong continues to affect people you value now. You need to be called in by someone who loves you when you’re indifferent to others you say are full people. Far too few even bother to criticize North Korea or China for their human rights abuses – is it the bigotry of low expectations? Indifference to Uighurs who are “other” in so many ways – Muslim and Asian and way over there? If I choose to talk about Israel’s failings or America’s failings past or present, it is because I love them – and sometimes to make fair judgments we need tough love. The history our children are learning is very different from what we and our parents learned – I believe that this is right and true and important to better understand our past in its diverse experiences and to reduce our indifference today and tomorrow. That is a second challenge for this new year – from last night, try to change either your mind or your behavior in one way. Today I challenge us to try to give ourselves tough love in some area we know we need it.

If we have solved our hatred, we must then confront our indifference. And if we are truly Humanists, proud of our particular roots and identities but also connected to all of humanity (its needs, its rights, its possibilities) then our orbit of concern should know no limit; indifference should find no home with us, whether we are with Kamtza or with Bar Kamtza, whether we are rabbi or an ordinary host for one’s neighbor. I conclude with words of Rabbi Sherwin Wine:

We are Jews. We are Americans. But, above all, we are human beings.

Sometimes we forget this truth. Sometimes we only think about our own family. Sometimes we only think about our own friends. We look at other people and see them as strangers.. . . . The language they speak is not our own. We turn them into enemies before we give them a chance to become our friends.

Underneath … the different speech, underneath the different costume, every person is a human being. Every person needs the dignity we need. Every person wants the happiness we want. Every person feels what we feel.


 

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The Plague – Rosh Hashana 5782/2021

This High Holiday sermon was delivered at Rosh Hashana evening services at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September/Tishrei 2021/5782. It was part of a series entitled “After Disaster.” Video of these High Holiday services and sermons is available here.

Every spring, most Jews, and those who love them, gather during Passover to “remember” plagues that never happened. Some have tried scientific explanation for the 10 plagues – a red algae infestation made the Nile look like blood; the algae pushed frogs out of the river and into people’s homes; after the frogs died the insects came, etc. That would make Moses, who calls plagues before they happen, a better forecaster than the Weather Channel – admittedly, not a high bar. If we believe that this is a story and not history, I see 3 clear goals behind the 10 plagues narrative: Yahveh the god of the Hebrews shows his dominance over the gods of Egypt; Yahveh punishes the Egyptians for keeping Hebrew slaves; and Yahveh provides an object lesson to the Hebrews to follow his rules, no matter how unusual. Earlier tonight, we recalled the last plague, the most awe-inspiring and awful – death of the firstborn. How do the Hebrews save their children from this last plague? Not by social distancing, not by masks, not by nor vaccination or hand sanitizer – they are saved by doing as they are commanded, even if it makes no sense, because Yahveh said so. The point is made explicitly throughout Exodus: “If you will listen Yahveh your God diligently, doing what is correct in His view, hearing His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases I brought upon the Egyptians, for I Yahveh am your healer.” Put more simply: do as I say, or else…

The Jewish people has faced many real disasters over many centuries of real history – the destruction of the first Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 of the Common Era, the Expulsion from Spain in 1492… yet our mythical memory takes pride of place in our cultural calendar. Passover is a much bigger deal for most Jews than Tisha B’Av which remembers the Temples’ destructions. Before modern science, Jewish responses to plagues were largely the same as the Torah: fasting to atone for sins, praying for mercy, trying to avoid the Angel of Death. As medical knowledge grew, humanity learned that quarantines and cleanliness are much more effective against disease than piety and godliness. During a cholera epidemic in 1848, Rabbi Israel Salanter told his congregation to eat if they felt weak on the fast day of Yom Kippur, even without talking to a doctor, in order to save their lives! We learned; well, MOST of us have learned.

Humanity learns. How did we win the arms race of the animal kingdom? It was not our speed or strength or instincts – it was our large brain that enabled us to discover, to study, to experiment, to learn and then to teach. Of course, we can teach each other stories and superstitions, or we can teach science and survival – most of us do some of both, because life without stories is blah. We learn not only from our own encounters with the natural world; we also learn from the experiences of past generations. Jews are heirs to a tradition of cultural resilience and creativity; we know how to rebuild after disaster.

This New Year, as we look back on twelve months of great losses and prepare ourselves for the unknown disasters of the year just begun, we resolve to learn from what has befallen us. After disaster, people often ask “How? Why?” The traditional answer “for your sins” is an answer to “why;” a Humanist approach focuses on “how” so we can learn future prevention, because there is no cosmic “why” to explain the death of the firstborn or the deaths of millions from COVID-19.

