Old Challeges Anew – The Reality of Mortality (Yom Kippur Memorial 5780)

This post was delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October 2019. It was part of a series called Old Challenges Anew. You can listen to an audio recording via the Kol Hadash Podcast.

As long as we have been alive, we have died. Some of the oldest signs of human civilization, of human emotion are graves, bodies buried, often with meaningful objects. We did not simply abandon our deceased to nature; we said goodbye in meaningful ways because those people were meaningful to us.

Just because we have been saying goodbye for thousands of years does not mean it has gotten easier. The old religious strategies: resurrection, ongoing communication, personal immortality, future supernatural reunion; they do not inspire or comfort many of us today. We still have those old human needs: to deal with loss, to face life without our loved one. We remember these losses on special dates, or at special moments, or on any ordinary day when we might have picked up the phone or dropped an email or given a hug to make a loving connection.

This High Holiday season, we have looked back at the Jewish experience as a way to face old problems anew, and there is no problem older than the reality of mortality. Our mythic patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are noted not only for how they live but also for how they mourn their parents and their partners. Abraham buys a cave to bury Sarah. Isaac finds a wife to be comforted after his mother’s death, and joins his estranged brother Ishmael to bury their father. Jacob mourns the loss of his beloved wife Rachel, and Jacob’s sons mourn the loss of their father. Even the Exodus from Egypt does not forget to bring Joseph’s body with them for his final resting place in the Promised Land.

Jewish culture offers many rituals for death and memory. Some may no longer speak to us, like covering mirrors or refusing to bathe for seven days of strict mourning (seven in Hebrew is “sheva”, the origin of Shiva). Others traditions, like remembering a death anniversary at a communal gathering or by lighting a special candle, may still be moving. And some observances have changed in response to the times. In the modern way of death, families sometimes experience the closeness and goodbye process they need in the week or two before the loved one dies, and so they sit shiva for a day or 2 or 3, and that’s enough. It is ironic to sit Shiva (seven) for 2 or 3, but there it is.

In our earliest days, Jews believed in a shadowy afterlife, She’ol, like the Greek Hades. When you died, you went underground and existed in a ghostly limbo. Ecclesiastes chapter 9 summed it up and also gave recommendations:

There is one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good, to the clean, to the unclean, to him who sacrifices, and to him who doesn’t sacrifice. As is the good, so is the sinner; he who takes an oath, as he who fears an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one event to all….. Go your way—eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; …. Let your garments be always white, and don’t let your head lack oil. Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your life of vanity, which he has given you under the sun, all your days of vanity, for that is your portion in life, and in your labor in which you labor under the sun.  Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor plan, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, where you are going.

Make the most of this life, because this is the only life worth calling life. To be honest, this is still somewhat depressing. There’s a story that the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair was once asked on a talk show, “Well, if you don’t believe in heaven, what happens after you die?” She answered, “You rot!” This may be strictly true, but there are certainly better answers that are more compassionate and more responsive to what we really need. 

By the end of the Biblical period, this stoic Jewish resignation to fate was not enough. The paradox of Biblical promises of divine reward and the reality of religious persecution led to a new idea – an afterlife to guarantee that the religiously righteous would truly be rewarded. Rabbinic Judaism explicitly accepts a world to come and a resurrection of the dead in order to meet human needs: the need for justice, the need for more than a difficult life that, 2000 years ago, was often nasty, brutish and short. We may praise their hope, but we reject their rejection of the limits and the importance of this world and this life, and the reality of mortality.

Today, after centuries of human effort, this life is often good and long (though not always long enough). Sometimes death is longer too. A long decline before the end is different from a sudden loss, which is different from cognitive decline before physical problems, which is different from physical decline while mentally sharp. One week in hospice is very different from 3 months. There IS no one way to say goodbye, to prescribe feelings, to set a term on mourning rituals that will answer every death journey. The most important discovery for mourning in the modern era is that we have a right to our own feelings, our own beliefs, our own reactions to life’s realities in all their diversity and complexity.

These are our needs to face the reality of mortality in the 21st Century: to say goodbye in meaningful ways, to enjoy this life while accepting that it will end, to be comforted closely by family and friends for more than one day but not forever, to create a space for memory in years to come, to know that our lives made a difference and that we will be remembered.

Why do we remember loved ones specifically at Yom Kippur? Why is a memorial service the end of our New Year’s observance (call it Yizkor – He will remember or as we say Nizkor – we will remember)? “Because the Rabbi said so” is not enough, sometimes to my chagrin! The leaves are changing and falling, the weather is turning colder, the turning of a calendar page reminds us of the passage of time, the holiday table reminds us of empty chairs that were once filled with love. Blu Greenberg writes movingly about the needs that Jewish traditions can meet, if we let them. Mortality is an old human problem that will never go away. Confronting the reality of mortality is a human task that will always be part of the human condition. (cited in A Women’s Torah Commentary).

At times, devout members of religions that affirm an afterlife are tempted to say that the deceased is “in a better place — living a better life in a better world”; or they are tempted to suggest that there must be some sin or error or judgment that has brought this fate upon the victim. Such persons cannot tolerate the thought that what has happened is unjustified, for it violates their deepest principles about good and evil, reward and punishment. They need somehow to internally rationalize and justify a reality in order to bring the world back to proper equilibrium.

The Jewish laws of bereavement, so exquisitely tuned to the needs of the mourners, stipulate that the shiva visitor should not speak until the mourner speaks. I had always thought that the point of that precept was to ensure that the conversation would flow to the place the mourner needs it to reach. But I now understand that the halachah [law] enjoining the comforting visitor to hold back in silence serves a different function: to caution against offering a rationale for the decree of death. The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction, and to affirm that we need not force meaning into tragedy. Sometimes the deepest response of love is to be silent.

Posted in Funerals, High Holidays | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Old Challenges Anew – What Can We Do (Yom Kippur 5780/2019)

This post was delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October 2019. It was part of a series called Old Challenges Anew. You can listen to an audio recording via the Kol Hadash Podcast.

The year 1492 was shattering for the Jewish psyche. Centuries of happy, stable, culturally creative Jewish life in Spain came to an end as all self-identified Jews were expelled from Spain. Some fled to Portugal, and for them 1497 was another disaster, when they were forcibly converted and not allowed leave for a decade. The Portuguese Inquisition continued to pursue secret Jews until 1821. Those Jews from Spain and Portugal, the Sephardim, dispersed across the seas, finding homes in the Ottoman Empire, Italy and the South of France, the Netherlands, the land of Israel and the New World. In their shattering, their scattering, their exile and their powerlessness, some mystically-minded Jews imagined a new creation story. They pictured the beginning of the universe as the transmission of divine light through material vessels, but the energy was too powerful and the vessels shattered, scattering shards with sparks of light clinging to them all over the world. To repair this shattering, the Hebrew god gave his chosen people special deeds to perform that, with proper focus, could free those sparks and restore them to the divine realm. This would repair the world – the real origin of the term tikkun olam, long before our modern use for community service or social justice. In the face of their own shattering experience, those medieval Sephardic Jews still imagined a way to find motivation, to have agency, to have a positive impact on their fate. Even if they were wrong on the facts.

This Jewish New Year, we have addressed Old Challenges Anew. The Jewish journey through the human experience has given us insight into hatred, civil conflict, religious and cultural evolution, and the ongoing challenges of meeting old human needs in new ways. One of the most basic human needs is the need to feel like we can actually DO something, that we have some control over what happens to us. Even if we no longer believe in an actual book of life, in which is written on Rosh Hashana and sealed on Yom Kippur who will live and who will die, we still ask, “what can I do?” Once upon a time, we appeased many gods, and then one god, hoping to live longer and better, praying to avoid misery and death. Those medieval Jewish mystics gave cosmic significance to Jewish ritual and ethical commandments. Today we have tarot cards and horoscopes, therapists and personal coaches, we want to know deep truths about our lives and to know what is coming next, and what we can do about it, and then to act.

That last step, actually acting and making sure we are doing the right thing, can be daunting with all of the challenges we face. As we saw on Rosh Hashana, antisemitism may be the world’s oldest hatred, deeply embedded in European culture and in both political extremes. And hatred is on the rise – a recent poll showed that 10% of Europeans admit they are unfavorable to Jews in their country, and 36% said they were unfavorable to Muslims; almost 40% were unfavorable to the Romani, better known by the slur of Gypsies. Like Cain’s sin after killing Abel, political civil war crouches at the door, looking for cracks in liberal democracy to infiltrate and undermine and divide and destroy. Crime, refugees, pollution, the national debt, extreme weather, immigration policy, antibiotic resistant infections, healthcare costs, racism, sexual harassment and rape – the hits just keep on coming.

