Dealing with the “God” Question

An earlier version of this post appeared in the journal Humanistic Judaism, Summer/Autumn 2004. Photo credit: Landa Photography.

One of the challenges in Secular Humanistic Jewish parenting and education is how to answer students’ questions about the concept, figure, and importance of “God.” Even if the children have been raised as committed Secular Humanistic Jews, they will still have their own questions as well as questions asked of them by other children (some friendly questions, others not). And if students and their parents are relatively new to a Secular or Humanistic Jewish community, they are even more likely to be looking for answers in this area. These are challenging issues for adults to address – to translate our philosophy to a child’s language and conceptual ability is that much more difficult.

This short list of 6 FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions) on the “God” question is intended to help teachers with their students and parents with their children. Two concise answers are offered to each question – one aimed at children under 7, the other at children between 8 and 12. Just as these general questions may be asked many different ways, answers can be adjusted for specific situations. “Heaven forbid” these answers be repeated verbatim; the more they are expressed in your own words, the more convincing they will be.

One piece of general advice: It’s often both useful and helpful to ask them back, “what do you think?” By saying this you affirm that their opinion is important, and that they need to make up their own mind. You can certainly share what you believe on these questions – that is both your right and responsibility as either a teacher or a parent. So saying “we believe” something might be a less accurate answer than, “I believe this; what do you believe”? You may well agree, but “we believe” is stage 2.

The best suggestion I can offer is to be honest (one of our basic principles), to be accepting of even the most challenging questions, and to be as clear as possible. I avoid condescending answers like “weak people need it” or “we’ve evolved past that primitive stage;” we want to address the question in a clear, respectful and positive way. Every Secular Humanistic Jew, even the youngest, can understand our shared values and beliefs.

1) “Do you/we/I believe in God?”

I like to say, “I believe in you.” I can see you, touch you, hear you, and care for you. I don’t know if the idea of “God” is just an idea in your mind, or something real. Remember, it’s OK to say “I don’t know” if you really don’t know something. But I DO know that if I help you, you’re happy, and if you help me, I’m happy. So let’s look at what we KNOW, and see if that’s enough for us.

We can’t know for sure if there’s a God or not. So we focus on what we DO know – we know that being good to other people is good for them and good for us, and we know that we can learn about the world from our own experience and from other people. We don’t know if a God answers prayers, so WE have to work to make the world better so that we KNOW it’s getting better. Some people believe there’s a God, and some people believe there’s no God. We pay attention to what we can do in the meantime!

Note: You can certainly share your own perspective on the likelihood or improbability of a god and what that would mean; this answer is a “lowest common denominator” of positive Humanism.

2) “Should I pray? What do I say if other kids ask me what I pray for?”

“Praying” is another way of saying “I hope” something happens – I hope my mom comes home soon, I hope everyone gets along. Sometimes, though, hope isn’t enough – if I just “hope” that I get what I want, I can’t be sure it will happen. Sometimes we need to work to make what we “hope” into what really happens. You can tell them, “I hope and work for good things for my family.”

“Praying” is like wishing or hoping for something – the difference is that prayer usually asks someone or something else, like “God,” to make it happen. But just like wishing and hoping, prayer can’t make sure that we get the good things we’re looking for. Thinking something in your brain doesn’t change the real world. On the other hand, when WE work to make our hopes into reality, we KNOW that we’re making it happen, and we get the credit for doing it. If other kids ask you about praying, you can tell them, “I hope AND I work for good things in the world.”

3) “{kid’s name} told me that we can’t be Jewish if we don’t believe in God”

“Being Jewish” means that you are in the Jewish family. Your mom is still your mom, and your grandpa is still your grandpa, even if you have different ideas. What are some of things that we do that ARE Jewish? (holidays, songs, family names, community, foods) You see? Being Jewish is not what you think; being Jewish is who you are and what you do. You can be happy to be part of the Jewish family.

Being Jewish is like being part of a family. Just like your family has family traditions, favorite family foods, and family jokes, or your school has a school mascot and school colors, the Jewish family has Jewish food, Jewish jokes, Jewish traditions – all of those together add up to what we call “culture.” You can be part of Jewish culture in a lot of ways; some use the idea of God, and some focus on the Jewish people and what they’ve made.  Being Jewish is not what you think. Being Jewish who you are and what you do.

4) “{kid’s name}  told me that I’m not a good person because we don’t believe in God”

Being a good person is about what you do. You can do good things because you think a god told you to, or you can do good things because you want to help other people. We do good things all the time (share example), and we didn’t have to talk about God to do a good thing. What you do makes you a good person, so if you do good things, you ARE a good person.

What makes you a good person, what you think or what you do? I believe that what you DO decides if you’re a good person or not. I know people who believe in God who are nice, and some who are mean. And I know people who don’t believe who are nice, and some who are mean. If you care about other people, and you work to help them, then you’re a good person.

5) “My grandparents/neighbors/kids at school told me that my family is going to Hell because we don’t believe in God/Jesus”

Lots of people believe different things. It’s OK to believe something different from someone else–they believe one thing, and we believe something different. And you don’t have to worry about what happens a long time from now; it’s more important to pay attention to what we do today and tomorrow. You have a family that loves you and that takes care of you today. Be a good person today and tomorrow–that’s plenty!

Some people think they are right all of the time. They are sure they know exactly what happens after we die, and what we have to do now. We prefer to let everyone make up their own minds about what might happen or how to live their lives. What we DO know is that it’s very important to be a good person and to live a good life in THIS life, because it’s the only life we KNOW is real. Don’t worry about what happens in the distant future – what can we do TODAY?

6) “Why do so many other people/Jews pray to/believe in God, and we don’t?”

Lots of people believe lots of different things. It’s OK to believe something different from someone else–they believe one thing, and we believe something different. We know that we can help each other, and make each other happy, and that’s enough for us. We can say “I don’t know” when we really don’t know, and using what we DO know we can do a lot of good things. We believe in people, and that’s enough for us.

