Jewish and True

This post first appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in June 2018

Humanistic Judaism casts a wide net when it comes to finding inspiration and connection. To paraphrase the 19th century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, “nothing Jewish is alien to us,” which means we can draw from the complete library of Jewish creativity, ancient, medieval and modern. We also agree with the 2nd century BCE Roman playwright Terence that “nothing human is alien to me” – anything that responds to the realities and possibilities of being human is related in some way to our own journeys.

Our ark of inspirational sources and intellectual insight is wider than Jewish tradition. At the same time, we are not simply an archive – we make choices about that which speaks to us most profoundly. After all, our High Holiday services are only 90 minutes, which means we must make some editorial choices! Some of what we find in the Jewish and human experiences does not reflect our values and beliefs, and we can acknowledge its existence without celebrating it. Slavery in the Torah, genocide in human history, cruelty between individuals are all part of being human even as we celebrate the “better angels of our nature,” in Lincoln’s phrase.

Humanistic Judaism evaluates choices from its inheritance through two criteria: 1) Is it Jewish, does it enhance Jewish connections? And 2) Is it true, does it reflect my values and beliefs? We are not unique in this approach, even if we frame it differently. Gender segregation and animal sacrifice are historically Jewish, but they are not immediately relevant for the large majority of Jews today; some liberal Jews may study these Jewish elements, but they do not live them.

Our founding thinker Rabbi Sherwin Wine posed the challenge this way:

We need to insist that the question “Is it true” is more important than the question “Is it Jewish” The Shma [prayer affirming God] is Jewish, but it is not, from our perspective, true. The Kaddish is Jewish, but it is not consistent with what we believe. A strong ideology insists that when we celebrate who we are, we speak with conviction. New words that express our convictions are preferable to old words that do not. Nostalgia is valuable, but not primary. (“Secular Humanistic Jewish Ideology”, Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1991).

If the “is it Jewish” question were the only criteria, we would say and do things we would find offensive, objectionable, and untrue in any other setting. If we only cared about “is it true,” we would be dissolved in the sea of world culture without roots, tradition, and a sense of ourselves in historical and personal context.

When we choose from our Jewish and human inheritance, we find what rings true, what reflects our values in both Jewish and human culture, philosophy, art and music. We draw on both to celebrate who we are, in all of our complexity and freedom.

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Thoughts on Memorial Day

This invocation and closing blessing were delivered at a Memorial Day observance in Lake Bluff, IL on May 28, 2018. Because I was the only clergy involved in the ceremony, these remarks were designed to serve a broader audience than only Humanists.


Clergy are invited to these moments in order to make this a “holy” occasion. What does it mean to make something holy?

Something holy demands our full attention and our deepest emotions – sadness and longing, friendship and love, respect and gratitude. Memorial Day, dedicated to the memory of fallen soldiers, indeed demands our attention and respect, but can we, ourselves, truly make this moment “holy”?

Another memorial dedication took place after the Civil War battle of Gettysburg. There President Abraham Lincoln asked the same question – what makes something holy? Lincoln said that the words of the living are fitting and proper, but nothing he could say or do would make that space any holier than the deeds of the dead had already.

…in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Memorial Day is made “holy” by the deeds of the fallen; we are merely witnesses to what is already worthy of our deepest emotions. I invite us all now to reflect on what is most important to each of us – our beliefs and our values, our commitments and our loyalty, our memories and our respect. If our words are limited, let our silence speak instead.

In the Biblical book of Proverbs, we read Zekher Tsadik Livrakha – the memory of the righteous is a blessing.

And so it is.

Closing Blessing

The Hebrew prophets lived in an era of violence: collectively they witnessed the destruction of one kingdom, and the exile of another. Yet when some of those prophets envisioned a future, they did not hope for victory. They hoped  for an end to war itself. In the Hebrew language, the word Shalom means peace, and Shalom is also related to words for completion, perfection, wholeness. The prophet Micah predicted:

They will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they train for war. Each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with one to make them afraid.

When Abraham Lincoln stood on the brink of victory at his second inauguration in March 1865, he was not triumphalist. He pointed out that “Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered.”

Lincoln concluded with stirring words that send us forth today on a mission to fight, not for victory, but for peace. Lincoln said,

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

When we reflect on the memories of our fallen soldiers, let us remember the blessings of peace they fought for and died for, and let us bless each other with a sign of peace, let us bless each other with wishes of Shalom.

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Doing Jewish

This post first appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in May 2018

There’s a new conversation happening on the cutting edges of the Jewish community. Should we stop talking about “being Jewish,” and instead focus on “doing Jewish?”

