Humanism for Humanistic Jews

This post was originally a 2004 Yom Kippur sermon delivered at
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Ben Gurion and Eisenhower, 1960

Humanists are individuals, and Jews are famous for being opinionated. Imagine the challenge and the paradox of a congregation of Humanistic Jews. When David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, met President Dwight D. Eisenhower,  Eisenhower supposedly said, “You know, it’s not easy being president of 250 million people.” Ben-Gurion responded, “That’s nothing; try being Prime Minister of 1 million prime ministers.” We Humanistic Jews say that “we have no dogma,” and we are very dogmatic about that statement. And we declare as a congregation that we are individuals. Let me demonstrate the paradox. Please say after me: we are all individuals” “we can all think for ourselves.” I do this not to mock what we are doing here as a congregation of Humanistic Judaism but to show you that being the rabbi of 250 rabbis isn’t easy either.

This High Holidays, we are exploring together the two pillars of Humanistic Judaism – Judaism and Humanism. On Rosh Hashana, we felt our intellectual and emotional connections to our family heritage of Judaism. For Yom Kippur, the traditional “day of atonement,” we will explore the more contemplative side of our identity: our commitment to Humanism. In medieval Jewish philosophy, Maimonides tried to define his most important concept, God, by saying what he was not – definition by negation: God is not  limited, God does NOT have a body, etc. For a more relevant example, instead of saying “I am a Cubs fan,” which I’m sure may develop over time, I could say that right now “I am not a San Francisco Giants Fan, I am not a St. Louis Cardinals Fan,” and so on. In my case, as a native Detroiter but a new North Shore resident, I can be both a Detroit Tigers fan and a Chicago Cubs fan, since they’re in different leagues and the chances of them both being in the World Series at the same time are so tiny that if it ever did happen, I’d change Jewish teams and start praying because the end of the world would be near.

Imagine carving a statue – you start with a big rock, like the one in front of me. First you remove the big chunks on the outside and at the corners, because you know that those are not the statue. As the general shape begins to emerge from the block of rock, however, you begin to see the contours of what it will be the statue – here is the arm, here is the head. Your creative process changes from discarding what the statue is not to refining what the statue is. Maimonides and the sculpture of the human forms made famous by the Greeks are from opposing traditions – the Judaic and the Hellenistic, the Jewish and the universal. Yet just as Maimonides drew from the best of Greek wisdom in his Jewish philosophy, so too do we draw strength from both sides of our identity, the Jewish and the human. And we can use the power of language, the power of NO and YES, to refine our statue – to remove chunks of what our Humanism is NOT, and to refine and polish what Humanism IS.

Chunk #1: Humanism is NOT angrily rejecting everything from the past, or everything connected to that with which we disagree. Yes, we have the right and the freedom to not follow the rules and rituals of our ancestors. But a dogmatic rejection of EVERYTHING old and traditional only because it is old and traditional would be just as closed-minded as absolute obedience. To scrupulously avoid anything that has ever been associated with traditional religion would leave us Jewishly and humanly shallow, illiterate, unsophisticated, shunned, and totally broke – remember, “In God we Trust” is on every piece of money. We could not read the Bible, we would not study historic Jewish culture or celebrate holidays, we would have few friends and many enemies. It’s bad enough that some of the outside world thinks that all we do is nothing – no prayers, no traditional Shema, no God, no kosher, no no no. We have to say to ourselves and to the world around us that Humanism is NOT rejection, but choice – we choose what we believe, and we choose how we live out our beliefs.

Chunk #2: Humanism is NOT just “being nice.” I’ve experienced many times in our movement that when there is a personality conflict or someone doesn’t get something for free that other people pay for like memberships or publications, they say “that’s not Humanistic of you.” And I’ve wondered, “what does being nice or just letting you have your way have to do with defining a naturalistic, human-centered philosophy of life?” Yes, we should be nice to each other – EVERYONE should be nice to each other, regardless of their beliefs about the human role in the universe! Where personal interactions do learn from Humanism is the question of respect and dignity – if we only  wanted to be nice, we would not object when our personal beliefs were ignored or offended by the less considerate, or when our needs were ignored for other people’s priorities. Humanism is not just being nice but about respect – I want respect from you, and you deserve respect from me.