One truth we have learned from the past 12 months is an insight into how we learn, and how we refuse to learn. The sad truth is that we often resist learning that which challenges our world view. It is much easier cognitively and emotionally to fit new information into old categories, to re-affirm what we already know to be true. It is much harder to change our minds and potentially undermine what we have said we believe and who we think we are. If we believe people are basically mean, we seek out corroborating evidence and dismiss contrary examples as “exceptions.” If we believe people are basically good, we do the same thing in the opposite direction. Our pandemic experience has provided evidence on both sides of this question. Most people wear masks and keep their distance, and some people militantly refuse any accommodation for other people’s health. We have also seen that we can believe some outlandish things, and we can refuse to let go of those beliefs even in the face of strong evidence and the testimony of credible authorities who show their evidence. Many people quarantined their mail and their groceries for days long after we knew that those were not sources of COVID transmission. Many people continue to refuse to believe that COVID is real and that vaccines work with no magnetism or microchips, even as they and their loved ones are getting sick and even dying. Rather than admit we were wrong, we continue, we justify, we rationalize, we explain away that which we cannot accept.

The book of Jeremiah records two reactions to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the 6th century BCE. The prophet Jeremiah blames the people for worshiping many gods and goddesses – they caused Yahveh’s anger which caused the destruction – it was their fault. But some Judean women and their husbands read the same evidence differently:

They answered Jeremiah—all the men who knew that their wives made offerings to other gods; all the women present, a large gathering . . .: “We will not listen to you in the matter about which you spoke to us in the name of YHWH. On the contrary, we will do everything we have vowed—to make offerings to the Queen of Heaven and to pour libations to her, as we used to do, we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty to eat, we were well-off, and suffered no misfortune. But ever since we stopped making offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pouring libations to her, we have lacked everything, and we have been consumed by the sword and by famine.

[Jeremiah 44:15-18]

In other words, worshipping many gods was just fine until we changed to worshipping only Yahveh! Both sides insist they are reading the destruction evidence correctly, and that the evidence supports what they already believe. In MY humble opinion, both Jeremiah AND the worshippers of the Queen of Heaven were wrong – the Babylonian Empire was simply larger, stronger and more capable militarily – that’s “how,” if not a cosmic “why,” Jerusalem fell. Of course, _I_ don’t need to justify any past worship of either the Queen of Heaven or of Yahveh, and I DO want to confirm a secular reading of history, so maybe they were right: the Queen of Heaven really was mad!

The Jewish New Year is a time of self-judgment: we look in the mirror and try to see ourselves as we truly are, and as we truly have been. Were we basically good? Were we really as good as we imagine ourselves to be? Where did we fall short and what can we learn? It is much easier cognitively and emotionally to give ourselves a pass and simply assume we were who we thought we were. I would challenge us to do better in both knowledge and self-knowledge. No one knows everything, and no one is perfect. This year, try one of two things: try learning something new that changes your mind on an important issue. Or try changing something about yourself that needs changing. Neither task is easy, and you can debate which would be harder for you – changing your mind or changing behavior. If we do end up learning one thing from the disaster of the COVID pandemic, let it be how we learn and why it is important to make ourselves learn.  If we understand that, we will have learned a lot.

During this 18 month disaster of many waves, some people definitely learned the wrong lessons. These multiple rounds of mass infection & death, particularly since vaccines have been widely available, they are infuriating because some people just keep assuming it will not happen to them – they are young, they are strong, they are not in a big city, & worse race-based denialism. Some will not consider getting vaccinated on behalf of those who cannot, especially children. The attitude of “Not my problem” becomes all of our problem. There are also those out there who have dragged out the old religious reasons. Tate Reeves, Governor of Mississippi, explained his state’s low vaccination rate & resistance to masking by saying “If you believe in eternal life, then you don’t have to be so scared of things.” They believe that the plague is a divine punishment for our sins, and therefore prayer and piety are the magic antidote to avoid infection. I do not think anyone has tried lamb’s blood on doorposts yet, but it may still be coming.

The WORST wrong lesson is the claim that science is unreliable because it changes its mind! I did see an amusing editorial cartoon about the CDC:

CARTOON: Hokey-pokey | Las Vegas Review-Journal
“You put your mask back on, you take your mask back off, you put your mask back on, until you make them scream and shout. You got a vaccination, now we say it’s not enough, that’s how we’re sowing doubt.

It is true that messages have changed. What was true for the initial strains of COVID regarding transmission has changed with the Delta variant. So recommendations have changed along with it. It’s a trust paradox: the more truly responsive a scientist is to new evidence, the more they are likely to change their recommendations when needed!

This behavior is so unusual for us, we are so used to people KEEPING their beliefs DESPITE the evidence! Ordinary people tend to fit new evidence into what they already know to be true. So if scientists keep “changing their minds,” then science seems either to be fickle or really to be a tool for social control – testing what you are willing to do without thinking, if the government tells you to. And that is why some of the reactions against masks have been so insistent and so angry, and why the pandemic is grinding on well into its second year and likely beyond. Because some people believe that sometimes a mask is not just a mask.

