The New Jewish Landscape – 2017

This post is based on a sermon delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation on August 25, 2017. You can hear audio of the sermon as delivered here

2000 years ago, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. This was a crushing blow to the Jewish community and its leadership. After all, this was the temple of the Hebrew God that was to stand forever. It defined all of Jewish practice and belief. Most of the Torah is consumed with sacrifices and rituals predicated on there being a Temple in Jerusalem. Now that Temple was destroyed.

Parts of the Jewish community of the time thought there was nothing left to do but fast until death, for it must have been because of our sins that we were punished like this, and our continuing sins were un-atoneable, for there was no sacrifice to atone any more.

Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah was known for saying, “Don’t fast too much, life must continue.” An anecdote records a moment of despair even for Rabbi Joshua:

One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai was walking in Jerusalem with Rebbi Yehoshua, they arrived at where the Temple in Jerusalem now stood in ruins. “Woe to us” cried Rabbi Yehoshua, “for this house where atonement was made for Israel’s sins now lies in ruins!” Answered Rabban Yochanan, “We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim (loving kindness), as it is stated ‘I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice.’

What to do? If the Temple is burned, you go on. You create anew. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai and Rabbi Joshua and their generation (and the generation that followed) is what today we know as rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism to which we are all heirs. If there was a crash, a destruction, there was also an opportunity for new creation.

We are today dealing with the unexpected. We had, what you might call, irrational exuberance. We believed in the inevitability of progress and enlightenment. This has happened from time to time in human history. In our own days, the election of the first black president of the United States looked like it would be followed by the election of first woman president. There was a global agreement finally reached to address global warming. There was progress in the recognition of the human rights of the LGBT community, even transgender individuals. There was a rising awareness of ongoing racial disparities in policing, in the criminal justice system and in the cultural conversation. From a Jewish perspective, more and more communities have been welcoming intermarried families (which Humanistic Judaism has done since 1960s), and affiliation rates with traditional synagogue models may have been going down but Jewish innovation models were on the rise. And on the plus side BOTH presidential candidates had Jewish sons-in-law! It was not perfect, but it seemed like the United States was gradually becoming a more perfect union.

And then, another crash – the slow motion train derailment we’ve been watching over the last several months. It feels like it culminated in Charlottesville and its aftermath – torchlight parades with swastikas, violent clashes in the streets including a vehicular homicide, armed thugs (REAL thugs) threatening a synagogue during Shabbat services. I received an email from a member of my congregation in the aftermath of Charlottesville recommending that we hire private security for our High Holiday services. I reminded them that we already work with the Bannockburn Police Department to have officers manage traffic, and if the terrorists didn’t find us when we were holding services in Lake Forest, they will NEVER find us holding High Holiday services in a church!

It feels like Jewish landscape today is very different today than when I chose this topic six weeks ago. Then I planned to talk about what American Jews believe and practice, how the Jewish community is responding to those who marry beyond the Jewish community, the changes in how people identify with being Jewish, and even our own congregation’s steps forward in re-defining what “community” means to us. But the Jewish landscape is not just defined simply by what we choose to do internally – like the rebel outsider in Fiddler on the Roof, we need to know what’s going on in the outside world, because it impacts us, and we have to try in our own small way to have an impact as well.

I want to be very clear: there are many reasons for calm even as there are also reasons to worry. I have not purchased a gun. I do not fear that my non-Jewish neighbors in Highland Park will lead a pogrom or start flying Nazi flags. At a recent rally in Boston in the aftermath of Charlottesville, there were about 200 so-called “free speech” protesters and 40,000 counter-protesters. The University of Virginia in Charlottesville just admitted its most diverse Freshman class ever. A recent survey that caused a lot of alarm showed that as many as 30 million people support some of those white supremacist ideas. But for those who have been following the statistics, this is consistent – the Anti-Defamation League holds regular surveys that have consistently shown the same as 10% or so supporting antisemitic ideas for decades. 10% of 300 million people = 30 million people. Still scary, but also not a massive increase – it’s what has been there.

It’s not news to those who have been paying attention, and those who look beyond the Blue States – go travel in the Kansas countryside, or take a drive in Indiana, look at the billboards on the side of the road. You’ll see it’s a different world out there, with different values out there, that’s different from where we are here in Blue America. We should also remember that the 10% number is down from 20% or higher in 1970s and earlier. Historically, it’s on the way down. What’s the difference between 2014 and 2017 if it’s same 10%? The difference that now they are visible, they are emboldened to march with torches lit instead of faces covered.

Just like after the destruction of Temple, I don’t want to leave you with a “what do we do?” and no answers – I have some ideas. The Four Questions of Passover are actually not called “she’elot – questions.” They are called “kushyiot” – in the Talmud’s Aramic, it’s a challenge, something that’s hard to answer. “Arba ha-kushyiot The Four Challenges.” I want to share with you today four challenges that we face in this new Jewish landscape.

Problem: Emboldened white supremacists. Not just twitter trolls who make nasty comments, but actual physical vandalism, personal threats, public marches, even their own media platform and a foot in the federal government.

