Jews and Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who Can See What Will Happen After?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start the New Year
intent
introspective
insightful
inspired

and,
wherever you are,
in person.

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If Not Now, When?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shall Not the Judge Do Justice?

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

Consider Abraham. Abraham is told that the city of Sodom will be destroyed for its wickedness. Abraham bargains to save the city, and his opening remarks echo even today: “will you destroy the righteous with the wicked? What if there are 50 righteous people in the city, You would then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the righteous 50? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?

The judge should do justice. Innocent and guilty should not fare alike. This is an essential challenge of any legal system – once you make laws, their equal and impartial enforcement is a key to justice. The Soviet Union had a written constitution that theoretically guaranteed wonderful freedoms; in reality it had a KGB and gulag prison camps. The American Declaration of Independence declared all men were created equal, in an era when most people were disqualified from being a full person. After the Civil War, “separate but equal” existed on paper, but it was always a lie, everyone knew that the reality was separate and unequal. Declaring law and order is one thing; doing real justice is much harder.

Human beings are bad at judgment. We leap to conclusions from scanty evidence. We make snap decisions, and then try to justify them; brain scans confirm this sequence: decision first, reasons afterward. We all have biases; we say, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and we do. For example, we are very poor at judging risk – pre-coronavirus, which do you think was more dangerous: 1) flying in an airplane, 2) driving a car, 3) riding a bike or 4) taking a walk? Many people would rank them in that order – flying most dangerous, walking the safest. The statistical truth is that planes are safer than cars, and bikes are safer than walking! The National Safety Council regularly produces an “Odds of Dying Chart” (believe it or not). It turns out that the odds of dying of cancer over your lifetime are more than 1 in 10, and from opioid overdose more than 1 in 100, and BOTH are more common than dying in car crashes. As a pedestrian, odds are 1 in 500 – as a cyclist, 1 in 4000. And you are more likely to die of sunstroke, insect stings, even dog attacks or lightning than you are to die from a plane crash. Those are the facts. Do facts change our judgment? Now consider issues like social distancing, wearing masks, wiping down groceries and mail, eating outside, visiting friends and family and so much more. Some may be too cavalier, and some may be more cautious than science truly warrants. In this empty sanctuary, speaking to an online congregation, I know that saving life is paramount. But living life is important too. We will talk more about living life moving forward at our memorial service which explores Ecclesiastes’ question “Who can see what will happen after?”

The challenge of flawed human judgment is one reason we are tempted to outsource justice to the cosmos: if we are unreliable, untrustworthy, incomplete, then we want someone or some thing to be absolutely fair, knowing everything, judging without bias. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community, my father was convinced that he was earning points with every mitzvah/every commandment he fulfilled; this was no metaphor, he really believed in a heavenly tally of good deeds and demerits. Many people would rather believe that a disaster was their fault and add guilt to their own suffering rather than picture a universe where good things and bad things happen by chance, without justice. We want the righteous rewarded and the wicked punished. Yom Kippur is also called Yom Ha-Din, the day of judgment, when it was believed that a book of life of who will live and who will die is written and sealed for the year. This way when someone died that year, everyone knew it was justice and they could say “barukh dayan ha-emet,” blessed is the true judge. On this Yom Kippur date, Jews sacrificed and fasted and prayed and atoned because they believed in a just god, they believed they had failed, and they believed that they would justly suffer and even die for an unatoned sin. This is the start of Abraham’s challenge, believing in a judge of all the earth, and then challenging that judge to do justice.

It is chutzpah to challenge the judge to do justice. There is a long Jewish tradition of challenging God, from Abraham on. Challenging cosmic justice is an important step towards humanism – for us, assuming the universe works by our moral calculus is chutzpah! As far as we know, based on our experience, the only power working for our justice is just us. And if that deep desire for justice is part of being human, if individuals and communities need real justice to survive and to thrive, then WE have to work for it – that’s Humanism.

Our question from Rosh Hashana echo again – am I my brother’s keeper? We know that it is not really justice if it is for just us, our group, those we like or identify with. This is why the idealized statue of justice is blindfolded. As we heard tonight, Exodus 23 expresses exactly this sentiment, but of course other Torah laws accept slavery, even treating the slavery of Israelites different from the slavery of other peoples – Israelites may be freed every 7 years, but not “them,” just us. A man may suspect his wife of adultery and require her to undergo a ritual that could make her a curse among her people – there is no parallel process for a MAN committing adultery, and no compensation for a false accusation. Post-Biblical Judaism was very legalistic, but before modern times women were not accepted as rabbis or judges, they were not even accepted as witnesses for some cases – even today they cannot sign many Orthodox marriage ketubahs as witnesses, though they can witness the civil marriage license or a prenup; on secular documents, their testimony is valid and valued. Yes, there are wonderful statements in the Torah and Jewish tradition about avoiding bribes, doing justice, having fair weights and measures, not oppressing the stranger. And then there are Torah laws for just us, and just for men.