And thanks to how much time we spend on computers and the internet, they can come at any minute of the day and all day long. When I became a rabbi 18 years ago, I never imagined that I would spend so much time in front of a screen: email, Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, writing, researching, communicating. And the news temptation is always there, just a few taps away.

Medieval Jewish mystics put the 613 commandments of rabbinic Judaism to magical use to “repair the world;” today I have 5 steps that can help us to act and not just wait to see what happens. Our attempts to repair the world can also apply to repairing relationships. That is the core of a Humanistic Yom Kippur – working towards forgiving others, forgiving ourselves, and earning forgiveness from those we have wronged.

One of the most important things we can do is make sure to take a break! Get outside while the weather is nice, or even if it isn’t. Listen to music you love, not just podcasts and news. Do a puzzle. Play a game. Find a new restaurant. Spend quality time with children or grandchildren or good friends. Try resolving an argument without resorting to Google. Come to a Kol Hadash Shabbat service to let go of the cares of the week, the month, the outside world, or to approach them in new ways. The world will keep on spinning without your watching it, and some time may give you more perspective. And you need real life to ground you before dealing with the big challenges. Even those Jewish mystics contemplating the origins of the universe were rooted in community: they were expected in synagogue for prayers 3 times a day, and they not supposed to study these deeper truths until they were over 40 and married. An early rabbinic saying still applies: ayn kemakh, ayn torah – if there is no bread, there can be no learning (Mishnah Pirke Avot 3:17). You need to earn a living, and to eat, and to live your life.

When there is breaking news like a hurricane hundreds of miles away or political scandal, it is very easy to get sucked in to watching hour after hour after hour of coverage; the cable TV equivalent of rubbernecking a car accident on the freeway. It is probably wiser to watch for a bit, and then step away and do something else, and then look back again in a few hours or even the next day – you will get more information with more understanding in a fraction of the time, and you will have had several hours of doing something else in the meantime! It is not your civic duty to give yourself an anxiety attack. Take a break!

The second skill we need is “crisis triage.” In a hospital emergency, they have to decide which cases require immediate attention and which can wait for an hour. When we are facing dozens of issues, we have to choose which causes to support, where to spend our attention and energy and outrage. It is inevitable that some issues will be more important to us than others. We should strive to get beyond only our own self-interest, like supporting a local school district when one has children in school, or donating to one’s religious community. Yet it is both reasonable and pragmatic to focus our efforts on what we find most meaningful and impactful, whatever our political orientation. Growing up, my parents kept a list of the charities they supported posted by the main phone. It had a pragmatic purpose: to know right away when someone called for money when they last donated and how much. But there was also a pedagogic purpose: it showed me and my sister that giving to support important causes was important. And we would have know what causes they supported if we could have deciphered their handwriting!  

Rabbinic law knew there were times commitments could conflict; if you have 613 commandments, they are bound to run into each other. How do you honor your parents if they are thieves? Can you kill an attacker to save a third person’s life? To save a life, including your own, can you break shabbat rules or eat non-kosher food? For them it was mitzvah triage, balancing commandments. For us it is mitzvah triage, choosing among good deeds with our many criteria: relevance, impact, personal meaning. If we only act universally, we will be consumed. If we only act locally, we will miss the big picture. We need some of both.

A third path to acting and acting right is to evaluate before we act. What we do should be effective, not only well-intentioned. Sometimes good intentions have unintended consequences, or impact others in ways we did not expect. Some cities that banned plastic grocery bags found that residents started buying more plastic garbage bags, which are heavier duty and use MORE plastic per bag than the grocery bags they had been reusing for garbage! Bankruptcy laws, housing projects, school reform – we have to learn from their effects and not just rely on good intentions.

Or consider calls to boycott Israel and Israelis anywhere in the world until, well, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions or BDS activism can be ambiguous in its goals – equal democratic rights for all residents? Two states, Israel and Palestine? ONE state with no Israel? The intention of some BDS supporters to advocate for human rights is admirable, but the method may be ineffective and even counter-productive because without a clear goal, the extreme goals of some BDSers to eliminate Israel are applied to all.

Let’s be clear: a large portion of the American Jewish community accepts that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza’s borders is very problematic. After bombings of Israel’s busses and cafes in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the Gaza rockets of the last 15 years, many Israelis feel the situation is like Thomas Jefferson’s description of slavery: “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.” But Jewish communal dialogue about what to do is constrained by accusations of antisemitism, self-hatred, or naïve idealism. A few suggestions from the US State Department in 2010: if someone only blames Israel for ALL the problems, that is a problem. If they demand Israel do what no other nation would do, like not respond to rockets fired into their territory, that is a problem. If you deny the right of Israel to exist – if you support a Palestinian or a Kurdish national homeland but reject a Jewish national homeland, that is a problem. Using Israel litmus tests to tell “Good Jews” from “Bad Jews” has no winners: for some on the right, “Good Jews” defend Israel no matter what and favor expanding West Bank settlements; for some on the left, “Good Jews” are anti-Zionist Jews because sympathy with the oppressed means Palestine good and Israel bad, period. As you might have guessed, I am not a fan of simple answers or black and white thinking on complicated issues. The antisemitism accusation should be saved for clear cases that cross red lines. If we want Israel to change its course, we have to be engaged with and support people on the ground who share our values; Sheldon Adelson is certainly doing the same. Evaluate before we act, and then be sure to act!

Even after we decide what to do, we need to know how to get there, even if the goal is far away. The fourth step is to work together, for the long haul, even in small steps. There are two related dangers to the idea of “tikkun olam,” repairing the world. On one hand, in both Jewish mystical thought and modern activism, we find the seductive lure of a perfect world, either at original creation or in an ideal future. If we are working to restore or to create a perfect world, then any measures are justifiable and any obstacles must be obliterated – after all, who are you and your individual interest to stand in the way of the perfect? And why bother doing anything that aims short of the perfect goal? Utopian thinking is dangerous. Jewish thought was often skeptical of messianic activism; a famous rabbinic teaching says that if you hear the messiah has arrived while you are planting a tree, finish planting the tree, and then go see about the messiah (Avot de Rabbi Natan, 31b). Chances are, it’s a false messiah like every other one has been (at least, for most Jews beyond Messianics and some Chabadniks!). There is a serious problem of plastic in the oceans, but your personal choice of straw or no straw is much less impactful than industrial use and plastic bags in the developing world. Yet you can still do your equivalent of planting the tree, taking small steps with a small impact. It may or may not be butterfly wings that eventually cause a hurricane, but don’t do nothing just because you can’t do everything. After all, one vote is a very small thing, but it can also be the most important thing we do.

On the other hand, if anything short of perfect is not enough, we may become unwilling to acknowledge real progress along the way. Milestones are important; they inspire us to keep running. Accepting that life has been improved both revolutionarily and incrementally means accepting partial victories, small steps forward. I did not expect the tidal wave that led to national recognition of gay marriage in 2015; it seemed to me in the decade before that a gradual strategy of creating separate civil unions to show doubters that the world did not end would build confidence. Today we are experiencing a backlash to that leap forward, but at least 400,000 married same-sex couples are enjoying legal recognition of their loving partnership, and that is a good thing. The right thing. We have not ended racism or antisemitism; but in 1926, 50,000 Ku Klux Klansmen out of 3 million members paraded through Washington DC; today, less than 100 years later, the Klan has fewer than 8,000 members, and the 2017 Charlottesville protest had about 500 white supremacists, many of whom have been prosecuted for crimes committed during the march. AirBNB even cancelled their AirBNB reservations, because AirBNB users agree to “accept people regardless of their race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age!” Not perfect, but definitely better. Maybe instead of “repair the world”, we accept that the world is a jalopy that will never be completely fixed, and “improving the world” is a more realistic goal; I’ll even settle for “making the world less bad!”

Fifth and finally, we need to find the inspiration to act, and to keep acting. Remember Newton’s first law of motion: an object at rest will stay at rest without a nudge to get it moving (Newton did not write “nudge”). His second law applies too: if inertia and friction slow us down, we need to KEEP nudging to keep things moving. And if not us, who will? The major symbolic action on Yom Kippur when the Jerusalem Temple stood was the Scapegoat – a sacrificial animal that received the sins of the community and was driven into the wilderness. Even today, the most orthodox Jews follow a rabbinic tradition called Kapparot or Kappores, where a chicken is passed three times over one’s head as one says “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This chicken shall go to death and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace.” The chicken is then killed and given to charity. Now we might critique this as not really doing anything to right the wrongs committed that year, and those same Orthodox Jews would agree with us – they are also required to find people they have wronged to apologize, and to make themselves available to those who have wronged them. Human forgiveness must come first, even before asking divine forgiveness through days of penitence and prayer, or through poultry.

