“We’re Number One!” – Yom Kippur 5778/2017

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.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.

Why do I invite everyone to stand as we take our Torah from the ark? There are many Torah passages that are objectionable to modern values – we heard one last night, where Pinhas the priest kills an Israelite and his Midianite lover for violating a holy space and crossing ethnic boundaries. Death penalties for blasphemy, for same-sex relations, for gathering sticks on the Sabbath – if someone proposed these as laws in Illinois, we would not stand for them. Yet we DO stand for them here! The reason I invite you to stand is because for us the Torah symbolizes the beginning of Jewish wisdom, even if we have moved beyond that beginning. The original Constitution accepted slavery and most states allowed only white men with property to vote, but we can still respect what the Constitution represents. The reason I invite you rather than tell you isRunning Man that for you the negative may outweigh the positive. So if a group stands for a shared symbol, and you choose to stay seated, or to take a knee, that is always your choice and your right. Because the group is not always right, and you are always you.

Groups, communities, tribes are defined by languages and symbols – do you understand the in-jokes? Do you celebrate what we celebrate and reject what we reject? Do we boo the same villains and cheer the same heroes? Woe be those who reject the symbols, who challenge the group’s authority, who break the boundaries and are willing to see the other side. Woe to those who, once in a while, are able to admit that, maybe, we are not always “Number one”.

This High Holidays, we have imagined how language can change the world. The very beginning of the Jewish creation myth proclaims the power of language – god says “let there be”, and there is; Adam names the creatures as a sign of his rule; the snake’s words start humanity down the road to knowledge and death. What would happen, we have asked, if we refuse to accept concepts like “Post-Truth” “Judaism Says” or “Bad Jew”? Today, as we turn the corner towards the close of Yom Kippur and the real beginning of our new year, we face the challenge at the heart of any “we” – the temptation to proclaim, “We’re Number One!” Are the Olympics about the nobility of athletic competition, or about tribal bragging rights, a chance to chant U-S-A, U-S-A! For if WE are number one, are others lower, lesser, even “losers”? If the only way to feel good about ourselves is to make others feel worse, maybe better not to play the game at all.

I once wrote about how sports and religion are intertwined – and not just because of the athletes’ religiosity or the obligatory news stories about churches praying for a win. There are two sides to the question. First, have sports become a religion? Sports have their “shrines” and their “meccas”, and devotees make regular pilgrimage. There are team rituals and curses, and even occasional exorcisms – remember blowing up the Bartman Ball? And, some will argue, it worked! Players and fans are superstitious, thanking god for successes but almost never blaming god for failures – just like in religion. Fans watching games thousands of miles away yell at the screen as if their words will be heard and the ball will be caught or dropped or “get in the hole!” When else do people send words out into the universe and hope they have a positive impact? And pity the heretics who do not stand, do not uncover their heads, do not place their hands on their hearts for the collective ritual. The best players seek immortality in the pantheon (hear “theos,” god, there) of a Hall of Fame, which collects the holy relics stained by the sweat and blood of the martyrs. Before last year, the connection was even stronger between Judaism and Chicago Cubs fandom, both with many years of suffering and longing, but I think we will find that Cubs fans, like Jews after reclaiming their “Promised Land”, will have a similar response: what can we complain about now? We have evolved from being the Chosen People to being the Choosy People.

You could look at it the other way: is religion a sport? Participating in a religious community makes you feel like you are on an important team, wearing special clothing to feel part of the group. If you believe you are the elect, the saving remnant, the chosen people, is that another version of chanting “We’re Number One!”? Two fans of the same team smile at each other as they cross paths, just as two cross-wearing Christians or kippah-wearing Jews might do. The collective feeling in an arena parallels that in a mega-church – 10,000 people “rooting” for the same thing, sharing the same goals. In fact, Joel Osteen’s megachurch used to be the home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets! And the best clergy are those who perform at the biggest events: High Holidays are rabbinic “prime time,” as Easter and Christmas are the Christian “Super Bowl.” Is calling “T’kiah” for the shofar that different from “Play Ball!”?

The truth is that religion is not a sport and sport is not a religion – they are similar because BOTH sports and religion, and patriotism for that matter, are group activities. They are tribes, and human tribalism is very deeply rooted in our evolution. Our first several thousand years as homo sapiens were in small and mostly homogenous groups – group loyalty and fear of the outsider are much more natural than the relatively new idea of “universal humanity.” In theory groups can respect differences, learn from each other, create alliances, find ways to live and be productive together. And that has happened from time to time. As we know all too well, groups can also insist on absolute loyalty and the denigration of other groups. Keep in mind a simple equation: “We’re Number One” = we are supreme = supremacist. We know the violent extremes supremacists can reach when trying to put the lesser “in their place” – we Jews have been on the receiving end of “we’re number one and you’re not” plenty of times. Sometimes wearing the team emblem was to mark you as different – the yellow star was part of a long history of marking Jews as different, other, and lesser.

To be fair, we Jews have also said that WE are number one, even if historically we lacked the power to act on it. Traditional Judaism repeatedly and strongly claims the Jews are the “chosen people” – Deuteronomy 26: “God has declared today that you are a people for his own possession, as he has promised you, and that you should keep all his commandments. He will make you high above all nations that he has made, in praise, in name, and in honor; and that you may be a holy people to your God, as he has spoken.” Or consider the Aleinu prayer, written at least 1500 years ago for a Rosh Hashana service and now part of daily prayers:

It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to ascribe greatness to the Molder of primeval creation, for He has not made us like the nations of the lands and has not emplaced us like the families of the earth; for He has not assigned our portion like theirs nor our lot like all their multitudes.

For they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a g-d which helps not.

But we bend our knees, bow, and are grateful before the King Who reigns over kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He. . . .He is our G-d and there is none other.

We are right, and they are all wrong. We’re number one because we worship the one and only, and they can’t even count that high. Many prayerbooks today, from Reform to Orthodox, omit the most offensive line – “they pray to a god who is useless.” But the chosenness is still there, “we are not like them,” and it’s embedded in many prayers and blessings – OUR god, who chose US to give us his Torah, who gave US commandments, who loves us and is jealous of us and who organizes history around whether we follow his rules.

Today’s liberal Judaisms in multicultural democracies know how offensive the claim “we’re number one” is when we are one of many groups. They have tried to reframe it – they may print the Aleinu prayer in Hebrew but have a nicer English translation, they may say we were chosen not for special status but for a mission: to spread ethical monotheism or knowledge of the true god. My response is: if being chosen always meant that we had a mission, where were our missionaries? Why did we reject potential converts three times to prove their devotion? Why keep our scripture in its original language centuries after Hebrew was no longer spoken? Let’s be honest: it’s tempting to be “the chosen people”, just like we enjoy chanting “we’re number one” at a sporting event. Have you ever noticed people saying “We won,” but “they lost”? We love being part of the winning team, being special, being uniquely unique, even if it also means special attention, special criticism, special challenges. Being the Chosen People also meant that we believed our suffering was our own fault – if only we had better followed the rules, we would have been protected. At the same time, maybe there WAS a survival value in the medieval Jewish experience – why else would you have stayed Jewish through expulsion and pogrom except for a belief in your group’s superiority?

The $64,000 question (in 1955, which today would be the $578,000 question), the big question is – CAN we stay Jewish today WITHOUT saying “We’re Number One”? Does every group have to have something superlative about it to have meaning, relevance, an impact on its members? Must we define ourselves not only by who we are, but also by those we are better than? Recall the story about the Jewish man saved from a desert island. He had built two synagogues: his own, and one he would not set foot in. Our group, our congregation is open, our sense of Jewishness is non-exclusive – for us you can be Jewish AND, not just Jewish OR. We accept that we have many group identities, and they can’t all be number one all the time. We celebrate marriages to wonderful people outside the group, and we do not demand conformity of dress or diet or fasting or faith. Yet we are still our own group, our community, and we still feel connected to the larger group of the wider Jewish family, even if we disagree with some of them.

Here’s where I believe we need a balance among three values, all of which are important, and all of which work for the individual AND the group. Pride, Honesty, and Humility.

Pride: I am allowed to be proud of who I am, proud of what I do, proud of what I have learned and the good impact I have on the world around me. Likewise, the Jewish people may be proud of the good values they have expressed through their culture, good deeds done by Jews for each other and for others in the past and today, and Jewish culture’s capacity to grow and improve. Pride is needed.

Honesty: I need to have the courage to evaluate myself honestly, to see where I fell short, to understand where I need to improve, to make good where I caused harm. Likewise, we need to understand Jewish life with clear eyes: yes, we have been the victims of intolerance and oppression; and we have also been intolerant. We have housecleaning to do on our own, regardless of what others do. If we criticize certain behavior in others, we should be willing to do the same for ourselves. Honesty is needed.

