Then and Now – Yom Kippur Memorial 5779

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur Memorial sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2018/5779 as part of a series entitled “Either/And.”  You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

One of the most common Jewish commandments is Zakhor – remember. The verb appears over 160 times in the Hebrew Bible, not counting parallels like “do not forget.” The traditional Friday evening Kiddush blessing describes Shabbat as both a remembrance zikaron of creation, and a reminder zekher of the Exodus from Egypt – neither event happened historically, but we should remember them. The novelist Jonathan Safran Foer even calls memory a Jewish Sixth Sense:

Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing…memory…[While some] process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger.

The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.

When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?

How DO we remember? We see, we feel, we experience in the Now. When now becomes then, a shift happens – a short-term memory of “just now” becomes a long-term memory of “then.” The present becomes the past. And very quickly. The older we get, news stories that were current events appear in history books. If you know a high schooler studying modern history, read their textbook and be shocked. Children born in the year 2000 just started college. Today becomes yesterday becomes last year in a backward glance, and it can feel like the space between the immediate now and the distant then is a chasm.

There are moments that bridge the gap, times that “then” and “now” come together. One of those moments is the afternoon of Yom Kippur, at the end of our Jewish New Year observance, when we reflect on love and loss. Rather than outsourcing the job with “Yizkor, He will remember,” we prefer to take ownership and say Nizkor” – we will remember.

Where were you the FIRST time you heard that a parent or grandparent had died? Chances are you remember the moment very clearly. It could have been in a car, a hospital, a home. Early in the morning or the middle of the day. That moment of loss then can become now just by remembering. That feeling of loss then can be felt now, in this season, or any moment an absence is noted – a joke you want to share, a story you remember, a lesson you learned. The rabbis said there is no early or late in the Torah, using any passage to explain any other. We might say there is always early and late in mourning; there is always where we were then, and where we are now and the space and time between them that makes the difference between immediate loss and loving memory. Then and now.

This High Holidays, we have gone beyond the binary – rather than either/or, we live through either/and. There is no more stark binary than alive or dead. We can wax poetic about someone who is alive and also dead in some emotional ways, or someone who is dead and yet alive in our memories. But there are times we have to accept the binary, accept that someone we love is dead. They exist in the past tense while we are in the present and future.

Or are we? Beyond the binary of then or now. Are our lost loved ones exclusively past? We remember them as they were then, but our most vivid memories of them feel like the present on instant replay. Then becomes now all over again. Projecting the present into the past does not work – my maternal grandmother died in 1989 and never knew the internet. Projecting the past into the present does work – I remember her jokes, I still play the same word game with my mother that my mother played for years with HER mother. And we have started playing it with my daughter. As I mentioned once before, the smell of Gerber baby food bananas instantly transported me from feeding my infant daughter to my own childhood enjoying my grandmother’s banana bread with her secret baby food ingredient.

Then and now exist within us at every moment. We are always who we were as well as who we are. We filter the world and new experience through the lenses we have grown over the years. So, too, with our loved ones who are no longer with us. They are part of us, alive in our memories, a presence in our present, then and now at one moment.

In the Hebrew Bible, every major character dies, except Elijah. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses – they all die. We assume their wives die too, but we rarely read about them. In our own experience, we know that everyone dies, and we know that NOT everyone is remembered. That is what makes our memory special, and precious, and important. When we remember them, when we remember then, we transcend the limits of now. We go beyond ourselves with fact and with feeling to find fellowship together, each with our individual losses and legacies.

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is a powerful and poetic exploration of a year of grief after the sudden loss of her husband. At the end of the book (p225-6), Didion reflects on the passage of time, and the beginning of a new year.

I do not want to finish the year because I know that as the days pass, as January becomes February and February becomes summer, certain things will happen. My image of John at the instant of his death will become less immediate, less raw. It will become something that happened in another year. My sense of John himself, John alive, will become more remote, even “mudgy,” softened, transmuted into whatever best serves my life without him. In fact this is already beginning to happen. All year I have been keeping time by last year’s calendar: what were we doing on this day last year, where did we have dinner,…is it the day. I realized today for the first time that my memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John. This day a year ago was December 31, 2003. John did not see this day a year ago. John was dead…..

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table. Let them become the name on the trust accounts. Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water….

 

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Here and There – Yom Kippur Morning 5779

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur Morning sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2018/5779 as part of a series entitled “Either/And.”  You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.

Akeda Sarajevo haggadah

Binding of Isaac, Sarajevo Haggadah c. 1350

The saga of Abraham has many dramatic moments. He disguises his wife as his sister to save his own life. He takes his handmaid Hagar to produce a son, the original Handmaid’s Tale. Abraham becomes a father again through his wife Sarah and then expels Hagar and her son. God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his new son Isaac, and then stops him from the terrible deed. Abraham buries his wife and sees his son married back into his clan before he himself finally dies and is buried by both of his sons, Isaac and Ishmael.

The most dramatic moment of Abraham’s story may be the very beginning – the first divine command he receives is Lekh lekha – get up and go. Move away from your land, where you were born, from your father’s house – move to a new land. The Hebrew is particularly resonant – lekh lekha could mean “go, get going,” or it could also mean “go to yourself.” If Abraham can leave Mesopotamia, the land of his birth, for the promised land, maybe lekh lekha is better translated as “get lost, and find yourself.” Lekh Lekha also means, “your true home is not here; it is there. So make there your new here. You cannot be in both.”

This High Holidays, we want the best of both worlds. On Rosh Hashana we explored prioritizing BOTH me AND we, and how to balance the needs of US and THEM. Last night we saw the complexities between good and evil. Today we go back to one of the oldest questions in human evolution: here or there? Homo Sapiens has always wandered – we found our way out of Africa 170,000 years ago, and now we cover the globe. Today’s visual and cultural diversity was created by the wide range of environments we made our home. Did our early ancestors hear a lekh lekha of their own? Were they pushed out by drought or disease, or were they pulled by the lure of adventure and greener pastures? We are familiar with the wandering Jew, from many places but at home in none, perpetually looking for a new “there” less agonizing than the insufferable “here”. From Israel to the Roman Empire to Germany to Poland to America. Or from Israel to North Africa to Spain to the Ottoman Empire and back to Israel. We may have called ourselves the “Chosen People” descended from Abraham, but we were also the Choosing People who mixed with global neighbors to produce Jewish visual and cultural diversity. Even the modern State of Israel has not changed this inheritance – Rabbi Sherwin Wine once quipped that Israel is the rare homeland where people ask you, “where are you from?” In that, he added, Israel is very much like America – both nations of immigrants.

There are limits to the political topics clergy should discuss– there are legal limits for the congregation’s non-profit status, and there are prudential limits of what it is wise to discuss. In recent years, Israel has become a third rail in many Jewish communities – with consensus breaking down and emotions rising, maybe better to say nothing. Humanistic Judaism has always affirmed your right to make up your own mind, and we have often asked difficult questions that others avoid. So I am happy if you disagree with me – it means you are paying attention, even on Yom Kippur morning! At this moment, questions of national self-definition both for our country the United States and for Israel as a Jewish state are so important and so disputed that I would be shirking my rabbinic duty if I hid my opinions. Sometimes the dangerous phase in a relationship is not difficult conversation, not even yelling – the dangerous phase is silence. As poet Marcia Falk put it, “It is not our purpose to be divisive. But we are already of many minds. Silencing the concerns will not diminish them; it will not make them go away. Dare we ask these questions? Dare we not ask them? If not now, when?”

Human powers of creation are so strong that we can forget we were the creators! As Yehuda Amichai wrote:

I say with perfect faith
that prayers precede G-d.
Prayers created G-d.
G-d created man,
And man creates prayers
that create G-d who creates man.

Our need for answers and meaning moves us to create entities with a life of their own; they can be a golem that saves us, or one that runs amok like Frankenstein’s monster.