Humanistic Jews are sometimes asked, “if you don’t pray, what do you do?” The best answer I’ve heard is: “We DO!” Do not rely on scapegoats or vicarious atonement – do the work yourself. Do not trust to miracles or providence or inevitable progress – act to see the good you want to come true. If we need inspiration, we can find it from all the good we have already done, and all the good being done every day. It does not make the nightly news or clickbait headlines, but there are good people doing good things every day. It’s rare that I quote a Presbyterian Minister, but in this case it’s Minister aka Mister Fred Rogers.

Whenever there is a catastrophe in the movies or on the air, always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers. If news programs could make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams, medical people, anybody who is coming into a place where there’s a tragedy to be sure that they include that. Because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.

These are five steps for moving from seeing all of our crises to doing something: balancing crisis mode with living our lives; triaging which issues are the most important to us; evaluating before we act to have both good intentions and effective actions; working even in small ways to get the ball rolling; and making sure we keep that momentum.

If you have been paying close attention, you noticed I have not told you exactly what do to. I am not that kind of rabbi, and you do not need ME to do that. Choose the issues that motivate you, inspire you, anger you, and you will find an organization that is working to address it. They will have plenty of suggestions of what to do. Concerned about food insecurity? Take a look at Mazon: a Jewish response to hunger, or your local food bank. Want to help refugees? The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is still in business. Worried about the separation of religion and government? Take a look at the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s new Jews for a Secular Democracy, or larger national groups like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Poverty? Death with Dignity? Literacy? Domestic Abuse? Find your causes, and then find your people to work on them together. The choice is yours, I cannot make it for you. Only you can decide what is most important to you.

Those Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain in 1492 had many choices – they could stay and convert, they could flee as refugees to Catholic Portugal or France or Italy, or to Protestant Holland, or to the Muslim Ottoman Empire, or to the new world across the great ocean. Each choice had its positives and drawbacks, both then and in the centuries that followed. There was no one right answer to do the right thing, no matter how much they prayed; life is not a choose your own adventure book. The right thing was to do.

As our new year begins, may we all find the courage to act when needed, and to work together. Shana Tova.

Posted in High Holidays | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Old Challenges Anew – Jewish Future (Yom Kippur 5780/2019)

This post was delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October 2019. It was part of a series called Old Challenges Anew. You can listen to an audio recording via the Kol Hadash Podcast.

A tale of two synagogues.

The first synagogue is an Orthodox congregation that was established in Duluth, Minnesota in the late 19th century by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. By 1900 they were able to build a substantial synagogue building, and there generations celebrated holidays, life cycle events, the passage of time. By the second half of the 20th century, the area became less Jewish as younger Jews moved away, or were less interested in traditional Judaism, or maybe they married someone not Jewish and thus were not welcome in an Orthodox synagogue. Other traditional congregations in the area eventually closed or merged. By 2019, Adas Israel had 75 members in charge of 14 Torah scrolls – an odd ratio of heirs to inheritance! Last month, the synagogue caught on fire, burning down the building and destroying 6 of the 14 Torahs. The congregation found somewhere else to celebrate the High Holidays, and they may still keep a regular prayer minyan going, but it will never be the same. We know today that the fire was set accidentally by a homeless man trying to stay warm in the congregation’s sukkah; it was NOT a hate crime. However, given recent events, we would not have been surprised if it were.

The second synagogue has lived two lives so far. Its earlier life as Congregation Beth Or began as a suburban Reform temple, which evolved thanks to a visionary rabbi and committed members into one of the first Humanistic Jewish congregations in the world. After thirty years, there was transition and conflict, and from that, Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation emerged in 2001. We have gone through our own transitions and challenges. 18 years later we look forward with optimism, a congregation where membership is about meaning and not money, a community that is doing Jewish differently, a place to think and to speak and to sing our Humanistic Judaism with energy and integrity.

Both of these synagogues are the American Jewish present – challenges of integration, growing distance from the immigrant generation and its traditions, the fear and sometimes reality of antisemitism, the difficulty of getting along, the possibility of new beginnings. Which synagogue is the Jewish future? Is the kiddush cup half-full or half-empty, and is it full of celebratory wine, or negative whining?

This High Holiday season, we look at old challenges anew. We are not the first generation to ask what the Jewish future will look like, or if there will even be a Jewish future. After Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BCE, Judean exiles asked the same question (Psalm 137):

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of YHWH while in a foreign land?

The Judeans did figure out how to sing again, they learned to live in Diaspora. 600 years later, after the Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, you may recall from Rosh Hashana that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai calmed anxieties about atonement without a Temple by claiming “We have another form of atonement as effective. Deeds of Loving Kindness.” (Avot di Rabbi Natan) He made other changes to continue Judaism – “If Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, they used to blow the shofar in the Jerusalem Temple but nowhere else. After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai decreed that they should blow it wherever there was a court.” (Mishnah Rosh Hashana 4:1) As we do to this day. There have been other historical candidates for the Third major Jewish destruction: the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the Chmielnitzky pogroms in Ukraine around 1650, the European Holocaust over 70 years ago. After each of these disasters, a Jewish future was questioned, yet a Jewish future there was. Today there are almost 7 million Jews in Israel and the West Bank, 6 to 7 million Jews in the United States and Canada (depending on how you count), over a million in Europe, half a million in Latin America and another half million around the rest of the world for a total of around 15 million. We have not yet caught up to the pre-Holocaust 17 million, but, to paraphrase Mark Twain when his obituary appeared when he was still alive, the report of our death is an exaggeration.

Does it matter to the world and not just to us whether there will be any Jews 200 years from now, in the 23rd century? Absolutely. For one thing, the 23rd century is when the original Star Trek is set and imagining that anniversary without articles about “The Jewish Roots of Star Trek” is inconceivable. More seriously, think of what would have to happen in those 200 years that would result in ZERO Jews. There would have been a massive Holocaust of a disaster in Israel. There would have been a massive surge of persecution in Europe and Latin America to drive Jews out, or to drive them away from being Jewish. In the United States, there would have been many factors: massive alienation from positive Jewish identity, massive persecution of Jewish institutions, some way to get Orthodox Jews to stop having children and some way to stop up to half of their children from leaving Orthodoxy for more liberal Judaism. For ALL of those things to have happened, what would have happened to American society? What civil liberties, what freedom of association and freedom of religion and freedom of speech would have been destroyed to make a world without Jews?

In some ways, antisemitism is like a canary in a coal mine, an early warning sign of a crisis in liberal democracy and social cohesion. Over the last 20 years, 12 black churches have been vandalized, burned, or otherwise attacked. Jews are a much smaller percentage of the US population, and in the same period TWENTY Jewish institutions have been attacked in some way. This is not the Oppression Olympics, but it is sobering to note the statistical reality. We do live in a very different world than the 1930s – our police protect Jewish institutions, as they are doing outside, right now. State and federal courts prosecute racist vandals who scurry to hide from the light, and popular culture rejects rabid antisemitism and racism rather than reinforcing it. Even from my youth 35 years ago, popular culture is much better – my childhood VHS tape of Disney’s movie Peter Pan had a racist song and dance called “What Made the Red Man Red,” with all of the terrible Native American stereotypes you could imagine. The movie was made in 1953, but they had no problem selling it in the 1980s. Today, you can find that scene on YouTube, but it is not in any movie version available from Disney, and that’s good.

Nevertheless, there is limited comfort when the true haters are emboldened to do more, say more, and say it louder. The fact that we are not the only ones hated gives us allies, but not a greater sense of security. I recently had a discussion with our hosts at the North Shore Unitarian Church regarding their security, and their minister pointed out to me that Unitarian Churches have also been targeted for vandalism because of their support for minority and LGBTQ rights. Do we feel better or worse knowing that? Civil society does not function only through enforcement by police and courts; civil society also requires unwritten social contracts to tolerate difference, to channel disagreement into politics, to love your family and friends without hating others.

Paradoxically, antisemitism can have the opposite of its intended effect – anti-Semites want Jews to fade and disappear, but experiences with antisemitism can provoke a stubborn insistence on Jewishness, even a re-connection with family heritage. Some hide in fear, others stand up in defiance. After the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last year, Jews who had not been to synagogue in years chose to #ShowUpForShabbat. Many of us were here, supported by our friends from the NSUC. Some may recall a story I told once about a rabbi in Eastern Europe: when Napoleon’s armies were on the march into Russia, the rabbi’s followers asked him for whose victory should they pray, for Napoleon or for the Tsar? He answered, “Pray for the Tsar.” “For the Tsar? With all of the suffering his oppression has caused us?” “If Napoleon wins, it may be good for the Jews but bad for Judaism: individual Jews will have more freedom, but organized Judaism will be challenged. If the Tsar wins, it may be bad for Jews but good for Judaism: his oppression will keep us together.” Will today’s Antisemitism be good for membership? Who wants to think that way?

