The Many Voices of Secular Judaism

This post originally appeared in the online journal “Secular Culture and Ideas.” Judaism in a Secular Age is currently available from the IISHJ or on 

Secular Jewish thought is a multiplicity of voices, though not always in agreement. Zionists rejected Yiddishists; Yiddish socialists excommunicated Yiddish communists, and vice versa; integrationists and universalists derided both Zionists and Yiddish cultural nationalists. Since the Enlightenment there have been myriad Judaisms, including secular Judaisms; what there has not been is a consensus.

In the 21st century, however, the old divisions seem less relevant than a fundamental question: can the various streams of secular Jewish thought be labeled a “tradition?” That is, do they have enough in common? Assuming they do, could one compile a “canon” of secular Judaism? What would be included, what excluded? And what would be the effect of collecting such a wide variety of perspectives into a single volume?

 In 1995, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (for which I am currently the Dean for North America)  published Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought. It includes writers, poets, scientists and activists who represent various branches in the evolution of secular Jewish thought. There is a wonderful introduction by Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, followed by biographical sketches and reading selections from each secular Jewish thinker organized into four categories. Leaving aside for a moment the inclusion/exclusion dilemma, let us consider what message the completed volume presents.

“The Precursor” is Baruch Spinoza, who some claim was the first secular Jew. Whatever one’s opinion on that question, Spinoza’s personal example and philosophy were clearly “precursors” to modern secular Judaism, so excluding Spinoza from this anthology would have been problematic.

The second group, “Kindred Spirits,” includes Zionists Theodor Herzl and David Ben Gurion; literary figures Sholem Aleichem and H.N. Bialik; and well-known Jews Albert Einstein and Louis Brandeis. Not everyone in this broad category—which even includes “religious” thinkers Martin Buber and Mordecai Kaplan—was a secularist, but their work “forms an essential background to a developing secularist outlook,” as Yehuda Bauer writes in his introduction. Besides, if more conventional religious Judaisms can claim radical thinkers like Buber or Bialik, so too can secular Judaism.

The third group, “Pathbreakers,” includes thinkers who are more clearly in the orbit of a secular Judaism, as their work is focused on either cultural Jewish identity or secular/humanist philosophy. Yiddishists like Shimon Dubnow, Zionists like Max Nordau and Ahad Ha’am, poets Saul Tchernikhowsky and Rahel, philosophers Sidney Hook and Hannah Arendt, and activist Emma Goldman probably could not have shared a stage in real life. Here, though, they are presented as direct antecedents to contemporary secular Judaism.

The last group—“Framers of Secular Judaism”—includes figures actively involved in the movement of Secular Humanistic Judaism. They include Rabbi Sherwin Wine, originator of Humanistic Judaism; Morris Schappes, long-time editor of the secular Jewish magazine Jewish Currents; European intellectuals Albert Memmi and Isaiah Berlin; Israeli figures like Supreme Court justice Haim Cohn, activist Shulamit Aloni, and writers Yehuda Amichai and A.B. Yehoshua.

Clearly, the challenge was to select a list that could fit between hard covers. Claiming everyone Jewish as a “root” of secular Judaism would have been possible but absurd, and not helpful to defining a secular Judaism; everyone claims Hillel, so he is not as clearly connected to secular Judaism as are the figures included. Or consider the medieval philosopher and rabbi Maimonides. Maimonides may have included rational elements in his religious philosophy, but given that he also authored the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” recited daily in Orthodox practice, perhaps he is too distant evolutionarily to be a “kindred spirit” to modern secular Jews. Most important, both Hillel and Maimonides were not Jews responding to a secular age; the title Judaism in a Secular Age thus defines not only a subject but also a time frame.

Even among those who could have been included, many were necessarily left out. Jewish labor movement activists; pioneering feminists (who were also Humanists) like Betty Friedan; even early Reform Jews whose criticisms of traditional Judaism and willingness to change Jewish practice to fit modern ideas could claim a rightful place here. So, too, could more women or non-Ashkenazi Jews—together they comprise only 15% of the contributors.