If we all thought the same thing, life would be really boring because we would have nothing to talk about! Just because a lot of people think something is right, that doesn’t mean that it’s true – most people thought that the world was flat for a long time, but today we’ve learned that it’s round. Other people have the right to make up their own minds about the idea of a God, and we can decide for ourselves. For us, it makes more sense to look at what we can know about the world instead of what we guess. And we can say “I don’t know” when we really don’t know.

Posted in General HJ, Humanistic Judaism journal | Leave a comment

Why Jewish Culture Matters

This post was sparked by preparation for a June 4, 2017 concert by the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band hosted by Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation.
Click here for more information or to sign up to attend.

When some people hear “cultural Judaism” or “cultural Jews,” they think of bagels and lox and that’s about it. The truth is that a connection with Jewish culture can be much deeper and richer, and often more meaningful, than a food choice or, for that matter, a tenuous religiosity.

Take the example of klezmer music, a particular style of Jewish music that began in Eastern Europe (you can read more on its origins in the late Middle Ages at the Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe). The title comes from two Hebrew terms, kley [tools/vessels] and zemer [melody], but as is often the case when phrases migrated from Hebrew to Yiddish, klezmer means much more than “instruments.” Its particular combination of wailing and exuberance, energy and pathos, many instruments playing at once is sometimes seen as emblematic of the Jewish condition: suffering and celebration, with many voices and experiences jumbled together.

Earlier examples of secular Jewish identities were often rooted in Jewish culture. Yiddish theater in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was both initiated and served secularized Jews who wanted to express their cultural Jewish identity beyond the synagogue through music, acting, and dancing. This creativity also expressed their philosophical and political commitments to social justice and human welfare in this life. The Jewish labor union movement, Yiddishist social and educational organizations, even the labor Zionism Farband (which emphasized both Yiddish and Hebrew), all found a voice in Jewish cultural creativity, which also served to bind the organizations’ members together – if you sing and dance together, you can work and march and live together too.

The revival of klezmer music in America in the last generation has many origins: a reconnection with the culture of “the old country” that parents and grandparents were leaving behind; the rise of multiculturalism; musicians seeks a bridge between Jazz and their Jewish roots; Jewish integration into American society, which left many exploring how to live the secular lifestyle they enjoyed while feeling the pleasure and power of Jewish heritage. For Secular and Humanistic Jews in particular, Klezmer emphasizes what we share with other Jews regardless of ideology or denomination, and it access the spirit, joy and energy of our people and shared ancestors, captured through song and dance. Klezmer also demonstrates that Jewish life is wider than studying Torah or observing commandments, more than re-enacting tradition; our Judaism is also creating anew with the same instruments, with our own voices and initiative.

Klezmer is not just Jewish music; klezmer is human music in a Jewish key. It has influenced American music and culture, just as it was influenced by the American setting. That Jewish experience of suffering and celebration also defines the human condition, and just about every band plays some Jewish musical touchstones like Hava Nagila, from oompah to mariachi. Our Jewish culture is a particular expression of what it means to be human, and finding pleasure and meaning in our particular roots is particularly human.

If we know where we come from, who can tell where we may go?


Posted in General HJ | 1 Comment

Secular Passover Values

An earlier version of this post previously appeared in Secular Culture and Ideas

When Secular and Humanistic Jews consider their religious and cultural tradition for inspiration, they experience three sorts of reactions:

  • “That’s wonderful—what a great moral value for today!”
  • “That’s terrible—thank goodness we’ve grown beyond that today!”
  • “Not bad for its time, but with these few steps it could be even better.”

All three are part of evaluating Passover: celebrating an end to slavery, deploring both the suffering of innocents and glorying in the downfall of one’s enemies, and striving to include more than just the Jewish people in the joy of freedom and the seder experience.

There are, of course, values from a “traditional” Passover that retain their resonance. Consider welcoming in all who hunger for the celebration at the very beginning of the Seder, or the importance of children asking questions (the Four Questions, the Four Sons/Children) while providing age-appropriate answers. We even see the value of pre-modern “multi-media” learning—consider all the senses and styles of learning mobilized by the Passover Seder:

  • Sight: for instance the Seder plate, Elijah’s cup and place, the various symbols, and of course reading the haggadah.
  • Taste/Smell/Touch: distinctive foods like matzo, bitter herbs, charoset, and parsley and salt water. Middle Eastern Jews often serve roasted lamb to recall the Temple Pesakh [Passover] sacrifice.
  • Hearing: reading and singing the haggadah.
  • Movement: reclining rather than sitting, opening the door, searching for the afikomen.
  • Interpersonal connection: coming together as family and friends for a special event.

But, being Jews, nothing is quite that simple.

Self-aware Secular and Humanistic Jews celebrate our tradition, but we are also honest and clear as we do so—we do not need to apologize away or justify the unethical, like the death of Egyptian children “from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock.” (Exodus 12:29) Thus some values of the traditional haggadah are omitted or modified: opening the door and asking God to pour out his “wrath on the goyim” [non-Jewish nations]; praying to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple “speedily, in our days, soon;” using the half of the haggadah after the meal to bless and praise God with no mention of Moses or the Jewish historical experience.

This is one of two subtle shifts in the values of a secular celebration of Passover—from God to people, and from a closed perspective of “what’s good for the Jews” to an open perspective of “how can our Jewish experience enhance our humanity?” The central character of the celebration is not the God character, Yahweh, but the Jewish people. The central message is not chosenness, but rather universal values to be learned from this particular myth and experience. We are not grateful for divine liberation; we are inspired to “auto-emancipation” [see Leo Pinsker’s 1882 work by this title] and then to use our freedom to help free others. Many traditional Seders remember the plagues with gleeful speculation of how many plagues smote the Egyptians (up to 250), ending with “how many favors has God done for us.” For a Humanistic Seder, the plagues expand sympathy for all human suffering, our Holocaust and others—if we have seen suffering, we have learned to fight it. We also address “plagues” in our own day not as cosmic punishments but rather as challenges that demand human solutions.

