These Hands – Yom Kippur Morning 5777

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2016/5777 as part of a series entitled “This We Believe.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

What can these hands do?

There is so much wrong with the world. Violent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, even the south side of Chicago. The threat of terrorism stalks Europe and America. Natural disasters are beyond our control, civil discourse is vanishing, and hatred seems to be on the rise. We do not trust our politicians, we do not trust government officials, we do not trust each other. Forty years ago, the movie Network depicts a news anchor losing his mind and ranting about the world in a way that sounds eerily relevant:

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. …. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.

We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be!

We all know things are bad — worse than bad — they’re crazy.

It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.”

Well, I’m not going to leave you alone.

I want you to get mad!

I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.

All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.

You’ve gotta say, “I’m a human being…! My life has value!”

The climax of the speech, repeated over and over? Those who remember know it well – “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

So what DO we do? If all we are is mad and yelling, what good does that do? If we open our windows and yell, or even sit calmly in a home or a synagogue and patiently pray, it might make us feel better, but do we have confidence that only expressing our desires will make a difference in the real world? Or do we have to take the next step, to move from wanting something to making it real? At a minimum, we should understand that the world is not unrelentingly disastrous – I enjoy a regular feature in the magazine The Week called “It Wasn’t All Bad” that includes the kind of stories that warm your heart and restore some confidence in our fellow human beings.

There are many ways to explain what is different, unique, special about a Humanistic Jewish congregation. This High Holidays we have been exploring one version: “This world, this life, these hands…and you.We ARE believers – we believe in making the reality of this world match our best visions of what it could be; we believe in the inherent equality, dignity and value of every human being; we believe that this life matters. If we want to make the best of this life, if we want to make this world better, then we have to start with the most elemental interface we have with the world – these hands.

At its very foundation, a positive humanism believes in human beings – not only their rights and responsibilities, but also their power and their potential. Too much of religion focuses on the negatives- what we cannot know, what we cannot do, what we cannot control, how we have failed, our limitations. To be sure, a realistic humanism accepts that we are not perfect, nor will we ever be perfect. We are not all knowing, all capable, or always good. Some imagine that Humanism means worshipping humanity in place of a god, when the reality is that Humanism means replacing the act of worship itself. One of our movement’s leaders was once asked, “well, if Humanistic Jews don’t pray, what do you do?” She answered, “We DO.” Since 1952, every American president, Republicans and Democrats, have declared a National Day of Prayer. In 2003, the American Humanist Association created a counter-program – a “National Day of Reason.” But the Humanist parallel for prayer is not thought – it is action! If we want the world to be better, we don’t just hope and pray it gets better – we roll up our sleeves and get to work. There is nothing WRONG with prayer, unless it encourages passivity; prayer and action are more effective than prayer alone. That was the genius of the Zionist revolution a century ago – praying to return to the land had not worked for 2000 years, so beit Yaakov lekhu unelkha – house of Jacob, let’s get up and go!  And they went. We DO.

In order to “do”, we need confidence that WHAT we do will actually make a difference. We have to motivate ourselves and celebrate what we CAN know, what we CAN do, what we CAN control, how we have succeeded, how we have transcended our limitations. As we hear in “Inherit the Wind”:

The elephant is larger; the horse is swifter and stronger; the butterfly is far more beautiful; the mosquito is more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable.

What makes human beings different? Our minds, and our skills – these hands. The power of the opposable thumb to grab, to hold, to carry, to manipulate. The dexterity of fingers to braid and to sew, to carve and to create – to invent a musical instrument and then to play it. The warmth of touch to caress, to comfort, to guide a child or to hold another’s hand. There are many ways our individuality is marked: our retina patterns, our DNA, and, of course, our fingerprints. Why those ridges? To help us hold on to what we need, to provide the friction that makes life more of a {snap}.

One of our evolutionary ancestors from 2 million years ago looked very little like us – it was on the line between australopithecus and homo, with longer arms, smaller heads, and shorter, more ape-like bodies than we homo sapiens. What made homo habilis, literally the “handy man,” different, and like us, was its ability to make tools – the making4knowledge to make and use sharp stone flakes and hand axes to butcher animals and to skin them. In other words, homo habilis found ways to meet the basic human needs of food, clothing, and shelter with its own hands.


From that rough beginning of using our hands to magnify their usefulness through the tools we made, we have transformed our lives, and the planet, in ways that no other species has ever done. Sometimes for good, and sometimes in ways that have made new problems. Just recently, I bought airplane tickets on a website, received a confirmation email, and appointment for the flight appeared in my online calendar automatically, without any notice! I’ve started getting cellphone alerts telling me when I have to leave to get to my next appointment. On one hand, this seems very convenient. On the other hand, it’s a bit unnerving. How many of you have let your car parallel park for you? Our future could end up like Star Trek, where our inventions serve us, or like The Matrix, where we serve the machines. To those under 30, these concerns might sound like an old crank whining about those newfangled auto-mobiles that go too fast. When the NSA metadata collection and surveillance program was revealed, a joke began trending on Twitter – #NSACalledToTellMe.

#NSAcalledtotellme go back a page, I wasn’t done reading yet.
#NSAcalledtotellme I should check my voicemail, one of the messages sounds important.
#NSAcalledtotellme the shoes I ordered from clash with the dress I purchased from Macy’
#NSAcalledtotellme what happens in Vegas stays in our Utah data center.

All very amusing, until it affects you. These hands have made amazing things, but sometimes what they can do should encourage caution. These same wonderful hands that make tools can also make weapons – an open palm can easily become a closed fist.

The risks understood, we can still appreciate all the secular miracles that human hands have realized. An old slogan of the Technion University in Haifa was “miracles happen; they take a lot of work.” Over the course of the last 12 years I’ve been with Kol Hadash, I have spent much more time in hospitals than I wanted to, both professionally and personally. As the years have gone on, more and more of the names on our Yom Kippur Memorial list are funerals I have done, people I have known. Yet every visit, I am amazed again at all that we are able to do to lengthen and improve life, all that has been invented by these minds and these hands. The ability to see a baby inside its mother before it is born, and to test for and even treat problems while in utero. The myriad ways to measure how we are doing and find what is wrong, from blood flow and brain activity to the chemistry of our blood and the reflex of our nerves.

We can do so much that it can be difficult to accept those times when we have to fold our hands and accept what we cannot control, what we cannot measure or treat. Even then, when we cannot discover and heal to change medical reality, there are still things that our hands can do. When we stroke the hand of a loved one in hospice care, we are not improving their physical condition, but we are still doing – they know we are there, and they know that we care. And we can use our hands, our energy and effort, in place of theirs – through one of our members’ long hospice experience, I worked with her to do what we could: we wrote personal letters to her closest family, we investigated how to deal with the eventual estate sale, we did whatever we could to lighten the burden on her sons when the time came that her hands could do no more. One of the core messages of Yom Kippur, be it the last chance to get into the Book of Life or the story of Jonah, is that it is not too late to make a difference.

When we say we believe in these hands, we do not only mean our physical hands. Our hands represent our abilities, our knowledge, our skills, our connections to each other. They represent our impact on the world, our ability to control our own lives. These hands are also a reminder of the personal skills that we need. We need to develop our abilities – who knew before cellphones that our thumbs could be so useful to communicate? We need to remain flexible, adaptable, able to respond to new problems. We need to be creative – not just adding a handle to a stone axe to make it better, or making a needle from an animal bone to sew clothing. We need to be creative by taking what we find in 51g20ojbyrlsociety, in Jewish culture, in what we have inherited and then making something new out of it. In the Yiddish folksong “I had a little overcoat,” fabric is made into a coat, then as that gets worn it becomes a jacket, then a vest, then a tie, then a button. And when it is lost, it becomes a story, proving that you CAN make something from nothing, in the title of one book based on the song. There are times we need to be strong with brute strength, and there are times we need to be delicate and gentle, careful and deliberative. We wave hello or shake hands to demonstrate equality, or to show the absence of a hidden weapon, or simply to make a personal connection. Or maybe, according to a recent study by the Weizman Institute of Science in Israel, we shake hands to smell each other – the study found that when people shake hands with someone of the same sex, they were twice as likely to put that hand to their face and subconsciously sniff it. If they shook hands with someone of the opposite sex, they were twice as likely to put their LEFT, non-shaking hand to their face. Certainly more polite than how dogs greet each other. Shaking hands also shows that we still have plenty to learn about ourselves and why we do what we do.

