This We Believe – High Holidays 2016/5777

These talks were delivered at High Holiday services in October 2016 for Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation and later available through The Kol Hadash Podcast and as separate blog posts here. If you are interested in celebrating the Jewish New Year with us in Deerfield, Illinois, please email our office or call 847-383-5184.

Are Humanistic Jews “non-believers”? Or do we share conclusions and values beyond encouraging everyone to think for themselves? As our Jewish New Year begins, let us return to our core convictions. This we believe: this world, this life, these hands…and you.

Why We Believe – Rosh Hashana Evening October 2, 2016 7:30 PM
We celebrate what we share rather than argue the unprovable. Our individual beliefs do not always have to agree in order to find community and common ground. Ours is a Jewish tradition of change, diversity and integrity. And, as Humanistic Rabbi Sherwin Wine once wrote, “Believing is better than nonbelieving.”

This WorldRosh Hashana Morning October 3, 2016 10:00 AM
Our Humanism is a positive emphasis on this world – what we experience, what we need, what we can know. Our Rosh Hashana does not represent divine creation of the world; rather, it encourages us to discover what the universe truly is, and then to create the world we want.

What Can I Do?Rosh Hashana Family Service October 3, 2016 2:00 PM
Part of growing older is discovering what we can do for ourselves, and learning to do more. Realizing how much we have already accomplished is an important part of the journey.

This Life – Yom Kippur Evening October 11, 2016 7:30 PM
The Jewish “Days of Awe” were traditionally a time of judgment – who would live, who would die, and who would earn a portion in the World to Come. We believe in life before death, making the most of our time in this life, the only one we know. Living the best we can while we are here is the best we can do.

These Hands – Yom Kippur Morning October 12, 2016 10:00 AM
We would love it if the righteous were rewarded, the wicked punished, and everything worked out for our benefit. But wishing does not make it so. In the absence of cosmic providence, the work of justice, compassion, forgiveness and self-improvement is up to us.

What Can We Do? – Yom Kippur Family Service October 12, 2016 2:00 PM
There are times to do things on our own, and there are times we need help. We can do more together that we can separately. One of the shortest and most important poems in English is “Me? We!”

And You – Yom Kippur Memorial & Concluding October 12, 2016 3:30 PM
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone, what am I?” Rabbi Hillel’s balance between individual and community is expressed in our society, and in our families. If we are connected to more than ourselves, then love and loss are also part of our lives.

Posted in General HJ, Holidays | 6 Comments

Who Needs Rabbis?

This post originally appeared in the Shofar newsletter
of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, May 2015

It’s a DIY (do it yourself) era, even in Jewish life.

This is not entirely new, especially for Humanistic Jews. Many of our families have put together their own Passover Haggadahs or celebrated Hanukkah (or Hanukkah and Christmas) in their own original ways. Personalized Bar/Bat Mitzvah programs in Humanistic Judaism are some of the best expressions of our twin values of connection with Jewish culture and the freedom to seek personal meaning through new creativity.

And Humanistic Judaism cannot even claim to be the first generation of secular Jews to be creative in this way. In America and Europe, Secular Jewish schools and communities in the early 20th century created new Yiddish songs, blessings and celebrations to mark Jewish festivals consistent with their values and beliefs. In the land of Israel even before there was a state, kibbutz Jews celebrated coming of age and weddings and funerals without clergy or traditional theology, but in ways that were both rooted in Jewish life and relevant to where and how they lived.

So what’s new about today’s DIY Judaism? More people are doing more things for themselves than ever before. 100 years ago, most Jews, even secular Jews, would turn to rabbis for wedding or funerals; today a friend or family member can be easily ordained on the internet to perform the ceremony. The answer to any question on Jewish history or practice is just a Google search away. So who needs rabbis anymore?

It all depends on whether you think weddings, or Jewish life in general, is more like mowing the lawn or more like plumbing and electrical work.

