Separating Synagogue From State

The following address was delivered at a conference in Jerusalem hosted by Tmura-IISHJ (the Israeli center for training Secular Humanistic rabbis) on March 20, 2015

My rabbi, Sherwin Wine, had a way of put things well in just a few words. He once wrote that Israel is an unusual homeland because people here ask each other “where are you from?” This happens because through our history we Jews became a world people, and we still are today, even here. If someone asks me where I am from, a long time ago it was eretz yisrael [the land of Israel], but in my history with names I come from two places before the modern world – my mother’s family are Litvaks [Jews from Lithuania] who left the shtetl [small town], and my father’s family are Halabi Jews from Aleppo, Syria who were raised in the Ottoman Empire.

In both of those worlds they left, relics of the Medieval ages, there was no separation between religion and government – Jews had very little self-government anyways, and what little they did enjoy was always connected with religious authority. The heads of the communities married their daughters to the rabbis, and vice versa. My ancestors left the world of the shtetl and the Ottomans to move to the modern world. So I am a child of many worlds: ancient Israel, medieval Diaspora, and modern freedom.

And that is why it is intolerable, unimaginable that so many of my people who want to live a modern life with modern values and modern freedoms are trapped in a medieval life. People in my congregation are still amazed to learn that a divorced woman cannot marry a Cohen and Jewish state cemeteries will not bury a Tzahal [Israeli army] soldier whose Jewish parent was the wrong one. Perhaps they are imagining the heavenly Jerusalem instead of the real one. The contradiction between their modern values and their Judaism begins as a crack, and over time grows wider.

Israel is not a shtetl, or if it is, it is the first shtetl with wi-fi and an air force. But when authorities who believe Jewish life was best hundreds of years ago control who you can marry, where you are buried, how your money is spent and who can join the Jewish family, we are back in the world of the shtetl, the Ottomans, and we cannot be am khofshi b’artzeinu [a free people in our land, from the Israeli anthem “Hatikvah”], as we hope and work for.

We already have many separations between Israeli Jews and American Jews: different language, different experiences: a child turning 18 means college for most of us and giyyus [army induction] for most of you. The weddings I perform are fully recognized; last year I was happy to write a reference letter for Rabbi Sivan Maas so she could officiate in the United States, but she cannot do the same for me here. I saw an article on Huffington Post just before I came to Jerusalem by a self-declared secular Jew: “Why I No Longer Support Israel.” Israel has lost his support not only differences over the possibility of a Jewish future in the Diaspora or political machinations around the Israeli election, but also over Orthodox control of marriage, dress codes, public and private life.

Put simply, to keep the Jewish people together we need a separation between religion and government in Israel. We are stuck in an arranged marriage between religion and the state, between Shulkhan Arukh [authoritative Jewish law code] and Megillat ha-Atzmaut [Israeli Declaration of Independence], between the shtetl and modernity. By now it is very clear that the marriage is not working, it’s not good for either one, and it’s time for divorce. Never mind a constitution – first I want a gett! [bill of divorce]

If it will be a healthy divorce between Jewish religion and the Jewish state, it will be good for everyone: the state, Judaism, and the rest of the Jewish world. You don’t need me to tell you how it will improve the state of Israel. And if Judaism must convince people instead of force them, then change will come there too – creative Judaism needs freedom like oxygen to live and grow, freedom and competition – that was the new Judaism of the Yishuv [pre-independence Jewish settlement] and the kibbutz [collective farm], and that has been the new Judaism of the modern world.

What would this look like from my perspective?

  • Any child of the Jewish people, from either parent, is welcomed as part of the Jewish family to join a Jewish and democratic state, or even to visit. I can’t tell you how many children of intermarriage visit Israel, on Taglit-Birthright or any other way, and are told they do not belong. THEY ARE THE ONES THAT CAME, and they are being pushed away. Any individual who sincerely and clearly identifies with the Jewish people, with or without mikvah [ritual immersion] and milah [circumcision], should be encouraged and welcome. I’ve heard this saying credited to both David Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan, but it’s true either way: “Whoever is crazy enough to want to be Jewish, deserves it.” The more these people on the margins of Jewish life can be encouraged to deepen their connection, the better for everyone.
  • Every Jew who finds themselves in Israel, man and woman, can find a Jewish connection, leader, congregation, social connections that are equally accepted by Israeli Government – you will never make the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] like you, but you can make sure that both their shuls [synagogues] and your communities treated equally by the state you share. In that world Reform and Conservative and Secular Humanistic Jews will not feel like second class Jews in a Jewish state. How exactly to do this is a debate for you: equal support for various options, or no support for any of them so they will supported by the private citizens who value them. Either way would be better than the alienation we experience now.
  • Jews who visit the land of Israel to connect with their roots do not feel like they have to betray their values; the special places that are important to the entire Jewish people not run as if they were haredi synagogues. I would love to have the option of bare head at the Kotel [Western Wall] together with my wife to celebrate my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Find a picture of the Kotel from the 1920s, before a Jewish state married Jewish religion, and you’ll see men and women together without incident.

    Women and men together at Western Wall before 1948.

  • As a tourist who likes to ride the bus, I am not trapped in hotel or the neighborhood or the city I am in by Jewish holidays. Our Jewish holidays here should be celebrations, opportunities for new connections and experiences, visiting museums and experiencing Jewish culture – more like “Khag Ha-Bekhirot!” [Israeli Election Day is a national holiday]
  • Every citizen of the state has the right to marry the person they love, the way they want to be married. Next week, I will be marrying a couple in Chicago who live together here in Jerusalem. The bride is not Jewish, but she came for a visit to Israel and never left because she fell in love with the state, and then with a man here. Her groom is a Cohen, they are both secular, and they have to leave where they want to live to start their life together despite her voluntary identification with the Jewish state and Jewish culture. My officiating this ceremony is my gain, but it is our loss!

One of reasons Israel became beloved by Jews outside of Israel was the belief that it fulfilled both Jewish and human values: an egalitarian society, tohar ha-neshek [a moral army], a vibrant new Jewish culture that lived in ha-olam ha-zeh [this world]. I have no vote here, all I have is a voice. My vision after the divorce between medieval and modern, a divorce between Jewish religion and a Jewish state? My Jewish and my human values will be confirmed and celebrated through my connections with this place and this people. But don’t do this just for me – do it for yourselves, and do it for all of us!

We must separate the state from religion to keep the Jewish people together. One people, many voices, and free at last.

Posted in General HJ | Leave a comment

Judaism for Humanistic Jews

This post was originally a 2004 High Holiday sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation. It also appeared as an article in the journal Humanistic Judaism and is reprinted with permission.

 In the traditional Jewish narrative, Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. He found the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf and broke the tablets in his rage. After a bloody purge of the idolators, Moses returned to the mountain and received a new set of two tablets of the Ten Commandments,.  A different version, according to Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I, is that Moses came down the mountain with fifteen commandments, dropped and broke one tablet with five of them, and settled on Ten Commandments.

What does this story mean to us? After all, we Humanistic Jews, true to the tradition of our ancestors, are definitely a “stiff-necked people” – we don’t want anyone  to tell us what we have to do. We’ve gone from being the Chosen People to being the “choosy people.” We don’t like commandments, and we’re doubtful that there’s a commander behind them. The Ten Commandments are ours, but we don’t agree with all of them.  No Murder, no stealing – no problem. Not worshipping idols and keeping the Sabbath require some interpretation to be useful. “I am YHWH your God” and “Thou shalt not covet” (as if we could control momentary emotions) – these are more problematic than inspirational. We face a central question in contemporary Jewish life – not “What is Judaism,” but “What does Judaism, what does being Jewish mean to me?” Let us examine five ways to think about Judaism for Humanistic Jews. Each of them is a piece of the puzzle that defines who we are and what we believe.

We begin with an image from the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai called “Poem without An End.”

Inside the brand-new museum
There’s an old synagogue
Inside the synagogue
Is me.
Inside me
Is my heart.
Inside my heart
A museum.
Inside the museum
A synagogue,
Inside it
Me,
Inside me
My heart,
Inside my heart,
A museum

Jewish identity is all of these: Judaism is the new museum, Judaism is the old synagogue, Judaism is the living individual, Judaism is the wordless emotion of the heart, Judaism is the memory of a people, Judaism is the heart in the person in the synagogue in the museum. Let us begin, then, on the human level – the person standing in the synagogue, the individual human being.

We humans are thinking beings. The first piece of our picture of Judaism for Humanistic Jews, then, is Judaism as Jewish thought – the process and products of thinking about what it means to be Jewish. Why are you in the old synagogue in the new museum? Why does your heart contain the past  (the old synagogue), the future ( the new museum), and the intersection of the two? Why did you choose to explore the museum with the synagogue in it?

If your only authoritative source were the Bible, what would being Jewish mean?  There would be strict rules to follow: Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, make no graven images, thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not have other gods before me; thou shalt and thou shalt not and thou shalt never. There would be commitments to honor  – a covenant entered by your ancestors and binding “from generation to generation” without the right to question or renegotiate. There would be boundaries to maintain – ethical rules (“love your neighbor as yourself”) and also social and ritual boundaries – clean and unclean, male and female, Jew and outsider.