Disasters always have ripple effects and lasting lessons that stretch far beyond the initial catastrophe. The Destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 586 BCE continues to echo today in the Jewish experience of Diaspora and our focus on Jewish survival and thriving. What have we learned then from this COVID disaster – if not the cosmic whys, then which hows and how not to’s?

First, we’ve learned about the power of symbols and identity. We know that people are tribal; we know that we root for our team and against other teams, we know that the other team does not always play fair or have our best interests in mind. And we know that our identities are expressed through the symbols we use. Are you team mask or team freedom? Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter? Do you trust the government, the police and medical authorities to look out for you, or do you have a history of being discriminated against and abused by those authorities? We know it is much harder to give up some of our advantages to strangers than it is to give to the family and friends on our side. We’ll talk more about the limits of “we’re all in this together” tomorrow morning as we explore a different disaster, the plague of Hate and Indifference – we may all be in the same ocean, but it makes a big difference whether you are in a leaky rowboat, a Navy destroyer or a luxury yacht.

After Jerusalem was destroyed, Judeans in Babylonian exile faced a challenge to their identity – they had always been Judeans in Judea; could they now be Yehudim/Jews anywhere in the world? Some of their survival strategies no longer speak to us: believing they were the Chosen People of the only God may have kept them Jewish through medieval persecution but today strikes us as chauvinist and egocentric. At the same time, we do not want to disappear into a melting pot that robs us of distinct culture and heritage. Today we live in the multicultural soup of an open society – giving to the shared broth with other ingredients while trying to maintain our own integrity. If we are a tomato, the longer we cook the more we break down; if we are a rock, we barely change but we give nothing to the whole and are not really part of the social soup. Tonight we heard the shofar, read from the Torah, sang in Hebrew, gathered for the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashana. The meaning of these symbols may be different between Orthodox Jews and Humanistic Jews, but they are Jewish symbols that we share.

Second, we have learned what is really important. Of course, we need to survive, and we made sacrifices to survive COVID-19 and to save other lives. But we need more than survival. After a while, even the introverts started missing contact with other people! Even Netflix stream-a-holics went outside! We have found or rediscovered that, more than just survive, we also need to THRIVE. We need joy and live music and sharing meals and time together. Over the last 12 months, I had two chances to go to Ravinia Park – the first was last November, while I was serving as an election judge – the part was as beautiful as ever, it was an unseasonably beautiful day, and the part was entirely empty, no people and no music. Then this past summer, after the park reopened for events, I went for a classical concert. It was raining and dark, but there were people and there was music there. I would absolutely have chosen the second over the first. After Jerusalem was destroyed, the simple territorial Judean-ness of the 7th century BCE needed to transform into the ethno-religious identity of early Judaism, and that ethno-religion was a first step towards the cultural Jewish identity that we celebrate. Jewish survival alone is not enough – we are more than a DNA preservation project. When we toast “L’Chaim – To life,” we not only toast our survival – we also toast joyous celebration.

After the Babylonian empire fell, most Jews returned to Judea and eventually rebuilt Jerusalem and a second temple. We, too, need to turn to rebuilding. We know that, in this pandemic, prevention and the cure are NOT worse than the disease, but we also need to be cured from the problems of the cure – isolation, suspicion, houses divided against themselves which we will turn to on Yom Kippur.

Third, beyond the power of symbols and the need to return and rebuild, we learned to live with uncertainty. The newly-minted Jewish Diaspora 2,500 years ago did not know how long they would stay in one place, or whether their ultimate redemption was guaranteed. Jews had to learn new languages, explore new foods, and over the centuries we became a world people. It took courage to change, it took hope that this change would strengthen us for the future. The impacts of COVID will be felt for a long time – COVID long-haulers already know. At the same time, while we fret about breakthrough cases, when you have 176 million people vaccinated nationally, even 1 out of 200 means 880,000 cases nationally.[i] That big number of 800,000 exceptions gets a lot more attention than 175 million NON-breakthroughs. 99% immunity means there is still risk; wearing a seatbelt makes sense and will never be 100% safe – people die wearing seatbelts, we still use our cars. If 1 in 200 of the vaccinated experience breakthrough, most with mild or no symptoms, only 1 in 10,000 were hospitalized. Of course, people still play the Powerball lottery and hope to win – and those odds are 1 in 300 million!

There is good reason to be careful, to follow prudent precautions, to wear your seatbelt when you drive, to take care to take care of others as well as yourself, to limit your absolute freedom so you can love your neighbor. Pious fundamentalists praying for healing claim 100% faith that they are right; secular skeptics taking vaccines & improving the world a little at a time are 99% certain the pious are wrong. That missing 1%? It represents honesty, and the courage to live in an uncertain world.