When it comes to mowing my lawn, I can choose to hire professionals who will do a really crisp job with very little work or bother for me, though it will cost me money. Or I can mow it myself or ask a friend to do it, which will be cheaper but will take more effort and may not be as neat and trim as the professionals (especially if I have never done it or do not have an edger). No great harm is done with the DIY approach, since it’s only a lawn. Similarly, if I believe officiating a wedding does not require training, experience or expertise, I may be just fine with friends or family. They know me better, and the price is right.

Of course, it could turn out like this version of someone performing their first wedding:

On the other hand, maybe weddings, or Jewish life in general, is like plumbing or electrical work – no one can stop me from opening up the circuit breaker panel and going to work, but for many the risk of something going wrong or the desire for competent work in these vital systems motivates us to call a professional. The more important our Jewish connections are, the more useful we will find professional services, even occasionally, of someone trained in Jewish history, culture, thought and ceremony.

Lopez-Aronson ceremony cropped

Lopez-Aronson wedding

The best rabbis work as partners with the families and communities they serve, creating Jewish experiences that are both rooted and relevant. They are authorities without being authoritarian, experts with open expectations. Even if you like to DIY, some expert help can still be part of the process.

Posted in Kol Hadash Shofar, Weddings | 1 Comment

The Challenge and Promise of Secular Jewish Education

This post was originally delivered at a 2011 conference at the National Museum of American Jewish History organized by the Jewish Children’s Folkshul to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Secular Jewish school. It later appeared in the journal Humanistic Judaism (Autumn 2011/Winter 2012) and is reprinted with permission.


Oifen pripetshok brent a fierel
Un in shtub iz hays
Un der rebbe lerent klayne kinderlakh
Dem a-lef bays

Zayt she kinderlakh gedenk she tieere
Vos er lerent doh
Zogt she nokh amol un take nokh amol
Komets alef aw

“On the hearth, a small fire burns and the room is warm. And the rabbi teaches the little children the alef-bays. Listen, children, consider what you learn here. Say again, and then once again, kometz alef aw.

This song, written by Max Warshawsky in 1900, describes a traditional Jewish education: rote memorization of letters and vowels. In reality, the heder [school] was cold and poor, the students starving, the teacher brutal. There is a deep irony in the celebration of this song as an anthem of secular Yiddishkeit [Jewishness]; a rabbi drills children so they can pray in Hebrew! The same alphabet also writes Yiddish, but that was not the rabbi’s objective.

Oyfn Pripechik raises an important question for Jewish heirs of the secular revolution: what does being Jewish, teaching Jewish mean to us? What should our children know? This is a key question for any human community; who you are is reflected in what you teach your children. What should secular Jewish children be taught?

In 1910, a “heretical” proposal was presented to Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, which had been running Sunday Schools in English with purely universalist socialist curricula:

Jewish children need to know Jewish history and Yiddish literature, just as Russian children need to know Russian history and Russian literature . . . . I would like for the Jewish worker’s children to grow up to be not just socialists, but Jewish socialists.

From that challenge sprang schools, magazines, summer camps, teacher training institutes, textbooks. In 1934, some twenty thousand Jewish children , 10 percent of American Jewish children receiving a Jewish education, were enrolled in secular Yiddish schools.[1]

Who were involved in these schools and camps? Largely first-generation immigrants, or the children of immigrants, living in densely Jewish urban areas. Yiddish was their mameloshn [mother tongue], a language they wanted their children to understand.  Most were working class or middle-class professionals: pharmacists, accountants, craftsmen, working in or owning small businesses. They were politically left – or left of left – calling anyone to their right “fascist.”

What drove their enthusiasm and commitment? Two horses: political idealism for “the cause,” be it socialism or communism or Zionism; and connection to Jewish culture, embodied in the love of Yiddish language and literature.  When they called themselves weltlikh, “secular,” they meant that there were no rabbis or religious rules. Some rejected religion as the “opiate of the masses,” but for many, theology was a private matter: their focus was on Yiddish culture, not personal beliefs.