Remember, a well-written law is only one first step towards justice; Abraham has no written law to cite when he challenges God: no Constitution, no Torah yet, and they won’t admit any use of the Code of Hammurabi. Abraham’s challenge does not quote the letter of any law – it begins with a basic moral principle, a spirit of the law: “will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” This is the spirit of justice: the innocent should not suffer with the guilty; if they do, there is no justice. For many of us, the injustice of earthquakes and holocausts and plagues that kill indiscriminately is why we do not believe in a benevolent world or a just personal god. If the righteous are indeed destroyed with the wicked, then any cosmic judge there may be is not doing justice and does not deserve our petition or our praise.

What about judges in our world, judges and juries we designate to decide who by prison and who by community service, who by fine and who by plea deal, who is guilty and who not guilty. Human justice is not blind: from policing priorities of which cars to stop in which neighborhoods, to what charges are filed, to what plea deals are offered, to the sentence, human justice has not been blind because humans are not blind. Our biases affect our judgment, as study after study has shown both in theory and in the real world. When it comes to human justice, however, we draw the opposite conclusion from the cosmos – no cosmic justice seen means no cosmic justice possible. But human justice failed does not mean it cannot be done. Human injustice motivates us to work even harder, to go beyond the letter of the law that sounds fair but works out unjustly to reach for the spirit of the law, that the righteous and the wicked should not meet the same fate.

One of the first teachings in Pirkey Avot/Sayings of the Fathers encourages us to “judge every human being favorably.” Large passages of Jewish law are devoted to legal procedure, rules of evidence, and the like. The American criminal justice system decrees suspects officially innocent until proven guilty. We appoint public defenders, we read the accused their rights, we present a public trial, the accused are judged by a jury of peers, there are courts of appeals, and more. And still, in the real world, there have been failures to do justice at every step. Remember what Winston Churchill said about democracy: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” There is no substitute for human justice, which means we have to take Abraham’s challenge and renew it for our days – the human judges of the earth must do better at doing justice. Martin Luther King Jr. once quoted a 19th century theologian to affirm that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” For Humanists, that arc does not bend itself.

What should we do, then, if we accept Abraham’s revised challenge that judges must do justice and the righteous and wicked must not fare alike? How do we make it so? We need to balance accuracy and haste. It is true that justice delayed is justice denied. It is also true that partial information spreads wildly through the online mobs of outrage. Like the witch trials of Salem, condemning others makes us feel more righteous, especially when the violators are some version of “them.” Fact-checking gets a bad rap these days, but we cannot create justice through injustice. This is why you need a warrant for a search, and confessions extracted by torture are inadmissible. Policemen and malicious thieves who break the law are criminals. This does not mean that laws = justice; there can absolutely be unjust laws and even systems worth disobeying for positive goals. Civil rights icon John Lewis was arrested 40 times protesting segregation – definitely a repeat criminal offender. His suggestion? “get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Abuse of power, falsifying evidence, this is not good trouble. This is injustice, period.

If we do not want righteous and wicked to fare alike, then we need subtlety and discernment. There are police officers and judges and district attorneys who work for justice, even if there are enough problems that the system itself needs reforming, and not just trimming out bad apples. There are protestors marching for justice, there are people in difficult financial circumstances, and there are criminals looking to steal and profit and destroy. The rush to sweeping judgment is very tempting, just as black and white thinking is tempting, but neither serves the complicated cause of justice. To address habitual offenders, lawmakers passed mandatory minimums and 3 strikes/you’re out laws, but many judges felt unjust imposing long sentences for small offenses. Or the tragic case of Brianna Taylor being debated right now. She was asleep at home when someone broke in the door without warning so her boyfriend shot at the intruder. The police had a no-knock warrant to break in the door and when police officers are fired at, they fire back. Taylor’s family has received a financial settlement that included police reforms like better supervision for warrants and body cameras required to be on during raids. But an innocent person is still dead by mistake, either accident or negligence. What would make perfect justice now? These reforms are progress, incremental steps towards a better system, and improvement based on real life experience and criticism is exactly what needs to happen. But we may never arrive at pure justice. That’s how human justice works.

In the end, Abraham’s appeal does no good. He bargains the Hebrew god down from finding 50 righteous people to save the city to 40, to 30, eventually to only 10 righteous being enough to save Sodom. When angels are sent to investigate, the men of Sodom try to violently assault them. Abraham’s nephew Lot IS saved, though that is really an example of “just us” justice: Lot had offered his two virgin daughters to the mob in place of his guests, hardly a righteous gesture. All of Sodom is destroyed, including presumably children and animals just like Noah’s Flood. It IS praiseworthy that Abraham calls for the judge to do justice and negotiates down the sentence, but the system itself merits serious critique.

Recall Moses’ question – who am I to question justice to be more just? Our society’s justice answers a larger question: who are WE. Who are we as Jews, as Americans, as human beings. When we participate in a system, we assume responsibility for what that system does. Those children at the border were taken from their parents under the authority of our government. Judges in our justice system have been appealed to do justice as best they can within current law. Do we need more judges to reduce delays and make fast and fair decisions on asylum and immigration, up or down? Absolutely. And sometimes real justice means rewriting the laws. Thousands of Israelis protesting government corruption and wrongdoing in the streets are just as Israeli as the thousands who voted the other way three times in 12 months. Shall we treat the righteous like the wicked and boycott them all? I will not.