For Humanistic Jews, the closest we could get to ten commandments would be “Ten Strongly Worded Suggestions For You to Consider in Your Free Time.” Our commitment to Jewish identity is strong because we have chosen it out of all other possibilities, including the possibility of vanishing into general American culture. Our boundaries are defined by our values – not by what happens to us, but by how we act and react; not by our birth but by whom we have become; not by who our mother was, but by where our hearts lie. We know the Ten Commandments, we understand what they mean, and we respect what in them still has value today. But we are not subjected, subservient, or submissive to any directives that would undermine our dignity and autonomy as thinking human beings who have come to new conclusions.

We Humanistic Jews are a part of Jewish thought, for we think about what it means to be part of the Jewish people. If we celebrate our past, we have thoughtfully chosen from our heritage. If we create anew, we are adding our voices to the Jewish chorus of the centuries.  In other words, we are part of Jewish culture.

For Humanistic Jews, Judaism is also Jewish culture, the second piece of our puzzle. The old synagogue is Jewish culture, but so is everything else in that brand new museum, including the words of the poet standing in an old synagogue in a new museum. Not only the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments that we find in the Book of Exodus, but also how later generations of rabbis understood it, and how medieval Jewish artists created beautiful Passover haggadot with vivid scenes of Moses crossing the Red Sea dressed in medieval clothing, and how Mel Brooks imagined Moses being clumsy and dropping a tablet.

Jewish culture has always been more than what the Talmud’s rabbis said it was. If you go back to the beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism, there were two insults for those who disagreed with the early rabbis:  apikoros (heretic, freethinker, askeptic), and  am ha-aretz ( ignoramus).  The am ha-aretz didn’t follow the rules because he didn’t know them, but the apikoros knew the rules and didn’t agree with them, or chose what he followed and what he didn’t, and for the rabbis he was worse. The word apikoros comes from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who told people not to fear the gods because there weren’t any, and not to worry about punishment in the afterlife because there was none. And there were evidently enough Jews who had read Epicurus to be given this dirty name of apikoros. (By the way, I’ve always longed to have a singing group full of Humanistic Jews that could be called “The Api-Chorus.” And that would be Jewish culture too.)

This, then, is our model – the apikorossomeone who knows the tradition and has chosen what is meaningful based on his or her personal beliefs. To be Jewish, one can go to an old synagogue, or to a brand-new museum, or have a personal experience with Jewish culture, or simply feel in one’s heart the pull of a melody that speaks to us with a Jewish accent.

When we combine our first two puzzle pieces, Jewish thought with Jewish culture, we begin to see the contours of our identity. The individual standing in the synagogue thinks of his Judaism in his heart, and there he finds both the museum and the synagogue, Jewish religion and Jewish memory, Jewish music and food and literature and texture and color, traditional and modern Jewish thoughts on what it means to be a part of the Jewish people.

In Amichai’s poem, the poet is not just standing in a synagogue; he stands in a synagogue in a museum, placing his Jewish connection in historical and social context. This is the third piece of our puzzle, because for Humanistic Jews, Judaism is also Jewish history – how we developed into who and what we are.  Moses himself may never have actually existed – our study of history and archaeology finds basically no evidence in Egyptian sources, no evidence in the Sinai desert, and even contradictory elements in the Bible itself. What is affirmative about this historical exploration is the process of trying to discover the real history of our people, and not just what we read in our first story book. Imagine the young George Washington and the cherry tree he confessed to having chopped down  ( “I cannot tell a lie”). Will we ever find the stump of that cherry tree? No – the story has clear ethical and mythological value, but it is not history. And the same is true of Moses writing the entire Torah, or of the rabbis carrying on an oral tradition that was supposedly given on Mount Sinai, or of the idea that the Jews created their own culture in ghettos entirely disconnected from the hostile world around them that hated and persecuted them at every turn. All of these are interesting stories with their own purrposes, but they are not history. The Torah was written over centuries by many authors, the rabbis evolved intellectually and debated their laws centuries later, and Jews have had a mixed experience among the nations, learning and sharing with some while fleeing others. We have to have the courage to look honestly at ourselves, and to seek our real past.

With respect to Jewish history there are “creationist” Jews and “evolutionist” Jews. “Creationist” Jews believe that Judaism was created at a certain point in time and has never appreciably changed. At their extreme, they believe that Abraham ate matsa at his Passover seder, even though the Exodus happens in a later book of the Bible, or that David studied the Torah with his rabbi, even though historically the Torah was written centuries after David may or may not have lived. For creationist Jews, Judaism was, is, and will be essentially as it began.  They may not agree on what that was — some claim it is based on ritual observance while others highlight ethical monotheism or certain prayers — but they are sure that what they do is the core of what Judaism has always been.

As Humanistic Jews, we believe in evolution; not only the evolution of species, but the evolution of Judaism. Like every living thing, Judaism has changed in response to its environment and internal needs. Like every living thing, Judaism contains old elements from its past, contemporary innovations for new settings, and active pieces adopted from the outside world that support its survival. Moses never had a Bar Mitzvah with a DJ, and King David never read the Torah. The early rabbis may have felt that women could not read from the Torah, but we believe in the equality and dignity and freedom of every human being.

We often hear of “the Jewish tradition” as an authoritative force, but as the following story indicates, even that can be problematic: There was great conflict in the main synagogue in Hotzeplotz. At a certain point in the service, half of the congregation would stand, the other half would remain seated, and both sides would start arguing with each other. After several weeks, they decided to visit the oldest man in town to find out what the real tradition was. The first group explained that they stood at that point in the service, and the old man said, “No, that’s not the tradition.” The second group exclaimed triumphantly, “So we should stay seated at that moment!” But the old man replied, “No, that’s not the tradition.” “Well, right now half of us stand and half of us sit and everyone argues!” “Ah, that’s the tradition!”

There is no one tradition, no single understanding of Jewish history and Jewish identity, unless we define it as an active debate about Jewish identity.  That’s the tradition, to argue about the tradition. Because of that tradition, we have every right to stand up for our values, to celebrate our connections through our beliefs, and to learn from our heritage as we choose.

For choice is at the heart of the connection between Judaism and Humanistic Jews, and that is the fourth piece of our puzzle. For Humanistic Jews, being Jewish is the freedom to create Judaism. Some will tell you that the Sabbath created the Jews; the truth is that the Jews created the Sabbath, and since we as the Jewish people created it, we can modify it to respond to our needs as did earlier generations. I never believe it when someone tells me that an object or an idea or a text is untouchable, unquestionable, absolutely authoritative.

I think back to “The Wizard of Oz.” Why do absolutely no work on the Sabbath? “I am YHWH your God.” Why kill the Wicked Witch of the West? “I am the great and powerful Oz.” When faced with unreasonable commands from a distant, authoritative source, I refuse to listen to the command: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! If I do see a man behind the curtain, if I do see the evolution of Jewish tradition, the variety of Jewish culture from which to choose, the diversity of opinions of what it means to be Jewish, I know that I am free to make my own decisions, to live my own Jewish life as it has meaning to me.

Freedom is not always easy – Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote that “we are condemned to be free.” In other words, if there is no external authority to take responsibility, it is all ours. When we make our free choices, we are not always popular for doing so, for we are humanists in a non-humanist world, as well as Jews in a non-Jewish world.  Humanistic Jews are “The Jews of the Jews” – the people who never quite fit in. Our convictions demand songs and celebrations and texts that articulate our beliefs, and although some of our literary heritage fits the bill, much does not. This freedom is a serious responsibility – the culture we create will be the culture our children inherit, the new museum housing the old synagogue..

But where is the heart, the final piece of the puzzle? In the individual human heart, for the individual Humanistic Jew, Judaism is a family identity – Judaism is being an active, contributing member of the Jewish people. You do not stop being part of your birth family or your Jewish family because you have new ideas, or because you have a different understanding of what happened in the past, or because you continue some family traditions and also create your own, or because you fall in love with and marry someone from another ethnic family, or because you speak a non-Jewish language, or because you participate in the world of American culture, or because of any of the incidents of modern life. We are all a part of the Jewish family.

Our family connections to our heritage are stronger than the distance that separates us from the past. The Ten Commandments are part of my Jewish family, and Mel Brooks is part of my Jewish family, and Yehuda Amichai is part of my family.

Turn back to the image created by our puzzle pieces – What do you get when you combine Jewish thought with Jewish culture with Jewish history and Jewish freedom with Jewish family connections? In a phrase, you get Humanistic Judaism. In an image,

Inside the brand-new museum
There’s an old synagogue
Inside the synagogue
Is me.
Inside me
Is my heart.
Inside my heart
A museum.
Inside the museum
A synagogue,
Inside it
Me,
Inside me
My heart,
Inside my heart,
A museum
Posted in General HJ, Humanistic Judaism journal | 1 Comment

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

This post was originally delivered as part of a High Holidays sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2008; this year’s High Holidays topics are available here. This post previously appeared in 2014 on the Grief Beyond Belief blog and is re-posted from that site with permission.