Humility: I understand that it is not always about me, sometimes the best think I can do is listen and learn, sometimes my concerns are less important. Jews are only 2% of the United States population, and .2% of the world’s population. The world does not revolve around us, and sometimes our needs may be less pressing than those of others. And we are not the best at everything. Humility is needed too.

All three of these are important –we need pride in our group to maintain positive connections, not just guilt or inertia; we need honesty to have a clear sense of our impact on others; and we need humility to not insist on always being Number One. Over the many, many years I was in school, I always preferred grading that prized personal improvement or absolute knowledge over class ranking. I had no need to be number one – I wanted to learn more, to get better, for myself and not for anyone else. And that’s how I understand my Jewishness at its highest – something that brings value and depth and wisdom to my life, independent of its relative position in the world of human culture. Is being part of the Jewish family THE BEST possible way for me to be a good person? Is it THE BEST possible way for me to raise a family, to be loving, to have dignity, to feel fulfilled as a human being? No one has ever conducted a double-blind study, putting the SAME individual through Jewish and Baha’i and Korean Presbyterian and atheist communist upbringings to see which culture meshes the best with ME. Each cultural possibility has some value and some shortcomings, and some might find that another option, or an element from another experience, is a better fit than how they were raised. But there is no objective scale to determine which culture, which religious tradition, which identity is “number one”. You do not have to be “number one” to be good.

After all, the core message of Yom Kippur is “nobody’s perfect”, no one person is “number one” all the time. We all make mistakes, we all fall short of our own expectations and the commitments we make to others. We hurt people on purpose or by accident, and relationships are hard work. The rabbis imagined a book of life, a decision point when our good deeds and our failures would be weighed in the balance, and it would be judged whether we would be alive for the next new year or die sometime in the year just begun. Pass or fail, live or die. But real life is more complicated, real life is more real than books in the sky.

Many of you know that my father died just before Rosh Hashana began. I rushed to Michigan see him two days before our first service. I loved my father, but our relationship was complicated, as all of us are complicated. Sitting at his bedside, I told him, whether he could hear it or not, that we do not love saints. We love real people. He was not the world’s number one dad, and no one is. He was a good father in his way, with his successes and his challenges, and I loved him for who he was. He is the only father I will ever have, and when his yahrtzeit [death anniversary] comes around next Rosh Hashana, just as when we take the Torah from the Ark, I will stand for his memory. In the perspective of history, George Washington, the father of our country, might not have been the best President – as a slaveowner, he was certainly not the best person. But he was still “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”. And that’s where it really counts.

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“Bad Jews” – Yom Kippur 5778/2017

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.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.

I like statistics. I especially like statistics about what people are doing or not doing. And I LOVE statistics about what the American Jewish community is doing or not doing. I just wish they would show the numbers backwards. Most questions are from the traditional Jewish perspective: do you light Shabbat candles? Do you keep kosher? Did you fast on Yom Kippur? Did you light Hanukkah candles? And the traditional Jewish establishment is scandalized by the “shocking” resultsonly 23% always or usually light Shabbat candles, only 22% keep kosher at home (and who knows what they eat out), while 53% fasted for at least part of Yom Kippur and 70% lit Hanukkah candles. The American Jewish reality is that the majority practice is to be a cultural Jew, or even a part-time Jew – Hanukkah is just a few nights a year, and you can do it on your own at home. Yom Kippur fasting is a personal choice. But Shabbat is every week, kosher is every day, and they limit your ability to connect with your neighbors, to enjoy the wider world of American life, to have the personal freedom to do what you want when you want. What if the statistics were presented backwards: only 30% of Jews DID NOT light Hanukkah candles; over ¾ of American Jews do not keep kosher. And Yom Kippur fasting is a coin toss – as many do not fast as do. Presenting the statistics that way might make us, the majority living as cultural Jews, feel like the norm. But that would also mean leaving behind a venerable Jewish tradition – the concept of “Bad Jew.”

This High Holidays, we are exploring the need to strike certain phrases from our vocabulary. On Rosh Hashana, we asserted the value of pursuing truth against the dangerous concept of “post-truth.” And we explored how “Judaism says” is less accurate and meaningful than “MY Judaism says” – “My Judaism says” means we celebrate what WE find meaningful in our tradition, without assuming that all of Judaism agrees with us. What would happen if we left behind the idea of there being “bad Jews?” After all, “bad Jew” is not just an accusation that other people throw at us; it is a label we sometimes use on ourselves.

There is a long Jewish history of the “bad Jew” accusation. In the Torah, Korah the Levite challenges Moses by asking why only priests get to contact god when “all the community is holy” – Korah and his followers are then swallowed by an earthquake. We saw in our Torah reading what Pinchas did to a REALLY bad Jew, impaling him and his Midianite lover with a spear. In the books of the prophets, Israelite kings are condemned for worshipping many gods and for oppressing the poor – the famous passage in Isaiah 58 traditionally read on Yom Kippur asks, “is THIS the fast I have chosen, to afflict your souls, or rather to do justice and end oppression?” In other words, “you’re doing it wrong!” When Ezra the priest returned from Babylonian Exile, he commanded all Hebrews who had stayed in the land and married local women to send away their wives and children – an intermarriage ethnic cleansing, but also a mass accusation of having been “bad Jews.” The Maccabees fought the Greeks, but the Maccabees also fought Jews who liked Greek culture and sought a middle ground. Medieval Rabbis establishing the authority of the Talmud broke with those who wanted to only follow the Bible’s laws and called themselves Karaites. Maimonides’ rational philosophy was burned by some Jews, and Jewish mystical texts were forbidden by others. In the 19th century, Jewish mystics called Hasidim battled Jewish legalists called Mitnagdim, and they both battled Jewish enlighteners, the Maskilim. There was name calling, rejection, family splits, even excommunication in all directions.

So when we learn in our days that the Israeli chief rabbinate keeps a blacklist of Diaspora rabbis whose conversions are not recognized (alas, I did not make the list, something to aspire to), or the Israeli government backtracks on a compromise to create an egalitarian prayer space near the Western Wall because mixed-gender Judaism isn’t “authentic” enough for Orthodox political parties, we should not be surprised. The accusation of “Bad Jews” is a deeply rooted Jewish tradition. There’s a reason we laugh at this story: The Yeshiva University rowing team has lost every crew meet, so they send their captain to watch the Harvard and Yale crew teams compete. He returns and says “Guys, we have it all wrong. We need EIGHT people rowing and ONE person yelling.”

Am I a “bad Jew”? I have a PhD in Near Eastern Studies, concentrating in Hebrew and Jewish Cultural Studies. I have worked as a Jewish professional my entire career, including 16 years as a rabbi. I am competent in Hebrew and Yiddish, I have traveled to Israel 8 times, and I have read more Jewish history books than anyone really should. I have been actively involved in synagogues my entire life, I married a Jewish woman and we had Jewish children who are being raised Jewish, and by the time I retire I will have been attending Sunday School for 65 years. My last name is pronounced “Shalom.” But to some Jewish people, I’m a “bad Jew.” In high school, I went out for dinner with some friends to Denny’s (yes, Yom Kippur is the season of confession), and there I ordered a club sandwich complete with bacon. A friend asked me, “aren’t you thinking of becoming a rabbi?” I said, “my dietary laws are easy: bacon tastes good, pork chops taste good.”

In college, I was asked, if I was planning to be a rabbi, why didn’t I go to Shabbat dinners at Hillel. That term, I was taking multiple classes in Religious Studies, including Hebrew 5 days a week, I worked for the Judaica Curator at the Yale University Library, and I was taking weekend seminars with the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in their Madrikh/Leader program. But that didn’t match the metric of “good Jew” – kosher Shabbat dinner at Hillel, that’s what counted.

I hear this from couples I marry, especially if they are marrying someone who is not Jewish – they’ll confess to me: “I’m not really a good Jew, I haven’t been to synagogue in a long time…” I always ask them – do you celebrate Hanukkah? “Of course!” Do you enjoy Passover? “Every year!” Do you like Jewish food, whatever that means for you? “Sure!” Well, those count too! Think about what it means to define yourself as a “bad Jew” – it means that being Jewish is what you DO NOT do, it’s where you fail! Being Jewish is who you are, but it’s the opposite of how you live. Part of the revolution of Humanistic Judaism is to say that Judaism is NOT limited to religious beliefs which many Jews do not believe, or prayers most Jews do not recite, or dietary laws most Jews ignore. OUR Judaism is built on the Jewish connections we DO celebrate: holidays and life cycle ceremonies and cultural literacy and family heritage and food and language and history and all the rest. When our movement of Humanistic Judaism began, there were many discussions of what to call ourselves. We knew that we were not “Judaism minus” – something traditional-ish that was allergic to certain topics and words. We settled on “Humanistic” because it was a positive statement of what we believed in: human potential, human power, human responsibility, human needs, human happiness. We wanted to be stronger than “Reform Reform”, or “very reform” –– calling yourself “very reform” means you are admitting you are not even good at being a Reform Jew!