If there are laws, there will be criminals. If there are people, there will be some who are dangerous to others and who should face consequences for their actions. Almost 2000 years ago, rabbis debated how harsh justice should be:

A sanhedrin that executes once in seven years, is called murderous. Rabbi Eliezer says: once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: “Had we been members of a sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.” Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel remarked: “They would also multiply murderers in Israel.”

How harsh is too harsh? What is the proper sentence for a given crime committed by a particular criminal? All of this is up for debate. But equal application of the law, blind justice, righteous and wicked not facing the same fate, judges and the justice system doing real justice – those are non-negotiable if we want to look ourselves in the mirror and say we have honestly pursued justice.

Sodom is destroyed with heavenly fire, and Lot’s wife who dares to look back is turned into salt. On one level, this is an origin story for the desolation of the Dead Sea valley and its high salinity. Like the best of stories, it touches us on many levels. Can we, at long last, meet that challenge, can we satisfy that deeply rooted human desire for equal treatment under shared law? Can our judges and our justice here on earth truly be just? Far be it from us to give up now. Let us save this place, our home, our nation and community for the sake of the righteous and the for sake of righteousness. After all, the Hebrew word Tsedek means both righteousness and justice. As it says in Deuteronomy 16, tsedek tsedek tirdof justice, righteousness you will pursue. It does not say reach, it says pursue. So yallah, let’s go!

Posted in High Holidays | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

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

The Book of Genesis is full of origin stories. The diversity of human language, why we wear clothes, the rainbow, knowledge of good and evil. After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, their sons invent raising food – Abel is a shepherd, Cain is a farmer. When Abel’s meat offering pleases the Hebrew god, Cain is jealous. Cain invites Abel to join in him the field, and then Cain kills his brother. The very next verse, god asks, “Where is Abel your brother?” And Cain answers a question with a question, even before Jewishness exists: “I do not know – am I my brother’s keeper?” Now, according to the story, there are only FOUR people TOTAL on the earth, and one is now dead. Not a lot of suspects – when you have two kids, no pets and one broken lamp, it is a short investigation. Cain still tries to deny responsibility, avoid blame and close his eyes to the consequences of his actions. Cain’s question “am I my brother’s keeper?” echoes from myth to real human experience. With 8 billion other people on the planet today, we might also ask “who counts as my brother?” Every culture has its founding myths: in 1789, when only landowning white men were full citizens with rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the vote, they still wrote “we the people” in the Constitution.

This High Holidays, we explore important Jewish questions that speak to our shared humanity. Last night we saw that we have to do what we can as individuals. But for whom? We still ask, “am I my brother’s keeper?” We know that Genesis creation is a myth. In the real world, we evolved in and migrated from Africa. Early humans moved through the Middle East to Europe and Asia, and from there to the Americas. Over countless generations, we evolved to look different, to speak differently. The differences are very tempting – we feel good as the “in” group and look down on “them.” Any advantage our group enjoys, any suffering they endure, is not our problem. We are still our brother’s, or our sibling’s, keeper, but only our close sibling. One of the hopes of Humanism, be it Renaissance Humanism or Enlightenment Humanism or philosophical Humanism or our own Humanistic Judaism, has always been to see past the differences to a common humanity – human needs, human desires, human joy and pain, human aspiration and thriving.

Those human differences are mostly skin deep – every ethnic group can give blood to each other, and learn each other’s language, and fall in love or in hate with anyone. To quote Shakespeare’s famous Jew Shylock, all humans are:

Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer. If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

In 2020 we add: if you cough on us, are we not at risk? Over the last 6 months, we have seen much generosity, a willingness to help others beyond the immediate orbit of concern, people who have volunteered in small ways to be their siblings’ keepers by keeping their distance and wearing their masks. But not everyone, and in the United States not enough of us. Most of my 2020 weddings have been rescheduled into 2021, hoping to be able to have a reasonably-sized and safe celebration then. I did have one wedding that refused to compromise – they said that their guests could wear a mask if they wanted to, but they wouldn’t require it. I said to them, “as counterintuitive as it may seem, that’s not how this works! For me to be safe, THEY need to wear masks.” And they fired me!

An old metaphor for the acceptable limits on personal freedom is “my freedom ends where my fist hits your nose.” In other words, I can do what I want for myself but I should not negatively impact you because that limits YOUR freedom. Well, what happens when my coronavirus hits your nose? There’s a reason we printed a Jewish ethical statement on our Kol Hadash masks – “love your neighbor,” because that’s what wearing them is all about – helping other people. And we do not just mean neighbors as the people who live next door. We also considered printing “Purim 365,” since we wear masks on Purim, but that might have been more depressing since our lockdown started right around Purim. Sunday School directors everywhere would up eating a LOT of hamentashen [Purim holiday pastries].

I know the mask debate is not always rational, I know that there is political spin and misinformation and stubbornness and machismo. It IS hard to accept that, without any negative intent or symptoms, my very breath can be dangerous. Do I REALLY have to take responsibility every time I hum or whisper or speak or sing? It might be easier to think, “it’s all ridiculous” and to resist how much has to change. When I saw the emotional distress of Christian churches this past April during Easter, I knew then that we had to start thinking through our High Holidays and prepare ourselves for the possibility of that loss. And here we are and there in the sanctuary you are not. Many churches DID follow the rules for Easter, they did NOT go to church, they stayed safe and they were their sibling’s keeper, but it was very hard. Who ever said that the right thing is the easy thing to do?