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment-influenced Western Europe that was supposed to be good for Jews and problematic for Judaism is now challenging for both. In France since the year 2000, antisemitic hate crimes have gone from 90 a year to over 300, some years as high as 1000. Jews are less than 1% of the French population, but 40 to 50% of the hate crimes are antisemitic. 1 in 5 French Jews personally report being harassed for being Jewish. In the UK, many British Jews have lost confidence that Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will stand up to antisemitism in his party, and leaders of British Jewry have said they fear a Corbyn-led government would be an “existential threat” to their community. And 40% of Europeans in seven large nations say that Antisemitism is a growing problem in their county and that Jews there are at risk of violence. Even wearing a kippah or speaking Hebrew in public can be risky. Some of this is a carry-over from the Israel-Palestine conflict, with large Muslim and Arab populations perpetuating prejudices from their nations of origin. And some is native grown from deep in European soil. To be sure, most European governments and their leaders have said the right things and responded the right way. Still, over the last 20 years at least 10% of the French Jewish population has left, most for Israel or America. It remains to be seen whether, with greater Muslim integration to European culture, and maybe some positive developments in the Middle East, the genie can be put back in the bottle. Or we may be facing Pandora’s box, the demons already on the loose.

In America, the Jewish future looks vibrant. It will look different from the Jewish present, and very different from the Jewish past. And these changes will reflect larger trends in American society and the world. That difference from the Jewish past is why some are pessimistic, their kiddush cup half empty and draining. The thought process goes like this: Since the 1950s, most American Jews have been members of synagogues; today, many established synagogues are declining in membership and closing, so the Jewish future is in danger. And the same for other mainline religious institutions, as more young Americans are less religious than ever. In the 1950s, American Jews had ethnically Jewish parents; today many Jews find love and family with people of other heritage. Their children may or may not identify as Jewish, and growing numbers of Jews by choice have NO ethnic Jewishness at all. Without ethnic Jewish heritage, without Yiddish and kugel, the Jewish future is in danger. The same fear strikes white America facing ethnic mixing and demographic change. In the 1950s, most American Jews practiced a core of traditional Judaism like kosher laws and traditional prayers; today most Jews are non-traditional and there is no ritual consensus; without “Tradition” the Jewish future is in danger. The general fear of this modern freedom to choose has driven some to evangelical and fundamentalist religions who do the choosing for you.

“Tradition”, sings Tevye at the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof. The secret of the Fiddler story is that is it about the changing of tradition in service of Jewish survival. The matchmaker is demoted in favor of happy marriages for love. The family must leave its shtetl, but they leave for the America that viewers know to be a goldeneh medina, a golden land. Trains and sewing machines and steamships transformed Jewishness then as surely as smartphones and podcasting and Youtube are transforming it today! We live, as Rabbi Kerry Olitzky wrote, in a world of “Playlist Judaism” – the original album and artist does not matter if you want to listen differently, in your own way. A world where you can get your Starbucks coffee exactly how you like it will produce religion and culture that meet your needs, reflect your beliefs, celebrate your creativity. And for a community to thrive in that world, its members must know how to disagree without being disagreeable. The 21st century will be different, which means it will also be Jewishly different. I just hope to retire before robot rabbis arrive!

The same is true for these other fears. The kiddush cup is half full and rising, but with a new vintage – these days, there are many options beyond Manischevitz! Some synagogues are closing, but other Jewish communities are thriving with new and creative approaches to membership, community and celebration. Podcasts, YouTube channels, Facebook Groups, even online congregations like SecularSynagogue.com (led by a Humanistic Rabbi by the way) – in 10 or 20 years we may no longer make a strong distinction between ‘virtual life’ and ‘in real life’ – the emotions people feel, the support they experience, the learning they find, the friends they make through the internet are all real – real friends, real emotions. The Jewish organizations that will survive and thrive will be those who can swim in the new currents. In Hebrew, synagogue is beit Knesset, a house of meeting – it can include prayer, or study, or celebration, or all of the above; it might not even have its own beit, its own building. The synagogue is dying; long live the synagogue.

The new Jewish diversity produced by intermarriage, adoption and conversion is only a threat to last century’s Judaism – the new Jewish diversity is central to the new Judaism being born. The idea of “looking Jewish” will become increasingly strange, because our Jewish communities will reflect the world’s diversity. “Being Jewish” and Jewish heritage will continue to be important for some, and others will find meaning in “doing Jewish,” whatever their personal identity – baking hamentaschen for Purim (or just eating them), participating in a seder, lighting Hanukkah candles – those activities are not just for Jews any more. On most college campuses, there are more students with one Jewish parent than with two, and more of those students self-identify as Jewish than ever. Your desire to continue to feel Jewish or to be Jewish or to do Jewish will not limit whom you love and marry. Humanistic Judaism has celebrated this all along, and more Jewish communities are catching up. Tonight begins the Jewish day of atonement, when we confess our wrongs and strive to do better. We are supposed to accept improved behavior without rubbing it in. However, I do believe that Reform and Conservative Judaism, who are now more intermarriage accepting than ever, still owe some teshuva, some repentance to those generations of intermarrying Jews they drove away, the families they labeled threats to the Jewish future and a new Holocaust (I am not exaggerating – intermarriage is still sometimes compared to the Holocaust). Let me say it clearly: marrying for love is the opposite of being murdered by hate.

There are broader lessons from this Jewish experience for all people, and for relationships between people. Accept that change is inevitable and can be good if accepted in the right spirit. We all have the right to express our personal desires, and we need to communicate to find common ground. We do not always have to agree with our partners and friends if we practice HOW to disagree. What we DO, how we treat each other with our actions is as important as who we say we are. And finally, smartphones have been bad enough for our relationships so BEWARE THE ROBOTS!

As for Israel itself, the Jewish future there has its own complications – what does “Jewish” mean for a Jewish state? If it means increasing rule by Rabbinic Jewish law, we are decreasingly interested; the secular Jewish culture that Israelis have created and we celebrate will be harder to find. Already there are thousands of Israelis living in America by choice; a new Diaspora. If Israel continues to insist on these three: being a democracy, being a demographically and culturally Jewish state, and controlling the West Bank > then something’s going to give among those three. The new Israel, or Israelistine, or whatever it becomes may or may not be good for the Jews, or for Judaism, or for the rights of all those who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, the risk of biological or even nuclear terrorism from Iran or Lebanon is definitely greater than zero. A dirty bomb spreading radiation does not need to be fully nuclear to be a disaster. There are real risks to that Israeli Jewish future, and not all of them are self-inflicted. At the same time, there are hundreds of organizations and thousands of people working for the kind of Israel we support and admire, an Israel that celebrates religious and ethnic diversity, a state for all of its citizens, a positive force for the Jewish future. In a month, I will be visiting that Israel to celebrate the ordination of new Humanistic Israeli Rabbis – I hope you will all come back to this very space and hear all about it on a November Shabbat to come.

Candidly, I cannot guarantee the future. Especially in Humanistic Judaism, since we are a decidedly non-Prophet organization. I DO believe we can be rationally optimistic about the Jewish future from our Jewish present. Predictions of doom can become self-fulfilling prophecies. No one gets onto a sinking ship! What we have to avoid most as we face these old challenges anew is the feeling that we can do nothing, because then we will do nothing and what will be, will be no matter what. To here more about what we CAN do, I hope to see you tomorrow morning.

A tale of two synagogues in the Jewish present: a declining traditional institution, and a growing innovative community. Which one is the Jewish future? In the old Jewish tradition, BOTH are. We face the challenges of blending inherited tradition from the 20th century with the hope and creativity of the 21st. What will make the difference in a complex reality that can be half-empty and going down or half-full and rising? You, and me, and we. Wishing you all a happy, healthy and hopeful new year.

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Old Challenges Anew – Political Civil War (Rosh Hashana 5780/2019

This post was delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September 2019. It was part of a series called Old Challenges Anew. You can listen to an audio recording via the Kol Hadash Podcast.

I chose to talk about political civil war a few months ago. Did I have any idea what was coming? Did you see the headlines this morning? NO! But here we are, so here we go.

