Freedom To vs. Freedom From

Recent news suggesting that the US Supreme Court is about to reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that nationally legalized abortion – either long-feared or long-awaited, depending on one’s beliefs – has brought to mind Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (and the Hulu TV series that started airing in 2017). In Atwood’s novel, demographic fears have created a totalitarian America where the few women who are fertile are forced to bear children for others. Their rights are severely restricted, yet their limited world is presented as its own kind of “freedom.”

There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

“Freedom to” represents positive liberty: freedom to speak, freedom to work, freedom to choose. But that could also mean freedom to fail or freedom to suffer. Freedom from is more protective: freedom from fear, freedom from violence, freedom from doubt. But that could also mean freedom from opportunity and choice, in some sense freedom from freedom!

Given the horrific world described by Atwood, liberals and progressives might assume that “freedom to” is automatically better than “freedom from.” However, if one maps out the ideas politically, “freedom to” fits most naturally with libertarians, while the paternalism of “freedom from” could be expressed either as a socialist safety net OR an authoritarian theocracy. My freedom to speak might infringe on your freedom from being offended, and vice versa. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights included both:

…the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…

The concept of “freedom to” and “freedom from” predates both Atwood and the UN. Humanist psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm described both in Escape from Freedom (1941), which attempted to explain the rise of Nazism. The psychological uncertainty, social instability and paralysis created by too much “freedom to” is addressed by authoritarians promising “freedom from.” We also recognize, as did George Orwell’s 1984 that the same totalitarian restriction on freedom could come from right-wing fascism or left-wing Soviet Communism. Opposite ends of the conventional political spectrum, same results: plenty of “freedom from,” very little “freedom to.”

The potential loss of women’s “freedom to” choose their reproductive lives, and follow-up implications that might affect contraception, the LGBT and others, is an expression of this ongoing struggle between these different kinds of freedom. Aspirational American theocrats would create a world of “freedom from” that hearkens back to earlier decades (or centuries!) of social restriction and forced conformity, a world-view all to often played out on women’s bodies and with women’s rights. The 1979 Iranian Revolution and its harsh results for women’s freedoms was part of the background to The Handmaid’s Tale; the strict social control of ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects demands female modesty with comparable fervor, and it also provides a world of “freedom from” choice and uncertainty.

Given the alternatives, I’ll take the uncertainties, and liberties, of “freedom to.”

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Ever Again?

The recent discovery of atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine is shocking, but also not shocking. We have seen all too often that the worst angels of our nature emerge in military conflict, and civilians pay the price. It has happened in Europe and the Middle East and Asia and the Americas, it has happened in the distant past and in the 21st Century.

After the Holocaust, we aspired to “Never Again,” though some debate if that means never again to the Jewish people or never again to anyone. If the goal was never again to anyone, humanity has definitely failed. The deaths of thousands to millions in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Yemen, Syria, the Rohinga in Myanmar and the Uyghurs in China….does the definitional line between intentional genocide and mass violent death of civilians matter to the dead and the bereaved? For all of our technological sophistication and internet connectedness, the eternal question of Genesis – “am I my brother’s keeper” – echoes hauntingly.

Given this repeated evidence all over the world, one could easily despair of our higher humanist and humanitarian ideals. Perhaps civilization is but a thin masquerade covering our innate brutality, the last century of international “progress” is an illusion, and our only hope is brute force to protect ourselves. The fact that we are shocked to see such devastation in Europe reveals our bias, since it is the same strategy Russia has pursued in Syria, and before that in Chechnya. And the civil war in Yemen, a bloody proxy war for Iran and Saudi Arabia, goes on whether we pay attention or not. We have said “never again,” but given the realities of human nature, we are chagrined to confess it might be more like “ever again.”

Or the truth is in fact the opposite – we are shocked by these human-made disasters because our expectations, our values have changed. The violence of past generations was worse and more endemic to society than we experience today, even if we have cellphone video. And the answer to new outrages is not to become calloused and indifferent; our outrage is all the more needed today. If we recognize our bias, we must learn to pay more attention to other corners of the world than our own; we need to remind ourselves that the partner to “never again” was “never forget.” While some (myself included) feared that Ukraine in February 2022 was a repeat of Poland in September 1939, united international reactions to the invasion seem to have changed the situation by early April.