The human brain is marvelous. It can experience the world around us, processing a million sensations a minute into coherent reality. It can analyze, synthesize, and remember; the more we learn, the more we are amazed. Ancient peoples could remember the entire Iliad. Today we have computers and smartphones and GPS devices that remember for us, and sometimes think for us too. But once in a while, we use that ancient memory, and things we memorize just stick. Many of us memorized a poem when we were younger, and I’ll bet for most that poem is still in there. Here is mine from the tenth grade:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth, act V, scene 5)

Shakespeare’s Macbeth faces imminent death, and he despairs. He claims that no human knowledge makes a difference; that no human experience affects any other. We strut and fret our hour on the stage and then are heard no more. There is no director, there is no meaning, there is no lasting value to human life.

I remember choosing that reading in high school because I agreed that there is no director, but as I’ve grown I’ve realized that just about everything else in this passage is not reality. All our yesterdays and the yesterdays of our parents and grandparents, they have improved life, our hour upon the stage. Even after that hour on the stage, we are heard more – our words and our actions echo in the memories of those who have seen us, those who have been touched by us. There may be no author, but the sound and fury, the events and deeds and words of our days, are as significant as we make them. Think of the life of someone you love, someone you want to remember. Now consider the passage again, you’ll see how wrong Macbeth was.

. . .all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Is that how we remember our loved ones? Not at all. A grieving mind might come to a momentary conclusion like this, but our emotional memory, our feeling heart tells us the real truth.

The human heart is a marvelous thing – our emotional life, our capacity for love and forgiveness and fear and hope. The human brain is marvelous. The human heart is marvelous. The connection between heart and mind through loving memory brings us together. Death is a part of life; death is real, but accepting reality doesn’t always make it easier. Reality is sometimes something to celebrate, but when we lose someone we love, reality is something to be endured, and then transcended through the power of our love.

The reality of grief is that it is a challenge we all face, we all assimilate in our own individual ways. There are moments we despair, when we feel that we are “but a walking shadow,” and there are moments the sun shines through and we see the light of day. As time goes on, as perspective deepens, the dark days are fewer, and the bright days shine brighter. At the anniversary of a death, or even in a public memorial service at the end of Yom Kippur, our memories become less and less the return of grief, and more and more the warm consolation of loving memory.

Human memory, like everything human, is not perfect – it is affected by the passage of time, by our emotions, by our state of mind, by our evaluation and re-evaluation of the past. Words can be memorized. A face, a person, a loving connection is remembered like a work of art, different every time. Each year finds us a different person, with new ways to remember the people we still love. Thus it has been through all of human experience, and thus shall it be tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, to the last syllable of recorded time. Lives and memories are brief but brilliant candles, tales told by you and I, full of insight and caring, signifying everything.

Posted in Life Cycle Events | 3 Comments

Secular Jewish Torah

One of the most common questions asked of Humanistic Judaism is, “what role does the Torah play in Humanistic Judaism?” Fortunately, since it’s a commonly asked question, we have many answers! Below you’ll find four concise answers to that question offered by four rabbis in Humanistic Judaism, including my thoughts at the end.

Rabbi Sherwin Wine reflects on the early approach of Humanistic Judaism to the Torah. Wine’s last book, A Provocative People: A Secular History of the Jews, delves deeply into the historical origins of this earliest surviving Jewish book.

Rabbi Denise Handlarski of Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Toronto is blogging the Torah portion of the week for 5775 – always fascinating!

Rabbi Peter Schweitzer of the (New York) City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism explains positive and negative connections with the Torah for Humanistic Jews.

Rabbi Adam Chalom (yours truly) of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago offers his thoughts on a Humanistic Jewish approach to the Torah.

Posted in General HJ | 4 Comments

Why Be Good? Yom Kippur 5775

 This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2014/5775 as part of a series entitled “Why Bother?”. You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

I once met with a family after the patriarch had died. As usual, I took out my pen and pad of paper and asked them to tell me about him. They said, “He worked hard, and he loved his family.” And that was it. So I asked, “Did he have any activities or hobbies he enjoyed?” “He worked hard, and he loved his family.” “How was he as a father?” “He worked hard, and he loved his family.” I realized that he probably was a jerk! If you did a personality survey based on how the deceased are portrayed in eulogies, you’d wonder what happened to all the mean people we meet. This is the wisdom behind the Yiddish expression “all brides are beautiful, all the dead are pious.” With this family, once I understood the dynamic, I put down my pen and asked them to talk freely, off the record. In the end we did find ways to present him well – he WAS loved by his family (if not, they would have trashed him!), and if he was hypercritical, I could say he “had high standards, he pushed us to succeed.” At a funeral, I have an obligation to meet the needs of the family, but I also have an obligation to the truth – I will not lie and say he was beloved by all, or that he made friends easily, or that he was very generous if he was none of those. It would not ring true to the family, and I would know it was a lie. At a rehearsal for one of my first Bar Mitzvahs with Kol Hadash, the student’s parent told him, “Don’t worry if you make a mistake in the Hebrew reading – no one will know.” The student said to himself (but I heard him), “But I’ll know.” And I complimented him for that. There is something in us, call it conscience or a sense of self, that maintains our own standards. When I’m hired for a life cycle event, they get my whole person – my mouth, sure, but also my brain, and along with my brain goes my sense of self, my ethical being.

WHY be a good person? Not a question you hear often. There are many routes to HOW to be a good person – secular ethical philosophies, political parties who are happy to tell you and how to behave, innumerable religions who are convinced that THEY have the true, right path. Recall the story of the man who goes to heaven and is given a tour, seeing all ethnicities and religions getting along. He then sees a walled off section with no windows and asks his guide why. The response: “Oh, that’s the Orthodox Jews. They think they’re the only ones here.” Of course, you could replace “Orthodox Jews” with “Roman Catholics” or “Greek Orthodox” or “Sunni Muslims” or “Shi’ite Muslims.” In past years, we have spent our High Holiday time exploring HOW to be a good person, what lessons to draw from the human experience across religious and cultural lines on what the good life should be. Out there, there are plenty of Yom Kippur sermons on how often people fail to be good; evidently some people go to synagogue to be made to feel bad. Perhaps it’s a kind of emotional atonement: if I confess my sins and listen to someone harangue me for a few hours, I’ll burn off some failure and feel better. Well, I don’t harangue people for their moral failings, even those seven of you who really deserve it. Which seven? I won’t tell you, but I will tell you why I won’t tell you.

Jewish folklore describes the Lamed Vovniks – 36 hidden righteous (traditionally men, we can say people) upon whom the world’s existence depends. Lamed vov is how to write the number 36 in 2 Hebrew letters. Those who know their Hebrew numerology will also remember that 36 is double Chai, 18 or life. One of the virtues of the lamed vovniks is great humility; often they themselves do not know that the world depends on them. If no one knows who are the lamed vovniks, 36 righteous people on whom the world depends, then you had better treat everyone as if they might be one, and act yourself as if you might be too! This is one answer to “why be good” – the world depends on it – but it won’t work for us. It presupposes a cosmic judgment for the collective sins of humanity, as well as a kind of vicarious atonement – someone else’s good deeds and righteousness avert disaster for all. You can hear echoes of the traditional Yom Kippur scapegoat, or another legend of a righteous individual suffering for the sins of humanity you may have heard elsewhere. Most important, the Lamed Vovnick story shows that the question of why be good and how be good are intertwined: until you’ve defined what it means to be good, you don’t know the answer to why be good or how to be good. For the lamed vovnik, piety is a cardinal virtue, whereas we might prioritize other qualities like courage for a worthy cause, kindness to those in needs, the willingness to challenge authority and think independently. Sometimes traditional Jewish ethics agree with us, sometimes they do not. Still, consider what our interactions would be like if we lived the legend of the lamed vovniks – if we truly believed that anyone we met could be someone on whom the world depends, or that we ourselves could have such a cosmic importance. We would talk kindly to each other, we would treat each other with respect and dignity, we would take others’ failings in the best possible light – “hypercritical” becomes “high standards” – we would examine our own actions to do our very best. The reason the lamed vovnick won’t work is that we know it’s a myth; but sometimes myth, even after its myth-ness is exposed, can still have positive influence if no longer absolute control.

Another example from Jewish literature, one of my favorite passages in the Exodus narrative. After the sin of the Golden Calf, God has decided to wipe out the Israelites and start over with Moses [Exodus 32]. “Your people have blown it for the last time!” He says (notice how it’s like parents – do you know what YOUR son just did?). Moses serves as God’s therapist, since He has an anger management issue, and talks him down – what would the other peoples say if you don’t fulfill your promises, you did promise YOUR people to bring them to their land, and so on. Later rabbis [BT Berakhot 32a] imagined what chutzpah it took to talk back to God, imagining Moses saying to himself, “How can I talk back? And yet, if I do not, something terrible will happen. Zeh talui bee – this hangs on me, depends on me.” We don’t have to be talking to a god to take the responsibility of acting when action is needed. And it does not need to be the entire universe that hangs on our deeds. Jewish tradition claims that if you save one life, it is AS IF you saved the whole world. Or to quote contemporary bumper sticker wisdom, think globally, act locally.

