Anger, Grief and Consolation – Yom Kippur Memorial 2022/5783

This blog post is based on a Yom Kippur evening sermon delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October, 2022. For the complete series, click here. Video is available here.

What is the purpose of grief? If we believe in evolution, then human nature is a product of gradual change and survival advantages. Grief could have been a direct advantage for those who could mourn over those who could not. OR perhaps the ability to mourn was NOT a big advantage in itself, but grief was connected to other parts of our mental makeup that were. Grief could have been an accidental side effect. Evolutionary psychology is part art and part science, as was much of Freud’s original psychology to be honest. So in the spirit of rabbinic midrash, another art where multiple explanations can be true at the same time, grief could have come from many sources to evolve into the important part of our life it is today.

The direct survival advantage of grief? Mourning enables us to let out the anger and stress and sadness that otherwise would build up within us and explode, endangering our relationships with living family and community and thus our support network. Expressing grief can also leave us tired enough to sleep when we need to care for ourselves too. And grief inspires empathy from others who are thus motivated to help support us when we are less able to support ourselves – those shiva trays and meal trains are not just cultural after all!

Grief as a side effect of other essential features of our emotional life? Grief happens when we love, when we care for other people, when we are engaged in the well-being of our community. Grief results from our staying alive and maintaining relationships. Last year, met a long-time KH member for lunch whose first wife’s funeral I officiated over 15 years ago. I also married him to second wife years later, and in general for him life is good. At this moment, he was grieving, having recently attended the funeral of one of his best and oldest friends. The longer he has lived, he has been able to experience grandchildren and great-grandchildren and the joys of life, but longer life also has meant attending more and more funerals for long-time friends and family. There is no easy answer for this challenge, this side effect, because a longer life will result in saying goodbye many times before we ourselves are the guest of honor. Unless we cut ourselves off, refuse to make new friends and new partnerships, unless we declare “I am a rock, I am an island that feels no pain and never cries.” That would not be living our best life while we can live it. Our intention is to love and be loved and be loving; if this sometimes produces grief, it also produces joy. And over the course of our lives, the joy is worth it.

However, sometimes the rhythm of joy and grief seems to tip too far to one side. All the tragedies of the past decade, I do not want to list them all and I do not need to – this December will be TEN YEARS since Sandy Hook, and think of all that has happened since then. We are on grief overload. Anger and sadness and loss have piled up until we don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t think we evolved to be able handle this great a cascade of grief and pain. And so we have to be forgiving of ourselves – the usual cycle of grief and recovery, the old model of stages of grief, we need to prepare ourselves and be flexible enough to face something different. Some days will be overwhelming, others manageable. Sometimes we will be able to use our grief to better love our loved ones, and to respond to our pain with action and advocacy. Some days the wave may get the better of us, and then we sleep, and the sun comes up, and another day begins with its own rhythms and possibilities.

There are no easy answers to any grief: new grief or old grief, individual or collective grief, public or private grief. Grief is a part of any life that has love. It’s a paradox, a circle: grief might be the accidental result of a loving connection, yet grief can also be a reminder of the love we still feel for someone who is gone. If we can accept our grief as part of our best lives, then it can be a source of love too.

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me 
And I wake in the night at the least sound 
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, 
I go and lie down where the wood drake 
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. 
I come into the peace of wild things 
who do not tax their lives with forethought 
of grief. I come into the presence of still water. 
And I feel above me the day-blind stars 
waiting with their light. For a time 
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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Freedom and Autonomy – Yom Kippur Morning 2022/5783

This blog post is based on a Yom Kippur evening sermon delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October, 2022. For the complete series, click here. Video is available here.

In Philadelphia, if you wait in a long line, you can get up close and personal with The Liberty Bell. When the Pennsylvania State House bought the bell in 1753, they inscribed a quote from Leviticus 25 – “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” By “all the inhabitants,” they probably did not mean women or Native Americans or slaves – it would actually be another 27 years before Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition that stopped making new slaves but kept current slaves in bondage until freed by their owners or death. Right next to the Liberty Bell is a relatively new exhibit called The President’s House, which highlights the slaves that George Washington brought with him during his first term. The Liberty Bell itself was mostly obscure until the 1830s when abolitionists claimed it as a symbol of their cause, and it became still more popular over the decades as a symbol of American freedom. The inscription even makes an appearance in the 1956 epic The Ten Commandments – at the very end of 220 minutes, Moses tells Joshua to enter the Promised Land and “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof!” If you recall what we read from Deuteronomy last night, the Torah’s Moses had a very different message for the land’s inhabitants – segregation, destruction, religious persecution. People talk a lot about freedom, from the Bible then to the Bible Belt today but liberty for whom, and liberty to do what?

We see a world in crisis, and we want to find common cause with those who share our values. “Freedom” sounds like a good place to start – freedom to run our own lives, freedom to make our own choices, freedom to live our own truths. The devil is in the details, and what one person means by freedom is very different from another. In a civilized society, there must be limits to freedom – remember, your freedom ends when your fist hits my nose. Rabbinic literature makes a similar point – where the Torah describes the Ten Commandments as carved kharut into the tablets, a creative commentator quips al tikra kharut ayleh kherutdo not read “carved” but rather “freedom” – freedom in an ordered society. Freedom with NO rules would be anarchy, rule of the strongest; nasty, brutish and short. Of course, too many rules that we have no right to author or to amend would not be freedom either.

Maybe freedom itself is an illusion. In our basic human nature, are we really free? The more we learn about genetics, the less it seems we actually make our own choices – sometimes identical twins separated at birth like the same breakfast cereal, choose the same professions, even marry partners with the same name! Long before we have any choice, we are conditioned by our upbringing to see race, to speak a language, to understand history and our place in it in a certain way. We are trained to see the world through a particular frame of religion, gender, culture, economics and ideology from age 0. And group identity reinforces what we already believe, to the degree that changing our mind feels like changing who we are. How free can we really be?

On the other hand, are we really not free? Compared to earlier generations, our liberties are revolutionary. We marry for love, not family duty. We choose our professions, our leisure time activities, where we live with legal protection against discrimination. We can speak and assemble and petition and protest and post on social media. A Humanistic Jewish congregation like ours is only possible in a time and a place of intellectual and personal freedom. On the philosophical level, we live our lives and we treat others with an assumption of free will – I make choices, you make choices, we debate our choices, maybe we change our minds. One of my Humanistic rabbinic colleagues was once asked why he persisted in believing in free will. He replied, “I have no choice!” The very basis of Yom Kippur assumes the reality of freedom – why ask for forgiveness if you have no choice about what you do? Why offer forgiveness when regret is an illusion, since the regret itself was preprogrammed?