There will still be more suffering, more death and destruction before the guns fall silent. And there will be still more time until the full picture of this human-authored tragedy comes to light. If we believe that human power is the only conscious power that can work for good in the universe, then we must steel ourselves to use that power to the best of our ability. Not only to cure disease or recover from earthquakes, but also to give us courage and strength to fight against human evil. If we humans can destroy, we can also comfort, and we can rebuild.

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A Purim Newsletter 2022/5782

The Kol Hadash Shofar – Purim Edition
Volume 1, Number 0 – Adar III, 1776

Howdy Doody from Rabbi Sholem


A college professor under whom I studied once said, “La lluvia en España se calle principalmente en la pampa.” Why this was said in a Hebrew class I never understood. The veracity of a discourse is hardly ever correlated to its ur-context. One may employ any variety of metaphor, synecdoche, or ellipses to convey ambiguity, fluidity of meaning, or even internalized ambivalence concerning the ultimate public value of one’s utterance, but in the final analysis the sincerity of one’s pronouncement hinges on the inner conviction undergirding it. Or, as they say in Yiddish, mekka lekka hi mekka hiney hiney ho.

This passage from the secret symbolic esoteric Kabbalah text Sefer Sherwin also sheds some light on the subject:

The first words, “Ayfo Oree – where is my light”, are an indication of humanity’s indeterminacy – we do not even have the inspiration necessary to find illumination, let alone enlightenment. Meanwhile, the resolution’s anonymous object “v’gam bakh – and in you” indicates the ultimate significance of the unmoved observer who has not yet engaged in dialogue with dialogue itself.

Perhaps the most precise rendering of this conceptual framework is the French saying, “un voyage de mille pas commence par l’enlèvement des déchets – a journey of a thousand steps begins by taking out the trash.” In other words, cut the crap and say what you believe!

Adult Education: Tuesday, 9:45 PM, 25th of Adar III, 57747593.4
The Three Most Obscure Rabbis in the Talmud: Rabbi Hoo-hoo, Rabbi Ha-Ha and Rabbi Shmuel Hershel ben Yerocham Laybl Fitzpatrick

You may have thought your Jewish education was complete with knowing how to make latkes for Rosh Hashana. But you have just scratched the surface of obscure Jewish trivia. Why pay attention to the most important, inspirational or often-cited authorities when you can learn practically nothing from the rabbinic version of a one-hit wonder? It took Rabbi Chalom three months just to find these guys, so it better have been worth it.

Shabbat: Saturday, 16th of Chutzpah, 7:17 AM, 314159
Humans Are, Like, Awesome!
We are the best species ever! We can do just about anything, have done just about anything, and we rule the planet by virtue of our big brains and bigger guns, germs and steel. Join us for a rip-roaring pep rally to the awesomeness that we are — it doesn’t get more Humanistic than this!

Committee Committee Meeting: April 1, 7:30 PM
The Committee Committee will hold its annual meeting to execute its annual task of forming another committee. Pursuant to our bylaws, section 249, paragraph 17, “No congregational year shall pass without the formation of at least one (1) new committee.” Under consideration for this year: Shabbat Attendance-Monitors Committee; Sunday Bagel Shleppers Committee; Whiners Committee; No-Guilt-Gelt-Getters Committee.


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Power and Powerlessness

My teacher, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, often emphasized that a key question for any religion or philosophy of life is, “where do I find the power to face the challenges of life?” Conventional Western theistic religions have emphasized prayer, divine intervention, miracles, guardian angels, and providence to avert disaster. And if disaster does strike, consolation is offered through the belief that, though tragic, one’s pain is in service of a greater divine plan, or a test of one’s faith, or even the consequence of one’s sins. In other words, some challenges are deemed necessary, and the power needed to face them is the power to endure suffering rather than end it.