A generation ago, Jewish identity aka “being Jewish” was the core focus. It was a feeling, a sense of self, a group identification that, it was assumed, would inevitably lead to joining a Jewish community, supporting the Jewish state of Israel, remembering the Holocaust and raising Jewish children. Assimilation and intermarriage were the greatest dangers because they would undermine “being Jewish” now and in the future, and thus they were resisted with great effort and expense. And we heard endless discussions of “who is a Jew,” “are you a Jewish American or an American Jew,” and other varieties of identity policing.

These conversations have become tired and irrelevant for many reasons. When over half of marriages involving Jews are to people of other religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and an increasing population of children of intermarriage who may choose to be “both” rather than “either/or,” a Jewish community primarily focused on “being Jewish” can be alienating. Identity labels themselves have become less attractive, be they political parties, religious denominations, or other tribalist markers. Anyone can DO yoga whether or not they believe or identify with the traditional theology behind it.

So what is meant by “doing Jewish”? It could be reading Jewish literature, from Torah to today, for insight and discussion. It could be preparing Jewish food for a holiday or special occasion. Singing Jewish music, studying Jewish history, traveling to Jewish sites – all the activities that Humanistic Judaism has emphasized count in addition to more conventional examples like attending Jewish services and studying Jewish texts. Anyone, no matter their personal heritage or self-identification, can “do Jewish” in these ways; what’s changed is extending that openness to Jewish services and celebrations, and also how we do them. Saying, “we are all Jewish” doesn’t work any more; saying, “we’re all connected to Jewish culture” works better.

I still see a place for “being Jewish” as having a positive place in Jewish community life. For some, identifying with their people and heritage is meaningful. For those who have become Jewish, the “being Jewish” is clearly important to them. Yet I also see the shift from “being” to “doing” as very consistent with our Humanistic approach to life in general – what you think and feel are important, but what you DO is just as important to express your values and reinforce your beliefs. Pedigree is less important than performance, and hope without action does little. It’s why we sing, “Na’ase shalom – let us make peace.”

As the 19th century Humanist Robert Ingersoll put it, “Labor is the only prayer that nature answers; it is the only prayer that deserves an answer – good, honest, noble work.” So let’s get doing!

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Being Traditional

I sometimes wonder if people really know what “tradition” means. They tell me they want a “traditional” Jewish wedding, or they say in their family’s Jewish life they “keep the traditions” – but they almost never mean they follow kosher dietary laws or avoid turning on lights or using money on Shabbat (after all, Jews that do that are unlikely to come to ME for their celebrations!). The couples getting married are not planning to segregate genders in their celebration – they have no problem that a mixed audience “could lead to dancing.” By “tradition” they usually mean the episodic family traditions of Hanukkah and Passover, or they are looking for the visible symbols of a Jewish wedding like a huppah [canopy], sharing wine, and breaking a glass.

Ceremony laugh

Alayna and Mike’s ceremony

I respond by clarifying that in some cases there IS no one tradition; for example, Ashkenazi/East European Jews often name babies after deceased relatives while Mizrahi/Middle Eastern Jews name after living ones. And in the 21st Century, traditions are not carved in stone. If BOTH the groom and the bride want to break a glass at the end of the wedding, they can!


Of course, I understand what they really mean when they are asking for a “traditional” ceremony. They don’t want women separated from men or long passages in Hebrew they don’t understand or believe. They want to sign their ketubah [wedding agreement] with a text expressing their love and not simply have witnesses for a legal formality. What they want is the endorsement of Judaism. They want their ceremony to feel authentic, to be accepted by their Jewish family and friends. Whether or not it fits their lifestyle or agrees with their personal beliefs is not the question; whether it “feels Jewish” is the point.

Ketubah image

Stacey and Andy’s ketubah

The genius, and the challenge, of Humanistic Judaism is to strive for both – to feel authentically Jewish and to live with the courage of our convictions. There are times it is easy to do both, like experiencing a klezmer music concert or learning something new about Jewish history. And there are times it is more challenging, particularly when more religious family members have very definite opinions or when our Humanistic beliefs push for changes in our Jewish inheritance.

It can feel easier to fall back on “this is what Jews do and say,” and accept what is conventional. But I’ve found in my life, and part of my job is encouraging others to discover, that living out Jewish integrity can make experiences meaningful in new ways. Sharing a Leah Goldberg poem about memory at a funeral is not the same as reciting the traditional kaddish; it is moving, differently.

And that’s the real goal of these ceremonies and celebrations – to be moving, to open ourselves to emotional experience and connection. Sometimes tradition does it, and sometimes creativity is more effective. Our privilege is to be able to use both.

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“It’s All For the Best” – Nizkor 2017

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2017/5778 as part of a series entitled “Forbidden Phrases for the New Year.” 

A child dies after only a few months of life. A young woman battles breast cancer for years before her death at 36. A vital and active tennis player, a loving father and grandfather, has a surprise medical episode that begins a 2 year long decline until the end. On the verge of a long-awaited retirement, a degenerative illness begins that takes a full decade to run its course through physical disability, dementia, and finally death.

