Yaakov Malkin – A Tribute

The following was written for the memorial celebration of Professor Yaakov Malkin, Provost of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism
and Founding Dean of Tmura-IISHJ in Jerusalem

Shalom, greetings, and deep regret that I am unable to be with you today. All of my love to Yaakov’s wife Felice, to his children Sivan and Irad, and to their families.

Many parents have only a few children. A great teacher has many children, because the teacher’s students become teachers themselves, sharing wisdom even wider.

We humans have only one life to live and love, to remember and forget, to embrace and understand. Words and ideas can live forever. There is still a time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance because while the historical Kohelet has been lost, its words continue to inspire and to comfort.

Yaakov Malkin was not a small stone in a pond, leaving small ripples that fade. Yaakov was a tidal wave of ideas and words, of creativity and insight, to his very last year. His children-students have celebrated and will celebrate the Jewish and human experience with thousands, and his books and lectures and plays have connected and will connect with thousands more. No, Yaakov himself will not live forever, and yet he will live on.

Almost 30 years ago, Yaakov’s daughter Sivan was a Jewish Agency shlikha in Metropolitan Detroit, where she met a radical rabbi named Sherwin Wine who celebrated something called Humanistic Judaism. She connected Sherwin and Yaakov, and, in the words of Casablanca, it was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Together, Sherwin and Yaakov gave life to the “International” in International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism through Colloquium conferences and Federation meetings in Europe, North America and Israel. Many of their stimulating debates live on in YouTube videos, published works, and the memories of those who were there.

It was Sherwin and Yaakov, as co-Deans of the IISHJ, who educated and ordained Rabbi Sivan Malkin Maas, the first Israeli Secular Humanistic Rabbi, and together with Sivan initiated Tmura – the training program for Secular Humanistic Rabbis in Israel. Sherwin and I were both present at the first Tmura ordination in 2006, and while Sherwin was happy, I believe it was Yaakov, the rosh yeshiva with a Ph.D., who was the proudest.

I remember many of Yaakov’s profound insights, and I share them with my own Secular Humanistic rabbinic students in North America: the “poetic truths” of Genesis; the claim that truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense; and inspiring examples for our day from Jewish literature and history. I conclude with Yaakov’s own words from Colloquium ’99:

I know that we are very small, I know that you can count the people who are engaged in our movement full time on one hand or maybe two hands. But, remember, there was a Jew who had only twelve disciples when he died, and look what happened!

After Sherwin Wine died on July 21, 2007, I told my colleagues that if anyone asks who will replace him, I would say, “None of us, and all of us.” After Yaakov Malkin’s death on July 21, 2019, the answer for Tmura in Israel and for Secular Humanistic Judaism around the world is the same – None of us, and all of us. Yaakov, your children-students have learned, and we will teach.

תודה רבה רבה מורי ורבי ואבי הרוחני, ושלום.

Thank you so very much, my teacher and my rabbi and my spiritual father, and goodbye.


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Old Challenges Anew – High Holidays 5780/2019

These talks were part of High Holiday services in September/October 2019 for Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation and are also available in audio on The Kol Hadash Podcast (also here) and as separate posts here (adult events only).

Jewish history and the human experience have been full of difficult moments: disasters, persecutions, suffering. What have we learned to survive, and how can that help us face today’s challenges?

Rosh Hashana Evening: Antisemitism and Other Hatred
Public expressions of hate are rising, and a rising tide lifts all bigotries. Even if numbers remain small, the haters are louder and bolder. Synagogue (and mosque and church) shootings, antisemitic cartoons, discrimination by both Christian foster care agencies and Dyke Marches – we have seen this before and had hoped never again. Why now? And what to do now?

Rosh Hashana Morning: Political Civil War
It’s been said that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Today politics IS war: opponents are enemies, issues are black or white, the other side is not just wrong but evil. In Israel, in America, in Europe, civil society strains at the seams. We have also seen this story before, and we need to change the ending.

Yom Kippur Evening: An Uncertain Jewish Future
The Jews have been called “the ever-dying people.” Each generation is convinced it is the last. Yet we are still here and, like our ancestors, we must answer new challenges. Balancing continuity and change is a Jewish tradition and a key to Jewish survival. As is hope.

Yom Kippur Morning: What We Can Do
Our problems are so large, and our powers seem so limited – what can one person or one community do? Facing earlier tragedies, the Jewish people trusted both supernatural providence and human effort. What must we do for human power to be enough for us

Yom Kippur Memorial: The Reality of Mortality
If this life is the only life we know, how do we find comfort after loss? Death has always defined the human condition, but are we any better at dealing with it after all this time? How we remember can make all the difference.

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Humanist Patriotism

This post originally appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in July 2018. 

As July 4 approaches, we can appreciate how complicated Humanist patriotism can be.

We are familiar with frequent connections of piety and patriotism. We are lucky the “Star Spangled Banner” was legally declared the National Anthem in 1931; after its popularity during World War II, we could have easily wound up with “God Bless America” instead. Despite the Bill of Rights’ promise to not establish religion, and Thomas Jefferson’s vision of “a wall of separation between Church & State,” presidents add “so help me God” to the Constitution’s prescribed oath of office, every presidential address ends with “May God bless the United States of America,” and for many it seems impossible to separate “God and Country.” Even my alma mater’s school song ends, “For God, For Country and for Yale”!