025751a6a2d73c02b32faa377e935cebOur hands are a way we define our groups, in and out. Not every culture greets with a handshake, and some cultures, including some Jews, refuse to shake hands across gender lines. There are secret handshakes, special signs [baseball sign], non-verbal communication even for those unversed in sign language. For those in the Jewish know, a special hand motion is made for the priestly blessing during synagogue services – the symbol is sometimes put on tombstones for Cohens. But if you ask most people out there what the gesture {left} means, they’ll say “live long and prosper” from Star Trek – Leonard Nimoy borrowed the gesture from his synagogue memories. And sometimes even an insult can become endindex-finger-250x250earing – two years ago, I led a memorial service for another of our members who was a real pistol, under 5 feet tall but tough and took no nonsense. Her children told me, and I shared at the memorial service that “if you gave her too much sass or a hassle, she wasn’t afraid of letting you know who was number 1, though not always using this finger.”

“These hands” are not only what we can do, what we have done, how we communicate. Saying that we believe in “these hands” means that we believe we can care for ourselves, and each other. You can find it on a bumper sticker, but it’s still true. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” One hand needs another to hold, to clap, to play, to build, to connect. This afternoon, we will conclude our exploration of “this I believe” by deepening that connection to each other – “this world, this life, these hands…and you.”

I will conclude with story I told at Kol Hadash 11 years ago, but it is just as appropriate here and now. A student decided to stump his rabbi with a riddle, so he put a small bird in his hand and asked the rabbi “is the bird in my hand alive or dead?” The rabbi knew that if he said that the bird was dead, the student would open his hand, the bird would fly away, and the rabbi would be a fool. But the rabbi also knew that if he said that the bird was alive, the student would quickly squeeze his fist and kill the bird, again making him the fool. The rabbi smiled at his student, and said quite simply, “is the bird alive or dead? The answer is in your hands.


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This Life – Yom Kippur evening 5777

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2016/5777 as part of a series entitled “This We Believe.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

Which life matters?

The promise of an afterlife is a powerful thing. People can do just about anything for a chance at eternity. No sex? Done. No material comfort? Done. Disengage from the world into a self-imposed ghetto of language and religious practice? Done. Avoid certain foods? Done. Persecute heretics? Done. Kill unbelievers? Done. Submit to centuries of persecution, suffering, and martyrdom? Done, done and done. Think of the appalling cruelty of the caste system – convincing those at the bottom of the social ladder they deserve to be there because of sins in a past life, and the only way to improve their prospects in the next life is to humbly accept their lot and to not rock the boat. If it can save your place in the world to come, earn you a spot in heaven, guarantee cosmic reward and permanent bliss, people will do strange and terrible things to themselves and each other. They can ruin this life in pursuit of the next.

Now some who believe in an afterlife ARE deeply engaged in this one, and for good works here and now. Christopher Hitchens’ line “religion poisons everything” demonstrates a very thin knowledge of the range of religious lives – we need a sophisticated approach to religion that accounts for Inquisition and Jihad, AND for Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the large majority of religious believers who love their neighbors and do not persecute them. We saw on Rosh Hashana that rabbinic emphasis on a world to come did not preclude attention to this one. Even if the daily Amidah prayer thanks god (in advance) for someday resurrecting the dead, that same rabbinic literature also proclaimed, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world.” [Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9] These are lives destroyed and saved in this world, not in the next.

Based on what we can show about the world and ourselves, this is very likely the only life that we get. The end of oxygen and blood flow means the end of the electrical signals in our brains, and as far as we know that internal stillness means the end of our consciousness. Maybe we will be pleasantly surprised, or unpleasantly surprised, and maybe we don’t know what we think we know, but I prefer to be ready for what is most likely. Besides, I have never gotten a definitive answer as to how old you are in an afterlife; if I have to go through middle school again, forget it.  Even if there may be a sequel, we believe in the importance of life BEFORE death. We believe that This life matters.

At the same time, we need to understand why is it so tempting to seek other lives beyond this one, be they reincarnation, resurrection, or a new ethereal plane. If Humanistic Judaism is to meet human needs in secular ways, we must discover what those needs are.  Obviously, human beings are afraid to die – we have never experienced a world without us in it, and on some level we never lose the feeling we had as babies that if we close our eyes the world disappears. We are afraid to lose the people we love, we are afraid that goodbye at a funeral is really goodbye and not “see you soon.” We need to make sense of suffering and tragedy. Our brains are hardwired to want justice – that helps our cooperation with each other, but it also means we have trouble accepting the death of a child or undeserved suffering or tragic death without trying to make sense out of it. There are so many WRONG things people say after someone dies tragically: if a child dies, there was an “angel shortage” for child death. Or “you’ll see them again” – but not for the rest of my life, and I need to figure out how I’m going to get through that! To make sense of it all, we might even blame the person who died of something far less than a capital offense if only to make them a little guilty and thus somehow deserving of their tragedy.  And then there are the consequences of facing this life without the promise of another one.

Actress Julia Sweeney was raised Catholic, and her monologue “Letting Go of God” describes a gradual drift away from that religious perspective until one day something just clicked. One striking passage speaks very eloquently to the challenge of believing in this life alone:

One day I was sipping my coffee, walking along a busy shopping area near my house. And I was lost in thought, thinking, so I don’t think anything happens to us after we die. Our brain just stops like every other organ. So people just die.

And then I thought, wait a minute. So Hitler, Hitler just died? No one sat him down and said, you screwed up, buddy, and now you’re going to spend an eternity in hell. Huh. So Hitler just died.

And my brother Mike, who suffered unspeakably from cancer. He just died. I always had this idea that Mike’s death, while premature, was his divine destiny somehow. And that his spirit didn’t really die, but it lived on. Not just in the memory of those that knew him, but in this real, tangible sense. And I realized that I now thought he died. He really died, and he was gone forever.

And then I realized I had to go back and basically kill off everyone I ever knew who died who I didn’t think really died. And then I thought, oh, so I’m going to die.

Then I started thinking about all the happenstances, all the random little moves which resulted in me being alive, me, in particular, at this moment. Not just of my parents meeting, but even of the billions of sperm against the hundreds of possible eggs. I thought about this randomness multiplying. My parents, their parents, and all the ways it could have gone one way, but it went the way it went. Richard Dawkins wrote, “Certainly those unborn ghosts include poets greater than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. But in the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I in our ordinariness that are here.”

We ARE here. We are alive today, living and breathing reality. We believe in this life, and part of believing this life is accepting the reality of death. But there is so much to do in the meantime! So what does believing in “this life” mean for how we live it?

If we believe that this is the only life, we might be less willing to risk it. There are and there have always been atheists in foxholes (and on motorcycles), today there is even a Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and there are certainly causes we might be willing to fight for and to die for. But if death is the end, the real end, then risking our lives means rising our individual conscious existence. And taking another’s life obliterates their entire individuality, all their potential tomorrows and remembered yesterdays wiped out in an instant. “Whoever destroys a soul, it is as if he destroyed an entire world.” It can be scary to contemplate that our end might well be THE end, and the same for everyone else. Now each of us can take this belief and run with it in different directions. One may use a belief in the uniqueness of this life in favor of or in opposition to the death penalty (aside from legitimate concerns about fair application). Is not murder that much more calamitous because of its permanent and irreparable consequences for the victim? Or is legal execution that much more terrible because of its permanence? And, as Sweeney said, even Hitler just died – there is no guarantee that the universe will provide any more justice than we are able to.

If we believe in this life, we need to make the most of it, and we should help others make the most of theirs. We deeply value our limited experiences, we value our time with the people we love, we cherish our opportunities that much more dearly – to quote the Book of Hamilton, we are not throwin’ away our…shot. Carpe diem – seize the day, or at least seize the fish if you want any lox at the Rosh Hashana oneg. Human self-fulfillment, self-actualization, independence, dignity, self-awareness – all the more crucial in the century or less we have allotted to us. Saving lives and reducing deaths is vitally important – “whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world.” And improving lives, deepening the quality and not just the quantity of life, becomes even more important as we focus our energies on this life. People will disagree over when life begins or what is ethical to do or not do as we near the end. Whether we believe that every person is in the divine image or simply in our own image, each person deserves dignity and respect and freedom and life in THIS life.

What if lives are in conflict, or it seems that all lives are not treated equally? Rather than ask which life matters, I am now asking “which LIVES matter”? In a direct conflict, self-preservation is entirely reasonable and appropriate. In rabbinic law, and thus in historic Jewish culture, if someone is trying to kill you or to kill someone else, you are justified in killing the rodef, the pursuer. What if you are in a city under siege, and the attacking army demands a specific person to spare the city? What do you do? The rabbinic answer is that if they demand someone specific, you are allowed to surrender that person to save everyone else; if they simply demand any Jew, then you should refuse rather than play god. What if someone threatens your life unless you kill a third person? There the rabbis said that you should submit to death rather than kill an innocent; in a marvelous turn of phrase, they ask, “whose blood is redder?” How can you decide that your life is worth more than the other person’s?