How can a person draw a line in the sand, dividing the earth? I remember the first time I noticed they had to make all new globes because borders had changed. Maybe with Google Maps these days it’s easier to think of those place names as arbitrary. You may have heard that Snapchat’s map data was hacked in August, renaming New York City as “Jewtropolis”! When we only saw names and places printed in atlases and etched on globes, they defined the world and its people. I imagined the lines painted on the ground. And, of course, there were value judgments attached – HERE we are, and they are THERE. In modern Hebrew, you call Israel “Ha-aretz” – THE land, and everywhere else is “khutz la’aretz” – outside of the land. Most of us live in a me-o-centric universe. And we have not moved around as much as we think. A skeleton found in England from 10,000 years ago was DNA compared with area residents, and scientists found a direct descendant living nearby – ironically, a history teacher! Jews lived in Iraq for almost 2,500 years, in Greece and Italy for 2000, in North Africa for 1,500, and in Eastern European communities for several centuries before the Holocaust. Back then, even if we imagined another homeland out there, we were home in our Diaspora “here.” Very few Jews felt Abraham’s pull to get up and go to the promised land between the river and the sea. They read lekh-lekha every year, but almost no one went.

I spin a globe and I find myself in my country, my state, my metro area. I may also look for where I used to live, where my family came from, where we might travel. I have been fortunate in my life – I have never been forced to move. I have never had my legal status challenged, and I have never had to say that my home is no longer livable, that somewhere out there HAS to be better than here. But my grandparents and great-grandparents did face this. And, contrary to popular opinion, not all Jews who came to America did so entirely legally – some bribed their way out of Russia, and some snuck over a border into the United States. Growing up in Detroit, I heard stories about Boblo Boat immigration – Boblo Island was an amusement park island in the middle of the Detroit River between Michigan and Ontario, Canada. When some could not gain admission to the US, they got into Canada, made their way down to Windsor, took the Boblo boat from there and then just got on the boat going back to Detroit! No papers, no permission.

Borders may be arbitrary, and they may limit who can move where, but borders may also be necessary. If democracy depends on voting, then lines must be drawn to decide who is voting for what, and which laws apply where. I do not expect to travel to Tokyo or Istanbul or Kankakee and to be to able to vote on their government or their laws. I do not want to get lost today in the swamp of where lines should be drawn or how they should be enforced or what standards of immigration should be – good people can honestly disagree. The human conversation we CAN address – not separating children from parents. Being compassionate to the homeless, tempest-tost that find their way to the golden door. Not demonizing entire populations. Part of the humane side of humanism is understanding experiences beyond our own. My reading of the Jewish experience produces empathy for humans who suffer, not oppressing the stranger because we were strangers in strange lands. Even our mythical father Abraham is famous for migrating, and also for hospitality – when three unknown travelers appear, he offers to wash their feet and brings them food and drink (it was meat and milk together, but never mind). I am not at all saying that Jewish tradition and Jewish values endorse open borders – given the treatment prescribed for the Canaanites upon conquering the promised land, the opposite is more likely true. I AM saying that MY reading of our cultural values and the Jewish historical experience suggest more compassion than we have seen. The success story of America, the bridging of “here” and “there” is shown on Cinco de Mayo, and St. Patrick’s Day, and Pulaski Day. Welcome others to enjoy your heritage. Celebrate where you are from where you live now. From there, living here.

If we accept that the United States, with our abundance and prosperity and relatively benign neighbors, still needs borders, kal va’khomer – how much more so does Israel, with limited land and water, and very hostile neighbors. Love your neighbor as yourself does not always work – it depends on the neighborhood. Just as there are multiple claims to the historic land of Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, there are also multiple claimants to Abraham’s legacy – Arabs claim descent from Ibrahim through Isma’il, Jews claim Avraham Avinu (Abraham our father) via Isaac. Again, I do NOT want to sink into the quicksand of border lines and legal sovereignty and who did what to whom when. 25 years after the Oslo Accords, between terrorism and territory, we seem no closer to a final resolution. Again we can turn to the human side, the moral question of rights and the thorny challenges of identity. The immediate ancestors of most of today’s Israeli Jews DID come from “there” – from Iraq and Poland and Morocco and Ethiopia, every corner of the globe. But they are now “here” in modern Israel, which itself has been here for 70 years. The living Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967 and their descendants may be living “there” in Lebanon or Jordan, but they hold memories of what they still consider their homes. Both Israelis and Palestinians are in one place, whatever you call it and however you divide it.

1018316866If we believe in human rights – the right to have a voice in your government, the right to be judged under the same set of laws as your neighbors, the right to influence those laws by voting and legal petition, the right to have your property respected, to right to live in physical safety – then no matter where you draw the lines, things could be improved on both sides. Do we also believe in collective group rights, like the right to express your culture, to speak and to teach your language, to celebrate your national or ethnic identity? This is more complicated. The Jewish nation-state Law passed this summer made official an Israeli flag with a Jewish star, a state seal with a menorah, and the national anthem Hatikvah as expressing Jewish group rights alone. If you thought those were all already true before the bill passed, you are absolutely correct – the flag already had a Jewish star, the national anthem was already Hatikvah. The problems with the bill were:

  • It emphasized a Jewish state without also emphasizing a democratic state;
  • It demoted Arabic from an official language to “special status,” whatever that will mean;
  • It endorsed “Jewish settlement” as a national value, implying that Jewish population centers in both Israel proper and the West Bank can be created and kept as ONLY Jewish; and
  • It included a patronizing clause that Israel will help Diaspora Jews preserve their heritage in the Diaspora – in other words, keep your Reform and Conservative Judaism over THERE, far away from HERE.

Why pass a law that is either common sense or provocative? Right wing Israeli politics, Netanyahu’s alliance with the global trend of rising ethnic nationalism, a response to external hostility, a desire to strengthen the Jewish character of the state. Some speculate it may be preliminary to annexing the West Bank, including its Palestinians, so that even if they become Israeli citizens and the state’s demographics change from 80% Jewish to 60% or less, the officially Jewish nature of the state will be very hard to change. The god of the Bible promises the land to Abraham and his descendants; the Israeli Declaration of Independence makes no reference to this Biblical promise. Which value system will win?

I do not live THERE, in Israel; I live HERE, in the United States. I cannot vote in Israeli elections, I did not serve in their army. The Jewish state affects me as a Jew, but more emotionally & ideologically than legally. There are many Israelis, including many fellow Humanistic rabbis, who are defending democracy & human rights, and I will not boycott or divest from or sanction them. But we do need to listen to each other to make the progress we want to see. As one example of the miscommunications that could happen, an American Jew, a Russian Jew and an Israeli Jew were sitting together in a restaurant. The waiter asked, “Excuse me, you look like you are out of water. Would you like some more?” The American Jew says, “what is ‘out of?'” The Russian Jew says, “what is “more?” The Israeli Jew says, “what is ‘excuse me?'” The American branch of the Jewish family is very attached to creating a mixed gender prayer space at the Western Wall – important for tourists but irrelevant to most secular Israelis. Secular Israelis are much more concerned about a new term: hadata – the imposition of religion (dat) on society. They want the freedom to marry whom and how they want, to be buried where and how they want, and to have these events recognized by their government. They want equal treatment under draft laws, whether one studies Talmud or electrical engineering. Those issues don’t affect American Jews here who do not get married there or live there or get drafted there, so we complain about the Western Wall and they argue about their issues and we can’t get on the same page.

Even here, in America, we can’t agree over which is more important for Jewish survival – what happens there in Israel, or what is happening here. The Netanyahu government happily works with the Trump Administration and Christian Evangelicals because they agree on many issues. This infuriates those American Jews who oppose the Trump and Evangelical agendas. Even staunch Israel supporters can become suspect for wanting to hear the Palestinian “other side.” On the left, some intersectionality advocates are reluctant to push back on antisemitism a la Louis Farrakhan as strongly as on other prejudice, and they have trouble welcoming those who are both liberal and Zionists. Support for Israel has become a partisan political issue in a way it never was before, dividing us still further here, and widening the gap between here and there.