Deep in our psyches, we want what we do to count. We want someone to be keeping score, we want a system that rewards the good and punishes the bad. We want the answer to “why be good” to be “because it’s worth it” – you will get what you deserve. If the human experience in this life seems to contradict that desire, we invent all kinds of systems to make it true: heaven and hell, cosmic judgment at the end of days, karma that comes back to you, reincarnation up or down based on your deeds in a previous life. These religious beliefs all try to bring justice to the universe; they answer “why be good” – because someone is watching, and he knows if you are sleeping, he knows if you’re awake, knows if you’ve been bad or good…We might ask, if you’re only being good is because someone is watching you, does that really count as being good, or are you just minimally wise to avoid certain punishment? We understand our psychological needs and how we project them onto the universe, so these answers won’t work for us either. We know too many good people who died too soon to believe that the system is designed according to our moral agenda. I have done funerals for suicides, drug overdoses, young people with cancer, even a crib death, and seeing the pain the deaths cause their families is all the evidence I need.

Are there exactly seven people in this congregation with moral failings? There are seven, and seven times seven, and seven times seven times seven. I do not believe in original sin, or in any kind of supernatural sin for that matter. I do not believe that Jews are obligated to follow 613 commandments, so many and so restrictive that failure is inevitable and guilt is guaranteed. I do believe that morality, being good is an ideal, and human ideals are imposed on a material world that does not conform to our desires. Just as it may help to imagine ourselves to be one of the secret righteous, we must also accept that all of us have our failings. There are no saints, no matter what data funeral eulogies would provide. Gandhi was not a good parent, Martin Luther King Jr. had extramarital affairs, Mother Teresa refused to allow birth control in her missions no matter how it would have improved her charges’ lives. Sometimes we just have to make the best of who we are.

For two-and-a-half years, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel debated. One group said, “It is better for humanity not to have been created than to have been created”; and the other said, “It is better for humanity to have been created than not to have been created.” They finally took a vote and decided that it were better for humanity not to have been created than to have been created, but now that they have been created, let them investigate their past deeds or, others say, let them examine their future actions. (BT Eruvin 13b)

Consider how this Talmudic argument is both useless and useful: 2 ½ years debating something you have no power to affect; what are you going to do, turn back the clock and wipe us out? Based on their ideals of a perfect universe, the schools agreed that the cosmos would have been better off without humanity. So what? Here’s how the argument becomes useful – we have to deal with reality. Hillel and Shammai might say, “what if God overheard the discussion, decided they were right, and sent another Flood with NO Noah?” Since we’re on thin cosmic ice anyways, they would say, we had better be good by looking back at what we’ve done or looking forward to what we will do. In our secular vocabulary, we might say the earth doesn’t need us to keep spinning, but we need the earth and each other. This is why we also need a Yom Kippur process of making things right, since all things human are not ideal. Imagining that we are a cosmic mistake is still mostly useless, because we were NOT created, and we will not be uncreated, at least until the sun explodes. And who’s motivated to be good by considering life a mistake?

We need OUR answer to “Why be good” that does not imagine we are cosmically important, or that our every deed is being scored in a Book of Life, or that we were a great mistake. The theme of our High Holiday explorations has been “why” rather than “how” – why be anything, why be Jewish, why be Jewish and a Humanist? Because if you can’t answer why, who cares about the how? If someone asks you “How can I break into my neighbor’s house?” don’t answer “with a crowbar;” say, “why would you want to do that?” The funerals I perform are mostly for genuinely good people; changing “hypercritical” to “high standards” happens less often than you might imagine.

Let us first ask what it means to be good, and maybe that will address the why for us. If Yom Kippur is about doing better, a road map to the good would be helpful. What is virtue? A perennial question in philosophy and religion. In Pirke Avot, Rabbinic sayings compiled in 200 CE, we read about four human types: the fool, the average, the wicked and the saint. Virtue is not the same as simply being obedient; following the rules makes you average, the lowest common denominator, but to merit the title “good” requires more. For some, self-sacrifice is a virtue – the rabbinic “saint” is the one who says “what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is yours,” while the average says “what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine” – the wicked says “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine”! [Pirke Avot 5:13] Virtue there is extreme generosity. For others, self-actualization is a higher value than self-sacrifice: in Maimonides’ famous ladder of charitable giving, the highest level is teaching the needy a profession so they no longer need charity. In science, theories can be proven true or false. My experience with philosophy has been that there is often an element of truth in both sides, which is why smart people can disagree. Being autonomous and in charge of our own lives rings the good bell, and so too does caring for others. Just as there is no one “how” be good, there is no one sense of what virtue is. When we study ethical choices across cultures, looking for common ethical principles, we find a few everywhere: treating others fairly, honoring your family, limiting violence, and so on. The trick is the balance among those values: is treating others fairly MORE IMPORTANT than honoring your family, or when you have a government job to fill should you automatically hire your cousin? In some cultures nepotism would be “bad,” while in others it’s unthinkable to help a stranger instead of your family. Defining what virtue could mean does not provide a clear reason “why be good,” since there are so many versions of virtue, even beyond religious piety. I once did a funeral for an older woman – I spoke first with her children, and then separately with her grandchildren over the next couple of days. I might have been talking about two different people! But she was – as a parent at 30, she was very different as a grandparent in her 60s. We learn over time, what we believed was good may change as we understand life differently and we ourselves have changed.

Why be good? We can always turn to evolution – if we understand who we are and how we came to be, perhaps that will shed light on how best to get along. Why was being “good” an evolutionary advantage? Humanity, certainly before modern times, always functioned in social groups – society did not begin with the political philosopher’s idealized state of nature, where autonomous individuals made social contracts. This past year, I read a fascinating article about a family in Siberia who fled Soviet control in 1930s, disappeared into the woods, and were not discovered until 1970s! They had lived on their own with almost no contact with civilization, no metal (since it rusted away after a decade), no medicine, no society, no culture beyond their own songs and their revered Bible. Two of the children had never known anyone but their immediate family. What made the story so striking was how amazing and unusual it was to be so isolated; whether it’s Aristotle’s claim “humanity is a social animal” or Genesis’ statement “it is not good for humanity to be alone,” we know deeply, as I’ve cited before, that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. Groups with pro-social genes likely did better than groups with anti-social genes at caring for the sick and the young, collaborating for food and security, passing on accumulated knowledge and culture. We are more likely to trust others and work together if they have proven themselves to be trustworthy, what the group might define as “good” – honest, responsible, capable, etc. If someone has a track record of “good,” that is, pro-social behavior, we’re even more likely to forgive them for wronging us, or to accept their apology and move forward. So an evolutionary reason for “why be good” could be “it’s good for the group, and therefore good for you if you’re in the group.”

Or course, even if this evolutionary reconstruction is accurate, that’s not enough of a reason today. We evolved to eat meat, but plenty of us are healthy on vegetarian diets. We evolved with violent conflict between groups, but today we often channel it into sports, exercise, or workplace competition. Evolution weeds out weak traits, like my nearsightedness, but eyeglasses and lasik surgery means I was not selected against by a runaway bison; my children get to have just as many challenges with glasses and braces as I did! Using evolution to evaluate social behavior is tricky: there’s plenty of theory but limited experimental evidence, and the more we understand about human psychology and the impacts of human culture, the harder it is to tease out what is biological and what is cultural. When asked a question about the limited number of women scientists, the physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out that as a black man, he was always encouraged to pursue sports even though he wanted to be a physicist since he was a child. If you see a person with an elephant sitting on them and they complain of chest pain, they might be having a heart attack, but you’ll never know until you remove the elephant. [can’t find a citation for that metaphor, though I know it’s not mine!]

There’s also a serious problem with the answer of “Ask not what your evolutionary subgroup can do for you, Ask what you can do for your evolutionary subgroup” – do I ever get to ask what the group does for me? Or what I get to do for myself? Only focusing on a group tramples the individual, though we also understand that only listening to the individual means a community of one. We do not run our personal lives or our Jewish lives purely on what the group thinks is good – some of us fast on Yom Kippur, some do not, and we celebrate the freedom to make our own choices. Someone who cares absolutely NOTHING about what any other person or society thinks is technically called a sociopath, but ONLY caring about what everyone else thinks is also a problem. Let’s change the scope, then – not why is it good for the group if individuals are good, but why might it be good for the individual to be good.

Why would we be good for ourselves, if not for others? Part of our sense of self comes from the kind of person we think we are, and so too does our ability to be good. Those who feel limited find it hard to be generous. Those who have been cheated may be less likely to trust, and more likely themselves to cheat. We love to think that we could suffer and do better, in the language of Jewish ethics, “do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Exodus 23:9 and others] Or even just the golden rule, however you formulate it – do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or Hillel’s negative version: do not do to others what is hateful to you. But it’s very tempting to go instead for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. If everyone else is cheating, why shouldn’t I? If someone screwed me over, then it’s a screw or be screwed world and I won’t get fooled again. In Israel, no one wants to be a frier, a sucker, the person taken advantage of. On the other hand, if we have a strong sense of self-worth, a deep seated dignity, a confidence that we can do the right thing and still turn out all right, then we can give people second chances, we can blame those who deserve blame and not take our injury out on the next person. How do we acquire those characteristics? Practice, practice, practice. There was once an illuminating study done correlating the Transparency International corruption index to UN delegations with unpaid parking tickets – the tickets couldn’t be enforced because of diplomatic immunity. As you might have guessed, the least corrupt nations had almost no tickets and paid them right, while the most corrupt had dozens. Sometimes the small issues help with the big issues – if your habit is to tell the truth, to live your beliefs, the more you do it, the more natural it becomes.