What did these schools teach? The core curriculum consisted of Yiddish language and literature (though schools run by the Farband, or Jewish National Workers’ Alliance, also taught Hebrew), progressive politics, and Jewish history and culture.  In 1920 an authorized list of holidays celebrated in Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring schools included March 18 (commemorating labor’s struggle for freedom), May 1 (in honor of labor brotherhood and world peace), the Fourth of July, and a celebration of the Russian Revolution (marked in various schools on different dates to commemorate either the initial overthrow of the Tsar or the later Bolshevik takeover).[2] Among traditional Jewish holidays, Sukkot is missing; what does the urban proletariat know from harvest holidays? No High Holidays, no Shabbes/Shabbat – divine judgment and divine creation were not considered “secular-appropriate” or were left for purely private observance. Surviving Jewish holidays were understood anew: Passover as a freedom holiday; Hanukka as anti-assmiliation (even though secular Jews had more in common with Hellenists than with Maccabean religious fanatics); Purim as a children’s holiday, despite the harems and slaughter depicted in the Megillah [scroll of Esther].  The choice and interpretation of holidays exemplifies the basic issue: how to celebrate historical Jewish culture while being honest to what secular Jews believed, how they lived, who they were. In a word, they needed to be relevant to their audience and to speak to its experiences and values.

In our own day, although secular Jewish education is still vibrant and creative, its numbers are a shadow of that bygone era. Some alumni of the early secular Jewish schools are involved in Secular Humanistic Jewish communities; others have joined religious congregations, and still others are not involved in any Jewish community. Among the twenty thousand students who received a secular Jewish education in 1934, how many of their great-grandchildren are not part of organized Secular and Humanistic Judaism?

Why the decline? These are some of the many factors:[3]

  • Strong anticommunist sentiment after World War II, which stigmatized and persecuted even non-communist socialist schools and camps.
  • The decline of secular Yiddish-speaking immigration, first by law and then by Holocaust, which choked off the flow of native speakers necessary to maintain a linguistic community. Assimilation also did its work. Modern Israel and its renewed emphasis on Hebrew didn’t help Yiddish-focused secular shules.
  • American Jewish economic success, which made socialist politics less attractive; who wants a revolution when you own your home? The labor movement was successful: children of union members did not join unions because they moved up to white collar work and to suburbia, leaving neighborhood shules.
  • The intangible factor of growing American individualism. Jews now tend to define themselves personally, rather than collectively. Rather than asking what they can do for “the cause,” they ask how “the cause” benefits them personally.

Looking forward, I see four key challenges for Secular and Humanistic Jewish education. There is no one right answer. We must respond to our changed reality with creativity and flexibility, as our predecessors did to the circumstances of their times.


1. Who are our people?

There are still blue-collar Jews; by no means is every Jewish family wealthy. However, those who most often find and join our schools and communities tend to be white collar – college-educated lawyers, doctors, teachers, businessmen and women. Even if their parents were union members, they are much less likely to be. Some were raised secular, or “just Jewish,” or even not knowing they were Jewish at all until later in life. Some are in or from intercultural families. Many were brought up in conventional religious Judaisms. Some are attracted by political issues; others seek to celebrate Jewish culture without prayer and faith. In short, we are not at all as uniform as we were 75 years ago, and that diversity brings new challenges. What unstated assumptions do we have to change? In our celebrations we should not say “we are Jews,” as many of our members are non-Jewish spouses! We can say “we are all part of the Jewish family” – by adoption, by birth or by marrying in.

We are also more diverse politically.  What if someone is personally and philosophically secular, wants a cultural Jewish identity for his or her family, but does not share a left-wing political agenda?  Such a thing is not impossible, given the social and financial profile of our membership. Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum. Objectivist/Libertarian thought is secular, even critical of religion, asserting that no one and no tradition can think for you or tell you what to think. Today’s Russian Jews are often secular but rarely progressive.

We object when fundamentalist churches declare that good Christians may vote only one way, or when Catholic bishops deny communion to pro-choice politicians. But are our schools and communities open to a range of opinions? Or are political values the bright dividing line? There are positives on both sides: a big tent versus a shared perspective on more issues. One possibility is to focus on noncontroversial community service – feed the hungry, teach the illiterate, meet basic human needs. Or we can try dialogue and debate rather than diatribe and dismissal when perspectives vary. The same approach can apply to issues concerning Israel and Zionism.