Once upon a time, people believed that everything had a reason, even plagues. Some assumed the reasons revolved around them and their behavior – the rain fell or did not fall, people lived or died by fire or by water, by violence or by plague because of who they were and how they acted. Today some of us can accept that there is no cosmic reason behind pandemics or geopolitical conflict, that Jerusalem fell for military and not theological reasons, that the story of the death of the firstborn was told with an agenda of social control, not history. For us, everything has a cause, if not a reason. Our task on the other side of disaster is to learn what caused the disaster, to do our best to manage the tragic effects, and to avoid that cause in the future. We are not yet certain what caused the first case of COVID 19, but we do know what caused the pandemic of its spread. As Shakespeare put it, “the fault is not in the stars… but in ourselves.” [Julius Caesar I,3] If the world is uncertain, unjust, undetermined, then we must make the difference. Our world of family, friends and fellowship depends on us. Let us make a Shana Tova, a good and healthy year, our reality.

———————————————————–

[i] 0.5% breakthrough rate reported in WA and CT in early September. Washington State Dept. of Health figures 9/2/2021 https://medium.com/wadepthealth/what-to-know-about-breakthrough-covid-19-cases-10d3681e9991, Connecticut statistics 9/3/2021 https://www.ctinsider.com/news/article/COVID-deaths-breakthrough-cases-rise-16432123.php.

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After Disaster – High Holidays 2021/5782

These High Holiday sermons were delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in September/Tishrei 2021/5782. You can see video of these presentations on this playlist, or listen to audio at The Kol Hadash Podcast (on major podcast platforms). For on Kol Hadash, please contact our office at info@kolhadash.com.

We respond to tragedy through mourning and learning. After what seemed like disaster after disaster over the past year, how best to move forward?

Rosh Hashana Evening – September 6, 2021, 7:30pm
The Plague
While the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, most of us have re-emerged from fear and isolation. What have we learned about ourselves and our society from this stress test of ethics and institutions? We must discover what failed, what succeeded, and what we need today. Past Jewish experiences rebuilding after disaster may offer lessons for our future.

Rosh Hashana Morning – September 7, 2021, 10:30am
Hatred and Indifference
Are we really “all in this together?” As active personal prejudice recedes, structural inequality has been revealed. Racism and antisemitism are both officially rejected and more complex than ever to understand and address. Our challenge remains choosing active empathy when indifference is easier. The Jewish New Year invites self-examination and self-correction.

Yom Kippur Evening – September 15, 2021, 7:30pm
The Jewish House Divided
Last century’s American Jewish unity faces multiple fractures in 2021. Diaspora Jewish responses to Israel range from support to frustration to anger to disengagement – sometimes within the same person. Divisions between the Orthodox and everyone else now extend to politics, lifestyle, and cultural values. As the Jewish family becomes ever more diverse, will we stay one people?

Yom Kippur Morning – September 16, 2021, 10:30am
The American House Divided
“The People’s House” was torn apart on January 6, making angry divisions in America impossible to ignore. As we learn more about dark sides of our history, the depth of our current divisions and radically different visions for our shared future, what can we do to bind up our nation’s wounds and steer our ship towards light and truth?

Yom Kippur Memorial – September 16, 2021, 3:30pm
The Many and The One
The reality of over 600,000 American COVID-19 deaths is overwhelming enough. Each individual loss was a world of relations, connections, and love. During the Jewish year just ended, any loss was made more challenging by distance and isolation. This year, as we gradually reunite, we feel the full weight of the many and the one.

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What Now? January 7, 2021

I am not a professional political commentator, and I have never been elected to public office. I speak about politics from time to time as it impacts society, culture, religion and the Jewish people. This Friday evening my pre-scheduled topic is “Review of 2020, Predictions for 2021,” which was already going to touch on the 2020 US Election, its aftermath and what next for Donald Trump and his following. After January 6, 2021, in the words of poet WB Yeats, “All changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born.” In other words, we know the world is different, but in which direction? I may have more idea tomorrow, but we are all very unsure today.

Was this the final straw, when enough people finally realized that a person and a movement that demonizes immigrants and “globalists” and Black Lives Matter and the media in defiance of reality will eventually turn on anyone, anything, any institution that thwarts their beliefs and desires? Or is this the beginning of further hatred, division, disorder and violence? It has not yet been 24 hours since Capitol barriers were breached and “All changed, changed utterly,” so we simply do not know. In Jewish tradition, prophecy ended 2500 years ago, if it ever existed. And an unpredictable future can be unsettling.

Or perhaps we will remember this moment as the point where we as Americans looked at the brink and chose a different path. The clear differences of how different Capitol protesters have been treated; incendiary rhetoric that extremists take to extremes; vilification of political others as demonic enemies – perhaps our shock will help us see new truths about our society and ourselves and learn slowly, painfully, what the stakes really are and what we need to do. “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”

As ever, the choice is up to us. We do not know what will be. All the more reason to engage in the present with firm purpose.