Response:

  • Confidence and courage – we are the 90%, they are the 10%, and that makes a difference. And in major metro areas like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles we are often the 95%. We have to remember that the goal of terrorism is terror, to make you afraid. Now you can’t control what your heart feels, but you can control whether you go to the mall, whether you live your life, whether you speak your mind. And if you stop those things, then the terror wins. So courage and confidence are important.
  • Don’t overreact – remember the numbers, and remember who’s on our side, which is the vast majority of people, even politicians.  Even though we are afraid of what has been going on, afraid of these public marches, an overreaction that limits free speech can have its own problems. Free speech protects minorities – it doesn’t protect incitement speech or intimidation speech. But being able to speak protects us. The conservative columnist Charles Cooke wrote a great satirical column recently recommending “giving Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump the robust censorship powers that they so richly and urgently deserve.”

We have an array of differing views in this country, but I think we can all agree that nobody could be better suited to that oversight role than Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump, and the thousands upon thousands of state-level Republicans who have been recently swept into office by the infallible will of the people. Furthermore, we should all be able to unite around the appealing chance to hand more power over to the police. Donald Trump is a man marked out for his wisdom, scholarship, and judicious temperament. But, exquisite as his judgment is, he is able to direct prosecutions only on a macro level. To make the scheme work in practice, America’s police officers must enjoy the legal opportunity to determine what — and who — sits outside of the law’s protection.

Once you say that we need to have the government restrict speech, guess who’s in the government? So we shouldn’t overreact.

  • We are not the only target, but that also means we need to listen to and stand up for other people who are being targeted as well! If you want to explain to a Black Lives Matter activist why Israel is more complicated and not a “Palestinian genocide” as a Movement for Black Lives platform claimed, then you need to show them that their issues are your issues, their lives are important to you!  You need to show up for them if you want them to show up for you. The fanatics who want a White Christian America may start with the “undocumented,” or the “urban population”, when they really mean “brown people” and “black people.” But we know who’s further down that list, and it’s better to head them off at the pass when there are more of us than there are of them.
  • (I use this sometimes with my children) The River Erodes the Stone. If you have a large stone in your path, you can take a sledgehammer and try to knock it through. But sometimes the river flowing around the stone moves it. If you have an obstinate child in your way, you can head-on confront, or “the river erodes the stone,” flow around and get where you want to go. Head-on confrontation is not the only strategy – let’s be creative! In some towns in Germany, when neo-Nazis march the town makes it a fundraiser for anti-Nazi causes – for every 5 meters they walk, we’ll donate more money to anti-Nazi causes, or LGBT community centers. And the more of them show up, the more money is raised. You push back but creatively, positively. Or graffiti artists in Berlin who were upset at seeing swastikas being painted so they painted around them into comic book figures.

We can take that creative approach, counter-protest elsewhere, do something positive in response, even create alliances with unusual allies (after all, politicians on both sides condemned what happened in Charlottesvlle), then we can be more successful.

 

Problem: The indifferent response to that emboldened 10% by some leaders, including most notably President “both sides” Trump. Even a proposed congressional resolution referred to violence committed by neo-Nazis, the KKK “and others”.

Response:

  • My theory about “some nice people” at the Nazi protest: I don’t think that Trump is a hardcore ideological Nazi because I don’t think he thinks that much. What I think happened was, there were people walking in the crowd with his hats on. His approach is not Nazism, it’s narcissism. So “if there are people who like me, they must be good! They can’t be all bad if they like me!” So therefore “there must have been some nice people there since they liked me.” That’s how it works in what I call a “me-o-centric theory of the universe” – everything revolves around me. So it’s narcissism, not Nazism. That’s still very disturbing, and we know he’s said some problematic things about how he likes having Jews counting his money. That kind of “soft antisemitism” is more prevalent in an older generation, but our only hope in this case is that the next bright shiny object or personal feud will distract him and he’ll move on to something else very quickly.
  • In terms of responding to the political class, we have to keep their feet to the firean activated electorate is the best motivator for political improvement. Because they want a job! This is true for politicians on your side of the aisle, it is also true for those on the other side as well.
  • We need to learn how to build on common purpose – This will not lead to kumbaya results for the environment, on foreign policy, on tax reform priorities. South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham is going to be a conservative Republican at the end of the day. But there may be positive steps on shared issues working around the White House. For example, before the election there was a lot of talk of bipartisan work on sentencing reform, dealing with the legacy of the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentences. Maybe there are bridges to be built even if the White House refuses to move. Perhaps the White House’s threat to cancel work permits for “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants who came as children and have received work permits under DACA) will become a spur to move forward with a new Gang of Eight to build a new bridge. Maybe the Overton Window can work differently – if the White House is the extreme end, a Republican Congress no longer has to be at every moment. It will not solve everything, but it might help move forward on priorities after Charlottesville against racism, Nazism and antisemitism.