What does it take to be called a “bad Jew”? It could be what you believe or don’t believe. It could be what you eat. It could be who you married. It could be how you chose to raise your children. “Bad Jews” don’t give to the right charitable causes, support the right side of controversial issues, or vote their self-interest correctly. Bad Jews think about themselves as individuals, they explore their values in the wider human context, rather than being Jews first and foremost and always. My teacher Sherwin Wine once pointed out that the collectivist approach asks, “What have you done for Judaism today;” the modern individualist has the chutzpah to ask, “What has Judaism done for ME?” There IS an irony when one Jew accuses another of being a “self-hating Jew” – the person MAKING the accusation obviously does not like certain Jews, and says so! This issue of calling someone a “bad Jew” is entirely separate from calling someone a bad person, or saying they are doing bad things. But telling someone they are bad at being who they are is something different entirely.

It seems like the wider world has also gotten into the business of defining good Jews and bad Jews. Bibi Netanyahu’s son posted a meme on Facebook criticizing left-wing Jews and George Soros, and he was applauded by David Duke! The idea that white supremacists could support Israel seems laughable, but they see a model for their goal of ethnic purity in the Israeli far-right. An impeccable scholar from UCLA was appointed head of the Center for Jewish History, and a slander campaign was started immediately to demand his withdrawal for having the audacity to believe in two states for two peoples and to support organizations that do the same. For these people, you become a bad Jew by being “anti-Israel;” and “anti-what-I-want-for Israel” means “anti-Israel.” The accusation of being a “bad Jew” also appears on the other end of the political spectrum. Remember the Chicago Dyke March that banned marching with a rainbow Jewish star flag because it was too similar to the Israeli flag? For that organization there are also good Jews (those who are clearly anti-zionist) and bad Jews (everyone to the right of the good ones, including plenty of people who consider themselves progressive, particularly on LGBTQ issues). The metric for “bad Jew” can be belief, or marriage partner, or what community you join IF you even join one, or your take on Israel. Or all of the above, the more you want to call others “bad Jews.”

Of course, WE are among the worst of the “bad Jews” – we refuse to feel guilty about our choices, we encourage others to join us – and we’re even growing our own! The origin of the Greek word “heresy” is the term “haresia,” which means “choice”. Early secular Jews sometimes described what they did as yahadut khofsheet – free Judaism – and individual choice is a very important part of our approach. The truth is that EVERYONE makes choices from what can be Jewishly meaningful – we read less Talmud and more modern Jewish poetry and prose, while others read Torah and Talmud and somehow never get to Yehuda Amichai and Marcia Falk. Old is not necessarily better than new if the yardstick is what resonates with us, today. If we accept the idea of Jewish flavors we described on Rosh Hashana, it’s not worth arguing over which flavor of ice cream or which flavor of Judaism is the best flavor, or the original flavor, or the ONLY flavor for all Jews. Imagine how boring a world with only one flavor would be!

And let’s be honest, this is how much of the Jewish world, particularly ordinary every day Jews, live their Jewish lives. I would estimate that 70% of the Jewish world is living Jewish pluralism. I am on the Chicago Board of Rabbis, whose members range from secular humanistic to liberal religious to Modern Orthodox. We focus on similar questions from a shared cultural background, even if we do not agree on the answers. Belief and practice in more liberal Judaisms accept that we have partial human knowledge, and therefore our philosophy allows different people, even different communities to live their Judaism differently. In real life we on the Chicago Board of Rabbis and you in your everyday lives relating to friends, neighbors and relatives, we live together and eat together, and we learn together and from each other. My colleagues refer weddings to me, and I to them, and we recognize each other as rabbis. 70% live pluralism, where variety is the spice of Jewish life. They may say the words “bad Jew”, but most ordinary Jews would attend your child’s Humanistic Bar Mitzvah, go to your grandchild’s wedding no matter whom they were marrying, or attend your memorial service even if you chose cremation.

However, 30% of the Jewish world is living not pluralism but plurality – where they know there are other options, but the other options are unacceptable. There is a second Rabbinic association in Chicago, the Chicago Rabbinical Council, which is only Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. A few Modern Orthodox rabbis go to both groups, but the reason there is are two groups is because many Orthodox rabbis will not accept women rabbis, Reform rabbis, and certainly not heretical Humanistic rabbis! Their belief and practice of The Torah is from heaven, from Moses on Sinai, an eternal covenant universally binding, means they cannot accept our flavors of Judaism as valid, or learn from us, or easily marry us. To them, our flavor of Judaism is trayfe, forbidden, not a Jewish flavor they can accept.

We share the same history, whether or not we agree on what happened or what it means. We share the same literature, whether or not we agree on who wrote it and when or what it means. We share the same family story, whether we recognize it or not. It is not that_tree_10only a question of who Hitler would have persecuted and killed; it is a matter of how you see your family tree. Are there many branches, grafts and cross-pollinations from other sources, bearing fruit in all directions? Or is your tree one trunk with a straight line, and errant branches must be pruned away?

Just as with our other forbidden phrases, we need to work on ourselves first. If we want to eliminate the epithet “bad Jews,” there are 3 steps to take. First, we need to not use it on ourselves, which means improving our Jewish self-esteem. Second, we need to challenge others who use it, pointing out that everyone chooses and you can’t argue about taste. And third, we need to eliminate it from OUR OWN vocabulary. How often do WE smirk at the “Jewish hypocrisy” of others who keep kosher in the home but not out, or at pious Jews arrested for Medicaid fraud? Yes, I do remember my side comment earlier about whether the 22% who keep kosher at home do the same eating out – did you hear that as expanding the social science understanding of the survey, or did you hear that as a dig, as secular Jewish revenge, as a clever way of calling THEM “bad Jews”? One of the oldest retorts in the book is “I know you are but what am I?” If someone calls us “bad Jews,” the answer is not to point out their Jewish faults; it is to change the conversation. Here’s how I do Jewish, what do you find meaningful in our shared culture and history?

I want to conclude with the last two stanzas of Yehuda Amichai’s beautiful poem “The Jews”. The poem speaks of Jewish diversity, and change, and continuity, and disagreement, and to quote my Israeli colleague Rabbi Sivan Maas, Jewish unity without Jewish uniformity.

Some time ago, I met a beautiful woman
Whose grandfather performed my circumcision
Long before she was born. I told her,
You don’t know me and I don’t know you
But we are the Jewish people,
Your dead grandfather and I the circumcised and you the beautiful granddaughter
With golden hair: we are the Jewish people.

And what about God? Once we sang
“There is no God like ours,” now we sing, “There is no God of ours”
But we sing. We still sing.

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“Judaism Says” – Rosh Hashana 5778/2017

This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2017/5778 as part of a series entitled “Forbidden Phrases for the New Year.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.

What is American food? Is American food New Orleans Creole? Pizza? TexMex? Hamburgers and hot dogs? Fried Chicken and grits? A California Sushi Roll? These are ALL American food, even though they are very different from each other. What is Jewish food? My father’s family comes from Syria, and their Middle Eastern Jewish food includes mujadra and idje b’adunes and kibbeh, using spices like turmeric and cumin; it looks and taste nothing like bagels or kugel. For Hanukkah, East European Jews eat potato pancakes, Sephardic Jews eat jelly donuts. My father’s family made Passover haroset with dates; my mother’s family made theirs with apples. Same holiday, same root culture, different tastes. We know that Jewish people are individualistic, and questioning – 2 Jews, three opinions. Why do people assume that there is ONE Judaism?

This High Holidays, we are trying to improve the world one phrase at a time. We do not demand that everyone follow our speech code; we are raising the bar for ourselves. Last night we saw that “post-truth” is not a reality to accept passively; it is a challenge to confront – to know when multiple truths are possible, and to resist when there are right and wrong facts. All those facts are to the best of our knowledge, based on available evidence. But 99% certain is pretty certain.

To the best of MY knowledge, there is NOTHING that ALL Jews believe. All Jews can’t even agree on who COUNTS for “all Jews”! If you ever hear categorical statements like “Jews believe_____” or “Jewish tradition demands_____” or simply “Judaism says_____,” this an educational opportunity. Which Jews? Which Jewish tradition? When and where? Jewish people have been polytheists, monotheists, Buddhists and Secular Humanists. In the Bible, the father determined whether a child would be Jewish; in rabbinic Judaism, it’s the mother; in Israel’s law of return, one grandparent or even a Jewish spouse is enough to be admitted to the Jewish state, though not enough to be officially Jewish for the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Some Jews have believed in reincarnation, other Jews have believed resurrection and in a world to come, still others believed in a Hades-like underworld and today many Jews believe that this life is the only life we get. Groups an anthropologist would call “Judaism” can be male chauvinist or egalitarian, isolationist or integrationist, Jewish supremacist or universalist. This very room represents a great diversity of Jewish opinion, Jewish ritual practice, and Jewish experience, including supportive family members who themselves are not Jewish. And we are no more than one degree of separation from religious West Bank settlers, ex-Jews who have rejected any kind of Jewish identity, and every variety of Jew, Jewish, or Jew-ish among our immediate family and friends.

