Being Traditional

I sometimes wonder if people really know what “tradition” means. They tell me they want a “traditional” Jewish wedding, or they say in their family’s Jewish life they “keep the traditions” – but they almost never mean they follow kosher dietary laws or avoid turning on lights or using money on Shabbat (after all, Jews that do that are unlikely to come to ME for their celebrations!). The couples getting married are not planning to segregate genders in their celebration – they have no problem that a mixed audience “could lead to dancing.” By “tradition” they usually mean the episodic family traditions of Hanukkah and Passover, or they are looking for the visible symbols of a Jewish wedding like a huppah [canopy], sharing wine, and breaking a glass.

Ceremony laugh

Alayna and Mike’s ceremony

I respond by clarifying that in some cases there IS no one tradition; for example, Ashkenazi/East European Jews often name babies after deceased relatives while Mizrahi/Middle Eastern Jews name after living ones. And in the 21st Century, traditions are not carved in stone. If BOTH the groom and the bride want to break a glass at the end of the wedding, they can!

 

Of course, I understand what they really mean when they are asking for a “traditional” ceremony. They don’t want women separated from men or long passages in Hebrew they don’t understand or believe. They want to sign their ketubah [wedding agreement] with a text expressing their love and not simply have witnesses for a legal formality. What they want is the endorsement of Judaism. They want their ceremony to feel authentic, to be accepted by their Jewish family and friends. Whether or not it fits their lifestyle or agrees with their personal beliefs is not the question; whether it “feels Jewish” is the point.

Ketubah image

Stacey and Andy’s ketubah

The genius, and the challenge, of Humanistic Judaism is to strive for both – to feel authentically Jewish and to live with the courage of our convictions. There are times it is easy to do both, like experiencing a klezmer music concert or learning something new about Jewish history. And there are times it is more challenging, particularly when more religious family members have very definite opinions or when our Humanistic beliefs push for changes in our Jewish inheritance.

It can feel easier to fall back on “this is what Jews do and say,” and accept what is conventional. But I’ve found in my life, and part of my job is encouraging others to discover, that living out Jewish integrity can make experiences meaningful in new ways. Sharing a Leah Goldberg poem about memory at a funeral is not the same as reciting the traditional kaddish; it is moving, differently.

And that’s the real goal of these ceremonies and celebrations – to be moving, to open ourselves to emotional experience and connection. Sometimes tradition does it, and sometimes creativity is more effective. Our privilege is to be able to use both.

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“It’s All For the Best” – Nizkor 2017

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2017/5778 as part of a series entitled “Forbidden Phrases for the New Year.” 

A child dies after only a few months of life. A young woman battles breast cancer for years before her death at 36. A vital and active tennis player, a loving father and grandfather, has a surprise medical episode that begins a 2 year long decline until the end. On the verge of a long-awaited retirement, a degenerative illness begins that takes a full decade to run its course through physical disability, dementia, and finally death.

These are only 4 of the funerals I have led over the past 15 years. Sometimes I can say in my eulogy, as I said about my own father’s death just before this Rosh Hashana, that this death is sad but not tragic – someone has died after a long and good life, they were ready to go and went relatively quickly and painlessly, and we know that death is the way of all living things. If our loved one had a good life and a good death, we the survivors usually handle it pretty well.

But then there are stories like these four. Our emotions and our reason cry out, “This is unfair! This is NOT the way things are supposed to go!” Traditional religion tried to offer its consolations: you’ll see them again in another life, so this loss is just intermission. Or maybe they did something wrong for which they were punished –the system must be fair even if you are sad. Upon hearing of a death, Jewish tradition prescribed the phrase “barukh dayan ha-emet – blessed is the true judge.” Another religious option: what seems unfair here will be made right in the next world. And finally, “It’s all for the best.”

What is “It’s all for the best” trying to say? It says that a kind and benevolent author is writing the story of your life, the story of every single life. “It’s all for the best” says that even though this tragedy seems without purpose, amazingly painful and shocking and cruel, the loss is part of a plan that is good overall. If you suffer, you are meant to learn compassion or to become tougher or to burn off your sins in advance. If you face loss, it simply had to be, because “it’s all for the best.”

And we know, we KNOW this is just not true. Car accidents, natural disasters, personal disasters like heart attacks, they did not have to be. They are not all for the best. Sometimes memory brings us warmth and consolation, and sometimes it makes us mad – why is this person only a memory and not still here? One of the first couples I met when I began working at Kol Hadash in 2004 were Sam and Joan Berger, a nice elderly couple. Sam unfortunately died within a couple of years and relatively quickly, and just about every time I visited Joan in the decade between Sam’s death and her own, she would tell me, “I’m mad at Sam – how dare he leave me!”

We do not want to live and remember in anger. When we speak of peace at a funeral service, it is not only for the deceased to “rest in peace,” but also for us to find peace, to make our peace with the new reality of a world without our loved one to talk to, to hear, to embrace any more. We cannot control what others say to us – they may offer us the consolation of an afterlife in which we may not believe, or divine praise when we have nothing to be grateful for. They may say, “it’s all for the best.” Our grief will not be diminished by lashing out at them, but a quiet “I don’t agree” makes the point just as well, and with the dignity of integrity.

Jewish tradition does offer alternative responses to “blessed is the true judge.” We often use a line from the book of Proverbs (10:7) – zekher tsaddik livrakha – the memory of a good person is a blessing. In Jewish usage, if you see the letters “Z – L” or in Hebrew zayin lamed ז”ל after a name, it means “their memory is a blessing” from the same source.

Human emotions serve a purpose – they allow our complex brains to express what we cannot analyze. If we are angry, it can be natural and healthy to express it. If we know deep in our guts that it is NOT all for the best, then we can say that too.

I could say that my father’s death was sad but not tragic, that he made it four years after his initial diagnosis with pancreatic cancer, that he got to play tennis and read and sing and dance much longer than we had a right to expect. And yet, I know there will be times to come when I will feel like Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, saying “Please, I want some more.” Regret and anger and sadness are all natural human emotions, part of the human expression of grief, and it is good that we feel them. Our deceased loved one’s new status as loving memory becomes a part of our life, our new routine. It may not be for the best, but it is, and we know it.