For all of these changes, of course, the irony is that change itself is one of the most central Passover traditions (see “Passover—An Evolving Holiday”). In Exodus 12, the ritual of painting lamb’s blood on doorposts was to be performed “forever,” including after arriving in the land of Israel. We no longer sacrifice lambs at the Jerusalem Temple, though the original Four Questions recorded in the Mishnah, a century after the Temple was destroyed still asked “Why do we eat a roasted lamb?” instead of “Why do we recline?” The mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew throughout the traditional haggadah shows changes over the centuries, including poetical or folklore additions like “Echad Mi Yodea—Who Knows One” and “Had Gadya—One Goat.” The beautiful tradition of illuminated haggadot (see some examples here) has often cast the events of the Exodus in the image of the contemporary artist and his or her time. The truth is that change is the Passover tradition, and a central value for secular and Humanistic Jews to celebrate.

Surveys consistently show that small minorities of American Jews keep kosher or light Shabbat candles, but large majorities participate in a Passover Seder. Secular Jews don’t celebrate a “traditional” Seder; they celebrate the tradition of holding a Seder, in every generation, from generation to generation.

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Darkness and Light – A Eulogy

This eulogy was delivered January 1, 2017 for a friend and colleague, David J. Steiner, who died tragically at age 51 in a bus accident in Uganda in late December 2016. You can read some of his writings or an article about his life and death to learn more about him. 

I do not want to be here today. No one wants to be here today. We NEED to be here – we feel a deep need to support each other, to support David’s family, to show and love for David himself. We never envisioned that we would be doing this anytime soon. There is no other word for what happened but “tragedy.” There are many emotions churning with us: shock, wondering when this bad dream will end; deep sadness, and pain, and anger; confusion, wondering how such a thing could happen. These emotions are all natural and appropriate.

Our task today is not to accomplish healing; rather, it is to begin healing – to begin to get perspective so that the last few minutes of David’s life do not block out 51 years of active living and caring. We have to find a way to feel appreciation for this wonderful person who touched our lives.

When David was a rabbinic student in Jerusalem, he was once asked to bring “the siddur [prayerbook]” to the next class session. In his own argumentative way, David thought, “What do you mean, THE siddur? There are many siddurim out there.” So he brought a volume of the poetry of the foundational Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik to class and said, “This is MY siddur.” In that spirit of creative reclamation, I want to share a poem by another Hebrew poetic giant, Yehuda Amichai:

“A Song of Praise” by Yehuda Amichai

I want to sing a song of praise to all that remains
Here with us, and does not leave, and does not wander
like the migrating birds


Hebrew text for “A Song of Praise”

And does not flee to the North,
and not to the South, and does not sing, “My heart is in the East,
and I am at the edge of the West.”
I want to sing to the trees
That do not throw out their leaves,
and withstand the blaze of summer and the cold of winter
And to those people who do not
throw out their memories,
And withstand more than those people who throw out everything.

But above all, I want to sing a song of praise
To lovers who remain together for joy, and for pain, and for joy.
To make a home, to make children, now and for the other seasons.


David loved to teach, and to learn, using classic Jewish texts. In one of his favorite Talmudic stories, four rabbis entered a garden of Pardes/Paradise, exploring the deepest truths of life. It became the basis for a screenplay he wrote, and I believe it also reflects the many-sided nature of David himself.

Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Elisha Ben Avuya cut the shoots; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.

Part of David was Rabbi Akiva, entering in peace and departing in peace, deeply connected to Jewish observance, tradition, and literature, though on his own terms. Part of David was Elisha ben Avuya, cutting shoots, a heretic rabbi who questioned divine justice and providence, who was willing to challenge authority in the name of human dignity. Today, David has also become Ben Azzai, the deceased who lost his life living out his sense of himself as a Jew and as a mensch, a decent human being. David’s Judaism and his Zionism, his sense of right and wrong, took him to Africa to continue to love the stranger as himself [Leviticus 19:34]. David loved the stranger his whole life – even as a child, father’s friend who often visited their house was gay and black, but it never occurred to young David that Uncle Otis was not his real uncle! David experienced being smuggled across the Mexico-US border in his twenties to better understand, he made friends with everyone from Ramat Gan, Israel to Ramallah in the Palestinian Territories, David put a human face on Chicago school closings and the current refugee crisis – he always lived out his values of loving the stranger, human dignity and peace.

David was a new take on the wandering Jew – the wandering rabbinic student. From Hebrew Seminary for the Deaf in Chicago, when I first met him, to the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, to ultimately studying with me at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, where he anticipated ordination by the end of 2017. From David’s time as a camper at Habonim Dror’s Camp Tavor, to High School in Israel at HaKfar Ha-Yarok, service in the Israeli Defense Forces, living in Israel for two stints including active work with Bina – the Secular Yeshiva, director of congregational Jewish education at both Reform and Conservative synagogues and Hebrew teacher and tutor at my Humanistic congregation, David was a Jewishly literate secular Jew. He appreciated the Israeli scholar Ari Elon’s distinction between ribbonut [self-authority] and rabbanut [external authority] – for the secular Jew, authority comes from within. David even planned to start a Chicago community called Ribbonim:

a congregation that pursues peace and justice, cherishes traditional text and contemporary creativity, takes responsibility for its role in the entire Jewish world – including Israel – and sees its Judaism as the past, present and future of a collective of people who combine memory and myth with a secular, humanistic vision for the future.

David was always many things – he was a cow midwife (which he claimed qualified him to assist his wife for the home births of two of their children), he was an educational software developer, a property manager, a documentary filmmaker, a typewriter collector, a teacher and school director, a Cubs fan whose Heavenly Temple was Wrigley Field, an advocate for causes and institutions he believed in, a loving son and life partner and Abba/father and a wonderful friend who always made time to catch up on long phone conversations, who loved to laugh and share stories. David was an educator who understood that students should be a dignified part of a learning community, and that you learn by teaching others. He once developed an educational program called “JoJo the Scarecrow,” which would have made students teach JoJo math and English to learn it themselves. Or think about his putting cameras into the hands of his subjects at Barbara Sizemore Academy for us to see through their eyes.