Chunk #3: Humanism is NOT simply caring for the welfare of other human beings – one can be a humanitarian without being a Humanist. The Quaker-organized American Friends Service Committee, the image of Mother Teresa, and everyone else in the family of religious humanitarians are certainly not humanists, and while we admire their dedication and generosity, we disagree with their possible dogmatism and efforts at religious conversion. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine a Humanist who is in no way humanitarian, someone who in no way cares for the welfare of other human beings. In a shtetl in Eastern Europe, a man once wandered into town on a Friday night after dark. All of the doors were closed except for one house at the end of town, whose solitary inhabitant welcomed him in. In the morning attending synagogue, the visitor was shocked to hear that his host is the town apikoros  [heretic]! The visitor asked his host why he took him in, and the apikoros  responded, “The others believed that God would provide; I knew that he wouldn’t!” For us, our  humanitarianism is a RESULT of our Humanism – not because people were created in the image of God, but because we know that if we don’t create justice, there will be no justice; that if we don’t improve the world, it won’t fix itself. If everyone were self-sufficient and happy, I would be glad to retire from community service, because everyone would have the dignity of being strong enough to help others. We want dignity for ourselves, and for every human being.

Chunk #4: Humanism is NOT the easy way through life. In fact, as many of you have experienced, there’s nothing easy about being a Humanist in a world that sometimes doesn’t even understand what we’re talking about. “You can be Jewish without prayer?” “You can be good without God telling you what to do?” It is not easy and simple to believe that this life is the only life, or that the universe doesn’t give a damn about our happiness, or that there is no guaranteed happy ending over the rainbow. Humanism is not the easy life but rather the life of courage – the courage to act, and live, and love without guarantees.

We have removed four major chunks of our statue – Humanism is NOT about rejection – it is about Choice; Humanism is NOT simply being nice – it is concerned with respect; Humanism is NOT equivalent to Humanitarian – it is about dignity; and Humanism is NOT the easy way out – it is a life of courage. You can see how beginning our statue by subtraction, removing large chunks of excess stone has given definition to our project. Now we put away the rough hammer of NO and turn to the smooth chisel of YES. We begin to see the detailed features and nuances of our statue come to life.

The first and most basic YES statement for Humanism, the first refinement to our statue: Humanism IS ultimate responsibility – no excuses! Some accuse Humanists of elevating humanity to the status of God, but that is as wrong as Enron’s financial statements. For Humanists, we studied the human experience and came to our own conclusions: the God of tradition has been “downsized” to a character of our own creation; his powers have been “outsourced” to physics, geology, and meteorology; and his moral absolutes have filed for bankruptcy. We are not Gods – we are human beings. And human beings have power (not absolute power, but power nonetheless) and the responsibility to control the direction of their lives. When you paddle a canoe, sometimes you can go right where you want to, and sometimes you have to fight the current, and sometimes a wave knocks you over or you run aground, and sometimes you get wet and have a good laugh. Sometimes you can fully direct the course of your life, and sometimes events intervene that throw you off course. If the water conditions are too challenging, it’s not your fault if you get wet. But if you never try, or if you sit on your paddle and hope the current goes the right way, if you coast through life without ever taking the steering rudder for yourself, even then you have made your choice and are responsible for what you get. And what great satisfaction from a successful effort – the current gets no credit, nor the wind, but YOU who have propelled and steered your boat to your destination, YOU who are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul. Success is no miracle – it is the result of bringing our will to into the real world.

This responsibility for our fate, these acts of will would be meaningless without the ability and the power to see our plans and efforts through. We would be up the creek without a paddle! The next YES statement, the definition we give to the arms and legs of our statue: Humanism IS the importance of human power to understand our world and to improve it for the better – not perfect power, not unlimited power, but significant power. That power comes from our ability to think, and to reason, and to work together on the knowledge quest called science and the communal quest called society. Some people pooh pooh human power because it’s NOT perfect, NOT unlimited – but I respond that human power is the only reliable power we know, and look at what it can do and has done: healed the sick, helped the lame to walk and the blind to see, uncovered the past and improved the future. Some say that rationality and science have made mistakes, and are very dangerous – I respond that that is true of ALL human power – we are imperfect, limited, but always able to learn. Like the superheroes and gods of our own creation, our powers can be used for good or for evil.