If we are free to choose in a philosophical or a moral sense, then we want that freedom reflected in law, politics and society. In real life, there is potential freedom, and then there is actual freedom. Freedom to work in our chosen profession? Freedom to live where we want? Sure, if you can afford it. Equal opportunity sometimes has an admission charge. I read recently that in 2014 my alma mater Yale University paid $500 million to manage its investments, 3 times what it spent on financial aid, and Harvard has more students from families earning over $500,000 than from those earning under $40,000. As for laws against discrimination, they do not instantly change hearts and minds. There are lots of laws against discrimination in home buying and selling. Yet we see case after case of home appraisals going up hundreds of thousands of dollars when black homeowners hide their pictures and have a white friend show the house to the realtor evaluating it. Even when Roe vs. Wade had technically legalized abortion everywhere, several states chipped away at that freedom here and there, undermining it by a thousand cuts before the national right was taken away. A national right to same-sex marriage equality which affirmed OUR religious right to celebrate such partnerships has not stopped opponents from claiming their religious freedom to discriminate. Is a High School football coach’s freedom to pray publicly and to invite players to pray with them more important than the students’ freedom to not be coerced or cajoled into praying? When we say “freedom of religion” or “freedom of conscience,” we may mean very different things.

Part of our crisis is a feeling that our freedoms are being taken away. Ironically, both the right and the left are worried about the loss of quote “freedom.” If someone said to you tomorrow, “my body, my choice,” what do you think they mean: are they pro-choice or anti-COVID vaccine? Is the most important amendment Freedom of Speech and Religion or the Right to Bear Arms to preserve life? What does Freedom of speech mean in an era of social media, microaggressions, calling out and calling in and calling names? If you are legally free to do something that provokes overwhelming social condemnation, are you really free to do it?

Of course, there are degrees of freedom. If you read memoirs of people who have left ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, like Shulem Deen, these communities have many problems – a lack of general education dramatized in recent news reports, limitations on women, contempt and fear of the outside world, omnipresent surveillance of one’s ritual practices and inner beliefs. In the other direction, some secularized Jews are tempted to join these rigid communities despite the costs to their individuality; they hope it will help them manage the almost-infinite freedoms of modernity. When I meet with wedding couples, I outline their options – breaking one glass or each breaking a glass, choosing their own ketubah marriage agreement text, choices from preset texts for readings and vows and exchanging rings, or writing something original for any of these. When some couples look at me in a mild panic, I remind them that this is the downside of freedom: so many choices! For those who leave Orthodoxy, their freedom, however costly, is worth it. In the movie Inherit the Wind about teaching evolution in a fundamentalist community, one character describes the temptation of conformity at the price of freedom: 

It’s the loneliest feeling in the world. It’s like walking down an empty street listening to your own footsteps. But all you have to do is to knock on any door and say, “if you let me in I’ll live the way you want me to live, and think the way you want me to think,” and all the blinds will go up and all the doors will open and you’ll never be lonely ever again.

Even the exiters recall, for all the benefits of their new and hard-won freedom, the warmth of that ideological community as long as you agree to their rules

That traditional, rigid world is a world of conformity, a world of heresy and blasphemy and intellectual inquisition. It’s telling teachers in Florida elementary schools to avoid all LGBT topics, lest a parent’s religious sensibilities be offended, or the University of Idaho suggesting its faculty avoid discussing abortion lest they be “non-neutral” and run afoul of state prohibitions on recommending the procedure. Yet accusing others of heresy and blasphemy is an equal opportunity temptation for both right and left. Have you ever been tempted to offer a thought on social media that diverges from the political consensus of your circles, and then you delete it because you just do not want to deal with the arguments? You can legally say what you want short of provoking violence, but there will be social consequences for what is deemed offensive. And the standards of what is acceptable evolve, sometimes rapidly. Watch a favorite TV show or movie from 30 years ago and marvel at how rapidly. Some lament this evolution as the end of humor, or unfair retroactive judgment. Others see increased sensitivity to what might be offensive as kindness, and respect: empathy for human experiences beyond one’s own. Is speech itself a kind of violence, and therefore subject to restriction – Your freedom ends where your words hit my ears? Or is speech related to thought, which should be free of coercion? 

This is the challenge of freedom – what should the rules be? Who should enforce them: government, social judgment, ostracism…. What goes beyond hurtful to full-on hate speech, and what should the consequences be? Representative Rashida Tlaib recently declared that “among progressives, it has become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government.” Fellow Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz responded,

The outrageous progressive litmus test on Israel by @RashidaTlaib is nothing short of antisemitic. Proud progressives do support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. Suggesting otherwise is shameful and dangerous. Divisive rhetoric does not lead to peace.

Tlaib is the progressive inquisition rooting out heresy. Wasserman Schultz answers with an accusation of blasphemy, “the A Word,” without a Scarlet Letter. Both Wasserman Schultz and Tlaib might agree on teaching American History, maybe even Israeli- Palestinian history, admitting bias and structural inequality and historical racism, but the power of sectarianism is strong. It is said that Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low, but it’s also a question of red lines – for some, an anti-abortion Democrat is a heretic to be excommunicated while an anti-Israel progressive is a hero. Same with anti-Trump Republicans like Illinois’ Adam Kinzinger, or scholars of US history who dare to challenge the sacred cows of American Exceptionalism. These all may be secular subjects, but religious-style reactions are part of our basic wiring.

Today is Yom Kippur, a day that celebrates the power of speech and the importance of taking correction. The power of speech is reflected in the tradition of observing the holiest day in the Jewish calendar by reciting a 300 page book out loud in unison. We have chosen to break that particular tradition to make our services relevant, interesting, and under 90 minutes. The power of speech is also reflected in the importance of apologies and forgiveness. Apologies and forgiveness may be accompanied by actions, and they are made more believable by actions. But in their essence, they are speech – I was wrong, I forgive you. Two millennia after the Jerusalem Temple’s atonement through animal sacrifice was ended, this day is dedicated to accepting responsibility for what we have done. Sometimes we only know that we’ve done something wrong if someone tells us. Our freedom is not infringed if we learn what upset someone else, or what we can do differently in the future. It is more effective to receive a private message of correction, calling someone in by assuming their willingness to listen rather than calling them out and assuming their moral failure. Public correction is often shaming, private correction is more likely helping. Yet our stance receiving this correction is also important – this too is a relationship, like those discussed last night. Accepting correction, admitting we were wrong, asking for forgiveness is limiting our freedom for the good of community – community with family, with friends and with each other. The crisis we face today is a breakdown of community. Therefore restoring this community, restoring our secular faith in humanity, living our best lives with courage and integrity and joy demands the strength to accept correction and to do better next time. 

We turn a new page in the book of our life, one that we are free to write with our deeds and our words. We can write what we will, but accepting a few edits is important too. Shana Tova, may we all write well, and then still better.

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Isolation, Tribalism and Community – Yom Kippur Evening 2022/5783

This blog post is based on a Yom Kippur evening sermon delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October, 2022. For the complete series, click here. Video is available here.

What size group is most comfortable for you? It may depend, for what: a dinner party is different than High Holiday services, we all have horror stories about group projects. Some of us love to schmooze, and the more the merrier. Some of us like a few specific individuals, but not people in general and certainly not people in large groups. Anthropologists think humans evolved in hunter-gatherer clans of 100 people or fewer – for comparison, the full capacity of this sanctuary is about 300 people. In a survival group of 100, you know that the group is essential to your survival, and every group member is vitally important: there are dangerous animals and severe weather and hostile groups of other humans out there. According to Margaret Mead, the first sign of civilization is actually a healed femur – if someone broke their leg but lived long enough for it to heal, that means the group fed and cared for them so they could get better and contribute to the group again. I’m sure that for some people, a group of 100 still sounds like a lot of people!

