Why be Jewish AND Humanist? Yom Kippur 5775

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2014/5775 as part of a series entitled “Why Bother?”. You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

Do you know what year it is? In the general calendar, it’s 2014. In the Chinese calendar, it’s the Year of the Horse. In the Muslim calendar, it’s 1435 after Mohammed’s escape to Medina. In the Jewish calendar, it’s 5775. 5 thousand, 700 and 75 years after what? Year Zero: Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden – allegedly. The Jewish calendar is creationist, but we Humanistic Jews still use it for Jewish life. It’s no wonder we’re confused – Jewish days begin at night, the Jewish calendar is called a luni-solar calendar (luni? or looney?) and we add a leap month 7 out of every 19 years. In the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur is always on the same day, the tenth of Tishrei, but the High Holidays always seem to be either early or late, like some Jewish people I know. A purely rational person would have ditched this calendar mess a long time ago. Now, I’m saying this in one of the three countries in the world that refuses to use the metric system: it’s the United States, Liberia and Burma.

Metric system refuseniks

Our general calendar has its flaws too – in 1752, the English speaking world went to bed on September 2 and woke up on September 14 – only adding one leap day every 4 years had gotten us way behind, since the actual length of a solar year is not 365 ¼ days, it’s 365.2421897 days, on average. Human beings measuring cosmic time is not only a question of reason. Sometimes, it’s reasonable to be unreasonable.

This High Holidays, we explore the question of “why” – so far, why bother being anything, and why bother being Jewish. We’ve found that being different provides dignity and roots, and being Jewish inspires us to respond creatively to our inheritance, to take what we have received and make it meaningful, and then enable our heirs to do the same. Yet we are more than simply our roots – we have branches and leaves and fruit, we have a present as well as a past. We are not only part of the Jewish family by birth, by choice, by marriage, by affinity. We also have beliefs about the world and humanity that tie us to a larger world of humanism. Our Humanism is more than a Renaissance-style celebration of universal human culture; it is a person-focused approach to life that is both meaningful and inspirational. It is a change of focus – too much of religion is directed up there – we focus on each other, and inside ourselves; this world, not above and beyond. People have the right and responsibility to be in charge of their lives, independent of any claimed supernatural authority. Too much of religion tells us what we cannot know, what we cannot do. We celebrate that human knowledge and power can understand and improve the world. Our ethics revolve around human dignity, human needs, and human responsibility, as we will explore tomorrow morning. And these values and rights apply not only to our group, but to all human beings of every background, every gender, every identity. Our Humanism is a positive self-definition of what we do believe and how we live, not just a debate about one fact: is there or isn’t there. We can imagine ourselves as an adapted Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live: We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggone it, we like people!

The more we try to define our identity, the more we wind up expanding our identitIES. We are universalists from a particular perspective, part of both the human family and our own Jewish family. The challenge, as the Birmingham Temple’s Rabbi Jeffrey Falick put it in a Rosh Hashana sermon last week, is how to defeat the old Yiddish saying: ein tuchus ken nit tanzen af tsvay khasines – one tush can’t dance at two weddings! Now how did I hear what he said when you all saw me here? How can one rabbi attend two Rosh Hashana evening services in two states? The internet! In a world of the internet, when where you are from or what day it is prove no barrier to finding like-minded people all over the world, we understand more and more that “who am I” does not have a single answer. Walt Whitman wrote in his “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” One tuchus, two weddings; one person, many identities.

It’s not really a question of being Jewish OR: Jewish or American, Jewish or secular, Jewish or liberal or conservative or libertarian. We are always in the state of Jewish AND – in my case, Jewish AND male AND straight AND born where I was born AND living where I live. Each of us is large, each of us contains multitudes. In the world of our ancestors, your culture, your religion, your ethnicity, your language, your group identity, they were mostly indivisible. You were an Ashkenazi Jew who spoke Yiddish and observed Shabbat, or a Sephardic Jew from Syria who spoke Judeo-Arabic and would never mix lamb with yogurt, or a Polish-speaking Polish Catholic from Poland. 1 tuchus, 1 wedding. Yes, you had some contact with the outside world, and maybe they influenced you more than you were willing to admit. But today we are never forced to be one thing – we are always the particular multitudes of our unique biography. For Humanistic Jews, this is our multiple minority, and part of the dignity of difference is accepting our uniqueness – I am Jewish in a non-Jewish world, a Humanist in a religious America, stubbornly Jewish amid universalist Humanists, a secular Jew amid religious Judaisms.