 

Problem: The political polarization which makes “both sides” accusation an easy cop-out and which makes listening hard if not non-existent. Think about the parallel Facebook universes out there where Sarah Palin has a million likes, the variety of media consumed, the kind of stories that are likely to be believed. Sometimes when we face a conflict we contract, we withdraw our circle of concern to my group, my people, my tribe. Our response has to be to resist that impulse.

Response:

  • Need to learn more broadly – One of the claims of Humanism is that we don’t know everything. We learn from each other. We have learned quite a bit as human beings through experience and knowledge and reason. But in the end, if there are new ideas, if there is new information then we have to be open to change, and to learn. We have no monopoly on the truth, and we know from our scientific study how easy it is to confirm what we already believe. Cognitive bias applies to everyone. We find support for what we already believe, we look at what is most comfortable to believe. Many people in the atheist, secular, humanist world believe in a colorblind society, they want a society where people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. So some of them are resistant to evidence that this is not already the case. They want it to be the case, but when you show them disparities in housing, in mortgage applications, in job interviews, in policing structure, sentencing guidelines, when you show them the evidence they resist it because they don’t want it to be true. But sometimes the evidence doesn’t conform to what we want to be true. We have to face those realities.
    And the only way to do that is to learn more broadly. There are populations out there that aren’t listened to. I drove through Kansas 18 months ago to visit a friend in Manhattan, Kansas at Kansas State University. As we were driving through that countryside, I could appreciate a perspective that said, “What does someone in Washington DC know about how to live my life? I’m out here on my own (apparently). I’m doing this myself. Who are you to tell me what I put in my soil?” I could appreciate from the setting how the ideology was different.
  • We need to understand how people think and where their values come from. Later this year, we’ll be discussing Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt is a moral psychologist, who studies how people do moral reasoning. He describes how people reason differently, using different categories of moral reasoning. Both liberals and conservatives have a category called care or harm – does this hurt or help someone, that can define what is morally wrong or right. Is this fair to everyone? That can define morality. Does it affirm personal liberty, the right to be in charge of my own life? Many people in the world include group loyalty as an important category of morality – does it help or hurt the group? For many, respect for authority is a moral category and disobedience to authority is a moral violation for them. And for many people, sanctity, what is holy, is important not to transgress.
    Haidt points out that conservative people tend to identify very easily with group loyalty, authority, sanctity. Think about the Christian Right and their messaging. And liberals tend to identify primarily with the care/harm category, does it hurt someone or not, and if it doesn’t it’s nobody’s business. And they are often opposed to authority and loyalty. You ask people, is violating the dress code at a school a moral violation? Conservatives say yes, liberals say it’s a moral OBLIGATION to break the dress code at the school for personal liberty and because it doesn’t hurt anyone; what business is it of yours what I wear to school? We even think  what’s right and what’s wrong differently. To understand how other people think, it’s important to understand where they’re coming from and why they’re saying what they do.

 

Problem: a paralyzing concern over what is happening to this country. The world is burning and what do I do? There’s so much that’s wrong! Consider Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America – there’s a feeling through that novel, there’s a sense that there’s so much that wrong and there’s nothing we can do. Well, there’s always something we can do.

Response:

  • Come together – in places like this and places out there. There are new communities and new kinds of activism that have sprung up in the last several months. It’s the flip side of polarization – sometimes when you polarize you find your group and then you work together with the solidarity and encouragement of like-minded people. We’ll see what happens to Jewish communities over the next 4 years, or even over the next 4 weeks before Rosh Hashana! It may be that people are looking for a place that says what they think, that reflects what they believe, and that has their people. They’re looking for that solidarity of community. Look at the turnout after 9/11. Some in the Jewish world have been complaining for years, “Well, if there’s no antisemitism, then what is going to keep the Jews Jewish?” Thank you, now we can test that theory and see what happens.
  • Resist Despair – It can become overwhelming and depressing. Turn off the computer or skip Facebook once a week. It’s ok, you can catch up, it will be there. Even more important, don’t get overwhelmed. We have to push ourselves to stay engaged, to make phone calls, to stand up instead of standing by. We have to act. Are you concerned about the environment after withdrawing from the Paris Accord? Do something yourself! Petitions and Facebook posts are something, but they are not everything. Even if you feel like the Temple has been destroyed, the world is burning out there, that means it’s time to rebuild.

What does all this mean for the Jewish landscape today? This is not the time to give up on Diaspora and move to Israel, as if that was the solution to everything. The chief rabbi Spain after the most recent terror attack there recently suggested, “we’re done here;” his bosses, the lay leaders of Spain’s Jewish community, said, “No, we’re not.” The diversity and tension created by being a minority culture in a larger culture is what made Judaism so interesting over the centuries! There’s plenty to do here, plenty of life still to be found here.

It is not the time to turn inward and exclusive, to reject the new Jewish families who bring multiple cultural and religious heritages together in their shared experience – over half of the marriages involving Jews today have a non-Jewish partner – they are no longer the odd intermarriage, they are Jewish marriages, and their families are one variety of the new Jewish family. This is not the time to raise the drawbridge, to raise the mandatory dues on those who are compelled to find a community and squeeze them – this is the time to open doors, to welcome in people looking to find those of like mind and like culture on their own terms, to show them what they’ve been missing and how much they might come to value what we offer. The American Jewish community is increasingly diverse, secularized, intersectional, and culturally Jewish.