The key issue is relevance to our potential audience. That was true when socialist shules served union members and laborers.  How will we be relevant today in all of our diversity?


2. What should we teach?

Our core curriculum of Jewish history and holidays, Jewish culture and ceremonies continues to be important. We want our students to feel rooted in their Jewishness.

Secular shules met multiple afternoons a week and on weekends. When students learned Yiddish, they learned real language skills: writing, reading, speaking – much more than a few songs or phrases sung without comprehension or recited by rote.  People learn a foreign language best by immersion.  But many of our members are recovering from a Hebrew school trauma they refuse to inflict on their children. We must be realistic – we get Sunday mornings, maybe 25 a year, and often Jewish language instruction is omitted.  Understanding these realities, and fully valuing what we DO teach and celebrate, we also must realize that we risk creating Jewish illiterates – Jews who cannot read a Jewish language. If they hear Oyfn Pripechuk, they might think “Kometz Aleph huh?”

Even knowing just the letters, being literate in the most limited sense, opens the door to learning more. We want our students to not just feel secular, but also to feel Jewish! Remember that 1910 challenge: “not just socialists, but Jewish socialists.” If our students visit a friend’s synagogue, they should recognize those funny marks on the walls and in the books rather than saying, “It’s all Greek to me!”

Our goal is Jewish literacy, which includes knowing something about cultural elements we do not believe to be true, such as Jewish mythology or traditional liturgy.  We need to be able to get the jokes! You cannot fully appreciate The Jazz Singer without recognizing Kol Nidre or modern Jewish literature without knowing something of the tradition to which the authors respond. Knowing more is better than knowing less.


3. What do we mean by secular?

We generally do not mean secular in the Israeli sense of khiloni (“non-Orthodox, not following halakha), which would include Reform Judaism. In this sense, a Jewish community center or camp is a “secular space” not dedicated to one religious viewpoint, but this is not what we mean.

Does secular mean no religious structure: no rabbis or services? Are we a shule or a shul, a school or a synagogue? Secular Jewish pioneer Max Rosenfeld wrote, “secular Jews need community like religious Jews need congregation.” Secular Jewish education historically offered community – adult choruses, classes, neighborhood connections. But too often it failed to offer crucial pieces: life cycle celebrations, such as Bar Mitzvah; major Jewish holidays; pastoral support and professionally-trained leadership. Here is the key question: how many people stay involved in a middle school PTO once their kids are in high school? Our organizations tread water with every graduation. On the other hand, if you have a secular Jewish community that offers youth education and adult learning and Jewish holiday events and trained and experienced professional leadership – now you are walking and quacking like a synagogue, or at least a havurah. We need not be opposed to authority – we rely on authorities all the time.  Who among us would prefer lay-performed surgeries? One can be an authority without being authoritarian. We need to meet the very human needs religion meets, even if we do so with this-worldly answers.

When we say secular, we often mean philosophically secular — focused on this world and the human experience, celebrating the power of people for ethical choices and improving the world. We are not nonbelievers – we hold strong beliefs about how the world works, where we come from, why we should be and do good. My work in Secular Humanistic Judaism, philosophically secular with organized congregations, offers a positive philosophy of life. I am a Secular Humanistic Jew and not just a lower-case secular Jew because I believe, based on evidence and experience, in the power and the potential of people: Jewish people and humanity.


4. What will be our “engine” to motivate enthusiasm and commitment?

Yiddish will not be enough.  We will not meet multiple days a week, and while some have personal connections, for others the same nostalgia applies to Hebrew, and given our diverse audience those memories are very different from each other. Most of our students today have U.S.-born grandparents, and many of those know limited Yiddish, if any. Where does a secular Sephardi or Israeli or formerly Reform Jew go? To be relevant and meaningful, we have to be about more than Yiddish.

Neither are progressive politics enough on their own, though they can be one of the pistons driving particular communities. Progressive politics are not unique to us; there are many progressive Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Reform Jews, not to mention non-Jews, secular and religious.  Furthermore, Jewish sources such as the Torah and the Prophets can be used to justify negative values (e.g., slavery, oppression of women or homosexuality, etc.).