2000 years ago, the Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. What did it mean? How would Judaism, and Jews, survive the catastrophe? WHY did it happen? Many explanations were offered. The Romans knew it happened because the Roman Army was irresistible – images of Roman soldiers crushing the Jewish Revolt and carrying off the Temple Menorah still appear today on the Arch of Titus in Rome. The Romans believed the Roman Empire would stand forever; and for centuries, it stood, until it fell, undermined from within by decadence and factions. Another explanation: The small band of Jesus followers were convinced the Temple’s destruction demonstrated the mistake of rejecting him. These early Christians knew that, despite Roman persecution, Christianity would eventually reign supreme; and it did, until it did no longer, undermined by schism and corruption and Reformation and Enlightenment.

Why did the Rabbis think the Second Temple was destroyed? Some followed Biblical prophets from the First Temple’s destruction and blamed a lack of Jewish piety, the infection of foreign cultures and cults and ideas. Our story about banning Greek Wisdom? That text was written after the Second Temple’s destruction, the trembling caused by the pig’s hoof in the days of the Maccabees foreshadowing the Temple’s fall centuries later. Other rabbis saw the destruction as the dawn of the end of days, a battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. The main reason given by the Rabbis centuries later was sinat khinam – baseless hatred. The sin of baseless hatred, Jewish mutual intolerance, was just as bad as the sins that caused the First Temple’s destruction – “baseless hatred is equivalent to three sins: idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and shedding blood.” (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 9b)

The historian Josephus, who saw the Second Temple’s destruction first hand, might have agreed with the rabbis – he describes Jewish Zealots as fanatics willing to kill anyone, even fellow Jews, before they withdrew to Masada for the final fatal siege. Why did the Second Temple burn? The Judean rebellion against Rome was doomed by military realities, but it was also doomed by schism and corruption and factions – the same political diseases that overthrew first the Roman Empire and then Christian hegemony. The same diseases we grapple with today.

Philosopher Mitchell Silver has called the Jewish people “The Veterans of History”. We have experienced much, we have made many mistakes, and we offer many lessons for what to do, and what NOT to do, in communal life. Jewish history is a record of our journey through the human experience. And therefore it is relevant not just to Jews, but to anyone who wants to learn from the human experience. The fact that we Jews kept talking and writing and writing and commenting and would not shut up about our experience means we provide a lot of material to consider.

So we are going to talk about political civil war today, in Israel and in America, not just in Jewish history a long time ago and far, far away. Some people complain when sports figures or sports talk radio go beyond sports to comment on issues of the day. They are told “shut up and dribble” – stay in your lane, stick to what you are supposed to be doing. If I only wanted to connect to Jewish history or Humanist philosophy at an academic level, I could have stayed in the university. A rabbi has a different job – our job is to make our philosophy, our culture, our identity relevant and meaningful to our real lives. If we avoid talking about the hard stuff, be it Israel or society or anything else, the divisions fester under the surface. If you walk out of these doors and forget what was said today and sung today, if what is said and sung here does not shift something or strengthen something inside you to help you face life, then we have both missed an opportunity.

History can be thought of as a spiral staircase – we come around again to certain moments, more advanced but able to look down and see the other times we have been here before. There are times our societies are unified by a common threat; there are times they are torn apart by rival interests and ideologies. American Nationalism during the Great Depression and the Second World War drew the country together to be the arsenal of democracy because we were all in it together; nationalism today is driving the country apart as we argue over the true meaning of the American experiment – is it America First or a lamp lifted beside the golden door? The task of founding and building a Jewish state in the land of Israel unified Israelis from many nations and Jews around the world with stirring slogans like “We are One”. Today, issues around Israel divide families and communities, putting organizations at each others’ throats and poisoning conversations.

The divisions have gotten so bad that we cannot even agree on reality! Maybe weather forecasting is not the best place to look for absolute truth, but at least a good faith effort. Arguing over inaugural crowd size; or thinking that canceling presidential primaries to help an incumbent is unprecedented (it’s been done by both parties multiple times); is the economy doing well or poorly – all too often we spin the same data positively when “our” party is in power, and negatively when “they” are in power. This is nothing new in political life – partisan and biased news sources were the rule for most of human history. Just imagine what the Canaanites might have written about the Israelites, we only have one side of the story!

Bias a very human phenomenon: as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written, when we hear information we like, that supports our side, we ask “CAN I believe it?” Is there any shred of evidence or reason that I can lean on to accept this as true? But if we hear information we do NOT like, facts that undermine our side, we ask “MUST I believe it?” Is there any way, any doubt even implausible that I can latch on to so I can avoid accepting the unacceptable? This dynamic of CAN I believe versus MUST I believe applies to theology, to history, to morality, not just to politics. I am reminded of a story I once heard about a man who grew up in a traditionally religious community but never really believed it. So one night, he goes out into a field and calls out, “All right, God, if you’re out there, give me a sign right now!” And a shooting star flits across the sky directly in front of him. He says, “Wow, what a coincidence!”

If we want to be the kind of people we aspire to be, who respond to facts and use reason and are fair, then we have to interrogate ourselves – am I rejecting this because I do not like the conclusion? Am I believing and Facebook sharing this because I want it to be true? Many love Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous line, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” The more we learn about the human mind, the fuzzier the line between opinion and fact becomes, and thus all the more important to do our best to distinguish the two and escape our knowledge bubbles.

Today we have gone beyond the realm of mere academic dispute. We are in the more dangerous realm of demonization. It is very tempting to see the world in black and white, good and evil, all or nothing and to dump everything bad over the line. We are surprised to find someone who opposes both abortion AND the death penalty, like the Catholic Church. Or a person who supports both gun rights and abortion rights. We are surprised because binary thinking means the other side is always wrong, and everything wrong is on the other side.

They are not just wrong – they are actually evil: the right is cruel and heartless and eager to cause suffering, or the left is simplistic and naïve and disloyal. Before the Israeli election two weeks ago, this message appeared on Benjamin Netanyahu’s Facebook page:

…on Tuesday, you can determine the future of our nation. Prime Minister Netanyahu brings a right-wing policy of a Jewish state, security, and a strong Israel… we cannot have a dangerous left-wing government with Lapid, Odeh, Gantz and Lieberman in a week’s time. A secular left-wing weak government that relies on Arabs who want to destroy us all – women, children and men, and will enable a nuclear Iran that will eliminate us. We cannot allow this to happen! … make sure [you] vote Likud….

These “dangerous Arabs” are not Arabs in Lebanon or Syria – they are Israeli citizens. The message here is not just that the other parties are wrong. The other parties are dangerous, they are siding with the enemy, they ARE the enemy. You can absolutely find similar messaging in American politics; remember “pals around with terrorists”? This is not just politics, this is political civil war.

And it is very personal. A study this year asked if you would be unhappy if your child married someone different from their identity. Only 16% of Americans were opposed to interfaith marriage for their child, and only 13% opposed to another race or ethnicity. Maybe they were just happy their kid got married at all! That is real progress on intermarriage towards one America. But what about a POLITICAL intermarriage, if your child married a supporter of the other side? For Republicans, 35%, and 45% of Democrats, would be unhappy with an in-law of different politics. This is a huge difference from 1960; back then, 90% of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage and only 4% disapproved of political intermarriage. It’s almost as if we HAVE to have SOMEONE we disapprove of our children marrying! If politics has become just as tribal as ethnicity and religion used to be, political positions will be held with religious fervor and opponents will be quite literally DEMONized, exchanging epithets like “papists” and “Christ killers” for “fascists” and “baby killers.”

When politics becomes civil war, then all becomes fair: voter suppression, deplatforming, gerrymandering, violating unwritten norms and practices. Each side blames the other for sinking to a new low, and down we go. Jewish tradition had a concept called yeridot ha-dorot – the decline of generations: the earliest sages and rabbis were the holiest, the closest to Mt. Sinai and the Torah revelation, and so they were the most authoritative. As time went on, later generations could interpret those earlier teachers but rarely challenge them directly. We see the end results of this process today in the ultra-Orthodox world, with its high walls and narrow windows and locked doors. And in its self-segregation from, its disdain for any other flavor of Judaism, which in their minds has degraded even further. Of course, liberal Jews in America and secular Jews in Israel can also disdain the ultra-Orthodox as backward, insular, and making us look bad. Let’s be honest: they would not be happy to marry us as we are, and we might not be happy about marrying them! The challenge of sinat chinam, of baseless hatred, is that we always assume it is the OTHER side that has baseless hatred; WE have very good reasons for how we feel about them!

I am not minimizing the stakes. I am NOT trying to say this is all just backwards tribalism and why can’t we all just get along. Tribalism is a part of our psychological makeup, something we have to manage and that can sometimes get the better of us. We do live in dangerous times; elections are truly a matter of life and death to people more vulnerable than many of us. We are short on compassion, we are short on thinking through long-term consequences to major social changes, we are short on the feelings of collective purpose and mission that might bind us together across our differences.