Why do people get to funerals on time? I’ve heard plenty of excuses for starting weddings late: running on Jewish time, or Irish time, or Italian time; maybe the only group “on time” is the WASPs! But even Jews get to funerals on time. Why? It’s important enough, there’s a fear of social disapproval, it’s a serious event, and it’s a sign of respect for both the deceased and their family. Why be good? We are good for ourselves and good for each other. We are good because we think it is important, and we are good because life is imperfect and we have to do as well as possible. We are good because we want to make a good impression, and we are good because it makes us feel better about ourselves. The world may not depend on our behavior, but our ability to forgive others begins with our acceptance of our own flaws. In the end, however, one more reason why we are good may be the most effective – our impact on the future. Immortality is another religious reason to be good – deny yourself in this life to earn life eternal. Even in a secular sense, our good deeds can buy us our own brand of immortality. I can’t tell you how many times children remember their parents to me, at our initial meetings and in public at the funeral and in conversations at the shiva home and for the rest of their lives, as their role models and heroes. Hard work, honesty, generosity, integrity – these are the life lessons offered by people we love. As I give these eulogies, I sometimes think, “What will my family and friends say about me?” And so I strive to be loving, and good, and honest, and patient, and generous because that’s how I can impact the future, that’s what entirely depends on me. If people who loved me remember me for that, emulate me in that, then the world is sustained not just by the living righteous, but also by the legacy of truly good men and women. We always end our congregational memorials with a line from the biblical book of Provberbs (10:7): zekher tsadik l’vrakha – the memory of a righteous person is a blessing.

Posted in General HJ, Holidays | Leave a comment

Why be Jewish AND Humanist? Yom Kippur 5775

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2014/5775 as part of a series entitled “Why Bother?”. You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

Do you know what year it is? In the general calendar, it’s 2014. In the Chinese calendar, it’s the Year of the Horse. In the Muslim calendar, it’s 1435 after Mohammed’s escape to Medina. In the Jewish calendar, it’s 5775. 5 thousand, 700 and 75 years after what? Year Zero: Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden – allegedly. The Jewish calendar is creationist, but we Humanistic Jews still use it for Jewish life. It’s no wonder we’re confused – Jewish days begin at night, the Jewish calendar is called a luni-solar calendar (luni? or looney?) and we add a leap month 7 out of every 19 years. In the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur is always on the same day, the tenth of Tishrei, but the High Holidays always seem to be either early or late, like some Jewish people I know. A purely rational person would have ditched this calendar mess a long time ago. Now, I’m saying this in one of the three countries in the world that refuses to use the metric system: it’s the United States, Liberia and Burma.

Metric system refuseniks

Our general calendar has its flaws too – in 1752, the English speaking world went to bed on September 2 and woke up on September 14 – only adding one leap day every 4 years had gotten us way behind, since the actual length of a solar year is not 365 ¼ days, it’s 365.2421897 days, on average. Human beings measuring cosmic time is not only a question of reason. Sometimes, it’s reasonable to be unreasonable.

This High Holidays, we explore the question of “why” – so far, why bother being anything, and why bother being Jewish. We’ve found that being different provides dignity and roots, and being Jewish inspires us to respond creatively to our inheritance, to take what we have received and make it meaningful, and then enable our heirs to do the same. Yet we are more than simply our roots – we have branches and leaves and fruit, we have a present as well as a past. We are not only part of the Jewish family by birth, by choice, by marriage, by affinity. We also have beliefs about the world and humanity that tie us to a larger world of humanism. Our Humanism is more than a Renaissance-style celebration of universal human culture; it is a person-focused approach to life that is both meaningful and inspirational. It is a change of focus – too much of religion is directed up there – we focus on each other, and inside ourselves; this world, not above and beyond. People have the right and responsibility to be in charge of their lives, independent of any claimed supernatural authority. Too much of religion tells us what we cannot know, what we cannot do. We celebrate that human knowledge and power can understand and improve the world. Our ethics revolve around human dignity, human needs, and human responsibility, as we will explore tomorrow morning. And these values and rights apply not only to our group, but to all human beings of every background, every gender, every identity. Our Humanism is a positive self-definition of what we do believe and how we live, not just a debate about one fact: is there or isn’t there. We can imagine ourselves as an adapted Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live: We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggone it, we like people!

The more we try to define our identity, the more we wind up expanding our identitIES. We are universalists from a particular perspective, part of both the human family and our own Jewish family. The challenge, as the Birmingham Temple’s Rabbi Jeffrey Falick put it in a Rosh Hashana sermon last week, is how to defeat the old Yiddish saying: ein tuchus ken nit tanzen af tsvay khasines – one tush can’t dance at two weddings! Now how did I hear what he said when you all saw me here? How can one rabbi attend two Rosh Hashana evening services in two states? The internet! In a world of the internet, when where you are from or what day it is prove no barrier to finding like-minded people all over the world, we understand more and more that “who am I” does not have a single answer. Walt Whitman wrote in his “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” One tuchus, two weddings; one person, many identities.

It’s not really a question of being Jewish OR: Jewish or American, Jewish or secular, Jewish or liberal or conservative or libertarian. We are always in the state of Jewish AND – in my case, Jewish AND male AND straight AND born where I was born AND living where I live. Each of us is large, each of us contains multitudes. In the world of our ancestors, your culture, your religion, your ethnicity, your language, your group identity, they were mostly indivisible. You were an Ashkenazi Jew who spoke Yiddish and observed Shabbat, or a Sephardic Jew from Syria who spoke Judeo-Arabic and would never mix lamb with yogurt, or a Polish-speaking Polish Catholic from Poland. 1 tuchus, 1 wedding. Yes, you had some contact with the outside world, and maybe they influenced you more than you were willing to admit. But today we are never forced to be one thing – we are always the particular multitudes of our unique biography. For Humanistic Jews, this is our multiple minority, and part of the dignity of difference is accepting our uniqueness – I am Jewish in a non-Jewish world, a Humanist in a religious America, stubbornly Jewish amid universalist Humanists, a secular Jew amid religious Judaisms.

We are hardly the first generation to attempt a synthesis between ancestral Jewish identity and modern values. Rabbi Falick pointed out that the 19th century Reform movement was created to bridge the gap between Judaism and modernity – strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, those rabbis sought a way to have your Kant and eat matza too. We are doing the same in our own generation, from our own perspective. The first generation of secular Jewish schools and communities emerged 100 years ago, organized around Yiddish, Jewish culture and the Jewish labor movement. They too had to balance their secular identity, their Jewish heritage and their labor activism. Sometimes their identities reinforced each other; Passover makes a great Jewish labor holiday – a worker’s rebellion against slave labor conditions! To celebrate their Jewish freedom, they created a Yom Kippur Ball and Banquet. A few years ago our own Steering Committee debated, given how wonderful community feeling is during our Rosh Hashana oneg receptions, did we want some kind of oneg after Yom Kippur …. That was a step too far, though we did explore the possibility of an empty-plate oneg, what one member called a “no-neg.” The freedom to offend does not mean that one must be offensive.

Sometimes those secular socialist Jews contradicted themselves in their multitudes – the Jewish Labor movement split many times between the nineteen-teens and the 1950s over the gradually increasing anti-semitism of the Soviet Union. Sometimes push came to shove, and the Jewish won.

That is the real challenge, that is why this question of why be Jewish and a Humanist needs an answer. Multiple identities are all well and good when they are in separate categories – liking egg rolls for appetizers and ice cream for dessert rarely produces direct confrontation. My Jewishness is not affected by my hair color, even if it’s on the march from brown to grey. But when it comes to a religious cultural philosophical values identity, there are times that push comes to shove, there are moments when the multitudes within me battle each other and contradicting myself becomes conflict.

It can be hard to be Jewish if you’re a Humanist. We saw on Rosh Hashana evening the tension between universalist Humanist commitment and our particular Jewish identity, and how loving our family does not mean we may treat humanity any less. There are certainly elements of our Jewish tradition, and of our Jewish family today, that offend our Humanism. Does every Jewish media story need to revolve around “Is it good for the Jews?” Haredi Orthodox Jewish communities that treat women as inferior to men, that support gay conversion therapy, that are anti-science and refuse outside knowledge – they are Jewish. Nationalist and messianic extremists who refer to the deaths of children in Gaza as “mowing the grass” – they are also Jewish. Some might disown them and claim “that’s not really Judaism,” but OUR values and all Jewish values are not the same. Think of a Venn diagram –there is some overlap between our values and Jewish values, but there is also some disconnection.