So groups are good – mostly. Remember that in a group of 100 or fewer, everyone knows everyone, news of antisocial behavior spreads almost instantly by word of mouth, and you cannot really be alone even if you want to. Evolutionary anthropologists speculate that one key to social cohesion is our ability to gossip! Let’s be honest: we hate gossip, but we also LOVE it. The Talmud says that the worst sins of all are idolatry, illicit sexual relations and murder, but lashon ha-ra gossip or literally “evil tongue,” gossip worse than all of them! This is why you have never heard Jews gossip about each other…The very concept of “A room of one’s own” was not part of typical home architecture until modern times. An individual living alone, able to self-isolate from society and even from their family, that is relatively new in human experience, and we’re not quite sure how to handle it, or IF we can handle it. Even Tom Hanks’ Castaway on a desert island needed to imagine a companion to remain somewhat sane, and we did not question that part of the movie at all. Aristotle wrote that humans are animals of the polis – political, social, a group species. The Genesis creation narrative agrees: lo tov heyot adam levado – it is not good for humanity to be alone. 

Part of the moral crisis we face today are tensions between me, we, and all of us – individual, tribal group, broader community. Those deeply-rooted group boundaries seem higher than ever, as we are convinced our opponents are evil, not just incorrect. We are skeptical of any friendly critique or loyal opposition on our own side. Our self-interest seems to overwhelm our willingness to concede for the greater good. We are fine with higher taxes, as long as someone else has to pay them; we want more freedom until someone else’s freedom offends our sensibilities. We once thought the internet and social media would transcend boundaries and foster dialogue, but like the original golem it has run amok beyond our designs and group-think is reinforced, not reduced. The resentful, the bitter, the angry find each other and find scapegoats for their failures, and a supportive audience for their grievances. They lash out at those they blame, and WE suffer.

I am not a luddite who wants to return to the days before Facebook, smartphones, or the internet. The positive fruits of technology testify to the Humanistic belief that we have the power to improve our lives. No matter where we are or what we are doing, we can connect with others. We can find like-minded people all over the world, and we can have moving experiences and feel community at great distance; the dozens of people watching this moment live on Zoom and the hundreds who will watch this recording in weeks and years to come, this is only possible because we are more interconnected than ever. I never mind seeing someone walk down the street appearing to talk happily to themselves; chances are they’re on the phone with someone, which means at that moment they are only physically alone – mentally and emotionally they are with someone who brings them joy. The internet is a tool, and tools can be used for good or evil. We saw the risks of in-group thinking in this evening’s Torah reading – elevating the importance of the in-group, denigrating the other. Some take those texts as inspiration for Jewish chauvinism, we see them as warnings of dangers inherent in the human psyche, the challenges of creating fellow-feeling beyond family and clan. Technology has not changed everything about human nature and group identity.

The irony is that, even as we can use technology to connect with any corner of the globe, we can feel more alone than ever. We see happy people, beautiful meals, exotic vacations from our mundane rooms. We can feel alone in a crowd, isolated in our own town, lost even at home. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being an introvert, a loner, someone who prefers solitude to shmoozing. And there is an important difference between being alone and being lonely – “alone” can be by choice, “lonely” means we want connection. Jewish culture does not have a tradition of isolation, a monk on a mountaintop – a traditional prayer quorum or minyan is 10 individuals. There is a commandment to be fruitful and multiply, there is even a principle of not separating oneself from the community. We visit the sick, we honor the elderly and the dead, we must teach these things to our children and to our children’s children l’dor va-dor from generation to generation, we are responsible for each other. An ideal model of Talmud study is in hevruta or partnership because dialogue with another provides more insight, more challenge and more clarity than isolated rumination. For all of the surveillance and intrusion of the traditional shtetl, you were practically never alone, even if you wanted to be!

Imagine the extremes. You could picture yourself as a self-sufficient individual, an entire world all on your own, who needs anyone else? The Simon and Garfunkel song “I Am a Rock” points out the problem – no singing, just some lyrics:

….I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I never loved, I never would have cried
I am a rock, I am an island.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me

I am a rock
I am an island
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries.

There are risks in any human connection, and relationships are not easy. I sometimes joke that my job as a rabbi would be much easier if it were not for all the people! With risks of connection come rewards – people who care for you and know you, people who have shared experiences with you, people who share your values and beliefs. Traditional religions point to research showing that church members tend to live longer, but their science is imperfect because it’s not controlling all the variables. Religious BELIEFS are not what help them live longer; it’s religious COMMUNITY – if nothing else, someone to check on you if they haven’t heard from you in a while! And being part of a community helps you think about someone other than yourself once in a while, a good thing psychologically and emotionally. I know many secular humanists who are thrilled to see church affiliation and attendance going down on opinion surveys. While I prefer a less religious to a more religious society, the news is not all good – just because people are not religious does not mean they would join a Humanistic alternative, and human nature abhors a vacuum. If they do not find connection from a loving and supportive community of positive meaning, they may lash out at those who do.

At the other extreme, there are 8 billion people on this planet. Loving all of humanity is a noble ideal, but it’s not practical. We live in discrete cultures, we speak specific languages, we connect with social circles far smaller than 8 billion, or even 8 million. Picture attending a large sporting event or a concert all by yourself. Sitting at Soldier Field or Orchestra Hall surrounded by tens of thousands of people, would you feel less alone or more alone? As a Detroit sports transplant, I can testify that it depends on whether you’re rooting for the home team or the away team! Sitting in that huge stadium community by myself while seeing others in their own small friendship and family groups, that would make me feel more alone – a live event is much better with a friend, even one.

As with just about everything, diversity and balance. We want both our Jewish continuity and our individual freedom to make our own choices. We need the warmth of group loyalty without the chauvinism of in-group superiority. There is no one group size that everyone likes, just there is no one correct thermostat setting. I once heard a story about a church sexton who would go up to the thermostat before every service and tap at it a few times. He never actually changed the temperature, but the people who felt hot thought he was turning the temperature down, those who were cold thought he was turning it up, and everyone felt better! Sometimes even “people people” want to be alone, and sometimes introverts want a hug.

A Jewish lesson from this season that applies to all of the above – those who love groups and those who prefer to be alone, universalists and particularists, in-person and online, a band of hunter-gatherers and the interconnected 21st century world. The traditional High Holidays liturgy focuses on repairing one’s relationship with a divine – asking for and hopefully receiving forgiveness. Yet, just as important, is an emphasis on repairing human relationships. In all varieties of Judaism, there is no higher forgiveness for hurting others without first asking for and receiving forgiveness from the person one has wronged. Relationships are living things, and living things can break a femur and need care and support and patience to heal – the wound can leave a scar, a fracture, and the relationship may never be the same again. If we repair a damaged relationship, it will continue, it will contribute to our happiness and well-being, it can remain an important part of who we are and whom we want to be. Not ALL relationships deserve to be saved, and it takes two to repair damage. You can debate which is harder: to ask for forgiveness, or to offer forgiveness when someone asks. Again, it depends, diverse circumstances and personalities, a balance between justice and moving forward. If we do not try, if we say to ourselves “if I never loved, I never would have cried, I am a rock and an island,” then the relationship will wither and something valuable will be lost.