We are hardly the first generation to attempt a synthesis between ancestral Jewish identity and modern values. Rabbi Falick pointed out that the 19th century Reform movement was created to bridge the gap between Judaism and modernity – strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, those rabbis sought a way to have your Kant and eat matza too. We are doing the same in our own generation, from our own perspective. The first generation of secular Jewish schools and communities emerged 100 years ago, organized around Yiddish, Jewish culture and the Jewish labor movement. They too had to balance their secular identity, their Jewish heritage and their labor activism. Sometimes their identities reinforced each other; Passover makes a great Jewish labor holiday – a worker’s rebellion against slave labor conditions! To celebrate their Jewish freedom, they created a Yom Kippur Ball and Banquet. A few years ago our own Steering Committee debated, given how wonderful community feeling is during our Rosh Hashana oneg receptions, did we want some kind of oneg after Yom Kippur …. That was a step too far, though we did explore the possibility of an empty-plate oneg, what one member called a “no-neg.” The freedom to offend does not mean that one must be offensive.

Sometimes those secular socialist Jews contradicted themselves in their multitudes – the Jewish Labor movement split many times between the nineteen-teens and the 1950s over the gradually increasing anti-semitism of the Soviet Union. Sometimes push came to shove, and the Jewish won.

That is the real challenge, that is why this question of why be Jewish and a Humanist needs an answer. Multiple identities are all well and good when they are in separate categories – liking egg rolls for appetizers and ice cream for dessert rarely produces direct confrontation. My Jewishness is not affected by my hair color, even if it’s on the march from brown to grey. But when it comes to a religious cultural philosophical values identity, there are times that push comes to shove, there are moments when the multitudes within me battle each other and contradicting myself becomes conflict.

It can be hard to be Jewish if you’re a Humanist. We saw on Rosh Hashana evening the tension between universalist Humanist commitment and our particular Jewish identity, and how loving our family does not mean we may treat humanity any less. There are certainly elements of our Jewish tradition, and of our Jewish family today, that offend our Humanism. Does every Jewish media story need to revolve around “Is it good for the Jews?” Haredi Orthodox Jewish communities that treat women as inferior to men, that support gay conversion therapy, that are anti-science and refuse outside knowledge – they are Jewish. Nationalist and messianic extremists who refer to the deaths of children in Gaza as “mowing the grass” – they are also Jewish. Some might disown them and claim “that’s not really Judaism,” but OUR values and all Jewish values are not the same. Think of a Venn diagram –there is some overlap between our values and Jewish values, but there is also some disconnection.

Venn diagrams

Just as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is a destructive version of Islam, but still an expression of Islam, or white supremacy is a twisted Christianity, so too these expressions of Jewish identity are, to us, objectionable forms of Judaism. But we cannot deny that they are Jewish, as others would deny us. The question is whether we can handle being identified with them, or do we say “if those people are on my team, I quit!” Some in the world of general Secular Humanism insist that the only True Judaism, the only True Christianity, the only True Islam is the most fundamentalist one – it makes the best enemy, but it also means they wind up agreeing with fundamentalists who say the same thing! There can be liberal Christians and conservative Christians, Orthodox Jews and Humanistic Jews, liberal westernized Muslims and fanatic eliminationist Muslims. We refuse to surrender our heritage to the most fanatic; we will not give up being in our family. Different heirs make different choices with the same inheritance – some transcend the violence and division of their religious tradition, others deepen it. We may share little in common in lifestyle and values, but we are distant branches on the same evolutionary tree. Just as we contain multitudes, so too does Judaism.