When I heard that David was becoming a mediator (as if he needed one more thing to be doing), I thought, “What a perfect job for David: listening, affirming, offering compromises and solutions, creating peace out of conflict.” You almost never argued with David, though there was always a discussion. I even tried to be mad at him once for something, but I can’t even remember what it was about!

Today is the end of the season of Hanukkah, where one candle on the menorah, the shamash, gives light to the others and is not at all dimmed by its generosity. Think of David’s empowering students to teach, loving the stranger, entering in peace and leaving in peace. Lighting lights in this season not unique to Jews – it is part of the human need to light the world to fight cold and darkness. From this year forward, Chanukah will always be a season of personal memory – for David’s parents and their partners, for David’s siblings and the people in their life, for David’s children, for his loving partner of the last several years, and for all of David’s loving friends and connections here and around the world. Just like today, Chanukkah future will be a time of sadness and also joy, when we will feel the pain of loss but also consolation of beautiful memory and loving connection. In Jewish life, lighting a candle also helps mark the anniversary of a death, a day called “yartzeit/year-time”.

Our mission, this year and every year, will be to move from yahrtzeit to shamash, from memory to celebration, from sadness to joy, keeping a place for both in our hearts. David’s life and our loving memories of him are the shamash for us, the candle lighting the way out of cold and darkness to light and warmth, to enlightenment and knowledge, to joy and laughter with a twinkle in our eyes, to a community of shared purpose and affection.

I want to sing a song of praise to all that remains here with us… withstanding the blaze of summer and the cold of winter…for joy and for pain and for joy….now and in the other seasons.

Posted in Funerals | 1 Comment

And You – Yom Kippur Memorial 5777

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2016/5777 as part of a series entitled “This We Believe.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

No one ever said that being a believer was easy.

Facing the limitations of this world, the distance between its harsh reality and our idealistic visions, is hard. Choosing what to do with our limited time on earth, how to live this life the best we can, and how to enable others to have secure lives of dignity and fulfillment, is hard. Accepting our own personal limitations, and finding motivation to continue is hard. We have the advantage of believing realistically, reasonably, flexibly, believing without perfect faith but with confidence. The lives we lead according to those beliefs – “this world, this life, these hands…and you” – may still be very difficult.

We know that we are not alone in our beliefs, or in our lives. We have a community of ideas and shared Jewish culture, both here at Kol Hadash and in the wider movement of Secular Humanistic Judaism. And we have communities of love, our closer and wider circles of shared experience and emotional connection. The “…and you” of what we believe is not simply collaboration to understand and affect this world or this life using these hands. “And you” means we believe it is important to have other people in our lives.

Jewish civilization has very few examples of the isolated mystic, the monk on a mountain alone. 10 people were required for a prayer quorum, or minyan (originally men, now anyone for most Jews). There was a tradition of studying the Talmud in partnership, or hevruta, because we can learn from each other and from sharpening our argument against another’s . In the first myth in our literature, God says that it is not good for humanity to be alone and he creates for the original Adam an ezer k’negdo – a helper fit for him. The friendship of David and Jonathan, the loving of family beyond blood of mother and daughter in law Ruth and Naomi, the beautiful partnership of the Song of Songs which exclaims “love is as strong as death.” “And You” is not a uniquely Humanistic belief, or a uniquely Jewish belief. Just as all of what we believe does not have to be unique to us to still be what we believe. Other people, other Jews, other Judaisms believe in aspects of “this world, this life, these hands…and you.” Our challenge is to face our challenging answers to the big questions in life with courage, and together.

Now relating to other people is also not easy – “and you” can be very hard. As we saw throughout this High Holiday series, creating community out of independent thinkers, getting secular thinkers – and secular Jews no less – on the same page is a real challenge. BELIEVE me. Learning from other people’s experience, especially people who are different from us, can be hard. Agreeing to disagree on certain issues so we can collaborate on what is important, finding common ground after divisive arguments, or a divisive election, that’s all very difficult. In this season of atonement, apology and forgiveness, we remember anew that repairing relationships, apologizing, forgiving can be very hard. And it’s hard enough when the other person is still around to talk to.

In Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie, he writes that, “death ends a life, not a relationship.” And as much as we might want to resolve all of our outstanding conflicts with our loved ones before they are gone, there probably are not enough minutes in the day even if we started trying the minute this service is over. Let alone when the person is gone, or given a limited time left, or is taken from us too suddenly, or drifts away into an unknowing haze of forgetfulness. We have things we need to say, words we want to hear, that they may not have the opportunity or the ability to say. I once did a funeral for a couple whose wedding I had performed a few months before – the male partner has been diagnosed with brain cancer, so even though they had been together for over a decade, they decided to get married before he died. A few months later, I got the call that he had died, and we held a beautiful memorial service for him at the Newberry Library in Chicago on New Year’s Day. After the service, I suggested to his widow that perhaps in those last few months they had had the chance to say to each other what they wanted to say before the end. She looked at me, sad but not angry, and she said, “I had a lifetimes of things I wanted to say.” They were planning to be together for decades; anything less than that was much too short.

There are many reasons for “…and you.” Yes, it can make our work more effective, we can work better as two together than we could as individuals. We learn from new experiences and new perspectives. But emotionally, personally, for our own growth, being responsible to someone beyond ourselves, loving and caring and being generous for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, deepens and enriches our lives. The pain we feel when they are gone is a sign of how deeply we loved them. And that doesn’t mean that our relationship was perfect – we do not need perfection to love, to remember, to stay connected. But we do need to take seriously what we believe. If this world is the world we know, if this life is the life we know, if these hands are the way to connect to each other, then we need to take advantage of every opportunity as if it were the last time.

