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 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 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.
Even 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.
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.
In 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.
Even 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.