Why We Believe – Rosh Hashana Evening 5777

This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2016/5777 as part of a series entitled “This We Believe.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

In the 12th century, the greatest rabbi of the age wrote what every Jew should believe. No matter what you learned from philosophy, science, or anything else, Maimonides wanted you to be sure that you ended up believing what he wanted you to believe. Each of his 13 principles begins “ani ma’amin b’emunah shlayma – I believe with perfect faith.” I believe with perfect faith in a god who knows the thoughts and deeds of human beings, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the Prophets are true and that Moses received the complete Torah we have today. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the messiah and in the resurrection of the dead, and so on. To this day, Maimonides’ Ani Ma’amin/I Believe is recited daily in traditional synagogues, and for the most Orthodox these 13 principles define who is righteous and who is a rebel, a heretic, an unbeliever. Never mind that most Jews today do not believe in a personal messiah, resurrection, or that all of the Jewish prophets were true. If anyone ever tells you “Judaism is not about beliefs, it only matters what you do,” now you know the rest of the story – for some Jews, and for some Judaisms, it is very much about what you believe.

At the end of the 19th century, Robert Ingersoll was infamous as “The Great Agnostic.” Ingersoll did not hesitate to say what he believed – and perhaps we agree more with him than with Maimonides.

I do believe in the nobility of human nature; I believe in love & home, & kindness & humanity. I believe in good fellowships & cheerfulness…in good nature, in giving to others all the rights that you claim for yourself. ….I believe in self-reliance & in expressing your honest thought. . . . Above all, I believe in Liberty.

We in Humanistic Judaism may be the only Jewish congregations in the world that quote Robert Ingersoll on Rosh Hashana, let alone compare Ingersoll to Maimonides and like Ingersoll better! The truth is the truth, what we believe is what we believe, and what Maimonides believed is what he believed. We want to respect our past, and we want the integrity of living our values and the dignity of saying what we believe. We could insist that what Maimonides REALLY meant by resurrection or Torah revelation is actually what we believe today – it just takes some explanation. How convenient. Making our inheritance mean what we want it to mean, what we need it to mean, forcing our ancestors to endorse our beliefs does not work – if Maimonides could magically attend a Pride Parade today, he would have a heart attack.

We do not use traditional Hebrew with creative translations, saying in Hebrew what we would never say in English. We do not use footnotes or endnotes or commentaries to explain that, when we pray for the Messiah, we REALLY mean “incremental political improvement.” If we like the phrasing or the melody of a traditional passage, we are not afraid to do a jazz riff on the original, our ancestors sang “avinu malkeinu, our father our king,” we are more inspired to sing “asinu khelkeynu” – we create our own lot in life. Our Humanistic Judaism may not be what Maimonides or even our own grandparents believed; it IS what WE believe.

I do NOT believe with perfect faith. I believe without perfect faith, I believe with evidence and reason, I believe with experience and expertise, I believe with partial truth that changes, I believe with confidence based on what I can know, what others can know, what humanity can know, what we have discovered and what we have yet to discover. I do not believe with perfect faith. I DO believe.

This High Holidays will explore “This We Believe,” a riff on the National Public Radio series “This I Believe.” If we tried to put into words our positive beliefs, what we share as a community, what would those words be? How would we express what we believe, and not just what we reject? We could try to be clever: “Matzah Without Dogma.” It is still a negative, defining ourselves by what we are not. If I had to pick one slogan for Humanistic Judaism or for Kol Hadash, it might be: “This world, this life, these hands – and you.” This is what we celebrate, how we live, what we share as a congregation. We are, as one of us suggested in a slogan contest a few years ago, like-minded people who don’t think alike. Yet there must be something that draws us together – you did not all show up at the North Shore Unitarian Church on Rosh Hashana by pure coincidence.

Before we explore what it is we DO believe, there is an issue we need to resolve – why talk about beliefs at all? It is risky for a community of free thinkers to define what we as a group believe. What if you agree with 9 out of 10 of my list? Who made me the boss of your mind anyways? What if YOU like 9 out of 10 and your spouse likes 3 out of 10? Maybe it would be safer to say nothing at all about beliefs, sing Hinnay Ma Tov, serve bagels, be done.