For The Last Time by Robin Fox
(full poem in A Women’s Torah Commentary, excerpted here for copyright reasons)

How do you know
when it’s the last time?
The last time to ask
“How are you?
How was your day?”
The last time to say
“I love you.
Good night…sweet dreams.”

. . . .

The only thing certain
is that you’re not truly alone
because of those who do love you
and for that be thankful
and grateful
and feel blessed
that you were able to say
“Good night…I love you”
one last time.

Posted in Holidays, Humanistic Judaism journal | 1 Comment

These Hands – Yom Kippur Morning 5777

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2016/5777 as part of a series entitled “This We Believe.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

What can these hands do?

There is so much wrong with the world. Violent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, even the south side of Chicago. The threat of terrorism stalks Europe and America. Natural disasters are beyond our control, civil discourse is vanishing, and hatred seems to be on the rise. We do not trust our politicians, we do not trust government officials, we do not trust each other. Forty years ago, the movie Network depicts a news anchor losing his mind and ranting about the world in a way that sounds eerily relevant:

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. …. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.

We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be!

We all know things are bad — worse than bad — they’re crazy.

It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.”

Well, I’m not going to leave you alone.

I want you to get mad!

I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.

All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.

You’ve gotta say, “I’m a human being…! My life has value!”

The climax of the speech, repeated over and over? Those who remember know it well – “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

So what DO we do? If all we are is mad and yelling, what good does that do? If we open our windows and yell, or even sit calmly in a home or a synagogue and patiently pray, it might make us feel better, but do we have confidence that only expressing our desires will make a difference in the real world? Or do we have to take the next step, to move from wanting something to making it real? At a minimum, we should understand that the world is not unrelentingly disastrous – I enjoy a regular feature in the magazine The Week called “It Wasn’t All Bad” that includes the kind of stories that warm your heart and restore some confidence in our fellow human beings.

There are many ways to explain what is different, unique, special about a Humanistic Jewish congregation. This High Holidays we have been exploring one version: “This world, this life, these hands…and you.We ARE believers – we believe in making the reality of this world match our best visions of what it could be; we believe in the inherent equality, dignity and value of every human being; we believe that this life matters. If we want to make the best of this life, if we want to make this world better, then we have to start with the most elemental interface we have with the world – these hands.

At its very foundation, a positive humanism believes in human beings – not only their rights and responsibilities, but also their power and their potential. Too much of religion focuses on the negatives- what we cannot know, what we cannot do, what we cannot control, how we have failed, our limitations. To be sure, a realistic humanism accepts that we are not perfect, nor will we ever be perfect. We are not all knowing, all capable, or always good. Some imagine that Humanism means worshipping humanity in place of a god, when the reality is that Humanism means replacing the act of worship itself. One of our movement’s leaders was once asked, “well, if Humanistic Jews don’t pray, what do you do?” She answered, “We DO.” Since 1952, every American president, Republicans and Democrats, have declared a National Day of Prayer. In 2003, the American Humanist Association created a counter-program – a “National Day of Reason.” But the Humanist parallel for prayer is not thought – it is action! If we want the world to be better, we don’t just hope and pray it gets better – we roll up our sleeves and get to work. There is nothing WRONG with prayer, unless it encourages passivity; prayer and action are more effective than prayer alone. That was the genius of the Zionist revolution a century ago – praying to return to the land had not worked for 2000 years, so beit Yaakov lekhu unelkha – house of Jacob, let’s get up and go!  And they went. We DO.

In order to “do”, we need confidence that WHAT we do will actually make a difference. We have to motivate ourselves and celebrate what we CAN know, what we CAN do, what we CAN control, how we have succeeded, how we have transcended our limitations. As we hear in “Inherit the Wind”:

The elephant is larger; the horse is swifter and stronger; the butterfly is far more beautiful; the mosquito is more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable.

What makes human beings different? Our minds, and our skills – these hands. The power of the opposable thumb to grab, to hold, to carry, to manipulate. The dexterity of fingers to braid and to sew, to carve and to create – to invent a musical instrument and then to play it. The warmth of touch to caress, to comfort, to guide a child or to hold another’s hand. There are many ways our individuality is marked: our retina patterns, our DNA, and, of course, our fingerprints. Why those ridges? To help us hold on to what we need, to provide the friction that makes life more of a {snap}.

One of our evolutionary ancestors from 2 million years ago looked very little like us – it was on the line between australopithecus and homo, with longer arms, smaller heads, and shorter, more ape-like bodies than we homo sapiens. What made homo habilis, literally the “handy man,” different, and like us, was its ability to make tools – the making4knowledge to make and use sharp stone flakes and hand axes to butcher animals and to skin them. In other words, homo habilis found ways to meet the basic human needs of food, clothing, and shelter with its own hands.


From that rough beginning of using our hands to magnify their usefulness through the tools we made, we have transformed our lives, and the planet, in ways that no other species has ever done. Sometimes for good, and sometimes in ways that have made new problems. Just recently, I bought airplane tickets on a website, received a confirmation email, and appointment for the flight appeared in my online calendar automatically, without any notice! I’ve started getting cellphone alerts telling me when I have to leave to get to my next appointment. On one hand, this seems very convenient. On the other hand, it’s a bit unnerving. How many of you have let your car parallel park for you? Our future could end up like Star Trek, where our inventions serve us, or like The Matrix, where we serve the machines. To those under 30, these concerns might sound like an old crank whining about those newfangled auto-mobiles that go too fast. When the NSA metadata collection and surveillance program was revealed, a joke began trending on Twitter – #NSACalledToTellMe.

#NSAcalledtotellme go back a page, I wasn’t done reading yet.
#NSAcalledtotellme I should check my voicemail, one of the messages sounds important.
#NSAcalledtotellme the shoes I ordered from clash with the dress I purchased from Macy’
#NSAcalledtotellme what happens in Vegas stays in our Utah data center.

All very amusing, until it affects you. These hands have made amazing things, but sometimes what they can do should encourage caution. These same wonderful hands that make tools can also make weapons – an open palm can easily become a closed fist.