All this religious endorsement of American nationalism might turn us off only by association. Added to this, Humanists tend ask hard questions about group loyalty and identification. Does the group serve my needs and reflect my values? Is the connection meaningful, inspirational, beneficial, or simply a legacy of the past? It’s why many Humanistic Jews and their families have evolved from the religious institutions and traditions of their birth and upbringing. Internationalists have often been secular, since they see any human division by ethnicity, nationality, or religion as inevitably a hierarchy, a source of oppression and hatred.

Even if we try to be secular nationalists, our wider sympathies to all of humanity would seem in conflict with the inevitable prioritization of our national group over others, be it on immigration laws, humanitarian aid, or economic priorities. If we had to choose between the Bill of Rights and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which would we choose?

flag spots

Some years ago, a Kol Hadash member told me she was considering putting up an American flag on her house, but she didn’t want others to think she was “one of those people.” A friend of hers rebuked her, saying, “No one political perspective owns the flag – it’s your flag too!” Likewise, the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt remembered that after 9/11, he put TWO bumper stickers on his car: an American flag and a UN flag!

The truth is that love of country is challenging. Sometime love means we forgive or ignore our beloved’s guilt, and sometimes love means we call on them to correct it. Those kneeling to call America to live up to its vision that “all [people] are created equal” can be as patriotic as those who serve in the military or those who sweat through their American flag boxer shorts. Loving and even prioritizing our family (or our country) does not mean betraying ethics and commitments to a wider world, provided that family or national loyalty does not supersede the humanity of those beyond it. If our nation does good in the world, we can be proud. If we fall short, we can pull together to do better.

So feel free to fly those flags, sing those songs, walk in those parades, feel those feelings. And also feel free to stand up for justice, to protest, to demand that America live up to its own ideals. If you need an alternative, you can always sing “Godless America” to the same tune!

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Tree of Life

These remarks were delivered at a #ShowUpForShabbat service at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation (held in cooperation with the North Shore Unitarian Church) on November 2, 2018 in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh contains multitudes. Tree of Life was founded in 1864, and moved to its current building in 1953. In 2010, Tree of Life merged with another congregation Or L’Simcha, the light of joy. That same year, another congregation, Dor Hadash, a new generation, also began renting space there for services. Different communities with different approaches to truth and identity and meaning, all sharing space – sounds familiar. The multitudes contained by Tree of Life are more than the congregations. They include the thousands of individuals who celebrated Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and created families through weddings. They welcomed children to the world, just as they were doing one week ago, and they said goodbye to the dead, as they did this week. And those multitudes marked Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, every seventh day, as we do now. Tonight, the Tree of Life also contains the weight of unspeakable grief. Bloody prayerbooks. Broken lives. Shattered peace. We began this Shabbat observance wishing each other “Shabbat Shalom,” a sabbath of peace, and we will end with the same wish. The Hebrew “Shalom” has the same root as “shalem,” to be whole. But we are no longer shalem, not as whole as we were just one week ago.

There is much to say, and words are not enough. If you are looking for a simple answer to “what do I do?”, there is no simple answer. And neither of our congregational traditions are fond of commandments. I offer instead three lessons we have learned again, from which many actions may be chosen.that_tree_10

  • Trees have deep roots and many branches – The tree of human life has deep roots, in every soil on the globe, reaching back to our common evolutionary origins in Africa. The tree of life has many branches, connecting each of us to the other, bringing tears to our eye when we see another in pain; at their best, the branches work together to keep the tree of life alive. But the tree of hate also has deep roots and many branches. Fear of the stranger, anger at change, blaming scapegoats, oppressing and attacking the “other” – we know these roots too, from the earliest days of our religious and political traditions. The tree of hate also branches in many directions, pointing its fingers at anyone and everyone else. The waters of human emotion can nourish either tree, so tend to your garden too. We can prune back a branch here or there, but eradicating a root takes more work, much more work than we can accomplish alone. Trees have roots, and many branches.
  • Name the hate – if we can and should say “Black Lives Matter” when we talk about mass incarceration and discrimination, then we should also say “Jewish Lives Matter” when it comes to particular vandalism and hate crimes and violence. We must confront that particular hatred of antisemitism in particular ways. Assumptions about Jewish power over media or finance or government, the challenging legacy of religious texts critical of Jews and Judaism, demonizing Jews and Jewish institutions – they all demand confrontation. Next Shabbat, a week from tomorrow, is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when mass riots in Nazi Germany destroyed thousands of Jewish homes, businesses and lives. The shooting in Pittsburgh was different from Nazi Germany in many ways – one attacker and not thousands, and today American police and government stop the violence and non-Jewish neighbors and friends comfort the attacked; the opposite of 1938 Germany. And yet, if these moments are not the same, they have a family resemblance – torchlit marches with uncovered faces and militant chants also sound familiar. Name it for what it is, and declare “Never Again.”
  • We are not alone – Just as we note the uniqueness of antisemitism, we also know that those who hate Jews tend to hate other people too. The killer who attacked on Saturday did so because he hated Jews, and because he hated immigrants and refugees. So he targeted Jews who were helping refugees. Each of us could feel alone in our fears: the immigrant, the LGBTQ, the racial or ethnic or religious minority, the atheist and humanist, the dissenter of any stripe. But we are not alone if we extend our hands to each other. That means we need to not only ask for help during our times of trial, but also offer help to those in need when we are well. That means listening to those who cry out, and that means making our voices heard today, next Tuesday, and every day.