Here are three pistons we all need, whether our community calls itself Secular, cultural, or Humanistic:

  • Meaningful Jewish experiences relevant to and consistent with how our members live and true to our understanding of Jewish history and human reality. Fun and exuberant, profound and moving, dynamic and changing in every generation. Not based on guilt or nostalgia, but building on inspiration from the past to be Jewish today – with more joy and less oy.
  • Positive philosophy. We have to address the question: what does this mean to me? How does being a Secular Humanistic Jew make my life better, more meaningful, more beautiful, more ethical, more worthwhile? Not just for my children, but also for me, the adult who has chosen this community.  Jews are more secular than most cultural groups – less likely to believe in God, less likely to attend religious services. Seventy-five percent of Jews celebrate Hanukka and Passover, but only 15 percent keep kosher or light Shabbat candles. Our secular celebration of Jewish culture and human potential can speak to a large proportion of American and world Jewry, if we can live with a wider tent.
  • The strength of our personal and Jewish identity. We need to celebrate who we are. We are not only heirs to a one hundred-year tradition of Secular Jewish education; we are also heirs to a four hundred-year tradition of philosophical Enlightenment and three thousand years of a broader Jewish cultural tradition. We look very different from our Jewish evolutionary ancestors, but so does everyone who does not sacrifice animals at the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish world is not divided into “us” and “them”, secular versus religious. We are on the Jewish spectrum, and if the organized Jewish world celebrates pluralism, it must include us in the conversation. We will no longer be Elijah, an empty place at the table. Our commitment to be who we really are – cultural and secular and humanistic Jews – will motivate us and our children to see secular Jewish education not as history, or as middle school, but as a way of life for a lifetime community.

To draw inspiration from the future from another Yiddish song from our past, written by Hirsh Glick in the Vilna Ghetto in 1943.

Zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg
khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg
kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho
s’vet a poyk ton undzer trot

Never say you are on the final road
though leaden skies may cover blue days.
The hour we’ve waited for is here
Our steps ring out the message –

mir zaynen doWE ARE HERE.


[1] Quotation and Figures cited in Fishman, “Yiddish Schools in America and the Problem of Secular Jewish Identity.”  In Z. Gitelman, ed. Religion or Ethnicity? Jewish Identities in Evolution (Rutgers University Press, 2009), p. 71, 72. Statistics based on surveys by Workman’s Circle and the Jewish Education Association of New York City. Also discussed in depth in Fradle Pomerantz Friedenreich, Passionate Pioneers: The Story of Yiddish Secular Education in North America, 1910-1960 (Holmes & Meier, 2010).

[2] Cited in Mendes-Flohr and Reinharz, eds. The Jew in the Modern World, 2nd Edition (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 503-504.

[3] For more on this subject, see April Rosenblum, “Offers We Couldn’t Refuse: What Happened to Secular Jewish Identity” (Jewish Currents, May-June 2009), as well as responses to her article in that issue and in the following issue (Jewish Currents, Autumn 2009).

Posted in Humanistic Judaism journal | 1 Comment

My Media Moments of 2015

Last year (2015), I was asked to write an article on “Secular Spirituality and Humanistic Judaism”for a forthcoming book. I’ve always found the IISHJ Colloquium and publication Secular Spirituality: Passionate Search for a Rational Judaism to be one of our more interesting conferences/books, and writing the article was a moving experience in its own right.

In that article, I explored the human importance of meaningful moments regardless of one’s theological conclusions about the universe. As I was thinking back over 2015 for a “year in review” program with Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, I was reminded again and again of “media moments” that deeply moved me, from their own power and from their connection with contemporary events. Here, then, are some of my most meaningful media moments of 2015.

In the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting, State Representative Jenny Horne’s passionate speech in favor of removing the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State House moved me. There were many moving moments that week – including the forgiveness of the bereaved, and the memorial service itself. But this one captured me; witness the power of human connection and concern to transcend racial and historical division.

I came across a beautiful article in Esquire magazine by Tom Junod from 2014 about Fred Rogers, AKA Mr. Rogers. A beautiful, kind, generous human being whose honesty shone through every time. Even receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Daytime Emmy’s was a teaching opportunity.