One of the most famous of the Ten Commandments is “thou shalt not kill.” However, the King James Bible was a translation of Hebrew to Latin to English, so something was lost in translation. The Bible is not shy about killing people. We saw on Rosh Hashana how Korah and his followers are wiped out to crush their rebellion against Moses and Aaron. The Hebrews are commanded to destroy entire Canaanite cities, and there are many sins punishable by death, from cross-dressing to adultery. A stubborn and rebellious child is to be stoned to death – well, that one might come in handy. What the commandment “thou shalt not kill” REALLY says is lo tirtzakh, do not MURDER. Jewish laws accepted justified killing, from war to judicial execution. What was forbidden was illegal killing. There was even a provision for accidental manslaughter (Deuteronomy 19:5):

A man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the ax head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of the sanctuary cities and save his life.

As with any laws this old, there are blind spots – Exodus 21, right after the 10 commandments, says that if a man beats his slave and the slave dies, the owner will be punished, but unlike, say, gathering sticks on Shabbat, it does not say that the owner will be killed. An eye for an eye and a life for a life, but not if the person killed was not a full person – evidently, their life mattered, but it mattered less. The awesome, permanent, irreparable action of ending a life was not applied evenly in the ancient world.

What if our connections to family, ethnicity, nation are elevated at the expense of others? Hurricane Matthew killed two dozen people in the United States – it killed 1000 in Haiti. We have our concentric circles of loyalty – family, community, ethnicity and culture, political nation, and ultimately  humanity. There are inevitably times when the circles closer to us take precedence over those further away – no one condemns feeding your own children. But where is the line? In Philip Roth’s short story “The Conversion of the Jews”, a Hebrew school student keeps getting in trouble.

What Ozzie wanted to know was always different. The first time he had wanted to know how Rabbi Binder could call the Jews “The Chosen People” if the Declaration of Independence claimed all men to be created equal. Rabbi Binder tried to distinguish for him between political equality and spiritual legitimacy, but what Ozzie wanted to know, he insisted vehemently, was different. That was the first time his mother had to come.

Then there was the plane crash. Fifty-eight people had been killed in a plane crash at La Guardia, and in studying a casualty list in the newspaper his mother had discovered among the list of those dead eight Jewish names (his grandmother had nine but she counted Miller as a Jewish name); because of the eight she said the plane crash was “a tragedy.” During free-discussion time on Wednesday Ozzie had brought to Rabbi Binder’s attention this matter of “some of his relations” always picking out the Jewish names. Rabbi Binder had begun to explain cultural unity and some other things when Ozzie stood up at his seat and said that what he wanted to know was different. Rabbi Binder insisted that he sit down and it was then that Ozzie shouted that he wished all fifty-eight were Jews. That was the second time his mother came.

Why does Ozzie wish all 58 dead were Jews? Because he wanted more Jews to die? No. He wanted their deaths to be mourned the same! “Whose blood is redder?”

We are not only universalists. We also have group loyalties and attachments – to our families, to the Jewish people, to our country. It is not evil to note the names like ours on a casualty list, or to want the best for our nation. It is not wrong to draw attention to anti-Semitic harassment and hatred of our people for who they are, be it from right-wing nationalists or from left-wing internationalists. We have no trouble saying “Jewish lives matter,” drawing attention to Jewish genetic diseases, supporting Jewish communities and causes, mourning the loss of our relatives near and far, defending our people against irrational prejudice on the rise. It is harder to hear, harder to really hear and understand, the painful experiences of others. And it might be easier to risk the lives of others than it is to change a situation that worked out OK for us and ours. If we believe that “this life matters,” and we can say “Jewish lives matter,” then we should be able to say “Black Lives Matter.” In truth, EACH life matters, in all of their diverse experiences and challenges.

Like everything else, we will not agree on everything. In addition to its problematic passage accusing Israel of genocide, I am not an anti-capitalist, as the Movement for Black Lives platform would have me be. But this summer I saw articles on conservative websites like RedState, the Daily Caller, and the National Review ALL looking for common ground. The concrete recommendations of Campaign Zero, like independent investigations, better de-escalation training, addressing police union contracts, and body cameras are not left or right, black or white, north side or south side issues. A recent study on new body cameras in England found that complaints against police were reduced by up to 90% – both the police and the public behaved better knowing they were on camera and might be accountable. Shades of our Torah reading (Numbers 14) where fear of shame improved even divine behavior. Just as feminism improved the world for men too, so can addressing the concerns of other groups lift all boats. If the consequence could be the end of a life, destroying an entire world, then we have to do better.

Yom Kippur is a time of forgiveness; ending a life is often described as an unforgivable crime – you are allowed and even encouraged to forgive a wrong done to you, but you cannot forgive a wrong done to someone else on their behalf. This makes atonement and forgiveness that much harder – I have to confront the very person I wronged and do my best to make it right with them, in person, to their face. And they have to see me again, and push themselves to accept my apology, and find a way to move forward. If you have killed someone, ended this life for them, they cannot forgive you, and you cannot present yourself to them for forgiveness. You can reach out to their family, to their community, but there is nothing you can do to bring them back. They are gone. If we believe that this life matters, how much more important, then, to reconcile the differences we can and then be able to move forward with the rest of the time we have left.

We are not the first to grapple with the challenges of believing in this life alone. The Greek philosopher Epicurus believed that when we die, the atoms disperse and we are no more. He famously wrote that because the end of life is really the end,

death is nothing to us, which makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life a limitless time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for those who thoroughly understand that there are no terrors in ceasing to live. ..when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not.

An easier version comes from a modern source, the movie The Shawshank Redemption. “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

Believing in this life is not a death sentence, or even a life sentenceit is an invitation to live your life, and to make it possible for others to live their lives. And we all should live as deeply and as meaningfully as possible. Which life matters? This one. Whose lives matter? Yours and mine, theirs and ours, each of us an entire world to destroy or to save. L’chayim, to life!


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This World – Rosh Hashana morning 5777

This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2016/5777 as part of a series entitled “This We Believe.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

            A vision of a world better than our own written in 1939, just before the Second World War. A Jewish poet imagined a world to which we can only aspire, yet also a world most of us have seen at least once.

Somewhere over the rainbow,
Way up high
There’s a land that I dreamed of
Once in a lullaby.

hqdefaultSomewhere over the rainbow,
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.

Some day I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me.

Somewhere over the rainbow,
Blue birds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why, then, oh, why can’t I?

Today, we do not aspire to the land of Oz. We understand the difference between imagination and reality. We know that living in the real world means keeping dreams and waking life in their proper places. Still, if our vision were only cold reality as we know it, we would lose something essential. Another Jewish poet, Shel Silverstein, exemplified the other extreme in his wicked satire of a children’s book, Uncle Shelby’s ABZ’s:



Which world do you like better?

What does it mean to believe in THIS WORLD, and to also believe in something more? This Jewish New Year season, we are exploring a simple way to say “this we believe:” this world, this life, these hands – and you. Last night we asked why believing is better than non-believing, and why and how we seek common ground as a community of individuals. If you hear what I say, and you respond “I agree,” then WE believe something together. Today we turn to “this world,” the setting for all that we know to exist. When we celebrate Rosh Hashana or write the Jewish year 5,777, they do not represent divine creation of the world; they are creations of the Jewish people, made special not by their cosmic importance but because of connections to us. Our Rosh Hashana is our opportunity to understand what the universe truly is, and then to create the world we want. “Someday I’ll wish up on a star” is the opposite of our Humanism, our emphasis on this word and our place in it. The traditional Jewish song says “hu oseh shalom bimromav” – he makes peace in his heights, way up high, over the rainbow. We sing “na’ase shalom ba-olam” WE will make peace in this world – here and now.

Rabbinic Judaism promised a world to come. The Hebrew Bible itself does not mention personal resurrection aside from a few lines in the Book of Daniel, but there ARE references to national resurrection, prophecies of an idyllic future only possible through divine power. From Micah chapter 4:

In the last days it will happen that the mountain of the house of the Lord will be built, and many nations will come and say, let us go up to the house of the God of Jacob and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths, for the law will go out of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge among many peoples and rebuke strong nations from afar, and they will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war any more. But they will sit every person under his fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.

We still sing the vision about no longer lifting up swords, but we have never known a world entirely without war, and we probably never will.