In Jewish tradition, seven are the days of the week, and seven are the days of mourning. The tree of life sheds its leaves in the cold, and stands bare for a time, and then the wind blows and the sun shines and the buds return. The mourners arise, and with new resolve, confront a new world they did not choose. This new world may be sadder, less innocent, more unpredictable, but our discomfort makes it no less real. We know that real change happens when hands join together to turn the wheel of history. Roll up your sleeves, and let’s go.

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Then and Now – Yom Kippur Memorial 5779

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur Memorial sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2018/5779 as part of a series entitled “Either/And.”  You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

One of the most common Jewish commandments is Zakhor – remember. The verb appears over 160 times in the Hebrew Bible, not counting parallels like “do not forget.” The traditional Friday evening Kiddush blessing describes Shabbat as both a remembrance zikaron of creation, and a reminder zekher of the Exodus from Egypt – neither event happened historically, but we should remember them. The novelist Jonathan Safran Foer even calls memory a Jewish Sixth Sense:

Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing…memory…[While some] process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger.

The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.

When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?

How DO we remember? We see, we feel, we experience in the Now. When now becomes then, a shift happens – a short-term memory of “just now” becomes a long-term memory of “then.” The present becomes the past. And very quickly. The older we get, news stories that were current events appear in history books. If you know a high schooler studying modern history, read their textbook and be shocked. Children born in the year 2000 just started college. Today becomes yesterday becomes last year in a backward glance, and it can feel like the space between the immediate now and the distant then is a chasm.

There are moments that bridge the gap, times that “then” and “now” come together. One of those moments is the afternoon of Yom Kippur, at the end of our Jewish New Year observance, when we reflect on love and loss. Rather than outsourcing the job with “Yizkor, He will remember,” we prefer to take ownership and say Nizkor” – we will remember.

Where were you the FIRST time you heard that a parent or grandparent had died? Chances are you remember the moment very clearly. It could have been in a car, a hospital, a home. Early in the morning or the middle of the day. That moment of loss then can become now just by remembering. That feeling of loss then can be felt now, in this season, or any moment an absence is noted – a joke you want to share, a story you remember, a lesson you learned. The rabbis said there is no early or late in the Torah, using any passage to explain any other. We might say there is always early and late in mourning; there is always where we were then, and where we are now and the space and time between them that makes the difference between immediate loss and loving memory. Then and now.

This High Holidays, we have gone beyond the binary – rather than either/or, we live through either/and. There is no more stark binary than alive or dead. We can wax poetic about someone who is alive and also dead in some emotional ways, or someone who is dead and yet alive in our memories. But there are times we have to accept the binary, accept that someone we love is dead. They exist in the past tense while we are in the present and future.

Or are we? Beyond the binary of then or now. Are our lost loved ones exclusively past? We remember them as they were then, but our most vivid memories of them feel like the present on instant replay. Then becomes now all over again. Projecting the present into the past does not work – my maternal grandmother died in 1989 and never knew the internet. Projecting the past into the present does work – I remember her jokes, I still play the same word game with my mother that my mother played for years with HER mother. And we have started playing it with my daughter. As I mentioned once before, the smell of Gerber baby food bananas instantly transported me from feeding my infant daughter to my own childhood enjoying my grandmother’s banana bread with her secret baby food ingredient.

Then and now exist within us at every moment. We are always who we were as well as who we are. We filter the world and new experience through the lenses we have grown over the years. So, too, with our loved ones who are no longer with us. They are part of us, alive in our memories, a presence in our present, then and now at one moment.

In the Hebrew Bible, every major character dies, except Elijah. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses – they all die. We assume their wives die too, but we rarely read about them. In our own experience, we know that everyone dies, and we know that NOT everyone is remembered. That is what makes our memory special, and precious, and important. When we remember them, when we remember then, we transcend the limits of now. We go beyond ourselves with fact and with feeling to find fellowship together, each with our individual losses and legacies.

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is a powerful and poetic exploration of a year of grief after the sudden loss of her husband. At the end of the book (p225-6), Didion reflects on the passage of time, and the beginning of a new year.

I do not want to finish the year because I know that as the days pass, as January becomes February and February becomes summer, certain things will happen. My image of John at the instant of his death will become less immediate, less raw. It will become something that happened in another year. My sense of John himself, John alive, will become more remote, even “mudgy,” softened, transmuted into whatever best serves my life without him. In fact this is already beginning to happen. All year I have been keeping time by last year’s calendar: what were we doing on this day last year, where did we have dinner,…is it the day. I realized today for the first time that my memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John. This day a year ago was December 31, 2003. John did not see this day a year ago. John was dead…..

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table. Let them become the name on the trust accounts. Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water….


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Here and There – Yom Kippur Morning 5779

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur Morning sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2018/5779 as part of a series entitled “Either/And.”  You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.