Here on Earth – not in high clouds-
On this mother earth that is close:
To sorrow in her sadness, exult in her meager joy
That knows, so well, how to console.

Not nebulous tomorrow but today: solid, warm, mighty,
Today materialized in the hand:
Of this single, short day to drink deep
Here in our own land.

Before night falls – come, oh come all!
A unified stubborn effort, awake
With a thousand arms. Is it impossible to roll
The stone from the mouth of the well?

Rahel Bluwstein

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Jews and Democracy

This post first appeared as a “Shalom from Rabbi Chalom” column in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in November 2020.

Which kind of society is truly “good for the Jews?”

There are risks to every system; anything made and run by people can fail. Historically, capitalism has created wonderful opportunity for entrepreneurs, misery for factory workers, and antisemitic accusations against both “Jewish-owned” capital and “Jewish-inspired” labor unrest. Socialism officially banned antisemitism but has also accused Jews of being “bourgeois nationalists,” “European colonialists” in Israel, and stubbornly particular in Diaspora in opposition to internationalism.

At times, dictatorships have been nicer to Jews than popular will might have demanded – the Tsar of Bulgaria refused to deport Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust, and the Shah of Iran was certainly nicer to Iranian Jews and the State of Israel than Ayatollah Khomeni and his revolutionary successors, who were much more popular. By the 20th century, democracies had finally granted Jews rights as individual citizens, though it was the democratic Weimar Republic that collapsed into Nazi Germany. And, as we have seen in recent years, free speech and the right to bear arms can be used for evil as well as good.

Still, it is not an accident that the overwhelming majority today’s 15 million Jews live in democracies: over 13 million are in Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and Argentina. While some of these democracies give Jews communal recognition with chief rabbis and government funding, others prioritize free association and the separation of religion and government. In all of
them, Jews can vote and serve in public office, they live and work without legal discrimination, and they advocate for causes they value.

There is no traditional mitzvah [commandment] to participate in democracy; no one ever voted for God, Moses, the Torah or the Talmud. Much of traditional liturgy, reflecting the politics of its era, suggests either monarchy or theocracy is the ideal – rule by a human king from the line of King David, or rule by a divine King of Kings as managed by his deputies (aka the clergy). So the fact that Jews vote in higher numbers is a learned behavior from recent centuries of democratic experience. It is also a reflection of not taking those rights for granted, or assuming they will always be there. Most important, it is a reflection of modernization that has dignified the individual, their free choice and their voice in what happens to themselves and their society.

So when you feel fed up with democracy and its flaws, or campaign season and its ridiculousness, recall the words of a recent hymn to democracy: “how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

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Who Can See What Will Happen After?

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur Memorial sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago in September 2020. It was part of a series on Five Jewish Questions. Video is available here.           

One Jewish year ago, no one at our Yom Kippur memorial service expected to be participating today on a screen instead of with me in this sanctuary. Over the last 6 months, we have become a little accustomed to not being in charge of our present. An exposure requiring quarantine, or a cough or sniffle we would have ignored in the past, school schedules that change on a dime, and the omnipresent threat of another coronavirus wave – we do not know what will happen in the morning, or what the afternoon will bring. I once went to visit my aunts in New York City, who didn’t want to plan anything until the morning we were getting together, which is NOT how I like to plan! I’ve had similar experiences trying to schedule events in Israel, and with other people. So some people can adapt to living in an unpredictable present. What has made this time even more challenging is not being able to predict the future! Not in terms of prophecy or forecasting, but the absence of general predictability. What should we do about our family Bar Mitzvah next spring? Can I use expiring airline miles to buy a ticket for, well, ANY time in the future? When will I see out of town family or friends again in THREE dimensions and not just on a screen? We do not know what we enjoy until it is gone, and not knowing what comes after turns out to be a challenging place to be.

That place of now knowing what happens after is where we have always been, whether we realized it or not. Over 2000 years ago, an unknown author penned the book of Ecclesiastes. The text is clearly influenced by Greek philosophy, by Near Eastern and Hebrew traditions of wisdom literature, and by life experience. Supposedly it was written by King Solomon near the end of his life – he wrote the Song of Songs when he was young and randy, the book of Proverbs when he was middle-aged and wise, and Ecclesiastes when he was old and bitter. The book is famous for its cynicism: no matter what we do, all is in vain because the world runs on its own schedule independent of our desires. There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to reap, whether we like it or not, and that wheel will turn….turn….turn no matter what. At times, Ecclesiastes is depressed by the eternal turning of events, disheartened to realize that the same end happens to both the wicked and the innocent with no cosmic justice. And at times he draws comfort, knowing that the best he can do is enjoy this life while he has it and get enough wisdom to avoid stupid mistakes and understand the flow of time.