The Rabbis went even further. They may have been trying to make sense of the trauma and disasters of their time – Micah prophesied an exalted Chosen People from whom nations of the world will learn Torah, but those promises rang hollow amid the ashes of a destroyed Jerusalem. Unless…..unless you change the date on that check… If you promise payment in the next world instead of this one, then you can guarantee an afterlife that will make right what appears to be wrong. Elisha ben  Avuya, the 2nd century rabbinic heretic, is said to have been made a heretic by seeing a man break an explicit commandment and get away, while another followed the commandment exactly and died. Elisha exclaimed, “where is the second man’s long life as promised in the Torah?” The narrator of the account then comments, “if only Elisha has known of Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation, that the long life was in the world to come.” At its most extreme, an ideal afterlife makes this world unimportant:

Rabbi Yaakov would say: This world is like the antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you may enter the banquet hall. He would also say: A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come. And a single moment of bliss in the World to Come is greater than all of the present world.

If a moment of bliss in the world to come is greater than all of this world, if this world is just an audition for the next, then our beliefs about ethics, justice, and society would be radically different. We might not care about environmental damage, social inequality, and human suffering. We might be so focused on the future world that we would neglect this world. Rabbi Yaakov also said that “a single moment of repentance and good deeds in THIS world is greater than all of the World to Come,” so there was some balance between this world and the next. We should remember that idealism is not a problem unique to religion – the zeal of political revolution can also destroy this world in pursuit of utopia.

Humanists of any variety do not assume they have divinely revealed ultimate truths. OUR knowledge comes from the shared human project of learning – knowing what we can know based on evidence and reason, and having the dignity to say, “I do not know” when it is true. We do not wait for miraculous intervention or messianic deliverance, and we do not expect perfection from a flawed world and flawed human beings.

And yet…, there is something about a vision of a future world that DOES impacts how WE approach this world. To quote the prophet Amos who was quoted by MLK Jr, we WANT a world where “justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” – that was the dream that KING dared to dream. For us, just as knowledge of this world is partial and collaborative and gradually gained through human effort, so too are justice and righteousness in this world the results of human desire and action. Jewish wisdom has many branches – some are still wisdom in our eyes, and some are mishegas, silliness. There are many Jewish teachings about the importance of this world – the world in which we are all born, we live, and we die. If you hear the messiah has come while you are planting a tree, you should finish planting the tree and then go and see about the possible messiah. If not now, when? Whoever saves a life, it is as if he or she has saved the entire universe. Even if religious traditions have imagined other worlds, they have also grappled with the realities of this one.

One hundred and twenty years ago, a Jewish movement explicitly broke with Jewish tradition. They would no longer wait for a messiah, for divine redemption, for ingathering exiles on the wings of angels. Their vision of a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland was derided as a utopia, but Theodor Herzl famously responded, “Im tirtzu, ayn zo agadah – if you will it, it is no dream.” Fifty years later, the State of Israel was declared in Tel Aviv, expressing its own vision of how its world should be:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

In some ways, this vision is even more progressive than the United States: sex as a protected legal category, explicitly bound to the UN Charter, guaranteeing freedom of religion, conscience and culture. Israel had its first woman Prime Minister in 1969, and Israel allowed gay men and women to serve in their armed forces in 1993. We do not live there, but our family and cultural connections to the 6.3 million Jewish people who do live there put Israel in the orbit of our concern.

There is always a distance between vision and reality. In Israel there is a ways to go to reach “development of the country for the benefit of ALL its inhabitants,” including the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Arabs. A few years ago, an Arab Israeli Supreme Court Justice was criticized for standing quietly but not singing the Israeli national anthem Hatikvah, which speaks of a Jewish heart longing for Zion for 2000 years – silent protests during national anthems can be controversial anywhere. Freedom of religion is undermined by imposing Orthodox religious law on the 2/3 of the Jewish population who are either secular or loosely “traditional”. At times, a healthy desire to justify Israel’s right to exist and defend it has turned anti-democratic – this past summer the Government Minister of Culture threatened to pass a “cultural loyalty” law that would, in her own words, “make support for a cultural institution dependent on its loyalty to the State of Israel.” As for the intractable and unsustainable situation in the West Bank, that is still more complicated.

Let me be very clear: I love the State of Israel. I love that Israel exists, I love that its existence demonstrates the power of human action by secular Jews, I love the Hebrew language, I love Israel’s blending of Jewish cultures, I love the vibrant secular Jewish culture created by Israelis that enriches Humanistic Jewish experience here in America – Loo Y’Hee and Laugh at All My Dreams/Sakhakee, and many more. And I love singing Hatikvah, articulating a Jewish vision to have a nation for our people like other peoples. A Jewish and democratic state does not have to be a problemthere are other ethnic democracies: Armenia, Ireland, Finland, Germany, Japan all have an ethnic “right of return” and they privilege one set of holidays. There is no perfect solution. French Canadians are 20% of Canada’s population, they sing their national anthem in both English and French, Canada’s national flag has a neutral symbol, and STILL 20 years ago Québec almost seceded. We can always do better. Separating synagogue and state, addressing separate but unequal conditions, addressing the democracy deficit on the West Bank where over 2 million Palestinians have no say on laws that govern their lives – these would narrow the distance between Israel’s values and its reality. Or, we might say, the distance between sight and vision.

Our sight is how well we see the world. Our vision is how good we imagine the world can become. We always have conflicting values – Israel wants to be a democracy and to celebrate Jewish culture in the only Jewish majority population in the world, other than some parts of Miami Beach and Brooklyn. At times “Jewish” and “democracy” are an easy partnership; at other times, they create tension. The lesson? We have to be willing to recognize the problems in our reality to have any chance of moving towards our vision – if our feet are not on firm ground, how can we reach for the stars? We must also be willing to challenge the possible, to not let our clear sight block our positive vision. Just as Spinoza reminded us last night that no one can make you think anything, Israel shows us that Jewish exile and powerlessness were not inevitable cosmic fate. If we see what is, we do not have to accept what is given in this world as what must be. Im tirtzu, ayn zo aggadah – if you will it, if you realize it, it is no longer a dream.

One more example of a vision for this world not yet achieved:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

In 1787, who were “we the People”? Not slaves, not women, not the Native Americans who were here first, not even poor white men – the last state to remove property qualifications for voting did so in 1856. Jewish men did not fully receive voting rights in Maryland until 1828, and of course Jewish women not until 1920 with women’s suffrage – still less than 100 years ago. Former slaves (that is, the men) theoretically got the vote in 1870, but they were often severely, even violently restricted until the 1960s. We, all the People? Certainly not in 1787. Does this mean the founders, even Alexander Hamilton, were hypocrites, Orwellian manipulators of language – “we elites ARE the people, the only full people.” Perhaps the founders had high ideals limited by their social and political horizons. They had blind spots and bias they did not realize were hiding a canyon between their vision and the reality of their world.

The Constitutional world they imagined is wonderful – establishing justice, insuring tranquility, safety for all, liberty for us and for our children. How have we done? Just like “we the people,” the history of the American vision is messy. Justice is very difficult to define and establish. The proper balance between general welfare and personal liberty is an argument that will never be finished. To criticize our past and our present, to understand our own biases and limitations, is one way to improve our present and our future. If we know where we have failed, we can work to do better; if we assume that we never do wrong, we will never improve.

The key clause in the Constitution’s preamble, to me and to others, is “a more perfect union.” We are not perfect. In this world, as far as we know, limited human power is the only conscious power working to realize human values. Se we must accept that this world will never will be perfect. We are closer to these American ideals today than we were in 1987, which was better than 1887, which was better than 1787. We love the ideal of freedom, but a world of freedom also means no guarantees in this world. We are on a narrow bridge without a net or a script or a design or a director. We do not have confidence that it is all part of a positive plan or that everything happens for a benevolent reason. When America fails to treat its people equally, whether by design or by result, that is our challenge. We, ALL the people, we have to face the reality of this world and ourselves: who we are, how we think, how we treat each other, what we have done and what we can yet do to make this society, to make this world, a more perfect union. As one of my colleagues pointed out to me, change is hard, and change can be painful as well as difficult. But as Rabbi Nachman said centuries ago and we still sing, kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar m’od the entire world is a narrow bridge, v’haikar lo lefakhed clal the important thing is to not be afraid.

Why engage in this world rather than, like the blue birds, fly over the rainbow? The more we understand the reality of this world, the more we can find inspiration in our interactions with it. Where do we find our spirituality, our inspiration? From our encounters with things IN this world and yet beyond ourselves – other people past, present and future; a good and worthy cause; beauty in music and art and nature. Our inspiration is not beyond this world, it is intimately part of this world.