Akeda Sarajevo haggadah

Binding of Isaac, Sarajevo Haggadah c. 1350

The saga of Abraham has many dramatic moments. He disguises his wife as his sister to save his own life. He takes his handmaid Hagar to produce a son, the original Handmaid’s Tale. Abraham becomes a father again through his wife Sarah and then expels Hagar and her son. God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his new son Isaac, and then stops him from the terrible deed. Abraham buries his wife and sees his son married back into his clan before he himself finally dies and is buried by both of his sons, Isaac and Ishmael.

The most dramatic moment of Abraham’s story may be the very beginning – the first divine command he receives is Lekh lekha – get up and go. Move away from your land, where you were born, from your father’s house – move to a new land. The Hebrew is particularly resonant – lekh lekha could mean “go, get going,” or it could also mean “go to yourself.” If Abraham can leave Mesopotamia, the land of his birth, for the promised land, maybe lekh lekha is better translated as “get lost, and find yourself.” Lekh Lekha also means, “your true home is not here; it is there. So make there your new here. You cannot be in both.”

This High Holidays, we want the best of both worlds. On Rosh Hashana we explored prioritizing BOTH me AND we, and how to balance the needs of US and THEM. Last night we saw the complexities between good and evil. Today we go back to one of the oldest questions in human evolution: here or there? Homo Sapiens has always wandered – we found our way out of Africa 170,000 years ago, and now we cover the globe. Today’s visual and cultural diversity was created by the wide range of environments we made our home. Did our early ancestors hear a lekh lekha of their own? Were they pushed out by drought or disease, or were they pulled by the lure of adventure and greener pastures? We are familiar with the wandering Jew, from many places but at home in none, perpetually looking for a new “there” less agonizing than the insufferable “here”. From Israel to the Roman Empire to Germany to Poland to America. Or from Israel to North Africa to Spain to the Ottoman Empire and back to Israel. We may have called ourselves the “Chosen People” descended from Abraham, but we were also the Choosing People who mixed with global neighbors to produce Jewish visual and cultural diversity. Even the modern State of Israel has not changed this inheritance – Rabbi Sherwin Wine once quipped that Israel is the rare homeland where people ask you, “where are you from?” In that, he added, Israel is very much like America – both nations of immigrants.

There are limits to the political topics clergy should discuss– there are legal limits for the congregation’s non-profit status, and there are prudential limits of what it is wise to discuss. In recent years, Israel has become a third rail in many Jewish communities – with consensus breaking down and emotions rising, maybe better to say nothing. Humanistic Judaism has always affirmed your right to make up your own mind, and we have often asked difficult questions that others avoid. So I am happy if you disagree with me – it means you are paying attention, even on Yom Kippur morning! At this moment, questions of national self-definition both for our country the United States and for Israel as a Jewish state are so important and so disputed that I would be shirking my rabbinic duty if I hid my opinions. Sometimes the dangerous phase in a relationship is not difficult conversation, not even yelling – the dangerous phase is silence. As poet Marcia Falk put it, “It is not our purpose to be divisive. But we are already of many minds. Silencing the concerns will not diminish them; it will not make them go away. Dare we ask these questions? Dare we not ask them? If not now, when?”

Human powers of creation are so strong that we can forget we were the creators! As Yehuda Amichai wrote:

I say with perfect faith
that prayers precede G-d.
Prayers created G-d.
G-d created man,
And man creates prayers
that create G-d who creates man.

Our need for answers and meaning moves us to create entities with a life of their own; they can be a golem that saves us, or one that runs amok like Frankenstein’s monster.

How can a person draw a line in the sand, dividing the earth? I remember the first time I noticed they had to make all new globes because borders had changed. Maybe with Google Maps these days it’s easier to think of those place names as arbitrary. You may have heard that Snapchat’s map data was hacked in August, renaming New York City as “Jewtropolis”! When we only saw names and places printed in atlases and etched on globes, they defined the world and its people. I imagined the lines painted on the ground. And, of course, there were value judgments attached – HERE we are, and they are THERE. In modern Hebrew, you call Israel “Ha-aretz” – THE land, and everywhere else is “khutz la’aretz” – outside of the land. Most of us live in a me-o-centric universe. And we have not moved around as much as we think. A skeleton found in England from 10,000 years ago was DNA compared with area residents, and scientists found a direct descendant living nearby – ironically, a history teacher! Jews lived in Iraq for almost 2,500 years, in Greece and Italy for 2000, in North Africa for 1,500, and in Eastern European communities for several centuries before the Holocaust. Back then, even if we imagined another homeland out there, we were home in our Diaspora “here.” Very few Jews felt Abraham’s pull to get up and go to the promised land between the river and the sea. They read lekh-lekha every year, but almost no one went.

I spin a globe and I find myself in my country, my state, my metro area. I may also look for where I used to live, where my family came from, where we might travel. I have been fortunate in my life – I have never been forced to move. I have never had my legal status challenged, and I have never had to say that my home is no longer livable, that somewhere out there HAS to be better than here. But my grandparents and great-grandparents did face this. And, contrary to popular opinion, not all Jews who came to America did so entirely legally – some bribed their way out of Russia, and some snuck over a border into the United States. Growing up in Detroit, I heard stories about Boblo Boat immigration – Boblo Island was an amusement park island in the middle of the Detroit River between Michigan and Ontario, Canada. When some could not gain admission to the US, they got into Canada, made their way down to Windsor, took the Boblo boat from there and then just got on the boat going back to Detroit! No papers, no permission.

