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.
A vision of a world better than our own written in 1939, just before the Second World War. A Jewish poet imagined a world to which we can only aspire, yet also a world most of us have seen at least once.
Somewhere over the rainbow,
Way up high
There’s a land that I dreamed of
Once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow,
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.
Some day I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me.
Somewhere over the rainbow,
Blue birds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why, then, oh, why can’t I?
Today, we do not aspire to the land of Oz. We understand the difference between imagination and reality. We know that living in the real world means keeping dreams and waking life in their proper places. Still, if our vision were only cold reality as we know it, we would lose something essential. Another Jewish poet, Shel Silverstein, exemplified the other extreme in his wicked satire of a children’s book, Uncle Shelby’s ABZ’s:
Which world do you like better?
What does it mean to believe in THIS WORLD, and to also believe in something more? This Jewish New Year season, we are exploring a simple way to say “this we believe:” this world, this life, these hands – and you. Last night we asked why believing is better than non-believing, and why and how we seek common ground as a community of individuals. If you hear what I say, and you respond “I agree,” then WE believe something together. Today we turn to “this world,” the setting for all that we know to exist. When we celebrate Rosh Hashana or write the Jewish year 5,777, they do not represent divine creation of the world; they are creations of the Jewish people, made special not by their cosmic importance but because of connections to us. Our Rosh Hashana is our opportunity to understand what the universe truly is, and then to create the world we want. “Someday I’ll wish up on a star” is the opposite of our Humanism, our emphasis on this word and our place in it. The traditional Jewish song says “hu oseh shalom bimromav” – he makes peace in his heights, way up high, over the rainbow. We sing “na’ase shalom ba-olam” WE will make peace in this world – here and now.
Rabbinic Judaism promised a world to come. The Hebrew Bible itself does not mention personal resurrection aside from a few lines in the Book of Daniel, but there ARE references to national resurrection, prophecies of an idyllic future only possible through divine power. From Micah chapter 4:
In the last days it will happen that the mountain of the house of the Lord will be built, and many nations will come and say, let us go up to the house of the God of Jacob and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths, for the law will go out of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge among many peoples and rebuke strong nations from afar, and they will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war any more. But they will sit every person under his fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.
We still sing the vision about no longer lifting up swords, but we have never known a world entirely without war, and we probably never will.
The Rabbis went even further. They may have been trying to make sense of the trauma and disasters of their time – Micah prophesied an exalted Chosen People from whom nations of the world will learn Torah, but those promises rang hollow amid the ashes of a destroyed Jerusalem. Unless…..unless you change the date on that check… If you promise payment in the next world instead of this one, then you can guarantee an afterlife that will make right what appears to be wrong. Elisha ben Avuya, the 2nd century rabbinic heretic, is said to have been made a heretic by seeing a man break an explicit commandment and get away, while another followed the commandment exactly and died. Elisha exclaimed, “where is the second man’s long life as promised in the Torah?” The narrator of the account then comments, “if only Elisha has known of Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation, that the long life was in the world to come.” At its most extreme, an ideal afterlife makes this world unimportant:
Rabbi Yaakov would say: This world is like the antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you may enter the banquet hall. He would also say: A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come. And a single moment of bliss in the World to Come is greater than all of the present world.
If a moment of bliss in the world to come is greater than all of this world, if this world is just an audition for the next, then our beliefs about ethics, justice, and society would be radically different. We might not care about environmental damage, social inequality, and human suffering. We might be so focused on the future world that we would neglect this world. Rabbi Yaakov also said that “a single moment of repentance and good deeds in THIS world is greater than all of the World to Come,” so there was some balance between this world and the next. We should remember that idealism is not a problem unique to religion – the zeal of political revolution can also destroy this world in pursuit of utopia.
Humanists of any variety do not assume they have divinely revealed ultimate truths. OUR knowledge comes from the shared human project of learning – knowing what we can know based on evidence and reason, and having the dignity to say, “I do not know” when it is true. We do not wait for miraculous intervention or messianic deliverance, and we do not expect perfection from a flawed world and flawed human beings.