NIZKOR (We Will Remember)
by Arthur Liebhaber

I got a promotion,
I started to make the call,
Then I remembered.

I got sick and didn’t know what to do,
I started to make the call,
Then I remembered.

I forgot what that Yiddish expression meant,
I started to call,
Then I remembered.

I wanted your recipe,
I started to call,
Then I remembered.

Good news, bad news,
Wisdom and guidance,
I start to make the calls,
But then I remember.

You aren’t out there,
You aren’t going to answer.
You’re in my heart,
I’ll always remember.

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Embracing Complexity

This post first appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in November 2017

Did you know that the largest organization in the world that supports the teaching of evolution and opposes the death penalty is the Catholic Church? Political conservatives are more likely to be skeptical of climate change, while political liberals more often distrust genetically improved foods (GMOs) – both positions are at odds with the overwhelming scientific consensus. Free-market libertarians, government-skeptical conservatives and left wing liberals all want to see police reform that respects individual rights, particularly on asset forfeiture, where property suspected in a crime can be confiscated without due process. And in the Jewish world, there are Orthodox Jews who support a two-state solution and secular Jews who are die-hard West Bank settlers.

In the hyper-partisan era in which we find ourselves, it would be much easier for us if the lines were bright and clear, if everyone on “our” side believed all the same things and “their” side was uniformly terrible. Of course, the realities of human life and personal belief and behavior do not match what we might prefer. Anti-semitic sentiments are expressed by both the nationalist far right and the internationalist far left – a plague on both houses. No one group has a monopoly on good ideas, or the one true description of human nature and society. An important part of our Humanism is to accept that we do not have all the answers, and that we have to learn from each other.

At Kol Hadash, one of our semi-serious slogans is that we are “like-minded people who don’t think alike.” We have a similar approach to life, to knowledge, to Jewish culture and identity, but we do not insist that everyone agree on everything. In fact, I would be nervous being part of a group where everyone agreed on everything. This being so, we have two challenges. First, what are the shared values that unite us strongly enough to generate positive shared action? And second, how do we, who celebrate diversity, handle diverse opinions in our own community?

If you browse our website, you can find a new page under “Activities” called Values in Action. There you can see what we’ve found that can unite the community in doing good: helping a battered women’s and children’s shelter with basic human needs like food and toiletries; a holiday gift drive for the disabled; fleece blankets for children facing medical treatment; feeding the hungry. By focusing our attention on these basic human needs for shelter, food, clothing and personal dignity, we’ve been able to do good while also creating community solidarity.

We are of many different opinions on many different subjects. That is the challenge of creating a community of individualists. It is also our strength – embracing the complexity to agree on some issues and disagree on others. This is a more realistic way to journey through life, which is more often a spectrum than either/or. And it is a path towards doing good on causes we value – the more allies on a specific issue, the better. If we demonize those whose help we need, why would they work with us on causes we share?

It can be much easier to be “the true believer,” in Eric Hoffer’s memorable phrase. But that will not lead to the world we want.

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A Culture of Blessing

This post originally appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October 2017.

When we use a Humanistic blessing, what exactly do we mean?

In a traditional setting, be it the East European shtetl or contemporary Brooklyn, Rabbinic texts are constantly repeated: prayers three times a day, the same Shabbat service every week.  The most commonly-repeated texts, however, are short and to the point: blessings. There are blessings for everything under the sun: eating and drinking, extraordinary events, good fortune, even tragedy. Most begin with the same formula: Barukh Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha-Olam, Blessed are you, our God, King of the Universe. . .

A “culture of blessing,” however, is not simply a matter of reciting specific texts. It is an approach to life that believes that everything relies on a supernatural source, which deserves (and desires) to be thanked at every turn.  For example, in the Torah, the Jews are warned against too much self-congratulation:

You may say in your heart, “my power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” And you shall remember YHWH your God; for he is who gives you power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant, which he swore to your fathers. And if you do forget YHWH your God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I warn you this day that you shall surely perish. {Deut. 8:17-19}

In other words, humans taking credit for their own achievement is chutzpah, while humans giving credit to God for human achievements is piety! If all the blessings and prayers were in English, it might sound like this:

Even if we have Humanistic objections, a culture of blessing does more than create an attitude of gratitude; it is also a constant reminder of Jewish identity. If every time you see a rainbow, or every time you eat anything, or every time you leave the lavatory, you recite a Hebrew phrase, you implicitly say to yourself, ‘I’m Jewish’ that many times a day.

A “culture of blessing” is largely foreign to the experience of most modern American Jews, especially secular and Humanistic Jews. We have no problem saying, “My power and the might of my hand HAVE gotten me this wealth.” We show gratitude to those who deserve it, and we have no thanks for the indifference of the universe when it afflicts us. We know that we are Jewish without reminding ourselves every hour of every day.

Yet is there nothing we can glean from a culture of blessing, a culture deeply ingrained in Jewish history and Jewish life?  Here are a few:

Gratitude: the feeling of being fortunate to see a natural wonder, or to be present at a special human event, or to have experienced the highs (and lows) of human emotion.  These feelings require no author to thank, nor a special phrase to recite; they need acknowledgement and recognition.

Mindfulness: pausing before drinking or eating can provide a moment of self-reflection, a break from the rush-hour pace of life, and a chance to remember one’s health and happiness. Today, even some religious Jews, who are uncomfortable with the traditional language of a personal God and King, have taken the moment of blessing as an opportunity for mindfulness.

Community: Pausing to recognize the value of community, of family, of friendship before eating and celebrating together can be a powerful moment of shared experience. Stopping afterwards to reflect on human connections can add meaning to the simplest action.

Humanistic Jews are unlikely to adopt a pervasive culture of blessing.  We rarely recite fixed texts; we do not stop our lives multiple times a day to remember a Hebrew phrase.  Yet just as we strive to take the best from historical Jewish culture for Humanistic Judaism, we may also adopt elements from a culture of blessing.

Barukh ha-or ba-olam, barukh ha-or ba-ah-dam. Blessed is the light in the world, blessed is the light within people.

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“We’re Number One!” – Yom Kippur 5778/2017

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2017/5778 as part of a series entitled “Forbidden Phrases for the New Year.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.