The philosophy of Humanism takes a very different approach. We emphasize human power and responsibility, the tremendous achievements already realized through human efforts to make our lives longer and better, the importance of action rather than prayer to make our hopes real. We do not see cosmic virtue in suffering, and we do not assume that disaster is a necessary part of a divine plan. Rather than seeking the serenity to accept what we cannot change, we seek the strength to do what we can to improve the world and our own situation. And when we act, we KNOW we are making a difference because we can see the effects of our efforts.

Of course, many religious people DO act to help while also offering “thoughts and prayers.” And even those without 100% faith in direct divine intervention feel comforted by expressing their hopes, and many who know they are being prayed for feel better as well. If we secular people choose to act rather than pray, it is because we want more than to feel better.

Our Humanist stance has its shortcomings, as we discover far too often. When disaster strikes far away, be it natural disaster or unnatural human-authored cruelty (as we currently see in Ukraine), we may sign an online petition, donate money, change our Facebook profile picture, or boycott certain products. And those actions in sufficient numbers certainly make a difference over time. But it can feel like rather weak tea in the face of massive suffering, destruction and death that continues despite our efforts.

We believe that human power is the only conscious power working for good in our world. One of the challenges of relying on human power is accepting its limitations: we have limited knowledge and limited abilities. Some of us act for the greater good, and others impose their will on others at the cost of great suffering. There are no guarantees of a happy ending, and even a happy ending does not make up for unjust pain and death.

All the more reason to do what we can, and to push ourselves to do more, to move the ball forward in the right direction. All the more reason to offer the consolation of shared tears and empathetic pain. All the more reason to move from words to action – as Shimon Ben Gamliel said centuries ago, “study is not the most important things, but rather actions.” Humanity does not simply accept its limitations; it transcends them one step, one insight, one good deed for another at a time.

The Hebrew poet Rahel put it beautifully in the 20th century:

Here on Earth – not in high clouds-
On this mother earth that is close:
To sorrow in her sadness, exult in her meager joy
That knows, so well, how to console. . . .

Before night falls – come, oh come all!
A unified stubborn effort, awake
With a thousand arms. Is it impossible to roll
The stone from the mouth of the well?

If we cannot do anything or everything, let us nevertheless do what we can, together.

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To Pray or Not to Pray?

If secular people (Jewish or non-Jewish) find themselves in religious settings, what should they do?

You sometimes hear the claim that Judaism does not care what you believe, emphasizing deed more than creed. Anyone reading the English translation in an Orthodox, Conservative, or even Reform siddur {prayer book} would find that claim rather mystifying. The major focus in those services is not doctors who heal the sick, or farmers who grow food, or human experience that offers lessons in right and wrong; praise, petition and gratitude are generally directed “upward” to God rather than to each other.

Take Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles of Faith”, recited daily in traditional Jewish liturgy, and see how many you believe.

1. I believe with perfect faith that G-d is the Creator and Ruler of all things. He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.
2. I believe with perfect faith that G-d is One. There is no unity that is in any way like His. He alone is our G-d He was, He is, and He will be.
3. I believe with perfect faith that G-d does not have a body. Physical concepts do not apply to Him. There is nothing whatsoever that resembles Him at all.
4. I believe with perfect faith that G-d is first and last.
5. I believe with perfect faith that it is only proper to pray to G-d. One may not pray to anyone or anything else.
6. I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.
7. I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses is absolutely true. He was the chief of all prophets, both before and after Him.
8. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses.
9. I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be changed, and that there will never be another given by G-d.
10. I believe with perfect faith that G-d knows all of man’s deeds and thoughts. It is thus written (Psalm 33:15), “He has molded every heart together, He understands what each one does.”
11. I believe with perfect faith that G-d rewards those who keep His commandments, and punishes those who transgress Him.
12. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. How long it takes, I will await His coming every day.
13. I believe with perfect faith that the dead will be brought back to life when G-d wills it to happen.

You can do the same with the Amida standing prayer blessings, also part of the traditional daily service. You might agree with some, but some Jews won’t agree with ANY. While Reform Jewish liturgy has softened some of these belief issues, there is still plenty of “God” to go around in those services as well.