The risks understood, we can still appreciate all the secular miracles that human hands have realized. An old slogan of the Technion University in Haifa was “miracles happen; they take a lot of work.” Over the course of the last 12 years I’ve been with Kol Hadash, I have spent much more time in hospitals than I wanted to, both professionally and personally. As the years have gone on, more and more of the names on our Yom Kippur Memorial list are funerals I have done, people I have known. Yet every visit, I am amazed again at all that we are able to do to lengthen and improve life, all that has been invented by these minds and these hands. The ability to see a baby inside its mother before it is born, and to test for and even treat problems while in utero. The myriad ways to measure how we are doing and find what is wrong, from blood flow and brain activity to the chemistry of our blood and the reflex of our nerves.

We can do so much that it can be difficult to accept those times when we have to fold our hands and accept what we cannot control, what we cannot measure or treat. Even then, when we cannot discover and heal to change medical reality, there are still things that our hands can do. When we stroke the hand of a loved one in hospice care, we are not improving their physical condition, but we are still doing – they know we are there, and they know that we care. And we can use our hands, our energy and effort, in place of theirs – through one of our members’ long hospice experience, I worked with her to do what we could: we wrote personal letters to her closest family, we investigated how to deal with the eventual estate sale, we did whatever we could to lighten the burden on her sons when the time came that her hands could do no more. One of the core messages of Yom Kippur, be it the last chance to get into the Book of Life or the story of Jonah, is that it is not too late to make a difference.

When we say we believe in these hands, we do not only mean our physical hands. Our hands represent our abilities, our knowledge, our skills, our connections to each other. They represent our impact on the world, our ability to control our own lives. These hands are also a reminder of the personal skills that we need. We need to develop our abilities – who knew before cellphones that our thumbs could be so useful to communicate? We need to remain flexible, adaptable, able to respond to new problems. We need to be creative – not just adding a handle to a stone axe to make it better, or making a needle from an animal bone to sew clothing. We need to be creative by taking what we find in 51g20ojbyrlsociety, in Jewish culture, in what we have inherited and then making something new out of it. In the Yiddish folksong “I had a little overcoat,” fabric is made into a coat, then as that gets worn it becomes a jacket, then a vest, then a tie, then a button. And when it is lost, it becomes a story, proving that you CAN make something from nothing, in the title of one book based on the song. There are times we need to be strong with brute strength, and there are times we need to be delicate and gentle, careful and deliberative. We wave hello or shake hands to demonstrate equality, or to show the absence of a hidden weapon, or simply to make a personal connection. Or maybe, according to a recent study by the Weizman Institute of Science in Israel, we shake hands to smell each other – the study found that when people shake hands with someone of the same sex, they were twice as likely to put that hand to their face and subconsciously sniff it. If they shook hands with someone of the opposite sex, they were twice as likely to put their LEFT, non-shaking hand to their face. Certainly more polite than how dogs greet each other. Shaking hands also shows that we still have plenty to learn about ourselves and why we do what we do.

025751a6a2d73c02b32faa377e935cebOur hands are a way we define our groups, in and out. Not every culture greets with a handshake, and some cultures, including some Jews, refuse to shake hands across gender lines. There are secret handshakes, special signs [baseball sign], non-verbal communication even for those unversed in sign language. For those in the Jewish know, a special hand motion is made for the priestly blessing during synagogue services – the symbol is sometimes put on tombstones for Cohens. But if you ask most people out there what the gesture {left} means, they’ll say “live long and prosper” from Star Trek – Leonard Nimoy borrowed the gesture from his synagogue memories. And sometimes even an insult can become endindex-finger-250x250earing – two years ago, I led a memorial service for another of our members who was a real pistol, under 5 feet tall but tough and took no nonsense. Her children told me, and I shared at the memorial service that “if you gave her too much sass or a hassle, she wasn’t afraid of letting you know who was number 1, though not always using this finger.”

“These hands” are not only what we can do, what we have done, how we communicate. Saying that we believe in “these hands” means that we believe we can care for ourselves, and each other. You can find it on a bumper sticker, but it’s still true. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” One hand needs another to hold, to clap, to play, to build, to connect. This afternoon, we will conclude our exploration of “this I believe” by deepening that connection to each other – “this world, this life, these hands…and you.”

I will conclude with story I told at Kol Hadash 11 years ago, but it is just as appropriate here and now. A student decided to stump his rabbi with a riddle, so he put a small bird in his hand and asked the rabbi “is the bird in my hand alive or dead?” The rabbi knew that if he said that the bird was dead, the student would open his hand, the bird would fly away, and the rabbi would be a fool. But the rabbi also knew that if he said that the bird was alive, the student would quickly squeeze his fist and kill the bird, again making him the fool. The rabbi smiled at his student, and said quite simply, “is the bird alive or dead? The answer is in your hands.


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This Life – Yom Kippur evening 5777

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2016/5777 as part of a series entitled “This We Believe.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

Which life matters?

The promise of an afterlife is a powerful thing. People can do just about anything for a chance at eternity. No sex? Done. No material comfort? Done. Disengage from the world into a self-imposed ghetto of language and religious practice? Done. Avoid certain foods? Done. Persecute heretics? Done. Kill unbelievers? Done. Submit to centuries of persecution, suffering, and martyrdom? Done, done and done. Think of the appalling cruelty of the caste system – convincing those at the bottom of the social ladder they deserve to be there because of sins in a past life, and the only way to improve their prospects in the next life is to humbly accept their lot and to not rock the boat. If it can save your place in the world to come, earn you a spot in heaven, guarantee cosmic reward and permanent bliss, people will do strange and terrible things to themselves and each other. They can ruin this life in pursuit of the next.

Now some who believe in an afterlife ARE deeply engaged in this one, and for good works here and now. Christopher Hitchens’ line “religion poisons everything” demonstrates a very thin knowledge of the range of religious lives – we need a sophisticated approach to religion that accounts for Inquisition and Jihad, AND for Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the large majority of religious believers who love their neighbors and do not persecute them. We saw on Rosh Hashana that rabbinic emphasis on a world to come did not preclude attention to this one. Even if the daily Amidah prayer thanks god (in advance) for someday resurrecting the dead, that same rabbinic literature also proclaimed, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world.” [Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9] These are lives destroyed and saved in this world, not in the next.