We believe in this world. We believe in this world both as it is and as it can be. The power of dreams that we dare to dream can still change the world, not somewhere over the rainbow but right here, today and tomorrow. To conclude, a poem I wrote a few years ago for a contest on “The American Dream”. Spoiler alert: I did not win the contest. The poem speaks of the power of dreams in this world – the clear sight to see the world as it was and is, and the vision to see the world as it can be.

“Dumplings and Dreams”

Kreplach in a khoylem
Iz nit keyn kreplach
Nor a khoylem
“Dumplings in a dream
Are not dumplings
But a dream.”

The American Dream
Is not America
But a dream.

“Land where my fathers died.”
Not Lithuania, Belarus,
Aleppo, Paris,
Real graves are dumplings, the song the dream.

“We the People” –
Not in A People’s History,
Not powerless people, native people,
Dark people, women people.
Real lives are dumplings, the words the dream.

“One Nation Under God” –
Your god? My god?
Whose god? Why god?
Why not “In Good We Trust?”
Doubts are dumplings, the slogan the dream.

But dreams mean,
Said Sigmund, Gaon of Vienna.
Seven fat dumplings eaten by seven lean.
Not fate, maybe future.
Not reality; changing reality.

Some say
“The American Dream” is
Jewish Hollywood dream.
Safe home, blonde wife,
2.2 kids in 2.2 cars.

Some say
“The American Dream” is
American nightmare.
Built of bodies and blood,
Screams and silence.

Dreams mean.
Im tirtzu,
ayn zo agada
If you will it,
It is no dream.”
It is no longer only a dream.

My fathers died there,
But mine will die here,
As will my son’s.
We are The People,
A still more perfect union,
One nation in diversity,
Blended, cross-pollinated,
Mixed and miscegenated,
Hybrid vigor’s fruits
From Jewish roots.

Dreams become.
Dreams become the possible,
Then possible becomes present.

Kreplach in America
Are both kreplach
And dumplings.

The American Dream
Is not America,
Is America,
Is a dream,


Shana Tova, a happy and thoughtful new year to you all.

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Why We Believe – Rosh Hashana Evening 5777

This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2016/5777 as part of a series entitled “This We Believe.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

In the 12th century, the greatest rabbi of the age wrote what every Jew should believe. No matter what you learned from philosophy, science, or anything else, Maimonides wanted you to be sure that you ended up believing what he wanted you to believe. Each of his 13 principles begins “ani ma’amin b’emunah shlayma – I believe with perfect faith.” I believe with perfect faith in a god who knows the thoughts and deeds of human beings, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the Prophets are true and that Moses received the complete Torah we have today. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the messiah and in the resurrection of the dead, and so on. To this day, Maimonides’ Ani Ma’amin/I Believe is recited daily in traditional synagogues, and for the most Orthodox these 13 principles define who is righteous and who is a rebel, a heretic, an unbeliever. Never mind that most Jews today do not believe in a personal messiah, resurrection, or that all of the Jewish prophets were true. If anyone ever tells you “Judaism is not about beliefs, it only matters what you do,” now you know the rest of the story – for some Jews, and for some Judaisms, it is very much about what you believe.

At the end of the 19th century, Robert Ingersoll was infamous as “The Great Agnostic.” Ingersoll did not hesitate to say what he believed – and perhaps we agree more with him than with Maimonides.

I do believe in the nobility of human nature; I believe in love & home, & kindness & humanity. I believe in good fellowships & cheerfulness…in good nature, in giving to others all the rights that you claim for yourself. ….I believe in self-reliance & in expressing your honest thought. . . . Above all, I believe in Liberty.

We in Humanistic Judaism may be the only Jewish congregations in the world that quote Robert Ingersoll on Rosh Hashana, let alone compare Ingersoll to Maimonides and like Ingersoll better! The truth is the truth, what we believe is what we believe, and what Maimonides believed is what he believed. We want to respect our past, and we want the integrity of living our values and the dignity of saying what we believe. We could insist that what Maimonides REALLY meant by resurrection or Torah revelation is actually what we believe today – it just takes some explanation. How convenient. Making our inheritance mean what we want it to mean, what we need it to mean, forcing our ancestors to endorse our beliefs does not work – if Maimonides could magically attend a Pride Parade today, he would have a heart attack.

We do not use traditional Hebrew with creative translations, saying in Hebrew what we would never say in English. We do not use footnotes or endnotes or commentaries to explain that, when we pray for the Messiah, we REALLY mean “incremental political improvement.” If we like the phrasing or the melody of a traditional passage, we are not afraid to do a jazz riff on the original, our ancestors sang “avinu malkeinu, our father our king,” we are more inspired to sing “asinu khelkeynu” – we create our own lot in life. Our Humanistic Judaism may not be what Maimonides or even our own grandparents believed; it IS what WE believe.

I do NOT believe with perfect faith. I believe without perfect faith, I believe with evidence and reason, I believe with experience and expertise, I believe with partial truth that changes, I believe with confidence based on what I can know, what others can know, what humanity can know, what we have discovered and what we have yet to discover. I do not believe with perfect faith. I DO believe.

This High Holidays will explore “This We Believe,” a riff on the National Public Radio series “This I Believe.” If we tried to put into words our positive beliefs, what we share as a community, what would those words be? How would we express what we believe, and not just what we reject? We could try to be clever: “Matzah Without Dogma.” It is still a negative, defining ourselves by what we are not. If I had to pick one slogan for Humanistic Judaism or for Kol Hadash, it might be: “This world, this life, these hands – and you.” This is what we celebrate, how we live, what we share as a congregation. We are, as one of us suggested in a slogan contest a few years ago, like-minded people who don’t think alike. Yet there must be something that draws us together – you did not all show up at the North Shore Unitarian Church on Rosh Hashana by pure coincidence.

Before we explore what it is we DO believe, there is an issue we need to resolve – why talk about beliefs at all? It is risky for a community of free thinkers to define what we as a group believe. What if you agree with 9 out of 10 of my list? Who made me the boss of your mind anyways? What if YOU like 9 out of 10 and your spouse likes 3 out of 10? Maybe it would be safer to say nothing at all about beliefs, sing Hinnay Ma Tov, serve bagels, be done.

Come to think of it, do I really want to be part of any group that TELLS me what to think, even if the group is telling me to think for myself? A major reason more and more people have been leaving traditional religion – or any religious identity at all – is because they do not want to be told what to think, even by someone secular. In Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” thousands of people begin to follow Brian, an ordinary nebbish, good for nothing, believing that Brian is the Messiah. He tries to correct them: he says, “You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re ALL individuals!” The massive crowd responds in unison, “Yes! We’re all individuals!” Brian says, “You’re all different!” Thousands of people: “Yes, we are all different!” Now think about responsive readings in a Humanistic High Holiday service – would it work to have the 200 people here tonight say, in unison, “we make up our own minds”? Let’s try – “we make up our own minds”.

Why risk it? Why risk annoying people or sounding ridiculous by trying to summarize “this we believe”? Maybe I should stick to what _I_ believe about life, the universe and everything. Maybe I can walk the tightrope of being clear about MY beliefs without stating what it is WE believe. Unlikely. _I_ often represent our congregation to the public, and few people would be part of a congregation where they disagree with the rabbi all the time. In our community, we are individuals, we are all different, and we do not have to agree on everything if we agree on some  big things. Honestly, I would be uncomfortable in a community where everyone agreed on everything! I love that as a Humanistic Rabbi I never have to be afraid to say, “I don’t know” or even “I was wrong.” If you agree with me, it is not because of my authority or my title – it is because I am convincing and compelling. If you disagree, maybe _I_ should think about it again. Even IF you agree, I should always be willing to think about it again. There is no Humanistic Inquisition, or 13 principles of perfect Humanistic faith, or a Humanistic dogma. Our ONLY dogma is that we have no dogma, but we can be very dogmatic about having no dogma.

I WILL risk it – I will talk about what WE believe, not only what _I_ believe, and I will not limit myself to bland statements of Jewish continuity and “be a good person.” I will also tell you WHY I feel it is important for us to explore what we believe. We share not only a method to approach big questions, with reason and argument and evidence, but also some conclusions. We do agree on some of the big answers. We do have some shared beliefs, even as we may also disagree. “This we believe” is what brings us together beyond a common connection to Jewish family and heritage.