How to bridge the here and there between American Jews and Israeli Jews? My best suggestion is shared experience. We hope to plan a Humanistic Judaism trip there, to Israel, next fall to coincide with our next ordination of Israeli rabbis. Any trip we run will necessarily include meetings with Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, because we need to hear many sides to make up our minds. And Israelis need to come here too – we need a backwards Birthright that sends young Israelis to Diaspora Jewish communities, or a March of the We’re Still Here. The current March of the Living takes Diaspora Jews to concentration camps and then to Israel. The March of the We’re Still Here would reverse it – Israel to Europe to America. We will still have different world views and experiences and values – living as a majority is different from being a minority, living with a national identity is different than a religious and cultural identity. Each side needs to hear a new version of lekh lekhanow it should be lekh lahem – go to them. Find out who THEY are, and they can also learn who you are.

While we’re making new terms, we could do better than “Diaspora” to refer to ourselves. Historically, living out of the land of Israel was considered galut or exile, a sad state of not living where you belonged. Moving back to Israel was Aliyah or going up to a higher plane, while heaven forbid leaving there again was yerida, descending to a lower state. “Diaspora” was less negative than exile, from the Greek roots for spreading of seeds (dia and spore), but it was still Israel-centric – spread out from where? Haaretz, the land, and khutz la’aretz, everywhere else. Over a century ago, some Yiddishists and Jewish socialists emphasized the Diaspora with a principle they called “doykeit – hereness“, saying they would address Jewish challenges where they already were in Eastern Europe and using the Jewish culture they already lived in Yiddish. But that’s not perfect either – we are connected to both here and there.

What if we thought of ourselves differently? After all, my family tree has lived in the United States for many generations. Where would a Russian Jew living in Northbrook for 25 years consider their homeland – Illinois? Moscow? Jerusalem? One of the basic arguments Sherwin Wine made for why the Jewish people is more than a religion is our sense of self as an am, a nation, a family. Even if it is a myth, we claimed descent from Abraham our father, while Lutherans don’t all claim to be descended from Martin Luther or Muslims from Mohammed. If we are a claimed family, then we are not Israel and Exile, homeland and diaspora. We are branches of the Jewish family. Abraham’s name offers still more support – from Abram, exalted father, on his journey he becomes Abraham – the father of many. Our Americanness likewise includes a claimed pedigree with Founding Fathers who have nothing to do with our genetics.

If we are the Israeli branch and the American branch and the Australian and Argeninian and French branches of the Jewish family, then we do not have to agree on everything. My Jewish life does not revolve around Israel, but neither can I ignore what 40% of my cultural family does, experiences, celebrates. In your family, in the Jewish family, in the American family, silence, not speaking to each other, is the danger. If we must argue, let us argue. We may yet get from argument to listening, and from listening to learning.

Can you be both here and there? A Yiddish saying tell us ein tuches ken nit tantzen af tsvay khasines – one tush can’t dance at two weddings. The medieval Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi lamented that his heart was in the East, in Jerusalem, while he himself was at the end of the West, the other end of the Mediterranean Sea in Spain. I will not forget thee, Jerusalem, but if I am for Jerusalem alone, what am I? I can be for and work for the best vision of Jerusalem and Washington, Jewish and American and human, here and there, us and them, me and we. We are, all of use, more than one family, identity, place. I asked earlier tonight if a national motto could be useful, I believe this one says it best. E pluribus unum – from many, and from Abraham the mythical father of many, there can be one.

Shana Tova!

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Good and Evil – Yom Kippur Evening 5779

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur Evening sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2018/5779 as part of a series entitled “Either/And.”  You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

 

Sarajevo Haggadah A+E

Sarajevo Haggadah, c. 1350

In the mythical Garden of Eden, are Adam and Eve fully human? For starters, they do not have belly buttons. More important, they are not subject to the basic conditions of human existence. They do not die; they do not work; they are alone with no generations before or after them; and they are a-moral – they do not know good from evil. When the snake promises they will be like gods, he does not promise they will know everything or be able to do anything. The divinity the snake promises is to know good from evil. Later it is god who is concerned they will eat from the tree of life and live forever; they have already eaten from the tree that makes them human – the knowledge of good and evil. The Garden of Eden is an origin story, imagining how we became what we are. The true promise, the true journey of every human, is to become our fullest humanity, to learn good and evil. Each of us eats from a tree of knowledge, discovers good and evil, and, we hope, learns how to choose. Cain and Abel show how hard that can be. In the beginning, Adam and Eve are really in the Kinder-Garden of Eden – the human story is what’s next.

 

This High Holidays, we are going beyond black and white. It is very easy to categorize our needs into “me or we,” or to divide up the world into “us or them”. Our messy reality is shades of gray, more accurate and nuanced and flexible than absolutes. The Kinder-Garden of Eden makes it very simple – knowledge of tov va’ra Good and Evil. Either/or, no ambiguity. Ever since that beginning, the stereotype of religious morality has been just as simplistic – obey clear divine commandments or commit sin. Thou shalt, and thou shalt not, and never the twain shall meet. If you have any questions, do not rely in your own understanding – rely on religious authority. In Judaism the law was the path, the halakha, from the word halakh, to walk; in Islam, Shari’a also means “path”, as does the Tao in Taoism. And if religious laws seem to conflict or create problems, that must be your limited perspective. If some Torah passages say that children suffer for their parents’ sins, and other Torah passages say that children do NOT suffer for their parents’ sins, the job of the clever rabbi is to let you THINK for a moment that there is a contradiction, and then to show you how these apply to different circumstances, or depend on different types of sin, or something else. After all, the United States managed to harmonize “All men are created equal” and brutal slavery for its first four-score and seven years.

Some may remember an example of “Talmudic” logic: two men fall down a chimney, one gets dirty and the other does not. Which one goes to wash up? Obviously the clean one – each looks at the other, and the dirty one sees his clean fellow and assumes he is clean, while the clean one sees the dirty one and assumes he is dirty. Two men fall down a chimney, one gets dirty and the other doesn’t – which one washes up? Obviously the dirty one – they look in the mirror across the hall and see which one is dirty and which one is not. Two men fall down a chimney; is it really possible to fall down a chimney and NOT get dirty?

As this story shows, a black and white stereotype of religious morality does not hold up to strict scrutiny. Early rabbis did deviate from Torah law far to the right or to the left, even though they did it through commentary rather than direct amendment. The mis-translated “Thou shalt not kill” is really lo tirtzakh – do not MURDER, which means distinguishing among capital punishment, warfare, self-defense, the defense of others, accidental manslaughter, death by rampaging oxen that belong to you, etc. The Rabbis knew that people’s motivations can be varied, that there are gradations in behavior, that good or evil as the only options is just too simple. For example, from Pirke Avot 5:11, the Sayings of the Fathers:

There are four types of temperaments. One who is easily angered and easily appeased—his virtue cancels his flaw. One whom it is hard to anger but hard to appease—his flaw cancels his virtue. One whom it is hard to anger and is easily appeased, is righteous. One who is easily angered and hard to appease, is wicked.

Which one are you? It might depend on the day, or the person you’re dealing with. The rabbis preferred hard to anger and easy to appease. All four are recognizably human, and only one of the 4 is called “wicked”. One is righteous, one wicked, and two are somewhere in between, like most of us most of the time. On Yom Kippur, we are encouraged to forgive others, to forgive ourselves, to allow ourselves to be appeased in the interests of shalom, peace. If our natural character is to be hard to appease? Let us try to be more forgiving. If we tend to be easy to anger, let us work to be more patient. The very concept of Yom Kippur indicates that it is not all or nothing, black or white, one strike you’re out, righteous or wicked. If we all seek forgiveness, that means that we all fail, we are all a complex composition of good and evil and middling and marvelous.

