Violence and Safety – Rosh Hashana Evening 2022/5783

This blog post is based on a Rosh Hashana evening sermon delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September, 2022. For the complete series, click here. A video of this sermon is available here.

Have you ever tried listing the 10 commandments {e.g. Exodus 20} from memory? It’s harder than all 7 Dwarves! Some are easy to remember {note: not in original written order}
1) thou shalt not kill,
2) thou shalt not steal,
3) honor thy parents,
4) thou shalt not bear false witness (don’t lie).
These are universal rules you do not need a Moses to discover.

Two commandments have little to do with ethics:
5) to worship one god alone and
6) thou shalt not take its name in vain.
You can be a good person with many gods, one god or none at all.

There are two ritual commandments:
7) thou shalt not worship idols and
8) thou shalt observe Shabbat.
And there’s the unenforceable rule about jealousy:
9) thou shalt not not covet your neighbor’s property or spouse or livestock; the basis of capitalism (but don’t tell Jeff Bezos).

What’s left? The one most people forget, the one I haven’t mentioned yet?….
10) Thou shalt not commit adultery!

One of those 10 commandments is easy to remember, except we remember it wrong because of a bad translation. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” in Hebrew is Lo Tirtzakh, literally you will not MURDER. What is the difference between “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not murder?” Murder is ILLEGAL killing. The Torah itself describes cases of unintentional manslaughter: for example, if you were chopping wood and the axehead slipped off the handle and killed someone {Deuteronomy 19:5}. Unintentional, not murder.

The Torah accepts a legal death penalty: as justice for murder, but also the penalty for heresy as mundane as gathering sticks on Shabbat {Numbers 15:33-37}. Thou shalt observe shabbat – or else! There is warfare, and self-defense, and the defense of others threatened by a potential murderer. Believe it or not, the rabbis later extended definition of a rodef, a pursuer trying to kill someone else, to a fetus that threatens its mother’s life. Even during the process of birth, that “pursuer” could be terminated to save the mother. “Thou shalt not kill” is absolute pacifism; “Thou shalt not murder,” to adapt sociologist Max Weber, means the political entity, the state, has a legal monopoly on violence.

Why talk about violence on Rosh Hashana? This High Holidays, we explore morality, how we decide right from wrong, how we live with other people without knowing whether one of them could turn dangerous, and break Weber’s monopoly on us. We face a crisis – a crisis in Humanist faith, a moral crisis – not just whether people are moral enough, but whether human morality itself is enough for our survival. Our emotions are at the breaking point: over the past few years, the anger, stress, tension and trauma have become a toxic brew for increased conflict. How to be good so we can live together is an issue as old as human life itself. 2000 years ago, in the midst of discussions about travel boundaries for Jewish holidays, this debate was recorded:

For two and a half years, the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai argued. One said that it was better that humanity was actually created, and the other said that it would have been better for humanity to not have been created. They voted and determined that it would have been better not to have been created, but now that we are created, we should study our past deeds, or consider our future actions. {Bab. Talmud, Eruvin 13b}

The results of that debate either way would not change reality – no takebacks on creation! Reality is what it is whether we like it or not. Therefore it is all the more important to act in response to that reality rather than deny it. If the world is not just, if there is no cosmic guarantee the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked punished, in this life or the next, wishing will not make it so.

We do not want to live in a world where children do ALICE incident training, a world where we wonder what the next shocking news headline will be. But we are not gifted with the world we want, nor with the raw material of human nature we would prefer. We do not want to return to a mythical innocence and ignorance of a Garden of Eden, Yet Genesis demonstrates a profound insight in the flow of its narrative – the very next story in the Jewish library after knowledge and with a society of just 4 people describes a rivalry over the limited resources of cosmic fortune and violence from social conflict. In the early years of the Enlightenment, we had a secular faith that humanity could be perfected, that with proper social organization and education the human “blank slate” would be whatever we told it to be. We should have known better; the human and the Jewish experience of the bloody 20th century disabused us of that illusion. We thought the Russian pogroms of 1903-1906 were terrible, with a few thousand Jews murdered, or the White Army pogroms while fighting Bolsheviks in 1919 that killed tens of thousands. We know what happened next, and we have to grapple with the reality that we live in a world where people have done & can do terrible, terrible things. The reports yet to come from liberated Ukraine will be one more boulder on the scale of judgment.

After centuries of persecution, pogroms, exile and suffering, a Yiddish saying evolved: s’iz shver tsu zein a yid it is hard to be a Jew. Hard to live with joy, to celebrate life, to hope for the future knowing what you know about people out there and what they can do. Isn’t that how everyone, not just Jews, feels these days? How can we go out and go to school and travel and live? The last two years, we were afraid of a virus; now we are afraid of each other, and masks and vaccines do no good. Humanists and Humanistic Jews do not believe that an all-powerful personality or guardian angel is watching over us every minute of every day. We strongly doubt that karma will work it all out, or that a cosmic reward awaits that will make it all better. Our focus on this life does make this life more meaningful. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist activist and evolutionary biologist, was once asked, “If you don’t believe in an afterlife, how can you get up in the morning.” He replied, “That’s WHY I get up in the morning! I only have so many mornings to live and enjoy and learn, and I don’t want to miss any of them.” Humanistic Rabbi Greg Epstein once said that Humanists believe in life BEFORE death. However, if this is the only life we know for sure, and we could reasonably expect another 30, 40, 50 years, then we are that much more reluctant to risk it. If the only experience of our loved ones will be in this life, we are even more afraid to lose them.