Laments aside, what does this volume demonstrate about the diversity and evolution of secular Jewish thought? Some of the arguments are no longer relevant (like Yiddish language-based Diaspora cultural autonomy). But even those advocates have something to say to modern secular Jews:

I am talking about conscious poetic expression, where religious images, myths and ceremonies become precious to us not because we believe in their divine origin, but because our spirit is moved by their human beauty. They evoke in us poetic feelings and thoughts; we consider them humanistic sanctities. Only this kind of rebirth can remain free of any metaphysical or theological traces. (JSA, p. 93)

Is Chaim Zhitlowsky’s term “sanctities” entirely appropriate? After all, “Secular Jews do not accept the authority of a supernatural God,” as Sherwin Wine writes in his foreword. “Nor do they seek to ‘rescue’ religious and theistic language for naturalistic purposes. . . .” Wine added three further principles with which almost all of the contributors to Judaism in a Secular Age, in either their lives or their ideas, would agree – the common ground that enables them to be linked together:

Secular Jews do not view Judaism as primarily a religion. They see it as the evolving culture and civilization of a world people….
Secular Jews do not feel any need to be validated by traditional religious texts….
Secular Jews deny that there is only one Jewish tradition. They do not accept the establishment rabbinic tradition as the only example of “Jewish roots.”

For those who also agree, and are seeking a guide to their own intellectual heritage, Judaism in a Secular Age is a good start. As diverse as modern secular Jews are—and always have been—they are likely to find many kindred voices here.

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Jewish Futures

Originally appeared in the December 2014 “Shofar”
newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

What does the future fold for the Jewish people? The best answer is: who knows?

According to Jewish tradition, the last prophet was Malachi, who lived and prophesied in the 400s BCE. And since that time, though one could study the revelations already given for hints and signs of what was to come, it was nothing like a prophet with a direct line to the Hebrew god. Even Biblical books that were written after 400 BCE, like the Hellenistic philosophy-infused Ecclesiastes or the Book of Daniel which responds to pre-Maccabean persecution in the 2nd century BCE, had to be ascribed to figures living before Malachi. Thus Ecclesiastes was attributed to Solomon, Daniel set during the Babylonian Exile (mid-500s BCE), and countless other works in this period not included in the Hebrew Bible appear as “pseudepigrapha,” or “by fake authors.” The point is, we do not know the future; to recycle one of my regular jokes, for centuries Judaism has been a “non-prophet” organization.

That has not stopped us from trying to make predictions, of course; just as rabbinic prohibitions on gossip (lashon ha-ra) are in place because everyone loves to do it so much. We certainly have our modern prophets of doom, predicting that if we don’t straighten up or change everything, disaster will strike and Judaism will vanish in the United States, or even the world.  Simon Rawidowicz commented dryly in 1948 that we are the “ever-dying people,” always predicting disaster and imagining that this generation will be the last. But every time the next 50 or 100 years roll around, we are still here. Different, but still here.

I am always heartened looking at the Jewish future by considering the Jewish past. 100 years ago, who could have guessed where we would be today? Jewish settlement in Israel was tiny, and an independent state of Israel was a pipe dream. The large majority of Jews in America were poor, Yiddish-speaking immigrants, slaving away in garment factories or peddling – and they were predominantly traditional-Orthodox or else labor union-Socialist. The Jewish intermarriage rate in New York City was less than 2%. The largest Jewish city in the world was Warsaw, and there were millions of Jews living in Arab lands, where they had been for countess generations.

No one could have guessed that a century of mass migration and Holocaust and Israel and affluence and acculturation and evolution would produce the Jewish world we live in today. So I don’t put too much stock in predictions for the Jewish future, given how hard it is to simply understand the Jewish present and how we got here.

The truth is that there is no one Jewish future; there are Jewish futures that will be simultaneous. 50 or 100 years from now, there will be traditional Jews, and secular Jews, and liberal religious Jews, and intermarried Jews, and in-married Jews, and unmarried Jews, and children from all varieties of parentage and heritage who will be part of the Jewish family.  What will be, will be different, and that is as it always has been.

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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.

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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
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
Inside me
My heart,
Inside my heart,
A museum
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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.

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