Religion is a reflection of the human experience, so it makes sense that there are provisions for failure and repair, and some recognition of ethical reality. Traditional religions may project reward & punishment to a cosmic level or an afterlife, while we see reward and punishment as human responsibilities. And we disagree that religion is a necessarily precondition for morality. Put simply, you can be good with or without a God. This August, we learned that over seventy years, 300 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania sexually abused over 1000 victims. These priests devoted their lives to their religion, motivated by their faith. We presume they thought about the sermons they delivered, they read the scripture they cited, they believed in some kind of a god. I am NOT AT ALL saying that all priests are like this – 300 is a fraction of the number of priests who worked in those dioceses over 70 years. What I AM saying is that their example shows that religion is no guarantee for the problem of good or evil. All their faith and study and good works did not keep them from doing heinous evil.

So we are beyond simplistic good & evil. We know that people are complicated, that life is complicated, and that religion is no guarantee. But maybe we have muddied the waters too much. What do we mean by good or evil? Eve eats from the tree of knowledge when she sees that the fruit is desired to make one wise. God & tradition condemn her for breaking the rules, but we might celebrate her for seeking knowledge, rules be damned! When I mentioned child abuse, did you think “those men were evil”, or did you think “those men were sick”? We live in an understanding yet cynical era – accusations of evil draw rebuttals of explanation, claims of virtue spur us to find hypocrisy. Do a few moral or legal failings cancel any past or prohibit any future good deeds? Or does it matter what those failings were? If I as a rabbi were fined for income tax evasion or had a drunk driving infraction, I would likely keep my job. If I had lied on my resume & never attended Yale Univ., I might survive with a deep apology & public repentance. You can imagine what might get me fired, the abuses that have brought down rabbis and professors and sparked a Jewish parallel to #MeToo called #GamAni. In such cases, no mitigating explanations would save me. Please remember these examples are all hypothetical!

There are gradations of good & evil, a spectrum and not a dichotomy. And yet, there is a black line at the end of that spectrum. There is evil. A Holocaust is Evil. Child sexual abuse is evil. Not every wrong is absolute evil, but there is evil. Adam and Eve may receive the knowledge of good & evil, but their sons quickly demonstrate the power of freedom with the first murder. You may have heard a recent story of two 20-somethings who wanted to bike around the world to show that people are basically good. One of them was quoted as saying,

“People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted. People are bad. People are evil.”
I don’t buy it. Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own… By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind.

And that may well be true, by and large we are kind. But by and large is not everyone everywhere – on their bikes in Tajikistan, this couple was rammed by a car and then stabbed to death by five men who later pledged themselves to ISIS and vowed to kill nonbelievers. Evil is not make-believe – we may throw the word around too easily, but it is part of the human experience and we are naïve to pretend otherwise.

Knowing the difference between good and evil is basic to humanity; AGREEING on what evil is divides us like nothing else. For some people, cheaters taking advantage of the system is worse than allowing people to go hungry. For others, allowing people to go hungry is worse than a few people cheating. Both sides have a point – agreed-upon rules helps society function, and rules alone are not responsive to every human need. In general, we like to define what is good by its consequences – is it good for us and others, or does it harm them? This summer, I participated in a public conversation with Bishop Gene Robinson, who caused a schism in the global Anglican communion when he was chosen to be an Episcopal Bishop because he is gay. Too many of his church relied on ancient rules alone to decide good and evil, and I said to him that if those objecting to him had based their sense of right and wrong on real-life consequences for real people and not just on ancient rules, they might have seen the real harm they were doing to real people. Can we violate the ethical value of group loyalty to protest something wrong by, say, kneeling for the national anthem or challenging Israel’s treatment of Palestinians? Some see a moral violation in undermining the group, others see keeping silent to preserve the group as immoral. Those who believe life begins at conception see thousands of murders; those who disagree believe the rights of women as full human beings supersede the rights of a potential person in utero. Can we really split the difference and compromise somewhere in the middle?

9780307455772_p0_v1_s550x406We need to be cautious with the evil label, to distinguish between honest disagreement and evil. Human knowledge is limited, and just as we should never assume that we are always factually right, we should avoid the absolute self-confidence that we are always morally right. We have self-serving reasoning, we are inconsistent in our own values, we do not always consider the full consequences of our choices, and our opponents are not always evil, neither in their motivations nor in the results of their ideas. I loved moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. If you want to argue effectively, do NOT to start from the assumption that your opponent is evil, with evil intentions using evil methods towards evil goals. Very few people look in a mirror with an evil laugh as they plan to do what they themselves know is evil. They are fighting for their family; they are defending their religious tradition; they are trying to save the world. My advice: figure out WHY they think what they are doing is right, and then you have a better chance to move the needle. Even those thugs in Tajikistan who rammed and stabbed the “unbelievers” had a motivation – I do not have to agree with their motivation to understand where it came from, and my understanding does not prevent me from condemning the action, resisting it, working to stop it.

Let us accept that we are post-Eden, and even post-post-Eden. For us, the consequentialists, the good enhances our humanity, the good has positive results for ourselves and for others, good creates happiness and meaning and dignity. Evil degrades and undermines humanity, ours and that of others; evil creates suffering and sadness and dependence and degradation. We know Good from Evil, and we know how to tell what good and evil are even without divine revelation and regulation. We will never all agree on the best route through this narrow passage, the policies and behaviors and beliefs best suited to this path. But we can agree that the only power we know that will enforce these rules of good and evil is our own power.

The Biblical Psalm 34 encompasses both extremes. On one side, it says that those who fear god lack nothing, the eyes of god are on the righteous and his face is set against evildoers, to erase their names from the earth. The human and the Jewish experience are very articulate showing this is not reality – the pious suffer plenty, and the wicked can get away like Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele who was not found until 1985, six years after he had died! On the other side, a popular Israeli song takes two verses from Psalm 34 to make a Humanistic message instead:

MEE HA-ISH HEH-KHA-FETZ KHA-YEEM
OH-HAYV YA-MEEM LEER-OT TOV
N’-TSUR L’-SHON-KHA MAY-RA
OO-S’-FA-TAY-KHA MEE-DA-BER MIR-MA
SUR MAY-RA VA-AH-SAY TOV
BA-KESH SHA-LOM V’-ROAD-FAY-HU
מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים;
אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב.
נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע;
וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה.
סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב;
בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.
Who is the person
Who desires life,
Who loves all his days
To see good?
Guard your tongue
From evil,
And your lips
From speaking deceit.
Turn away from bad
And do good.
Seek peace
And pursue it.

Why do we turn from evil and do good? Not because of cosmic reward or fear of punishment. We turn from evil and do good because it is good for us, for me and for we, for us and for them, here, there and everywhere.

We humans are not gods; if anything, the gods were made in our image. But we might ask: why a tree of the knowledge of good and evil – why not just the good? Some say that you need the opposite to know what you want – what is light without dark? Any origin myth must end where we are – and we are not only good. We can be good and we can be evil. We can be good to our people and evil to others. We can do evil things while thinking we are doing what is right. And every shade of grey in between. Most of what we do is neither all good nor evil – it is the best that we can do. And that is why we can forgive – we will need forgiveness too.

We live in an era of absolutes – to stand for nuance and dialogue and responsibility to facts is to stand apart. For us, it is to stand together. One of our closing songs for our High Holiday celebrations wishes each other L’shana Tova, a good year, Shana shel ratson tov – a year of good resolve, Shana shel shalom – a year of peace. If we can accomplish that, it will be good. Or, at least, good enough.

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Us and Them – Rosh Hashana Morning 5779/2018

This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana Morning sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2018/5779 as part of a series entitled “Either/And.”  You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.

 

Sarajevo Haggadah J+E

Jacob & Esau, Sarajevo Haggada c. 1350

Esau has good reason to be angry. Even though he is first-born, just before his twin Jacob, mother Rebecca loves Jacob better. When Esau arrives home starving, Jacob bargains Esau’s birthright for some stew. And when Isaac lies blind and sends Esau to catch venison, Jacob and Rebecca trick Isaac into giving Jacob the firstborn blessing meant for Esau. So Esau is MAD – he cries, he threatens to kill Jacob, and then he gets even with his parents.