After the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, the question was asked: if we can’t atone for our sins, what do we do? The answer was given: acts of loving kindness, and ultimately rabbinic Judaism was build around words and prayers replacing the sacrifices. If we can’t sacrifice the animals, we’ll sacrifice words and time and energy. In our day, we in Humanistic Judaism are sometimes asked, what do you do if you don’t pray? The answer: we DO! So let’s start doing.

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Forgiveness – Thoughts for Elul 5777

Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, can be a time of introspection and reflection. Rather than appealing beyond our world for forgiveness, we can turn to each other to both ask and offer a new chance, and we can also turn inward.

All people try and fail. The wise learn to forgive and try again.

Integrity means that we say what we believe, and that we believe what we say. Our integrity affirms that we are the same person, in Hebrew and in English, synagogue and public square, special moments and any moment, holiday and every day. If our ancestors believed differently, we cherish their integrity as we do ours. When we agree, we find the strength of honest roots. We honor them by celebrating our Judaism as deeply believed as they did.

We are what we say and what we do. Our intentions and emotions may be kind and generous. But if what we say and what we do are hurtful and hateful, no one will ever know our better nature. Indeed, our hands and our mouths speak the truth better than we realize. What we truly value, what we truly believe, we express in how we live.

Far easier to want to do good than to do it, to consider asking forgiveness than to ask. Far stronger to face our true selves, to acknowledge our failures, and to demand more. Integrity is not public perception. Integrity is integrating who we think we are with whom we really are, transforming our ideal self into our actual self, making who we want to be the person we are becoming.

We can be too slow to forgive others. We are long to remember injuries and short to forget assistance. Anger and memory have their place, and forgiveness does not require forgetting. We forgive by choosing not to avenge, by being open to second chances. Forgiving others brings us peace.

We can be too quick to forgive ourselves. We celebrate our successes and quickly explain away our failures. Dwelling on our shortfalls is not healthy, but neither is whitewashing them. Self-forgiveness requires honesty about the sides of ourselves we would rather not face. Forgiving ourselves bring us peace.

As we prepare for a New Year, let us pause for a moment of true forgiveness. Let us forgive others, and let us forgive ourselves.

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Forbidden Phrases for the New Year 5778

These talks will be part of High Holiday services in September 2017 for Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation and later available on The Kol Hadash Podcast and as separate posts here (adult events only). If you are interested in celebrating the Jewish New Year with us in Deerfield, Illinois, please email our office or call 847-383-5184.

We believe in freedom of speech and thought, and we believe in taking responsibility for what we say and do. Sometimes these two values require choosing our words carefully, since words create reality: “’Let there be light!’ And there was light.” If we reject words, let it be for good cause.

Rosh Hashana Evening: “Post-Truth” {Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 Word of the Year}
We must find a balance between individual perspective and objective reality. There are times it is appropriate to say, “I don’t know” or “I think,” and there are also times to say, “I DO know.” Human reason is limited — and partial, and collaborative — and it is also a powerful tool for discovering human truth.

Rosh Hashana Morning                 “Judaism Says”
Can a tradition of 3,000 years speak with one voice? All too often, we want our identity to fully endorse our personal beliefs and behavior. Just as we cannot claim that all Jews were always secular, others cannot claim Jews were always religious and always united by religion. How can we achieve unity without demanding uniformity?

Rosh Hashana Family                     “Who Cares?”
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” We can always make a difference, even if all we do is let people know they are not alone. Choosing to care is only the first step.

Yom Kippur Evening                       “Bad Jews”
We can be crueler to our own family than we are to strangers. It is all too easy to judge others by our own arbitrary standards. Do they agree with us? Do they value what we value as much as we value it? Do they live their lives the way we live ours? If we can worry more about ourselves than what others do, we might just learn there’s more than one way to bake a bagel.

Yom Kippur Morning                     “We’re Number 1!”
Competition has its place, but also its risks. We become blind to our own faults and exaggerate the danger and deficiencies of “the other.” We magnify our needs and minimize theirs. We need to seek self-esteem while avoiding chauvinism – as individuals, ethnicities and nations. Pride, honesty and humility dance a challenging but necessary waltz towards an ethical life.

Yom Kippur Family                         “My Bad – Again”
There is nothing wrong with making mistakes and apologizing, but that is only the first step. An early Jewish teaching suggests, “If someone says, ‘I will do wrong and be sorry, and then do wrong again and be sorry again,’ Yom Kippur does not work.” How can we not just fix what we’ve done wrong, but also learn to do better the next time?

Yom Kippur Memorial                   “It’s All for the Best”
A traditional Jewish response to hearing of a death is “baruch dayan ha-emet – blessed is the True Judge;” a way to claim that this loss, however painful, is all part of the plan. But what if there is no plan? What if our losses, whether sudden or gradual, tragic or at the end of a long and loving life, are simply part of the flow of life? We still need meaning, but maybe we must find meaning for ourselves.