At its heart, the problem revealed by our mask debate is something deeper. It is a failure of empathy, a denial of personal responsibility, a negative answer to that question, “am I my sibling’s keeper?” The mask-rejecting would say, “no, I am not your keeper, watch out for yourself and leave me alone.” Cain intentionally kills his brother Abel, but the damage we might cause is unintentional. We would wear a mask for our immunocompromised family member, but do we empathize enough with strangers to inconvenience ourselves? Most people will return a grocery cart to the parking lot rack or let a stranger merge in traffic, and we have all seen those who will not. Those are low-stakes issues. What if strangers have their children taken from them at the border? What if strangers face structural inequalities created over centuries that we just want to “get over”? What if what “they” are telling us about our society, or about ourselves, is hard to hear and harder to accept?

Empathy is not just a question of what we do; it is also a matter of whom do we believe when they say something is wrong. We are not just our sibling’s keeper, we are also our sibling’s listener. Facing antisemitism today from many directions, Jews would be deeply and rightfully offended if the non-Jewish world told them to just chill out, be patient as society evolves, don’t worry about the ways antisemitism has been embedded in corners of our culture and society. In the late 1960s, another time of social unrest, President Lyndon Johnson convened a commission led by the Governor of Illinois and prominent African Americans to investigate the causes of these riots. Johnson expected communist agitators or criminal elements; he was shocked when the Kerner Commission blamed entrenched, systemic racism.

“What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

In 2018, Smithsonian Magazine summarized the report’s complaints in an article titled “The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened.” Remember, these complaints are from 50 years ago:

Bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression, and other culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination all converged to propel violent upheaval on the streets of African-American neighborhoods in American cities… As black unrest arose, inadequately trained police officers and National Guard troops entered affected neighborhoods, often worsening the violence.

Are we listening this time?

We cannot be our siblings’ keeper until we listen, truly listen to our sibling. One of the fascinating ambiguities about Cain and Abel is the moment before the murder: “Cain said to his brother Abel, and when they were in the field Cain rose up to Abel his brother and killed him.” But what does Cain say? Does Abel say anything back? We strain to hear, but the dialogue is lost, or it needs to be invented. In fact, Abel’s trauma does speak after the murder. The dialogue between God and Cain is actually three questions back and forth – “Where is your brother Abel?” “I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper?” “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth.” The voice of the blood cries out from the earth – in Hebrew it is a wordplay for Dam blood and Adamah earth, and of course their shared humanity from their father Ahdam. It is also a very powerful image.

Why do we hear the same complaints of injustice 50 years later? Did we not want to deal then with what it would have taken to truly address these issues? Or were our experiences so different that we did not listen and could not believe? For many of us, police are indeed public servants, helping with emergencies, protecting our property, managing traffic, keeping our streets and our synagogues safe. After George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis this spring, I and my children participated in a Black Lives Matter walk in Highland Park. I was bemused at one point during the march as we turned a corner to hear person next to me thanking the police who were blocked traffic for the march. There was no need to be antagonistic or confrontational with those officers, but maybe that person was not entirely clear on the purpose of the march. Most of us do not even see the police unless we need them, and we are confident they are coming to help us. And they do! I will be speaking more about the justice system on Yom Kippur when we explore Abraham’s challenge to god that the judge of all the earth should do justice. And so we who experience the police as helpers and officers of the law and public servants are shocked to learn that, for example, the Highland Park Police Department in the year 2000 accepted a reform consent decree because of consistent, egregious racial profiling and harassment designed to keep blacks and Hispanics, in the Senate testimony of officer Rodney Watt, “away from the central business district’s parks and beaches so that the community would not become nervous.” The slurs and bias he described in his testimony are sickening. Watt also pointed out that in the first 131 years of the city’s existence, they had never had an African-American police officer. This is not just huge cities, or the South, or a long time ago. Are we finally listening, do we hear the blood crying out from the ground and through the videos?

Absolutely, there has been progress in these last 50 years. The same Smithsonian Magazine article notes,

In 1969, about one-third of blacks lived below the poverty line. By 2016, that number had dropped to 22 percent, as a significant number of African-Americans moved into the middle class with a boost from 1960s legislation. But the percentage of blacks living in poverty is still more than twice as high as the percentage of whites.

The events of this spring and summer have given some hope even to the most pessimistic. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates confessed that he actually found himself cautiously optimistic – in the late 1960s, his father remembered, black people were marching mostly alone on these issues. This time, they are not alone and it is not just major cities with substantial minority populations. Maybe it is the accumulation of video evidence or social media or greater willingness to question authority or an openness to admitting that, to tweak Shakespeare again, something is rotten in the state of these United States. New questions are being asked and new possibilities are being discussed. More people than ever count as our brothers, our sisters, our siblings, our charges to be kept.