 

When Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him off to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, commanding him, “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women,” and that Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and gone, Esau realized that Canaanite women displeased his father Isaac. So Esau went to Ishmael and married, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael

Take that, Mom and Dad! Jacob becomes Israel, father of the Hebrew nation, while Esau’s line detours into the wider world of “non-Jews.” In Rabbinic commentary, Esau is the quintessential “non-Jew”: physical, crude, indifferent to Jewish pieties, fighting Jacob. Esau is Rome, Esau is Christendom, dar al Islam – as medieval sage Rashi put it (citing rabbinic comments from centuries earlier): “it is known that esav soneh l’yaakov – Esau hates Jacob.” For centuries, this message was clearly understood – beware the strangers; do not marry out; “they” hate us. When push comes to shove, it will be us OR them. Through centuries of persecution, this Jewish suspicion was often reasonable. But what about today?

This Rosh Hashana, in 2018, can we go beyond the Or, can we try us AND them? Last night, we saw that our best self is not Me alone in a choice between Me OR We; we better understand ourselves and realize our potential if we accept Me AND We. The same is true for understanding our group and its development. Is the Passover seder celebrating Jewish freedom modeled on a Roman feast, complete with reclining? Yes. Is Hummus Israeli or Lebanese, ours or theirs? Yes. In a grocery store, I once saw a container of jalapeño hummus advertised as “south of the border” hummus, and I thought, “which border?” And yes, there was a sombrero on the package. “Ours AND theirs” makes more sense than “ours OR theirs” when it comes to culture, music, language – cultures have always mixed. We created Yiddish by speaking German to our medieval neighbors. Nu? What else is new?

Our question today of “Us or Them” is more visceral, more tribal, more exclusive, more dangerous. In Brooklyn you can find super duper extra glatt kosher pizza, sushi, even Chinese food, and the Orthodox patrons never claim that Moses invented the eggroll. But MARRY an Italian, an Asian, one of “them?” Never! A man once brought his new bride home to meet his old-world Jewish mother. “Mother, I’d like to introduce you to my wife. Her name is Running Deer.” The mother gravely extends her hand and says, “I’m Sitting Shiva.”

The Jews are not the only group that grapples with “us or them”. When the US Supreme Court in Loving vs. Virginia overturned bans on interracial marriage in 1967, 17 states still had those laws on the books. When Alabama finally removed the prohibition in the year 2000, 40% voted against removing it. Lest you think it’s backwater Alabama alone, nationwide opposition to interracial marriage in 2013 was 11%, which means over 30 million people.

Part of an “us or them” mentality means keeping the lines BETWEEN us and them clear. The more Spanish spoken in the US, the closer the white population gets to being less than a majority, the more integrated neighborhoods and universities and families become, “they” become inseparably part of “us.” So when a cereal company uses an interracial family to sell Cheerios, the trolls come out. And lest you think that Jewish suspicions of mixing are only the response of a precarious Diaspora minority, in Israel, where Jews are 80% of the population, there is a de facto ban on Jewish intermarriage. Orthodox rabbis, Muslim Imams and Christian clergy are in charge of legal marriage – no civil marriage means no inter-religious marriage. Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish-American intellectual, got into big trouble in the 1960s by comparing Israeli marriage rules to the 1935 Nuremburg Laws, which also banned intermarriage. You can guess why she got in trouble. Nevertheless, there have been public protests outside of Arab-Jewish weddings, and the quick removal of a novel about such a relationship from the Israeli High School curriculum. There were stories this summer about Israeli Arabs trying to join swimming pools and public protests in Afula against selling a house to an Arab family. Swimming pools? Integrated housing? Sounds sadly familiar here in Chicagoland, even right here in Deerfield, Illinois. In 1959 an integrated housing development split the community – there’s a plaque out there in the North Shore Unitarian Church lobby celebrating the minister and members of the church who argued for integration; I wonder if there’s a plaque at Mitchell Park, site of the planned development. Deerfield is still 95% white, and Highland Park (excluding Highwood) is 91% white, both more than Lake Forest at 90% or Northwest suburbs in the 80s or better. This is why some North Shore residents think of Chicago area African Americans or Latinos as “them” but not “us”, and the “us” of some Israeli Jews excludes Israeli Arabs. “Esau was a man of the fields, while Jacob dwelled in tents.” The culprit is lived experience – if you don’t meet “them”, know “them,” commute and work with “them,” socialize with “them,” then Them is not part of Us.

On the brighter side, the world we live in is very different than even a generation ago. 50 years after interracial marriage became a basic right in the United States, 1 in 6 new weddings are to someone of a different race or ethnicity and 1 in 10 married couples are an intermarriage of some kind. In 1967, only 20% approved of interracial marriage; today it is 90%. Not perfect, but much better. As far as Jewish intermarriage, in many corners of Jewish life, the line between Us and Them is quite fuzzy. If I told that “sitting shiva” joke to an audience of people under 30, they might not even get the joke. Not because they don’t know that a Shiva follows a funeral, but because the absolute rejection of intermarriage is so odd to them! For under 30s, the Reform movement has ALWAYS accepted Jews whose father is the Jewish parent. In their lifetime, the Jewish intermarriage rate has ALWAYS been 50% or higher, whether or not their parents found a rabbi to marry them.

buchdahl

Rabbi Angela W. Buchdahl

The fruits of this generation of openness are to be seen in the Jewish and Korean heritage of Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of the 2,300 member Central Synagogue in Manhattan; the wider welcoming of interfaith families in Reform and now even Conservative synagogues, and the fact that I do 20 weddings a year when at his peak our Rabbi Emeritus Daniel Friedman did over 100 – back then, he was one of the only rabbis in Chicagoland willing to celebrate intermarriages; today I am one of several. Through adoption, conversion, migration and intermarriage, the faces of the Jewish family are more diverse than ever. What does it even mean to “look Jewish” any more? Who is “one of them” and who is “one of us”? Jacob and Esau have re-united – in the womb! For many American Jews today, it can only be us AND them, because “they” are “us.”

And yet… tribalism is a stubborn instinct. This summer, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s genetic ancestry test came back 3% Ashkenazi Jewish – many people on social media demanded a recount. Some Twitter examples:

 

Or as Stephen Colbert put it on The Daily Show, “Haven’t the Jewish People suffered enough?” I have no idea what being 3% Jewish means to Paul Ryan himself – maybe it sparks an interest in exploring that part of his family heritage (which absolutely does happen); maybe it’s just party conversation material. I agree with critics of the story that essentializing Jewishness into genetic percentage excludes those who would join the Jewish family or marginalizes those with multiple heritages. As Rebecca Pierce, a self-described Black and Jewish filmmaker, tweeted,

However, in most cases, the rejection of Ryan’s being “a little bit Jewish” was not from solidarity with Jews of color; it was a visceral, tribal reaction based on politics. In other words, “he can’t really be Jewish because he believes X or votes Y.” I’ve heard it plenty in the other direction – when right-wing Jews say that any criticism of Israel means you’re a self-hating Jew. Either way, if you don’t agree with me, then you aren’t a real Jew, or at most you’re a Bad Jew. Evidently the wider Jewish world didn’t get my memo from last Yom Kippur that we should ban the phrase and the concept of “Bad Jew” – it’s wrong when traditionalists use it on liberal Jews, it’s wrong when we use it on ourselves, it’s wrong when liberal Jews use it on Conservatives. The Jewish tent today may be ideologically wider than some are comfortable with, but to accept that wider family means it will always be some variety of “Us AND Them” – to borrow from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, our Jewish family includes the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, and even the Judean Popular People’s Front, whoever he is.