If our secular and this-worldly approach to this one precious life makes us cautious, so too can the Jewish experience. There was always a disconnect between official Jewish theology and lived Jewish history. We were supposed to be the Chosen People, the most favored nation of the one cosmic God – and yet we lost and we suffered and we were exiled. To some, it made more sense to assume god was just and to blame ourselves as sinners being punished; the ultra-Orthodox of today are in some ways even more fanatically pious and strict than their grandparents were before the Holocaust because of this thinking. Yet there were other Jews who decided the world was more farce than tragedy, and that it was better to laugh than to cry. Think of Tevye’s response in the Sholem Aleichem stories or in Fiddler on the Roof: if this is what it’s like being the Chosen People, once in a while choose someone else! Jewish humor, even the sardonic and cynical, is also a survival strategy.

Jewish history has been so long and so varied that we’ve seen just about everything. In the Middle Ages, it was generally easier to be a Jew under Islam than under either the Catholic or Orthodox Christian churches; today, for all of our challenges, Jews are freer and safer in the post-Christian West than in most parts of the Muslim world, and most Jews from Muslim lands were persecuted into exile and now live in Israel, Europe and North America. For much of our diaspora experience, organized society out there could persecute or expel us; it was the unusual individual who might intervene to rescue us. Today we generally trust the organized society of laws to direct their monopoly on violence to defend us. It is the unusual individual who might target us. We are invested in legal professions as judges and lawyers and their clients; Jews tend to support gun control and hired professional security or police rather than encourage congregant open carry. But the last few years, after armed attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway CA and Jersey City NJ and Monsey NY and Coleyville TX – well, it begins to feel like unusual individuals are more motivated these days.

And yet, with all that history and culture and tragedy and trauma past and present, I am here. You are here. Children are born, people fall in love and get married, the drop-off area at the airport is still called “kiss and fly”. We see strangers every day in grocery stores and restaurants, we drive next to them in traffic jams, they treat us in doctor’s offices, they serve us food in restaurants, they walk next to us on the sidewalk. Are we stupid? Are we gullible? Are we asking for it? Or are we being brave to simply live our lives? Some of you might have seen the documentary Murderball about the US wheelchair rugby team.

The team is made up of team members who had been high level athletes before severe spinal injury. There is a very touching scene when one of the athletes visits a newly-injured young man who is still in the first month after realizing what his future will be. When he sees the armored chariot that this wheelchair rugby athlete uses, his eyes begin to light up a bit. And the athlete says to him, “It’s ok to feel bad about yourself and to hate the world in the first month and the first 6 weeks. And then you have to figure out, ‘what do I do now? How do I live the rest of my life.” You see, living a life in a wheelchair is not heroic; it’s living a life, because living your life is not heroic, it is what people do. . 

The scale weighing humanity does not crash over and collapse; it IS better that we exist than that we do not. Early in my tenure at Kol Hadash, I had a member ask me, “Can you be a Humanist if you don’t like people?” The truth is that humanity is almost infinitely diverse. We all know kind people, generous people, protective people, loving people. And people together are doing wonderful things to help our fellow humans, in small ways and on a global scale. We have all experienced the best of human nature, even as we are aware of the worst. The Yiddish term mensch simply means “person,” but it is understood to be the best kind of person one can imagine. If there is evil in the world, there are also menschen. So how do we make more menschen? Can our morality address this crisis of Humanist faith in humanity’s potential? Can we convince people to balance their own well-being with that of others, to affirm freedom while encouraging responsibility? Is our morality without commandments and commanders fit for the task? That is what we explore though this High Holiday season, turning tomorrow to our responsibilities to each other. 

Yet we have not answered the key issue with which we began. Our morality, our choices and our actions, matter nothing if we are not alive to exercise them. What good are liberty and the pursuit of happiness if we do not have life?

I grew up in a Humanistic Jewish congregation, and my Bar Mitzvah project was a study of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. My Hebrew reading was a passage from rabbinic literature that said. Whoever saves a life, it is as if they have saved an entire world.” You do not need the Ten Commandments to know that murder is wrong, and that stopping murder is right. If we CAN stop murder and do not act, if we allow a pursuer to kill when we could stop them or reduce their firepower or raise a red warning flag, then our morality has failed precisely in the moment of crisis. At the same time, we let those who threaten us win if we surrender our freedom to act, to move, to live as we want to live. So we return to public life, we come together, we open our doors and we sing our shared truths because, in the words of Jewish spiritual resistance from 1939, mir veln zey iberleben – we will outlive them”. Not just that we will survive, but we will thrive, we will live our best lives, we will live more fully/joyfully than they can imagine. We will OUT-Live them.

In the real world, reality is not destiny. What is today does not have to be what will be tomorrow. And what was is not what is. Celebrating the Jewish New Year is a statement of hope – we do not only look backward to a year just concluded, we look forward to the future we create together. And we want more than just a year of life – we want a shana tova u’mtuka, a good year and a sweet year, sweetened with the joy of living our best lives, and living them together.


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 Violence and Safety – Rosh Hashana Evening 2022/5783

  1. Pingback: Morality in Crisis – High Holidays 2022/5783 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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