For those who DO believe in a God who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, writes Torahs and resurrects the dead, these words pose no dilemma. Similarly, there are those who are comfortable reciting these prayers in Hebrew who may not believe their literal meaning: perhaps they find meaning in the sounds and the rhythm; perhaps they don’t understand them and do not much care what they mean; perhaps they say the prayers simply because the words are traditional, which to them is more important than their being true; perhaps they have found a way to re-interpret “God” into something they can accept.

But there are many who sincerely and deeply do not believe in a god (or at least have strong doubts) and do not feel comfortable pretending to do so or redefining the plain meaning of what they are saying. They are following another Jewish tradition: sheh-lo yidabber ekhad ba-peh v’ekhad ba-lev – do not say one thing in the mouth and another in the heart (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 49a). Generations of Jewish martyrs died rather than say what they did not believe, and they died saying these words BECAUSE they believed them so deeply. Should we treat these prayers like meaningless sounds, or even worse like Christmas carols that are fun to sing but we don’t really mean? What should Jewish doubters do when faced with participating in such a service? Should they affirm a faith they do not share?

Image by Lawrence Bush

On some level, this issue is similar to a Jewish person visiting a Catholic church, or a Christian visiting a mosque – do what you feel comfortable doing, wait in respectful silence when you do not. If you have some Hebrew language knowledge, you could use the opportunity to practice your Hebrew reading skill or to learn something from the translation. Or you can treat the experience like a cultural anthropologist – witnessing the behaviors and customs of an approach to life foreign to your own, but produced by fellow human beings facing the same existence and challenges you do.

The more important question is what one does next – is a Jewish doubter condemned to perpetual dissatisfaction, always stuck with words and rituals they do not believe? I once did a funeral for a Jewish atheist who realized that volumes of the Loeb Classical Library, great works of Greco-Roman history and philosophy, were the same size and color as the Reform Union Prayer Book. So when his wife went to pray, he went to read and be inspired in his own way – and people commented on how closely he was following the service! Between supporting his wife and not knowing other options, he was present in body if not in spirit.

I do not advise replacement reading or the proverbial magazine hidden inside the book. A better answer today is that contemporary religious freedom has opened up myriad possibilities for creative responses to traditional liturgy. Jewish feminists have recast patriarchal language in more accessible terms. Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings uses ambiguous language, praising “The Source of Life,” which could be a god or goddess or simply the mystery of DNA and life itself. And congregations and communities of Secular Humanistic Judaism have created ceremonies, communities and schools that celebrate a cultural Jewish identity through a human-focused philosophy of life.

No longer need we simply endure, or feel like foreign observers in a celebration of our own identity. If we know what we believe, then we can be comfortable hearing what others believe, knowing that we have the opportunity and the strength to express who we are in our own time, in our own way.

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Judging With Uncertainty

One of the more challenging aspects of an evidence-based approach to life is that, generally, the evidence is mixed. Absolute faith can produce absolute certainty in the moral righteousness of one’s decisions (as blind or as wrong as such certainty might be). We who strive to evaluate reality based on what we can know about the world will necessarily be more ambiguous, more indecisive, more apt to change based on new evidence and new circumstances. And that means having to face times where multiple conflicting options have reasons to support them.

A few examples from recent events:

Is Israel an “apartheid state”? Amnesty International has joined Human Rights Watch and the Israeli advocacy group B’Tselem in branding Israel with the new scarlet letter A-word. Most Jewish organizations across a wide range of ideologies, even the very liberal Reconstructing Judaism, as well as the US State Department and many members of Congress reject the label, though some accept specific criticisms these organizations highlight. The Israeli Foreign Ministry responded with its own A-word, accusing Amnesty International of supporting antisemitism. Israel is not unique in the world as an ethnic homeland with a right of return and privileging a particular culture, and Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel do have legal rights even as there can be de facto disparate treatment in employment, residence and public life (as there is of minorities in the United States). Yet Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and the West Bank experience starkly disparate treatment in freedom of movement, assembly, speech, economic activity and treatment by the legal system from Israeli settlers living next to them. And not all of these distinctions are justifiable by balanced security considerations. My personal and subjective evaluation of the evidence would be a split verdict: Israel proper is NOT apartheid, but the West Bank certainly looks like it. Yet I can also see how honest observers looking at the same evidence could come to many different conclusions.