Most meaningful for us today, however, is a question he asks in chapter 8, our last Jewish question for this new year season.

There is a time for every experience, including doom; for a man’s calamity overwhelms him. Indeed, he does not know what is to happen; even when it is on the point of happening, who can tell him what will happen after?

On some level, we know that life is a terminal condition – we are all going to die, though we do not know when or how. In the ancient world, life was much more precarious. Death came any day, any minute, from any direction. Over the centuries from Ecclesiastes’ day to our own, we have slowly learned to tame disease and domesticate death into mostly predictable patterns – cancer, strokes, accidents and natural disasters still happen, but our average life span has doubled from then to now because of human efforts. This has been the greatest global project in our history on the planet – to live more.

Yet in this moment, OUR calamity, our moment overwhelms us, we too ask “what will happen after?” – after the Jewish year just ended, after 2020, after this pandemic, after this and that and the other crisis. I have no magic answers for when there will be a vaccine or when life will return to something more like normal. I cannot tell you what the next unpleasant surprise will be, the next sudden loss, the next assault on stability. We are grieving the loss of predictability, and grief itself is unpredictable. When we lose someone we love, a book on the shelf, or a particular food, or a piece of music can bring us back to that place of loss in an instant and we are undone… again. As time goes on, though, and the painful memory of loss fades into warmer memories of a full life, as we learn to accept grief along with joy. There is a time to mourn, and a time to dance, and we learn how to do one and then the other in turn.

I have no specific answers to “what will happen after?” just as Ecclesiastes could not answer for his era either. But I do have an answer to the existential issue this question represents. What will happen after? How will I handle my grief? When will I get over this loss of a person or of predictability? My answer is this: “What will happen after? I do not know, and we will handle whatever it is together.” Humanists can live with “I don’t know” – it is a resolution that Rabbi Sherwin Wine called the Life of Courage, or Staying Sane in a Crazy World. Whatever our future holds, a time to laugh or a time to weep, you will not laugh or weep alone. Yes, this Yom Kippur we are apart in our own homes. We are apart but not alone. We are as present with others as we make ourselves in 21st century reality.

So call your family; Facetime with your friends. Be part of your children’s or your parents’ lives. There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak. And the time to speak is now, and tomorrow, and next week, even until next year if necessary. We will see each other outside, distanced, masked, in small groups, however we need to in order to be safe and healthy, and to wish each other Happy New Year at our next Rosh Hashana in 5782. Whether we do that in the same space face to face or some other way – who can say what will happen after? I do not know, and we will get through it together. A meditation I wrote for our Rosh Hashana Morning service articulates what I think we will need moving forward – the need to be “in person”, wherever we are, through this new Jewish year.

What does it mean
To be “in person”?
Is it our body
on a map, in a building,
at a place?
Is that “in person”?
You can be
physically in person
and mentally wander
through imagination
into memory and
beyond walls.

“In person” must be more, and different.
Full presence,
focus and calm,
to think and to be.
We can be present
in person
from many places.

There is no one location to be
in agreement.
There is no one place to be
in love.
There is no one space to be
in touch.

Why should place
decree if we are
in person
or not?

Start the New Year
intent
introspective
insightful
inspired

and,
wherever you are,
in person.

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If Not Now, When?

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur Morning sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago in September 2020. It was part of a series on Five Jewish Questions. Video is available here.

Hillel was one of the most famous teachers in Jewish history, but we do not know that much about him. A Babylonian Jew by birth, he came to Jerusalem to study Torah and Jewish law before the year Zero and became the pre-eminent scholar of his generation – the end of the Pharisees and beginning of the rabbis. Hillel’s name has been used for college campus organizations, Jewish day schools, synagogues, even an Israeli organization that supports people leaving ultra-Orthodoxy for the wider world. Hillel was known for his patience, his love of peace, his humility, and especially for his turn of phrase. It is ironic that one of his most famous phrases celebrates the virtue of impatience – “if not now, when?

In traditional Jewish thought, patience was absolutely a virtue. From the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple until its future rebuilding in the age of the messiah, Jews were to wait, and wait patiently. Recall the scene in Fiddler on the Roof when they are expelled from the shtetl – the tailor asks the rebbe “we’ve been waiting for the messiah all our lives, wouldn’t now be a good time for him to come?” The rebbe smiles and says, “We’ll just have to wait for him someplace else.” When you think about it, it’s good to be the messiah. When you finally arrive, everyone you care about is happy to see you; you get to fulfill all those promises made by priests and prophets and rabbis and scripture to reward the righteous and punish the wicked; you are the only and final court of appeal, and all judgements are definitely final. Best of all, no matter when you arrive, no matter how long people have waited, the messiah is always on time, because your arrival must be the way it was meant to be. The patience of Job was not just for Job (Job actually spends several chapters complaining – which somehow feels more Jewish). Patience was for all Jews to wait for the end of exile, the messianic age, and supernatural redemption.