Why do I invite everyone to stand as we take our Torah from the ark? There are many Torah passages that are objectionable to modern values – we heard one last night, where Pinhas the priest kills an Israelite and his Midianite lover for violating a holy space and crossing ethnic boundaries. Death penalties for blasphemy, for same-sex relations, for gathering sticks on the Sabbath – if someone proposed these as laws in Illinois, we would not stand for them. Yet we DO stand for them here! The reason I invite you to stand is because for us the Torah symbolizes the beginning of Jewish wisdom, even if we have moved beyond that beginning. The original Constitution accepted slavery and most states allowed only white men with property to vote, but we can still respect what the Constitution represents. The reason I invite you rather than tell you isRunning Man that for you the negative may outweigh the positive. So if a group stands for a shared symbol, and you choose to stay seated, or to take a knee, that is always your choice and your right. Because the group is not always right, and you are always you.

Groups, communities, tribes are defined by languages and symbols – do you understand the in-jokes? Do you celebrate what we celebrate and reject what we reject? Do we boo the same villains and cheer the same heroes? Woe be those who reject the symbols, who challenge the group’s authority, who break the boundaries and are willing to see the other side. Woe to those who, once in a while, are able to admit that, maybe, we are not always “Number one”.

This High Holidays, we have imagined how language can change the world. The very beginning of the Jewish creation myth proclaims the power of language – god says “let there be”, and there is; Adam names the creatures as a sign of his rule; the snake’s words start humanity down the road to knowledge and death. What would happen, we have asked, if we refuse to accept concepts like “Post-Truth” “Judaism Says” or “Bad Jew”? Today, as we turn the corner towards the close of Yom Kippur and the real beginning of our new year, we face the challenge at the heart of any “we” – the temptation to proclaim, “We’re Number One!” Are the Olympics about the nobility of athletic competition, or about tribal bragging rights, a chance to chant U-S-A, U-S-A! For if WE are number one, are others lower, lesser, even “losers”? If the only way to feel good about ourselves is to make others feel worse, maybe better not to play the game at all.

I once wrote about how sports and religion are intertwined – and not just because of the athletes’ religiosity or the obligatory news stories about churches praying for a win. There are two sides to the question. First, have sports become a religion? Sports have their “shrines” and their “meccas”, and devotees make regular pilgrimage. There are team rituals and curses, and even occasional exorcisms – remember blowing up the Bartman Ball? And, some will argue, it worked! Players and fans are superstitious, thanking god for successes but almost never blaming god for failures – just like in religion. Fans watching games thousands of miles away yell at the screen as if their words will be heard and the ball will be caught or dropped or “get in the hole!” When else do people send words out into the universe and hope they have a positive impact? And pity the heretics who do not stand, do not uncover their heads, do not place their hands on their hearts for the collective ritual. The best players seek immortality in the pantheon (hear “theos,” god, there) of a Hall of Fame, which collects the holy relics stained by the sweat and blood of the martyrs. Before last year, the connection was even stronger between Judaism and Chicago Cubs fandom, both with many years of suffering and longing, but I think we will find that Cubs fans, like Jews after reclaiming their “Promised Land”, will have a similar response: what can we complain about now? We have evolved from being the Chosen People to being the Choosy People.

You could look at it the other way: is religion a sport? Participating in a religious community makes you feel like you are on an important team, wearing special clothing to feel part of the group. If you believe you are the elect, the saving remnant, the chosen people, is that another version of chanting “We’re Number One!”? Two fans of the same team smile at each other as they cross paths, just as two cross-wearing Christians or kippah-wearing Jews might do. The collective feeling in an arena parallels that in a mega-church – 10,000 people “rooting” for the same thing, sharing the same goals. In fact, Joel Osteen’s megachurch used to be the home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets! And the best clergy are those who perform at the biggest events: High Holidays are rabbinic “prime time,” as Easter and Christmas are the Christian “Super Bowl.” Is calling “T’kiah” for the shofar that different from “Play Ball!”?

The truth is that religion is not a sport and sport is not a religion – they are similar because BOTH sports and religion, and patriotism for that matter, are group activities. They are tribes, and human tribalism is very deeply rooted in our evolution. Our first several thousand years as homo sapiens were in small and mostly homogenous groups – group loyalty and fear of the outsider are much more natural than the relatively new idea of “universal humanity.” In theory groups can respect differences, learn from each other, create alliances, find ways to live and be productive together. And that has happened from time to time. As we know all too well, groups can also insist on absolute loyalty and the denigration of other groups. Keep in mind a simple equation: “We’re Number One” = we are supreme = supremacist. We know the violent extremes supremacists can reach when trying to put the lesser “in their place” – we Jews have been on the receiving end of “we’re number one and you’re not” plenty of times. Sometimes wearing the team emblem was to mark you as different – the yellow star was part of a long history of marking Jews as different, other, and lesser.

To be fair, we Jews have also said that WE are number one, even if historically we lacked the power to act on it. Traditional Judaism repeatedly and strongly claims the Jews are the “chosen people” – Deuteronomy 26: “God has declared today that you are a people for his own possession, as he has promised you, and that you should keep all his commandments. He will make you high above all nations that he has made, in praise, in name, and in honor; and that you may be a holy people to your God, as he has spoken.” Or consider the Aleinu prayer, written at least 1500 years ago for a Rosh Hashana service and now part of daily prayers:

It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to ascribe greatness to the Molder of primeval creation, for He has not made us like the nations of the lands and has not emplaced us like the families of the earth; for He has not assigned our portion like theirs nor our lot like all their multitudes.

For they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a g-d which helps not.

But we bend our knees, bow, and are grateful before the King Who reigns over kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He. . . .He is our G-d and there is none other.

We are right, and they are all wrong. We’re number one because we worship the one and only, and they can’t even count that high. Many prayerbooks today, from Reform to Orthodox, omit the most offensive line – “they pray to a god who is useless.” But the chosenness is still there, “we are not like them,” and it’s embedded in many prayers and blessings – OUR god, who chose US to give us his Torah, who gave US commandments, who loves us and is jealous of us and who organizes history around whether we follow his rules.