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Dealing with the “God” Question

An earlier version of this post appeared in the journal Humanistic Judaism, Summer/Autumn 2004. Photo credit: Landa Photography.

One of the challenges in Secular Humanistic Jewish parenting and education is how to answer students’ questions about the concept, figure, and importance of “God.” Even if the children have been raised as committed Secular Humanistic Jews, they will still have their own questions as well as questions asked of them by other children (some friendly questions, others not). And if students and their parents are relatively new to a Secular or Humanistic Jewish community, they are even more likely to be looking for answers in this area. These are challenging issues for adults to address – to translate our philosophy to a child’s language and conceptual ability is that much more difficult.

This short list of 6 FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions) on the “God” question is intended to help teachers with their students and parents with their children. Two concise answers are offered to each question – one aimed at children under 7, the other at children between 8 and 12. Just as these general questions may be asked many different ways, answers can be adjusted for specific situations. “Heaven forbid” these answers be repeated verbatim; the more they are expressed in your own words, the more convincing they will be.

One piece of general advice: It’s often both useful and helpful to ask them back, “what do you think?” By saying this you affirm that their opinion is important, and that they need to make up their own mind. You can certainly share what you believe on these questions – that is both your right and responsibility as either a teacher or a parent. So saying “we believe” something might be a less accurate answer than, “I believe this; what do you believe”? You may well agree, but “we believe” is stage 2.

The best suggestion I can offer is to be honest (one of our basic principles), to be accepting of even the most challenging questions, and to be as clear as possible. I avoid condescending answers like “weak people need it” or “we’ve evolved past that primitive stage;” we want to address the question in a clear, respectful and positive way. Every Secular Humanistic Jew, even the youngest, can understand our shared values and beliefs.

1) “Do you/we/I believe in God?”

CHILDREN UNDER 7
I like to say, “I believe in you.” I can see you, touch you, hear you, and care for you. I don’t know if the idea of “God” is just an idea in your mind, or something real. Remember, it’s OK to say “I don’t know” if you really don’t know something. But I DO know that if I help you, you’re happy, and if you help me, I’m happy. So let’s look at what we KNOW, and see if that’s enough for us.

CHILDREN 8-12
We can’t know for sure if there’s a God or not. So we focus on what we DO know – we know that being good to other people is good for them and good for us, and we know that we can learn about the world from our own experience and from other people. We don’t know if a God answers prayers, so WE have to work to make the world better so that we KNOW it’s getting better. Some people believe there’s a God, and some people believe there’s no God. We pay attention to what we can do in the meantime!

Note: You can certainly share your own perspective on the likelihood or improbability of a god and what that would mean; this answer is a “lowest common denominator” of positive Humanism.

2) “Should I pray? What do I say if other kids ask me what I pray for?”

CHILDREN UNDER 7
“Praying” is another way of saying “I hope” something happens – I hope my mom comes home soon, I hope everyone gets along. Sometimes, though, hope isn’t enough – if I just “hope” that I get what I want, I can’t be sure it will happen. Sometimes we need to work to make what we “hope” into what really happens. You can tell them, “I hope and work for good things for my family.”

CHILDREN 8-12
“Praying” is like wishing or hoping for something – the difference is that prayer usually asks someone or something else, like “God,” to make it happen. But just like wishing and hoping, prayer can’t make sure that we get the good things we’re looking for. Thinking something in your brain doesn’t change the real world. On the other hand, when WE work to make our hopes into reality, we KNOW that we’re making it happen, and we get the credit for doing it. If other kids ask you about praying, you can tell them, “I hope AND I work for good things in the world.”

3) “{kid’s name} told me that we can’t be Jewish if we don’t believe in God”

CHILDREN UNDER 7
“Being Jewish” means that you are in the Jewish family. Your mom is still your mom, and your grandpa is still your grandpa, even if you have different ideas. What are some of things that we do that ARE Jewish? (holidays, songs, family names, community, foods) You see? Being Jewish is not what you think; being Jewish is who you are and what you do. You can be happy to be part of the Jewish family.

CHILDREN 8-12
Being Jewish is like being part of a family. Just like your family has family traditions, favorite family foods, and family jokes, or your school has a school mascot and school colors, the Jewish family has Jewish food, Jewish jokes, Jewish traditions – all of those together add up to what we call “culture.” You can be part of Jewish culture in a lot of ways; some use the idea of God, and some focus on the Jewish people and what they’ve made.  Being Jewish is not what you think. Being Jewish who you are and what you do.

4) “{kid’s name}  told me that I’m not a good person because we don’t believe in God”

CHILDREN UNDER 7
Being a good person is about what you do. You can do good things because you think a god told you to, or you can do good things because you want to help other people. We do good things all the time (share example), and we didn’t have to talk about God to do a good thing. What you do makes you a good person, so if you do good things, you ARE a good person.

CHILDREN 8-12
What makes you a good person, what you think or what you do? I believe that what you DO decides if you’re a good person or not. I know people who believe in God who are nice, and some who are mean. And I know people who don’t believe who are nice, and some who are mean. If you care about other people, and you work to help them, then you’re a good person.