Borders may be arbitrary, and they may limit who can move where, but borders may also be necessary. If democracy depends on voting, then lines must be drawn to decide who is voting for what, and which laws apply where. I do not expect to travel to Tokyo or Istanbul or Kankakee and to be to able to vote on their government or their laws. I do not want to get lost today in the swamp of where lines should be drawn or how they should be enforced or what standards of immigration should be – good people can honestly disagree. The human conversation we CAN address – not separating children from parents. Being compassionate to the homeless, tempest-tost that find their way to the golden door. Not demonizing entire populations. Part of the humane side of humanism is understanding experiences beyond our own. My reading of the Jewish experience produces empathy for humans who suffer, not oppressing the stranger because we were strangers in strange lands. Even our mythical father Abraham is famous for migrating, and also for hospitality – when three unknown travelers appear, he offers to wash their feet and brings them food and drink (it was meat and milk together, but never mind). I am not at all saying that Jewish tradition and Jewish values endorse open borders – given the treatment prescribed for the Canaanites upon conquering the promised land, the opposite is more likely true. I AM saying that MY reading of our cultural values and the Jewish historical experience suggest more compassion than we have seen. The success story of America, the bridging of “here” and “there” is shown on Cinco de Mayo, and St. Patrick’s Day, and Pulaski Day. Welcome others to enjoy your heritage. Celebrate where you are from where you live now. From there, living here.

If we accept that the United States, with our abundance and prosperity and relatively benign neighbors, still needs borders, kal va’khomer – how much more so does Israel, with limited land and water, and very hostile neighbors. Love your neighbor as yourself does not always work – it depends on the neighborhood. Just as there are multiple claims to the historic land of Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, there are also multiple claimants to Abraham’s legacy – Arabs claim descent from Ibrahim through Isma’il, Jews claim Avraham Avinu (Abraham our father) via Isaac. Again, I do NOT want to sink into the quicksand of border lines and legal sovereignty and who did what to whom when. 25 years after the Oslo Accords, between terrorism and territory, we seem no closer to a final resolution. Again we can turn to the human side, the moral question of rights and the thorny challenges of identity. The immediate ancestors of most of today’s Israeli Jews DID come from “there” – from Iraq and Poland and Morocco and Ethiopia, every corner of the globe. But they are now “here” in modern Israel, which itself has been here for 70 years. The living Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967 and their descendants may be living “there” in Lebanon or Jordan, but they hold memories of what they still consider their homes. Both Israelis and Palestinians are in one place, whatever you call it and however you divide it.

1018316866If we believe in human rights – the right to have a voice in your government, the right to be judged under the same set of laws as your neighbors, the right to influence those laws by voting and legal petition, the right to have your property respected, to right to live in physical safety – then no matter where you draw the lines, things could be improved on both sides. Do we also believe in collective group rights, like the right to express your culture, to speak and to teach your language, to celebrate your national or ethnic identity? This is more complicated. The Jewish nation-state Law passed this summer made official an Israeli flag with a Jewish star, a state seal with a menorah, and the national anthem Hatikvah as expressing Jewish group rights alone. If you thought those were all already true before the bill passed, you are absolutely correct – the flag already had a Jewish star, the national anthem was already Hatikvah. The problems with the bill were:

  • It emphasized a Jewish state without also emphasizing a democratic state;
  • It demoted Arabic from an official language to “special status,” whatever that will mean;
  • It endorsed “Jewish settlement” as a national value, implying that Jewish population centers in both Israel proper and the West Bank can be created and kept as ONLY Jewish; and
  • It included a patronizing clause that Israel will help Diaspora Jews preserve their heritage in the Diaspora – in other words, keep your Reform and Conservative Judaism over THERE, far away from HERE.

Why pass a law that is either common sense or provocative? Right wing Israeli politics, Netanyahu’s alliance with the global trend of rising ethnic nationalism, a response to external hostility, a desire to strengthen the Jewish character of the state. Some speculate it may be preliminary to annexing the West Bank, including its Palestinians, so that even if they become Israeli citizens and the state’s demographics change from 80% Jewish to 60% or less, the officially Jewish nature of the state will be very hard to change. The god of the Bible promises the land to Abraham and his descendants; the Israeli Declaration of Independence makes no reference to this Biblical promise. Which value system will win?

I do not live THERE, in Israel; I live HERE, in the United States. I cannot vote in Israeli elections, I did not serve in their army. The Jewish state affects me as a Jew, but more emotionally & ideologically than legally. There are many Israelis, including many fellow Humanistic rabbis, who are defending democracy & human rights, and I will not boycott or divest from or sanction them. But we do need to listen to each other to make the progress we want to see. As one example of the miscommunications that could happen, an American Jew, a Russian Jew and an Israeli Jew were sitting together in a restaurant. The waiter asked, “Excuse me, you look like you are out of water. Would you like some more?” The American Jew says, “what is ‘out of?'” The Russian Jew says, “what is “more?” The Israeli Jew says, “what is ‘excuse me?'” The American branch of the Jewish family is very attached to creating a mixed gender prayer space at the Western Wall – important for tourists but irrelevant to most secular Israelis. Secular Israelis are much more concerned about a new term: hadata – the imposition of religion (dat) on society. They want the freedom to marry whom and how they want, to be buried where and how they want, and to have these events recognized by their government. They want equal treatment under draft laws, whether one studies Talmud or electrical engineering. Those issues don’t affect American Jews here who do not get married there or live there or get drafted there, so we complain about the Western Wall and they argue about their issues and we can’t get on the same page.

