Power and Powerlessness

My teacher, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, often emphasized that a key question for any religion or philosophy of life is, “where do I find the power to face the challenges of life?” Conventional Western theistic religions have emphasized prayer, divine intervention, miracles, guardian angels, and providence to avert disaster. And if disaster does strike, consolation is offered through the belief that, though tragic, one’s pain is in service of a greater divine plan, or a test of one’s faith, or even the consequence of one’s sins. In other words, some challenges are deemed necessary, and the power needed to face them is the power to endure suffering rather than end it.

The philosophy of Humanism takes a very different approach. We emphasize human power and responsibility, the tremendous achievements already realized through human efforts to make our lives longer and better, the importance of action rather than prayer to make our hopes real. We do not see cosmic virtue in suffering, and we do not assume that disaster is a necessary part of a divine plan. Rather than seeking the serenity to accept what we cannot change, we seek the strength to do what we can to improve the world and our own situation. And when we act, we KNOW we are making a difference because we can see the effects of our efforts.

Of course, many religious people DO act to help while also offering “thoughts and prayers.” And even those without 100% faith in direct divine intervention feel comforted by expressing their hopes, and many who know they are being prayed for feel better as well. If we secular people choose to act rather than pray, it is because we want more than to feel better.

Our Humanist stance has its shortcomings, as we discover far too often. When disaster strikes far away, be it natural disaster or unnatural human-authored cruelty (as we currently see in Ukraine), we may sign an online petition, donate money, change our Facebook profile picture, or boycott certain products. And those actions in sufficient numbers certainly make a difference over time. But it can feel like rather weak tea in the face of massive suffering, destruction and death that continues despite our efforts.

We believe that human power is the only conscious power working for good in our world. One of the challenges of relying on human power is accepting its limitations: we have limited knowledge and limited abilities. Some of us act for the greater good, and others impose their will on others at the cost of great suffering. There are no guarantees of a happy ending, and even a happy ending does not make up for unjust pain and death.

All the more reason to do what we can, and to push ourselves to do more, to move the ball forward in the right direction. All the more reason to offer the consolation of shared tears and empathetic pain. All the more reason to move from words to action – as Shimon Ben Gamliel said centuries ago, “study is not the most important things, but rather actions.” Humanity does not simply accept its limitations; it transcends them one step, one insight, one good deed for another at a time.

The Hebrew poet Rahel put it beautifully in the 20th century:

Here on Earth – not in high clouds-
On this mother earth that is close:
To sorrow in her sadness, exult in her meager joy
That knows, so well, how to console. . . .

Before night falls – come, oh come all!
A unified stubborn effort, awake
With a thousand arms. Is it impossible to roll
The stone from the mouth of the well?

If we cannot do anything or everything, let us nevertheless do what we can, together.

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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 Power and Powerlessness

  1. Michelle L Fishman says:

    Terrific article – a perfect message with perfect words for this time. Thank you (and I just saw your article from 2013 titled “Don’t Just Pray – Choose to ACT!!”).

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