This diversity is not news to anyone paying attention to Jewish life. So why DO people keep saying “Judaism says”? Perhaps it is simply not knowing any different – they have always been taught that Judaism says X, so that’s what they repeat. Sometimes there are dominant ideas among Jews today, or at least the Jews they have experienced, so they extrapolate from “all the Jews I know” to Judaism as a whole and for all time. “Judaism Says” is also a claim to authority, in effect saying, “Do what I say Judaism says”. At the same time, there is a temptation to claim that your religious and cultural tradition endorses your personal choices. It’s avoiding cognitive dissonance – I am Jewish and happy to be Jewish, and I have my values, and I may not want to admit that sometimes my Jewish inheritance conflicts with my values. Whether it has to do with intermarriage or homosexuality or transgender identity, Judaism is a long and rich creative tradition. You can find just about any episode or one-off statement that is more open, even if the dominant trend is rejection. The rejectionist cannot say unambiguously “Judaism says to reject you,” but the progressive also cannot say, “Judaism is always welcoming and accepting.” For a wedding I recently officiated, the groom used his great-grandfather’s ceremonial Kiddush cup. In the email his mother sent him, which he forwarded to me, she told the story of the cup and wrote, “He would be so proud of you.” I thought to myself, “This wedding is co-officiated with a Catholic Priest, and the bride is a very blonde woman of Lithuanian background who herself teaches in a Catholic school. I’m not sure the great-grandfather’s reaction would have been ‘pride.’” We like to highlight our positive inheritance, but sometimes we have to acknowledge differences between then and now.

This honesty applies beyond Judaism, of course. One may appreciate the courage of a Civil War ancestor who fought to defend his home state against the Yankees, but the Confederacy was also dedicated to brutal slavery – the Mississippi declaration of secession says explicitly “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery;” Texas’ declaration makes the racism explicit:

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

Whatever flag became the flag of that cause, cannot be my flag. Whoever fought for that cause may have fought bravely, and is IN my history, but he cannot be my hero. History is also complicated for Yankees – before Philip Sheridan was an army base or a Metra stop, Sheridan was a Civil War Hero in the US Army. He then went on to “pacify” the Plains Indians by encouraging the slaughter of 4 million bison to starve them out, supposedly saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” American values are the Declaration of Independence, and Native American expulsion and genocide, and separation of religion and government, and racism and slavery. They are all as American as Apple Pie; they are all what “America says.”

Honestly, even Judaism itself doesn’t claim “Judaism Says”! In the Bible, who speaks for Judaism – the kings of Israel, or the prophets who criticize them? When rabbis interpreted the Bible, they would say “shivim panim la-torah – there are 70 faces of Torah” and “davar akher – another interpretation” as they gave multiple understandings of the same Bible verse. The Mishnah and Talmud, attempts to collect and clarify Jewish law, preserve the debate of the rabbinic academy, like a minority opinion of the US Supreme Court in one era can become the majority opinion in future generations. The standard Talmud page includes voices from many centuries arranged around each other and arguing “If I had been there, I would have said…” In the 16th century, a Sephardic Rabbi in the land of Israel wrote a code of Jewish law to define exactly what to do without all the arguing, called the Shulkhan Arukh “the Set Table.” Then an Ashkenazi rabbi in Poland wrote a commentary to the Set Table to explain how European Jews did things differently – his work was “the tablecloth”. And all of this disagreement is centuries before the explosion of Jewish varieties that began 200 years ago. Judaism says? Which Judaism? Which Jews?

We sometimes hear that what unites Jews are 3 pillars: god, Torah Israel. I find that nothing DIVIDES the Jews as much as God, Torah and Israel! Judaism says you should believe in one god. Or was it many Gods – the Noah story mentions sons of God hooking up with daughters of men, and even the 10 commandments says “you will have no other gods before me” – there may be other gods, but they have to sit in the back of the bus. Or maybe you re-define your one god to fit the space you have left after science: medieval rabbi Maimonides accepted so much Aristotle that his God lost his mighty hand, his outstretched arm, his jealousy, and his love. Modern rabbi Harold Kushner, writing after the Holocaust and his own personal tragedy of a child dying young, could no longer believe in a god who could have helped but did not, so Kushner’s god cheers from the sidelines but cannot intervene on the field except through human beings. Those who want to motivate Jewish social action from a liberal religious perspective believe in a partner god, who works with the Jewish people and all people for good rather than commanding the Jews, choosing the Jews, or judging the Jews. And some Jews have concluded that in the absence of divine intervention, we needed to solve our problems ourselves – the Jewish socialists and Zionists who said “fix it here! fix it now!” they were also giving Jewish answers to this question. Recall the famous story of a rabbi hearing both sides of an argument, and saying that each side is right. When an observer says, “They can’t both be right!” the rabbi responds, “You are also right.” All of these theologies cannot all be right, but they CAN all be Jewish. So don’t tell me the one message that “Judaism says” about a god.

What do we mean by “Torah”? Is it a specific law, the torah of burnt offerings? Is it the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah of Moses? Does Torah mean the entire Hebrew Bible, all Jewish writing that was supposedly revealed? Does it mean the so-called “Oral Torah” – Rabbinic interpretations that claim continuity with earlier sources? Is Torah any Jewish teaching even tangentially tied to the sources, since Torah and Morah/teacher share a Hebrew root? If every Jewish teaching is Torah, no matter how non-traditional, I’m not sure Torah means anything. Some terms are used so often for so many things they have lost all meaning: “vintage” “gourmet”, “artisanal” – what do they mean anymore? My point is not who is right or wrong with what they call “Torah”, my point is that there is no Jewish consensus on what Torah is. And this is before we argue about who wrote it and when and why and whether it still has authority over our lives!

And as for ISRAEL uniting the Jewish people…. need I say more? Who counts as part of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel? Depends which Jews you ask, and where – note that the American Reform movement’s decision to accept those with Jewish fathers as Jewish does not even apply to Reform Judaism in other countries! We in Secular Humanistic Judaism accept anyone as Jewish who identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jewish people, whatever their personal descent. If “Israel” means the modern state of Israel, today that is just as divisive. How should Israel balance its identities as both Jewish and democratic? What should its boundaries be, historic eretz yisrael, the land of Israel, or the modern medinat yisrael, the state of Israel with political realities? When should Israel be defended and when are its actions indefensible? And does Israel’s leadership support us as much as it wants our support? Is there one Jewish answer to ANY of these questions? Of course not! The organization If Not Now, which wants an immediate end to West Bank Occupation, proclaims that “Judaism tells us to love the stranger.” Religious Zionism swears that “Judaism decreed all of Judea and Samaria [aka The West Bank] to be the Promised Land, ours by divine decree and patriarchal history.” And Rabbis for Human Rights, which doesn’t CARE about borders as long as human rights are respected, declared that “Judaism says to love your neighbor as yourself and that we are all created in the same image.” We may disagree on which is politically, strategically, or morally right. Maybe they cannot all be right. But they are all what “Judaism says.”

There’s a more vital issue than trying to define or to impose what “Judaism says” – is anyone listening? Rabbi Joseph Hertz, past chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, once said, “Far more calamitous than religious differences in Jewry is religious indifference in Jewry.” The more people who insist that Judaism is what I say it is, and not what you think it could be, the fewer people will be left in the tent. We often list the “denominations” of Judaism in descending order of validity – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Miscellaneous (even though “Miscellaneous” is now the second largest group in American Judaism). Sometimes hear them described as “streams” of Judaism, as if they came from one common source. Maybe a better approach is to think of them as “flavors”.c700x420

Consider bagels: when I was growing up, there were 4 flavors of bagel – egg, plain, raisin, salt. Just like 50 years ago there were only 3 or 4 flavors of Judaism: Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, maybe Reconstructionist or secular Jewish alternatives. Today, you can go into a bagel store and see dozens of varieties: asiago cheese and spinach Florentine and blueberry and chocolate chip. Some people complain and say, “That’s not really a bagel, with blueberries!” Just as some complain that the varieties of modern Jewish identity “aren’t really Judaism.” But the more varieties of bagels, or Judaisms, the more people can enjoy them and find the one that best fits with them. In fact, so many people enjoy bagels today that we can ask whether a bagel is clearly a Jewish food any more. Bagels are Jewish food are if they have Jewish meaning to you. There are all kinds of Jewish food, all kinds of Jewish tastes and most important, you cannot argue about taste. Which flavor of Judaism tastes right to you? There are many Jewish recipes, from all over the world, influenced by all kinds of cultures. “Judaism Says” many things. A more productive approach is to take it personally – MY Judaism says. Your Judaism may be different, but it’s ALL in the family. As our former Hebrew Teacher, David Steiner (may his memory be a blessing) used to joke, “I have Maimonides and you have your Monides.”

