This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2015/5776 as part of a series entitled “The Simplest Things.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.
Two years ago, for the first time since it opened in 1993, I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. I had not visited before for the same reason I do not visit every Jewish museum when I travel – for me, it feels like work. I wanted to see the US Holocaust Museum because I was intrigued by its very existence. The Holocaust was an unimaginable tragedy, but it did not happen in America, the Holocaust was not suffered by Americans, and it was not perpetrated by America. Yes, American indifference to Jewish refugees before and during the war played a role, and after the war thousands of survivors made the United States their home. But Americans were neither the murderers nor the murdered, and there were no concentration camps in America during WWII.
Actually, there were, but not for Jews. From 1942 to 1945, over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 2/3 of them American citizens, were forcibly relocated and interned in camps. Many of them lost their homes their property, anything they could not carry with them. It took the United States over 40 years to finally and formally apologize and to offer $20,000 per person in meager restitution. I mention this dark page in our national history because it is not the first time it took us a long time to take responsibility. The Holocaust Museum opened in 1993, but the National Museum of the American Indian did not open until 2004, and there still is no National Museum of African American History and Culture – that is slated to open in 2016. Both Native American expulsion and slavery, Jim Crow and racial oppression were committed by Americans in America. The Holocaust was a failure of humanity, and it was an act of generosity for the United States to assume some responsibility for its commemoration as part of its national mall. Yet perhaps it is a bit easier to take distanced responsibility for a failure of “humanity” than it is to accept failings closer to home, misdeeds for which you were directly responsible.
This New Year’s season, we have explored “the simplest things” – small things we can say and live by that can have a profound impact on the world around us, and on ourselves. On Rosh Hashana we saw that “I hear you” and “I’ll help” deepen our connections to other people while strengthening ourselves. There are many trends in society that support “I hear you” and “I’ll help” – listening to those who need to be heard, and reaching out to those who need assistance. At the same time, saying “It’s my responsibility” in a tangible and meaningful way may be on the decline. It’s easy to sign an online petition, to share a moving image over social networks, but taking personal ownership of a cause or assuming personal responsibility for a failure is much harder. Because that’s what “It’s my responsibility” really means – taking direct, personal responsibility for success or failure. And it is much easier to avoid personal responsibility than to accept it.
We understand the power of circumstances. We know very well that the circumstances of your birth, your parents, your upbringing, your home situation, your neighborhood, your education – all factors beyond the ability of a child to control – these factors have a profound impact on your opportunities later in life. We know that car accidents and illness and financial crashes can derail even the most careful long-term plans. And we know on the psychological side that it can be easier to make excuses than to take responsibility. When megapastor Rick Warren opened his best-selling book The Purpose-Driven Life with the words, “it’s not about you,” he was saying that any problems you have, the bad things that have happened to you are all part of a divine plan – it was not your fault, and you do not have to take responsibility. Indeed, traditional religion can encourage you to avoid it – all glory be to God, says the Christian athlete. The book of Zecharia (4:6) proclaims, “not by might, not by power, but by my spirit alone.” Deuteronomy (8:17-18) warns you to beware lest “you say to yourselves: ‘my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you to the power to get wealth.” A few years ago, a Buffalo Bills wide receiver dropped a potential game winning touchdown, and after the game he went theological on Twitter:
“I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!! AND THIS IS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! I’LL NEVER FORGET THIS!!! EVER!!! THX THO…’.
With reporters, he did take personal responsibility, and I’m sure he cashed his game check rather than donate it to his church. But when your god gets the credit, or the blame, it seems harder to say clearly, “It’s my responsibility.”