5) “My grandparents/neighbors/kids at school told me that my family is going to Hell because we don’t believe in God/Jesus”

CHILDREN UNDER 7
Lots of people believe different things. It’s OK to believe something different from someone else–they believe one thing, and we believe something different. And you don’t have to worry about what happens a long time from now; it’s more important to pay attention to what we do today and tomorrow. You have a family that loves you and that takes care of you today. Be a good person today and tomorrow–that’s plenty!

CHILDREN 8-12
Some people think they are right all of the time. They are sure they know exactly what happens after we die, and what we have to do now. We prefer to let everyone make up their own minds about what might happen or how to live their lives. What we DO know is that it’s very important to be a good person and to live a good life in THIS life, because it’s the only life we KNOW is real. Don’t worry about what happens in the distant future – what can we do TODAY?

6) “Why do so many other people/Jews pray to/believe in God, and we don’t?”

CHILDREN UNDER 7
Lots of people believe lots of different things. It’s OK to believe something different from someone else–they believe one thing, and we believe something different. We know that we can help each other, and make each other happy, and that’s enough for us. We can say “I don’t know” when we really don’t know, and using what we DO know we can do a lot of good things. We believe in people, and that’s enough for us.

CHILDREN 8-12
If we all thought the same thing, life would be really boring because we would have nothing to talk about! Just because a lot of people think something is right, that doesn’t mean that it’s true – most people thought that the world was flat for a long time, but today we’ve learned that it’s round. Other people have the right to make up their own minds about the idea of a God, and we can decide for ourselves. For us, it makes more sense to look at what we can know about the world instead of what we guess. And we can say “I don’t know” when we really don’t know.

Posted in General HJ, Humanistic Judaism journal | Leave a comment

Why Jewish Culture Matters

This post was sparked by preparation for a June 4, 2017 concert by the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band hosted by Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation.
Click here for more information or to sign up to attend.

When some people hear “cultural Judaism” or “cultural Jews,” they think of bagels and lox and that’s about it. The truth is that a connection with Jewish culture can be much deeper and richer, and often more meaningful, than a food choice or, for that matter, a tenuous religiosity.

Take the example of klezmer music, a particular style of Jewish music that began in Eastern Europe (you can read more on its origins in the late Middle Ages at the Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe). The title comes from two Hebrew terms, kley [tools/vessels] and zemer [melody], but as is often the case when phrases migrated from Hebrew to Yiddish, klezmer means much more than “instruments.” Its particular combination of wailing and exuberance, energy and pathos, many instruments playing at once is sometimes seen as emblematic of the Jewish condition: suffering and celebration, with many voices and experiences jumbled together.

Earlier examples of secular Jewish identities were often rooted in Jewish culture. Yiddish theater in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was both initiated and served secularized Jews who wanted to express their cultural Jewish identity beyond the synagogue through music, acting, and dancing. This creativity also expressed their philosophical and political commitments to social justice and human welfare in this life. The Jewish labor union movement, Yiddishist social and educational organizations, even the labor Zionism Farband (which emphasized both Yiddish and Hebrew), all found a voice in Jewish cultural creativity, which also served to bind the organizations’ members together – if you sing and dance together, you can work and march and live together too.

The revival of klezmer music in America in the last generation has many origins: a reconnection with the culture of “the old country” that parents and grandparents were leaving behind; the rise of multiculturalism; musicians seeks a bridge between Jazz and their Jewish roots; Jewish integration into American society, which left many exploring how to live the secular lifestyle they enjoyed while feeling the pleasure and power of Jewish heritage. For Secular and Humanistic Jews in particular, Klezmer emphasizes what we share with other Jews regardless of ideology or denomination, and it access the spirit, joy and energy of our people and shared ancestors, captured through song and dance. Klezmer also demonstrates that Jewish life is wider than studying Torah or observing commandments, more than re-enacting tradition; our Judaism is also creating anew with the same instruments, with our own voices and initiative.

Klezmer is not just Jewish music; klezmer is human music in a Jewish key. It has influenced American music and culture, just as it was influenced by the American setting. That Jewish experience of suffering and celebration also defines the human condition, and just about every band plays some Jewish musical touchstones like Hava Nagila, from oompah to mariachi. Our Jewish culture is a particular expression of what it means to be human, and finding pleasure and meaning in our particular roots is particularly human.

If we know where we come from, who can tell where we may go?

 

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Secular Passover Values

An earlier version of this post previously appeared in Secular Culture and Ideas

When Secular and Humanistic Jews consider their religious and cultural tradition for inspiration, they experience three sorts of reactions:

  • “That’s wonderful—what a great moral value for today!”
  • “That’s terrible—thank goodness we’ve grown beyond that today!”
  • “Not bad for its time, but with these few steps it could be even better.”

All three are part of evaluating Passover: celebrating an end to slavery, deploring both the suffering of innocents and glorying in the downfall of one’s enemies, and striving to include more than just the Jewish people in the joy of freedom and the seder experience.