Mrs. Katz and Tush by Patricia Polacco

For some reason, reading Patricia Polacco’s Mrs. Katz and Tush to children , both to my own and at the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation Yom Kippur family services put me over the edge and tears flowed. Perhaps it’s the power of personal connection to transcend ethnic and racial difference again, or the sharing of Jewish culture to others in an open and welcoming way, or the idea that an older woman without her own children finds a family who love her and call her “bubbe.” Or maybe as my own children grow older, I’m thinking more about legacy, and their relationships with their own grandparents, the passage of time and the power of memory.

In the aftermath of the terrible terrorist attacks in Paris in November, a father comforted his son who was afraid they would have to move to be safe. So many aspects of this video moved me (and not only because I could understand the French!): a father comforting his son; the power of open national identity to welcome an Asian family enough that the father quietly asserts, “France is our home”; the calm assertion that they may have guns but “we have flowers.”


Everyone has these kinds of moments – a Facebook status or online article that isn’t just funny, or insightful, or clever. Instead, it is an experience that makes you stop what you are doing and watch, and listen, and experience, and think, and feel. I do not wish for more such tragedies that often produce such moments for 2016. At the same time, these experiences are what I mean when I speak and write and think about “secular inspiration.”

What were yours?

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The New Reality

This post originally appeared in The Shofar newsletter of
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, October 2015

What are the most important Jewish holidays? As usual, it depends who you ask.

Most American Jews would respond, “Hanukkah and Passover,” and they are certainly the most-observed Jewish holidays by American Jews by a wide margin: over 70 percent report that they attend a seder or light at least some Hanukkah candles, while less than a quarter attend synagogue services even once a month. Historically, however, the most significant and strict Jewish observances were the High Holidays, particularly Yom Kippur, and Shabbat. Even though synagogue attendance continues to be highest during the High Holidays, more and more Jews don’t even show up for that–a higher percentage report they fast on Yom Kippur than attend services! And many fewer attend even those services than celebrate Hanukkah or Passover.

Why is it that Hanukkah and Passover are so important today?

  • They are celebrated with family, so there are emotional ties.
  • They happen in the home, so no expensive institutional membership or tickets are required
  • They are organized around special foods and readily understood symbols
  • They are episodic (unlike Shabbat, which occurs every week), so one can observe them without disrupting one’s everyday life.
  • They are reinforced by the surrounding society, occurring during Christmas and Easter seasons. This works for both interfaith/intercultural families and for general Jewish participation in American culture.

Of course, Jews living in Eastern Europe in prior generations were also surrounded by Christmas and Easter, but since they did not care what their neighbors thought and generally strove to resist acculturation, Hanukkah remained a minor holiday.

The key point for us to consider is that connections to Jewish institutions are far less common than connections to being Jewish outside of the synagogue. In the 1960s, more than 60 percent of American Jews were synagogue members; and in some suburban communities, much higher than that. Today, closer to one third are synagogue members, though a higher proportion become temporary members through their children’s educational process.

This change does NOT mean that synagogues are done for or have outlived their usefulness, but it DOES mean that we can no longer assume that people will be joining somewhere, and that our job is simply to convince them to join us. Rather, we must realize that we have to give them compelling reasons to join anything, since, if their Jewishness is based on Hanukkah and Passover, they feel little need to.

We who have found the benefits of a warm, welcoming and supportive community – inspiration, fellowship, learning, connections to our roots and to each other – have to reach people where they are, in the new reality of Jewish life. The many possible Jewish futures may be very different from the Jewish present, but they all start here and now.

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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!

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Let Go – Yom Kippur Memorial 5776

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2015/5776 as part of a series entitled “The Simplest Things.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

Last November, a 29 year old woman named Brittany Maynard died in Oregon. She had a BA in Psychology, an MA in Education; she had taught and traveled in Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia; she had been married for two years, and she had incurable, inoperable brain cancer. Facing the imminent end of her life, Maynard decided to make the most of her limited time, and she became a passionate advocate for so-called “Death with Dignity” laws – that’s why she moved from California to Oregon, to take advantage of such a law. We are willing to save our beloved pets unnecessary suffering; why not people? There were some who questioned her decision to end her life, but they were not her family or the people who knew her best. And if they were able to let her go on her own terms, perhaps the rest of us should as well.