Still, there ARE limits to “and.” What do we do with a group that refuses to accept us? Maybe sometimes it IS “us OR them,” because they insist on “themming” everyone. These are Islamic radicals who refuse any integration to Western society; a minority of Muslims to be sure but one that raises issues of women’s rights, children’s rights, and what citizenship means. These are the Jewish ultra-Orthodox who reject teaching their children English or owning smartphones, to protect them from the treyfe outside world. These are anti-Semites who are bold enough today to run for office, like the proud Illinois Nazi Arthur Jones in the 3rd Congressional District; some of us remember how the Blues Brothers felt about Illinois Nazis. These are the subtly bigoted who call the police on minorities doing nothing wrong – sitting in Starbucks in Philadelphia, having a barbecue in Oakland California, going door to door as a political candidate in their own district in Oregon, napping in their college’s common room (to my chagrin at Yale University)! These all happened this year, and by the way not in Alabama; in very liberal places. These Themmers are the xenophobic who fear that America is being taken from “us” and given to “them” – we’ll talk more about this on Yom Kippur. All of these groups have an Israel and an Esau, a chosen people and outsiders, an “us” worthy of protection and a “them” they suspect and fear. WE are their THEM – we are modernized, urbanized, secularized, free to think and to act, open to change. We are willing to listen to many opinions and we accept and even celebrate diversity. We WILL replace them, and they hate us for it.

I think of myself as a realistic optimist – I give people the benefit of the doubt, even forgive them once or twice, try to walk a mile in their shoes, see it from their perspective, cut them some slack for having a bad day. Sometimes Esau DOES hate Jacob, real antisemitism exists and has consequences. The Jews are not always number one on the bigotry target list, but we are often there. America has never supported a major anti-Semitic political party or platform. Around 10% of Americans hold clearly anti-Semitic attitudes, which has held steady over recent decades and is much better than the 1960s and earlier. Today that 10% is bolder, more visible, more confrontational. Perspective makes a big difference – 15 years ago, when I would speak about antisemitism, I highlighted that only 10% of Americans are anti-Semitic. Today I point out that 30 million Americans have anti-Semitic attitudes. The numbers haven’t changed: 10% = 30 million. Our perceptions and their public behavior have changed.

So what do we do? Do we persist in us AND them? Invite them to our Passover seders and High Holiday celebrations? Intentionally intermarry into Nazi families to change their attitudes? There’s an old Yiddish saying – don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out. I certainly welcome those outside of my group who welcome me. I will dialogue with those who will talk, and the conversation does not always have to be polite – if I can get angry and believe passionately in my values, so can they.

I will not love those who hate me. I will not apologize away those who hate others. I am Jewish, and I reject those of my group who treat the other 99.5% of the world as universal Esau, unworthy of respect or marriage. I am white when I buy a house, when I talk to a police officer, when I get a sunburn, and I reject those who hate and fear the non-white other. I am American, the grandchild and great-grandchild of immigrants, and I reject those who would slam the doors shut behind themselves. My “us” is not universal. I am part of the open us, the welcoming us, the tolerant & diverse us of the present and, I hope, the future. The closed them, the fearful them, the them of high barriers & rejection & anger, the us OR them mentality – those I reject.

giphyI am still open, and hopeful. Over the centuries, there was little love lost between the Catholic Church and the Jews – it was always an Us OR Them relationship. Jewish communities sometimes faced forced disputations, where a rabbi would debate a priest over who was right “us OR them.” Miscommunications could abound, and in their day these disputations could be matters of life or death. That was the REAL Spanish Inquisition, not Mel Brooks’ musical or the Monty Python sketch no one expects.

53 years ago, the Second Vatican council concluded, just two years before Loving vs. Virginia legalized interracial marriage. That council’s declaration Nostra Aetate, In our Times,  rejected the claim that Jews were guilty for the death of Jesus, it condemned “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,” and it created the possibility for a new beginning. When Mel Gibson’s bloody 2004 movie Passion of the Christ was condemned, some of the condemnation came from US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who had earlier published guidelines on how to create a passion play to avoid antisemitism and be sensitive to Jewish concerns. In this, they were on our side, in that battle between tolerance and intolerance it is indeed Us AND them. We are allowed to disagree – any interfaith dialogue that agrees all the time is boring and mostly useless. We disagree within parameters – we agree on each other’s basic worth, our dignity, our personhood, our right and ability to live our own lives. It is us AND them when THAT defines us.

In Genesis, there is a reconciliation for Jacob and Esau, and maybe too for Israel and the nations. Esau swears to kill his brother for his betrayal, and after many years the brothers meet again. Jacob is fearful, sending many gifts ahead and bowing seven times as he approaches Esau, the angry physical violent hunter. The drama is palpable: Esau runs towards Jacob, Esau grabs him, Esau falls on his neck – and Esau kisses Jacob, and they weep. Some rabbinic readers, convinced that Esau has always and will always hate Jacob, imagine that Esau tried to bite Jacob and broke his teeth – a new version of Israel, a stiff-necked people. In this reading, Esau cried from his own pain. Others see this moment as genuine reconciliation, an opening of new doors. That is possible if circumstances are right.

In the world we want, we see Jacob AND Esau, Israel AND the nations, Jews AND everyone, America AND humanity, me and we and us and them. Together that larger US faces the “them” of hatred and exclusion. In here, we say welcome, “brukhim ha-ba’im”, blessed are those who have come to be with us. Shana Tova.

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Me and We – Rosh Hashana Evening 5779/2018

This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana Evening sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2018/5779 as part of a series entitled “Either/And.”  You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.

Sarajevo Haggadah 7 days

Sarajevo Haggada c. 1350

In the beginning, there were two beginnings. In Genesis chapter one, the universe begins tohu va’vohu, chaos and void, and it moves towards order and definition – light is separated from dark, earth from water, day from night. On the 6th day, Elohim [god or the gods] creates humanity all at once – “male AND female he created them”. In this origin myth, we were always a we.

 

Sarajevo Haggadah A+E

Sarajevo Haggada c. 1350

In Genesis chapter two, Yahveh of the Gods forms man from the dust of the earth & blows the breath of life into his nostrils. This man is assigned the job of Gardener of Eden, but Yahveh of the Gods realizes lo tov adam heyot levado – it is not good for humanity to be alone. None of the animals that Yahveh creates & Adam names is a fitting partner, so Eve is engineered from his side. In this myth, there was an “I” before a “We,” at least for “He.” Only after these two beginning stories do we read about the Tree of knowledge and the snake, or Eve eating the forbidden fruit and giving it to Adam, or Adam being caught by Yahveh and throwing Eve under the bus.

 

Neither beginning story is factually true: they contradict each other, let alone fossil records, carbon dating, and common sense. The fact that the Torah’s editors included BOTH stories raises a different question. Many times we want AN answer: what came first? Did it happen or not? Is it origin story 1 or origin story 2? There are many possible reasons to have included both stories: each represented a vital tradition that wanted its version included (note the different divine names); when they are read together the first one sounds like an overview with details in the second (if you explain away the contradictions). In literature and film of our own day, we know that retelling the same story from another perspective changes everything. Sometimes, the correct answer to an “either/or” question is “Yes.” Is the story of America a story of freedom OR a story of slavery? Yes. Was the founding of Israel wonderful for the Jewish people OR a catastrophe for Palestinians? Yes. Which is the Jewish origin myth, 7 days or Adam then Eve? Yes.

This High Holidays, we are answering “yes” – what happens when we refuse the zero sum game of either/or and instead say “and.” We start tonight with the universal human experience, summed up by Mohammed Ali in a famous short poem: Me – We. If we must choose where to put our energy, attention and efforts, is it “me” or “we”? Early in my rabbinic career, after a long day of Yom Kippur services I went with my wife to her family “break the fast” with dozens of her relatives. I made it about 30 minutes before I said, “Enough other people! I need time for just me!”. The next year, after Yom Kippur services, I went to visit a member of the congregation who was in a rehab facility and had not been able to attend services. It was just her and I, and it was a great way to end a busy and tiring day. It was still a “we”, but a much smaller “we” of just “you and me”.