When “me” meets “we,” whether it’s one person or a group, that is a relationship. We risk misunderstandings, insults, offense. We risk rejection, indifference or to the other extreme OVER-acceptance where we lose our individuality. What we need to keep me-we relationships strong is to enter with our eyes open, keep our sense of self, and above all we need to both give and receive. When Hanukkah encountered commercialized Christmas in the 20th century, our children learned quickly from their neighbors how to expect gifts. Did we teach them how to receive? Did we teach them how to give? We need to speak to each other in terms we understand, we need to expect that other people’s minds work differently from our own, and we need to listen when we are told something is wrong. A bridge firmly rooted on one side and crumbling on the other will not last.

It is not good for humanity to be alone; we are social animals. We have endured the isolation of pandemic, the group conflict of social crisis, the risks of individual alienation and the stresses of group conformity. We still believe it is better to be together. You might not know that our broader movement of Secular Humanistic Judaism has disagreed about how to sing one of our most common songs. Hinnay Ma Tov U-Ma Na’eem shevet akhim gam yachad “behold how good and how pleasant it is for siblings to dwell together.” The problem is that in Hebrew, other than some experimental linguistics, there is no gender-neutral way to say “siblings,” so it literally says “brothers.” Some feel this is just how Hebrew grammar works and they prefer to sing the original words from Psalm 133 in common with the rest of the Jewish world. Others prioritize inclusivity and alternate “Akhim” (brothers) and “Akhayot” (sisters) as they sing, but the meter doesn’t always work. And still others try to avoid gender altogether by changing “achim” to “amim”, which means “nations” – behold how good and pleasant it is for groups, ethnicities, nations to dwell together. A balance of continuity with tradition and expressing our values. The differences between shevet achim – brothers or siblings and shevet amim – nations, that’s open for debate. The debate itself demonstrates the power of diversity and balance, because when one community has different people singing each word at the same time, achim and amim, it still makes beautiful music. Because it is better to be together.

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Personal Values, Public Responsibility – Rosh Hashana Morning 2022/5783

This blog post is based on a Rosh Hashana evening sermon delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September, 2022. For the complete series, click here. A video of this sermon is available here.

Some choices are nobody’s business. My liking pickles and eating them alone in my own home does not affect your life. Unless you are my family who cannot stand even the idea of pickles. Too bad, family, I loved pickles before I loved you. But my pickle passion is not an ethical issue that affects your life; it’s a personal preference, a matter of taste (good or bad). If I decided to make pickles and the smell spread through the neighborhood, that might be nuisance enough to earn a local fine. It would be bad manners and inconsiderate, but not evil. If I upped my pickle production even more, to the point that noxious fumes were getting pets and people sick, now my pickle-palooza is a health hazard that must be stopped. My mania for the sourest of sour dills has crossed the line from personal flaw to immoral obsession. It is now morally right and morally required to intervene and to stop me.

Most people assume ethics is a question of HOW – how to be a good person, how to know right from wrong, how to balance individual desires with group needs. In the real world, morality also requires some understanding of WHEN and WHERE. When should our values affect only personal choices, and when should we impose our values on the outside world? Some of you may recall a past High Holiday series on “the hardest things to say,” like “I don’t know” or  “help me.” I pointed out then that “you are right and I am wrong” is HARD to say, but it’s very EASY to say “I am right and YOU are wrong!” 

When we think of people publicly telling us we are morally wrong, what do we picture? Maybe anti-abortion protestors, or the Westboro Baptist Church condemning the LGBT and those who accept them, or fundamentalist prudes telling women they’re too exposed. Or, maybe it’s the militantly secular demanding that Western Muslim women to uncover their heads, or European animal rights activists banning kosher and halal slaughter, or each side in the American culture wars trying to ban the books and de-platform the speakers of the other – all in the name of what is right, what is moral, how the world out there should conform to MY morals in my heart and in my congregation.

Part of the moral crisis we face today is that question of WHEN and WHERE – when can we take what we value in here – in our own minds, in our families, in our communities of meaning – and then impose those values on the outside world? We do not want others telling us what to do, so when can we tell THEM what we want them to do or not do? Here’s one example: when our children went to preschool, we faced a dilemma – the preschool had tricycles to ride at recess, and wearing helmets was optional based on parent preference. My wife’s close friend had her life saved by a bike helmet, and we are seatbelt kind of people anyways, so we knew we would require our children to wear helmets. Other parents made different choices, and our kids had already seen other families riding bikes both with and without helmets. We had to explain why THEY had to wear helmets while other kids would not. Our solution was to say that we felt the unhelmeted were not making a smart choice. Is that judgmental of other people’s preference? Yes it is, even if it’s judgmental while affirming their right to choose differently. But we would rather be a little judgmental with safe children who understand safe choices, than to abdicate our parental responsibility for their safety by telling them “do whatever you want.” This was OUR balance between helicopter parenting and free range parenting, between a nanny state and a state small enough to drown in a bathtub, between living our own values and letting others live theirs. We could have decided that our 4 year old could do their own cost-benefit analysis between the wind in their hair and their head on the pavement. Or, since preventing harm to others is a moral action, we could have decided that letting ANY child ride without a helmet was immoral, child endangerment, and we could have demanded that the preschool change its policy or else we would leave, maybe even protest in front of the school and online until they accepted our moral judgment. This is what we chose – what would you have done?

Historically, religion has had few qualms about vocally and vehemently telling people they are doing wrong. Torah commandments are not secrets, or only for the elite, or multiple choice. Hebrew prophets fervently condemned both human cruelty and the theological infidelity of “whoring” after other gods. Why do Jews break a glass at the end of weddings? One source describes a rabbi upset that a wedding party was celebrating with too much joy while the Jerusalem Temple lay destroyed that he smashed an expensive glass to correct them. Jesus threw money changers out of that same Temple and preached repentance before the end of days. Mohammed and his successors fused religion and politics in one ‘umma or community to purify Muslim religious practice & impose Islam on those who did not worship one god with written revelations, as did Christians or Jews. Witches have been burned, heretics persecuted, infidels slaughtered, all in the name of enforcing morality. Ironically, we call what they did evil; they were convinced they were righteous.

This history gives us pause if we consider proclaiming our own moral mission: are we crusading for justice, or are we just Crusaders in the 21st century, convinced of our righteousness to the point of blindness? 100 years ago, it was illegal in the United States to consume alcohol outside of small quantities for religious rituals; l’chaim was ok, but no more. Prohibition was passed with the best moral intentions: fighting alcoholism, eliminating public drunkenness, reducing domestic abuse and poverty, improving public safety – hear the religious fervor in the Women’s CHRISTIAN Temperance Union. Of course, people who wanted to drink and felt it was a personal choice just ignored the rules, and there were real dangers from bootleg liquor and the explosion in criminality by bootleggers. Eventually, the country agreed that the harms of prohibition outweighed the benefits, and also that allowing drinking at all is a personal choice even with the risks of abuse and addiction, drunk driving, fetal alcohol syndrome and all the rest. Would banning alcohol today potentially save lives? Yes. Would that impose one group’s choice on everyone? Yes.