Venn diagrams

Just as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is a destructive version of Islam, but still an expression of Islam, or white supremacy is a twisted Christianity, so too these expressions of Jewish identity are, to us, objectionable forms of Judaism. But we cannot deny that they are Jewish, as others would deny us. The question is whether we can handle being identified with them, or do we say “if those people are on my team, I quit!” Some in the world of general Secular Humanism insist that the only True Judaism, the only True Christianity, the only True Islam is the most fundamentalist one – it makes the best enemy, but it also means they wind up agreeing with fundamentalists who say the same thing! There can be liberal Christians and conservative Christians, Orthodox Jews and Humanistic Jews, liberal westernized Muslims and fanatic eliminationist Muslims. We refuse to surrender our heritage to the most fanatic; we will not give up being in our family. Different heirs make different choices with the same inheritance – some transcend the violence and division of their religious tradition, others deepen it. We may share little in common in lifestyle and values, but we are distant branches on the same evolutionary tree. Just as we contain multitudes, so too does Judaism.

The other side of this challenge to being both universalist and particular, committed to the dignity of cultural and ethnic difference and also to basic human rights, is that there are limits to cultural relativism. If a culture systematically disenfranchises and denigrates women, treating them as less than full human beings, must we respect it? On the other hand, a French style secularism that bans religious symbols from public space, be it a Muslim hijab, a Jewish kippah, or even a cross, feels universalist to the point of infringing on personal religion. Human rights do not only apply to “my” people and stop at the borders of different cultures. So when a cultural tradition collides with human rights, we may wind up siding with our values against a culture, even our own culture; of course, there will always be others of our people right next to us. Remember the former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling (born Donald Tokowitz) and the terrible things he said and did? When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was asked how he felt about it as a fellow Jew, Silver answered, “My response was as a human being,” and that was the end of it. And plenty of other Jews felt the exact same way – as human beings AND as Jews! We may sometimes feel alone in the Jewish world in our multiple minority, but if we say what we believe, we find that we represent many. We Humanistic Jews are multitudes that we don’t even realize. I hear the same story all the time – “I’ve felt like a Humanistic Jew for many years on my own, and I’ve finally found you!” I both love and hate that story – I’m glad they found us, but why did it take so long? We’ve been around for 50 years!

This story demonstrates that just as it can be hard to be Jewish if you’re a Humanist, it can be hard to be a Humanist if you’re Jewish. People don’t even know to look for us – they can’t believe there are enough Jewish people who think like they think and live like they live that there might actually be communities to celebrate as they want to celebrate. As much as we can take Jewish tradition and reinterpret, select, understand in a humanistic light, in the plain light of truth we must admit that much of historical Jewish culture was expressed through religious ideas – as was almost every culture before modern times. Yes, the Talmud contains fascinating anecdotes and stories we can enjoy, but much of the Talmud’s 6,200 pages are legalistic hair-splitting irrelevant to our secular lives. Everyone knows that Hanukkah is about the miracle of the lights and Passover is about the 10 plagues and the Exodus from Egypt by God, so why do you bother us with the inconvenient truth that the stories were written centuries later and most likely didn’t happen? Who do you think you are to change this tradition, even if I don’t believe it either? The answer is, I have as much right to adapt my inheritance to my needs as you have to keep it the same or our ancestors did to create it. Unless you’d rather go back to sacrificing goats on Yom Kippur – anything else is changing tradition.

The other reason it can be hard to be a Humanist if you’re Jewish has to do with the Jewish historical experience. I was once asked a question by a member of Kol Hadash: “Can you be a Humanist if you don’t like people?” Jewish history is full of reasons not to like people in general: “people” are prone to violence and chauvinism and fanaticism, “people” impose their beliefs and lifestyle on others, “people” can destroy their environment, and they can certainly destroy each other. We no longer believe in a naïve Enlightenment idealism of human perfectibility, the tabula rasa – blank slate that can be filled with correct education to create a utopia. We’ve been mugged by reality too many times, particularly as the Jewish people. The cynic sneers: “Those idealists who loved the cosmopolitan German culture of Beethoven and Goethe, they were murdered, and YOU put your trust in humanity…”

I have no blind faith in humanity, in progress, in reason – working in organized Humanism has taught me that Humanists can be just as unreasonable as anyone else. I am also convinced that human knowledge and effort improve the world, so I have no choice but to be both Humanist AND Jew – both of them are who I am, now and at all times. As an undergraduate, I spent Passover for four years at a friend’s home with his family,. Their Haggadah was very conventional, a step or two above Maxwell House.  Reading through those texts, I found myself alternatively confirming my Judaism with positive connections, and my Humanism when I disagreed with the values represented in the text. Very well, I contradict myself – I am large, I contain multitudes.

At their best, multiple identities reinforce each other. My Judaism confirms my Humanism, and my Humanism enriches my Judaism. The lesson I learn from Jewish history is the importance of human self-reliance, and the value of human action over prayer and faith. There are others who read different lessons from the Jewish experience – was the founding of modern Israel a miracle, or the product of stubborn human effort? A college classmate once told me that because his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, he was inclined to believe in divine providence; my response was that in the same situation I would have the exact opposite interpretation. Imagine if we read the statistics on Jewish behavior the opposite way they are normally presented – instead of saying 15% of American Jews keep kosher or light Shabbat candles, why not say 85% do not do either? That would build community feeling among the more secular, who are the vast majority, rather than a Jewish establishment that regrets reality. The Jewish world was shocked last October to hear that 20% of American Jews, and a third those under 35, identified as “Jews of no religion” – “Are you Jewish?” “Yes.” “What religion are you?” “None.” We’ve known this population is there for a long time, and we have taken the next step – integrating a secular lifestyle with an abiding Jewish identity, enriching both.

Jewish culture is an example of the human experience – the parallels between the Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah and coming of age rituals in other cultures, plus our knowledge of human psychological development, enable us to make our personalized Mitzvah experience that much more meaningful and relevant than Jewish tradition alone. Cultural cross-pollination produced a Passover seder modeled on a Roman Feast, and today we sing the African-American spiritual “Let My People Go” in our English-language Haggadah. The Jewish tradition of questions and challenges, a desire for reasons to justify religious practice, an emphasis on literacy and teaching, even a counter-tradition of Jewish skeptics and heretics who refuse to believe what authorities demand – all of these support both a Humanistic approach to the world and a creative approach to being Jewish. I love the Yiddish saying: “angels used to walk the earth, not they’re not even in heaven.” Seeking forgiveness on Yom Kippur, even in traditional Jewish life, was always about forgiveness from the person you had wronged first – not quite Humanistic, perhaps “humanish-tic.” We’re always negotiating the balance, and different generations will change their inheritance – the earliest Humanistic Jewish parents in the 1960s and 70s had themselves been raised in very Jewish neighborhoods in the 1920s and 30s, often by immigrant parents, so Jewishness was more assumed. Today we live much more dispersed, more integrated with our surroundings, and so Judaism is re-emphasized when we come together. And our children will make their own choices for their needs, based on their identities. If we contain our own multitudes, so will they.

The Broadway show “Rent” was written by Jonathan Larson, born to Jewish parents in White Plains, NY. After many years of financial struggle, Larson died of an undiagnosed heart condition just before the musical opened and became a smash success. It is impossible for us to know exactly which of Larson’s lyrics were inspired by his Judaism, which by his humanity, which by his individual experience. He was large, he contained multitudes – he was all of who he was, as long as he was. At the end of the show, after one character has died and another recovered, the last song resounds with Humanism: No afterlife, no cosmic reward and punishment, no book of life, no revelation telling us what to believe or how to live.

There’s only us
There’s only this
Forget regret– or life is yours to miss.
No other road
No other way
No day but today ….

There’s only now
There’s only here
Give in to love
Or live in fear
No other path
No other way
No day but today 

Is that a Jewish message? A Humanist message? A Humanistic Jewish message? As Saturday Night Live once asked, Is it a floor wax or a dessert topping? The answer: “it’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping”. Our tuchus can dance at many weddings, for we contain multitudes, in all of their contradictions and their complementarity. The wisdom of our country’s founding motto still abides: e pluribus unum – from many, into one.

Posted in General HJ, Holidays | 2 Comments

Why Be Jewish? Rosh Hashana 5775

This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2014/5775 as part of a series entitled “Why Bother?”. You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

Ten years ago, in my first Kol Hadash High Holiday sermon, from this very rock, we explored what Judaism means to Humanistic Jews. For us, Judaism is Jewish thought and Jewish culture, Jewish history and Jewish tradition, Jewish freedom and Jewish creativity, and Jewish family and Jewish memory. I began and ended with Yehuda Amichai’s “Poem Without End”.

Osweicim synagogue, restored in 2000

Inside the brand-new museum
There’s an old synagogue
Inside the synagogue
Is me.
Inside me
Is my heart.
Inside my heart
A museum.
Inside the museum
A synagogue,
Inside it
Me,
Inside me
My heart,
Inside my heart,
A museum

A beautiful image: a never-ending spiral of meaning, and each level could be our Judaism – Judaism is the ancient religious tradition and the actual lived history of the synagogue, Judaism is the new creativity of a museum made for future generations, Judaism is the personal experience of the individual, Judaism is the heart of emotional memory. Some of you may remember that sermon, or at least you may remember the story I told about how hard it can be to define “the tradition:” there was a conflict in the synagogue over what the REAL tradition was at a certain point in the service. Half of the congregation would stand, the other half would stay seated, and they would all start yelling at each other. So they decide to consult the oldest man in town to find out what “the tradition” had to say about it. The “standers” made their case, and he responded, “No, that’s not the tradition.” The “sitters” then declared that they were correct, but the old man answered, “No, that’s not the tradition.” They explained to him that at the moment, half of them stand, half of them sit, and everyone yells – “Ah, THAT’S the tradition!” Ten years ago, there was a question behind that sermon that I did not ask, but we must answer:  “Why be Jewish at all?”