Who the “we” is makes a difference when choosing between “me or we.” Parents willingly sacrifice their happiness for their children, religious devotees give their time and their treasure, citizens limit some rights for a guarantee of others. Even a member of the Mafia is willing to sacrifice some “me” if their “we” is their family, their gang, their tribe. Those “we”s are clearly defined, with a direct connection and some mutual benefit. Humanity as a whole may be too large to be “we”. And our individual contribution on that scale may be too small to make it worth it for us to buy an electric car or go vegetarian just to help “the world”. Sometimes even defined groups demand too much, or provide too little benefit, and we pull back to do what’s best for “me”. And very few people are willing to give up their benefits for a strange group outside their circle of concern. I might be willing to pay higher taxes for my child’s education, but will I do the same for other people’s kids? We’ll talk more about “Us or Them” Rosh Hashana morning.

SapiensEven if it is a more intimate version of “we,” like our family, we still grapple with the right balance of “me” and “we.” In his fascinating exploration of what makes us human, Yuval Harari points out how home architecture reflects values. In previous centuries, most families lived together in one or two rooms; ideas like personal space, privacy, individualism were fantasy, given lived experience. In our own day, in our neighborhoods, many live in houses with more bedrooms than people, and certainly with our own personal space. We drive alone, we eat alone, we watch movies on our smartphones alone. We call it “me-time”.

All the same, many of us do not want to live all alone or to die all alone, or to laugh alone, or cry alone, to celebrate alone, to mark the passage of time alone. If we withdraw too much or too often from our family, our community, we may lose those connections for when we do want them. I am not saying that you absolutely need to call your mother more often, though that may be true. I know what my mother would say. But ALL of you here are HERE tonight & not waiting for an audio podcast to come out next week. Even those listening to the podcast or reading a blog post know there were people here; they know that other people have heard or read these words. Millions of people attend live theater and concerts, they pay too much for parking for live sports, they march in protests or gather in celebration. These are all “WE-time”, feeling part of the group. People who attend concerts or sporting events or High Holiday services do not STOP being “me” while they are experiencing “we”. They are “me AND we”. A simple example:  think of a good memory of one of your parents. Every memory will be very different even if the emotions were similar.

There IS no such thing as a pure “me”, an individual like the mythical Adam from the dust of the ground with no context, no culture, no community. There was no historical state of nature with autonomous individuals writing a social contract limiting freedom for security. When traditional religions say “you are not alone,” they claim a cosmic personality; we Humanists find more tangible sources to alleviate loneliness in family, friends, congregation. Even if we disconnect from our family of origin, or the religious beliefs in which we were raised, we still cannot be just “me” all the time. Meditation starts with “me,” but well-being starts with “we.”

Now, to be fair, there are advantages to focusing on “me.” Individual rights and freedoms, the opportunity to think what I want and to say what I believe, the ability to choose what I like from food to art to a life partner – all of these came from “me” facing an oppressive “we” and saying no. “We your religious community tell you what to believe, to eat, to wear. We your society set strict limits on your private behavior and whom you can love.” The individual revolution we see in our architecture and our values, even the wide range of clothing here tonight shows that our “we” needs to contain plenty of space for every “me”. Not to mention the fact that the more introverted may prefer me-time to we-time.

Victors

Hail to the Victors

We do not have to get all the way to totalitarian religion for “we” to feel too far. I KNOW it’s only University of Michigan sports and not fascism, I still get nervous seeing a stadium with thousands of people raising their right arm saying “Hail, hail”! Some don’t like responsive readings in our services because it makes them say something in unison – even if it’s something they believe! They don’t want to be made to say anything. Several years ago, an article about Kol Hadash appeared in the Chicago Tribune. I received a call from a woman who said, “I like everything you’re saying, but I just don’t like organized religion.” I had two responses: first, we’re not that organized. Second, if only everyone who questioned organized religion would actually JOIN something, we’d have a stronger voice!

The fear of “too much we, not enough me” that prevents people from enjoying college football or joining a community of like-minded people who don’t have to think alike shows the weakness of purely “either/or” thinking. In modern Israeli Hebrew, a frier is one of the worst things you can be. Freir is a sucker, someone who follows the rules and gets taken advantage of. Someone who gives and doesn’t demand their due in return, someone who is all “we” and no “me”. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recalled when he was young and working as a waiter in Paris, he was told that everyone put their tips in a jar and then shared them at the end of the week. It took him a few weeks to realize that he was the only one putting his tips in the jar. Blair said this is how he learned how Socialism works, but he might as well have been demonstrating what it means to be a frier. Giving to We without even thinking of Me doesn’t work.

What would it mean to change from the suspicious “me or we” to the constructive “Me AND We”? Just as there is no pure “me”, there is no absolute “we” either, a pure collective where everyone agrees on everything. Nor should we want that. Sometimes I read atheists online say they want to abolish religion – people should not be allowed to be religious or educate their children religiously because of the problems religion creates. Some do read Genesis 1 and 2 and think they are factual history rather than myth, and then impose their creationism on others. I do support requiring religious schools to teach core subjects like English, math and history in addition to sacred texts – this cause is supported by a new initiative of the Society for Humanistic Judaism called Jews for a Secular Democracy. But I would not support banning the teaching of Talmud, or Koran, or New Testament until adulthood, as do these anti-religionists who would abolish religion. That is a totalitarian “we” that leaves no space for “me” or “you” or “them” – a society that would abolish religion has no room for independent thought, and one that allows independent thought will also allow religion.

SWGIn fact, if you study largely secular societies like Denmark or Sweden as did sociologist Phil Zuckerman, you find that most people there are not religious because of indifference – they just don’t see the viability of what religion claims, they find other ways to meet the needs religion meets. Sometimes the more space allowed for “me” to think what I want, the better the “we”.

So how best to execute “me AND we”? Here is a fascinating demonstration of the me-we dilemma from National Geographic Magazine. On a university term paper, students had the option of giving themselves either 2 bonus points, or 6 bonus points. BUT if more than 10% of the class gave themselves 6 bonus points, no one got ANY bonus. The parallel was to natural resources: if you voluntarily limit yourself, everyone can benefit from enough clean water. But if too many people take too much, the common resource fails. The choice is to restrain myself to 2 points for the good of WE, or hope enough that OTHER people limit themselves so that I can get away with 6 points for ME. The results? Class after class failed to get any bonus points. They were not that far off – usually 20% or so tried for the 6 points, which means that 80% chose something smaller for themselves that did not risk the group benefit.

Then the professor added another complexity. THREE options – you could still choose 2 points or 6 points, and if over 10% chose 6 points the whole class lost out. The new option was to give yourself ZERO points, and if you chose Zero one 6 point chooser would also get zero. In other words, ZERO benefit to ME meant greater benefit to WE since it increases the chances of staying under 10% – two zeroes instead of, say, a 2 and a 6. In this new version, about half of the classes earned bonus points, with some zeroes, some 2s and a few 6s.

If you were in that class or were faced with a real-life example, what would YOU choose? If you choose zero, you help the class but not yourself, though you do get the righteous justice of sticking it to someone who tried for 6 points. Or is choosing zero being a frier, a sucker who surrenders their own chance for a bonus to help others? Choosing a more certain 2 seems reasonable, and you have a better chance of getting away with 6 but could also wind up with zero. One could make a revealing personality test about risk tolerance, collective versus individualist ethics, and more out of this scenario. When we try to extrapolate this example to the real world, however, different circumstances might call up different responses. On a super hot day, do you reduce your air conditioning use to lower the load on the power grid? You may sweat more and spend less money, while someone else may just crank their AC even stronger. And if enough people crank the AC, the grid might well go down.