Based on what we can show about the world and ourselves, this is very likely the only life that we get. The end of oxygen and blood flow means the end of the electrical signals in our brains, and as far as we know that internal stillness means the end of our consciousness. Maybe we will be pleasantly surprised, or unpleasantly surprised, and maybe we don’t know what we think we know, but I prefer to be ready for what is most likely. Besides, I have never gotten a definitive answer as to how old you are in an afterlife; if I have to go through middle school again, forget it.  Even if there may be a sequel, we believe in the importance of life BEFORE death. We believe that This life matters.

At the same time, we need to understand why is it so tempting to seek other lives beyond this one, be they reincarnation, resurrection, or a new ethereal plane. If Humanistic Judaism is to meet human needs in secular ways, we must discover what those needs are.  Obviously, human beings are afraid to die – we have never experienced a world without us in it, and on some level we never lose the feeling we had as babies that if we close our eyes the world disappears. We are afraid to lose the people we love, we are afraid that goodbye at a funeral is really goodbye and not “see you soon.” We need to make sense of suffering and tragedy. Our brains are hardwired to want justice – that helps our cooperation with each other, but it also means we have trouble accepting the death of a child or undeserved suffering or tragic death without trying to make sense out of it. There are so many WRONG things people say after someone dies tragically: if a child dies, there was an “angel shortage” for child death. Or “you’ll see them again” – but not for the rest of my life, and I need to figure out how I’m going to get through that! To make sense of it all, we might even blame the person who died of something far less than a capital offense if only to make them a little guilty and thus somehow deserving of their tragedy.  And then there are the consequences of facing this life without the promise of another one.

Actress Julia Sweeney was raised Catholic, and her monologue “Letting Go of God” describes a gradual drift away from that religious perspective until one day something just clicked. One striking passage speaks very eloquently to the challenge of believing in this life alone:

One day I was sipping my coffee, walking along a busy shopping area near my house. And I was lost in thought, thinking, so I don’t think anything happens to us after we die. Our brain just stops like every other organ. So people just die.

And then I thought, wait a minute. So Hitler, Hitler just died? No one sat him down and said, you screwed up, buddy, and now you’re going to spend an eternity in hell. Huh. So Hitler just died.

And my brother Mike, who suffered unspeakably from cancer. He just died. I always had this idea that Mike’s death, while premature, was his divine destiny somehow. And that his spirit didn’t really die, but it lived on. Not just in the memory of those that knew him, but in this real, tangible sense. And I realized that I now thought he died. He really died, and he was gone forever.

And then I realized I had to go back and basically kill off everyone I ever knew who died who I didn’t think really died. And then I thought, oh, so I’m going to die.

Then I started thinking about all the happenstances, all the random little moves which resulted in me being alive, me, in particular, at this moment. Not just of my parents meeting, but even of the billions of sperm against the hundreds of possible eggs. I thought about this randomness multiplying. My parents, their parents, and all the ways it could have gone one way, but it went the way it went. Richard Dawkins wrote, “Certainly those unborn ghosts include poets greater than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. But in the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I in our ordinariness that are here.”

We ARE here. We are alive today, living and breathing reality. We believe in this life, and part of believing this life is accepting the reality of death. But there is so much to do in the meantime! So what does believing in “this life” mean for how we live it?

If we believe that this is the only life, we might be less willing to risk it. There are and there have always been atheists in foxholes (and on motorcycles), today there is even a Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and there are certainly causes we might be willing to fight for and to die for. But if death is the end, the real end, then risking our lives means rising our individual conscious existence. And taking another’s life obliterates their entire individuality, all their potential tomorrows and remembered yesterdays wiped out in an instant. “Whoever destroys a soul, it is as if he destroyed an entire world.” It can be scary to contemplate that our end might well be THE end, and the same for everyone else. Now each of us can take this belief and run with it in different directions. One may use a belief in the uniqueness of this life in favor of or in opposition to the death penalty (aside from legitimate concerns about fair application). Is not murder that much more calamitous because of its permanent and irreparable consequences for the victim? Or is legal execution that much more terrible because of its permanence? And, as Sweeney said, even Hitler just died – there is no guarantee that the universe will provide any more justice than we are able to.

If we believe in this life, we need to make the most of it, and we should help others make the most of theirs. We deeply value our limited experiences, we value our time with the people we love, we cherish our opportunities that much more dearly – to quote the Book of Hamilton, we are not throwin’ away our…shot. Carpe diem – seize the day, or at least seize the fish if you want any lox at the Rosh Hashana oneg. Human self-fulfillment, self-actualization, independence, dignity, self-awareness – all the more crucial in the century or less we have allotted to us. Saving lives and reducing deaths is vitally important – “whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world.” And improving lives, deepening the quality and not just the quantity of life, becomes even more important as we focus our energies on this life. People will disagree over when life begins or what is ethical to do or not do as we near the end. Whether we believe that every person is in the divine image or simply in our own image, each person deserves dignity and respect and freedom and life in THIS life.

What if lives are in conflict, or it seems that all lives are not treated equally? Rather than ask which life matters, I am now asking “which LIVES matter”? In a direct conflict, self-preservation is entirely reasonable and appropriate. In rabbinic law, and thus in historic Jewish culture, if someone is trying to kill you or to kill someone else, you are justified in killing the rodef, the pursuer. What if you are in a city under siege, and the attacking army demands a specific person to spare the city? What do you do? The rabbinic answer is that if they demand someone specific, you are allowed to surrender that person to save everyone else; if they simply demand any Jew, then you should refuse rather than play god. What if someone threatens your life unless you kill a third person? There the rabbis said that you should submit to death rather than kill an innocent; in a marvelous turn of phrase, they ask, “whose blood is redder?” How can you decide that your life is worth more than the other person’s?