If one of the simplest things we can say at the end of life is “Let Go,” it is also one of the hardest. It is not easy to accept our own mortality – I once saw a comic strip that described the various stages of becoming an adult, and it described separate steps for “you realize that death is real” “you realize that death is permanent” “you realize that death will hi everyone” “you realize that this means you too.” It’s also hard for us to accept the mortality of others. Life is a terminal condition, but we do not know how or when that will come true for us or for those we love. I’ve seen people on respirators for months who finally get off of them and have a modest recovery with full awareness and personality. It’s NOT a miracle, or at most it is a miracle of modern medicine. But that possibility is just one reason that letting go is so hard – “but what if?” always lurks in the background of our hopes.

A commentator once quipped that Europeans accept that death is inevitable, while Americans think that death is optional. It’s the paradox of modern medical success – we live longer than we ever have, and we are able to cure so many more conditions that would have killed us in the past. Only 50 years ago, you would refer in a whisper to someone having cancer, because there was practically nothing to be done – all you could do was let go. Today the survival rates for 5 years after diagnosis are over 50% for Leukemia, Colon cancer, and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and 5 year survival rates are 90% or higher for cancer of the breast, skin or prostate. No wonder we are so resistant to a final and terminal situation which we cannot treat, since we can treat so much. We now live long enough to play what I call “aging roulette” – what secrets does your future hold for your golden years? I say it all the time when I visit people in hospitals or in hospice: getting old is not for the young. On the other hand, the only thing worse than getting older is NOT getting older. And if THAT happens, letting go becomes that much harder.

“Let go” is hard to say and to do because it feels as if we are betraying our love to be complicit, in any way, in their death. The fear of losing them for good, losing them forever, losing them for the rest of our lives in the only world we know, that fear can be even stronger than how much it hurts us to see them in pain. We think we are helping them by inspiring them to fight, to resist, to demand more life until the bitter, rejected end. Quoting Dylan Thomas, we “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And yet, just as sometimes not helping is truly helping, sometimes not fighting is what the truly brave choose to do.

There is a genius and a generosity to the institution of hospice: accepting what cannot be changed, making the best of the time one has left, reducing pain and softening the landing as much as possible. Death with Dignity laws have produced surprising results: of those individuals who go through the two doctor opinions and finally receive that written prescription, only some of them actually fill the scrip, and of those who do fill it, only some of them actually use it. The ability to have the option, the possible control if things become too much, is what gives comfort to them and their families. They are willing to let go when the time is right, when they decide.

We have to be willing to tell ourselves, “let go,” we have to be able to hear our loved ones when our loved ones say, “let go.” It takes tremendous courage to face real human mortality directly, honestly, immediately. Yes, I know that someday I will die, but chances are not for another 40 years at least. When I see people who know how they are going to die, and a general idea of when, people who still read the newspaper every day and who still talk to their children every day and who still complain about the food where they’re staying, I’m inspired by their courage. If they are willing to say to me, “let go,” who am I to argue? It may be that, 40 or 50 years from now, I will be saying the same thing to someone else. I’ve seen how it’s done, and how beautiful it can be.

Learning from Trees” by Grace Butcher

If we could,
like the trees,
practice dying,
do it every year
just as something we do-
like going on vacation
or celebrating birthdays,
it would become
as easy a part of us
as our hair or clothing.

Someone would show us how
to lie down and fade away
as if in deepest meditation,
and we would learn
about the fine dark emptiness,
both knowing it and not knowing it,
and coming back would be irrelevant.

Whatever it is the trees know
when they stand undone,
surprisingly intricate,
we need to know also
so we can allow
that last thing
to happen to us
as if it were only
any ordinary thing,

leaves and lives
falling away,
the spirit, complex.
waiting in the fine darkness
to learn which way it will go.

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