Should we watch the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics? The athletes and coaches of 90 other countries have basically nothing to do with Chinese human rights abuses, but the cultural genocide being committed against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang Province is an atrocity happening in real-time, including “murder, rape, forced sterilization, enslavement and forced population transfers” as an op-ed titled “The ‘genocide Olympics’ gives the lie to human-rights rhetoric” summarizes it. Some invoke the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Nazi Germany and the consensus of outside nations to look the other way for an “a-political” athletic event. And yet, there is the undeniable grace, excitement, and beauty of human beings performing to the best of their abilities. It is true that no nation is without sin, but that should not prevent us from deploying stones when stones are called for.

Is life getting better or is it just as bad as it has always been? Being subjective, our answers may depend on our economic class or race or social standing. Objective measures like longevity, infant and maternal mortality, and violent deaths (from car crashes to warfare), while not eliminated, are lower now per capita than ever recorded. However, disparities remain between different groups on these same measurements, plenty of other problems remain, and some problems were created by earlier solutions – large industry both raised our standard of living and polluted the environment on which life depends. Historically, radical upheavals do not only happen at extremes of human suffering; they also occur when the situation improves to the point that structural problems and limitations provoke a frustration that boils over in revolution. Do we emphasize our successes, or do we explore why the rising tide has not lifted all boats?

If there is a unifying lesson to these examples, it is that we can simultaneously make judgements and reserve judgement – accept that choices are complicated, that there is no one perfect answer, that the evidence is mixed. Rather than paralysis by analysis, we should pursue decisions with nuance instead.

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Of Maus and Men

In the wake of recent news that a school district in Tennessee has banned the graphic novel Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman from 8th grade instruction on the Holocaust, there have been many reactions – some fair, some frantic.

There is nothing inherently wrong with debating when it is age-appropriate to introduce Holocaust and historical trauma more generally to students. EVERY Sunday School or Hebrew School curriculum makes that determination, and teachers and education directors must also decide how graphic and detailed books and videos should be. No one suggests teaching Terrence Des Pres’ masterful yet stomach-churning The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, with its chapter on “excremental assault” demonstrating the depravity of the concentration camp system to the point of using the prisoners’ own bodies against themselves, to middle schoolers. Even the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers guidelines for teaching the subject including “age appropriateness.”

So why the strong reactions in January 2022? A few factors have come together:

  • A perceived rise in antisemitism, both in terms of measurable incidents of vandalism and violence and also in terms of rhetoric and imagery, has put the American Jewish community on edge. This news hit in the immediate aftermath of a livestreamed synagogue hostage taking, and shortly before dozens of swastikas were spray-painted at Washington DC’s Union Station. So any step that seems to diminish, de-emphasize, even denigrate the Jewish Holocaust experience provokes a strong reaction.
  • As others have articulated at greater length, Maus is not a redemptive narrative of Jews fighting back (like the movies Defiance or Uprising), or of Jews being saved by heroic others (like Schindler’s List), or of Jews hiding but maintaining their belief in humanity (like The Diary of Anne Frank). It is a hard story about unbelievable suffering and loss, cruelty and indifference, and intergenerational trauma. Director Stanley Kubrick, himself Jewish, once said, “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who don’t.”
  • Ongoing political divisions and suspicions in America are being played out in school curricula. The conservative freak-out about “critical race theory” aka anything that might make white students feel bad about what white America did to non-white America in the documented past has opened the door to increased meddling in school libraries and curricula. Age-appropriate LGBTQ-affirmative books are also being challenged, and often with similar religious motivations – the stated reasons for removing Maus were nudity and profanity, as well as violence.
  • The use and abuse of the Holocaust and antisemitism, and even Judaism, for other purposes has increased as well. Those opposed to mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations have deployed Holocaust imagery and rhetoric to dramatize their complaints and fears. Some critics of critics of Israel reflexively label even measured critiques “antisemitic.” Certain strains of evangelical Christianity have begun appropriating Jewish symbols, from the shofar to the mezuzah to the Passover seder – the recent establishment of a “Congressional Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values” with no Jewish members was just one more example.
  • This year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day marked 77 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Any survivors left, even hidden children, are well into their 80s and 90s. The fear of the loss of that generation, and their memories, and the reality of their historical experience, and the reality of today’s historical amnesia (both unintentional and on purpose) has put this issue on the front page of Jewish life.