Verbally accepting responsibility to be our sibling’s keeper is a necessary first step, but it is not the end. Even today, we want the German people, including those born long after 1945, to accept responsibility for what was done in their national name during the Holocaust. Many of them and their government have indeed done so – and some Jews still refuse to buy German cars! Shortly after modern Israel was born in 1948, the West German government proposed financial reparations to Israel on behalf of the Jewish people. Accepting these reparations was a major controversy that almost led to civil war – the Israeli parliament building was attacked by a Jewish mob! In the end, reparations helped the fledging state survive.

There are many steps to teshuva the Hebrew word for repentance that comes from the root for “to return”: We recognize the pain we caused. We accept responsibility. We stop the wrongdoing and then we make it as right as we can. These steps of recognition, responsibility, and repair can heal our personal relationships, and that is one of the goals of our Jewish New Year. What stage are we at in America on race teshuva? Most of us acknowledge the pain of the past, except a few holdouts with Confederate flags. Some are willing to accept responsibility for the distant AND the more recent past; they acknowledge the shortcomings of our founding fathers and the impacts of segregationist housing, education and employment that did not end that long ago. Remember those angry white teens yelling at black teens integrating Little Rock Central HS? Those teenagers were born in the 1940s, today they are in their 70s. That is NOT even a lifetime ago.

There is no consensus on what it would take to make it right. Being our sibling’s keeper is not a one-time event, or a box to be checked, or a statement to be issued. It is an ongoing responsibility that does not end at age 18, as parents of young adults know – our “keeping” changes, but it never vanishes. Being our sibling’s keeper does not mean deciding everything for them, infantilizing them, making them dependent on our keeping. But we cannot ignore what has become too painfully obvious. We must overcome that empathy gap and reinforce that responsibility, for past AND present, to move forward.

What happens to Cain after his crime is known? He is condemned: “You shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” Cain bewails his future as someone marked for death, so god marks him instead to keep him alive. Today, however, the “mark of Cain” is understood as a stigma, an original sin, a crime we carry with us forever. A history of accepting slavery is indeed the mark of Cain – it marks the Torah and Jewish tradition, and it marks the US Constitution and the American tradition. This does NOT mean that there is nothing good in either – the mark of Cain is not the end of the story of Judaism or America. If anything, it is the beginning – if we accept the skeletons in our own closet, if we own our own failures, we can begin to live out the true values of ringing statements of life and liberty and equality and justice. Listen to our siblings’ blood calling from the ground, and their voices calling to us now. Abel dies every time we tell the same creation myth again in the same way. Let us use our own power to create and re-create the world in the image we choose, and let us change the narrative for the better, for the wiser, for the kinder.

Abel the victim and Cain the murderer were both bnai Adam, “sons of Adam.” The phrase bnai Adam also means “human beings”. The Torah and our Kol Hadash masks say “love your neighbor as yourself”. Jewish commentary adds – love your neighbor, because they are like yourself. They, too, are bnai Adam, part of the human family.

Posted in High Holidays, Week of Action | Tagged | 2 Comments

Who Am I, That I Should Confront Pharaoh?

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

If you were Moses, what would you do? You see a bush on fire that is not consumed. A voice calls you by name. It claims to be the god of your ancestors. It has heard the suffering of Hebrew slavery, and it promises to deliver them to a land flowing with milk and honey. And then the voice says, “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring out my people, the children of Israel, from Egypt.” What would you do? This is no cough medicine hallucination. You did not choose this situation; until recently you had a comfortable life, an adopted son of Egyptian royalty. You fled Egypt after killing an overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave. And now you are being asked to go back to the scene of your crime, to address your people’s suffering, to challenge power face to face. What does Moses do? He asks a question. “Who am I, that I should confront Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”

A simple yet profound question: who am I? It is simple because early in life, we learn to respond to the sound of our own names. Even coma patients sometimes show brain activity when they hear their names. “Who am I” is also profound because if you do not know who you are, how can you know others? How can you experience the world if not from the fixed point of the self? This question can be an escape, hiding behind the anonymity of just a normal person – “Who am I” meaning I am really nobody, and a nobody does nothing. This question can also be a challenge – who am I really, am I the person I want to be? “Who am I” can be an out or a commitment. Which would you have chosen as Moses? Which do you choose today?

This High Holiday season, we explore Jewish questions. For us, being Jewish is our particular subset of the human experience. Some Jewish questions are Jewish specific – which haroset recipe for Passover do you like the best? What lessons do you draw from the Jewish experience? Other Jewish questions speak to the human condition. The very act of asking questions is both very Jewish and very human – as far as I know, every language has words for “why” and “how.” The universal human quest for “why” and “how” is the basis of science and history and knowledge based on evidence. Jews do not have a monopoly on asking questions, just like we do not have a monopoly on guilt – ask any ex-Catholic. Yet asking questions can STILL be very Jewish – a key element of the Passover seder is the four questions. One way that we Humanistic Jews differ from our forebearers is that we are more open to new answers, to heretical answers, even to challenging the questions themselves. To be fair, though, one of Moses’ defining characteristics is his chutzpah, his nerve. When Noah is told to build the ark and save only his family, he asks no questions. When Moses is commanded, he asks many questions, starting with “Why me?”