These are only 4 of the funerals I have led over the past 15 years. Sometimes I can say in my eulogy, as I said about my own father’s death just before this Rosh Hashana, that this death is sad but not tragic – someone has died after a long and good life, they were ready to go and went relatively quickly and painlessly, and we know that death is the way of all living things. If our loved one had a good life and a good death, we the survivors usually handle it pretty well.

But then there are stories like these four. Our emotions and our reason cry out, “This is unfair! This is NOT the way things are supposed to go!” Traditional religion tried to offer its consolations: you’ll see them again in another life, so this loss is just intermission. Or maybe they did something wrong for which they were punished –the system must be fair even if you are sad. Upon hearing of a death, Jewish tradition prescribed the phrase “barukh dayan ha-emet – blessed is the true judge.” Another religious option: what seems unfair here will be made right in the next world. And finally, “It’s all for the best.”

What is “It’s all for the best” trying to say? It says that a kind and benevolent author is writing the story of your life, the story of every single life. “It’s all for the best” says that even though this tragedy seems without purpose, amazingly painful and shocking and cruel, the loss is part of a plan that is good overall. If you suffer, you are meant to learn compassion or to become tougher or to burn off your sins in advance. If you face loss, it simply had to be, because “it’s all for the best.”

And we know, we KNOW this is just not true. Car accidents, natural disasters, personal disasters like heart attacks, they did not have to be. They are not all for the best. Sometimes memory brings us warmth and consolation, and sometimes it makes us mad – why is this person only a memory and not still here? One of the first couples I met when I began working at Kol Hadash in 2004 were Sam and Joan Berger, a nice elderly couple. Sam unfortunately died within a couple of years and relatively quickly, and just about every time I visited Joan in the decade between Sam’s death and her own, she would tell me, “I’m mad at Sam – how dare he leave me!”

We do not want to live and remember in anger. When we speak of peace at a funeral service, it is not only for the deceased to “rest in peace,” but also for us to find peace, to make our peace with the new reality of a world without our loved one to talk to, to hear, to embrace any more. We cannot control what others say to us – they may offer us the consolation of an afterlife in which we may not believe, or divine praise when we have nothing to be grateful for. They may say, “it’s all for the best.” Our grief will not be diminished by lashing out at them, but a quiet “I don’t agree” makes the point just as well, and with the dignity of integrity.

Jewish tradition does offer alternative responses to “blessed is the true judge.” We often use a line from the book of Proverbs (10:7) – zekher tsaddik livrakha – the memory of a good person is a blessing. In Jewish usage, if you see the letters “Z – L” or in Hebrew zayin lamed ז”ל after a name, it means “their memory is a blessing” from the same source.

Human emotions serve a purpose – they allow our complex brains to express what we cannot analyze. If we are angry, it can be natural and healthy to express it. If we know deep in our guts that it is NOT all for the best, then we can say that too.

I could say that my father’s death was sad but not tragic, that he made it four years after his initial diagnosis with pancreatic cancer, that he got to play tennis and read and sing and dance much longer than we had a right to expect. And yet, I know there will be times to come when I will feel like Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, saying “Please, I want some more.” Regret and anger and sadness are all natural human emotions, part of the human expression of grief, and it is good that we feel them. Our deceased loved one’s new status as loving memory becomes a part of our life, our new routine. It may not be for the best, but it is, and we know it.

NIZKOR (We Will Remember)
by Arthur Liebhaber

I got a promotion,
I started to make the call,
Then I remembered.

I got sick and didn’t know what to do,
I started to make the call,
Then I remembered.

I forgot what that Yiddish expression meant,
I started to call,
Then I remembered.

I wanted your recipe,
I started to call,
Then I remembered.

Good news, bad news,
Wisdom and guidance,
I start to make the calls,
But then I remember.

You aren’t out there,
You aren’t going to answer.
You’re in my heart,
I’ll always remember.

Posted in Funerals, High Holidays | 1 Comment

Embracing Complexity

This post first appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in November 2017

Did you know that the largest organization in the world that supports the teaching of evolution and opposes the death penalty is the Catholic Church? Political conservatives are more likely to be skeptical of climate change, while political liberals more often distrust genetically improved foods (GMOs) – both positions are at odds with the overwhelming scientific consensus. Free-market libertarians, government-skeptical conservatives and left wing liberals all want to see police reform that respects individual rights, particularly on asset forfeiture, where property suspected in a crime can be confiscated without due process. And in the Jewish world, there are Orthodox Jews who support a two-state solution and secular Jews who are die-hard West Bank settlers.