Even here, in America, we can’t agree over which is more important for Jewish survival – what happens there in Israel, or what is happening here. The Netanyahu government happily works with the Trump Administration and Christian Evangelicals because they agree on many issues. This infuriates those American Jews who oppose the Trump and Evangelical agendas. Even staunch Israel supporters can become suspect for wanting to hear the Palestinian “other side.” On the left, some intersectionality advocates are reluctant to push back on antisemitism a la Louis Farrakhan as strongly as on other prejudice, and they have trouble welcoming those who are both liberal and Zionists. Support for Israel has become a partisan political issue in a way it never was before, dividing us still further here, and widening the gap between here and there.

How to bridge the here and there between American Jews and Israeli Jews? My best suggestion is shared experience. We hope to plan a Humanistic Judaism trip there, to Israel, next fall to coincide with our next ordination of Israeli rabbis. Any trip we run will necessarily include meetings with Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, because we need to hear many sides to make up our minds. And Israelis need to come here too – we need a backwards Birthright that sends young Israelis to Diaspora Jewish communities, or a March of the We’re Still Here. The current March of the Living takes Diaspora Jews to concentration camps and then to Israel. The March of the We’re Still Here would reverse it – Israel to Europe to America. We will still have different world views and experiences and values – living as a majority is different from being a minority, living with a national identity is different than a religious and cultural identity. Each side needs to hear a new version of lekh lekhanow it should be lekh lahem – go to them. Find out who THEY are, and they can also learn who you are.

While we’re making new terms, we could do better than “Diaspora” to refer to ourselves. Historically, living out of the land of Israel was considered galut or exile, a sad state of not living where you belonged. Moving back to Israel was Aliyah or going up to a higher plane, while heaven forbid leaving there again was yerida, descending to a lower state. “Diaspora” was less negative than exile, from the Greek roots for spreading of seeds (dia and spore), but it was still Israel-centric – spread out from where? Haaretz, the land, and khutz la’aretz, everywhere else. Over a century ago, some Yiddishists and Jewish socialists emphasized the Diaspora with a principle they called “doykeit – hereness“, saying they would address Jewish challenges where they already were in Eastern Europe and using the Jewish culture they already lived in Yiddish. But that’s not perfect either – we are connected to both here and there.

What if we thought of ourselves differently? After all, my family tree has lived in the United States for many generations. Where would a Russian Jew living in Northbrook for 25 years consider their homeland – Illinois? Moscow? Jerusalem? One of the basic arguments Sherwin Wine made for why the Jewish people is more than a religion is our sense of self as an am, a nation, a family. Even if it is a myth, we claimed descent from Abraham our father, while Lutherans don’t all claim to be descended from Martin Luther or Muslims from Mohammed. If we are a claimed family, then we are not Israel and Exile, homeland and diaspora. We are branches of the Jewish family. Abraham’s name offers still more support – from Abram, exalted father, on his journey he becomes Abraham – the father of many. Our Americanness likewise includes a claimed pedigree with Founding Fathers who have nothing to do with our genetics.

If we are the Israeli branch and the American branch and the Australian and Argeninian and French branches of the Jewish family, then we do not have to agree on everything. My Jewish life does not revolve around Israel, but neither can I ignore what 40% of my cultural family does, experiences, celebrates. In your family, in the Jewish family, in the American family, silence, not speaking to each other, is the danger. If we must argue, let us argue. We may yet get from argument to listening, and from listening to learning.

Can you be both here and there? A Yiddish saying tell us ein tuches ken nit tantzen af tsvay khasines – one tush can’t dance at two weddings. The medieval Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi lamented that his heart was in the East, in Jerusalem, while he himself was at the end of the West, the other end of the Mediterranean Sea in Spain. I will not forget thee, Jerusalem, but if I am for Jerusalem alone, what am I? I can be for and work for the best vision of Jerusalem and Washington, Jewish and American and human, here and there, us and them, me and we. We are, all of use, more than one family, identity, place. I asked earlier tonight if a national motto could be useful, I believe this one says it best. E pluribus unum – from many, and from Abraham the mythical father of many, there can be one.

Shana Tova!

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Good and Evil – Yom Kippur Evening 5779

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur Evening sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2018/5779 as part of a series entitled “Either/And.”  You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.


Sarajevo Haggadah A+E

Sarajevo Haggadah, c. 1350

In the mythical Garden of Eden, are Adam and Eve fully human? For starters, they do not have belly buttons. More important, they are not subject to the basic conditions of human existence. They do not die; they do not work; they are alone with no generations before or after them; and they are a-moral – they do not know good from evil. When the snake promises they will be like gods, he does not promise they will know everything or be able to do anything. The divinity the snake promises is to know good from evil. Later it is god who is concerned they will eat from the tree of life and live forever; they have already eaten from the tree that makes them human – the knowledge of good and evil. The Garden of Eden is an origin story, imagining how we became what we are. The true promise, the true journey of every human, is to become our fullest humanity, to learn good and evil. Each of us eats from a tree of knowledge, discovers good and evil, and, we hope, learns how to choose. Cain and Abel show how hard that can be. In the beginning, Adam and Eve are really in the Kinder-Garden of Eden – the human story is what’s next.