But waiting has never been good enough for some; they have stubbornly insisted that people actually have a role to play in their own deliverance. Sometimes they tried to force the coming of the messiah, or influence the universe towards redemption through mystical thought and practice. With the dawn of the secular age and organized Jewish political activity, many movements acted to improve the lot of the Jewish people. Sometimes it was actually moving, fleeing tsarist or Nazi or Arab nationalist oppression to freedom elsewhere in the world, including in America. Sometimes it was a secular messianism, working for a glorious revolution in society, economy and values that would make antisemitism a relic of the bourgeois capitalist past. Sometimes it was an identity revolution, defining and celebrating Jewishness as an ethnic, even a national identity. The modern state of Israel was born from Jewish people tired of waiting for a messiah to save them – they decided to save themselves. They lived out the challenging reality of Hillel’s timeless question, “If not now, when?”

This Jewish New Year, we have explored questions from Jewish culture with universal significance. Hillel’s challenge is perhaps the most apt at this moment. Too many people are too fed up with too many problems, and they are done being told the problem is just with them or that patience will work this time – again. The desire for rapid change has been articulated in many ways – the fierce urgency of now, justice delayed is justice denied…. There are always clever reasons for “not now.” We can’t change too fast; we don’t know all the consequences yet; some of us like the status quo; you can’t change this issue without dealing with all these other problems; change itself is scary. I remember an amusing children’s book about the definition of “in a minute”: the youngest child’s parents and siblings are too busy for him and put him off with “in a minute,” “in a minute,” so he decides that “in a minute” means never.

What makes these clever reasons challenging is that sometimes they are true – yet they are not enough to stop change. In the late 1990s in organized Humanistic Judaism, a new melody was created for the song Ayfo Oree, written by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in the 1970s. The new melody was more upbeat and singable, but some complained about changing the melody. They said, “this is the way we’ve always done it!” Of all branches of Judaism, Secular Humanistic Judaism is the one movement that should never rely on “this is the way we’ve always done it” – we’ve changed so much! There may have been a reason for a practice decades ago, but we have to re-evaluate that reasoning and decide if it operates NOW. It is true that sometimes the answer to “if not now, when” is “in 6 months” or “after we have more information.” It took Kol Hadash 3 years of study, discussion and planning to change our dues system to include a Contributing Membership with a self-chosen financial commitment. We were not the first congregation to do so, we studied the data, and more have followed us in this small-scale Jewish communal revolution. 3 years ago, if we had been asked, “if you aren’t changing the Kol Hadash membership model now, then when?” our answer was “not now, but soon.” And we kept our word.

The cliché version of Jewish questioning is: “why do you always answer a question with a question?” “Do I?” For problems in Jewish law, is the issue under debate happening during the day or at night? On Shabbat or on an ordinary day? Who is doing it and where and why? So it is not exactly evading the first question to ask more questions. When we say “if not now, when?” we can ask what counts as “now”. Does “now” mean to start the process, or to finish it? Does now mean to open the topic or to conclude the discussion?

And to have a now, there has to have been a then, a time before now. We cannot change the past, though we can change how we understand our past . Slavery in the Jewish tradition and the American tradition; 2,500 years of Jewish history with almost no women clergy until the last 50 years; narratives of national establishment that ignored other peoples present and rooted in the same land. I cannot change my own personal history as a child of the 1980s who enjoyed the School House Rock video about American Westward migration: it was so crowded on the East Coast, we needed “Elbow Room.”

The way was opened up for folks with bravery.
There were plenty of fights
To win land rights,
But the West was meant to be;
It was our Manifest Destiny!

The trappers, traders, and the peddlers,
The politicians, and the settlers,
They got there by any way they could.
The Gold Rush trampled down the wilderness,
The railroads spread across from east to west,
And soon the West was opened up for good.

Notice anyone missing from that story, or how we might tell it differently today?

SchoolHouse Rock’s immigration song “Great American Melting Pot” is overwhelmingly Eurocentric, never mentioning Native Americans or Latinos who were already here, or any Asian immigration or heaven forbid African kidnapping. “America was founded by the English, but also by the Germans, Dutch and French….” The video’s cartoon images of non-whites will shock you, as they shocked me when watching them again 30 years older. As a child, I enjoyed those videos, and I learned both tolerance and stereotypes from them. As part of my maturation, I have unlearned now some of what I learned then.

So too for all of us, and for the interlocking societies to which we belong – to understand this moment of “Now,” we have to know what happened THEN to get to now. We have to learn our real history, even and especially the uncomfortable parts, even and especially from perspectives foreign to our own. Who were the Native Americans who met Columbus, and what did they think of what happened next? How does the American story change if you refocus the narrative on women or slaves instead? When should we date the beginning of American democracy – 1787 with the writing of the Constitution, 1870 when former male slaves could theoretically vote, 1920 with women’s suffrage (at least white women), or the Voting Rights Act of 1964 – happy 56th anniversary of American democracy?