We need to differentiate between personal preference and moral crisis. Some issues are moral dilemmas, and some issues, it’s just a pickle. We do not rely on commandments, so it would be particularly hypocritical for me to tell you exactly what to do! And recall that morality is about more than just harming or helping people. We consider some deeds immoral if they treat people deeply unfairly, even if the harm is minimal. Some deeds are immoral if they undermine our freedom and autonomy, some are immoral if they are rooted in deception or violate fundamental dignity. Some deeds are considered immoral if they undermine key structures and institutions. For more about these categories of moral thinking, I recommend moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Morality, and the root of our current moral crisis, is not just a question of how, it is a question of when and where and the complex intersection of multiple duties. Do we lie to save someone from what we think will hurt them, or does that undermine their dignity to handle the truth and the lie itself is a moral violation? Social cohesion is good for humanity, but what are the proper limits on personal expression? Today we are focused on life and death, the moral category of harm and care, but remember that morality encompasses much more. Rabbinic ethics likewise grappled with the conflict of duties: can you break Shabbat to save a life? How do you honor your parents if they are thieves?

There’s an old saying about when morality intervenes in personal choices: “your freedom ends where your fist hits my nose.” Fist, not pickle smell. This could mean that I can punch a wall and hurt myself, because that does not hurt you any more than singing the University of Michigan fight song with its arm gesture. Even though I grew up rooting for U-M and I am an alumnus, my post-Holocaust brain still has a visceral reaction to a full stadium raising their right arm and yelling “Hail! Hail!” They’re not being immoral, that is my personal reaction to their free expression. We’ll talk more about the power of words and symbols on Yom Kippur. If we agree with this principle of “your freedom ends where your fist hits my nose,” then we are respecting bodily autonomy. There are times, for social good, we infringe on that right, like mandatory vaccines for school admission, but my bodily autonomy is a moral good. This is why I support the rights of those with terminal illnesses to freely choose to end their own pain by ending their lives. For me, Death with Dignity is a moral issue. Non-addictive substances from marijuana to mushrooms are none of our business unless you put me at risk by operating a vehicle – your freedom also ends where your CAR hits mine. Bodily autonomy for what we put in our bodies (or what we remove) is a moral issue.

Are these also “political” issues? Yes, they are political because they involve passing or revoking laws. Sometimes there is no bright line between what is political and what is moral, because laws limit or permit personal behavior and regulate how we interact with each other. Morality in every flavor agrees that killing people is wrong and saving lives is right. But how indirectly can the causation be to make behavior immoral enough to require action? Most agree that drunk driving is close enough to potential homicide to require intervention. Now we know that driving with gasoline contributes to climate-change-fueled severe weather which kills people, but most disagree that driving with any amount of gasoline is dangerous enough to morally condemn it, at least outside of California. My family has chosen to drive fuel-efficient and now electric vehicles from our moral conviction, but your mileage may vary.

So what about the guns? Guns are designed to hurt and to kill, but there is a world of difference in both practical risk and moral responsibility between a responsible gun owner with licensing and training, trigger locks, safely stored ammunition, weapon registration and reasonable firepower on one hand, and the wild west with weapons of war we face today. There is no one size fits all moral answer to some aspects of this challenge. Suicide with a gun kills more people every year than homicide, and handguns kill far more people than long guns like an AR-15. That does NOT mean that there is NOTHING we can do. Nor that the language of morality is beyond the pale. The rabbinic principle of pikuach nefesh, the saving of life, is so important that one may violate practically any religious law to save a life – drive on Shabbat, eat forbidden food, even violate the fast of Yom Kippur. A new “prohibition” will not work, but taking on weapons of war and high capacity magazines and unchecked gun sales will save some lives. You do not need to believe that every human being was created in the image of God to save lives; you just have to believe they exist today in your image and they want to live as much as you do. I understand this is the same motivation claimed by the  pro-life movement, to save what they consider human life. But if they have the right to advocate for their values on the grounds of morality, so do I.

20 years ago, political commentators began writing about “Values voters” – they meant fundamentalist Christian voters, voters who were for school prayer and for government support of religion and against teaching evolution and against gay marriage and against abortion. These “values voters” voted based on their religious and moral beliefs, not their economic interests or global geopolitics or environmentalism. As usual, this was lazy punditry – pro-choice and pro-science and pro-separation of church and state and pro-marriage equality voters ALSO have values! They vote based on those values. The more we learn about the brain, the more we realize that no one is a purely rational actor making purely analytical decisions. The more intense the culture wars have become, the harder it is to draw a line between “politics” and “morality.” Stigmatizing transgender athletes and banning gender-affirming healthcare leads to more suicides. Banning abortion imposes one segment of one religion’s definitions of life on everyone. We have seen how undermining science can impact life and death. Do I vote because of my moral beliefs? I hope I do!

Out there in the real world, it feels like we face a moral crisis. The solution to our moral crisis is NOT more of that old-time religion, with commandments and cosmic judgment and heresy and inquisition. We need to speak up with our moral voice for our moral values: care and concern, diversity and dignity, respect and social cohesion, freedom and responsibility. In traditional rabbinic thought, a cosmic Book of Life opens on Rosh Hashana is sealed on Yom Kippur. These 10 days decide who will live and who will die in the new year. The purpose of High Holiday services was to achieve divine forgiveness so your name would be written in that Book of Life. Today I challenge us with a different book of life – how many names, how many lives, can we save by what we do in the 12 months to come? It can be as mundane as donating blood or as significant as passing legislation, or as easy as supporting a shelter for battered women and children, as we are again this year.

These lives can only be saved by human actions that we take. As the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once wrote, “even a fist was once an open palm with fingers.” If we extend our open palm, and we join hands, and we work together, moral crisis becomes a moral opportunity to do good. What better message to carry into a new Jewish year? Shana Tova, and may YOU do some writing in the book of life.

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Violence and Safety – Rosh Hashana Evening 2022/5783

This blog post is based on a Rosh Hashana evening sermon delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September, 2022. For the complete series, click here. A video of this sermon is available here.

Have you ever tried listing the 10 commandments {e.g. Exodus 20} from memory? It’s harder than all 7 Dwarves! Some are easy to remember {note: not in original written order}
1) thou shalt not kill,
2) thou shalt not steal,
3) honor thy parents,
4) thou shalt not bear false witness (don’t lie).
These are universal rules you do not need a Moses to discover.

Two commandments have little to do with ethics:
5) to worship one god alone and
6) thou shalt not take its name in vain.
You can be a good person with many gods, one god or none at all.

There are two ritual commandments:
7) thou shalt not worship idols and
8) thou shalt observe Shabbat.
And there’s the unenforceable rule about jealousy:
9) thou shalt not not covet your neighbor’s property or spouse or livestock; the basis of capitalism (but don’t tell Jeff Bezos).