The other side of this challenge to being both universalist and particular, committed to the dignity of cultural and ethnic difference and also to basic human rights, is that there are limits to cultural relativism. If a culture systematically disenfranchises and denigrates women, treating them as less than full human beings, must we respect it? On the other hand, a French style secularism that bans religious symbols from public space, be it a Muslim hijab, a Jewish kippah, or even a cross, feels universalist to the point of infringing on personal religion. Human rights do not only apply to “my” people and stop at the borders of different cultures. So when a cultural tradition collides with human rights, we may wind up siding with our values against a culture, even our own culture; of course, there will always be others of our people right next to us. Remember the former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling (born Donald Tokowitz) and the terrible things he said and did? When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was asked how he felt about it as a fellow Jew, Silver answered, “My response was as a human being,” and that was the end of it. And plenty of other Jews felt the exact same way – as human beings AND as Jews! We may sometimes feel alone in the Jewish world in our multiple minority, but if we say what we believe, we find that we represent many. We Humanistic Jews are multitudes that we don’t even realize. I hear the same story all the time – “I’ve felt like a Humanistic Jew for many years on my own, and I’ve finally found you!” I both love and hate that story – I’m glad they found us, but why did it take so long? We’ve been around for 50 years!

This story demonstrates that just as it can be hard to be Jewish if you’re a Humanist, it can be hard to be a Humanist if you’re Jewish. People don’t even know to look for us – they can’t believe there are enough Jewish people who think like they think and live like they live that there might actually be communities to celebrate as they want to celebrate. As much as we can take Jewish tradition and reinterpret, select, understand in a humanistic light, in the plain light of truth we must admit that much of historical Jewish culture was expressed through religious ideas – as was almost every culture before modern times. Yes, the Talmud contains fascinating anecdotes and stories we can enjoy, but much of the Talmud’s 6,200 pages are legalistic hair-splitting irrelevant to our secular lives. Everyone knows that Hanukkah is about the miracle of the lights and Passover is about the 10 plagues and the Exodus from Egypt by God, so why do you bother us with the inconvenient truth that the stories were written centuries later and most likely didn’t happen? Who do you think you are to change this tradition, even if I don’t believe it either? The answer is, I have as much right to adapt my inheritance to my needs as you have to keep it the same or our ancestors did to create it. Unless you’d rather go back to sacrificing goats on Yom Kippur – anything else is changing tradition.

The other reason it can be hard to be a Humanist if you’re Jewish has to do with the Jewish historical experience. I was once asked a question by a member of Kol Hadash: “Can you be a Humanist if you don’t like people?” Jewish history is full of reasons not to like people in general: “people” are prone to violence and chauvinism and fanaticism, “people” impose their beliefs and lifestyle on others, “people” can destroy their environment, and they can certainly destroy each other. We no longer believe in a naïve Enlightenment idealism of human perfectibility, the tabula rasa – blank slate that can be filled with correct education to create a utopia. We’ve been mugged by reality too many times, particularly as the Jewish people. The cynic sneers: “Those idealists who loved the cosmopolitan German culture of Beethoven and Goethe, they were murdered, and YOU put your trust in humanity…”

I have no blind faith in humanity, in progress, in reason – working in organized Humanism has taught me that Humanists can be just as unreasonable as anyone else. I am also convinced that human knowledge and effort improve the world, so I have no choice but to be both Humanist AND Jew – both of them are who I am, now and at all times. As an undergraduate, I spent Passover for four years at a friend’s home with his family,. Their Haggadah was very conventional, a step or two above Maxwell House.  Reading through those texts, I found myself alternatively confirming my Judaism with positive connections, and my Humanism when I disagreed with the values represented in the text. Very well, I contradict myself – I am large, I contain multitudes.

At their best, multiple identities reinforce each other. My Judaism confirms my Humanism, and my Humanism enriches my Judaism. The lesson I learn from Jewish history is the importance of human self-reliance, and the value of human action over prayer and faith. There are others who read different lessons from the Jewish experience – was the founding of modern Israel a miracle, or the product of stubborn human effort? A college classmate once told me that because his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, he was inclined to believe in divine providence; my response was that in the same situation I would have the exact opposite interpretation. Imagine if we read the statistics on Jewish behavior the opposite way they are normally presented – instead of saying 15% of American Jews keep kosher or light Shabbat candles, why not say 85% do not do either? That would build community feeling among the more secular, who are the vast majority, rather than a Jewish establishment that regrets reality. The Jewish world was shocked last October to hear that 20% of American Jews, and a third those under 35, identified as “Jews of no religion” – “Are you Jewish?” “Yes.” “What religion are you?” “None.” We’ve known this population is there for a long time, and we have taken the next step – integrating a secular lifestyle with an abiding Jewish identity, enriching both.