Today’s liberal Judaisms in multicultural democracies know how offensive the claim “we’re number one” is when we are one of many groups. They have tried to reframe it – they may print the Aleinu prayer in Hebrew but have a nicer English translation, they may say we were chosen not for special status but for a mission: to spread ethical monotheism or knowledge of the true god. My response is: if being chosen always meant that we had a mission, where were our missionaries? Why did we reject potential converts three times to prove their devotion? Why keep our scripture in its original language centuries after Hebrew was no longer spoken? Let’s be honest: it’s tempting to be “the chosen people”, just like we enjoy chanting “we’re number one” at a sporting event. Have you ever noticed people saying “We won,” but “they lost”? We love being part of the winning team, being special, being uniquely unique, even if it also means special attention, special criticism, special challenges. Being the Chosen People also meant that we believed our suffering was our own fault – if only we had better followed the rules, we would have been protected. At the same time, maybe there WAS a survival value in the medieval Jewish experience – why else would you have stayed Jewish through expulsion and pogrom except for a belief in your group’s superiority?

The $64,000 question (in 1955, which today would be the $578,000 question), the big question is – CAN we stay Jewish today WITHOUT saying “We’re Number One”? Does every group have to have something superlative about it to have meaning, relevance, an impact on its members? Must we define ourselves not only by who we are, but also by those we are better than? Recall the story about the Jewish man saved from a desert island. He had built two synagogues: his own, and one he would not set foot in. Our group, our congregation is open, our sense of Jewishness is non-exclusive – for us you can be Jewish AND, not just Jewish OR. We accept that we have many group identities, and they can’t all be number one all the time. We celebrate marriages to wonderful people outside the group, and we do not demand conformity of dress or diet or fasting or faith. Yet we are still our own group, our community, and we still feel connected to the larger group of the wider Jewish family, even if we disagree with some of them.

Here’s where I believe we need a balance among three values, all of which are important, and all of which work for the individual AND the group. Pride, Honesty, and Humility.

Pride: I am allowed to be proud of who I am, proud of what I do, proud of what I have learned and the good impact I have on the world around me. Likewise, the Jewish people may be proud of the good values they have expressed through their culture, good deeds done by Jews for each other and for others in the past and today, and Jewish culture’s capacity to grow and improve. Pride is needed.

Honesty: I need to have the courage to evaluate myself honestly, to see where I fell short, to understand where I need to improve, to make good where I caused harm. Likewise, we need to understand Jewish life with clear eyes: yes, we have been the victims of intolerance and oppression; and we have also been intolerant. We have housecleaning to do on our own, regardless of what others do. If we criticize certain behavior in others, we should be willing to do the same for ourselves. Honesty is needed.

Humility: I understand that it is not always about me, sometimes the best think I can do is listen and learn, sometimes my concerns are less important. Jews are only 2% of the United States population, and .2% of the world’s population. The world does not revolve around us, and sometimes our needs may be less pressing than those of others. And we are not the best at everything. Humility is needed too.

All three of these are important –we need pride in our group to maintain positive connections, not just guilt or inertia; we need honesty to have a clear sense of our impact on others; and we need humility to not insist on always being Number One. Over the many, many years I was in school, I always preferred grading that prized personal improvement or absolute knowledge over class ranking. I had no need to be number one – I wanted to learn more, to get better, for myself and not for anyone else. And that’s how I understand my Jewishness at its highest – something that brings value and depth and wisdom to my life, independent of its relative position in the world of human culture. Is being part of the Jewish family THE BEST possible way for me to be a good person? Is it THE BEST possible way for me to raise a family, to be loving, to have dignity, to feel fulfilled as a human being? No one has ever conducted a double-blind study, putting the SAME individual through Jewish and Baha’i and Korean Presbyterian and atheist communist upbringings to see which culture meshes the best with ME. Each cultural possibility has some value and some shortcomings, and some might find that another option, or an element from another experience, is a better fit than how they were raised. But there is no objective scale to determine which culture, which religious tradition, which identity is “number one”. You do not have to be “number one” to be good.

After all, the core message of Yom Kippur is “nobody’s perfect”, no one person is “number one” all the time. We all make mistakes, we all fall short of our own expectations and the commitments we make to others. We hurt people on purpose or by accident, and relationships are hard work. The rabbis imagined a book of life, a decision point when our good deeds and our failures would be weighed in the balance, and it would be judged whether we would be alive for the next new year or die sometime in the year just begun. Pass or fail, live or die. But real life is more complicated, real life is more real than books in the sky.

Many of you know that my father died just before Rosh Hashana began. I rushed to Michigan see him two days before our first service. I loved my father, but our relationship was complicated, as all of us are complicated. Sitting at his bedside, I told him, whether he could hear it or not, that we do not love saints. We love real people. He was not the world’s number one dad, and no one is. He was a good father in his way, with his successes and his challenges, and I loved him for who he was. He is the only father I will ever have, and when his yahrtzeit [death anniversary] comes around next Rosh Hashana, just as when we take the Torah from the Ark, I will stand for his memory. In the perspective of history, George Washington, the father of our country, might not have been the best President – as a slaveowner, he was certainly not the best person. But he was still “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”. And that’s where it really counts.

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“Bad Jews” – Yom Kippur 5778/2017

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2017/5778 as part of a series entitled “Forbidden Phrases for the New Year.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.

I like statistics. I especially like statistics about what people are doing or not doing. And I LOVE statistics about what the American Jewish community is doing or not doing. I just wish they would show the numbers backwards. Most questions are from the traditional Jewish perspective: do you light Shabbat candles? Do you keep kosher? Did you fast on Yom Kippur? Did you light Hanukkah candles? And the traditional Jewish establishment is scandalized by the “shocking” resultsonly 23% always or usually light Shabbat candles, only 22% keep kosher at home (and who knows what they eat out), while 53% fasted for at least part of Yom Kippur and 70% lit Hanukkah candles. The American Jewish reality is that the majority practice is to be a cultural Jew, or even a part-time Jew – Hanukkah is just a few nights a year, and you can do it on your own at home. Yom Kippur fasting is a personal choice. But Shabbat is every week, kosher is every day, and they limit your ability to connect with your neighbors, to enjoy the wider world of American life, to have the personal freedom to do what you want when you want. What if the statistics were presented backwards: only 30% of Jews DID NOT light Hanukkah candles; over ¾ of American Jews do not keep kosher. And Yom Kippur fasting is a coin toss – as many do not fast as do. Presenting the statistics that way might make us, the majority living as cultural Jews, feel like the norm. But that would also mean leaving behind a venerable Jewish tradition – the concept of “Bad Jew.”