Thirty years ago, my teacher and mentor Rabbi Sherwin Wine wrote a powerful essay called “Believing is better than non-believing.” …“So long as we present ourselves as unbelievers – whether in the Jewish community or in the broader world – …we will be viewed as the deniers of other people’s strong convictions, not the possessors of strong convictions of our own.” Sherwin refused to be an unbeliever, and he challenged us to put our beliefs in positive terms. Rather than saying that we do not rely on miracles to fix problems, we should say that we do believe in the power of human effort and responsibility; we are not anti-creationists, we have good reasons to believe in evolution. Believers offer positive alternatives: “Just because traditional Jewish communities were built around prayer and God does not mean that alternative Jewish communities cannot be built around secular Jewish culture and ethical concerns.” Believers find other believers for mutual support and collaboration, while negative unbelievers are too suspicious of groups to impact society or to have a strong voice. At the very end of the essay: “Believing is better than non-believing. It is a strategy more conducive to self-esteem and community effectiveness. If there have to be unbelievers let those who do not believe in humanism play that rule for awhile.

We are not non-believers, un-believers. We are not “non-observant Jews” – here we are at a Rosh Hashana service complete with Torah, Shofar, and a rabbi’s sermon! People imagine that a Humanistic service looks like a CIA-redacted document, the traditional texts with large blacked out sections. The reality is that we have a different focus, changing and replacing and not just deleting. There is a reason our movement settled on the name  “Humanistic Judaism” when we started fifty years ago – we are defined by positive Humanistic beliefs, not only by questions and doubts. We are not what we do NOT do, we are what we DO do. And yes, you middle schoolers can now tell your friends that the rabbi said “do do” on Rosh Hashana.

I hope you agree with me that being a believer is better for building community, better for self-esteem, better for positive momentum than being a “non-believer.” That is WHY we believe. So HOW do we discover WHAT we believe? If we are believers, and we share beliefs, what are they? Do we need to do another congregational survey, more focus groups? And if we do find agreement on what we believe, does the very act of declaring these beliefs cross the line from descriptive to prescriptive? In other words, if the goal is to discover what those who celebrate with Kol Hadash believe, and then we say, “this is what Kol Hadash believes,” does that come across as if we are saying “This is what you SHOULD believe, this is what you MUST believe to be welcome here”? I need to take you back to one more thinker of the past – not Maimonides, not Ingersoll, not Wine – this time, Baruch Spinoza.

Spinoza got in trouble because of his beliefs. He dared to say what he believed – Spinoza believed that Moses did not write the Torah. Spinoza did not believe in a divine personality that intervenes in the world or reveals timeless commandments. Spinoza did not believe in human free will, which is implicit in Maimonides’ reward and punishment – if you are going to be justly punished or rewarded, you have to be able to choose. Spinoza rejected Maimonides’ 13 principles, and he was rejected by the Judaism of his day. I do not agree with all of Spinoza’s beliefs; another Humanistic rabbi was once asked why he still believes in free will; he answered, “I have no choice.” Just as I can agree or disagree with Spinoza, I hope that you do NOT always agree with me. One of Spinoza’s principles has become a core value in my own life; dare I say, “this I believe.” You cannot force someone else to BELIEVE anything. Think of George Orwell’s 1984 and the battle over 2 + 2 = 4. You can make someone SAY what you want them to say, you can make them PRETEND to believe. But in the holy of holies of the individual human mind, in the secular miracle that is that lightbulb going on, we find the incredible power of two words: “I agree.” Only if I can convince you, only if you are willing to say in the privacy of your own mind, “I agree,” only then are my beliefs and your beliefs OURS. If you say, “I agree,” then we can say, “This WE believe.”

There are times when we celebrate the power of “I disagree” – you can see the joy of young children when they first discover the word “NO!” Some of them never stop. Part of becoming our own adult is the process of differentiation, individuation, marking our own intellectual territory. Personal freedom requires the ability to say “I disagree” “I dissent” “I will not say what you want me to say or stand when you want me to stand.” Yet there is a different power to “I agree”. Free thought is in your mind, free speech is in your mouth and your hands, free association begins with “I agree.” A community of shared belief, a shared approach to life, a shared sense of values all comes down to “I agree.” I meet people all the time who hear about Humanistic Judaism and say, “What a relief to finally find you! I’ve felt like this for years!” I love that they’re giving us the gift of “I agree.” I hate that it took them so long! This connection is probably why you are here – an experience of hearing something or reading something about who we are and what we do and then saying to yourself, with your free mind, “I agree.”

Another possible slogan we once considered for Kol Hadash was “Free Judaism” (The Budget Committee thought it was a bad idea). What _I_ meant by “Free Judaism” was something different. On one hand, we have an objective: to free Judaism! Free Judaism from the tyranny of the past, free Judaism from fixed tradition and recitation, free ourselves to create a meaningful and relevant Judaism. On the other hand, “Free Judaism” could also be a description – what we celebrate, what we live is a Free Judaism. 100 years ago, many of the first secular Jews were deeply connected to Yiddish language. If they were asked if they were frum, or pious, they would say that they were not frum, they were frei – free. For us, the Judaism we live has been freed and is free: we are free to think, free to experience other cultures and peoples, free to love other cultures and peoples. Ours is a Judaism where “you and me are free to be you and me.”

And who ARE we? We are part Maimonides and part Ingersoll, part Sherwin Wine, part Baruch Spinoza, part me and part you. We are matzah without dogma, we are like-minded people who don’t think alike, we are participants in a free Judaism, we are believers. What do we believe? I have a suggestion: “This world, this life, these hands – and you.” Tomorrow morning we turn to look at this world. Many of Maimonides’ 13 principles of perfect faith look beyond: the coming of the messiah and resurrection of the dead, cosmic reward and punishment, divine creation. If our Humanism starts with the human experience of this world, how will that change us? How will it change the world? Come back tomorrow  and on Yom Kippur to find out.

This summer, browsing through The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, I came across a beautiful statement of how to be a positive believer – you might just see it again at Kol Hadash. This poem expresses the amazing power of those two words that bring us together, the two words that create a community of ideas – “I agree.” This poem could have easily turned negative, a rejection, a poem of un-belief. Or it could have been a retreat from reality into perfect faith, or a denial of the need to make sense of the world. Instead, it is an affirmation of the power of positive experience. There is a time and a place to explain how things happen, or to clarify what we do not believe. We are here together celebrating the Jewish New Year at Kol Hadash because of the power of saying “yes.”

“I Do Not Ask” by Estelle Nachimoff Padawer [due to copyright, cannot reproduce complete poem]

I used to mumble many words in the
without much thought
even all wise all good all powerful God
until dear Clara was felled by a stroke….

but saying no
and saying nothing are not for me….

I need to say yes
–yes to a soap bubble afloat in sunshine
–to a newborn baby’s perfect fingernails….

I do not ask Who or How
I just say yes


L’Shana Tova, Happy New Year

Posted in General HJ, Holidays | 2 Comments

This We Believe – High Holidays 2016/5777

These talks were delivered at High Holiday services in October 2016 for Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation and later available through The Kol Hadash Podcast and as separate blog posts here. If you are interested in celebrating the Jewish New Year with us in Deerfield, Illinois, please email our office or call 847-383-5184.

Are Humanistic Jews “non-believers”? Or do we share conclusions and values beyond encouraging everyone to think for themselves? As our Jewish New Year begins, let us return to our core convictions. This we believe: this world, this life, these hands…and you.

Why We Believe – Rosh Hashana Evening October 2, 2016 7:30 PM
We celebrate what we share rather than argue the unprovable. Our individual beliefs do not always have to agree in order to find community and common ground. Ours is a Jewish tradition of change, diversity and integrity. And, as Humanistic Rabbi Sherwin Wine once wrote, “Believing is better than nonbelieving.”

This WorldRosh Hashana Morning October 3, 2016 10:00 AM
Our Humanism is a positive emphasis on this world – what we experience, what we need, what we can know. Our Rosh Hashana does not represent divine creation of the world; rather, it encourages us to discover what the universe truly is, and then to create the world we want.

What Can I Do?Rosh Hashana Family Service October 3, 2016 2:00 PM
Part of growing older is discovering what we can do for ourselves, and learning to do more. Realizing how much we have already accomplished is an important part of the journey.

This Life – Yom Kippur Evening October 11, 2016 7:30 PM
The Jewish “Days of Awe” were traditionally a time of judgment – who would live, who would die, and who would earn a portion in the World to Come. We believe in life before death, making the most of our time in this life, the only one we know. Living the best we can while we are here is the best we can do.

These Hands – Yom Kippur Morning October 12, 2016 10:00 AM
We would love it if the righteous were rewarded, the wicked punished, and everything worked out for our benefit. But wishing does not make it so. In the absence of cosmic providence, the work of justice, compassion, forgiveness and self-improvement is up to us.