Saying goodbye to “Judaism Says” is a first step towards a vibrant and diverse Jewish future. The next step, which we turn to on Yom Kippur, is to forbid another phrase we would never miss: “Bad Jew”. It’s not just a phrase others use to criticize us – we use it on ourselves. To hear more about eliminating “bad Jew,” you need to be a “good Jew” or a supportive family member and return Yom Kippur evening, or catch the rerun on the Kol Hadash Podcast.

We have a vital voice to add the chorus of what “Judaism says.” It’s important for the truth, but it’s also important for the Jewish future. I once met with a bride-to-be whose mother was not born Jewish but the bride had been raised Jewish, attended a Reform synagogue all the way through High School, and her mother even converted to Judaism while the daughter was still living at home. But at college, showing up at a Hillel, some “ethnic bouncer” told her that she wasn’t really Jewish. Their Judaism said that she was out. MY Judaism said to her, “I’m sorry for your experience, and welcome, and thank you for your persistence, and mazel tov!” Today my Judaism wishes all of you “L’shana Tova – a happy and healthy new year.”

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“Post-Truth” – Rosh Hashana 5778/2017

 This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2017/5778 as part of a series entitled “Forbidden Phrases for the New Year.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.


I do NOT like saying “I don’t know.” I knew I had found a good partner in life when my then-future wife figured out how to tell the difference between when I knew what I was talking about, and when I was taking my best guess. Sometimes the guess was right, sometimes not, but the correct answer should have been “I don’t know.” Of course, we were dating in the dark ages BSP – before smart phones. If, right now, I ask a factual question, like “Is the US still officially at war with North Korea” or “what year did Jews first arrive in North America,” can you resist the urge to reach for the truth, just a few thumb taps away? Or, at least, all the truth that’s fit to Google.

You see, there IS truth out there; not your truth or my truth or our truth or their truth or liberal or conservative truth or secular or religious truth. Some questions may not have truthy answers like the year Jews reached North America; some facts can be up for debate. But if we surrender ALL claim to ANY truth, if we accept every subjective reality as equally valid, we give up on something essential about being human. And for those who cannot take the uncertainty, Jews first arrived in North America in 1654. That fact, at least, is not “post-truth.”

This year’s High Holiday series is called “forbidden phrases;” the name is problematic – we value freedom of speech because we value freedom of thought, and you should be able to say what you think. In the United States, with limits for public safety like inciting violence or yelling fire in a crowded Rosh Hashana service, we CAN say what we want. But free speech does not mean consequence-free speech. If you proclaim yourself a Nazi, I can condemn you, I can boycott you, in an at-will employment state like Illinois you can be fired, I can even put a thumbs down rating on your YouTube video. Free speech is not consequence-free speech, and that means I need to do more than just say what I think; I need to think about what I say and the impact it has. Remember the language choices “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Choice,” or why we are Humanistic Judaism, based on what we DO believe and celebrate rather what we do not. Language matters – the Holocaust era poet Avraham Sutzgever, drawing on his own experience escaping HIS generation’s Nazis, once wrote “walk on words as on a minefield”.

We know why the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year was “post-truth” –between social media, internet trolls and Twitter bots, ideological self-segregation, confirmation bias (when we prefer facts that support what we already believe), and new extremes of consequence-free political speech, “post-truth” seems to describe the world all too well. Here’s how Oxford defined “post-truth”: “denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” To repeat. Where objective facts are less influential than appeals to emotion and personal belief. When I read THAT, I was reminded of the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” That is not a “post-truth” reality – that is reality!

The more we learn about HOW the mind words, the more we know that objective facts simply ARE less influential than emotion and prior beliefs! William F. Buckley once defined a Conservative as someone who stands athwart history yelling “Stop!” Our Humanism should not be a philosophy that stands athwart human nature yelling, “think, don’t feel!” We can encourage people to think more, but our deep emotional brain is far deeper than recent ideas.

We are emotional thinkers – moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes our rational minds as a human riding an elephant, and the human’s job is to justify whatever the elephant does. And yet, despite our emotions – or maybe because of them – there is a human temptation for absolute truth. We want to know, and we do not want your best guess or approximately or likely or maybe. Traditional religion promises truth and certainty – The world was made in exactly six days, beginning on Rosh Hashana. Here are the 10 commandments or the 613 commandments or the 2,700 pages of Talmud that tell you exactly what to do with your life, what to wear and what to eat and what to say and what to think. If you still have questions, take the Torah of Truth and turn it and turn it for all is inside it, said the rabbis. Indeed, you may already know all the truth there is – there is a Jewish legend that before a baby is born, an angel takes the new soul on a tour of the entire world and teaches it everything. Then, just before the birth, the angel puts its finger on the baby’s upper lip and says “shhhh,” and all the knowledge is forgotten, to be remembered over the course of a lifetime. Of course, this legend is an origin myth for that little indentation under your nose (no need for smartphone suspense – it’s called a “philtrum.” I looked it up on my phone, where I also found that we are not officially still at war with North Korea because we never DECLARED war on North Korea – it was a “police action.”). This myth of the angel saying “shhhh” also tries to explain HOW we know what we know – we’re really just remembering. This is not originally a Jewish explanation – the Greek philosopher Plato also had a theory of human knowledge as recollection. Religion, Plato, Torah, philosophy – they all try to answer that key question: how do you know what you know? How can you know if something is true or “fake news”?

Enlightenment thinkers rejected the “truths” of traditional religion – for them, the “good news” was indeed “fake news” – but they did not reject religious certainty for the factual nihilism of “post-truth.” Modernist philosophy was convinced that we knew things, we knew them for certain, & we would eventually know everything. Evidence, reason, science: these would answer all the questions, big and small. It was a heady time of discovery: from the power of the atom to secrets of the genetic code and the Big Bang origin of the universe. There were cracks in that foundation. New discoveries questioned prior certainties – light could act like a particle AND like a wave, depending on circumstances. Individual and cultural bias in the pursuit of knowledge became undeniable – historians were not purely objective stenographers with no agenda. As we learned to question authority, from industry-supported science to corporate-owned media to the presidency itself, we became experts in the insight of the opera Porgy and Bess“it ain’t necessarily so.” Not everything could be measured, certainly not now and maybe never. So POST-modernists at their extreme questioned any claim to objective knowledge – they were post-truth before we called it “post-truth!”

In some ways, Jewish culture was post-truth before post-truth. One of my favorite short Jewish books is called Zakhor – remember, by the Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. Zakhor explores the difference between Jewish history and Jewish memory – Jewish history is what happened, as best we can tell. Jewish memory is what we THINK happened, what we believe, and it is very hard to change memory using history. The stories we learn from grandparents or retell at Passover seders have deeper roots than tentative archaeological discoveries. Fifteen years ago, Conservative rabbi David Wolpe got into trouble by saying at his congregational seder, “We know from archaeology that the Exodus didn’t really happen the way the Bible describes it.” Shock and dismay from the congregation! My favorite quote from an LA Times article about the incident: “Did he have to say it at the seder?” In other words, it may be true, it would be fine in an adult education class in the library with 20 people, but why say that in the sanctuary during the actual holiday? In Humanistic Judaism, we take a different approach to Jewish history – we distinguish between story and history, and we learn both. I’m sure you know some who prefer story to history, belief to fact. Is a traditional Passover seder “post-truth”? What about a Rosh Hashana service – is it more effective as an anniversary of the world’s creation and a day of cosmic judgment, the last chance to get back on the straight and narrow, or can we refocus the holiday on the need for self-judgment and human responsibility?

As if we needed more hurdles beyond how the human mind works, the unreliability of human-created knowledge, and the weight of Jewish tradition, the world just does NOT like truth tellers. When the Prophets condemned the Kings of Israel for oppressing the poor, the prophets were persecuted. In Greek mythology, Cassandra is known for telling the inconvenient truth and tragically not being believed. We resist hearing bad things about people we admire, people on our team, people who had a positive impact on the world even if they were not perfect. Think about my job officiating at funerals – absolute honesty is NOT the best policy. And yet, even then, there is a place for the truth told in an emotionally sensitive way. If the deceased were a very critical person, I might say “she had high standards, she pushed you to excel.” It sounds positive, and the family knows what I mean. And maybe they start to see it from a new perspective – she wanted the best for them, their health and happiness and success, even if she could have shared it better.

Please understand that no one is committed to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This summer, I sent in my High Holiday sermon descriptions and, in what COULD have been a sign, I received the June National Geographic with the cover story “Why We Lie”:

…researchers found that the subjects lied on average one or two times a day. Most of these untruths were innocuous, intended to hide one’s inadequacies or to protect the feelings of others. Some lies were excuses – one subject blamed the failure to take out the garbage on not knowing where it needed to go. Yet other lies – such as a claim of being a diplomat’s son – were aimed at presenting a false image.