It’s not as if anti-Semites care about Jewish mutual dislike: Orthodox Jews have been physically assaulted in New York City because of their visible difference, and liberal Jews have been shot and killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue because of their support of immigrants. That 1960 American willingness to politically intermarry was the fellowship that came from the challenges of the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. In the mid-1970s, during the Watergate era, THREE QUARTERS of Congress had served in the US Armed Forces; today that is 18%There are many ways to serve your country, including criticizing it when it goes astray, but one factor in our hostility across party lines is a lack of common experience and common purpose. The same chasm and suspicion has grown in Israel between those who do mandatory national service and those who claim religious exemption for Talmud study.

What can we do? I have three suggestions today. The first is “A Plague o’ Both Your Houses.” You may recognize the line from Romeo and Juliet. If you see something that divides us more, simply for the sake of division, no matter who said it or did it, say something. It will be easy when your opponent crosses the line; it will be harder to call out your allies, or accept self-criticism. The Jewish New Year is a time for self-examination, self-correction, and we are more effective at suggesting correction to others if we have first examined ourselves. This is deeper than fact-checking, more significant than tone policing. Sometimes we NEED to speak angrily, to type in ALL CAPS, to share the depth of our emotion. If we strive to live by our values, however, then that means honesty and avoiding hypocrisy. Sometimes we can fairly wish a plague on the other house, but that means we must also be willing to face our failings.

The second strategy is an old Jewish idea called Eilu v’Eilu”. Two thousand years ago, there was a near rabbinic schism. Two major teachers created two major schools: the House of Hillel (Beit Hillel), and the House of Shammai (Beit Shammai). They could not even agree on how to light Hanukkah candles: Beit Hillel said light one and add one each night, Beit Shammai said light eight and then one less each night. Beit Hillel won most of the debates, and it was a descendant of Hillel who was the Nasi, or head of the rabbinical assembly, for many generations. But one day, Beit Shammai outnumbered Beit Hillel in the assembly, and they voted through 18 prohibitions that Beit Hillel would have allowed (Mishnah Shabbat 1:4); sounds a bit like the North Carolina state legislature that rammed through a budget while half of the lawmakers were absent – for a 9/11 memorial event! This rabbinic court session was very contentious – a later report in the Talmud claims the argument was so intense,

they placed a sword in the study hall, saying ‘those who enter may enter, but one who wants to leave may not leave. That day Hillel the Nasi was bowed and sitting low before Shammai like just another student, a day as difficult for Israel as when the Golden Calf was made. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 17a)

In the Torah, the Golden Calf results in 3000 deaths, but this dispute between Hillel and Shammai did not. What was the difference?

Stories about Hillel and Shammai were collected in the aftermath of the Maccabean civil war and the Destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. And they were told in a conceptual framework that accepted there were many ways to understand the world. In another Talmudic account (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 13b):

For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, one asserting, ‘The law is in agreement with our views’ and the other asserting, ‘The law is in agreement with our views’. Then a voice from heaven announced, ‘Eilu v’Eilu both are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel’. If both are ‘the words of the living God’ why was Beit Hillel entitled to have the law fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, so much as to mention the actions of Beit Shammai before theirs.

This is why I read FoxNews.com AND HuffingtonPost.com – to escape the knowledge bubble requires some knowledge humility. Humanists believe that truth changes in response to evidence, and that our knowledge of the world is at once extensive and limited – we know a lot but we do not know everything. So we can learn from everyone, and follow Beit Hillel’s example.

The third strategy: sometimes in a civil war you cannot only stand on the side of civility. Sometimes you have to pick a side. The Union was right to fight to abolish slavery, the Confederacy was wrong to defend it. If we value democracy, then we have to fight those who would undermine it to impose their authority, be it religious or political, in Israel or America. I have no tolerance for intolerance. And American democracy, by spirit and by letter, must be greater than any one person or political party; those who undermine it must be fought not for partisan advantage but for truth, justice and the American Way. We can always examine ourselves, do our best, play by the rules. But if we have to fight back to preserve the concept of rules themselves, then fight we will.

However, do not give up too easily on bridging the divide. We have to try to speak so they will listen. Remember, teaching without learning is just talking. Offer a positive response before a criticism; show that you care about an issue important to them before asking their help on your cause. Find a common experience you can share. If Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes can agree on lobbying reform, at least over Twitter, then anything is possible.

Sometimes, yes, we need to fight fire with fire. Some perspectives, some actions ARE beyond the pale, unacceptable, to be condemned absolutely and utterly and always, by our side and by any side worth respect. And do not think this only applies to geopolitical disputes. The Jewish New Year is a time of relationship repair – we apologize for the wrongs we have done, we forgive those who apologize for wronging us.

In our relationships, we should strive to be honest and consistent, evaluating our own behavior as well as the other’s. We should understand that disagreements can be between right and right, that we are not always right and the other always wrong, And yes, sometimes it is not fixable. But not without trying to speak so they will listen, trying to find a solution with dignity for both sides.

The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple was a Jewish disaster, but like a forest fire, it planted the seeds of new growth. After the destruction, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua were once walking past the destroyed sanctuary, perhaps in the New Year season. Rabbi Joshua lamented: “How shall we atone for the sins of Israel? The house where atonement was made for Israel’s sins now lies in ruins.” Rabbi Yochanan had himself escaped the siege of Jerusalem and Jewish Zealots who sought to kill him by sneaking out hidden in a coffin. He knew about sinat khinam, baseless hatred, first-hand. Yochanan comforted Joshua, saying “We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness), as it is written, ‘I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice.’ (Hosea 6:6)” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 17a) And so began the rabbinic project of changing sacrifice to prayer and good deeds, channeling argument into debate and discussion, harmonizing opposing opinions on one Talmud page. We are the heirs of this experiment in holy disagreement; I hope we have learned its lessons well. Shana Tovah, a Happy and Healthy New Year to us all.

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Old Challenges Anew – Antisemitism (Rosh Hashana 5780/2019)

This post was delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September 2019. It was part of a series called Old Challenges Anew. You can listen to an audio recording via the Kol Hadash Podcast.

I chose to talk about Antisemitism on Rosh Hashana months ago; did I know that the problem would not be resolved by the end of Jewish year 5779? Yes. Did I have any idea how much material from the news I would have to process? No. And, since congregants appreciate High Holiday humor, had I fully considered the challenge of working in jokes to a sermon on antisemitism?….No.

We have been told that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. Of course, new events are not exactly the same as historical precedents. Mark Twain supposedly wrote, “History does not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.” After the Holocaust, we thought we understood the lesson of “Never Again” – but what WAS that lesson exactly? Was the lesson “never again to any genocide,” as Elie Wiesel called to the world’s conscience during the 1990s Bosnian conflict? Was the lesson only “never again to the Jews,” so that saying “Never Again” to anything short of a full Holocaust is antisemitic appropriation? Was it “never again to overcrowded indefinite detention centers”? If so, then we also have a lot of work to do for the Chinese Uighur Muslims whose mosques are being destroyed while tens of thousands are interned in “reeducation” camps.” Or the purges of gay men in Chechnya. Or the entire country of North Korea. The price of “never again” may be eternal vigilance, but we never expected to see so many opportunities, on our own borders and everywhere.

This Jewish New Year, we seek to understand the world today by looking back. Our hatred of “the other” is very old – deeply rooted in our psyche, demonstrated over and over again in human history. Even today, no matter what anti-bullying policies are in place, school classmates are othered: by religion, by ethnicity, by appearance, by name, by individuality. And what happens in seventh grade does not stay in seventh grade; it echoes in our minds and reverberates through society. Jewish history provides ample lessons in hatred. Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the dairyman famously asked if, with all of this suffering we are still the divinely chosen people, once in a while choose someone else! The earliest antisemitic writers lived two thousand years ago; we do not have their books, but we do have a rebuttal by the Jewish historian Josephus. Their accusations included that the Jews left Egypt not via divine Exodus, but because they were expelled for being diseased and polluting – the Jews had to rest after walking for six days because the infections in their groins were too painful. Even Shabbat is given an insulting rationale. In another passage, a man is found captive in a secret room in the Jerusalem Temple – he explains (section 8):

The Jews did the same at a set time every year: they used to catch a Greek foreigner, and fatten him thus up every year, and then lead him to a certain forest, and kill him, and sacrifice with their accustomed solemnities, and taste of his entrails, and take an oath upon this sacrificing a Greek, that they would always be enemies of the Greeks;

Recognize these accusations? Pre-echoes of the medieval blood libel, which accused Jews of killing Christians to use their blood, or a modern version: Israelis stealing organs from captive Palestinians.