And yet…, there is something about a vision of a future world that DOES impacts how WE approach this world. To quote the prophet Amos who was quoted by MLK Jr, we WANT a world where “justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” – that was the dream that KING dared to dream. For us, just as knowledge of this world is partial and collaborative and gradually gained through human effort, so too are justice and righteousness in this world the results of human desire and action. Jewish wisdom has many branches – some are still wisdom in our eyes, and some are mishegas, silliness. There are many Jewish teachings about the importance of this world – the world in which we are all born, we live, and we die. If you hear the messiah has come while you are planting a tree, you should finish planting the tree and then go and see about the possible messiah. If not now, when? Whoever saves a life, it is as if he or she has saved the entire universe. Even if religious traditions have imagined other worlds, they have also grappled with the realities of this one.
One hundred and twenty years ago, a Jewish movement explicitly broke with Jewish tradition. They would no longer wait for a messiah, for divine redemption, for ingathering exiles on the wings of angels. Their vision of a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland was derided as a utopia, but Theodor Herzl famously responded, “Im tirtzu, ayn zo agadah – if you will it, it is no dream.” Fifty years later, the State of Israel was declared in Tel Aviv, expressing its own vision of how its world should be:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
In some ways, this vision is even more progressive than the United States: sex as a protected legal category, explicitly bound to the UN Charter, guaranteeing freedom of religion, conscience and culture. Israel had its first woman Prime Minister in 1969, and Israel allowed gay men and women to serve in their armed forces in 1993. We do not live there, but our family and cultural connections to the 6.3 million Jewish people who do live there put Israel in the orbit of our concern.
There is always a distance between vision and reality. In Israel there is a ways to go to reach “development of the country for the benefit of ALL its inhabitants,” including the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Arabs. A few years ago, an Arab Israeli Supreme Court Justice was criticized for standing quietly but not singing the Israeli national anthem Hatikvah, which speaks of a Jewish heart longing for Zion for 2000 years – silent protests during national anthems can be controversial anywhere. Freedom of religion is undermined by imposing Orthodox religious law on the 2/3 of the Jewish population who are either secular or loosely “traditional”. At times, a healthy desire to justify Israel’s right to exist and defend it has turned anti-democratic – this past summer the Government Minister of Culture threatened to pass a “cultural loyalty” law that would, in her own words, “make support for a cultural institution dependent on its loyalty to the State of Israel.” As for the intractable and unsustainable situation in the West Bank, that is still more complicated.
Let me be very clear: I love the State of Israel. I love that Israel exists, I love that its existence demonstrates the power of human action by secular Jews, I love the Hebrew language, I love Israel’s blending of Jewish cultures, I love the vibrant secular Jewish culture created by Israelis that enriches Humanistic Jewish experience here in America – Loo Y’Hee and Laugh at All My Dreams/Sakhakee, and many more. And I love singing Hatikvah, articulating a Jewish vision to have a nation for our people like other peoples. A Jewish and democratic state does not have to be a problem – there are other ethnic democracies: Armenia, Ireland, Finland, Germany, Japan all have an ethnic “right of return” and they privilege one set of holidays. There is no perfect solution. French Canadians are 20% of Canada’s population, they sing their national anthem in both English and French, Canada’s national flag has a neutral symbol, and STILL 20 years ago Québec almost seceded. We can always do better. Separating synagogue and state, addressing separate but unequal conditions, addressing the democracy deficit on the West Bank where over 2 million Palestinians have no say on laws that govern their lives – these would narrow the distance between Israel’s values and its reality. Or, we might say, the distance between sight and vision.
Our sight is how well we see the world. Our vision is how good we imagine the world can become. We always have conflicting values – Israel wants to be a democracy and to celebrate Jewish culture in the only Jewish majority population in the world, other than some parts of Miami Beach and Brooklyn. At times “Jewish” and “democracy” are an easy partnership; at other times, they create tension. The lesson? We have to be willing to recognize the problems in our reality to have any chance of moving towards our vision – if our feet are not on firm ground, how can we reach for the stars? We must also be willing to challenge the possible, to not let our clear sight block our positive vision. Just as Spinoza reminded us last night that no one can make you think anything, Israel shows us that Jewish exile and powerlessness were not inevitable cosmic fate. If we see what is, we do not have to accept what is given in this world as what must be. Im tirtzu, ayn zo aggadah – if you will it, if you realize it, it is no longer a dream.