This High Holidays, we are going beyond black and white. It is very easy to categorize our needs into “me or we,” or to divide up the world into “us or them”. Our messy reality is shades of gray, more accurate and nuanced and flexible than absolutes. The Kinder-Garden of Eden makes it very simple – knowledge of tov va’ra Good and Evil. Either/or, no ambiguity. Ever since that beginning, the stereotype of religious morality has been just as simplistic – obey clear divine commandments or commit sin. Thou shalt, and thou shalt not, and never the twain shall meet. If you have any questions, do not rely in your own understanding – rely on religious authority. In Judaism the law was the path, the halakha, from the word halakh, to walk; in Islam, Shari’a also means “path”, as does the Tao in Taoism. And if religious laws seem to conflict or create problems, that must be your limited perspective. If some Torah passages say that children suffer for their parents’ sins, and other Torah passages say that children do NOT suffer for their parents’ sins, the job of the clever rabbi is to let you THINK for a moment that there is a contradiction, and then to show you how these apply to different circumstances, or depend on different types of sin, or something else. After all, the United States managed to harmonize “All men are created equal” and brutal slavery for its first four-score and seven years.

Some may remember an example of “Talmudic” logic: two men fall down a chimney, one gets dirty and the other does not. Which one goes to wash up? Obviously the clean one – each looks at the other, and the dirty one sees his clean fellow and assumes he is clean, while the clean one sees the dirty one and assumes he is dirty. Two men fall down a chimney, one gets dirty and the other doesn’t – which one washes up? Obviously the dirty one – they look in the mirror across the hall and see which one is dirty and which one is not. Two men fall down a chimney; is it really possible to fall down a chimney and NOT get dirty?

As this story shows, a black and white stereotype of religious morality does not hold up to strict scrutiny. Early rabbis did deviate from Torah law far to the right or to the left, even though they did it through commentary rather than direct amendment. The mis-translated “Thou shalt not kill” is really lo tirtzakh – do not MURDER, which means distinguishing among capital punishment, warfare, self-defense, the defense of others, accidental manslaughter, death by rampaging oxen that belong to you, etc. The Rabbis knew that people’s motivations can be varied, that there are gradations in behavior, that good or evil as the only options is just too simple. For example, from Pirke Avot 5:11, the Sayings of the Fathers:

There are four types of temperaments. One who is easily angered and easily appeased—his virtue cancels his flaw. One whom it is hard to anger but hard to appease—his flaw cancels his virtue. One whom it is hard to anger and is easily appeased, is righteous. One who is easily angered and hard to appease, is wicked.

Which one are you? It might depend on the day, or the person you’re dealing with. The rabbis preferred hard to anger and easy to appease. All four are recognizably human, and only one of the 4 is called “wicked”. One is righteous, one wicked, and two are somewhere in between, like most of us most of the time. On Yom Kippur, we are encouraged to forgive others, to forgive ourselves, to allow ourselves to be appeased in the interests of shalom, peace. If our natural character is to be hard to appease? Let us try to be more forgiving. If we tend to be easy to anger, let us work to be more patient. The very concept of Yom Kippur indicates that it is not all or nothing, black or white, one strike you’re out, righteous or wicked. If we all seek forgiveness, that means that we all fail, we are all a complex composition of good and evil and middling and marvelous.

Religion is a reflection of the human experience, so it makes sense that there are provisions for failure and repair, and some recognition of ethical reality. Traditional religions may project reward & punishment to a cosmic level or an afterlife, while we see reward and punishment as human responsibilities. And we disagree that religion is a necessarily precondition for morality. Put simply, you can be good with or without a God. This August, we learned that over seventy years, 300 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania sexually abused over 1000 victims. These priests devoted their lives to their religion, motivated by their faith. We presume they thought about the sermons they delivered, they read the scripture they cited, they believed in some kind of a god. I am NOT AT ALL saying that all priests are like this – 300 is a fraction of the number of priests who worked in those dioceses over 70 years. What I AM saying is that their example shows that religion is no guarantee for the problem of good or evil. All their faith and study and good works did not keep them from doing heinous evil.

So we are beyond simplistic good & evil. We know that people are complicated, that life is complicated, and that religion is no guarantee. But maybe we have muddied the waters too much. What do we mean by good or evil? Eve eats from the tree of knowledge when she sees that the fruit is desired to make one wise. God & tradition condemn her for breaking the rules, but we might celebrate her for seeking knowledge, rules be damned! When I mentioned child abuse, did you think “those men were evil”, or did you think “those men were sick”? We live in an understanding yet cynical era – accusations of evil draw rebuttals of explanation, claims of virtue spur us to find hypocrisy. Do a few moral or legal failings cancel any past or prohibit any future good deeds? Or does it matter what those failings were? If I as a rabbi were fined for income tax evasion or had a drunk driving infraction, I would likely keep my job. If I had lied on my resume & never attended Yale Univ., I might survive with a deep apology & public repentance. You can imagine what might get me fired, the abuses that have brought down rabbis and professors and sparked a Jewish parallel to #MeToo called #GamAni. In such cases, no mitigating explanations would save me. Please remember these examples are all hypothetical!