One of the most famous of the Ten Commandments is “thou shalt not kill.” However, the King James Bible was a translation of Hebrew to Latin to English, so something was lost in translation. The Bible is not shy about killing people. We saw on Rosh Hashana how Korah and his followers are wiped out to crush their rebellion against Moses and Aaron. The Hebrews are commanded to destroy entire Canaanite cities, and there are many sins punishable by death, from cross-dressing to adultery. A stubborn and rebellious child is to be stoned to death – well, that one might come in handy. What the commandment “thou shalt not kill” REALLY says is lo tirtzakh, do not MURDER. Jewish laws accepted justified killing, from war to judicial execution. What was forbidden was illegal killing. There was even a provision for accidental manslaughter (Deuteronomy 19:5):

A man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the ax head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of the sanctuary cities and save his life.

As with any laws this old, there are blind spots – Exodus 21, right after the 10 commandments, says that if a man beats his slave and the slave dies, the owner will be punished, but unlike, say, gathering sticks on Shabbat, it does not say that the owner will be killed. An eye for an eye and a life for a life, but not if the person killed was not a full person – evidently, their life mattered, but it mattered less. The awesome, permanent, irreparable action of ending a life was not applied evenly in the ancient world.

What if our connections to family, ethnicity, nation are elevated at the expense of others? Hurricane Matthew killed two dozen people in the United States – it killed 1000 in Haiti. We have our concentric circles of loyalty – family, community, ethnicity and culture, political nation, and ultimately  humanity. There are inevitably times when the circles closer to us take precedence over those further away – no one condemns feeding your own children. But where is the line? In Philip Roth’s short story “The Conversion of the Jews”, a Hebrew school student keeps getting in trouble.

What Ozzie wanted to know was always different. The first time he had wanted to know how Rabbi Binder could call the Jews “The Chosen People” if the Declaration of Independence claimed all men to be created equal. Rabbi Binder tried to distinguish for him between political equality and spiritual legitimacy, but what Ozzie wanted to know, he insisted vehemently, was different. That was the first time his mother had to come.

Then there was the plane crash. Fifty-eight people had been killed in a plane crash at La Guardia, and in studying a casualty list in the newspaper his mother had discovered among the list of those dead eight Jewish names (his grandmother had nine but she counted Miller as a Jewish name); because of the eight she said the plane crash was “a tragedy.” During free-discussion time on Wednesday Ozzie had brought to Rabbi Binder’s attention this matter of “some of his relations” always picking out the Jewish names. Rabbi Binder had begun to explain cultural unity and some other things when Ozzie stood up at his seat and said that what he wanted to know was different. Rabbi Binder insisted that he sit down and it was then that Ozzie shouted that he wished all fifty-eight were Jews. That was the second time his mother came.

Why does Ozzie wish all 58 dead were Jews? Because he wanted more Jews to die? No. He wanted their deaths to be mourned the same! “Whose blood is redder?”

We are not only universalists. We also have group loyalties and attachments – to our families, to the Jewish people, to our country. It is not evil to note the names like ours on a casualty list, or to want the best for our nation. It is not wrong to draw attention to anti-Semitic harassment and hatred of our people for who they are, be it from right-wing nationalists or from left-wing internationalists. We have no trouble saying “Jewish lives matter,” drawing attention to Jewish genetic diseases, supporting Jewish communities and causes, mourning the loss of our relatives near and far, defending our people against irrational prejudice on the rise. It is harder to hear, harder to really hear and understand, the painful experiences of others. And it might be easier to risk the lives of others than it is to change a situation that worked out OK for us and ours. If we believe that “this life matters,” and we can say “Jewish lives matter,” then we should be able to say “Black Lives Matter.” In truth, EACH life matters, in all of their diverse experiences and challenges.

Like everything else, we will not agree on everything. In addition to its problematic passage accusing Israel of genocide, I am not an anti-capitalist, as the Movement for Black Lives platform would have me be. But this summer I saw articles on conservative websites like RedState, the Daily Caller, and the National Review ALL looking for common ground. The concrete recommendations of Campaign Zero, like independent investigations, better de-escalation training, addressing police union contracts, and body cameras are not left or right, black or white, north side or south side issues. A recent study on new body cameras in England found that complaints against police were reduced by up to 90% – both the police and the public behaved better knowing they were on camera and might be accountable. Shades of our Torah reading (Numbers 14) where fear of shame improved even divine behavior. Just as feminism improved the world for men too, so can addressing the concerns of other groups lift all boats. If the consequence could be the end of a life, destroying an entire world, then we have to do better.

Yom Kippur is a time of forgiveness; ending a life is often described as an unforgivable crime – you are allowed and even encouraged to forgive a wrong done to you, but you cannot forgive a wrong done to someone else on their behalf. This makes atonement and forgiveness that much harder – I have to confront the very person I wronged and do my best to make it right with them, in person, to their face. And they have to see me again, and push themselves to accept my apology, and find a way to move forward. If you have killed someone, ended this life for them, they cannot forgive you, and you cannot present yourself to them for forgiveness. You can reach out to their family, to their community, but there is nothing you can do to bring them back. They are gone. If we believe that this life matters, how much more important, then, to reconcile the differences we can and then be able to move forward with the rest of the time we have left.

We are not the first to grapple with the challenges of believing in this life alone. The Greek philosopher Epicurus believed that when we die, the atoms disperse and we are no more. He famously wrote that because the end of life is really the end,

death is nothing to us, which makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life a limitless time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for those who thoroughly understand that there are no terrors in ceasing to live. ..when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not.

An easier version comes from a modern source, the movie The Shawshank Redemption. “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

Believing in this life is not a death sentence, or even a life sentenceit is an invitation to live your life, and to make it possible for others to live their lives. And we all should live as deeply and as meaningfully as possible. Which life matters? This one. Whose lives matter? Yours and mine, theirs and ours, each of us an entire world to destroy or to save. L’chayim, to life!


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