So what should WE do? Sales of Maus are currently through the roof, libraries are publicly displaying their copies and encouraging students to read it, and many who never heard of the book are now being exposed to its brilliant visual and textual storytelling. Nothing helps publicize something you don’t like as much as telling people, “Don’t read that!”

On the larger issues of the place of the Holocaust in school curricula and in American Jewish life, we need to think deeply about what will be most effective. Telling our children, “Hitler would have killed you so that’s why you’re having a Bar Mitzvah” is counterproductive. There are many, many steps between graffiti and ghettoes. And we have resources, allies, legal systems and rootedness in our culture that were unavailable two generations ago. I am not at all blasé about the risks of Jewish life today – I attended two webinars on synagogue security just last week. But I also know that life must be about hope and action more than fear. And so I hope, and I act.

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Forethought of Grief

One of my favorite lines of poetry appears in Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things:”

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief
. . . . For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Life can be very difficult – we cannot predict our future as precisely as we would like, other people are unpredictable, the world around us seems to change a lightning speed, and medical advice to avoid COVID-19 or live longer may change with a morning’s headline. The question is how best to handle these realities: should we prepare for the worst, or hope for the best, or neither?

To be sure, most of the time we are not in control of our instant emotional responses – we do not CHOOSE to feel fearful or optimistic, we just are because of our natural temperament and our unconscious reactions to our environment and experiences. However, we ARE able to pause, to breathe, and to think about those initial feelings, and then we can explore reframing the issues and the situation. Sometimes it is rational to prepare for the worst and then be pleasantly surprised at anything better – for me, a lifetime of being a Detroit Lions fan might have something to do with that. And to be hopeful does not mean to be willfully blind to negative possibilities.

What does it mean to “tax [one’s] life with forethought of grief”? It is to expect the worst outcome and suffer in advance from what might never come to be. It is to burden yourself with fear and anxiety even when you are safe. “Forethought of grief” makes us suffer more than we must – if grief does come to pass, we must still suffer its impact when it strikes, no matter how much we worried in advance.

It is a Jewish cultural cliché to worry excessively, as in this simple joke: an American lost in the desert cries, “I’m so thirsty, I must have water!” A Frenchman in the desert rasps, “So thirsty, I must have wine!” A Jewish person in the desert laments, “I’m so thirsty, I must have diabetes!” The Jewish historical experience includes plenty of oy vey moments of persecution and disaster, but we have also enjoyed long periods of stability and success, sudden joy as well as sorrow.

Perhaps, like Berry, you draw inspiration from nature, from wild animals, from the passage of natural time which knows nothing of earlier seasons or winters to come. Perhaps you are able to pause your busy mind to give yourself a chance to reframe, re-analyze, reclaim your time now from your fear of the possible future. Most important, perhaps we can cultivate the skill of not doing, not planning, not worrying; the skill of simply being in the world, to rest and be free in our moment of quiet stillness.

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Jewish Courage 2022

Is being Jewish dangerous?

In 2015, I wrote about the need for Jewish courage in the aftermath of some antisemitic incidents. At the time, I drew comfort from historically low levels of antisemitic attitudes in the United States, and the fact that, unlike before and during the Holocaust, police and the legal system are on our side.