Taking credit is a kind of taking responsibility – it’s the easy kind of responsibility when something has turned out to be a success. Taking the blame is much harder – responsibility for a failure, a negative outcome from which there might be negative consequences for me. The hardest can be taking responsibility before the results are known, because who knows what could go wrong? There was an amusing typo in the publicity for these High Holiday services – a number of the sermon topics inadvertently had a question mark at the end. There’s plenty of blame to go around – I proofed them and I missed it, as did some others who will remain nameless. I never said you have to take responsibility alone. Sometimes the results of the typos were amusing – “I’ll Help” became “I’ll help?”, or “Oops” became “Oops?”; a more apologetic version. For this topic, however, the question mark could reverse the meaning – instead of “it’s my responsibility,” it could read, “it’s MY responsibility??” Unfortunately, it’s much more common to hear the denial than the acceptance. I know that in public life apologies often have legal and financial implications. But just once it would be refreshing to hear someone take unambiguous responsibility for a screw-up before it was court ordered. And maybe they could apologize without declaring that their spouse or their God has already forgiven them; implication: you should let it slide. We’ll talk more tomorrow about the possibilities and limitations of forgiveness, but you can already hear that the standard politician style of assuming responsibility leaves a lot to be desired.
Responsibility is often a public stance. Researchers have found that changing your life can be accomplished more effectively by making public commitments to others – giving colleagues and friends a card saying that you’re quitting smoking makes each of them a living reminder of your responsibility for your health. When your name is on the letterhead, or your public persona is attached to a particular project, you are being publicly pushed into maintaining the responsibility you have assumed. As easy as it can be to avoid responsibility at the outset, it can be just as tempting to evade it after the fact. And here is where the balance of public and private responsibility comes into play. What would we think of ourselves if we evaded a responsibility we already accepted? And what would others think of us? We are not absolutely dependent on the perceptions of others for our self-worth, but neither are we absolutely indifferent to them. “It’s my responsibility” can be said to others or said to ourselves, but either way it is an important part of maturity and self-sufficiency.
Sometimes saying “I’m responsible” means looking backward – something bad happened, and I am accepting responsibility that it happened because of something I did or did not do, or because I was the person in charge. If you are happy to take the credit during good times, even if others do the leg work, then you have to pay the piper when it goes the other way. Sometimes saying “I’m responsible” means looking forward – I will take responsibility for this project, this initiative, this cause, and I will do my best to make sure it is a success. This does not mean that you have to do everything yourself – that’s irresponsible – but it does mean you can be judged on the results. Sometimes “I’m responsible” means looking inward – I admit to myself that something I did or allowed to happen had negative consequences that are on me to address. Sometimes that unpleasant insight comes from listening to someone else’s perspective, sometimes we get enough distance to honestly evaluate ourselves. And sometimes “I’m responsible” means looking outward – I feel a pull to support people or organizations or causes I value. I volunteer, I advocate, I am a card-carrying member. You can see why avoiding responsibility becomes more seductive the more you think about the implications of “It’s my responsibility.”
Consider the experience of becoming a parent. That’s responsibility in all directions, and then some. When my wife was several months pregnant with our first child, one night she asked me, “How do we know that we’re ready to be parents?” My first response was, “Too late now!” But then I thought a bit, and I said that the only way to find out if we are ready to be parents is to have a child and then we’ll see – there is no simulation. And then I remembered a story someone else had told me years before: when he and his wife were leaving the hospital with their first child, they put the infant in the car, they sat down in the front, and they both burst into tears – “how are we supposed to keep this baby alive??” As a new parent, you feel an amazingly powerful sense of responsibility, and terror, because you have just received a title you will bear for the rest of your life. I sometimes wish parents happy “becoming a mother” or “becoming a father” day on the birthday of their oldest child, because they assumed that responsibility and they are carrying it out. Children do not come with a manual, and if you have had more than one you know that the same parents and the same environment can still produce vastly different individuals.
Each of one’s children gradually learns to take their own responsibility as they are able – The traditional blessing recited by a Bar Mitzvah boy’s father was, “Blessed are you, our god, who has today exempted me from the punishment of this one.” Before the day of his Bar Mitzvah, I was responsible for his mistakes. Today, he’s off my insurance! Perhaps it could have been phrased better, but the transition from being someone else’s responsibility to being able to say, “It’s MY responsibility” is a crucial moment in our growing independence. This is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting – pulling back on one’s own sense of responsibility to let one’s children develop their own. Letting them fall, letting them fail is part of the process, as difficult as it may be for us to allow it to happen. Just as not helping is sometimes helping, so too can letting someone else take responsibility actually fulfill your own responsibility.