What Can We Do? – Yom Kippur Family Service October 12, 2016 2:00 PM
There are times to do things on our own, and there are times we need help. We can do more together that we can separately. One of the shortest and most important poems in English is “Me? We!”

And You – Yom Kippur Memorial & Concluding October 12, 2016 3:30 PM
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone, what am I?” Rabbi Hillel’s balance between individual and community is expressed in our society, and in our families. If we are connected to more than ourselves, then love and loss are also part of our lives.

Posted in General HJ, Holidays | 5 Comments

Who Needs Rabbis?

This post originally appeared in the Shofar newsletter
of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, May 2015

It’s a DIY (do it yourself) era, even in Jewish life.

This is not entirely new, especially for Humanistic Jews. Many of our families have put together their own Passover Haggadahs or celebrated Hanukkah (or Hanukkah and Christmas) in their own original ways. Personalized Bar/Bat Mitzvah programs in Humanistic Judaism are some of the best expressions of our twin values of connection with Jewish culture and the freedom to seek personal meaning through new creativity.

And Humanistic Judaism cannot even claim to be the first generation of secular Jews to be creative in this way. In America and Europe, Secular Jewish schools and communities in the early 20th century created new Yiddish songs, blessings and celebrations to mark Jewish festivals consistent with their values and beliefs. In the land of Israel even before there was a state, kibbutz Jews celebrated coming of age and weddings and funerals without clergy or traditional theology, but in ways that were both rooted in Jewish life and relevant to where and how they lived.

So what’s new about today’s DIY Judaism? More people are doing more things for themselves than ever before. 100 years ago, most Jews, even secular Jews, would turn to rabbis for wedding or funerals; today a friend or family member can be easily ordained on the internet to perform the ceremony. The answer to any question on Jewish history or practice is just a Google search away. So who needs rabbis anymore?

It all depends on whether you think weddings, or Jewish life in general, is more like mowing the lawn or more like plumbing and electrical work.

When it comes to mowing my lawn, I can choose to hire professionals who will do a really crisp job with very little work or bother for me, though it will cost me money. Or I can mow it myself or ask a friend to do it, which will be cheaper but will take more effort and may not be as neat and trim as the professionals (especially if I have never done it or do not have an edger). No great harm is done with the DIY approach, since it’s only a lawn. Similarly, if I believe officiating a wedding does not require training, experience or expertise, I may be just fine with friends or family. They know me better, and the price is right.

Of course, it could turn out like this version of someone performing their first wedding:

On the other hand, maybe weddings, or Jewish life in general, is like plumbing or electrical work – no one can stop me from opening up the circuit breaker panel and going to work, but for many the risk of something going wrong or the desire for competent work in these vital systems motivates us to call a professional. The more important our Jewish connections are, the more useful we will find professional services, even occasionally, of someone trained in Jewish history, culture, thought and ceremony.

Lopez-Aronson ceremony cropped

Lopez-Aronson wedding

The best rabbis work as partners with the families and communities they serve, creating Jewish experiences that are both rooted and relevant. They are authorities without being authoritarian, experts with open expectations. Even if you like to DIY, some expert help can still be part of the process.

Posted in Kol Hadash Shofar, Weddings | 1 Comment

The Challenge and Promise of Secular Jewish Education

This post was originally delivered at a 2011 conference at the National Museum of American Jewish History organized by the Jewish Children’s Folkshul to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Secular Jewish school. It later appeared in the journal Humanistic Judaism (Autumn 2011/Winter 2012) and is reprinted with permission.


Oifen pripetshok brent a fierel
Un in shtub iz hays
Un der rebbe lerent klayne kinderlakh
Dem a-lef bays

Zayt she kinderlakh gedenk she tieere
Vos er lerent doh
Zogt she nokh amol un take nokh amol
Komets alef aw

“On the hearth, a small fire burns and the room is warm. And the rabbi teaches the little children the alef-bays. Listen, children, consider what you learn here. Say again, and then once again, kometz alef aw.

This song, written by Max Warshawsky in 1900, describes a traditional Jewish education: rote memorization of letters and vowels. In reality, the heder [school] was cold and poor, the students starving, the teacher brutal. There is a deep irony in the celebration of this song as an anthem of secular Yiddishkeit [Jewishness]; a rabbi drills children so they can pray in Hebrew! The same alphabet also writes Yiddish, but that was not the rabbi’s objective.

Oyfn Pripechik raises an important question for Jewish heirs of the secular revolution: what does being Jewish, teaching Jewish mean to us? What should our children know? This is a key question for any human community; who you are is reflected in what you teach your children. What should secular Jewish children be taught?

In 1910, a “heretical” proposal was presented to Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, which had been running Sunday Schools in English with purely universalist socialist curricula:

Jewish children need to know Jewish history and Yiddish literature, just as Russian children need to know Russian history and Russian literature . . . . I would like for the Jewish worker’s children to grow up to be not just socialists, but Jewish socialists.

From that challenge sprang schools, magazines, summer camps, teacher training institutes, textbooks. In 1934, some twenty thousand Jewish children , 10 percent of American Jewish children receiving a Jewish education, were enrolled in secular Yiddish schools.[1]

Who were involved in these schools and camps? Largely first-generation immigrants, or the children of immigrants, living in densely Jewish urban areas. Yiddish was their mameloshn [mother tongue], a language they wanted their children to understand.  Most were working class or middle-class professionals: pharmacists, accountants, craftsmen, working in or owning small businesses. They were politically left – or left of left – calling anyone to their right “fascist.”

What drove their enthusiasm and commitment? Two horses: political idealism for “the cause,” be it socialism or communism or Zionism; and connection to Jewish culture, embodied in the love of Yiddish language and literature.  When they called themselves weltlikh, “secular,” they meant that there were no rabbis or religious rules. Some rejected religion as the “opiate of the masses,” but for many, theology was a private matter: their focus was on Yiddish culture, not personal beliefs.

What did these schools teach? The core curriculum consisted of Yiddish language and literature (though schools run by the Farband, or Jewish National Workers’ Alliance, also taught Hebrew), progressive politics, and Jewish history and culture.  In 1920 an authorized list of holidays celebrated in Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring schools included March 18 (commemorating labor’s struggle for freedom), May 1 (in honor of labor brotherhood and world peace), the Fourth of July, and a celebration of the Russian Revolution (marked in various schools on different dates to commemorate either the initial overthrow of the Tsar or the later Bolshevik takeover).[2] Among traditional Jewish holidays, Sukkot is missing; what does the urban proletariat know from harvest holidays? No High Holidays, no Shabbes/Shabbat – divine judgment and divine creation were not considered “secular-appropriate” or were left for purely private observance. Surviving Jewish holidays were understood anew: Passover as a freedom holiday; Hanukka as anti-assmiliation (even though secular Jews had more in common with Hellenists than with Maccabean religious fanatics); Purim as a children’s holiday, despite the harems and slaughter depicted in the Megillah [scroll of Esther].  The choice and interpretation of holidays exemplifies the basic issue: how to celebrate historical Jewish culture while being honest to what secular Jews believed, how they lived, who they were. In a word, they needed to be relevant to their audience and to speak to its experiences and values.

In our own day, although secular Jewish education is still vibrant and creative, its numbers are a shadow of that bygone era. Some alumni of the early secular Jewish schools are involved in Secular Humanistic Jewish communities; others have joined religious congregations, and still others are not involved in any Jewish community. Among the twenty thousand students who received a secular Jewish education in 1934, how many of their great-grandchildren are not part of organized Secular and Humanistic Judaism?

Why the decline? These are some of the many factors:[3]

  • Strong anticommunist sentiment after World War II, which stigmatized and persecuted even non-communist socialist schools and camps.
  • The decline of secular Yiddish-speaking immigration, first by law and then by Holocaust, which choked off the flow of native speakers necessary to maintain a linguistic community. Assimilation also did its work. Modern Israel and its renewed emphasis on Hebrew didn’t help Yiddish-focused secular shules.
  • American Jewish economic success, which made socialist politics less attractive; who wants a revolution when you own your home? The labor movement was successful: children of union members did not join unions because they moved up to white collar work and to suburbia, leaving neighborhood shules.
  • The intangible factor of growing American individualism. Jews now tend to define themselves personally, rather than collectively. Rather than asking what they can do for “the cause,” they ask how “the cause” benefits them personally.

Looking forward, I see four key challenges for Secular and Humanistic Jewish education. There is no one right answer. We must respond to our changed reality with creativity and flexibility, as our predecessors did to the circumstances of their times.