Come to think of it, do I really want to be part of any group that TELLS me what to think, even if the group is telling me to think for myself? A major reason more and more people have been leaving traditional religion – or any religious identity at all – is because they do not want to be told what to think, even by someone secular. In Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” thousands of people begin to follow Brian, an ordinary nebbish, good for nothing, believing that Brian is the Messiah. He tries to correct them: he says, “You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re ALL individuals!” The massive crowd responds in unison, “Yes! We’re all individuals!” Brian says, “You’re all different!” Thousands of people: “Yes, we are all different!” Now think about responsive readings in a Humanistic High Holiday service – would it work to have the 200 people here tonight say, in unison, “we make up our own minds”? Let’s try – “we make up our own minds”.

Why risk it? Why risk annoying people or sounding ridiculous by trying to summarize “this we believe”? Maybe I should stick to what _I_ believe about life, the universe and everything. Maybe I can walk the tightrope of being clear about MY beliefs without stating what it is WE believe. Unlikely. _I_ often represent our congregation to the public, and few people would be part of a congregation where they disagree with the rabbi all the time. In our community, we are individuals, we are all different, and we do not have to agree on everything if we agree on some  big things. Honestly, I would be uncomfortable in a community where everyone agreed on everything! I love that as a Humanistic Rabbi I never have to be afraid to say, “I don’t know” or even “I was wrong.” If you agree with me, it is not because of my authority or my title – it is because I am convincing and compelling. If you disagree, maybe _I_ should think about it again. Even IF you agree, I should always be willing to think about it again. There is no Humanistic Inquisition, or 13 principles of perfect Humanistic faith, or a Humanistic dogma. Our ONLY dogma is that we have no dogma, but we can be very dogmatic about having no dogma.

I WILL risk it – I will talk about what WE believe, not only what _I_ believe, and I will not limit myself to bland statements of Jewish continuity and “be a good person.” I will also tell you WHY I feel it is important for us to explore what we believe. We share not only a method to approach big questions, with reason and argument and evidence, but also some conclusions. We do agree on some of the big answers. We do have some shared beliefs, even as we may also disagree. “This we believe” is what brings us together beyond a common connection to Jewish family and heritage.

Thirty years ago, my teacher and mentor Rabbi Sherwin Wine wrote a powerful essay called “Believing is better than non-believing.” …“So long as we present ourselves as unbelievers – whether in the Jewish community or in the broader world – …we will be viewed as the deniers of other people’s strong convictions, not the possessors of strong convictions of our own.” Sherwin refused to be an unbeliever, and he challenged us to put our beliefs in positive terms. Rather than saying that we do not rely on miracles to fix problems, we should say that we do believe in the power of human effort and responsibility; we are not anti-creationists, we have good reasons to believe in evolution. Believers offer positive alternatives: “Just because traditional Jewish communities were built around prayer and God does not mean that alternative Jewish communities cannot be built around secular Jewish culture and ethical concerns.” Believers find other believers for mutual support and collaboration, while negative unbelievers are too suspicious of groups to impact society or to have a strong voice. At the very end of the essay: “Believing is better than non-believing. It is a strategy more conducive to self-esteem and community effectiveness. If there have to be unbelievers let those who do not believe in humanism play that rule for awhile.

We are not non-believers, un-believers. We are not “non-observant Jews” – here we are at a Rosh Hashana service complete with Torah, Shofar, and a rabbi’s sermon! People imagine that a Humanistic service looks like a CIA-redacted document, the traditional texts with large blacked out sections. The reality is that we have a different focus, changing and replacing and not just deleting. There is a reason our movement settled on the name  “Humanistic Judaism” when we started fifty years ago – we are defined by positive Humanistic beliefs, not only by questions and doubts. We are not what we do NOT do, we are what we DO do. And yes, you middle schoolers can now tell your friends that the rabbi said “do do” on Rosh Hashana.

I hope you agree with me that being a believer is better for building community, better for self-esteem, better for positive momentum than being a “non-believer.” That is WHY we believe. So HOW do we discover WHAT we believe? If we are believers, and we share beliefs, what are they? Do we need to do another congregational survey, more focus groups? And if we do find agreement on what we believe, does the very act of declaring these beliefs cross the line from descriptive to prescriptive? In other words, if the goal is to discover what those who celebrate with Kol Hadash believe, and then we say, “this is what Kol Hadash believes,” does that come across as if we are saying “This is what you SHOULD believe, this is what you MUST believe to be welcome here”? I need to take you back to one more thinker of the past – not Maimonides, not Ingersoll, not Wine – this time, Baruch Spinoza.