The article points out that lying is part of the developmental process: children learn to lie between ages 2 to 5, and the proportion of people who tell a few lies per day changes – the peak age for small lying? Ages 13-17, almost twice as likely to lie as ages 6-8 or ages 60-77. Is anyone surprised?

You may be asking yourself, “Has the RABBI been lying? Is he really a FAN of ‘post-truth’ after all?” Absolutely not. I believe in human truth, which is ALWAYS “to the best of our knowledge.” To return to the elephant, human knowledge is a bit like the story of 3 blind men trying to describe an elephant (ear, trunk, leg) – we humans have partial knowledge with many limits: our own experience, our cognitive bias that filters what we learn, our cultural framework, our limited time compared to the vastness of possible knowledge. However, we are much more than 3 blind men feeling out an elephant – what about 300 people or 3000 people of many backgrounds and experiences exploring what would have to be a very patient elephant? They might discover where the ear meets the head, how the leg leads to the torso, where tusks and trunk intersect. Perhaps we would never know EVERYTHING about the elephant for all times and for all elephants, but we could certainly know a lot.

The value in the secular critique of religious knowledge is learning to abandon absolute truth. The value in the post-modern critique of knowledge is that it helps us to correct ourselves, to adjust and refine our truths like a rower who learns to pull differently given changing current, or wind, or fitness or rowing partners. Other people can point out our biases if we listen, not to destroy the possibility of truth but rather to improve OUR ability to find it. Jewish feminists point out blind spots in rabbinic literature when it comes to gender and women’s experiences that male rabbis have ignored for centuries. And that’s good, because now our teaching can be more true to more people.

If we accept “Post truth,” it means giving up on that very human project to know – “post truth” does not just mean “you have your truth and I have mine.” “Post truth” really means “no truth”. Some prefer it that way – if they are not bound by evidence or history or logic, they can say whatever they want without accountability. Then free speech is indeed consequence-free speech. And we continue our balkanization into separate silos of knowledge – talking to ourselves in our own closed systems of truth, with dialogue increasingly impossible.

Step one is to admit that we have a problem and to name it – “post truth” – something we can describe but should never accept. What do we do NEXT?ba9d8653b148197f6b33999a290dcfcf-fake-quotes-famous-quotes

First, physician, heal thyself: practice the truth you want to see in the world. If it’s too good to be true, maybe it is. How do you know something is true? Is there a reason I WANT it to be true? Smartphones have been a blessing and a curse, but one of the blessings is easy access to facts if you know where to look. Snopes.com is a good place to start – they’ve made a career out of separating truth from “post-truth,” and with good evidence you can check yourself. Remember that great Facebook Meme some of you have seen – “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” said Abraham Lincoln.


Second, learn how to persuade. Remember, you’re talking to the elephant, not the person riding the elephant and justifying what the elephant wants. It’s not “just the facts, ma’am” – we need facts that move emotions. A personal human story will appeal to more people than statistics alone. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune recently published an exhaustive study of criminal justice and race in Florida that shows bias, despite a system designed to give clear point scores to guide sentencing. The charts and numbers are striking, and then you see the faces and read the stories of two 17 year olds, both with 3 prior juvenile convictions, both charged with armed robbery for stealing a few hundred dollars with a gun, in the same county. The sentencing guidelines, under which they scored the same points, said 4 years was the lowest permissible sentence, and both offenders took plea deals – but one’s plea deal was for 4 years in prison, while the other received probation with no incarceration. Need I clarify which offender was black and which was white? The statistics help make this is not an isolated case, or just one county, but the individual story makes the point even stronger – we may want to deny this reality as “fake news”, or to retreat behind the comfort of “post-truth”, or to say this is a political issue rather than one of justice or righteousness, but it’s that much harder to hide when the story is that clear.

If an argument comes from a place of fear, you are not going to pull the other person back from their “post-truth” by starting with “that’s ridiculous, you have nothing to fear.” That is another way of saying, “you’re just wrong,” which is often heard as “you’re just dumb.” There’s a popular saying that teaching without learning is just talking. If that’s true, then arguing without persuading is just noise, or helping you feel better about yourself but not moving forward. When I was a graduate student, I received a great piece of life advice when they told us that grading would be much more effective if A) we avoided using RED pen, and B) we started by writing something nice about the essay before offering criticisms. If you want to persuade someone they are wrong, you need to affirm them in some way first – I understand why you’re afraid, I see your point about X, but it doesn’t change my mind about Y. If there is a truth to be told, there are ways to tell it so it may be heard, and understood, and possibly agreed to. “I value the Exodus story for its message of freedom; the history is where we disagree.”

Finally, the reality that there can be many perspectives on one issue does not mean that we acquiesce to “post-truth” – there can be many truths simultaneously true. I once met with the adult children of a woman who had died in preparation for the funeral. Both of her children told me that she was not a great mother – not nurturing, not caring, self-centered, it was a very difficult relationship for each of them. Before the funeral happened, I was lucky enough to talk with the deceased woman’s GRANDchildren, and they had a very different perspective on her – warm and encouraging and loving and engaged. It’s almost like they were talking about two different women – and they were! 30 years later, at a different stage of life without the stress of child rearing, having grown as a person. At first I asked myself: how can I present the truth of this woman and her relationships? Then I realized that both the children and the grand-children had given me true representations of their relationships with her. Life, and people, and reality are complicated, and sometimes many truths is not post-truth, it IS the truth.

This is part of the inspiration of seeking the truth, being responsible to the truth, that has driven knowledge from the atomic to the cosmic, hearing many voices and perspectives on the same human reality. It is a universal human project, to understand who we are and what the world is, and I will not give it up. Sometimes we know the truth deeply without revelations or angels or anything beyond ourselves.

I would like to conclude with a passage written by our Rabbi Emeritus Daniel Friedman, whose life work is a testimony to the pursuit of truth in Jewish life – we are the heirs to his courage in standing up for a Judaism dedicated to truth.

We know more than we can see. Particles too small to see, we know, are the essence of reality. The earth we call home is but a beam of dust lost in a crowd of unseen silent suns. The innocence of children, the secret language of lovers, a flood of joy surprising the heart – these too, we know through senses finer than the eye.

Tonight we rest our vision and open the eyes within. We would know goodness; we would seek truth; we would honor justice. Beyond the world of cash and clamor is a more enduring realm. Here are found integrity, courage, righteousness. The quiet fellowship of this hour renews that world and restores it to our sight.

L’Shana Tova! A Good New Year to all! And I mean it!

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The New Jewish Landscape – 2017

This post is based on a sermon delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation on August 25, 2017. You can hear audio of the sermon as delivered here

2000 years ago, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. This was a crushing blow to the Jewish community and its leadership. After all, this was the temple of the Hebrew God that was to stand forever. It defined all of Jewish practice and belief. Most of the Torah is consumed with sacrifices and rituals predicated on there being a Temple in Jerusalem. Now that Temple was destroyed.

Parts of the Jewish community of the time thought there was nothing left to do but fast until death, for it must have been because of our sins that we were punished like this, and our continuing sins were un-atoneable, for there was no sacrifice to atone any more.

Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah was known for saying, “Don’t fast too much, life must continue.” An anecdote records a moment of despair even for Rabbi Joshua:

One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai was walking in Jerusalem with Rebbi Yehoshua, they arrived at where the Temple in Jerusalem now stood in ruins. “Woe to us” cried Rabbi Yehoshua, “for this house where atonement was made for Israel’s sins now lies in ruins!” Answered Rabban Yochanan, “We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim (loving kindness), as it is stated ‘I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice.’

What to do? If the Temple is burned, you go on. You create anew. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai and Rabbi Joshua and their generation (and the generation that followed) is what today we know as rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism to which we are all heirs. If there was a crash, a destruction, there was also an opportunity for new creation.

We are today dealing with the unexpected. We had, what you might call, irrational exuberance. We believed in the inevitability of progress and enlightenment. This has happened from time to time in human history. In our own days, the election of the first black president of the United States looked like it would be followed by the election of first woman president. There was a global agreement finally reached to address global warming. There was progress in the recognition of the human rights of the LGBT community, even transgender individuals. There was a rising awareness of ongoing racial disparities in policing, in the criminal justice system and in the cultural conversation. From a Jewish perspective, more and more communities have been welcoming intermarried families (which Humanistic Judaism has done since 1960s), and affiliation rates with traditional synagogue models may have been going down but Jewish innovation models were on the rise. And on the plus side BOTH presidential candidates had Jewish sons-in-law! It was not perfect, but it seemed like the United States was gradually becoming a more perfect union.