In the hyper-partisan era in which we find ourselves, it would be much easier for us if the lines were bright and clear, if everyone on “our” side believed all the same things and “their” side was uniformly terrible. Of course, the realities of human life and personal belief and behavior do not match what we might prefer. Anti-semitic sentiments are expressed by both the nationalist far right and the internationalist far left – a plague on both houses. No one group has a monopoly on good ideas, or the one true description of human nature and society. An important part of our Humanism is to accept that we do not have all the answers, and that we have to learn from each other.

At Kol Hadash, one of our semi-serious slogans is that we are “like-minded people who don’t think alike.” We have a similar approach to life, to knowledge, to Jewish culture and identity, but we do not insist that everyone agree on everything. In fact, I would be nervous being part of a group where everyone agreed on everything. This being so, we have two challenges. First, what are the shared values that unite us strongly enough to generate positive shared action? And second, how do we, who celebrate diversity, handle diverse opinions in our own community?

If you browse our website, you can find a new page under “Activities” called Values in Action. There you can see what we’ve found that can unite the community in doing good: helping a battered women’s and children’s shelter with basic human needs like food and toiletries; a holiday gift drive for the disabled; fleece blankets for children facing medical treatment; feeding the hungry. By focusing our attention on these basic human needs for shelter, food, clothing and personal dignity, we’ve been able to do good while also creating community solidarity.

We are of many different opinions on many different subjects. That is the challenge of creating a community of individualists. It is also our strength – embracing the complexity to agree on some issues and disagree on others. This is a more realistic way to journey through life, which is more often a spectrum than either/or. And it is a path towards doing good on causes we value – the more allies on a specific issue, the better. If we demonize those whose help we need, why would they work with us on causes we share?

It can be much easier to be “the true believer,” in Eric Hoffer’s memorable phrase. But that will not lead to the world we want.

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A Culture of Blessing

This post originally appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October 2017.

When we use a Humanistic blessing, what exactly do we mean?

In a traditional setting, be it the East European shtetl or contemporary Brooklyn, Rabbinic texts are constantly repeated: prayers three times a day, the same Shabbat service every week.  The most commonly-repeated texts, however, are short and to the point: blessings. There are blessings for everything under the sun: eating and drinking, extraordinary events, good fortune, even tragedy. Most begin with the same formula: Barukh Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha-Olam, Blessed are you, our God, King of the Universe. . .

A “culture of blessing,” however, is not simply a matter of reciting specific texts. It is an approach to life that believes that everything relies on a supernatural source, which deserves (and desires) to be thanked at every turn.  For example, in the Torah, the Jews are warned against too much self-congratulation:

You may say in your heart, “my power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” And you shall remember YHWH your God; for he is who gives you power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant, which he swore to your fathers. And if you do forget YHWH your God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I warn you this day that you shall surely perish. {Deut. 8:17-19}

In other words, humans taking credit for their own achievement is chutzpah, while humans giving credit to God for human achievements is piety! If all the blessings and prayers were in English, it might sound like this:

Even if we have Humanistic objections, a culture of blessing does more than create an attitude of gratitude; it is also a constant reminder of Jewish identity. If every time you see a rainbow, or every time you eat anything, or every time you leave the lavatory, you recite a Hebrew phrase, you implicitly say to yourself, ‘I’m Jewish’ that many times a day.

A “culture of blessing” is largely foreign to the experience of most modern American Jews, especially secular and Humanistic Jews. We have no problem saying, “My power and the might of my hand HAVE gotten me this wealth.” We show gratitude to those who deserve it, and we have no thanks for the indifference of the universe when it afflicts us. We know that we are Jewish without reminding ourselves every hour of every day.

Yet is there nothing we can glean from a culture of blessing, a culture deeply ingrained in Jewish history and Jewish life?  Here are a few:

Gratitude: the feeling of being fortunate to see a natural wonder, or to be present at a special human event, or to have experienced the highs (and lows) of human emotion.  These feelings require no author to thank, nor a special phrase to recite; they need acknowledgement and recognition.

Mindfulness: pausing before drinking or eating can provide a moment of self-reflection, a break from the rush-hour pace of life, and a chance to remember one’s health and happiness. Today, even some religious Jews, who are uncomfortable with the traditional language of a personal God and King, have taken the moment of blessing as an opportunity for mindfulness.

Community: Pausing to recognize the value of community, of family, of friendship before eating and celebrating together can be a powerful moment of shared experience. Stopping afterwards to reflect on human connections can add meaning to the simplest action.

Humanistic Jews are unlikely to adopt a pervasive culture of blessing.  We rarely recite fixed texts; we do not stop our lives multiple times a day to remember a Hebrew phrase.  Yet just as we strive to take the best from historical Jewish culture for Humanistic Judaism, we may also adopt elements from a culture of blessing.

Barukh ha-or ba-olam, barukh ha-or ba-ah-dam. Blessed is the light in the world, blessed is the light within people.

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