The reality is that responsibility is not simply a matter of discrete projects or individual relationships. A lifestyle built around the willingness to say and live, “it’s my responsibility” means much more. It means thinking through the distanced implications of one’s actions, and behaviors, and values. It means putting your time and energy behind what you say you value, making sure that your deeds match your creed. If you say you value voting rights or economic freedom or Humanistic Judaism, then living “It’s my responsibility” means doing something to make sure that what you say you value can continue and thrive. There are many ways to fulfill that sense of responsibility, but in the end you will have to answer to yourself if something you valued withers – good will only goes so far. If we do not believe that praying changes the real world, then neither does good will without responsibility.
The Yom Kippur evening service is often called Kol Nidre, after its most famous text. Kol Nidre is not a prayer, even though it is in a language you do not understand. And Kol Nidre is not in Hebrew, even though the letters may be challenging to read. Kol Nidre is an Aramaic formula to release an individual from their vows of the past year that they have not yet fulfilled. May all my vows be annulled, cancelled, considered as void, and on and on. The melody is beautiful, but the meaning raises concerns. There’s a reason why rabbis have tried to abolish it for centuries. One attempt to evade responsibility for this apparent evasion of responsibility has been to claim that Kol Nidre was composed for survivors of the Spanish Inquisition, who had hidden their Jewishness under Catholicism for generations and were now disavowing their Christian past as they reclaimed their Judaism. The historical reality is that it was opposed by rabbis as early as early as the 9th century, because cancelling what you promised to do is the opposite of taking responsibility. A legalistic formula, even with a beautiful melody, is no substitute.
So why do WE sing Kol Nidre? Does it further a Humanistic sense of responsibility, or are we simply caving in to nostalgia for historic Jewish culture and our own memories? I would argue that our approach to Kol Nidre is consistent with our approach to Jewish and personal life. Many of the responses of the most religious to the vicissitudes of life strike us as an evasion of responsibility – it’s in God’s hands, it’s God’s will, I was tempted by the evil impulse, I’m praying for deliverance or material success. Or else it’s responsibility applied in the wrong places – blaming homosexuality for natural disasters, or women’s lack of modesty for cancer, or those who suffer for not being observant enough. I assure you, religious leaders and JEWISH religious leaders have said these things. Our approach is very different: we assume responsibility for our lives because we know that nothing else will. So if we make promises, we strive to fulfill them, but if we are unable to fulfill them, we can admit our failings. Because that’s a kind of responsibility too. Remember, “it’s my responsibility” means that it is on your account as either a success or a failure. What was a forward looking acceptance of responsibility can become a backward looking acceptance of blame; the outward looking public commitment becomes an inward-focused self-evaluation and judgment. It is not true that eliminating cosmic judgment from Yom Kippur means we are taking the easy way out. Given the evidence of political press conferences, God seems much more likely to absolve you of responsibility than your own conscience.
Do I bear responsibility for the Holocaust? In a very, very distant sense, as a member of the humanity that perpetrated it and allowed it to happen. As a Jew, of course, my Jewish family was the victim. Am I responsible for the internment of Japanese Americans, the expulsion of Native Americans, the oppression of African Americans? Even if I was not a perpetrator of these injustices, I have benefited from their results – remember that “Blackhawk” used to mean something other than a hockey team in Illinois. The GI Bill that sent our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generation to college and home ownership was just as race restricted as the rest of society – according to one scholar, “of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill, fewer than 100 were taken out by non-whites.” Did Jews also face discrimination in those days? Yes, but in some ways they were on the white side of the line. If I have enjoyed the benefits, I share some responsibility. Still, I must remind myself that responsibility is harder than abstract acceptance of history – “It’s my responsibility” is something I have to apply to my own life, my own relationships, my own family, my own community. Responsibility is the hard work of reconciliation, the challenge of self-ownership, the willingness to extend oneself into the unknown and face both the thrill of success and the fear of failure. We conclude this Kol Nidre address with a stirring statement of personal responsibility by William Ernest Henley, entitled “Invictus.”
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.