In some ways it’s the same old song that rhymes. And yet, we have still been shocked by the events of the past few years. Two fatal synagogue shootings exactly six months apart, when the previous American synagogue shooting death was over 40 years ago? Political campaigns depicting Jewish figures with piles of money? Progressive marches for human rights banning a rainbow flag with a Jewish star for being too similar to the Israeli flag, while allowing other national symbols? “It’s all about the Benjamins,” tweets one side. “Beware the globalists,” Facebook posts the other. We knew these attitudes existed on the fringes, though as I said last year, 10% of Americans being antisemitic means 30 million people. Today we see it more and more, and wider and wider.

In a supreme irony, we even see political opponents using the accusation of antisemitism as a weapon. I guess we could be flattered by the attention. After all, a world where explicit antisemitism is unacceptable is better than the alternative. On the other hand, our public square today is a bit like the boy who cried wolf – if ANY criticism of Israel is antisemitism, if ANY hard questions of global capitalism is antisemitism, then the effect of crying “antisemitism” is diluted, and real antisemitism gains a cover story. “I don’t hate Jews, I just hate those money-grubbing globalists who dominate the media and financial system.” We know who they mean. And it matters who says what. If someone famous says American Jews not voting with Israel are being “very disloyal”, many call that an antisemitic accusation of dual loyalty. But if the Zionist Organization of America says, “American Jews should vote for what is best for Israel,” we are less likely to cry “antisemitism” even when we disagree.

Today we feel acutely that our Jewish extended family is not the only group facing hatred. The same people who claim religious sanction as they deny Jews and Catholics the chance to care for foster children, they also claim that their religious beliefs let them deny gay couples equal treatment, or deny women pregnancy termination medication, or deny transgender and non-binary individuals basic dignity. You may have seen a story recently about a Mississippi wedding chapel that rejected an interracial couple, saying, “we don’t do gay weddings or mixed race, because of our Christian race – I mean, our Christian belief.” And I have not even touched on treatment of immigrants, Latinos, Muslims, and many others. A rising tide of bigotry lifts all hatreds; perhaps we can find common cause with other “others” also facing this deluge.

Why do they hate us? Beware of simple answers. Some hate Jews because we represent modernity and post-nationalism, breaking down borders and corrupting traditional values. Some hate Jews because we are too tribal and stick together too much in an era of broader sentiment – “why insist on a Jewish state when there should be no borders; why be Jewish and not just human?” Some hate Jews because they extrapolate from personal experience – a recent global survey of antisemitism found the highest rates of antisemitic beliefs in…. the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I will give you zero guesses why. Historically Christians hated Jews because they believed the Jews rejected Jesus and took responsibility for his death.

Many simply find the Jews a convenient scapegoat “other” for whatever they find wrong: communists claimed we were behind capitalism, fascists said we were behind communism, nativists and white nationalists claim we are behind immigration. It’s always easier to blame someone else for your own faults – just like 2000 years ago, today’s anti-Semites claim that all Jews hate all “goyim,” and parts of the Arab world believe the Israeli Mossad caused 9/11 rather than accept any responsibility. After all, Antisemitism is the unusual oppression that claims Jews are MORE powerful than they are – in this way, the disadvantaged may believe that Jews have all the power and are screwing them over, and they do not notice the ones who REALLY have the power and are doing the screwing.

There have been and there are individual Jewish communists and Jewish capitalists and Jewish internationalists and Israeli nationalists, tribal Jews and open-minded Jews, human rights Jews and ethno-chauvinist Jews. But antisemitism is like a psychopathology: a distorted lens through which reality is always sinister and always revolves around the Jews. If we are 2% of the US population and 10% of US Senators are Jewish, we might take pride while others see it as one more proof of Jewish conspiracy. Severe antisemitism has a self-contained answer for everything, and is rarely amenable to argument. Consider the difference between “some Jews have influence in Hollywood” and “THE Jews influence Hollywood” – the first is sociology, the second is antisemitism. And to be very blunt, if there IS a global Jewish conspiracy, this rabbi has never seen a profit-sharing check.

If we see the Jewish experience as one example of the human experience, maybe we have some lessons to share. Recall the Purim story – “having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with ALL the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom.” [Esther 3:6] Esther saves her people by appealing to the king; personal connections at a high level avert disaster. This model of high level, behind the scenes intervention to avoid persecution was basic to medieval Jewish survival – in Eastern Europe, an official shtadlan or intercessor maintained good connections with the feudal lord who controlled how Jews were treated. Even so, sometimes these ‘Court Jews’ were rejected and the Jewish population was expelled or worse. We know the limitations of “one of my best friends is Jewish.” Or Latino or Gay.

What would shtadlanut be today? There is no king with whom to negotiate, so we would have to start by getting the Jewish community on the same page. This way progressive Jews could have “the talk” to educate and inform the Left, while conservative or libertarian Jews could highlight problems in their organizations with more credibility than “those crazy socialists.” This step is not working so well these days. There is no Jewish consensus on what COUNTS as antisemitism, let alone the best response, so each side of the Jewish political spectrum BLAMES the other for not denouncing their own, rather than encouraging dialogue. Ilhan Omar and Donald Trump are like Jewish Rorschach tests: which times and how often you have denounced them measures your Jewish character. We Jews contain multitudes, and that makes answering the antisemitism challenge that much harder. Twenty years ago, in the early days of the internet, I found myself on a right-wing Jewish website called the Self-Hating Israel Threatening List (S.H.I.T. List) – when I read the rabbis listed there, I was in very good company! But for the list creator, it was the opposite.

When shtadlanut, high level negotiation, had the goal of avoiding a pogrom’s violence or an order of expulsion, we all agreed. Shtadlanut is not as effective today because we are not all coming from the same place, we do not read the evidence the same way, we agree on neither strategy nor ultimate goals.

Another historical Jewish option to respond to antisemitism: in 1913, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith (ADL) was founded. Its charter stated:

The immediate object of the League is to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people. Its ultimate purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike and to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.

A nice balance of a particularist focus on Jews, with antisemitism as one example of unacceptable hatred. One of the motivations to form the ADL was the trial of Leo Frank, an Atlanta Jew accused of killing a Christian girl. Also in 1913, a Russian Jew named Mendel Beilis, was tried for a full-on blood libel of murdering a Christian child to use his blood to make matzah. By 1915, Beilis had been acquitted thanks to courageous non-Jewish prosecutors and journalists, but Frank had been killed by a lynch mob. Listen again to the ADL’s goal: “to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people.” Rather than negotiate behind the scenes, this strategy publicly confronted antisemitism among the people, in popular culture, and in the courts. Today we have Jewish community relations councils, Jewish Federations, Jewish and Israel advocacy organizations that all use “appeals to reason and conscience” to counteract antisemitism. They have their successes, particularly in reaching their own community. I remember a story of two people lost on a desert island. One runs around frantically building signal fires, creating messages in the sand, while the other sits calmly in the shade of a palm tree. The first says to the second, “How can you sit there so calmly?” The second says, “I’m not worried. I haven’t made my Federation pledge yet this year. They’ll find me.

After a century of this work, has it changed hearts and minds among the population? If you ask someone NOT involved in the Jewish community, what they think of when they hear the word “Federation,” they are most likely to answer….. Star Trek. In the United States in 1964, after 50 years of work by the ADL, 29% of Americans still held many antisemitic beliefs in the ADL’s first antisemitism survey. However, after 55 more years, today that number is down to 14%. 1/3 of Americans still think Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America, so it is not just President Trump or the Zionist Organization of America. Yes, appeals to reason and conscience. Because sometimes they work: remember the Mississippi wedding chapel that refused an interracial couple? Here’s what the owner wrote on Facebook a few days later:

As a child growing up in Mississippi, our racial boundaries that were unstated were that of staying with your own race….On Saturday my husband asked me to show him in the Bible where it was located as to the content concerning biracial relationships. I studied for a minute and began to think about the history of my learning this and where it came from. I was unable to recall instances where the Bible was used giving a verse that would support my decision… after searching [for two days]….and sitting down with my pastor Sunday night after church I have come to the conclusion my decision which was based on what I had thought was correct to be supported by the Bible was incorrect! …. All of the years I had “assumed” in my mind that I was correct, but have never taken the opportunity to research and find whether this was correct or incorrect until now.

Sometimes minds can be opened. Direct confrontation started the wheels turning for this woman. Sometimes legal action is effective – after a libel suit in 1927, Henry Ford officially retracted his printing of The International Jew: The World’s Problem. In 1997, the chief sponsor of the commercial-free airing of Schindler’s List on broadcast television was…the Ford Motor Company.