What’s left? The one most people forget, the one I haven’t mentioned yet?….
10) Thou shalt not commit adultery!

One of those 10 commandments is easy to remember, except we remember it wrong because of a bad translation. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” in Hebrew is Lo Tirtzakh, literally you will not MURDER. What is the difference between “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not murder?” Murder is ILLEGAL killing. The Torah itself describes cases of unintentional manslaughter: for example, if you were chopping wood and the axehead slipped off the handle and killed someone {Deuteronomy 19:5}. Unintentional, not murder.

The Torah accepts a legal death penalty: as justice for murder, but also the penalty for heresy as mundane as gathering sticks on Shabbat {Numbers 15:33-37}. Thou shalt observe shabbat – or else! There is warfare, and self-defense, and the defense of others threatened by a potential murderer. Believe it or not, the rabbis later extended definition of a rodef, a pursuer trying to kill someone else, to a fetus that threatens its mother’s life. Even during the process of birth, that “pursuer” could be terminated to save the mother. “Thou shalt not kill” is absolute pacifism; “Thou shalt not murder,” to adapt sociologist Max Weber, means the political entity, the state, has a legal monopoly on violence.

Why talk about violence on Rosh Hashana? This High Holidays, we explore morality, how we decide right from wrong, how we live with other people without knowing whether one of them could turn dangerous, and break Weber’s monopoly on us. We face a crisis – a crisis in Humanist faith, a moral crisis – not just whether people are moral enough, but whether human morality itself is enough for our survival. Our emotions are at the breaking point: over the past few years, the anger, stress, tension and trauma have become a toxic brew for increased conflict. How to be good so we can live together is an issue as old as human life itself. 2000 years ago, in the midst of discussions about travel boundaries for Jewish holidays, this debate was recorded:

For two and a half years, the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai argued. One said that it was better that humanity was actually created, and the other said that it would have been better for humanity to not have been created. They voted and determined that it would have been better not to have been created, but now that we are created, we should study our past deeds, or consider our future actions. {Bab. Talmud, Eruvin 13b}

The results of that debate either way would not change reality – no takebacks on creation! Reality is what it is whether we like it or not. Therefore it is all the more important to act in response to that reality rather than deny it. If the world is not just, if there is no cosmic guarantee the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked punished, in this life or the next, wishing will not make it so.

We do not want to live in a world where children do ALICE incident training, a world where we wonder what the next shocking news headline will be. But we are not gifted with the world we want, nor with the raw material of human nature we would prefer. We do not want to return to a mythical innocence and ignorance of a Garden of Eden, Yet Genesis demonstrates a profound insight in the flow of its narrative – the very next story in the Jewish library after knowledge and with a society of just 4 people describes a rivalry over the limited resources of cosmic fortune and violence from social conflict. In the early years of the Enlightenment, we had a secular faith that humanity could be perfected, that with proper social organization and education the human “blank slate” would be whatever we told it to be. We should have known better; the human and the Jewish experience of the bloody 20th century disabused us of that illusion. We thought the Russian pogroms of 1903-1906 were terrible, with a few thousand Jews murdered, or the White Army pogroms while fighting Bolsheviks in 1919 that killed tens of thousands. We know what happened next, and we have to grapple with the reality that we live in a world where people have done & can do terrible, terrible things. The reports yet to come from liberated Ukraine will be one more boulder on the scale of judgment.

After centuries of persecution, pogroms, exile and suffering, a Yiddish saying evolved: s’iz shver tsu zein a yid it is hard to be a Jew. Hard to live with joy, to celebrate life, to hope for the future knowing what you know about people out there and what they can do. Isn’t that how everyone, not just Jews, feels these days? How can we go out and go to school and travel and live? The last two years, we were afraid of a virus; now we are afraid of each other, and masks and vaccines do no good. Humanists and Humanistic Jews do not believe that an all-powerful personality or guardian angel is watching over us every minute of every day. We strongly doubt that karma will work it all out, or that a cosmic reward awaits that will make it all better. Our focus on this life does make this life more meaningful. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist activist and evolutionary biologist, was once asked, “If you don’t believe in an afterlife, how can you get up in the morning.” He replied, “That’s WHY I get up in the morning! I only have so many mornings to live and enjoy and learn, and I don’t want to miss any of them.” Humanistic Rabbi Greg Epstein once said that Humanists believe in life BEFORE death. However, if this is the only life we know for sure, and we could reasonably expect another 30, 40, 50 years, then we are that much more reluctant to risk it. If the only experience of our loved ones will be in this life, we are even more afraid to lose them.

If our secular and this-worldly approach to this one precious life makes us cautious, so too can the Jewish experience. There was always a disconnect between official Jewish theology and lived Jewish history. We were supposed to be the Chosen People, the most favored nation of the one cosmic God – and yet we lost and we suffered and we were exiled. To some, it made more sense to assume god was just and to blame ourselves as sinners being punished; the ultra-Orthodox of today are in some ways even more fanatically pious and strict than their grandparents were before the Holocaust because of this thinking. Yet there were other Jews who decided the world was more farce than tragedy, and that it was better to laugh than to cry. Think of Tevye’s response in the Sholem Aleichem stories or in Fiddler on the Roof: if this is what it’s like being the Chosen People, once in a while choose someone else! Jewish humor, even the sardonic and cynical, is also a survival strategy.

Jewish history has been so long and so varied that we’ve seen just about everything. In the Middle Ages, it was generally easier to be a Jew under Islam than under either the Catholic or Orthodox Christian churches; today, for all of our challenges, Jews are freer and safer in the post-Christian West than in most parts of the Muslim world, and most Jews from Muslim lands were persecuted into exile and now live in Israel, Europe and North America. For much of our diaspora experience, organized society out there could persecute or expel us; it was the unusual individual who might intervene to rescue us. Today we generally trust the organized society of laws to direct their monopoly on violence to defend us. It is the unusual individual who might target us. We are invested in legal professions as judges and lawyers and their clients; Jews tend to support gun control and hired professional security or police rather than encourage congregant open carry. But the last few years, after armed attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway CA and Jersey City NJ and Monsey NY and Coleyville TX – well, it begins to feel like unusual individuals are more motivated these days.

And yet, with all that history and culture and tragedy and trauma past and present, I am here. You are here. Children are born, people fall in love and get married, the drop-off area at the airport is still called “kiss and fly”. We see strangers every day in grocery stores and restaurants, we drive next to them in traffic jams, they treat us in doctor’s offices, they serve us food in restaurants, they walk next to us on the sidewalk. Are we stupid? Are we gullible? Are we asking for it? Or are we being brave to simply live our lives? Some of you might have seen the documentary Murderball about the US wheelchair rugby team.

The team is made up of team members who had been high level athletes before severe spinal injury. There is a very touching scene when one of the athletes visits a newly-injured young man who is still in the first month after realizing what his future will be. When he sees the armored chariot that this wheelchair rugby athlete uses, his eyes begin to light up a bit. And the athlete says to him, “It’s ok to feel bad about yourself and to hate the world in the first month and the first 6 weeks. And then you have to figure out, ‘what do I do now? How do I live the rest of my life.” You see, living a life in a wheelchair is not heroic; it’s living a life, because living your life is not heroic, it is what people do. . 