And then, another crash – the slow motion train derailment we’ve been watching over the last several months. It feels like it culminated in Charlottesville and its aftermath – torchlight parades with swastikas, violent clashes in the streets including a vehicular homicide, armed thugs (REAL thugs) threatening a synagogue during Shabbat services. I received an email from a member of my congregation in the aftermath of Charlottesville recommending that we hire private security for our High Holiday services. I reminded them that we already work with the Bannockburn Police Department to have officers manage traffic, and if the terrorists didn’t find us when we were holding services in Lake Forest, they will NEVER find us holding High Holiday services in a church!

It feels like Jewish landscape today is very different today than when I chose this topic six weeks ago. Then I planned to talk about what American Jews believe and practice, how the Jewish community is responding to those who marry beyond the Jewish community, the changes in how people identify with being Jewish, and even our own congregation’s steps forward in re-defining what “community” means to us. But the Jewish landscape is not just defined simply by what we choose to do internally – like the rebel outsider in Fiddler on the Roof, we need to know what’s going on in the outside world, because it impacts us, and we have to try in our own small way to have an impact as well.

I want to be very clear: there are many reasons for calm even as there are also reasons to worry. I have not purchased a gun. I do not fear that my non-Jewish neighbors in Highland Park will lead a pogrom or start flying Nazi flags. At a recent rally in Boston in the aftermath of Charlottesville, there were about 200 so-called “free speech” protesters and 40,000 counter-protesters. The University of Virginia in Charlottesville just admitted its most diverse Freshman class ever. A recent survey that caused a lot of alarm showed that as many as 30 million people support some of those white supremacist ideas. But for those who have been following the statistics, this is consistent – the Anti-Defamation League holds regular surveys that have consistently shown the same as 10% or so supporting antisemitic ideas for decades. 10% of 300 million people = 30 million people. Still scary, but also not a massive increase – it’s what has been there.

It’s not news to those who have been paying attention, and those who look beyond the Blue States – go travel in the Kansas countryside, or take a drive in Indiana, look at the billboards on the side of the road. You’ll see it’s a different world out there, with different values out there, that’s different from where we are here in Blue America. We should also remember that the 10% number is down from 20% or higher in 1970s and earlier. Historically, it’s on the way down. What’s the difference between 2014 and 2017 if it’s same 10%? The difference that now they are visible, they are emboldened to march with torches lit instead of faces covered.

Just like after the destruction of Temple, I don’t want to leave you with a “what do we do?” and no answers – I have some ideas. The Four Questions of Passover are actually not called “she’elot – questions.” They are called “kushyiot” – in the Talmud’s Aramic, it’s a challenge, something that’s hard to answer. “Arba ha-kushyiot The Four Challenges.” I want to share with you today four challenges that we face in this new Jewish landscape.

Problem: Emboldened white supremacists. Not just twitter trolls who make nasty comments, but actual physical vandalism, personal threats, public marches, even their own media platform and a foot in the federal government.


  • Confidence and courage – we are the 90%, they are the 10%, and that makes a difference. And in major metro areas like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles we are often the 95%. We have to remember that the goal of terrorism is terror, to make you afraid. Now you can’t control what your heart feels, but you can control whether you go to the mall, whether you live your life, whether you speak your mind. And if you stop those things, then the terror wins. So courage and confidence are important.
  • Don’t overreact – remember the numbers, and remember who’s on our side, which is the vast majority of people, even politicians.  Even though we are afraid of what has been going on, afraid of these public marches, an overreaction that limits free speech can have its own problems. Free speech protects minorities – it doesn’t protect incitement speech or intimidation speech. But being able to speak protects us. The conservative columnist Charles Cooke wrote a great satirical column recently recommending “giving Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump the robust censorship powers that they so richly and urgently deserve.”

We have an array of differing views in this country, but I think we can all agree that nobody could be better suited to that oversight role than Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump, and the thousands upon thousands of state-level Republicans who have been recently swept into office by the infallible will of the people. Furthermore, we should all be able to unite around the appealing chance to hand more power over to the police. Donald Trump is a man marked out for his wisdom, scholarship, and judicious temperament. But, exquisite as his judgment is, he is able to direct prosecutions only on a macro level. To make the scheme work in practice, America’s police officers must enjoy the legal opportunity to determine what — and who — sits outside of the law’s protection.

Once you say that we need to have the government restrict speech, guess who’s in the government? So we shouldn’t overreact.

  • We are not the only target, but that also means we need to listen to and stand up for other people who are being targeted as well! If you want to explain to a Black Lives Matter activist why Israel is more complicated and not a “Palestinian genocide” as a Movement for Black Lives platform claimed, then you need to show them that their issues are your issues, their lives are important to you!  You need to show up for them if you want them to show up for you. The fanatics who want a White Christian America may start with the “undocumented,” or the “urban population”, when they really mean “brown people” and “black people.” But we know who’s further down that list, and it’s better to head them off at the pass when there are more of us than there are of them.
  • (I use this sometimes with my children) The River Erodes the Stone. If you have a large stone in your path, you can take a sledgehammer and try to knock it through. But sometimes the river flowing around the stone moves it. If you have an obstinate child in your way, you can head-on confront, or “the river erodes the stone,” flow around and get where you want to go. Head-on confrontation is not the only strategy – let’s be creative! In some towns in Germany, when neo-Nazis march the town makes it a fundraiser for anti-Nazi causes – for every 5 meters they walk, we’ll donate more money to anti-Nazi causes, or LGBT community centers. And the more of them show up, the more money is raised. You push back but creatively, positively. Or graffiti artists in Berlin who were upset at seeing swastikas being painted so they painted around them into comic book figures.

We can take that creative approach, counter-protest elsewhere, do something positive in response, even create alliances with unusual allies (after all, politicians on both sides condemned what happened in Charlottesvlle), then we can be more successful.


Problem: The indifferent response to that emboldened 10% by some leaders, including most notably President “both sides” Trump. Even a proposed congressional resolution referred to violence committed by neo-Nazis, the KKK “and others”.


  • My theory about “some nice people” at the Nazi protest: I don’t think that Trump is a hardcore ideological Nazi because I don’t think he thinks that much. What I think happened was, there were people walking in the crowd with his hats on. His approach is not Nazism, it’s narcissism. So “if there are people who like me, they must be good! They can’t be all bad if they like me!” So therefore “there must have been some nice people there since they liked me.” That’s how it works in what I call a “me-o-centric theory of the universe” – everything revolves around me. So it’s narcissism, not Nazism. That’s still very disturbing, and we know he’s said some problematic things about how he likes having Jews counting his money. That kind of “soft antisemitism” is more prevalent in an older generation, but our only hope in this case is that the next bright shiny object or personal feud will distract him and he’ll move on to something else very quickly.
  • In terms of responding to the political class, we have to keep their feet to the firean activated electorate is the best motivator for political improvement. Because they want a job! This is true for politicians on your side of the aisle, it is also true for those on the other side as well.
  • We need to learn how to build on common purpose – This will not lead to kumbaya results for the environment, on foreign policy, on tax reform priorities. South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham is going to be a conservative Republican at the end of the day. But there may be positive steps on shared issues working around the White House. For example, before the election there was a lot of talk of bipartisan work on sentencing reform, dealing with the legacy of the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentences. Maybe there are bridges to be built even if the White House refuses to move. Perhaps the White House’s threat to cancel work permits for “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants who came as children and have received work permits under DACA) will become a spur to move forward with a new Gang of Eight to build a new bridge. Maybe the Overton Window can work differently – if the White House is the extreme end, a Republican Congress no longer has to be at every moment. It will not solve everything, but it might help move forward on priorities after Charlottesville against racism, Nazism and antisemitism.


Problem: The political polarization which makes “both sides” accusation an easy cop-out and which makes listening hard if not non-existent. Think about the parallel Facebook universes out there where Sarah Palin has a million likes, the variety of media consumed, the kind of stories that are likely to be believed. Sometimes when we face a conflict we contract, we withdraw our circle of concern to my group, my people, my tribe. Our response has to be to resist that impulse.