In the same way, we need to tell the story of Jewish national self-determination differently. On one hand, and absolutely true, the forging of a new Israeli identity from a global Jewish diaspora of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, and many other Jewish cultures, and the many successes of the start-up nation. At the same time, we can understand that creating a Jewish national omelet broke and still breaks many Palestinian eggs. Hillel’s aphorism “If Not Now” has inspired a Jewish activist organization for Israel/Palestine under that name. The group began because after 50 years since the 6 Day War, mutual national recognition and genuine peace seemed further away than ever, and the organizers were tired of hearing histories with one side always right and the other always wrong. The activists remain engaged with Israel – after all, criticism is still engagement! But they are motivated to take action NOW because of their new understandings of what happened THEN.

Hillel’s most famous question is actually the last of 3 questions – as we have seen, there’s never only one question. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” At one moment, we need to consider our individual needs, what others may need, how we need their support for our needs, and ALSO the question of when. Hillel’s first 2 questions push us to think from our own perspective, and also for the benefit of others if we want them on our side. Today if we want allies in the fight against antisemitism, we should BE allies in fights against racism and bias and discrimination. Xenophobia means “fear of the stranger;” as we heard last night from Exodus 23, in our tradition “you should not oppress the stranger, for you know the spirit of the stranger since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” When we vote or volunteer or work or advocate, if we are for ourselves alone, what are we? I am a cisgender heterosexual married educated white man employed and housed in affluent suburbia. With those demographics, chances are I will personally be ok no matter who wins an election. But I do not only vote for me – I vote with compassion and enlightened self-interest for those I care about, for the society I want to see, to treat others as I would want to be treated. I am definitely a values voter – my values are just different from Jerry Fallwell, Sr. OR Jr.

The Jewish new year began 9 days ago with Rosh Hashana. These 10 days have been an opportunity for reflection, for self-evaluation, for judgment. Yet that thought and reflection must lead to action. What have we done since that beginning to truly make a new start? What can we do NOW to address our challenges now and soon? When the problems are many and large, it can be hard to know where to begin. Here are three concrete suggestions – remember, as a Humanistic Rabbi I am not in the Commandments business.

  1. Change your priorities from sounding good to doing good. The CEO of Netflix recently confessed that when he used to say “family is most important,” he was lying. He became aware he was lying as he noticed he was ignoring his family to do more work over and over again. Think about issues you’ve found challenging and disturbing this year. Then look at where you spend your advocacy and charitable giving and volunteer resources. Do they match? Can they be improved? Are there more effective organizations that focus specifically on the issues you want to address? Don’t let yourself get stuck on “this is the way we’ve always done it;” re-evaluate and do even more good than before.
  2. Push yourself to do the uncomfortable, even if only once a day to start. Getting in John Lewis’ “good trouble” can be hard to make ourselves do, be it on the streets, social media, or private conversation. But if you hear something or see something that needs correcting, push yourself to invest the time, the ego, the energy in pushing back. It is easier to be an anonymous bystander, harder to put the spotlight on yourself as an active UPstander. The more we push ourselves to do what is uncomfortable but right, the better we will become and the more natural it will be. We might inspire others to do the same by our example.
  3. Find one way you can do something more, and then do it. This year I chose to become an Election Poll Worker to deploy my relative youth and health to fill a need. Fortunately I have a flexible daily work schedule and an understanding employer. I have thought about doing this for years, since my household follows the Chicago tradition to vote early and vote often (which we interpret as “every election”). This year pushed me to actually do it – if not now, if not this year, if not at this moment, well, I had no answer other than – do it!

These three suggestions will not change the world; by themselves changing your priorities, doing the uncomfortable, and doing one thing more will not change your life. We cannot rely on Commandments from heaven and cosmic justice and messianic deliverance, so getting ourselves into better habits of doing better is how Humanists can meet that basic human need for atonement and self-improvement, the need  that Yom Kippur was created to fulfill. For us, the measure of whether a society or system or action is good is its effects on human beings in the real world in which we live. And there is no reason to wait if we know that what is, is not good. If not now to reduce suffering, if not now to push for justice, if not now to see good be done, then when indeed.

These have been our 4 questions this Jewish new year – and they had nothing to do with matzah or reclining. Who am I to confront Pharaoh? Am I my brother’s, my sibling’s keeper? Shall not the judges of the earth do justice? And if not now, when? If these questions have served their purpose, they have opened up new possibilities in your minds and hearts for the new year that will make for new beginnings. None of us are Moses or Abraham or Cain or Hillel – each of us has our unique opportunity to leave our unique stamp on our small corner of the world. Do not wait, for who knows if this moment will come again, and who can see what will happen after? Think, reflect, consider….and do!

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