A Yiddish saying proclaimss’iz shver tsu zeyn a yid” – it’s hard to be a Jew. Certainly the case when the saying was coined under violent pogroms and persistent persecution. In our generation, we hoped that anti-Semitism was the distant past, but this summer saw everything from protesters in Paris attacking a synagogue to an NFL color commentator joking that his broadcast partner, Josh Lewin, invented copper wire fighting over a penny with a family member. Remember the white supremacist who went to a Jewish Community Center in Kansas City and killed 3 people, none of them Jewish. Before we all run for the hills, recall that this summer it was the French police (along with Jewish self-defense) that protected that synagogue, the exact opposite of pogroms under Tsars or Kristallnacht under Nazis when the police were part of the problem. The bad NFL joker: immediately suspended and he apologized. These incidents are shocking because they are rare, foreign to our experience as American Jews. Here we are largely accepted and comfortable, we are integrated enough to be over-represented in Congress, and we are lovable enough that the rest of America keeps marrying us. The reality of open love in a free society may make it hard to be a Jew in new ways, but celebrating love is far better than facing hate. Unfortunately, real Antisemitism beyond bad jokes persists in too many places. Sometimes, the “why be Jewish” is answered by spiting our enemies: “You want us to disappear? Too bad!”

This summer also showed it can be hard to be a Jew when that identity is more than just culture and heritage, but also a living connection to a Jewish state. Many rabbis and The New York Times report that Israel is the third rail of sermonizing, something they don’t want to touch with a ten foot yad [Torah pointer]. Not because they don’t care about Israel, but because they are criticized no matter what they say. Express sympathy for dead Palestinian children, even at a place as liberal as New York City’s flagship LGBT synagogue, and board members resign in anger. Defend Israel’s military actions like bombing rocket launchers in urban areas, and half of your Facebook friends will disown you, assuming you also support targeting militants at home with their families. Governments protect their citizens at the expense of the other, and that means hard choices all the time – if you hadn’t noticed, the United States has been drone striking overseas targets with civilian casualties for years. For those connected by emotion to a land in which they do not live, those who may agree with some choices that Israel’s leadership takes but not others, ethnic solidarity and natural sympathy for human suffering are in conflict. Perhaps such tensions are inevitable given the realities of geo-politics, perhaps they could be lessened by less construction and more constructive choices. Either way, it is hard to be a Jew because of Jewish suffering, and it is hard to be a Jew when we see Jewish actions, however justifiable, cause suffering. When the family you love makes hard choices, it’s never easy.

Last night, we explored the universalist impulse to leave behind ethnic definitions for a universal humanity, solving the problem of difference by eliminating difference. If being Jewish is so hard, why bother? Why stay, why join, why be connected in any way? If something causes you grief, why not just free yourself and move on?

If you are here today, on Rosh Hashana for a Jewish New Year, then you’ve chosen to bother, for one reason or another. And that’s good – my goal is NOT for you to leave and never come back! As Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute once put it, previous generations were Jewish before they knew it: Jewish by birth – language – neighborhood, Jewish by immigrant and ethnic culture. They wondered how to balance being Jewish and becoming American. Today, the question has shifted: with all of my possible identities, connections, opportunities, why should being Jewish be important to me? Why should being Jewish even be on the list? Sixty years ago, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March opened “I am an American, Chicago born … and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.” Augie March IS Jewish, as it comes out, but that’s not where he starts his song of himself. If we accept that we are something, if we agree it is preferable to be something and not nothing, if we understand that we can be many identities at any moment, then the issue is different. Not why be anything; why be THIS?

What we really have is three questions with the same answer: First, I asked you to consider last night, if you were born Jewish, why have you STAYED Jewish? Second, why might some choose to BECOME Jewish? And if one is connected to Jewishness through marrying someone Jewish or through one’s curiosity, why is Jewishness interesting? These are very different questions to very different audiences – why stay Jewish, why become Jewish, why explore things Jewish. I can give you personal reasons why I’ve STAYED Jewish, but I’ve never BECOME Jewish; I’ve never discovered the Jewish people through marriage! Nevertheless, I suspect that the answers to all three will be mostly the same: as with a lot in life, it all comes down to sales.

My father owned a business for over 30 years, and he was always his company’s best salesman. As I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Judaic Studies, he was looking to sell his business and retire. He asked if I’d be interested in taking over the company. I had already decided to be a Humanistic Rabbi, so I thanked him for the offer and declined; I said something like “I’m not that interested in being in sales.” What do I do as a Humanistic rabbi? Brochures, websites, marketing, messaging, promotional offers, advertising – I’m selling something different: I’m selling our community, to some extent I’m selling myself. The art of sales is really the art of persuasion – this is worth it! You SHOULD bother. What I’m selling is the value TO YOU of being with US. A few years ago, we were trying to come up with attention-getting slogans for the congregation. My early favorite was “Kol Hadash: Cheap and Easy.” Another favorite, because it can be read two ways: “We’re better than nothing.” Not that we are the least bad alternative, but that actually choosing us is BETTER than nothing, MUCH better than being NOTHING!

In the new world of the twentieth century, emancipation enabled a new free market – a free market for ideas and inspiration. When people choose for themselves where they live, what they eat, what they wear, and even what they believe, the old answers, the old selling approach won’t work. Imagine you worked for a Jewish advertising agency, call it “Mad Mensch.” In 1964, what were the top Jewish sellers for why be Jewish?

Number one: Be Jewish because we made a covenant with God at Mount Sinai – when we follow the Torah things go well, when we break the rules we ourselves are broken and scattered until we repent. Why was The Covenant a big seller? A clear bargain, a strong incentive program, the weight of tradition and cosmic authority behind it. Why doesn’t the Covenant pitch work anymore? Real life never worked that way – human suffering does not correspond to religiosity or to righteous behavior. To paraphrase the Yiddish poem “Dead Men Don’t Praise God,” ‘at Sinai we received the Torah, and in the Holocaust we gave it back.’ Not to mention the fact that the only “proof” that the Torah was given at Sinai is in the Torah itself, and archaeology and historical study have undermined the event’s claim to have actually happened – as powerful a story as it may be, no Sinai, no covenant, no deal.

Another old pitch: Be Jewish because we are the Chosen People. Not only are we the favorite children of a cosmic Father, we created ethics, we have the most brilliant scientists, the funniest comedians, the best families and the richest traditions. And, as a result, though you shouldn’t say it too loudly, the rest of the world is somewhat lesser than us. Why a big seller? The Chosen People appeals to our ego, it justifies self-pride, and why would you bother being anything else, or marrying anyone else, when you can be the best? The Chosen People pitch doesn’t work anymore either. At a certain point in your development, I hope you outgrew the belief that everything revolves around you – the “me-ocentric” theory of the world. Does it really make sense that the god of an entire universe of billions of stars would choose one small group of one species on one planet as the most important beings anywhere, the only ones to receive the true story of how everything came to be and what all humanity needs to do, in a language that’s hard to learn and that very few people speak? As history progressed, as freedom rang, we got to know our non-Jewish neighbors, and we learned that they too have wisdom and insight and humor to inform and inspire us. In some cases they came to love us, and we loved them back. Every group is wonderful in its own distinct way, but our group better than everyone else? Just too convenient and self-serving, not to mention rude – morality and reality reject it. Chosen People? No sale! Besides, if you’ve ever heard us argue about a thermostat setting, you’ll realize we’ve gone from the Chosen People to the Choosy People!

Here’s another past winner – be Jewish because Hitler would have killed you. Well, sign me up! For a generation, remembering the Holocaust and staying Jewish to deny Hitler’s victory was a powerful motivation. But we have to realize that World War II ended almost 70 years ago, and the fact that your people were hated and killed in the past does not give you a positive reason to stay connected. No one is motivated to stay Jewish today because of the Chmielnicki pogroms in Ukraine in 1648. I was surprised to learn that one of the Ukrainian navy ships taken over by Russia when it annexed the Crimean peninsula was U-208 Khmelnytskyi – he may have killed thousands of Jews in his revolt, but to them he was a national hero! Again, in 1648. You cannot build a healthy, vibrant, living identity exclusively on fear and trauma and anger. I sometimes define history as “what happened before you were paying attention.” The Mitzvah students I’m tutoring today were born after 9/11. For a child born today, in 2014, 9/11 might as well be Pearl Harbor –they can learn from it, but they cannot live in it or live for it. Yes, sometimes products sell out of fear, but for Jewish identity to be a positive part of our lives, we need reasons TO be Jewish.