There are, of course, values from a “traditional” Passover that retain their resonance. Consider welcoming in all who hunger for the celebration at the very beginning of the Seder, or the importance of children asking questions (the Four Questions, the Four Sons/Children) while providing age-appropriate answers. We even see the value of pre-modern “multi-media” learning—consider all the senses and styles of learning mobilized by the Passover Seder:

  • Sight: for instance the Seder plate, Elijah’s cup and place, the various symbols, and of course reading the haggadah.
  • Taste/Smell/Touch: distinctive foods like matzo, bitter herbs, charoset, and parsley and salt water. Middle Eastern Jews often serve roasted lamb to recall the Temple Pesakh [Passover] sacrifice.
  • Hearing: reading and singing the haggadah.
  • Movement: reclining rather than sitting, opening the door, searching for the afikomen.
  • Interpersonal connection: coming together as family and friends for a special event.

But, being Jews, nothing is quite that simple.

Self-aware Secular and Humanistic Jews celebrate our tradition, but we are also honest and clear as we do so—we do not need to apologize away or justify the unethical, like the death of Egyptian children “from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock.” (Exodus 12:29) Thus some values of the traditional haggadah are omitted or modified: opening the door and asking God to pour out his “wrath on the goyim” [non-Jewish nations]; praying to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple “speedily, in our days, soon;” using the half of the haggadah after the meal to bless and praise God with no mention of Moses or the Jewish historical experience.

This is one of two subtle shifts in the values of a secular celebration of Passover—from God to people, and from a closed perspective of “what’s good for the Jews” to an open perspective of “how can our Jewish experience enhance our humanity?” The central character of the celebration is not the God character, Yahweh, but the Jewish people. The central message is not chosenness, but rather universal values to be learned from this particular myth and experience. We are not grateful for divine liberation; we are inspired to “auto-emancipation” [see Leo Pinsker’s 1882 work by this title] and then to use our freedom to help free others. Many traditional Seders remember the plagues with gleeful speculation of how many plagues smote the Egyptians (up to 250), ending with “how many favors has God done for us.” For a Humanistic Seder, the plagues expand sympathy for all human suffering, our Holocaust and others—if we have seen suffering, we have learned to fight it. We also address “plagues” in our own day not as cosmic punishments but rather as challenges that demand human solutions.

For all of these changes, of course, the irony is that change itself is one of the most central Passover traditions (see “Passover—An Evolving Holiday”). In Exodus 12, the ritual of painting lamb’s blood on doorposts was to be performed “forever,” including after arriving in the land of Israel. We no longer sacrifice lambs at the Jerusalem Temple, though the original Four Questions recorded in the Mishnah, a century after the Temple was destroyed still asked “Why do we eat a roasted lamb?” instead of “Why do we recline?” The mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew throughout the traditional haggadah shows changes over the centuries, including poetical or folklore additions like “Echad Mi Yodea—Who Knows One” and “Had Gadya—One Goat.” The beautiful tradition of illuminated haggadot (see some examples here) has often cast the events of the Exodus in the image of the contemporary artist and his or her time. The truth is that change is the Passover tradition, and a central value for secular and Humanistic Jews to celebrate.

Surveys consistently show that small minorities of American Jews keep kosher or light Shabbat candles, but large majorities participate in a Passover Seder. Secular Jews don’t celebrate a “traditional” Seder; they celebrate the tradition of holding a Seder, in every generation, from generation to generation.

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Darkness and Light – A Eulogy

This eulogy was delivered January 1, 2017 for a friend and colleague, David J. Steiner, who died tragically at age 51 in a bus accident in Uganda in late December 2016. You can read some of his writings or an article about his life and death to learn more about him. 

I do not want to be here today. No one wants to be here today. We NEED to be here – we feel a deep need to support each other, to support David’s family, to show and love for David himself. We never envisioned that we would be doing this anytime soon. There is no other word for what happened but “tragedy.” There are many emotions churning with us: shock, wondering when this bad dream will end; deep sadness, and pain, and anger; confusion, wondering how such a thing could happen. These emotions are all natural and appropriate.

Our task today is not to accomplish healing; rather, it is to begin healing – to begin to get perspective so that the last few minutes of David’s life do not block out 51 years of active living and caring. We have to find a way to feel appreciation for this wonderful person who touched our lives.

When David was a rabbinic student in Jerusalem, he was once asked to bring “the siddur [prayerbook]” to the next class session. In his own argumentative way, David thought, “What do you mean, THE siddur? There are many siddurim out there.” So he brought a volume of the poetry of the foundational Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik to class and said, “This is MY siddur.” In that spirit of creative reclamation, I want to share a poem by another Hebrew poetic giant, Yehuda Amichai:

“A Song of Praise” by Yehuda Amichai

I want to sing a song of praise to all that remains
Here with us, and does not leave, and does not wander
like the migrating birds

shir-hallel

Hebrew text for “A Song of Praise”

And does not flee to the North,
and not to the South, and does not sing, “My heart is in the East,
and I am at the edge of the West.”
I want to sing to the trees
That do not throw out their leaves,
and withstand the blaze of summer and the cold of winter
And to those people who do not
throw out their memories,
And withstand more than those people who throw out everything.