This High Holidays, we are exploring the need to strike certain phrases from our vocabulary. On Rosh Hashana, we asserted the value of pursuing truth against the dangerous concept of “post-truth.” And we explored how “Judaism says” is less accurate and meaningful than “MY Judaism says” – “My Judaism says” means we celebrate what WE find meaningful in our tradition, without assuming that all of Judaism agrees with us. What would happen if we left behind the idea of there being “bad Jews?” After all, “bad Jew” is not just an accusation that other people throw at us; it is a label we sometimes use on ourselves.

There is a long Jewish history of the “bad Jew” accusation. In the Torah, Korah the Levite challenges Moses by asking why only priests get to contact god when “all the community is holy” – Korah and his followers are then swallowed by an earthquake. We saw in our Torah reading what Pinchas did to a REALLY bad Jew, impaling him and his Midianite lover with a spear. In the books of the prophets, Israelite kings are condemned for worshipping many gods and for oppressing the poor – the famous passage in Isaiah 58 traditionally read on Yom Kippur asks, “is THIS the fast I have chosen, to afflict your souls, or rather to do justice and end oppression?” In other words, “you’re doing it wrong!” When Ezra the priest returned from Babylonian Exile, he commanded all Hebrews who had stayed in the land and married local women to send away their wives and children – an intermarriage ethnic cleansing, but also a mass accusation of having been “bad Jews.” The Maccabees fought the Greeks, but the Maccabees also fought Jews who liked Greek culture and sought a middle ground. Medieval Rabbis establishing the authority of the Talmud broke with those who wanted to only follow the Bible’s laws and called themselves Karaites. Maimonides’ rational philosophy was burned by some Jews, and Jewish mystical texts were forbidden by others. In the 19th century, Jewish mystics called Hasidim battled Jewish legalists called Mitnagdim, and they both battled Jewish enlighteners, the Maskilim. There was name calling, rejection, family splits, even excommunication in all directions.

So when we learn in our days that the Israeli chief rabbinate keeps a blacklist of Diaspora rabbis whose conversions are not recognized (alas, I did not make the list, something to aspire to), or the Israeli government backtracks on a compromise to create an egalitarian prayer space near the Western Wall because mixed-gender Judaism isn’t “authentic” enough for Orthodox political parties, we should not be surprised. The accusation of “Bad Jews” is a deeply rooted Jewish tradition. There’s a reason we laugh at this story: The Yeshiva University rowing team has lost every crew meet, so they send their captain to watch the Harvard and Yale crew teams compete. He returns and says “Guys, we have it all wrong. We need EIGHT people rowing and ONE person yelling.”

Am I a “bad Jew”? I have a PhD in Near Eastern Studies, concentrating in Hebrew and Jewish Cultural Studies. I have worked as a Jewish professional my entire career, including 16 years as a rabbi. I am competent in Hebrew and Yiddish, I have traveled to Israel 8 times, and I have read more Jewish history books than anyone really should. I have been actively involved in synagogues my entire life, I married a Jewish woman and we had Jewish children who are being raised Jewish, and by the time I retire I will have been attending Sunday School for 65 years. My last name is pronounced “Shalom.” But to some Jewish people, I’m a “bad Jew.” In high school, I went out for dinner with some friends to Denny’s (yes, Yom Kippur is the season of confession), and there I ordered a club sandwich complete with bacon. A friend asked me, “aren’t you thinking of becoming a rabbi?” I said, “my dietary laws are easy: bacon tastes good, pork chops taste good.”

In college, I was asked, if I was planning to be a rabbi, why didn’t I go to Shabbat dinners at Hillel. That term, I was taking multiple classes in Religious Studies, including Hebrew 5 days a week, I worked for the Judaica Curator at the Yale University Library, and I was taking weekend seminars with the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in their Madrikh/Leader program. But that didn’t match the metric of “good Jew” – kosher Shabbat dinner at Hillel, that’s what counted.

I hear this from couples I marry, especially if they are marrying someone who is not Jewish – they’ll confess to me: “I’m not really a good Jew, I haven’t been to synagogue in a long time…” I always ask them – do you celebrate Hanukkah? “Of course!” Do you enjoy Passover? “Every year!” Do you like Jewish food, whatever that means for you? “Sure!” Well, those count too! Think about what it means to define yourself as a “bad Jew” – it means that being Jewish is what you DO NOT do, it’s where you fail! Being Jewish is who you are, but it’s the opposite of how you live. Part of the revolution of Humanistic Judaism is to say that Judaism is NOT limited to religious beliefs which many Jews do not believe, or prayers most Jews do not recite, or dietary laws most Jews ignore. OUR Judaism is built on the Jewish connections we DO celebrate: holidays and life cycle ceremonies and cultural literacy and family heritage and food and language and history and all the rest. When our movement of Humanistic Judaism began, there were many discussions of what to call ourselves. We knew that we were not “Judaism minus” – something traditional-ish that was allergic to certain topics and words. We settled on “Humanistic” because it was a positive statement of what we believed in: human potential, human power, human responsibility, human needs, human happiness. We wanted to be stronger than “Reform Reform”, or “very reform” –– calling yourself “very reform” means you are admitting you are not even good at being a Reform Jew!

What does it take to be called a “bad Jew”? It could be what you believe or don’t believe. It could be what you eat. It could be who you married. It could be how you chose to raise your children. “Bad Jews” don’t give to the right charitable causes, support the right side of controversial issues, or vote their self-interest correctly. Bad Jews think about themselves as individuals, they explore their values in the wider human context, rather than being Jews first and foremost and always. My teacher Sherwin Wine once pointed out that the collectivist approach asks, “What have you done for Judaism today;” the modern individualist has the chutzpah to ask, “What has Judaism done for ME?” There IS an irony when one Jew accuses another of being a “self-hating Jew” – the person MAKING the accusation obviously does not like certain Jews, and says so! This issue of calling someone a “bad Jew” is entirely separate from calling someone a bad person, or saying they are doing bad things. But telling someone they are bad at being who they are is something different entirely.