More precisely, “Who am I that I should confront Pharaoh?” Perhaps Moses suspects there will be more to do than just snap his fingers to free the Israelites. Spoiler alert: Moses’ work will not be over from now until the end of the Torah when he dies in the very last chapter – after the burning bush there will be 40 more years of leading, negotiating and arguing to get this stubborn, stiff-necked people to the Promised Land.

In our own days, you do not need me to tell you that WE face many challenges. We face them as Americans, as part of the Jewish family, and as human beings. The Passover Haggadah describes 10 plagues that Moses inflicts on Pharaoh and the Egyptians; 2020 has 10 plagues beaten easily. In no particular order:

Racism, sexism, homophobia, hyper-partisanship, rising temperatures and extreme weather, policing and the criminal justice system, poverty and hunger, domestic violence, constitutional crisis du jour, massive budget and pension shortfalls, health care, automation and job disruption, government corruption, cyberprivacy and the pitfalls of social media, immigration policy, hurricanes and killer wasps. And, of course, the plague of coronavirus which includes illness, death, shutdowns, school openings, school closings, economic disruption, videoconference overload…and a Rosh Hashana when we are together emotionally but the sanctuary is empty.

Facing all of our plagues, our Pharaohs, we also ask “Why me? Who am I to confront all of this? And for how much longer?” The challenges are overwhelming, and we have no confidence in a guaranteed happy ending. In the real world in which we live, there IS no promised land flowing with milk and honey, no pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to show us exactly where to go, no miraculous hand and outstretched arm to fight for us. Yet the people we deal with are just as stubborn and stiff-necked as ever!

And we are not Moses. Of course, at the start of his saga even Moses was not Moses. He was uncertain, asking for help, looking to avoid responsibility. A leader after 40 years had better be different than a leader in year one. I once prepared for a funeral for a woman who had lived well into her 90s – I first met with her children, who were seniors themselves by that point, and they had had a challenging relationship with her as a mother when they were small children. Over next couple of days, I also had the opportunity to talk separately with her grandchildren, and they had experienced her very differently – she had been loving, and generous, caring and interested in their lives. Those who are grandparents can tell you that parenting and grandparenting are VERY different. But the experience is also different because the ADULT is different – this grandmother was 30 years older and wiser, with different responsibilities from when she was a mother to small children. Every one of us has had experiences we look back on today and say, “If only I’d handled that differently.” We cannot expect to have lived our lives then with what we know now. Part of letting go of misdeeds and omissions at the Jewish New Year, our own or those of others, is to not expect anyone to have been perfect from the beginning.

It does not matter that we are not yet Moses; we will probably never be Moses. A Hasidic story told by Martin Buber makes the point: Rabbi Zusya once said, “In the coming world they will not ask me: ‘Zusya, why were you not Moses?’ Instead, they will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” We do not have to be Moses, and we do not have to solve every problem I listed to make a difference. We do have to be our version of Zusya – our best self. And we do have to act, because not acting is also a choice, no matter who you are.

Yes, the Pharaohs we face are daunting. Some “Pharaohs” are systemic from the founding of a nation, be it race in America or Arabs in a self-defined Jewish state and the territories it controls. Some are the result of generations of bad decisions and short-sighted leadership unable to make hard choices. Some are unforeseen consequences of good intentions. Some are the result of cruelty, indifference, or a lack of empathy. We’ll talk more about these problems tomorrow morning when we ask another Jewish question, “Am I my Brother’s Keeper?

For the moment, though, imagine you are at a summer camp, standing at the deep end of the pool during first period when it’s still chilly. You know the water will be cold when you jump in. You know you get better every time you swim, and once you start swimming the water will not feel as cold. And you know that going in one toe at a time will be just as cold and take much longer to get through. The hardest part is making that decision to take the leap. We can certainly get more information before we act – dip a toe in the water, ask a friend who already jumped in. Moses himself asks many questions.

Here’s the dialogue, you can image it in instant message format:

“Go free the Israelites from Pharaoh.”
“Who am I to go to Pharaoh to free the Israelites?”
“Don’t worry, I will be with you.”
“The Israelites will ask me later, so tell me now: who are YOU to send me?” (in other words, “who dis?”)
“Tell them I am the god of their fathers and they will listen.”
“What if they don’t believe me and think I imagined all this?”
“Here are some signs and wonders – make your staff into a snake and back, turn your hand leprous and then heal it. If those don’t work, we’ll turn the Nile to blood.”
“I am slow of speech and slow of tongue, please send someone else.”

You get the sense that Moses really does NOT want the job.

We could make our own excuses to avoid acting – I did not create the problem, even if I benefit from it. I am not trying to hurt anyone. These problems are beyond my ability to solve. I have no status that people should listen to me. I’m no Moses; I’m not even a Zusya. And I do not even know enough to know where to begin, even if I decide to act. These excuses may all be true. But they not good enough to do nothing. We can all move the ball forward, even if only a little. In Pirke Avot, the Sayings of the Ancestors, Rabbi Tarfon said,

the day is short, and the work is plentiful; the workers are lazy, and the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent. It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it.