The absolute closer, the pitch that worked better than all the rest combined: Your ancestors survived Inquisition, pogroms, persecution, migration, Holocaust and anti-Semitism, and NOW you’re giving up? The award winner, the first best and last resort to keep you Jewish 50 years ago: GUILT. What would your grandmother say if she saw you eating bacon when she starved rather than violate her covenant – not even a covenant with God, but her covenant with the Jewish people. Have you no loyalty? Don’t you love your grandmother? At long last, have you no sense of decency? How could you be the one to break the golden chain of Jewish tradition, 4000 years of pain and tears and joy? You can feel the power, the pull on the heartstrings, the weight of years and expectations, the manipulation. But guilt doesn’t work well in the free market – people in 1964 who refused to buy cars from the Germans or “the Japs” have grandchildren with Toyota Priuses. Guilt has its uses, but being Jewish because you feel guilty means that you’re living your life as someone else wants you to, by someone else’s values and choices. This very morning, rabbis are railing at their congregations about Jews who are not in synagogue. They’re complaining to the people who ARE there about the people who are NOT there! Why? “You should feel guilty if you even think about not showing up for Yom Kippur, because then I’ll be talking about YOU!” The clear truth of Jewish identity today is that it is far easier for people to just tune out the guilt trip and do something that makes them feel good about themselves. If you’re only at High Holiday services, if you’re only Jewish lest you feel guilty that you’ve broken the covenant, if you’re only Jewish lest you feel guilty that you’ve abandoned the chosen people, if you’re only Jewish lest you betray your grandparents and finish the work of the Holocaust, then how does your Jewishness IMPROVE your life, inspire you, motivate you to deepen your connection? If your ties to being Jewish are negative and painful, then you may endure it once or twice a year like a dental appointment (apologies to my dentist in the congregation), but you’ll run away as soon as you can, and you may never come back. Our children learn from what we do far more than from what we say.

We need new ideas. We reject the subservience to the past required by the Covenant. We reject invidious comparisons with other identities inherent in the Chosen People. We refuse to sell through fear or guilt. So what do we have? As we explored last night, there is the value of roots and rootedness, the ability to appreciate diversity because of one’s distinctiveness, the strength of positive family connections, the dignity of inheriting the past while owning your own life. These are not unique to Jewish identity; they are valuable in ANY distinct identity, as long as they do not overgrow their bounds from pride to chauvinism. I have no need for Father’s Day Cards that say “World’s #1 Dad.” My response is always, “Where did you get your statistics? How do you know I’m not #3, or #17?” But a card saying “you’re a great dad and I love you” is distinctive when it’s from my children; our relationship is special without being “the best.” Being Jewish can be special without being Chosen.

Why be Jewish, why stay Jewish, why become Jewish, why connect with things Jewish? The new marketing is called micro-targeting – what are you already interested in, and I’ll find you something similar. People who bought this book also bought these other ones. In other words, your Jewish connection will be your own, as often or rarely as you use it, and however you use it. Let me share with you three reasons that are compelling to me, and they may be to you as well.

First: Jewish is as Jewish does. Judaism is a rich and varied and long tradition – everything from rational philosophy to animal sacrifice to mystical exploration, hereditary kings and priests giving way to rabbis and religious law, multiple languages sharing the same alphabet, artwork celebrated in one corner of the Jewish world while condemned in another. At times we are inspired by our legacy; at times we are alienated. There is something for everyone, every learning style, every intelligence, every aptitude and interest. This is the beauty of celebrating Judaism as a culture: no matter what you believe, there’s always something for you. We can even find a defense of our own challenges to tradition from within our tradition – the Jewish tradition of integrity, those Jews during Inquisition and Pogrom who would not say words they did not believe.

Even Jewish martyrdom has its inspirations. In the YL Peretz story, “Three Gifts”, a soul ascends to heaven, but its deeds are found to be exactly in balance. It returns to find three gifts to tip the scale. The soul witnesses a man killed protecting a small bag of earth around his neck, but it was from the land of Israel to be buried with him; the soul picks up the bag. Then it sees a Jewish woman about to be dragged to hear death in a pogrom jab pins into her legs to make sure her dress will stay closed and her modesty preserved; the soul takes a bloody pin. Finally the soul witnesses a Jewish man being beaten by a gauntlet of clubs; when his yarmulke is struck off, he faces the choice of going back to get it and face more pain or to go on with his head uncovered. The man returns and is beaten to death, and the soul takes the bloody yarmulke. When these three gifts are presented to the heavenly tribunal, they exclaim, “These three gifts are absolutely beautiful. Totally worthless, but absolutely beautiful.” On one level, this martyrdom is a waste – they died for something that wasn’t true. At the same time, it shows courage and conviction and the strength of identity. “Totally worthless, but absolutely beautiful.” Jewish is as Jewish does.

Second: Be a Jew, be a mensch. The Yiddish word “mensch” means simply a person, but the best kind of person. I am NOT saying that every Jew is automatically a mensch (I know too many of them), nor that deep study of Judaism will automatically make you a mensch – rabbis are arrested for crimes, too. I do not believe that Jews invented nor have a monopoly on ethics – we’ll talk more about Ethics on Yom Kippur morning when we explore “why be good.” Nevertheless, there ARE values articulated in Jewish culture that we celebrate –an emphasis on literacy and learning that we have broadened to include both men and women and secularized beyond the Talmud; an ethic of community responsibility and mutual support combined with a work ethic of individual success. Jews have often celebrated brains over brawn, a welcome respite from today’s athlete worship and sometimes violent militarism. We have found humor an antidote to the dashed promises of faith – when life doesn’t turn out as you expect, you can laugh or cry, we have done both. We have our failings, but that makes us human. A seasonal example: High Holidays not only about divine forgiveness, but also human forgiveness – not just asking for forgiveness from someone else, but being willing to offer forgiveness when sincere apology is made. This means making yourself available to someone who has wronged you to give them the opportunity to make it right. Is that easy? Not at all. But how wonderful that our tradition explored how hard it can be to repair relationships through human atonement. Buddhist tradition has its lessons, so too does Judaism. Be a Jew, be a mensch.

Third: The Jewish citizen of the world. In the last few centuries, Jews have become a prototype of a globalized identity: living within and fluent in other cultures, but still distinct and separate in some ways. A world people with different daily languages but a common identity beyond that of their city or country. Sometimes that gave us an outsider’s perspective, letting us challenge conventions like Freud’s theories on sex or Einstein’s relativity. At all times it gave us the ability to think beyond our personal identity, since we always had more than one. Because of this dual identity, Jews have been accused of being “rootless cosmopolitans,” citizens of the world, with no allegiance to the people among whom they lived. The more that people circulate in a global economy, the world will need ROOTED cosmopolitans, people who have a global perspective and awareness but still know who they are and where they come from. If you are Jewish, if you’ve become Jewish, that rootedness can find deep origins in the Jewish experience, and so too can that universal perspective. A Jewish citizen of the world.

In the end, I suspect that I am still Jewish because I am stubborn, and that is definitely a Jewish tradition. We have called ourselves a stiff-necked people – we can be a pain in the neck, or as Henny Youngman might have said, some people have a lower opinion of us. More than the Jews have kept being stubborn, being stubborn has kept the Jews around. You do NOT get to tell me that I do not get to be Jewish. I am still here and I am still Jewish because I am going to fight for the right to be who I am, on my own terms. If you won’t accept me, if you don’t think that I am Jewish or you don’t think what I do is Judaism, that’s your problem, not mine. If I lived my life by your standards, it would not be my life. And I refuse to surrender being Jewish to you. Even the Jewish values I reject – chauvinism, anti-feminism, insularity – they are skeletons in MY closet, knots on MY family tree. It’s good to be passionate about things in life – why not this?

Who’s sold? Am I only selling to myself? I have to start there. Remember Sy Sperling of the Hair Club for Men – he used to say “I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.” I’m not only the rabbi of Kol Hadash, I’m also a member and a Sunday School parent and a friend. I’m not only a professional Jew who’s paid to be Jewish; I am a Jew, and that identity provides meaning and inspiration to my life. If the best sales pitch I can offer is a personal testimonial, then here it is:

My first trip to Israel, in the mid-1990s, I went to visit the Western Wall, the last surviving wall of the Jerusalem Temple that was destroyed in 70 CE. On my way there, I knew  there were some barriers to a positive experience. I knew that this is on a mountain that is claimed to be holy by both Jewish and Mulsims, and the Dome of the Rock right over the Western Wall is a source of conflict even to this day. I knew that the site was gender segregated, even moreso today than it was 20 years ago, men and women forced to be apart. I knew that the big beautiful plaza in front of the Wall didn’t used to be there – there used to be houses that were knocked down in 1967 to create that plaza. I also knew that I had forgotten my baseball cap in my dorm room and had to wear a silly paper yarmulke that kept blowing off my head – the price of admission to the Wall. And I knew that I did not bring a piece of paper on which to write a hope for the future to place in the Wall.

I knew all that. But when I got to the front, and I touched the stones, and I felt how smooth they were. I realized those stones were smooth because generations of my people had come to this space and touched these stones with their fingers. It was electric. I didn’t need the supernatural, I didn’t need a revelation. It was a connection with my past, in my present.

That moment deepened my life, and continues to – I can still feel those stones. And if you can feel it too, you know why we wish each other L’shana tova, a good and meaningful new year.

Posted in General HJ, Holidays | 3 Comments