The hostage crisis at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas on January 15, 2022 transfixed us for several hours, from the initial Facebook livestream to breathless cable news coverage. In the days after, we see immediate “lessons” being drawn (which often agree with what the “teachers” already believed before): the need for Jews to arm themselves; warnings to avoid Islamophobic responses; how blame really lies with the political left (coddling anti-Zionists) or political right (easy access to guns); why interfaith dialogue is essential, or why it is pleasant but pointless for security because antisemitism is a mental illness endemic to certain cultures – in the words of the medieval commentator Rashi, Esav soneh et Yaakov – Esau [the non-Jew] hates Jacob [aka Israel, the Jew].

What is indisputable is that events since 2015 have made being publicly Jewish feel more dangerous, from wearing identifiably Jewish clothing (both religious and Israel-connected) to attending a synagogue. This list of antisemitic events in the US just since 2018 is shocking to review: shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, CA and at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, NJ; stabbings at a Hanukkah party in Monsey, NY; physical attacks in Los Angeles and elsewhere during a flare-up in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; a rabbi attacked outside of a summer camp at a Jewish Day School in Boston. Vandalism takes one kook with a can of spray paint in the dead of night, but kooks with knives or guns in the light of day seem to be getting bolder.

There are always prudent steps we can take: safety and security training, partnerships with like-minded individuals and institutions, having an appropriate relationship with local law enforcement. And we can draw comfort from the same realities that comforted me in 2015; these events, while less rare, are still very rare. To visit a synagogue or a Jewish Community Center or to wear Jewish “gear” in public should not require courage. Unfortunately, these days we are reminded of the difference between what “should” be and what “is.”

I have never been afraid to be a Jewish leader, to wear whatever t-shirt I choose, to be who I am wherever I am. I also let my children ride bicycles and (age-appropriate) drive a car, and I have gone to the grocery store throughout the COVID pandemic – masked and distanced, but doing what I needed to do. Risk is a part of life, and life is a terminal condition. But courage, and Jewish courage, are not easy. We who do not rely on a supernatural net nevertheless need to continue forward on the tightrope of life. If we let fear dominate our lives, we will not truly live. We need our community, and if we are proud to express our Jewishness at joyous times when life is easy, then we should work to do the same when it is difficult.

An old Yiddish saying laments “s’iz shver tsu zeyn a yid – it is difficult to be a Jew.” It is also wonderful and beautiful and inspirational to be part of our unique chapter of the human experience. Who ever said anything good and worthwhile and meaningful was going to be easy?

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Helping Others Helps Us

One of the most meaningful tasks as a rabbi involves not doing much more than showing up and listening.

Even before COVID times, much more of my work time was spent on screens than I would have imagined – researching and writing sermons, preparing for classes, keeping up with email, editing and posting videos and, yes, composing articles and blog posts just like this! As I came to accept this as the new way of the world, I began to appreciate even more those times I could get out of the office and made a difference face to face. Some of the most important of those moments have happened when someone was ill, or even dying.

Visiting congregants in the hospital moves me in many ways. Sometimes they are on the mend and I get to see them get better, from hospital bed to walking to going home to coming back to Kol Hadash. Sometimes they are on the decline and I am there to comfort them and their families through the process and its ups and downs. Sometimes they are facing a shock – stroke or accident or serious diagnosis – and there is little I can do other than listen and offer perspective. But showing up and listening and caring actually mean a great deal.

As a Humanistic rabbi, I do not pray for healing; I would rather direct my words and my presence towards those who need them, towards people who are sick and those caring for them. There is clear evidence that positive attitude and feeling supported can improve health outcomes, and even terminal patients deserve dignity and support and the opportunity to talk and be heard. Sometimes there is little I can say or do, but being there and listening makes a real difference.

The traditional Jewish value of bikkur kholim, visiting the sick, is one that I cherish and celebrate and live when I can. When members of my congregational family, and their families, need pastoral support through difficult times, I am honored to to be invited to help in this way. After all, it helps me too: to feel trusted and useful, to see more of the human experience, to provide uplift and inspiration, to make even a small difference in the life of another. And you don’t need rabbinic training to do that! Make a call, send a card, write a text and let someone you care about know that they matter. Helping others helps us.

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