Tarfon clearly believed there WAS a “master of the house” directing the action and a cosmic reward for doing his will. Even without master or reward, for us the day is still short, there is still plenty of work, and we cannot rely on others to get it done. Sometimes if you want something done right, or done at all, you have to start it yourself.

“Who am I, that I should confront Pharaoh?” We reject this question as escape – we may not finish the work, but we are not free to neglect it. Instead it is a commitment: what do we each have in our personal toolbox to bring to bear to the problems we face? It may be more than we realize.

Some of us have financial resources. The need for tzedakah or righteous giving is deep for many worthy causes, and you can find people doing good work consistent with any political or religious ideology. But generosity is not a function of raw dollars. Did you know that those who earn less money often give a higher percentage of their income in charitable donations? In 2016, among those who itemized, those earning $50,000 to $100,000 donated 1% MORE of their adjusted gross income than those earning $500,000 to $2 million. The higher earners gave more dollars but were less generous. Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos has a net worth around $200 billion. If he donated $20 million, that would be same as someone worth $200,000 donating….$20. Do not ask why you cannot be Bill Gates – look at where you are and go from there.

Some of us have educational resources. We are good at reading or writing or explaining complex issues. We can deepen our understanding of the challenges: their origins, their persistence, their possible solutions. We can motivate others to change behavior or work for the good. We can connect with family and friends who might listen to us when they do not listen to strangers. Moses’ first worry is not whether Yahweh will convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites – Moses doubts that the ISRAELITES will believe it can happen, so he has to convince them first! If change starts at home, we can start by connecting with the minds and hearts of those we know best.

Some of us have privilege. I know this is a loaded term, but year after year at Kol Hadash we speak of the need for nuanced understandings, and here is another opportunity. You CAN be privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others. Ashkenazi Jews are not white to Nazi white nationalists, but they may be treated as white by loan officers or police officers. I am definitely white if I go to the beach without sunblock! Acknowledging privilege does not mean apologizing for something you did not do or being shamed for who you are. This is not the oppression Olympics where the most suffering wins. If you do have inherited wealth, or visually white skin, or standard English, you start the race of life some steps ahead of those without those advantages. We sometimes hear an absolute choice: either equality of opportunity or equality of result. Either everyone has an unweighted fair opportunity to succeed on merit alone, or equal end results are imposed through boosting some and weighing down others.

In the real world, we all get to that starting line from different beginnings, through different experiences, with different assets. If certain names or accents or skin colors are less likely to get a good education or housing or equal treatment by the justice system, then we need to pay special attention to what happens before the starting line in order to have real equality of opportunity.

What do we do if we are on the more fortunate side of perceived race and education and income? We use it to do good. Moses was an Israelite adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. He did not have to intervene to save the Hebrew being beaten by the Egyptian taskmaster, long before he heard the voice. After the killing, Moses had escaped, far away from Egypt. He went back to Egypt to help others. So, too, did the 19th century “Moses,” Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery in 1849 only to return 13 times to rescue at least 70 fellow slaves. She did not free herself and then leave others to do the same; she went back at great risk to herself to help and show them the way.

All of us have opportunities. We do not have to wait for a burning bush or a voice from the heavens to act. We no longer need freedom riders on interstate busses, but freedom walkers, freedom voters, freedom citizens can still make a difference. To make that difference, we have to accept the challenge of “who am I” – what are my values, and how valuable are my values to my sense of self?

When Moses meets the burning bush, it is an external authority, a god who tells him what he must do. Even if Moses asks some questions, he knows and the readers know who is really in charge. Our task today is more challenging. If we ask “who am I, that I should confront today’s Pharaohs,” we do not expect an answer from beyond. The answer must come from within.

You do not have to be a prophet, a Moses, a god. You are Zusya; you are Harriet; you are YOU. You are the only you there is, and if you do not bring who you are and what you have to push for the changes you want to see, then you will have missed this unique opportunity, a moment that will never come again.

In Pirke Avot, we read that “There are three crowns – the crown of Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name is greater than all of them.” What makes your name great? You do. So make your name great by what you do with who you are. Call received. Answer awaited.

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In Person

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

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

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

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

Start the New Year
intent
introspective
insightful
inspired

and,
wherever you are,
in person.

Written by Rabbi Adam Chalom for the Jewish New Year of 5781/2020.
This will be read at Rosh Hashana services with Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation. Click here to register and celebrate together.

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Time and Space 2020

Each moment we think we are still,
we move through time and space.
We feel alone, yet
we are connected
through law and custom,
ancestry, biology,
affinity and enmity,
shared experience of fear and isolation.

Days became weeks became months,
The bliss of quiet faded to
the weight of solitude,
We called and we wrote,
to escape our few rooms.
Learned to Facetime and Zoom,
and maybe
bake sourdough bread.
But the timing was off,
the spacing too far.
The world just seemed askew.

Now we find ourselves on the threshold,
Somewhere between opening up
and shutting down.

What can heal us:
Is it time and patience?
Is it space and distance?
Is there nothing we can do,
or is going nowhere the best we can do?

So with Corona, so too Rosh Hashana.
On the threshold,
Between opening and shutting.

What can heal:
Time and patience?
Space and distance?
What can we do?

What we need is what we have:
time
and
space.