1. Who are our people?

There are still blue-collar Jews; by no means is every Jewish family wealthy. However, those who most often find and join our schools and communities tend to be white collar – college-educated lawyers, doctors, teachers, businessmen and women. Even if their parents were union members, they are much less likely to be. Some were raised secular, or “just Jewish,” or even not knowing they were Jewish at all until later in life. Some are in or from intercultural families. Many were brought up in conventional religious Judaisms. Some are attracted by political issues; others seek to celebrate Jewish culture without prayer and faith. In short, we are not at all as uniform as we were 75 years ago, and that diversity brings new challenges. What unstated assumptions do we have to change? In our celebrations we should not say “we are Jews,” as many of our members are non-Jewish spouses! We can say “we are all part of the Jewish family” – by adoption, by birth or by marrying in.

We are also more diverse politically.  What if someone is personally and philosophically secular, wants a cultural Jewish identity for his or her family, but does not share a left-wing political agenda?  Such a thing is not impossible, given the social and financial profile of our membership. Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum. Objectivist/Libertarian thought is secular, even critical of religion, asserting that no one and no tradition can think for you or tell you what to think. Today’s Russian Jews are often secular but rarely progressive.

We object when fundamentalist churches declare that good Christians may vote only one way, or when Catholic bishops deny communion to pro-choice politicians. But are our schools and communities open to a range of opinions? Or are political values the bright dividing line? There are positives on both sides: a big tent versus a shared perspective on more issues. One possibility is to focus on noncontroversial community service – feed the hungry, teach the illiterate, meet basic human needs. Or we can try dialogue and debate rather than diatribe and dismissal when perspectives vary. The same approach can apply to issues concerning Israel and Zionism.

The key issue is relevance to our potential audience. That was true when socialist shules served union members and laborers.  How will we be relevant today in all of our diversity?


2. What should we teach?

Our core curriculum of Jewish history and holidays, Jewish culture and ceremonies continues to be important. We want our students to feel rooted in their Jewishness.

Secular shules met multiple afternoons a week and on weekends. When students learned Yiddish, they learned real language skills: writing, reading, speaking – much more than a few songs or phrases sung without comprehension or recited by rote.  People learn a foreign language best by immersion.  But many of our members are recovering from a Hebrew school trauma they refuse to inflict on their children. We must be realistic – we get Sunday mornings, maybe 25 a year, and often Jewish language instruction is omitted.  Understanding these realities, and fully valuing what we DO teach and celebrate, we also must realize that we risk creating Jewish illiterates – Jews who cannot read a Jewish language. If they hear Oyfn Pripechuk, they might think “Kometz Aleph huh?”

Even knowing just the letters, being literate in the most limited sense, opens the door to learning more. We want our students to not just feel secular, but also to feel Jewish! Remember that 1910 challenge: “not just socialists, but Jewish socialists.” If our students visit a friend’s synagogue, they should recognize those funny marks on the walls and in the books rather than saying, “It’s all Greek to me!”

Our goal is Jewish literacy, which includes knowing something about cultural elements we do not believe to be true, such as Jewish mythology or traditional liturgy.  We need to be able to get the jokes! You cannot fully appreciate The Jazz Singer without recognizing Kol Nidre or modern Jewish literature without knowing something of the tradition to which the authors respond. Knowing more is better than knowing less.


3. What do we mean by secular?

We generally do not mean secular in the Israeli sense of khiloni (“non-Orthodox, not following halakha), which would include Reform Judaism. In this sense, a Jewish community center or camp is a “secular space” not dedicated to one religious viewpoint, but this is not what we mean.

Does secular mean no religious structure: no rabbis or services? Are we a shule or a shul, a school or a synagogue? Secular Jewish pioneer Max Rosenfeld wrote, “secular Jews need community like religious Jews need congregation.” Secular Jewish education historically offered community – adult choruses, classes, neighborhood connections. But too often it failed to offer crucial pieces: life cycle celebrations, such as Bar Mitzvah; major Jewish holidays; pastoral support and professionally-trained leadership. Here is the key question: how many people stay involved in a middle school PTO once their kids are in high school? Our organizations tread water with every graduation. On the other hand, if you have a secular Jewish community that offers youth education and adult learning and Jewish holiday events and trained and experienced professional leadership – now you are walking and quacking like a synagogue, or at least a havurah. We need not be opposed to authority – we rely on authorities all the time.  Who among us would prefer lay-performed surgeries? One can be an authority without being authoritarian. We need to meet the very human needs religion meets, even if we do so with this-worldly answers.

When we say secular, we often mean philosophically secular — focused on this world and the human experience, celebrating the power of people for ethical choices and improving the world. We are not nonbelievers – we hold strong beliefs about how the world works, where we come from, why we should be and do good. My work in Secular Humanistic Judaism, philosophically secular with organized congregations, offers a positive philosophy of life. I am a Secular Humanistic Jew and not just a lower-case secular Jew because I believe, based on evidence and experience, in the power and the potential of people: Jewish people and humanity.


4. What will be our “engine” to motivate enthusiasm and commitment?

Yiddish will not be enough.  We will not meet multiple days a week, and while some have personal connections, for others the same nostalgia applies to Hebrew, and given our diverse audience those memories are very different from each other. Most of our students today have U.S.-born grandparents, and many of those know limited Yiddish, if any. Where does a secular Sephardi or Israeli or formerly Reform Jew go? To be relevant and meaningful, we have to be about more than Yiddish.

Neither are progressive politics enough on their own, though they can be one of the pistons driving particular communities. Progressive politics are not unique to us; there are many progressive Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Reform Jews, not to mention non-Jews, secular and religious.  Furthermore, Jewish sources such as the Torah and the Prophets can be used to justify negative values (e.g., slavery, oppression of women or homosexuality, etc.).

Here are three pistons we all need, whether our community calls itself Secular, cultural, or Humanistic:

  • Meaningful Jewish experiences relevant to and consistent with how our members live and true to our understanding of Jewish history and human reality. Fun and exuberant, profound and moving, dynamic and changing in every generation. Not based on guilt or nostalgia, but building on inspiration from the past to be Jewish today – with more joy and less oy.
  • Positive philosophy. We have to address the question: what does this mean to me? How does being a Secular Humanistic Jew make my life better, more meaningful, more beautiful, more ethical, more worthwhile? Not just for my children, but also for me, the adult who has chosen this community.  Jews are more secular than most cultural groups – less likely to believe in God, less likely to attend religious services. Seventy-five percent of Jews celebrate Hanukka and Passover, but only 15 percent keep kosher or light Shabbat candles. Our secular celebration of Jewish culture and human potential can speak to a large proportion of American and world Jewry, if we can live with a wider tent.
  • The strength of our personal and Jewish identity. We need to celebrate who we are. We are not only heirs to a one hundred-year tradition of Secular Jewish education; we are also heirs to a four hundred-year tradition of philosophical Enlightenment and three thousand years of a broader Jewish cultural tradition. We look very different from our Jewish evolutionary ancestors, but so does everyone who does not sacrifice animals at the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish world is not divided into “us” and “them”, secular versus religious. We are on the Jewish spectrum, and if the organized Jewish world celebrates pluralism, it must include us in the conversation. We will no longer be Elijah, an empty place at the table. Our commitment to be who we really are – cultural and secular and humanistic Jews – will motivate us and our children to see secular Jewish education not as history, or as middle school, but as a way of life for a lifetime community.

To draw inspiration from the future from another Yiddish song from our past, written by Hirsh Glick in the Vilna Ghetto in 1943.

Zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg
khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg
kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho
s’vet a poyk ton undzer trot

Never say you are on the final road
though leaden skies may cover blue days.
The hour we’ve waited for is here
Our steps ring out the message –

mir zaynen doWE ARE HERE.


[1] Quotation and Figures cited in Fishman, “Yiddish Schools in America and the Problem of Secular Jewish Identity.”  In Z. Gitelman, ed. Religion or Ethnicity? Jewish Identities in Evolution (Rutgers University Press, 2009), p. 71, 72. Statistics based on surveys by Workman’s Circle and the Jewish Education Association of New York City. Also discussed in depth in Fradle Pomerantz Friedenreich, Passionate Pioneers: The Story of Yiddish Secular Education in North America, 1910-1960 (Holmes & Meier, 2010).

[2] Cited in Mendes-Flohr and Reinharz, eds. The Jew in the Modern World, 2nd Edition (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 503-504.

[3] For more on this subject, see April Rosenblum, “Offers We Couldn’t Refuse: What Happened to Secular Jewish Identity” (Jewish Currents, May-June 2009), as well as responses to her article in that issue and in the following issue (Jewish Currents, Autumn 2009).

Posted in Humanistic Judaism journal | 1 Comment