But, to be honest, we have been doing “appeals to reason and conscience” for a long time. 2000 years ago, Josephus answered the story of the man fattened up for Jews to eat with these reasons: “how is it possible that all the Jews should get together to these sacrifices: and the entrails of one man should be sufficient for so many thousands to taste of them?” Yet the blood libel legend lived on, long past Josephus, like a prejudice vampire continuing to draw blood.

By 1948, some Jews were just sick and tired – tired of being a minority, tired of hatred. They hoped that creating and living in a Jewish State might solve antisemitism. The Jews would be like other nations, with a government to advocate for them and armed forces to defend them. And if being a normal nation did not solve antisemitism, a Jewish State could be a crisis refuge, unlike the gates slammed in our faces in the 1930s. Israel did not work as planned either – it has been a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing persecution, especially from Arab lands and from the Soviet Union, yet Israel has also become another trigger, or another excuse, for antisemitism. Creating Israel made justice for some at the expense of injustice for others. In the endless ironies of history, Israel in its current right-wing trend is now used as an example of the ethnic-exclusive state white nationalists want – they might want to ship American Jews there, but for them, tribalism is an ideal, even Jewish tribalism. There are times criticism of Israel is fair, and there are times it crosses the line to antisemitism. We will explore how to distinguish this and respond on Yom Kippur.

That vampire of antisemitism lives on – no one solution will stop a problem with many causes and little reason. Quiet government influence, public confrontation, appeals to conscience, deploying words as a defensive army, even deploying an army itself. We have to keep trying all of these because sometimes they work – we are not giving up our 10 senator shtadlanim or closing the ADL or abandoning Israel as a refuge. What else can we do?

I will talk more about what we can do, what we can always do no matter how large the problem, on Yom Kippur, but I want to give you two ideas tonight. First, there’s another way to win the battle of ideas. Recall the episode of two Jews traveling on a streetcar in Vienna around 1900 – one is reading the local Jewish paper and the other is reading the local antisemitic paper. The first says to the second, “How can you read that trash?” The second replies, “When I read your paper, everyone hates us, we’re so oppressed. When I read my paper, we own the banks, we run the government – it’s much more inspiring!” Never underestimate the power of laughter – in 2006, after the controversy about printing Mohammed cartoons, Iran held a Holocaust denial cartoon contest. In response, a Israeli Jewish illustrator announced his own antisemitic cartoon contest. He said, “We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published! No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!” I have seen clowns as counter-protestors to white nationalists, artists adding to swastika graffiti to turn them into silly cartoons. In response to a provocative call to “Draw Mohammed” that encouraged people to draw stick figures with sidewalk chalk and label them Mohammed, some Muslim student associations took their own chalk, drew boxing gloves on the stick figure, and wrote “Ali” – now it was Mohammed Ali! No problem! Not everything is laughable, and we should not make light of what is deadly serious. At the same time, Jewish laughter, and our ability to make others laugh, should be in the arsenal.

Laughter is just one piece of a wider strategy – confidence. Even as they chant “Jews will not replace us,” we chant, “We will outlive them.” For Jews this is not 1939, because the police are protecting US. But we must consider what we can or should do when the citizenship, safety and human dignity of others is in danger, even if WE feel secure. If there is a political civil war brewing, can we argue for civility or do we need to pick a side? We turn to that question tomorrow morning.

From confidence comes hope. Hope is not a utopia, imagining a future without hatred. Hope is a positive view of what could be different, what can be better. Some of you may recall the last scene of Fiddler on the Roof – a moment of sadness, or maybe not. The Jews of Anatevka have suffered pogroms and are finally expelled by antisemitic decree. Tevye’s family is scattered – Sibera, Poland, he himself is going to “New York, America”. As he slogs through the mud, dragging his wagon, he hears a high pitched violin. It is the Fiddler, playing his simple tune. Tevye looks back at this echo of his past, he gives a wry smile, and an invitation to join him. With humor, and confidence, and our depth of history, we know what happens next because WE are what happened next – a brighter future across a great ocean. L’shana Tova, wishing us all a hopeful new year.

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Yaakov Malkin – A Tribute

The following was written for the memorial celebration of Professor Yaakov Malkin, Provost of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism
and Founding Dean of Tmura-IISHJ in Jerusalem

Shalom, greetings, and deep regret that I am unable to be with you today. All of my love to Yaakov’s wife Felice, to his children Sivan and Irad, and to their families.

Many parents have only a few children. A great teacher has many children, because the teacher’s students become teachers themselves, sharing wisdom even wider.

We humans have only one life to live and love, to remember and forget, to embrace and understand. Words and ideas can live forever. There is still a time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance because while the historical Kohelet has been lost, its words continue to inspire and to comfort.

Yaakov Malkin was not a small stone in a pond, leaving small ripples that fade. Yaakov was a tidal wave of ideas and words, of creativity and insight, to his very last year. His children-students have celebrated and will celebrate the Jewish and human experience with thousands, and his books and lectures and plays have connected and will connect with thousands more. No, Yaakov himself will not live forever, and yet he will live on.

Almost 30 years ago, Yaakov’s daughter Sivan was a Jewish Agency shlikha in Metropolitan Detroit, where she met a radical rabbi named Sherwin Wine who celebrated something called Humanistic Judaism. She connected Sherwin and Yaakov, and, in the words of Casablanca, it was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Together, Sherwin and Yaakov gave life to the “International” in International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism through Colloquium conferences and Federation meetings in Europe, North America and Israel. Many of their stimulating debates live on in YouTube videos, published works, and the memories of those who were there.

It was Sherwin and Yaakov, as co-Deans of the IISHJ, who educated and ordained Rabbi Sivan Malkin Maas, the first Israeli Secular Humanistic Rabbi, and together with Sivan initiated Tmura – the training program for Secular Humanistic Rabbis in Israel. Sherwin and I were both present at the first Tmura ordination in 2006, and while Sherwin was happy, I believe it was Yaakov, the rosh yeshiva with a Ph.D., who was the proudest.

I remember many of Yaakov’s profound insights, and I share them with my own Secular Humanistic rabbinic students in North America: the “poetic truths” of Genesis; the claim that truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense; and inspiring examples for our day from Jewish literature and history. I conclude with Yaakov’s own words from Colloquium ’99:

I know that we are very small, I know that you can count the people who are engaged in our movement full time on one hand or maybe two hands. But, remember, there was a Jew who had only twelve disciples when he died, and look what happened!

After Sherwin Wine died on July 21, 2007, I told my colleagues that if anyone asks who will replace him, I would say, “None of us, and all of us.” After Yaakov Malkin’s death on July 21, 2019, the answer for Tmura in Israel and for Secular Humanistic Judaism around the world is the same – None of us, and all of us. Yaakov, your children-students have learned, and we will teach.

תודה רבה רבה מורי ורבי ואבי הרוחני, ושלום.

Thank you so very much, my teacher and my rabbi and my spiritual father, and goodbye.

 

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Old Challenges Anew – High Holidays 5780/2019

These talks were part of High Holiday services in September/October 2019 for Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation and are also available in audio on The Kol Hadash Podcast (also here) and as separate posts here (adult events only).

Jewish history and the human experience have been full of difficult moments: disasters, persecutions, suffering. What have we learned to survive, and how can that help us face today’s challenges?

Rosh Hashana Evening: Antisemitism and Other Hatred
Public expressions of hate are rising, and a rising tide lifts all bigotries. Even if numbers remain small, the haters are louder and bolder. Synagogue (and mosque and church) shootings, antisemitic cartoons, discrimination by both Christian foster care agencies and Dyke Marches – we have seen this before and had hoped never again. Why now? And what to do now?

Rosh Hashana Morning: Political Civil War
It’s been said that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Today politics IS war: opponents are enemies, issues are black or white, the other side is not just wrong but evil. In Israel, in America, in Europe, civil society strains at the seams. We have also seen this story before, and we need to change the ending.

Yom Kippur Evening: An Uncertain Jewish Future
The Jews have been called “the ever-dying people.” Each generation is convinced it is the last. Yet we are still here and, like our ancestors, we must answer new challenges. Balancing continuity and change is a Jewish tradition and a key to Jewish survival. As is hope.

Yom Kippur Morning: What We Can Do
Our problems are so large, and our powers seem so limited – what can one person or one community do? Facing earlier tragedies, the Jewish people trusted both supernatural providence and human effort. What must we do for human power to be enough for us

Yom Kippur Memorial: The Reality of Mortality
If this life is the only life we know, how do we find comfort after loss? Death has always defined the human condition, but are we any better at dealing with it after all this time? How we remember can make all the difference.

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