Jewish culture is an example of the human experience – the parallels between the Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah and coming of age rituals in other cultures, plus our knowledge of human psychological development, enable us to make our personalized Mitzvah experience that much more meaningful and relevant than Jewish tradition alone. Cultural cross-pollination produced a Passover seder modeled on a Roman Feast, and today we sing the African-American spiritual “Let My People Go” in our English-language Haggadah. The Jewish tradition of questions and challenges, a desire for reasons to justify religious practice, an emphasis on literacy and teaching, even a counter-tradition of Jewish skeptics and heretics who refuse to believe what authorities demand – all of these support both a Humanistic approach to the world and a creative approach to being Jewish. I love the Yiddish saying: “angels used to walk the earth, not they’re not even in heaven.” Seeking forgiveness on Yom Kippur, even in traditional Jewish life, was always about forgiveness from the person you had wronged first – not quite Humanistic, perhaps “humanish-tic.” We’re always negotiating the balance, and different generations will change their inheritance – the earliest Humanistic Jewish parents in the 1960s and 70s had themselves been raised in very Jewish neighborhoods in the 1920s and 30s, often by immigrant parents, so Jewishness was more assumed. Today we live much more dispersed, more integrated with our surroundings, and so Judaism is re-emphasized when we come together. And our children will make their own choices for their needs, based on their identities. If we contain our own multitudes, so will they.

The Broadway show “Rent” was written by Jonathan Larson, born to Jewish parents in White Plains, NY. After many years of financial struggle, Larson died of an undiagnosed heart condition just before the musical opened and became a smash success. It is impossible for us to know exactly which of Larson’s lyrics were inspired by his Judaism, which by his humanity, which by his individual experience. He was large, he contained multitudes – he was all of who he was, as long as he was. At the end of the show, after one character has died and another recovered, the last song resounds with Humanism: No afterlife, no cosmic reward and punishment, no book of life, no revelation telling us what to believe or how to live.

There’s only us
There’s only this
Forget regret– or life is yours to miss.
No other road
No other way
No day but today ….

There’s only now
There’s only here
Give in to love
Or live in fear
No other path
No other way
No day but today 

Is that a Jewish message? A Humanist message? A Humanistic Jewish message? As Saturday Night Live once asked, Is it a floor wax or a dessert topping? The answer: “it’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping”. Our tuchus can dance at many weddings, for we contain multitudes, in all of their contradictions and their complementarity. The wisdom of our country’s founding motto still abides: e pluribus unum – from many, into one.

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3 Responses to Why be Jewish AND Humanist? Yom Kippur 5775

  1. lezlow2012 says:

    rabbi,
    while their may already be jews blood in my family? i,d like too know
    more about becoming jewish[liberal], i was born and christened, so i
    suppose i,m a christian, if i pray,? i pray to the god in me? god the
    creator, not baal as many jews pray too, so tell me more, i haven,t read
    all this blog yet? but will do, lezlow111@yahoo.co.uk,nb,i,m a critic
    of the present zionist regime in israel, but have donated to israel in
    the past? — comment-reply@wordpress.com wrote:From: Shalom from Rabbi Chalom <comment-reply@wordpress.com>To: lezlow@hackersclub.netSubject: [New post] Why be Jewish AND Humanist? Yom Kippur 5775Date: Tue, 7 Oct 2014 16:51:11 +0000

    Rabbi Adam Chalom posted: “This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2014/5775 as part of a series entitled “Why Bother?”. You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.
    Do you know what year it is? In the “

  2. Pingback: Why Be Good? Yom Kippur 5775 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

  3. Pingback: Why Bother? | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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