There are gradations of good & evil, a spectrum and not a dichotomy. And yet, there is a black line at the end of that spectrum. There is evil. A Holocaust is Evil. Child sexual abuse is evil. Not every wrong is absolute evil, but there is evil. Adam and Eve may receive the knowledge of good & evil, but their sons quickly demonstrate the power of freedom with the first murder. You may have heard a recent story of two 20-somethings who wanted to bike around the world to show that people are basically good. One of them was quoted as saying,

“People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted. People are bad. People are evil.”
I don’t buy it. Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own… By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind.

And that may well be true, by and large we are kind. But by and large is not everyone everywhere – on their bikes in Tajikistan, this couple was rammed by a car and then stabbed to death by five men who later pledged themselves to ISIS and vowed to kill nonbelievers. Evil is not make-believe – we may throw the word around too easily, but it is part of the human experience and we are naïve to pretend otherwise.

Knowing the difference between good and evil is basic to humanity; AGREEING on what evil is divides us like nothing else. For some people, cheaters taking advantage of the system is worse than allowing people to go hungry. For others, allowing people to go hungry is worse than a few people cheating. Both sides have a point – agreed-upon rules helps society function, and rules alone are not responsive to every human need. In general, we like to define what is good by its consequences – is it good for us and others, or does it harm them? This summer, I participated in a public conversation with Bishop Gene Robinson, who caused a schism in the global Anglican communion when he was chosen to be an Episcopal Bishop because he is gay. Too many of his church relied on ancient rules alone to decide good and evil, and I said to him that if those objecting to him had based their sense of right and wrong on real-life consequences for real people and not just on ancient rules, they might have seen the real harm they were doing to real people. Can we violate the ethical value of group loyalty to protest something wrong by, say, kneeling for the national anthem or challenging Israel’s treatment of Palestinians? Some see a moral violation in undermining the group, others see keeping silent to preserve the group as immoral. Those who believe life begins at conception see thousands of murders; those who disagree believe the rights of women as full human beings supersede the rights of a potential person in utero. Can we really split the difference and compromise somewhere in the middle?

9780307455772_p0_v1_s550x406We need to be cautious with the evil label, to distinguish between honest disagreement and evil. Human knowledge is limited, and just as we should never assume that we are always factually right, we should avoid the absolute self-confidence that we are always morally right. We have self-serving reasoning, we are inconsistent in our own values, we do not always consider the full consequences of our choices, and our opponents are not always evil, neither in their motivations nor in the results of their ideas. I loved moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. If you want to argue effectively, do NOT to start from the assumption that your opponent is evil, with evil intentions using evil methods towards evil goals. Very few people look in a mirror with an evil laugh as they plan to do what they themselves know is evil. They are fighting for their family; they are defending their religious tradition; they are trying to save the world. My advice: figure out WHY they think what they are doing is right, and then you have a better chance to move the needle. Even those thugs in Tajikistan who rammed and stabbed the “unbelievers” had a motivation – I do not have to agree with their motivation to understand where it came from, and my understanding does not prevent me from condemning the action, resisting it, working to stop it.

Let us accept that we are post-Eden, and even post-post-Eden. For us, the consequentialists, the good enhances our humanity, the good has positive results for ourselves and for others, good creates happiness and meaning and dignity. Evil degrades and undermines humanity, ours and that of others; evil creates suffering and sadness and dependence and degradation. We know Good from Evil, and we know how to tell what good and evil are even without divine revelation and regulation. We will never all agree on the best route through this narrow passage, the policies and behaviors and beliefs best suited to this path. But we can agree that the only power we know that will enforce these rules of good and evil is our own power.

The Biblical Psalm 34 encompasses both extremes. On one side, it says that those who fear god lack nothing, the eyes of god are on the righteous and his face is set against evildoers, to erase their names from the earth. The human and the Jewish experience are very articulate showing this is not reality – the pious suffer plenty, and the wicked can get away like Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele who was not found until 1985, six years after he had died! On the other side, a popular Israeli song takes two verses from Psalm 34 to make a Humanistic message instead:

מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים;
אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב.
נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע;
וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה.
סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב;
בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.
Who is the person
Who desires life,
Who loves all his days
To see good?
Guard your tongue
From evil,
And your lips
From speaking deceit.
Turn away from bad
And do good.
Seek peace
And pursue it.

Why do we turn from evil and do good? Not because of cosmic reward or fear of punishment. We turn from evil and do good because it is good for us, for me and for we, for us and for them, here, there and everywhere.

We humans are not gods; if anything, the gods were made in our image. But we might ask: why a tree of the knowledge of good and evil – why not just the good? Some say that you need the opposite to know what you want – what is light without dark? Any origin myth must end where we are – and we are not only good. We can be good and we can be evil. We can be good to our people and evil to others. We can do evil things while thinking we are doing what is right. And every shade of grey in between. Most of what we do is neither all good nor evil – it is the best that we can do. And that is why we can forgive – we will need forgiveness too.

We live in an era of absolutes – to stand for nuance and dialogue and responsibility to facts is to stand apart. For us, it is to stand together. One of our closing songs for our High Holiday celebrations wishes each other L’shana Tova, a good year, Shana shel ratson tov – a year of good resolve, Shana shel shalom – a year of peace. If we can accomplish that, it will be good. Or, at least, good enough.

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