It seems like the wider world has also gotten into the business of defining good Jews and bad Jews. Bibi Netanyahu’s son posted a meme on Facebook criticizing left-wing Jews and George Soros, and he was applauded by David Duke! The idea that white supremacists could support Israel seems laughable, but they see a model for their goal of ethnic purity in the Israeli far-right. An impeccable scholar from UCLA was appointed head of the Center for Jewish History, and a slander campaign was started immediately to demand his withdrawal for having the audacity to believe in two states for two peoples and to support organizations that do the same. For these people, you become a bad Jew by being “anti-Israel;” and “anti-what-I-want-for Israel” means “anti-Israel.” The accusation of being a “bad Jew” also appears on the other end of the political spectrum. Remember the Chicago Dyke March that banned marching with a rainbow Jewish star flag because it was too similar to the Israeli flag? For that organization there are also good Jews (those who are clearly anti-zionist) and bad Jews (everyone to the right of the good ones, including plenty of people who consider themselves progressive, particularly on LGBTQ issues). The metric for “bad Jew” can be belief, or marriage partner, or what community you join IF you even join one, or your take on Israel. Or all of the above, the more you want to call others “bad Jews.”

Of course, WE are among the worst of the “bad Jews” – we refuse to feel guilty about our choices, we encourage others to join us – and we’re even growing our own! The origin of the Greek word “heresy” is the term “haresia,” which means “choice”. Early secular Jews sometimes described what they did as yahadut khofsheet – free Judaism – and individual choice is a very important part of our approach. The truth is that EVERYONE makes choices from what can be Jewishly meaningful – we read less Talmud and more modern Jewish poetry and prose, while others read Torah and Talmud and somehow never get to Yehuda Amichai and Marcia Falk. Old is not necessarily better than new if the yardstick is what resonates with us, today. If we accept the idea of Jewish flavors we described on Rosh Hashana, it’s not worth arguing over which flavor of ice cream or which flavor of Judaism is the best flavor, or the original flavor, or the ONLY flavor for all Jews. Imagine how boring a world with only one flavor would be!

And let’s be honest, this is how much of the Jewish world, particularly ordinary every day Jews, live their Jewish lives. I would estimate that 70% of the Jewish world is living Jewish pluralism. I am on the Chicago Board of Rabbis, whose members range from secular humanistic to liberal religious to Modern Orthodox. We focus on similar questions from a shared cultural background, even if we do not agree on the answers. Belief and practice in more liberal Judaisms accept that we have partial human knowledge, and therefore our philosophy allows different people, even different communities to live their Judaism differently. In real life we on the Chicago Board of Rabbis and you in your everyday lives relating to friends, neighbors and relatives, we live together and eat together, and we learn together and from each other. My colleagues refer weddings to me, and I to them, and we recognize each other as rabbis. 70% live pluralism, where variety is the spice of Jewish life. They may say the words “bad Jew”, but most ordinary Jews would attend your child’s Humanistic Bar Mitzvah, go to your grandchild’s wedding no matter whom they were marrying, or attend your memorial service even if you chose cremation.

However, 30% of the Jewish world is living not pluralism but plurality – where they know there are other options, but the other options are unacceptable. There is a second Rabbinic association in Chicago, the Chicago Rabbinical Council, which is only Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. A few Modern Orthodox rabbis go to both groups, but the reason there is are two groups is because many Orthodox rabbis will not accept women rabbis, Reform rabbis, and certainly not heretical Humanistic rabbis! Their belief and practice of The Torah is from heaven, from Moses on Sinai, an eternal covenant universally binding, means they cannot accept our flavors of Judaism as valid, or learn from us, or easily marry us. To them, our flavor of Judaism is trayfe, forbidden, not a Jewish flavor they can accept.

We share the same history, whether or not we agree on what happened or what it means. We share the same literature, whether or not we agree on who wrote it and when or what it means. We share the same family story, whether we recognize it or not. It is not that_tree_10only a question of who Hitler would have persecuted and killed; it is a matter of how you see your family tree. Are there many branches, grafts and cross-pollinations from other sources, bearing fruit in all directions? Or is your tree one trunk with a straight line, and errant branches must be pruned away?

Just as with our other forbidden phrases, we need to work on ourselves first. If we want to eliminate the epithet “bad Jews,” there are 3 steps to take. First, we need to not use it on ourselves, which means improving our Jewish self-esteem. Second, we need to challenge others who use it, pointing out that everyone chooses and you can’t argue about taste. And third, we need to eliminate it from OUR OWN vocabulary. How often do WE smirk at the “Jewish hypocrisy” of others who keep kosher in the home but not out, or at pious Jews arrested for Medicaid fraud? Yes, I do remember my side comment earlier about whether the 22% who keep kosher at home do the same eating out – did you hear that as expanding the social science understanding of the survey, or did you hear that as a dig, as secular Jewish revenge, as a clever way of calling THEM “bad Jews”? One of the oldest retorts in the book is “I know you are but what am I?” If someone calls us “bad Jews,” the answer is not to point out their Jewish faults; it is to change the conversation. Here’s how I do Jewish, what do you find meaningful in our shared culture and history?

I want to conclude with the last two stanzas of Yehuda Amichai’s beautiful poem “The Jews”. The poem speaks of Jewish diversity, and change, and continuity, and disagreement, and to quote my Israeli colleague Rabbi Sivan Maas, Jewish unity without Jewish uniformity.

Some time ago, I met a beautiful woman
Whose grandfather performed my circumcision
Long before she was born. I told her,
You don’t know me and I don’t know you
But we are the Jewish people,
Your dead grandfather and I the circumcised and you the beautiful granddaughter
With golden hair: we are the Jewish people.

And what about God? Once we sang
“There is no God like ours,” now we sing, “There is no God of ours”
But we sing. We still sing.

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“Judaism Says” – Rosh Hashana 5778/2017

This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2017/5778 as part of a series entitled “Forbidden Phrases for the New Year.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.