Some say that rationality and science, the building blocks of human knowledge, are boring, that they drain the color from the rainbow and make it into wavelengths of light, that it’s just too complicated to be interesting or relevant to their personal life. To those who say that science is boring, I ask: have you ever talked to a scientist just after a momentous discovery? Have you ever seen the beauty of a distant star exploding thousands of years ago, or the joy and jubilation among NASA technicians when a robot to Mars travels 36 Million miles and lands exactly where it was supposed to? Do you remember the first time your child used one of your facial expressions, or one of your sayings? Or if you’re younger, do you remember the first time you heard your parents’ words coming out of your mouth to someone else? Have you found yourself watching a Discovery Channel special on chimpanzees, who share 98% of their genetic material with us, and remarked to yourself how human they behave, only to realize that it is we who are behaving like them? Don’t tell me that science takes the color from the rainbow – science IS the color in the rainbow, and it can be as exciting, as interesting, as personally relevant and meaningful as the most creative mythological narrative.

We have refined and given definition to our statue; its arms and legs now clearly cut from the rock – now we need to sand smooth the rough edges. To smooth out the rough spots, understand that Humanism IS the ability to smile at the absurdities of human existence, and ourselves. If we do have limited power, and we have limited control over what happens to us, when we face a setback – unexpected traffic makes us 30 seconds late for the train, we happen to be outside for the 10 seconds of the hardest downpour, we’re trying our best to impress someone and we trip and fall flat on our face – at those moments, we have a choice. We can yell and scream at the universe, and find ourselves in exactly the same position. Or we can remember the big picture – our families, our homes, our lives – and smile at yet another example of the absurdity of life. And we have to be able to see through the pomposity of our own inventions. From the preface to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”

There are times when our inventions take on lives of their own: we create gods in our own image who then give US commandments. One of my favorite riské jokes highlights how we can take certain rules seriously to the point of absurdity (click here to read it).

Now there are times when the absurdities of life are no laughing matter. When a hurricane lands and destroys half of the homes in a neighborhood, when a plane crashes and kills most of its passengers, when a genetic disease strikes the youngest and most defenseless among us – then life is absurd, unfair, we would say even cruel if the universe had a personality. At those times, we need a final refinement of Humanism to guide us and put the finishing touches on the face of our statue.

The head of the statue, the most basic and fundamental principle underlying it all: Humanism IS dealing with reality as we find it, not as we wish it to be. Who wouldn’t want a world of cosmic justice where the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished? Who wouldn’t want death to be abolished? Who would miss human suffering, natural disasters, and the plagues of human cruelty that explode all over the globe again and again? The answer: we would all love these terrible realities to go away. But wishing does not make it so. We may work to eliminate these pains, to minimize their impact, to comfort the afflicted, but we can only do so if we take an honest look at the world, and ourselves. When we see ourselves in the mirror, do we see lives of integrity, of purpose, of kindness and generosity? And if we do not, what are we going to do about it? And if not now, when?

Put down your hammer and chisel, your brush and your polish. What does your statue look like now? I hope that it looks like YOU! But beware of putting yourself on a pedestal – when a statue goes up on the pedestal, we can see it from all sides – every beautiful aspect, but also every imperfection, crack, blemish and break. We are not Gods – we are human beings, and that is something special indeed.

I want to conclude with a new question: Nu, what about the Jews? The Jewish story has been a story of movement. Again and again, we left an old, familiar home for new and unexplored territory. We moved for many reasons: we moved for new opportunities; we moved because of fear and persecution; we were expelled and we fled, we were lured and we leaped. In our most pious moments, we hunkered down where we were and prayed that our situation would miraculously get better, and we studied our ancient texts for signs of divine intervention and for memories of better days in our past. When we moved, we did not follow a pillar of fire by day and a pillar of fire by night, as in the mythical Exodus – we followed the light of human ingenuity and courage, the flame of human hope. 350 years ago, the first Jews arrived on the shores of this continent, fleeing religious persecution and hoping for a better life. When we as Humanistic Jews and inheritors of Jewish history look back over the course of our family’s experience, we know that we owe our survival as Jews and as individuals to those courageous souls who took their future into their own hands, braving the unknown and refusing to wait for divine deliverance as much as we owe those who studied the ancient books. Our courageous ancestors were not humanists, but they DID act with human power to improve their lives. As do we. This tradition we are proud to continue.

Yom Kippur is a time of reflection. Let us look at our image in the mirror every morning as if it were the statue we chiseled here today out of the rock of our being – a powerful image of responsibility, power, humor and courage. Let us create together a Shana Tova:  a good, and even a GREAT new year!


About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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1 Response to Humanism for Humanistic Jews

  1. Dietz Ziechmann says:

    Rabbi Chalom uses gentle arguments to extol a philosophical point of view. .

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