But above all, I want to sing a song of praise
To lovers who remain together for joy, and for pain, and for joy.
To make a home, to make children, now and for the other seasons.

 

David loved to teach, and to learn, using classic Jewish texts. In one of his favorite Talmudic stories, four rabbis entered a garden of Pardes/Paradise, exploring the deepest truths of life. It became the basis for a screenplay he wrote, and I believe it also reflects the many-sided nature of David himself.

Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Elisha Ben Avuya cut the shoots; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.

Part of David was Rabbi Akiva, entering in peace and departing in peace, deeply connected to Jewish observance, tradition, and literature, though on his own terms. Part of David was Elisha ben Avuya, cutting shoots, a heretic rabbi who questioned divine justice and providence, who was willing to challenge authority in the name of human dignity. Today, David has also become Ben Azzai, the deceased who lost his life living out his sense of himself as a Jew and as a mensch, a decent human being. David’s Judaism and his Zionism, his sense of right and wrong, took him to Africa to continue to love the stranger as himself [Leviticus 19:34]. David loved the stranger his whole life – even as a child, father’s friend who often visited their house was gay and black, but it never occurred to young David that Uncle Otis was not his real uncle! David experienced being smuggled across the Mexico-US border in his twenties to better understand, he made friends with everyone from Ramat Gan, Israel to Ramallah in the Palestinian Territories, David put a human face on Chicago school closings and the current refugee crisis – he always lived out his values of loving the stranger, human dignity and peace.

David was a new take on the wandering Jew – the wandering rabbinic student. From Hebrew Seminary for the Deaf in Chicago, when I first met him, to the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, to ultimately studying with me at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, where he anticipated ordination by the end of 2017. From David’s time as a camper at Habonim Dror’s Camp Tavor, to High School in Israel at HaKfar Ha-Yarok, service in the Israeli Defense Forces, living in Israel for two stints including active work with Bina – the Secular Yeshiva, director of congregational Jewish education at both Reform and Conservative synagogues and Hebrew teacher and tutor at my Humanistic congregation, David was a Jewishly literate secular Jew. He appreciated the Israeli scholar Ari Elon’s distinction between ribbonut [self-authority] and rabbanut [external authority] – for the secular Jew, authority comes from within. David even planned to start a Chicago community called Ribbonim:

a congregation that pursues peace and justice, cherishes traditional text and contemporary creativity, takes responsibility for its role in the entire Jewish world – including Israel – and sees its Judaism as the past, present and future of a collective of people who combine memory and myth with a secular, humanistic vision for the future.

David was always many things – he was a cow midwife (which he claimed qualified him to assist his wife for the home births of two of their children), he was an educational software developer, a property manager, a documentary filmmaker, a typewriter collector, a teacher and school director, a Cubs fan whose Heavenly Temple was Wrigley Field, an advocate for causes and institutions he believed in, a loving son and life partner and Abba/father and a wonderful friend who always made time to catch up on long phone conversations, who loved to laugh and share stories. David was an educator who understood that students should be a dignified part of a learning community, and that you learn by teaching others. He once developed an educational program called “JoJo the Scarecrow,” which would have made students teach JoJo math and English to learn it themselves. Or think about his putting cameras into the hands of his subjects at Barbara Sizemore Academy for us to see through their eyes.

When I heard that David was becoming a mediator (as if he needed one more thing to be doing), I thought, “What a perfect job for David: listening, affirming, offering compromises and solutions, creating peace out of conflict.” You almost never argued with David, though there was always a discussion. I even tried to be mad at him once for something, but I can’t even remember what it was about!

Today is the end of the season of Hanukkah, where one candle on the menorah, the shamash, gives light to the others and is not at all dimmed by its generosity. Think of David’s empowering students to teach, loving the stranger, entering in peace and leaving in peace. Lighting lights in this season not unique to Jews – it is part of the human need to light the world to fight cold and darkness. From this year forward, Chanukah will always be a season of personal memory – for David’s parents and their partners, for David’s siblings and the people in their life, for David’s children, for his loving partner of the last several years, and for all of David’s loving friends and connections here and around the world. Just like today, Chanukkah future will be a time of sadness and also joy, when we will feel the pain of loss but also consolation of beautiful memory and loving connection. In Jewish life, lighting a candle also helps mark the anniversary of a death, a day called “yartzeit/year-time”.

Our mission, this year and every year, will be to move from yahrtzeit to shamash, from memory to celebration, from sadness to joy, keeping a place for both in our hearts. David’s life and our loving memories of him are the shamash for us, the candle lighting the way out of cold and darkness to light and warmth, to enlightenment and knowledge, to joy and laughter with a twinkle in our eyes, to a community of shared purpose and affection.

I want to sing a song of praise to all that remains here with us… withstanding the blaze of summer and the cold of winter…for joy and for pain and for joy….now and in the other seasons.

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