What is American food? Is American food New Orleans Creole? Pizza? TexMex? Hamburgers and hot dogs? Fried Chicken and grits? A California Sushi Roll? These are ALL American food, even though they are very different from each other. What is Jewish food? My father’s family comes from Syria, and their Middle Eastern Jewish food includes mujadra and idje b’adunes and kibbeh, using spices like turmeric and cumin; it looks and taste nothing like bagels or kugel. For Hanukkah, East European Jews eat potato pancakes, Sephardic Jews eat jelly donuts. My father’s family made Passover haroset with dates; my mother’s family made theirs with apples. Same holiday, same root culture, different tastes. We know that Jewish people are individualistic, and questioning – 2 Jews, three opinions. Why do people assume that there is ONE Judaism?

This High Holidays, we are trying to improve the world one phrase at a time. We do not demand that everyone follow our speech code; we are raising the bar for ourselves. Last night we saw that “post-truth” is not a reality to accept passively; it is a challenge to confront – to know when multiple truths are possible, and to resist when there are right and wrong facts. All those facts are to the best of our knowledge, based on available evidence. But 99% certain is pretty certain.

To the best of MY knowledge, there is NOTHING that ALL Jews believe. All Jews can’t even agree on who COUNTS for “all Jews”! If you ever hear categorical statements like “Jews believe_____” or “Jewish tradition demands_____” or simply “Judaism says_____,” this an educational opportunity. Which Jews? Which Jewish tradition? When and where? Jewish people have been polytheists, monotheists, Buddhists and Secular Humanists. In the Bible, the father determined whether a child would be Jewish; in rabbinic Judaism, it’s the mother; in Israel’s law of return, one grandparent or even a Jewish spouse is enough to be admitted to the Jewish state, though not enough to be officially Jewish for the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Some Jews have believed in reincarnation, other Jews have believed resurrection and in a world to come, still others believed in a Hades-like underworld and today many Jews believe that this life is the only life we get. Groups an anthropologist would call “Judaism” can be male chauvinist or egalitarian, isolationist or integrationist, Jewish supremacist or universalist. This very room represents a great diversity of Jewish opinion, Jewish ritual practice, and Jewish experience, including supportive family members who themselves are not Jewish. And we are no more than one degree of separation from religious West Bank settlers, ex-Jews who have rejected any kind of Jewish identity, and every variety of Jew, Jewish, or Jew-ish among our immediate family and friends.

This diversity is not news to anyone paying attention to Jewish life. So why DO people keep saying “Judaism says”? Perhaps it is simply not knowing any different – they have always been taught that Judaism says X, so that’s what they repeat. Sometimes there are dominant ideas among Jews today, or at least the Jews they have experienced, so they extrapolate from “all the Jews I know” to Judaism as a whole and for all time. “Judaism Says” is also a claim to authority, in effect saying, “Do what I say Judaism says”. At the same time, there is a temptation to claim that your religious and cultural tradition endorses your personal choices. It’s avoiding cognitive dissonance – I am Jewish and happy to be Jewish, and I have my values, and I may not want to admit that sometimes my Jewish inheritance conflicts with my values. Whether it has to do with intermarriage or homosexuality or transgender identity, Judaism is a long and rich creative tradition. You can find just about any episode or one-off statement that is more open, even if the dominant trend is rejection. The rejectionist cannot say unambiguously “Judaism says to reject you,” but the progressive also cannot say, “Judaism is always welcoming and accepting.” For a wedding I recently officiated, the groom used his great-grandfather’s ceremonial Kiddush cup. In the email his mother sent him, which he forwarded to me, she told the story of the cup and wrote, “He would be so proud of you.” I thought to myself, “This wedding is co-officiated with a Catholic Priest, and the bride is a very blonde woman of Lithuanian background who herself teaches in a Catholic school. I’m not sure the great-grandfather’s reaction would have been ‘pride.’” We like to highlight our positive inheritance, but sometimes we have to acknowledge differences between then and now.

This honesty applies beyond Judaism, of course. One may appreciate the courage of a Civil War ancestor who fought to defend his home state against the Yankees, but the Confederacy was also dedicated to brutal slavery – the Mississippi declaration of secession says explicitly “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery;” Texas’ declaration makes the racism explicit:

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

Whatever flag became the flag of that cause, cannot be my flag. Whoever fought for that cause may have fought bravely, and is IN my history, but he cannot be my hero. History is also complicated for Yankees – before Philip Sheridan was an army base or a Metra stop, Sheridan was a Civil War Hero in the US Army. He then went on to “pacify” the Plains Indians by encouraging the slaughter of 4 million bison to starve them out, supposedly saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” American values are the Declaration of Independence, and Native American expulsion and genocide, and separation of religion and government, and racism and slavery. They are all as American as Apple Pie; they are all what “America says.”

Honestly, even Judaism itself doesn’t claim “Judaism Says”! In the Bible, who speaks for Judaism – the kings of Israel, or the prophets who criticize them? When rabbis interpreted the Bible, they would say “shivim panim la-torah – there are 70 faces of Torah” and “davar akher – another interpretation” as they gave multiple understandings of the same Bible verse. The Mishnah and Talmud, attempts to collect and clarify Jewish law, preserve the debate of the rabbinic academy, like a minority opinion of the US Supreme Court in one era can become the majority opinion in future generations. The standard Talmud page includes voices from many centuries arranged around each other and arguing “If I had been there, I would have said…” In the 16th century, a Sephardic Rabbi in the land of Israel wrote a code of Jewish law to define exactly what to do without all the arguing, called the Shulkhan Arukh “the Set Table.” Then an Ashkenazi rabbi in Poland wrote a commentary to the Set Table to explain how European Jews did things differently – his work was “the tablecloth”. And all of this disagreement is centuries before the explosion of Jewish varieties that began 200 years ago. Judaism says? Which Judaism? Which Jews?