The scale weighing humanity does not crash over and collapse; it IS better that we exist than that we do not. Early in my tenure at Kol Hadash, I had a member ask me, “Can you be a Humanist if you don’t like people?” The truth is that humanity is almost infinitely diverse. We all know kind people, generous people, protective people, loving people. And people together are doing wonderful things to help our fellow humans, in small ways and on a global scale. We have all experienced the best of human nature, even as we are aware of the worst. The Yiddish term mensch simply means “person,” but it is understood to be the best kind of person one can imagine. If there is evil in the world, there are also menschen. So how do we make more menschen? Can our morality address this crisis of Humanist faith in humanity’s potential? Can we convince people to balance their own well-being with that of others, to affirm freedom while encouraging responsibility? Is our morality without commandments and commanders fit for the task? That is what we explore though this High Holiday season, turning tomorrow to our responsibilities to each other. 

Yet we have not answered the key issue with which we began. Our morality, our choices and our actions, matter nothing if we are not alive to exercise them. What good are liberty and the pursuit of happiness if we do not have life?

I grew up in a Humanistic Jewish congregation, and my Bar Mitzvah project was a study of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. My Hebrew reading was a passage from rabbinic literature that said. Whoever saves a life, it is as if they have saved an entire world.” You do not need the Ten Commandments to know that murder is wrong, and that stopping murder is right. If we CAN stop murder and do not act, if we allow a pursuer to kill when we could stop them or reduce their firepower or raise a red warning flag, then our morality has failed precisely in the moment of crisis. At the same time, we let those who threaten us win if we surrender our freedom to act, to move, to live as we want to live. So we return to public life, we come together, we open our doors and we sing our shared truths because, in the words of Jewish spiritual resistance from 1939, mir veln zey iberleben – we will outlive them”. Not just that we will survive, but we will thrive, we will live our best lives, we will live more fully/joyfully than they can imagine. We will OUT-Live them.

In the real world, reality is not destiny. What is today does not have to be what will be tomorrow. And what was is not what is. Celebrating the Jewish New Year is a statement of hope – we do not only look backward to a year just concluded, we look forward to the future we create together. And we want more than just a year of life – we want a shana tova u’mtuka, a good year and a sweet year, sweetened with the joy of living our best lives, and living them together.

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Morality in Crisis – High Holidays 2022/5783

These High Holiday sermons were delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in September-October/Tishrei 2022/5783. Video is available on this YouTube playlist.

What do we do when it feels like the world is falling apart? Can Jewish culture and
Humanistic values be relevant, even inspirational, in moments of crisis? And how can we
find shared purpose and action in our personal diversity?

Rosh Hashana Evening – Violence and Safety
The most basic social contract of a moral society promises reasonable physical safety. Yet we are afraid in schools, while traveling, and at mass events. We fear hateful strangers and unstable neighbors. How can we find the confidence and courage to leave our homes and live our lives?

Rosh Hashana Morning – Personal Values, Public Responsibility
If the morality of our choices depends on their results, then we must live our values in the real world. From the Biblical “thou shalt not murder” to the Rabbinic “pikuach nefesh – saving a life” to the Utilitarian “greatest happiness of the greatest number,” our action or inaction is truly a matter of life and death.

Yom Kippur Evening – Isolation, Tribalism and Community
We are more interconnected, and more isolated, than ever. The lonely sometimes hide from the world before exploding outward in anger. Cultural, social and political bubbles create echo chambers, reinforcing “our” virtue and “their” villainy. How can we transcend our instinctive limits to include everyone in our orbit of concern?

Yom Kippur Morning – Freedom and Autonomy
Radical individualism corrodes social bonds, but radical communal authority imposes on the individual. We want our public schools free of religious coercion and our intimate choices of identity, partnership and reproduction to be our own. When we no longer agree on what “freedom” means, how can we assert our right to be in charge of our own lives?

Yom Kippur Memorial – Anger, Grief and Consolation
The old model of stages of grief is passé. Anger and grief can all appear at once or reappear in unpredictable waves. We must have realistic goals for our mourning and consolation, knowing that we never get over a loss; we simply get used to it. Our pain can motivate us to do better for others and for the future.

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Freedom To vs. Freedom From

Recent news suggesting that the US Supreme Court is about to reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that nationally legalized abortion – either long-feared or long-awaited, depending on one’s beliefs – has brought to mind Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (and the Hulu TV series that started airing in 2017). In Atwood’s novel, demographic fears have created a totalitarian America where the few women who are fertile are forced to bear children for others. Their rights are severely restricted, yet their limited world is presented as its own kind of “freedom.”

There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

“Freedom to” represents positive liberty: freedom to speak, freedom to work, freedom to choose. But that could also mean freedom to fail or freedom to suffer. Freedom from is more protective: freedom from fear, freedom from violence, freedom from doubt. But that could also mean freedom from opportunity and choice, in some sense freedom from freedom!

Given the horrific world described by Atwood, liberals and progressives might assume that “freedom to” is automatically better than “freedom from.” However, if one maps out the ideas politically, “freedom to” fits most naturally with libertarians, while the paternalism of “freedom from” could be expressed either as a socialist safety net OR an authoritarian theocracy. My freedom to speak might infringe on your freedom from being offended, and vice versa. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights included both:

…the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…

The concept of “freedom to” and “freedom from” predates both Atwood and the UN. Humanist psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm described both in Escape from Freedom (1941), which attempted to explain the rise of Nazism. The psychological uncertainty, social instability and paralysis created by too much “freedom to” is addressed by authoritarians promising “freedom from.” We also recognize, as did George Orwell’s 1984 that the same totalitarian restriction on freedom could come from right-wing fascism or left-wing Soviet Communism. Opposite ends of the conventional political spectrum, same results: plenty of “freedom from,” very little “freedom to.”

The potential loss of women’s “freedom to” choose their reproductive lives, and follow-up implications that might affect contraception, the LGBT and others, is an expression of this ongoing struggle between these different kinds of freedom. Aspirational American theocrats would create a world of “freedom from” that hearkens back to earlier decades (or centuries!) of social restriction and forced conformity, a world-view all to often played out on women’s bodies and with women’s rights. The 1979 Iranian Revolution and its harsh results for women’s freedoms was part of the background to The Handmaid’s Tale; the strict social control of ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects demands female modesty with comparable fervor, and it also provides a world of “freedom from” choice and uncertainty.

Given the alternatives, I’ll take the uncertainties, and liberties, of “freedom to.”

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Ever Again?

The recent discovery of atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine is shocking, but also not shocking. We have seen all too often that the worst angels of our nature emerge in military conflict, and civilians pay the price. It has happened in Europe and the Middle East and Asia and the Americas, it has happened in the distant past and in the 21st Century.