Let us give ourselves these gifts,
this time and this space,
this moment,
now.

Written by Rabbi Adam Chalom for the Jewish New Year of 5781/2020.
This will be read at Rosh Hashana services with Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation. Click here to register and celebrate together.

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Five Jewish Questions – High Holidays 2020/5781

These High Holiday sermons were delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in September/Tishrei 2020/5781. For more information on Kol Hadash, please contact our office at info@kolhadash.com. If you would like to see video of the full services including sermons, visit this Youtube playlist.

We are told that asking questions, and answering questions with questions, is very Jewish. What must we ask and answer today, now, in this moment?

Rosh Hashana Evening – September 18th, 7:30pm
“Who Am I, That I Should Confront Pharaoh?”
Moses asks to evade responsibility for leading the Exodus. When we confront our challenges, as individuals and societies, the size of the task can be overwhelming. Where can we find the strength to stand up for what needs to be done?

Rosh Hashana Morning – September 19th, 10:30am
“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”
Cain asks this after the first murder in the Torah. When to care for others, and when for ourselves? How do we balance our orbits of concern: ourselves, our family, our tribe, our nation, humanity? When simply breathing in public can be dangerous, this challenge echoes even more powerfully.

Yom Kippur Evening – September 27th, 7:30pm
“Shall Not the Judge Do Justice?”
Abraham challenges the Hebrew God to live up to its role when judging Sodom. Through the Jewish Year just ended, from September to September, our trust in democracy, criminal justice, and national authority have been challenged. How can we form a more perfect union, and what will it take to make it happen?

Yom Kippur Morning – September 28th, 10:30am
“If Not Now, When?”
Rabbi Hillel’s simple question continues to inspire and to challenge. Some of us may be comfortable in the status quo and thus hesitant to change for those beyond our orbit of concern. Dare we tell those suffering now to be patient? What better question to ponder as we kick off a New Year?

Yom Kippur Memorial – September 28th, 3:30pm
“Who Can See What Will Happen After?”
Ecclesiastes despairs, and finds consolation, in the thought that this world is all we have. Our losses these last twelve months between natural mortality and global pandemic weigh heavily at the conclusion of the year. It is up to us to remember and to act in their memory.

For the High Holiday sermons delivered in Fall 2019/5780, click here.

Featured image: portrait of Yaakov Malkin by Felice Posner Malkin

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“I do not have the words”

Near the beginning of Exodus, Moses resists the call from the burning bush and tries to ask his way out. Who am I to confront Pharaoh? Who is sending me? How will others believe me? I do not have the words, send someone else. That this episode is literature and not history enhances the poignancy and relevance of the questions, at all times and right now. The questions are eternally present.

I am blessed and cursed with the opportunity and obligation to share my thoughts on important issues. And sometimes I do not have the words. In moments like this, it can be hard to breathe – both physically from oppression and tear gas, and emotionally from grief and fear and anger and seeming powerlessness. I do not have easy answers, and I fear writing tritely what should be profound.

Let it be said clearly, and it is astounding that it needs to be said:

  • Police violence/force against innocent people is wrong, and our justice system assumes one is innocent until proven guilty. A restrained suspect should never be tortured or killed by police as was George Floyd or shot without warrant like so many others.
  • Racism is wrong, both the personal racism of internal hatred and the structural racism that causes some of us to suffer more. That our justice system results in such great racial disparity in policing, prosecuting and prison is especially wrong.
  • Police/state violence against peaceful protesters is wrong. It is particularly egregious and an abuse of power for a political photo op.
  • Freedom of the press is essential to a functioning democracy, including its freedom to report on the public exercise of state power via police and National Guard. Arresting or attacking reporters is wrong.
  • Using protests in favor of racial justice as cover for anarchists and criminals to vandalize and steal is wrong. This exploits racial injustice, since all sincere protesters are being blamed. Imagine a white shoplifter leaving a store at the same time as a paying black customer, knowing whom security is more likely to stop when the alarm goes off.

Those of us with the privileges of suburban life, relative affluence and accepted whiteness (even as Jews) may find these challenges both upsetting and paralyzing. But there is no one else to send; no one else can answer who we are, where are we, whether we can truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

How will we be believed? We will only be believed and discover who we truly are by both words and deeds. Protecting our civil freedoms, improving our civil liberties, supporting righteous protesters while rejecting criminal vandals, demanding improvements in police accountability – all of these will require our persistent efforts.

Every nation has laws, but laws do not guarantee justice. Slavery, the Nuremberg Laws, Jim Crow segregation, voter disenfranchisement – all were both legal and unjust. The Insurrection Act of 1807 and later additions legally allow the President of the United States to deploy armed forces domestically; it was used to enforce equal protection during Reconstruction and desegregation, but we greatly fear its use today to suppress our rights.

Therefore, our words and deeds are needed to tip the scale towards justice. We must use our voices and votes and values to be who we say we are. Speak, write, protest, donate, organize, advocate; anything other than asking our way out of this moment.

Who am I to confront Pharaoh? You are you. Who is sending me? You are sending you because everyone is needed. The bush burns and is being consumed. We cannot wait for rain from the heavens any longer.

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