We sometimes hear that what unites Jews are 3 pillars: god, Torah Israel. I find that nothing DIVIDES the Jews as much as God, Torah and Israel! Judaism says you should believe in one god. Or was it many Gods – the Noah story mentions sons of God hooking up with daughters of men, and even the 10 commandments says “you will have no other gods before me” – there may be other gods, but they have to sit in the back of the bus. Or maybe you re-define your one god to fit the space you have left after science: medieval rabbi Maimonides accepted so much Aristotle that his God lost his mighty hand, his outstretched arm, his jealousy, and his love. Modern rabbi Harold Kushner, writing after the Holocaust and his own personal tragedy of a child dying young, could no longer believe in a god who could have helped but did not, so Kushner’s god cheers from the sidelines but cannot intervene on the field except through human beings. Those who want to motivate Jewish social action from a liberal religious perspective believe in a partner god, who works with the Jewish people and all people for good rather than commanding the Jews, choosing the Jews, or judging the Jews. And some Jews have concluded that in the absence of divine intervention, we needed to solve our problems ourselves – the Jewish socialists and Zionists who said “fix it here! fix it now!” they were also giving Jewish answers to this question. Recall the famous story of a rabbi hearing both sides of an argument, and saying that each side is right. When an observer says, “They can’t both be right!” the rabbi responds, “You are also right.” All of these theologies cannot all be right, but they CAN all be Jewish. So don’t tell me the one message that “Judaism says” about a god.

What do we mean by “Torah”? Is it a specific law, the torah of burnt offerings? Is it the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah of Moses? Does Torah mean the entire Hebrew Bible, all Jewish writing that was supposedly revealed? Does it mean the so-called “Oral Torah” – Rabbinic interpretations that claim continuity with earlier sources? Is Torah any Jewish teaching even tangentially tied to the sources, since Torah and Morah/teacher share a Hebrew root? If every Jewish teaching is Torah, no matter how non-traditional, I’m not sure Torah means anything. Some terms are used so often for so many things they have lost all meaning: “vintage” “gourmet”, “artisanal” – what do they mean anymore? My point is not who is right or wrong with what they call “Torah”, my point is that there is no Jewish consensus on what Torah is. And this is before we argue about who wrote it and when and why and whether it still has authority over our lives!

And as for ISRAEL uniting the Jewish people…. need I say more? Who counts as part of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel? Depends which Jews you ask, and where – note that the American Reform movement’s decision to accept those with Jewish fathers as Jewish does not even apply to Reform Judaism in other countries! We in Secular Humanistic Judaism accept anyone as Jewish who identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jewish people, whatever their personal descent. If “Israel” means the modern state of Israel, today that is just as divisive. How should Israel balance its identities as both Jewish and democratic? What should its boundaries be, historic eretz yisrael, the land of Israel, or the modern medinat yisrael, the state of Israel with political realities? When should Israel be defended and when are its actions indefensible? And does Israel’s leadership support us as much as it wants our support? Is there one Jewish answer to ANY of these questions? Of course not! The organization If Not Now, which wants an immediate end to West Bank Occupation, proclaims that “Judaism tells us to love the stranger.” Religious Zionism swears that “Judaism decreed all of Judea and Samaria [aka The West Bank] to be the Promised Land, ours by divine decree and patriarchal history.” And Rabbis for Human Rights, which doesn’t CARE about borders as long as human rights are respected, declared that “Judaism says to love your neighbor as yourself and that we are all created in the same image.” We may disagree on which is politically, strategically, or morally right. Maybe they cannot all be right. But they are all what “Judaism says.”

There’s a more vital issue than trying to define or to impose what “Judaism says” – is anyone listening? Rabbi Joseph Hertz, past chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, once said, “Far more calamitous than religious differences in Jewry is religious indifference in Jewry.” The more people who insist that Judaism is what I say it is, and not what you think it could be, the fewer people will be left in the tent. We often list the “denominations” of Judaism in descending order of validity – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Miscellaneous (even though “Miscellaneous” is now the second largest group in American Judaism). Sometimes hear them described as “streams” of Judaism, as if they came from one common source. Maybe a better approach is to think of them as “flavors”.c700x420

Consider bagels: when I was growing up, there were 4 flavors of bagel – egg, plain, raisin, salt. Just like 50 years ago there were only 3 or 4 flavors of Judaism: Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, maybe Reconstructionist or secular Jewish alternatives. Today, you can go into a bagel store and see dozens of varieties: asiago cheese and spinach Florentine and blueberry and chocolate chip. Some people complain and say, “That’s not really a bagel, with blueberries!” Just as some complain that the varieties of modern Jewish identity “aren’t really Judaism.” But the more varieties of bagels, or Judaisms, the more people can enjoy them and find the one that best fits with them. In fact, so many people enjoy bagels today that we can ask whether a bagel is clearly a Jewish food any more. Bagels are Jewish food are if they have Jewish meaning to you. There are all kinds of Jewish food, all kinds of Jewish tastes and most important, you cannot argue about taste. Which flavor of Judaism tastes right to you? There are many Jewish recipes, from all over the world, influenced by all kinds of cultures. “Judaism Says” many things. A more productive approach is to take it personally – MY Judaism says. Your Judaism may be different, but it’s ALL in the family. As our former Hebrew Teacher, David Steiner (may his memory be a blessing) used to joke, “I have Maimonides and you have your Monides.”

Saying goodbye to “Judaism Says” is a first step towards a vibrant and diverse Jewish future. The next step, which we turn to on Yom Kippur, is to forbid another phrase we would never miss: “Bad Jew”. It’s not just a phrase others use to criticize us – we use it on ourselves. To hear more about eliminating “bad Jew,” you need to be a “good Jew” or a supportive family member and return Yom Kippur evening, or catch the rerun on the Kol Hadash Podcast.

We have a vital voice to add the chorus of what “Judaism says.” It’s important for the truth, but it’s also important for the Jewish future. I once met with a bride-to-be whose mother was not born Jewish but the bride had been raised Jewish, attended a Reform synagogue all the way through High School, and her mother even converted to Judaism while the daughter was still living at home. But at college, showing up at a Hillel, some “ethnic bouncer” told her that she wasn’t really Jewish. Their Judaism said that she was out. MY Judaism said to her, “I’m sorry for your experience, and welcome, and thank you for your persistence, and mazel tov!” Today my Judaism wishes all of you “L’shana Tova – a happy and healthy new year.”

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