  • Need to learn more broadly – One of the claims of Humanism is that we don’t know everything. We learn from each other. We have learned quite a bit as human beings through experience and knowledge and reason. But in the end, if there are new ideas, if there is new information then we have to be open to change, and to learn. We have no monopoly on the truth, and we know from our scientific study how easy it is to confirm what we already believe. Cognitive bias applies to everyone. We find support for what we already believe, we look at what is most comfortable to believe. Many people in the atheist, secular, humanist world believe in a colorblind society, they want a society where people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. So some of them are resistant to evidence that this is not already the case. They want it to be the case, but when you show them disparities in housing, in mortgage applications, in job interviews, in policing structure, sentencing guidelines, when you show them the evidence they resist it because they don’t want it to be true. But sometimes the evidence doesn’t conform to what we want to be true. We have to face those realities.
    And the only way to do that is to learn more broadly. There are populations out there that aren’t listened to. I drove through Kansas 18 months ago to visit a friend in Manhattan, Kansas at Kansas State University. As we were driving through that countryside, I could appreciate a perspective that said, “What does someone in Washington DC know about how to live my life? I’m out here on my own (apparently). I’m doing this myself. Who are you to tell me what I put in my soil?” I could appreciate from the setting how the ideology was different.
  • We need to understand how people think and where their values come from. Later this year, we’ll be discussing Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt is a moral psychologist, who studies how people do moral reasoning. He describes how people reason differently, using different categories of moral reasoning. Both liberals and conservatives have a category called care or harm – does this hurt or help someone, that can define what is morally wrong or right. Is this fair to everyone? That can define morality. Does it affirm personal liberty, the right to be in charge of my own life? Many people in the world include group loyalty as an important category of morality – does it help or hurt the group? For many, respect for authority is a moral category and disobedience to authority is a moral violation for them. And for many people, sanctity, what is holy, is important not to transgress.
    Haidt points out that conservative people tend to identify very easily with group loyalty, authority, sanctity. Think about the Christian Right and their messaging. And liberals tend to identify primarily with the care/harm category, does it hurt someone or not, and if it doesn’t it’s nobody’s business. And they are often opposed to authority and loyalty. You ask people, is violating the dress code at a school a moral violation? Conservatives say yes, liberals say it’s a moral OBLIGATION to break the dress code at the school for personal liberty and because it doesn’t hurt anyone; what business is it of yours what I wear to school? We even think  what’s right and what’s wrong differently. To understand how other people think, it’s important to understand where they’re coming from and why they’re saying what they do.


Problem: a paralyzing concern over what is happening to this country. The world is burning and what do I do? There’s so much that’s wrong! Consider Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America – there’s a feeling through that novel, there’s a sense that there’s so much that wrong and there’s nothing we can do. Well, there’s always something we can do.


  • Come together – in places like this and places out there. There are new communities and new kinds of activism that have sprung up in the last several months. It’s the flip side of polarization – sometimes when you polarize you find your group and then you work together with the solidarity and encouragement of like-minded people. We’ll see what happens to Jewish communities over the next 4 years, or even over the next 4 weeks before Rosh Hashana! It may be that people are looking for a place that says what they think, that reflects what they believe, and that has their people. They’re looking for that solidarity of community. Look at the turnout after 9/11. Some in the Jewish world have been complaining for years, “Well, if there’s no antisemitism, then what is going to keep the Jews Jewish?” Thank you, now we can test that theory and see what happens.
  • Resist Despair – It can become overwhelming and depressing. Turn off the computer or skip Facebook once a week. It’s ok, you can catch up, it will be there. Even more important, don’t get overwhelmed. We have to push ourselves to stay engaged, to make phone calls, to stand up instead of standing by. We have to act. Are you concerned about the environment after withdrawing from the Paris Accord? Do something yourself! Petitions and Facebook posts are something, but they are not everything. Even if you feel like the Temple has been destroyed, the world is burning out there, that means it’s time to rebuild.

What does all this mean for the Jewish landscape today? This is not the time to give up on Diaspora and move to Israel, as if that was the solution to everything. The chief rabbi Spain after the most recent terror attack there recently suggested, “we’re done here;” his bosses, the lay leaders of Spain’s Jewish community, said, “No, we’re not.” The diversity and tension created by being a minority culture in a larger culture is what made Judaism so interesting over the centuries! There’s plenty to do here, plenty of life still to be found here.

It is not the time to turn inward and exclusive, to reject the new Jewish families who bring multiple cultural and religious heritages together in their shared experience – over half of the marriages involving Jews today have a non-Jewish partner – they are no longer the odd intermarriage, they are Jewish marriages, and their families are one variety of the new Jewish family. This is not the time to raise the drawbridge, to raise the mandatory dues on those who are compelled to find a community and squeeze them – this is the time to open doors, to welcome in people looking to find those of like mind and like culture on their own terms, to show them what they’ve been missing and how much they might come to value what we offer. The American Jewish community is increasingly diverse, secularized, intersectional, and culturally Jewish.

After the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, the question was asked: if we can’t atone for our sins, what do we do? The answer was given: acts of loving kindness, and ultimately rabbinic Judaism was build around words and prayers replacing the sacrifices. If we can’t sacrifice the animals, we’ll sacrifice words and time and energy. In our day, we in Humanistic Judaism are sometimes asked, what do you do if you don’t pray? The answer: we DO! So let’s start doing.

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Forgiveness – Thoughts for Elul 5777

Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, can be a time of introspection and reflection. Rather than appealing beyond our world for forgiveness, we can turn to each other to both ask and offer a new chance, and we can also turn inward.

All people try and fail. The wise learn to forgive and try again.

Integrity means that we say what we believe, and that we believe what we say. Our integrity affirms that we are the same person, in Hebrew and in English, synagogue and public square, special moments and any moment, holiday and every day. If our ancestors believed differently, we cherish their integrity as we do ours. When we agree, we find the strength of honest roots. We honor them by celebrating our Judaism as deeply believed as they did.

We are what we say and what we do. Our intentions and emotions may be kind and generous. But if what we say and what we do are hurtful and hateful, no one will ever know our better nature. Indeed, our hands and our mouths speak the truth better than we realize. What we truly value, what we truly believe, we express in how we live.

Far easier to want to do good than to do it, to consider asking forgiveness than to ask. Far stronger to face our true selves, to acknowledge our failures, and to demand more. Integrity is not public perception. Integrity is integrating who we think we are with whom we really are, transforming our ideal self into our actual self, making who we want to be the person we are becoming.

We can be too slow to forgive others. We are long to remember injuries and short to forget assistance. Anger and memory have their place, and forgiveness does not require forgetting. We forgive by choosing not to avenge, by being open to second chances. Forgiving others brings us peace.

We can be too quick to forgive ourselves. We celebrate our successes and quickly explain away our failures. Dwelling on our shortfalls is not healthy, but neither is whitewashing them. Self-forgiveness requires honesty about the sides of ourselves we would rather not face. Forgiving ourselves bring us peace.

As we prepare for a New Year, let us pause for a moment of true forgiveness. Let us forgive others, and let us forgive ourselves.

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Forbidden Phrases for the New Year 5778

These talks will be part of High Holiday services in September 2017 for Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation and later available on The Kol Hadash Podcast and as separate posts here (adult events only). If you are interested in celebrating the Jewish New Year with us in Deerfield, Illinois, please email our office or call 847-383-5184.

We believe in freedom of speech and thought, and we believe in taking responsibility for what we say and do. Sometimes these two values require choosing our words carefully, since words create reality: “’Let there be light!’ And there was light.” If we reject words, let it be for good cause.

Rosh Hashana Evening: “Post-Truth” {Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 Word of the Year}
We must find a balance between individual perspective and objective reality. There are times it is appropriate to say, “I don’t know” or “I think,” and there are also times to say, “I DO know.” Human reason is limited — and partial, and collaborative — and it is also a powerful tool for discovering human truth.

Rosh Hashana Morning                 “Judaism Says”
Can a tradition of 3,000 years speak with one voice? All too often, we want our identity to fully endorse our personal beliefs and behavior. Just as we cannot claim that all Jews were always secular, others cannot claim Jews were always religious and always united by religion. How can we achieve unity without demanding uniformity?

Rosh Hashana Family                     “Who Cares?”
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” We can always make a difference, even if all we do is let people know they are not alone. Choosing to care is only the first step.

Yom Kippur Evening                       “Bad Jews”
We can be crueler to our own family than we are to strangers. It is all too easy to judge others by our own arbitrary standards. Do they agree with us? Do they value what we value as much as we value it? Do they live their lives the way we live ours? If we can worry more about ourselves than what others do, we might just learn there’s more than one way to bake a bagel.

Yom Kippur Morning                     “We’re Number 1!
Competition has its place, but also its risks. We become blind to our own faults and exaggerate the danger and deficiencies of “the other.” We magnify our needs and minimize theirs. We need to seek self-esteem while avoiding chauvinism – as individuals, ethnicities and nations. Pride, honesty and humility dance a challenging but necessary waltz towards an ethical life.

Yom Kippur Family                         “My Bad – Again”
There is nothing wrong with making mistakes and apologizing, but that is only the first step. An early Jewish teaching suggests, “If someone says, ‘I will do wrong and be sorry, and then do wrong again and be sorry again,’ Yom Kippur does not work.” How can we not just fix what we’ve done wrong, but also learn to do better the next time?

Yom Kippur Memorial                   “It’s All for the Best”
A traditional Jewish response to hearing of a death is “baruch dayan ha-emet – blessed is the True Judge;” a way to claim that this loss, however painful, is all part of the plan. But what if there is no plan? What if our losses, whether sudden or gradual, tragic or at the end of a long and loving life, are simply part of the flow of life? We still need meaning, but maybe we must find meaning for ourselves.

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