After the Holocaust, we aspired to “Never Again,” though some debate if that means never again to the Jewish people or never again to anyone. If the goal was never again to anyone, humanity has definitely failed. The deaths of thousands to millions in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Yemen, Syria, the Rohinga in Myanmar and the Uyghurs in China….does the definitional line between intentional genocide and mass violent death of civilians matter to the dead and the bereaved? For all of our technological sophistication and internet connectedness, the eternal question of Genesis – “am I my brother’s keeper” – echoes hauntingly.

Given this repeated evidence all over the world, one could easily despair of our higher humanist and humanitarian ideals. Perhaps civilization is but a thin masquerade covering our innate brutality, the last century of international “progress” is an illusion, and our only hope is brute force to protect ourselves. The fact that we are shocked to see such devastation in Europe reveals our bias, since it is the same strategy Russia has pursued in Syria, and before that in Chechnya. And the civil war in Yemen, a bloody proxy war for Iran and Saudi Arabia, goes on whether we pay attention or not. We have said “never again,” but given the realities of human nature, we are chagrined to confess it might be more like “ever again.”

Or the truth is in fact the opposite – we are shocked by these human-made disasters because our expectations, our values have changed. The violence of past generations was worse and more endemic to society than we experience today, even if we have cellphone video. And the answer to new outrages is not to become calloused and indifferent; our outrage is all the more needed today. If we recognize our bias, we must learn to pay more attention to other corners of the world than our own; we need to remind ourselves that the partner to “never again” was “never forget.” While some (myself included) feared that Ukraine in February 2022 was a repeat of Poland in September 1939, united international reactions to the invasion seem to have changed the situation by early April.

There will still be more suffering, more death and destruction before the guns fall silent. And there will be still more time until the full picture of this human-authored tragedy comes to light. If we believe that human power is the only conscious power that can work for good in the universe, then we must steel ourselves to use that power to the best of our ability. Not only to cure disease or recover from earthquakes, but also to give us courage and strength to fight against human evil. If we humans can destroy, we can also comfort, and we can rebuild.

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A Purim Newsletter 2022/5782

The Kol Hadash Shofar – Purim Edition
Volume 1, Number 0 – Adar III, 1776

Howdy Doody from Rabbi Sholem

“Profundity”

A college professor under whom I studied once said, “La lluvia en España se calle principalmente en la pampa.” Why this was said in a Hebrew class I never understood. The veracity of a discourse is hardly ever correlated to its ur-context. One may employ any variety of metaphor, synecdoche, or ellipses to convey ambiguity, fluidity of meaning, or even internalized ambivalence concerning the ultimate public value of one’s utterance, but in the final analysis the sincerity of one’s pronouncement hinges on the inner conviction undergirding it. Or, as they say in Yiddish, mekka lekka hi mekka hiney hiney ho.

This passage from the secret symbolic esoteric Kabbalah text Sefer Sherwin also sheds some light on the subject:

The first words, “Ayfo Oree – where is my light”, are an indication of humanity’s indeterminacy – we do not even have the inspiration necessary to find illumination, let alone enlightenment. Meanwhile, the resolution’s anonymous object “v’gam bakh – and in you” indicates the ultimate significance of the unmoved observer who has not yet engaged in dialogue with dialogue itself.

Perhaps the most precise rendering of this conceptual framework is the French saying, “un voyage de mille pas commence par l’enlèvement des déchets – a journey of a thousand steps begins by taking out the trash.” In other words, cut the crap and say what you believe!

Adult Education: Tuesday, 9:45 PM, 25th of Adar III, 57747593.4
The Three Most Obscure Rabbis in the Talmud: Rabbi Hoo-hoo, Rabbi Ha-Ha and Rabbi Shmuel Hershel ben Yerocham Laybl Fitzpatrick

You may have thought your Jewish education was complete with knowing how to make latkes for Rosh Hashana. But you have just scratched the surface of obscure Jewish trivia. Why pay attention to the most important, inspirational or often-cited authorities when you can learn practically nothing from the rabbinic version of a one-hit wonder? It took Rabbi Chalom three months just to find these guys, so it better have been worth it.

Shabbat: Saturday, 16th of Chutzpah, 7:17 AM, 314159
Humans Are, Like, Awesome!
We are the best species ever! We can do just about anything, have done just about anything, and we rule the planet by virtue of our big brains and bigger guns, germs and steel. Join us for a rip-roaring pep rally to the awesomeness that we are — it doesn’t get more Humanistic than this!


Committee Committee Meeting: April 1, 7:30 PM
The Committee Committee will hold its annual meeting to execute its annual task of forming another committee. Pursuant to our bylaws, section 249, paragraph 17, “No congregational year shall pass without the formation of at least one (1) new committee.” Under consideration for this year: Shabbat Attendance-Monitors Committee; Sunday Bagel Shleppers Committee; Whiners Committee; No-Guilt-Gelt-Getters Committee.

HAPPY PURIM!

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Power and Powerlessness

My teacher, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, often emphasized that a key question for any religion or philosophy of life is, “where do I find the power to face the challenges of life?” Conventional Western theistic religions have emphasized prayer, divine intervention, miracles, guardian angels, and providence to avert disaster. And if disaster does strike, consolation is offered through the belief that, though tragic, one’s pain is in service of a greater divine plan, or a test of one’s faith, or even the consequence of one’s sins. In other words, some challenges are deemed necessary, and the power needed to face them is the power to endure suffering rather than end it.

The philosophy of Humanism takes a very different approach. We emphasize human power and responsibility, the tremendous achievements already realized through human efforts to make our lives longer and better, the importance of action rather than prayer to make our hopes real. We do not see cosmic virtue in suffering, and we do not assume that disaster is a necessary part of a divine plan. Rather than seeking the serenity to accept what we cannot change, we seek the strength to do what we can to improve the world and our own situation. And when we act, we KNOW we are making a difference because we can see the effects of our efforts.

Of course, many religious people DO act to help while also offering “thoughts and prayers.” And even those without 100% faith in direct divine intervention feel comforted by expressing their hopes, and many who know they are being prayed for feel better as well. If we secular people choose to act rather than pray, it is because we want more than to feel better.

Our Humanist stance has its shortcomings, as we discover far too often. When disaster strikes far away, be it natural disaster or unnatural human-authored cruelty (as we currently see in Ukraine), we may sign an online petition, donate money, change our Facebook profile picture, or boycott certain products. And those actions in sufficient numbers certainly make a difference over time. But it can feel like rather weak tea in the face of massive suffering, destruction and death that continues despite our efforts.

We believe that human power is the only conscious power working for good in our world. One of the challenges of relying on human power is accepting its limitations: we have limited knowledge and limited abilities. Some of us act for the greater good, and others impose their will on others at the cost of great suffering. There are no guarantees of a happy ending, and even a happy ending does not make up for unjust pain and death.

All the more reason to do what we can, and to push ourselves to do more, to move the ball forward in the right direction. All the more reason to offer the consolation of shared tears and empathetic pain. All the more reason to move from words to action – as Shimon Ben Gamliel said centuries ago, “study is not the most important things, but rather actions.” Humanity does not simply accept its limitations; it transcends them one step, one insight, one good deed for another at a time.

The Hebrew poet Rahel put it beautifully in the 20th century:

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. . . .

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?

If we cannot do anything or everything, let us nevertheless do what we can, together.

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