I am NOT telling you what you should choose: zero, 2, 6, or take a different class. And different Humanistic Jews will make different choices. The point is that balancing “me” and “we” is complicated. If everyone chose zero, no bonus points. If everyone chose 6, the same problem. Real life is a tricky balance of selfishness and selflessness, thinking about yourself and also about narrow and then wider circles of common concern. The Soviet Union was proverbially built on “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” But it didn’t work. Our Declaration of Independence declared that all men are created equal, with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “ALL” except for women, slaves, Native Americans, and the poor, since many states required property ownership to vote. In fact, people are NOT entirely equal – there ARE individual differences in intellect and ability, and differences in nurturing environment and birth advantage. If we were all the same, this balance might be easier, but we’re not. These are the differences between theory and reality, between philosophical principles and messy applications. I sometimes joke that my job would be much easier if it weren’t for all the people. Political theorists and philosophers probably feel the same way.

So we reject an absolute “me OR we”. We know that executing “me AND we” is complicated. What can we gain from the AND? How does “we” enhance “me”, and vice versa? First and foremost, I can better understand who “me” is if I examine among whom I was raised and choose to live. There’s a reason biographers start with a famous person’s family before they were born, describe their hometown, talk to the people who knew them when. Me and We is always who I am, even if the “me” grows and the “we” changes. We also know that a collection of “me”s working as a “we” can accomplish more than they can individually – when you come back on Yom Kippur, take a look at how many supplies for A Safe Place we will have collected. Most important, individuals can grow and gain confidence through interaction with groups and the feeling of solidarity that comes from “we.” Some try to claim that belonging to a religious community makes you live better and longer. The truth is that it’s the community that makes the difference, not the religious.

SGEven our genes may have been selected for “Me AND We”. Over 40 years ago, Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene, which noted a fascinating paradox. You don’t get more “me” than a gene, whose one goal in life is to reproduce itself; we might not like to think of ourselves that way, but from the gene’s perspective we are just large and complicated gene reproduction machines. Yet organisms cooperate all the time, even to their own detriment – we adopt children in whom we have no genetic stake, we send our young men and women to fight so that unrelated fellow citizens may live. Sonny Corleone from the Godfather series would have said they’re saps because they risk their lives for strangers.  But sometimes the best strategy for individual survival and thriving is to work together, which includes both generosity and self-interest, and also the ability to forgive – if you reject forever anyone who has wronged you even once, your pool of allies grows smaller and smaller. “Me only” means a smaller and smaller “we.” Adam never forgiving Eve for eating the fruit, Eve never forgiving Adam for blaming her before God. Of course, if you forgive everyone all the time, you’ll be a frier, taken advantage of and you will also fail. “We only” means a diminished “me.” The best strategy, Dawkins describes, is a kind of limited forgiveness – punish repeat cheaters who take and never give, but be open to second chances so that second chances may come your way too.

Does this sound familiar this time of year? Is that not one of the most Humanistic messages of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, our days of self-judgment? When we have been wronged, it’s all about “me”. Moving forward, asking for forgiveness and forgiving others, that’s thinking about “me and we.” It’s never all one or the other; it’s always both.

There’s an unwritten chapter of the Jewish creation myths. Eve eats from the Tree of Knowledge and gives fruit to Adam. And they each pass the buck – Adam blames “the woman YOU gave me”, blaming both Eve and God. And Eve blames the snake who tricked her. What we do not read is what happens right AFTER they are expelled. Are Adam or Eve tempted to go “me only”? What does it take for them to forgive each other to get back to “we”, the we of the first beginning where male and female are together at the start? The great part about myths is that we can also tell the story ourselves, as we want to tell it. We can say they agree to forgive, they choose to be Me AND we. When we forgive one another and agree to begin again, we make that same choice, to be individuals in connection, a community of two, or twenty, or two hundred. In the beginning can be just the beginning for me and we.

 

 

 

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Either/And – High Holidays 5779/2018

These talks will be part of High Holiday services in September 2018 for Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation and later available on The Kol Hadash Podcast and as separate posts here (adult events only). If you are interested in celebrating the Jewish New Year with us in Deerfield, Illinois, please email our office or call 847-383-5184.

It is too easy to think of life as a zero sum game, with binary choices between irreconcilable alternatives. While it is important to understand and accept differences, it is also important to try to bridge gaps and find ways to win-win. Can we connect with “and” instead of “or”?

Rosh Hashana Evening: Me and We
The eternal battle between individual and community defines the human and the Jewish condition. What to give to others and what to guard for myself? Happiness, freedom, dignity, justice depend on the proper balance of me and we.

Rosh Hashana Morning: Us and Them
Rejection and fear of “the other” is deeply rooted in human psychology and culture. Can we build group loyalty on positive attraction rather than suspicion of the outside? An open family that includes both “us” and “them” may be the most successful future for the Jewish people in the 21st Century.

Rosh Hashana Family: Old and Young
What can adults learn from children? And what should adults try to teach? The next generation learns from what we do even more than what we say, so self-improvement also means showing our children how to do better.

Yom Kippur Evening: Good and Evil
In a post-modern, post-revelation world, defining good and evil is challenging and yet necessary. Can we admit when we have done wrong, and can we accept when our opponents do right? What is an honest difference of opinion, and what is truly evil that must be resisted?

Yom Kippur Morning: Here and There
The smaller the world gets, the harder it is to live together. Some would abolish all borders and barriers, while others would raise them higher. As America builds walls, as Israelis and “Diaspora” Jews grow farther apart, we grapple with complex identities: individuals, Americans, part of the Jewish family, and human beings. Can we feel connected to “here” and “there”, rather than choosing one or the other?

Yom Kippur Family – Today and Tomorrow
Not everything old is out of date, and not everything new is better. How do we decide what to keep and what to change? The choices we make today will stay with us when tomorrow comes.

Yom Kippur Memorial – Then and Now
The present becomes past very quickly – it is shocking to find what we think of as current events in a history book. Yet sometimes time collapses and past becomes present, especially when we remember deep connections. The perspective we gain on intimate loss provides consolation when then becomes now again.

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Jewish and True

This post first appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in June 2018

Humanistic Judaism casts a wide net when it comes to finding inspiration and connection. To paraphrase the 19th century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, “nothing Jewish is alien to us,” which means we can draw from the complete library of Jewish creativity, ancient, medieval and modern. We also agree with the 2nd century BCE Roman playwright Terence that “nothing human is alien to me” – anything that responds to the realities and possibilities of being human is related in some way to our own journeys.

Our ark of inspirational sources and intellectual insight is wider than Jewish tradition. At the same time, we are not simply an archive – we make choices about that which speaks to us most profoundly. After all, our High Holiday services are only 90 minutes, which means we must make some editorial choices! Some of what we find in the Jewish and human experiences does not reflect our values and beliefs, and we can acknowledge its existence without celebrating it. Slavery in the Torah, genocide in human history, cruelty between individuals are all part of being human even as we celebrate the “better angels of our nature,” in Lincoln’s phrase.

Humanistic Judaism evaluates choices from its inheritance through two criteria: 1) Is it Jewish, does it enhance Jewish connections? And 2) Is it true, does it reflect my values and beliefs? We are not unique in this approach, even if we frame it differently. Gender segregation and animal sacrifice are historically Jewish, but they are not immediately relevant for the large majority of Jews today; some liberal Jews may study these Jewish elements, but they do not live them.

Our founding thinker Rabbi Sherwin Wine posed the challenge this way:

We need to insist that the question “Is it true” is more important than the question “Is it Jewish” The Shma [prayer affirming God] is Jewish, but it is not, from our perspective, true. The Kaddish is Jewish, but it is not consistent with what we believe. A strong ideology insists that when we celebrate who we are, we speak with conviction. New words that express our convictions are preferable to old words that do not. Nostalgia is valuable, but not primary. (“Secular Humanistic Jewish Ideology”, Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1991).

If the “is it Jewish” question were the only criteria, we would say and do things we would find offensive, objectionable, and untrue in any other setting. If we only cared about “is it true,” we would be dissolved in the sea of world culture without roots, tradition, and a sense of ourselves in historical and personal context.

When we choose from our Jewish and human inheritance, we find what rings true, what reflects our values in both Jewish and human culture, philosophy, art and music. We draw on both to celebrate who we are, in all of our complexity and freedom.

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