Spinoza got in trouble because of his beliefs. He dared to say what he believed – Spinoza believed that Moses did not write the Torah. Spinoza did not believe in a divine personality that intervenes in the world or reveals timeless commandments. Spinoza did not believe in human free will, which is implicit in Maimonides’ reward and punishment – if you are going to be justly punished or rewarded, you have to be able to choose. Spinoza rejected Maimonides’ 13 principles, and he was rejected by the Judaism of his day. I do not agree with all of Spinoza’s beliefs; another Humanistic rabbi was once asked why he still believes in free will; he answered, “I have no choice.” Just as I can agree or disagree with Spinoza, I hope that you do NOT always agree with me. One of Spinoza’s principles has become a core value in my own life; dare I say, “this I believe.” You cannot force someone else to BELIEVE anything. Think of George Orwell’s 1984 and the battle over 2 + 2 = 4. You can make someone SAY what you want them to say, you can make them PRETEND to believe. But in the holy of holies of the individual human mind, in the secular miracle that is that lightbulb going on, we find the incredible power of two words: “I agree.” Only if I can convince you, only if you are willing to say in the privacy of your own mind, “I agree,” only then are my beliefs and your beliefs OURS. If you say, “I agree,” then we can say, “This WE believe.”

There are times when we celebrate the power of “I disagree” – you can see the joy of young children when they first discover the word “NO!” Some of them never stop. Part of becoming our own adult is the process of differentiation, individuation, marking our own intellectual territory. Personal freedom requires the ability to say “I disagree” “I dissent” “I will not say what you want me to say or stand when you want me to stand.” Yet there is a different power to “I agree”. Free thought is in your mind, free speech is in your mouth and your hands, free association begins with “I agree.” A community of shared belief, a shared approach to life, a shared sense of values all comes down to “I agree.” I meet people all the time who hear about Humanistic Judaism and say, “What a relief to finally find you! I’ve felt like this for years!” I love that they’re giving us the gift of “I agree.” I hate that it took them so long! This connection is probably why you are here – an experience of hearing something or reading something about who we are and what we do and then saying to yourself, with your free mind, “I agree.”

Another possible slogan we once considered for Kol Hadash was “Free Judaism” (The Budget Committee thought it was a bad idea). What _I_ meant by “Free Judaism” was something different. On one hand, we have an objective: to free Judaism! Free Judaism from the tyranny of the past, free Judaism from fixed tradition and recitation, free ourselves to create a meaningful and relevant Judaism. On the other hand, “Free Judaism” could also be a description – what we celebrate, what we live is a Free Judaism. 100 years ago, many of the first secular Jews were deeply connected to Yiddish language. If they were asked if they were frum, or pious, they would say that they were not frum, they were frei – free. For us, the Judaism we live has been freed and is free: we are free to think, free to experience other cultures and peoples, free to love other cultures and peoples. Ours is a Judaism where “you and me are free to be you and me.”

And who ARE we? We are part Maimonides and part Ingersoll, part Sherwin Wine, part Baruch Spinoza, part me and part you. We are matzah without dogma, we are like-minded people who don’t think alike, we are participants in a free Judaism, we are believers. What do we believe? I have a suggestion: “This world, this life, these hands – and you.” Tomorrow morning we turn to look at this world. Many of Maimonides’ 13 principles of perfect faith look beyond: the coming of the messiah and resurrection of the dead, cosmic reward and punishment, divine creation. If our Humanism starts with the human experience of this world, how will that change us? How will it change the world? Come back tomorrow  and on Yom Kippur to find out.

This summer, browsing through The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, I came across a beautiful statement of how to be a positive believer – you might just see it again at Kol Hadash. This poem expresses the amazing power of those two words that bring us together, the two words that create a community of ideas – “I agree.” This poem could have easily turned negative, a rejection, a poem of un-belief. Or it could have been a retreat from reality into perfect faith, or a denial of the need to make sense of the world. Instead, it is an affirmation of the power of positive experience. There is a time and a place to explain how things happen, or to clarify what we do not believe. We are here together celebrating the Jewish New Year at Kol Hadash because of the power of saying “yes.”

“I Do Not Ask” by Estelle Nachimoff Padawer [due to copyright, cannot reproduce complete poem]

I used to mumble many words in the
without much thought
even all wise all good all powerful God
until dear Clara was felled by a stroke….

but saying no
and saying nothing are not for me….

I need to say yes
–yes to a soap bubble afloat in sunshine
–to a newborn baby’s perfect fingernails….

I do not ask Who or How
I just say yes


L’Shana Tova, Happy 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.
This entry was posted in General HJ, Holidays. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why We Believe – Rosh Hashana Evening 5777

  1. Pingback: This We Believe – High Holidays 2016/5777 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

  2. Pingback: This World – Rosh Hashana morning 5777 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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