One more example of a vision for this world not yet achieved:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
In 1787, who were “we the People”? Not slaves, not women, not the Native Americans who were here first, not even poor white men – the last state to remove property qualifications for voting did so in 1856. Jewish men did not fully receive voting rights in Maryland until 1828, and of course Jewish women not until 1920 with women’s suffrage – still less than 100 years ago. Former slaves (that is, the men) theoretically got the vote in 1870, but they were often severely, even violently restricted until the 1960s. We, all the People? Certainly not in 1787. Does this mean the founders, even Alexander Hamilton, were hypocrites, Orwellian manipulators of language – “we elites ARE the people, the only full people.” Perhaps the founders had high ideals limited by their social and political horizons. They had blind spots and bias they did not realize were hiding a canyon between their vision and the reality of their world.
The Constitutional world they imagined is wonderful – establishing justice, insuring tranquility, safety for all, liberty for us and for our children. How have we done? Just like “we the people,” the history of the American vision is messy. Justice is very difficult to define and establish. The proper balance between general welfare and personal liberty is an argument that will never be finished. To criticize our past and our present, to understand our own biases and limitations, is one way to improve our present and our future. If we know where we have failed, we can work to do better; if we assume that we never do wrong, we will never improve.
The key clause in the Constitution’s preamble, to me and to others, is “a more perfect union.” We are not perfect. In this world, as far as we know, limited human power is the only conscious power working to realize human values. Se we must accept that this world will never will be perfect. We are closer to these American ideals today than we were in 1987, which was better than 1887, which was better than 1787. We love the ideal of freedom, but a world of freedom also means no guarantees in this world. We are on a narrow bridge without a net or a script or a design or a director. We do not have confidence that it is all part of a positive plan or that everything happens for a benevolent reason. When America fails to treat its people equally, whether by design or by result, that is our challenge. We, ALL the people, we have to face the reality of this world and ourselves: who we are, how we think, how we treat each other, what we have done and what we can yet do to make this society, to make this world, a more perfect union. As one of my colleagues pointed out to me, change is hard, and change can be painful as well as difficult. But as Rabbi Nachman said centuries ago and we still sing, kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar m’od the entire world is a narrow bridge, v’haikar lo lefakhed clal the important thing is to not be afraid.
Why engage in this world rather than, like the blue birds, fly over the rainbow? The more we understand the reality of this world, the more we can find inspiration in our interactions with it. Where do we find our spirituality, our inspiration? From our encounters with things IN this world and yet beyond ourselves – other people past, present and future; a good and worthy cause; beauty in music and art and nature. Our inspiration is not beyond this world, it is intimately part of this world.
We believe in this world. We believe in this world both as it is and as it can be. The power of dreams that we dare to dream can still change the world, not somewhere over the rainbow but right here, today and tomorrow. To conclude, a poem I wrote a few years ago for a contest on “The American Dream”. Spoiler alert: I did not win the contest. The poem speaks of the power of dreams in this world – the clear sight to see the world as it was and is, and the vision to see the world as it can be.
“Kreplach in a khoylem
Iz nit keyn kreplach
Nor a khoylem.”
“Dumplings in a dream
Are not dumplings
But a dream.”
The American Dream
Is not America
But a dream.
“Land where my fathers died.”
Not Lithuania, Belarus,
Real graves are dumplings, the song the dream.
“We the People” –
Not in A People’s History,
Not powerless people, native people,
Dark people, women people.
Real lives are dumplings, the words the dream.
“One Nation Under God” –
Your god? My god?
Whose god? Why god?
Why not “In Good We Trust?”
Doubts are dumplings, the slogan the dream.
But dreams mean,
Said Sigmund, Gaon of Vienna.
Seven fat dumplings eaten by seven lean.
Not fate, maybe future.
Not reality; changing reality.
“The American Dream” is
Jewish Hollywood dream.
Safe home, blonde wife,
2.2 kids in 2.2 cars.
“The American Dream” is
Built of bodies and blood,
Screams and silence.
ayn zo agada
If you will it,
It is no dream.”
It is no longer only a dream.
My fathers died there,
But mine will die here,
As will my son’s.
We are The People,
A still more perfect union,
One nation in diversity,
Mixed and miscegenated,
Hybrid vigor’s fruits
From Jewish roots.
Dreams become the possible,
Then possible becomes present.
Kreplach in America
Are both kreplach
The American Dream
Is not America,
Is a dream,
Shana Tova, a happy and thoughtful new year to you all.